Washington, Mar 21 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday the last pocket of the Islamic State's land in Syria will be liberated by U.S.-backed forces "by tonight."
Trump has previously announced the defeat of the group, but sleeper cells of fighters have re-emerged. With no signs of fighting Wednesday, however, the long-running battle to retake the militants' last outpost in eastern Syria appeared to have reached its conclusion.
"The caliphate is gone as of tonight," Trump said in a speech at a factory in Lima, Ohio, where military tanks are assembled.
The complete fall of Baghouz would mark the end of the Islamic State group's self-declared caliphate, which at its height stretched across large parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling territory gave it room to launch attacks around the world.
During his speech, Trump held up two maps of Syria — one covered in red representing territory held by the militant group when he was elected president in November 2016 and the other that had only a speck of red.
"When I took over, it was a mess. They were all over the place — all over Syria and Iraq," said Trump, who has said the U.S. will keep 400 troops in Syria indefinitely.
For the past four years, U.S.-led forces have waged a destructive campaign against the group. But even after Baghouz's fall, IS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten a continuing insurgency.
The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their notorious propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse. The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks and the encampment had proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.
The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of IS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise.
Ciyager Amed, an official with the Kurdish-led SDF, said they were searching for any IS militants hiding in tunnels in a riverside pocket in the village of Baghouz. The SDF has not yet announced a victory over IS.
Associated Press journalists saw SDF soldiers loading women and children into trailer trucks on the hilltop over Baghouz — a sign that evacuations were still underway Wednesday. Black smoke was rising from the village.
On Tuesday, the SDF seized control of the encampment held by IS after hundreds of militants surrendered overnight, signaling the group's collapse after months of stiff resistance.
Guatemala City, Mar 20 (AP/UNB) — A Guatemalan court said Tuesday that an arrest warrant has been issued for a former Guatemalan prosecutor who is running for president.
But because Thelma Aldana was formally registered Tuesday by the election board as a candidate in the June elections, under Guatemalan law she has immunity from prosecution.
Aldana was nominated by the Seed Movement party and is running second in polls.
A spokeswoman for Guatemala's Supreme Court said the warrant against Aldana is related to a corruption investigation. The warrant was issued Monday alleging a form of embezzlement, but authorities have not provided specific details of the charges.
Aldana, 63, was Guatemala's top prosecutor from 2014 to 2018. During that time, she jailed then-President Otto Perez Molina and most of his Cabinet on corruption charges. Perez Molina resigned in 2015.
Caracas, Mar 20 (AP/UNB) — U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the United States could impose harsher sanctions on Venezuela in its campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
Recent power outages across Venezuela show that "something terrible is going on down there" and "we need to put an end" to the current dire situation, Trump said at a joint news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the White House.
Both Brazil and the United States have voiced support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has been recognized as the country's legitimate leader by about 50 countries. In a bid to force a change of leadership, the United States has imposed oil sanctions on Venezuela as well as sanctions on individuals associated with the government of Maduro, who charges that he is the target of a U.S. coup plot.
The U.S. could impose "a lot tougher" sanctions on Venezuela if needed, Trump said, and he also repeated that "all options are open" when dealing with the crisis in Venezuela. He added that the United States is "not looking for anything other than taking care of a lot of people."
U.S. officials say they are focused on putting diplomatic and financial pressure on Maduro's government, which says Trump is preparing for military intervention in a country struggling with hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods. In recent years, more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled a country that was once one of Latin America's wealthiest nations because of its vast oil reserves.
The U.S. and Guaido attributed recent nationwide blackouts on alleged graft and mismanagement under Maduro, who blamed what he said was U.S.-directed sabotage.
On Tuesday, the U.S. added a Venezuelan state-owned mining company to a growing sanctions list as it seeks to increase pressure on Maduro. The move bars any U.S. citizen or entity from any financial transactions with the Minerven gold mining company and its president, Adrian Antonio Perdomo Mata. The company is helping prop up Maduro, the U.S. Treasury Department said.
The Treasury Department also lifted sanctions on the wives of two Venezuelan TV magnates close to Maduro two months after their U.S. assets were frozen as part of a crackdown on corruption.
Maria Alexandra Perdomo and her husband, Raul Gorrin, were among seven individuals sanctioned in January for allegedly running a graft network that stole $2.4 billion from state coffers through corrupt currency deals.
Her removal from the blacklist Tuesday, along with the wife of Gorrin's brother-in-law and business partner, Raul Perdomo, suggests the two women may be cooperating with U.S. authorities trying to untangle the web of corruption that proliferated during two decades of socialist rule in Venezuela. Prosecutors in Miami indicted Gorrin last year on charges of bribing Venezuelan officials.
In Rome, officials from the U.S. and Russia remained split on how to resolve the crisis in Venezuela after talks there. Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration's special envoy to Venezuela, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
"We did not come to a meeting of the minds, but the talks were positive in the sense that I think both sides emerged with a better understanding of the other's views," Abrams told reporters.
Russia backs Maduro and has accused Washington of meddling in Venezuela's affairs by pressing him to step down and hand over power to Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled congress who wants to hold elections.
Speaking to Russian media, Ryabkov emphasized the need for dialogue with the U.S. but warned Washington against any military intervention.
"We have warned the U.S. against that reckless approach," Ryabkov said in remarks that were carried by the state Tass and RIA Novosti news agencies.
Washington, Mar 19 (AP/UNB) — Boeing's CEO says the aircraft manufacturer is taking actions to ensure the safety of its 737 Max jets in the wake of two crashes that killed 346 people.
In an open letter addressed to airlines, passengers and the aviation community, Dennis Muilenburg says Boeing will soon release a software update and offer related pilot training for the 737 Max to "address concerns" that arose in the aftermath of October's Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea, killing 189. The planes' new flight-control software is suspected of playing a role in the crashes.
Muilenburg says Boeing representatives are supporting the investigation into the cause of last week's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 that killed 157.
The United States and many other countries have grounded the Max 8s and larger Max 9s as Boeing faces the challenge of proving the jets are safe to fly amid suspicions that faulty sensors and software contributed to the two crashes in less than five months.
U.S. prosecutors are looking into the development of Boeing's 737 Max jets, a person briefed on the matter revealed Monday, the same day French aviation investigators concluded there were "clear similarities" in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 last week and a Lion Air jet in October.
The Justice Department probe will examine the way Boeing was regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the inquiry is not public.
A federal grand jury in Washington sent a subpoena to someone involved in the plane's development seeking emails, messages and other communications, the person told The Associated Press.
New Zealand, Mar 17 (AP/UNB) — Anguished relatives were anxiously waiting Sunday for authorities to release the remains of those who were killed in massacres at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, while authorities announced the death toll from the racist attacks had risen to 50.
Islamic law calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours. But two days after the worst terrorist attack in the country's modern history, relatives remained unsure when they would be able to bury their loved ones.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police were working with pathologists and coroners to release the bodies as soon as they could.
"We have to be absolutely clear on the cause of death and confirm their identity before that can happen," he said. "But we are so aware of the cultural and religious needs. So we are doing that as quickly and as sensitively as possible."
Police said they had released a preliminary list of the victims to families, which has helped give closure to some relatives who were waiting for any news.
The scale of the tragedy and the task still ahead became clear as supporters arrived from across the country to help with the burial rituals in Christchurch and authorities sent in backhoes to dig new graves in a Muslim burial area that was newly fenced off and blocked from view with white netting.
The suspect in the shootings, 28-year-old white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, appeared in court Saturday amid strict security, shackled and wearing all-white prison garb, and showed no emotion when the judge read him one murder charge and said more would likely follow.
Bush said at a news conference Sunday that they found another body at Al Noor mosque as they finished removing the victims, bringing the number of people killed there to 42. Another seven people were killed at Linwood mosque and one more person died later at Christchurch Hospital.
Another 34 victims remained at Christchurch Hospital, where officials said 12 were in critical condition. And a young child who was in a children's hospital in Auckland was also listed as critical.
Dozens of Muslim supporters gathered at a center set up for victims, families and friends across the road from the hospital, where many had flown in from around New Zealand to offer support. About two dozen men received instructions on their duties Sunday morning, which included Muslim burial customs.
Abdul Hakim, 56, of Auckland, was among many who had flown in to help.
"As soon as people die we must bury them as soon as possible," Hakim said. "We are all here to help them in washing the body, putting them in the grave."
Javed Dadabhai, who flew from Auckland after learning about the death of his 35-year-old cousin Junaid Mortara, said the Muslim community was being patient.
"The family understands that it's a crime scene. It's going to be a criminal charge against the guy who's done this, so they need to be pretty thorough," he said.
Still, it was hard, he said, because the grieving process wouldn't really begin until he could bury his cousin.
People across New Zealand were still trying to come to terms with the massacre that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as "one of New Zealand's darkest days."
A steady stream of mourners arrived at a makeshift memorial outside the Al Noor mosque, where hundreds of flowers lay piled amid candles, balloons and notes of grief and love. As a light rain fell, people clutched each other and wept quietly.
Under a nearby tree, someone had left a potted plant adorned with cut out red paper hearts. "We wish we knew your name to write upon your heart. We wish we knew your favorite song, what makes you smile, what makes you cry. We made a heart for you. 50 hearts for 50 lives."
Tarrant, the suspect, had posted a jumbled 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto online before the attacks and apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live video of the slaughter.
The gunman livestreamed 17 minutes of the rampage at the Al Noor mosque, where he sprayed worshippers with bullets. Facebook, Twitter and Google scrambled to take down the video, which was widely available on social media for hours after the bloodbath.
The second attack took place at the Linwood mosque about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.
Ardern said Tarrant was a licensed gun owner who bought the five guns used in the crimes legally.
"I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change," Ardern said.
She did not offer too much detail, but said a ban on semi-automatic weapons would be looked at. Neighboring Australia has virtually banned semi-automatic rifles from private ownership since a lone gunman killed 35 people with assault rifles in 1996.
Before Friday's attack, New Zealand's deadliest shooting in modern history took place in 1990 in the small town of Aramoana, where a gunman killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.