Hostages freed in Texas synagogue standoff, suspect dead

Update Police secure the area around Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (Amanda McCoy/Star-Telegram via AP)
Police secure the area around Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (Amanda McCoy/Star-Telegram via AP)
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Updated 16 January 2022

Hostages freed in Texas synagogue standoff, suspect dead

Police secure the area around Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. (Amanda McCoy/Star-Telegram via AP)
  • Hostage taker demanded release of jailed Pakistani doctor Aafia Siddiqui, suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda, according to ABC
  • CAIR denies hostage-taker's claim that Aafia Siddiqui’s brother, Mohammad Siddiqui, was involved

COLLEYVILLE, US: All four people taken hostage in a more than 10-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue have been freed unharmed, police said late Saturday, and their suspected captor is dead.
The siege in the small Texas town of Colleyville — in which the suspect was apparently demanding the release of a convicted terrorist — had sparked an outpouring of concern from Jewish organizations in the United States and the Israeli government.
Colleyville police chief Michael Miller told a news conference a “rescue team breached the synagogue” on Saturday evening and rescued three remaining hostages — all adults — being held inside. A first hostage had been released unharmed a few hours earlier.
“The suspect is deceased,” Miller told reporters.
FBI Dallas Special Agent Matt DeSarno said the four hostages — who included a much-loved local rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker — did not need medical attention.
“He did not harm them in any way,” he said.
There were reports from journalists at the scene of a loud explosion and gunshots at the synagogue shortly before the press conference.
That was more than 10 hours after police were alerted to the emergency at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Dallas.
Officers evacuated the synagogue’s surroundings and cordoned off the area, the police force said.
ABC News reported that the hostage-taker was armed and had claimed to have bombs in unknown locations. That was not confirmed by police although Miller said that “bomb techs are clearing the scene.”
At about 3 am local time (0800 GMT) the police force tweeted that it was “now safe for residents who were evacuated to return.”
Quoting a US official briefed on the matter, ABC reported the man was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui — a Pakistani scientist who in 2010 was sentenced by a New York court to 86 years in prison for the attempted murder of US officers in Afghanistan.
She is currently being held at a prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
DeSarno told the news conference the suspect had been identified, but did not disclose his identity.
The FBI special agent did not confirm the suspect’s demands, but said they were “focused on one issue that was not specifically threatening to the Jewish community” — and that he did not believe there was an ongoing threat.
ABC initially said the man claimed to be Siddiqui’s brother, but later clarified her brother is in Houston — while experts said the word the man used in Arabic was more figurative and meant “sister” in the Islamic faith.
Siddiqui’s lawyer said she “has absolutely no involvement” in the hostage situation in a statement to CNN. The lawyer confirmed that the man was not Siddiqui’s brother and said she condemned his actions.
DeSarno said police negotiators “had a high frequency and duration of contact with” the hostage-taker.
“There were times when it stopped for periods of time and like many hostage situations, the relationship between the negotiators and hostage-taker had been floating a little bit and sometimes got intense,” he said.

A live stream of the congregation’s Shabbat morning service, available on Facebook for around four hours during the standoff, appeared to capture audio of a man talking loudly — although it did not show the scene inside the building.
He could be heard saying, “You get my sister on the phone,” and “I am gonna die.”
He was also heard saying: “There’s something wrong with America.”
Beth Israel congregation member Ellen Smith described the situation as “shocking and horrifying” in a CNN interview.
She said the congregation was a “tight” community, and the rabbi in particular was “the best human I think anyone could ever meet.”
But she said it was “not shocking” the crisis occurred in a Jewish community.
“Cases of anti-Semitism have risen lately, but since Jews were first walking the Earth, we have been persecuted,” she said.
President Joe Biden pledged to “stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.”
“I am grateful to the tireless work of law enforcement at all levels who acted cooperatively and fearlessly to rescue the hostages,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted: “This event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive and we must continue to fight it worldwide.
“To the Jewish community in Colleyville and around the world: You are not alone — we stand united with you.”
“No one should ever be afraid to assemble in their place of worship,” the Jewish Community Relations Council said in a statement, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it was in contact with Colleyville Jewish leaders to “provide any assistance possible.”

Kyiv asks Turkey to probe three more Russian ships it alleges transported stolen grain

Russian-flagged bulk carrier Mikhail Nenashev is unloaded at the MMK Port in Dortyol near the Mediterranean town of Iskenderun
Russian-flagged bulk carrier Mikhail Nenashev is unloaded at the MMK Port in Dortyol near the Mediterranean town of Iskenderun
Updated 52 min 36 sec ago

Kyiv asks Turkey to probe three more Russian ships it alleges transported stolen grain

Russian-flagged bulk carrier Mikhail Nenashev is unloaded at the MMK Port in Dortyol near the Mediterranean town of Iskenderun
  • The conflict in Ukraine has heightened concerns about food security both in Ukraine and around the globe, driving up world food prices to record levels this year
  • NATO member Turkey, which has good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, has criticized the invasion but also rejected Western sanctions on Russia

ISTANBUL: Ukraine has asked Turkey to help investigate three Russian-flagged ships as part of Kyiv’s efforts to probe what it alleges is the theft of grain from Russian-occupied territory, according to official documents.
In a June 13 letter, which hasn’t previously been reported, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office asked Turkey’s justice ministry to investigate and provide evidence on the three named ships it suspects have been involved in transporting grain allegedly stolen from recently occupied Ukrainian territories, such as Kherson.
The letter, which Reuters reviewed, said the ships traveled from Crimea’s main grain terminal in Sevastopol in April and May and pressed Ankara to obtain documentation about their cargo and arrival at Turkish ports. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Smoke rises in the sky after shelling near a winter wheat field, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the town of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine. (REUTERS)

All three large dry bulk carriers — Mikhail Nenashev, Matros Pozynich and Matros Koshka — are owned by a subsidiary of a Western-sanctioned Russian state-owned company called United Shipbuilding Corporation, according to Equasis, a shipping database. The Russian company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
If it is established that United Shipbuilding Corporation transported grain from recently-occupied Ukrainian territory, it would add to emerging evidence of the involvement by Russian-state owned entities in exporting what Kyiv alleges is stolen goods. Ukraine has publicly accused Moscow of stealing grain since the February invasion; Russia has repeatedly denied it has stolen any Ukrainian grain.
The conflict in Ukraine has heightened concerns about food security both in Ukraine and around the globe, driving up world food prices to record levels this year. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters but has struggled to export goods with war raging along its southern coast and many of its ports blocked. Grain accounts for nearly a fifth of all the country’s exports, according to official data.
Reuters was unable to determine the origin or end destination of the grain in the ships named by Kyiv in the letter.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to requests for comment. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed administration in Kherson, said grain from the region was going to Crimea and that local farmers were responsible for transporting it there. He said he had no knowledge of any shipments to Turkey or the Middle East.
Reuters on Friday reported that Kyiv in a separate letter, dated June 30, asked Turkey’s justice ministry to detain and arrest another Russian-flagged ship carrying what it said was Ukrainian grain from the occupied port of Berdyansk. On Monday, a senior Turkish official said Turkey had halted the cargo ship and is investigating Ukraine’s claim.
NATO member Turkey, which has good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, has criticized the invasion but also rejected Western sanctions on Russia. Ankara has agreed with Ukraine to block commercial shipments between Crimea and Turkey since 2014.
At the same time, Turkey has played a key role in discussions between the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine on a potential Black Sea corridor to export grain from Ukraine.
Turkey’s justice ministry declined to comment on Kyiv’s two letters and referred to recent comments by the Turkish foreign ministry that it had investigated Ukraine’s public claims that grain stolen by Russia had made its way to Turkey and determined there was no issue.
“We saw that the ships’ port of departure and the origin of the goods is Russia on the records,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on June 23, without identifying which ships. “We are against Ukrainian grains or other goods being taken by Russia … and we will not allow these goods to come to us.” The foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the ship from Berdyansk that arrived in Turkey late last week.
A Turkish diplomatic source added that Kyiv had shared with Ankara its claims about allegedly stolen grain being brought to Turkey via Russian ships and that cooperation with Ukrainian officials was ongoing.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. Taras Vysotskiy, the first deputy to Ukraine’s agriculture minister, told Reuters that Kyiv estimates about 400,000 tons of stolen grain has been exported. Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, told Reuters Ukraine believes most of that has gone to Turkey and Kyiv has sent what it considered to be evidence on the involvement of 13 ships to Turkish authorities.
The June 13 letter said at least two of the ships switched off tracking systems that openly broadcast before entering Sevastopol port.
It also said Kyiv suspected grain was being taken from recently occupied territory, particularly Kherson, where it said there were several grain elevators that the owners don’t have access to due to the occupation. It didn’t identify the owners. Kyiv, in the letter, added that it is investigating criminal violations of Ukraine’s rules and customs of war, without naming individuals.
Ukraine’s embassy in Beirut told Reuters that at least seven companies who own storage units in newly-occupied territory have registered criminal cases with Ukrainian authorities alleging Russia stole their wheat. Two of the companies, Ukrlandfarming and State Food and Grain Corporation of Ukraine, confirmed to Reuters they had submitted a document to Ukrainian authorities but declined to provide details. The others didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ukraine has also said Russia has sent its ally Syria wheat allegedly stolen from Ukraine since invading in February. Ukraine’s embassy in Beirut told Reuters that at least 150,000 tons of what it said was “stolen” wheat have made it to Syria since February, mostly on Russian ships, without specifying how it knew.
Neither Syria’s port authority, which is part of the transport ministry, nor the Syrian information ministry responded to requests for comment.

One of the vessels Kyiv named in the June 13 letter, the 169-meter long Mikhail Nenashev, was at Sevastopol’s Avlita grain terminal from June 14 to 16, according to satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs PBC, a private satellite operator, which show the ship docked beside grain silos with cranes towering above.
The vessel arrived eight days later at Iskenderun, Turkey, according to Refinitiv Eikon ship-tracking data. Photos and videos supplied by Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based geopolitical analyst and head of the Bosphorus Observer consultancy, show port cranes lifting what appears from the images to be a golden, grain-like cargo from the Mikhail Nenashev into trucks on June 27 at nearby Dortyol port.
Since March, the Mikhail Nenashev has visited the Sevastopol grain terminal on at least three other occasions before arriving in Turkey between 5 and 15 days later, according to satellite imagery and ship-tracking data.
In one instance, it unloaded 27,000 tons of wheat in the Turkish seaport of Derince on April 22, according to data from Refinitiv Eikon, which shows the cargo was loaded in Sevastopol, Crimea. Ukraine, in its June 13 letter, said the Mikhail Nenashev loaded 27,500 tons of grain at Sevastopol’s Avlita grain terminal in April, without specifying which day.
Dortyol Port did not respond to Reuters’ queries about the shipments or precautions taken in light of Ukrainian claims. Derince Port confirmed it received “Russian ships carrying grains” but did not comment on screening processes. There was no answer at Avlita’s head office and a person at the Sevastopol office who answered the phone denied all knowledge of Ukrainian grain at the port and put down the phone.
Another one of the ships, the Matros Pozynich, docked in Syria on at least three occasions within a week or two of visiting Sevastopol’s Avlita grain terminal, according to satellite imagery and ship-tracking data. The third ship, Matros Koshka, has on at least three occasions left Sevastopol’s grain terminal before turning off ship transponders, according to satellite imagery and tracking data. On one of those occasions, it docked in Syria 10 days later, according to a Planet Labs satellite image.
All three ships are owned and managed by Russian-based company Crane Marine Contractor LLC and were purchased in either December or February, according to ownership records from Equasis. The company is a subsidiary of United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), according to a copy of Crane Marine’s charter currently on its website. USC’s website also lists Crane Marine as one of its companies. Russian company records show Crane Marine is owned by Caspian Energy group, which is part of USC, according to USC company press releases dated in 2018.
Crane Marine didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The United States sanctioned USC in 2014 in response to Russia’s efforts “to destabilize eastern Ukraine” saying the state-owned defense technology firm manufactured arms and built ships for the Russian navy. In April, Washington renewed and expanded its sanctions relating to the company. Britain sanctioned USC in February.

UK PM Johnson names Zahawi as new finance minister

UK PM Johnson names Zahawi as new finance minister
Updated 06 July 2022

UK PM Johnson names Zahawi as new finance minister

UK PM Johnson names Zahawi as new finance minister
  • The 55-year-old co-founded the prominent polling company YouGo
  • Won widespread praise for overseeing Britain’s pandemic vaccines rollout.

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Tuesday named his Iraqi-born education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, as finance minister after the shock resignation of Rishi Sunak.
Downing Street said Queen Elizabeth II had approved the appointment of Zahawi, who came to Britain as a child with his Kurdish family not speaking any English, before forging a lucrative business career.
The 55-year-old co-founded the prominent polling company YouGov and was active in local Conservative politics in London, before becoming an MP in 2010.
He won widespread praise for overseeing Britain’s pandemic vaccines rollout.
But like Sunak, his private wealth has drawn adverse attention, including when he claimed parliamentary expenses for heating his horse stables in 2013.
Zahawi refused to comment to reporters as he left a meeting in 10 Downing Street, including on whether he will uphold Sunak’s pleas for fiscal discipline against Johnson’s free-spending instincts.
The prime minister named another loyalist, Michelle Donelan, to take Zahawi’s place at the education ministry.

Sri Lanka aims to stop money printing as inflation nears 60%

Sri Lanka aims to stop money printing as inflation nears 60%
Updated 05 July 2022

Sri Lanka aims to stop money printing as inflation nears 60%

Sri Lanka aims to stop money printing as inflation nears 60%
  • Government is working on debt-restructuring plan for IMF bailout

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will stop printing money completely to control a rapid increase in the prices of commodities, its prime minister said on Tuesday, with inflation expected to reach 60 percent this year.

The cash-strapped country of 22 million people is battling its worst economic crisis in decades and has been unable to pay for essential imports for months because of a severe dollar crunch caused by economic mismanagement and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic on its tourism-dependent economy.

Extreme shortages of petrol, food and medicines have led to the closure of many services, and triggered mass protests that have been ongoing since March. The island nation has been forced to shut schools and stop providing fuel to all but essential services.

Consumer prices rose 54.6 percent in June from a year earlier, with transport surging 128 percent from the previous month and food 80 percent.

“Our plan is to control inflation. By the end of this year, inflation will rise to 60 percent,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliamentarians.

“In 2023, we will have to print money with restrictions on several occasions. But by the end of 2024, it is our intention to stop printing money completely.”

Wickremesinghe announced the planned measures after last week’s complicated bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

The premier, who took office in May and is also the finance minister, said the plan was aimed at reducing the inflation rate to reach between 4 and 6 percent by 2025.

Sri Lanka is facing negotiations with the IMF as “a bankrupt country,” Wickremesinghe said, as he outlined a roadmap to get out of the crisis. The government is planning to submit its debt-restructuring plan for the IMF’s approval by the end of August.

Stopping the printing of money is in line with the fund’s expectations.

“The IMF will not like printing of money; if they have to abide by the IMF, (the) printing of new notes will have to be avoided,” Murtaza Jafferjee, economist and chairman of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute, told Arab News.

“Printing money means the central bank is funding the government; under the IMF agreement we will have to enact the new monetary law act which will restrict funding the government so it will automatically stop.”

The inflation rate, he said, could be even higher than projected.

“It can get worse if we have further supply chain blocks or fuel prices will increase further.”

One solution that could bring quicker relief than the IMF bailout loan — which may take months — could be tourism, a key source of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves.

In 2019, the South Asian country welcomed over 1.9 million tourists. As COVID-19 restrictions upended the hospitality industry, the number dropped to less than 200,000 last year. But it is slowly picking up again, as 380,000 tourists have already arrived in the country in the first half of 2022, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.

“We have to ensure that tourism makes a strong recovery in the second half of the year,” Jafferjee said.

Muhammad tops boys’ name rankings in UK

Updated 05 July 2022

Muhammad tops boys’ name rankings in UK

  • Other Muslim names in top 100 lists for boys and girls include Ali, Yusuf, Fatima and Aisha

LONDON: Muhammad is the most popular baby name for boys in the UK this year, a list compiled by online media company BabyCentre has revealed.

Muslim names account for about 10 percent of all names in the top 100 rankings for both males and females, which were published in full by the Daily Mail.

In addition to Muhammad, the top boys’ names also include Ali in 31st position, Yusuf (53rd), Ayaan (61st), Ahmad (63rd), Omar (72nd), Abdullah (77th), Abdul (84th), Ibrahim (92nd) and Syed (94th).

Among the top girls’ names, Layla is the most popular Muslim name, in 24th place. It is followed by Fatima (27th), Nur (29th), Maryam (33rd), Aisha (37th), Aaliyah (60th), Raya (92nd), Nora (95th) and Anaya (98th).

Across the rest of the list, recent events appear to have strongly influenced the popularity of some common names in the UK. For example, the name Amber fell in the rankings following the recent high-profile court case between US film stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

Meanwhile a new name topped the girls’ list for the first time since 2015, with Lily overtaking Olivia.

2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government

2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government
Updated 05 July 2022

2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government

2 key UK Cabinet ministers quit Boris Johnson’s government
  • Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other
  • Sunak and Javid have been seen as possible leadership contenders within the Conservative Party if Johnson is forced out

LONDON: Two of Britain’s most senior Cabinet ministers resigned on Tuesday, a move that could spell the end of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership after months of scandals.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned within minutes of each other after a day in which the prime minister was forced to acknowledge he had to change his story on the way he handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a senior member of his government.
“It is with enormous regret that I must tell you that I can no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this government,’’ Javid said in his resignation letter. “I am instinctively a team player but the British people also rightly expect integrity from their government.’’
Sunak said “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.”
“I recognize this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning,” he added.
Both Sunak and Javid have been seen as possible leadership contenders within the Conservative Party if Johnson is forced out. Their departures were a huge blow to the prime minister, because both were in charge of two of the biggest issues facing Britain right now — the cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest scandal saw Johnson hit by allegations he failed to come clean about a lawmaker who was appointed to a senior position despite claims of sexual misconduct.
Johnson has faced pressure to explain what he knew about previous misconduct allegations against lawmaker Chris Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip Thursday amid complaints that he groped two men at a private club.
Minutes before the resignations of Javid and Sunak were announced, Johnson told reporters that Pincher should have been fired from the government after a previous 2019 incident.
Asked if it was an error to appoint Pincher to the government, Johnson said “I think it was a mistake and I apologize for it. In hindsight it was the wrong thing to do.”
“I apologize to everybody who has been badly affected by it. I want to make absolutely clear that there’s no place in this government for anybody who is predatory or who abuses their position of power,” Johnson said.
The government’s explanation shifted repeatedly over the past five days. Ministers initially said Johnson wasn’t aware of any allegations when he promoted Pincher to the post in February.
On Monday, a spokesman said Johnson knew of sexual misconduct allegations that were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
That account didn’t sit well with Simon McDonald, the most senior civil servant at the UK Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020. In a highly unusual move, he said Tuesday that the prime minister’s office still wasn’t telling the truth.
McDonald said in a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards that he received complaints about Pincher’s behavior in the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister. An investigation upheld the complaint, and Pincher apologized for his actions, McDonald said.
McDonald disputed that Johnson was unaware of the allegations or that the complaints were dismissed because they had been resolved or not made formally.
“The original No. 10 line is not true, and the modification is still not accurate,” McDonald wrote, referring to the prime minister’s Downing Street office. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation.
Hours after McDonald’s comments came out, Johnson’s office changed its story again, saying the prime minister forgot he was told that Pincher was the subject of an official complaint.
The latest revelations have fueled discontent within Johnson’s Cabinet after ministers were forced to publicly deliver the prime minister’s denials, only to have the explanation shift the next day.
The Times of London on Tuesday published an analysis of the situation under the headline “Claim of lying puts Boris Johnson in peril.”
Johnson’s authority had already been shaken by a vote of no confidence last month. He survived, but 41 percent of Conservatives voted to remove him from office.
The prime minister’s shifting responses to months of allegations about lockdown-breaking parties in government offices that ultimately resulted in 126 fines, including one levied against Johnson, fueled concerns about his leadership.
Two weeks later, Conservative candidates were badly beaten in two special elections to fill vacant seats in Parliament, adding to the discontent within Johnson’s party.
When Pincher resigned last week as deputy chief whip, a key position in enforcing party discipline, he told the prime minister that he “drank far too much” the previous night and had “embarrassed myself and other people.”
Johnson initially refused to suspend Pincher from the Conservative Party, but he relented after a formal complaint about the groping allegations was filed with parliamentary authorities.
Critics suggested Johnson was slow to react because he didn’t want to be in the position of forcing Pincher to resign his Parliament seat and setting up the Conservatives for another potential special election defeat.
Even before the Pincher scandal, suggestions were swirling that Johnson may soon face another no-confidence vote.
In the next few weeks, Conservative lawmakers will elect new members to the committee that sets parliamentary rules for the party. Several candidates have suggested they would support changing the rules to allow for another vote of no confidence. The existing rules require 12 months between such votes.
Senior Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Johnson, said he would support a change of the rules of the Conservative 1922 Committee.
“Mr. Johnson has for three days now been sending ministers — in one case a Cabinet minister — out to defend the indefensible, effectively to lie on his behalf. That cannot be allowed to continue,” Gale told the BBC. “This prime minister has trashed the reputation of a proud and honorable party for honesty and decency, and that is not acceptable.”