Ethiopians brave deserts and smugglers on the way to Saudi

February 14, 2020

LAC ASSAL, Djibouti (AP) — “Patience,” Mohammed Eissa told himself. He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lac Assal, a lake 10 times saltier than the ocean.

Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.

Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.

The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.

This story is part of an occasional series, “ Outsourcing Migrants,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

They dream of reaching Saudi Arabia, and earning enough to escape poverty by working as laborers, housekeepers, servants, construction workers and drivers.

But even if they reach their destination, there is no guarantee they can stay; the kingdom often expels them. Over the past three years, the IOM reported 9,000 Ethiopians were deported each month.

Many migrants have made the journey multiple times in what has become an unending loop of arrivals and deportations.

Eissa is among them. This is his third trip to Saudi Arabia.

In his pockets, he carries a text neatly handwritten in Oromo, his native language. It tells stories of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled his home in Mecca to Medina to seek refuge from his enemies.

“I depend on God,” Eissa said.

“I HAVE TO GO TO SAUDI”

Associated Press reporters traveled along part of the migrants’ trail through Djibouti and Yemen in July and August. Eissa was among the travelers they met; another was Mohammad Ibrahim, who comes from Arsi, the same region as Eissa.

Perched in the country’s central highlands, it’s an area where subsistence farmers live off small plots of land, growing vegetables or grain. When the rains come, the families can eat. But in the dry months of the summer, food dwindles and hunger follows.

The 22-year-old Ibrahim had never been able to find a job. His father died when his mother was pregnant with him — she told him stories of how his father went off to war and never returned.

One day, Ibrahim saw a friend in his village with a new motorcycle. He was making a little money carrying passengers. Ibrahim went to his mother and asked her to buy him one. He could use it, he told her, to support her and his sister. Impossible, she said. She would have to sell her tiny piece of land where they grow corn and barley.

“This is when I thought, ‘I have to go to Saudi,’” Ibrahim said.

So he reached out to the local “door opener” — a broker who would link him to a chain of smugglers along the way.

Often migrants are told they can pay when they arrive in Saudi Arabia. Those who spoke to the AP said they were initially quoted prices ranging from $300 to $800 for the whole journey.

How the trip goes depends vitally on the smuggler.

In the best-case scenario, the smuggler is a sort of tour organizer. They arrange boats for the sea crossing, either from Djibouti or Somalia. They run houses along the way where migrants stay and provide transport from town to town in pickup trucks. Once in Saudi Arabia, the migrants call home to have payment wired to the smuggler.

In the worst case, the smuggler is a brutal exploiter, imprisoning and torturing migrants for more money, dumping them alone on the route or selling them into virtual slave labor on farms.

Intensified border controls and crackdowns by the Ethiopian government, backed by European Union funding, have eliminated some reliable brokers, forcing migrants to rely on inexperienced smugglers, increasing the danger.

THE LONG WALK

Eissa decided he would not use smugglers for his journey.

He’d successfully made the trip twice before. The first time, in 2011, he worked as a steel worker in the kingdom, making $ 25 a day and earning enough to buy a plot of land in the Arsi region’s main town, Asella. He made the trip again two years later, walking for two months to reach Saudi Arabia, where he earned $ 530 a month as a janitor. But he was arrested and deported before he could collect his pay.

Without a smuggler, his third attempt would be cheaper. But it would not be safe, or easy.

Eissa picked up rides from his home to the border with Djibouti, then walked. His second day there, he was robbed at knifepoint by several men who took his money. The next day, he walked six hours in the wrong direction, back toward Ethiopia, before he found the right path again.

When the AP met him at Lac Assal, Eissa said he had been living off bread and water for days, taking shelter in a rusty, abandoned shipping container. He had a small bottle filled with water from a well at the border, covered with fabric to keep out dust.

He had left behind a wife, nine sons and a daughter. His wife cares for his elderly father. The children work the farm growing vegetables, but harvests are unpredictable: “If there’s no rain, there’s nothing.”

With the money he expected to earn in Saudi Arabia, he planned to move his family to Asella. “I will build a house and take my children to town to learn the religious and worldly sciences,” he said.

THE TRIP

The 100-mile (120-kilometer) trip across Djibouti can take days.

Many migrants end up in the country’s capital, also named Djibouti, living in slums and working to earn money for the crossing. Young women often are trapped in prostitution or enslaved as servants.

The track through Djibouti ends on a long, virtually uninhabited coast outside the town of Obock, the shore closest to Yemen.

There, the AP saw a long line of dozens of migrants led by smuggling guides, descending from the mountains onto the rocky coastal plain. Here they would stay, sometimes for several days, and wait for their turn on the boats that every night cross the narrow Bab el-Mandab strait to Yemen.

During the wait, smugglers brought out large communal pots of spaghetti and barrels of water for their clients. Young men and women washed themselves in nearby wells. Others sat in the shade of the scrawny, twisted acacia trees. Two girls braided each other’s hair.

One young man, Korram Gabra, worked up the nerve to call home to ask his father for the equivalent of $200 for the crossing and the Yemen leg of the trip. It would be his first time talking with his father since he sneaked away from home in the night.

“My father will be upset when he hears my voice, but he’ll keep it in his heart and won’t show it,” he said. “If I get good money, I want to start a business.”

At night, AP witnessed a daily smuggling routine: small lights flashing in the darkness signaled that their boat was ready. More than 100 men and women, boys and girls were ordered to sit in silence on the beach. The smugglers spoke in hushed conversations on satellite phones to their counterparts in Yemen on the other side of the sea. There was a moment of worry when a black rubber dinghy appeared out in the water_a patrol of Djibouti’s marines. After half an hour it motored away. The marines had received their daily bribe of around $100 dollars, the smugglers explained.

Loaded into the 50-foot-long open boat, migrants were warned not to move or talk during the crossing . Most had never seen the sea before . Now they would be on it for eight hours in darkness.

Eissa made the crossing on another day, paying about $65 to a boat captain — the only payment to a smuggler he would make.

“IT WAS A TERRIBLE THING”

Ibrahim took an alternative route, through Somalia. He traveled nearly 900 kilometers (500 miles), walking and catching rides to cross the border and reach the town of Las Anoud.

Isolated in Somalia’s deserts, the town is the hub for traffickers transporting Ethiopians to Yemen. It is also a center for brutal torture, according to multiple migrants. The smugglers took Ibrahim and other migrants to a compound, stripped him and tied him dangling from a wooden rafter. They splashed cold water on him and flogged him.

For 12 days, he was imprisoned, starved and tortured. He saw six other migrants die of severe dehydration and hunger, their bodies buried in shallow graves nearby. “It’s in the middle of the vast desert,” he said. “If you think of running away, you don’t even know where to go.”

At one point, smugglers put a phone to his ear and made him plead with his mother for ransom money.

“Nothing is more important than you,” she told him. She sold the family’s sole piece of land and wired to smugglers just over $1,000.

The smugglers transported him to the port of Bosaso on Somalia’s Gulf of Aden coast. He was piled into a wooden boat with some 300 other men and women, “like canned sardines,” he said.

Throughout the 30-hour journey, the Somali captain and his crew beat anyone who moved. Crammed in place, the migrants had to urinate and vomit where they sat.

“I felt trapped, couldn’t breathe, or move for many hours until my body became stiff,” he said. “God forbid, it was a terrible thing.”

Within sight of Yemen’s shore, the smugglers pushed the migrants off the boat into water too deep to touch the bottom.

Flailing in the water, they formed human chains to help the women and children onto shore.

Ibrahim collapsed on the sand and passed out. When he opened his eyes, he felt the hunger stabbing him.

“FAR FROM MY DREAMS”

Migrants with reliable, organized smugglers are usually transported across Yemen in stages to the migrant hub cities further down the line, Ataq , Marib, Jawf, and Saada where half the distance is under internationally-recognized government control and the second under Houthi rebels, fighting US-backed coalition since 2015.

But for thousands of others, it’s a confusing and dangerous march down unfamiliar roads and highways.

A security official in Lahj province outside the main southern city, Aden, said bodies of dead migrants turn up from time to time. Just a few days earlier, he told the AP, a farmer called his office about a smell coming from one of his fields. A patrol found a young migrant there who had been dead for days.

Another patrol found 100 migrants, including women, hidden on a farm, the official said. The patrol brought them food, he said, but then had to leave them.

“Where would we take them and what would we do with them?” he asked, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.

Many migrants languish for months in the slums of Basateen, a district of Aden that was once a green area of gardens but now is covered in decrepit shacks of cinder blocks, concrete, tin and tarps, amid open sewers.

Over the summer, an Aden soccer stadium became a temporary refuge for thousands of migrants. At first, security forces used it to house migrants they captured in raids. Other migrants showed up voluntarily, hoping for shelter. The IOM distributed food at the stadium and arranged voluntary repatriation back home for some. The soccer pitch and stands, already destroyed from the war, became a field of tents, with clothes lines strung up around them.

Among the migrants there was Nogos, a 15-year-old who was one of at least 7,000 minors who made the journey without an adult in 2019, a huge jump from 2,000 unaccompanied minors a year earlier, according to IOM figures

Upon landing in Yemen, Nogos had been imprisoned by smugglers. For more than three weeks, they beat him, demanding his family send $500. When he called home, his father curtly refused: “I’m not the one torturing you.”

Nogos can’t blame his father. “If he had money and didn’t help me, I’d be upset,” he said. “But I know he doesn’t.”

Finally, the smugglers gave up on getting money out of the boy and let him go. Alone and afraid at the stadium, he had no idea what he’d do next. He had hoped to reach an aunt who is living in Saudi Arabia, but lost contact with her. He wanted one day to go back to school.

“It’s far from my dreams,” he added, in a dead voice.

After a few weeks, Yemeni security forces cleared out the stadium, throwing thousands back onto the streets. The IOM had stopped distributing food, fearing it would become a lure for migrants. Yemeni officials didn’t want to take responsibility for the migrants’ care.

Eissa, meanwhile, made his way across the country alone. At times, Yemenis gave him a ride for a stretch. Mostly he walked endless miles down the highways.

“I don’t count the days. I don’t distinguish, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday,” he said in audio message to the AP via Whatsapp.

One day, he reached the town of Bayhan, southern Yemen, and went to the local mosque to use the bathroom. When he saw the preacher giving his sermon, he realized it was Friday.

It was the first time in ages he was aware of the day of the week.

He had traveled more than 250 miles (420 kilometers) since he landed in Yemen. He had another 250 miles to go to the Saudi border.

“PRAY FOR ME”

In the evenings, thousands of migrants mill around the streets of Marib, one of the main city stopovers on the migrants’ route through Yemen. In the mornings, they search for day jobs. They could earn about a dollar a day working on nearby farms. A more prized job is with the city garbage collectors, paying $4 a day.

Ibrahim had just arrived a few days earlier when the AP met him, his black hair still covered in dust from the road.

Ibrahim had wandered in Yemen for days, starving, before villagers gave him food.

He made his way slowly north. Not knowing the language or the geography, he didn’t even know what town he was in when a group of armed fighters snatched him from the road.

They imprisoned him for days in a cell with other migrants. One night, they moved the migrants in a pickup, driving them through the desert. Ibrahim was confused and afraid: Where was he going? Who had abducted him? Why?

He threw himself out of the back of the pick-up, landing in the sand. Scratched and battered, he ran away into the darkness.

Now in Marib, he was stranded, unsure how to keep going. His arm was painfully swollen from an insect bite. He wouldn’t be able to work until it was better. The only food he could find was rice and fetid meat scraps left over from restaurants.

Using the AP’s phone, he called his mother for the first time since the horrific calls under torture at Las Anoud.

“Pray for me, mama,” he said, choking back tears.

“I know you are tired and in pain. Take care of yourself,” she told him.

Was it worth all this to reach Saudi Arabia, he was asked.

He broke down.

“What if I return empty-handed after my mother sold the one piece of land we have?” he said. “I can’t enter the village or show my face to my mother without money.”

THE KINGDOM

North of Marib, migrants cross into Houthi territory at Hazm, a run-down town divided down the middle between the rebels and anti-Houthi fighters. It’s a 3-mile (5-kilometer) no-man’s land where sniper fire and shelling are rampant.

Once across, it is another 120 miles (200 kilometers) north to the Saudi border.

Eissa walked that final stretch, a risk because the militiamen have a deal with migrant smugglers: Those who go by car are allowed through; those on foot are arrested.

“Walking in the mountains and the valleys and hiding from the police,” Eissa said in an audio message to the AP.

He traversed tiny valleys winding through mountains along the border to the crossing points of Al Thabit or Souq al-Raqo.

Souq al-Raqo is a lawless place, a center for drug and weapons trafficking run by Ethiopian smugglers. Even local security forces are afraid to go there. Cross-border shelling exchanges and airstrikes have killed dozens, including migrants; Saudi border guards sometimes shoot others.

Eissa slipped across the Saudi border on Aug. 10. It had been 39 days since he had left home in Ethiopia.

After walking another 100 miles, he reached the major town of Khamis Mushayit. First, he prayed at a mosque. Some Saudis there asked if he wanted work. They got him a job watering trees on a farm.

“Peace, mercy, and blessings of God,” he said in one of his last audio messages to the AP. “I am fine, thank God. I am in Saudi.”

To see the full photo essay on the migrants’ journey, click here.

To see a photo essay, “Portraits of Ethiopian girls, women on the march to Saudi,” click here.

Digital producers Nat Castañeda and Peter Hamlin contributed to this report.

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Judge: Dubai ruler threatened wife, had daughters abducted

March 05, 2020

LONDON (AP) — A British court found that the ruler of Dubai conducted a campaign of fear and intimidation against his estranged wife and ordered the abduction of two of his daughters, documents unsealed Thursday show.

A judge at the High Court in London ruled that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 70, “acted in a manner from the end of 2018 which has been aimed at intimidating and frightening” his ex-wife, Princess Haya, 45.

Judge Andrew McFarlane said the sheikh “ordered and orchestrated” the abductions and forced return to Dubai of two of his adult daughters from another marriage: Sheikha Shamsa, then 19, in August 2000, and Sheikha Latifa in 2002 and again in 2018.

The judge made the ruling in January but the sheikh fought to prevent it from being made public. The U.K Supreme Court quashed that attempt on Thursday. The Dubai ruler and his ex-wife have been battling in a British court over the welfare of the two children they have together.

The sheikh’s lawyers had sought the children’s return to Dubai, while Princess Haya asked for them to be made wards of the British court and stay in the U.K. Princess Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, moved to London last year and applied to the court for protective orders, using British laws intended to safeguard victims of forced marriage and domestic abuse. The forced marriage protection was requested for her daughter.

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Iran uses violence, politics to try to push US out of Iraq

January 23, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) — Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking anti-American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.

The Jan. 3 killing has led Iraq’s parliament to call for the ouster of U.S. troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able to capitalize on the sentiment. An early test will be a “million-man” demonstration against the American presence, called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and scheduled for Friday.

It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in the wake of U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to keep up the pressure on U.S. troops in Iraq.

But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian influence in the country.

“Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies,” said David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is Iran’s strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it.”

A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-U.S. militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause.

Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding several U.S. and Iraqi troops. The U.S. responded first with deadly airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then followed with the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as they left Baghdad’s airport.

The severity of the U.S. response surprised Iran and others, and it had the unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran’s political approach by prompting the Iraqi parliament to pass the nonbinding resolution pushed by pro-Iran political factions calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. In response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq.

“What they want to do is get rid of U.S. troops in what they see as a legitimate political manner,” said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based expert with The Century Foundation think tank. “If Iraqis themselves are voting out U.S. troops, it looks a lot better for Iran than if Iran is a puppet master in Iraq trying to get rid of them — and on top of that it would be a more lasting decision.”

The legitimacy of the resolution is a matter of dispute. Not only was the session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers and many Sunnis, but there also are questions of whether Prime Minister Abdel Abdul-Mahdi has the ability to carry it out. Abdul-Mahdi resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests but remains in a caretaker role.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly rejected the call for the troops’ removal, instead saying Washington would “continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is.” Abdul-Mahdi strongly supported the resolution, but since then has said it will be up to the next government to deal with the issue, and there are indications he has been working behind the scenes to help keep foreign troops in the country.

After closed-door meetings with German diplomats last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the prime minister had assured them that he had “great interest” in keeping the Bundeswehr military contingent and others part of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq.

The U.S., meantime, said it had resumed joint operations with Iraqi forces, albeit on a more limited basis than before. Trump met Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, and said Washington and Baghdad have had “a very good relationship” and that the two countries had a “host of very difficult things to discuss.” Saleh said they have shared common interests including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent Iraq.

Asked about the plan for U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.” In a sign that bodes well for NATO’s continuing mission in the country, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister went to Brussels last week for talks with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the alliance’s presence in Iraq.

The mixed message of publicly calling for the troops to go but privately wanting them to stay is an indication of Iran’s strong influence, particularly among its fellow Shiite Muslims, Des Roches said.

“For any Iraqi politician in Baghdad — particularly a Shia politician — to defy Iran openly is to risk political as well as physical death,” he said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised if the public and the private lines espoused by Iraqi politicians differ.”

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State after the extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.

Even before the drone strike, there were growing calls in nationwide protests across sectarian lines, which started in October centered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for the end of all foreign influence in the country. The demonstrations also targeted government corruption and poor public services.

The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs has been a core component of the movement, and pro-Iranian militias have targeted those demonstrations along with Iraqi security forces, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Protesters fear that with the focus on the push for the U.S. troop withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani, they may be even easier targets for those forces and that their message will be lost.

“I think Iraq has had enough of having to deal with the Americans and the Iranians alike,” Esfandiary said. “But the assassination of al-Muhandis, almost more so than Solemani, was such a glaring oversight of sovereignty and of all agreements they had signed on to with the U.S. in terms of the U.S. presence in Iraq, that it has kind of taken some of the attention away from Iran, to Tehran’s delight.”

Friday’s march called for by al-Sadr is expected to redirect the focus onto the U.S. troops. The cleric, who also leads the Sairoon bloc in parliament, derives much of his political capital through grassroots mobilization.

The Tahrir Square protesters initially rejected that call, saying they want the escalating conflict between Iran and the U.S. off of Iraqi soil. Since then, al-Sadr has reached out to them directly, saying the demonstrations against the government and against the American troops are “two lights from a single lamp,” and it is not yet clear whether that might convince them to participate in the march.

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Davos, Switzerland, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this story.

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Iran crash and missile claims put Ukraine president in bind

January 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — As allegations swirl and denials clash over what caused the fatal crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran this week, Ukraine’s president is caught in the middle. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday appealed to Western countries to present evidence for their claims a day earlier that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the plane, killing all 176 people on board.

If that made Zelenskiy sound uninformed amid strident claims from all sides, he also appeared to be following an astute strategy for damage control. Ukraine knows all too well how an air catastrophe can stir up a maelstrom of rumors and disinformation.

The plane crash Wednesday near Tehran is the third time in 20 years that Ukraine has been linked to the violent destruction of a civilian plane, allegedly or demonstrably due to a missile strike. In each case, denials, unfounded speculation and political posturing clouded the search for the truth.

And the crisis has erupted as Ukraine — under the new leadership of a man with no political experience — is already entangled in other international and U.S. political disputes. Zelenskiy has found himself mired in the turmoil around President Donald Trump’s impeachment, which is based on allegations that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Trump and his Republican political allies have pushed an opposing narrative that he wanted to investigate corruption in Ukraine, and by extension, that Ukraine, not just Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The first airline disaster to ensnare Ukraine was on Oct. 4, 2001, when a Russian airliner disappeared over the Black Sea en route from Israel carrying 78 people. Coming just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, speculation on the cause initially focused on terrorism.

Within a day, U.S. officials said the plane likely was hit accidentally by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile fired during military exercises. Both Ukraine and Russia initially rejected that claim. But the rejection by Russian President Vladimir Putin was based on what he had been told by Ukraine — at that time a Russian ally — and Ukraine several weeks later acknowledged that it was at fault.

The incident, and Ukraine’s denials and incorrect claims, were a significant embarrassment to the country, which fired its air defense chief and paid more than $15 million in compensation to victims’ families.

The next disaster killed far more people and sparked far more contention, pitting Ukraine against Russia with competing claims of responsibility. A Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces were at war with Russian-backed separatists. All 298 people aboard died.

Although much suspicion initially fell on the separatists, bolstered by a reported claim by a rebel commander that a Ukrainian plane was shot down at the same time, Russian officials and Russian news media quickly launched an array of competing theories.

One of them focused on a man who supposedly was a Spanish air traffic controller at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport who said on Twitter that his radar screen had spotted two Ukrainian military jets near the Malaysian plane shortly before it went down. That dovetailed with an alleged theory that Ukrainian forces had mistaken the airliner for one carrying Putin.

The most vividly gruesome of the reports was a claim that the Malaysian plane had been filled with corpses before takeoff, then sent to its doom. On-the-ground investigative work to establish what happened was obstructed by the rebels, who did not give investigators full access to the crash site for days. Experts later abandoned the on-site work for several weeks because of concerns about their safety.

Nearly a year later, Russian arms-maker Almaz-Antey confirmed that the plane had been shot down by a Soviet-designed surface-to-air missile, but claimed that particular model was used only by the Ukrainian military.

Investigations led by the Netherlands — the flight originated in Amsterdam and more than half the victims were Dutch — concluded that the plane was shot down from rebel-controlled territory and that the mobile missile launcher used had been brought into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the attack.

Russia and the rebels continue to deny involvement in the downing. A trial is scheduled to start in March in the Netherlands of four suspects — three Russians and one Ukrainian — in the MH-17 downing, although none is expected to be handed over to face the court.

The Iran crash this week took place amid fears of imminent war between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian military mastermind and Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes.

Zelenskiy and Ukraine may be facing a country just as sensitive and obstinate as Russia was over the 2014 crash. Although Ukrainian investigators are in Iran, their access to the crash site was delayed until Friday. Iran is promising cooperation but still rejects reports that one of its missiles hit the plane.

Russia, which has close relations with Iran, appears to be taking a cautious stance. Russian officials have refrained from commenting on the claims that Iran was responsible, and pro-Kremlin lawmakers have been divided on the issue.

“There are no grounds for making vociferous statements at this stage,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday. “It is important to allow specialists to analyze the situation and make conclusions. Starting some kind of game is, at the very least, indecent.”

The catastrophe is a complex stew for Zelenskiy, who took office less than eight months ago with no prior political experience. His call for evidence in the plane crash and avoidance of strong claims could be the hesitancy of a novice, but it has so far prevented a smoldering crisis from bursting into open flames.

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US, Iran step back from the brink; region still on edge

January 09, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war on Wednesday as President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily for Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. No one was harmed in the strikes, but U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert.

Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which spiraled after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded overnight with its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles at two installations in Iraq. The Pentagon said Wednesday that it believed Iran fired with the intent to kill.

Even so, Trump’s takeaway was that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.” Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert. Last week Iranian-backed militia besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran’s proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.

Hours after Trump spoke, an ‘incoming’ siren went off in Baghdad’s Green Zone after what seemed to be small rockets “impacted” the diplomatic area, a Western official said. There were no reports of casualties.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that it was “perhaps too early to tell” if Iran will be satisfied that the missile strikes were sufficient to avenge the Soleimani killing.

“We should have some expectation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper added in a Wednesday briefing, “that Shiite militia groups, either directed or not directed by Iran, will continue in some way, shape or form to try and undermine our presence there,” either politically or militarily.

There is no obvious path to diplomatic engagement, as Trump pledged to add to his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place “until Iran changes its behavior.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran’s response. “Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”

Trump, facing perhaps the biggest test of his presidency, credited the minimized damage to an early warning system “that worked very well” and said Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.

The strikes had pushed Tehran and Washington perilously close to all-out conflict and left the world waiting to see whether the American president would respond with more military force. Trump, in his nine-minute, televised address, spoke of a robust U.S. military with missiles that are “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast.” But then he added: “We do not want to use it.”

Iran for days had been promising to respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but its limited strike on two bases — one in the northern Iraqi city in Irbil and the other at Ain al-Asad in western Iraq — appeared to signal that it, too, was uninterested in a wider clash with the U.S. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”

Trump, who is facing reelection in November, campaigned for president on a promise to extract the United States from “endless wars.” On Wednesday, he said the United States was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.” That marked a sharp change in tone from his warning a day earlier that “if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”

Members of Congress were briefed on the Iran situation Wednesday afternoon in closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and some Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s justifications for the drone strike on Soleimani.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said it was “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” He said it was “distressing” that officials suggested it would only embolden Iran if lawmakers debated the merits of further military action. He and Sen. Rand Paul announced their support of a largely symbolic war powers resolution to limit Trump’s military action regarding Iran.

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced after the briefing that the House would vote Thursday on a war powers resolution of its own. Trump opened his remarks at the White House by reiterating his promise that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Iran had announced in the wake of Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer comply with any of the limits on uranium enrichment in the 2015 nuclear deal crafted to keep it from building a nuclear device.

The president, who had earlier pulled the U.S. out of the deal, seized on the moment of calm to call for negotiations toward a new agreement that would do more to limit Iran’s ballistic missile programs and constrain regional proxy campaigns like those led by Soleimani.

Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become “much more involved in the Middle East process.” While he has frequently criticized NATO as obsolete and has encouraged participants to increase their military spending, Trump has tried to push the military alliance to refocus its efforts on modern threats.

Like the U.S. troops in the region, NATO forces have temporarily halted their training of Iraqi forces and their work to combat the Islamic State. Soleimani’s death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him. Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.

Milley and Esper told reporters that a total of 16 missiles were fired from three locations in Iran. Eleven hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The missiles were described as likely short-range with 1,000- to 2,000-pound warheads. Four failed to detonate, they said.

Milley added that the Pentagon believes that Iran fired the missiles with the intent “to kill personnel.” He praised early warning systems, which detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces adequate time to take shelter at both bases. He described the damage to tents, parking lots and a helicopter, among other things, as “nothing major.”

Officials also said that the U.S. was aware of preparations for the attack. It’s unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general. Ain al-Asad was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and it later was used by American troops in the fight against the Islamic State group. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. Trump visited it in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence visited both Ain al-Asad and Irbil in November.

Trump spoke of new sanctions on Iran, but it was not immediately clear what those would be. The primary agencies involved in implementing such penalties – the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury – do not preview those actions to prevent evasion.

Since withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, the administration had already imposed harsh sanctions on nearly every significant portion of Iran’s economic, energy, shipping and military sectors. Wednesday’s effort to deescalate the conflict came after world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, appealed for restraint.

The fallout for Trump’s order to kill Soleimani had been swift. Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from Iraq, though Trump said they would not be leaving. Trump and top national security officials have justified the Soleimani drone strike with general statements about the threat posed by the general, who commanded proxy forces outside Iran and was responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Robert Burns, Kevin Freking, Lolita Baldor, Darlene Superville, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama in Washington and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Stampede kills 56 at funeral for Iranian general slain by US

January 07, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A stampede broke out Tuesday at a funeral for a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said.

The stampede took place in Kerman, the hometown of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as the procession began, said the semi-official Fars and ISNA news agencies, citing Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency medical services.

There was no information as to what had set off the stampede. Online videos showed people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing. Emergency crews performed CPR on others as people wailed in the background, crying out to God.

“Unfortunately as a result of the stampede, some of our compatriots have been injured and some have been killed during the funeral processions,” Koulivand said. State TV reported the death toll of 56, with 213 injured, citing Koulivand,

Soleimani’s burial was later delayed, with no new time given. Authorities cited concerns about the massive crowd that had gathered as a reason for the delay, the semi-official ISNA news agency said. A procession in Tehran on Monday drew over 1 million people in the Iranian capital, crowding both main thoroughfares and side streets in Tehran. Such mass crowds can prove dangerous. A smaller stampede struck the 1989 funeral for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, killing at least eight people and injuring hundreds.

Soleimani’s death in a drone strike on Friday has sparked calls across Iran for revenge against America, drastically raising tensions across the Middle East. The U.S. government warned ships of an unspecified threat from Iran across the region’s waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force launched a drill with 52 fighter jets in Utah, just days after President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 sites in Iran.

Earlier in the day, Hossein Salami, the new leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death as he addressed a crowd of supporters gathered at the coffin in a central square in Kernan.

“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about,” Salami said. “Death to Israel!” the crowd shouted in response. Israel is a longtime regional foe of Iran.

The funeral processions in major cities over three days have been an unprecedented honor for Soleimani, viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force.

The U.S. blames him for killing U.S. troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before he was killed in the drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. Soleimani also led forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

The U.S. is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces. Soleimani’s slaying already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Iraq, pro-Iranian factions in parliament have pushed to oust American troops from Iraqi soil following Soleimani’s killing at the Baghdad airport.

In his eulogy to the crowd, Salami praised Soleimani’s work, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran’s enemies, Salami said.

According to a report on Tuesday by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Iran has worked up 13 sets of plans for revenge for Soleimani’s killing. The report quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying that even the weakest among them would be a “historic nightmare” for the U.S. He declined to elaborate,

“If the U.S. troops do not leave our region voluntarily and upright, we will do something to carry their bodies horizontally out,” Shamkhani said. The U.S. Maritime Administration warned ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats. “The Iranian response to this action, if any, is unknown, but there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests in the region,” it said.

Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, although it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it would work with shippers in the region to minimize any possible threat. The 5th Fleet “has and will continue to provide advice to merchant shipping as appropriate regarding recommended security precautions in light of the heightened tensions and threats in the region,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Joshua Frey told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Iranian Gen. Alireza Tabgsiri, the chief of the Guard’s navy, issued his own warning. “Our message to the enemies is to leave the region,” Tabgsiri said, according to ISNA. The Guard routinely has tense encounters with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s parliament, meanwhile, has passed an urgent bill declaring the U.S. military’s command at the Pentagon and those acting on its behalf in Soleimani’s killing as “terrorists,” subject to Iranian sanctions. The measure appears to be an attempt to mirror a decision by Trump in April to declare the Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.”

The U.S. Defense Department used the Guard’s designation as a terror organization in the U.S. to support the strike that killed Soleimani. The decision by Iran’s parliament, done by a special procedure to speed the bill to law, comes as officials across the country threaten to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing.

The vote also saw lawmakers approve funding for the Quds Force with an additional 200 million euros, or about $224 million. Also Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. had declined to issue him a visa to travel to New York for upcoming meetings at the United Nations. As the host of the U.N. headquarters, the U.S. is supposed to allow foreign officials to attend such meetings.

“This is because they fear someone will go there and tell the truth to the American people,” Zarif said. “But they are mistaken. The world is not limited to New York. You can speak with American people from Tehran too and we will do that.”

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Solemani will ultimately be laid to rest between the graves of Enayatollah Talebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades. The two died in Operation Dawn 8 in Iran’s 1980s war with Iraq in which Soleimani also took part, a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the bloody war that killed 1 million people.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Iran supreme leader weeps for general killed by US airstrike

January 06, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader wept Monday over the casket of a top general killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, his prayers joining the wails of mourners who flooded the streets of Tehran demanding retaliation against America for a slaying that’s drastically raised tensions across the Middle East.

The funeral for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions in the Iranian capital, filling thoroughfares and side streets as far as the eye could see. Although there was no independent estimate, aerial footage and Associated Press journalists suggested a turnout of at least a million.

Authorities later brought his remains and others to Iran’s holy city of Qom, turning out another massive crowd. It was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. The U.S. blames him for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death Friday. Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long war.

His death already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Baghdad, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, something analysts fear could allow Islamic State militants to mount a comeback.

Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, directly threatened an attack on the U.S. military in the Mideast while also warning President Donald Trump, whom she called “crazy.” “The families of the American soldiers … will spend their days waiting for the death of their children,” she said to cheers.

Her language mirrored warnings by other Iranian officials who say an attack on U.S. military interests in the Middle East looms.Iranian state television and others online shared a video that showed Trump’s American flag tweet following Soleimani’s killing turn into a coffin, the “likes” of the tweet replaced by over 143,000 “killed.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed over the caskets of Soleimani and others at Tehran University after a brief mourning period at the capital’s famed Musalla mosque, The mosque was where prayers were said over the body of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, after his death in 1989.

Khamenei, who had a close relationship with Soleimani and referred to him as a “living martyr,” broke down four times in tears while offering traditional Muslim prayers for the dead. “Oh God, you took their spirits out of their bodies as they were rolling in their blood for you and were martyred in your way,” Khamenei said as the crowd wailed. Soleimani will be buried Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman.

Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, stood near Khamenei’s side as did President Hassan Rouhani and other leaders in the Islamic Republic. While Iran recently faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices that reportedly led to the killing of over 300, Soleimani’s death has brought together people from across the country’s political spectrum, temporarily silencing that anger.

Demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S. flags, carried a flag-draped U.S. coffin or displayed effigies of Trump. Some described Trump himself as a legitimate target. Mohammad Milad Rashidi, a 26-year-old university graduate, predicted more tension ahead.

“Trump demolished the chance for any sort of possible agreement between Tehran and Washington,” Rashidi said. “There will be more conflict in the future for sure.” Another mourner, Azita Mardani, warned that Iran “will retaliate for every drop of his blood.”

“We are even thankful to (Trump) because he made us angry and this fury will lead to shedding of their blood in the Persian Gulf and the region’s countries,” Mardani said. “Here will become their graveyard.”

Ghaani made his own threat in an interview shown Monday on Iranian state television. “God the Almighty has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger. Certainly actions will be taken,” he said.

Markets reacted Monday to the tensions, sending international benchmark Brent crude above $70 a barrel for some of the day and gold to a seven-year high. The Middle East remains a crucial source of oil, and Iran in the past has threatened the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world’s oil traded passes.

Ghaani, a longtime Soleimani deputy, has now taken over as the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds, or Jerusalem, Force, answerable only to Khamenei. Ghaani has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2012 for his work funding its operations around the world, including its work with proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Those proxies likely will be involved in any operation targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East or elsewhere. Already, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks.

“We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before with help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region,” Ghaani said. The head of the Guard’s aerospace program, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, suggested Iran’s response wouldn’t stop with a single attack.

“Firing a couple of missiles, hitting a base or even killing Trump is not valuable enough to compensate for martyr Soleimani’s blood,” Hajizadeh said on state TV. “The only thing that can compensate for his blood is the complete removal of America from the region.”

On the nuclear deal, Iran now says it won’t observe the accord’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities. That’s a much-harsher step than they had planned to take before the attack.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the deal. Iran insisted it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions last year. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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