- U.S. officials say frantic search failed to find envoy in Benghazi
- Mexico says it killed top Zetas drug lord but body snatched
- Vice presidential debate could be a tale of two Ryans
Posted: 09 Oct 2012 07:58 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. State Department officials on Tuesday offered their most detailed description yet of the dramatic events in Benghazi that led to the death of a U.S. ambassador, but they backed away from earlier assertions that the events were triggered by protests against an anti-Islam video.
The officials were briefing reporters on the eve of a congressional hearing into on the attack last month, which is expected to focus on security missteps by the department.
They described frantic and prolonged efforts to rescue Ambassador Christopher Stevens from a smoke-filled "safe haven" inside the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi where he apparently died of asphyxiation.
Stevens' death and confusion over the attack has become the subject of fierce partisan debate in Washington in the final weeks before the U.S. presidential election on November 6.
The State Department officials said agents crawled on their hands and knees through thick diesel smoke to try to find the missing envoy, who somehow was transported out of the compound to a local hospital.
The U.S. government learned where he was after someone called numbers in his cell phone, the officials said.
"We do not know exactly how the ambassador got to the hospital. That is one of the issues that we hope to resolve in the ongoing reviews, and the information we are still seeking," one official said.
The officials also said there was "nothing unusual" around the Benghazi mission before the assault. Earlier accounts by White House and State Department officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, suggested that the attacks were triggered by protests over an anti-Muslim video made in California that insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
FOCUS ON DIPLOMATIC SECURITY
Officials of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security will testify at a House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday and one key subject of the inquiry will be whether the State Department rejected requests from diplomats to increase security at the Libya mission after months of violent incidents.
One senior official described the Benghazi attack as unprecedented and said security measures were always being adjusted. "We attempt to mitigate our risks. We cannot eliminate them," the official said.
The officials described the rented villa in which Stevens was hiding as a large residence with numerous bedrooms. Half of one floor was a "safe haven" barricaded with a gate and locks.
Stevens, Sean Smith, an information management officer, and five armed American security agents were in the compound the night of attack on September 11. There were also four members of a Libyan militia, assigned as the local government's protection force.
Stevens arrived in Benghazi on September 10 and the next day held a series of meetings at the compound. His last visitor was a Turkish diplomat, whom he escorted to the main gate at 8:30 p.m. local time, a State Department official said.
"There had been nothing unusual during the day at all outside," the official said.
The State Department officials downplayed earlier assertions that the anti-Muslim film was a trigger for the violence. "That is the question that you would have to ask others. That was not our conclusion, that's not saying we had a conclusion, but we outlined what happened," one official said.
GUNFIRE AND AN EXPLOSION
At 9:40 p.m., security agents in Benghazi heard loud noises at the gate, gunfire and an explosion. A large number of armed men entered the compound.
One agent went to fetch the ambassador from his bedroom as well as Smith. The three entered the so-called safe haven, which had window grills and a central windowless closet area where people could take refuge.
The security agent was armed with a submachine gun and a sidearm. He radioed to other agents that he was with Stevens in the safe haven.
Other agents tried to enter the villa, but they encountered a large group of armed men and retreated to another building in the compound where they barricaded themselves in.
The attackers swarmed into the darkened villa and walked around in the living area. They looked through the grill into the safe area and tried to enter it but could not.
The agent protecting Stevens watched their movements with a gun trained on them, ready to shoot.
The attackers carried cans of diesel fuel that they sprinkled on furniture and set on fire.
The building filled with smoke and fumes, and the air inside grew black. Stevens, Smith and the security agent moved to a bathroom in the safe area where they opened a window but still could not get enough air.
They decided to leave through an adjacent bedroom. Outside, there were shots, tracer bullets, smoke and explosions.
The officials said the security agent, whom they did not identify, was suffering "severely" from smoke inhalation and could barely breathe. He left the villa first, following protocol, but when he turned back he did not see the other two.
OVERCOME BY SMOKE
He returned to try to rescue Stevens but he could not find him. He went in and out of the building several times before he was overcome by smoke.
The agent went up a ladder to the roof, collapsed and radioed other agents who arrived to continue the hunt for Stevens and Smith.
"They take turns going into the building on their hands and knees, feeling their way through the building to try to find their two colleagues. They find Sean. They pull him out of the building. He is deceased. They are unable to find the ambassador," one official said.
Six security personnel from a U.S. annex nearby arrived with members of the Libyan militia, known as the February 17 Brigade.
They took people from the compound and transported Smith's body to a secure annex, running into traffic, hand grenades, and two flat tires.
The annex came under fire, killing two security personnel and wounding another. They spent hours securing the annex, then evacuated everyone on two flights.
There were no classified materials that had to be secured at the mission site where Stevens had been, the official said.
Asked whether anyone had counselled Stevens against going to Benghazi on September 11 - the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States - the official said: "Ambassadors must travel, ambassadors must get out and meet with a variety of individuals especially in countries that have multiple centres of energy or power. This just must happen."
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 09 Oct 2012 07:49 PM PDT
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico says it has killed Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of the brutal Zetas drug gang and the most powerful kingpin to fall in a six-year battle against cartels, but in a surreal twist his body was snatched from a funeral home by armed men.
Mexico's navy said on Tuesday fingerprint tests had confirmed Lazcano was killed in a firefight in a small village in the northern state of Coahuila on Sunday afternoon.
But it appeared the military may have been unaware it had killed Lazcano until his corpse was stolen from the funeral home in the northern town of Sabinas before dawn on Monday.
Lazcano, alias "The Executioner," had a $5 million (3 million pounds) U.S. bounty on his head and was the highest profile drug lord to be killed or captured in a military offensive launched when President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006.
Just hours after he was killed, in a scene straight out of a movie, an armed group snatched Lazcano's body and that of another Zetas member from the funeral parlour.
"A masked, armed group overpowered the personnel, took the bodies and forced the owner of the funeral home to drive the get-away vehicle," Homero Ramos, Coahuila's state prosecutor, told a news conference on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear how the bodies were so easily snatched, and local security officials declined to say whether the funeral home was being guarded. A spokeswoman for the home declined comment on how Lazcano's corpse was taken.
If Lazcano's men took the body, it would not be the first time something of the kind has happened in Mexico's drug war. In 2010, police killed Nazario Moreno, leader of La Familia cartel, in a firefight in western Mexico, but gunmen carried off his body into the hills before it could be recovered.
While the government and rival gangs may welcome Lazcano's death, the failure to guard his body is an embarrassment, and a battle for control of the Zetas could become a big headache for President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office on December 1.
Calderon hailed the navy in a speech on Tuesday saying that "all the available evidence clearly indicated" Lazcano had been gunned down on Sunday. But the president did not say that he knew for sure Lazcano was dead.
U.S. authorities were also unable to confirm the death of Lazcano, who was identified in Mexico from the prints of three fingers on his right hand, the navy said.
However, Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said on Tuesday evening there was "no doubt" that the dead man was Lazcano.
Photographs published by the navy showed the body of a man in a dark shirt stained with mud lying on a table, his face similar to mugshots of Lazcano, a former Mexican special forces soldier who defected to join the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s.
The navy has played a major role in the crackdown on the cartels, claiming three of the most wanted bosses in the past month alone. Some experts say it is more trusted by U.S. intelligence services than the army and the federal police.
Coahuila prosecutor Ramos said Lazcano and the other man were confronted on Sunday by Marines who had received a tip-off about two men in a vehicle acting suspiciously.
In the ensuing fight by a welcome sign to the arid village of Progreso about 80 miles (130 km) from the U.S. border, the men attacked the Marines with grenades. A grenade launcher and a host of other weapons were later found inside the vehicle.
Some Mexican media said Lazcano had been watching a baseball match on an open field nearby before the firefight began.
Security experts said the decapitation of the Zetas would likely spark a scramble for power and an increase in violence in the cartel's northern strongholds.
Lazcano and other army deserters built up the Zetas as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel but broke away in 2010 to fight a bloody turf war with their former bosses and other drug gangs.
The Zetas are considered one of the two most powerful drug gangs in Mexico and have carried out some of the worst atrocities in a drug war that has killed about 60,000 people during Calderon's term.
Lazcano, also known as "Z-3," was one of Mexico's most-wanted men. Only Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, would represent a bigger prize to the government.
Under Lazcano's leadership, the Zetas grew into a gang of more than 10,000 gunmen with operations stretching from the Rio Grande to deep into Central America.
Lazcano's Zetas have rapidly displaced Mexico's older cartels in many areas, giving them a dominant position in the multi-billion-dollar cross-border drug trade, as well as in extortion, kidnapping and other criminal businesses.
But the Zetas have lately appeared to be splitting, with a longstanding rivalry between Lazcano and his deputy Miguel Trevino, alias "Z-40," exploding into violence.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst who formerly worked in the government intelligence agency, said most of the gang's leadership had been either captured or killed in the past year.
"They are in something of a death spiral. Each capture has led to snitching and more snitching," he said. "A lot of people in the organization will find it better to just slip out before they are turned in."
Since 2009, government troops have caught or killed more than 20 major drug lords. Senior Zetas boss Ivan Velazquez, also known as "El Taliban" or "Z-50," and Gulf Cartel head Jorge Costilla, alias "El Coss," were both captured last month.
Gonzalo Villanueva, a hotel worker in Mexico City, said Lazcano's killing showed Calderon's policy was succeeding.
"Before this one, no president had taken on the drug gangs. And let's hope the next government continues the fight," the 46-year-old said.
The Zetas' alleged leader in Tamaulipas state was arrested on Saturday. He is believed to be responsible for the murders in 2010 of dozens of migrants and an American who was killed as he jet skied on a lake on the Texas-Mexico border.
Despite their brutality, pockets of Mexican society see the Zetas and other gangs as part of an insurgency against a corrupt state.
"It's an anarchist rebellion. They're fighting for people's liberty against the government," Rafael Benitez, a 21-year-old manual labourer in Mexico City, said of the Zetas.
Wearing a cross studded with miniature skulls and a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, a female skeletal grim reaper revered by drug gangs, Benitez said the Zetas should continue the fight after Lazcano's death.
"What we need is for there to be no more poor and no more rich, we need everyone to be equal," he said.
(Additional reporting by Michael O'Boyle, Dave Graham, Cyntia Barrera and Mexico Newsroom; Writing by Simon Gardner and Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray and Todd Eastham)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 09 Oct 2012 07:39 PM PDT
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (Reuters) - Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is a changed man.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's running mate made a name for himself as a bold fiscal crusader, willing to make big, unpopular cuts to entitlements to get U.S. finances in order.
But since Romney tapped him in August to join his campaign, the vice presidential candidate has become more prudent, avoiding detailed discussion of his budget plan and earning the nickname "mini-Mitt" for displaying a cautious streak like his boss.
For Vice President Joe Biden, a major question heading into his debate with Ryan in Kentucky on Thursday is "a choice of which Ryan we're going to see," a Biden adviser said.
Instead of promoting his own budget plan, which includes caps on future Medicare spending, Ryan is talking up Romney's more voter-friendly version, which has no spending limits, at campaign events.
"The vice president has been studying up on (Ryan's) real positions and is prepared to call him out on his actual positions," said the adviser, who warned that "maybe there will be some dishonesty," from the Republican.
The stakes are high for Biden, who is charged with righting a listing ship after President Barack Obama's disastrous first debate against Romney in Denver last week, which lost him the momentum in polls ahead of the November 6 election.
Democrats have targeted Ryan's budget, a severe series of spending cuts, as proof that he would hurt seniors and the middle class.
One top Republican strategist said the best way for Biden to battle his opponent is to tease out the "wonky" Ryan, the congressman who loves mind-numbing fiscal details.
"If I was prepping against Ryan, I would be looking for issues that Romney and Ryan disagree on and try and pull out Ryan the wonk, as opposed to Ryan the running mate," the strategist said.
That would turn off television viewers not used to detailed policy arguments, and could give Biden a chance to paint the Republican team as holding different positions on Medicare.
The Romney campaign has worked overtime to emphasize that House Budget Committee chairman Ryan has fallen in line with the presidential candidate on fiscal issues.
"You have to remember this is a Romney-Ryan ticket, and there's one presidential candidate, there's one person at the top of the ticket," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters on Tuesday.
NO RYAN DOCTRINE
An image of Ryan as a congenial Midwesterner rather than a congressional budget hawk has been enhanced on the campaign trail, where he has worked to build a reputation for an easy manner with voters.
Much was made in the media of Ryan cutting short an interview this week with a local television reporter whose questions he did not like, but the Wisconsin congressman was in good spirits immediately after the interview, and did not storm off as was suggested.
Economic issues aside, Ryan is clearly taking his lead from Romney on foreign policy, a weak spot for the 42-year-old congressman against Biden, who spent more than 10 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In Ohio on Monday, Ryan echoed much of the language and themes that the former Massachusetts governor laid out in an attack on Obama's handling of world events during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute.
"The president is not offering the kind of spirited and principled leadership we need to create jobs here at home or to keep us safe," Ryan said.
At a rally, he pressed home criticism of Obama over the killing of four Americans in Libya, a favourite foreign policy attack line of Romney.
Ryan told voters to just turn on their televisions: "You will likely see the failures of the Obama foreign policy unfolding before our eyes," Ryan said. "You see if you look around the world, what we are witnessing is the unravelling of the Obama foreign policy."
Leading up to Thursday's debate, Ryan retreated to Florida to prepare, spending Tuesday morning focused on policy briefings before switching to debate prep.
Ryan aides in recent days have begun the typical campaign ritual of playing up your opponent before a debate, portraying Biden as a seasoned professional.
"Vice President Biden has done 18 presidential or VP debates over the years - 14 in 2008," said one Ryan aide. "He's always a focused debater. It's not a setting in which he makes gaffes."
Brendan Buck, a Ryan spokesman, noted that Thursday night will be Ryan's "first time on the big stage."
"After the president's performance last week, we know Joe Biden will (be) coming at us like a cannonball," Buck said.
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
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