At least 19 killed in blast at Ariana Grande concert in British arena

Two women wrapped in thermal blankets stand near the Manchester Arena, where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing, in Manchester, northern England, Britain, May 23, 2017.

By Jon Super

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – At least 19 people were killed in a blast at a concert in the English city of Manchester on Monday where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing and two U.S. officials said a suicide bomber was suspected in the explosion.

British police said the incident, in which at least 50 people were injured, was being treated as a terrorist incident.    Police carried out a controlled explosion on a suspect device several hours after the blast.

Police said they responded to reports of an explosion shortly after 10:35 pm (2135 GMT) at the arena, which has a capacity for 21,000 people, and where the U.S. singer had been performing to an audience that included many children.

If confirmed as a terrorism incident, it would be the deadliest attack in Britain by militants since four British Muslims killed 52 people in suicide bombings on London’s transport system in July 2005.

The blast also came two and half weeks ahead of an election in which Prime Minister Theresa May is predicted by opinion polls to win a large majority.

A witness who attended the concert said she felt a huge blast as she was leaving the arena, followed by screaming and a rush by thousands of people trying to escape the building. A video posted on Twitter showed fans, many of them young, running from the venue.

“We were making our way out and when we were right by the door there was a massive explosion and everybody was screaming,” concert-goer Catherine Macfarlane told Reuters.

“It was a huge explosion – you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

A spokesman for Ariana Grande, 23, said the singer was “okay”.

Manchester Arena, the largest indoor arena in Europe, opened in 1995 and is a popular concert and sporting venue.

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe” meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

British counter-terrorism police have said they are making on average an arrest every day in connection with suspected terrorism.

In March, a British-born convert to Islam plowed a car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four people, before stabbing to death a police officer who was on the grounds of parliament. He was shot dead at the scene.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Sandra Maler, Toni Reinhold)

Some killed in blast at Ariana Grande concert in British arena

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – A blast on Monday night at a concert in the northern English city of Manchester where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing left an unknown number of people dead and injured, police said.

Police said they were responding to reports of an explosion and that there were a number of confirmed casualties and others injured.

“We were making our way out and when we were right by the door there was a massive explosion and everybody was screaming,” concert-goer Catherine Macfarlane told Reuters.

“It was a huge explosion — you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

Concert goers react after fleeing the Manchester Arena in northern England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing in Manchester, Britain,

Concert goers react after fleeing the Manchester Arena in northern England where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Super

Manchester Arena, the largest indoor arena in Europe, opened in 1995 and has a capacity for 21,000 people, according to its website. It is a popular concert and sporting venue.

A spokesman for Ariana Grande’s record label said that the singer was “okay”. A video posted on Twitter showed fans screaming and running out of the venue.

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe” meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Turkish NBA star Kanter calls Erdogan ‘Hitler of our century’

Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter speaks about the revocation of his Turkish passport and return to the United States at National Basketball Players Association headquarters in New York, U.S.,

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Enes Kanter, the NBA star whose home country, Turkey, revoked his passport over the weekend, lashed out at President Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference on Monday, calling him “the Hitler of our century” and describing himself as the victim of political retaliation.

Kanter, an outspoken Erdogan critic who plays for the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder, returned to the United States on Sunday after being detained in Romania when authorities learned his passport had been revoked.

The 6-foot-11-inch center, whose team was eliminated from the NBA playoffs, was traveling on a charity and promotional tour.

“The reason behind it was, whoever is going to try to go against the president, he’s going to try to shut him down,” Kanter said at the press conference in New York.

The Turkish embassy in Washington D.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kanter, who attended the University of Kentucky, said he has received daily death threats, mostly over social media, including two on Monday.

He contends that Turkey revoked his travel document in retaliation for his long-time support of Fethullah Gulen, a dissident cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Erdogan is seeking Gulen’s extradition for his alleged role in a failed coup last July.

Kanter said last year he had severed ties with his family and pledged allegiance to Gulen after Turkish media published a letter signed by Kanter’s father, disowning his son.

In an April referendum, Turks narrowly backed constitutional changes creating an executive presidency that gave sweeping new powers to Erdogan, including control over the Islamist AKP Party.

The move, viewed by domestic and international critics as an authoritative power grab by Erdogan, comes amid mounting foreign policy challenges and tensions with NATO allies.

During the coup attempt, rogue soldiers in warplanes and tanks tried to seize power in Turkey in a plot that killed more than 240 people. Gulen has denied involvement.

At the news briefing, Kanter accused the Turkish president of quelling opposition at any price, including murder and rape.

“Erdogan, he’s a terrible man. He’s the Hitler of our century,” Kanter said. “I hope the world is going to do something about it.”

Kanter, who returned to the United States via London after his release by Romanian authorities, said on Monday his worst fear was to be sent against his will to Turkey.

“It was, of course, scary. If they sent me back to Turkey, probably you guys wouldn’t hear a word from me the second day,” Kanter said.

Kanter, who holds a U.S. green card allowing him to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis, said he hoped to become an American citizen because he is currently “country-less.”

Kanter said he had received a great deal of support online from fans and personal messages from teammates wishing him well following the incident in Romania, including a text message from teammate, Russell Westbrook.

“I’m not even from America, and I see all these people and I get all this support. I feel like this is my home now,” Kanter said.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bernadette Baum)

Scandal-plagued Fox News hit with more lawsuits in U.S. court

An empty window is seen where the poster of former cable news host Bill O'Reilly was removed from the Fox News Channel offices in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S.,

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – Fox News was hit with new sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits on Monday, adding to the catalog of complaints that has rattled the U.S. cable news network and its corporate parent 21st Century Fox Inc.

New York City lawyer Douglas Wigdor filed lawsuits in federal court in Manhattan on behalf of Kathleen Lee, a Fox News Radio shift editor who says she was sexually harassed and subjected to “unceasing retaliation” for complaining, and Naima Farrow, who maintains she was fired from her job as an accounts payable coordinator after telling supervisors she was pregnant.

In a third case in the same court, Vidya Mann, a Fox News accounts receivable specialist, said she was taken on as a temporary employee but passed over for permanent jobs in favor of white coworkers.

A spokeswoman at Fox News said the company believes the suits are without merit, noting that the company took prompt action and takes all complaints of discrimination seriously.

The new legal claims come as Fox News is already battling a series of lawsuits that led to the resignations of former chief executive Roger Ailes, who died last week, star anchor Bill O’Reilly and network co-president Bill Shine.

Wigdor said he was also representing an unidentified black information technology employee who was subjected to racially insensitive remarks by Bob Beckel, an on-air host who was fired last week, days after the worker complained.

“Despite public relations efforts to the contrary, business at 21st Century Fox continues to operate more akin to 18th Century Fox,” Wigdor said in a statement.

Wigdor represents at least 23 current and former Fox News employees with legal claims against the company. Earlier this month, he met officials from the Office of Communications, a British regulatory agency that is currently considering whether to approve 21st Century Fox’s proposed takeover of satellite broadcaster Sky.

On Monday, Wigdor sent a letter to the regulator, known as Ofcom, outlining the new legal claims against Fox and claiming the company refused his request to waive confidentiality agreements signed by its employees so they could speak directly to the agency.

(Reporting By Jessica Toonkel; Editing by Tom Brown)

Texas House passes ‘bathroom bill’ targeting public schools

The U.S flag and the Texas State flag fly over the Texas State Capitol in Austin,

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – The Texas House of Representatives gave formal approval on Monday to a bill that would restrict bathroom access for transgender students in public schools, a measure that critics say promotes discrimination against such children.

The state’s Republican-controlled legislature has been at the forefront in advancing measures seen by backers as protecting traditional values and religious liberty but criticized by civil rights groups as eroding protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people.

The Texas House gave preliminary approval on Sunday night to the bill, which requires public school students to use bathrooms, changing facilities and locker rooms that match their biological sex, not the gender with which they identify.

The measure is narrower in scope than a bathroom bill passed along mostly party lines by the state Senate in March that extended to state universities and public buildings.

The Senate bill is similar to one enacted last year in North Carolina. The North Carolina law prompted economic boycotts and the loss of sporting events, and was later revamped in the face of criticism.

The more limited House measure is seen as a way to avoid an economic backlash in Texas, analysts said.

“It is absolutely about child safety,” Republican state Representative Chris Paddie, who managed the bill, said in House debate on Sunday.

The measure heads back to the Senate for consideration of changes made since it was in that chamber. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has said he supports a bathroom bill.

Critics said the House and Senate versions undermined civil rights and used children as political pawns.

“There is no moral middle ground on discrimination, ” said Kathy Miller, president of the civil liberties advocacy group Texas Freedom Network.

The legislature on Monday also sent to the governor a bill allowing adoption agencies to reject families on religious grounds, an action slammed by critics as discriminatory against LGBT Texans and non-Christians.

LGBT rights groups said they would challenge the adoption bill in court if it became law, arguing discrimination in the name of religion had no place in the state.

The bill’s backers, which include several Christian groups, said it banned no one and had a mechanism for the state government to offer alternative adoption providers if any service is denied for religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

North Korea says missile ready for mass-production, U.S. questions progress

The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile

By Ju-min Park and Phil Stewart

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea said on Monday it successfully tested what it called an intermediate-range ballistic missile, which met all technical requirements and could now be mass-produced, although U.S. officials and experts questioned the extent of its progress.

The United States, which has condemned repeated North Korean missile launches, said Sunday’s launch of what North Korea dubbed the Pukguksong-2 was of a “medium-range” missile, and U.S.-based experts doubted the reliability of the relatively new solid-fuel type after so few tests.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the test did not demonstrate a new capability, or one that could threaten the United States directly. But the test was North Korea’s second in a week and South Korea’s new liberal government said it dashed its hopes for peace.

U.S. officials have been far less sanguine about the test of a long-range KN-17, or Hwasong-12, missile just over a week ago, which U.S. officials believe survived re-entry to some degree.

North Korea said that launch tested the capability to carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” and put the U.S. mainland within “sighting range.”

Western experts say that test did appear to have advanced North Korea’s aim of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, even if it is still some way off from achieving that capability.

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss the latest test, which defies Security Council resolutions and sanctions. The meeting was called at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Washington has been trying to persuade China to agree to new sanctions on North Korea, which has conducted dozens of missile firings and tested two nuclear bombs since the start of last year.

U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea is possible over its weapons programs, although U.S. officials say tougher sanctions, not military force, are the preferred option.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said the latest missile test was supervised by leader Kim Jong Un and verified the reliability of Pukguksong-2’s solid-fuel engine, stage separation and late-stage guidance for a nuclear warhead. It said data was recorded by a device mounted on the warhead.

‘PRIDE’

“Saying with pride that the missile’s rate of hits is very accurate and Pukguksong-2 is a successful strategic weapon, he (Kim) approved the deployment of this weapon system for action,” KCNA said.

“Now that its tactical and technical data met the requirements of the Party, this type of missile should be rapidly mass-produced in a serial way … he said.”

KCNA said Kim was able to view the Earth from a camera mounted on the missile. “Supreme leader Kim Jong Un said it feels grand to look at the Earth from the rocket we launched and the entire world looks so beautiful,” KCNA said.

South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 500 km (310 miles), reaching an altitude of 560 km (350 miles).

The South’s military said the test would have provided more “meaningful data” for North Korea’s missile program, but further analysis was needed to determine whether Pyongyang had mastered the technology needed to stop the warhead burning up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

U.S.-based experts said it would have a maximum range of about 1,500 km (930 miles) and questioned North Korea’s assertion that the reliability of the solid-fuel missile had been proven, given limited testing.

“Entering mass production this early in the development phase is risky, but perhaps a risk North Korea feels comfortable managing,” said Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Jeffrey Lewis, of the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said North Korea would probably continue to test the missile after deployment, fixing flaws as they emerged.

The use of solid fuel presents advantages for weapons because it is more stable and can be transported easily allowing for a launch at very short notice from mobile launchers.

Developing longer-range solid fuel missiles was a highly complicated and would “take time, lots of it,” Elleman said, but North Korea’s solid fuel missiles pose a threat to South Korea and Japan and the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both countries.

On Sunday U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson termed North Korea’s missile testing “disappointing, disturbing” and said economic and diplomatic pressure would continue.

Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said on Monday it was important to cut North Korea’s foreign currency earnings and to block shipments and technology transfers that aid North Korea’s nuclear missile development.

China repeated its call for all parties to exercise restraint and not let tension mount further.

On Monday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said while Seoul would respond firmly to any North Korean “provocations”, “it would not be desirable to have ties between the South and the North severed.”

(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Peter Cooney)

U.N.’s North Korea sanctions monitors hit by ‘sustained’ cyber attack

A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – United Nations experts investigating violations of sanctions on North Korea have suffered a “sustained” cyber attack by unknown hackers with “very detailed insight” into their work, according to an email warning seen by Reuters on Monday.

The hackers eventually breached the computer of one of the experts on May 8, the chair of the panel of experts wrote in an email to U.N. officials and the U.N. Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee, known as the 1718 committee.

“The zip file was sent with a highly personalized message which shows the hackers have very detailed insight into the panel’s current investigations structure and working methods,” read the email, which was sent on May 8.

“As a number of 1718 committee members were targeted in a similar fashion in 2016, I am writing to you all to alert you to this heightened risk,” the chair of the panel of experts wrote, describing the attack as part of a “sustained cyber campaign.”

A spokesman for the Italian mission to the United Nations, which chairs the 1718 sanctions committee, said on Friday that a member of the panel of experts had been hacked.

No further details who might be responsible were immediately available.

North Korea’s deputy United Nations envoy said on Friday “it is ridiculous” to link Pyongyang with the hacking of the U.N. panel of experts or the WannaCry “ransomware” cyber attack that started to sweep around the globe more than a week ago.

Cyber security researchers have found technical evidence they said could link North Korea with the WannaCry attack.

Reuters reported on Sunday that North Korea’s main spy agency has a special cell called Unit 180 that is likely to have launched some of its most daring and successful cyber attacks, according to defectors, officials and internet security experts.

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea in 2006 and has strengthened the measures in response to the country’s five nuclear bomb tests and two long-range rocket launches. Pyongyang is threatening a sixth nuclear test.

A second email by the U.N. sanctions committee secretary to the 15 Security Council members on May 10 said the U.N. Office of Information and Communications Technology was “conducting an analysis of the affected hard drive.”

“Increased vigilance relating to 1718 Committee-related correspondence is therefore advised until data analysis and related investigations are completed,” the email read.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Flynn to decline U.S. Senate subpoena in Russia probe

National security adviser General Michael Flynn arrives to deliver a statement during the daily briefing at the White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will decline to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to media reports on Monday.

Flynn will invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal and Fox News reported, citing sources close to Flynn.

The retired lieutenant general, a key witness in the Russia probe, planned to inform the panel of his decision later on Monday, the reports said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting one of the main congressional probes of alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and whether there was any collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.

The committee first requested documents from Flynn in an April 28 letter, but he declined to cooperate with the request.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Moscow tried to sway the November vote in Trump’s favor. Russia has denied involvement and Trump insists he won fair and square.

Flynn was forced to resign in February, after less than a month on the job, for failing to disclose the content of his talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and then misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

Reuters reported on Thursday that Flynn and other advisers to Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the U.S. presidential race. Flynn has acknowledged being a paid consultant to the Turkish government during the campaign.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu Editing by W Simon and Dan Grebler)

Exclusive: Hackers hit Russian bank customers, planned international cyber raids

FILE PHOTO: SIM cards are reflected on a monitor showing binary digits in this picture illustration taken

By Jack Stubbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian cyber criminals used malware planted on Android mobile devices to steal from domestic bank customers and were planning to target European lenders before their arrest, investigators and sources with knowledge of the case told Reuters.

Their campaign raised a relatively small sum by cyber-crime standards – more than 50 million roubles ($892,000) – but they had also obtained more sophisticated malicious software for a modest monthly fee to go after the clients of banks in France and possibly a range of other western nations.

Russia’s relationship to cyber crime is under intense scrutiny after U.S. intelligence officials alleged that Russian hackers had tried to help Republican Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency by hacking Democratic Party servers.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the allegation.

The gang members tricked the Russian banks’ customers into downloading malware via fake mobile banking applications, as well as via pornography and e-commerce programs, according to a report compiled by cyber security firm Group-IB which investigated the attack with the Russian Interior Ministry.

The criminals – 16 suspects were arrested by Russian law enforcement authorities in November last year – infected more than a million smartphones in Russia, on average compromising 3,500 devices a day, Group-IB said.

The hackers targeted customers of state lender Sberbank, and also stole money from accounts at Alfa Bank and online payments company Qiwi, exploiting weaknesses in the companies’ SMS text message transfer services, said two people with direct knowledge of the case.

Although operating only in Russia before their arrest, they had developed plans to target large European banks including French lenders Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas and Societe General, Group-IB said.

A BNP Paribas spokeswoman said the bank could not confirm this information, but added that it “has a significant set of measures in place aimed at fighting cyber attacks on a daily basis”. Societe General and Credit Agricole declined comment.

The gang, which was called “Cron” after the malware it used, did not steal any funds from customers of the three French banks. However, it exploited the bank service in Russia that allows users to transfer small sums to other accounts by sending an SMS message.

Having infected the users’ phones, the gang sent SMS messages from those devices instructing the banks to transfer money to the hackers’ own accounts.

The findings illustrate the dangers of using SMS messages for mobile banking, a method favored in emerging countries with less advanced internet infrastructure, said Lukas Stefanko, a malware researcher at cyber security firm ESET in Slovakia.

“It’s becoming popular among developing nations or in the countryside where access to conventional banking is difficult for people,” he said. “For them it is quick, easy and they don’t need to visit a bank… But security always has to outweigh consumer convenience.”

CYBER CRIMINALS

The Russian Interior Ministry said a number of people had been arrested, including what it described as the gang leader. This was a 30-year-old man living in Ivanovo, an industrial city 300 km (185 miles) northeast of Moscow, from where he had commanded a team of 20 people across six different regions.

Four people remain in detention while the others are under house arrest, the ministry said in a statement.

“In the course of 20 searches across six regions, police seized computers, hundreds of bank cards and SIM cards registered under fake names,” it said.

Group-IB said the existence of the Cron malware was first detected in mid-2015, and by the time of the arrests the hackers had been using it for under a year.

The core members of the group were detained on Nov. 22 last year in Ivanovo. Photographs of the operation released by Group-IB showed one suspect face down in the snow as police in ski masks handcuffed him.

The “Cron” hackers were arrested before they could mount attacks outside Russia, but plans to do that were at an advanced stage, said the investigators.

Group-IB said that in June 2016 they had rented a piece of malware designed to attack mobile banking systems, called “Tiny.z” for $2,000 a month. The creators of the “Tiny.z” malware had adapted it to attack banks in Britain, Germany, France, the United States and Turkey, among other countries.

The “Cron” gang developed software designed to attack lenders including the three French groups, it said, adding it had notified these and other European banks at risk.

A spokeswoman for Sberbank said she had no information about the group involved. However, she said: “Several groups of cyber criminals are working against Sberbank. The number of groups and the methods they use to attack us change constantly.”

“It isn’t clear which specific group is being referred to here because the fraudulent scheme involving Android OS (operating system) viruses is widespread in Russia and Sberbank has effectively combated it for an extensive period of time.”

Alfa Bank did not provide a comment. Qiwi did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Google, the maker of Android, has taken steps in recent years to protect users from downloading malicious code and by blocking apps which are insecure, impersonate legitimate companies or engage in deceptive behaviors.

A Google spokesman said: “We’ve tracked this malware family for several years and will continue to take action on its variants to protect our users.”

FAKE MOBILE APPS

The Russian authorities, bombarded with allegations of state-sponsored hacking, are keen to show Russia too is a frequent victim of cyber crime and that they are working hard to combat it. The interior and emergencies ministries, as well as Sberbank, said they were targeted in a global cyberattack earlier this month.

Since the allegations about the U.S. election hacking, further evidence has emerged of what some Western officials say is a symbiotic relationship between cyber criminals and Russian authorities, with hackers allowed to attack foreign targets with impunity in return for cooperating with the security services while Moscow clamps down on those operating at home.

The success of the Cron gang was facilitated by the popularity of SMS-banking services in Russia, said Dmitry Volkov, head of investigations at Group-IB.

The gang got their malware on to victims’ devices by setting up applications designed to mimic banks’ genuine apps. When users searched online, the results would suggest the fake app, which they would then download. The hackers also inserted malware into fake mobile apps for well-known pornography sites.

After infecting a customer’s phone, the hackers were able to send a text message to the bank initiating a transfer of up to $120 to one of 6,000 bank accounts set up to receive the fraudulent payments.

The malware would then intercept a confirmation code sent by the bank and block the victim from receiving a message notifying them about the transaction.

“Cron’s success was due to two main factors,” Volkov said. “First, the large-scale use of partner programs to distribute the malware in different ways. Second, the automation of many (mobile) functions which allowed them to carry out the thefts without direct involvement.”

($1 = 56.0418 roubles)

(Additional reporting by Maya Nikolaeva in Paris and Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Christian Lowe and David Stamp)

Trump says he has new reasons to hope for Middle East peace

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had come to Israel from a weekend visit to Saudi Arabia with new reasons to hope that peace and stability could be achieved in the Middle East.

On the second leg of his first overseas trip as president, Trump was to hold talks separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. leader visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s walled Old City and was due to pray at Judaism’s Western Wall. He travels on Tuesday to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank at the end of a stopover lasting 28 hours.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara, as well as President Reuven Rivlin and members of the Israeli cabinet, were at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport to greet Trump and first lady Melania in a red carpet ceremony after what is believed to have been the first direct flight from Riyadh to Israel.

“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” Trump said in a brief speech on arrival.

“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way,” he said.

Trump’s tour comes in the shadow of difficulties at home, where he is struggling to contain a scandal after firing James Comey as FBI director nearly two weeks ago. The trip ends on Saturday after visits to the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.

ARAB WELCOME

During his two days in Riyadh, Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who focused on his desire to restrain Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He also announced $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Israel shares the antipathy that many Arab states have toward Iran, seeing the Islamic Republic as a threat to its very existence.

“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel,” Trump said in public remarks at a meeting in Jerusalem with Rivlin.

He also urged Iran to cease “its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias”.

But Iran’s freshly re-elected pragmatist president, Hassan Rouhani, said regional stability could not be achieved without Iran’s help, and accused Washington of supporting terrorism with its backing for rebels in Syria.

He said the summit in Saudi Arabia “had no political value, and will bear no results”.

“Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran? Who fought against the terrorists? It was Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Syria. But who funded the terrorists?”

Rouhani also said Iran would continue a ballistic missile program that has already triggered U.S. sanctions, saying it was for defensive purposes only.

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) stands next to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz at the plaza in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“ULTIMATE DEAL”

Earlier, at the airport, Netanyahu said Israel hoped Trump’s visit would be a “milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace”.

But he also repeated his right-wing government’s political and security demands of the Palestinians, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Trump has vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — something he has called “the ultimate deal” — but has given little indication of how he could revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters en route to Tel Aviv that any three-way meeting between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas was for “a later date”.

When Trump met Abbas this month in Washington, he stopped shortly of explicitly recommitting his administration to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, a long-standing foundation of U.S. policy.

Trump has also opted against an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a longtime demand of Israel.

A senior administration official told Reuters last week that Trump remained committed to the measure, which he pledged in his election campaign, but would not announce such a move during this trip.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Sunday, Israel authorized some economic concessions to the Palestinians that it said would improve civilian life in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and were intended to respond to Trump’s request for “confidence-building steps”.

The United States welcomed the move but the Palestinians said they had heard such promises before.

Trump will have visited significant centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the end of his trip, a point that his aides say bolsters his argument that the fight against Islamist militancy is a battle between “good and evil”.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)