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.
Dhaka, Oct 12 (UNB) - Hurricane Michael left "unimaginable destruction" as it ploughed into coastal areas of Florida, the state's governor, Rick Scott says.
"So many lives have been changed forever," he said. "So many families have lost everything."
The worst hit areas of Florida's north-west coast saw houses ripped from their foundations, trees felled, and power lines strewn across streets, reports BBC.
Hurricane Michael struck on Wednesday with winds of 155mph (250km/h).
It weakened to a storm as it moved inland towards the north-east, but at least six people have died, most of them in Florida.
More than 370,000 people in Florida were ordered to evacuate but officials believe many ignored the warning.
Governor Scott said the US Coast Guard carried out 10 missions overnight, saving at least 27 people.
Which areas are worst affected?
Michael ploughed into Florida's Panhandle coast near the town of Mexico Beach at 14:00 (18:00 GMT) on Wednesday, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the US mainland.
Ranked four on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and with a storm surge of 9ft (2.7m), it lifted homes from their foundations and heavily damaged others in districts closest to the sea in Mexico Beach, CNN helicopter footage showed.
Twenty survivors were found in the town overnight, AP reports, but 285 had refused to obey warnings to evacuate.
Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, called Mexico Beach "ground zero" due to the damage.
Trees were downed in Panama City, northwest of Mexico Beach, buildings flattened, boats and electrical cables scattered.
Apalachicola, with 2,300 residents, was also badly affected, the mayor reporting that downed cables were making it difficult to get through the town.
Debris and floodwater are also making some of the worst-hit areas difficult to reach.
Governor Scott urged residents not to return until the authorities "make sure things are safe", given the danger from power lines and other debris.
Panama City, Oct 12 (AP/UNB) — The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and rescue crews struggling to enter stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have stayed behind.
At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years, and it wasn't done yet: Though reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Under a clear blue sky, families living along the Florida Panhandle emerged from shelters and hotels to a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.
Gov. Rick Scott said the Panhandle awoke to "unimaginable destruction."
"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything," he said.
The full extent of Michael's fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach with roads blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile (130-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route, was closed.
Video from a drone revealed some of the worst damage in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters).
Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were rendered piles of splintered lumber. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation.
State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.
National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews arrived Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.
"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" McPherson asked.
Linda Marquardt, 67, rode out the storm with her husband at their home in Mexico Beach. When the house filled with storm surge water, they fled upstairs. "All of my furniture was floating," she said. "''A river just started coming down the road. It was awful, and now there's just nothing left."
As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams spread out, the governor pleaded with people in the devastated areas to stay away because of hazards such as fallen trees and power lines.
"I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and begin the recovery process," Scott said. But "we have to make sure things are safe."
More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.
The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane's landfall, mostly from coastal homes. Nine people had to be rescued by helicopter from a bathroom of a home in hard-hit Panama City after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.
In Panama City, most homes were still standing, but no property was left undamaged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Roofs had been peeled off. Aluminum siding was shredded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hundreds of cars had broken windows. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off about 20 feet (7 meters) high.
In neighboring Panama City Beach, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford reported widespread looting of homes and businesses. He imposed a curfew and asked for 50 members of the National Guard for protection.
The hurricane also damaged hospitals and nursing homes in the Panama City area, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients. The damage at Bay Medical Sacred Heart included blown-out windows and a cracked exterior wall though no patients were hurt.
The state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, which has a section for the criminally insane, was cut off by land, and food and supplies were being flown in, authorities said. All phone communicaiton was cut off to the complex of nearly 1,000 residents and more than 300 staff, leaving emergency radios as their only link out.
A man outside Tallahassee, Florida, was killed by a falling tree, and an 11-year-old girl in Georgia died when the winds picked up a carport and dropped it on her home. One of the carport's legs punctured the roof and hit her in the head. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car.
As the storm charged north, it spun off possible tornadoes and downed power lines and trees in Georgia. Forecasters said it could drop up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea in coming hours. Street flooding was reported in Roanoke and other southwestern Virginia cities that reported motorists caught in flooding had to be rescued.
In North Carolina's mountains, drivers also had to be plucked from cars in high water. Michael's winds also toppled trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and flash flooding also was reported in North Carolina's two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh.
Forecasters said Michael was still a potent tropical storm Thursday evening, centered about 5 miles (8 kilometers) northwest of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and packing top sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph). It was racing to the northeast at 24 mph (39 kph) amid warnings it could spread damaging winds and more flash flooding in the region before moving offshore.
Cincinnati, Oct 12 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is returning to Ohio to try to boost GOP candidates in a Republican-dominated area.
Trump will headline a Friday evening rally at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Lebanon, northeast of Cincinnati. The county is a GOP stronghold, and Trump won two out of every three votes there in 2016 as he decisively carried Ohio.
The Warren County Sheriff's Office is warning drivers to expect heavy traffic and road closures in the city of 21,000. The Lebanon High School football team moved up its game against Miamisburg High to Thursday night to ease congestion.
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Cincinnati Republican whose district encompasses Warren County, is in a hotly contested race with Democrat Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County clerk of courts.
Trump's pick for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, Rep. Jim Renacci, is in an uphill battle to unseat two-term U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine and Democratic former federal consumer watchdog Richard Cordray are in a tight race to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. John Kasich (KAY'-sik), a frequent Trump critic who unsuccessfully challenged him for the 2016 presidential nomination.
Former President Barack Obama campaigned for Democratic candidates last month in Cleveland. Obama carried Ohio twice.
Trump was the keynote speaker for a state Republican Party fundraising dinner in Columbus in August, after campaigning earlier in the month for state Sen. Troy Balderson, who narrowly won a special election over Franklin County official Danny O'Connor for Ohio's open 12th Congressional District. The two have a November rematch for a full term.