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Nation and World briefs for May 16

US: Syria is burning bodies to hide proof of mass killings

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States accused Syria on Monday of executing thousands of imprisoned political opponents and burning their bodies in a crematorium to hide the evidence, testing the Trump administration’s willingness to respond to atrocities, other than chemical weapons attacks, that it blames on President Bashar Assad’s government.

The allegation of mass killings came as President Donald Trump weighs options in Syria, where the U.S. launched cruise missiles on a government air base last month after accusing Assad’s military of killing scores of civilians with a sarin-like nerve agent. Trump on Monday kicked off a week of meetings with Middle East leaders, sitting down with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi a day before he hosts Turkey’s president. Trump flies to Saudi Arabia later this week.

All are governments that have pressed the United States over six years of civil war in Syria to intervene more forcefully. Trump had backed away from President Barack Obama’s calls for regime change in the Arab country, with the new president’s officials pointedly saying leadership questions should be left to Syria’s citizens, until his intervention last month. His administration now says Assad cannot bring long-term stability to Syria.

In its latest accusations of Syrian abuses, the State Department said it believed about 50 detainees each day are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison, about 45 minutes north of Damascus. Many of the bodies are then burned in the crematorium “to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place,” said Stuart Jones, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, accusing Assad’s government of sinking “to a new level of depravity.”

The department released commercial satellite photographs showing what it described as a building in the prison complex that was modified to support the crematorium. The photographs, taken over the course of several years, beginning in 2013, do not prove the building is a crematorium, but show construction consistent with such use.

Busy day for French president: Names PM, meets with Merkel

BERLIN (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron hit the ground running Monday on his first full day in office by naming a prime minister from the center-right and then flying to Germany, where he and Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to work together to undertake European reforms.

At home, Macron started to shape his government by appointing relatively little-known lawmaker Edouard Philippe, 46, as his prime minister. That made good on a promise to repopulate French politics with new faces and reinforced the generational shift under Macron, who at 39 is France’s youngest president.

Then, a large crowd outside the chancellery welcomed Macron to Berlin, with some waving European Union flags. Macron and Merkel were all smiles inside, and the German leader declared that “Europe will only do well if there is a strong France, and I am committed to that.”

Germany and France have traditionally been the motor of European integration, but the relationship has become increasingly lopsided in recent years as France struggled economically.

German leaders were hugely relieved by the independent centrist’s rout of far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the May 7 presidential runoff, and now they hope that Macron can deliver the economic upturn that his predecessors couldn’t.

Man gets 49 years for anti-transgender hate crime killing

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi man received a 49-year prison sentence Monday for the first-ever conviction on federal hate crime charges arising from the murder of a transgender woman.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. sentenced Joshua Vallum in connection with the 2015 killing of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson. It was the first case prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act involving a victim targeted because of gender identity.

Prosecutors said Vallum shocked 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed her and beat her to death in 2015 to keep fellow Latin Kings gang members from discovering the two had been having sex. Gang rules barred homosexual activity and declared that punishable by death, the prosecutors had said.

Guirola (juh-ROH’-lah) could have sentenced Vallum to life in federal prison, but stuck to a lesser sentence suggested in a plea agreement between defense attorneys and prosecutors, citing Vallum’s neglected childhood and other issues. Both the judge and defense lawyers said Vallum’s history of abuse as a child had to be considered.

Vallum pleaded guilty to the federal charges in December, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever leave prison. He also had pleaded guilty earlier to a state murder charge that drew him a separate sentence of life without parole.

US trumpets Mosul gains, but Iraq says more aid needed

HAMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq (AP) — During a visit south of Mosul on Monday, a senior U.S. official praised territorial gains against the Islamic State group in Iraq, but local officials cautioned more aid is needed to rebuild on the heels of victories against the extremists.

The Mosul fight is approaching its “final stages,” Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition against the IS, told The Associated Press during a meeting with Iraqi military and civilian officials at a water treatment plant near the town of Hamam al-Alil.

“The world is now seeing that (Iraqi) soldiers are completely destroying Daesh,” McGurk said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group that is also referred to as IS, ISIS and ISIL. He described the fight to retake Mosul, which was launched nearly seven months ago, as one of the most difficult urban battles since World War II.

But the men who had gathered to receive McGurk and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman were dressed in suits, not fatigues and they had come asking for aid, not weapons and training.

With the fight against IS in Iraq about to enter its fourth year, more than half of the territory the extremists once held is now under government control, but with those advances has come greater demand for reconstruction money.

Venezuelans again shut down capital to protest government

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of protesters hauled folding chairs, beach umbrellas and coolers onto main roads across Venezuela on Monday for another national demonstration against the socialist government.

The “sit-in against the dictatorship” was the latest in a month and a half of street protests against President Nicolas Maduro that have resulted in dozens of deaths. Even before the protest started in Caracas, many businesses closed and taxi drivers suspended work in anticipation of traffic disruptions in the capital.

Opposition leaders are demanding immediate presidential elections. Polls say the great majority of Venezuelans want Maduro gone as violent crime soars and the country falls into economic ruin, with triple-digit inflation and shortages of many basic foods.

The European Union is also calling for Venezuela to hold elections. EU foreign ministers said Monday that “violence and the use of force will not resolve the crisis in the country.”

The U.S. has expressed grave concern about the erosion of democratic norms in the South American country.

Man holding human head stabs worker at Oregon grocery store

ESTACADA, Ore. (AP) — A man carrying what appeared to be a human head walked into a grocery store in Oregon and stabbed an employee just minutes before authorities discovered a woman’s body in a home in a nearby town.

The two incidents were connected, authorities said.

The gruesome and bizarre chain of events began Sunday afternoon when the man entered the Thriftway grocery store covered in blood and with “what looked like a large kitchen type of knife,” Ernie Roberts, interim police chief in nearby Sandy, Oregon, said Monday in a phone interview. Sandy provides police services for Estacada, which has just 2,600 residents.

He was also carrying something that appeared to be a severed human head, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nate Thompson said.

“He didn’t say anything after he was subdued,” Roberts said, adding that at one point before he was arrested the man told someone he was thirsty. “He was in like a catatonic state, wasn’t speaking to anybody. That’s why he was transported to the hospital.”

 

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