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Brexit stirs up old divides in Northern Ireland

Brexitireland

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By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

PATRICIA SABGA: The sectarian violence that roiled Northern Ireland for decades is stamped on the Belfast landscape. Across this capital city, murals commemorate the more than three-and-a-half thousand people killed during the conflict, known here as The Troubles.

PETER HUGHES: We’re going to start on the Shankill Road.

PATRICIA SABGA: Cab driver Peter Hughes is our guide.

PETER HUGHES: There’s a process of some of the more offensive murals, stripping them away, replace them with something a little more positive but leaving evidence then of the old.

PATRICIA SABGA: It’s a visual tempering of passions surrounding the conflict that pitted minority Catholic political and paramilitary factions fighting to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland…against Protestant state and paramilitary forces who want Northern Ireland to remain British.

NEWS REPORTER: Inside, eight political groups…

PATRICIA SABGA: In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed former U-S Senator George Mitchell to broker peace talks, which culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that formally ended the Troubles and set up a power-sharing government between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists.. Today, 21 miles of “peace walls” still separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast. A lingering division reflected in Northern Ireland’s Brexit vote.

While the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the European Union, 56 percent of Northern Irish voters wanted to remain. The vote also split along sectarian lines with. 85% of Northern Irish Catholics preferring to stay in the EU, compared to 40% percent of Protestants.

Perhaps the most contentious issue raised by Brexit is the future of the 300 mile border dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. During The Troubles, parts of it were heavily fortified with military features that stood as physical reminders of Ireland’s partition by the British.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement transformed the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Eyesores of division like watchtowers, military checkpoints and concrete bollards have vanished. I’m standing on the border right now, and it’s difficult to tell where one country ends and the other begins. But that seamlessness could very well change when Britain leaves the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it.

THERESA MAY: Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

PATRICIA SABGA: British Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to assuage concerns by stating her preference for a “frictionless border.” But Gerry Adams – a towering figure among Catholic Republicans and a key player in the peace process, isn’t buying it.

GERRY ADAMS: The European Union, quite rightly, like any other federation or any other state, will want to protect itself. And there will be tariffs, there will be economic penalties, and there will be physical manifestations of a hard border.

PATRICIA SABGA: For 34 years, Adams has led Sinn Fein, the political party historically tied to the Irish Republican Army…which fought to separate Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and a British government Adams contends still doesn’t have Northern Ireland’s best interests at heart.

How would you characterize their concern for Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit world?

GERRY ADAMS: I don’t think they give a fig about people here. I don’t think they ever have.

PATRICIA SABGA: Sinn Fein is calling for a referendum on re-uniting Ireland – but the immediate demand is for the British government to support granting Northern Ireland a special status to stay in the E-U. That would in effect move the post-Brexit E-U border from Ireland to the rest of the UK.

GERRY ADAMS: This is the most successful peace process there is in the last half-century. But it needs to be nurtured. It needs to be nourished. So the sensible, decent thing for the British Prime Minister to do is to go for the principle of a special deal for the North within the European Union, a special designated status.

PATRICIA SABGA: But Prime Minister May’s government calls special status for Northern Ireland the “wrong approach.” Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party agrees. Sammy Wilson is a member of the British Parliament and the DUPs chief spokesman on Brexit.

SAMMY WILSON: Our position on that is quite clear. We do not wish to have any special status at all, and indeed Brexit should not be used as an excuse to weaken the union.

PATRICIA SABGA: Wilson says fears of a return to hardened borders after Brexit are overblown.

SAMMY WILSON: Given the methods that we now have of checking movements of not just people but also of goods, it is entirely possible using modern technology to have these virtually frictionless borders. They’ll not be totally frictionless. There has to be some checking, there has to be some paperwork, but that’s all manageable.

PATRICIA SABGA: Wilson also dismisses the notion that Brexit could undermine peace.

SAMMY WILSON: I’m fairly sure that at the end of this process we will be wondering, “What was all the fuss about?

PATRICIA SABGA: The Brexit rift between Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties is unfolding at a time of changing demographics and growing political turbulence. A 2011 Census showed that Protestants now comprise less than half the population in Northern Ireland — 48% –while the share of Catholics has risen to 45%.

Last month, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government collapsed over the handling of a renewable energy project—triggering new assembly elections in March. We saw signs of resurgent political polarization. This display of past IRA bombings on a wall in a unionist neighborhood drew a parallel to the 2015 Paris attacks by the Islamic State. The caption reads “IRA-Sinn Fein-ISIS, no difference.”

When you see something like that, what does that tell you about the current state of peace?

SAMMY WILSON: The first thing it tells me is this, that of course there has always been an affiliation between the Irish Republicans and terrorist groups, especially in the Middle East.

PATRICIA SABGA: Well, do you agree with it? Do you agree with that–

SAMMY WILSON: I do. Yes, of course, I do–

PATRICIA SABGA: Placard saying, equating Sinn Féin with ISIS?

SAMMY WILSON: Yes, I do.

PATRICIA SABGA: For many in Northern Ireland, the pain of past political violence by both sides endures, despite nearly 20 years of peace. Belfast native Raymond McCord lost his son, Raymond Junior to the Troubles in 1997.

RAYMOND MCCORD: That’s the man actually murdered Raymond. That’s the man who gave the order.

PATRICIA SABGA: But no one has ever been charged with the crime. Unable to secure justice, McCord now campaigns for victims’ rights on both sides of the sectarian divide–advocacy that prompted him to launch an unsuccessful legal challenge to Brexit over concerns that he and others could lose access to the European Court of Human Rights

RAYMOND MCCORD: People like myself can’t get justice here.

PATRICIA SABGA: And that’s not his only worry. McCord fears Brexit could stir up tensions among illegal paramilitary groups that have leveled threats against him. According to a 2015 British government report, “All the main paramilitary groups operating during the period of the Troubles remain in existence.” While sectarian killings have stopped, the report said, “Violence and intimidation are used to exercise control” at the community level, including “paramilitary-style assaults and, on occasion, murders.”

What will Brexit do to the peace as it stands right now in Northern Ireland?

RAYMOND MCCORD: It could destroy it. Simple as that.

PATRICIA SABGA: Paul O’Neill, who lives in a working class Catholic neighbourhood in Belfast, also worries about the consequences of Brexit.

PAUL O’NEILL: Something like 600 people from the area were imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

PATRICIA SABGA: During the Troubles, O’Neill was accused of being an IRA member and jailed for five years, only to have his conviction overturned. Since the Good Friday Agreement, he’s worked with former prisoners as part of the Ashton community center, which receives funding from the E-U that will dry up after Brexit.

PAUL O’NEILL:
The British government promised that they would provide assistance for Republican ex-prisoners, loyalist ex-prisoners, and their families to readjust. Very little happened, didn’t happen. It was European money that allowed that to happen. I mean, there’s a whole range of projects, youth projects, ex-prisoner support projects, various projects that wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened were it not for the fact that we were able to access funding from Europe.

PATRICIA SABGA:
The EU also funds Erasmus…a student exchange program that brings together Catholic and Protestant youth, some for the first time.

Who here is Catholic, and who here is Protestant?

KIDS: We’re Catholic.

BOY: Yeah, Catholic.

PATRICIA SABGA: OK? And who’s Protestant? And how do you get along?

KIDS: Brilliant!

PATRICIA SABGA:
On a wall in Belfast, a mural stands as testament to Catholic and Protestant children who lived together in harmony until the Troubles began….

PETER HUGHES: For them, it exploded over a two day period. 1,800 families lost their homes in two days. So at that point, these kids are separate, they’re segregated.

PATRICIA SABGA: Is there any concern that Brexit could possibly lead back to that?

PETER HUGHES: There’s very much a fear, an undercurrent within certain people that we could be dragged back to those dark days. Personally, I don’t think so, but there are people of that belief.

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Conditions deteriorate in west Mosul as Iraqi advances slow

Displaced Iraqis flee their homes during a battle with Islamic State militants  walk past Iraqi flag in Albu Saif, south-west
         Mosul, Iraq, February 25, 2017. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Displaced Iraqis flee their homes during a battle with Islamic State militants walk past Iraqi flag in Albu Saif, south-west Mosul, Iraq, February 25, 2017. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

MOSUL, Iraq — The Iraqi advance into Mosul’s western half slowed Saturday as combat turned to urban warfare and Iraqi forces met stiff resistance from the Islamic State group. Hundreds of civilians poured out of Mosul on foot following the advances, but the vast majority of 750,000 estimated to still be in the city’s west remain trapped, and describe deteriorating humanitarian and security conditions.

Special forces Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi said that his troops are “moving very slowly” and that IS fighters are responding with car bombs, snipers and dozens of armed drones.

The drones have caused relatively few deaths, but have inflicted dozens of light injuries that have disrupted the pace of ground operations.

Similar to the way operations inside eastern Mosul initially unfolded, in west Mosul, IS repeatedly brought Iraqi convoys to a halt Saturday with small teams of one or two men and a handful of car bombs.

Al-Saadi said the Mamun neighborhood was particularly difficult because its streets are not organized in a grid. “The roads are random,” he said, which makes it more difficult for his men to set up roadblocks to stop car bombs, a difficulty that foreshadows obstacles Iraqi forces expect to face in the narrow alleyways of western Mosul’s historic district.

But al-Saadi said he expects the pace to increase after Iraqi forces retake territory and infrastructure on Mosul’s southwestern edge — which will allow them to shorten supply lines and link up with forces in the city’s east.

Along the road beside al-Saadi’s base of operations, hundreds of civilians fleeing Mosul walked slowly past, many with sheep, cows and goats in tow. Nearly all of the hundreds who fled Saturday trekked more than five kilometers from the city’s edge to a small village serving as a screening center.

[Watch Video]

Dozens of families gathered against a crude cinderblock wall at the screening center south of Mosul. Intelligence officials at the site said after documents were checked families would either be moved into nearby abandoned houses or newly erected camps for the displaced.

Many of those fleeing said they were from villages outside Mosul and had been forced to march to the city more than four months ago to serve as human shields.

“We’ve been through terrible times,” said Juri Fathi, a mother of six who was forced to live in a school in Mosul for three months. “I had to burn my children’s clothing just for warmth.”

Fathi held her youngest child — a four month old boy — in her arms as she spoke. She said he was born in an abandoned home between her hometown of Hamam al-Alil and Mosul as she was being led on the forced march by IS.

“I named him Mussab (or difficult),” she said, “for these tough days.”

Groups of men were screened at the site against a database of IS suspects and two prisoners were dragged past the crowd and into an abandoned building.

“We brought them directly from inside Mosul,” said an Iraqi special forces solider from inside the Humvee that delivered the detainees. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. “They were shooting at us, I saw them with my own eyes,” he said.

Iraqi forces declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” in January after officially launching the operation to retake the city in October.

A former Iraqi army lieutenant colonel and specialist in land-attack missiles, who used the nickname Abu Karim fearing for the safety of his family, spoke to The Associated Press by phone, describing a “deteriorating security and humanitarian situation” inside western Mosul.

“I’m hiding in my house, and my wife lives in constant fear of Daesh raiding our home,” said Abu Karim, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group.

Abu Karim said IS fighters have been setting up checkpoints and storming homes to crack down on informants, meting out punishments for anyone carrying a mobile phone or found with an internet connection that include flogging, jail time, and fines.

“(IS) tried to recruit me because of my expertise in missiles. But I told them I fought in the war against Iran and the Americans, and couldn’t fight anymore. They took me before a judge and he let me go with a $500 dollar fine,” said Abu Karim. He added that some IS fighters were fleeing to the north of Mosul, and that the city’s residents would welcome the arrival of the counterterrorism force and the federal police.

Also Saturday, a Kurdish journalist working for the Rudaw news organization, Shifa Gerdi, was killed covering the Mosul operation. A number of journalists have been since the operation began last year and in October an Iraqi television journalist was killed covering the battle.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Foreign Minister was in Baghdad Saturday — the first high level visit of a Saudi official to the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — to meet with his Iraqi counterpart, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

In a statement issued by the foreign ministry, al-Jaafari said the visit was to discuss cooperation in combating terrorism, adding, “The ties that bind are many, and the visit comes to restore bilateral relations to their correct course.”

The statement also called on Saudi Arabia to reiterate its position against Turkish ground troops in Iraq.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in baghdad contributed.

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Twin attacks on Syrian security kill at least 32

A bus with Syrian rebels and their families evacuating the besieged Waer district in the central Syrian city of Homs
         is pictured after a local agreement reached between rebels and Syria's army, Syria, September 22, 2016. The graffiti
         on the sign reads in Arabic:" Assad or nobody, only Bashar." REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSOXB4

A bus with Syrian rebels and their families evacuating the besieged Waer district in the central Syrian city of Homs is pictured after a local agreement reached between rebels and Syria’s army, Syria, September 22, 2016. The graffiti on the sign reads in Arabic: “Assad or nobody, only Bashar.” Photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

BEIRUT — In synchronized attacks, insurgents stormed into heavily guarded security offices in Syria’s central Homs city, clashed with troops and then blew themselves up, killing a senior officer and at least 31 others, state media and officials reported.

The swift, high-profile attacks against the Military Intelligence and State Security offices, among Syria’s most powerful, were claimed by an al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee. A Syrian lawmaker on a state-affiliated TV station called it a “heavy blow” to Syria’s security apparatuses.

The attacks came as Syrian government and opposition delegates meet in Geneva in U.N.-mediated talks aimed at building momentum toward peace despite low expectations of a breakthrough. The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called the attacks “tragic.”

“Every time we had talks or a negotiation, there was always someone who was trying to spoil it. We were expecting that,” he said.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Ja’afari, who leads Damascus’ delegation to Geneva, said the attacks were a message from the “sponsors of terrorism” to the peace talks.

Al-Ja’afari said the attacks will not go unanswered.

No footage or pictures emerged from the typically tightly-secured scene of the attacks in the city center. Activists said the city was on high alert after the attacks, with government troops blocking roads and forcing shops to close.

The government responded with an intense airstrike campaign against the only neighborhood on the city’s outskirts still under opposition control and other parts of rural Homs.

[Watch Video]

The government regained control of the city of Homs — one of the first to rise against President Bashar Assad — in 2015. But al-Waer neighborhood remained in rebel hands. Settlement negotiations to evacuate it have repeatedly faltered.

The attack early Saturday was the most high-profile in a city that has been the scene of repeated suicide attacks since the government regained control. The head of Military Intelligence services Maj. Gen Hassan Daeboul, who was killed in Saturday’s attack, had been transferred from the capital to Homs last year to address security failures in the city, according to local media reports at the time.

Daeboul was killed by one of the suicide bombers, according to Syrian State News Agency SANA.

Saturday attacks are among the most spectacular perpetrated against security agencies in the six-year-old conflict. One of the most dramatic attacks came in July 2012, when insurgents detonated explosives inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four top government officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad and the then-defense minister.

Details emerging of the Saturday attacks reveal coordinated attacks that used a combination of armed assault and suicide attacks to breach the security offices.

The governor of Homs Province, Talal Barzani, told The Associated Press three blasts in total killed more than 32 people. He said the attackers were wearing suicide belts, which they detonated in the security offices. The two agencies are two kilometers (1.2 miles) apart, and according to activists from the city they are heavily guarded, and monitored with security cameras.

According to state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV, at least six assailants attacked the two security compounds in Homs’ adjacent al-Ghouta and al-Mahata neighborhoods, clashing with security officers before at least two of them detonated explosive vests. It was not clear if there are any civilians among the casualties.

The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said the synchronized attacks killed at least 42 security officers and personnel.

The differing casualty estimates could not be immediately reconciled and are not uncommon in the immediate aftermath of violence in Syria.

Abdurrahman said the attacks started with clashes at the checkpoints. Then, three suicide bombers blew themselves up consecutively inside the courtyard of the Military Intelligence Services building as troops gathered. The attack briefly undermined the troops’ control of the building, said Abdurrahman. That attack killed at least 30, the Observatory said.

In the meantime, a similar scenario was playing out at the State Security branch, where at least 12 were killed. Brigadier Ibrahim Darwish, head of the agency, was also critically wounded, according to al-Ikhbariya.

An al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition, the Levant Liberation Committee, said five attackers stormed the two different security offices. The group said bombs were also detonated at checkpoints outside the buildings just as rescuers were arriving, leading to more casualties, according to a statement on their Telegram channel.

A Homs-based opposition activist Bebars al-Talawy said the attackers used gun-silencers in their initial attack, enabling them to enter the premise and surprise their target.

“This is the biggest breach of security agencies in Homs,” al-Talawy said, speaking in a Skype interview. “They were almost inside the offices.”

Al-Talawy said Daeboul was in charge of negotiating surrender deals with the rebel holdouts in al-Waer and other rebel-held areas in rural Homs.

The Syrian security forces run a vast intelligence network that enjoys great power and operates with little judicial oversight. Rights groups and Syria monitors hold the various branches responsible for mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and firing on protesters.

In a February report, Amnesty International reported that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were killed in mass hangings in the military’s Saydnaya prison in Damascus between 2011 and 2015. It said the detainees were sent to the prison from around the country by the state’s four main security branches, including Military Intelligence.

After the attacks, Syrian opposition activists took to social media to recount stories of torture and abuse for which Daeboul was allegedly responsible. Before Homs, he managed a military intelligence unit believed responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, government supporters hailed him as one of the country’s best security officers, who “broke the back of the terrorists,” a pro-government Facebook page posted. The government refers to all opposition as “terrorists.”

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Philip Issa in Beirut, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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Malaysia warns North Korea to cooperate with investigation

Malaysian Police officers gather before a protest organized by Members of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia's
         ruling coalition, in front of the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February
         23, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSZXDW

Malaysian Police officers gather before a protest organized by Members of the youth wing of the National Front, Malaysia’s ruling coalition, in front of the North Korea embassy, following the murder of Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 23, 2017. Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian police said Saturday that they would issue an arrest warrant for a North Korean diplomat if he refuses to cooperate with the investigation into the deadly attack on North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s exiled half brother.

The investigation has unleashed a serious diplomatic fight between Malaysia and North Korea, a prime suspect in the Feb. 13 killing of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport. Friday’s revelation by Malaysian police that the banned chemical weapon VX nerve agent was used to kill Kim raised the stakes significantly in a case that has broad geopolitical implications.

Police said Saturday that they would conduct a sweep of the airport terminal where Kim was killed to check for possible traces of VX.

Experts say the nerve agent used in the attack was almost certainly produced in a sophisticated state weapons laboratory and is banned under an international treaty. But North Korea never signed that treaty, and has spent decades developing a complex chemical weapons program.

Kim was not an obvious political threat to his estranged half brother, Kim Jong Un. But he may have been seen as a potential rival in North Korea’s dynastic dictatorship, even though he had lived in exile for years. North Korea has denied any role in the attack.

[Watch Video]

Malaysia said earlier in the week that Hyon Kwang Song, a second secretary at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, was wanted for questioning. But authorities acknowledged at the time that he has diplomatic immunity and that they couldn’t compel him to appear.

On Saturday, Malaysia’s tone changed.

Abdul Samah Mat, the police chief leading the investigation, said authorities would give the diplomat “reasonable” time to come forward. If he doesn’t, he said, police will issue a notice compelling him to do so.

“And if he failed to turn up … then we will go to the next step by getting a warrant of arrest from the court,” Abdul Samah told reporters.

Lawyer Sankara Nair, however, noted that diplomats have immunity privileges even in criminal cases.

“If he is a Korean diplomat with a diplomatic passport, then he has immunity no matter a criminal case or otherwise,” he said. “Police can apply for a warrant, but it can easily be set aside by the embassy.”

Malaysia hasn’t directly accused the North Korean government of being behind the attack, but officials have said four North Korean men provided two women with poison to carry it out.

The four men fled Malaysia shortly after the killing, while the women — one from Indonesia and the other Vietnamese — were arrested.

On Saturday, the Indonesian suspect, Siti Aisyah, met with her country’s deputy ambassador to Malaysia, saying she had been paid the equivalent of $90 for what she believed was a harmless prank.

Aisyah, 25, said she had been introduced to people who looked like Japanese or Koreans who asked her to play a prank for a reality show, Deputy Ambassador Andriano Erwin said.

Asked about whether she knew what was on her hands at the time of the attack, Erwin said: “She didn’t tell us about that. She only said that it’s a kind of oil, baby oil, something like that.”

The Vietnamese woman who was arrested, Doan Thi Huong, also thought she was taking part in a prank, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said Saturday, after a representative from the Vietnamese Embassy in Malaysia met with Huong.

An odorless chemical with the consistency of motor oil, VX is an extremely powerful poison, with an amount no larger than a few grains of salt enough to kill. It can be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Then, in anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours, it can cause a range of symptoms, from blurred vision to a headache. Enough exposure leads to convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death.

The killing of Kim Jong Nam took place amid crowds of travelers at Kuala Lumpur’s airport and appeared to be a well-planned hit. Kim died on the way to a hospital, within hours of the attack.

In grainy surveillance footage, the women appear to smear something onto Kim’s face before walking away in separate directions. Malaysian police said the attackers had been trained to go immediately to the bathroom and clean their hands.

Aisyah has said previously that she was duped into the attack, but Malaysian police say the suspects knew what they were doing. Experts say the women must have taken precautions so the nerve agent wouldn’t kill them.

An antidote, atropine, can be injected after exposure and is carried by medics in war zones where weapons of mass destruction are suspected.

Tens of thousands of passengers have passed through Kuala Lumpur’s airport since the apparent assassination was carried out. No areas were cordoned off and protective measures were not taken.

Late Saturday, however, police said they would begin a sweep of the budget terminal where Kim was attacked to check for traces of VX.

The sweep was scheduled to start at 1 a.m. Sunday and was to involve officers from the police’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear teams, as well as the fire department’s hazardous materials unit and the government’s atomic energy board. Although VX is not radioactive, police said the radiological team and the atomic energy board would be involved as a precaution.

Also Saturday, police confirmed that a raid earlier in the week on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur was part of the investigation. Abdul Samah, the police official, did not specify what authorities found there, but said the items were being tested for traces of any chemicals.

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