A Colorado mountain drive

Syrian suicide bombing in mosque kills top pro-Assad Sunni preacher and 41 other people

Associated Press

A suicide bomb ripped through a  mosque in the heart of the Syrian capital Thursday, killing a top Sunni Muslim  preacher and outspoken supporter of President Bashar Assad in one of the most  stunning assassinations of Syria's 2-year-old civil war. At least 41 others were  killed and more than 84 wounded.

The slaying of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti removes one of the few  remaining pillars of support for Assad among the majority Sunni sect that has  risen up against him.

It also marks a new low in the Syrian civil war: While suicide bombings  blamed on Islamic extremists fighting with the rebels have become common,  Thursday's attack was the first time a suicide bomber detonated his explosives  inside a mosque.

A prolific writer whose sermons were regularly broadcast on TV, the  84-year-old al-Buti was killed while giving a religious lesson to students at  the Eman Mosque in the central Mazraa district of Damascus.

The most senior religious figure to be killed in Syria's civil war, his  assassination was a major blow to Syria's embattled leader, who is fighting  mainly Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. Al-Buti has been a vocal supporter of  the regime since the early days of Assad's father and predecessor, the late  President Hafez Assad, providing Sunni cover and legitimacy to their rule.  Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite  sect —  an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"The blood of Sheik al-Buti will be a fire that ignites all the world," said  Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country's top state-appointed Sunni  Muslim cleric and an Assad loyalist.

Syrian TV showed footage of wounded people and bodies with severed limbs on  the mosque's blood-stained floor, and later, corpses covered in white body bags  lined up in rows. Sirens wailed through the capital as ambulances rushed to the  scene of the explosion, which was sealed off by the military.

Among those killed was al-Buti's grandson, the TV said.

The bombing was among the most serious security breaches in the capital. An  attack in July that targeted a high-level government crisis meeting killed four  top regime officials, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense  minister.

Last month, a car bomb that struck in the same area, which houses the  headquarters of Syria's ruling Baath party, killed at least 53 people and  wounded more than 200 others in one of the deadliest Damascus bombings of the  civil war.

A small, frail man, al-Buti was well known in the Arab world as a religious  scholar and longtime imam at the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque, a Damascus  landmark. State TV said he has written 60 books and religious publications.

In recent months, Syrian TV has carried al-Buti's sermons from mosques in  Damascus live every week. He also has a regular religious TV program.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday's attack.

Among the opposition, there was a mixture of suspicion and shock that an  elderly religious figure such as al-Bouti would be targeted by a suicide bomber  inside a mosque.

"I don't know of a single opposition group that could do something like  this," said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition  opposition group, speaking on Al-Arabiya TV.

Syrian TV began its evening newscast with an announcement from the religious  endowments minister, Mohammad Abdelsattar al-Sayyed, declaring al-Buti's  "martyrdom" as his voice choked up. It then showed parts of al-Buti's sermon  from last Friday, in which he praised the military for battling the "mercenaries  sent by America and the West" and said Syria was being subjected to a "universal  conspiracy."

Assad's regime refers to the rebels fighting against it as "terrorists" and  "mercenaries" who are backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the  country. The war, which the U.N. says has killed more than 70,000 people, has  become increasingly chaotic as rebels press closer to Assad's seat of power in  Damascus after seizing large swaths of territory in the northern and eastern  parts of the country.

On Thursday, rebels captured a village and other territory on the edge of the  Golan Heights as fighting closed in on the strategic plateau that Israel  captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed, activists and officials said.

The battles near the town of Quneitra in southwest Syria sent many residents  fleeing, including dozens who crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The fighting in  the sensitive area began Wednesday near the cease-fire line between Syrian and  Israeli troops.

One of the worst-case scenarios for Syria's civil war is that it could draw  in neighboring countries such as Israel or Lebanon.

There have already been clashes with Turkey, Syria's neighbor to the north.  And Israel recently bombed targets inside Syria said to include a weapons convoy  headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a key ally of the Damascus regime and an  arch-foe of the Jewish state.

If the rebels take over the Quneitra region, it will bring radical Islamic  militants to a front line with Israeli troops. The rebels are composed of dozens  of groups, including the powerful al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the  Obama administration labels a terrorist organization.

Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war,  but it has retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled over into Israeli  communities on the Golan Heights.

The Golan front has been mostly quiet since 1974, a year after Syria and  Israel fought a war.

The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said  rebels seized control of parts of villages a few miles (kilometers) from the  cease-fire line with Israel after fierce fighting with regime forces.

The Local Coordination Committees, another anti-regime activist group,  reported heavy fighting in the nearby village of Sahm al-Golan and said rebels  were attacking an army post.

The Observatory said seven people, including three children, were killed  Wednesday by government shelling of villages in the area.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the fighting around the  town of Arnabeh intensified Thursday, a day after rebels captured it. He added  that the rebels captured two nearby army posts.

In Lebanon, security officials said 150 people, mostly women and children,  walked for six hours in rugged mountains covered with snow to reach safety in  the Lebanese border town of Chebaa. They said eight wounded Syrians were brought  on mules from Beit Jan and taken in ambulances to hospitals in Chebaa.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not  authorized to speak to the media, said the Syrians fled from the town of Beit  Jan, near the Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a rebel group active in southern Syria, said in  a statement on its Facebook page that its fighters stormed an army post between  the villages of Sahm al-Golan and Shajara.

Activists on Facebook pages affiliated with rebels in Quneitra announced the  start of the operation to "break the siege on Quneitra and Damascus' western  suburbs."

The fighting moved closer to Israel as President Barack Obama was visiting  the Jewish state for the first time since taking office more than four years  ago.

Colorado governor signs civil unions into law

Associated Press

Civil unions for gay couples  were signed into law in Colorado, ending a dramatic turnaround in a state where  voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006.

Colorado will join eight U.S. states that have civil unions or similar laws.  Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. The law takes  effect May 1.

Hundreds looked on as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, with  many chanting "Equal! Equal!"

"There is no excuse that people shouldn't have all the same rights,"  Hickenlooper told the crowd.

Views on gay rights have been rapidly shifting in the United States. A Pew  Research Center survey found that 49 percent of Americans favor allowing gays  and lesbians to marry legally, and 44 percent are opposed. A decade ago, 58  percent opposed it and a third supported it.

Civil unions grant gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced  inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the  ability to make medical decisions for their partners.

"It means I can change my name finally," said 21-year-old Amber Fuentes, who  plans to have a civil union with Yolanda Martinez, 34.

"It's not marriage, but it still gives us a lot of the rights," Martinez  said.

U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on California's gay marriage ban in  the coming months, a decision that could affect the status of gay marriage other  states.

"It's really meaningful. To have the recognition of your love and  relationship just like any other relationship by the state is an important both  legal and symbolic thing," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a  sponsor of the bill and the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the title of  speaker in Colorado.

Most Republicans opposed the bill, saying they would've liked to see  religious exemptions to provide legal protections for those opposed to civil  unions. Churches are shielded under the new law, but Democrats rejected  protections for businesses and adoption agencies, arguing the Republican  suggestions were too broad and could provide legal cover to discriminate.

Texas shootout may be tied to Colorado correction chief's murder, authorities say

Associated Press

A man who may be linked  to the slaying of Colorado's state prison chief led authorities in Texas on a  harrowing, 100 mph car chase Thursday that ended after he crashed into a semi  and then opened fire before being shot down by his pursuers, authorities  said.

The man is still unidentified and is "basically legally deceased" while still  hooked up to equipment for organ harvesting at a Fort Worth hospital, Wise  County Sheriff David Walker said at an afternoon news conference in Decatur.

The possible link to the Tuesday night slaying of Colorado prison director  Tom Clements is tentative but intriguing enough to put Colorado investigators on  a plane to Texas. The black Cadillac the man drove, with Colorado license  plates, matches the description of a car spotted outside Clements' home just  before the Department of Corrections chief was fatally shot while answering his  front door.

"We don't know yet exactly whether this is the guy," Colorado Gov. John  Hickenlooper told reporters Thursday afternoon. "There's some indication. I hope  it is."

Also heading to Texas were detectives from Denver and Golden who are  investigating whether the man is linked to the shooting death of a pizza  delivery driver in Colorado on Sunday, Denver police spokeswoman Raquel Lopez  said. She said the agencies were working with El Paso County, Colo., sheriff's  officials, who are investigating Clements' death, and she couldn't comment on  evidence from the car that crashed in Texas.

Montague County sheriff's deputy James Boyd tried to pull over the Cadillac  at about 11 a.m. Thursday, though officials wouldn't elaborate on the  reason.

The driver opened fire on Boyd, wounding him, Walker said. He then fled south  before crashing into a semi as he tried to elude his pursuers.

Walker said Colorado investigators were heading to Texas to determine whether  the man is connected to Clements' killing. Boyd was wearing a bulletproof vest  and is at a Fort Worth hospital, authorities said. Officials had said he wasn't  seriously injured but later said his condition was unknown.

Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins said the man appeared to be a white man in  his 30s. The man shot at Hoskins four times as the chief tried to set up a road  block to halt him. The man left his car after it crashed and opened fire on the  authorities around him, Hoskins said.

"He wasn't planning on being taken alive," Hoskins said. In a brief  interview, he added that the man had no identification on him.

El Paso County sheriff's investigators have been looking for a dark,  late-model car, possibly a Lincoln or a Cadillac, that a neighbor spotted near  Clements' home around the time of the shooting. Lt. Jeff Kramer refused to say  what other clues may have been found after officers canvassed Clements'  neighborhood.

Clements, 58, was killed as he answered the door to his home Tuesday night in  Monument, a town of rolling hills and alpine trees north of Colorado Springs.  His death stunned law enforcement colleagues in Colorado and Missouri, where he  spent most of his career as a highly respected corrections official.

Police haven't said if they think his death was linked to his job.

Denver's KMGH-TV reported Thursday that Clements may have put a bicycle up  for sale for $1,200 on Craigslist. Kramer told the station, "I can't speak to  the efforts behind this tip, or the level we are giving it."

In recent weeks, Clements had requested chemicals to plan for the execution  of a convict on Colorado's death row and denied a Saudi national's request to  serve out the remainder of a sentence in his home country. Officials refused to  say whether they were looking at those actions as possible motives.

Clements came to Colorado in 2011 after working three decades in the Missouri  prison system. Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Mandi Steele said  Thursday the department was ready to help in the probe if asked.

"Tom regularly commented that corrections is inherently a dangerous business,  and that's all that I'll say," said Alison Morgan, a Colorado corrections  spokeswoman who worked closely with Clements.

Officials in positions like Clements' get a deluge of threats, according to  people who monitor their safety. But it can be hard sorting out which ones could  lead to violence. A U.S. Department of Justice study found that federal  prosecutors and judges received 5,250 threats between 2003 and 2008, but there  were only three attacks during that time period.

The last public official killed in Colorado in the past 10 years was Sean  May, a prosecutor in suburban Denver. An assailant killed May as he arrived home  from work. Investigators examined May's court cases, but the case remains  unsolved.

Christians, churches dwindling in Iraq since start of war 10 years ago

Fox News

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq says that the number of  Christian houses of worship there has dwindled alarmingly in the decade since  the U.S. invaded and ousted Saddam Hussein from power.

There are just 57 Christian churches in the entire country, down from more  than 300 as recently as 2003, Patriarch Louis Sako told Egyptian-based news  agency.

The churches that remain are frequent targets of Islamic extremists, who have  driven nearly a million Christians out of the land, say human rights advocates.

The last 10 years have been the worst for Iraqi Christians because they bore  witness to the biggest exodus and migration in the history of Iraq,” William  Warda, the head of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization told the news  agency.

Many Christians live in the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, and Kirkuk, and  Dohuk and Erbil, which are both in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Warda  said some 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to Hussein's ouster. Under  the democratically-elected government that now oversees the war-torn, but  oil-rich nation, Islamic extremists have been able to operate more freely.

“ More than two-thirds [of Christians] have emigrated,” Warda noted.

One byproduct of regime change in the Middle East, whether at the hand of the  U.S. military and its allies or demonstrators in the streets, has been a decline  in tolerance for other religions, say experts. Only one Catholic church remains  in Afghanistan, and it must be heavily protected. In Egypt and Libya, where  demonstrators overthrew dictators in recent years, Christians have come under  heavy persecution, say concerned advocates.

“What is clear is that the mass exodus of Christians in the Middle East - including Iraq - has been caused by radical Islam - whether by Islamic  governments, terrorist organizations, or extreme Islamists," said Tiffany  Barrans, international legal director of the American Center for Law and  Justice. "We examined the issue in Iraq in a 2011 report from our European  affiliate. At that time, we determined that Al Qaeda had been strategically  targeting Iraqi Christians - even issuing a warning to all Christians to leave  the country.

One of the most dramatic cases of Christian persecution came in late October  of 2010, when Al Qaeda members laid siege to Our Lady of Deliverance  Church in Baghdad, killing 58 and wounding 78 in a bloodbath Pope  Benedict XVI denounced as “ferocious.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also  condemned the attack, calling it an attempt to drive more Christians out of the  country.

“This tragic event sent a powerful message to Christians in Iraq - they are  in grave danger and should leave the country," Barrans said. “Iraq’s hostility  toward Christianity is well documented. Tragically, Iraq is another example of a  country where the government does not tolerate Christians or other religious  minorities.”

« 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 »