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Hostages held, 17 killed in attack at Somalia restaurant

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Edith M. Lederer

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Gunmen posing as military forces were holding an unknown number of hostages inside a popular restaurant in Somalia’s capital in an attack that began when a car bomb exploded at the gate, police and a witness said, while the extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility. At least 17 people, including foreigners, were dead, police and an ambulance driver said.

Two of the gunmen were shot dead and 10 hostages were rescued but five other attackers were thought to remain inside, cutting off electricity to complicate security forces’ efforts to end the siege, Capt. Mohamed Hussein said. He said heavy gunfire was heard.

An ambulance driver with the Amin Ambulance service, Khalif Dahir, said early Thursday they had carried 17 bodies and 26 wounded people. Police said the dead included a Syrian man. Most of the victims were young men who had been entering the Pizza House when the vehicle exploded, Hussein said.

The gunmen “were dressed in military uniforms. They forced those fleeing the site to go inside” the restaurant, witness Nur Yasin told The Associated Press.

Wednesday night’s blast largely destroyed the restaurant’s facade and sparked a fire. While al-Shabab claimed to have attacked the neighboring Posh Treats restaurant, which is frequented by the city’s elite and was damaged in the blast, security officials said the Pizza House was targeted instead.

Security forces rescued Asian, Ethiopian, Kenyan and other workers at Posh Treats as the attack continued, Hussein said.

The Somalia-based al-Shabab often targets high-profile areas of Mogadishu, including hotels, military checkpoints and areas near the presidential palace. It has vowed to step up attacks after the recently elected government launched a new military offensive against it.

 

Al-Shabab last year became the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa, with more than 4,200 people killed in 2016, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The extremist group also faces a new military push from the United States after President Donald Trump approved expanded operations, including airstrikes, against al-Shabab. On Sunday, the U.S. military in Africa said it carried out an airstrike in southern Somalia that killed eight Islamic extremists at a rebel command and logistics camp.

Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed confirmed that airstrike and said such attacks would disrupt the group’s ability to conduct new attacks.

With a new federal government established, pressure is growing on Somalia’s military to assume full responsibility for the country’s security. The 22,000-strong African Union multinational force, AMISOM, which has been supporting the fragile central government, plans to start withdrawing in 2018 and leave by the end of 2020.

Also Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution extending the U.N. political mission in the Horn of Africa nation, which is trying to rebuild after more than two decades as a failed state, until March 31, 2018. The resolution recognized that “this is a critical moment for Somalia.”

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

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Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israeli Capital Amid Negative Reactions

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President Donald Trump says the U.S. is officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and beginning the process of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv, a development that is drawing a negative reaction from much of the world.

“Jerusalem is not just the heart of three great religions, but it is now also the heart of one of the most successful democracies in the world,” Trump said in a speech Wednesday. “Over the past seven decades, the Israeli People have built a country where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs.”

He stressed that the U.S. “remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both “Israel and the Palestinians.” “I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement,” Trump said.

Arab and Muslim states are warning that the controversial decision could enflame tensions in the region and destroy U.S. efforts to reach an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.

Palestinians are calling for three “Days of Rage” to protest President Trump’s plan.

Pope Francis expressed “profound concern” about the move, while Turkey called for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to coordinate a response. Iran called the move “wrong, illegitimate, provocative and very dangerous.”

The Trump administration has staunchly defended the move, saying the president is merely recognizing what it calls a historic and modern reality. The move would also make good on a campaign promise which was backed by some of his evangelical Christian and Jewish supporters.

​Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday the U.S. still thinks there is “a very good opportunity for peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Speaking in Brussels, Tillerson said Trump “is very committed to the Middle East peace process. He has a team he put into place. That team has been working very diligently.” The top U.S. diplomat urged people to “listen carefully to the entirety” of Trump’s speech.

The officials say the president will order the State Department to start making plans to move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. They say the process will take years to find a site, secure funding, and construct a new building. Until then, Trump will sign the usual waiver postponing the relocation.

Trump telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and at least three other regional leaders Tuesday to explain his move. A White House statement said Trump had reaffirmed his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the importance of supporting those talks.

Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the embassy must be relocated to Jerusalem unless the president signs a waiver every six months stating that moving the embassy would threaten U.S. national security. Every president since Clinton has signed the waiver, including Trump.

“The United States does lease an area of land in West Jerusalem for a dollar a year,” Randolph-Macon College history professor Michael Fischbach told VOA. “One thing would be, there’s a massive amount not only of construction that would have to occur, but then moving people and facilities from Tel Aviv.”

Dennis Ross was the U.S. point man on the Middle East peace process under three presidents and worked with Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement. He said Tuesday Trump appears to be leaving a lot of room for both Israelis and Arabs to maneuver in the newly changed environment.

“It’s very important for the president to create a lot of ‘handles’ or ‘hooks’ for our friends to say, fundamentally, this does not change the ability of Palestinians, the Arabs who tend to see Jerusalem not just (as) a Palestinian issue but a regional issue, that their position, their concern, their claim still has to be part of the negotiation process and that hasn’t been pre-empted,” Ross said. “That seems to me to be the key to this.”

Some officials in Washington have expressed concern about the potential for a violent backlash against Israel and American interests in the region.

The U.S. Consulate General is restricting American government workers and their families from personal travel Wednesday in Jerusalem’s Old City and West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, amid widespread calls for demonstrations.

U.S. embassies worldwide also have been ordered to increase security.

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US funds for Somalia could be diverted to Shabaab, watchdog warns

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The State Department’s Africa Bureau is failing to ensure that US funding for the Somali government is not diverted to Al-Shabaab terror group, the department’s watchdog unit warned on Monday.

“The bureau had not established policy and procedures for identifying, assessing and mitigating terrorist financing risks for its programmes in countries where terrorist organisations, such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, operate,” the State Department’s Office of Inspector General said.

In a 34-page report assessing the bureau’s foreign assistance management, a team of inspectors cited the example of $66 million paid as cash stipends to members of the Somali National Army during the past seven years.

AL-SHABAAB

Inadequate oversight of that assistance could enable Al-Shabaab to siphon off some of that money intended for 6,509 Somali government soldiers, the report suggested.

In addition, inspectors found that the Africa Bureau continued paying the soldiers’ stipends while failing to comply with a US law that prohibits State Department assistance to foreign military units that have not been screened for human rights violations.

That lapsed compliance with the so-called Leahy Law spanned several months in 2014 and again in a period spanning 2016 and 2017, the report said.

VETTING

“Furnishing security assistance without conducting Leahy vetting raises the risk that funds could be provided to individuals who have committed gross violations of human rights or are otherwise ineligible for assistance,” the report stated.

The law in question — named for its primary author, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy — requires the US State Department and Pentagon to determine whether potential aid recipients carry out extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and rapes.

The State Department’s own worldwide report on human rights found in 2016 that Somali government forces abused civilians. Somali authorities “generally did not investigate abuse by police, army or militia members,” the 2016 evaluation added. “A culture of impunity was widespread.”

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New York truck attack: Investigators scour driver’s background

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New York – Investigators worked through the night to determine what led a truck driver to plow down people on a riverfront bike path near the World Trade Center, brandishing air guns and yelling “God is great” in Arabic as his deadly route of terror ended with a crash, authorities said.

Eight people were killed and 11 seriously injured in a Halloween afternoon attack that the mayor called “a particularly cowardly act of terror”.

The driver – identified by officials as an immigrant from Uzbekistan – was in critical condition but expected to survive after a police officer shot him in the abdomen. A roughly 3km stretch of highway in downtown Manhattan was shut down for the investigation.

Authorities also converged on a New Jersey home and a van in a parking lot at a New Jersey Home Depot store. Authorities were scrutinising a note found inside the attacker’s rented truck, according to two law enforcement officials who were not authorised to discuss the ongoing investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Police and the FBI urged members of the public to give them any photos or video that could help. The attack echoed a strategy that the Islamic State (ISIS) group has been suggesting to its followers. While police didn’t specifically blame any group for the strike, President Donald Trump railed against ISIS and declared “enough!” and “NOT IN THE U.S.A.!”

The victims reflected a city that is a melting pot and a magnet for visitors: One of the dead was from Belgium. Five were from Argentina and were celebrating the 30th anniversary of a school graduation, according to officials in those countries. The injured included students and staffers on a school bus that the driver rammed.

“This was an act of terror, and a particularly cowardly act of terror aimed at innocent civilians, aimed at people going about their lives who had no idea what was about to hit them,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

‘He did not seem like a terrorist’

Officials who were not authorised to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity identified the slight, bearded attacker as Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old who came to the US legally in 2010. He has a Florida driver’s licence but may have been staying in New Jersey, they said.

Records show Saipov was a commercial truck driver who formed a pair of businesses in Ohio. He had also driven for Uber, the ride-hailing company said. An Ohio marriage licence shows that a truck driver with one of Saipov’s addresses and his name, spelled slightly differently, married a fellow Uzbek in 2013.

During his time in Fort Myers, Florida, several years ago, Saipov was “a very good person”, an acquaintance, Kobiljon Matkarov, told The New York Times.

“He liked the US. He seemed very lucky, and all the time, he was happy and talking like everything is OK. He did not seem like a terrorist, but I did not know him from the inside,” Matkarov said. He said Saipov later moved to New Jersey and began driving for Uber. San Francisco-based Uber said he started over six months ago.

Police said the attacker rented the truck at about 14:00 at a New Jersey Home Depot and then went into New York City, entering the bike path about an hour later and speeding toward the World Trade Center, the site of the deadliest terror attack in US history.

He barrelled along the bike path in the truck for the equivalent of about 14 blocks, or around eight-tenths of a mile, before slamming into a small yellow school bus.

“A person hopped out of the car with two guns and started yelling and screaming,” said a 12-year-old student who had just left a nearby school. “They were yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

‘I saw a lot of blood’

The student, whose mother asked that his name be withheld, said he ran back into the school, where students cried and huddled in a corner.

Video shot by bystanders showed Saipov walking through traffic wielding what looked like two handguns, but which police later said were a paintball gun and a pellet gun. A police officer shot Saipov when he wouldn’t drop the weapons, police said.

The mayhem set off panic in the neighbourhood and left the pavement strewn with mangled bicycles and bodies that were soon covered with sheets.

“I saw a lot of blood over there. A lot of people on the ground,” said Chen Yi, an Uber driver.

The note inside the truck was handwritten in a foreign language, according to one of the two law enforcement officials who spoke about the document. Both said its contents were being investigated but supported the belief the act was terrorism.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called Tuesday’s carnage a “lone wolf” attack and said there was no evidence to suggest it was part of a wider plot.

New York and other cities around the globe have been on high alert against attacks by extremists in vehicles. England, France and Germany have seen deadly vehicle attacks in the past year or so.

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