Trump paying tribute to Americans killed in Syrian attack

US President Donald Trump salutes US Air Force airmen as he boards Air Force One to travel to Dover Air Force Base to attend the dignified transfer ceremonies for the remains of members of the US military and US citizens killed during a recent attack in Syria as he departs from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US, January 19, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 19 January 2019
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Trump paying tribute to Americans killed in Syrian attack

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland: President Donald Trump was paying tribute Saturday to the four Americans killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria this week as he set off to Dover Air Force Base for the return of their remains.
The trip was not listed on the president’s public schedule that was released Friday night, but he tweeted the news before his Saturday morning departure from the White House.
“Will be leaving for Dover to be with the families of 4 very special people who lost their lives in service to our Country!” he wrote.
The visit comes during a budget fight that has consumed Washington for the past month, shuttering parts of the federal government and leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay. Raising the stakes in his dispute with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the president on Thursday abruptly canceled her military flight, hours before she and a congressional delegation were to depart for Afghanistan on a previously undisclosed visit to US troops.
Trump planned an announcement later Saturday that was expected to outline a deal the White House hopes might pave the way for the shutdown’s end.
Daesh has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij that came about a month after Trump had declared that the militants had been defeated and that he was withdrawing US forces from the country.
The attack highlighted the threat still posed by Daesh despite Trump’s assertion and could complicate that withdrawal plan. Some of his senior advisers have disagreed with the decision and have offered an evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 US troops.
The bombing, which also wounded three US troops, was the deadliest assault on US forces in Syria since they went into the country in 2015.
At least 16 people were killed, and the dead were said to have included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought alongside the Americans against Daesh.
The Pentagon has identified three of the four Americans killed:
— Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida, who was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
— Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, New York, and based at Fort Meade, Maryland.
— civilian Scott A. Wirtz from St. Louis.
The Pentagon hasn’t identified the fourth casualty, a civilian contractor.
During a visit Thursday to the Defense Department, Trump cited the fallen when he expressed his “deepest condolences to the families of the brave American heroes who laid down their lives yesterday in selfless service to our nation.” He called them “great, great people. We will never forget their noble and immortal sacrifice.”
Trump has made one other visit to Dover during his presidency, soon after taking office. On Feb. 1, 2017, Trump honored the returning remains of a US Navy SEAL killed in a raid in Yemen. Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old from Peoria, Illinois, was the first known US combat casualty since Trump became president.
Over the past month, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the Syria pullout timeline, and US officials have suggested it will likely take several months to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.
In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump had said, “We have defeated Daesh in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” referring to another acronym for Daesh. He said the troops would begin coming home “now.” That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
In discussing the withdrawal decision, Trump has repeatedly spoken about how much he dislikes making calls and writing letters to the families of those killed while serving overseas.
“It’s time to get our soldiers out, and it’s time to get our young people out,” Trump said during a post-Christmas visit to Ayn Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. “I don’t like sending those letters home to parents, saying that your young man or your young woman has been killed. ... We’ve been doing it long enough.”
A leading US voice on foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said during a visit Saturday to Turkey that an American withdrawal from Syria that had not been thought through would lead to “chaos” and “an Iraq on steroids.” Graham, R-S.C., urged Trump not to get out without a plan and said the goal of destroying Daesh militants in Syria had not yet been accomplished.
Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the US-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from Daesh in 2016 with help from the US-led coalition.
But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main US Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil.
Trump reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a conference call that the president remained “steadfast” in his decision not to stay in Syria — or Afghanistan — “forever.” But the senator did not disclose the latest thinking on the withdrawal timeline.
Paul said Trump told the group, “We’re not going to continue the way we’ve done it.”


How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

Updated 14 min 47 sec ago
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How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

  • Priest from St. Sebastian’s parish and man who lost parents in the blast tell Arab News about the carnage
  • Two cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines were among the foreign victims in Sunday’s attacks

DUBAI/COLOMBO: The children would have been gathered in the middle of St. Sebastian’s church with their families during the Easter Sunday morning mass when the bomber detonated his device, killing more than 100 people.

Just months before, on Jan. 20, the church congregation had celebrated its 150th anniversary, the building having recently undergone a major renovation.

But with the flick of a switch, its interior was reduced to rubble, mutilated bodies strewn across the pews and the floor where they had previously knelt to pray.

 “It was supposed to be a day of celebration,” said Dubai-based priest Father Jude Angelo. “Instead, we’re mourning such a terrible loss.”

He is currently the assistant priest at Jebel Ali Church in Dubai, but his home is the Sri Lankan village of Katuwapitiya, where he was a member of St. Sebastian’s parish, the site of the deadliest of Sunday’s attacks, which killed at least 290 and injured more than 500 in churches and hotels across the country.

 “I’ve been told that the bomber detonated his device while standing in the middle of the church,” he said.

 “That’s where most of the children — some very young — and their families would’ve been congregated. I don’t understand the meaning of this attack … I just feel numb.”

Father Angelo found out about the blast via his mobile phone: People sent him images from inside the church.

“I have no words to express what I saw in those images. The church is broken. I saw images of dead bodies … parts of bodies … You couldn’t tell who these people were, their bodies were so badly mutilated,” he said.

The congregation now has to plan for dozens of funerals. The roads leading to St. Sebastian’s are lined with white flags and throngs of crowds despite the heat.

Almost every other home along the lanes have banners hanging outside the walls, announcing deaths of family members. The whole neighborhood is in mourning.

Malith Wimanna was due to fly out for a conference in Malaysia on Monday, and went for mass on Saturday evening instead. His parents attended the Sunday mass, and both lost their lives in the attack.

“I ran to the church as soon as I heard about the attack,” he said. “It was hell. I couldn’t think of anything else. There was nothing to feel, nothing came to mind.”

Wimanna identified both his parents in the debris. He said both had possibly died instantly, and his father was almost unidentifiable.  

The government announced on Monday that the attackers were members of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ), an extremist Muslim group that appeared after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009. 

“The Catholics and Christians here are a very peaceful community,” said Father Anton Canisius, one of the many priests present at the funeral of Wimanna’s parents.

When asked about fears of the NTJ’s attacks propelling communal violence, the soft-spoken priest insisted that none of the Sri Lankan Catholic community would retaliate.

“There are people who’ll try to take advantage of these situations and try to make use of this. We’ve asked the government for security and for it to maintain peace,” he said.

Minister of Transport and Highways Kabeer Hashim on Monday announced compensation for those killed and injured in the blasts. He also said the damaged churches will be restored by the state to their original condition.

Easter is a popular time for holidaymakers to visit Sri Lanka from all over the world, and dozens of the victims of Sunday’s attacks were foreign tourists.

Among the foreigners killed were Mohamed Jafar and Hany Osman, cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines, who were in transit at one of the three hotels hit. As of Monday evening their families, who had arrived in Colombo, had not yet finalized burial arrangements, though they were in consultation with the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, currently headed by Ambassador Abdulnasser Al-Harthi.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said in a statement that his ministry is working closely with the Foreign Ministry and local diplomatic missions to “ensure formalities with regard to the victims are sorted out as quickly as possible.”

He added: “The government has already offered assistance to all victims, the damaged places of worship as well as the hotels affected by Sunday’s attacks.”

Foreign victims were also from Japan, Australia, France, the US, India, Bangladesh, the UK, China, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. They included three of the four children of Danish business tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, who is the Nordic country’s richest man and a major private landowner in Britain. 

Seventeen foreigners injured in the attacks are also being treated at the Colombo National Hospital as well as a private hospital in Colombo, while others have been treated and discharged.

Many of the tourists were killed in suicide attacks that targeted four hotels. At the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, a suicide bomber waited in a queue for the Easter Sunday breakfast buffet before setting off explosives strapped to his back.

 At the capital’s Shangri-La Hotel, Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne was enjoying breakfast with her family in the dining room. Her daughter Nisanga had posted a photo of the group on Facebook.

 Minutes later, a massive explosion ripped through the hall, killing several, including the mother and daughter.

 “It is with great sadness that we can confirm that we are aware of a number of casualties among our guests and colleagues. This includes three of our colleagues, who were fatally injured in the course of their duties,” a Shangri-La spokeswoman said in a statement.

 “We will continue to work closely with local authorities and emergency services to provide our fullest assistance and support to all affected parties,” she added.

 “Our hotel remains secured by the military and the police. We have also decided that the hotel will be closed until further notice.”

 The spokeswoman said the hotel is providing alternative accommodation for affected guests, and has set up a dedicated helpline for guests and their loved ones to call: +603 2025 4619.