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   ADEN, Yemen (AP) - Military and hospital officials say a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives-laden car at Yemen's Defense Ministry, killing 15 soldiers and wounding at least 40.

   They said as many as 12 gunmen also have been killed in a firefight between troops and a carload of attackers who arrived minutes after the Thursday morning blast, apparently in a bid to take over the complex in downtown Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

   They said the gunmen were armed with assault rifles, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades.

   There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, whose chapter in Yemen is considered among the world's most active.

   The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani government said Wednesday that 3 percent of 2,227 people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that sparked criticism from groups that have investigated deaths from the attacks.

   The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is much lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations that have gone as high as 300. The ministry said 317 drone strikes have killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians since 2008.

   The attacks, which mainly target suspected Islamic militants near the northwestern border with Afghanistan, are widely unpopular in Pakistan because they are viewed as violating the country's sovereignty and killing too many civilians. The Pakistani government regularly criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

   Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Barack Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the U.S. considers the attacks vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban and gave no indication it was willing to abandon them.

   The latest strike occurred around midnight Wednesday, when missiles destroyed a vehicle in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major militant sanctuary, Pakistani intelligence officials said. No one was killed in the attack, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

   Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment on their civilian casualty figure, and the statement posted on the Senate's website did not give any indication why the number was so much lower than past government calculations and outside estimates.

   A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said earlier this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.

   Emmerson called on the government to explain the apparent discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.

   "If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear, and the apparent discrepancy explained," Emmerson said in an email.

   The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185. These estimates are often compiled based on media reports about the attacks.

   Pakistan's overall death toll is lower than some other totals, although not to the same degree as its figure for civilians. The New America Foundation registered 2,651 people killed in the same period, while the Long War Journal website has 2,493.

   The danger of traveling to the remote tribal region targeted by the strikes makes it difficult to compile an accurate number of civilian casualties.

   The U.S. rarely speaks publicly about the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan because it is classified. But some American officials have insisted that the strikes have killed very few civilians and that estimates from the Pakistani government and independent organizations are exaggerated.

   Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilians killed and wounded by drone strikes in Pakistan in a report released earlier this month that provided new details about the alleged victims of the attacks, including a 68-year-old woman killed while farming with her grandchildren.

   Mamana Bibi's grandchildren told the London-based rights group that she was killed by missile fire on Oct. 24, 2012, as she was collecting vegetables in a family field in North Waziristan. Bibi's relatives testified before members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.

   The Amnesty report also cited witnesses as saying that a volley of missiles hit a tent where 18 men with no links to militant groups were eating after work, then a second struck those who came to help the wounded on July 6, 2012 in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials at the time identified the dead as suspected militants.

   In its latest statement, the Pakistani government said 21 civilians were killed in 2008, nine in 2009, two in 2010 and 35 in 2011. But it insisted no civilians have been killed since then.

   Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said he was skeptical about the government figures because it conflicted with their research and indicated a failure of the state to adequately investigate alleged civilian casualties.

   The London-based human rights group, Reprieve, called the government's civilian casualty figures inaccurate, based on higher numbers it said were submitted to the Peshawar High Court by the top official in North Waziristan earlier this year.

   An Associated Press study in early 2012 of 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan over the preceding 18 months found that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single strike.

   The Interior Ministry also said Wednesday that "terrorist" attacks have killed 12,404 people and wounded 26,881 others since 2002, although these figures were disputed by some senators. The government has been battling an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to topple the country's democratic system and impose Islamic law. It was not clear if the figure involved only attacks on civilians, or also attacks on security forces.

   A roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded three others Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal area, the Pakistani Taliban's main sanctuary before the army conducted a large ground offensive in 2009, said military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.

   Also Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a market in southwestern Pakistan, killing two people and wounding at least 20 others, said police official Ahmad Raza. The attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. The province is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have waged a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.

Published in National News

   BAGHDAD (AP) — The wave of attacks by al-Qaida-led Sunni extremists that has killed thousands of Iraqis this year, most of them Shiites, is provoking ominous calls from Shiite leaders to take up arms in self-defense.

   They generally insist they'll do it legally, under the banner of the security forces. But Iraq's young democracy is still struggling, nearly two years after U.S. troops withdrew, and the specter of armed Shiite and Sunni camps revives memories of the sectarian fighting that took the country to the brink of civil war in the mid-2000s.

   Since April, bombings and shootings have killed more than 5,500 people. Averaging at least two a week, they target outdoor markets, cafes, bus stations, mosques and pilgrimages in Shiite areas.

   Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who will meet with President Barack Obama on Friday, says he wants American help in quelling the violence.

   Departing for Washington, he appealed for quicker delivery of offensive weapons such as helicopters that Baghdad says it needs.

   Since late December, Iraq's minority Sunnis have been protesting what they perceive as discrimination and tough anti-terrorism measures against them by the Shiite-led government. The Sunni attacks followed a government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in which 44 civilians and one member of the security forces dead, according to U.N. estimates.

   Now high-profile calls are being made for Shiites to play a role in their own defense by creating armed "popular committees," attached in some form to the regular security forces. The idea raises the specter of some of Iraq's darkest years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, paving the way for long-repressed majority Shiites to seize power.

   Iranian-backed Shiite death squads roamed the city from 2006-2008, killing Sunnis by the dozens and dumping their often mutilated bodies on the streets or in the river in retaliation for the devastating bombings and suicide attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents.

   It was a cease-fire by militia leader and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, along with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives that helped quell the bloodshed. While Iraqis continued to face near-daily attacks, they hoped the days of rampant sectarian warfare were behind them. Now a politician, Al-Sadr has urged calm among his followers and made no public statements about the calls to take up arms to protect Shiites.

   Zuhair al-Araji, a Sunni lawmaker, pointed out that the insurgents are targeting not only Shiites but moderate Sunnis, and that arming Shiite groups would backfire. "We are worried that some militias will infiltrate these proposed committees and we will see grave consequences," he said.

   But Jassim Mohammed al-Fartousi, whose 24 year old son was among some 80 people killed in a suicide attack Sept. 21, reflects growing public demand for a response.

   "The government and the security forces are incompetent," he said. "The popular committees will make us feel safe."

   The civil war in neighboring Syria is also stoking the tensions as it takes on increasingly sectarian undertones, with many Shiites traveling to the country to support President Bashar Assad's government against mainly Sunni rebels.

   Qais al-Khazali heads a feared Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Band of the Righteous), an Iranian-backed group that repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and says it is sending fighters to Syria to support government forces against Sunni-led rebels. He spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government.

   Last year, the group decided to lay down its weapons and join the Iraqi political process, a move welcomed by al-Maliki. But addressing a conference of tribal leaders and clerics on Oct. 9, al-Khazali said his group needed to react to the "killings and destruction."

   He said his "committees" would not participate in raids, but would cooperate with security forces in "patrolling their areas and setting up roadblocks."

   Still, the security forces are supposed to be nonsectarian, and the suggestion of a Shiite militia in league with a Shiite prime minister's security forces is sure to heighten Sunni distrust.

   Ali al-Moussawi, al-Maliki's spokesman, sounded lukewarm to the idea, saying the security forces "do not need armed committees; they need help with intelligence."

   The law bans the formation of armed groups outside the state security forces, but the government made an exception for the Sunni militia formed by U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida.

   Also calling for Shiite self-defense measures are Shiite lawmakers, one of them affiliated with Al-Maliki's parliamentary bloc, and some clerics connected to parties with militant wings.

   Earlier this year, Wathiq al-Batat, a Shiite cleric who was a senior official in the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, formed what he calls the Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites. He claims to have more than 1 million members, a number that has not independently verified.

   In an interview with the Beirut-based Iraqi satellite channel al-Sumaria last week, he said his militia was "well-intentioned" and wouldn't attack Sunnis as such, only "takfiri" groups, a term applied to Sunni radicals.

   Al-Batat demanded that in order to be within the law, some of his followers should be integrated into the Defense or Interior Ministries to work with the security forces.

   Despite some attacks on Sunni mosques following Sunni actions, Shiite reprisals are far less intense than they were in the tit-for-tat bloodshed of 2006-2007, when Sunnis would be snatched off the streets and killed and many families were driven from their homes.

   But that may change if the "popular committees" come into being, some warn.

   Hadi Jalo, a political analyst in Baghdad, said the government "could implicitly give the green light to some armed groups to help the security forces struggling to put an end to violence and to ease the pressure from the public."

   Shwan Mohammed Taha, a Kurd who serves on the parliament's defense and security committee, warned such a move could prove a turning point.

   "The atmosphere is already tense and such move will lead to the militarization of society and then to all-out civil war," he said.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Pakistan and evacuated nonessential government personnel from the country's second largest city because of a specific threat to the consulate there, a U.S. official said Friday.

   The move was not related to the threat of an al-Qaida attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.

   According to U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Meghan Gregonis, the U.S. is shifting its nonessential staff from the consulate in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad.

   Emergency personnel will stay in Lahore, and embassy officials do not know when the consulate will reopen, she said.

   "We received information regarding a threat to the consulate," said Gregonis. "As a precautionary measure, we are undertaking a drawdown of all except emergency personnel."

   The consulate in Lahore was already scheduled to be closed for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr from Thursday through Sunday.

   The personnel drawdown at the Lahore consulate was precautionary and wasn't related to the recent closures of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world, said two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the order.

   Earlier this week, 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts in 16 countries in the Middle East and Africa were closed to the public through Saturday and nonessential personnel were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after U.S. intelligence officials said they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaida's top leader about plans for a major terror attack.

   None of the consulates in Pakistan or the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were affected by the earlier closures.

   On Thursday, the State Department issued a travel warning saying the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups posed a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan.

   The country has faced a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in recent years that has killed over 40,000 civilians and security personnel, and is also believed to be home base for al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Most of the militant attacks have been in the northwest and southwest along the border with Afghanistan.

   Gunmen killed six people and wounded 15 others Friday in an attack on a former lawmaker outside a mosque in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, said police officer Bashir Ahmad Barohi. The lawmaker escaped unharmed. A day earlier, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 30 people at a police funeral in Quetta.

   Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, have also experienced periodic attacks.

   A powerful bomb exploded at a busy market street in Lahore in early July, killing at least four people and wounding nearly 50.

   Lahore is considered Pakistan's cultural capital and has a population of at least 10 million people.

   A CIA contractor shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011 who he said were trying to rob him. The incident severely damaged relations between Pakistan and the U.S. The contractor, Raymond Davis, was released by Pakistan in March 2011 after the families of the victims were paid over $2 million.

 

___

 

Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in National News

   SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida says a U.S. drone strike has killed a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who rose to become the group's No. 2 figure.

   The announcement, posted on militant websites, gave no date for the death of Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri.

   In January, Yemen's official SABA news agency had reported that al-Shihri died of wounds from a drone strike three months earlier.

   The monitoring group SITE said Wednesday that al-Shihri was eulogized in the video by a senior official in the terrorist group, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

   Al-Shihri, also known as Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in Guantanamo. He was returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2007 and later fled to Yemen to join the al-Qaida branch there.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan's newly-elected prime minister is calling for an end to American drone strikes in tribal areas.

   Nawaz Sharif's call came in his first speech in parliament, minutes after lawmakers elected him the country's premier.

   But he gave little details on how he might bring about an end to the strikes, which many in Pakistan have called an affront to the country's sovereignty.

   The U.S. considers the strikes vital to battling militants such as al-Qaida, who use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a safe haven.

   Sharif's comments are in line with previous statements he has made calling for an end to the controversial strikes.

 

   

 
Published in National News
NEW YORK (AP) - A senior al-Qaida leader and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden has pleaded not guilty to plotting against Americans in his role as the terror network's spokesman.

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in federal court in New York on Friday.

Prosecutors say Abu Ghaith praised the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and warned there would be more.

Abu Ghaith was born in Kuwait. Authorities say he was captured in Jordan over the last week.

President Barack Obama's administration has sought to charge senior al-Qaida suspects in American federal courts instead of military tribunals, but Republicans in Congress don't want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
Published in National News

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