U.S. launches airstrikes in Iraq against militants as crisis worsens for displaced civilians

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. unleashed its first airstrikes in northern Iraq against militants of the Islamic State group Friday amid a worsening humanitarian crisis. The extremists took captive hundreds of women from a religious minority, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians fled in fear.

Many of America’s allies backed the U.S. intervention, pledging urgent steps to assist the legions of refugees and displaced people. Those in jeopardy included thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority whose plight -- trapped on a mountaintop by the militants -- prompted the U.S. to airdrop crates of food and water to them.

The extremists’ "campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. "For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it."

Underscoring the sense of alarm, a spokesman for Iraq’s human rights ministry said hundreds of Yazidi women had been seized by the militants. Kamil Amin, citing reports from the victims’ families, said some of the women were being held in schools in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told The Associated Press.


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"We think that these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the human and Islamic values."

Obama’s limited military objectives in Iraq raise questions
of U.S. role

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama’s new military strategy in Iraq amounts to trying to contain -- not destroy -- the Islamic militant group that now controls much of the country’s northern region. That leaves open the questions of how deeply the U.S. will be drawn into the sectarian conflict, and whether airstrikes alone can stop the militants’ momentum.

Obama insists he will not send American ground troops back to Iraq after having withdrawn them in 2011, fulfilling a campaign promise. Still, even the limited airstrikes against the vicious insurgency show the president’s conviction that the U.S. military cannot remain dormant after having fought an eight-year war that temporarily neutralized Sunni extremists but failed to produce lasting peace.

U.S. military jets dropped food and water to imperiled refugees in northwestern Iraq and launched several airstrikes Friday on isolated targets, including two mortar positions and a vehicle convoy in northeastern Iraq, near the country’s Kurdish capital of Irbil. Additional airdrops and targeted strikes were thought likely. The next move may be up to the Islamic State group, the al-Qaida inspired extremists who have chewed up Iraqi opposition so far.

About three dozen U.S. military trainers and a U.S. consulate are in Irbil, where Kurdish forces are fighting off a militant advance. That’s no easy defense.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the Islamic State group, "They are well organized and they’re armed and they are a significant threat to the stability of Iraq."

Iraqi official says 100s of Yazidi women held captive by Islamic State group militants

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Hundreds of women from the Yazidi religious minority have been taken captive by Sunni militants with "vicious plans," an Iraqi official said Friday, further underscoring the dire plight of Iraq’s minorities at the hands of the Islamic State group.

Kamil Amin, the spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, said hundreds of Yazidi women below the age of 35 are being held in schools in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. He said the ministry learned of the captives from their families.

"We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them," Amin told The Associated Press. "We think that these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the human and Islamic values."

The U.S. has confirmed that the Islamic State group has kidnapped and imprisoned Yazidi women so that they can be sold or married off to extremist fighters, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information came from classified intelligence reports. There was no solid estimate of the number of women victimized, the official said.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled when the Islamic State group earlier this month captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical.

Israel-Hamas truce collapses in violence; Egypt tries to mediate longer-term cease-fire

JERUSALEM (AP) -- A three-day-old truce collapsed Friday in a new round of violence after Gaza militants resumed rocket attacks on Israel, drawing a wave of retaliatory airstrikes that killed at least five Palestinians, including three children.

The eruption of fighting shattered a brief calm in the monthlong war and dealt a blow to Egyptian-led efforts to secure a long-term cease-fire between the bitter enemies.

A delegation of Palestinian negotiators remained in Cairo in hopes of salvaging the talks. But participants said the negotiations were not going well, and Israel said it would not negotiate under fire. The Palestinian delegation met again late Friday with Egyptian mediators.

Azzam al-Ahmad, head of the Palestinian delegation, said the delegation would stay in Egypt until it reaches an agreement that "ensures" the rights of the Palestinian people. "We told Egyptians we are staying," he told reporters.

The indirect talks are meant to bring an end to the deadliest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. In four weeks of violence, more than 1,900 Gazans have been killed, roughly three-quarters of them civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. Sixty-seven people were killed on the Israeli side, including three civilians.

Israeli army, rights groups give clashing views in Gaza war over ratio of civilians killed

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- In the grisly math of the Israel-Hamas war, conflicting counts of combatants and civilians killed in Gaza are emerging -- with the ratio perhaps more important to shaping international opinion of the monthlong conflict than any final toll.

The U.N. and rights groups operating in Gaza say about three-quarters of the around 1,900 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 450 children, with many perishing in strikes that killed several family members at a time.

Israel estimates that between 40-50 percent of those killed in Gaza were fighters.

While the overall count is not in great dispute, those doing tallies use different methods and standards to make that all important determination of who is a civilian.

The U.N. and human rights groups rely on witness accounts and community contacts of field researchers to distinguish civilians from combatants.

WHO: Spread of Ebola in West Africa an international
health emergency

LONDON (AP) -- The World Health Organization urged nations worldwide to donate money and resources to stop the spread of Ebola as it declared the outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency.

The latest Ebola outbreak is the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease, which has a death rate of about 50 percent and has so far killed at least 961 people, according to the U.N. health agency. It emerged in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.

"Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own," WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan told a news conference Friday in Geneva. "I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible."

She added that the world’s "collective health security" depends on curbing the spread of the killer virus in West Africa, even as she acknowledged that many countries would probably not have any Ebola cases.

The Nigerian government declared containing the Ebola virus in Africa’s most populous country a national emergency Friday, after two Ebola patients died and the health ministry said seven other cases were confirmed. President Goodluck Jonathan approved spending $11.7 million to fight the disease and urged schools to extend a current holiday to give experts more time to assess the Ebola threat.

E. Africa learned hard lessons from Ebola, a disease alien to W.Africa, fueling deaths there

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- When Ebola hit Uganda two years ago -- the third outbreak in a dozen years -- the president quickly went on TV and urged Ugandans to avoid touching each other. Health officials speedily quarantined people. The quick reactions by authorities and ordinary people helped snuff out that outbreak with only 17 deaths.

Over the decades, Ebola cases have been confirmed in 10 African countries, including Congo where the disease was first reported in 1976. But until this year, Ebola had never come to West Africa. When people began dying there in March in an outbreak that on Friday escalated into an international public health emergency, governments and ordinary citizens didn’t know what they were confronting or how to respond, allowing the virus to spread out of control.

Some five months ago, deep in the steamy forests of southern Guinea, people began developing fevers with body aches, diarrhea and vomiting, which are some of the symptoms of the virus. Others might also progress to internal and external bleeding.

Even when they died, relatives touched and washed the dead, unaware that cleaning up vomit, diarrhea and handling soiled clothing is very risky because the virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids.

Malaria -- a common killer in Africa -- was believed by some families to be the cause of death. As more people became gravely ill, some desperate relatives took their loved ones to the distant capital in search of better medical care, jammed into minivans or other transportation. People who came into contact with those who showed symptoms also became infected, and they in turn infected other people as they traveled freely.

Surfers take to waves amid driving rain, wind as tropical storm causes flooding, downs trees

HONOLULU (AP) -- As the first tropical storm to hit Hawaii in 22 years passed by the islands, some coffee farmers on the Big Island began navigating flooded roads to assess damage to their crops Friday while tourists wandered the beaches of Oahu and surfers took to the waves despite driving rain and wind.

The first storm in a one-two punch heading for Hawaii clamored ashore overnight Friday as a weakened tropical storm. A second system close behind it also weakened and was on track to pass north of the islands by several hundred miles.

Tropical Storm Iselle knocked out power, caused flooding and downed trees when it crossed onto the Big Island. There have been no reports of deaths or major injuries, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Friday.

About 21,000 homes remained without power on the Big Island where the main part of Iselle came ashore in a rural and sparsely populated region, Hawaii County Civil Defense spokesman John Drummond said.

Those staying in shelters were told to return home, while crews cleared trees from roads, county spokesman Kevin Dayton said.

Pistorius murder trial approaches an end; judge schedules verdict for Sept. 11

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- As Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer put it Friday, the murder trial of the double-amputee athlete comes down to a sliver of time -- the seconds before he fired four gunshots through a closed toilet door and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The world will have to wait another month to hear a verdict in a globally televised five-month trial whose blend of shock and celebrity, framed by the rise and fall of a role model-turned-murder suspect, has transfixed people far beyond South Africa’s borders.

Judge Thokozile Masipa said at the end of two days of final arguments that she will give a verdict on Sept. 11, signaling the approaching end of a trial that has had several delays, including one break for an evaluation of Pistorius’ state of mind. Earlier, in monologues that lasted for hours, chief lawyers for both sides gave their clashing versions of what happened at the Olympic runner’s Pretoria home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

Pistorius has said he mistakenly shot Steenkamp through the closed door of a toilet cubicle, thinking there was an intruder in his home. The prosecution alleges the athlete intentionally killed her after an argument.

After the court adjourned, a rare message appeared on the once-active Twitter account of Pistorius, who last tweeted in July after an altercation with another man at a nightclub last month that his own family acknowledged was the result of poor judgment on his part.

New Ukraine rebel leader gives Moscow distance from mutiny

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- A Ukrainian has replaced a Russian at the helm of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine and declared that he wants "only moral support" from Moscow, as the Kremlin apparently tries to rebut Western claims that it is calling the shots among the rebels.

Many in the rebel ranks decry what they call Russia’s betrayal of their cause, but most vow to keep on fighting even as Ukrainian government troops close in on the main rebel stronghold, the eastern city of Donetsk.

In an ominous sign that the fighting may escalate further, the new leader of the insurgency has boasted of hundreds of new recruits and says a lot of rocket launchers and tanks have been seized from a Ukrainian unit.

Alexander Zakharchenko, a native of mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, took over late Thursday as prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which has declared independence from the central government in Kiev.

He succeeded Alexander Borodai, a Moscow political consultant who reportedly played a role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March before moving into eastern Ukraine. Borodai has worked for a nationalist tycoon with alleged connections to the Kremlin.