California wildfire rages toward scenic coastal communities

Firefighters knock down flames as they advance on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria, California, U.S. December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire

 

By Phoenix Tso

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – A massive California wildfire that has already destroyed nearly 800 structures scorched another 56,000 acres on Sunday, making it the fifth largest such blaze in recorded state history, as it ran toward picturesque coastal cities.But fire officials said as darkness fell that with the hot, dry Santa Ana winds not as fierce as expected, crews had been successful in building some fire lines between the flames and the towns of Montecito and Carpinteria.

“This is a menacing fire, certainly, but we have a lot of people working very diligently to bring it under control,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told an evening press conference.

Still, some 5,000 residents remained under evacuation orders in the two communities, near Santa Barbara and about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Los Angeles. Some 15,000 homes were considered threatened.

The Thomas Fire, the worst of six major blazes in Southern California in the last week and already the fifth largest in the state since 1932, has blackened 230,000 acres (570,000 hectares), more than the area of New York City. It has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.

The combination of Santa Ana winds and rugged terrain in the mountains that run through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have hampered firefighting efforts, and officials said the Thomas Fire was only 10 percent contained on Sunday evening, down from 15 percent earlier in the day.

But wind gusts recorded at 35-40 miles per hour were less than those predicted by forecasters, giving crews a chance to slow the flames’ progress down slopes above the endangered communities.

The fires burning across Southern California have forced the evacuation of more 200,000 people and destroyed some 1,000 structures.

Among them are residents of Montecito, one of the state’s wealthiest enclave and home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey.

Molly-Ann Leikin, an Emmy-winning songwriter who was ordered to evacuate her Montecito home at 9 a.m. on Sunday, said she fled with only her cell phone, medication, eyeglasses and a few apples.

Leikin, 74, said she doesn’t know the condition of her home and belongings but “none of that means anything when it is your safety.”

WORST IN A DECADE

The fires that began last Monday night collectively amounted to one of the worst conflagrations across Southern California in the last decade. They have, however, been far less deadly than the blazes in Northern California’s wine country in October that killed over 40.

In the last week, only one death has been reported, a 70-year-old woman who died Wednesday in a car accident as she attempted to flee the flames in Ventura County. Scores of horses have died, including at least 46 at a thoroughbred training facility in San Diego county.

Residents and firefighters alike have been alarmed by the speed with which the fires spread, reaching into the heart of cities like Ventura.

At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, evacuees slept in makeshift beds while rescued horses were sheltered in stables.

Peggy Scissons, 78, arrived at the shelter with her dog last Wednesday, after residents of her mobile home park were forced to leave. She has not yet found out whether her home is standing.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen next or whether I’ll be able to go home,” she said. “It would be one thing if I were 40 or 50, but I’m 78. What the heck do I do?”

James Brown, 57, who retired from Washington State’s forestry service and has lived in Ventura for a year, was forced to leave his house along with his wife last week because both have breathing problems.

“We knew a fire was coming, but we didn’t know it would be this bad,” said Brown, who is in a wheelchair.

Some of the other fires, in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in Los Angeles’ posh Bel Air neighborhood was 75 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 75 percent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Mary Milliken)

Explosion rocks New York commuter hub, suspect in custody

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal following reports of an explosion, in New York City, U.S. December 11, 2017.

By Nick Zieminski and Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A man with a homemade bomb strapped to his body set off an explosion at a New York commuter hub during rush hour on Monday, injuring himself and three others in what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called an attempted terrorist attack.

The suspect in the incident at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a block from Times Square, was identified as Akayed Ullah, the New York Police Department commissioner said. The suspect had burns and lacerations while three other people, including a police officer, had minor injuries.

The weapon was based on a pipe bomb and fixed to the suspect with zip ties and velcro, police said. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking at a news conference near the site, described the device as “amateur level.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told the same news conference that the incident, which happened at the start of the city’s rush hour, was “an attempted terrorist attack.”

“As New Yorkers our lives revolve around the subways. When we hear of an attack in the subways it is incredibly unsettling,” de Blasio said.

New York City was a target, said John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism.

NYPD Crime Scene Investigation team are seen outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, after reports of an explosion, in New York City, U.S., December 11, 2017.

NYPD Crime Scene Investigation team are seen outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, after reports of an explosion, in New York City, U.S., December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Miller cited the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed more than 2,750 people in New York and nearly 3,000 people total; and the World Trade Center bombing of February 26, 1993, that killed six people.

“In the course of the post 9/11 world, as you are aware, there’s also been approximately 26 plots that we can talk about that have been prevented through intelligence, investigation and intervention.”

The incident was captured on security video, the police said. Video posted on NYPost.com showed smoke and a man lying in the tunnel that connects the Times Square subway station to the bus station. A photograph showed a man lying face down, with tattered clothes and burns on his torso.

“There was a stampede up the stairs to get out,” said Diego Fernandez, one of the commuters. “Everybody was scared and running and shouting.”

Alicja Wlodkowski, a Pennsylvania resident in New York for the day, was sitting in a restaurant in the bus terminal.

Police officers stand on a closed West 42nd Street near the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal after reports of an explosion in New York City, New York, U.S., December 11,

Police officers stand on a closed West 42nd Street near the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal after reports of an explosion in New York City, New York, U.S., December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

“Suddenly, I saw a group of people, like six people, running like nuts. A woman fell. No one even went to stop and help her because the panic was so scary.”

The bus terminal was temporarily shut down and a large swath of midtown Manhattan was closed to traffic. Subway train service was returning to normal after earlier disruptions.

WABC reported the suspect was in his 20s and that he has been in the United States for seven years and has an address in New York’s Brooklyn. The NYPD shut down the entire block and there was heavy police presence outside the home.

First reports of the incident began soon after 7 a.m. (1200 GMT). New York in December sees a surge of visitors who come to see elaborate store displays, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and Broadway shows.

The incident rippled through U.S. financial markets, briefly weakening equity markets as they were starting trading for the week and giving a modest lift to safe-haven assets such as U.S. Treasuries.

S&P 500 index emini futures dipped in the moments after the initial reports of an explosion, but major stock indexes later opened slightly higher.

The incident occurred less than two months after an Uzbek immigrant killed eight people by speeding a rental truck down a New York City bike path, in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

In September 2016, a man injured 31 people when he set off a homemade bomb in New York’s Chelsea district.

(Reporting By Nick Zieminski, Dan Trotta and Simon Webb in New York, additional reporting by Bernie Woodall, Gina Cherelus, Makini Brice and Fred Katayama; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Hackers hit major ATM network after U.S., Russian bank breaches

By Eric Auchard

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A previously undetected group of Russian-language hackers silently stole nearly $10 million from at least 18 mostly U.S. and Russian banks in recent years by targeting interbank transfer systems, a Moscow-based security firm said on Monday.

Group-IB warned that the attacks, which began 18 months ago and allow money to be robbed from bank automated teller machines (ATMs), appear to be ongoing and that banks in Latin America could be targeted next.

The first attack occurred in the spring of 2016 against First Data’s  “STAR” network, the largest U.S. bank transfer messaging system connecting ATMs at more than 5,000 organizations, Group-IB researchers said in a 36-page report.

The firm said it was continuing to investigate a number of incidents where hackers studied how to make money transfers through the SWIFT banking system, while stopping short of saying whether any such attacks had been carried out successfully.

SWIFT said in October that hackers were still targeting its interbank messaging system, but security controls instituted after last year’s $81 million heist at Bangladesh’s central bank had thwarted many of those attempts. (http://reut.rs/2z1b7Bo)

Group-IB has dubbed the hacker group “MoneyTaker” after the name of software it used to hijack payment orders to then cash out funds through a network of low-level “money mules” who were hired to pick up money from automated teller machines.

The security researchers said they had identified 18 banks who were hit including 15 across 10 states in the United States, two in Russia and one in Britain. Beside banks, financial software firms and one law firm were targeted.

The average amount of money stolen in each of 14 U.S. ATM heists was $500,000 per incident. Losses in Russia averaged $1.2 million per incident, but one bank there managed to catch the attack and return some of the stolen funds, Group-IB said.

Hackers also stole documentation for OceanSystems’ Fed Link transfer system used by 200 banks in Latin America and the United States, it said. In addition, they successfully attacked the Russian interbank messaging system known as AW CRB.

Once hackers penetrated targeted banks and financial organizations, they stole internal bank documentation in order to mount future ATM attacks, Group-IB said. In Russia, the hackers continued to spy on bank networks after break-ins, while at least one U.S. bank had documents robbed twice, it said.

Group-IB said it had notified Interpol and Europol in order to assist in law enforcement investigations.

The unidentified hackers used a mix of constantly changing tools and tactics to bypass anti virus and other traditional security software while being careful to eliminate traces of their operations, helping them to go largely unnoticed. To disguise their moves, hackers used security certificates from brands such as Bank of America, the Fed, Microsoft and Yahoo.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Palestinian stabs Israeli in Jerusalem; anti-Trump protest flares in Beirut

A Palestinian demonstrator shouts during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 11, 2017.

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard at Jerusalem’s main bus station on Sunday, police said, and violence flared near the U.S. Embassy in Beirut over U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Four days of street protests in the Palestinian territories over Trump’s announcement on Wednesday have largely died down, but his overturning of long-standing U.S. policy on Jerusalem — a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians — drew more Arab warnings of potential damage to prospects for Middle East peace.

“Our hope is that everything is calming down and that we are returning to a path of normal life without riots and without violence,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Army Radio.

But in Jerusalem, a security guard was in critical condition after a 24-year-old Palestinian man from the occupied West Bank stabbed him after approaching a metal detector at an entrance to the city’s central bus station, police said. The alleged assailant was taken into custody after a passer-by tackled him.

In public remarks on Sunday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a frequent critic of Israel, called it an “invader state” and a “terror state”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who spoke at a news conference in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron after the two leaders met, fired back:

“I’m not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villages in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, helps Iran go around international sanctions and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people,” Netanyahu said.

Macron told Netanyahu that he needed to make gestures to the Palestinians to break the impasse between the two sides.

“I asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to make some courageous gestures towards the Palestinians to get out of the current impasse,” Macron said, suggesting that a freeze of construction in settlements could be a first step.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory and say the status of the city should be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks. Israel says that all of Jerusalem is its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The Trump administration has said it is still committed to reviving Palestinian-Israeli talks that collapsed in 2014, but jettisoning old policies is necessary to break the deadlock.

Washington says it has not taken a position on Jerusalem’s final status or borders, but it is sensible to recognize that any future peace deal will have Israel’s capital in the city.

The United States was “as committed to the peace process as we’ve ever been”, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday. Trump “didn’t talk about boundaries, he didn’t talk about borders… Because the final status of Jerusalem is between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s not for the Americans to decide.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region, Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said on Saturday. The White House said on Sunday that decision was unfortunate and Pence looked forward to seeing Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region,” said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for Pence.

Netanyahu reacted to critics in a statement before talks with Macron, to be followed by a meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

“I hear (from Europe) voices of condemnation over President Trump’s historic announcement, but I have not heard any condemnation for the rocket firing against Israel that has come (after the announcement) and the awful incitement against us,” Netanyahu said.

A Palestinian protester throws back a gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

DEMONSTRATIONS

In Beirut, Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, some of them waving Palestinian flags, near the U.S. Embassy.

Demonstrators set fires in the street, torched U.S. and Israeli flags and threw projectiles towards security forces that had barricaded the main road to the complex.

In the Moroccan capital, Rabat, tens of thousands of protesters marched down the city’s main thoroughfare chanting slogans including, “The people want to liberate Palestine” and “Death to Israel, enemy of the people and provoker of wars.”

Waving Palestinian flags and holding up pictures of Jerusalem, they expressed anger at the “betrayal” by Arab governments perceived to have backed Trump’s move.

In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, thousands protested outside the U.S. embassy, many waving banners saying “Palestine is in our hearts”.

Maliki has said the Palestinians will be looking for a new peace talks broker instead of the United States and would seek a United Nations Security Council resolution over Trump’s decision.

Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo on Saturday urged the United States to abandon its decision on Jerusalem and said the move would spur violence throughout the region.

Echoing that view, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. move “could throw a lifebuoy to terrorist and armed groups, which have begun to lose ground” in the Middle East.

GAZA TUNNEL

Along Israel’s tense frontier with the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military on Sunday destroyed what it described as a “significant” cross-border attack tunnel dug by the enclave’s dominant Islamist group, Hamas.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas on the demolition, which came as Palestinian factions tried to meet Sunday’s deadline for an Egyptian-mediated handover of Gaza by Hamas to Western-backed President Abbas after a decade’s schism.

Pre-dawn Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday killed two Palestinian gunmen after militants fired rockets from the area into Israel on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, John Irish in Paris, Tom Perry in Beirut, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Jeff Mason in West Palm Beach, Florida; Editing by Peter Graff and Mary Milliken)

Pakistani peace activist reported missing, police say

Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of Raza Mehmood Khan, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between Pakistan and India, during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan December 11, 2017.

By Syed Raza Hassan

Karachi, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani peace activist has been reported missing over the weekend from eastern city of Lahore, police and one of his friends said on Tuesday.

Raza Mehmood Khan, 40, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship), a group that works on peace building between arch-rivals Pakistan and India, hasn’t been heard from since he left home on Sunday, said Rahim-ul-Haq, a friend and an associate.

He said the group has offices in both countries.

Police official Shehzad Raza said Khan’s family reported he had been missing since Saturday. No one has been accused in the report, he said. “We’re investigating.”

Several social media activists critical of the army and the country’s extremists and militant groups have gone missing in Pakistan in recent months.

Four of them were released nearly a month after they disappeared early this year. Two of them – Ahmad Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed _ later alleged in interviews with BBC and their social media posts that Pakistani intelligence abducted and tortured them in custody.

Pakistan’s army has denied the accusations.

Haq said Khan spoke at a discussion on Saturday on the topic of extremism. “Everyone discussed their views and, of course, Raza was very critical,” he said.

He said that Raza’s recent Facebook posts were critical of Pakistani military, especially in view of a recent sit-in protest by hard-liners that paralyzed Islamabad for over two weeks.

The extremists won almost all of their demands, including resignation of a minister they accused of blasphemy, in an agreement brokered by the army.

(Writintg by Asif Shahzad, editing by Larry King)

Putin orders ‘significant part’ of Russian forces in Syria to withdraw

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017.

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin ordered “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent in Syria to start withdrawing on Monday, saying Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying Islamic State in just over two years.

Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria, where he held talks with President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.

The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor, while dramatically increasing Moscow’s own influence in the region.

Syrian state television quoted Assad as thanking Putin for Russia’s help, saying the blood of Moscow’s “martyrs” had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army.

Russia’s campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s intervention in Afghanistan.

The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the defense ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.

Russia’s “mission completed” moment in Syria may help Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.

Though polls show he will easily win, they also show that some Russians are increasingly apathetic about politics, and Putin’s supporters are keen to get him re-elected on a big turnout, which in their eyes confers legitimacy.

‘THE MOTHERLAND AWAITS’

Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for the last 17 years with the help of state television, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.

“The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that it was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part been solved, and solved spectacularly,” said Putin.

Wearing a dark suit and speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Putin said his military had proved its might, that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a “sovereign independent state” and that the conditions had been created for a political solution.

Putin is keen to organize a special event in Russia – the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue – that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new constitution.

“I congratulate you!” Putin told the servicemen.

“A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia. The Motherland is waiting for you.”

Putin made clear however that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any Islamic State comeback.

Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province and its naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous “on a permanent basis,” said Putin.

Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.

Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan would discuss a possible political resolution to Syria’s more than six-year-old war when they met later on Monday in Ankara, as well as preparations for the work of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya and Beirut newsroom; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

EU tells Netanyahu it rejects Trump’s Jerusalem move

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini brief the media at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium December 11, 2017.

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his case to Europe to ask allies to join the United States in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but was met by a firm rebuff from EU foreign ministers who saw the move as a blow against the peace process.

Making his first ever visit to EU headquarters in Brussels, Netanyahu said President Donald Trump’s move made peace in the Middle East possible “because recognizing reality is the substance of peace, the foundation of peace.”

Trump announced last Wednesday that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with decades of U.S. policy and international consensus that the ancient city’s status must be decided in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in a 1967 war, considers the entire city to be its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The Trump administration says it remains committed to the peace process and its decision does not affect Jerusalem’s future borders or status. It says any credible future peace deal will place the Israeli capital in Jerusalem, and ditching old policies is needed to revive a peace process frozen since 2014.

But even Israel’s closest European allies have rejected that logic and say recognizing Israel’s capital unilaterally risks inflaming violence and further wrecking the chance for peace.

After a breakfast meeting between Netanyahu and EU foreign ministers, Sweden’s top diplomat said no European at the closed-door meeting had voiced support for Trump’s decision, and no country was likely to follow the United States in announcing plans to move its embassy.

“I have a hard time seeing that any other country would do that and I don’t think any other EU country will do it,” Margot Wallstrom told reporters.

Several EU foreign ministers arriving at the meeting reiterated the bloc’s position that lands Israel has occupied since the 1967 war – including East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank and Golan Heights, are not within Israel’s borders.

Israel’s position does appear to have more support from some EU states than others. Last week, the Czech foreign ministry said it would begin considering moving the Czech Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while Hungary blocked a planned EU statement condemning the U.S. move.

But Prague later said it accepted Israel’s sovereignty only over West Jerusalem, and Budapest said its long-term position seeking a two-state solution in the Middle East had not changed.

On Monday, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said of Trump’s decision: “I’m afraid it can’t help us.”

“I’m convinced that it is impossible to ease tension with a unilateral solution,” Zaoralek said. “We are talking about an Israeli state but at the same time we have to speak about a Palestinian state.”

VIOLENCE SUBSIDES

Trump’s announcement triggered days of protests across the Muslim world and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in which scores of Palestinians were wounded and several killed. By Monday morning, violence appeared to have subsided.

Netanyahu, who has been angered by the EU’s search for closer business ties with Iran, said Europeans should emulate Trump’s move and press the Palestinians to do so too.

“It’s time that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and also recognize the fact that it has a capital. It’s called Jerusalem,” he said.

In comments filmed later on his plane, he said he had told the Europeans to “stop pampering the Palestinians”. “I think the Palestinians need a reality check. You have to stop cutting them slack. That’s the only way to move forward towards peace.”

Trump’s announcement last week has triggered a war of words between Netanyahu and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, straining ties between the two U.S. allies which were restored only last year after a six year breach that followed the Israeli storming of a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza.

On Sunday, Erdogan called Israel a “terror state”. Netanyahu responded by saying he would accept no moral lectures from Erdogan who he accused of bombing Kurdish villages, jailing opponents and supporting terrorists.

On Monday Erdogan took aim directly at Washington over Trump’s move: “The ones who made Jerusalem a dungeon for Muslims and members of other religions will never be able to clean the blood from their hands,” he said in a speech in Ankara. “With their decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has become a partner in this bloodshed.”

The decision to recognize Jerusalem could also strain Washington’s ties with its other main Muslim ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, which has sought closer relations with Washington under Trump than under his predecessor Barack Obama.

Saudi Arabia shares U.S. and Israeli concerns about the increasing regional influence of Iran, and was seen as a potential broker for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal. But Saudis have suggested that unilateral decisions over Jerusalem make any such rapprochement more difficult.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and veteran ex-security chief, published a strongly-worded open letter to Trump on Monday denouncing the Jerusalem move.

“Bloodshed and mayhem will definitely follow your opportunistic attempt to make electoral gain,” the prince wrote in a letter published in the Saudi newspaper al-Jazeera.

“Your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society … because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state,” he added. “Your action has equally emboldened Iran and its terrorist minions to claim that they are the legitimate defenders of Palestinian rights.”

The Trump administration says it is working on a peace proposal being drawn up by Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

European leaders say the decision on Israel’s capital makes the need for a broader peace move more urgent.

“We’ve been waiting already for several months for the American initiative, and if one is not forthcoming then the European Union will have to take the initiative,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Peter Graff)

Explosion rocks New York commuter hub, one suspect in custody

Police and fire crews block off the streets near the New York Port Authority in New York City, U.S. December 11, 2017 after reports of an explosion.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An explosion rocked New York’s Port Authority, one of the city’s busiest commuter hubs, on Monday morning and police said one suspect was injured and in custody but that no-one else was hurt in the rush-hour incident.

Police confirmed one person was in custody but were not yet identifying the device used. Local news channel WABC cited police sources as saying a possible pipe bomb detonated in a passageway below ground at Port Authority and WPIX cited sources as saying a man with a “possible second device” has been detained in the subway tunnel.

The bus terminal was temporarily closed, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said in a Twitter statement.

“There was a stampede up the stairs to get out,” said Diego Fernandez, one of the commuters at Port Authority. “Everybody was scared and running and shouting.”

Commuters exit the New York Port Authority in New York City, U.S. December 11, 2017 after reports of an explosion.

Commuters exit the New York Port Authority in New York City, U.S. December 11, 2017 after reports of an explosion. REUTERS/Edward Tobin

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Donald Trump have been briefed on the incident, according to local media and the White House.

News of the incident jarred financial markets as trading was getting underway for the week. Standard  Poor’s 500 index emini futures pared gains, the dollar weakened against the yen and U.S. Treasury securities prices gained on a modest flight-to-safety bid.

The incident occurred less than two months after an Uzbek immigrant killed eight people by speeding a rental truck down a New York City bike path, in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

In September 2016, a man injured more than two dozen people when he set off a homemade bomb in New York’s Chelsea district.

(Reporting By Nick Zieminski and Simon Webb in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Japan, U.S., South Korea to hold missile tracking drill amid North Korea crisis

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to various units in Samjiyon County, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang

TOKYO (Reuters) – The United States, Japan and South Korea will hold two days of missile tracking drills starting on Monday, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force said, as tensions rise in the region over North Korea’s fast-developing weapons programmes.

The United States and South Korea conducted large-scale military drills last week, which the North said made the outbreak of war “an established fact”.

North Korea has fired missiles over Japan as it pursues nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions and international condemnation. On Nov. 29, it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile which it said was its most advanced yet, capable of reaching the mainland United States.

This week’s exercises will be the sixth drills sharing information in tracking ballistic missiles among the three nations, the defence force said.

It did not say whether the controversial THAAD system would be involved. The installation of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea has angered China, which fears its powerful radar could look deep into China and threaten its own security.

North Korea’s missile test last month prompted a U.S. warning that North Korea’s leadership would be “utterly destroyed” if war were to break out. The Pentagon has mounted repeated shows of force after North Korean tests.

The United States has also pressured China and other nations to cut trade and diplomatic ties with North Korea, as part of international efforts to dry up Pyongyang’s illegal cash flows that could fund its weapons programmes.

On Sunday, South Korea said it would impose new unilateral sanctions on 20 institutions and a dozen individuals in North Korea, barring any financial transactions between those sanctioned and any South Koreans.

“This unilateral sanction will prevent illegal funds flowing to North Korea and contribute to reinforce international communities’ sanctions against North Korea,” South Korea’s finance ministry said in a statement.

The move is largely symbolic as trade and financial exchanges between the two Koreas have been barred since May 2010 following the torpedoing of a South Korean warship, which the North denied.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said the ministry plans to include 730 million yen ($6.4 million) to help build a new missile interceptor system, the Aegis Ashore, in its next fiscal year budget request, public broadcaster NHK reported.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, Japan and the United States and says its weapons programmes are necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

($1 = 113.4800 yen)

(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko, additional reporting by Haejin Choi in SEOUL, Editing by Nick Macfie)

Weary firefighters brace for second week battling California wildfire

A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura.

By Phoenix Tso

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Crews battling a massive wind-driven California wildfire that has torched nearly 800 buildings and charred 230,000 acres are bracing on Monday to protect communities menaced by flames along the state’s scenic coastline.

The Thomas Fire ignited last week and is burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“Fire will continue to threaten the communities of Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)said in a Sunday night update.

Santa Ana winds and the rugged mountainous terrain have hindered firefighters as they battle the blaze, which has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.

“A lot of these guys (firefighters) have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued,” said Fire Captain Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Thomas Fire.

Concialdi said firefighters from 11 Western states are aiding firefighting efforts.

The fire is 10 percent contained, down from 15 percent on Saturday after it blew up on Sunday, growing by 56,000 acres in one day and making a run of 7 miles, Concialdi said.

Nearly 5,800 firefighting personnel are working on the blaze, Cal Fire said. The cost of fighting as of Sunday was nearly $34 million, the agency added. It is already the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, final exams set for this week have been postponed, Chancellor Henry Yang said in a letter to the campus community. Air quality and transportation issues, along with power outages that have affected the school’s information technology department, forced the delay of exams until January.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in the posh Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles was 75 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 75 percent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Graff)