Johannesburg, Jan 20 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. military on Saturday said it had carried out its deadliest airstrike in Somalia in months, killing 52 al-Shabab extremists after a "large group" mounted an attack on Somali forces.
The U.S. Africa Command said the airstrike occurred near Jilib in Middle Juba region. There were no reports of Americans killed or wounded.
The U.S. statement did not say whether any Somali forces were killed or wounded by the al-Qaida-linked extremists. Al-Shabab via its Shahada news agency asserted that its attack on two Somali army bases killed at least 41 soldiers. It described the location as the Bar Sanjuni area near the port city of Kismayo.
There was no immediate comment from Somalia's government.
In neighboring Ethiopia, state television cited the defense ministry as saying more than 60 al-Shabab fighters had been killed and that four vehicles loaded with explosives had been "destroyed." Ethiopia contributes troops to a multinational African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and has troops there independently under Ethiopian army command.
A Somali intelligence officer said al-Shabab had been amassing fighters for more than a week to launch a major attack against Somali and Kenyan forces in order to disrupt a planned offensive against the extremists. The officer said some 400 extremists, including foreign ones, had been prepared, including two suicide car bombers. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Al-Shabab controls large parts of rural southern and central Somalia and continues to carry out high-profile suicide bombings and other attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and elsewhere.
The Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on a luxury hotel complex in the capital of neighboring Kenya on Tuesday, the latest high-toll assault inside that county in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabab.
The extremist group finds itself under pressure at home on a number of fronts, including from a small presence of rival fighters linked to the Islamic State organization, which has begun challenging al-Shabab in recent months.
The United States has dramatically stepped up airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia since President Donald Trump took office, carrying out at least 47 such strikes last year. Some have targeted top al-Shabab leaders or key financial officials; the extremist group funds its attacks with an extensive network of "taxation" and extortion.
In October, the U.S. said an airstrike killed about 60 fighters near the al-Shabab-controlled community of Harardere in Mudug province in the central part of the country.
The airstrikes hamper the extremist group but have not "seriously degraded al-Shabab's capability to mount strikes either inside or outside Somalia," Matt Bryden of Sahan Research, an expert on the extremists, told The Associated Press after the Nairobi hotel attack.
Airstrikes alone cannot defeat the extremists, Bryden said, and must be combined with more ground-based attacks as well as a non-military campaign to win over residents of extremist-held areas.
The U.S. on Saturday said it is committed to "preventing al-Shabab from taking advantage of safe havens from which they can build capacity and attack the people of Somalia."
Mexico, Jan 20 (AP/UNB) — Gerardo Perez returned Saturday to the scorched field in central Mexico where he'd seen an illegal pipeline tap burst into flames to see if he could recognize missing friends. He couldn't. Only a handful of the remains still had skin. Dozens were burned to the bone or to ash when the gusher of gasoline exploded, killing at least 73 people.
Perez said he and his son bypassed soldiers and ignored warnings to stay clear of the geyser Friday evening in the town of Tlahuelilpan in Hidalgo state, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Mexico City.
"We're stubborn," he said. But as Perez neared the spurting fuel, he was overcome with foreboding. He recalls telling his son: "Let's go ... this thing is going to explode."
And it did, with the fireball engulfing locals collecting the spilling gasoline in buckets, jugs and garbage cans. Video footage showed flames shooting high into the night sky, and screaming people running from the explosion, some themselves burning and waving their arms. Perez and his son made it out.
By Saturday evening the death toll had risen to 73, according to Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad. Officials said at least another 74 were injured and dozens more were missing. Fifty-four bodies have yet to be identified.
Forensic experts were separating and counting charred heaps of corpses while anguished relatives of those presumed dead gathered around the scene of carnage.
Just a few feet from where the pipeline passed through an alfalfa field, the dead seem to have fallen in heaps, perhaps as they stumbled over each other or tried to help one another as the geyser of gasoline turned to flames.
Several of the deceased lay on their backs, their arms stretched out in agony. Some seemed to have covered their chests in a last attempt to protect themselves from the blast. A few corpses seemed to embrace each other in death. Lost shoes were scattered around a space the size of a soccer field, as were half-melted plastic jugs the victims carried to gather spilling fuel. Closer to the explosion, forensic workers marked mounds of ash with numbers.
On Friday, hundreds of people had gathered in an almost festive atmosphere in a field where a duct had been perforated by fuel thieves and gasoline spewed 20 feet into the air.
State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, said the pipeline, which supplies much of central Mexico with fuel, had just reopened after being shut since Dec. 23 and that it had been breached 10 times over three months.
The tragedy came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that have drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to widespread fuel shortages at gas stations throughout the country as Pemex deviates distribution, both licit and illicit.
Lopez Obrador vowed on Saturday to continue the fight against a practice that steals about $3 billion per year in fuel.
"We are going to eradicate that which not only causes material damages, it is not only what the nation loses by this illegal trade, this black market of fuel, but the risk, the danger, the loss of human lives," he said.
He said the attorney general's office will investigate whether the explosion was intentional — caused by an individual or group — or whether the fireball occurred due to the inherent risk of clandestine fuel extraction. He called on townspeople to give testimony not only about Friday's events in Hidalgo, but about the entire black-market chain of fuel theft.
"I believe in the people, I trust in the people, and I know that with these painful, regrettable lessons, the people will also distance themselves from these practices," he said.
Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that locals say is deeply rooted in the poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. Specialized fuel thieves who tap the lines usually cart their bounty off in trucks. But in recent days, as the government cracks down on fuel theft rings, the gangs have punctured pipelines and invited locals to help themselves.
Tlahuelilpan, population 20,000, is just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Pemex's Tula refinery. Pemex Chief Executive Octavio Romero said an estimated 10,000 barrels of premium gasoline were rushing through the pipeline with 20 kilograms of pressure when it was ruptured.
Locals on Saturday expressed both sympathy and consternation toward the president's war on fuel gangs.
Arely Calva Martinez said the recent shortages at gas stations raised the temptation to salvage fuel from the gusher.
Her brother Marco Alfredo, a teacher, was desperate for gas to drive 90 minutes back and forth to work when word spread via Facebook that fuel spewing into the field. Marco Alfredo and another brother, Yonathan, were in the field when the fire erupted. They haven't been seen since.
"I think if there had been gas in the gas stations, many of these people wouldn't have been here," Calva Martinez said while holding a picture of her brothers.
Tears streamed down Erica Bautista's cheeks as she held up her cellphone with pictures of her brother, Valentin Hernandez Cornejo, 24, a taxi driver, and his wife, Yesica, both of whom are also missing. Valentin faced "enormous lines" for a limited ration of gas, she said. Then he received a phone call alerting him to the fuel spill.
"We want to at least find a cadaver," she said while weeping.
Health officials were taking DNA samples from direct relatives at the local community center in Tlahuelilpan to aid in identification. Outside, a long, chilling list of the missing was taped to a window.
Wrapped in a blanket, Hugo Olvera Estrada said he had gone to six nearby hospitals looking for his 13-year-old son, who had joined the crowd at the fuel spill. He hasn't been seen since.
"Ay, no, where is my son?" he wailed.
Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck. There aren't enough trucks, however.
Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio said Saturday there are 50 soldiers stationed every 12 miles along the pipelines, and that they patrol 24 hours a day. But the soldiers have been ordered not to engage with fuel thieves out of fear that an escalation could result in more shootings of unarmed civilians or more soldiers being beaten by a mob.
"We don't want this sort of confrontation," Cresencio said.
Officials say 25 military personnel arrived on the scene soon after the pipeline started spewing fuel on Friday. Over the course of two hours, hundreds of civilians came to fill containers with gasoline from a gusher shooting 20 feet (six meters) into the air.
A second pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. But in this fire there were no reported casualties.
In December 2010, authorities also blamed oil thieves for a pipeline explosion in a central Mexico near the capital that killed 28 people, including 13 children. That blast burned people and scorched homes, affecting 5,000 residents in an area six miles (10 kilometers) wide in San Martin Texmelucan.
Washington, Jan 20 (AP/UNB) — In a bid to break the shutdown stalemate, President Donald Trump on Saturday offered to extend temporary protections for young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children and those fleeing disaster zones in exchange for his long-promised border wall. But while Trump cast the move as a "common-sense compromise," Democrats were quick to dismiss it at a "non-starter."
With polls showing a majority of Americans blaming him and Republicans for the impasse, Trump said from the White House that he was there "to break the logjam and provide Congress with a path forward to end the government shutdown and solve the crisis on the southern border."
Hoping to put pressure on Democrats, the White House billed the announcement as a major step forward. But Trump did not budge on his $5.7 billion demand for the wall and, in essence, offered to temporarily roll-back some of his own hawkish immigration actions — actions that have been blocked by federal courts.
Following a week marked by his pointed clashes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it was not clear if Trump's offer would lead to serious steps to reopen the government, shut for a record 29 days. Trump's move came as hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without paychecks, with many enduring financial hardship. Many public services are unavailable to Americans during the closure.
Democrats dismissed Trump's proposal even before his formal remarks. Pelosi said the expected offer was nothing more than "a compilation of several previously rejected initiatives" and that the effort could not pass the House
"What is original in the President's proposal is not good. What is good in the proposal is not original," she later tweeted.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also panned the proposal as "more hostage taking," saying that it was Trump who had "single-handedly" imperiled the future of the immigrants he proposed to help.
The New York Democrat said there is only "one way out" of the shutdown. "Open up the government, Mr. President, and then Democrats and Republicans can have a civil discussion and come up with bipartisan solutions." he said.
Democrats had made their own move late Friday to try to break the impasse when they pledged to provide hundreds of millions of dollars more for border security. But Trump, who has yet to acknowledge that offer, laid out his own plan, which officials said had been in the works for days.
Seeking to cast the plan as a bipartisan way forward, Trump said Saturday he was incorporating ideas from "rank-and-file" Democrats, as top Democrats made clear they had not been consulted. He also said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring the legislation to a vote this week, though Democrats appeared likely to block it. McConnell had previously stated that no vote should be held in the Senate until Trump and Democrats agreed on a bill.
Trump's remarks from the Diplomatic Room marked the second time he has addressed the nation as the partial shutdown drags on. On this occasion, he sought to strike a diplomatic tone, emphasizing the need to work across the aisle. He maintained a border barrier was needed to block what he describes as the flow of drugs and crime into the country — but described "steel barriers in high-priority locations" instead of "a 2,000-mile concrete structure from sea to sea."
The proposal was met with immediate criticism from some conservative corners, including NumbersUSA, which seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. "The offer the President announced today is a loser for the forgotten American workers who were central to his campaign promises," said Roy Beck, the group's president.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Trump's offer was panned by progressive groups, with Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calling it a "one-sided proposal."
Trump embraced the shutdown in December in large part because of angry warnings from his most ardent supporters that he was passing up on his last, best shot to build the wall before Democrat took control of the House in the new year. After his announcement Saturday, some supporters appeared unhappy with his effort to bridge the divide with Democrats.
"Trump proposes amnesty," tweeted conservative firebrand Ann Coulter. "We voted for Trump and got Jeb!" she said, in a reference to Trump's 2016 rival, Jeb Bush.
In a briefing with reporters, Vice President Mike Pence defended the proposal from criticism from the right. "This is not an amnesty bill," he insisted.
White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also sought to increase the pressure on congressional Democrats in advance of Tuesday, the deadline for the next federal pay period and the day officials said McConnell would begin to move on legislation.
"If the bill is filibustered on Tuesday...people will not get paid," he said.
Mulvaney said that Trump had not ruled out one day declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress to get his wall money — as he has threatened — but added that Trump maintains that the "best way to fix this is through legislation."
Trump's son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had led the efforts build the plan Trump announced on Saturday, according to three people familiar with White House thinking who were not authorized to speak publicly. After a heated meeting with Pelosi and Schumer that Trump stormed out of, the president directed his aides to bypass Democratic leaders and instead reach out to rank-and-file members for ideas.
To ensure wall funding, Trump said he would extend temporary protections for three years for "Dreamers," young people brought to the country illegally as children. Administration officials said the protections would apply only to the approximately 700,000 people currently enrolled in the Obama-era program shielding them from deportation, and not all those who could be eligible. The plan would offer no pathway to citizenship for those immigrants — a deal breaker for many Democrats.
Trump also proposed a three-year extension to the temporary protected status the U.S. offers to immigrants fleeing countries affected by natural disasters or violence. Officials said the exemption would apply to about 300,000 people who currently live in the U.S. under the program and have been here since 2011. That means people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti — countries that saw the status revoked since Trump took office — would get a reprieve.
Democrats, however, criticized Trump's proposal for failing to offer a permanent solution for the immigrants in question and because he refuses back away from his demand a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which the party strongly oppposes. Democrats have told Trump he must reopen government before talks can start.
Trump had repeatedly dismissed the idea of a deal involving Dreamers in recent weeks, saying he would prefer to see first whether the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, survived a court challenge.
On Friday, the Supreme Court took no action on the Trump administration's request to decide by early summer whether Trump's bid to end that program was legal, meaning it probably will survive at least another year.
But during a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump hinted at the possibility, saying he would consider working on the wall and DACA "simultaneously."
A previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of "Dreamers" broke down a year ago as a result of escalating White House demands.
Congo, Jan 20 (AP/UNB) — Congo's election crisis deepened early Sunday when the Constitutional Court confirmed the win of Felix Tshisekedi, rejecting claims of fraud, and runner-up Martin Fayulu promptly declared himself the country's "only legitimate president."
Fayulu's supporters have alleged an extraordinary backroom deal by outgoing President Joseph Kabila to rig the vote in favor of the opposition after the ruling party's candidate did so poorly that a Plan B was needed. Neither side has acknowledged the accusations.
The court, however, said Fayulu offered no proof to back his assertions that he had won easily based on leaked data attributed to the electoral commission.
Fayulu urged Congolese to take to the streets to peacefully protest what he called "constitutional coup d'etat," accusing the court of validating false results. "It's no secret ... that you have elected me president," he said.
Neither Congolese nor the international community should recognize Tshisekedi, nor obey him, Fayulu added.
The largely untested Tshisekedi, son of the late, charismatic opposition leader Etienne, is set to be inaugurated on Tuesday. His supporters who had gathered outside the court cheered.
"It's a shame that Mr. Fayulu wants to stay isolated," Tshisekedi's spokesman, Vidiye Tshimanga, told The Associated Press. He said the two men once had been part of an opposition coalition demanding that Kabila step down.
The new president will need everyone for the reconstruction of the country, Tshimanga said, as the Congolese people have "suffered a lot in recent years."
The court's declaration came shortly after the African Union in an unprecedented move asked Congo to delay announcing the final election results, citing "serious doubts" about the vote. It planned to send a high-level delegation on Monday to find a way out of the crisis, fearing unrest spilling across borders of the vast Central African nation.
Congo's government replied it was up to the courts.
The court turned away Fayulu's request for a recount in the Dec. 30 vote.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende quickly acknowledged the court's decision, congratulating Tshisekedi as Congo's fifth president.
The country of 80 million people, rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world, is moving close to achieving its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.
But observers have warned that the court's upholding of the official results could lead to further unrest. At least 34 people have been killed since provisional results were released on Jan. 10, the United Nations has said.
The court could have ordered a recount or ordered a new election.
It called unfounded a challenge filed by another candidate, Theodore Ngoy, that objected to the electoral commission's last-minute decision to bar some 1 million voters from the election over a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.
The court said Tshisekedi won with more than 7 million votes, or 38 percent, and Fayulu received 34 percent. However, leaked data published by some media outlets, attributed to the electoral commission and representing 86 percent of the votes, show that Fayulu won 59 percent while Tshisekedi received 19 percent.
Fayulu, a lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo's sprawling corruption, is widely seen as posing more of a threat to Kabila, his allies and the vast wealth they have amassed.
All of the election results, not just the presidential ones, had been widely questioned after Kabila's ruling coalition won a majority in legislative and provincial votes while its presidential candidate finished a distant third.
Congo's election had been meant to take place in late 2016, and many Congolese worried that Kabila, in power since 2001, was seeking a way to stay in office. Barred from serving three consecutive terms, Kabila already has hinted he might run again in 2023.
After Tshisekedi was announced as the surprise winner in provisional results on Jan. 10, some Congolese weary of turmoil appeared to decide that replacing Kabila with an opposition figure was enough, despite questions about the vote.
Reflecting the yearning for stability, 33 Congolese non-governmental groups and civil society movements on Thursday called on people to comply with whatever the court rules to "preserve the peace."
With that perhaps in mind, Tshisekedi's party sharply rejected the AU's attempted intervention.
The continental body's stance is "the work of some mining lobbies seeking to destabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to perpetuate the looting of this country," the party's secretary-general, Jean-Marc Kabund, said in a statement.
Ahead of the court's ruling, hundreds of Tshisekedi's supporters were in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, waving tree branches and banners reading "Congo for the Congolese."
Santiago, Jan 20 (AP/UNB) — A 6.7-magnitude earthquake shook cities and towns on Chile's northern coast late Saturday, but there were no immediate reports of major damage.
Chile's National Emergency Office preventatively ordered the evacuation of a stretch of coast near the city of Coquimbo but later called it off. Authorities said the quake didn't have the characteristics that would generate a tsunami.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of the magnitude-6.7 quake was 15.6 kilometers (9.7 miles) south-southwest of Coquimbo, and it had a depth of 53 kilometers. It struck at 7:32 p.m. local time.
Chile's seismological service put the strength of the quake at magnitude 6.8. It was felt strongly in northern Chile, according to social media and press reports.
Chile is located in the so-called "Ring of Fire," which makes it one of the most seismic countries in the world. An 8.8-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2010 killed 525 people and left 26 missing.