Algeria blames forest fires on arson, death toll rises to six

ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s government on Tuesday said arsonists were responsible for dozens of forest fires that have killed six people and destroyed homes east of the capital.

Plumes of smoke rose from pockets of fire in the forest in Tizi Ouzou region on Tuesday, while residents used tree branches and hurled water from plastic containers in an attempt to put out the flames however they could.

Several houses were burnt and families were escaping to hotels and youth hostels, witnesses said, as the dense smoke hampered the visibility of fire crews.

“We had a horror night. My house is completely burnt,” said Mohamed Kaci, who had fled from Azazga village to a hotel with his family.

Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said an investigation would be launched to identify those behind the blazes as he put the death toll at six.

“Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of about 50 fires across several localities of the province,” he said on state television.

Firefighters and the army were still trying to contain the blazes, and Beldjoud said the priority was to avoid more victims. He vowed to compensate those affected.

Smaller fires were also ravaging forests in at least 13 provinces since Monday night.

(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Abdelaziz Boumzar; Editing by Alison Williams)

South Africa’s big retail chains race to restock looted stores

By Nqobile Dludla

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s big retailers are working round the clock to replenish shelves with food in hundreds of stores looted this week in some of the country’s worst unrest for years, they said on Friday.

Retailers also said they are racing to keep stores unaffected by the violence stocked as some shoppers were stripping shelves with panic buying, though blocked roads and disruptions to supply chains were hampering their efforts.

Retailers were just starting to recover from months of coronavirus restrictions when the violence triggered by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma erupted and the looting could now set them back several months.

Massmart, which is majority owned by U.S. retail giant Walmart Inc, said protesters had looted 41 of its stores and two of its distribution centers, with four sites suffering significant damage from arson.

TFG, the owner of Foschini clothing and @home chains, said 190 stores had been looted and damaged to varying degrees. All its stores in KwaZulu-Natal province are shut.

“The timeline to reopen will be quick in some locations whilst in others it will be dependent on the nature and extent of the damage and on the availability of the relevant resources and supply chains,” TFG said.

Pepkor, which is majority owned by Steinhoff International, said 489 stores, representing about 9% of its retail outlets, had been damaged and looted as well as one of the JD Group’s distribution centers in KwaZulu-Natal.

Pepkor’s supply chain and distribution operations in the affected areas have been severely disrupted, it said.

All three retailers, as well as grocery chains Pick n Pay, Shoprite and SPAR Group, whose 184 stores were looted and vandalized, said the priority was to replenish shelves as concerns about food shortages mount.

SPAR trucks were dispatched on Friday with security escorts and the chain said it would try to restock all its KwaZulu-Natal stores open for business over the weekend.

Woolworths said it was working closely with suppliers to make sure its stores were stocked.

“This is largely dependent on the reopening of key transport routes, the ability of local suppliers to continue production, the ability of our staff to access our stores and the safety of our logistics and distribution operations,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Jason Neely and David Clarke)

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi goes on trial

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial on Monday, appearing unwell as the first witnesses took the stand in cases against her of illegally possessing walkie-talkie radios and breaking coronavirus protocols, her lawyer said.

Suu Kyi, 75, faces a slew of charges since being overthrown by the army in a Feb. 1 coup that cut short a decade of tentative democratic reforms and has plunged the Southeast Asian country into chaos.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seemed not very well but throughout the hearing she seemed quite interested and paid keen attention,” the head of her legal team, Khin Maung Zaw, said in a statement after the day of hearings.

Suu Kyi’s supporters say the charges are politically motivated and designed to end the political life of a woman who championed democracy for decades under previous military administrations, much of the time under house arrest.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate faced three cases on Monday at the specially built court in the capital Naypyidaw, where she had already appeared at preliminary hearings.

Two of Monday’s cases were linked to the possession of the radios and one under the Natural Disaster Management Law for breaching coronavirus regulations while campaigning for the election she won last November.

She also faces charges of incitement – with hearings set for Tuesday – and more serious charges of violating the Official Secrets Act and under the Anti-Corruption Law.

Former President Win Myint also faces charges of violating the coronavirus measures. Police Major Myint Naing took the stand against him and Suu Kyi. Police Major Kyi Lin then testified in the cases over the radios.

Monday’s hearings lasted more than five hours.

Her legal team have denied any wrongdoing by Suu Kyi and her chief lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, called the most recent corruption charges “absurd”.

‘BOGUS, AND POLITICALLY MOTIVATED’

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch, said in a statement the charges Suu Kyi faced “are bogus, and politically motivated” and “should be dropped, resulting in her immediate and unconditional release”.

The army says it took power by force because Suu Kyi’s party won the election through fraud, an accusation rejected by the previous election commission and international monitors.

Myanmar’s security forces have killed at least 862 people during their crackdown on protests since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group, though the junta disputes the number.

Pro-democracy supporters took to the streets of the main city of Yangon on Monday, some chanting “revolutionary war, we participate,” according to social media posts.

Some activists said they planned to stage a series of strikes and protests on Monday to coincide with the birthday of Che Guevara, a Latin American revolutionary who became an international icon after his death.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday that violence was intensifying and condemned the army’s “outrageous” use of heavy weapons.

Bachelet said the junta had shown no willingness to implement a five-point consensus it agreed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in April to halt violence and start dialogue with its opponents.

In a press release, Myanmar’s junta-led ministry of foreign affairs rejected Bachelet’s statement, questioning the accuracy and impartiality of the report.

“The report neither mentioned nor condemned the acts of sabotage and terrorism committed by the unlawful associations and terrorist groups as well as the sufferings and deaths of the security forces,” it said.

The junta has branded a rival National Unity Government set up by supporters of Suu Kyi as a terrorist group and blamed it for bombings, arson and killings.

Myanmar’s junta-controlled media on Monday accused an ethnic armed group of killing 25 construction workers in the east of the country after abducting a group of 47 people last month.

Reuters was unable to reach the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) for comment on the accusation. The junta spokesman did not answer calls to seek further comment.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

Myanmar junta blames protesters as EU, U.S. impose sanctions

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s military accused anti-junta protesters of arson and violence as Western countries imposed more sanctions on individuals and groups linked to last month’s coup and the ensuing bloody crackdown on dissent.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said 164 protesters had been killed in the violence and expressed sadness at the deaths.

“They are also our citizens,” he told a news conference in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday, adding that the military would use the least force possible to quell violence.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 261 people have been killed in the brutal crackdown by security forces that has left the Southeast Asian nation in turmoil.

Three people including a teenage boy were killed in unrest on Monday in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, witnesses and news reports said.

The junta has tried to justify the coup by saying a Nov. 8 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was fraudulent – an accusation the electoral commission rejected. Military leaders have promised a new election but have not set a date and have declared a state of emergency.

Zaw Min Tun blamed protesters for violence and arson and said nine members of the security forces had been killed.

“Can we call these peaceful protesters?” he said, while showing a video of factories on fire. “Which country or organization would regard this violence as peaceful?”

He said strikes and hospitals not fully operating had caused deaths, including from COVID-19, calling them “undutiful and unethical”.

The spokesman also accused media of “fake news” and fanning unrest and said reporters could be prosecuted if they were in contact with the CRPH, as the remnants of Suu Kyi’s government is known locally. The military has declared the CRPH an illegal organization and said membership is punishable by death.

In the over three hour news conference, the spokesman also said the military respected the media and although reporting protests was allowed, leading them was a crime.

Zaw Min Tun gave granular details or how the NLD had created hundreds or even thousands of extra ballots in numerous townships by inventing voters, including in Suu Kyi’s own constituency. Videos of people saying they were paid by NLD representatives were shown at the news conference.

Also shown was video testimony of former Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein saying he visited Suu Kyi multiple times and gave her money “whenever needed.”

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup. Her lawyer says charges against her are trumped up.

‘UNBEARABLE EXTENT’

The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Monday against individuals involved in the coup and the repression of the demonstrators.

The EU sanctions were the bloc’s most significant response since the overthrow of Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1.

The 11 people it targeted included General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military and head of the junta that has taken power.

The EU already has an arms embargo on Myanmar and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters before the meeting that the military repression “has reached an unbearable extent”.

Washington had already sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing and the measures announced on Monday expanded the list.

There was no immediate response from the junta, which has shown no sign so far of being swayed by international condemnation of its actions.

Myanmar’s neighbors are also speaking out against the violence, which is rare for countries in the region.

“We believe violence against unarmed civilians is inexcusable,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Kuala Lumpur after talks with his Malaysian counterpart.

“We still believe there should be no external interference in the domestic affairs of a country, but to the maximum extent possible…we stand ready to do our best to support the people of Myanmar who in fact deserve so much better in the future.”

The junta said it is cooperating with five neighboring countries – Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand – and values and respects their words, plus any countries that respect the stability of Myanmar.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Jerusalem church suffers damage in arson near Garden of Gethsemane

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police on Friday arrested a man for trying to set fire to an east Jerusalem church by the Garden of Gethsemane, the site revered by Christians as the place where Jesus prayed before he was crucified.

The 49-year-old Israeli suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Church of All Nations, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The man then set it alight, a separate police statement said, before the church guard detained him.

“Preliminary investigation and the suspect’s details strengthen the assessment that the background to the incident was criminal,” police said, suggesting investigators believed it was not a hate crime.

Reuters pictures showed a charred bench and a small blackened portion of the mosaic floor of the Catholic church, which overlooks Jerusalem’s walled Old City.

“This is a crime, a crime that shouldn’t happen in a church in the Holy Land,” said Father Ibrahim Faltas, as he inspected the damage. The Custody of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church in a statement urged police to conduct a thorough investigation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the suspect as a “terrorist Israeli settler” and said in a statement the Israeli government was responsible for such attacks.

Over the past decade, Jewish extremists have been charged or blamed for arson attacks on a number of churches and mosques in the Holy Land.

(Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Police declare riot as Portland protesters set fires, attack government building

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Protesters lit fires, threw rocks and smashed windows at county government offices in the U.S. city of Portland on Tuesday, prompting police to declare a riot, after weeks of mostly peaceful anti-racism demonstrations.

The protesters, some wearing gas masks and carrying shields, lit fires in dumpsters and used lighter fuel to start a fire inside the Multnomah Building big enough to set off the sprinkler system, police said.

TV footage showed debris on the street in flames and people throwing stones at the building. The fire in the building was put out by police, media said.

Black Lives Matter protests have been held across the United States in recent months after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protests, including in Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

Police said some officers were targeted a night earlier with a “powerful green laser” capable of causing permanent eye damage when some protesters marched on the Portland Police Association building.

“Portland Police has declared the gathering near the Multnomah Building a riot after individuals vandalized, repeatedly smashed first floor windows with rocks and threw burning material into an office,” the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

Police said some crowd control “munitions” were used to disperse the protesters, but no tear gas.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury released a statement at midnight, saying a small group of protesters had set fire to the Office of Community Involvement.

“This is the heart of our county, where people in our community come to get married, get their passports, and celebrate their cultural traditions and diversity,” the Oregonian website quoted her as saying, adding the space is dedicated to community members “marginalized by the traditional political process.”

Police said on Wednesday an officer sustained a minor injury and there were two arrests, one on charges of rioting, unlawful use of a weapon and assaulting a public safety officer, and another on charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangering.

A crowd of several hundred people gathered in the city’s Colonel Summers Park late on Tuesday before marching through Southeast Portland streets, eventually arriving at the Multnomah Building, police said.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr came under fire from Democratic lawmakers earlier this month for sending federal officers to disperse protesters in the city.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Tuesday called for the Department of Justice to prosecute a group of people caught on videotape beating and kicking a man who crashed his truck near protests in Portland.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Second man charged with torching Minneapolis police station during protests

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A 22-year-old Minnesota man was charged on Tuesday with aiding and abetting the arson of a Minneapolis police station during protests over the death of a black man under a policeman’s knee, federal prosecutors said.

Dylan Robinson, who was arrested in Breckenridge, Colorado on Sunday, is accused of hurling a Molotov cocktail inside the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis and igniting a fire in the building’s stairwell on May 28, according to the criminal complaint.

Robinson appeared in U.S. district court in Denver on Tuesday to hear the charges against him, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota said in a written statement. Prosecutors said he is from Brainerd, Minnesota.

Robinson is the second man arrested June 3 in connection to the blaze. Branden Wolfe, 23, was arrested in Minnesota and charged with one count of aiding and abetting arson, federal prosecutors said.

The police station was set on fire during demonstrations three days after George Floyd, 46, died when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The incident was captured by a bystander’s cell phone video and led to the firing of Chauvin, who was later charged with second-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis police officers were also charged in the case.

Authorities said they identified Robinson from social media posts and surveillance cameras. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tracked him to Breckenridge, Colorado, a mountain town about 80 miles west of Denver, where he was taken into custody, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Robinson is due back in Denver federal court on Friday for a detention and removal hearing, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver told Reuters.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Michael Perry)

Outpouring of rage over George Floyd killing tests limits of U.S. police tactics

By Sarah N. Lynch and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Responses by law enforcement authorities in the U.S. capital and in Flint, Michigan, to protests over the police killing of George Floyd illustrated starkly contrasting approaches to handling angry crowds on American streets and repairing relations with grieving communities.

Sheriff Christopher Swanson of Michigan’s Genesee County was keenly aware that some protests in other cities against police brutality after the May 25 death of Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody in Minneapolis had descended into arson and looting.

Tensions were rising in Flint on Saturday when Swanson saw a few officers actually exchange friendly fist-bumps with protesters. So Swanson removed his helmet, strode into the crowd, hugged two protesters and told them, “These cops love you.” Swanson then joined the march.

“We’ve had protests every night since then. … Not one arrest. Not one fire. And not one injury,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.

Federal law enforcement officers took a far less conciliatory approach on Monday evening in confronting a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the White House. The officers charged and used tear gas to clear a path for President Donald Trump to walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity holding up a copy of the Bible.

“Not only is it a terrible tactic and unsafe … it also is sending a tone as if this is the president that has ordered this,” said Ronald Davis, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.

Davis oversaw a task force that in 2015 released new federal guidelines for improving police practices after demonstrations that turned violent over the 2014 police killing of a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one of a long list of similar killings.

The guidelines addressed ways to improve trust between police and their communities and included recommendations to prevent protests from escalating into violence.

They advised officers to ease rather than rush into crowd control measures that could be viewed as provocative, to consider that anger over longstanding racial disparities in the American criminal justice system was the root cause of such protests and to not to start out with the deployment of masked, helmeted officers and military-style weapons.

That approach appears to have been seldom used in protests that have engulfed many U.S. cities since Floyd’s death after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during his arrest.

LACK OF TRUST

For example, police in New York City have used pepper spray on protesters, hit people with batons and in one case drove two cruisers into a crowd. In New York and some other cities police themselves have been the target of violence.

“If we were dealing with traditional, peaceful protest, everything would have been different,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Monday.

Candace McCoy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted police face a complicated task.

“They know that there are people who have announced beforehand that they intend to do violence both to property and to other people,” McCoy said. “The notion that the property destruction could have somehow been prevented is, I think, perhaps naive.”

New York police were heckled by some demonstrators when some officers knelt in solidarity at a Brooklyn protest. During a Manhattan protest, a police officer shook the hand of a young woman wearing a T-shirt showing slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King and hugged her. Just a few minutes later, another officer zip-tied the woman’s arms behind her back and detained her.

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said he plans a hearing on police conduct and race.

“This committee has a unique opportunity to build on some things that the Obama administration did and ask ourselves some hard questions,” Graham said.

Some Obama administration law enforcement reforms aimed at reducing racial discrimination and improving community policing came to a halt after Trump became president in 2017 and his Justice Department took actions such as ceasing investigations into police departments suspected of systemic racial bias.

Civil rights advocates have taken heart over conciliatory approaches displayed in places like Camden, New Jersey, as well as Baltimore, a city torn by violent protests following the 2015 death in police custody of another black man, Freddie Gray.

“I’ve been somewhat encouraged to see that there are some police departments that have demonstrated that police can make the decision to operate in a constitutional fashion and give protesters an opportunity to speak to exercise their First Amendment rights to vent their anger,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told reporters this week, referring to the right of free speech.

Community policing experts said that will be important.

“You have to be transparent and police need to be held accountable when they make mistakes,” said Roberto Villaseñor, the former police chief of Tucson, Arizona, who worked on the 2015 guidelines. “What we need to do is just listen.”

 

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

Racially charged violence rages for third night in Minneapolis

By Carlos Barria and Eric Miller

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – A third night of racially charged arson, looting and vandalism gripped Minneapolis as protesters vented rage over the death of an unarmed black man after a white police officer knelt on his neck as he lay on the ground following arrest.

The latest unrest in Minnesota’s largest city went largely unchecked late Thursday, with the mayor ordering a tactical police retreat from a police station that was set ablaze.

 

National Guard troops called out earlier in the day by the governor kept a low profile. Governor Tim Walz had ordered the Guard to help keep the peace after two previous nights of disturbances sparked by George Floyd’s death on Monday.

In a late-night Twitter message, President Donald Trump said he would send in National Guard troops to “get the job done right” if the “weak” mayor failed to restore order, suggesting lethal force might be needed.

“Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump wrote.

The arrest of Floyd, 46, was captured by an onlooker’s cell phone video that went viral and showed a police officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as he moaned: “Please, I can’t breathe.”

Four police officers involved in the arrest of Floyd, who was accused of trying to pass counterfeit money at a corner store, were dismissed on Tuesday, but unrest has continued unabated.

People react as a car burns at the parking lot of a Target store during protests after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., May 28, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Sympathy protests erupted on Wednesday in Los Angeles and Thursday in Denver, with freeway traffic blocked in both cities. In Phoenix, protesters faced off with police in riot gear at City Hall, and a rally was held at the Arizona state Capitol.

Thursday night’s disturbances in Minneapolis also spread into adjacent city of St. Paul, the state capital, with fires and vandalism breaking out there.

In contrast with Wednesday night, when rock-throwing demonstrators clashed with police in riot gear, law enforcement in Minneapolis kept mostly out of sight around the epicenter of Thursday’s disturbances, the Third Precinct police station.

Protesters massing outside the building briefly retreated under volleys of police tear gas and rubber bullets fired at them from the roof, only to regroup and eventually attack the building, setting fire to the structure as police withdrew.

National Guard troops were absent, as were members of the fire department. Protesters were later observed on the roof, and a crowd of hundreds lingered around the building for hours, feeding flames with hunks of plywood and other debris.

STRONG AS HELL”

At a news briefing early Friday, Mayor Jacob Frey defended his decision to evacuate the precinct station due to “imminent threats to both officers and the public.”

Asked by reporters if he had a response to Trump’s tweet, Frey said: “Weakness is refusing to take responsibility for your own actions. Weakness is pointing your own finger at a time of crisis.”

“Donald Trump knows nothing about the strength of Minneapolis. We are strong as hell,” he said.

The Minnesota National Guard said it activated 500 of its soldiers in the greater Minneapolis area, mostly to provide security support to firefighters.

The mayor said many of the troops had been posted around the city to help police prevent looting of banks, grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential locations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Several other buildings and a car were set ablaze and looters plundered several businesses, including a burning liquor store and nearby discount store that had been ransacked the night before. Fire officials said 16 buildings were torched on Wednesday night.

The upheaval followed concerted efforts by law enforcement officials to ease tensions by promising justice for Floyd.

A demonstrator holds a placard while protesters gather around an on fire entrance of a police station, as demonstrations continue after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., May 28, 2020, in this picture grab obtained from a social media video. 

The Floyd case was reminiscent of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in New York City who died after being put in a banned police chokehold as he, too, was heard to mutter, “I can’t breathe.”

Garner’s dying words became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement that formed amid a wave of killings of African-Americans by police.

At a peaceful daytime rally and march on Thursday around a county government center in Minneapolis, protesters pressed their demands for the four policemen to be arrested and charged.

“We’re not asking for a favor. We’re asking for what is right,” civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton said as he addressed the crowd.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo publicly apologized to Floyd’s family on Thursday morning, conceding his department had contributed to a “deficit of hope” in Minneapolis.

Officials overseeing investigations from the U.S. Justice Department, FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and prosecutors appealed for calm, vowing a thorough investigation.

Floyd was a Houston native who had worked as a nightclub security guard. An employee who called police described the suspect as appearing to be drunk, according to an official transcript of the call.

(This story is refiled to correct spelling of Floyd in paragraph 7)

(Reporting by Carlos Barria and Eric Miller in Minneapolis; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Nathan Lane in Wilton, Connecticut, Keith Coffman in Denver, David Schwartz in Phoenix; Maria Caspani in New York and Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Death toll rises to 32 in religious violence in India’s capital

By Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 32 people have been killed in the deadliest violence to engulf India’s capital New Delhi for decades as a heavy deployment of security forces brought an uneasy calm on Thursday, a police official said.

The violence began over a disputed new citizenship law on Monday but led to clashes between Muslims and Hindus in which hundreds were injured. Many suffered gunshot wounds, while arson, looting and stone-throwing has also taken place.

“The death count is now at 32,” Delhi police spokesman Anil Mittal said, adding the “entire area is peaceful now.”

Men remove debris in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

At the heart of the unrest is a citizenship law which makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the new law adopted last December is of “great concern” and she was worried by reports of police inaction in the face of assaults against Muslims by other groups.

“I appeal to all political leaders to prevent violence,” Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any prejudice against India’s 180 million Muslims, saying that law is required to help persecuted minorities.

New Delhi has been the epicenter for protests against the new law, with students and large sections of the Muslim community leading the protests.

As the wounded were brought to hospitals on Thursday, the focus shifted on the overnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar, a Delhi High Court judge who was hearing a petition into the riots and had criticized government and police inaction on Wednesday.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the transfer was routine and had been recommended by the Supreme Court collegium earlier this month.

Opposition Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said every lawyer and judge in India should strongly protest what he called a crude attempt to intimidate the judiciary.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said inflammatory speeches at the protests over the new citizenship law in the last few months and the tacit support of some opposition leaders was behind the violence.

“The investigation is on,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who romped to re-election last May, also withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August with the objective of tightening New Delhi’s grip on the restive region, which is also claimed by full by Pakistan.

For months the government imposed severe restrictions in Kashmir including cutting telephone and internet lines, while keeping hundreds of people, including mainstream political leaders, in custody for fear that they could whip up mass protests. Some restrictions have since been eased.

Bachelet said the Indian government continued to impose excessive restrictions on the use of social media in the region, even though some political leaders have been released, and ordinary life may be returning to normal in some respects.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)