Ukraine warns Russia after gunmen seize Crimea parliament


Armed men seized the parliament in Ukraine's Crimea region on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev's new rulers, who warned Moscow not move troops beyond the confines of its navy base on the peninsula.

Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kiev since President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted at the weekend and provides a base for Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Its regional parliament, meeting in another part of the building that was apparently still occupied by the gunmen, voted to stage a referendum on “sovereignty” for Crimea.

“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine's acting president, who warned Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval base.

“Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as military aggression,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert.

Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its rhetoric since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the runup to its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its troops to protect two self-declared independent regions and then recognized them as independent states.

Ukraine's leaders say they fear separatism in the Crimea.

In Washington, the White House warned Russia to avoid “provocative” acts. “We strongly support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. We expect other nations to do the same,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged Moscow to work with the United States and its European allies to help stabilize Ukraine.

“We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid any kind of provocations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry summoned Russia's acting ambassador in Kiev for consultations.

The face-off between Moscow and the West has revived memories of the Cold War. Ukraine has been in crisis since November, when Yanukovich abandoned a proposed trade pact with the EU and turned instead towards Russia. It escalated last week when scores of demonstrators were killed, many by police sharpshooters on rooftops, and Yanukovich was toppled.

The fresh turmoil in Crimea sent the Ukrainian hryvnia tumbling to a new record low of 11 to the dollar on the Reuters dealing platform. Ukraine's new central bank governor has abandoned a policy of propping up the currency which was rapidly draining its foreign reserves.

Yanukovich's overthrow will undoubtedly cost Kiev a $15 billion Russian bailout offered to Yanukovich as a prize by Moscow for spurning the EU trade pact. Ukraine urgently needs other sources of funding to stave off bankruptcy. The International Monetary Fund said it would send a team to Kiev in the coming days. [ID:nL1N0LW1KD]

New finance minister Oleksander Shlapak said he hoped the IMF would work on an aid package of at least $15 billion. Ukraine says it needs $35 billion over the next two years.

The minister also said he expected the hryvnia to strengthen soon at around 10 to the dollar.

GUNMEN

No one was hurt when government buildings were seized in Crimea's regional capital Simferopol in the early hours by Russian-speaking gunmen in uniforms without insignia.

“We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol … we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window,” Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.

“I asked them what they wanted, and they said 'To make our own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do'.”

Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.

The regional prime minister said he had spoken to the people inside the building by telephone, but they had not made any demands or said why they were there. They had promised to call him back but had not done so, he said.

With the occupation apparently still under way, the regional parliament met in another part of the building and voted to hold referendum on May 25, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new president to replace Yanukovich. The referendum, if passed, would declare Crimea sovereign, with its relationship to the rest of Ukraine governed by treaty.

About 100 police gathered in front of the parliament, and a similar number of people carrying Russian flags later marched up to the building chanting “Russia, Russia” and holding a sign calling for a referendum on Crimea's status.

About 50 pro-Russia supporters from Sevastopol, where part of Russia's Black Sea navy is based, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder facing police. Gennady Basov, their leader, said: “We need to organize ourselves like this to maintain order while this illegal and unconstitutional government operates in Kiev.”

The crowd cheered at news that parliament had voted for the referendum.

However, elsewhere there was some anger at the invasion of the regional parliament and the flying of the Russian flag.

Alexander Vostruyev, 60, in a leather cap and white beard, said: “It's disgrace that the flag if a foreign country is flying on our parliament … It's like a man coming home to find his wife in bed with another man.”

By nightfall, the Russian flag still flew over the building, although crowd in front began to dwindle.

WESTERN CONCERN

The fear of military escalation prompted expressions of concern from the West, with NATO urging Russia not to do anything that would “escalate tension”, although the alliance said neither it nor the United States had drawn up plans for how they would respond if Russia did intervene militarily.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the seizure of government buildings in Crimea a “very dangerous game”.

Russia has a history of using its military power to protect allies who declare self rule in parts of other ex-Soviet states, notably in Georgia and also tiny Moldova. Members of Crimea's Russian majority have periodically agitated for independence at times of tension between Kiev and Moscow.

Still, any move by Moscow to assist Crimeans in breaking away from Ukraine – a nation of 46 million people on the ramparts of central Europe – would be a more direct challenge to the West than any Russian act since the Cold War.

Germany would do everything to support the new Ukrainian government, Chancellor Angela Merkel said in London after talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Russia must respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Ukraine's new rulers pressed ahead with efforts to restore stability to the divided country, approving formation of a national coalition government with former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as its proposed head.

Yatseniuk told parliament that Yanukovich had driven the country to the brink of collapse. He accused the deposed president of stripping state coffers bare and said $70 billion had disappeared into offshore accounts.

“The state treasury has been robbed and is empty,” he said.

Yanukovich issued a statement on Thursday declaring he was still president of Ukraine and warning its “illegitimate” rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.

Russian news agencies said he planned to hold a news conference on Friday (1300 GMT) in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff

TSA agent killed, 6 hurt in Los Angeles airport shooting


A gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in a terminal of Los Angeles International airport on Friday, killing a Transportation Security Agent and injuring at least six other people before he was shot and captured, authorities said.

The incident prompted scenes of chaos at the airport, which halted departing flights and evacuated the terminal. Streets surrounding the airport were also shut down.

“An individual came into Terminal 3 of this airport, pulled an assault rifle out of a bag and began to open fire in the terminal,” Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police said at a press conference.

A U.S. Transportation Security Administration spokesperson said on Twitter that one of its agents had been killed in the shooting and another was wounded. The tweet was later deleted.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Coroner said it was handling one person who was killed in the shooting – a male, approximately 40 years old.

Earlier, the Los Angeles Times and ABC News reported that a TSA agent had been killed, citing law enforcement sources.

A Los Angeles fire department spokesman said seven people were hurt and that six of them were taken to area hospitals.

Los Angeles police spokeswoman Officer Norma Eisenman said a suspect had been taken into custody and was believed to be the only person involved in the shooting.

Three male victims hurt in the incident were taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where one was listed in critical condition and two others in fair condition, said Mark Wheeler, a spokesman for the hospital.

'PEOPLE STARTED RUNNING'

The condition of the other victims or the gunman was not immediately clear.

Passenger Robert Perez told a local CBS affiliate that airport security agents had come through the terminal shouting that a man had a gun.

“I heard popping and everybody dropped to the ground,” Perez said.

Alex Neumann told cable network CNN that he was in an area inside the airport past a security checkpoint when he heard loud noises and screaming and saw people running in a scene that amounted to mayhem.

“We were at the food court and all of a sudden I hear a big commotion and people started running. People were running and people getting knocked down,” Neumann said, adding that he heard screams. “Mayhem is the best way of describing it.”

Television images showed at least one person being loaded into one of several ambulances at the scene, and passengers were seen being evacuated from the area.

Footage showed emergency responders setting up what appeared to be a triage area outside an airport terminal.

“The general public is being held back… Other than arriving flights, flight operations have been temporary held,” airport spokeswoman Katherine Alvarado said in an emailed statement.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the incident and White House officials are in touch with law enforcement officials on the ground, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Israel convicts six Arab citizens in Jewish gunman’s killing


An Israeli court convicted six Arab citizens on Monday in connection with the mob killing in 2005 of a Jewish gunman after he went on a lethal shooting rampage on a bus in their town.

While none of the men was found guilty of directly causing the death of Eden Nathan-Zaada, a 19-year-old army deserter and far-right West Bank settler, some members of Israel's Arab minority deplored the verdict as a sign of discrimination.

Wearing a military uniform and Jewish skullcap, Nathan-Zaada opened fire aboard a bus in the northern town of Shfaram, killing four Arabs. Twenty-two people, all but seven of them Arabs, were wounded.

Enraged residents of the largely Arab populated town killed Nathan-Zaada at the scene, as police tried to intervene. Security officials said later the gunman had apparently hoped to trigger sectarian violence to try and derail Israel's Gaza Strip withdrawal, which went ahead weeks later.

Haifa District Court convicted four Shfaram men of attempted manslaughter, two others of serious aggravated assault and a seventh of assault and obstruction of a police officer.

Defense lawyer Siry Khourieh said “the indictments in my opinion should have never been presented,” having argued in court the men had acted in self-Defense, and that Israeli Jews were seldom prosecuted for killing assailants at the scene of an incident.

The court found for the prosecution, that the soldier had already been subdued, disarmed and handcuffed by police after his shooting spree, when a mob set upon him, stomping on and stoning him to death.

Kamal Shehadin, deputy mayor of Shfaram, among a few dozen protesters outside the court, said his constituents “feel discriminated against.”

“Four people were murdered in cold blood and the court comes to judge these men, who if they hadn't defended themselves, more blood could have been spilled,” Shehadin said.

The six defendants convicted of the worst offences face a maximum penalties of 14 years' imprisonment. Their attorney, Khourieh, said he expected far lighter sentences at a hearing scheduled for November.

“We have no end of mitigating circumstances here,” Khourieh told Reuters.

Israeli Arabs make up about a fifth of Israel's mostly Jewish population. Many are descended from Palestinians who fled or were driven away in a war over Israel's founding in 1948.

Writing by Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Gunman kills five in Santa Monica, shot dead by police


A gunman dressed in black killed five people in a string of shootings through the seaside California town of Santa Monica on Friday before he was shot dead by police in a community college library, law enforcement officials said.

Five other people were wounded, one of them critically, in the shooting rampage that unfolded just a few miles from where President Barack Obama was speaking at a political fundraiser elsewhere in Santa Monica, west of Los Angeles.

As the gunman lay dead on a sidewalk outside the Santa Monica College library, a second individual was taken into custody near the campus and described by police as a “person of interest” in the case. He was later released.

Police initially said six people were killed by the gunman, who was described only as a man between the ages of 25 and 30.

Obama completed his remarks at his event without interruption and left for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping near the desert resort community of Palm Springs. The bloodshed did not appear to be related to Obama's visit and the Secret Service called it a “local police matter.”

The killing spree marked the latest in string of high-profile mass shootings over the past year, including a December attack in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school and a shooting last July at a suburban Denver movie theater that killed 12 people.

Those attacks have helped reignite a national debate over gun violence in America that spurred Obama and his fellow Democrats to push for expanded background checks for gun buyers – an initiative defeated in the U.S. Senate.

Santa Monica Police said the carnage began at a home east of the college, where the gunman shot two people dead before apparently torching the home. The Los Angeles Times, citing law enforcement sources, reported that the first two victims were believed to be the gunman's father and brother.

“I was in my apartment when I heard five to seven shots, then a pause, then two shots and I knew it was guns,” neighbor Janet Carter told Reuters.

'HORRIFIC EVENT'

Carter said she walked outside and saw a woman sitting in her car with blood trickling from her head. One of the windows in the car had been blown out, and the woman was lucid and on her cell phone talking to her husband.

Carter said she and another neighbor placed cold compresses around the woman's shoulder area, where there was blood, and she noticed in the meantime that an old wood house across the street was consumed by flames.

Santa Monica Police Sergeant Richard Lewis said that after leaving the home, the gunman carjacked a woman and ordered her to drive. Along the way he fired at least several rounds at a city bus, wounding three people.

Arriving at the college, the gunman opened fire on a red sport utility vehicle in a staff parking lot, killing the driver and critically wounding his passenger, Lewis said.

The gunman, who was armed with an AR-15 style rifle and at least one handgun, then shot and killed another person at the college before he died in an exchange of gunfire with police, Lewis said.

He said investigators had not yet determined a motive for the rampage, adding: “It's a horrific event that everybody wishes never happened.”

Students at the campus library described a scene of pandemonium as the sounds of gunfire rang out, sending some scurrying for cover.

One student inside the library, Cyrus Jabari, 19, said that through a window he could see a man dressed in black with a buzz-style haircut carrying what appeared to be an assault rifle.

“The only thing between me and him was a glass door,” he told Reuters.

Rabbi Eli Levitansky, who runs Santa Monica College’s Chabad club, said he has been in touch with student locked down on campus and had not heard of any Jewish students wounded in the attacks as of 2:30 Friday afternoon.

“I am actually in contact with them [the Jewish students on lockdown] right now. I’m on the phone with them, pretty much every other minute, speaking to them, calming them,” Levitansky told the Journal this afternoon.

When the shooting occurred, Levitansky was walking en route to campus from his home as part of a regular ritual he does four times a week to help students on campus wrap tefillin. He lives only two blocks away. The sight of students running and the swift arrival of campus police alerted him to the shooting. He said he did not hear gunshots.

Levitansky described seeing SWAT teams, sheriff helicopters, ambulance trucks and dozens of police officers. “It’s like a warzone,” said Levitansky, who also serves as rabbi at the nearby Chabad of Santa Monica.

Natasha Nemanim, 24, tried to get onto the campus to turn on a final paper early Friday afternoon but turned back after seeing helicopters in the air and heavily armed security personnel at the entrance to the campus on Pico and 18th street.

“It was stressful definitely; those guns are pretty big and they make you wonder what’s happening in there,” Nemanim said. She spoke to The Journal on Friday from Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative synagogue about a mile from the campus.

“It appears to be controlled as long as you’re not on campus,” said Nemanim, who spent two years as a student at SMC before transferring to UCLA, where she studied psychology. “But if you were on campus, I have to imagine your cortisol levels would be through the roof.”

Police officers during a search at Santa Monica College following a shooting on campus on June 7. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Jonah Lowenfeld (Jewish Journal) Ron Grover (Reuters), Alex Dobuzinskis(Reuters); Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh

28 reported dead, including 20 children, in Connecticut school shooting


[UPDATE 2:00 p.m. PST] An earlier report claiming the gunman's brother was found dead is being disputed by police.

[10 a.m.] A heavily armed gunman opened fire on school children and staff at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday, killing at least 28 people, including 20 children, in the latest in a series of shooting rampages that have tormented the United States this year.

The gunman was dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, state police Lieutenant Paul Vance told a news conference.

Vance declined to report casualty figures but CBS News said 20 children and nine adults were dead, without clarifying whether the shooter was among those killed. The Hartford Courant reported one entire classroom was unaccounted for.

If confirmed, it would be one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. The holiday season tragedy was the second shooting rampage in the United States this week and was certain to revive a debate about U.S. gun laws.

The principal and school psychologist were among the dead, CNN said. Witnesses reported hearing dozens of shots with some saying as many as 100 were fired.

The suspected shooter, 24, was armed with four weapons and wearing a bullet-proof vest, WABC reported.

Three people were taken to Danbury Hospital, about 11 miles west of the school, a hospital spokeswoman told NBC Connecticut. The mayor of Danbury, Mark Boughton, told MSNBC: “They are very serious injuries.”

Another person was being held in police custody after he was detained in the woods near the school wearing camouflage pants, CBS reported.

BLOODIED CHILDREN EXIT SCHOOL

Sandy Hook Elementary School teaches children from kindergarten through fourth grade – roughly ages 5 to 10.

“It was horrendous,” said parent Brenda Lebinski, who rushed to the school where her daughter is in the third grade. “Everyone was in hysterics – parents, students. There were kids coming out of the school bloodied. I don't know if they were shot, but they were bloodied.”

Obama

 

President Barack Obama wipes a tear as he speaks about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. during a press briefing at the White House on Dec. 14. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Television images showed police and ambulances at the scene, and parents rushing toward the school. Parents were seen reuniting with their children and taking them home.

“This is going to be bad,” a state official told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the scope of the tragedy remained uncertain.

President Barack Obama was notified and would receive regular updates throughout the day, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

“We're still waiting for more information about the incident in Connecticut,” Carney said when asked about the president's reaction to it.

Carney called the event “tragic” and said there would be time later for a discussion of policy implications.

Obama remains committed to trying to renew a ban on assault weapons, Carney said.

'MASKED MAN'

All Newtown schools were placed in lockdown after the shooting, the Newtown Public School District said.

Lebinski said a mother who was at the school during the shooting told her a “masked man” entered the principal's office and may have shot the principal. Lebinski, who is friends with the mother who was at the school, said the principal was “severely injured.”

Lebinski's daughter's teacher “immediately locked the door to the classroom and put all the kids in the corner of the room.”

Danbury Hospital, about 11 miles west of the school, had received three patients from the scene, a hospital spokeswoman told reporters.

A girl interviewed by NBC Connecticut described hearing seven loud “booms” as she was in gym class. Other children began crying and teachers moved the students to a nearby office, she said.

“A police officer came in and told us to run outside and so we did,” the unidentified girl said on camera.

Newtown, with a population about 27,000, is in northern Fairfield County, about 45 miles southwest of Hartford and 80 miles northeast of New York City.

The United States has experienced a number of mass shooting rampages this year, most recently in Oregon, where a gunman opened fire at a shopping mall on Tuesday, killing two people and then himself.

The deadliest attack came in July at a midnight screening of a Batman film in Colorado that killed 12 people and wounded 58.

This would be the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history.

The worst U.S. high school shooting happened in 1999 when two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

In 2007, 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech university in the deadliest act of gun violence in U.S. history.

In another notorious school shooting outside of the United States, in 1996 a gunman opened fire in an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, and killed 16 children and an adult before killing himself.

Additional reporting by Dan Burns, Chris Francescani and Peter Rudegeair; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Jackie Frank

In Wisconsin, Jews seek ways to help Sikhs after Milwaukee shooting


Almost as soon as she heard the news about a deadly shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Elana Kahn-Oren’s phone started ringing.

As director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Kahn-Oren fielded call after call from concerned area Jews asking what they could do to help.

“We have to make sure to be respectful of the Sikh community and to make sure that we find appropriate avenues to express that support,” Kahn-Oren told JTA.

A day after Sunday’s shooting, the federation was offering counseling services, had opened a mailbox to receive donations for assisting with the financial needs of the victims and their families, and was in talks with the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee to figure out a way to bring religious leaders together for an interfaith prayer service.

[Related: Board of Rabbis stands with Sikh community after shooting]

“Coming together after events like these reaffirms the values of the community,” Kahn-Oren said. “This goes against our moral fiber.”

The assailant killed six people, including the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, before being shot dead by police. On Monday, police identified the shooter as Wade M. Page, a U.S. Army veteran with ties to white supremacist groups.

Jacob Herber of Congregation Beth Israel said the Milwaukee synagogue’s weekday minyan would be holding a moment of silence to commemorate and express solidarity with the victims, just as the minyan does when Jews are attacked around the world.

“Unfortunately, because we have experienced through much of our history bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism, this event is very acute for us in its pain,” Herber said. “That’s why I think we feel not only the obligation but the real personal, profound emotion of wanting to reach out to the Sikh community.”

Linda Holifield, executive director of Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee, said the shooter’s targeting of a place of worship was particularly upsetting.

“When one place of worship is targeted, it suggests then that any place of worship could be a target,” she said.

Tom Heinen, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said the tragedy has really hit home because of the tight-knit nature of the community in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee is in many respects a large village where many people of many faiths are interconnected personally, professionally and socially,” he said. “At a time like this, we need to come together as a community to reassert our common values and to comfort those who have suffered grievous losses.”

Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes


In the summer of 2008, when James Holmes was 20, he was known as a quiet counselor at Camp Max Straus in Los Angeles County, liked by his campers.

As details have emerged about the background of the now 24-year-old suspected shooter at the midnight massacre at an Aurora, Colo. showing of a Batman sequel on July 20, an unwanted media spotlight has fallen on the 110 acre camp in the Verdugo Mountains run by Jewish Big Brothers and sisters of Los Angeles.

“I’m looking at us all over TMZ,” said one former staff member contacted by The Jewish Journal. “There’s my picture, it’s crazy.”

In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Journal, the staff member, who asked not to be named, confirmed what many friends, colleagues and former neighbors of Holmes have said: He was decent and unremarkable.

“He was a quiet guy,” said the former staffer, who was in close contact with Holmes. “I never would have suspected a thing. He just kept to himself.”

At Camp Max Straus, Holmes was in charge of a group of 10 boys, ages 7 to 10.

“He never got in trouble,” recalled the staffer, who added that there were never any complaints about him from his campers.  While Camp Max Straus activities do not include shooting sports, Holmes did engage in archery with his campers.

The former staffer said Holmes did not seem to hang out with other counselors his age, however.

“It’s not that they didn’t like him,” the staffer said. “It’s just that he wasn’t very social.”

Holmes, the staffer said, was not Jewish.  During the summer, Camp Max Straus serves a primarily non-Jewish population of low-income and disadvantaged youths through ” title=”Chanuka Camp” target=”_blank”>Chanuka Camp.

Since the connection to the camp was revealed on Saturday, July 21, staffers and volunteers have been fielding numerous calls about their now-infamous former counselor, and the group has been working to avoid any implication that the long-running camp is not a safe and secure place. It has had a long track record of improving children’s lives.

The former staffer stressed to The Jewish Journal that nothing in Holmes recent past, even his most recent days, tipped off authorities to imminent danger.

“We had a great summer in 2008,” the staffer told The Jewish Journal, “and we don’t want this backlash to spoil it. It’s unfortunate that they’re screaming about the camp all over the news.”

Families of Toulouse victims seek gag order on leaked recordings


Relatives of the victims of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah will seek to prevent the media from broadcasting recordings of the late French Muslim gunman.

Attorneys for the bereaved relatives said Monday that they are seeking a gag order on the recordings after negotiations between Merah and French police were aired by the French television channel TF1. Merah murdered three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19.

The conversations took place as police lay siege to Merah’s home in Toulouse. He was killed in a shootout on March 23.

“You are facing a man who does not fear death,” a masculine voice believed to belong to Merah is heard saying in the recordings, which were aired June 8. “I love death as much as you love life.”

Samia Maktouf, an attorney for one of the families, said that “The victims of this attack are outraged.” The families’ main concern is that Merah’s words will inspire copycats.

“Next, videos of Merah will be disseminated,” Maktouf said. “This will cause irrevocable damage.”

Merah made a video recording of his attack on the Otzar Hatorah school. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera network obtained the footage but decided not to air it.

French police are investigating how TF1 obtained the recordings, which may have been leaked by the police.

The umbrella organization of French Jewish communities, CRIF, expressed its “shock and outrage” at the airing of the recordings. The Council for Audiovisual Communication, a French professional union, advised other media not to air them.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls condemned the decision to run extracts of the negotiations. He also said Monday that he is concerned about a “new breed of anti-Semitism” in France. His comments came the day after the two suspects in the July 5 attack on a Jewish teenager traveling on a train between Toulouse and Lyon were detained by police.

“There is anti-Semitism that exists in our neighbourhoods, in our suburbs,” said Valls, according to the European Jewish Press and the French news agency AFP. “There are in our neighborhoods youths or younger persons who in the name of a collective identity they feel is under attack decide on the most ignorant course, the most dangerous to our values, to perpetuate attacks on Jews. They consider Jews to be the enemy.”

The 17-year-old victim of the train attack reportedly is a student at the Ozar Hatorah school. The teen, who reportedly was wearing a kippah and tzitzit, was accosted verbally before he was beaten by two assailants.

“Today, [people] don’t think twice about insulting or hitting a fellow citizen because he is identifiably Jewish in his appearance,” Valls added in an interview with a Jewish radio station.

According to the French Jewish Protection Service, there were more than 90 anti-Semitic incidents in France in the 10 days following the school shooting.

Israeli soldier, Gaza gunmen killed in clash


A Palestinian gunman broke into Israel on Friday and killed a soldier before being shot dead himself in a rare cross-border attack that Israel blamed on the Islamist group Hamas.

Israel hit back, with a missile-strike killing one militant and wounding two others in the southern Gaza Strip. Militants also fired rockets out of the Palestinian enclave, but they did not cause any damage, the Israeli army said.

Sources in Gaza said the gunman killed in the cross-border attack was affiliated with the Islamic Jihad. However, the faction, which operates independently of Hamas, denied responsibility, suggesting the infiltrator might have been acting alone.

Hamas, which governs Gaza, had no immediate comment.

The Israeli army said the gunman crossed through the border fence with the intention of killing civilians and had ambushed soldiers sent to intercept him.

Palestinian witnesses heard an explosion and shooting near Abassan, a border village that is also close to the Egyptian frontier shared by Israel. They said Israeli forces set off smoke bombs to obscure the view as helicopters circled.

Though hostile to Israel, Hamas has largely sat out recent cross-border fighting and has appeared unwilling to rock the boat. Rather, it is focused on power-sharing talks with its Palestinian rivals and is monitoring developments in Egypt.

Reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Crispian Balmer

Algeria reportedly refuses body of Toulouse gunman


The body of the gunman who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse will be buried in France rather than Algeria as his father had requested.

Algerian authorities have refused to allow the body of Mohammed Merah to enter the country for burial, Reuters reported, citing an official at the Grand Mosque of Paris.

The mayor of the Algerian village of Bezzaz reportedly citied security reasons for declining the request, according to Reuters.

Merah’s father continues to insist that his son will be buried in Algeria. Merah is a French citizen of Algerian origin.

Abdallah Zekri of the Paris mosque, however, told Reuters that Merah would likely be buried in the Toulouse area, preferably in the next 24 hours.

Merah’s body is currently at a hospital morgue in Toulouse.

He was killed by police after a 30-hour siege at his Toulouse home. During the siege, Merah told French police that he killed the Jewish students at the Ozar Hatorah school in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers the previous week for serving in Afghanistan.

Israel confirms visit by Mohammed Merah


Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah visited Israel in late 2010, Israeli officials said.

Confirming French media reports, the officials said Monday that Merah, who claimed responsibility for the murders in southern France of four Jews and three soldiers, crossed into the West Bank from Jordan in September 2010 before leaving the same way three days later.

Merah passed an Israeli security screening at the Allenby Bridge border crossing, the officials said, but it remained unclear whether his visit included Israel as well as Palestinian areas.

Merah, who jumped to his death from a window amid a hail of gunfire by French police on March 22, claimed to have belonged to al-Qaida. He visited Afghanistan in November 2010.

During a 30-hour standoff with police, Merah admitted to the killings of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and the three soldiers in nearby Montauban.

Toulouse shooting suspect’s standoff continues [VIDEO]


The standoff in France between police and Mohammed Merah, the suspect in the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, stretched into its 13th hour Wednesday.

The standoff began at 3 a.m. Wednesday outside the Toulouse home of Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian descent who claims ties to al-Qaida was continuing, French authorities said.

Merah reportedly has been known to French intelligence for many years.

On Wednesday morning, thousands attended the funeral in Jerusalem of the attack’s four victims two days earlier.

French police surrounded Merah’s home in the morning. Merah, in contact with the police, reportedly had agreed to turn himself later in the day before abruptly cutting off communication with police. The suspect’s brother, and possibly other siblings, reportedly had been arrested, and two police officers were injured in a shootout outside the home, according to reports.

Story continues after the jump

Video from MarkStoneSkyNews

The Ozar Hatorah school reopened Wednesday for the first time since the attack, in which a man riding a motorbike opened fire Monday outside the school where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons, as well as the 7-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack.

Thousands attended the funeral of the victims on Wednesday morning at Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery.

“Your grief, your pain is ours too,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the funeral. “All of France is in shock.”

On Tuesday, three former French soldiers accused of having neo-Nazi ties who had been suspected of possible involvement in the shooting attack were questioned and released by French police.

Forensic tests found that the weapon used in the attack at the school was the same one used in a pair of fatal shooting attacks last week targeting off-duty French soldiers in and near Toulouse. The shootings, which also were committed by a gunman on a motorbike, left three soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. The soldiers who were shot were of North African or Caribbean background.

Investigator: French gunman planned to kill soldier, policemen


A gunman suspected of killing seven people in southwest France in the name of al Qaeda had planned to kill another soldier and two police officials before he was surrounded by police in an early morning raid on Wednesday, an investigator said.

Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said the beseiged gunman, Mohamed Merah, had told police negotiators that he had received training from al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Merah has also claimed responsibility for the killings of three soldiers of North African origin last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, Molins said.

Reporting By Daniel Flynn; editing by Leigh Thomas

Besieged gunman boasted he brought France to its knees


A besieged gunman suspected of shooting dead seven people in the name of al Qaeda boasted to police on Wednesday he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.

In an unfolding drama that has riveted France, about 300 police, some in body armor, cordoned off a five-story building in a suburb of Toulouse where the 24-year-old Muslim shooter, identified as Mohamed Merah, is holed up.

Authorities said the gunman, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda.

Merah told police negotiators he had killed three French soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan.

“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference.

The gunman, who filmed his killings with a small camera, had already identified another soldier and two police officers he wished to kill, Molins said. The gunman had repeated promises to surrender this evening to members of the elite RAID unit surrounding the house, which had been evacuated of its other residents.

“He has explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr and that he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” Molins said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in five weeks time, paid tribute at a ceremony in an army barracks in Montauban, near Toulouse, to the three soldiers of North African origin killed last week. A fourth soldier of Caribbean origin is in a coma.

“Our soldiers have not died in the way for which they had prepared themselves. This was not a death on the battlefield but a terrorist execution,” Sarkozy said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag after paying his respects to bereaved relatives.

“We must remain united. We should in no way yield to discrimination or vengeance,” he said in his eulogy. “France can only be great in unity. We owe it to the memory of these men, we owe it to the three murdered children, to all the victims.”

Sarkozy’s appeal for national unity came after far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival presidential candidate, said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was a member of an ideological Islamic group in France but this organization was not involved in plotting any violence.

He said Merah had thrown a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out of a window of the block of flats, where he has been living, in exchange for a mobile phone, but was still armed.

Two police officers were injured in a firefight with the gunman after police swooped at 3 a.m. local time.

Police sources said they had conducted a controlled explosion of the suspect’s car at around 9:00 a.m. GMT after discovering it was loaded with weapons. Officials said police had also arrested Merah’s girlfriend and his brother, who is also known to authorities as a radical Islamist.

RAID

Gueant said Merah had contacted the first soldier he attacked on the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle.

Investigators identified the IP address he used – that of his mother – because he was already under surveillance for radical Islamist beliefs.

“We knew, and that is why he was under surveillance, that he had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the minister said.

Merah’s telephone was tapped from Monday and with the help of other information the police decided to raid his house. Merah has a criminal record in France, Gueant said, but nothing indicating such an attack was possible.

A police source told Reuters that investigators had also received a tip-off from a scooter repair shop in Toulouse where the gunman asked to change the color of the Yamaha scooter used to flee the shootings and to remove a GPS tracker device.

A group of young men from Merah’s neighbourhood described him as a polite man of slight build who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.

“He isn’t the big bearded guy that you can imagine, you know the cliche,” said Kamal, who declined to give his family name. “When you know a person well you just can’t believe they could have done something like this.”

Sarkozy had been informed of the standoff early in the morning, officials said. The president’s handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how the French people vote in the two-round presidential elections in April and May.

The Jewish victims from the Ozar Hatorah school were buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Parliament speaker Reuben Rivlin said in his eulogy at the hill-top cemetery that the attack was inspired by “wild animals with hatred in their hearts”.

Authorities said on Tuesday that the gunman had apparently filmed his rampage through the school with a camera strapped to his body. He wounded Rabbi Jonathan Sandler as he entered the building, then shot an 8-year-old girl in the head, before returning to kill Sandler and his two children, who had rushed to his side, at point blank range.

Immigrants and Islam have been major themes of the campaign after Sarkozy tried to win over the voters of Le Pen, who accused the government on Wednesday of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.

“We must now wage this war against these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children, that are killing our Christian children, our Christian young men, young Muslim men and Jewish children,” she told the i-Tele news channel, questioning the decision to deploy in Afghanistan.

But leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities said the gunman was a lone extremist.

France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election. Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande has said he will pull them out by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.

Additional reporting by Brian Love, Daniel Flynn and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood

French Interior Ministry says assault has not started


UPDATE (4:40 p.m.): French Interior Ministry says blasts were to intimidate suspect in Toulouse, assault has not started


French police launched an assault late on Wednesday on an apartment where a gunman suspected of killing seven people in the name of al Qaeda was holed up, officials said.

Three loud blasts were heard at the site in the southwest city of Toulouse just before midnight, which blew open the door of the apartment where the gunman had been holed up since 3 a.m. GMT, a police source said.

“I confirm that the assault has started,” a police source told Reuters. The deputy mayor of Toulouse, Jean-Pierre Havrin, confirmed that negotiations had ended and the assault had begun.

Police had been trying to get 24-year-old Mohamed Merah to turn himself over after he fired through the door at them while they tried to storm his apartment in the suburbs of Toulouse in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The 24-year-old Muslim shooter has been bottled up by France’s elite RAID commandos since 3 a.m. (0200 GMT) inside a five-story building in a suburb of Toulouse – a drama that has gripped France a few weeks ahead of a close-fought presidential election.

Police reinforcements had arrived at the scene at around 10 p.m. GMT and authorities switched off street lights in the street, signalling that action would begin soon.

“This will not last for days, because of physical and mental fatigue. All the experience with crazed gunmen like this is that they stop at some point,” Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on TF1 television on Wednesday.

“What we want is to capture him alive, so that we can bring him to justice, know his motivations and hopefully find out who were his accomplices, if there were any,” he added.

Thomas Withington at the London Center for Defense Studies said an elite commando team could launch an assault after throwing a stun grenade into the house.

“What complicates things is that they want to take him alive. They want to wait until he gets very tired,” he said.

Merah, who has told police negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in the lawless border area of Pakistan, said he killed three French soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.

A French citizen of Algerian origin, Merah boasted to police negotiators he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.

“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference.

Merah had already identified another soldier and two police officers he wished to kill, Molins said.

“He has explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr and that he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” the prosecutor said, adding that Merah had repeated promises to surrender to police.

CALL FOR UNITY

Earlier, at a ceremony in an army barracks in Montauban, near Toulouse, President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the three soldiers of North African origin killed last week. A fourth soldier of Caribbean origin is in a coma.

“Our soldiers have not died in the way for which they had prepared themselves. This was not a death on the battlefield but a terrorist execution,” he said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag.

“This man wanted to bring the Republic to its knees. The republic did not give in, the republic did not back down, the republic has not weakened. The republic has done its duty, and tomorrow justice will be done,” said Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in five weeks time.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Sarkozy to voice his solidarity with the government and people of France.

Several other presidential candidates also attended the ceremony, including Socialist Francois Hollande, who is ahead of Sarkozy in voting intention polls.

Sarkozy’s appeal for unity came after far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival presidential candidate, said France should pursue war on Islamic fundamentalism.

But leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities said the gunman was a lone extremist and called for calm and unity.

Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how the French people vote in the two-round presidential elections in April and May.

Immigration and Islam have been major campaign themes after Sarkozy tried to win over the voters of Le Pen, who accused the government of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.

France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election. Hollande has said he will pull them out by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.

SURVEILLANCE

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was a member of an ideological Islamic group in France but this organization was not involved in plotting any violence.

He said Merah had thrown a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out of a window of the block of flats, where he has been living, in exchange for a mobile phone.

Two police officers were injured in a firefight with the gunman after police swooped at 3 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Wednesday. Officials said police had also arrested Merah’s girlfriend and his brother, known to authorities as a radical Islamist.

The raid came just three days after the school attack and followed an unprecedented manhunt by French security forces.

Merah’s first attack, on March 11, was on a soldier he had contacted on the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle.

Gueant said police identified the IP address he used because he was already under surveillance for radical Islamist beliefs.

“We knew, and that is why he was under surveillance, that he had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the minister said.

After Merah’s attack on the Jewish school, police received a tip-off from a scooter repair shop in Toulouse where the gunman asked how to remove a GPS tracker device.

Merah’s telephone was tapped from Monday and with the help of other information the police decided to raid his house.

A group of young men from Merah’s neighbourhood described him as a polite man of slight build who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.

“He isn’t the big bearded guy that you can imagine – you know the cliche,” said Kamal, who declined to give his family name. “When you know a person well you just can’t believe they could have done something like this.”

Merah’s lawyer Christian Etelin, who has defended him in several minor crimes, said that his client had a tendency towards violence that had worsened after a stay in prison and trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There was his religious engagement, an increasing hatred against the values of a democratic society and a desire to impose what he believes is truth,” Etelin told France 2 television, adding he had not expected this level of violence.

The Jewish victims from the Ozar Hatorah school were buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Parliament speaker Reuben Rivlin said in his eulogy at the hill-top cemetery that the attack was inspired by “wild animals with hatred in their hearts”.

Additional reporting by Jean Decotte and Nick Vinocur in Toulouse; Brian Love, Daniel Flynn, Geert De Clercq, Alexandria Sage and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Joseph Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Sarkozy: Gunman in French shootings driven by racism [VIDEO]


French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the same gunman who shot dead a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday was also responsible for the killing of three soldiers last week, apparently motivated by racism.

“We know that it is the same person and the same weapon that killed the soldiers, the children and the teacher,” Sarkozy said in a televised address, saying the terrorism alert level in France had been raised.

“This act is odious and cannot remain unpunished.”

Sarkozy also said he would suspend his campaign for France’s April-May presidential election until Wednesday.

Reporting By Daniel Flynn and Leigh Thomas; editing by Nicolas Vinocur

 

Motive Behind the Madness


As the painstaking probe into the July 4 killings at Los Angeles International Airport continues, the basic question that faced investigators and the public from the beginning remains unresolved.

Was the deliberate shooting by Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Hadayet at the El Al check-in counter a clear act of terrorism or an "isolated incident" by a gunman whose motives are so far unknown?

To Israelis, and much of the Jewish community, the answer is clear.

"From the way the attack was conducted, the way the gunman skipped dozens of other foreign airlines to target El Al, our experience tells us it is terrorism," Yuval Rotem, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, has insisted from day one.

His view was immediately endorsed by high Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Transportation Minister Efraim Sneh.

Similarly, Amotz Brandes explains, "any aggressive act designed to create fear among the civilian population, whether the perpetrator acted on his own or as part of a religious or political group, is terrorism."

Brandes is a member of The Chameleon Group, a private company of Israeli and American intelligence and security experts, headquartered in the Canoga Park. Brandes worked in the security branch of El Al for four years.

By way of analogy, Brandes points to the shooting spree by Buford Furrow at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999.

"It doesn’t matter whether Furrow acted on his own or as a member of the Aryan Nations, the outcome was the same," he says. "A crime is a crime, whether you call it ‘organized crime’ or just ‘crime.’ At the end of the day, there is really no distinction."

Paul Bresson, spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., hews to a narrower definition of terrorism. As a working rule, the FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce government, civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

To date, Bresson says, the FBI has uncovered no evidence to meet the FBI yardstick of terrorism. "We may uncover such evidence in the next hour, or tomorrow, or next month, but so far, we have not," he says.

Asked for clear examples of "terrorism," Bresson cites Sept. 11 and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City as showing clear political objectives and intent to intimidate the federal government.

Ian Lesser, an international security expert with the RAND Corp. and the Clinton administration for 10 years, can see some merit in both the Israeli and FBI perspectives.

"It’s always difficult to define what is or isn’t terrorism," Lesser says. "For the expert investigator, the emphasis is on motive, on links and connections, not how many people are involved. Even a political motivation may not add up to terrorism."

On the other hand, in the "pragmatic definition" of terrorism, Lesser says, "It is not unreasonable to give weight to circumstantial evidence of a person’s political or racial views" and on that basis, conclude that a terrorist act has been committed.