‘More than just money’: Chicago parents warm to teachers’ contract demands

‘More than just money’: Chicago parents warm to teachers’ contract demands
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Carmen Rodriguez, a life-long Chicagoan who lives on the city’s Southeast Side, sends her two children to a predominately Hispanic elementary school where she says teachers are struggling with class sizes of up to 40 students.

The crowded conditions at Virgil Grissom Elementary School makes Rodriguez, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, sympathetic to Chicago’s 25,000 teachers, who have authorized a strike against the public school system unless the two sides can reach a contract deal by Thursday.

In addition to wage increases, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is demanding more funding to ease overcrowded classrooms and hire more support staff, two perennial issues plaguing the third-largest U.S. school district.

“I don’t think the teachers are being unreasonable whatsoever, because they are fighting for more than just money,” she said.

Interviews with about two dozen parents of children in the system suggest Rodriguez’s point of view is widely shared, even though most parents are uncomfortable with the prospect of a strike. Thousands of teacher staged a one-day walkout in 2016 to protest the lack of a contract at that time and failures to stabilize the finances.

“They are fighting for the kids. Someone has to stand up for these things,” said yoga instructor Angela Steffensen, 34, after dropping her child off at school. “But a strike sucks for everybody.”

A strike would mark the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages in school districts across the United States in which demands for higher salaries and benefits have receded to the background.

Instead, in Chicago and elsewhere, teachers have emphasized the need for more resources for under-funded schools, framing their demands as a call for social justice that resonates with parents, said Jon Shelton, a justice studies professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“There are a lot of eyes on this strike,” he said. If Chicago teachers are successful “it shows that this model of organizing and working with the community is a significant way to build power for teachers.”

The district has said it is making progress to cut classroom size and has offered to spend $10 million to provide 200 teaching assistants for the most overcrowded schools. It also pledged to double the number of social workers and nurses over the next five years as more qualified applicants and funding become available.

“We expressed a willingness to find solutions on these two core issues that would be written directly into the contract,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Janice Jackson, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), said in a statement.

Overcrowding and a shortage of support staff are reflections of a systemic inequality throughout the system, according to many parents and educators.

CPS provides 67% of what it needs to educate its 361,000 students, according to Advance Illinois, an educational policy and advocacy organization.

To make up some of the difference, parent organizations in some schools, mostly in more affluent neighborhoods, provide additional funds.

As a consequence, the funding shortfall hits low-income and special-needs pupils the hardest, especially when it comes to class size and support staff, advocates and parents said.

“We are always getting the short end of the stick,” said Chamala Jordan, 43, who lives on the South Side. “There is always an explanation from CPS for why class sizes are astronomic and there is always an excuse to why they are under resourced.”

Nearly one in four elementary classrooms have 35 or more students. Many of those are in low income and minority schools, the union said, citing district data.

Teachers want mandatory maximums of 20 students in kindergarten classrooms, 24 children in first through third grade classes and 28 in grades fourth through eighth and 28 for core classes in high school. The current limits are higher and principals are allowed to deviate from them.

The union wants the number of social workers, counselors and other clinicians to meet the recommended ratios set by each profession’s national associations.

The district has a single guidance counselor for every 475 students, on par with the national ratio. But for nurses and social workers, it lags the recommendations badly.

Even so, not all parents are sympathetic with the teachers.

Willie Preston, a 34-year-old father of six, sees bad blood between the teachers union and the mayor behind the strike threat. Lightfoot won election last April without the union’s endorsement.

“They are using our children as leverage, bargaining chips,” he said.

Despite the political overtones, many parents said they have focused on the harm that overcrowding and the lack of support staff does to their children’s education.

“Smaller classrooms mean more attention to your child and more attention means that they learn better … and they can excel,” said Stefanie Gambrell, 48, the mother of a child in a CPS school.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Nick Zieminski)

Officials arrest 338 in child porn bust on dark web

Officials arrest 338 in child porn bust on dark web
By Andy Sullivan and Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Law enforcement officials said on Wednesday they had arrested hundreds of people worldwide after knocking out a South Korea-based dark web child pornography site that sold gruesome videos for digital cash.

Officials from the United States, Britain and South Korea described the network as one of the largest child pornography operations they had encountered to date.

Called Welcome To Video, the website relied on the bitcoin cryptocurrency to sell access to 250,000 videos depicting child sexual abuse, authorities said.

Officials have rescued at least 23 underage victims in the United States, Britain and Spain who were being actively abused by users of the site, the Justice Department said. Many children in the videos have not yet been identified.

The site’s vast library – nearly half of it consisting of images never seen before by law enforcement – is an illustration of what authorities say is an explosion of sexual abuse content online. In a statement, Britain’s National Crime Agency said officials were seeing “increases in severity, scale and complexity.”

Welcome To Video’s operator, a South Korean named Jong Woo Son, and 337 users in 12 different countries, have been charged so far, authorities said.

Son, currently serving an 18-month sentence in South Korea, was also indicted on federal charges in Washington.

Several other people charged in the case have already been convicted and are serving prison sentences of up to 15 years, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Welcome To Video is one of the first websites to monetize child pornography using bitcoin, which allows users to hide their identities during financial transactions.

Users were able to redeem the digital currency in return for “points” that they could spend downloading videos or buying all-you-can watch “VIP” accounts. Points could also be earned by uploading fresh child pornography.

‘BOTTOM FEEDERS OF CRIMINAL WORLD’

“These are the bottom feeders of the criminal world,” said Don Fort, chief of criminal investigation at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which initiated the investigation.

The Justice Department said the site collected at least $370,000 worth of bitcoin before it was taken down in March 2018 and that the currency was laundered through three unnamed digital currency exchanges.

Darknet websites are designed to be all-but-impossible to locate online. How authorities managed to locate and bring down the site isn’t clear, with differing narratives by different law enforcement organizations on the matter.

Fort said the investigation was triggered by a tip to the IRS from a confidential source. However, Britain’s National Crime Agency said they came across the site during an investigation into a British academic who in October 2017 pleaded guilty  to blackmailing more than 50 people, including teenagers, into sending him depraved images that he shared online.

In a statement, British authorities said the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit deployed “specialist capabilities” to identify the server’s location. The NCA did not immediately return an email seeking clarification on the term, which is sometimes used as a euphemism for hacking.

The U.S. Justice Department gave a different explanation, saying that Welcome To Video’s site was leaking its server’s South Korean internet protocol address to the open internet.

Experts pointed to the bust as evidence that the trade in child abuse imagery could be tackled without subverting the encryption that keeps the rest of the internet safe.

Officials in the United States and elsewhere have recently begun prodding major technology firms  to come up with solutions that could allow law enforcement to bypass the encryption that protects messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage, citing the fight against child pornography as a major reason.

Welcome to Video’s demise “is a clear indication that in cases like this, where there’s very low-hanging fruit, breaking encryption is not required,” said Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

He said the bust showed that law enforcement could also track criminal activity that employs cryptocurrency transactions.

“There’s a lot of a people who have this perception that bitcoin is totally anonymous,” Parsons said, “and it’s been the downfall of many people in many investigations.”

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bernadette Baum)

Jeers force Hong Kong leader to abandon address with no olive branch on offer

Jeers force Hong Kong leader to abandon address with no olive branch on offer
By Clare Jim and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had to abandon her policy speech because of jeering lawmakers on Wednesday but later offered no direct olive branch to pro-democracy protesters, hoping instead to ease resentment by building more public housing.

Lam, who had to broadcast the annual address via a video link after the rowdy scenes in the Legislative Council, had hoped to try to restore confidence in her administration after four months of often violent anti-government and anti-China protests.

She gave up initial attempts to deliver the address after pro-democracy lawmakers called out for “five demands, not one less” and projected the protest rallying cry on to a backdrop behind her.

The demands include universal suffrage for the Chinese-ruled city and an independent inquiry into what they say has been excessive force by police in dealing with the unrest.

Protesters have trashed government buildings, including the Legislative Council, daubed businesses seen as pro-China with graffiti, set street fires and thrown petrol bombs at police who have responded with water canon, tear gas, rubber bullets and several live rounds.

Police have arrested more than 2,300 people since June. Thousands have been wounded, including two shot by live rounds.

In her policy statement, Lam was unapologetic about her government’s response to the protests, which has included introducing British colonial-era emergency laws this month.

“Any acts that advocate Hong Kong’s independence and threaten the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests will not be tolerated,” she said.

“Despite the stormy times and overwhelming difficulties Hong Kong is experiencing, I believe that so long as we accurately adhere to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, we will be able to get out of the impasse.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the protesters were trying to humiliate and bring down the Hong Kong government. “There is no simple solution,” he said.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” when Britain returned the city to China in 1997.

Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble. The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He has warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

A Norwegian lawmaker, Guri Melby, tweeted that she had nominated the Hong Kong people for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for their stand for freedom of speech and democracy.

Lam later told a news conference that she had held “closed door” meetings with some members of the protest movement and when the unrest ended she would hold more.

RESIGNATION CALLS

Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said Lam should resign.

“Both her hands are soaked with blood. We hope Carrie Lam withdraws and quits,” an emotional Chan told reporters.

In her news conference, Lam rejected two of the protesters’ five demands – amnesty for those charged and universal suffrage – saying the first was illegal and the second beyond the chief executive’s power.

Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front in a statement also called for Lam to step down.

“We urge Carrie Lam to stop destroying Hong Kong, respond to the five major demands, and step down,” it said. Lam has for months rejected calls to step down.

The leader of the group, Jimmy Sham, was attacked hours later by a group of men in the gritty Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula. Photographs on social media showed a bloodied Sham laying in the street. It is the second time he has been attacked since the protests began.

“It is not hard to link this incident to a spreading political terror in order to threaten and inhibit the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights,” said the group.

Hong Kong’s unrest was ignited by an extradition bill, which could have seen residents sent to Communist Party-controlled mainland courts for trial. Lam has said the bill has been withdrawn, but the suspension of the legislature meant it could not be formally dropped.

Densely populated Hong Kong boasts some of the world’s most expensive real estate and the inability of many young people to get a place of their own has fueled the protests.

Lam’s housing policy is one of the boldest in recent years, vowing to take back large tracts of land held by a handful of powerful developers and create public housing.

“We are determined to create home ownership opportunities for people of different income groups such that they will happily make Hong Kong their home,” Lam said.

Lam said about 700 hectares of land in the New Territories would be brought back into public use under what is known as a land resumption ordinance. More than half of the land would be taken back in the next few years.

No Hong Kong leader has take back land from private developers since the handover.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Abraham Shek, who represents the real estate sector, rejected the policy, and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance party said the policy speech lacked concrete measures.

“It’s a conservative, procrastinating blueprint with few new ideas,” said the party’s chairwoman, Starry Lee.

Major developers, including Henderson Land , New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties, are sitting on “no less than 1,000 hectares” of agricultural land, according to government estimates.

(Reporting By Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Sarah Wu, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master and Michael Perry; Editing by William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat
By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – The Trump administration dispatched its top officials to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by Washington in a sudden retreat.

Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser since last month, arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expecting to meet the following day with President Tayyip Erdogan.

The administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies.

Erdogan again insisted there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States next month because of the “very big disrespect” shown by U.S. politicians.

He also denounced the United States for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over allegations it broke sanctions on Iran.

Turkey’s assault, launched after a call between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its troops from northern Syria.

It has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal U.S. allies, the Kurds.

Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have meanwhile taken advantage of the power vacuum left by retreating U.S. troops to advance swiftly into the largest swath of territory previously outside their grasp.

Trump played down the crisis on Wednesday, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was “fine” for Russia to help its ally Damascus. Sanctioning Turkey would be better than fighting in the region, he said.

Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump’s critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.

A day later U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.

U.S. “SHOW OF FORCE”

The Turkish advance, and Washington’s need to swiftly evacuate its own forces, have brought the two biggest militaries in NATO close to confrontation on the battlefield. Washington has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.

In the latest potential flashpoint, U.S. military aircraft made a “show of force” over the border city of Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American troops there, a U.S. official said.

Pence said Erdogan had promised Trump by phone that Turkey would not attack Kobani, a strategically important border city where U.S. forces first came to the aid of Kurds against Islamic State, which massacred Kurdish civilians there in 2014.

Erdogan said he had not broken his promise to Trump: “Mr Trump’s remark on Kobani was ‘Don’t strike there’,” Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday. “We said that we had only done an encircling operation there at the moment.”

LAND RUSH

Washington’s hasty exit has created a land rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the formerly U.S.-protected Kurdish area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year Syrian war, said on Wednesday Russian troops had crossed the Euphrates River to advance to Kobani’s outskirts.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds made a rapid deal with Washington’s adversaries, the Russia- and Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia-backed Syrian troops have swiftly moved across the breadth of the Kurdish-held area including Manbij city, a target of Turkey which U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had quit.

Reuters journalists traveling with Syrian government forces on Tuesday entered Manbij and saw Russian and Syrian flags on buildings nearby. Russian state media said on Wednesday Syrian government forces had occupied bases abandoned by U.S. troops.

Erdogan, due in Moscow later this month, said he had told President Vladimir Putin that Russia could move forces into Manbij, provided that the Kurdish YPG militia was cleared out.

Erdogan says Trump approved his plan for a “safe zone” about 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria. Trump says he did not endorse the plan but Washington could not stay to police the Middle East.

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters. “Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

The Turkish campaign shows no sign of abating on the ground, with most fighting so far around two border cities, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar reported the sound of heavy gunfire just across the frontier in Ras al Ain, which Turkey’s Defence Ministry had earlier said its forces controlled.

(Additional reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Alison Williams)

California Earthquakes, many aftershocks jolt the San Fransisco area this week

The San Andreas Fault line. By Kate Barton, David Howell, and Joe Vigil -

By Kami Klein

A series of earthquakes have been hitting California in the last few days.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the quakes began Monday at 10:33 p.m., when a magnitude 4.5 temblor rattled out of the suburbs of Contra Costa County, in the East Bay about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. The USGS reported at least 26 aftershocks following the tremor, Then, on Tuesday at 12:42 p.m., a magnitude 4.7 quake struck in the remote mountains of San Benito County. No major structural damage was reported.

On Tuesday evening another earthquake this one rated at 3.4 also struck the Pleasant Hill area. The quake was recorded at 7:11 p.m. pacific, Tuesday, Oct. 15 and was centered under Pleasant Hill at a depth of 9 miles, the USGS reported.

Monday’s quake was the latest reminder that seismic forces put the East Bay at high risk of a major earthquake, including from the dangerous Hayward Fault, which runs along heavily populated areas. The Los Angeles Times also reported that the earthquakes struck on an unusual section of San Andreas fault known for ‘creeping’, a series of smaller earthquakes that could lead to larger ones along the fault line.

“This is the 10th earthquake larger than magnitude 4 in the last 20 years in this area” within a radius of about six miles from Tuesday’s epicenter said Keith Knudsen, USGS geologist and deputy director of the agency’s Earthquake Science Center.

In 2008 the USGS created “The Great ShakeOut” scenario to warn communities to prepare the bay area for larger quakes. This scenario was based on a potential magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault— approximately 5,000 times larger than the magnitude 5.4 earthquake that shook southern California on July 29, 2008. It’s not a matter of if an earthquake of this size will happen—but when.

Dr. Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey led a group of over 300 scientists, engineers, and others to study the likely consequences of this potential earthquake in great detail. The result is the ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario, which was also the basis of a statewide emergency response exercise, Golden Guardian 2008.

In an earthquake of this size, the shaking will last for nearly two minutes. The strongest shaking will occur near the fault (in the projected earthquake, the Coachella Valley, Inland Empire and Antelope Valley). Pockets of strong shaking will form away from the fault where sediments trap the waves (in the projected earthquake, it would occur in the San Gabriel Valley and in East Los Angeles).
Such an earthquake will cause unprecedented damage to Southern California—greatly dwarfing the massive damage that occurred in Northridge’s 6.7-magnitude earthquake in 1994. In summary, the ShakeOut Scenario estimates this earthquake will cause over 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damage and other losses, and severe, long-lasting disruption.

Prophetic Encounter week begins and you can be a part of our Worship Services! Watch LIVESTREAM every night this week!

By Kami Klein

All of us need a life-changing encounter with the presence of God! This week begins our Prophetic Encounter Conference and Morningside is ready for each amazing guest! We wish all of you could be here for this truly inspiring conference but we understand that many of you could not be here. We want you to be a part of this prophetic week and join us every night via live-stream during our worship service and experiencing our incredible speakers!

Our guests are world-renowned and emerging prophetic voices and there is nothing quite like the uniting of believers praying and worshiping together! You may not be able to be on Grace Street in person but we want to worship with you anyway!

Tonight, Monday, October 14th, at 7 pm please join Tammy Sue Bakker and the PTL Band and Singers as they begin our worship service filled with song and gratitude. Our special guest speakers will be Ana Werner and Larry Sparks. Ana travels internationally teaching others to see in the Spirit, move in the prophetic, and experience healing and deliverance through her ministry. Larry Sparks is a sought after prophetic minister encouraging others on how to create space for the Holy Spirit to move in presence, prophetic words, and power, he has been featured on Sid Roth It’s Supernatural!, The Jim Bakker Show, CBN, TBN, the Elijahlist, and Charisma Magazine.

Tuesday, October 15th at 7 pm join us for worship with Tammy Sue and the PTL Band & Singers followed by our very special friend to Morningside and a true Christian Leader and Prophet for today. As Founder and Executive Director of MorningStar Ministries and Heritage International Ministries, Rick Joyner has authored more than fifty books and is sought after by leaders all over the world for his no-nonsense, biblical and common-sense approach. In his program “Prophetic Perspectives” found on the PTL Television Network, he illuminates the current events of today with direct, informative and biblical thought.

Wednesday, October 16th at 7:30 pm Tammy Sue Bakker and the PTL Band & Singers will start the worship off followed by our special guest Jeremiah Johnson. A gifted teacher, prophet, and author of multiple books, Jeremiah travels extensively throughout the United States and abroad as a conference and guest speaker. He has been a guest on Christian television and radio shows including The Jim Bakker Show, Sid Roth’s It’s Supernatural!, and The Line of Fire with Dr. Michael Brown, as well as on networks such as Daystar, TBN, and God TV.

Thursday, October 17th, 7 pm Larry Sparks is back with another riveting worship service and joining him will be Jenny Weaver! Once a homeless drug addict and self-cutting Wiccan, Jenny is now a true worshipper and lover of God. Transformed by His re¬newing power, Jenny’s heart is to lead people into an encounter with the Holy Spirit that will transform them as well. It is Jenny’s desire to lead prophetic, spontaneous, high praise worship and release the song of Heaven into the Earth!

Friday, October 18th, 7 pm Jenny Weaver will be back to lead the worship, followed by an inspirational, full of the Holy Spirit, healing service led by Katherine Ruonala. Katherine carries a strong prophetic and miracle anointing with many being instantly healed in her meetings. Reaching across denominational walls, her ministry is also used to spread the fires of revival and ignite a fresh passion in the hearts of believers to go deeper in their relationship with God.

We all lead such busy lives that sometimes we don’t take the time to spend with God and fill our hearts with his loving presence. Our Lord has so many plans for YOU! Please schedule some time with him this week and join us during these very special worship services on Grace Street at Morningside!

To be a part of any of our LIVE events this week you can join us on the PTL Network from your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or go to jimbakkershow.com or ptlnetwork.com to tune in!

China wants more talks before signing Trump’s ‘Phase 1’ deal: Bloomberg

(Reuters) – China wants more talks as soon as the end of October to hammer out the details of the “phase one” trade deal outlined by U.S. President Donald Trump before Chinese President Xi Jinping agrees to sign it, Bloomberg reported on Monday, citing people familiar with the matter.

Beijing may send a delegation led by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He to finalize a written deal that could be signed by the two leaders at the Asia-Pacific Cooperation summit next month in Chile, Bloomberg said.

China wants Trump to also scrap a planned tariff hike in December in addition to the hike scheduled for this week, the report added.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels drive on a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats
By Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt U.S. retreat from Syria on Monday, deploying deep inside Kurdish-held territory south of the Turkish frontier less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.

Washington’s Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

The Syrian government’s deployment on Monday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Under their deal with the Kurds, government forces are poised to move into border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) to the east.

Syrian state media reported that troops had already entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 km south of the frontier with Turkey.

State TV later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of km (miles) away. An SDF media official said he could not confirm these deployments.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate”, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a U.S.-led campaign.

Much of the M4 lies on the southern edge of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized part of the highway. An official of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said clashes were ongoing.

U.S. STRATEGY CRUMBLES

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight. Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against Islamic State since 2014.

A U.S. official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilize territory captured from Islamic State. U.S. troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other U.S. officials have told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.

Sunday’s announcement of the U.S. retreat came just a week after Trump said he would shift a small number of troops out of the way near the border, allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in what Kurdish officials branded a stab in the back.

Thousands of fighters from a Kurdish-led force have died since 2014 fighting against Islamic State in partnership with the United States, a strategy the Trump administration had continued after inheriting it from his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump says he aims to extract the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East, in keeping with his view that Washington cannot be the world’s policeman. However, he has announced the Syrian retreat even as he has sent thousands of troops on a new deployment to Saudi Arabia.

His Syrian policy reversal allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border assault last week that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and the Kurds scrambling to find new friends.

“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.

The Kurds have led an autonomous administration across a wide stretch of north and east Syria. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority across all of Syria after more than eight years of war.

Another senior Kurdish politician, Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure”.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil said. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

The biggest change for years in the battlefield of the world’s deadliest ongoing war, the developments create a potential new frontline hundreds of kilometers long between forces of Russia and Turkey and their Syrian allies and proxies.

The U.S. exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Assad’s other ally Iran, as Syria’s undisputed foreign power brokers.

Russia and Turkey have hammered out a fragile truce for the northwest, the only other part of Syria still beyond Assad’s grip. Both predicted they would avoid conflict as the area where they face each other is now set to spread across the breadth of the country.

“There are many rumors at the moment. However, especially through the embassy and with the positive approach of Russia in Kobani, it appears there won’t be any issues,” Erdogan said when asked about the prospect of confrontation with Russia. Kobani, on the Turkish border, is one of the first Kurdish-held cities where reports emerged of possible government deployment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion that Russia could clash with Turkish forces. “We wouldn’t even like to think of that scenario,” he said.

ALARM

The Turkish assault has drawn widespread international criticism and alarm that it could allow Islamic State fighters in Syria to escape Kurdish-run prisons and regroup.

Ankara says it aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia – the leading component of the SDF – which it views as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the U.S. pullout was that the Kurds aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made precisely such a deal.

Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east.

Turkey’s European allies have criticized the incursion, threatening to impose sanctions. Erdogan says Turkey will send Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU does not back the offensive.

The fighting has raised Western concerns that the Kurds would be unable to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

The region’s Kurdish-led administration said 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped a camp at Ain Issa over the weekend. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said the number who escaped was smaller, around 100.

Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted on Monday that the Kurds might be releasing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back. Escaped fighters were “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said.

(This story restores dropped word “forces” in headline)

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Hong Kong police stage show of force on streets, jeered by residents

Hong Kong police stage show of force on streets, jeered by residents
By Jessie Pang and Poppy McPherson

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police staged a show of force on Monday night in a district hit by some of the most violent clashes with protesters in recent months, but instead of being confronted by demonstrators were jeered by onlookers.

Many Hong Kongers say police have used excessive force against protesters – some of them school students and young adults – and want an independent inquiry into police action.

“The police are ridiculous, they are out of control,” said a 22-year-old man watching the police who gave his name only as James. “We are sticking to our beliefs and trying to express our voices to the government, but they use force to try to make us afraid and try to make us stay at home.”

Police arrived in vans at several locations in the Mong Kok district and marched down the street, some beating shields, but were outnumbered by media and onlookers and withdrew to cheers.

In one incident, a few dozen riot police retreated and drove off as about 150 residents and passers-by heckled them, chanting “disband police” and “Hong Kongers revolt”.

Police fired tear gas and used pepper spray on people in some locations and detained a handful of people in the working class district across the harbor from the financial center that has been a focal point of past demonstrations.

A handful of protesters played a cat-and-mouse game with police but there were no major confrontations by late Monday night.

Police said “masked rioters” had damaged public property and facilities in metro stations and were guilty of arson.

“The police strongly condemn the life-threatening and violent acts of rioters. Appallingly, some onlookers even clapped their hands to incite the rioters,” the police said. Late on Monday most police had withdrawn from Mong Kok streets.

Four months of protests have plunged the former British colony into its worst political crisis in decades and pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Hong Kong shopping malls during the day demanding “freedom”, but street protests failed to materialize in any significant size as the city struggled to recover from violent clashes in recent days.

Tens of thousands of protesters, many families with children, marched peacefully through the center of Hong Kong on Sunday, most wearing face masks in defiance of the threat of a maximum one-year prison sentence for doing so. Those rallies later descended into violent clashes with police.

STATIONS TORCHED

The introduction of colonial-era emergency powers banning face masks, which protesters use to hide their identity, has sparked some of the most violent clashes in four months of demonstrations.

“Before long, unless we are very, very lucky, people are going to get killed, people are going to be shot,” former British governor Chris Patten told Sky News.

“The idea that with public order policing you send police forces out with live ammunition is preposterous,” said Patten, who presided over the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Two protesters have been shot, one in the chest and one in the leg. Authorities said the shootings were not intentional but occurred during skirmishes between police and protesters.

Many protesters, police and journalists have been injured in clashes, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators, some of whom throw bricks and petrol bombs.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s metro rail system, which typically carries about 5 million passengers a day, was only partially operating after what authorities said was “serious vandalism” on Sunday night. Some stations were torched in the protests.

Many shops and Chinese banks were also extensively damaged.

About one-tenth of ATMs were vandalized and cash refills may be delayed in some areas due to public events or security concerns, said the Hong Kong Association of Banks (HKAB).

The Sunday night protests, the second night of violence since the imposition of emergency laws, saw scores of protesters arrested and the first warning from Chinese military personnel stationed in the territory.

INTERNET RESTRICTIONS?

What started as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has grown into a pro-democracy movement against what is seen as Beijing’s increasing grip on the city, which protesters say undermines a “one country, two systems” status promised when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.

China dismisses such accusations, saying foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, have fanned anti-China sentiment.

China’s Hong Kong military garrison warned protesters on Sunday they could be arrested for targeting its barracks with lasers – the first direct interaction between the People’s Liberation Army and protesters.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade with the protests damaging tourism and retail sectors.

Protesters have been using the encrypted Telegram social media messaging system to co-ordinate their actions. On Monday, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council declined to rule of internet restrictions to curb demonstrations.

(Additional reporting by Alun John, Simon Gardner, Farah Masters; Writing Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait, Gerry Doyle and Alex Richardson)

Turkey says it strikes Syria-Iraq border ahead of offensive

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s military struck the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce northeast Syria, as Ankara prepares to launch an offensive there after a surprise U.S. troop pullback, Turkish officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

Turkey says it is ready to advance into northeast Syria, after the United States began pulling back troops from the Turkey-Syria frontier in an abrupt policy shift widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s allies.

The U.S. move will leave Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which brands them terrorists because of their links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.

Giving details of the overnight strike, a security official said one of the main goals was to cut off transit route between Iraq and Syria often used by Kurdish armed groups “before the operation in Syria”.

“In this way, the group’s transit to Syria and support lines, including ammunition, are shut off,” the official said.

It was not clear what damage was done or whether there were casualties. Details of the strike, a joint operation by Turkey’s intelligence service and the military, were hazy. One official described them as an air strike, while the other said the site was made “unusable through various means”.

President Donald Trump meanwhile denied he had abandoned the Kurdish forces, the most effective U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria. But he praised Turkey as a trade partner, in a softening of tone hours after threatening Ankara’s economy if it acted “off limits” in Syria.

Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Signaling a further potential shift in the region’s power balance, the Kurdish-led forces said they might start talks with Damascus and Russia to fill a security vacuum in the event of a full U.S. withdrawal from the Turkish border area.

Turkey sought to underscore its determination to act. “The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

ROCKET SYSTEMS

But a Reuters witness saw no sign of military activity near the Turkish border town of Akcakale, across from Syria’s Tel Abyad. Howitzers were placed behind earth embankments on Turkey’s side of the border, pointed toward Syria.

Some 60 km (40 miles) to the west, multiple launch rocket systems mounted on two trucks were deployed behind earth embankments near Suruc, opposite the Syrian border town of Kobani. Artillery was also stationed in the area, and soldiers wandered around a nearby military camp.

U.S. forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain on Monday, a U.S. official said.

Trump’s warning on Turkey’s economy on Monday appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out U.S. forces. The decision drew criticism from Democrats and a rebuke from some of his fellow Republicans in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)” Trump tweeted.

His remarks, reiterated on Tuesday in slightly modified form, met an angry response in Turkey, including from opposition party politicians such as Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener.

“Threatening Turkey’s economy is a diplomatic catastrophe,” she told her party’s lawmakers in a speech in parliament. “The best response to this insolence is to go into the east of the Euphrates and break the terror corridor.”

But on Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States … They have been good to deal with.”

“WONDERFUL FIGHTERS”

As for the Kurds, Trump said their “wonderful fighters” continued to receive U.S. help with finance and weapons.

The Kurdish-led forces have denounced the major U.S. policy shift as “stab in the back”.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the continued Turkish military buildup on the border, together with information about further mobilization of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated that “an attack is imminent”.

Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said Kurdish-led authorities in northern Syria may open talks with Damascus and Russia U.S. forces fully withdrew from the Turkish border area.

His comments to Reuters reflect the predicament of Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria after the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops who in effect shielded the area from Turkish attack.

“At that time we may hold talks with Damascus or the Russian side to fill the void or block the Turkish attack,” he said.

Syria insisted it would defend itself against any Turkish assault. Damascus, however, was unable to prevent Turkey taking control of a swathe of northwestern Syria earlier in the war.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, said it was not told in advance by Washington or Turkey about any agreements to pull U.S. troops from the northeast, adding it was watching the situation very closely. Iran, another Assad ally, voiced opposition to any Turkish operation in Syria.

Germany and Britain expressed concern about Turkey’s plans for military action. German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said a military intervention would “have fatal security, political and humanitarian consequences”.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, plans to resettle two million refugees in northern Syria. Turkey’s lira <TRYTOM=D3> lost 2% of its value against the dollar to hit its weakest since early September, but edged off its lows to 5.8195 on Tuesday.

Ties between Ankara and Washington have long been tense over a range of issues including Syria policy and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Rodi Said in Qamishli, Syria, Mert Ozkan in Akcakale, Turkey and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Damascus; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)