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Thursday, 26 September 2013 00:35

Somalis still leaving Minn. to join terror group

   MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Leaders of the nation's largest Somali community say some of their young men are still being enticed to join the terror group that has claimed responsibility for the deadly mall attack in Kenya, despite a concentrated effort to shut off what authorities call a "deadly pipeline" of men and money.

   Six years have passed since Somali-American fighters began leaving Minnesota to become part of al-Shabab. Now the Somali community is dismayed over reports that a few of its own might have been involved in the violence at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

   "One thing I know is the fear is growing," said Abdirizak Bihi, whose nephew was among at least six men from Minnesota who have died in Somalia. More are presumed dead.

   Since 2007, at least 22 young men have left Minnesota to join al-Shabab, including two who did so last summer. Unconfirmed reports that two more left earlier this month have deepened concerns.

   Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tuesday that initial reports had suggested a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack. But neither Kenyan authorities nor the Minneapolis FBI office had any confirmation.

   Minnesota's Somali community, concentrated in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, includes people who fled the long civil war in their east African homeland and children born in the U.S. Many are now American citizens.

   The movement of Somalis who've come to be known as "travelers" remains "a priority investigation for the Minneapolis office," FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven said.

   At least 18 men and three women have been charged in the ongoing Minnesota investigation. Some went to Somalia while others were accused of aiding the effort mainly by raising money.

   Seven men pleaded guilty to various charges. One man was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year. Two women were convicted in 2011 of being fundraisers for al-Shabab. A third woman pleaded guilty last month to lying to a grand jury. The other defendants remain at large, or are confirmed or presumed dead.

   Al-Shabab means "The Youth" in Arabic. The group uses a mixture of religion, nationalism and deception to lure young people, said Omar Jamal, a longtime local activist who now serves as the first secretary for the Somali mission to the United Nations.

   "They misinform people, and they target young, impressionable kids," Jamal said. "They literally brainwash them. It's a very dangerous cult."

   Al-Shabab's local recruitment efforts began in 2007 when small groups began discussing returning home to fight Ethiopian troops who entered Somalia to prop up a weak U.N.-backed government and were seen by many Somalis as foreign invaders. The recruiters aimed their appeal at the young men's patriotic and religious ideals.

   Ethiopian troops pulled out of Somalia in 2009, but al-Shabab kept up its fight for power. According to Valentina Soria, a security analyst with London-based IHS Jane's, al-Shabab has increasingly focused in the past three years on the recruitment of western nationals and members of the Somali diaspora in the U.S. and Europe to offset its declining domestic support.

   Anders Folk was an assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis for several years of the recruiting investigation before leaving for private practice. Al-Shabab's recruiting was at least as effective after the Ethiopians left as before, he said.

   "Al Shabab's recruiting technique was essentially a call to jihad, that this is a religious duty," Folk said. "It was a call to jihad to come and fight."

   Internet videos are a major tool for the group. Many feature scenes of men with covered faces firing automatic weapons, marching or practicing martial arts, as well as images of dead bodies and religious documents. Some show English-speaking suicide bombers reciting last wills.

   The group often appeals young men who've had trouble assimilating into American life, perhaps because they are unable to get a job, dropped out of school or got involved in gangs, Jamal said.

   He cited a recently released al-Shabab propaganda video that lauded three "Minnesotan martyrs," including the American-born non-Somali Troy Kastigar, a convert to Islam.

   Smiling and laughing in the footage, Kastigar called his battle experiences "the real Disneyland" and urged other Muslims to come and "take pleasure in this fun." He was killed in 2009 in Mogadishu, according to the video.

   The recruiters masquerade "as people who are there for you at your lowest point," said Abdul Mohamed, a spokesman for Ka Joog, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit whose name means "stay away," which works to provide positive alternatives for Somali youth through education, the arts and mentorship.

   "Instead of shying away from this issue and letting it separate us, it's best if we take it on headstrong and steadfast so in the future we can prevent it from happening," Mohamed said. "At the end of the day, these kids are full of potential."

   ___

   Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report from New York.

Published in National News
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 04:16

Militant group: hostages alive in Kenya mall

   NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The militant group that attacked a Nairobi mall and killed at least 60 people says it is still holding hostages alive inside and that its fighters are "still holding their ground."

   The Twitter messages posted Tuesday by the al-Qaida-linked rebel group al-Shabab came after Kenyan government assurances of success in the fourth-day of the standoff.

   Al-Shabab says the hostages "are still alive, looking quite disconcerted but, nevertheless, alive."

   A security expert with contacts inside said Monday night there were at least 30 hostages when the assault began Saturday and at least 10 were believed to be still inside the upscale mall. Officials did not give a figure, saying only that "most" hostages had been released.

   Sporadic gunfire could be heard from the building Tuesday as government forces pressed on inside.

Published in National News
Monday, 23 September 2013 05:11

Kenya mall crisis: Fate of hostages not clear

   NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A Kenyan military spokesman Monday said that the fate of hostages inside a mall besieged by al-Qaida-linked terrorists was not clear despite earlier statements that "most" hostages had been rescued.

   Military helicopters circled over the mall at daybreak, when about five minutes of sustained gunfire broke out at the mall, a clear indication that at least one of the estimated 10 to 15 gunmen who attacked the mall when it was filled with shoppers Saturday was still on the loose.

   A large military assault began on the mall shortly before sundown on Sunday, with one helicopter skimming very close to the roof of the shopping complex as a loud explosion rang out, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley. Officials said the siege would soon end and said "most" hostages had been rescued and that officials controlled "most" of the mall.

   But officials never said how many hostages had been rescued, and Kenya's military spokesman on Monday was still not able to provide clear details.

   "We are yet to get confirmation from what's happening in the building," Col. Cyrus Oguna, a Kenyan military spokesman, told The Associated Press.

   Late on Sunday, Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said on Twitter that "this will end tonight. Our forces will prevail."

   Late on Sunday, Oguna said that many of the rescued hostages — whom he said were mostly adults — were suffering from dehydration. An Associated Press reporter at a triage center next to the mall said no hostages ever showed up there.

   As the crisis neared the 48-hour mark, video taken by someone inside the mall's main department store when the assault began emerged. The video showed frightened and unsure shoppers crouching as long and loud volleys of gunfire could be heard.

   The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall Saturday from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians.

   Loud exchanges of gunfire rang out from inside the four-story mall throughout Sunday. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket-propelled grenades. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and warned that the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.

   Kenyan authorities said they would do their utmost to save hostages' lives, but no officials could say precisely how many people were being held captive. Kenya's Red Cross said in a statement, citing police, that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could give an indication of the number of people held captive.

   Kenya's Red Cross said the death toll rose to 68 after nine bodies were recovered Sunday. More than 175 people were injured, including many children, Kenyan officials said.

   Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack that specifically targeted non-Muslims, saying it was in retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.

   U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called "an enormous offense against everybody's sense of right and wrong," and called the attackers "ruthless and completely reckless terrorists."

   Kerry, who was in New York for meetings at the United Nations, spoke Sunday with Somalia's foreign minister and U.N. ambassador.

   State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said U.S. law enforcement, military and civilian personnel in Nairobi were providing advice and assistance to the Kenyan authorities. She said five Americans were among the scores of people injured in the attack, but the U.S. had no reports of any American deaths.

   Earlier in the day, al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed — after its previous one was shut down Saturday — that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives.

   "We'll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest," al-Shabab said in a tweet.

   Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew and the nephew's fiancee in the attack, reiterated his government's determination to continue fighting al-Shabab.

   "We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world," said Kenyatta. "We shall not relent on the war on terror."

   Although this violent attack had succeeded, the Kenyan leader said, the country's security forces had "neutralized" many others.

   Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters that "quite a number" of people were being held hostage in two areas of the sprawling complex, which includes stores for such retail giants as Nike, Adidas and Bose. Many hostages were believed to be in a grocery and general department store called Nakumatt.

   Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages but implied that some of those being held could be killed.

   "The priority is to save as many lives as possible," said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack inside the mall on Saturday.

   "We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation," Lenku said, adding that Kenyan forces controlled the mall's security cameras.

   Westgate Mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.

   In Israel, a senior defense official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a classified military issue, would not elaborate.

   Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. In recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaida and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.

   Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.

   Britain's prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to "prepare ourselves for further bad news."

   Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being wounded in the attack, Ghana's presidential office confirmed. Ghana's ministry of information said Awoonor's son was injured and is responding to treatment.

   Kenya's presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds.

   Britain's Foreign Office said that Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired a meeting of Britain's crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team from London to Nairobi to provide extra consular support.

   The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and "expressed their solidarity with the people and government of Kenya" in a statement.

   There was some good news on Sunday, as Kenyan media reported that several people in hiding in the mall escaped to safety in the morning, suggesting that not everyone who was inside overnight was being held by al-Shabab.

   Police lobbed multiple rounds of tear gas throughout the day to disperse hundreds of curious Kenyans who gathered near the mall.

___

   Associated Press reporters Jacob Kushner in Nairobi, Kenya; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Louise Watt in Beijing; and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

Published in National News
Sunday, 22 September 2013 08:32

Kenya deputy president seeks trial adjournment

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Lawyers for Kenya's deputy president sought an urgent adjournment Sunday in his trial at the International Criminal Court so he can return home to help deal with the fallout from the deadly shopping mall attack in Nairobi.

The motion underscores the difficulties for Deputy President William Ruto in attending the trial in The Hague while trying to help run his country.

Ruto's lead attorney, Karim Khan, said the court is expected to debate his request early Monday morning.

"Mr. Ruto, as the serving deputy president of Kenya, is required to return to Kenya to discharge his ordinary constitutional duties which include participating in security briefings and consultations and involvement in other ongoing and very sensitive national security investigations," Khan's motion said.

Ruto, whose trial started earlier this month in The Hague, has pleaded not guilty to charges of orchestrating violence in the aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections. He is the first such high-ranking elected government leader to go on trial at the International Criminal Court.

Saturday's mall attack by Islamic extremists left dozens of people dead and Kenyan troops in in standoff with the assailants. Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into Somalia and threatened more attacks.

Before Ruto's trial started, judges had agreed to a defense request to allow the deputy president to remain in Kenya for parts of his case. However prosecutors appealed the decision, and Ruto is currently obliged to attend all sittings in The Hague until there is a ruling on that appeal.

Khan said the situation unfolding in Nairobi "shows the wisdom of the trial chamber's original decision and how regrettable it was the prosecution took such a rigid view" of the necessity for Ruto to attend all hearings.

"There are 40 million people in Kenya, and they have a constitutional right to have the people they want govern over them," Khan said.

The situation could become further exacerbated later this year when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is due to go on trial for his alleged role in 2007-2008 postelection violence that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Published in National News

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