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Anja Niedringhaus, Kathy Gannon,

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, according to an AP Television freelancer who witnessed the shooting.

Kathy Gannon, the reporter, was wounded twice and is receiving medical attention. She was described as being in stable condition and talking to medical personnel.


BY RICHARD ENGEL, JAMES NOVOGROD AND ALEXANDER SMITH

Image: Protesters gather behind barricades during clashes with police in Kiev.

KIEV, Ukraine — A fragile truce between pro-West demonstrators and Ukraine’s security forces was shattered early Thursday as deadly battles erupted once again on the streets of Kiev.

Facing sanctions from the United States and the European Union, President Viktor Yanukovych reached a truce with opposition leaders on Wednesday nightafter two days of violence that saw at least 28 people killed.

But the pact was short lived. Independence Square –- where the protest movement has camped out since November –- descended into urban warfare by 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET). At least two dead bodies were seen by NBC News on Thursday.

“What truce? There is no truce!” protester Petro Maksimchuk, 23, told Reuters. “It is simply war ahead of us!”

 Watch Video: U.S. Slaps Sanctions on 20 Ukraine Officials

Death tolls in the wake of Thursday’s violence varied.

  • The opposition-run Twitter account, @EuromaidanPR, said police snipers had opened fire from buildings above the square and that more than 30 people had been killed.
  • A Reuters photographer said he saw the bodies of 21 civilians lying on the ground covered by blankets on or near Independence Square.
  • An Associated Press reporter spotted 10 bodies laid out on the edge of the protest encampment.

Those accounts could not immediately be confirmed by NBC News.

 James Novogrod        ✔ @JamieNBCNews

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A protester just was dragged by on a blanket by his comrades; the injured collected every few minutes here.

2:52 AM – 20 Feb 2014

Now inside the lobby of a hotel off the square; it’s become a field hospital.

Man with head wounds being comforted by nurse; he lies in her lap and motions for water.

James NovogrodJames Novogrod        ✔ @JamieNBCNews

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A small tabletop near the lobby bar now piled with medical kit, alongside the napkins and toothpicks.

However, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said Thursday that the new violence was trigge

red when opposition snipers opened fire on police officers, killing one and injuring 29 others.

 View image on Twitter

 

Bullets penetrated this bulletproof vest, killing one protester this morning.

4:54 AM – 20 Feb 2014 from Ukraine, Ukraine

Television footage showed several captured police officers were seen being led away by men wearing combat fatigues.

 View image on Twitter

 

More than 50 captured police led inside the energy bldg next door to city hall

3:45 AM – 20 Feb 2014 from Ukraine, Ukraine

The crisis in the sprawling country of 46 million has mounted since Yanukovich pulled out of a planned far-reaching trade agreement with the European Union in November under fierce pressure from Moscow and agreed to take a $15-billion Russian bailout instead.

Protests began peacefully last year but have been increasingly characterized by smaller, more extreme elements — many aligned with the far right — who have clashed with riot police.

While the demonstrations started as a rejection of the Russia-leaning government policies, protesters said they now seek to “oust a corrupt and brutal regime,” according to a post by the opposition-run “Euromaidan” Facebook group on Wednesday morning.

 

Tuesday’s violence shattered weeks of relative calm in the capital and was sparked by Russia’s announcement that it was ready to resume its loan package to the Ukraine. Some in the opposition saw this as an indication that the two countries had struck a deal and that the government was intent on standing firm against the protesters.

Ukraine’s interim prime minister and Russia’s Foreign Ministry have described the violence as an attempted coup.

Vitali Klitschko, the world champion boxer turned opposition leader, had backed the cease-fire with Yanukovych in a statement on his party’s website Wednesday night.

But other anti-government factions, such as Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of Ukraine’s far-right Pravy Sector party, rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to fight.

Maria Stromova of NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Alexander Smith reported from London.

First published February 20th 2014, 2:59 am

RICHARD ENGEL 


By Victoria Butenko. Ben Brumfield and Phil Black, CNN

updated 7:16 AM EST, Wed February 19, 2014

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French, Polish leaders call for sanctions against Ukraine
  • A journalist died from a gunshot wound to the head
  • Ukraine’s president asks protesters to distance themselves from “radical forces”
  • Tuesday was the most violent day in the months-long street standoff

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) – They’ve given up their ground before — voluntarily, as a political concession. But that seems to be over.

After the deaths of 25 people in clashes a day earlier, Ukrainian protesters are prepared to stand and fight again Wednesday.

Police want to clear them out of central Kiev. Some of them died trying to stay put Tuesday — using projectiles and burning barricades to keep security forces at bay at Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square.

It was the deadliest day in the months-long standoff between the government and opposition leaders.

Thousands of demonstrators have packed Independence Square since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.

The unrest intensified after an anti-protest law went into effect. Throngs of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the law.

Police and protesters were among Tuesday’s dead. A journalist and a government employee died, too.

More than 240 others were hospitalized, Ukraine’s health ministry said.

Overnight, demonstrators stocked up, passing stones hand to hand, filling Molotov cocktails and stoking flaming barricades with wood and tires.

They prepared a makeshift compressed-air cannon to catapult the projectiles into police ranks.

Hundreds of others came out to give moral support to those holding the square and to add their numbers to the throng wanting to keep the opposition movement alive.

Corporate lawyer Volodymyr Solohub was one of them. Whenever police threaten to clear the Maidan he goes there.

Tuesday, he watched as protesters rushed injured people from the front lines to medics.

“Some of them had broken hands, and blood was flowing down their faces,” he said Wednesday.

Barrages of stun grenades shattered the air around him through the night.

“When it goes off, the whole area vibrates,” he said. But the barricades held, and it made him happy.

When the sun rose Wednesday, smoke was still rising from them into the sky.

Finger pointing

Even as the European Union scheduled a meeting on Ukraine for Thursday and the leaders of France and Poland called for sanctions over the violence, Yanukovych fired fresh vitriol at his opposition.

He pinned blame for the violence exclusively on protesters, but he would have none of it himself.

“This is my life principle — no power is worth a drop of blood spilled for it,” he said in a statement.

Yet he issued a veiled threat to protesters.

Opposition forces should “disassociate themselves from the radical forces that provoke bloodshed and clashes with law enforcement,” he said.

Otherwise, admit to supporting them and be treated accordingly, Yanukovych demanded.

Opposition leaders pointed the finger back, painting their supporters as the victims, not the aggressors.

Neither side seems to have a monopoly on the use of violence, and in the mayhem, it is sometimes hard to tell who is carrying it out.

The journalist who died Wednesday was shot the night before, after a group of masked people stopped a taxi he was riding in, according to a statement by his newspaper Ukrainian Vesti.

They wore camouflage clothes and were throwing Molotov cocktails. They beat other passengers in the car, the paper reported.

Hopes dashed hard

Tuesday’s violence followed what seemed like a rare breakthrough.

The government had said it would drop charges against those arrested in the political unrest.

After holding Kiev’s City Hall for three months, protesters pulled back Sunday and unblocked streets in the city center.

But hope died Tuesday, when the speaker of parliament refused to allow amendments that would limit the president’s powers.

Opposition anger reignited and poured into the streets.

The government’s prosecutor general accused the opposition of breaking “the truce,” thus setting the stage for the security crackdown that ensued.

Riot police plowed into the crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and night sticks. Some demonstrators fought back, swinging what looked like baseball bats.

Protesters set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Party of Regions. But the opposition’s headquarters, the Trade Unions House, was also smoldering at daybreak Wednesday.

Authorities accused protesters of firing guns at security forces. An armored personnel carrier charged barricades but was quickly inundated and set alight.

Kiev was the center of the action, as in the past.

But police said the unrest has spread to western Ukraine, with protesters attacking police and local government offices in a number of regions.

Political fuel, spark

Flaming barricades have been a constant for three months all around Kiev’s Independence Square.

But Tuesday’s bloodshed marked a decided escalation.

Though the strife started over a trade pact, protesters’ anger was fueled by underlying sentiments in favor of the West and against Russia.

Their initial call for Yanukovych to reverse his decision on the EU trade deal avalanched over time into an attack on the President’s power base.

Yanukovych and his allies responded with some concessions, offering places in government to opposition leaders.

But on-again, off-again talks have gone nowhere.

Both sides have demanded that the other back down first, and neither is budging.

Yanukovych and opposition leader and famed boxer Vitali Klitschko played another round of the you-first game in an overnight face-to-face meeting.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Klitschko said there effectively was “no discussion.”

The President demanded the protesters back off first. Klitschko threw the demand back at him. “I told Yanukovych this,” he said. “How can we negotiate when there is blood being spilled?”

West vs. Moscow

EU leaders condemned the violence and waved the possibility of sanctions at Kiev’s government, placing most of the responsibility on its shoulders.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso threatened “targeted measures against those responsible” in a statement.

“Europe will certainly reconsider the restraint it has shown in deciding whether to impose sanctions on individuals,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

But Russia is also waving money, standing by with billions in economic aid for Ukraine’s economy.

Since political tensions began, Washington and Moscow have weighed in on opposite ends and kept doing so Tuesday.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych to press him to stop the violence, placing the responsibility to de-escalate mainly with government.

Secretary of State John Kerry later backed up the Vice President’s words. He called for the Ukrainian government to halt violence immediately, and reopen dialogue with the opposition.

Russia accused Washington of meddling in Ukrainian affairs.

Washington is trying to tell “the authorities of a sovereign state what they should do next and how they should do it,” an article in Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti’s read.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the clashes in a statement late Tuesday and called for them to stop.

“He reiterates to all sides that the use of violence is unacceptable,” it read.

Ban said preventing more bloodshed is a “paramount priority.”

But in Kiev, the call may be falling on the deaf ears of embittered rivals.

CNN’s Phil Black and Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev, while CNN’s Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Greg Botelho, Michael Martinez, Neda Farshbaf, Larry Register and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.


Saudi arabia texting program 2013 1 14

(HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia has suspended a program that notifies the male guardians of female relatives, who may only travel abroad with their permission, once the women leave the country, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

Since November 2012, Saudi women’s male guardians have been sent an SMS message informing them when women under their custody leave, even if they are traveling together.

The program, which was strongly criticized by women rights activists, “has been suspended due to some observations,” passports department spokesman Ahmad al-Laheedan was quoted by Arab News as saying.

“It will undergo amendment,” he said, indicating that the system that compounded constraints on women in the ultra-conservative kingdom, could return as optional. Men would only receive an SMS if they requested to be informed.

As it is, women must show immigration authorities a “yellow paper” signed by their father, brother, husband or even son in the case of divorce or widowhood confirming their permission to travel.

Activists welcomed the suspension of the SMS program.

“The notification process should have never been introduced in the first place because it is humiliating for women,” said Sabria Jawhar, a Saudi columnist and university professor of applied linguistics.

“We are responsible adults but are treated as immature or less responsible,” she told Arab News.

The kingdom enforces strict rules governing mixing between the sexes, while women are forced to wear a veil and a black cloak, or abaya, that covers them from head to toe except for their hands and faces.

Women also face the globally unique ban on driving, and those who have attempted in the past to defy the ban, have been punished.


By GERRY MULLANY

An alleged beating of an Indonesian domestic helper by her Hong Kong employer has drawn new attention to the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of such workers in the territory, raising questions about whether the authorities are vigilant in preventing abuses in such cases.

The helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, returned to Indonesia on Jan. 10, traveling through Hong Kong International Airport with the assistance of a friend because of cuts and burns on much of her body, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The newspaper said she was now in critical condition at an Indonesian hospital.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih, who had worked for eight months for a family in Tseung Kwan O in the New Territories, was apparently given 100 Hong Kong dollars, about $13, by her employers before her departure and told not to talk to any Indonesians before boarding the plane, according to the South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong is home to an estimated 300,000 domestic workers, and they provide valuable services like child care to the city’s busy workforce. Amnesty International said in a report last year that Indonesian workers are particularly prone to abuses, as employment agencies lure them with promises of high pay, demand high fees to secure work for the helpers and then often withhold their documents to prevent them from leaving the territory.

“They are using deception and coercion to recruit Indonesian migrants and to compel them to work in situations which violate their human and labor rights,” said the November 2013 report. It said Hong Kong employers then “frequently subject migrant domestic workers to serious human rights violations in Hong Kong, including physical or verbal abuse.”

The treatment of such workers attracted intense media attention last fall when a Hong Kong couple was sentenced to three to five years in prison for essentially jailing their Indonesian helper for two years and torturing her by beating her with bicycle chains, a hot iron and a paper cutter. The woman was also allegedly tied to a chair for five days during the family’s vacation, and left without food and water.

In the latest case, the woman’s employment agency filed a report with the Hong Kong police alerting them to the alleged mistreatment — after she had left the territory.

“On the afternoon of Jan. 12, the police received notice from an domestic helper recruitment firm, that a foreign domestic helper was suspected of having been tortured by her employer,” said a police statement.

The woman apparently paid 18,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $2,300, to secure her job through an employment agency, even though such agencies are only allowed to charge 401 Hong Kong dollars under Hong Kong law, Robert Godden, an official with Amnesty International, told the South China Morning Post.

In its November report, Amnesty faulted the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Indonesian government for not doing enough to prevent such abuses.

“The Indonesian and Hong Kong SAR governments have not complied with their international obligations to prevent and suppress trafficking and the use of forced labor,” the report said. “They have failed to properly monitor, investigate and sanction individuals and organizations which are violating domestic legislation in their respective territories.”


Country also agrees to dismantle some infrastructure

Iran map

yorkfoto/iStock

(CNN) — Save the date: Iran has pledged to start eliminating some of its uranium stockpile on January 20, the White House said Sunday.

That gives an official start date for the six-month interim deal with Iran, which was first announced in November.

“As of that day, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back, while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s program,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Sunday.

As part of the agreement, Iran has agreed to start eliminating its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium, to dismantle some infrastructure that makes higher-level uranium enrichment possible, and not to start up additional centrifuges.

In exchange, some sanctions against Iran will be eased as part of “modest relief,” the White House said.

“The $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian assets that Iran will gain access to as part of the agreement will be released in regular installments throughout the six months,” Kerry said. “The final installment will not be available to Iran until the very last day.”

But there’s a bipartisan push in Congress to tighten, rather than ease, sanctions on Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear Sunday that he was pushing back.

“Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully, and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation,” Obama said in a written statement.


By Alessandra Prentice, Reuters

MOSCOW — Five members of a banned militant group were arrested in southern Russia on Saturday and a homemade bomb packed with shrapnel was defused, in another security scare weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Video: State Dept. Issues Russia Travel Alert

NBC News’ Richard Engel reports live from Moscow about the U.S. State Department warning to American travelers.

Islamist militants have threatened to attack the games and suicide bombers killed at least 34 people last month in Volgograd, also in southern Russia.

President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his political and personal prestige on the success of the Olympics, has ordered safety measures beefed up nationwide after the attacks.

Russia’s National Anti-terrorism Committee (NAC) said the latest arrests were in Nalchik, a town about 190 miles from Sochi in the Caucasus region, where insurgents want to carve out an Islamic state.

“Security forces have detained five members of a banned international terrorist organization,” the NAC said in a statement received by Russian news agencies. An NAC spokesman confirmed the statement to Reuters.

“The anti-terrorism operation discovered and seized ammunition, grenades and a homemade explosive device packed with shrapnel ready for use,” the statement said.

The weapons were discovered in the course of searching the addresses where the arrests took place, it added.

Nalchik is 62 miles from the town of Beslan, the site of a 2004 guerrilla attack on a school which killed 331, half of them children.

Russian Pavel Pechyonkin, a 26-year-old former paramedic who allegedly converted to radical Islam in 2011, has been named by police as a suspect in the first bombing that hit Volgograd’s train station. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.

An Islamist group in the region, the Caucasus Emirate, led by a former Chechen independence guerrilla commander, Doku Umarov, has urged militants to use “maximum force” to prevent the games, which open on February 7, from going ahead.

Video: Police Name Suspect in Russia Train Station Bombing

Putin crushed separatists in the Muslim province of Chechnya when he rose to power 14 years ago. But the Islamist insurgency spread to neighboring Dagestan, recruiting fighters from as far afield as Canada.

On Thursday police went on combat alert in the Stavropol region, also in the south, after the discovery of at least five corpses with gunshot wounds and an explosive device.

The head of Russia’s Olympic Committee has said Moscow has taken every possible measure to ensure the safety of the games.

Russian forces went on combat alert last week in Sochi and about 37,000 personnel are now in place to provide security at the games.

Video: US Olympic CEO: Russian bombings have ‘our attention’

Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer that in the wake of recent bombings in Russia, he is “concerned,” but has confidence in security measures for the Games.


Sharon had been in coma since 2006

Ariel Sharon at 2005 Rabin memorial ceremony

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

(CNN) — Ariel Sharon, whose half century as a military and political leader in Israel was marked with victories and controversies, died Saturday after eight years in a coma, Israeli Army Radio reported. Sharon was 85.

Sharon died at Sheba Medical Center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Tel Hashomer.

The Israeli statesman was a national war hero to many Israelis for his leadership, both in uniform or as a civilian, during every Israeli war.

Many in the Arab world called Sharon “the Butcher of Beirut” after he oversaw Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon while serving as defense minister.

He was a major figure in many defining events in the Middle East for decades, including his decision to turn over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

Throughout, he was called a “The Bulldozer,” a fearless leader who got things done.

The reaction in his own right-wing Likud Party to his order to the military to drag some Israeli settlers from their homes in Gaza led Sharon in November 2005 to form the political party Kadima, Hebrew for “Forward.”

He was in his fifth year as prime minister when he suffered a massive stroke in January 2006, which left him comatose.

Ehud Olmert, who became interim prime minister after Sharon’s stroke, assumed the role of prime minister after leading the Kadima Party to an election victory in March 2006.

Sharon’s career was closely tied to Israel’s relationship with Lebanon.

During the Lebanon war in 1982, Sharon, a former army general then serving as Israeli defense minister, was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry in 1983 for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was forced to resign.

Sharon, who lived on a ranch in the Negev Desert, became prime minister on March 7, 2001.

He was the man who encouraged Israelis to establish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, but he also was the leader who pushed for Israel’s historic 2005 withdrawal from 25 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which was turned over to Palestinian rule for the first time in 38 years.

Sharon formed the centrist Kadima in an effort to build political support for his controversial plan to turn over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

In grappling with the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Sharon said in 2001, “I can talk and look in the eyes of the citizens of Israel and convince them to make painful compromises.”

As waves of suicide bombings by militants rocked Israel, Sharon sent tanks and troops into Palestinian towns, ordering assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders.

Sharon ordered construction of the barrier through the West Bank and confined then-Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, whom he called “a terrorist,” to his compound in Ramallah, accusing him of encouraging attacks on Israel.

This veteran of all of Israel’s wars was a national hero to many.

In 1953, after a wave of terrorist attacks from Jordan, Sharon the military leader led the infamous Unit 101 on a raid into the border town of Kibya, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 Arab villagers. Sharon said he thought the houses were empty.

In June 1967, as a general, Sharon led his tank battalion to a crushing victory over the Egyptians in the Sinai during the Six Day War.

But what he considered his greatest military success came in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. He surrounded Egypt’s Third Army and, defying orders, led 200 tanks and 5,000 men over the Suez Canal, a turning point in the war.

As defense minister, Sharon was the architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, an occupation meant to stop the Palestine Liberation Organization from using Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israel. The attack was disastrous.

After the Sabra and Shatila massacre, he allowed Israeli families to settle in occupied Palestinian land, the same land Palestinians claimed as a future state.

As a result of the inquiry, however, Sharon was forced to stand down and was banned from ever being defense minister again.

“He felt betrayed by his government,” said his adviser, Ranaan Gissin.

Sharon made a political comeback in the 1990s, eventually becoming leader of his party in 2000.

That year, he faced more trouble when he visited the holiest site for Jews, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, “The Noble Sanctuary.” The stop sparked violent protests. The incident prompted the second Intifada — the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule — that began in September of that year.

Throughout his career, both in the military and in politics, Sharon was the man Israelis turned to when they thought they had no other choice. Either leading from the front or calling the shots as an elected leader, he was always the soldier. Even in his later years out of uniform, his military demeanor was just below the surface. He never delivered on his promise of peace and security.

Sharon was born on a farm outside Tel Aviv. The son of Russian immigrants, he always remembered a lesson from his father as he ascended to the highest office in Israel.

“When my father saw that I was tired, he would stop for a minute and say, ‘Look how much we have done already,’” he once explained.


Str / AP

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq’s Shiite-led government during the funeral of a man killed when clashes erupted between al Qaeda gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers on Friday in Fallujah.

By F. Brinley Bruton, Staff Writer, NBC News

The United States will help Iraq fight an al Qaeda-linked group that seized the city of Fallujah in the west of the country, but will not send American troops, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.

“We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against their efforts to destabilize,” Kerry told journalists as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which took control of Fallujah and Ramadi over last week, is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds.

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after the radical forces raised their flag in the town of Fallujah — site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war — and gained control of the city.

Kerry admitted that the U.S. was “very, very concerned” by the fighting, and called ISIL “the most dangerous players in that region.”

The ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in in Lebanon on Saturday.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

Related:

Al Qaeda fighters take over parts of two Iraq cities


Mohammed Jalil / EPA

An exterior view of the local council’s building destroyed by attackers in Fallujah, western Iraq, Jan. 3, 2014.

By Andrea Mitchell and Courtney Kube, NBC News

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after radical Sunni forces linked with al Qaeda raised their flag in the town of Fallujah – site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war – and gained control of the city.

Islamist insurgents have also battled tribesmen for control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

The fighters brandished their weapons and set police vehicles ablaze on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. A provincial spokesman said the militants had taken over police stations and military posts in Fallujah and Ramadi after security forces left.

An interior ministry official told Agence France-Presse that ISIL, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, remained in control of parts of the two cities on Thursday.

The move is another sign that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not been able to maintain control of the country since the United States withdrew its troops in 2011, failing to reach an agreement with the Maliki government to leave behind a residual force.

There are currently no U.S. troops in Fallujah or Ramadi, according to the Pentagon.

The State Department said the violence that reached another peak Friday was a spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria — and that the border between Syria and Iraq has now become meaningless.

The United States rejected suggestions that American troops could help stabilize the situation.

“If we couldn’t control that border with 150,000 troops in that country during the war, what would a few hundred accomplish?” one U.S. official said.

The U.S., however, did last month authorize the sale to the Maliki government of Hellfire missiles and Scan Eagle surveillance drones.

The United States continues to have a large diplomatic presence in the country, along with about 100 Marines and 100 high-level institutional trainers — nearly all in Baghdad. There is also a smaller U.S. Consulate in Erbil.

During the two battles of Fallujah in 2004, the U.S. lost 51 and 95 troops, respectively. More than 1,000 U.S. troops were injured in total.