QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – An Islamic State fighter detained in Syria urged Italy on Saturday to let him come home to start a new life, saying he had abandoned the self-styled jihadist “caliphate” after growing disillusioned with its rulers.
Mounsef al-Mkhayar, 22, an Islamic state fighter of Morrocan descent and Italian citizenship, gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Qamishli, Syria March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah
Mounsef al-Mkhayar, a 22-year-old of Moroccan descent who grew up in Italy, spoke to Reuters in his first interview since surrendering to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) two months ago.
He has been in prison since emerging from Baghouz, a tiny village in eastern Syria where the SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State rule – which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
Mkhayar gave an account of growing chaos among jihadists on the brink of defeat, and of disputes in the ranks as top commanders fled Syria.
But he said Islamic State was also planning for the next phase, smuggling out hundreds of men to set up sleeper cells across Iraq and eastern Syria: “They said ‘We must get revenge.’”
Mkhayar is one of thousands from all over the world who were drawn to the promise of an ultra-radical Sunni Islamist utopia overriding national borders. Kurdish security officials identified him as Italian, and he said he holds Italian citizenship.
“I wish to return to Italy to my family and friends … for them to accept and help me to live a new life,” said Mkhayar, who walks on crutches after shelling injured his leg. “I just want to get out of this movie, I’m tired.”
FROM MILAN TO MAYADIN
Mkhayar was sentenced to eight years in jail by a Milan court in 2017 for spreading Islamic State propaganda and trying to recruit Italians to its cause, according to Italian media. As a result, he is likely to have to serve this sentence if he does return to Italy.
Reuters interviewed him at a security office in northern Syria in the presence of an SDF official.
As it nears victory, the SDF has struggled with the dilemma of holding fighters who traveled from abroad to join Islamic State along with women and children.
Before the final assault on Baghouz, the Kurdish-led SDF said it had around 800 foreign militants in jails and 2,000 of their wives and children in camps. Since then, the numbers have ballooned.
The SDF wants them sent back where they came from. But foreign governments generally do not want to receive citizens who may be hard to prosecute, and who pledged allegiance to a caliphate that left behind of a trail of butchery.
Once an atheist with an affinity for rap music and a dream of moving to America, Mkhayar joined Islamic State at 18.
He said he had spent most of his life in Milan with an aunt he calls his mother, before being placed in a home for troubled youths overseen by an Italian priest. He spent a month in prison on drugs charges.
Then he began immersing himself in Islamic State videos on YouTube and speaking to recruiters on Facebook. It took him only a month to decide to move to Syria with a friend four years ago.
His friend was later killed on the battlefield. After military and religious training, Mkhayar fought on various fronts. As Islamic State lost its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa, he left for Mayadin on the Euphrates river in Syria, then moved further east across the desert, toward the Iraqi border.
“WE’RE GETTING OUT”
Amid a string of military defeats in eastern Syria, Islamic State leaders were in disarray, killing off rival clerics and commanders known as emirs, Mkhayar said.
He said he had tried to quit the fighting but had been imprisoned, and then dispatched back to the frontlines as attacks intensified.
He wound up in Baghouz, where he said the jihadists were split between wanting to give up or fight to the death.
Mkhayar said his wife, a Syrian Kurdish woman from Kobani whom he had married three years ago, helped convince him to leave.
“‘That’s it,’ we said, ‘we’re getting out.’ I saw my little daughter turning weak. I was scared my children would die.”
Mkhayar said he could not sleep thinking about his wife and two daughters in a camp for displaced people in another part of northeast Syria. His wife is due to give birth in a month.
He said he still believed in the idea of a caliphate for Muslims, but accused Islamic State rulers of governing their land like “a mafia”, seeking only to make money and violating their own rules with impunity.
Commanders had stolen money and fled to Turkey, Iraq or Western Europe while ordering people to stay and defend Islam, he said.
“This is my belief and I won’t change it, but here in Islamic State, in reality this doesn’t exist … There is no justice,” he said.
“Honestly, I came here too fast … When I arrived, I found another story.”
(This version of the story was refiled to correct location of Mayadin in paragraph 17)
Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah in Qamishli, and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Tom Perry and Kevin Liffey
‘I shall reign in righteousness’: Thailand crowns king in ornate ceremonies
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Saturday completed intricate Buddhist and Brahmin rituals to symbolically transform him into a living god as the Southeast Asian nation officially crowned its first monarch in nearly seven decades.
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida attend his coronation in Bangkok, Thailand, May 4, 2019 in this still image taken from TV footage. Thai TV/Pool via REUTERS
King Vajiralongkorn, 66, became constitutional monarch after the death of his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2016 after 70 years on the throne.
The king was joined by new Queen Suthida after a surprise announcement three days before the coronation that the thrice-divorced monarch had married for a fourth time.
His coronation, after a period of mourning for the late king, comes amid the uncertainty of an unresolved election battle between the current military junta chief and a “democratic front” trying to push the army out of politics.
King Vajiralongkorn sat erect on a high throne above his queen, royal family members and Brahmin priests inside the Grand Palace throne hall where the royal guardian deity Phra Siam Devadhiraj is said to reside.
“I shall reign in righteousness for the benefits of the kingdom and the people forever,” the king said in his first royal command, while sitting under a nine-tiered umbrella in full royal regalia including a gold-enameled, diamond-tipped crown.
Traditionally uttered after a king is crowned, the king’s first royal command serves to capture the essence of his reign. The king’s royal command was similar to that of his father’s 69 years ago.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn also granted Queen Suthida, a former Thai Airways flight attendant and head of his personal bodyguard regiment, her full royal title.
Thai kings’ coronation rituals are a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmin traditions dating back centuries. One of the many official titles King Vajiralongkorn will take is Rama X, or the 10th king of the Chakri dynasty founded in 1782.
Saturday’s rituals were about transforming him into a “Devaraja”, or a divine embodiment of the gods.
Outside the palace walls, a sea of people in yellow polo shirts sat on roadsides, holding up portraits of the king and the Thai national flag.
Yellow is particularly significant in Thai culture, which is steeped in astrology, as it is the color of Monday, the day the king was born, and also the color of the sun, which represents the monarch in the cosmos.
The king received the royal golden plaque containing his name and title, the royal horoscope, and the royal seal, which were made in a three-hour ritual last week.
He also received and put on five articles of the royal regalia from the chief Brahmin.
The high-reaching crown, which weighs 7.3 kg (16 lb) symbolizes the summit of Mount Meru, the Hindu god Indra’s heavenly abode, and its weight represents the monarch’s royal burden.
King Vajiralongkorn put the crown on his head himself with the help of court officials, and adjusted it several times during the ceremony.
Before the crowning ritual, King Vajiralongkorn appeared dressed in simple white robes as he underwent a royal purification ritual, sitting under a canopied fountain that poured consecrated waters over his head.
As the waters started pouring, cannons from the 19th century, used specifically for the coronation, started firing 10 volleys each.
The country’s Buddhist Supreme Patriarch also poured sacred waters over the king, followed by Brahmin priests and royal family members.
The king later changed into a full uniform and took a seat on an eight-sided, carved wooden throne to receive sacred waters on his hand in an anointment ritual.
Selected officials, including military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the National Legislative Assembly, and the chairman of the Supreme Court, poured the waters from eight directions, representing the cardinal and ordinal directions on a compass.
The waters used in the two rituals were collected from 117 sources last month, blessed by Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests in temples around the country, before they were combined and consecrated.
During the ceremonies, the king gave alms to saffron-robed, barefoot monks.
Later on Saturday evening, the king will proclaim himself the royal patron of Buddhism later in the evening, and perform a private housewarming ritual at the royal residence where he will stay the night, as previous kings have done.
During 18 months of his reign so far, King Vajiralongkorn has moved to consolidate the authority of the monarchy, including taking more direct control of the crown’s vast wealth with the help of Thailand’s military government.
Thailand ended absolute rule by its kings in 1932, but the monarchy remains highly revered as the divine symbol and protector of the country and Buddhist religion.
Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Stephen Coates
Shares claw higher before U.S. jobs data, oil sinks again
LONDON (Reuters) – World stocks were battling to avoid their first weekly fall in six weeks on Friday, as investors waited to see whether key U.S. jobs data later would give the Federal Reserve another reason to dismiss rate cut calls.
FILE PHOTO: A man looks at an electronic board showing the Nikkei stock index outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Europe’s bourses nudged fractionally higher early on as earnings from banks HSBC and Societe Generale cheered traders and encouraging Adidas profits < ADSGn.DE> sent the German sportswear firm’s shares leaping 7 percent to a record high.
The dollar was also trying to end the week on a firmer note having seen markets scale back bets on a U.S. rate cut this week. As well as the jobs figures later, there are no less than eight Federal Reserve policymakers due to speak.
Bond and commodity markets remained firmly on the backfoot however with most benchmark government bond yields up on the day and Brent oil slipping back toward $70 a barrel again for what will be its worst week in over two months.
Fund manager UBP strategist Koon Chow said it all pointed to a little bit of the steam coming out of the markets after a flying start to the year.
“For the last four months it has been the unwinding the extreme pessimism that had built up (last year)” he said, referring to trade war nerves and the slowdown in many of the world’s largest economies.
“So here we are now in search of the next big thing, and I think today, and for the last few weeks, it is a views and portfolio repositioning exercise.”
U.S. employment figures are due at 1230 GMT, which are forecast to show 185,000 net new jobs were added in April and the unemployment rate at a steady 3.8 percent.
A report by payrolls processor ADP on Wednesday showed U.S. private employers added 275,000 jobs last month.
A solid official reading later would bolster the notion the world’s biggest economy remains on track for its longest expansion ever, further boosting the dollar potentially and the prospects for corporate earnings.
Overnight Asian trading had remained thin with both Japan and China traders still enjoying holidays. Hong Kong was in though and climbed 0.4 percent , the Australian market gained 0.1 percent, while Korea’s KOSPI slipped 0.5 percent.
Overnight on Wall Street, major indices,, had given up an initial attempt to regain their record highs and closed in the red, weighed down by energy shares.
Oil prices had plunged again after U.S. crude production output set a new record, though the losses were capped by the intensifying political crisis in Venezuela and the stopping of Iranian oil sanction waivers by Washington.[O/R]
U.S. crude was still in the red in early London trade down 0.3 percent at $61.65 a barrel, while Brent slipped 0.5 percent to $70.42.
PRESSURE DOWN UNDER
In the currency markets, Australian and New Zealand dollars both fell as speculators wagered both countries could see interest cuts next week. [FRX/]
The Aussie slipped below psychological support of $0.7000 overnight to the lowest since early January while the kiwi dollar drifted closer to a recent five-month trough of $0.6581.
The weakness in the antipodean currencies also came as the U.S. dollar gained on remarks by U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell earlier this week that a recent weakness in inflation owed to “transitory” factors.
That led traders to start paring expectations for a Fed rate cut. Futures now imply about a 49 percent probability of an easing at year-end, down from 61 percent late on Wednesday, according to CME Group’s FedWatch program.
The dollar index held at 97.842, inching toward a two-year peak of 98.33 touched last week.
Against the Japanese yen, the dollar was little changed at 111.48 having spent the entire week in a tight 111.03-111.89 range, while the euro stayed closed to $1.12
(Graphic: US ADP non farm datastream, tmsnrt.rs/2DFqpOn)
Monstrous rumors stoke hostility to Pakistan’s anti-polio drive
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – His bearded face was half-covered by a shawl, but Hameedullah Khan’s fear and ignorance was on full display as he delivered a chilling message for anyone who tries to vaccinate his children against polio.
FILE PHOTO: People move a child on a stretcher after what they say was a defective vaccine administered outside a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz/File Photo
“I will stab anyone who comes to my house with polio drops,” Khan growled, refusing to be filmed or photographed as he shopped in a fly-blown bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar, a city scarred by years on the frontline of Islamist militancy in Pakistan.
This dangerous hostility to immunization teams flared last week after religious hardliners in the city spread false rumors, raising a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated polio vaccines.
The rumors spread like wildfire, triggering mass panic in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Mobs burned a village health center, blocked a highway and pelted cars with stones. Medical workers were harassed and threatened.
Mosques made announcements that children were having cramps, vomiting and diarrhea after they were given “poisonous” polio drops. Word went out on social media that some children had died.
Panicked parents rushed their children to hospitals, overwhelming health authorities. In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals complaining of nausea and dizziness. Officials described it as mass hysteria, asserting there had been no deaths confirmed.
KILLED BY MILITANTS
It is easy to feed the fears of communities that feel under siege, as in northwest Pakistan.
Mistrust of outsiders and modernity goes a long way to explaining why Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are two of just three countries in the world – Nigeria is the third – where polio remains endemic.
Some Muslim clerics have peddled stories that the vaccines are part of Western plot to make Muslims sterile, while militant groups have killed nearly 100 health workers and their guards since 2012 on the pretext that they could be Western spies.
Those killings escalated after a doctor in Peshawar involved in the campaign against polio helped U.S. forces track down and eliminate al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Just late week, militants shot and killed a medical worker and two policemen guarding other vaccination teams in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighboring Baluchistan province.
But the scale of the most recent backlash against a campaign to eradicate polio is something new for government officials, who worry that the suspicions and backward thinking of a hardline minority has infected the wider public.
“The mistrust in one segment of society, that refuses vaccinations due to religious beliefs, is translating into the rest of the country, which is something not seen in the past,” Babar Atta, the government’s top coordinator in the drive against polio, told Reuters.
Every year Pakistan’s government mounts public education campaigns and recruits Muslim religious leaders to reassure people, but their suspicions persist.
As a result of last week’s false rumors, families of hundreds of thousands of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere refused to participate in the latest campaign to eradicate a virus that can cause paralysis or death.
“No drops for us in the future!,” Saif-ur-Rehman, a father of eight, repeating the rumors that the vaccines were contaminated or expired.
“Even my son was saying: ‘The next time they bring polio drops to school, I am going to get up and run away from school’. I said, ‘Do that’.”
An inquiry found the false stories originated at two schools on the outskirts of Peshawar. Health workers seeking to vaccinate pupils from the Dar-ul-Qalam and Roza-tul-Atfaal schools had met with repeated refusals, according to provincial officials.
Investigators also identified and arrested a man seen in a video telling dozens of children to pose as if the vaccine had rendered them unconscious, Farooq Jameel, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s senior-most health official, said.
Police also arrested 16 other men, some of whom had threatened vaccination teams on the streets.
A provincial leader of a conservative Islamist party that officials suspected had some links to the schools’ owners denied any connection and went on to endorse the immunization program.
“I have been vaccinating my own children and will continue to give them polio vaccine till a certain age, but people have some misconception and doubts about polio vaccine, and the government needs to address their concerns,” Abdul Wasey, secretary-general of Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told Reuters.
But the damage has been done.
Pakistan has made huge strides in tackling polio, but officials say that while the latest immunization drive succeeded in inoculating 37.6 million children, 1.4 million were left unprotected.
Citing fears of attacks on health workers, authorities called off a two-day catch up for the vaccination drive last week.
The global campaign against the disease over the past few decades has been a great success story, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting just 33 cases of polio worldwide in 2018.
But most of them were in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the danger is that so long as a single child remains infected the virus can quickly spread into polio-free countries and un-immunized populations.
There is no known cure for polio, but the disease can be prevented if children are given multiple treatments with the vaccine.
Nadia Gul, a housewife, is among the volunteer health workers who make up the vaccination teams. Two children in her close family are victims of polio.
Covering her face with a veil to talk with strangers, Gul spoke of the dangers she faces due to the heinous slurs propagated by ill-educated opponents, but she refuses to be cowed.
“We have fears in our minds and in our hearts, but we will not lose courage,” Gul told Reuters. “Our aim, the aim of all the polio workers, is that we end this scourge in our country, so that no child, God forbid, is crippled.”
Writing by Asif Shahzad and Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore
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