Colombia fully legalises medical marijuana ("Weed", "Wee")

Colombia's president has signed a decree fully legalising medical marijuana in a shift away from preventing drug crop production.

Juan Manuel Santos said the move put Colombia "in the group of countries that are at the the use of natural resources to fight disease".

But, he said, the country would still fight illegal drug production.

Up until now, marijuana production in Colombia had fallen into a legal grey area.

While a 1986 law allowed for the manufacture, export, sale and medical and scientific use of marijuana, the practice was, until Tuesday, never formally regulated.

Anyone wishing to grow marijuana must now apply to the National Narcotics Council for a licence. Medical marijuana is used for medical ailments such as Crohn's disease, seizures, HIV and nausea.

Last year, Mr Santos, who has admitted smoking cannabis while a student in Kansas in the 1970s, said legalisation would take drug production out of the hands of drug traffickers.

A number of countries in Latin America have decriminalised or legalised marijuana use in recent years, as have US states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Uruguay fully legalised the production, sale and recreational use of marijuana in 2013.

Colombia has been plagued by decades of drug-related violence, and is better known as the world's biggest producer of cocaine, along with Peru.


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Panama orders arrest of ex-leader Ricardo Martinelli

Panama's Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who governed the Central American country from 2009 to 2014.

Mr Martinelli is accused of using public funds to illegally spy on more than 150 prominent people.

Among those he allegedly spied on are trade union activists, politicians, lawyers, doctors and business people.

Mr Martinelli denied the allegations, saying they were part of a vendetta by current President Juan Carlos Varela.

Illegal wiretaps

The court ordered the arrest because Mr Martinelli failed to appear at a hearing earlier this month.

He left Panama in January days before the Supreme Court voted in favour of having him investigated over separate corruption allegations.

He is believed to be living in Miami, Florida.

The court did not give any details about how his detention would be sought.

On Monday, Mr Martinelli tweeted [in Spanish]: "First round of the political trial: without having been properly documented, without charges, without proper notification and without sentence, my provisional arrest has been ordered."

The Supreme Court launched an investigation into the alleged spying ordered by Mr Martinelli in June.

It came after dozens of people alleged they had their phones tapped and that the administration of Mr Martinelli prepared dossiers against them containing intimate information.

Among the alleged victims are high-ranking members of the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party, as well as lawmaker Jose Luis Varela, who is the brother of current President Juan Carlos Varela.

Investigators said the wiretaps were carried out by members of Panama's National Security Council.


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Russian ex-tycoon Khodorkovsky may seek UK asylum

Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, says he is considering applying for political asylum in the UK and feels safe in London.

He was speaking in a BBC interview after a Russian court put him on an international wanted list over the 1990s murder of a Siberian mayor.

"Definitely I'm considering asking for asylum in the UK," he said.

Mr Putin "sees me - it's obvious now - as a serious threat", he said.

Once Russia's richest man, the former head of the now defunct Yukos oil firm spent 10 years in a Siberian prison on fraud charges, which he says were politically motivated.

Mr Putin pardoned him in 2013 and he now lives abroad, mainly in Switzerland.

"I'm considered by President Putin as a threat, economically, because of the possible seizure of Russian assets abroad, and politically, as someone who will potentially help democratic candidates in the coming 2016 elections," he said.

Russia will hold elections to the lower house of parliament - the State Duma - next year. The Duma is currently dominated by Mr Putin's supporters.

London base?

The BBC's Richard Galpin asked Mr Khodorkovsky whether he felt at risk in light of the murders of prominent opponents of Mr Putin in recent years. Among them was former secret agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with radioactive polonium in a London hotel in 2006.

"The history of deaths of opponents of this regime is impressive... but I was in jail for 10 years, I could have been killed any day easily. In London I feel much safer than during those years," he replied.

When he left Russia in 2013 he said he would not get involved in politics - which was was widely believed to have been the reason for his early release.

He told the BBC on Wednesday that he would "help young political activists in Russia to gain political experience and present an alternative to the existing regime".

He said it was "far too optimistic" to speak of regime change in Russia now, "but I'm quite confident that within 10 years the regime will be changed and I hope I will play a significant role in that".

Charge sheet

Earlier, referring to the Russian order for his arrest, he said the Moscow authorities had "gone mad".

He is accused of ordering several of his employees to kill both the mayor and a businessman, who survived.

Investigators allege Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, was killed on 26 June 1998 for demanding Mr Khodorkovsky's oil firm, Yukos, pay taxes that the company had allegedly been avoiding.

Local businessman Yevgeny Rybin was allegedly targeted because his activities "clashed with Yukos's interests", Russia's powerful Investigative Committee (SK)said in a statement (in Russian).

Mr Rybin survived a gun attack in November 1998 and a second attack on his car in March 1999, when another man in the vehicle was killed and several people were injured.

Five people have already been tried for the attacks and the arrest warrant is unlikely to make any difference unless Mr Khodorkovsky returns to Russia, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford reports from Moscow.

Armed police raided the Moscow offices of Mr Khodorkovsky's Open Russia pro-democracy movement on Tuesday, in a move that authorities said was linked to allegations of tax evasion. The flats of at least seven activists who work for Mr Khodorkovsky were also searched.

After Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, Yukos was broken up and taken over by a state oil firm.

Last year an international arbitration court in The Hague said Russian officials had manipulated the legal system to bankrupt Yukos, and jail Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The court told Russia to pay former shareholders in Yukos $50bn (£32bn) in compensation.

Timeline: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

1963 - Born in Moscow, son of chemical engineers

1987 - Founds Menatep bank

1995 - Buys Yukos for $350m, with Menatep assuming $2bn in debt

2003 - Arrested for tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud

2005 - Found guilty on six of seven charges, jailed for eight years

2007 - Yukos declared bankrupt

2010 - Convicted of embezzlement and money laundering

2013 - Pardoned by President Putin after request for clemency; leaves Russia for Germany

2015 - Charged with ordering 1990s murder of Siberian mayor; says he is considering asking for political asylum in the UK


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Dying Pakistani student's family granted Australia visas

A decision to deny a dying Pakistani student's family a visa to visit Australia has been overturned.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the mother and brother of Hassan Asif would be granted visas to Australia.

Mr Asif was studying architecture at a university in Melbourne when he was diagnosed with terminal skin cancer in July.

His case attracted wide media attention after he made an emotional plea to see his family before died.

Mr Dutton's office told the BBC he received a call on Wednesday afternoon confirming the decision to grant Mr Asif's mother and brother a visa.

Family wish

Mr Asif told Network Ten on Tuesday night that it was difficult to face the prospect of death without his family around him and questioned why they had been denied visas.

"I'm dying and it's really hard because of the pain. In these circumstances everybody would like to be with family," he said.

At an earlier press conference, Mr Dutton said that in such cases immigration officials would have considered several factors before granting or denying visas, including the likelihood applicants might overstay their visa or make a claim for protection.

"In some cases that can result in millions of dollars of expense to the taxpayer," he said.

"It may mean that somebody is here on welfare for an extended period of time so the consideration has to be in the national interest."

Bucket list

The Melbourne City Mission homelessness centre has been caring for Mr Asif, who was previously living in a squat.

The centre's director, Sheridan Bruinhout, said Mr Asif had a relatively small social network because his focus had been on studying.

But he was currently ticking off a "bucket list" that included getting his feet wet at the beach, going to the movies and visiting the Melbourne Aquarium, she said.


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Mass graves for '300 Shia Nigerians' in Zaria

Nigeria's military killed and quickly buried the bodies of at least 300 Shia Muslims in an unjustified attack in the northern Zaria city earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The bodies were buried without family members' permission, it added.

Military spokesman Brig General Rabe Abubakar told the BBC the army had not killed anyone.

Reports of the deaths sparked outrage among Shia around the world and Iran called for their protection.

HRW said Nigeria's army version of events "does not stack up" and called for an independent judicial investigation into what happened.

The Shia have rejected a committee set up by the government to look into the incident, saying it would be biased.

"At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group," HRW Africa direction Daniel Bekele said.

The military accuses the pro-Iranian sect of trying to assassinate army chief Gen Tukur Buratai, which it denies.

It also released images purportedly showing Shia with sticks and some throwing stones at them when they tried to pass through a makeshift roadblock erected by the group.

But Human Rights Watch says there has been no "credible information" that any soldiers were injured or killed.

It is difficult to determine an accurate death toll but the information was gathered from hospital sources and eyewitnesses, the campaign group added in a statement.

Nigeria's Islamic spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, has warned that the raids on the sect, known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), could spark a new insurgency.

Militant Sunni Islamist group Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in its pursuit of an Islamic state, and has attacked the IMN.

The IMN said the military had destroyed its religious shrine and the home of its leader Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky during the raid.

Sheikh Zakzaky is currently being held by the police.

Those killed during the incident include the group's deputy leader and its spokesman.

Last year, three sons of Sheikh Zakzaky were killed in clashes between the army and pilgrims in a religious procession.

Shia in NigeriaAFP

  • Shia are minority in Nigeria but their numbers are increasing
  • The IMN, formed in the 1980s, is the main Shia group led by Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky
  • They operate their own schools and hospitals in some northern states
  • They have a history of clashes with the security forces
  • The IMN is backed by Shia-dominated Iran and its members often go there to study
  • Sunni jihadist group Boko Haram condemns Shias as heretics who should be killed


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Somalia bans Christmas celebrations

Somalia's government has banned the celebration of Christmas, warning that such Christian festivities could threaten the nation's Muslim faith.

"Those celebrations are not in any way related to Islam," an official at the religious affairs ministry said.

Security agencies have been directed to stay alert to stop any gatherings.

Foreigners are free to mark the Christian holiday in their own homes, but hotels and other public places have been prohibited from marking the day.

"Having Muslims celebrate Christmas in Somalia is not the right thing, such things are akin to the abandonment," local media quote Mohamed Kheyrow, a top official at Somalia's justice and religious affairs ministry, as saying.

Correspondents say as the country recovers from years of civil war, a growing number of Somalis who grew up in the diaspora are returning home, some of them bringing Western customs with them.

Christmas is not widely celebrated in Somalia, which officially adopted Sharia in 2009, but the odd event was held - especially as an excuse to hold a party.

Mogadishu's mayor, Yusuf Hussein Jimale, told the BBC that such gatherings might also be a target for the Islamist al-Shabab group that has targeted hotels in the city in the past.

Celebrations will be allowed at UN compounds and bases for African Union peacekeepers, who are in the country to back the government's fight against the al-Qaeda-linked militants.


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Syria conflict: Russian air strikes 'killed 200 civilians'

At least 200 civilians were killed in Russian air strikes in Syria in the two months to the end of November, an Amnesty International report says.

Quoting witnesses, the human rights group accuses Russia of using cluster bombs in civilian areas and says such attacks could constitute war crimes.

Russia's defence ministry dismissed the report as containing "fake information" and "trite cliches".

It also rejected Amnesty's accusations about cluster bombs, Reuters reports.

Amnesty said in its report it was also researching concerns about the US-led coalition air strikes in Syria.

The US has rarely acknowledged civilian deaths in its air bombardment of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which began in September 2014, although some monitoring groups say the toll could run into hundreds.

'Russian strikes kill scores' in Syria

Activists criticise Raqqa air strikes

Russia began air strikes in September this year, saying it was acting at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is targeting IS and other groups it designates as terrorists - some of which are backed by the West.

'No military targets'

In the report, Amnesty said it had "researched remotely" more than 25 Russian attacks that took place in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo between 30 September, when the Russian air campaign began, and 29 November.

It had interviewed by phone or over the internet witnesses to the attacks, and had audio and video evidence, as well as "advice from weapons experts". Amnesty said.

It said there was evidence that Russia's military "unlawfully used unguided bombs in densely populated areas and inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions".

Amnesty set out its findings into six attacks - each of which, it said, caused dozens of civilian casualties, but had no obvious military target nearby.

On 29 November, for example, it said at least one suspected Russian warplane fired three missiles into a busy public market in Ariha, in Idlib province.

A local activist group said a total of 49 civilians were either killed or missing and feared dead.

"It was a normal Sunday; there was nothing unusual. People were buying goods; children were eating," the activist, Mohammed Qurabi al-Ghazal, told Amnesty.

"First there was a loud explosion - dirt flying in the air - followed immediately by shock. In just a few moments, people were screaming, the smell of burning was in the air and there was just chaos."

He said the armed group Jaysh al-Fateh controlled the area, but did not have any presence inside Ariha itself.

"Some Russian air strikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians," Amnesty's Philip Luther said.

"Such attacks may amount to war crimes," he added.

A report by another group, Human Rights Watch, three days ago accused Syrian government forces and their Russian allies of making "extensive" use of cluster munitions against rebel groups.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday Russia was "conducting its operation in strict conformity with principles and norms of the international law".

The Kremlin has previously described similar reports as "information warfare" aimed at discrediting its operations in Syria.

President Vladimir Putin said in October that reports of alleged civilian casualties had emerged before the first air strikes were even carried out.

More than 250,000 people are believed to have been killed and millions of people have been forced to flee their homes since the conflict began in Syria in March 2011.



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'Terror attack' foiled in France

French police have foiled a terror attack on police and army personnel in the region of Orleans, the interior minister has said.

Bernard Cazeneuve said on Tuesday that two men, aged 20 and 24, were arrested on 19 December and were being held for questioning.

Both are thought to have had contact with a Frenchman who is believed to be in Syria.

France saw its worst attacks in decades last month, with 130 killed in Paris.

Speaking in the southern city of Toulouse, Mr Cazeneuve said 10 attacks had been foiled in France so far this year.

He said the investigation into the latest alleged plot south-west of Paris will look into whether the Frenchman in Syria, thought to be a jihadist, ordered the attack.

Paris attacks - in depth

One of the detainees confessed they had intended to attack police officers, military personnel and anyone identified with the French state, Mr Cazeneuve said.

Investigators think the suspects had raised money for the plot and were searching for weapons.

One of the men arrested is reported to be of Moroccan descent, while the other is said to be from Togo. One suspect was reportedly unknown to police, while the other was a known petty criminal.

Mr Cazeneuve also said 3,414 people had been denied entry to France since a state of emergency was declared in the wake of the Paris attacks, "due to the risk they present to security and public order".


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Transport Minister, AG sued over GHC3.6m bus branding contract

Some private citizens have filed a suit against Transport Minister, Dzifa Attivor and Attorney General, Marrieta Brew Appiah-Oppong at the High Court over the controversial 3.6 million Ghana cedis bus branding contract.

They are praying the court to issue “An order directed the Honourable Minister of Transport to make full disclosure on the contract for the branding of the 116 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses”.

The bus branding contract has generated a lot of public debate amid suspicisons of bloated expenditure.

The 116 buses have been branded with photographs of former Heads of State and the current President John Mahama.

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God gave us the Korle, and he gave them a Korle too - The story after the visit to Cartagena, Colombia

I walked past the historical walled city of Cartagena de Indias, a port city on the Northern Coast of Colombia in the Caribbean, thinking of what else I would miss aside the noise  from  rusty generators  that often fill the air in the business district of Accra. 

At least for my few weeks stay as a fellow of the Gabriel Marquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism, having a decent sleep knowing the lights would not go off unannounced was a soothing thought.  A native of the town had told me he has no memory of the lights ever going out.

Cartagena, Colombia’s most important tourist city, was just home thousands of miles away from home – fruit sellers and petty traders lined the major streets of the city; taxi drivers beckon pedestrians in the middle of the road while ‘okada’ operators do brisk business  with their bikes.

With temperatures ranging between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius at daytime, it was certainly not a place to have any major cultural shock for someone coming from Accra.

A few uncollected garbage littered the median of some major roads, and I had looked on in awe while the drivers' mates of rickety public transport busses wait till the bus moved a few metres away before they do the about 50-metre dash to catch up and clinch onto its doors and then look away with a smile that only portrays a skill well executed.

Drivers' mates making the 100-metre dash to catch up with moving bus was a fashionable phenomenon in Ghana in the 90s: a mate’s smartness was determined by how fast he makes  the dash to catch up with the moving bus; however, the death toll from such escapades ended the phenomenon.

Stopping a taxi in the middle of the street and imposing myself on drivers to grant access was a common feature in this twin sister city of Accra.

“You would have to throw yourself at them, but make sure they have actually granted you access”, I was told.

A blend of old and modern architecture provides that unique picture of its history --- it is history in every step of the way. 

Aside its rich cultural heritage, rapid urbanisation has also been a dominant demographic trend.

Increased pace of social and economic development, and resulting growth in city and town population, has had its own effect on this historical city.

In the heart of the city are long stretches of strands and mangroves gracing the banks of its lagoons that drain into the sea and divide the city of Cartagena into two halves.

The Laguna de San Lazaro, a semblance of the Korle Lagoon, runs through the neighborhoods of Getsemeni and Manga.

At a morning meeting for participants of the fellowship programme, I had indicated my resolve to work on a writing project on how Carthaginians have conserved their lagoon resources over the years.

I had noticed the uneasiness on the faces of the native participants at the programme; the lagoon was not the best of examples the city would want to exhibit as part of its rich heritage, due to some level of pollution.

The two masters of the programme briefly consulted with each other for a few seconds and then warned that the example I may find may not be the best.

Fact is, I was not looking for a perfect example: for a people with similar cultures and lifestyle as Ghanaians, it only comes across that, with the right orientation, we could also resurrect the rotting Korle Lagoon, which continues to blot the collective conscience of a country that prides itself as the gateway to West Africa. 

That afternoon after the workshop, I had a comfortable seat on one of the roots of the mangroves that grace the bank of the lagoon and watched a geese drift away with the current on floating debris, and was almost lost in thought on when exactly Ghana lost it all in conserving its water resources.  

Although human activities and settlements have sprung up along the banks of the lagoons here, it still plays an important socio-economic role for the thousands of Colombians whose livelihoods depend on it.

The Korle Lagoon, on the other hand, has become one of the most polluted water bodies on earth. It is the principal outlet through which all major drainage channels in the city empty their wastes into the sea.

Once relished for its attractive scenery and its abundant stock of fish, the Korle is virtually dead, thus it has lost its significance for both commercial and recreation purposes.

With a small metal hook done without much skill, a young lad lowers his upper body into the Laguna and skillfully snares out a crab into an open jute sack where he had kept many others.

In a split second, another lad flips and dives into the lagoon, emerging few seconds later shaking off water from his curly hair. "That would have been suicide in the Korle," I muttered to myself.  

The only close human activity I have ever witnessed in the Korle in recent time is that incident when a thief eluded his pursuers by choosing to immense himself in the stench than get lynched. His pursuers had looked on with surprise at his decision, though satisfied that his choice was equally a good punishment for his crime. 

Seven kilometres away from Cartagena and away from all of its allure and grandeur, I travelled north of the city to La Boquilla, a sprawling community along the marshy lands of the Cienaga de la Virgen - the biggest coastal lagoon, which spans a length of 22.5km and empties into the sea.

Down its sandy beach road, empty thatch-roofed sheds of local restaurants line up miles away, flying on top of them are Colombian flags that have suffered much of the weather.

Carefully choosing where next to plant the next foot, Markus, a local contact, led the way through the muddy paths into this predominantly fishing community of migrants who had fled conflicts in their home regions and found home in this wetland.

Children drift on floating wooden board in between houses that sit on elevated structures in the marshy ground.

The fisher folks in the community have resorted to fish farming as a more innovative way to cope with the depletion of the fish resources they have lived on over the years. 

Bron had lived and fished in this part of the city for 10 years, and  narrated how fishing in the lagoon has been  a major activity that  has supported the local economy in that neigbourhood over the years.

He led me to his fish pond a few metres away from his residence. An old fishing net hanged loosely on poles planted around the pond and bordered with pieces of broken plastic buckets and wood. 

He throws in some cooked rice, and big ‘sabalos’ emerged to the surface to feed.

Selling fish from the ponds is has become the easiest and more economical way of making ends meet in this neigbourhood.

Bron narrated how fishing in the lagoon was gradually moving away to the sea because of diminishing fish stock, and this, he said, comes at a cost because “we now use big engines and nets to fish in the sea”. 

Pointing to areas now inhabited by people, he narrates how human settlement had filled in most of the tributaries of the Ciénaga. 

Alcideso, another fisherman, now  survives on the sale of octopus, lobsters and fish from the sea. 

He finds the potentials in the lagoon less lucrative now compared to 30 years ago when he was able to make a good catch in the lagoon to support his family of 10.

Now he makes close to half a million pesos a day from fishing in the sea, which he uses to support his 10 sons in school.

He talked about changing rainfall patterns in the region and how human settlements have affected the resource that they once so much depended on.

With the help of satellite images on his laptop computer, Rafael Vergara, a former M19 guerilla fighter turned environmental activist, shows me images of vast lands of freshwater bodies of the city of Cartagena from the late 1960s.

The migration of people escaping violence from other regions, he says, has changed the ecology of the ecosystem in the region tremendously as vast portions of conserved areas have been sacrificed for human settlements.

He was satisfied that although conservation laws are not strictly being enforced by the appropriate state agencies, a level of consciousness has been created among the public to be responsible to the environment.  

“We have created a sense of consciousness among the people, and this has helped the collective effort in preserving what you see today. It has not been easy; we fought, and I have sued at least not less than a hundred times, in the fight to protect the remaining reserved lands”.

A concept to conserve this all-important water reserve in Cartagena is a new proposal to re-create and reconstruct the mangrove forest under a new park concept. The idea is to give the city of Cartagena a big protective mangrove peri-urban forest that can function as a bio shield against sea level rise and climate change.


In Ghana, several approaches have been suggested to restore the dignity of the dead lagoon. The Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project is just one of such initiatives. The project aims at dredging the lagoon and converting the areas around its bank into a recreational area.


As things stand now, bringing life back to the Korle will not only need political will power and the necessary investment but, most importantly, behavioural change to make the needed impact.

 For a resource which otherwise would have been a scenic landscape that would support socio-economic activities in the metropolis, leaving it  to its current fate as a channel for uncontrolled discharges of domestic and industrial waste, as well as raw sewage is a blot on the collective  conscience of the country.

The Korle must live again to serve its socio-economic purpose, and we owe it to the generation yet unborn to bring life back to the lagoon.

By Daniel Nonor


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Islamic State conflict: Iraqi forces 'move into Ramadi'

Iraqi forces are advancing into the centre of Ramadi, after launching a major assault to drive Islamic State militants from the city, officials say.

Security sources told the BBC that troops and allied tribesmen, backed by US-led air strikes, had already retaken two districts, and entered two others.

They are heading towards the main government complex, and have come up against snipers and suicide bombers.

Ramadi fell to IS in May in an embarrassing defeat for the Iraqi army.

Last month, government forces completed their encirclement of the predominantly Sunni Arab city, about 90km (55 miles) west of Baghdad, cutting off militants inside the centre from strongholds elsewhere in Anbar province and in neighbouring Syria.

How tactical change boosted offensive

Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service spokesman Sabah al-Numani said its troops, supported by soldiers, police and Sunni tribesmen, had begun the assault on central Ramadi at dawn and were advancing on the government complex.

"We went into the centre of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas," he told the AFP news agency.

"The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours."

"We did not face strong resistance - only snipers and suicide bombers, and this is a tactic we expected," he added.

Sources in the Iraqi military's Anbar Operations Command told the BBC that engineers had built temporary bridges over the River Euphrates, which flows along the north and west of the city centre. This had enabled troops to enter directly the al-Haouz district, south-west of the government complex.

By Tuesday afternoon, government forces had retaken the al-Thubat and al-Aramil districts, and entered nearby al-Malaab and Bakir, the sources said.

Sunnis to the fore - Lina Sinjab, BBC News, Beirut

If the battle to recapture Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second largest city after Tikrit to be taken back from the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the past 18 months. It would be a major boost for the morale of the Iraqi security forces and for those Sunnis opposing IS in Iraq.

That is not only because the city of Ramadi is predominantly Sunni and a key IS stronghold, but also because the forces fighting to take it back are spearheaded by Sunni tribesmen.

The Shia-dominated paramilitary force known as Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) has been involved in many battles against IS, but the government has chosen not to deploy it in Ramadi.

The force was accused of human rights abuses against Sunnis after the recapture of Tikrit in April, and it is believed previous atrocities carried out by Shia militias helped alienate Sunnis and push them into the arms of IS.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition against IS, which carried out at least 12 air strikes in support of the offensive on Tuesday, said the fall of Ramadi was "inevitable", but warned that it would be a "tough fight".

Col Steve Warren suggested there were between 250 and 350 IS militants entrenched in the city centre, with some hundreds more to the north and west.

The Iraqi defence ministry said the jihadists had prevented civilians leaving Ramadi since leaflets warning of an assault were dropped over the city last month.

"They plan to use them as human shields," spokesman Naseer Nuri told the Reuters news agency on Monday.

Col Warren said there were still thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of civilians inside Ramadi.

Sources inside Ramadi told the BBC that IS had carried out a campaign of raids and mass arrests of residents in districts still under its control, in an attempt to prevent an uprising in support of the government offensive.

The operation to recapture Ramadi, which began in early November, has made slow progress, mainly because the government has chosen not to use the powerful Shia-dominated paramilitary force that helped it regain the northern city of Tikrit to avoid increasing sectarian tensions.

IS has lost control of several key towns in Iraq to government and Kurdish forces since overrunning large swathes of the country's west and north in June 2014 and proclaiming the creation of a "caliphate" that also extended into neighbouring Syria.

On Monday, analysis by IHS Jane's suggested that IS had lost 14% of its overall territory in Iraq and Syria, about 12,800 sq km (4,940 sq miles), over the past year.

Despite this, the group has been able to capture new territory of strategic value over the same period, including Ramadi and Palmyra in Syria's Homs province. It also still controls the Iraqi cities of Falluja, east of Ramadi, and Mosul, in the north.

What is Islamic State?

A notoriously violent Islamist group which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. It has declared its territory a caliphate - a state governed in accordance with Islamic law - under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

What does it want?

IS demands allegiance from all Muslims, rejects national borders and seeks to expand its territory. It adheres to its own extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and regards non-believers as deserving of death.

How strong is IS?

IS projects a powerful image, partly through propaganda and sheer brutality, and is the world's richest insurgent group. It has about 30,000 fighters but is facing daily bombing by a US-led multinational coalition which has vowed to destroy it.


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Las Vegas Strip crash driver 'faces murder charge'

Las Vegas prosecutors say a woman accused of deliberately driving her car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one, will be charged with murder.

Police said Lakeisha Holloway, 24, from Oregon, drove her vehicle onto a pavement packed with more than 100 people, then fled the scene.

Officials believe the crash on Sunday evening was intentional, but did not discuss Ms Holloway's motive.

Three of the 36 people injured in the crash remain in a critical condition.

On Monday, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg named the deceased victim of the crash as Jessica Valenzuela, 32, of Buckeye, Arizona, who was visiting the city with her husband.

Ms Holloway's three-year-old daughter who was in the car at the time is said to be "fine" and in the custody of child services.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson said Ms Holloway would initially be charged with murder, adding that charges of attempted murder, child abuse and leaving the scene of an accident would probably follow.

Las Vegas County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said he did not believe the crash to be an act of terrorism, but added that he was "not ruling it out 100%" because of the difficulty in obtaining details about the background of the suspect, who had apparently been living in her car in Las Vegas for a week.

Mr Lombardo said video suggested the crash was an intentional act, adding that Ms Holloway had driven to a hotel and asked a valet to call the emergency services after explaining what had happened.

The Miss Universe beauty pageant was being held in a nearby hotel at the time of the crash.

Five Canadians, as well as a group of university students from Oregon were among those injured.

The car appeared to be travelling between 30-40mph (48kph-64kph) as it hit pedestrians, according to one witness.

"It was just massacring people," Justin Cochrane told the Associated Press news agency.

Another witness said she saw victims "flying through the air."

"The car was like a bowling ball and the human bodies were like pins," Rabia Qureshi told local broadcaster KSNV.


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Kenyan Muslims shield Christians in Mandera bus attack

A group of Kenyan Muslims travelling on a bus ambushed by Islamist gunmen protected Christian passengers by refusing to be split into groups, according to eyewitnesses.

They told the militants "to kill them together or leave them alone", a local governor told Kenyan media.

At least two people were killed in the attack, near the north-eastern village of El Wak on the Somali border.

The Somali based al-Shabab group is the main suspect for the attack.

It has not said if it was responsible, but often carries out attacks in Kenya's north-east.

The bus was travelling from the capital Nairobi to the town of Mandera.

When al-Shabab killed 148 people in an attack on Garissa University College in April, the militants reportedly singled out Christians and shot them, while freeing many Muslims.

Last year, a bus was attacked near Mandera by al-Shabab militants, who killed 36 non-Muslims travelling to Nairobi for Christmas celebrations.

"The locals showed a sense of patriotism and belonging to each other," Mandera governor Ali Roba told Kenya's private Daily Nation newspaper.

The militants decided to leave after the passengers' show of unity, he added.

The passengers on the bus showed great bravery, but there was another quality revealed by their surprising decision to stand up to the gunmen: Frustration.

The majority of the local population in the north-east are Kenyan Muslims of Somali descent, and they have been hit hard by the consequences of al-Shabab attacks, even if non-Muslims are supposedly the main target of the Somali militant group.

An attack last year in Mandera, in which Christians were killed after being separated from Muslims, caused the departure of more than 2,000 teachers, as well as many health workers who had come from other parts of the country.

Perhaps the passengers felt that the region could simply not afford another such attack.

It will be interesting to see if their actions embolden local populations to increase their resistance to al-Shabab, which has attacked the area several times.

An employee of the Makkah bus company, who had spoken to the driver involved in the attack, confirmed to the BBC that Muslims had refused to be separated from their fellow Christian passengers.

One of the victims was shot dead after trying to run away from the militants after passengers had been forced off the bus, the same employee told the BBC's Bashkas Jugsodaay in Nairobi.

Al-Shabab has been at war with Kenya ever since Kenyan forces entered Somalia in October 2011 in an effort to crush the militants.

Kenya's north-eastern region has a large population of ethnic Somalis.


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Six US service members killed in Afghan suicide bombing : RIP fallen Soldiers

A suicide bombing in Afghanistan has killed six US service members in one of the deadliest attacks on American forces this year, US officials say.

The Taliban said they were behind the blast, which also injured several US and Nato soldiers.

US officials said the troops were meeting a local Afghan leader when they were targeted by a fighter riding a motorbike rigged with explosives.

Attacks on foreign troops have risen in recent months as forces have withdrawn.

To date, 16 US service members have been killed in combat this year, but most of those deaths were due to aircraft crashes, according to the Pentagon.

In October, a helicopter crash killed six US service members in Jalalabad.


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Fake bomb forces Air France flight to make Kenya emergency landing. Are we safe travelling by air?

An Air France passenger jet was forced to make an emergency landing in Kenya after a fake bomb was found in a toilet, the airline says.

The Boeing 777, on its way from Mauritius to Paris, was evacuated at Mombasa airport and the suspicious device taken away for examination.

Air France chief Frederic Gagey later said it was made of a cardboard box, paper and a timer.

He described it as an "extremely aggressive act".

The plane, carrying 459 passengers and 14 crew, had left Mauritius at 01:00 GMT and had been due to fly directly to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

Several passengers from the flight have been questioned by Kenyan police.

Mr Gagey told a news conference that the airline would press charges against those responsible and an inquiry would be held.

But he denied there had been any problem with security checks in Mauritius, saying the device contained no explosives, so would not have been detected.

He said the device appeared to be made of a cardboard, sheets of paper and some kind of kitchen timer, and had been placed in a cupboard behind a mirror in the toilet.

Mr Gagey said he did not know exactly when it had been placed there, but that the cupboard had been checked before the flight so it was assumed that it was put there during the flight.

He said the object was made of material not usually found on the plane.

Mr Gagey thanked the crew and the Kenyan authorities for the way they had handled the incident.

Earlier, a police official quoted by AP news agency said a passenger had noticed an object in the toilet that looked like "a stopwatch mounted on a box".

Mr Gagey said the crew was alerted, and the pilots decided to land at the nearest airport. Both the aircraft and Moi International Airport in Mombasa were evacuated while the device was removed.

Joseph Nkaissery, cabinet secretary at Kenya's ministry of interior, said authorities from France and Mauritius had been helping with the investigation.

One of those on board the aircraft, Benoit Lucchini, said passengers were calm and were told by the crew that the plane was being diverted because of a technical problem.

"The plane just went down, slowly, slowly, slowly, so we just realised probably, something was wrong," he said.

"But the personnel of Air France were just great, just wonderful. So they keep everybody calm and really quiet."

France is still on high alert following bomb attacks and shootings in Paris.

So-called Islamic State (IS) said it carried out the attacks in response to France's military action in Syria.


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Four students arrested over occultism. Is it a crime?

Four students of the Koforidua Technical Institute (KOTEC) in the Eastern region have been arrested by a vigilante group in Boti for practicing occultism.

Starr News sources indicates that the students, four in number were caught chanting in a nearby bush at night.

The vigilante group who were suspicious of their activities rounded them up and handed them over to the Police.

One of the students, however, managed to escape.

During interrogation by the Nkurakan Police, the students admitted the offence but explained that the rituals were meant to cast spells on some beautiful female students in the school to be their sexual partners.

Koforidua Technical Institute, formerly known as Koforidua Technical School is one of top Technical Institutions in the Eastern region which trains the youth to the industrial job market however, the school in recent times has been noted for notoriety and vandalism.


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Libya militia chases away US troops

US forces flown to Libya to support government troops had to leave after landing because of demands from a local militia group, US officials say.

It follows reports that 20 US special forces troops, equipped with advanced weaponry, landed on Monday at an airbase in western Libya.

The troops chose to leave "in an effort to avoid conflict", a US Africa Command (Africom) spokesman told the BBC.

Libya has been in chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

The US forces had travelled to Libya in order to "foster relationships and enhance communication with their counterparts in the Libyan National Army", Africom spokesman Anthony Falvo told the BBC.

The soldiers left without incident, he added.


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Burundi crisis: African Union plans to deploy peacekeepers

The African Union (AU) has announced a plan to send 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians in Burundi, even without the government's consent.

The proposal was approved by the AU's Peace and Security Council but will need to get the backing of the UN.

On Thursday the AU said it would not allow genocide to take place in Burundi.

But Burundi said if the AU sent troops with the government's consent it would consider the move "an attack" on it.

Government official Philippe Nzobonariba told the BBC Great Lakes service that the legal process should be followed, and suggested that a peacekeeping force would be better employed in Rwanda.

Burundi has previously accused its neighbour of training rebels seeking to destabilise the country.

Unrest in Burundi began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in office. He survived a coup attempt in May, and secured a third term in disputed elections in July.

The proposal by the AU marks the first time it has invoked a rule allowing it to deploy a force without a country's consent, the BBC's Anne Soy reports from Nairobi.

The clause in the AU charter allows it to intervene in a member state because of grave circumstances, which include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The decision comes amid fears that violence could spiral into civil war and possible ethnic conflict.

Diplomatic moves to prevent a civil war in Burundi have recently accelerated with the UN, the European Union and the East African Community fearful of the impact of worsening violence both on the local population and the region.

At a special session convened at the US' request to discuss the conflict, the UN Human Rights Council resolved to despatch independent investigators to Burundi to probe abuses.

The government has said there is no threat of genocide.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said on Thursday that "Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war" which could have "ethnic overtones" similar to past conflicts in Burundi.

At least 400 people have been killed, nearly 3,500 arrested and at least 220,000 people have fled the country since April, Mr Hussein said.

The worst spate of killings happened last Friday when 87 people were killed in clashes in the capital, Bujumbura.

An AU fact-finding mission returned from Burundi on Sunday and in its preliminary findings it said "members of the team heard reports of arbitrary killings, torture and the arbitrary... closure of some civil society organisations and the media".

Ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.

Mr Nkurunziza is the former leader of a Hutu rebel group, who has been in power since a 2005 peace deal.

Both the government and the opposition are ethnically mixed.

Timeline - Burundi crisis

  • April 2015 - Protests erupt after President Pierre Nkurunziza announces he will seek a third term in office.
  • May 2015 - Constitutional court rules in favour of Mr Nkurunziza, amid reports of judges being intimidated. Tens of thousands flee violence amid protests.
  • May 2015 - Army officers launch a coup attempt, which fails.
  • July 2015 - Elections are held, with Mr Nkurunziza re-elected. The polls are disputed, with opposition leader Agathon Rwasa describing them as "a joke".
  • November 2015 - Burundi government gives those opposing President Nkurunziza's third term five days to surrender their weapons ahead of a promised crackdown.
  • November 2015 - UN warns it is less equipped to deal with violence in Burundi than it was for the Rwandan genocide.
  • December 2015 - 87 people killed on one day as soldiers respond to an attack on military sites in Bujumbura.



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Syria war: UN Security Council unanimously backs peace plan

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution outlining a peace process in Syria.

The 15-member council reached rare agreement on the issue in a session in New York on Friday.

The resolution endorses talks between the Syrian government and opposition in early January, as well as a ceasefire.

The Syrian war, which is heading towards its fifth year, has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions more, the UN says.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, chairing the session, said the resolution sent "a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria".

"The resolution we just reached is a milestone, because it sets specific goals and specific timeframes," he added.

The resolution calls for a ceasefire that should be implemented in parallel with the talks.

However, actions against groups considered terrorist organisations would not be affected. This would allow Russian, French and US air-strikes against Islamic State to continue.

One of the major sticking points so far has been which rebel groups should be considered terrorist outfits and consequently excluded from any talks or ceasefire.

The agreement demands that all parties cease attacks against civilians.

The resolution also makes no mention of the future rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia, an ally of Assad, has argued against his departure being a precondition for talks.


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Ex-US defence chief blasts Obama on Syria

Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has criticised the Obama administration for lacking an overarching policy on Syria.

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine (FP), Mr Hagel described long, tedious policy meetings that often concluded without decision.

The moderate Republican served as Mr Obama's defence chief for two tumultuous years from 2013 to 2015.

His tenure ended, he said, with backstabbing and character destruction.

Mr Hagel believes that a coherent US strategy for Syria still has not been fleshed out.

"The administration is still struggling with a political strategy, but Secretary Kerry is making some progress toward the right strategy," Mr Hagel tells the magazine, in reference to talks with Russian, Iranian and Arab leaders.

Mr Hagel's tenure in the Obama administration was marked by contention from the start.

Some of Mr Hagel's criticisms come across as minor or personal. "There were way too many meetings" at the White House, he says. And people there said mean things about him behind his back, "vilifying me in a gutless, off-the-record kind of way".

But his criticism of Mr Obama's strategy towards Syria and the fight against the Islamic State group is sharp - and is likely to resonate. In short, says Hagel: "We don't have a policy."

As Washington prepares to enter another election campaign, his remarks will provide fellow Republicans with yet more proof - from a trusted insider- that Mr Obama is a weak leader without a Middle East strategy.

Among those Mr Hagel had the worst relationship with was National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

He alleged that meetings chaired by Ms Rice, were long, frequent and fruitless.

"We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room," he is quoted as saying.

He contrasted these meetings with those run by President Barack Obama, which he said were more effectual.

However, Mr Hagel seemed to be most critical of Mr Obama's Syria policy.

Joining his boss in opposing a large troop deployment to Syria or Iraq, he insisted however on a clearer diplomatic stance.

In particular, he pointed to an embarrassing Senate hearing, where he was grilled over whether the US would defend the rebels it was training and equipping in Syria from attacks by Assad forces.

"We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House," Mr Hagel told FP. "I couldn't say 'No'. Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East".

In a memo penned a month later, Mr Hagel called on the administration to formulate a clearer policy. He said memo was not well received.

A month later, Mr Obama accepted his resignation amid reports of differences over policy.

Some have suggested that those antagonistic relationships may have led to Mr Hagel being pushed out.

The White House has declined a BBC request for comment on this story.


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