- Al Qaeda in Africa says it beheads French hostage - agency
- Guatemala tries ex-dictator Rios Montt in landmark case
- Nevada military depot mortar explosion kills seven U.S. Marines
Posted: 19 Mar 2013 08:29 PM PDT
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's wing in north Africa said it had beheaded a French hostage in retaliation for France's intervention in Mali, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a spokesman for the group.
In what ANI reported was a telephone call to the agency, which has close links to Islamist militants, the commander said Philippe Verdon had been beheaded on March 10 "in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali", ANI reported.
The death, if proved true, would be a worrying development for Paris, which still has some 14 hostages held in West Africa, including seven in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates.
French President Francois Hollande in part justified military action in Mali to prevent the north from being used as a launch pad for terror attacks in Africa and in the West.
Verdon, a French geologist, was captured in the northern Mali town of Hombori in November 2011. A French foreign ministry spokesman said he had no information on the report.
One of AQIM's leaders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had pledged revenge after France launched a campaign in January to dislodge the group and other Islamist militants who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the Sahel nation and seized the northern half of the country.
After driving them from the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in a swift, nine-week assault, some 1,600 French and Chadian troops began searching for Islamist rebels in their pocket hideouts in the mountainous region of northern Mali.
The AQIM spokesman, who identified himself only as Qayrawani, described Verdon as a French spy, adding that Hollande "bore the responsibility for the remaining hostages".
ANI's director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaaly told Reuters he knew Qayrawani, an AQIM commander who according to him, is of Tuareg origin, had called him from Mali.
When asked by the agency whether Belmokhtar had been killed, he neither denied nor confirmed it. There have been conflicting reports on whether Belmokhtar was killed in the French military campaign against the rebels.
NO MORE RANSOMS
The possible death of Belmokhtar and another AQIM leader Abou Zeid has raised questions about the fate of eight French hostages held by al Qaeda in the Sahel.
The families of four French hostages seized in Niger in September 2010 appealed to Paris earlier this month to open negotiations with AQIM.
Belmokhtar sent a statement on January 20 to ANI after carrying out the In Amenas hostage taking in Algeria threatening to strike at the interests of all those involved in the Mali intervention.
AQIM has previously threatened to kill the hostages if France intervened militarily in Mali and has demanded a 90 million euro ($120.5 million) ransom for their release.
France's Le Monde newspaper this week reported that Paris had changed its policy with regard paying ransoms for hostages.
Citing a former hostage whose husband is still being held by AQIM, the paper said that Hollande had told them in January "it would be unthinkable to give money to groups we are at war with."
A rescue operation ordered by Hollande to free a French secret agent held hostage in Somalia since mid-2009 ended in failure in January after he was killed along with two commandos trying to rescue from al Qaeda-allied Somali militant group al Shabaab.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Michael Roddy and Jackie Frank)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 19 Mar 2013 08:17 PM PDT
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt's defence team rejected charges he allowed the slaughter of civilians in Guatemala's civil war, as his country became the world's first to prosecute an ex-head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity.
For decades, Rios Montt, 86, was not prosecuted for alleged atrocities committed during his 1982-1983 rule in a particularly bloody phase of the country's long civil war, protected as a congressman by a law that grants immunity to public officials.
Rios Montt, who left Congress last year, was finally ordered to stand trial in January when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan executed under his command.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist insurgents and targeted indigenous people in a "scorched earth" offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group.
The defence team had until now stalled the process with a series of appeals, arguing he did not control battlefield operations and that there was no genocide in Guatemala.
Rios Montt, who sat calmly listening to testimony through large earphones because of hearing problems, made it clear he would have little to say, on the first day of the trial.
"Whatever I say or don't say will be used against me," Rios Montt told reporters before the trial. "I have to keep quiet. I am staying quiet."
In opening statements, prosecutors argued that Rios Montt's government put indigenous people in concentration camps while employing rape and torture to terrify the population.
Nicolas Bernal, one of two eyewitnesses to testify for the prosecution, described the massacre of 35 men, women and children in the village of Nebaj in northwestern Guatemala in March 1982, just days after Rios Montt took power.
"Soldiers came and killed the ones who were working, the ones who didn't manage to escape," he said. "They took out these peoples' hearts, went to their homes and set fire to them."
Rios Montt's lawyer Francisco Garcia said he was innocent.
"We will demonstrate and you all will confirm that there was never a genocide in Guatemala. General Rios Montt is not guilty. He did not participate in the crimes that have been attributed to him," Garcia told the packed court.
In a bizarre twist, Garcia was later dismissed from the case by Chief Judge Iris Yasmin Barrios, citing Garcia's friendship with another judge on the panel. Other lawyers continued with Rios Montt's defence.
A prosecutor said that up to 130 victims and 75 experts are expected to testify during the trial, which is due to resume on Wednesday.
Roughly 200,000 civilians, most of them of Mayan descent, were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict as a string of right-wing governments attempted to rid Guatemala of leftist guerrilla fighters suspected of being in league with communists.
An additional 45,000 people went missing.
Victims and human rights advocates applauded the start of the trial over Rios Montt's 17-month rule.
"Finally we're going to know the truth. It's justice for the survivors and for the world," said Sandra Moran, 53, who was laying flowers outside the court before the trial started. Her uncle was tortured during Rios Montt's government, she said.
A United Nations-backed truth commission report released after the 1996 peace accords found that the army and paramilitary groups were responsible for more than 90 percent of the hundreds of massacres carried out during the war.
"Until quite recently, no one believed a trial like this could possibly take place in Guatemala," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
Pillay said it was the first-ever national trial of a former head of state on genocide charges.
Spanish human rights jurist Baltasar Garzon, who tried to prosecute ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, also praised the trial, saying it was a big step forward for Guatemala.
"Finally, the principal of equality has become visible in a country where impunity has been the norm for a long time," he said, speaking at an event in El Salvador.
However, Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a retired general, reiterated that there was no genocide in the country and said the trial must be fair. "We insist that there be true justice, that there isn't pressure from one side or the other."
SCARS OF PAST
A three-judge panel must debate the material and set a date on whether to sentence or exonerate Rios Montt.
Born in Huehuetenango, a province in Guatemala's rural western highlands dotted with indigenous communities, Rios Montt took power in March 1982 when he led a military coup that toppled President Angel Guevara.
He remained politically active after being overthrown in a coup in August 1983, serving in Guatemala's legislature and launching an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2003.
Genocide trials have been rare for ex-leaders in Latin America, which was scarred by bloody civil conflicts and repression. Multiple charges were raised against Chile's Pinochet, but he died in 2006 before standing trial.
Often sporting thick glasses and a gray moustache, Rios Montt has been under house arrest for more than a year. The right-wing party that he founded changed its name this year to distance itself from its past.
Human rights groups filed a complaint against Rios Montt for genocide in 2001 and prosecutors will present hundreds of testimonies, videos and military documents in the trial against the former dictator, a process that could take months.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Editing by Dave Graham, Eric Beech, Cynthia Osterman, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 19 Mar 2013 07:24 PM PDT
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - A mortar explosion at a U.S. Army munitions depot in Nevada killed seven Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and injured eight other service members during a live-fire training exercise, U.S. military officials said on Tuesday.
A Marine Corps official said a 60mm mortar round exploded prematurely on Monday night during training at the Hawthorne Army Depot in western Nevada. The cause was under investigation.
"The Marines were conducting live fire and manoeuvre training at the Hawthorne Army depot," Brigadier General Jim Lukeman told a news conference in North Carolina. "A mortar round exploded in the mortar tube, causing the deaths of seven. ... We don't know yet what caused this malfunction."
The blast was among the deadliest such training accidents on U.S. soil in recent years. In February 2012, seven Marines were killed when two helicopters collided during an exercise along the California-Arizona border.
The Marines killed on Monday had been undergoing training for the past month at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Centre in Bridgeport, California, and at Hawthorne.
"This type of training is really the type of training that we do to be able to be that force of readiness. It is what's required of our nation's military, to do the things this nation asks us to do," Lukeman said, adding the training was not linked to preparations for a specific impending deployment.
The Marines ordered a blanket suspension of the use of 60mm mortars pending a review after the blast, Marine Corps spokeswoman Captain Kendra Motz said in a statement.
The blast victims were airlifted to Renown Regional Medical Centre in Reno with injuries that included penetration trauma, fractures and vascular injuries, said Stacy Kendall, a spokeswoman for the medical Centre.
Seven Marines and a Navy sailor were wounded. Of those, six were in serious or very serious condition, including the sailor, while a seventh suffered minor injuries and an eighth was treated and released, the Marines said in a statement.
The explosion occurred close to 10 p.m. PDT (0500 GMT Tuesday) during an exercise at the Hawthorne depot, about 92 miles (150 km) southeast of Reno, said facility manager Russ Collier. The Marines described the mortar involved as lightweight, and said it was typically fired from a stationary position.
The identities of the dead, all from the 2nd Marine Division, and injured had not been made public, but will be released after their families are notified.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was receiving updates on the accident, Pentagon spokesman George Little said, adding the incident struck a nerve with Hagel, himself an infantry veteran of the Vietnam War.
"This brought back memories of a training accident when he was in the U.S. Army when two soldiers were killed in a training accident, so he takes these incidents very much to heart," Little said.
Hawthorne Army Depot is a 147,000-acre (60,000-acre) site used for the storage and destruction of demilitarized ammunition. Its location in Nevada's isolated high desert is also considered an ideal training environment for Special Operations forces preparing for deployments to Southwest Asia, according to a U.S. military website.
The facility was established as a naval staging area for bombs, rockets and ammunition, and was used by the Navy during most of World War Two. It was transferred to the Army in 1977.
The accident came a week after a U.S. military plane assigned to a Washington state Naval Air Station crashed during a routine training flight, killing all three crew members on board.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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