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Yemen's Islamic State affiliate claims Sanaa attacks

March 20, 2015

ADEN, Yemen (AP) — Quadruple suicide bombers on Friday hit a pair of mosques controlled by Shiite rebels in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, unleashing blasts through crowds of worshipers that killed at least 137 people and wounded around 350 others in the deadliest violence to hit the fragile war-torn nation in decades.

A group claiming to be a Yemeni branch of the Islamic State group said it carried out the attack and warned of an "upcoming flood" of attacks against the rebels, known as Houthis, who have taken over the capital and much of Yemen. The claim, posted online, could now immediately be independently confirmed and offered no proof of an Islamic State role.

If true, Friday's bombing would be the first major attack by IS supporters in Yemen and an ominous sign that the influence of the group that holds much of Iraq and Syria has spread to this chaotic nation, where a powerful wing of the rival militant group al-Qaida already operates. The claim was posted on the same website in which the Islamic State affiliate in Libya claimed responsibility for Wednesday's deadly attack on a museum in Tunisia.

The rebels, known as Houthis, have controlled the capital since September and have been locked in battle with Sunni al-Qaida fighters in various parts of the country. An official with al-Qaida in Yemen said his group was not behind Friday's attack.

The four bombers attacked the Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques, located across town from each other, during midday Friday prayers, traditionally the most crowded time of the week, according to the state news agency. Both mosques are controlled by the Shiite Houthis, but they also are frequented by Sunni worshipers.

The rebel-owned Al-Masirah TV channel said the casualty figures had reached 137 dead and 345 injured and reported that hospitals were urging citizens to donate blood. It also reported that a fifth suicide bomb attack on another mosque was foiled in the northern city of Saada — a Houthi stronghold.

Scenes from the two mosque showed devastation, with a number of children visible among the dead. Footage from the al-Hashoosh mosque, showed screaming volunteers using bloodied blankets to carry away victims, with a small child among the dead lined up on the mosque floor. A prominent Shiite cleric, al-Murtada al-Mansouri, and two senior Houthi leaders were among the dead, the TV channel reported.

Two suicide bombers attacked the Badr mosque. The first bomber was caught by militia guards searching worshipers at the mosque entrance and detonated his device at the outside gates. Amid the ensuing panic, a second bomber was able to enter the mosque and blow himself up amid the crowds, according to the official news agency SABA.

Survivors compared the explosions to an earthquake, and said some of those who survived the original blasts were then injured by shattered glass falling from the mosque's large hanging chandeliers. Another pair of suicide bombers attacked the al-Hashoosh mosque. One witness said he was thrown two meters away by one of the blasts.

"The heads, legs and arms of the dead people were scattered on the floor of the mosque," Mohammed al-Ansi told The Associated Press, adding, "blood was running like a river." Al-Ansi recalled running for the door along with other survivors and hearing one man screaming, "come back, save the injured!"

Another survivor from the Badr mosque, Ahmed al-Gabri, said: "I fell on the ground and when I regained conscious I found myself sleeping on a lake of blood." Two worshipers who were standing next to him were killed by the blast and a third man died when the chandelier fell on him, al-Gabri said.

A third survivor from the Badr mosque attack, Sadek al-Harithi, described the scene as, "an earthquake where I felt the ground split and swallow everyone." In an online statement signed by the so-called "Sanaa Province Media office," a group claiming to be the Islamic State branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that the four Sanaa suicide bombers blew themselves up among crowds of Houthis.

"This operation is just a glimpse of an upcoming flood, God willing," the group said in the statement. "We swear to avenge the bloodshed of Muslims and the toppling of houses of God." It directly addressed the Houthis by saying, "The soldiers of the Islamic State ... will not rest until we have uprooted them, repelled their aggression, and cut off the arm of the Iranian project in Yemen," a reference to claims that Shiite powerhouse Iran is backing the rebels.

An al-Qaida official told The Associated Press that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the terror network, did not carry out the attack. He pointed to earlier statements by the group that prohibited striking mosques. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

The Shiite rebels' power grab has fanned fears of a full-blown civil war in Yemen with sectarian overtones. Shiites, mainly from the Zaidi branch, make up about a third of Yemen's population. Allied with ousted former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis now control at least nine of Yemen's 21 provinces, and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been driven to the southern city of Aden.

Friday's attacks come a day after violent clashes in Aden between rival troops loyal to Saleh and Hadi that left 13 dead and forced closure of the city's international airport.

Yemen defense chief resumes work from Aden

16 March 2015 Monday

Yemeni Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi on Monday visited a civilian airport, a military camp and a military airport in Aden in his first official activity since his arrival to the southern city eight days ago.

According to their official website, al-Subaihi had also met generals at a military camp and toured Aden's Badr military airport.

Al-Subaihi met with military leaders in the city and called for stepped-up measures to protect Aden's public facilities, the website noted.

The defense minister arrived in Aden on March 8 after fleeing capital Sanaa, where he had been put under house arrest by the Shiite Houthi group.

President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who likewise fled to Aden last month, has since been trying to strengthen his grip on power.

The Houthis have remained in control of Sanaa since last September. In February of this year, they issued a constitutional declaration dissolving Yemen's elected parliament and establishing a national assembly.

Yemen has remained in turmoil since 2011.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/156659/yemen-defense-chief-resumes-work-from-aden.

Rival Yemeni camps entrench as Iran flights arrive

March 01, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — An Iranian airplane delivered supplies to Yemen's Shiite rebel-held capital on Sunday, while the president gained support from influential tribal and provincial leaders in signs that the rival camps seeking to rule the rapidly unraveling country are entrenching their positions.

The first direct flight from Shiite powerhouse Iran to Sanaa was carrying 12 tons of medical supplies as well as tents and Red Crescent aid workers, Iran's deputy ambassador Rasai Ebadi told The Associated Press. It came a day after rebel Houthi representatives signed an agreement in Tehran to set up 14 direct weekly flights between the two countries.

The move underscored how the rebels, who are widely suspected of being backed by Iran, are strengthening their grip over state institutions and exercising sovereign power in Sanaa even as the country's president insists he is still in charge after fleeing to the south.

"The Houthis want to show they're not disconnected from the world, that they are not desperate, so they're reviving relations with Iran," said Yemen analyst Hisham al-Omeisy. "The flights are a bit peculiar and people are surprised. Yemenis don't usually fly to Iran, for tourism or work or medical treatment, so 14 weekly flights seems like a bit too much. The point of the medical supplies was to kill the rumor that more weapons will be coming in to support the Houthis," he added.

Western embassies shut down and evacuated staff from Sanaa last month after the rebels stormed the presidential palace and placed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet ministers under house arrest. Hadi, who still claims to be the country's ruler, later managed to flee to the southern city of Aden.

While Russia, China, Iran and Oman have kept their embassies operating in Sanaa, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have moved theirs to Aden. On Sunday, Qatar too said it would open its embassy there.

Hadi received local officials in Aden Sunday, along with influential tribal leaders and elders from the provinces of Jawf, Marib and Bayda, who assured him of their backing, local television stations reported, adding that Hadi again accused the Houthis of launching a coup against Yemen's legitimate leadership.

Meanwhile state news agency SABA, controlled by the Houthis, said the rebels' new governing council sent a delegation to Tehran Sunday for several days. Saleh al-Samad, a former Hadi adviser who headed the delegation, said the group would discuss furthering economic and political cooperation.

"Relations between Yemen and Iran were brotherly and positive but suffered under previous governments which were influenced by countries leading to a negative impact of relations with Iran," he said in comments carried by SABA.

In Sanaa, Yemeni airport, security and transportation officials greeted the Iranian Mahan Air flight, an Airbus 310, which the Iranians say will be followed by further humanitarian aid. Analyst al-Omeisy said that with Hadi and the Houthis on a collision course, suspicion of weapons shipments via the Iranian flights will be high.

"They're headed for a showdown — the Houthis know it and so do the Iranians. There's a lot of speculation that the flights could eventually contain material other than medical supplies," he said. "In any case, the Houthis control the airport so in the end nobody knows or will know what exactly is passing through," he added.

Rohan reported from Cairo.

Shiite rebels say Yemen President Hadi 'wanted for justice'

February 24, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's Shiite rebels said Tuesday that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the rebel-controlled capital earlier this month and has begun reconstituting his authority in the south, is "wanted for justice."

The move escalated a crisis that threatens to split the Arab world's poorest country between the Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa and much of the north, and Hadi, who enjoys wide support in the formerly independent south.

The growing chaos also threatens to undercut U.S. efforts to combat Yemen's powerful al-Qaida affiliate, which has been linked to several failed attacks on the United States and claimed responsibility for the assault on a French satirical magazine last month.

In the latest sign of the country's growing lawlessness, a Frenchwoman working for the World Bank was kidnapped Tuesday in front of a ministry building in Sanaa, where several Western countries, including France, have shuttered their embassies. No one claimed responsibility for the abduction.

The rebel-run state news agency SABA quoted the Houthis' Revolutionary Committee as saying Hadi's "reckless and erratic actions harmed the Yemeni people," and called on the international community to consider him a fugitive.

The group warned state employees and even diplomatic missions against dealing with Hadi as president, saying they would be "held accountable." The Houthis hail from the Shiite Zayidi minority, which makes up about a third of Yemen's population, and swept down from their northern strongholds last year, seizing the capital in September.

Last month the rebels seized the presidential palace and placed Hadi, his prime minister and the Cabinet under house arrest, demanding political concessions. Hadi and his government resigned in protest.

The rebels then finalized their takeover by dissolving parliament and declaring their Revolutionary Committee to be the country's highest political body. Last week Hadi fled to Aden, where he retracted his resignation and declared himself the country's legitimate leader. He has since been holding meetings with tribal leaders, security officials, members of the dissolved parliament and officials from several parties who have flocked to Aden to express their support. A politician from the Islamist Islah party was detained by the Houthis on his way to Aden, the party said.

On Tuesday Hadi replaced the intelligence and police chiefs in Aden as part of a shake-up to remove supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now allied with the Houthis, according to security officials. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to brief the press.

On Tuesday Hadi ordered the Defense Ministry to move the army's headquarters to Aden and to take orders only from him. But with the army in shambles, divided over tribal and political loyalties, it's not clear how much power Hadi has over the troops.

The international community largely supports Hadi. The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday extended sanctions on Saleh and two Houthi leaders for another year. The council had imposed a travel ban and an asset freeze on the three in November.

On Monday the Houthis warned Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and his Cabinet -- all of whom had resigned when Hadi did -- to return to their posts or face arrest. Houthi militiamen prevented one minister from fleeing to Aden on Monday.

Abdel-Azizi al-Gobari, the leader of a small anti-corruption party who met with Bahah on Tuesday, said the prime minister would only take orders from Hadi. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni franchise is known, meanwhile held a meeting with tribal leaders in the southern Shabwa province, an al-Qaida member told The Associated Press.

The Houthis have battled al-Qaida's Yemeni branch and vowed to destroy the group, but the rebels also employ hostile rhetoric toward the West. The Houthis are widely believed to receive Iranian backing, though they deny the allegations.

A tribal source in Beihan confirmed the talks, in which he said tribal leaders had warned the jihadi group not to drag them into a war with the Houthis. The tribal source and the al-Qaida member spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

A Georgian region is fertile ground for Islamic State

May 21, 2015

BIRKIANI, Georgia (AP) — In the summer of 2012, a former Georgian Army corporal who had served prison time for illegal possession of ammunition burned his photo albums and quit his native village.

Tarkhan Batirashvili had wanted to become a policeman, but couldn't get hired. Now, this offspring of a Christian father and a Muslim mother was about to start a new chapter in his military career — one in which he would be credited with some of Islamic State's most stunning battlefield victories and rise to senior rank.

Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Batirashvili — who now calls himself Omar al Shishani and is believed by some to be Islamic State's chief of military operations — on its list of "specially designated global terrorists." But to some in the Pankisi, the mountainous region of northeastern Georgia where he was born in 1986, the ginger-bearded commander is a hero and a role model.

To follow the path he blazed, as many as 200 of his young countrymen have left their villages. Batirashvili's father Temur is aghast. "It's monstrous what's going on in the valley, that they are deceiving these kids and they're leaving to fight in a foreign land," the 72-year-old man told visitors to his one-story stone house in the hamlet of Birkiani. "My son should not be in Syria."

The Pankisi is home to an estimated 5,000-7,000 descendants of Muslim Chechens who settled here in the 19th century. In the village of Omalo, locals say, a green-tile roofed building is used by preachers from the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam to enlist volunteers for jihad.

Residents say the recruiters promise money and provide ground transportation to Tbilisi airport more than 120 miles (200 km) away, as well as prepaid plane tickets to Turkey. "They are selling our children," said Shariat Tsintsalashvili. "They earn dollars from it, drive around in expensive four-wheel drive vehicles. It's a total mafia."

On April 2, her 16-year-old grandson Muslim Kushtanashvili and schoolmate Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, joined the valley's recruits to Islamic State. That Thursday, the teens left as usual for their school in Omalo, next door to the building used by the Wahhabis. They never came home.

Muslim called friends later to say he was in Turkey. Then word came back the 10th grader had crossed into Syria. A legal minor, Muslim also had no passport, so his family can't understand why Georgian border guards let him fly out of the country. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri has vowed an investigation and punishment for those responsible, but Muslim's family suspect authorities are protecting the recruiters.

Bagakashvili's mother agrees. "Here they are stirring up things, recruiting youths," Tina Alkhanashvili said. "You can't get authorities to watch them." Within weeks, Georgian officials reported three more boys from the valley had disappeared.

Chechen wedding scandal, leader's defiance put Putin in bind

May 19, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — The groom is approaching 50, a silver-haired boss in the Chechen strongman's feared police force. The bride is 17, a shy beauty reportedly devastated at the idea of wedding a man nearly three times her age.

Many Russians expressed outrage over the nuptials, causing a firestorm in the media and putting Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — on the defensive. The wedding went forward over the weekend anyway, the bride deathly pale and her voice barely audible as she agreed to marry Nazhud Guchigov, who reportedly was taking her as his second wife as allowed by Islamic, but not Russian, law.

Kadyrov's chief of staff played the best man, clutching the bride by the elbow to control her every step, and Kadyrov himself danced a folk dance at the wedding reception. The scandal comes amid a tug-of-war between Kadyrov and Russian federal law enforcement, which escalated after the slaying of charismatic Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov's defiance in shielding Chechen suspects in the killing has aggravated longstanding tensions between him and Russian security agencies. That creates a headache for Putin, left with the delicate task of moderating the conflict to avoid destabilizing the region.

The tensions are unlikely to spark open hostilities or lead to Kadyrov's removal. But they reflect an apparent effort by the Kremlin to cut the 38-year-old Chechen leader down to size and make him obey the rules — even as Putin continues to stand by Kadyrov.

Kadyrov has enjoyed an exclusive relationship with Putin, who saw him as the linchpin for peace in Chechnya after two devastating separatist wars that killed tens of thousands. In exchange for restoring stability, Putin gave Kadyrov, a former rebel, carte blanche to run the region in the North Caucasus as his personal fiefdom and funded a costly reconstruction.

The relationship goes beyond Realpolitik. Putin, a macho judo master, and Kadyrov, a gruff red-head with a penchant for boxing, have developed a close personal relationship. Kadyrov has issued a stream of adulatory statements, calling himself Putin's "foot soldier" and launching diatribes at the West and Putin's domestic opponents. And with Kadyrov's apparent blessing, Chechens have poured into eastern Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russian rebels.

Putin's patronage has allowed Kadyrov to effectively shed federal controls. He makes it clear he listens to the president and nobody else. And he has imposed some Islamic rules, overruling federal law, allowing men in Chechnya to take several wives and introducing a tight dress code for women.

Lavish reconstruction projects along with Kadyrov's promotion of Islamic law and his rejection of federal controls have helped swell his popularity, enhancing stability. The Kremlin, in turn, has sheltered the Chechen leader from criticism over killings, abductions, torture and other abuses by his feared security forces.

Federal police and security services have been all but invisible in Chechnya, unable to make a move without Kadyrov's permission. That has worried many, who say the much-touted order in Chechnya hinges on the Putin-Kadyrov relationship and could be upset quickly if it falls apart.

"Kadyrov's behavior long has caused irritation," said Grigory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot, an online news portal focusing on the Caucasus. Kadyrov's protective shield started to crack after Nemtsov was gunned down on Feb. 27 just outside the Kremlin, and federal investigators quickly tracked down and arrested five alleged perpetrators, all Chechen. The suspected triggerman was an officer in Kadyrov's police force.

The top brass in Russian law-enforcement agencies, who have always detested the Chechen leader, saw Nemtsov's killing as an opportunity to settle scores. But Putin, while calling the slaying a "disgrace" for Russia, awarded Kadyrov with a medal underlining his support.

The Chechen leader was at first openly defiant, praising the suspected triggerman as a good patriot and a deeply religious man. When federal investigators tried to get to another key suspect, a senior officer in the Chechen police force, they were unable to interrogate him in Chechnya, where he enjoyed police protection.

Despite the setback, federal law enforcers kept up the pressure. In April, police in southern Russia made a surprise foray into Chechnya to nab a suspect in a separate criminal case, and shot the man dead when he resisted arrest.

A day later, a furious Kadyrov ordered his forces to shoot to kill any police from outside the region if they dared to venture into Chechnya. With the brash statement, Kadyrov sought to burnish his credentials as a ruler on par with Putin and above federal law.

He may have hoped that Putin would side with him once again. But Kadyrov miscalculated. While Putin did not publicly comment, his spokesman said in a steely statement that Chechen police should unconditionally obey federal authority.

Realizing his blunder, Kadyrov quickly backed off and offered new pledges of loyalty, saying he would step down if ordered to do so. The tensions have abated, but the investigation into Nemtsov's killing remains deadlocked.

The latest blow to Kadyrov came earlier this month, when a leading independent newspaper reported that the 46-year-old Guchigov was forcing a 17-year-old into becoming his second wife by blocking her village so she couldn't leave.

Kadyrov stood by the police chief, saying the girl and her family voluntarily agreed to the wedding. The Chechen leader also fired his information minister, accusing him of failing to quash what he described as slanderous reports.

The teenage bride, blushing and looking down, told a news portal controlled by the Kremlin that she faced no intimidation. The Russian children's rights ombudsman also said he looked into the case and found no violations.

The wedding took place Saturday in Chechnya's capital, with the bride looking stiff as she was escorted by Kadyrov's black-clad chief of staff. The quiet resolution of the scandal signaled that Moscow had decided that Kadyrov had been taught a lesson and there was no need to push things further.

In past years, Kadyrov's men have operated with impunity not just in Chechnya but also on the streets of Moscow. In 2008, one of Kadyrov's most prominent foes was shot dead just outside Russian government headquarters. Several Chechens were convicted of perpetrating the attack, but the organizers have never been found. Two years earlier, another Kadyrov rival with ties to federal security was shot and killed in central Moscow.

Russian media reported that Chechen businessmen have dramatically expanded their clout in Moscow under Kadyrov, and some members of his feared security forces have been permanently deployed there to help protect Chechen interests and act as musclemen in business disputes. Some reports claimed that Chechens have even challenged the murky economic interests of Russia's law enforcement agencies, which have considered themselves omnipotent under Putin.

With a multi-pronged attack on Kadyrov, federal law-enforcement chiefs clearly want to reorder the rules of the game and strip Kadyrov of his exclusive status. Putin himself may welcome the idea, sensing that the Chechen strongman was shaking his "vertical of power."

"I wouldn't exclude Kadyrov's dismissal," Shvedov said, arguing that the Chechen's purported role as a guarantor of stability may be overestimated, and that a new conflict in Chechnya was unlikely even if he were arrested, because Kadyrov's men wouldn't take up arms against Putin.

But others believe that Putin still sees Kadyrov as key to Chechen peace. Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya expert with Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, said that Kadyrov has reaffirmed his special status by pushing through the wedding despite the media uproar. He said that while tensions between Kadyrov and law enforcement chiefs will likely continue, Putin can be expected to stand by the strongman.

"It makes no sense to replace him," he said. "It will lead to infighting and instability in Chechnya."

Chechen commander in Ukraine drawn into Russian intrigue

April 12, 2015

LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine (AP) — From a dimly lit room at his base in eastern Ukraine, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting Russia-backed rebels looked shaken as TV broadcast news of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov's slaying. Adam Osmayev hailed Nemtsov as a "true hero" both for condemning Russia's war against separatists in Chechnya and for decrying Russian intervention in the current conflict in Ukraine.

"Watch them try to tie Ukraine to this (murder) in some way," Osmayev added. He was half-joking. But two weeks later, Kremlin-friendly Russian newspapers published reports based on unidentified sources in the security services that accused the Ukrainian government and also Osmayev himself of ordering the Feb. 27 murder of Nemtsov in central Moscow in an attempt to destabilize Russia.

Osmayev denies involvement and no evidence has been presented linking him to the hit on Nemtsov, who was a relentless critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Attempts to implicate the British-educated Chechen commander appear to be part of efforts aimed at deflecting attention from anyone close to Putin, including his security services and the powerful leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Within days of Nemtsov's assassination, investigators arrested five Chechens, including a senior officer in Kadyrov's police force, and charged them with carrying out the killing. All five have denied the charges.

The arrests heralded a crisis in relations between the Kremlin and Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya like a personal fiefdom. With generous subsidies from Moscow, he has rebuilt the region after two separatist wars and has relied on his feared security forces to track down and kill foes. His men have steadily expanded their sway beyond Chechnya to control lucrative businesses in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Leaders of federal law enforcement agencies have watched Kadyrov's growing power with dismay and have made no secret of their desire to curb him. Some observers speculated that the killing might have been ordered by Kadyrov's enemies in the federal government — an attempt to prompt Putin to fire or at least punish the Chechen leader.

If such a plan existed, it underestimated Putin's reliance on Kadyrov. The relative stability in Chechnya is seen as one of Putin's main achievements, and he sees the burly red-haired Chechen strongman as key to maintaining the status quo.

Putin quickly sent a signal that he intended to stand by Kadyrov by awarding him the Order of Honor for distinguished public service, a day after Kadyrov spoke out in defense of the arrested Chechens.

The arrests were a rare case in which federal law enforcement agents managed to nab a member of Kadyrov's security force, but the investigation then seemed to fizzle. Russian media, citing investigators, have pointed to a possible link between the suspected triggerman, Zaur Dadaev, and his commander, Ruslan Geremeyev, a senior officer in the Chechen police force. But Geremeyev is in Chechnya and off limits to federal investigators.

Russian newspapers have floated a variety of theories about the killing that have muddied the waters — a possible attempt to defuse tensions with Kadyrov. Some reports claimed that investigators believe Dadaev and his suspected accomplices could have acted on their own, even though most observers agree that a senior officer in Kadyrov's security force would not have acted without sanction from his superiors.

Dadaev, in turn, has rescinded his initial testimony, saying he was beaten and pressured to confess. The reports pointing to Osmayev, a Kadyrov foe, were seen as part of these efforts to deflect attention.

"State-controlled media have put forward a theory that is politically satisfying for Russia's security forces, the Kremlin, Kadyrov and all of their rival groups — namely, that Chechen Adam Osmayev ordered Nemtsov's murder," political analyst Georgy Bovt wrote in a commentary published in The Moscow Times.

Osmayev, 33, has a troubled history with both Kadyrov and Putin. After graduating from Wycliffe College, a prestigious private school in Britain, and attending the University of Buckingham, he returned to his native Chechnya shortly after the second war there ended in 2000. He worked alongside his father, who had been appointed the head of Chechnya's state oil company.

Chechnya at that time was led by Kadyrov's father. After his assassination in 2004, power passed to his son, Ramzan, and his relationship with the Osmayevs quickly deteriorated in a dispute over lucrative energy contracts. The Osmayevs fled to Ukraine.

In February 2012, Adam Osmayev was arrested at Russia's behest and charged with planning an assassination attempt against Putin. Ukraine at the time had a pro-Kremlin government. Osmayev spent three years in detention until being released in November 2014 by Ukraine's new Western-leaning government.

Shortly after his release, he joined a battalion formed by prominent Chechen commander Isa Munayev to fight against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. When Munayev was killed on Feb. 1, Osmayav took over the command.

His battalion includes several dozen Chechens, many with combat experience gained in the separatist wars in their homeland against Russian army troops. They regularly get calls from Ukrainian army units asking them to carry out reconnaissance missions or diversionary raids behind rebel lines.

Hundreds of Chechens also are fighting on the separatist side. They first joined the rebels last summer in the early stages of the conflict, and with their combat gear and professional demeanor they stood out among what was then a ragtag local force. Kadyrov has described pro-Russia Chechens fighting in Ukraine as volunteers, the same explanation the Kremlin provides for the Russians among the separatist forces.

Osmayev said he has few doubts that the perpetrators of Nemtsov's killing have ties to Kadyrov, but that the security services now need a convenient scapegoat whose guilt would be easily acceptable to the Russian general public.

"The fact the FSB is . trying to somehow implicate me in Nemtsov's murder is utterly ridiculous," Osmayev said, "but not hard to believe now that I am involved in the situation here in Ukraine."

Lynn Berry and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Sudan's al-Bashir returns home from South Africa

June 15, 2015

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Khartoum on Monday to cheers of supporters after leaving South Africa, where a court had ordered his arrest based on an international warrant for war crimes charges.

Al-Bashir raised a stick in the air as he stepped out of the plane, waving to a few hundred supporters who greeted him at the airport. Some chanted "God is Great" while others cried with joy. A South African court ruled that al-Bashir, who was attending an African Union summit, should be arrested. The ruling came after al-Bashir left.

Al-Bashir, in office since a 1989 military coup, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes allegations linked to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. At the Khartoum airport, supporters of the president raised posters reading "Lion of Africa" scribbled next to a picture of al-Bashir in military uniform and carried a coffin with a white sheet wrapped around it reading: "The ICC to its last resting place."

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said: "The president will continue his participation (in international events) as usual and the attempts to distract us will not sway us." In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the International Criminal Court's authority must be respected.

However, a Pretoria court's ruling that al-Bashir should be arrested came after he had left the country and in defiance of an earlier court order that he should remain in the country while judges deliberated on the matter.

Judge Dunstan Mlambo criticized the South African government for failing to heed the instructions of the court. "It is of concern to this court that we issued orders and then things just happened in violation of those orders," Mlambo said.

International Criminal Court Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart said in an interview with The Associated Press in The Hague, where the court is based, that "in our view it was very clear" that South Africa should have detained al-Bashir so he could have been brought to trial in The Hague.

"Their obligation was to arrest President al-Bashir," Stewart told AP. "I think, however, what is important to remember is that we act really in the interest of victims," he added. "The concern of the prosecutor is for the victims of dreadful atrocities and these victims are Africans."

The International Criminal Court's charges against al-Bashir stem from reported atrocities in the conflict in Darfur in which 300,000 people were killed and 2 million displaced in the government's campaign, according to U.N. figures.

South African officials have declined to comment, though William Mokhari, an attorney for the South African government, said African leaders at the summit in Johannesburg had immunity. Leaders of the African Union are cautious about interfering in each other's affairs and highlighting alleged human rights abuses on a continent with a history of conflict. Critics of the International Criminal Court also say it has unfairly targeted African leaders. But Stewart said most of the African cases were initiated by African governments themselves.

At one point, Mokhari, the South African government lawyer, told the judges that there was no risk of al-Bashir "disappearing" while he attended the summit. But soon after he uttered those words, South African journalist Erika Gibson tweeted photographs of what she said was Sudan's presidential jet taking off from a South African military base. Sudanese state media then said al-Bashir had left South Africa and that a news conference will be held at the Khartoum airport upon his arrival.

Elise Keppler, international justice acting director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said an opportunity to bring al-Bashir to justice had been missed. "By allowing this shameful flight, the South African government has disregarded not only its international legal obligations, but its own courts," she said in a statement.

Al-Bashir appeared in a group photo with other African heads of state on Sunday at the summit. The African Union had previously asked the ICC to stop proceedings against sitting presidents and said it will not compel any member states to arrest a leader on behalf of the court.

In a government notice published June 5, South Africa's minister of international affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, signed an agreement granting diplomatic immunity to delegates participating in the African Union summit.

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre, a rights group, had gone to court to press for al-Bashir's arrest. In March, the International Criminal Court halted proceedings against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta after the prosecution said it did not have enough evidence against him. Kenyatta, who is attending the summit in Johannesburg, was charged in 2011 as an "indirect co-perpetrator" in postelection violence that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2007 and 2008. He always maintained his innocence.

Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto is on trial for crimes against humanity in the election-related violence.

Michael Corder in The Hague and Christopher Torchia in Pretoria, South Africa, contributed to this report.

Sudan swears in President al-Bashir as he shifts alliances

June 02, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Tuesday was sworn in for another five-year term extending his 25-year autocratic rule, a testament to his ability to survive civil wars, sanctions and an international war crimes indictment.

In his latest maneuver to survive, al-Bashir has switched alliances, joining ranks with Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest bankroller, after nearly two decades of strained ties. That means moving away from close relations with the kingdom's rival Iran, which has long used Sudan as a transit route for weapons shipments to armed groups in the region, particularly Hamas.

Shortly before his re-election, al-Bashir threw his support to the Saudi-led coalition waging an air campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen who are allied to Iran. The Sudanese contribution to the campaign is largely symbolic — but al-Bashir is likely hoping for Gulf financial support that could keep his beleaguered economy afloat.

"Our relations with Arab brothers have witnessed very positive developments lately, by the grace of God," al-Bashir declared Tuesday in a speech in Omdurman, neighboring the capital Khartoum, after his swearing-in. By building on the Arab ties, he expressed hopes of eventually normalizing relations with Western nations as well.

Al-Bashir won re-election in April, though opposition parties boycotted the vote. After his victory with an official landslide of 94 percent of the vote, the opposition said in a joint statement that it will not recognize the results and called on the people to join ranks to "topple" al-Bashir.

In his speech Tuesday, al-Bashir pledged to draft a permanent constitution, combat corruption, improve the economy and end conflicts in at least three war-torn regions — Darfur in the west, and Kordofan and the Blue Nile in the south and southwest, all of which have armed uprisings against his rule.

He added a gesture to the opposition, saying "the arms of the nation are open to everyone" and promising amnesty to any armed groups who are "genuine" in entering negotiations. During al-Bashir's quarter-century in power, Sudan has been plagued by rebel movements, and it lost a third of its territory as South Sudan became independent in 2011. International sanctions over support of terrorism and over the Darfur conflict have battered Sudan's economy, which was also hit hard after the break with the south gutted oil revenues.

Local papers hailed the foreign policy shift toward Saudi Arabia. A Sudanese daily, Al-Tayar, described the move as "correcting the political position" of Khartoum. The Saudi news site Sabq praised as a breakthrough a visit by al-Bashir to the kingdom in March to meet with Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

Still, Gulf rulers appear to be keeping some public distance. They sent only envoys to attend al-Bashir's inauguration, a lower level than even foreign minister. The only senior figures to attend were Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and a handful of African leaders, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Despite the absences, "there is a real transformation of relations," said Hussein Shobokshi, a prominent Saudi newspaper political columnist. He pointed to a large advertising section in the prominent Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Alawsat newspaper promoting investment in Sudan. Chambers of commerce in Riyadh organized workshops on investment in Sudan.

"Saudi Arabia wanted to bring Sudan to the Arab square," he said, noting the kingdom was concerned over Khartoum's ties to Iran. But Sudanese journalist Faisal Mohammed Saleh said the low-level Gulf representation Tuesday sent a message of "don't expect much."

He said that al-Bashir may get some relative financial rewards from warming ties. "The price will be to stop using Sudan to supply weapons to armed groups in the region," he said. But, he added, it is unrealistic to think the Gulf will help him restore relations with the West.

Al-Bashir, who took power in a 1989 coup, is the only sitting head of state facing genocide charges at the International Criminal Court. The charges stem from reported atrocities in the conflict in Darfur, in which 300,000 people were killed and 2 million displaced in the government's campaign, according to United Nations figures.

Relations deteriorated between Sudan and Gulf countries in 1990s, when Sudan along with Yemen allied with Iraq's Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait. Ties with Iran complicated relations. In August 2013, Saudi Arabia banned the plane of al-Bashir from crossing its airspace on its way to Iran.

Iran helped supply weapons to al-Bashir in his 1989 coup and has invested in Sudanese water and engineering projects. Though China is Sudan's main arms source, Iran is also a supplier and signed a military relations deal with Khartoum in 2008.

Israel routinely accuses Iran of smuggling weapons to Hamas in Gaza through Sudan, which has a long desert border with Egypt. In October 2012, a suspected Israeli airstrike against a weapons factory in Khartoum, killing four people.

In March, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti insisted Khartoum has only diplomatic relations with Tehran, denying it had ever had any alliance with Iran. "This is mere lie against Sudan," he said.

AP correspondent Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan, contributed to this report.

Sudan extends presidential poll by 1 day amid low turnout

April 15, 2015

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudan extended voting another day in its presidential and legislative election Wednesday as campaigners went door to door to seek voters amid a low turnout that saw poll workers eating and praying to pass the time.

While state media trumpeted a "successful vote," most centers appeared empty amid widespread apathy about a vote certain to extend President Omar al-Bashir's 25-year rule despite an economic crisis and insurgencies roiling parts of Sudan. Al-Bashir also is the only sitting world leader wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, which are linked to the long-running conflict in Darfur.

Sudan's opposition, weakened by a government crackdown, is boycotting the vote and have called for the formation of a transitional government. "People are boycotting because this is a government that humiliated, terrorized, made us lose hope and stole our dreams. This is a government that led Sudan to a state of war," activist Zahra Haidar told The Associated Press.

Haidar and a dozen opposition figures gathered at the house of a young activist named Sandra Kadouda, who disappeared this week after joining an anti-election campaign. Wednesday night, Kadouda was found dumped in a street after being badly beaten and interrogated about anti-al-Bashir campaigns, said Galal Youssef, a political detainees' coordinator.

Youssef said Kadouda was "taken blindfolded and left blindfolded." Authorities have denied detaining her. To increase turnout, authorities gave awards for polling centers with high turnout. Voters were not required to even show their IDs in order to cast a vote, with many carrying a piece of paper obtained from a local city council their home address. Witnesses said that ruling party campaigners went house to house, calling on people to vote.

At one Khartoum polling center in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of al-Riyadh, turnout was only 15 percent after three days of voting, election official Youssef Ibrahim said. Other workers spread out mattresses in the empty poll place while some drank tea.

"Even if you give people a month, they won't come if they don't want to come," Ibrahim said. "The people are fed up. After 25 years, people have had enough."

Sudan begins voting in election al-Bashir expected to win

April 13, 2015

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudan began voting Monday in an election expected to be won by President Omar al-Bashir, the world's only sitting leader wanted on genocide charges.

Voters slowly began arriving to polling places in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Opposition parties, citing a lack of freedom of speech and assembly in the African country, are boycotting the vote, which includes electing candidates for the country's legislative council.

Voter lists hung on walls at polling stations. Some police officers and soldiers lined up with civilians to vote. Ahmed Sulieman, a university professor, was one of a handful of voters at the polling place in St. Francis School in downtown Khartoum. He described voting as the only way for a "peaceful transition of power" in this country of 35 million people.

"Many countries are suffering amid power struggles," Sulieman said. "I am here for the sake of stability and safety." Al-Bashir has ruled Sudan unchallenged for 25 years and presents himself as a symbol of stability. He survived the 2011 Arab Spring and his massive security apparatus has left the once-vibrant opposition a husk of its former self.

The 2011 secession of South Sudan, which ended Africa's longest-running civil war, deprived Khartoum of a third of its territory and population, and nearly 80 percent of its oil revenues. Smaller armed conflicts are currently raging in other parts of his country.

As long as he remains president, al-Bashir remains immune from being sent to the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating genocide during the Darfur conflict, which left 300,000 people dead and 2 million displaced.

Economic losses from South Sudan's succession forced al-Bashir to embark on austerity measures in 2013 that sparked the largest anti-government demonstrations of his rule. Security forces clamped down, killing some 200 people and arresting hundreds more.

Mohammed Hashim, a businessman who voted Monday, defended the crackdown, saying "detentions are meant to preserve the rights of others." "The Arab Spring produced wars and failed in embodying people's dreams," he said. "The Arab Spring failed and what we have here is better."

Nearly 13 million people are registered to vote. Results are expected on April 27.

Greek firefighters battle blazes; save 200 trapped on beach

July 17, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek firefighters battled large fires in the south, on the outskirts of Athens and on an island near the capital Friday as flames fed by strong winds forced the evacuation of villages and summer camps. About 200 people trapped by one fire were plucked off a beach by rescue boats.

In all, firefighters were battling 59 fire fronts, mainly in southern Greece and near the capital. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Greece had requested help from his country's army and air force, as well as the European emergency response center, to fight the blazes.

France was sending two Canadair firefighting aircraft and a Beechcraft reconnaissance plane along with expert teams, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. The aircraft and teams were to fly to Greece on Saturday. France helped Greece fight forest fires in August 2014.

Tsipras was holding an emergency meeting Friday night with the head of the armed forces, the defense and interior ministers, the head of the civil protection agency and the head of Greece's secret services.

Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said it was likely that at least some of the fires were the result of arson, and ordered the armed forces to patrol forests and woodlands across the country as a preventative measure.

"All forces are on alert," Tsipras said, noting that the hot, dry and windy conditions were making firefighting more difficult. The most severe fire was a massive blaze in the Lakonia area in the Peloponnese, southern Greece, where at least three villages were evacuated.

Rescue boats battled gale-force winds to reach about 200 people who had taken refuge in a bay, ferrying them to safety, the coast guard said. Twelve other people were rescued from a separate beach, it said.

Two helicopters, 120 firefighters and nearly 30 soldiers were fighting the Lakonia blaze, which local media said burned through electric pylons, cutting off electricity to the southern island of Kythira. Two pilots were slightly injured when their firefighting plane had to make an emergency landing.

Another major fire burned across a large swathe of Mount Ymittos on the outskirts of the Greek capital, blanketing parts of southern Athens in smoke and threatening houses in outlying neighborhoods. Strong winds fanned the flames across the mountainside, hampering efforts by water-dropping planes and helicopters that continued flying sorties as night fell.

A third major fire broke out Friday afternoon north of the capital in Malakasa, where more than 120 children were being evacuated from summer camps, mayor Thomas Rousis told state television. Firefighters were also tackling at least three other blazes, one near Athens, another in the southern area of Argolida in the Peloponnese, and a third on the island of Evia, northwest of the capital.

Forest and brush fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers. In 2007, massive forest fires ravaged southern Greece, devastating dozens of villages and killing about 60 people.

Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

South Africans celebrate International Nelson Mandela Day

July 18, 2015

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africans honored the 67 years of former president Nelson Mandela's service to the country with 67 minutes of charity and community action around the country on his birthday Saturday.

Established in 2009, the day is meant to encourage South Africans to emulate Mandela's humanitarian legacy and recognize the decades he spent fighting apartheid. All over the country, volunteers handed out blankets and books, distributed toys at orphanages, and cleaned up public areas, before reporting their activities on social media.

His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela held a lunch for elderly, needy women at the Mandela family restaurant near the family home in Soweto, calling it a chance to recommit to his values of "bettering the lives of our people."

Dozens of elderly women wrapped in coats and scarves against the crisp winter weather filled a tent set up on the road. "It makes me happy but it reminds me of the past, of the apartheid years," said Elizabeth Khoba, 77, who had just received a fleecy purple blanket. She lived near the late statesman and remembered him "as a very tall chap" who would chide misbehaving children in the neighborhood.

Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once lived a few doors away from Mandela, described his fellow Nobel laureate's work as "a lifetime of selflessness . an example of humanity for the ages." At the University of Johannesburg, Mandela's widow Graca Machel gave out food parcels and blankets knitted specifically for the occasion.

"Knowing my man as I know, wherever he is up there, he is with a bright bright smile blessing you all, blessing our nation," said Machel. Mandela died in December 2013. To mark the day, the United Nations announced the first Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize to be awarded every five years to a man and woman who have furthered his legacy, which embodied "the highest values of the United Nations," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Shoppers return to Kenyan mall 2 years after attack

July 18, 2015

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Hundreds of shoppers Saturday thronged through the re-opened Westgate Shopping Mall in Kenya's capital, Nairobi nearly two years after an extremist attack there left at least 67 people dead.

Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero cut a ribbon during the ceremony which came after two years of repairs from the damage caused by security forces battling four gunmen from Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group in September 2013.

The attack on the upscale shopping center shocked the nation and led to a four-day siege by security forces, which destroyed part of the roof when the army fired rocket propelled grenades to dislodge the attackers.

"We could have been hurt but our spirits have not been broken, it is a demonstration of the determination and the positivity and the resilience and the indomitable spirit of the Kenyan people," said Kidero. "I know there will be apprehensions but, as a country, we are safer."

Brighton Salamba, 25, the manager at Tapas Ceviche Bar, said he was happy to finally be back at work and described how he underwent counselling sessions paid for by his employer to get over the trauma from the experience.

He managed to escape the attackers by locking the door of the restaurant and crawling up a ventilator shaft with 25 other people. The group moved through the ducts until they reached another restaurant and fled through an exit, Salamba recalled.

"I thanked God. We could hear the screams and gunshots," he said. "We lost two colleagues in the attack." Shoppers will get a 10 percent discount for every $30 spent at the 80,000 square foot (7,400 square meter) complex which is expected to employ more than 250 staff.

American fast food chain Pizza Hut will also open for the first time in Kenya at the mall. Al-Shabab justified the attack as revenge on Kenya for sending its troops to Somalia to fight the militants.

Burundi officials skip crisis talks days before poll

July 19, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Government representatives failed to show up Sunday for talks in Burundi aimed at ending the unrest caused by the president's controversial bid for a third term, forcing the mediation to be adjourned just ahead of Tuesday's election, the talks facilitator said.

Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, who is acting as mediator, stopped short of saying the talks had collapsed and said the government should be given a chance to explain itself. The talks are backed by the East African Community.

"The dialogue has not failed it is still on, we have only adjourned," Kiyonga said. He said the mediation process had made progress in a few days by getting the government and the opposition to sit down and agree on what the issues are to be discussed, including restoring security and the refugee crisis.

Burundi has been rocked by violence that has left more than 100 people dead. Over 144,000 people have fled the country since the ruling party announced President Pierre Nkurunziza's candidacy in April.

Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana said that the government had skipped the dialogue because of statements made by the opposition about the need for democratic institutions, which he said suggested they hoped to take power through a coup.

He told The Associated Press that the government had to discuss the opposition's remarks with the facilitator before returning to the talks. The opposition, however, maintained that the government quit because discussions had shifted to the upcoming elections.

"The government does not want to discuss the electoral calendar and wants to do everything according to its plan," said opposition spokesman Jean Minani. Kiyonga said talks will continue even after the elections and the contentious issue of the president's third term will still be in the agenda.

Earlier United Nations-backed negotiations between the parties collapsed after the opposition insisted on Nkurunziza's exit.