Hong Kong police break up new protest with rubber bullets, tear gas

Protesters erect the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during the "No White Terror No Chinazi" rally in Chater Garden, Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Friday to clear protesters outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clash in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station. We cannot let them get away with it.”

Protesters had gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, where police had fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators this week.

They withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen were dousing the flames.

“The police will use appropriate force to conduct a dispersal operation and warn all protesters to stop all illegal acts and leave immediately,” police said in a statement.

There was no immediate official word of arrests or injuries. Both Mong Kok and Prince Edward stations were closed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures this week to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city, including the formal withdrawal of a bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.

But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since morphed into a broader call for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.

“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.

“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”

Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WEEKEND PLANS FOR THE AIRPORT

Demonstrations have at times paralyzed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.

The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.

The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.

The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.

Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.

Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.

“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.

‘RETURN TO ORDER’

Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.

Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.

In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Mass shooting tips to FBI surge 70% after El Paso, Dayton massacres

FILE PHOTO: FBI police vehicles sit parked outside of the J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation Building in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The number of calls to an FBI tip line designed to head off mass shootings and other attacks surged by 70% in the week after twin massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, federal officials said on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation fielded more than 38,000 phone and online tips during the week after the shootings, up from the 22,000 tips it typically receives on a weekly basis.

The surge is evidence of an America public made jittery by a steady drumbeat of mass shootings.

“Such increases are often observed after major incidents,” the FBI said in a statement. “As always, the FBI encourages the public to remain vigilant and report any and all suspicious activity to law enforcement immediately.”

FBI officials said the number of tips the center receives each week fluctuates and not all are actionable. Some tips turn into FBI investigations while others are forwarded to local authorities. The number of FBI tips also does not include the thousands of tips that state and local law enforcement agencies have received since the shootings.

Several people have been arrested and charged across the United States in recent weeks as a result of tips.

They have included an employee at a Wisconsin distribution center who called police after a coworker threatened to carry out a workplace shooting and an Alabama resident who alerted authorities after his friend, a Florida trucker, sent him messages about his plans for a shooting at a Memphis church.

In Michigan, a person told authorities that a former classmate threatened to shoot 200 police officers during a phone and text conversation while a woman in Florida told police that her ex-boyfriend texted her about his plan to kill 100 people in a mass shooting, according to police.

“The general public are definitely taking these more seriously,” said John Mina, the sheriff in Orange County, Florida and on the board of directors of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mina is no stranger to mass shootings. He was the police chief in Orlando, Florida, the night of June 12, 2016, when a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53.

Mina also said there has been an increasing amount of resources devoted in local law enforcement agencies to access tips and threats found online, even when the person may not be serious about carrying out the attack.

“Law enforcement has always acted upon it. The difference is now we are being a little more vocal about it,” he said. “Agencies are pushing the message out. It’s not a joke. We are going to arrest you.”

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker)

Hong Kong government warns of great danger after weekend of violence

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms, at Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong, China August 25. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Illegal violence is pushing Hong Kong to the brink of great danger, the city government said on Monday, after a weekend of clashes that included the first gun-shot and the arrest of 86 people, the youngest just 12.

Police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with protesters who threw bricks and petrol bombs on Sunday, the second day of weekend clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Six officers drew their pistols and one officer fired a warning shot into the air, police said in a statement, adding that 215 rounds of tear gas and 74 rubber bullets were fired over the two days.

“The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” the government said in a statement.

The protests began in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

But the demonstrations have evolved over 12 straight weeks into a broad demand for greater democracy in the financial hub that was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was handed to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997.

More demonstrations are planned in the days and weeks ahead, including a rally at Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> headquarters on Wednesday to protest against perceived “white terror”, a term used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

Cathay has emerged as the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who supported, the anti-government demonstrations that have plunged the city into its biggest crisis since 1997.

On Saturday, activists threw petrol bombs and bricks in the gritty industrial district of Kwun Tong, on the east of the Kowloon peninsula. Some protesters cut down “smart” lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras.

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

GRAVE CHALLENGE

The protests pose the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, with his government keen to quell the unrest ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1.

Protesters again adopted cat-and-mouse tactics on Sunday evening, gathering then quickly dispersing, only to reappear in other places.

They also set up barricades to block some roads, following a largely peaceful rally earlier in the day.

Police said the 86 arrested people were aged 12 to 52, and they were suspected of offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.

Twenty-one officers were injured in the violence, they said.

The weekend clashes marked a return to violent unrest after days of calmer demonstrations.

The protests have occasionally caused serious disruption including forcing the closure of the airport.

China has denounced the protests, warned of the damage to Hong Kong’s economy and complained of outside interference.

It has also sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong in mainland China.The protesters say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Hong Kong returned to China with the promise of freedoms, not enjoyed on the mainland, for 50 years.

But the turmoil is taking a toll.

The world’s biggest equity deal this year was to unfold in Hong Kong later this month but it has been put on hold. Banks are issuing unprecedented profit warnings, while hotels and restaurants are half-empty.

Several major conferences and trade fairs have been postponed and economists say retail sales could drop by 20%-30% this year.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> closed down 1.9% on Monday, in line with regional markets, as the latest salvo in the Sino-U.S. trade war rattled investors.

(Reporting By Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Florida trucker arrested, charged with plotting church shooting: prosecutors

Police Lights

(Reuters) – Federal authorities said they have arrested a Florida truck driver who “was thinking about shooting up a church” in Memphis this week, making him at least the fourth person this month charged with plotting a mass shooting.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Thomas McVicker, 38, in Indianapolis on Monday after a friend in Alabama alerted agents to text messages he sent in which he described his plans for a mass shooting and suicide, according to court papers.

McVicker, who is from Punta Gorda but lives in his truck, is under treatment and is on medication for schizophrenia, according to his mother, FBI Special Agent Ketrick Kelley said in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Alabama.

It was not immediately clear if McVicker had an attorney.

The alleged mass shooting, which Kelley said McVicker appeared to be planning to carry out on Thursday, comes after law enforcement authorities in Ohio, Florida and Connecticut said they arrested three men who planned mass shootings.

Since July 28, shooting sprees in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed 34 people.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

Americans accused of Rome murder reacted with tears, disbelief: prosecutor

Regent Prosecutor Michele Prestipino attends a news conference after the killing of Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome, Italy July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – An American teenager accused of stabbing an Italian policeman to death last week began to weep, and his alleged accomplice voiced disbelief, when told after their arrest that the officer had died of his wounds, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, is accused of killing the policeman in central Rome with an 18-cm (7-inch) blade in an incident that shocked Italians and raised questions over both the motive for the attack and police interrogation methods.

Elder and fellow student Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of murdering Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, after the policeman intervened in a dispute that began over a drug deal involving the pair, police say.

The court-appointed lawyers for the American pair could not be reached for comment. The Elder family said in a statement on Tuesday it had not spoken to him since his arrest on Saturday.

“The situation is fluid. Finn’s parents are coping,” the statement said.

Police say Cerciello Rega, unarmed and in plain clothes, was attacked by Elder in the early morning of Friday in an affluent Rome neighborhood as he was trying to arrest him and Natale-Hjorth on suspicion of stealing a backpack.

The policeman and another officer, who was allegedly injured in the incident by Natale-Hjorth, had been called to the scene after the pair allegedly stole the backpack from a drug-dealer who they believed had cheated them, said Francesco Gargaro, head of the capital’s Carabinieri police force.

Prosecutor Nunzia D’Elia told a news conference on Tuesday that Natale-Hjorth, had reacted with disbelief when told of the policeman’s death, saying “Really dead? Dead dead?”

In an order for the pair to be held in jail pending investigation, a judge said the Americans had told investigators they had not been aware that Cerciello Rega was a policeman.

However, police chief Gargaro said on Tuesday that Cerciello Rega and his colleague had clearly identified themselves as police to the pair before the attack.

Police have also begun an investigation into the pair’s interrogation after a photo emerged of Natale-Hjorth in police custody, sitting blindfolded, hands cuffed behind his back.

Natale-Hjorth and Elder, both from San Francisco, were likely to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were arrested on Saturday but were judged fit to be questioned, prosecutor D’Elia said.

She and Gargaro declined to comment on the inquiry into the interrogation.

Rome’s public attorney office said the investigation into the stabbing was still ongoing.

An Italian lawyer for Elder, Francesco Codini, told the New York Times that the two men had asserted their right to remain silent during a court hearing in Rome on Saturday afternoon.

(Additional reporting by Domenico Lusi, Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro, Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Sixteen U.S. Marines arrested on suspicion of human trafficking

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard Platoon during a ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, U.S., March 15, 2018. Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel/U.S. Marines/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Sixteen U.S. Marines were arrested on Thursday at their base in Southern California on suspicion of drug-related offenses and the smuggling of undocumented migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. military officials said.

The arrests at Camp Pendleton stemmed from a separate investigation of two other Marines arrested earlier this month on human trafficking charges filed by federal prosecutors in San Diego, a base spokesman said.

Those two Marines, Lance Corporals Byron Darnell Law II and David Javier Salazar-Quintero, were also stationed at Camp Pendleton, about 55 miles (88 km) north of San Diego, according to the spokesman, Marine First Lieutenant Cameron Edinburgh.

“Information gained from the previous investigation gave way to this string of arrests,” Edinburgh told Reuters.

The Marine Corps said that in addition to the Marines arrested on Thursday, eight others were detained for questioning on unrelated alleged drug offenses.

The 16 taken into custody were all part of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the United States.

None one of those arrested or detained on Thursday was serving in support of the military’s mission along the border with Mexico, the Marine Corps said.

Unlike Salazar and Law, the Marines faced prosecution under the military justice system but no formal charges have been brought against them as yet, Edinburgh said.

The precise nature of the alleged wrongdoing was not disclosed, but Edinburgh said the troops were suspected of involvement in the smuggling of undocumented immigrants into the United States from Mexico and various unspecified drug-related offenses.

The two Marines arrested July 3 on charges of transporting aliens for financial gain were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents several miles north of the border along a highway in San Diego County.

According to court documents filed in that case, Salazar and Law picked up three undocumented Mexican immigrants by car near the border, guided to a pre-arranged location via cellphone instructions. The three migrants were found riding in the back seat of the Marines’ car, and they told investigators they had agreed to pay $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States.

Thursday’s arrests came a day after the military said a Navy SEAL team was sent back from Iraq because of discipline issues. An official said it was because, in part, they had been drinking alcohol, something that is prohibited.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Arrests at London climate-change protests top 1,000

FILE PHOTO: Climate change activists wait for Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg to speak during the Extinction Rebellion protest at Marble Arch in London, Britain April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters) – The number of environmental campaigners arrested during eight days of direct action in London topped 1,000 on Monday, police said, adding that Waterloo Bridge, one of the sites blockaded by the protests, had re-opened to traffic.

Climate group Extinction Rebellion has targeted sites in central London, such as Oxford Circus and Parliament Square, in a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience with the aim of stopping what it calls a global climate crisis.

Police said 1,065 people had been arrested in connection with the protests, and they had charged 53 with offenses including obstructing the highway.

Oxford Circus and Parliament Square were re-opened to traffic on Sunday, they said, while Waterloo Bridge was cleared overnight.

Police had appealed to activists to move to Marble Arch, where they are allowing protests to continue.

Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg addressed crowds at Marble Arch on Sunday, urging them to never give up their campaign to save the planet.

(Reporting by Paul Sandle, editing by Louise Heavens)

Uganda makes arrests in kidnap of American tourist and her guide

U.S. tourist Kimberly Sue Endicott poses with her guide, Jean Paul Mirenge in Uganda, April 7, 2019, in this image taken from social media. Wild Frontiers/via REUTERS

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda said Tuesday some suspects had been arrested in connection with last week’s kidnap of an American tourist and her tour guide in a national park while a minister told a local TV that a ransom had been paid to free them.

Tourist Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and guide Jean Paul Mirenge-Remezo were ambushed and seized by gunmen as they drove in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the country’s southwest near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo on April 2.

It’s one of Uganda’s most visited parks, home to antelopes, lions, elephants, hippos, crocodile and leopards.

The kidnappers later demanded a ransom of $500,000. On Sunday Ugandan security officials said they had rescued the pair unharmed near the border.

In a statement on Tuesday, police said: “The joint security team actively investigating the kidnapping incident … has made some arrests of suspects, on suspicion of being involved.”

Police did not give details about the suspects but said they had been detained during “raids and extensive searches” in Kanungu district, more than 400 km (250 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala.

On Tuesday, junior tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda Ssubi, told NBS TV that a ransom was paid to secure the victims.

“Whatever these people (kidnappers) demanded for was paid,” Ssubi said.

“The money had to be taken … everything was done to save the lives of these people.”

Ugandan security officials had earlier refused to acknowledge the payment despite several reports in local and international media.

The United States has maintained it follows a policy of no concessions to kidnappers although the tour firm that arranged the safari told Reuters the captives were released after a “negotiated settlement” with the assistance of the US government.

In a tweet on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump urged Ugandan authorities to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice “openly and quickly”.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Giles Elgood)

One witness, conflicting evidence: How Venezuelan justice targets the opposition

Eugenia Vicuna holds a cushion made from the t-shirt that, she says, her son was wearing at the moment of his detention at their house in El Junquito, Venezuela, February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. To match Insight VENEZUELA-POLITICS/EVIDENCE. REUTERS/Angus Berwick

By Angus Berwick

EL JUNQUITO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Local opposition leader Jose Rengel has spent almost five weeks in a cramped detention cell on the outskirts of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, after a single witness accused him of leading a riot that burned down a public building.

Rengel was arrested together with eight other men on January 24 after the witness – a member of the ruling Socialist Party – told soldiers that the 59-year-old had sacked shops and “completely destroyed” a public transport office using Molotov cocktails, according to a National Guard report filed one day later.

The detained men, who are described by their families as opposition sympathizers, now face charges of arson, theft, and illegally carrying weapons, which could lead to 10-year jail sentences. The men all deny taking part in the protest, according to statements they gave to a court and their lawyers.

A visit to the neighborhood of El Junquito, a string of poor settlements atop a ridgeline west of the teeming Venezuelan capital, shows the public transport building still stands. The one-room office, its interior decorated with a portrait of former president Hugo Chavez, is providing services as normal and shows no sign of significant damage.

The National Guard said in its report that they found no weapons on Rengel. They said they seized two shotguns from two other men, both of whom, via their lawyers, denied having them. In addition, the men’s families and neighbors said none of the men were near the transport office at the time of their arrest, contradicting the National Guard’s report that they were detained during the demonstration just after 7 p.m.

The men all remain in custody.

The witness, Jesus Vielma, told Reuters he stood by his testimony and said the men were “a band of criminals.” The lieutenant who wrote the report, Jorge Acevedo, did not respond to Facebook messages and the National Guard did not respond to requests to comment on his behalf. Rengel’s lawyers said he denied all charges.

The arrest of the nine men here in El Junquito is part of&nbsp;what some civil rights groups estimate at almost 1,100 arrests by President Nicolas Maduro’s government since opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution and assumed a rival presidency on January 23, with the backing of the United States.

The government has denied it takes political prisoners or fabricates evidence, and says the crackdown is aimed at clearing out criminals.

Interviews by Reuters with 20 people in El Junquito, a dozen of whom said they were with the men at the time, plus a review of court records and a National Guard report, contradict the National Guard’s official account that they arrested the men during a violent protest.

Their families and lawyers told Reuters they believe the men were arbitrarily detained, based on the lack of evidence to support the charges against them.

Some 120 locals have signed a written petition backing the family’s version of the events.

The National Guard did not respond to requests to comment about the discrepancies between its report and the witnesses interviewed. The Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries for the government, did not respond either.

With Maduro under mounting pressure, the arrests, along with some 40 extrajudicial killings by security forces, have spread fear through poor areas, limiting further demonstrations, local politicians and NGOs say.

“They’re now going after the little guy,” said Javier Torres, a colleague of Rengel, who is head of the opposition Democratic Action party in El Junquito. “It’s to try to silence the voices of leaders in communities that have protested.”

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

Rengel’s wife said he was preparing dinner for the family when several dozen masked soldiers arrived at the house on motorbikes at 9:30 p.m.

“When they knocked, my husband opened the door without realizing what he would find,” said his wife, Onoris de Rengel, 59. “The soldiers entered shouting ‘Who is Jose Rengel? Who is Jose Rengel?’ They went to the kitchen and ordered us to the ground. They asked him where were the weapons.”

The soldiers left with Rengel, who they beat hard enough to bruise his ribs, the family and their lawyer said. Photos of the family home, taken by neighbors and seen by Reuters, appear to show it ransacked after a raid, with furniture overturned and clothes strewn across the floor.

Venezuelan legal aid group Penal Forum, which is representing other people detained in the area, said the arrests come amid a political crackdown since dozens of countries recognized Guaido as the legitimate head-of-state. Maduro accuses Guaido of leading a U.S.-orchestrated coup to oust him.

Penal Forum says the 1,069 politically motivated arrests between January 21 and January 31 are the most since it began keeping records almost 18 years ago. Most cases involve planted evidence and invented circumstances to justify detentions, its director, Alfredo Romero, said.

The government began another crackdown on Saturday when troops at the border blocked humanitarian aid convoys sent by the opposition from Colombia and Brazil. Penal Forum says it has recorded over 60 arrests over the weekend.

The Information Ministry did not respond to requests to comment about Penal Forum’s accusations. The Supreme Court’s president, Maikel Moreno, said in January that judicial officials carry out “invaluable work with professionalism, ethics and quality.”

“SCOURGES OF THE AREA”

Locals in El Junquito said there was a small opposition protest on the evening of January 24, when a few dozen people blocked the main road and burned tires close to the Cacique Tiuna transport office.

At about 7 p.m., Jorge Acevedo, the young National Guard lieutenant, received a call at his outpost, some 4 km (2.5 miles) away, according to his report.

The caller, Jesus Vielma, head of a local council for the ruling Socialist Party, told Acevedo that Rengel was leading a riot, the report shows. The National Guard withheld Vielma’s identity in the report, but he confirmed to Reuters he was the witness.

Acevedo said when he and other soldiers reached the scene, protesters attacked them with petrol bombs and rocks. Acevedo wrote that they arrested Rengel and eight others after cornering them, describing them as “the most violent ones there.”

An employee at the transport office said she was still there that evening at 7 p.m. and protesters only began throwing projectiles an hour later. She said protesters stole several desks and a petrol bomb was thrown against the building, forcing them to re-paint the walls.

In a statement given at the National Guard outpost that evening, Vielma said that he saw Rengel carrying a shotgun and identified the detained men as those who sacked the office: “They are the scourges of the area.”

Vielma, in an interview with Reuters, praised the National Guard for bringing order to the community. “We cannot accept a band of criminals. They have to accept the consequences,” he said.

During a January 26 hearing at a Caracas court, the prosecutor provided no evidence beyond Vielma’s testimony and the two shotguns he said the National Guard seized but emphasized the “magnitude of the damage,” court documents show.

The judge remanded the men in custody for 45 days while the investigation continues.

CRAMPED CELL

Some families of the men detained in El Junquito say the men were opposition sympathizers.

“There were some 40 motor-bikes driving up the road. They stopped us, grabbed him and pulled him onto a bike,” said 19-year-old Yosneilis Calzadilla, the girlfriend of one of the detained men, Jhon Mijares. “They didn’t tell us anything.”

The nine men are jailed inside a 1 meter by 7 meter cell with dozens more detainees, according to their families, lawyers and court documents.

Eugenia de Vicuna said she has only been able to see her son, Enmanuel, twice, for six minutes in total, since soldiers shot the 21-year-old student at point-blank range with rubber rounds while he was returning home from shopping that evening.

The rounds left 20 open wounds on his back which have still not been treated, according to his family and a photo supplied by his lawyer.

On January 29, a judge, in a written ruling, ordered the National Guard to transfer Vicuna and the other eight men to a hospital. But his family and relatives and lawyers for the other men say they remain in the cell.

The National Guard and Information Ministry did not respond to requests to comment on why they remain there.

(Additional reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

Five Vale staff and contractors arrested after Brazil dam disaster

A view of a dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA after it collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

By Pedro Fonseca and Gram Slattery

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Three employees of Brazilian miner Vale and two contractors were arrested on Tuesday, prosecutors said, as a criminal investigation began after a devastating dam rupture expected to leave a death toll of more than 300 people.

Vale said it was cooperating with investigators in the case, which has enraged Brazilians and raised fresh questions about the company’s commitment to safety after a similar dam burst just over three years ago at a nearby mine it jointly owned.

Two of those arrested were Vale’s senior managers at the Corrego do Feijao mine, where a tailings dam broke on Friday, hammering the nearby town of Brumadinho with a flood of mining waste – according to a court order seen by Reuters. The job of the third Vale employee was not immediately clear.

Two other engineers, who worked on behalf of Vale and are accused of attesting to the safety of the dam, were arrested in Sao Paulo, state prosecutors there said.

Minas Gerais state investigators issued a total of five arrest warrants and seven search warrants on suspicion of murder, falsification of documents and environmental crimes, a judge’s decision showed.

The collapse of the dam in the hilly, pastoral region has caused 65 confirmed deaths so far, according to firefighters’ count on Monday night, with another 279 people missing and likely dead.

Chief Financial Officer Luciano Siani said Vale was doing all it could, offering money to mourners, extra tax payments to local government, a special membrane to remove mud from the river and major investments to make its dams safer.

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Yet residents in the devastated town of Brumadinho have been unmoved, watching in shock and anger as one dead body after another has been pulled from the mud.

Following a deadly 2015 tailings dam collapse just a few towns over at a mine half-owned by Vale, the disaster remained unforgivable in the eyes of many Brazilians.

“Vale is destroying Minas Gerais,” said Robinson Passos, 52, who lost a cousin and friends in Brumadinho.

“There’s anger, sadness, everything,” he said, holding back tears as he surveyed the destruction in Corrego do Feijao, a hamlet within Brumadinho that gave its name to the mine at the center of the disaster.

‘PREMEDITATED’

At the headquarters for the local mining union, which lost more than one in 10 members by organizers’ count, treasurer Jos&eacute; Francisco Mateiro, blamed the company and authorities for putting him and his comrades at risk.

“They call it an accident but the design of those dams was premeditated,” he said. “There have been warnings about all mining dams for a long time now.”

Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said the facility was up to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable just two weeks before the collapse.

“We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn’t do it,” he said in a Sunday TV interview.

Siani said the company would donate 100,000 reais ($26,600) to each family that had lost a loved one, adding the company would continue paying mining royalties to Brumadinho despite a halt in operations there.

The company was building a membrane to stop the flow of mud now snaking down the Paraopeba River. A “bold” investment plan also would speed the process of making dams more secure, he said.

Prosecutors and politicians have not been impressed.

On Monday, a presidential task force contemplated forcing out Vale’s management. Government ministers have said Brazil’s mining regulations are broken. The country’s top prosecutor said the company should be criminally prosecuted and executives held personally responsible.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Brumadinho and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Marta Nogueira and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Mark Potter and Bill Trott)