Authorities: Belgium Attacker Engaged in ‘Terrorist Murder’

A man who murdered three people Tuesday in the Belgium city of Liege engaged in an act of terrorism, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Benjamin Herman repeatedly stabbed two female officers with a knife from behind before seizing their handguns and shooting them as they laid on the ground. Herman also shot to death a man who was a passenger in a passing car. Police fatally shot Herman after taking at least one woman hostage at a nearby school.

Investigators said Herman’s methods were encouraged in online videos produced by the Islamic State militant group.

Prosecutors said Herman yelled “Allahu akbar,” an Arabic expression for “God is great” several times during the killing spree — which also resulted in four officers being wounded.

Federal magistrate Wenke Roggen said Wednesday the rampage was “terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder.”

Authorities said Herman, who was on a leave of absence from jail when the attacks occurred, had several encounters with police since he was a minor.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon confirmed Tuesday that Herman had murdered another person on Monday.

Although the attacks are considered acts of terrorism, Jambon cautioned authorities not to jump to conclusions.

“There are signals that there was radicalization in the prison, but did this radicalization lead to these actions? There, too, we can ask ourselves a lot of questions,” Jambon said in an interview on the French radio network RTL.

Belgium has been on high alert since January 2015, when authorities neutralized a terror cell in a town near Liege that was plotting an attack on police. The cell was linked to the mastermind of the November 2015 IS attacks on Paris that killed 130 people.

In March 2016, IS suicide attackers targeted a Brussels airport and subway station, killing 32 people.

US Condemns Syria for Recognizing Georgia’s Breakaway Regions

The United States on Wednesday condemned Syria’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions in Georgia and create diplomatic ties, saying it fully backed Georgia’s independence and reiterating its call for Russia to withdraw from the area.

“The United States strongly condemns the Syrian regime’s intention to establish diplomatic relations with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“These regions are part of Georgia. The United States’ position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is unwavering,” the statement said.

The U.S. statement came one day after Georgia said it would sever diplomatic relations with Syria after Damascus moved to recognize the two regions as independent states.

Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru previously recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which broke away from Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following that fight in the early 1990s, Georgia and Russia fought a war over the regions in August 2008.

The United States and European Union have backed Georgia in calling the Russian operation a naked land grab.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged deeper security and economic support for Georgia. He also called on Russia to withdraw its forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the ceasefire agreement that followed the 2008 war. The department echoed that request on Wednesday.

“We fully support Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, and call on all states to … do the same,” Nauert said.

Amnesty: ‘Lethal Force’ Used Against Nicaragua Protesters

Nicaraguan police have used lethal force against protesters, aiming for heads, necks and chests, Amnesty International said Tuesday in the second of two international reports condemning President Daniel Ortega’s

response to dissent.

At least 81 people have been killed and 868 wounded since April 18, according to the rights group, in violence “characterized by the excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions, control of the media and the use of pro-government armed groups.”

More than a month after changes to the Central American country’s social security system triggered student-led protests, demonstrations have morphed into a daily challenge to the rule of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla.

Published after days of resurgent violence, the report adds five to the preliminary death count announced last week by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights following an investigation sourced in hundreds of complaints.

“The strategy for repression appears to have been directed from the highest levels of government,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo repeatedly demonized demonstrators and denied they were being killed.”

The government acknowledged a request for comment on the Amnesty report but did not immediately respond. Earlier this month, Ortega lamented the violence and said there had been deaths on all sides.

Ortega, an ally of socialist Venezuela, has resisted protesters’ demands that he resign over the killings. His government rejected a suggestion by the Organization of American States that it call early elections.

In a round of “national talks” with members of civil society last week, government representatives acknowledged the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission’s report but issued no further official statements.

Clashes this week included an armed attack, apparently by pro-government groups, on a university campus and witnessed by Amnesty International’s America’s director, Erika Guevara-Rosa.

The report, based on a visit to Nicaragua in early May and delivered by Nicaraguan rights activist Bianca Jagger, also documented irregularities in the way authorities investigated deaths, including the cases of two people whose families were forced to sign waivers in a hospital denying them a right to autopsies as a condition of receiving official death certificates.

Reporter Fatally Beaten in Northeast Mexico

A journalist was beaten to death in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas on Tuesday, local prosecutors said, becoming the third reporter in

Mexico to be killed in the past two weeks.

The body of Hector Gonzalez, a local correspondent for national daily newspaper Excelsior, was found in the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, the Tamaulipas attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Gonzalez is at least the sixth journalist to be killed this year in Mexico, where violence has surged to record levels.

Mexico is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters. Last year, 12 reporters were killed there, according to free-speech advocacy group Article 19.

Bordering Texas, Tamaulipas is one of the most lawless states in the country, and has long been ravaged by turf wars between gangs to control drug trafficking and crime rackets. Another reporter was found dead in the state in January.

Local state prosecutors said they were still investigating what was behind the killing of Gonzalez, who covered security matters in Tamaulipas, among other subjects.

Slayings reached a record high in Mexico in 2017, and there were more homicides in the first four months of this year than in the same period last year, according to official data.

The spike in violence has battered the popularity of President Enrique Pena Nieto and fueled support for leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who leads public opinion polls ahead of elections on July 1.

Italy May Return to Polls in July, Sources Say, Amid Market Rout

Italy may hold repeat elections as early as July after the man asked to be prime minister failed to secure support from major political parties for even a stop-gap government, sources said on Tuesday, as markets tumbled on the growing political turmoil.

Italy has searched for a new government since inconclusive elections in March, with the president finally designating former International Monetary Fund official Carlo Cottarelli as interim prime minister until a new vote is held between September and early 2019.

But sources close to some of Italy’s main parties said there was now a chance that President Sergio Mattarella could dissolve parliament in the coming days and send Italians back to the polls as early as July 29.

That prospect emerged immediately after Cottarelli met the president on Tuesday afternoon and left without making any statement. Cottarelli had been expected to announce his stopgap government’s cabinet after those talks.

A source close to the president said Cottarelli had made no mention in the meeting of an intention to give up his mandate and that he was simply finalizing his cabinet lineup.

Major parties, though, sensed Cottarelli’s mission was all but dead and called for parliament to be dissolved immediately.

“It would be best to go to elections as quickly as possible, as early as July,” said Andrea Marcucci, senate leader for the centre-left Democratic Party.

Italy suffered its biggest market selloff in years amid investor fears the election would deliver an even stronger mandate for anti-establishment, eurosceptic politicians, casting doubt on Italy’s future in the euro zone.

Market rout

Yields on Italy’s two-year bonds, the most sensitive to political upsets, suffered their biggest one-day jump since 1992.

The euro also hit multi-month lows, as credit rating agency Moody’s signalled a possible downgrade for Italy if the next government failed to address its debt burden.

Central bank Governor Ignazio Visco said Italy “must never forget that we are only ever a few short steps away from the very serious risk of losing the irreplaceable asset of trust,” but there were “no justifications” for the market turmoil.

Saxo Bank currency strategist John Hardy said European Central Bank President Mario Draghi might soon be required to intervene to calm markets, as he did during the euro zone debt crisis in 2012 when he promised to do “whatever it takes.”

Euro zone money markets had been betting on the ECB raising interest rates from ultra-low levels mid-next year. But with economic growth slowing and worries about Italy, they are now pricing in just a 30 percent chance of a modest 10 basis point rise in June 2019.

‘Respect the voters’

President Mattarella had looked to Cottarelli as prime minister to calm political and market turmoil, which Italy’s two anti-establishment parties blame on the president himself after he vetoed their choice for economy minister in their would-be coalition government.

 Mattarella blocked Paolo Savona as unsuitable on the grounds he had argued Italy should be prepared to quit the euro.

The 5-Star Movement and the far-right League, the biggest winners from the March election, declined to nominate an alternative candidate and abandoned plans to form a government, switching back into election mode, with 5-Star Movement calling for Mattarella to be impeached.

Other euro zone countries are concerned about the currency bloc’s third-largest economy. French President Emmanuel Macron defended what he called Mattarella’s courage and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of the need to obey rules governing the euro.

But top EU officials were quick to play down a comment from Germany’s European commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, who said he hoped the market turmoil would be “a signal (to Italians) not to hand governing responsibilities to the populists.”

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker released a statement saying: “Italy’s fate does not lie in the hands of the financial markets,” and Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders’ summits, called on EU institutions to “respect the voters … We are there to serve them, not to lecture them.”

Even if Cottarelli were able to form an interim government acceptable to the splintered Italian parliament, investors believe he would fail to pass the 2019 budget, triggering a snap election in the autumn.

The election campaign is likely to centre on Italy’s relationship with the European Union and in particular the budget restraints imposed on members of the euro zone.

A poll by SWG showed support for the League had jumped to 27.5 percent, up about 10 points from the March 4 elections.

With support for 5-Star falling about three points to 29.5 percent, the two combined would have a majority in parliament if they decided to join forces again.

Canadian Who Aided Yahoo Email Hackers Gets 5-Year Term

A Canadian accused of helping Russian intelligence agents break into email accounts as part of a massive 2014 data breach at Yahoo was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison and ordered to pay a $250,000 fine.

Karim Baratov, who pleaded guilty in November 2017 in San Francisco, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Baratov, a Canadian citizen born in Kazakhstan, was arrested in Canada in March 2017 at the request of U.S. prosecutors. He later waived his right to fight a request for his extradition to the United States.

Lawyers for Baratov in a court filing had urged a sentence of 45 months in prison, while prosecutors had sought 94 months.

“This case is about a young man, younger than most of the defendants in hacking cases throughout this country, who hacked emails, one at a time, for $100 a hack,” the defense lawyers wrote in a May 19 court filing.

Verizon Communications Inc., the largest U.S. wireless operator, acquired most of Yahoo’s assets in June 2017.

The U.S. Justice Department announced charges in March 2017 against Baratov and three others, including two officers in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), for their roles in the 2014 hacking of 500 million Yahoo accounts. Baratov is the only one of the four who has been arrested. Yahoo in 2016 said cyberthieves might have stolen names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and encrypted passwords.

Gmail targets

When FSB officers learned that a target had a non-Yahoo webmail account, including through information obtained from the Yahoo hack, they worked with Baratov, who was paid to break into at least 80 email accounts, prosecutors said, including numerous Alphabet Inc. Gmail accounts.

Federal prosecutors said in a court filing “the targeted victims were of interest to Russian intelligence” and included “prominent leaders in the commercial industries and senior government officials (and their counselors) of Russia and countries bordering Russia.”

Prosecutors said FSB officers Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin directed and paid hackers to obtain information and used Alexsey Belan, who is among the FBI’s most-wanted cybercriminals, to breach Yahoo.

US Warns Again on Hacks It Blames on North Korea

The U.S. government on Tuesday released an alert with technical details about a series of cyberattacks it blamed on the North Korean government that stretch back to at least 2009.

The warning is the latest from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about hacks that the United States charges were launched by the North Korean government.

A representative with Pyongyang’s mission to the United Nations declined comment. North Korea has routinely denied involvement in cyberattacks against other countries.

The report was published as U.S. and North Korean negotiators work to resuscitate plans for a possible June 12 summit between leaders of the two nations. The FBI and DHS released a similar report in June 2017, when relations were tense between Washington and Pyongyang due to North Korea’s missile tests.

The U.S. government uses the nickname “Hidden Cobra” to describe cyber operations by the North Korean government, which it says target the media, aerospace and financial sectors, and critical infrastructure in the United States and around the globe.

Tuesday’s report did not identify specific victims, though it cited a February 2016 report from several security firms that blamed the same group for a 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The alert provided a list of 87 IP addresses, four malicious files and two email addresses it said were associated with “Hidden Cobra.”

Last year’s alert was published on the same day that North Korea released American university student Otto Warmbier, who died days after his return to the United States following 17 months of captivity by Pyongyang.

Canada to Buy Major Pipeline to Ensure It Gets Built

Canada’s federal government said Tuesday it is buying a controversial pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast to ensure it gets built.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government plans to spend $4.5 billion Canadian (US$3.4 billion) to purchase Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

The pipeline expansion would triple the capacity of an existing line to ship oil extracted from the oil sands in Alberta across the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies. It would end at a terminal outside Vancouver, resulting in a seven-fold increase in the number of tankers in the shared waters between Canada and Washington state.

Facing stiff environmental opposition from British Columbia’s provincial government and activists, Houston-based Kinder Morgan earlier halted essential spending on the project and said it would cancel it altogether if the national and provincial governments could not guarantee it.

“It must be built and it will be built,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said. 

The pipeline would allow Canada to diversify and vastly increase exports to Asia, where it could command a higher price. Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves but 99 percent of its exports now go to refiners in the U.S., where limits on pipeline and refinery capacity mean Canadian oil sells at a discount.

“For too long we have relied on one trading partner for our oil and gas exports,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said.

The project has pitted oil-rich Alberta against coastal British Columbia, where concerns about fisheries, real estate values, tourism and ocean ecology are high. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson calls the pipeline an unacceptable risk that threatens 10,000 jobs in the harbor.

Indigenous leaders and environmentalists have pledged to do whatever necessary to thwart the pipeline, including chaining themselves to construction equipment. “If it means standing up for the land against bulldozers or the military, we have to do that,” Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs spokeswoman Chief Judy Wilson said.

The Trans Mountain expansion is projected to lead to a tanker traffic balloon from about 60 to more than 400 vessels annually as the pipeline flow increases from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day.

Morneau called the purchase an “exceptional situation” and said the government doesn’t intend to be a long-term owner of the pipeline. The government is buying the existing pipeline and the scheduled twinned pipeline expansion. The federal cabinet approved the purchase on Tuesday.

Steve Kean, chairman and chief executive of Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd., said the deal represents the best opportunity to complete the expansion project. “We’ve agreed to a fair price for our shareholders and we’ve found a way forward for this national interest project,” he told a conference call with financial analysts.

Analysts have said China is eager to get access to Canada’s oil, but largely gave up hope that a pipeline to the Pacific coast would be built.

Trudeau approved the expansion, arguing that it was “economically necessary” and enabled him to overcome opposition to a carbon tax plan that will help Canada cut its greenhouse emissions.

But many indigenous people see the 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) of new pipeline as a threat to their lands, echoing concerns raised by Native Americans about the Keystone XL project in the U.S. Many in Canada say it also raises broader environmental concerns by enabling increased development of the carbon-heavy oil sands.

More than 200 people, including two members of Parliament, have been arrested already at Kinder Morgan’s oil tanker and terminal site in Burnaby, British Columbia.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he’s worried about the “catastrophic consequences” should there be a spill, regardless of the owner, and will continue to fight it in court.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley cheered the news of the federal government’s purchase on Twitter. “This project has more certainty than ever before. We won’t stop until the job is done!”

France to Beef Up Emergency Alert System on Social Media

France’s Interior Ministry announced plans on Tuesday to beef up its emergency alert system to the public across social media.

The ministry said in a statement that from June during immediate threats of danger, such as a terror attack, the ministry’s alerts will be given priority broadcast on Twitter, Facebook and Google as well as on French public transport and television.

The statement said that Twitter will give “special visibility” to the ministry’s alerts with a banner.

In a specific agreement, Facebook will also allow the French government to communicate to people directly via the social network’s “safety check” tool, created in 2014. 

The ministry said that this is the first time in Europe that Facebook has allowed public authorities to use this tool in this way.

This announcement comes as a much-derided attack alert app launched in 2016 called SAIP is being withdrawn after malfunctions. 

Study: Hurricane Maria Fatalities in Puerto Rico Much Higher Than Reported

Hurricane Maria claimed more than 4,600 lives in Puerto Rico last year, more than 70 times higher than the U.S. government’s official death toll of 64, according to a study published Tuesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The findings, based on a survey of thousands of Puerto Rican residents conducted by researchers from Harvard University and elsewhere, show the fatalities occurred between September 20 and December 31, 2017.

The U.S. government’s emergency response to the storm had been criticized and President Donald Trump, was faulted when much of the U.S. territory remained without power for months.

The researchers said their latest estimates may be too low and “underscore the inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”

Maria inflicted about $90 billion in damage to Puerto Rico, which was already grappling with an anemic economy. Researchers have said Maria was the third costliest tropical cyclone to strike the U.S. since 1900.

More than 8 months after the storm, the territory has been slow to recover. Residents continue to suffer from a lack of water, an unstable power grid and a dearth of essential services, forcing many residents to leave.

While the new study puts the death toll at 4,645, it says there is a 95-percent chance the actual number could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Earlier independent studies have estimated the death toll at about 1,000.

The results of the latest study were based on randomly conducted in-person surveys of 3,299 of an estimated 1.1 million Puerto Rican households earlier this year, including homes in remote areas.

To ensure unbiased results, residents were not paid for their responses and were told their answers would not result in any additional government assistance.

Researchers said they could not compare their findings with the latest government tally because their request for access to the numbers was denied.

The Puerto Rican government stopped publicly disclosing its hurricane death figures in December.