TIME Crime

Families Mark 25th Anniversary of Club Fire That Killed 87

A memorial to those killed in the Happy Land social club fire in the Bronx, New York, March 19, 2015.
Seth Wenig—AP A memorial to those killed in the Happy Land social-club fire in the Bronx on March 19, 2015

Family members and friends commemorated 25th anniversary of a social-club fire that killed 90 people

(NEW YORK) — Family members and friends of victims gathered at a vigil Wednesday night to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a social club fire that killed almost 90 people. At the time, it was the biggest mass murder in U.S. history.

On March 25, 1990, a Cuban refugee named Julio Gonzalez tried to win back the woman who had spurned him.

Gonzalez entered the Happy Land social club in the Bronx, which was humming with people — mostly immigrants — partying and dancing. His former live-in girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, was checking coats, and they had a virulent argument. Gonzalez was thrown out.

In a rage, he returned just after 3 a.m., splashing gasoline on Happy Land’s only guest exit and lighting two matches. Then he pulled down the metal front gate.

Within minutes, 87 people were dead.

On the day after the fire, as firefighters carried out the bodies, an icy drizzle descended on shocked relatives rushing to find out if their loved ones might be among the dead.

On Wednesday evening, again under a chilly drizzle, about 100 loved ones crowded around the granite memorial at the site of the club, their prayers in Spanish ringing into the night.

They were joined by firefighters and police officers whose departments had responded to the blaze.

Earlier, during a Roman Catholic Mass at a nearby church, family members stood at the altar, each reading aloud the names of those who perished.

The fire was the worst in New York City since 146 workers died in a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in what is today’s Greenwich Village. They were killed exactly 79 years earlier on March 25, 1911.

That spring night in 1990, people were smothered by black smoke or fatally burned. It happened so quickly that some appeared like frozen figures from Pompeii.

A few still had drinks in their hands. Some had torn off their party clothes, engulfed by flames. Others died hugging or holding hands. Bodies were piled up on Happy Land’s dance floor in the darkness, their faces covered with soot.

Jaffrey Gotay does not treasure memories of her father. She has none, because she was only 3 when he died, and her mother was pregnant with her sister.

“A lot of it is unknown, it’s missing out, not really knowing what could have been,” said Gotay, whose family buried her father, Denny Alvarez, in Trujillo, a town in Honduras where others killed in the fire also are buried.

“You don’t really remember, and that sucks,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

The sisters grew up writing letters to their absent dad each year on Father’s Day, placing them near his picture.

Gotay brought along her 17-month-old daughter, whom she’ll eventually tell how her grandfather died.

In 1990, Happy Land drew a noisy, happy crowd of mostly young people. The club had been ordered closed for fire hazards — no sprinklers or emergency exits — but continued to operate illegally.

About two-thirds of the victims were part of a Bronx community of so-called Garifunas — Hondurans descended from proud black natives of the Caribbean exiled by British colonizers more than two centuries ago. In recent years, many Garifunas have fled a repressive Honduran regime and settled in New York.

That fateful weekend, they were enjoying their go-to club, speaking their own language and dancing to their drum-driven Garifuna music.

Gonzalez, now 60, sits behind bars for life in an upstate New York prison. He was convicted of 174 counts of murder — two for each victim on charges of depraved indifference and felony murder.

A refugee from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he arrived in New York in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. A decade later, he was working in a warehouse but lost his job six weeks before the fire, police said.

Earlier this month, Gonzalez was denied parole.

TIME Aviation

Report Says One Pilot Was Locked Out of the Germanwings Jet Before Crash

Mystery Surrounds The Germanwings Airbus That Crashed In Southern France Killing All On Board
Handout—Getty Images Search-and-rescue teams attend to the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus in the French Alps near Seyne, France, on March 25, 2015

One pilot might have been locked out of the cockpit on Germanwings jetliner

(SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France) — The first half of Germanwings Flight 9525 was chilling in its normalcy. It took off from Barcelona en route to Duesseldorf, climbing up over the Mediterranean and turning over France. The last communication was a routine request to continue on its route.

Minutes later, at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Airbus A320 inexplicably began to descend. Within 10 minutes it had plunged from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to just over 6,000 feet and slammed into a remote mountainside.

To find out why, investigators have been analyzing the mangled black box that contains an audio recording from the cockpit. Remi Jouty, the head of France’s accident investigation bureau BEA, said Wednesday that it has yielded sounds and voices, but so far not the “slightest explanation” of why the plane crashed, killing all 150 on board.

A newspaper report, however, suggests the audio contains intriguing information at the least: One of the pilots is heard leaving the cockpit, then banging on the door with increasing urgency in an unsuccessful attempt to get back in.

“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door and there is no answer,” The New York Times quotes an unidentified investigator as saying. “And then he hits the door stronger and no answer. There is never an answer.”

Eventually, the newspaper quotes the investigator as saying: “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.”

The investigator, whom the newspaper said could not be identified because the investigation is continuing, said officials don’t know why the pilot left. He also does not speculate on why the other pilot didn’t open the door or make contact with ground control before the crash.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airlines in the U.S. don’t leave one pilot alone in the cockpit. The standard operating procedure is that if one of the pilots leaves — for example to use the bathroom — a flight attendant takes their spot in the cockpit. It was not immediately clear if European airlines have adopted the same practice.

The names of the pilots have not been released.

French officials gave no details from the recording on Wednesday, insisting the cause of the crash remained a mystery. They said the descent was gradual enough to suggest the plane was under the control of its navigators.

“At this point, there is no explanation,” Jouty said. “One doesn’t imagine that the pilot consciously sends his plane into a mountain.”

Jouty said “sounds and voices” were registered on the digital audio file recovered from the first black box. But he did not divulge the contents, insisting days or weeks will be needed to decipher them.

“There’s work of understanding voices, sounds, alarms, attribution of different voices,” the BEA chief said.

Confusion surrounded the fate of the second black box. French President Francois Hollande said the casing of the flight data recorder had been found in the scattered debris, but was missing the memory card that captures 25 hours’ worth of information on the position and condition of almost every major part in a plane. Jouty refused to confirm the discovery.

French officials said terrorism appeared unlikely and Germany’s top security official said there was no evidence of foul play.

As authorities struggled to unravel the puzzle, Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy converged on the remote accident site to pay their respects to the dead — mostly German and Spanish citizens among at least 17 nationalities.

“This is a true tragedy, and the visit here has shown us that,” Merkel said after she and Hollande overflew the desolate craggy mountainside.

Helicopters ferried in rescue workers and other personnel throughout the day. More than 600 rescue and security workers and aviation investigators were on site, French officials said.

Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said the airline was in the process of contacting victims’ families. He said the 144 passengers and six crew members included 72 Germans, 35 Spaniards, three Americans and two people each from Australia, Argentina, Iran, Venezuela, and one person each from Britain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, Belgium and Israel.

The three Americans included a mother and daughter, the U.S. State Department said. Some of the victims may have had dual nationalities; Spain’s government said 51 citizens had died in the crash.

Two babies, two opera singers and 16 German high school students and their teachers returning from an exchange program in Spain were among those who lost their lives.

The principal of Joseph Koenig High School, Ulrich Wessel, called the loss a “tragedy that renders one speechless.”

In Spain, flags flew at half-staff on government buildings and a minute of silence was held in government offices across the country. Parliament canceled its Wednesday session.

Barcelona’s Liceu opera house held two minutes of silence at noon to honor the two German opera singers, Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner, who were returning home after a weekend performance at the theater.

Germanwings canceled several flights Wednesday because some crews declared themselves unfit to fly after losing colleagues.

___

Ganley reported from Paris. Thomas Adamson, Lori Hinnant and Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Kristen Grieshaber in Haltern, Germany; David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin; Alan Clendenning and Jorge Sainz in Madrid; Michael Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and AP Airlines writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.

TIME Yemen

President of Yemen Flees by Sea; Saudis Begin Air Strikes

In this March 24, 2015 photo, tanks seized recently by militiamen loyal to Yemen's President Hadi take positions at the al-Anad air base in Lahej, Yemen.
Wael Qubady—AP In this March 24, 2015 photo, tanks seized recently by militiamen loyal to Yemen's President Hadi take positions at the al-Anad air base in Lahej, Yemen.

Houthi rebels and their allies moved on Aden, captured its airport and put a bounty on the President's head

(SANAA, Yemen) — President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled Yemen by sea Wednesday as Shiite rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on his head, officials said. Hours later, Saudi Arabia announced it had begun airstrikes against the Houthi rebels.

The departure of the close U.S. ally and the imminent fall of the southern port of Aden pushed Yemen further toward a violent collapse. It also threatened to turn the impoverished but strategic country into another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir said his country had begun airstrikes against the rebels. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.

The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes.

There were indications that others in the region would follow suit: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

In a statement from the state news agency Egypt, too, announced political and military support. “There is coordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary,” the statement said.

Arab leaders are expected to meet in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik this weekend for a pre-planned summit, which is now expected to be dominated by the developments in Yemen. It is not clear if Hadi will be able to attend the summit.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.

The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

In fighting in Lahj, they captured Hadi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into the nearby al-Annad base, which the U.S. military had left.

The Houthis are backed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

Security officials in Yemen said the Saudi airstrikes targeted a camp for U.S.-trained special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to Saleh. The officials said the targets included the missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the Yemeni security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base.

The Houthis said in a statement to reporters that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles.

Saudi-owned Al-Hadath TV aired pictures of the operation. The dark screen flashed with glaring lights and there was what sounded like machine guns or possibly anti-aircraft missiles.

Riad Yassin, Yemen’s Foreign Minister, told Al-Hadath that the airstrikes were welcomed.

“I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this,” he said.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden after 3:30 p.m. on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told The Associated Press. The officials would not specify his destination.

Saleh said in a speech two weeks ago that Hadi might head for the African country of Djibouti across the gulf, just as leaders of southern Yemen fled.

Officials said Hadi had been preparing for the move since Sunday, when rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi vowed in a fiery speech that his forces will keep advancing south, referring to Hadi as a “puppet” of international powers.

Shortly after Hadi fled his palace in Aden, warplanes targeted presidential forces guarding it. No casualties were reported. By midday, Aden’s airport fell into hands of forces loyal to Saleh based in the city after intense clashes with pro-Hadi militias.

Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly $100,000 for Hadi’s capture.

The Houthis still face multiple opponents. Sunni tribesmen and local militias are fighting them in many places around Yemen, and the rebels have little support in the south.

Some military units remain loyal to Hadi, although they are severely weakened. Alarmingly, al-Qaida militants have emerged as a powerful force against the rebels, and there are signs of a presence of the even more extremist Islamic State group. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against the Houthis in Sanaa that killed 137 people.

AQAP is considered the terrorist group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S. bound airlines, although none exploded. U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against AQAP are seriously hampered, with the U.S. Embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated.

Although the Houthis are avowed enemies of al-Qaida, they can’t project power against the militants the way the Hadi government could with U.S. support. The deeply anti-American rebels have rejected Washington’s overtures, officials say.

Hadi’s exit is a humiliating reversal, coming in large part at the hands of Saleh, the man he replaced in 2012 under a deal that allowed the former leader to remain free.

The atmosphere in Aden was tense, with most schools, government offices, shops and restaurants closed. In the few cafes still open, men watched the news on TV. Looters went through two abandoned army camps, taking weapons and ammunition.

Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, told the rebel-controlled Al-Masirah news channel that their forces were not aiming to occupy the south.

TIME

Kerry Lands in Switzerland for Make-or-Break Iran Nuke Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry waits to address the Global Chief of Missions meeting at the State Department in Washington on March 25, 2015.
Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images US Secretary of State John Kerry waits to address the Global Chief of Missions meeting at the State Department in Washington on March 25, 2015.

Ahead of an end-of-month deadline for the outline of a deal

(LAUSANNE, Switzerland) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Switzerland to resume Iran nuclear talks as negotiations go down to the wire against an end-of-month deadline for the outline of a deal.

With just days until that target is reached, Kerry touched down in Geneva late Wednesday and was driven to the lake resort of Lausanne. En route to Geneva, U.S. officials said the deadline is achievable but remains uncertain amid significant gaps in certain areas.

One official traveling with Kerry to the talks said the American side “can see a path forward to get to agreement” by the end of March. The official said the last round of talks, also in Lausanne, produced more progress than many previous rounds when it ended last weekend. The official was not authorized to discuss the talks by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kerry is hoping to seal a framework deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief in make-or-break talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The top diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia would join if the U.S. and Iran are close to an agreement.

The pressure is high. The seven nations have set themselves a March 31 deadline for the outline of a final accord they hope to seal by the end of June. Both President Barack Obama and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken against what would be a third extension of the talks.

And opponents, among them wary American allies in the Middle East and hardliners in Iran and in Congress, stand ready to complicate the process if negotiators cannot reach a breakthrough in the next six days. American lawmakers have threatened new sanctions on Iran as well as the establishment of a process which would allow them to vote down any final accord.

The United States and its partners are trying to get Iran to cut the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, material that can be used in warheads, and agree to other restrictions on what the Islamic Republic insists is a peaceful nuclear program.

Speaking Wednesday morning to U.S. ambassadors, Kerry assailed opponents of a deal.

“What happens if, as our critics propose, we just walk away from a plan that the rest of the world were to deem to be reasonable?” Kerry asked. “Well, the talks would collapse. Iran would have the ability to go right back spinning its centrifuges and enriching to the degree they want… And the sanctions will not hold.”

Kerry said the whole point of years of U.S. sanctions was to get Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program. He said it was the Obama administration’s job to “provide an agreement that is as good as we said it will be; that will get the job done; that shuts off the four pathways to a nuclear weapon.”

The alternative to diplomacy could mean Iran is left to “just expand its program full-speed ahead,” Kerry said. “You know we can’t accept that. So where does that take you? Anybody standing up in opposition to this has an obligation to stand up and put a viable, realistic alternative on the table. And I have yet to see anybody do that.”

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.

TIME Yemen

Saudis Begin Air Strikes Against Houthi Rebels in Yemen

Vowing to do "anything necessary" to protect its neighbor from Iran-backed Shi'ite rebels

(WASHINGTON) — Saudi Arabia began airstrikes Wednesday against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen, vowing that the Sunni kingdom will do “anything necessary” to protect its neighbor from Iran-backed Shiite rebels.

The airstrikes campaign was announced at the Saudi embassy in Washington by Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in a rare news conference. Offensive military action by Saudi Arabia is also a rarity, although Saudi Arabia is a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria.

There were indications that regional assistance to Yemen was extending beyond Saudi Arabia.

In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain said they would answer a request from Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

The GCC is expected to meet this weekend in Saudi Arabia and Hadi is expected to attend.

Driven weeks ago from the capital by the Houthis, Hadi abandoned the country, leaving on a boat from the southern port of Aden, Yemeni security officials said. His departure came after rebel airstrikes rained down on his troops, a sign that rebels held air superiority and that Hadi’s calls for an international no-fly zone had been disregarded. On the ground, the rebels were advancing toward his position.

Al-Jubeir said the Saudi air operations began at 7 p.m. EDT, and noted he “had never seen militias with air power,” a reference to Iranian deliveries of weaponry to the Houthis.

Loud, house-shaking explosions could be heard in the Yemen capital of Sanaa and fire and smoke could be seen in the night sky, according to an Associated Press correspondent whose home is near the military airbase in the capital.

Al-Jubeir said the Houthis “have always chosen the path of violence.” He declined to say whether the Saudi campaign involved U.S. intelligence assistance.

He sadid the Saudis “will do anything necessary” to protect the people of Yemen and “the legitimate government of Yemen.”

Hadi’s departure illustrated how one of the most important American counterterrorism efforts has disintegrated, leaving the country wide open for what could be a deeply destabilizing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi announcement only reinforced that notion.

Three years ago, American officials hailed Hadi’s ascension to power in a U.S.-brokered deal that ended the longtime rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh during the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. Just a few months ago, President Barack Obama was still calling Yemen a counterterrorism success story, even as the CIA warned that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were growing restive in the north of the country.

Now, U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against Yemen’s dangerous al-Qaida affiliate are seriously hampered, with the American embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated from the country over the weekend. Although the Houthis have seized control of much of the country and are avowed enemies of al-Qaida, they can’t project power against the militants the way the Hadi government could with American support, officials say. Deeply anti-American, the Houthis have rejected U.S. overtures, officials say.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered the terror group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S.-bound airlines, although none exploded. The chaos in Yemen will give the group breathing space, American officials acknowledge.

Beyond terrorism, the latest developments in Yemen have worrisome implications for a Middle East already wracked by Sunni-Shia conflict, experts say. Before the airstrikes began, Saudi Arabia bolstered its troop presence along its border with Yemen.

“This is all about Sunni vs. Shia, Saudi vs. Iran,” said Michael Lewis, professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law and a former Navy fighter pilot who watches Yemen closely. The U.S., he said, “can’t be a disinterested observer. Nobody’s going to buy that. What we needed to do was pick a side.”

But the U.S. had made no move to protect the Hadi government as the Houthis advanced, and American officials gave no indication Wednesday that their stance of neutrality had changed. Asked whether the U.S. military had considered trying to rescue Hadi, a senior American official who declined to be quoted answered: “The tinderbox in Yemen is most complicated because of the geopolitics at stake. The U.S., Saudis, Iranians, Houthis, Yemenis, AQAP, ISIL and AQ have equities in the situation and factor into any decision the U.S. makes or doesn’t make.”

As late as Monday, officials insisted the U.S. was still working with Hadi’s government, despite the fact that the president had been forced out of the capital and the parliament dissolved.

“There continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the United States and the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, Sarah el-Deeb in Cairo and Lolita C. Baldor and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

TIME Crime

Nevada Prison Inmate Died of Multiple Gunshots, Coroner Says

Carlos Manuel Perez JrCarlos Manuel Perez Jr., 28. .
Nevada Department of Corrections/AP Carlos Manuel Perez Jr., 28.

Carlos Manuel Perez Jr. died last November of wounds to the head, neck, chest and arms

(LAS VEGAS) — The coroner in Las Vegas says the death of a Nevada state prison inmate by multiple gunshots more than four months ago was a homicide.

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said Wednesday that 28-year-old Carlos Manuel Perez Jr. died Nov. 12, 2014, at High Desert State Prison of multiple gunshot wounds to the head, neck, chest and arms.

Murphy says a homicide ruling means Perez died at the hands of another person. It doesn’t establish fault.

There’s no immediate word from state officials about who was involved in the shooting or whether anyone else was hurt.

State Department of Corrections officials didn’t immediately respond to messages.

Spokeswomen for Gov. Brian Sandoval and state Attorney General Adam Laxalt say an investigation is ongoing.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Conducts Air Strikes on ISIS in Tikrit

Iraqi security forces launch a rocket toward Islamic State extremist positions during clashes in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, March 26, 2015.
Khalid Mohammed—AP Iraqi security forces launch a rocket toward Islamic State extremist positions during clashes in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, March 26, 2015.

The bombing marked a significant expansion of the U.S. military role in Iraq

(TIKRIT, IRAQ)—Iraqi troops have launched the final phase of an offensive to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, an official said Thursday, hours after the U.S. launched airstrikes on the Islamic State-held city.

Clashes intensified as Iraqi troops and special forces moved toward the city center, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi told The Associated Press. Earlier Thursday, an Associated Press reporter heard a second round of airstrikes over Tikrit.

The Islamic State group seized the Sunni city last summer during its lightning advance across northern Iraq. The battle for Tikrit is seen as a key step toward eventually driving the Islamic State group from Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, which is further north.

In an address late Wednesday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraqi forces began the “final phase” in the Tikrit offensive but did not acknowledge that coalition forces were playing a direct role. He said Iraqis, “and not anyone but you,” will claim victory against the militant group.

At Iraq’s request, the U.S. began airstrikes on Tikrit on Wednesday in support of the stalled ground offensive, Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, said Wednesday.

He said the airstrikes would “destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing” unintended damage to civilian structures.

“This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit,” Terry said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

Tikrit is deemed an important test of the ability of Iraq, with coalition support, to retake ground it ceded to the Islamic State last year. The U.S. initially did not provide air support in Tikrit because Baghdad pointedly chose instead to partner with Iran in a battle it predicted would yield a quick victory. In recent days, however, the Pentagon has called the Iraqi offensive “stalled.”

An Associated Press correspondent in Tikrit reported hearing warplanes overhead late Wednesday, followed by multiple explosions. An Iraqi commander in the city told the AP that a warehouse used to store Islamic State weapons was bombed by a U.S. plane, and a U.S. official in Washington confirmed that arms warehouses were among the targets. The Iraqi commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the airstrikes.

The Washington official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss military details, said there were no more than one dozen airstrikes Wednesday, and said some were conducted by U.S. allies. The official had no details on the extent of allied participation, including which countries launched airstrikes.

U.S. airstrikes in Tikrit raise highly sensitive questions about participating in an Iraqi campaign that has been spearheaded by Iraqi Shiite militias trained and equipped by Iran, a U.S. adversary.

The U.S.-led air campaign, launched in August and joined by several European allies, has allowed Iraqi forces to halt the IS group’s advance and claw back some of the territory militants seized last summer.

But the growing Iranian presence on the ground has complicated the mission, with Washington refusing to work directly with a country it views as a regional menace, even though it is currently embroiled with Iran in sensitive negotiations over a nuclear deal.

The prominent role of the Shiite militias in the fight to retake Tikrit and other parts of Iraq’s Sunni heartland has also raised concerns that the offensive could deepen the country’s sectarian divide and drive Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State group.

Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization and a commander of Iraq’s Shiite militias, told reporters in Samarra: “If we need them (the U.S.-led coalition ) we will tell them we need them. But we don’t need the coalition. We have surveillance planes over our heads already. The participation of U.S. planes hinders out operations. … If we need it, we’ll tell our government what we need.”

He claimed the militias, the overwhelming majority of which are made up of Shiite fighters, have their own surveillance drones. “We buy them anywhere,” he said. “We have our own … controlled by Iraqis.”

A series of U.S. airstrikes north of Tikrit, in the vicinity of Beiji, in recent weeks has had the indirect benefit of tying down Islamic State forces that might otherwise be operating in defense of Tikrit. On Wednesday, for example, the U.S. military said it had conducted five airstrikes Tuesday near Beiji, home of a major oil refinery that IS has sought to capture. That bombing targeted IS combat units and destroyed what the U.S. called an IS “fighting position,” as well as an IS armored vehicle.

Read next: U.S. Nuclear Talks With Iran Enter Critical Round Ahead of Deadline

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME

Israel’s Netanyahu Tapped to Form New Government

(JERUSALEM) — Israel’s president has formally tapped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government, giving the Israeli leader up to six weeks to put together a new ruling coalition.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party captured 30 seats in last week’s national election, making it the largest party in the 120-seat parliament. Although his party does not control a majority, party leaders controlling a total of 67 seats have recommended that Netanyahu lead the next government for what would be his third consecutive term as prime minister.

With these parties backing him, Netanyahu is all but guaranteed of forming a governing coalition. But the various partners will all be making conflicting demands for Cabinet portfolios, meaning that weeks of negotiations could lie ahead.

TIME Military

Bowe Bergdahl May Face Life in Prison if Convicted

(FORT BRAGG, N.C.)—The Army sergeant who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban could face up to life in prison if convicted of both the charges he’s facing, military officials said Wednesday.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was charged with misbehavior before the enemy, which carries a maximum sentence of up to life in prison. He was also charged with desertion, which carries a maximum of five years.

Bergdahl could also face a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and forfeiture of all his pay if convicted.

The case now goes to an Article 32 hearing to be held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. That proceeding is similar to a grand jury. From there, it could be referred to a court-martial and go to trial.

A date for that hearing was not announced.

The charges are the latest development in a long and bitter debate over Bergdahl’s case. They also underscore the military and political ramifications of his decision on June 30, 2009, to leave his post after expressing misgivings about the U.S. military’s role, as well as his own, in the Afghanistan war.

After leaving his post, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group tied to the Taliban that operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last May 31, Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces in Afghanistan as part of an exchange for five Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After spending about two weeks recuperating at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, Bergdahl was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas on June 13. He has been doing administrative duties at the base, awaiting the conclusion of the case.

The exchange set off a debate over whether the U.S. should have released the five Taliban members. Little is known about what the five have been doing in Qatar, where they are being monitored by the government. Some lawmakers have predicted that the five would return to the battlefield.

Sen. Lindsey Graham has said that he received information that one of the five has been in touch with members of the Haqqani network. On the flip side, Afghanistan’s peace council in 2011 requested the release of one of the five, Khairullah Khairkhwa, from Guantanamo because it thought he might be able to help foster reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Armed Services Committee, was asked by reporter Wednesday whether the charges raised doubts about the initial trade of Bergdahl for the Taliban members.

“I would think that it would raise doubts in the mind of the average American if those doubts weren’t raised already,” Wicker said.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl investigated the Bergdahl case and spent months interviewing unit members and commanders, and meeting with Bergdahl and his attorney, Eugene Fidell, a military justice expert who is also a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He submitted his report in mid-October, setting in motion a legal review on his report and how the Army can proceed.

The case was referred to Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, and he has been reviewing the massive report for several months. He had a broad range of legal options.

Milley could have decided not to charge Bergdahl at all, recommend administrative action or convene a court-martial on more serious offenses.

Some within the military have suggested that Bergdahl’s long capture was punishment enough, but others, including members of his former unit, have called for serious punishment, saying that other service members risked their lives — and several died — searching for him.

A major consideration was whether military officials would be able to prove that Bergdahl had no intention of returning to his unit — a key element in the more serious desertion charges.

Read next: The Desertion Charge for Bowe Bergdahl Was Months in the Making

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TIME conflict

Yemen’s President Flees Country by Sea Amid Rebel Advance

Armed Yemeni militiamen loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, also known as the Popular Resistance Committees, gather at the entrance Yemeni special forces command in the southern city of Aden on March 19, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images Armed Yemeni militiamen loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, also known as the Popular Resistance Committees, gather at the entrance Yemeni special forces command in the southern city of Aden on March 19, 2015.

Officials would not disclose President Hadi's destination

(SANAA, Yemen) — Yemeni security and port officials say that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has left the country by sea, on a boat from the port of Aden, as Shiite rebels and their allies advance on this southern city.

The officials told The Associated Press that Hadi left with his aides after 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The entourage departed by two boats, under heavy security. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

They would not disclose Hadi’s destination. Yemen’s embattled president is scheduled to attend an Arab Summit in Egypt on the weekend.

Hadi’s escape from Yemen comes as the rebels known as the Houthis are closing in on Aden and the city’s fall appears imminent.

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