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Twelve Die In Attacks On Three Mali Hotels

By Alex Duval Smith and Kristin Palitza, dpa (TNS)

BAMAKO, Mali — Soldiers and police Saturday ended a siege in a northern Mali trading hub in which at least 12 people died, a United Nations spokeswoman said.

The deaths included five of the attackers and four foreigners whose nationalities have yet to be released.

Four UN workers — two South Africans, a Ukrainian and a Russian — were rescued during the attack in Sevare, about 370 miles northeast of the capital, the spokesman said.

The men were pilots and engineers contracted by the UN military mission in Mali, she said.

Unknown gunmen laid siege to at least three hotels frequented by foreigners and UN workers Friday morning. Hotel Byblos was in control of the gunmen until early Saturday.

One Ukrainian guest reportedly escaped during an exchange of fire between the militants and the soldiers. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Several Islamist rebel groups operate in northern Mali.

Mali’s north has been volatile since separatist rebels and, later, al-Qaida-affiliated militants took control of the region after a 2012 military coup.

French and African military operations dispersed the militants and restored government control over the area. Clashes between rebels and the army persist in some areas.

Photo: A Beninese peacekeeper of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrols the grounds of the El Farouk Hotel in Bamako, during a meeting of the Mixed Commission composed of representatives of the Malian government and Tuareg separatist rebels. (United Nations Photo via Flickr)

FBI Probed Texas Gunman ‘Over Jihadist Sympathies’

By Jared Christopher, AFP

Garland, Texas — One of the men shot dead by police when he and an accomplice attempted to storm an event hosted by an anti-Muslim group in Texas was investigated by the FBI over alleged plans to wage holy war, court documents show.

Investigators were delving into the backgrounds of the two suspected Islamist gunmen — they were roommates, The Los Angeles Times reported — who opened fire with assault rifles outside Sunday’s controversial exhibit of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

A quick-acting Texas policeman shot the two suspects before they were able to enter the venue in Garland, a suburb of Dallas.

There was no confirmed claim of responsibility for the failed attack, but several US media identified the shooters as 31-year-old Elton Simpson and 34-year-old Nadir Soofi.

The pair shared an apartment in Phoenix, Arizona, the LA Times said, and CNN broadcast footage of FBI agents raiding the alleged address.

And in court records seen by AFP, Simpson was sentenced to three years’ probation in 2011 after FBI agents presented a court with taped conversations between him and an informant discussing travelling to Somalia to join “their brothers” waging holy war.

The prosecution was unable to prove that Simpson had committed a terror-related offense, but did establish he had lied to investigators when he denied having discussed going to Somalia.

Private terror watchdog SITE said that at least one Twitter account linked to a known militant of the Islamic State jihadist group has claimed the attackers as sympathizers. But Simpson’s father said his son had simply “made a bad choice.”

The White House said that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the investigation, which Texas police said was ongoing.

“There is no form of expression that justifies an act of violence,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that investigators were looking into the “assailants’ ties to organized terrorist activity.”

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group listed by civil rights watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group, had organized the event, which drew about 200 people.

At the event, attended by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders and AFDI co-founder Pamela Geller, supporters held an exhibition of entries to a competition to draw caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

Many Muslims find drawings of the prophet to be disrespectful or outright blasphemous, and such cartoons have been cited by Islamists as motivation in several previous attacks.

AFDI had offered a $10,000 prize for the winner of the contest, which was billed as a “free speech” event.

Police said two men wearing body armor and toting assault rifles drove up to the conference, jumped out and opened fire on an unarmed security guard.

Garland police spokesman Joe Harn told reporters the guard was shot in the ankle and that a traffic police officer in the vicinity responded, taking down the two better-armed assailants.

Commentators were quick to draw parallels to a January mass shooting at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris that killed 12 people and wounded 11 more.

“There is absolutely no comparison,” Jean-Baptiste Thoret, the magazine’s film critic who only avoided the attack because he had been late for work — told Charlie Rose on PBS, according to an advance transcript Monday.

“You have a, as you said, a sort of anti-Islamic movement (in Texas)…the problem of Charlie Hebdo is absolutely not the same,” added Thoret, flanked by Gerard Biard, chief editor of the magazine.

Biard added: “We don’t organize contests. We just do our work. We comment on the news. When Mohammed jumps out of the news, we draw Mohammed.

“But if he didn’t, we didn’t. We don’t…We fight racism. And we have nothing to do with these people.”

On Twitter, jihadist Abu Hussain Al-Britani, who SITE identified as British IS fighter Junaid Hussain, described the gunmen as “two of our brothers.”

But Simpson’s father Dunston told ABC News that his son, who he said worked in a dentist’s office, simply “made a bad choice.”

“We are Americans and we believe in America,” Dunston Simpson said. “What my son did reflects very badly on my family.”

Wilders told AFP in an email that he was concerned he may have been targeted because he, like one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed in January, is on a hit list circulated by Al-Qaeda supporters.

“I am shocked. I just spoke for half an hour about the cartoons, Islam and freedom of speech and I had just left the premises,” he said.

“This is an attack on the liberties of all of us.”

The Dutch politician said he would return to the Netherlands but plans to come back to the United States next week for another speaking engagement.

Geller called the shooting a “war on free speech.”

“What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?” she wrote on her website. “The war is here.”

Photo: Geert Wilders via AFP

Police In Ottawa Hunt For More Than One Gunman On Parliament Hill

By Levon Sevunts, dpa

MONTREAL — Canadian police locked down the federal Parliament building in Ottawa on Wednesday as a search for as many as three gunmen was under way in and around the building.

The search began after Canadian soldier standing guard at a war memorial nearby was shot, news reports said.

The reports said one gunman has been killed, but others were still on the loose. Police cordoned off the area as they sent teams of fully armed officers into the complex of multiple buildings in the heart of the Canadian capital.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the Parliament building at the time of the shooting but has been taken to safety, his office said. Several members of Parliament who are in the building have been ordered to stay inside.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent a tweet advising people to stay away from Parliament Hill due to ongoing police activity. People in the buildings were advised to stay away from windows and rooftops.

Witnesses interviewed by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation said the gunman ran toward the Parliament building after shooting the soldier at the war memorial.

The soldier was rushed to hospital after passers-by and paramedics tried to revive him, the CBC said. His condition was unknown.

The CBC said its reporters inside the Parliament buildings heard several gunshots at various locations in the area near the Parliament building.

The attack follows a suspected terrorist attack earlier this week in which two Canadian soldiers were run over by a young radicalized Muslim convert in a parking lot in a town southeast of Montreal. One of the soldiers later died, Quebec police said Tuesday.

The suspect in the case had been blocked from traveling to the Middle East to join jihadist groups, according to police.

Police arrested him in July as he tried to leave for Turkey, which is considered a transit point for people joining jihadist groups in Syria. Police did not have enough evidence to press charges.

The two attacks come after Canadian authorities raised the terror threat level on Friday.

In a statement released Tuesday Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney, said the decision to raise the level was linked to an increase in “general chatter” from radical Islamist organizations like Islamic State, al-Qaida, the extremist group al-Shabaab and others who pose a threat to Canadians.

AFP Photo/Michel Comte

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Ukraine Troops Ambushed By Pro-Russia Gunmen In Eastern Town; 14 Die

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — At least 14 people were killed and scores were wounded as government forces seeking to win back this eastern Ukrainian city from pro-Russia separatists ran into an ambush Monday set up by the rebel gunmen.

Operations by the Interior Ministry, army and national guard troops for the last two weeks — often more off than on — erupted in a massive shootout as their armed convoy rolled into Semyonvka, a suburb of Slovyansk. They were met by separatists firing Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers and large-caliber machine guns.

The gun battle underscored the tough resistance government forces have faced in confronting the rebels — directed, they say, by Moscow — who have seized control in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine in a bid for greater autonomy, independence or annexation by Russia.

Witnesses described the scene outside Slovyansk, one of the centers of the rebellion, as harrowing, especially after a gas station exploded in a wall of flame.

“For a moment I lost my hearing as my car was shaken by an explosion behind,” said Alexei Sergiyenko, a 36-year-old factory worker who had just refueled his car at the station. “I stopped the car about (110 yards) from the place, ran out and lay behind it.”

Sergiyenko said gunfire continued for about five minutes. When he drove back into town, two armored vehicles carrying more than a dozen gunmen and flying the white flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic rolled past him toward the battle.

The Interior Ministry said government forces suffered four dead and 30 injured, UNIAN news agency reported. Seven rebels were slain and three were injured, said Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk. In addition, three civilians were killed and 15 were wounded.

“They are using a cunning in-and-out tactic with us, obviously counting that we will soon run out of our manpower, given their blockade of Slovyansk,” Ponomaryov told the Los Angeles Times. “But I must boast that a lot of our friends arrived in Slovyansk this weekend to help us fight the fascist junta,” the pro-Russia mayor added, hinting at what Ukrainian officials say is the case: that Russians are involved in the conflict.

“We have information that 150 Cossacks from Crimea have arrived in Slovyansk to help the separatists,” Security Service spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said Monday at a briefing in Kiev, the capital, Ukrinform news agency reported.

“We are dealing with a very well-prepared adversary armed with grenade launchers, mortars and machine guns,” Stepan Poltorak, commander of the national guard, said at a briefing near Slovyansk on Friday, a video of which was posted on the Interior Ministry’s website. “We tightened our grip around them in the center of the town, but they are not letting us come closer.”

Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said at the same briefing that the slow pace of the operation was the result of efforts to spare the lives of peaceful residents of Slovyansk.

“We are engaged in a war on our own territory,” Avakov said. “Our hands and feet are bound by the fact that we are surrounded by the peaceful population. Some of them support us, some don’t, but the point of the matter remains that Ukrainian military can’t shoot at peaceful residents.”

Fighting in Slovyansk and elsewhere in the industrialized Donetsk region has intensified as opponents of the interim leadership in Kiev appear to be trying to disrupt the May 25 presidential election. Separatists have called a rival vote for secession on Sunday.

Avakov also said in the newspaper and on his Facebook page that a special forces unit was dispatched Monday to Odessa to restore order there. At least 46 people died in the Black Sea port Friday during a clash in which firebombs set ablaze the city’s trade union building, where pro-Russia gunmen had taken up positions.

In Kramatorsk, near Slovyansk, a few hundred people attended the funeral Monday for Julia Izotova, a nurse who was killed two days earlier in a clash between separatists and troops. Among the mourners were dozens of gunmen in masks.

The government forces “are now bogged down in the heavy fighting in Slovyansk, but we are waiting for them down here to avenge the death of young Julia,” said a masked separatist who said his code name was Spets. “They can’t be at all places at once. They said last week that they cleared Kramatorsk of separatists. But now they have gone to Slovyansk and we are back in command of our town.”

Matthew Schofield/MCT