US blames Iran for attacks on pair of oil tankers
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.S. blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers Thursday near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, denouncing what it called a campaign of “escalating tensions” in a region crucial to global energy supplies.
The U.S. Navy rushed to assist the stricken vessels in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of Iran, including one that was set ablaze. The ships’ operators offered no immediate explanation on who or what caused the damage against the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous. Each was loaded with petroleum products, and the Front Altair burned for hours, sending up a column of thick, black smoke.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. assessment of Iran’s involvement was based in part on intelligence, as well as the expertise needed for the operation. It was also based on recent incidents in the region that the U.S. also blamed on Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to attack four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah and the bombing of an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed fighters in May, he said.
“Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran,” Pompeo said. He provided no evidence, gave no specifics about any plans and took no questions.
At the United Nations, the United States asked for closed Security Council consultations on the tanker incidents later Thursday.
Iran’s U.N. Mission said the government “categorically rejects” the U.S. claim that it was responsible for the attacks and condemned it “in the strongest possible terms.”
A statement from the mission issued Thursday evening said Iran “stands ready to play an active and constructive role in ensuring the security of strategic maritime passages.” It warned of “U.S. coercion, intimidation and malign behavior” and expressed concern “over suspicious incidents” involving the two tankers on Thursday.
Johnson takes lead in race for next UK leader
LONDON (AP) — The flamboyant, divisive Boris Johnson took a commanding lead Thursday in the contest to become Britain’s next prime minister, winning by far the largest share of support in the first round of voting by Conservative Party lawmakers.
Johnson, a former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner, secured 114 of the 313 votes cast by Conservatives in the House of Commons, a ballot that reduced the field of candidates from 10 to seven . His successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, trailed with 43 votes, followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove with 37.
The result exceeded the expectations of Johnson’s team and makes him almost certain to be among the final two candidates who will be put to a vote of 160,000 party members nationwide. The winner will become both the new Conservative Party leader and Britain’s next prime minister.
Johnson thanked supporters and tweeted: “I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go.”
Three candidates were eliminated. Lawmakers Esther McVey, Mark Harper and Andrea Leadsom all failed to reach the threshold of 17 votes needed to get to the next round.
The contest is dominated by the issue of Britain’s stalled departure from the European Union, with all the contenders promising to succeed where departing Prime Minister Theresa May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.
May quit as party leader last week after failing to secure Parliament’s backing for her Brexit divorce deal. Britain’s EU departure was originally due to take place on March 29, but has been delayed to Oct. 31 because of the political deadlock in London.
Johnson vowed Wednesday that as prime minister he would “get Brexit done,” either by renegotiating May’s rejected Brexit deal or by leaving the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement.
“Delay means defeat” for the Conservatives, he said.
Journalist rescued after abduction by gunmen in Mexico
MEXICO CITY (AP) — A kidnapped journalist was rescued by security forces in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz hours after he was taken by armed men outside his home, Mexican officials and the journalist said Thursday.
Police said in a statement that they intercepted a suspicious vehicle traveling down a dirt road late Wednesday and a shootout ensued between officers and three apparent captors, who escaped on foot. Reporter Marcos Miranda Cogco was discovered tied up in the back of the car.
In a Facebook video, Miranda Cogco said he ducked to the floor of the vehicle to avoid flying bullets.
The journalist was kidnapped Wednesday morning in the port city of Boca del Rio. He said he was taken to a room and stripped naked while his captors took photos of him and repeatedly hit him in the neck and head. He was treated for minor injuries.
Taking off a neck brace in the video, Miranda Cogco said it was the third time in the last six to eight years that someone had attacked or tried to kidnap him.
His wife said after his abduction Wednesday that he had received threats for years due to his reporting on Noticias A Tiempo, a news page on Facebook that he founded and edits.
Miranda Cogco said on the video that he was happy to be alive and would take a few days to rest and be with family before resuming reporting Monday. He vowed not to let the incident intimidate him.
“I am going to continue my criticism against the government,” Miranda Cogco said.
The reporter told Mexican journalist Ciro Gómez Leyva on Thursday that his captors first told him he was kidnapped for being a “gossip.” Shortly later, he said, they told him that there had been a mix-up and he would be freed on orders of their boss.
A patrol unit was assigned to monitor his home around the clock until the case is solved, he said.
Veracruz state Gov. Cuitláhuac García announced the rescue early Thursday via Twitter, applauding the military and state and federal police for their efforts.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calls Mexico the most dangerous country for reporters in the Western Hemisphere. Forty-nine journalists have been slain in the country since 1992 for motives confirmed as related to their work, while 62 more were killed in circumstances that have not been clarified, the group says.
Miranda Cogco’s kidnapping came less than 12 hours after Norma Sarabia, a crime reporter for Tabasco Hoy, was shot dead outside her home in neighboring Tabasco state.
“Mexican authorities appear unable to stem the violence that has afflicted the press across the country,” Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative, said in a statement. “The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador can no longer delay in putting forward a comprehensive plan for combatting impunity in crimes against journalists.”
Man accused in mosque killings pleads not guilty
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — The man accused of killing 51 people at two Christchurch mosques on Friday pleaded not guilty to all the charges filed against him.
Brenton Tarrant smirked as his lawyer, Shane Tait, entered the not guilty pleas, but otherwise showed little emotion during the hearing at the Christchurch High Court.
The 28-year-old Australian appeared via video link from a small room at the maximum security prison in Auckland where he’s being held.
The courtroom was filled with 80 survivors and family members, while about another 60 watched the proceedings on video in an overflow room.
Four cultural advisers and other staff were assigned to help the victims and family members understand what was going on in court and the next steps in the case.
A man who addressed the survivors said they had been praying during the holy month of Ramadan and that the Muslim community would help and support each other during the coming weeks and months.
Tarrant has been charged with 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one terrorism charge in relation to the March 15 massacre.
Wearing a gray sweat shirt, Tarrant was shown being brought into the room by three prison officers. His link had been muted, and he didn’t attempt to speak. When Judge Cameron Mander asked if he could hear and see what was going on in the courtroom, Tarrant nodded.
Judge Cameron Mander said that two mental-health assessments of Tarrant had been completed, and there were no issues in relation to the accused’s ability to enter pleas and stand trial. Such mental-health assessments are standard procedure in murder cases.
The judge scheduled a six-week trial to begin May 4. Tarrant will remain in custody ahead of his next hearing on Aug. 15.
In the March 15 attacks, 42 worshippers were killed at the Al Noor mosque and seven were killed at the Linwood mosque during Friday prayers. Two more people died later at the Christchurch Hospital.
The shooter livestreamed much of the attack on Facebook.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed never to say the accused man’s name. Last month she helped lead a global pledge named the “Christchurch Call,” aimed at boosting efforts to keep internet platforms from being used to spread hate, organize extremist groups and broadcast attacks.