Executive actions ready to go as Trump prepares to take office

Donald Trump takes the oath

By Ayesha Rascoe and Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump is preparing to sign executive actions on his first day in the White House on Friday to take the opening steps to crack down on immigration, build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and roll back outgoing President Barack Obama’s policies.

Trump, a Republican elected on Nov. 8 to succeed Democrat Obama, arrived in Washington on a military plane with his family a day before he will be sworn in during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

Aides said Trump would not wait to wield one of the most powerful tools of his office, the presidential pen, to sign several executive actions that can be implemented without the input of Congress.

“He is committed to not just Day 1, but Day 2, Day 3 of enacting an agenda of real change, and I think that you’re going to see that in the days and weeks to come,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said on Thursday, telling reporters to expect activity on Friday, during the weekend and early next week.

Trump plans on Saturday to visit the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia. He has harshly criticized the agency and its outgoing chief, first questioning the CIA’s conclusion that Russia was involved in cyber hacking during the U.S. election campaign, before later accepting the verdict. Trump also likened U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany.

Trump’s advisers vetted more than 200 potential executive orders for him to consider signing on healthcare, climate policy, immigration, energy and numerous other issues, but it was not clear how many orders he would initially approve, according to a member of the Trump transition team who was not authorized to talk to the press.

Signing off on orders puts Trump, who has presided over a sprawling business empire but has never before held public office, in a familiar place similar to the CEO role that made him famous, and will give him some early victories before he has to turn to the lumbering process of getting Congress to pass bills.

The strategy has been used by other presidents, including Obama, in their first few weeks in office.

“He wants to show he will take action and not be stifled by Washington gridlock,” said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer.

Trump is expected to impose a federal hiring freeze and take steps to delay a Labor Department rule due to take effect in April that would require brokers who give retirement advice to put their clients’ best interests first.

He also will give official notice he plans to withdraw from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, Spicer said. “I think you will see those happen very shortly,” Spicer said.

Obama, ending eight years as president, made frequent use of his executive powers during his second term in office, when the Republican-controlled Congress stymied his efforts to overhaul immigration and environmental laws. Many of those actions are now ripe targets for Trump to reverse.

BORDER WALL

Trump is expected to sign an executive order in his first few days to direct the building of a wall on the southern border with Mexico, and actions to limit the entry of asylum seekers from Latin America, among several immigration-related steps his advisers have recommended.

That includes rescinding Obama’s order that allowed more than 700,000 people brought into the United States illegally as children to stay in the country on a two-year authorization to work and attend college, according to several people close to the presidential transition team.

It is unlikely Trump’s order will result in an immediate roundup of these immigrants, sources told Reuters. Rather, he is expected to let the authorizations expire.

The issue could set up a confrontation with Obama, who told reporters on Wednesday he would weigh in if he felt the new administration was unfairly targeting those immigrants.

Advisers to Trump expect him to put restrictions on people entering the United States from certain countries until a system for “extreme vetting” for Islamist extremists can be set up.

During his presidential campaign, Trump proposed banning non-American Muslims from entering the United States, but his executive order regarding immigration is expected to be based on nationality rather than religion.

Another proposed executive order would require all Cabinet departments to disclose and pause current work being done in connection with Obama’s initiatives to curb carbon emissions to combat climate change.

Trump also is expected to extend prohibitions on future lobbying imposed on members of his transition team.

‘THE HIGHEST IQ’

Washington was turned into a virtual fortress ahead of the inauguration, with police ready to step in to separate protesters from Trump supporters at any sign of unrest.

As Obama packed up to leave the White House, Trump and his family laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and attended a concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Trump spoke earlier to lawmakers and Cabinet nominees at a luncheon in a ballroom at his hotel, down the street from the White House, announcing during brief remarks that he would pick Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets of the National Football League, as U.S. ambassador to Britain.

“We have a lot of smart people. I tell you what, one thing we’ve learned, we have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled,” Trump said.

Trump has selected all 21 members of his Cabinet, along with six other key positions requiring Senate confirmation. The Senate is expected on Friday to vote to confirm retired General James Mattis, Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon, and retired General John Kelly, his homeland security choice.

Senate Republicans had hoped to confirm as many as seven Cabinet members on Friday, but Democrats balked at the pace. Trump spokesman Spicer accused Senate Democrats of “stalling tactics.”

Also in place for Monday will be 536 “beachhead team members” at government agencies, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said, a small portion of the thousands of positions Obama’s appointees will vacate.

Trump has asked 50 Obama staffers in critical posts to stay on until replacements can be found, including Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and Brett McGurk, envoy to the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

The list includes Adam Szubin, who has long served in an “acting” capacity in the Treasury Department’s top anti-terrorism job because his nomination has been held up by congressional Republicans since Obama named him to the job in April 2015.

The Supreme Court said U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the oath of office on Friday, met with Trump on Thursday to discuss inauguration arrangements.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Susan Heavey, David Alexander, Doina Chiacu, Ayesha Rascoe, Ginger Gibson, Mike Stone, Emily Stephenson, David Brunnstrom and Lawrence Hurley)

Syrian rebels bitterly divided before new peace talks

Rebel fighters in Syria

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents appear more divided than ever as they prepare for peace talks next week, demoralized by their defeat in Aleppo and unable to unite into a single force to defend their remaining territory.

The new diplomacy led by Assad’s Russian allies has exposed yet more splits in a rebellion that has never had a clear chief, with rebel factions long fractured by regional rivalries, their ties to foreign states, and an ideological battle over whether to pursue Syrian national or Sunni jihadist goals.

Several leaders have became prominent only to be killed in the nearly six-year-old conflict and numerous military and political coalitions have come and gone. After the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo last month, the latest effort to unify the jihadist and moderate wings of the insurgency collapsed.

By contrast Assad is as strong as at any time since the fighting began, his Russian and Iranian backers committed to his survival while the differing agendas of foreign states backing the rebels have added to their divisions.

The delegation of rebels that will attend the talks with the Syrian government starting on Monday in the Kazakh capital Astana represents only part of the moderate opposition that has fought Assad in a loose alliance known as the Free Syrian Army.

Most are from groups fighting in northern Syria with the backing of Turkey. Other rebel groups seen closer to the United States and Saudi Arabia have been left out.

The delegation will be led by Mohammad Alloush, the politburo chief of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is at the more moderate end of the Sunni Islamist spectrum and has its main stronghold near Damascus.

Alloush, who lives outside Syria, has not been appointed to the role because he wields influence over the rebellion as a whole — he does not. He was chosen because he is a member of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), an alliance set up with Saudi and Western support in 2015.

The HNC itself, the broadest opposition body formed since the war began, has not been invited to Astana.

Its chairman, former prime minister Riad Hijab, is the nearest thing the moderate opposition has to “a face”. But his role is closer to that of a spokesman for the myriad groups on the ground and he will not be in Astana either.

The HNC has said it hopes the Astana talks will be a step towards new peace talks in Geneva. But while Russia says Astana aims to supplement Geneva, some in the opposition fear Moscow is trying to supplant the U.N.-backed process with its own and wants to increase divisions in the rebel camp.

“Going to Astana has more danger than going to Geneva,” said

Mohammad Aboud, a member of the HNC.

“In Geneva, there was a political front for the opposition

that had gained international recognition while in Astana there

is a lot of ambiguity and with Russia sponsoring this and being

an occupying force and not a mediator.”

He said “polarisation may increase” in the opposition and

added: “This is perhaps one of the real goals of the Russians –

to increase the division.”

WIDENING DIVISIONS

Russia’s peace moves have also exacerbated the split between the moderate and jihadist wings of the insurgency, fuelling tensions that have spilled into confrontation in Idlib, the rebels’ main remaining foothold.

A ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month has excluded the main jihadist group in northwestern Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, while a spate of air strikes targeting its leaders have increased mistrust in the rebel camp.

All this plays further to Assad’s advantage, as his Russian and Iranian allies want to lead diplomacy over Syria, with Donald Trump indicating he will cut backing for the moderate Syrian opposition as U.S. president.

The rebels going to Astana say the meeting must focus on shoring up the ceasefire and will resist political discussions although Assad has said he is open to such talks.

“If Astana is just about a mechanism for a ceasefire, and humanitarian access, then it is positive. But it won’t be good if they discuss political affairs in Astana because that will amount to the marginalization of the other political forces,” said one FSA commander.

After years of failed international diplomacy, Moscow says it wants to advance peace by dealing directly with rebels fighting on the ground. It says the aim of the talks, which Iran will also attend, is to consolidate the ceasefire.

Turkey, which backs the revolt against Assad, is also behind the new peace drive and is widely believed to have put pressure in the rebels to go to Astana.

This reflects its shifting goals in Syria, where its priorities are now shaped around combating Kurdish militia and Islamic State near its border.

UNCERTAIN OUTLOOK

The outlook for the moderate rebels is more uncertain than ever as Trump has signaled he will cut American support for rebels who have been armed under an aid program backed by the United States, Arab states and Turkey.

An invitation to Astana has been sent to the United States, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been left out.

The rebel divisions have long worked in Assad’s favor in the conflict, which grew out of protests against Assad and his government in March 2011 and is estimated to have killed several hundred thousand people.

Assad’s foreign allies have had a critical role in helping to shore up his control over a rump state in western Syria, even as large swathes of territory in the east and north remain in the hands of Kurdish militia and Islamic State.

Many of the rebels fighting Assad in western Syria have themselves fought Islamic State, and at times the Kurds. While they are in retreat, they still hold significant territory including nearly all of Idlib province in the northwest.

Jihadist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, were left out of the latest ceasefire. Adding to the tensions among the rebels, Fateh al-Sham’s leaders have been targeted in a spate of recent U.S. air strikes, fuelling accusations of treachery among rebel groups.

Fateh al-Sham launched an attack on another powerful Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, in Idlib province on Thursday. Until recently both sides were at the heart of the merger talks.

Sheikh Abdullah al-Mohaisany, a Saudi Islamist cleric who has played a prominent role in Syria mobilizing support for the insurgency, called the failure of the merger talks a “saddening, regrettable” moment that left Idlib vulnerable to attack.

“If the attack on Idlib starts … the people will say ‘come on, let’s merge’,” he said in comments to an Islamist media outlet on YouTube after the rebels were dislodged from Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and economic hub before the conflict.

“But it will be too late.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel’s right wing has grand plans for Trump era

Trump supporter in Israel

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s right wing has been eagerly awaiting Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, hoping a Republican president will usher in a new era of support for Israeli settlement-building on land Palestinians want for a state.

The far-right Jewish Home party, along with members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, is promoting legislation that would effectively annex one large settlement in the occupied West Bank to Israel and another bill that would legalize dozens of unauthorized outposts.

But there could be a question mark over the issue, with Netanyahu possibly looking to curb settlement laws, wary of the dangers of the far right’s ambitions being too freely unleashed as he feels his way forward with the new U.S. administration.

The Israeli leader’s spokesman declined to comment on Netanyahu’s position.

In its final weeks, the Obama administration angered the Israeli government by withholding a traditional U.S. veto of an anti-settlement resolution at the United Nations Security Council, enabling the measure to pass.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday said he was worried that the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the idea of Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security — were waning.

Israeli right wingers contrast Obama’s warnings with what they see as positive signals from Trump that indicate Washington’s attitude towards settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war, is about to change.

Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, echoed his condemnation of the world body over its treatment of Israel at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

“SUDDEN MOVES CAN BE EXPLOSIVE”

Trump, who has said he wants to meet Netanyahu “at the first opportunity”, has pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In his remarks on Wednesday, Obama cautioned against “sudden unilateral moves” that could be “explosive”.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital but most of the world does not, seeing its final status as a matter for peace negotiations that have been frozen since 2014.

In a move that has emboldened Israeli right wingers, the president-elect has already appointed a new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is considered far right on issues, including settlement building.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, hopes that under Trump’s administration the notion of establishing a Palestinian state will be abandoned.

He wants to promote a bill extending Israeli sovereignty to Maale Adumim, a West Bank settlement of about 40,000 Israelis that lies just to the east of Jerusalem.

That would in effect mean Israel annexing some of the land it has occupied for almost 50 years.

“It’s either (Israeli) sovereignty or Palestine,” Bennett told Army Radio this month. “The question is not what will Trump do but what will Israel ask for. What will Israel present as its vision. We are in the money-time now for forming this vision.”

But Professor Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, believes the right wing may be getting ahead of itself and its ambitions could backfire.

“In reality, where the United States needs to live not just with us but also with the Arab and Muslim world, supporting extremist measures in Israel could turn out to be something the United States cannot live with,” Rabinovich said.

ANNEXATION “RED LINE”

Bennett ultimately advocates the annexation of most of the West Bank, leaving just the major Palestinian towns and cities in Palestinian hands. But first he is testing the water with the annexation bill, entitled “Sovereignty in Maale Adumim First”. It is due for a first discussion in a ministerial committee on Sunday, two of its drafters said.

“I believe this is the gift that the people of Israel deserve in the run-up to Trump’s inauguration,” Bennett’s fellow party member, Betzalel Smotrich, told parliament on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said annexation was a red line. “Any such Israeli decision will be considered a dangerous escalation that would end any possible hope for peace,” Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters.

Late last year, a separate bill that would retroactively legalize settlement outposts built on privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank passed the first of three votes in parliament required to make it law. No dates have been set for final approval, and it has since disappeared from the agenda.

Asked about the delay, a source in Netanyahu’s office said: “He wants to freeze the outpost bill.”

Asked about the law, a legislative source said: “It’s stuck in committee. There will be attempts to bring it back on the agenda after Jan. 20, but I think it is pretty much buried at this point,” he said, referring to the date of the inauguration.

The legislation had drawn anger from the Palestinians and international condemnation. Smotrich told Reuters that it will be brought to a second and third reading in February. “We were waiting for the end of the Obama age,” he said.

A political source close to Netanyahu said that with regard to the proposed Maale Adumim annexation, the prime minister may say he wishes to hold off until after he meets Trump.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud minister and Netanyahu confidant, said Netanyahu understood that such steps would further isolate Israel. Most countries regard Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

“He does not want to shake the entire world and put Israel at the center of contention, isolation and criticism,” Hanegbi told Army Radio. “I hope the government will not let itself be dragged after Jewish Home’s agenda.”

At the same time, Netanyahu is competing with Jewish Home for right-wing, pro-settlement voters. He may disagree with the party’s approach, but he can’t ignore it.

“If the (annexation) bill comes up, Likud ministers will support it. They can do nothing else,” the source said.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Millership)

Deep in the jungle, Brazil struggles to battle drug trade

Brazil army soldiers on border with Colombia to combat drug trade

By Alonso Soto

VILA BITTENCOURT, Brazil (Reuters) – In an isolated army outpost deep in the Amazon jungle, Felipe Castro leads 70 soldiers on the frontline of Brazil’s fight against its biggest security threat: the drug trade.

Castro’s platoon patrols a 250 km (155 miles) stretch of the border with the world’s top cocaine producer Colombia in a bid to stem the flow of illegal drugs and arms that is fuelling a war between criminal gangs in Brazil.

“It’s a difficult job but not impossible,” said the gaunt 29-year-old, his face covered in green and black camouflage.

Watching from the bank of the murky Japura river, Castro directs his men as they use a metal speedboat to practise intercepting drug shipments on its fast-moving waters.

The river marks only part of Brazil’s porous border that stretches for nearly 10,000 kms, three times the U.S.-Mexico frontier.

After years of fragile truce, Brazil’s drug gangs have launched a battle for control of lucrative cross-border smuggling routes that has spilled into the country’s gang-controlled jails, sparking the bloodiest prison riots in decades.

More than 130 inmates have been killed so far this year.

In the vast state of Amazonas, the North Family gang has for years dominated the smuggling of cocaine that is shipped to Europe or sold in Brazil’s inner cities in a business believed to be worth $4.5 billion a year.

Brazil is the world’s biggest consumer of cocaine after the United States, according to United Nations data.

Machete-wielding North Family gangs decapitated dozens of inmates of the rival First Capital Command (PCC) in a New Year’s prison massacre that has sparked revenge killings across penitentiaries in northern Brazil.

President Michel Temer’s government is worried the prison violence could spill onto the streets of major cities such as economic hub Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, a major tourist destination.

Temer has vowed to improve military surveillance along the border, but senior commanders acknowledge drugs and arms will continue to flow in.

“Not even the United States has been able to stop drug trafficking along its border with Mexico,” said General Altair Polsin, head of the army’s ground operations command. “You have to tackle consumption to put an end to this.”

The military plans to increase its patrols on the Solimoes River, one of the main smuggling routes, and share intelligence with officials in neighboring Colombia and Peru.

Officers are putting their hopes in a technology upgrade to use infrared sensors and drones for border surveillance.

For this year, Brazil plans to nearly double its budget to about half a billion reais to finance a border technology program known as SISFRON, according to Defense Minister Raul Jungmann.

Updated technology is crucial for the 1,500 soldiers in the 24 garrisons posted along the Amazon border who divide their time searching for drugs with raids on illegal miners, loggers and hunters.

Other Brazilian security agencies fighting drugs and arms trafficking in this isolated swath of the jungle are also stretched.

Amazonas needs an extra 7,000 civil and military police to keep up with the increase in drug activity, according an internal report by the state security secretary.

“We are 30 officers overseeing an area the size of France,” said Marcos Vinicius Menezes, the federal police chief in Tabatinga, a city washed by the Solimoes that borders Colombia and Peru.

“If fighting the drug trade wasn’t enough, we also have to look after the world’s biggest tropical forest.”

(Editing by Daniel Flynn)

Islamic State destroys famous monument in Syria’s Palmyra: antiquities chief

file photo of Roman theatre destroyed by Islamic State

By Kinda Makieh and Tom Perry

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants have destroyed one of the most famous monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra, the Tetrapylon, and the facade of its Roman Theatre, Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters on Friday.

The Syrian government lost control of Palmyra to Islamic State in December, the second time the jihadist group had overrun the UNESCO world heritage site in the six-year-long Syrian conflict.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement that the destruction constituted “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity”.

The Tetrapylon, marking a slight bend along Palmyra’s grand colonnade, comprises a square stone platform with matching structures of four columns positioned at each of its corners.

Satellite imagery sent by Abdulkarim to Reuters showed it largely destroyed, with only four of 16 columns still standing and the stone platform apparently covered in rubble.

The imagery also showed extensive damage at the Roman Theatre, with several towering stone structures destroyed on the stage. Just last May, a famous Russian orchestra performed at the theater after Palmyra was first won back from Islamic State.

Abdulkarim said if Islamic State remained in control of Palmyra “it means more destruction”. He said the destruction took place sometime between Dec. 26 and Jan. 10, according to the satellite imagery of the site.

Islamic State had previously captured Palmyra in 2015. It held the city for 10 months until Syrian government forces backed by allied militia and Russian air power managed to drive them out last March.

During its previous spell in control of Palmyra, Islamic State destroyed other monuments there, including its 1,800-year-old monumental arch. Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur, stood at the crossroads of the ancient world.

Islamic State put 12 people to death in Palmyra earlier this week, some of them execution-style in the Roman Theatre.

Russia marked the capture of Palmyra from Islamic State by sending the Mariinsky Theatre to perform a surprise concert, highlighting the Kremlin’s role in winning back the city.

The concert, held just over a month after Russian air strikes helped push Islamic State militants out of Palmyra, saw Valery Gergiev, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, conduct the Mariinsky orchestra.

Islamic State swept into Palmyra again in December when the Syrian army and its allies were focused on dealing a final blow to rebels in the city of Aleppo. Eastern Aleppo fell to the government later that month.

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Tom Perry in Beirut; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Larry King)

In Trump We Trust: Inauguration prompts celebration in Russia

poster of Donald Trump in Russia

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin may have spent years reviling America, but Russians hoping Donald Trump will usher in a new era of detente marked his inauguration on Friday with parties and trinkets from commemorative coins to “matryoshka” nesting dolls in his image.

Washington was turned into a virtual fortress with an estimated 900,000 people — backers and protesters — descending on the capital. In London, anti-Trump activists draped a banner reading “Build Bridges Not Walls” from Tower Bridge. Protests were planned across western Europe on Friday and Saturday.

But according to Gennady Gudkov, a Putin critic and former lawmaker, Russia is in the grip of “Trumpomania”, with state media giving the President-elect blanket air time at the expense of more mundane and sometimes depressing domestic news stories.

That, he said, was in part because the U.S. election, unlike elections in Russia, had been unpredictable. The Kremlin is hoping Trump will ease sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea, team up with Russia against Islamic State, and cut back NATO military activity near Russian borders.

Craftsmen in the city of Zlatoust, east of Moscow, have released a limited series of silver and gold commemorative coins, engraved with “In Trump We Trust” – an allusion to the phrase on U.S. banknotes “In God We Trust”.

‘TRUMPOMANIA’

Sellers of traditional matryoshka nesting dolls have added Trump dolls to their popular line-up of items carved in the likeness of President Vladimir Putin, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, ex-President Mikhail Gorbachev and Josef Stalin.

And a shop selling Russian military kit located opposite the U.S. embassy in Moscow has unveiled a cheeky promotional campaign offering embassy employees and U.S. citizens a 10 percent discount on its wares to celebrate Trump’s inauguration.

Some of Trump’s opponents believe the Kremlin helped him win the White House by staging a hacking campaign to hoover up embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton, his rival. The Kremlin denies that, but few here make any secret of the fact that they are pleased that Trump and not Clinton triumphed.

Relations between Putin and Barack Obama had soured badly.

“Trump’s election has generated enormous enthusiasm in Russia because his warm words about Russia and Putin have given us hope that the USA and the West will stop their attack on Russia,” Sergei Markov, a former pro-Putin lawmaker, said on social media.

“We don’t know for sure if there will be an improvement (in relations) or not. But we Russians are optimists … so we are hoping for the best, while preparing for the worst.”

For Russian nationalists, Trump’s inauguration is an excuse to mix fun with self-promotion.

They are holding an all-night party at what used to be the main Soviet-era post office in Moscow where they will showcase their favorite prop, a triptych of Putin, Trump and French Front National leader Marine Le Pen.

Konstantin Rykov, a former pro-Putin lawmaker and one of the event’s promoters, said on social media it was right to celebrate the first phase of the “New World Order.”

“Washington will be ours,” he quipped.

(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Four dead, more than 20 hurt when driver ploughs into Australian pedestrians

Police block off street where truck attack took place

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A man deliberately drove into pedestrians, killing four and injuring more than 20, in the center of Australia’s second largest city of Melbourne on Friday, but police said the incident was not terrorism-related.

Police eventually rammed the car and shot the 26-year-old driver in the arm, before dragging him from the vehicle and arresting him. Police said the man had a history of family violence and was wanted over a stabbing earlier in the day.

Pursued by police cars, the man had been seen driving erratically before speeding into a pedestrian mall, ploughing into people, police said. A shop video showed several people diving into a convenience store as the car raced along the footpath.

“We witnessed about half a dozen people that ricocheted off the car one way or another. I saw one person fly up almost roof level of the car as they got thrown up against one of the retail stores,” Sharn Baylis, 46, told Reuters by telephone.

“You could hear the gasping and the screaming from people, then you just started hearing the screams and the crying as it sunk in,” she said.

Baylis said she rushed across tram tracks and with other bystanders and gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) first aid to a badly hurt man who had been run over.

“I think it was pretty much in vain at that point. The seriousness of his injuries, he was probably the worst I saw.”

One of the dead was a child. Four children, including a three-month-old baby, were taken to Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, said a hospital spokesman.

“We’re not regarding this as a terrorism-related incident,” Victoria state police commissioner Graham Ashton told reporters on Friday.

Police had earlier chased the driver, who was wanted over a domestic assault and driving offences, Ashton said.

‘GUNS DRAWN’

Video from a witness showed a maroon colored car driving around in circles in an intersection outside Flinders St railway station in the city’s central business district, with the driver shouting at people and hanging his arm out the window.

Two people approached the car, apparently trying to stop it before it drove off with police chasing. (For a graphic, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2jTj2Y9)

Witness Maria Kitjapanon told Melbourne’s Age newspaper that police eventually rammed the car.

“There were probably 10 police surrounding that guy’s car, with guns drawn, and they fired into the car. Then they dragged someone out via the passengers side, then all 10 of them sat on top of him,” she said.

Melbourne is hosting the Australian Open tennis grand slam and is packed with thousands of tourists, only a few blocks from where the incident occurred. Police said the tennis tournament continued as normal.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has been on heightened alert for attacks by home-grown radicals since 2014 and authorities have said they have thwarted a number of plots. There have been several “lone wolf” assaults, including a 2014 cafe siege in Sydney that left two hostages and the gunman dead.

Friday’s incident initially raised fears about the possibility of another attack.

Last year, in attacks claimed by Islamic State, trucks were driven into crowded pedestrian precincts in separate incidents in Nice and Berlin, killing scores.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Jamie Freed in Sydney, Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

British protesters tell Trump from Tower Bridge: ‘Build bridges not walls’

Protesters hold banner on London bridge

By Alistair Smout and Luke Bridges

LONDON (Reuters) – A banner reading “Build bridges not walls” was draped across London’s Tower Bridge on Friday as part of a series of protests across the world aimed at expressing displeasure at the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Protesters on the drawbridge, with its two Gothic-style towers, held up pink letters reading “Act now!” soon after sunrise, while others unfurled the banner over the railings and a speedboat with a black flag reading “build bridges not walls” raced down the River Thames.

Beside the British parliament, protesters draped banners saying “Migrants welcome here” and “Migration is older than language” over Westminster bridge. Other protests are planned in London, other British cities and across the world on Friday.

Julie Chasin, a 42-year-old teacher originally from New York who has lived in London for a decade, said she joined the protest to hold up one of the pink letters on Tower Bridge as she was concerned about the Trump presidency.

“Yes Donald Trump is President, but he still needs to protect everybody’s rights,” said Chasin, a Democrat who said she worked on Hillary campaign in North Carolina.

“It’s scary. I hope he’s kept in check. I hope everyone who is telling me not to worry, and saying that we have a strong system of checks and balances, I hope that it’s true,” Chasin said.

Trump has repeatedly pledged to “make America great again”, drawing strong support especially from areas of industrial decline. He said on Twitter that he would fight very hard to make his presidency a great journey for the American people.

TRUMP’S FRESH APPROACH

Due to be sworn in at a ceremony in Washington on Friday, he faces protests in Washington during his inauguration, and in cities from Toronto to Sydney, Addis Ababa and Dublin over his politics which critics say are divisive and dangerous.

The protest in London was organized by the campaign group also called “Bridges not Walls”, in reference to Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border.

“We won’t let the politics of hate peddled by the likes of Donald Trump take hold,” Nona Hurkmans of Bridges not Walls said in a statement.

Trump opponents have been angered by his comments during the campaign about women, illegal immigrants and Muslims and his pledges to scrap the Obamacare health reform and build a wall on the Mexican border.

The Republican’s supporters admire his experience in business, including as a real estate developer and reality television star, and view him as an outsider who will take a fresh approach to politics.

For some on the protest in London, Trump’s victory a little over 4 months after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, symbolizes a rise of populism across the West.

“For me it’s about not just the inauguration of Trump, but about the rise of right wing populism across Western Europe and the US, and Trump’s inauguration is a celebration of that,” Jac St John, 26, a doctoral student from London, who unfurled one of the banners.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Luke Bridges; editing by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Ralph Boulton)

Tensions rise at North Dakota pipeline as Trump set to take White House

Protest to the Dakota Access Pipeline

By Terray Sylvester

CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) – Tensions have increased this week near the construction site of the Dakota Access pipeline, with repeated clashes between protesters and police ahead of Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, an unabashed fan of the $3.8 billion project.

Police used tear gas and fired bean-bag rounds to disperse crowds, and have arrested nearly 40 people since Monday, many of them on a bridge that has been the site of frequent confrontations, law enforcement officials said.

Demonstrators at the shrinking protest camp have voiced desperation and declining morale, citing weaker support from the local Standing Rock Sioux tribe that launched the effort last year and the backing that Trump, a Republican, will provide the pipeline once he takes office on Friday.

“It’s closing in on the inauguration, and people want to make sure that their voices are heard while they still have a chance,” said Benjamin Johansen, 29, a carpenter from Iowa who has been at the camp for two months. “There’s a very real possibility that once the new president is inaugurated, our voices won’t matter.”

This week’s clashes between protesters and police are the most serious since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement in December for the pipeline to travel under Lake Oahe.

Native Americans and environmental activists have said that the pipeline threatens water resources and sacred lands.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation is near the pipeline, asked protesters to disperse following the Corps’ decision, but around 600 remain in the main camp, now called Oceti Oyate.

The tribe is asking that the camp be evacuated by Jan. 29, and is offering an alternate site on reservation land that avoids any risk of flooding. Tribal leaders and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum have warned about potential flooding at the protest site in early March.

The call for the protest to end has left those still on site in a darker mood, said Amanda Moore, 20, an activist with Black Lives Matter.

“We’re stressed with Donald Trump’s inauguration coming so soon, and feeling that we have to stop the pipeline now,” she said.

Protesters and law enforcement faced off early Thursday morning on Backwater Bridge for the third straight night, with demonstrators throwing snowballs at officers and climbing onto a barricade before being pushed back.

Law enforcement fired a volley of bean bags and sponges at protesters at around 2 a.m., sending protesters fleeing from the ice- and snow-covered bridge, according to a Reuters witness. Police said they also used pepper spray.

The skirmish came as the Army began the process of launching an environmental study of the pipeline.

At least one protester was taken to the hospital, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement. Since Monday, 37 have been arrested, adding up to 624 since August.

“They come and say they want to pray and want us to fall back, then they get aggressive and try and flank our officers and get behind us,” Maxine Herr, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department said. “What they say and what they do are two different things.”

Both Herr and protesters conceded that communication between the two sides had deteriorated in past months.

Kalisa Wight Rock, a volunteers from Georgia working as a medic, said focus shifting away from the protest had left some feeling abandoned after the widespread attention the opposition to the pipeline garnered last year.

“A lot of people think this is over and that we’re not still here,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Ben Klayman and Jonathan Oatis)

Most Islamic State commanders in Mosul already killed, Iraqi general says

Iraqi soldiers in Mosul

By Isabel Coles

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Most Islamic State (IS) commanders in Mosul have been killed in battles with Iraqi government forces that raged over the past three months in the eastern side of the city, an Iraqi general said on Thursday.

The fight to take the western side of Mosul, which remains under the jihadists’ control, should not be more difficult than the one on the eastern side, Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi told Reuters before embarking on a tour of areas newly retaken.

Assadi’s Counter-Terrorism Service announced on Wednesday that almost all of the city’s eastern half had been brought under government control.

“God willing, there will be a meeting in the next few days attended by all the commanders concerned with liberation operations,” he said, replying to a question on when he expects a thrust into the western side of Mosul to begin.

“It will not be harder than what we have seen. The majority of (IS) commanders have been killed in the eastern side.” He did not give further details.

Since late 2015, government forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air power have wrested back large amounts of northern and western territory overrun by IS in a shock 2014 offensive.

On Thursday, regular Iraqi army troops captured the Nineveh Oberoy hotel, the so-called “palaces” area on the eastern bank of the Tigris, and Tel Kef, a small town just to the north according to military statements in Baghdad.

The army is still battling militants in al-Arabi, the last district which remains under their control east of the river, said one of the statements.

Over 50 watercraft and barges used by Islamic State to supply their units east of the river were destroyed in air strikes, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurty, tweeted.

Mogul’s five bridges across the Tigris had already been partially damaged by U.S.-led air strikes to slow the militants’ movement, before Islamic State blew up two of them.

“God willing, there will be an announcement in the next few days that all the eastern bank is under control,” Assai said.

A Reuters correspondent saw army troops deploying in an area by the river as mortar and gun fire rang out further north.

On one of the streets newly recaptured from Islamic State, men were reassembling breeze blocks into a wall that was blown up by a suicide car bomb several days ago.

Prime Minister Hailer al-Badri said late on Tuesday that Islamic State had been severely weakened in the Mosul campaign, and the military had begun moving against it in the western half. He did not elaborate.

If the U.S.-backed campaign is successful it will likely spell the end of the Iraqi part of the self-styled caliphate declared by the ultra-hardline Islamic State in 2014, which extends well into neighboring Syria.

Several thousand civilians have been killed or wounded in the Mosul fighting since October.

(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed; editing by Mark Heinrich and Robin Pomeroy)