Washington, Oct 14 (AP/UNB) — Freed American pastor Andrew Brunson fell to one knee in the Oval Office and placed his hand on President Donald Trump's shoulder in prayer on Saturday, asking God to provide the president "supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for him."
Trump welcomed Brunson to the White House to celebrate his release from nearly two years of confinement in Turkey, which had sparked a diplomatic row with a key ally and outcry from U.S. evangelical groups.
Brunson returned to the U.S. aboard a military jet shortly before meeting the president. He was detained in October 2016, formally arrested that December and placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
"From a Turkish prison to the White House in 24 hours, that's not bad," Trump said.
Brunson's homecoming amounts to a diplomatic — and possibly political — win for Trump and his evangelical base. Coming on the heels of the confirmation of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court, Brunson's return is likely to leave evangelical Christians feeling good about the president and motivated get to the polls in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Brunson appeared to be in good health and good spirits. When he asked Trump if he could pray for him, the president replied, "Well, I need it probably more than anyone ese in this room, so that would be very nice, thank you."
Brunson left his chair beside Trump, kneeled and placed a hand on the president's shoulder. As Trump bowed his head, Brunson asked God to "give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for him. I ask that you give him wisdom in how to lead this country into righteousness."
He continued: "I ask that you give him perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. I ask that you make him a great blessing to this country. Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him. May he be a great blessing to our country. In Jesus' name, we bless you. Amen."
Brunson, originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, had lived in Turkey with his family for more than two decades and led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and to aid a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of engineering the failed coup. He faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges against him.
Administration officials cast Brunson's release as vindication of Trump's hard-nosed negotiating stance, saying Turkey tried to set terms for Brunson's release but that Trump was insistent on Brunson's release without conditions. Trump maintained there was no deal for Brunson's freedom, but the president dangled the prospect of better relations between the U.S. and its NATO ally.
"We do not pay ransom in this country," Trump said.
Where previous administrations kept negotiations over U.S. prisoners held abroad close to the vest, Trump has elevated them to causes célèbres, striking a tough line with allies and foes alike.
Trump thanked Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had resisted the demands of Trump and other high-level U.S. officials for Brunson's release. Erdogan had insisted that his country's courts are independent, though he previously had suggested a possible swap for Brunson.
The U.S. had repeatedly called for Brunson's release and, this year, sanctioned two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imports citing in part Brunson's plight.
Trump said the U.S. greatly appreciated Brunson's release and said the move "will lead to good, perhaps great, relations" between the U.S. and fellow NATO ally Turkey, and said the White House would "take a look" at the sanctions.
Trump asked Brunson and his family which candidate they voted for in 2016, saying he was confident they had gone for him. "I would like to say I sent in an absentee ballot from prison," Brunson quipped.
Evangelical voters overwhelmingly voted for the president despite discomfort with his personal shortcomings, in large part because he pledged to champion their causes, from defending persecuted Christians overseas to appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court. In the space of seven days, less than a month from the midterm elections, Trump delivered on both fronts.
Prominent evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins have championed Brunson's case, as has Vice President Mike Pence. First word of Brunson's arrival back on American soil Saturday came from Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Perkins tweeted just after noon that he had landed at a military base outside Washington with Brunson and his wife, Norine.
Erdogan said on Twitter that he hoped the two countries will continue to cooperate "as it befits two allies." Erdogan also called for joint efforts against terrorism, and he listed the Islamic State group, Kurdish militants and the network of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for a failed coup in 2016.
Relations between the countries have become severely strained over Brunson's detention and a host of other issues.
A Turkish court on Friday convicted Brunson of having links to terrorism and sentenced him to just over three years in prison, but released the 50-year-old evangelical pastor because he had already spent nearly two years in detention. An earlier charge of espionage was dropped.
Hours later, Brunson was flown out of Turkey, his home for more than two decades. He was taken to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for a medical checkup.
"I love Jesus. I love Turkey," an emotional Brunson, who had maintained his innocence, told the court at Friday's hearing.
Brunson's release could benefit Turkey by allowing the government to focus on an escalating diplomatic crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to The Washington Post who has been missing for more than a week and is feared dead after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was killed in the consulate; Saudi officials deny it.
Trump maintained the two cases were not linked, saying Brunson's release amid the Khashoggi investigation was "strict coincidence."
Turkey may also hope the U.S. will now lift the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports, a move that would inject confidence into an economy rattled by high inflation and foreign currency debt.
But Brunson's release doesn't resolve disagreements over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, as well as a plan by Turkey to buy Russian surface-to-air missiles. Turkey is also frustrated by the refusal of the U.S. to extradite Gulen.
Mexico Beach, Oct 14 (AP/UNB) — Search and rescue personnel are continuing to comb through the ruins of a small Florida Panhandle community destroyed by Hurricane Michael, which has left hundreds thousands without power and without easy access to supplies.
So far, one body has been found in Mexico Beach, but authorities say there is little doubt the death toll will rise.
Crews with dogs went door-to-door Saturday in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damaged structures in a second wave of searches following what they described as an initial, "hasty" search of the area. About 1,700 search and rescue personnel have checked 25,000 homes, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.
Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds (249 kph) and heavy storm surge. The tally of lives lost across the South stood at 15, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach, where about 1,000 people live.
"Everything is time consuming," said Capt. Ignatius Carroll, of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue task force. "You don't want to put a rush on a thorough rescue."
More roads were passable along the storm-ravaged coast as crews cleared downed trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and there were long lines at the few open gas stations.
About 4,000 members of Florida's national guard have been called up to deal with the storm, including 500 added on Saturday. Nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials have been sent into the Panhandle.
Schools will stay closed indefinitely, a hospital halted operations and sent 200 patients to hospitals elsewhere in Florida and in Alabama, and more than 253,000 customers in the Panhandle remain without power.
"Everybody just needs to help each other right now," Scott said after meeting with emergency responders in the Panama City area.
"You feel sorry for people," Scott said. "They might have lost their house. They worry about their kids getting into school. You know, people don't sit and have a whole bunch of extra money in the bank just waiting for a disaster."
Some residents were packing up and getting as far away as they could.
Jeff and Katrina Pearsey, with a ruined rental home in the Panama City area and no indication of when they could again earn a living, said they were heading to Bangor, Maine, where Katrina once worked as a nurse. Several trees came down on their property, including one that smashed through the roof.
"We're getting our stuff and we're going," said Jeff Pearsey, 48. "We're probably done with Panama City."
Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S. While most residents fled ahead of the storm's arrival, others stayed to face the hurricane. Some barely escaped with their lives as homes were pushed off their foundations and whole neighborhoods became submerged.
Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought of evacuating. His mobile home wasn't on the beach but when it suddenly began floating during the hurricane, he jumped out and swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.
"I lost everything," Morales said. "But I made it."
How many others were not so fortunate was still not clear. By one count, state officials said, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. It's unclear how many people stayed behind in nearby communities.
One who did, Albert Blackwell, was preparing on Saturday to cover holes in the roof of his apartment and take a chain saw to trees that fell and broke his windows just outside Panama City.
"I'm the idiot that rode it out here in this place," said Blackwell, 65, sweat dripping from his face. He doesn't plan to leave; he wants to protect his home from looters.
Emergency officials said they've received thousands of calls asking about missing people, but with cellphone service out across a wide area, they found it impossible to know who among those unaccounted for were safe but just unable to dial out to friends or family.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expected the death toll to rise. Searchers were trying to determine if the person found dead in Mexico Beach had been alone or was part of a family.
Authorities have set up distribution centers to dole out food and water to victims. They've also set up a triage tent to treat residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.
President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn't say what day he would arrive. On Saturday he approved federal disaster aid relief for four Alabama counties affected by the storm.
Trump spoke with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and "reiterated that the federal government is fully available," the White House said Saturday.
"We are with you!" he tweeted.
Nairobi, Oct 13 (AP/UNB) — A suicide bomber detonated in the middle of a restaurant in the Somali town of Baidoa and a grenade struck a hotel nearby, leaving at least 11 people dead and more than 10 wounded, authorities said Saturday.
The death toll may rise, Col. Ahmed Muse told The Associated Press. Most of the casualties were caused by the bomber who walked into the restaurant with explosives strapped around his waist, officials said.
At least 10 of the wounded were being treated at Baidoa's main hospital. Most had horrific injuries, nurse Mohamed Isaq told the AP.
Baidoa is a key economic center about 250 kilometers (155 miles) west of the capital, Mogadishu, and about the same distance east of the Ethiopian border.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group claimed responsibility for the blasts via its radio arm, Andalus. It said one blast targeted a hotel owned by a former Somali minister, Mohamed Aden Fargeti, one of several candidates running for the presidency of the region in November's election.
Al-Shabab, which controlled Baidoa between 2009 and 2012 before being driven out by Ethiopian-backed government forces, still holds parts of southern and central Somalia.
The blasts came a day before Somalia marks the first anniversary of the deadliest attack in its history, a truck bombing that killed more than 500 people in Mogadishu.
Attention in recent days has turned to Baidoa, the interim capital of South West state, as high-level al-Shabab defector Mukhtar Robow also seeks the regional presidency.
Robow is the highest-ranking official to have ever quit al-Shabab, surrendering to the Somali government last year after the United States cancelled a $5 million reward offered for his capture.
Somalia's government earlier this month said Robow was not eligible to run for the regional post because he is still under U.S. sanctions that were imposed against him in 2008 when he was identified as a "specially designated global terrorist."
Robow, who has yet to respond to the government's statement, has continued his campaign and remains registered on the list of candidates.
He is among several people challenging former Somali parliament speaker and incumbent regional president Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. Among the candidates is Somalia's former intelligence chief Hussein Osman, who has just resigned.
Kabul, Oct 13 (AP/UNB) — A motorcycle rigged with explosives detonated at an election rally in northeastern Afghanistan on Saturday killing at least 14 people, including civilians and security forces, officials said.
Khalil Aser, spokesman for the provincial police chief in Takhar province, said 32 others were wounded when the explosives-laden motorbike parked near the rally in Rustaq district exploded.
"There are a number of wounded people in critical condition," he said.
The attack took place at about noon before Nazefa Yusoufi Beg, a female candidate running for a seat in parliament in Oct. 20 elections, arrived at the rally, Aser said. It was not immediately clear if she was the target.
Jawad Hajri, spokesman for the provincial governor, said Rustaq is a remote district where insurgent attacks have not occurred in the past and the candidate's supporters had gathered for the rally confident they would be safe.
Adeb Hamra, a local resident, said in a telephone interview that the district government hospital has only four doctors and was overwhelmed with dead and wounded, most of them in critical condition.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Taliban insurgents are active in the province and have claimed pervious attacks there.
It was not the first attack on a political campaign.
On Tuesday, eight people including candidate Saleh Mohammad Achekzai, were killed when a suicide bomber struck Achekzai's home In Helmand province. He was holding a meeting at the time of the attack in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
On Oct. 2, just days after official campaigning began, a suicide bomber struck an election rally in eastern Nangarhar province, killing at least 14 people and wounding around 40.
Last week, Taliban insurgents issued a statement condemning the elections and warning candidates and Afghan Security Forces that they would be targets if they participate. The Taliban called the polls a U.S.-manipulated event to further their hold on the country.
There are 2,565 candidates vying for seats in the 249-member chamber, including 417 women candidates.
In the run-up to campaigning, five candidates have been killed in separate attacks. Officials from the country's Independent Election Commission said another two candidates have been abducted, with their fates unknown, and three others have been wounded in violence. Afghan security forces accidentally killed three bodyguards of an independent candidate during a raid on a house near his residence in the eastern Kunar province.
In a separate report from eastern Logar province Saturday, at least five civilians were killed when a bomb exploded during a wedding ceremony, said Shah Poor Ahmadzai, the provincial police chief's spokesman.
Ahmadzai said seven others were wounded in the attack late Friday, which took place in Mohammad Agha district.
Mohammad Naser Ghairat, a provincial council member in Logar, said the bomb was planted near the house where the wedding was taking place and targeted the participants of the wedding.
Ahmadzai said initial reports show both the groom and bride were not hurt. An investigation was begun to find out more and the death toll could rise, he said.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Taliban insurgents are active in the province.
Jakarta, Oct 13 (AP/UNB) — Torrential rains triggered flash floods and landslides on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, killing at least 27 people, mostly children at a school, officials said Saturday.
A flash flood with mud and debris from landslides struck Mandailing Natal district in North Sumatra province and smashed an Islamic school in Muara Saladi village, where 29 children were swept away on Friday afternoon, said local police chief Irsan Sinuhaji.
He said rescuers retrieved the bodies of 11 children from mud and rubble hours later.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency's spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said rescuers and villagers managed to rescue 17 other children and several teachers on Friday and pulled out the body of a child on Saturday near Aek Saladi river, close to the school.
A video obtained by The Associated Press showed relatives crying besides their loved ones at a health clinic where the bodies of the children were lying, covered with blankets.
Nugroho said two bodies were found early Saturday from a car washed away by floods in Mandailing Natal, where 17 houses collapsed and 12 were swept away. Hundreds of other homes were flooded up to 2 meters (7 feet) high, while landslides occurred in eight areas of the region.
Four villagers were killed after landslides hit 29 houses and flooded about 100 buildings in neighboring Sibolga district, Nugroho said.
He said flash floods also smashed several villages in West Sumatra province's Tanah Datar district, killing five people, including two children, and leaving another missing. Landslides and flooding in the neighboring districts of Padang Pariaman and West Pasaman killed four villagers after 500 houses flooded and three bridges collapsed.
Both North and West Sumatra provinces declared a weeklong emergency relief period as hundreds of terrified survivors fled their hillside homes to safer ground, fearing more of the mountainside would collapse under continuing rain, Nugroho said, adding that dozens of injured people were rushed to nearby hospitals and clinics.
Seasonal downpours cause frequent landslides and floods each year in Indonesia, a chain of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or near fertile flood plains.