Spain probe widens as suspect admits bigger attack was planned

Officers carried out new raids overnight to root out a possible support network for the men, accused of ploughing vehicles into pedestrians on Barcelona’s busy Las Ramblas boulevard and a seaside promenade in the resort town of Cambrils, claiming 15 lives including a young boy and wounding more than 120 people.

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The international connections of the cell of mostly Moroccan nationals have also come under scrutiny, with talks on Wednesday between Spain and France’s interior ministers expected to focus on the case.

The scale of the assaults being prepared by the jihadist suspects emerged during a preliminary court hearing Tuesday, when Mohamed Houli Chemlal, 21, told the judge the group was planning “an attack on an even greater scale, targeting monuments” using bombs.

Mohamed Aallaa, 27, one of four arrested in relation to the terrorist attacks in CataloniaEFE / AAP

Chemlal said he knew of the plans two months ago, as he, and three other suspects, appeared in court for the first time since twin attacks killed 15 people and wounded more than 100.

The four are the only surviving suspects from what was believed to be a 12-man terror cell that rammed a van into pedestrians on a tourist-packed boulevard in Barcelona on Thursday. Hours later, members of the group committed a similar attack in Cambrils further south.

After a full day hearing before the judge, Chemlal and another suspect, Driss Oukabir, 27, were remanded in custody and charged with terror related offences.

But the third man who owns the car used in the Cambrils attack, Mohamed Aallaa, was granted conditional release, with the judge saying evidence against him was weak.

The judge gave himself three more days to decide if the fourth suspect, Salh El Karib — who manages a store that allows people to make calls abroad — should be remanded or released from custody.

Driss Oukabir, one of four arrested in relation to the terrorist attacks in CataloniaEFE / AAP

‘Nails, detonators, gas canisters’

At least 500 litres of acetone, large quantities of nails and detonators as well as gas canisters have been found at a house in the town of Alcanar, court documents said.

They are ingredients of TATP — the explosive of choice of the Islamic State group, which has claimed its “soldiers” carried out the attacks.

But an accidental blast at the bomb factory in Alcanar on August 16, the eve of the Barcelona van attack, forced the cell to alter its plans and turn to vehicles as killing machines.

Related readingAnother false start

After losing their bombs and two cell members in the blast that was so powerful that “the mushroom cloud that was generated was visible several kilometres around”, the jihadists put plan B into action.

They rented a van the next day, but again suffered a false start as it was involved in an accident not far from Cambrils.

A second van was used two hours later in the Barcelona rampage.

The suspects then bought four knives and an axe that were used to slash at pedestrians in Cambrils in the early hours of Friday.

After a full day court hearing, Chemlal and another suspect, Driss Oukabir, 28, were remanded in custody and charged with terror-related offences.

A third man, Mohamed Aallaa, 27, who owns the car used in the Cambrils attack, was granted conditional release, with the judge saying evidence against him was weak.

The judge gave himself three more days to decide if the fourth suspect, Salh El Karib should be remanded or released. His shop, which allows people to make calls abroad, was among targets of police raids late on Tuesday.

An apartment in the village of Vilafranca del Penedes, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Barcelona, was also searched, a police spokesman told AFP.

The men in court on Tuesday were the only surviving suspected members of the terror cell, which Spanish police claimed they had dismantled after gunning down the last man at large, Younes Abouyaaqoub, on Monday.

The 22-year-old Moroccan was the van driver in the Barcelona rampage which claimed 13 lives. While on the run, he also hijacked a vehicle and killed its driver.

‘Imam wanted to blow himself up’

Chemlal was injured in the Alcanar explosion that killed an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, who is thought to have radicalised him and other young suspects.

He only survived because he was out on the porch when the blast occurred.

He told the judge the imam had wanted to blow himself up. The judicial source said that among the four suspects, “two blamed the imam for the plot while another two denied knowing him”.

In the rubble of the Alcanar house, police found a sheet of paper slipped into a green-coloured book, which said: “A brief letter from the soldiers of the Islamic State on the territory of Al Andalous to the crusaders, the sinners, the unjust and the corrupters”.

Al Andalous is the name of the territories governed until 1492 by Muslims.

Audi in Paris, imam in Belgium

With the cell made up of mostly Moroccan nationals who lived in Spain, focus is turning to their links abroad.

Spanish press reported arrests in Morocco in relation to the case, but Rabat declined comment when contacted by AFP.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told AFP that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen – next to the city’s airport – between January and March 2016.

And French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the Audi used to kill people in Cambrils had been detected speeding in the Paris region while making “a very rapid return trip” days before the Spanish attacks.

At least one of the suspects also spent a night in Zurich in December, according to Swiss police.

Related reading

Trump criticises media, defends response to Charlottesville violence at Arizona rally

President Trump faced bipartisan outrage after blaming “many sides” for violence at the rally in Charlottesville that took the life of an anti-fascist protester.

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Re-reading his statements following the clashes at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, he railed at reporters for misrepresenting his remarks – but omitted the equivocation that had sparked the backlash in the first place.

“The very dishonest media… and I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories. They have no sources in many cases. They say a source says there is no such thing,” he said.

“But they don’t report the facts. Just like they don’t want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK.”

Trump dedicated around half an hour of his 78-minute speech in Phoenix, Arizona, to attacking the “sick people” in the news media, before turning his fire on his own side.

Speculation had been building that Trump would use the rally to formally endorse a challenger to incumbent moderate Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, in a shot across the bow of skeptical Republicans.

He mocked both Flake and fellow Arizona Republican senator John McCain, implying McCain had sabotaged Republican healthcare reforms, but elaborately avoided mentioning either by name.

Related’Something positive’

Veering off script, Trump shied away from issuing a pardon for Joe Arpaio – a former sheriff in Arizona who was convicted of willfully violating a court order to stop targeting Hispanics in immigration roundups.

But he gave strong hints that he was preparing a future pardon, saying: “I think he’s going to be just fine, okay? I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had earlier told reporters there would be “no discussion” of Arpaio at the rally.

 

US President Donald Trump applauds the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22, 2017.Getty

Trump voiced optimism over improvements in relations with North Korea following an escalation in aggressive rhetoric on both sides concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us. And maybe – probably not, but maybe – something positive can come about,” Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, although the president repeated his opinion that he had not gone far enough in his condemnation of Kim.

The speech came at the end of a trip to Arizona the White House hopes will re-energize core supporters cooling to Trump’s crisis-riddled presidency and build momentum for a controversial border wall.

The president began his day in Yuma, touring a US Border Patrol operations base, where he chatted with border agents. He traveled to Phoenix for the raucous campaign-style rally in the evening, introduced to the crowd by Vice President Mike Pence.

His visit to the Republican state aimed to tout the benefits of a border fence, turn up the heat on reluctant allies and demonstrate the president’s determination to realize a central campaign pledge.

Trump made the case that a wall along the 2,000 mile (3,200 kilometer) desert-scarred frontier would stem the flow of migrants from the south.

Yuma “was once one of the least secure border areas in America (and) is now one of the most secure areas because of these investments in border security,” a senior administration official said ahead of Trump’s trip.

0:00 President Trump returns to Arizona for campaign rally Share President Trump returns to Arizona for campaign rally

‘Oppose Nazis’

Trump had insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall – estimated to cost about $22 billion. 

Having failed in that bid, he has turned to equally reticent Republicans in Congress to get US funding.

With his plan running into political quicksand, Trump needs to generate public pressure on reluctant lawmakers to support him.

In Phoenix, Trump told the rally crowd his message for “obstructionist” Democrats was that he was building the wall “if we have to close down our government.”

Thousands of pro and anti-Trump activists had lined up under a blistering sun in Phoenix hours before Trump’s arrival, many wearing the stars and stripes, hoping to get into the conference center.

Facing a line of supporters stretching several hundred yards (meters), opponents of the president brandished placards including some that depicted him with a Hitler mustache.

“Things to do today: laundry, put out trash, oppose Nazis,” said one sign.

A series of demonstrations backing immigrants and denouncing racism were planned in the center of Phoenix, a Democratic enclave in a state Trump narrowly won in the election.

A failure on the wall would be another setback for a president who has seen his message overshadowed by controversy and his agenda thwarted by legislative missteps. 

A string of aides have departed the White House during Trump’s seven months in office, including his chief of staff, two communications directors, a chief strategist and a press secretary.

Meanwhile, Republicans have become more vocal in their condemnation and polls show that Trump’s approval rating stands at 35 percent — a historical low level for a president in his first year in office.

Typhoon batters HK, three dead in Macau

Typhoon Hato, a maximum category 10 storm, has slammed into Hong Kong lashing the Asian financial hub with wind and rain that uprooted trees and forced most businesses to close, while in Macau three people were killed.

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There were reports of 34 people injured in Hong Kong while more than 450 flights were cancelled, financial markets suspended and schools closed as Hato bore down, the first category 10 storm to hit the city since 2012.

“I’ve never seen one like this,” Garrett Quigley, a longtime resident of Lantau island to the west of the city, said of the storm.

“Cars are half submerged and roads are impassable with flooding and huge trees down. It’s crazy.”

Many skyscrapers in the usually teeming streets of Hong Kong were empty and dark as office workers stayed at home.

In residential districts such as Heng Fa Chuen on densely populated Hong Kong island, waves smashed against the sides of oceanfront buildings and surged over a promenade, sweeping away walls and benches and swamping vehicles parked nearby.

Construction cranes swayed at the tops of skyscrapers, windows imploded and nearly 200 trees were uprooted, while some people used canoes to venture out into flooded streets.

Authorities downgraded the storm to a category three by late-afternoon with government services, the courts, financial markets and companies set to resume normal business on Thursday.

The storm also caused a power blackout across most of the gambling hub of Macau for about two hours, residents said, with disruption to mobile phone and internet networks. There was severe flooding on the streets, with some cars almost completely submerged, and the water supply was affected in some districts.

The three men who died included a 45-year-old Chinese tourist who was hit by a heavy truck, according to a government statement.

The former Portuguese colony’s casinos, however, had backup power, two casino executives told Reuters.

The storm also made landfall in China’s Guangdong province, in Zhuhai city adjacent to Macau, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

Numerous flights and trains were cancelled in Guangdong province, with Shenzhen’s International Airport particularly badly hit.

Thousands of residents along the Chinese coast were evacuated and fishing vessels were called back to port.

Maximum winds near Hato’s centre were recorded at a destructive 155km/h as it continued to move west across Guangdong in the general direction of Hainan island.

A senior scientific officer for the Hong Kong observatory warned that sea levels could rise several metres in some places, with the government issuing flood alerts and opening 27 shelters across the city.

35 dead as air strike hits hotel in Yemen

At least 35 people have been killed in air strikes that hit a small hotel near a Houthi-run checkpoint north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, a local medic and Houthi’s television station say.

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The roof of the hotel collapsed, leaving at least two bodies dangling from the building, said a witness in the Arhab area, about 20km from Sanaa.

The report said the attack hit a small hotel but made no direct reference to civilian casualties or fighters.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, which is fighting the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, was not immediately available for comment. Reuters was not immediately able to independently confirm the reports.

The Houthis, who control Sanaa and northern Yemen, are fighting the internationally recognised government which is backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the country’s civil war.

A medic told Reuters that 35 bodies had been recovered from the rubble but more victims were believed to be inside. Houthi-run al-Masira TV earlier said at least 30 “martyrs” had been killed.

At least 13 people were wounded in the strikes, which followed a series of air attacks in the surrounding area overnight, the medic added.

Earlier this month, a senior United Nations official condemned recent reported air strikes in Yemen, including on a house containing children, saying they showed “disregard” for civilians’ safety.

The Saudi-led coalition denied targeting the family home after a health official said nine civilians were killed in an air strike.

A report by international aid agencies last week said Yemen suffered more air strikes in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2016, increasing the number of civilian deaths and forcing more people to flee their homes.

Walmart, Google in voice shopping deal

Walmart is diving into voice-activated shopping with Google to offer hundreds of thousands of items for voice shopping through Google Assistant.

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The capability will be available in late September.

It’s Google’s biggest retail partnership – and the most personalised shopping experience it offers – as it tries to broaden the reach of its voice-powered assistant Home speaker. It underscores Walmart’s drive to compete in an area dominated by Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo device.

“Voice shopping is becoming a more important part of everyday shopping behaviour,” said Marc Lore, CEO of Walmart’s US e-commerce business.

The voice-activated devices are becoming more mainstream as they become more accessible. Walmart has said Google’s investment in natural language processing and artificial intelligence will help make voice-activated shopping even more popular.

Lore said the personalisation of the partnership means people can shout out generic items like milk, bread and cheese, and Google Assistant will know exactly the brands and the size that the user wants.

Google introduced shopping to Home in February, letting people use voice to order essentials from more than 40 retailers like Target and Costco under its Google Express program. But that was far behind the Echo, available since late 2014.

Walmart, which has more stores than any other retailer and the largest share of the US grocery market, is also working hard to close the gulf online between itself and Amazon.

To be more competitive, Google Express is scrapping the $US95 ($A120)-a-year membership starting on Wednesday, allowing shoppers to get free delivery within one to three days on orders as long as the purchase is above each store’s minimum.

Walmart says it will be tapping its 4,700 US stores and its fulfilment network next year to offer more kinds of customer experiences using voice shopping. For example, shoppers can tell Google Assistant they want to pick up an order in a store.

Lore said the company wants to make voice shopping as easy as possible.

“That’s why it makes sense for us to team up with Google. We know this means being compared side-by-side with other retailers, and we think that’s the way it should be,” he wrote in a corporate blog post.