TIME Crime

Parents Sue County, Landlord Over Santa Barbara Rampage

In this May 25, 2014 photo, images of Christopher Martinez are displayed during a memorial in in Isla Vista, Calif.
Chris Carlson—AP Images of Christopher Martinez are displayed during a memorial in in Isla Vista, Calif., on May 25, 2014

Parents of three victims of a deadly rampage are suing the county, the sheriff's department and an apartment building company where the killer lived

(LOS ANGELES) — The parents of the first three victims of a deadly rampage in Santa Barbara last year are suing the county, the Sheriff’s Department and the apartment building where the killer lived, contending they ignored numerous warning signs that he was violent and unstable.

The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court alleges negligence and violations of the victims’ constitutional right to due process under the law.

Elliot Rodger, 22, stabbed, shot and ran down people in the community of Isla Vista on May 23. He killed six University of California, Santa Barbara, students and injured 14 other people before shooting himself as authorities closed in.

His first three victims were his roommates, David Wang and James Hong, and a friend, George Chen, who were stabbed dozens of times with a nearly 9-inch boar-hunting knife. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of their parents.

It contends that authorities, and the apartment building and its owners, ignored numerous warning signs that Rodger was dangerous, including failing to check his online postings in which he spouted venomous comments about women and others and bemoaned his virginity.

After Rodger killed himself, police found three semi-automatic handguns and nearly 550 unspent rounds in his car. All were purchased legally.

The lawsuit names Santa Barbara County, the Sheriff’s Department, Capri Apartments and Asset Campus Housing, a Texas-based company that provides student housing around the nation.

The suit said that since Rodger moved into the Capri complex in 2011, he insulted and clashed with a string of roommates and exhibited bizarre behavior, yet the apartment owners failed to conduct reasonable background checks before assigning Hong and Wang as his roommates, and failed to warn them that “Rodger had had serious conflicts with his previous roommates and was not only racist but also potentially violent and dangerous.”

It also contends that the county and its Sheriff’s Department violated the victims’ rights to due process by ignoring repeated “red flags” that Rodger was violent and unstable, even after a mental health worker saw YouTube videos that Rodger had posted and contacted authorities to say that Rodger appeared to be a danger to himself and others.

Messages seeking comment from representatives of the county and the Sheriff’s Department were not immediately returned Monday night. The offices of Capri and Asset Campus Housing were closed and messages could not be left there seeking comment.

TIME georgia

Execution of Georgia Woman Postponed Over Problems With Drug

Death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections
Reuters Death-row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections

Georgia only uses pentobarbital for lethal injections, but there are some problems

(JACKSON, Ga.) — Georgia postponed its first execution of a woman in 70 years late Monday because of concerns about the drug to be used in the lethal injection.

The pentobarbital was sent to an independent lab to check its potency and the test came back at an acceptable level, but during subsequent checks it appeared cloudy, Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said. Corrections officials called the pharmacist and decided to postpone the execution “out of an abundance of caution,” she said. No new date was given.

Pentobarbital is the only drug used in Georgia executions. For other recent executions, the state has gotten the drug from a compounding pharmacy, but officials did not immediately respond late Monday when asked if that was the source in this case. Georgia law prohibits the release of any identifying information about the source of execution drugs or any entity involved in an execution.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. at the prison in Jackson for the February 1997 slaying of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. The execution was put on hold while officials waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to either grant or deny a stay requested by her lawyers. The court had still not ruled more than five hours later.

Her lawyers were seeking a delay pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case out of Oklahoma, and an appellate court had rejected that request. Late Monday, the lawyers added additional arguments for the high court: that it should consider a stay because Gissendaner didn’t kill her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, herself in February 1997. They also argued that she had been thoroughly rehabilitated.

Previously, courts had found Gissendaner had plotted the stabbing death of her husband by her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, who will be up for parole in eight years after accepting a life sentence and testifying against her.

Gissendaner would have been only the 16th woman put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. About 1,400 men have been executed since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence, denied clemency last week and upheld that decision late Monday. Gissendaner’s lawyers had urged the board to reconsider and “bestow mercy” by commuting her sentence to life without parole. The board said it voted to abide by its earlier decision after “careful consideration” of the request.

Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had a troubled relationship, repeatedly splitting up and getting back together, divorcing and remarrying. At the time of her husband’s death, Gissendaner was a 28-year-old mother of three children, 12, 7 and 5 years old. And she had an on-again, off-again lover in Owen.

Rather than divorcing her husband again, Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen to kill him, prosecutors said. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed her husband while she went out with friends, and forced him to drive to a remote area. Then he marched him into the woods and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.

Owen and Gissendaner then met up and set fire to the dead man’s car in an attempted cover-up. Both initially denied involvement, but Owen eventually confessed and testified against his former girlfriend.

Her lawyers challenged the constitutionality of her sentence as disproportionate, given that she wasn’t there when Owen killed her husband, and yet Owen will eventually be eligible for parole. But Georgia’s Supreme Court voted 5-2 Monday to deny her motion, citing Owen’s testimony that she pushed for murder rather than divorce so that she could get her husband’s insurance money.

In their request Monday for reconsideration, Gissendaner’s lawyers said the parole board did not have a chance to hear the overwhelmingly positive testimony of many corrections employees who declined to speak up for fear of retaliation.

Her clemency petition already included testimonials from dozens of spiritual advisers, inmates and prison staff who described a seriously damaged woman transformed through faith behind bars. She has shown remorse and provided hope to struggling inmates while helping guards maintain control, they said.

“The spiritual transformation and depth of faith that Ms. Gissendaner demonstrates and practices is a deep and sincere expression of a personal relationship with God,” Prison chaplain Susan Bishop wrote. “It is not a superficial religious experience.”

Two of Gissendaner’s three children also asked the board to spare their mother’s life, describing their own emotional journey from anger and bitterness to forgiveness.

“The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent,” wrote her daughter, Kayla Gissendaner. “My mom has touched so many lives. Executing her doesn’t bring justice or peace to me or to anyone.”

But it also has been “a long, hard, heartbreaking road” for Douglas Gissendaner’s parents and sister, according to a statement from them issued through the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office. The family made it clear they wanted the execution to go forward.

Several dozen people gathered outside the prison in support of Gissendaner, including some women who served time with her.

Kara Tragesser recalled Gissendaner telling her “You can do better!” when she was put on lockdown while serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

“We’re here because Kelly’s made a difference in our lives,” Tragesser said.

Michelle Collins, who did time for forgery, remembered Gissendaner persuading her to stop misbehaving and start caring about her future.

“She looked around at us and said, ‘At least y’all are going to get out of here again. Who are you to throw your lives away when I’m never going to get out of here?'” said Collins.

“She gave me the will to do something good when I got out,” said Collins, adding that she now makes good money working for a Fortune 500 company. “She told me to make sure I never came back and I never have.”

A loud cheer came up from the crowd gathered outside the prison when they heard the execution had been postponed.

TIME Crime

Execution of Georgia Woman on Hold Pending Supreme Court Ruling

Death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections
Georgia Department of Corrections/Reuters Death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The execution is on hold

(JACKSON, Ga.) — The execution of the first female in Georgia in 70 years was on hold Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed last-minute arguments by her lawyers that they hoped would persuade the nation’s top justices to grant a stay.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to die by injection of pentobarbital at 7 p.m. in the state prison for the February 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

Still pending was a response from the high court after an appellate court rejected her lawyers’ request for a delay on the grounds that Georgia’s lethal-injection procedures aren’t transparent enough to be challenged in court. Late Monday, her lawyers also added that the court should take into account the fact that she didn’t kill her husband herself, and that she had been thoroughly rehabilitated.

Previously, courts had found Gissendaner had plotted the stabbing death of her husband by her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, who will be up for parole in eight years after accepting a life sentence and testifying against her.

Gissendaner would be only the 16th woman put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. About 1,400 men have been executed since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence, denied clemency last week and upheld that decision late Monday. The woman’s lawyers had urged the board to reconsider and “bestow mercy” by commuting her sentence to life without parole. The board said it voted to abide by its earlier decision after “careful consideration” of the request.

Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had a troubled relationship, repeatedly splitting up and getting back together, divorcing and remarrying. She was a 28-year-old mother of three children, 12, 7 and 5 years old. And she had an on-again, off-again lover in Owen.

In prison, Gissendaner eventually took responsibility: Rather than divorcing her husband again, she pushed Owen to kill him. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed her husband while she went out dancing with friends, and forced him to drive to a remote area. Then he marched him into the woods and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.

Owen and Gissendaner then met up and set fire to the dead man’s car in an attempted cover-up, and both initially denied involvement, but Owen eventually confessed and testified against his former girlfriend.

Her lawyers challenged the constitutionality of her sentence as disproportionate, given that she wasn’t there when Owen killed her husband, and yet Owen will eventually be eligible for parole. But Georgia’s Supreme Court voted 5-2 Monday to deny her motion, citing Owen’s testimony that she pushed for murder rather than divorce so that she could get her husband’s insurance money.

In their request Monday for reconsideration, Gissendaner’s lawyers said the parole board did not have a chance to hear the overwhelmingly positive testimony of many corrections employees who declined to speak up for fear of retaliation.

Her clemency petition already included testimonials from dozens of spiritual advisers, inmates and prison staff who described a seriously damaged woman transformed through faith behind bars. She has shown remorse and provided hope to struggling inmates while helping guards maintain control, they said.

“The spiritual transformation and depth of faith that Ms. Gissendaner demonstrates and practices is a deep and sincere expression of a personal relationship with God,” Prison chaplain Susan Bishop wrote. “It is not a superficial religious experience.”

Two of Gissendaner’s three children also asked the board to spare their mother’s life, describing their own emotional journey from anger and bitterness to forgiveness.

“The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent,” wrote her daughter, Kayla Gissendaner. “My mom has touched so many lives. Executing her doesn’t bring justice or peace to me or to anyone.”

But it also has been “a long, hard, heartbreaking road” for Douglas Gissendaner’s parents and sister, and they made it clear they want the execution to go forward, the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office said.

More than a dozen women who served time with Gissendaner gathered outside the prison to support her Monday afternoon.

Kara Tragesser recalled Gissendaner telling her “you can do better!” when she was put on lockdown while serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

“We’re here because Kelly’s made a difference in our lives,” Tragesser said.

Michelle Collins, who did time for forgery, remembered Gissendaner persuading her to stop misbehaving and start caring about her future.

“She looked around at us and said, ‘At least y’all are going to get out of here again. Who are you to throw your lives away when I’m never going to get out of here?'” said Collins.

“She gave me the will to do something good when I got out,” said Collins, adding that she now makes good money working for a Fortune 500 company. “She told me to make sure I never came back and I never have.”

TIME Congress

Schock Reimburses Government for Private Travel to Football Game

His team will continue a thorough review of his office procedures

(WASHINGTON) — Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock reimbursed the U.S. government for more than $1,200 in travel expenses for attending a Chicago Bears football game last November, his office said Monday. He previously had charged taxpayers for the trip.

The reimbursement comes amid new congressional reports detailing $14,000 in private air travel incurred by Schock last fall, which included plane travel around Illinois and to Washington. Schock used his taxpayer-funded account to pay those bills. His office said it was reviewing whether other charges might have been inappropriate.

Schock’s recent travel adds to the list of more than a dozen flights worth $40,000 — expensed under his congressional account or campaign funds — aboard planes owned by donors. That led to a formal ethics complaint.

Schock, a 33-year-old, rising Republican star, has been under scrutiny for using congressional funds to redecorate his Capitol Hill office in the style of the TV show “Downton Abbey.” Last week, his office said he made good on his promise of personally reimbursing those costs.

Congressional rules updated two years ago generally allow the use of private aircraft as long as trips are fairly compensated. But the latest revelations about Schock’s travel expenses raise questions about why taxpayers were billed for a trip to Chicago when he represents the Peoria and Springfield areas at least 150 miles away.

A spokesman said Schock wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury on Monday for the Chicago trip.

Newly released House records showed $10,802 incurred last November for “commercial transportation” to Keith Siilats, a New York-based pilot who flew Schock to Chicago. Siilats told the AP he flew the congressman between Washington and Peoria for a series of meetings, and attended the Bears game with Schock.

That trip was first reported Sunday by the Chicago Sun-Times. It was not immediately clear how Schock paid for his game tickets.

The records also show Schock’s office spent about $2,270 with Peoria-based Byerly Aviation, as well as $1,590 with Lobair LLC. Both were previously paid for Schock’s travel on aircraft owned by his financial contributors, records show.

The new Byerly expense aligns with a same-day journey on a plane owned by Springfield businessman Todd Green between Peoria and Quincy, Illinois, on Dec. 12, 2014. Schock toured a local dam that he said needed repairs that same day in Quincy.

Byerly was previously paid $11,433 from Schock’s office account for four days in November 2013. The AP found Green’s plane traveled to and from Washington and Peoria during that same period— and hours before Schock posted a photo about his “Schocktoberfest” fundraising event in his district.

A spokesman said Monday his team will continue a thorough review of his office procedures. Schock previously told the AP he travels frequently throughout his district to stay connected with his constituents.

The AP last week detailed those travel expenses, including Schock’s use of private planes and incurring of pricey entertainment charges. The review identified at least a dozen flights on donors’ planes since mid-2011, tracking his reliance on the aircraft partly through pictures uploaded to his Instagram account.

During one period, Green’s plane traveled to at least eight cities last October in the Midwest and East Coast — cities where Schock met with political candidates ahead of the midterm elections. Green runs car dealerships in Schock’s district with his brother, Jeff, a pilot who Todd Green said is good friends with Schock.

Lobair was previously paid $6,000 for four trips on a plane owned by Michael J. Miller, another Peoria auto dealer, and by Vonachen Services Inc., a janitorial and service firm headed by Peoria businessman Matthew Vonachen. Vonachen donated at least $11,000 to Schock’s political career, federal campaign records show.

Schock’s other official and expenses included concert tickets and mileage reimbursements, including a sold-out Katy Perry concert last June.

The House updated its ethics rules in January 2013. Earlier rules prohibited lawmakers from using office accounts to pay for flights on private aircraft, allowing payments only for federally licensed charter and commercial flights.

A liberal-leaning group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had requested an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an outside panel that reviews ethics complaints against House members.

Schock recently brought on board a team of campaign finance lawyers and public relations experts to address the controversy about his expenses.

___

Associated Press writers Stephen Braun, Jeff Horwitz and Ronnie Greene contributed to this report.

TIME Crime

Cleveland Leaders Apologize Over Blaming Boy for Own Death

"We used words and we phrased things in such a way that was very insensitive"

(CLEVELAND) — Cleveland’s mayor apologized on Monday after the city’s lawyers suggested in court documents that a 12-year-old boy who had a pellet gun when he was shot by police died as a result of his own actions.

Mayor Frank Jackson said the city’s response to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Tamir Rice’s family was poorly worded and offensive.

“We used words and we phrased things in such a way that was very insensitive,” the mayor said.

The court documents filed late last week by the city said Tamir’s injuries and the subsequent complaints for damages stemmed from his actions and failure “to exercise due care to avoid injury.” It similarly said the “injuries, losses and damages” cited for his relatives in the complaint “were directly and proximately caused by their own acts,” not by the city.

Jackson said that he’s talked with representatives of Tamir’s family, and that the city plans to alter the wording in the documents within the next three weeks.

“We are sincerely apologetic for our misuse and mischaracterization of our answer to that complaint,” he said.

The city said in response to the federal lawsuit that it didn’t violate Tamir’s federal rights and that it is entitled to certain legal immunities.

One of the family’s attorneys, Walter Madison, told the Northeast Ohio Media Group that the complaint has merit.

“I do believe that a 12-year-old child died unnecessarily at the hands of Cleveland police officers and I do believe that certain officers shouldn’t have been entitled to wear the uniform,” he said.

Tamir was shot in the abdomen by an officer responding to a call about someone with a firearm near a recreation center on Nov. 22. The officer fired within two seconds of the police car stopping nearby, and the confrontation was captured on surveillance video. Tamir had been carrying what turned out to be an airsoft-type gun that shoots non-lethal plastic pellets.

The federal lawsuit alleges excessive force, negligence, infliction of emotional distress on his sister and mother, violation of due process for the parents, and failure by the responding officers to immediately provide first aid to the boy, who died the next day. It also claims false imprisonment of Tamir’s 14-year-old sister, who ran toward the scene after the shooting, struggled with police and was handcuffed and put into a cruiser parked near her wounded brother.

The Cuyahoga County sheriff’s department is investigating the shooting. A prosecutor has promised that a grand jury will consider whether the case merits criminal charges.

TIME nebraska

Federal Judge Blocks Nebraska’s Gay Marriage Ban

The decision will not take effect until March 9

(OMAHA, Neb.) — A federal judge has blocked Nebraska’s gay marriage ban, but the decision will not take effect until March 9.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon on Monday ordered the state to not enforce its ban.

Seven same-sex couples filed a lawsuit last year challenging the state’s voter-backed ban. Last week, Bataillon heard arguments for and against a motion for an injunction to block enforcement of the ban while the lawsuit is pending.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s office has said it will appeal any decision blocking or overturning the voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Jan. 17 that it would decide whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under the Constitution. A decision is expected by late June.

 

TIME conflict

ISIS Releases 19 Christian Hostages, Activists Say

Fears remain over the fate of the hundreds still held captive

(BEIRUT) — The Islamic State group released at least 19 Christians on Sunday who were among the more than 220 people the militants took captive in northeastern Syria last week, activists and a local leader said.

The news provided a modicum of relief to a Christian Assyrian community that has been devastated by the abductions, which saw Islamic State fighters haul off entire families from a string of villages along the Khabur River in Hassakeh province. But fears remain over the fate of the hundreds still held captive.

Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, said the 16 men and three women arrived safely Sunday at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the city of Hassakeh. He said the 19 — all of them from the village of Tal Ghoran — had traveled by bus from the Islamic State-held town of Shaddadeh south of Hassakeh.

The Assyrian Human Rights Network also reported the release, and published photographs on its Facebook page that it said were from Hassakeh showing a crowd dressed in winter coats greeting the returnees.

The photos appeared genuine and corresponded to Associated Press reporting.

It was not immediately clear why the Islamic State group freed these captives.

Saedi said all those released were around 50 years of age or older, which suggests age might have been a factor. The Assyrian Human Rights Network, meanwhile, said the captives had been ordered released by a Shariah court after paying an unspecified amount of money levied as a tax on non-Muslims.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said a Shariah court had ruled the captives be freed, but the reasoning behind the decision was unknown.

The fate of the more than 200 other Christian Assyrians still in the Islamic State group’s hands remains unclear. Most of them are believed to have been taken by Islamic State fighters to Shaddadeh, which is located 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Hassakeh.

Assyrian leaders and Sunni tribal sheikhs have begun reaching out to the Islamic State group to try to negotiate the release of the captives, activists said.

“We’re trying to contact any party that might help. We’re working through our friends the tribal sheikhs,” said Younan Talia, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization. “Some friends of Daesh are trying to send messages.”

Talia said there has been no response yet. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The Sweden-based director of the Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria, Osama Edward, also said efforts were underway to try to negotiate the captives’ release.

The abductions have added to fears among religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq, who have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State group. During the militants’ bloody campaign in both countries, where they have declared a self-styled caliphate, minorities have been repeatedly targeted and killed, driven from their homes, had their women enslaved and places of worship destroyed.

___

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Ashraf Khalil in Beirut contributed to this report.

TIME

Iraq Begins Assault on ISIS North of Baghdad

Members of the Iraqi security forces coming from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, drive towards al-Dawr area located south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group on Feb. 28, 2015.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images Members of the Iraqi security forces coming from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, drive towards al-Dawr area located south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group on Feb. 28, 2015.

Tikrit, the provincial capital for Salauhddin province, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer

(BAGHDAD) — Backed by allied Shiite and Sunni fighters, Iraqi security forces on Monday began a large-scale military operation to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State extremist group, state TV said, a major step in a campaign to reclaim a large swath of territory in northern Iraq controlled by the militants.

But hours into the operation, a key test for the embattled Iraqi army, the military said it still hadn’t entered the city of Tikrit, indicating a long battle lies ahead.

Tikrit, the provincial capital for Salauhddin province, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer along with the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland after the collapse of national security forces. Tikrit is one of the largest cities held by IS forces and sits on the road to Mosul.

Security forces have so far been unable to retake Tikrit, but momentum has begun to shift since soldiers, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, took back the nearby refinery town of Beiji in November. Any operation to take Mosul would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But they have cautioned that if the Iraqis aren’t ready, the timing could be delayed.

Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, and Iraqi authorities say they have not set a date to launch a major operation to recapture Mosul. Heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish forces is taking place only outside the city.

Al-Iraqiya television said that the forces were attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city. Several hours into the operation, it gave no details.

The military commander of Salahuddin region, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told the state TV the operation was “going on as planned,” with fighting taking place outside Tikrit mainly on its eastern side.

“Until this moment we have not entered the city,” al-Saadi said. “God willing, we will enter, but we need some time as planned,” he said, adding that there is no timeframe for the operations.

“God willing, victory will be achieved and Salahuddin will be turned into a grave for all terrorist groups,” he said.

Tikrit is an important test case for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is trying to reassert authority over the divided country. Islamic State fighters have a strong presence in the city and are expected to put up fierce resistance.

Iraq is bitterly split between minority Sunnis, who were an important base of support for Saddam, and the Shiite majority. Since Saddam was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Sunni minority has felt increasingly marginalized by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and in 2006 long-running tensions boiled over into sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

While the TV said Shiite and Sunni tribal fighters were cooperating in Monday’s offensive, Tikrit is an important Sunni stronghold, and the presence of Shiite forces risks could prompt a backlash among Sunnis. The Iraqi military is heavily dependent on Shiite militias that have been accused of abusing Sunni communities elsewhere in Iraq.

Hours ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State extremist group, offering what he described as “the last chance” and promising them a pardon.

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said Sunday during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad.

Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon. “The city will soon return to its people,” he added.

His comments appeared to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.

Saddam, whose Sunni-dominated government ruled the country for some two decades, was executed after his ouster. Tikrit frequently saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Army Takes On Taliban in First Solo Offensive

In this Feb. 26, 2015 photo, Afghan security police stand guard at checkpoint in Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan
Abdul Khaliq—AP Afghan security police stand guard at checkpoint in Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Feb. 26, 2015

The Afghan army hopes to prove it can rout the Taliban without the aid of U.S. or NATO troops

(KABUL) — The Afghan army is waging its largest-ever solo offensive against the Taliban, hoping to strike a decisive blow ahead of the spring fighting season and prove it can rout the insurgents without the aid of U.S. and NATO combat troops.

Afghan troops have been slowly pushing up through a fertile river valley in the southern Helmand province, with special forces mounting nighttime helicopter raids into mud brick compounds and ground troops gradually advancing across the poppy fields that in past years have furnished the insurgents’ main cash crop.

U.S. and British troops suffered some of their biggest losses of the decade-long war here, seizing territory that was later lost by ill-equipped and poorly trained Afghan forces. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to break the grim cycle, and the latest offensive is widely seen as a test for his efforts to overhaul the army and police since taking office in September.

Ghani was personally involved in planning the operation, which is codenamed Zolfiqar — meaning double-edged sword — and which began on Feb. 10, according to Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller, deputy chief of staff for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Ghani heads to Washington later this month, where he is expected to seek enhanced U.S. military backup, particularly air support.

“This is an incredibly important operation,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the secret operation. “This is Ghani’s attempt to demonstrate to the U.S. and the U.S. Congress that Afghan ground forces are able to take the lead and conduct offensive operations if they have the right enablers to support them.”

U.S. and Afghan officials say local security forces are so far proving they can take the fight to the Taliban without the aid of foreign combat troops. There are 13,000 foreign soldiers in the country, down from a peak of 140,000 in 2009-2010, with 5,000 U.S. troops engaged in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

U.S. military leaders have advised the troops in Helmand and helped plan the operation, but American troops are not involved in the fighting.

Fuller said the troops have already cleared large areas where the insurgents had been entrenched for more than a decade, saying the Taliban’s casualties were higher than those of government forces by “a factor of 10 to one.”

He said Afghan forces had found bunkers, tunnels, trench lines, and a giant slingshot apparently used to fling grenades at government forces.

He said the Sangin district, which had seen months of heavy fighting, was declared clear on Friday, adding that Afghan forces had “met with heavy resistance that was more than they anticipated.”

Gen. Mohammad Salim Ahses, the head of the national police, told The Associated Press by telephone from Sangin that 385 Taliban fighters had been killed there, including 31 commanders. It was not possible to confirm those figures. The areas where the fighting is taking place are not accessible to journalists, and few Afghan officials were willing to speak about the operation.

The international charity Emergency said its hospitals in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, and the national capital Kabul had seen casualties almost double in February to 226 over the same month last year due to increased insurgent violence across the country, according to program coordinator Luca Radaelli.

“We are definitely seeing a spike in the number of war casualties coming in from the operation in Helmand,” he said, adding that most were men and many were policemen. Further details on the casualties, including a breakdown of dead and wounded on each side, were not immediately available.

The real test will come later, when Afghan forces try to hold hard-won territory.

Fuller said Afghan officials have begun meeting with local leaders to plan the building of new schools, clinics, police stations and courthouses. He said tribal elders are already helping to recruit residents for the local police and border guard.

Helmand’s deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar, said small army and police posts, each of which will house 100 men, are being built across the valley. “This time we are moving according to a proper plan” to keep the Taliban from returning, he said. “We will not leave this place alone.

TIME Ukraine

U.N. Rights Office: Death Toll in Eastern Ukraine Passes 6,000

An elderly woman walks across a destroyed bridge, in an area with heavy fighting in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 1, 2015
Vadim Ghirda—AP An elderly woman walks across a destroyed bridge in an area with heavy fighting in Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 1, 2015

The conflict has led to a "merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure," the U.N. says

(BERLIN) — More than 6,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the start of the conflict almost a year ago that has led to a “merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure,” the U.N. human rights office said Monday.

Hundreds of civilians and military personnel have been killed in recent weeks alone after an upswing in fighting particularly near Donetsk airport and in the Debaltseve area, the Geneva-based body said in a report covering the period from December to February. The strategic railroad town of Debaltseve was captured from Ukrainian government forces last month by pro-Russian separatists.

While Russia denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine, the U.N. cited “credible reports (that) indicate a continuing flow of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters” from Russia.

“This has sustained and enhanced the capacity of armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ to resist Government armed forces and to launch new offensives in some areas, including around the Donetsk airport, Mariupol and Debaltseve,” it said.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said many civilians stay in embattled areas “because they fear for their lives if they try to move.”

“Many others stay to protect children, other family members, or their property,” while some are forced to stay or unable to leave, he said.

The report cited “credible allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mostly by the armed groups but in some instances also by the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.” It noted video footage appeared to support allegations of summary executions by the rebels.

The displacement of 1 million people has also increased the risk for women from sex traffickers, the report found.

Zeid called on all sides to comply with a recent accord signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, that foresees the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line.

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