Iran vows revenge for airstrike
BAGHDAD — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing. The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions. “We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani. In more violence, another airstrike almost exactly 24 hours after the one that targeted Soleimani killed five members of an Iran-backed militia north of Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces confirmed the strike, saying it hit one of its medical convoys near the stadium in Taji, north of Baghdad. The group said none of its top leaders were killed. A U.S. official said the attack was not an American military attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity. The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation for the killing. The U.S. also urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” following the early morning airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others. The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.
Escaped aboard charter flights
ANKARA, Turkey — Charter flights that spirited ex-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn from Japan to Istanbul and from there to Beirut — an escape made possible with the help of an airline employee who falsified records. Security camera footage reportedly showing he simply walked out of his Tokyo home hours before fleeing the country. Details emerged Friday of the bizarre path to freedom that allowed the ex-Nissan boss to jump $14 million bail, seemingly under the noses of Japanese authorities, and evade charges of financial misconduct that could carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years. The improbable weekend escape has confounded and embarrassed Japanese authorities, even setting off wild speculation that Ghosn was carted off inside a musical instrument case from his home, which was under 24-hour surveillance. But on Friday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK TV cited investigative sources as saying security footage showed he simply walked out of the house alone around noon on Sunday. Details also emerged about the route the fallen auto industry executive took to Lebanon, where he grew up and is considered something of a national hero.
Turkish airline company MNG Jet said that two of its planes were used illegally in Ghosn’s escape, first flying him from Osaka, Japan, to Istanbul, and then on to Beirut, where he arrived Monday and has not been seen since.
Methodist separation plan set
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — United Methodist Church leaders from around the world and across ideological divides unveiled a plan Friday for a new conservative denomination that would split from the rest of the church in an attempt to resolve a yearslong dispute over gay marriage and gay clergy. Members of the 13-million-person denomination have been at odds for years over the issue, with members in the United States leading the call for full inclusion for LGBTQ people. At a specially called meeting last Feburary in St. Louis, delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which affirmed bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed the plan, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines. Methodists in favor of allowing gay clergy and gay marriage vowed to continue fighting. Meanwhile the Wesleyan Covenant Association, representing traditional Methodist practice, had already been preparing for a possible separation. The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and one of 16 people on the mediation team that developed and signed the separation proposal, said he is “very hopeful” the plan will be approved at the General Conference this year.
Volcano briefly erupts in Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A volcano in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands erupted Friday and sent up an ash cloud, prompting a warning for planes. Shishaldin Volcano shot ash to more than 20,000 feet and possibly 24,000 feet. The volcano is 679 miles southwest of Anchorage near the center of Unimak Island, the largest in the Aleutians and home to False Pass, a village of 40 people on the island’s east side. David Fee, coordinating scientist for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute, said the ash cloud was not a threat to the village. The cloud drifted southeast over the ocean. The volcano is a symmetrical cone that is 10 miles in diameter at its base. It rises to 9,373 feet and is the highest peak in the Aleutians.
Weather raises fire danger
SYDNEY — One of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history was underway Friday ahead of hot weather and strong winds that are forecast to worsen devastating wildfires raging across the country. More than 200 fires were burning, and warnings of extreme danger to come Saturday prompted mass evacuations. Traffic was gridlocked as people fled and firefighters escorted convoys of evacuees as fires threatened to close roads. Navy ships were called in to pluck hundreds of people stranded on beaches. Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews declared a disaster across much of the eastern part of the state, allowing the government to order evacuations in an area with as many as 140,000 permanent residents and tens of thousands more vacationers. “If you can leave, you must leave,” Andrews said. In South Australia state, fire officials said the weather conditions were cause for concern because fires were still burning or smoldering. “The ignition sources are already there,” Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones said. “There are millions of sparks out there ready to go if they break containment lines.” The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has made this season the worst on record. About 12.35 million acres of land have burned, at least 19 people have been killed, and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.
1 fatally stabbed, 3 hurt in Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — A man stabbed two people, one fatally, inside a restaurant during a violent string of attacks Friday at a shopping plaza in Texas’ capital city that began with an assault at a coffee shop and ended with the suspect leaping off a roof, police said. The attacks on a busy downtown avenue of restaurants and apartments just south of the Texas Capitol terrified customers stopping for their morning coffee on the way to work. It was the city of Austin’s first homicide of 2020. Austin police Sgt. David Daniels said investigators don’t know what provoked the suspect from striking a person inside a coffee shop before fleeing and stabbing two people inside Freebirds World Burrito a few doors down. The man, who was not identified, jumped off the roof of the restaurant but survived. Stacy Romine, 33, said she was getting her drink at Bennu Coffee when she saw the suspect suddenly attack a man who was sitting with a table full of regulars. “This guy out of nowhere just hit him in the back of the head with something,” Romine said. “People tried to restrain him and stop him from leaving the store after it happened. But he could not be apprehended by three men, including a police officer.”
Drugs, gun left in designer bags
GALLIANO, La. — Authorities are perplexed over why a man left apparent designer bags holding drugs, a gun, cash and a digital scale in a convenience store. The man went into the store early Thursday and put the Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags on a chair. “The employee said he offered her $100 to ‘keep his bag,'” Lt. Brennan Matherne, spokesman for Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, said. “I don’t know if his intention was for her to hold onto the bag until he came back or what.” The worker declined, and the man walked out without the bags,. A customer later pointed out that one of them held a handgun, which turned out to be stolen from neighboring Terrebonne Parish. It also held cash and a digital scale, while the other bag held the drug Suboxone and suspected methamphetamine, according to the statement.
Man killed dogs to make coat
PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — A Kentucky man who claimed to have skinned four of his neighbors’ dogs to make a “doggy coat” has been charged with animal torture. Jonathan D. Watkins, 38, was arrested in the Floyd County community of David on Dec. 23 after a neighbor called authorities. The neighbor told police that Watkins came to his home to ask for a cigarette and was covered in blood. The neighbor said when asked, Watkins said he had been skinning dogs, according to an arrest citation. The neighbor didn’t believe him initially b ecause he knew Watkins had had mental health issues in the past, but later saw what looked like animal skins and dog carcasses on Watkins ‘ front porch, the citation said. The neighbor told police that he was missing two dogs and thought another neighbor was missing two dogs as well. A state trooper who responded found Watkins at his home with a knife and what appeared to be blood on his clothing. When the trooper asked where the blood came from, Watkins replied, “I’m making myself a doggy coat,” according to the arrest citation. Watkins told the trooper that he stabbed the dogs and then skinned them.
Arrest made, dog still missing
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Police in South Carolina have made an arrest after a man’s truck was stolen with his dog inside it, but the dog remains missing. Tips about the missing truck led authorities to Richard Rawlings Jr., who was arrested Thursday after a manhunt through a wooded area in Berkeley County, sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeremy Baker told news outlets. Rawlings is charged with possessing the stolen truck and was set to appear in court Friday morning. Ben Brengle, who owns the truck and the dog named Bella, said the suspect told authorities Bella jumped out of the truck’s broken rear window when he stopped at a nearby mall shortly after the theft. Brengle is offering a $10,000 reward for the safe return of Bella, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever mix with a broken tail and pink nose. The dog and truck were stolen Dec. 22 after Brengle, a contractor, stopped by a home improvement store in North Charleston. It was cold and rainy so Brengle said he left Bella in the truck with the engine running. He said he was only going inside to grab some lumber and his truck was feet from the store’s entrance. By the time he returned three minutes later, his truck and pup were gone, he said. Since then, Brengle says he’s ridden his bicycle through the area every day to ask people if they’ve seen his truck or Bella. It was a tip from one of those excursions that led to the arrest, he said. He has posted information and the reward on social media.
Man leaps, cops weren’t chasing
ATLANTA — A driver who mistakenly thought Atlanta police were chasing him as they pursued a different speeding motorist crashed his car and jumped 40 feet off a highway bridge to escape. The driver survived the jump early Thursday and ran into a wooded area. On Friday, Davaughn Clarke, 25, turned himself in to Atlanta police. Clarke will face several charges, including speeding, reckless driving, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during/attempt to commit certain felonies. It was unknown if he has an attorney. The chase began just after 1 a.m. Thursday when officers attempted to pull over someone else on I-85. The second driver mistakenly thought police were after him, and sped off, crashing his car in the process. He then got out and began running down the highway. In police dash camera video, the suspect can be seen darting in and out of traffic as an officer follows him in a patrol car. The suspect rushes to a concrete median and jumps on it before crossing all lanes of the highway and plunging over the guard rail. Officers looked along train tracks below the bridge, but didn’t find the man. A gun was found under the bridge and drugs were recovered from his car.
Skeleton ID’d as Japanese artist
LOS ANGELES — A skeleton found by hikers this fall near California’s second-highest peak was identified Friday as a Japanese American artist who had left the Manzanar internment camp to paint in the mountains in the waning days of World War II. The Inyo County sheriff used DNA to identify the remains of Giichi Matsumura, who succumbed to the elements during a freak summer snow storm during a hiking trip with other members of the camp. Matsumura had apparently stopped to paint a watercolor while the other men, a group of anglers, continued toward a lake to fish. His body wasn’t found for another month and the tragedy was overshadowed in the immediate days after his Aug. 2, 1945 disappearance when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb, hastening Japan’s surrender in the war. Matsumura was one of more than 1,800 detainees who died in the 10 prison camps in the West, though it’s one of the more unusual deaths. While his burial in the mountains was well known among members of the camp and his family, the story faded over time and the location of the gravesite in a remote boulder-strewn area 12,000 feet above sea level was lost to time. Lori Matsumura, the granddaughter who provided the DNA sample, was surprised when Sgt. Nate Derr of the Inyo County sheriff’s office contacted her to say they believed her grandfather’s remains had been discovered. After all, he had been found nearly 75 years ago and buried.
Sudanese military plane crashes
CAIRO — A Sudanese military plane crashed in the western Darfur region, killing all 16 people on board including two women and two children, the military said. A Sudanese employee of the World Food Program and his family were among the casualties. Several officers were also among those killed when the plane went down Thursday evening in the restive region of West Darfur, which has recently witnessed deadly ethnic clashes. The plane, a Russian Antonov An-12, crashed five minutes after taking off from the airport in the town of Genena. Tthere were no immediate reports of foul play. The casualties included seven troops, three judges and six civilians.
Tennessee congressman to retire
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Tennessee Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Roe announced Friday that he will retire at the end of the 116th Congress. The 74-year-old called representing East Tennesseans in Congress for the past 11 years “the honor of my life” and said he always intended to serve five or six terms because he didn’t want to make it a second career. He practiced medicine for more than 30 years before being elected. Roe is among more than two dozen Republican House members who have decided not to seek reelection next year. The open seat in Roe’s Republican-leaning district is likely to draw quick interest from others within his party. Some GOP names being floated as possible candidates include state Reps. David Hawk, Jeremy Faison and Timothy Hill; state Sen. Jon Lundberg; former Kingsport Mayor John Clark; and pharmacist Diana Harshbarger.
Weirdos wanted in Britain
LONDON — Britain is looking for a few good weirdos. That’s the word from one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top advisers, who in a lengthy blog post Friday appealed for a wide range of applicants for government positions. Dominic Cummings said one of his goals is to attract “super-talented weirdos” to government posts. “We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos,” said Cummings, who has been a lightning rod for controversy during his tenure at 10 Downing Street. He is a former director of the campaign to lead Britain out of the European Union who has helped shape many of Johnson’s policies. Cummings’ blog post is something of a screed against Britain’s elites, even though Johnson was educated at Britain’s uppermost educational institutions. “If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates,” he blogged. He said change is needed because there are “some profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions.” Cummings’ strategy helped Johnson win an impressive victory in the Dec. 12 election. He said in the blog that the government’s strength in Parliament means it can concentrate on vital matters.