US to boost Nigerian security as attacks continue

The US has agreed to boost the capabilities of Nigerian security forces, as gunmen opened fire and threw explosives at a police station in the city of Kano, residents said, four days after coordinated bombings and shootouts killed 185 people there.

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“It was around 6:30 (pm) when people were preparing for the evening prayers and a large group of gunmen arrived in the area and opened fire on the police station and threw in bombs,” said a resident of the Sheka area of the city.

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It was unclear if there were casualties in the Northern city.

Another resident said he could see fire coming from the building in the city still reeling from Friday’s attacks that targetted mainly police buildings.

Friday’s wave of attacks in Kano were the deadliest operation launched by Islamist sect Boko Haram since it began a bloody campaign in July 2009 which Human Rights Watch said Tuesday has left close to 1,000 people dead.

The US State Department urged Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer to “stand united” in the face of growing sectarian strife, while a visiting US delegation promised security assistance.

POLICE CRACKDOWN

Earlier gunfire erupted when security forces raided a house suspected to be a Boko Haram hideout shortly after midnight.

They opened fire and a suspect fired back resulting in a shootout lasting around four-and-half hours.

“Everybody in the neighbourhood was in fear. We couldn’t sleep,” said a resident.

Nine attackers, at least five of them suicide bombers, died in the Friday onslaught.

Human Rights Watch said “Boko Haram’s attacks show a complete and utter disregard for human life” and urged the authorities to put an end to the violent campaign.

According to the New York-based rights group, Boko Haram has killed more than 935 people since the group – whose name can be loosely translated as “Western education is sin” – launched a violent campaign in July 2009.

More than 250 of those deaths have come in 2012 alone.

US URGES UNITY

“This is a time for all Nigerians to stand united against the enemies of civility and peace,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

She also urged the Nigerian authorities to fully investigate the attacks, including those against Christians, and hold the perpetrators accountable.

A US delegation led by William Fitzgerald, the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Joseph McMillan, the principal deputy assistant secretary for defence, held security talks with Nigeria in the capital Abuja on Tuesday.

The two sides agreed to boost the operational capabilities of the Nigeria security services in the face of internal security threats. They would consider training, intelligence sharing and modernisation of the security services.

Boko Haram which has staged a series of increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks, often targeting security agencies and lately Christians, is believed to have a number of factions with differing aims, including some with political links and a hardcore Islamist cell.

A top African Union official warned of the possibility of the radical sect spreading its violence campaigns to other African countries.

“The possibility of this group expanding its activities into the neighbouring countries, deep into the Central African region should not be discarded,” said Francisco Caetano Jose Madeira said, who is in charge of counter-terrorism cooperation for the AU, said in Abuja.

Officials from Sahel states in a meeting also attended by Nigeria in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott vowed to help each other fight al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, amid growing speculation the two have ties.

Mali’s Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said there was a “confirmed link” between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Amnesty International urged Nigeria to do more to protect its citizens from Boko Haram attacks.

President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to beef up security as he grapples with the worst crises of his nine-month tenure – a surge in Boko Haram attacks and mounting social discontent.

A purported spokesman for Boko Haram said the attacks were in response to a refusal by the authorities to release arrested members of the group from custody.

Iran says false US plot claim aims to divide

Iran has angrily denied US accusations that it plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador, saying Washington was mounting an offensive to try to sow discord between Tehran and its Arab neighbours.

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Officials in Tehran called the allegations, made on Tuesday by the FBI and the US Justice Department, a “prefabricated scenario” and “stupid mischief” meant to divert attention from US woes at home and in the Middle East.

Washington’s accusation in turn drew one from Iran that Israel, with US support, was behind the killings of at least two of its nuclear scientists in the past two years.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a press advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told AFP late on Tuesday: “This is a prefabricated scenario to turn public attention away from domestic problems within the United States.”

He added that “the US government and the CIA have a lot of experience in diverting public attention from domestic problems in the United States.”

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter to UN leader Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council strongly condemning “this shameful allegation” which he said was “a well-thought evil plot” by Washington.

He also accused Israel, with US backing, of carrying out the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists.

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry called the US accusation “false” and “a ridiculous scenario that aims to create divisions by enemies of Islam and of the region.”

The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, said on Wednesday that the allegations were a “childish game” and “stupid mischief,” maybe meant to isolate Iran from its Arab neighbours.

The Americans “want to divert attention from the problems in the region,” he said, according to the Mehr news agency and other Iranian media.

“Maybe they are seeking to create an artificial crisis and problems among regional countries,” he said.

The US authorities said two Iranians — one also holding US citizenship — were part of a plot “conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran” and involving Iranian government factions, to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in a bomb attack.

US Attorney General Eric Holder said “the United States is committed to holding Iran accountable for its actions” in the alleged plot.

The United States and Iran have been foes for more than 30 years, ever since Islamic students took US diplomats hostage in their embassy in Tehran after Iran’s revolution.

The United States has already imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, on top of ones agreed by the United Nations, to pressure it to halt its nuclear energy programme that Washington fears is being used to build atomic weapons, despite Tehran’s repeated denial.

Saudi Arabia, the United States’ key ally in the Middle East along with Israel, has frosty ties with Iran, a fellow OPEC member which it sees as attempting to become a regional superpower.

Iran has criticised Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia this year for lending military forces to Bahrain to help the tiny Gulf kingdom’s Sunni regime put down pro-democracy protests by members of the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia early this month accused Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, of having a hand in clashes between Shiite protesters and security forces in its Eastern Province.

Egypt to withdraw envoy to Israel

Egypt has decided to withdraw its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of five policemen killed on the border during retaliatory attacks on Palestinian militants, state television said Saturday.

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“Egypt has decided to withdraw its ambassador to Israel until there is an official apology,” it said.

The Egyptian government had asked “for an official apology from Israel” at the end of a crisis meeting overnight, the state-run MENA news agency reported in a statement.

Information Minister Osama Heykal was quoted as saying by MENA that five policemen were killed “inside Egyptian territory as a result of an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and armed elements inside Israeli territory.”

It is the second time that Egypt, the first Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, recalls its ambassador from the Jewish state.

In November 2000 Egypt recalled its envoy from Israel to protest over what it said was “the excessive use of force by Israel against the Palestinians after the second intifada,” Palestinian uprising.

Egypt’s military chief of staff, Sami Enan, headed to the Sinai on Friday to probe the deaths of the policemen killed a day earlier.

There have been conflicting reports from the Egyptian military and police about how they lost their lives.

A military official told Egypt’s official MENA news agency on Thursday that they were killed by stray Israeli helicopter fire aimed at the fleeing gunmen.

But on Friday, the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper quoted a military official as saying the policemen were killed by gunmen trying to slip in from Israel.

Enan’s visit was announced shortly after another policeman was declared dead following a border gunfight on Friday, which left one of his comrades gravely wounded with a bullet in the head.

Earlier, Israeli security sources told AFP they had information that a man had blown himself up on the Egyptian side of the border, saying they believed he was one of the men on the run.

Friday night hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and denouncing the Jewish state for the attacks.

“Sinai, Sinai,” the crowds shouted in reference to the Sinai peninsula where the Egyptian policemen were killed and “Down with Israel. The people want the ambassador out and the Israeli flag down.”

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has said in a message published on his Facebook page: “Egyptian blood is too precious to be spilled for no reason.”

“Our glorious revolution took place so that Egyptians could regain their dignity at home and abroad. What was tolerated in pre-revolution Egypt will not be in post-revolution Egypt,” he said.

Norway killer’s actions ‘pure evil’

As Norwegian police prepared to question Anders Behring Breivik again today, the killer’s British ‘mentor’ denounced the Norwegian’s actions as ‘pure evil.

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Behring Breivik will be questioned again on Friday after new information emerged relating to his killing spree, as prosecutors warned he would not go on trial before 2012.

This will be the second time that police interrogate the far-right extremist since Saturday, the morning after his shooting rampage on Utoeya island and the bomb blast in downtown Oslo that killed 76 people altogether.

Police official Paal-Fredrik Hjort Kraby said officers will question Behring Breivik on “information received over the last few days — which is a lot,” although he did not elaborate.

European counter-terrorism experts met in Brussels to look at lessons that can be drawn from the attacks, and an Oslo gun club said Behring Breivik had been a member since 2005.

INDICTMENT WON’T BE READY THIS YEAR

But as the depth and complexity of the investigation spread, the country’s highest legal officer said it would take time to sift through the evidence.

“We hope that we can conduct the court trial in the course of next year,” the Norwegian king’s prosecutor general Tor Aksel Buschhe said, adding that Behring Breivik’s indictment “will not be ready before the end of the year.

The possibility that the killer had been working with other people was receding, officials said, despite an international intelligence probe.

The possibility “has become weaker over time,” police spokesman Henning Holtaas told AFP, although “we are checking all his communications.”

He would not confirm that Behring Breivik was carrying a walkie-talkie radio on Utoeya island, where he shot dead 68 mostly young people, but two witnesses have said he was.

“He was dressed like a policeman. He had all the equipment — the walkie-talkie, the arms, everything,” 15-year-old survivor Jo Granli Kallset told AFP.

Locals have speculated that the device may have been nothing but a prop in his policeman’s disguise.

Behring Breivik boasted before the attack in a 1,500-page manifesto that he was one of up to 80 “solo martyr cells” recruited across western Europe to topple governments tolerant of Islam.

Norway’s intelligence service has been liaising with counterparts in Europe and the United States but has found nothing to verify the gunman’s claims of active cells forming a terror “organisation”.

Norway’s intelligence services chief Janne Kristiansen told AFP the possibility the killer had acted as a “lone wolf” could make it more difficult for police to uncover his trail.

“He has done this very carefully and meticulously and so far he has succeeded in avoiding any radar, or radar of the secret services.”

‘STRONGER COUNTER-TERRORISM ACTION NEEDED’

European Union terrorism experts meeting in Brussels warned that the bloodbath in Norway, which they said was almost “impossible to prevent”, underlined the need for stronger European counter-terrorism action.

And in Poland, foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski asked the prosecution to pursue authors of hate speech, saying the Norway carnage clearly illustrated the dangers.

The events “show that the line between words and actions is sometimes very fine,” he said in a letter cited by the PAP news agency.

“One can clearly see that hate speech can lead directly to an unimaginable tragedy.”

Police are still searching the waters around Utoeya and the bombing site in downtown Oslo for missing persons, although they said Thursday that the land search on the island had ended.

Officials did not revise their tolls from the two attacks. Eight people died in an initial car bomb blast in central Oslo.

Norwegian police on Thursday released the identities of 24 more people, aged between 14 and 30, all but one of whom were killed on Utoeya island.

The list included one Georgian, and brought the total number of confirmed dead whose names have been made public to 41.

Survivor Emma Martinovic recounted in a blog that: “I heard the bastard laugh, I heard him shout ‘you won’t get away’.”

The 18-year-old continued: “All of a sudden, we saw everybody running, nobody said anything but everybody ran. I grabbed Aase (a friend) and told her: ‘run’, and everybody started shouting: ‘run! run!’.”

The teenager describes jumping in the water and swimming away from the island as friends were mowed down around her, before finally reaching a boat with other survivors on board.

Testimonials started emerging Thursday of a lost generation of future Norwegian political leaders brutally cut down.

These included Anders Kristiansen, an 18-year-old whose mother said he “dreamed of becoming prime minister since the age of five,” and whose shining talent was lauded by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere in the national press.

‘MENTOR’ SLAMS ATTACKS AS ‘PURE EVIL’

A British man cited by gunman Anders Behring Breivik as his “mentor” denounced the Norwegian’s actions as “pure evil” and “did not equate to anything I am involved in.”

Speaking to The Times newspaper, Paul Ray admitted he may have been the inspiration behind Behring Breivik’s massacre of 76 people, but said he had rejected the attacker’s Facebook friend request because he “didn’t like the look of him”.

Ray, 35, is the leader of a Knights Templar movement inspired by the actions of medieval crusaders against Islam and runs a “Richard the Lionhearted” blog which is believed to have underpinned Behring Breivik’s 1,500 page online manifesto.

“I am being implicated as his mentor,” said Ray, who left Britain for Malta in 2008 after he was arrested for allegedly inciting racial hatred on his blogsite.

“I definitely could have been his inspiration,” he conceded. “He has given me a platform and a profile but what he did was pure evil. I could never use what he has done to further my own beliefs.”

Behring Breivik posted pictures of himself dressed in the Knights Templar uniform and described a man similar to Ray as his “mentor” after he claimed to have met him at an event in 2008.

Ray is a former activist for the English Defence League (EDL), which campaigns against Islamic extremism in Britain.

The group denied in a statement late Sunday that it had any “official contact” with the 32-year-old mass murderer despite Behring Breivik’s claims that he had been in touch with them.

“We can categorically state that there has never been any official contact between him and the EDL, our Facebook page had 100,000 supporters and receives tens of thousands of comments each day,” it said in a statement.

“And there is no evidence that Breivik was ever one of those 100,000 supporters.”

It claimed the Norwegian had in fact talked about the EDL in a negative light, saying: “It couldn’t be made any clearer that Breivik did not like the way that EDL was a peaceful organisation.”

NATO bombs won’t get me: Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi said Friday he is in a place where NATO bombs cannot reach him, after his government spokesman denied suggestions that the Libyan leader was wounded and on the run.

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“I want to say to the Crusader cowards that I live in a place where I cannot be reached or killed; I live in the hearts of millions,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast on state television.

He referred to an early-Thursday strike on his Bab al-Aziziya compound that “led to the martyrdom of three civilians, journalists,” meaning the recording, the authenticity of which could not be verified, was made since then.

And he thanked heads of state who had asked about his health after the NATO air strike.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had said earlier that Gaddafi may be on the run and wounded.

Frattini’s remarks, based on a comments he said were made to him by Giovanni Martinelli, the Roman Catholic bishop of Tripoli, came as rebel leader Mahmud Jibril was headed for the White House to press for US recognition and aid.

Frattini had earlier told Corriere della Sera daily: “I am of the view that (Gaddafi) has probably fled from Tripoli but not from the country.”

But Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told journalists in the capital that “the leader is in very good health, high morale, high spirits,” and “he is in Tripoli.”

Frattini had also said international pressure was causing “the disintegration of the regime from the inside, which is what we wanted.”

He added that arms depots had been raided by rebels on the outskirts of Tripoli in the past few hours.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim told the news conference in Tripoli that a NATO air strike had killed 11 imams who had gathered in Brega, putting the number of wounded people at 50, including five in critical condition.

A spokesman in Brussels said the Western military alliance had no information on the veracity of the claim.

At the news conference, an imam identified as Nureddin al-Mijrah called for “Muslims all around the world” to kill 1,000 people for each of the dead imams, naming acceptable targets as “France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

With rebel forces claiming to be only 10 kilometres (six miles) from Zliten, their next main military target on the road to Tripoli, insurgent leader Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), was to hold talks with US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Jibril in Paris on Saturday to discuss the conflict and prospects for transition, the French presidency said.

Officials would not say whether President Barack Obama would drop by the Friday meeting, a practice sometimes used with guests for whom protocol does not dictate an official meeting.

The Libyan opposition, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, wants Washington to recognise the body as “the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people,” he said.

Unlike France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not recognised the NTC. Jibril told CNN he believed Jordan would also recognise the opposition in the coming days.

“All we need is for the world to understand our cause and help us get our legitimate rights realised,” he said.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney signalled that Washington was not ready to grant full status to the NTC.

“If the question is recognising the (NTC) as the official government of Libya, I think that’s premature,” he said.

Jibril warned earlier that the council was facing a “very acute financial problem” and needed help from the US administration.

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said regime assets frozen in the United States — some $30 billion (20 billion euros) — would be used to help the Libyan people.

Jibril’s visit comes as the Obama administration gradually steps up contacts with Gaddafi’s opposition to better understand the movement before deciding on the extent of US assistance.

In The Hague, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that on Monday he will seek arrest warrants for three people considered most responsible for crimes against humanity in Libya.

His office said it would reveal the three names, with diplomats saying Gaddafi is likely to top the list.

“The judges may decide to accept the application, to reject it or to ask the office for additional information,” a statement said.

Last week, Moreno-Ocampo said Gaddafi’s regime was murdering and persecuting civilians in widespread and systematic attacks.

He said he was also investigating the deaths of dozens of sub-Saharan Africans in the rebel bastion of Benghazi by an “angry mob” who believed they were mercenaries in Gaddafi’s pay.

In Geneva, the UN refugee agency said it feared that up to 1,200 people fleeing Libya had died in the Mediterranean Sea so far and that it had found evidence that a military vessel refused to rescue one boat.

“There are about 12,000 people who have arrived in Italy or Malta and we believe that as many as 1,200 people are dead or have gone missing,” said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A migrant told the UNHCR that unidentified military vessels off the Libyan coast refused or failed to pick up a boat carrying 72 people, most of whom subsequently died of exhaustion, thirst or starvation in late March or early April.

Meanwhile, NATO said its air offensive around key Libyan cities has significantly affected Gaddafi’s forces, halting the shelling of Misrata in the previous 24 hours.

“The situation on the ground remains dynamic with significant changes,” Wing Commander Mike Bracken said at NATO operational headquarters in Naples, Italy.

“Just in the past 72 hours, our strikes in Tripoli, around Sirte and the port town of Misrata have significantly impacted the command and control capability of the Gaddafi regime, his supplies of ammunition and weapons, and his ability to launch attacks,” Bracken said.