Indonesian children who joined suicide attacks kept isolated by parents

Anti-terror policemen walk during a raid of a house of a suspected terrorist at Medokan Ayu area in Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The parents of Indonesian children and young adults who took part in deadly suicide bombings in Surabaya had isolated them within a tightly knit circle of militant Islamists, police said on Tuesday.

A family of six killed at least 13 people, including themselves, by bombing three churches in Surabaya on Sunday in the worst militant attack in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country since the bombing of restaurants in Bali in 2005.

On Monday, another militant family of five riding two motorbikes blew themselves up at a police checkpoint in the city, wounding 10 people and killing four of the family and two others. An eight-year-old daughter survived.

“These children have been indoctrinated by their parents. It seems they did not interact much with others,” East Java Police Chief Machfud Arifin told reporters.

The eight-year-old daughter who survived did not have explosives strapped to her, but was thrown three meters (10 ft) into the air by the blast and was receiving intensive care in hospital, police said.

“She’s conscious. She will be accompanied by relatives and social workers when questioned by police,” said Arifin.

Police in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, recovered pipe bombs at an apartment where a blast on Sunday killed three members of a family alleged to have been making bombs.

Three children survived and in interviews with police described how they had interacted only with parents and adults of similar ideology.

Every Sunday evening they were made to attend a prayer circle with these adults, said Arifin, adding that the families behind the two sets of suicide attacks had attended.

Police said that the fathers of the families involved in the church bombing and the apartment in Sidoarjo where bombs were found were also friends.

After some major successes tackling Islamist militancy since 2001, there has been a resurgence in recent years, including in January 2016 when four suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a shopping area in the capital, Jakarta.

MIDDLE CLASS HOUSING COMPLEX

Police suspect the attacks on the churches were carried out by a cell of the Islamic State-inspired group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization on a U.S. State Department terrorist list that is reckoned to have drawn hundreds of Indonesian sympathizers of Islamic State.

The family involved in those attacks lived in a middle class housing complex in the city and police said the father was the head of a local JAD cell.

“I think the family setting and the isolation from the outside world… were perfect settings for him to indoctrinate the rest of his family,” said Alexander Raymond Arifianto, an Indonesia expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini was quoted as saying by news portal Tempo.co that one of the sons had also refused to attend flag raising ceremonies or go to classes on Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, which enshrines religious diversity under an officially secular system.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla urged the public to provide information that could help stop attacks.

“Please be the government’s eyes and ears so these things won’t happen in the future,” Kalla told a conference in Jakarta.

In all, around 30 people have been killed since Sunday in attacks, including 13 suspected perpetrators, police said.

Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in a commentary for the Lowy Institute that the attacks showed how urgent it was for authorities to learn more about family networks.

“If three families can be involved in two days’ worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act,” he said.

(For a graphic on ‘Bomb attacks in Indonesia’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rBtid8)

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Gayatri Suroyo; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Britain seeks European help against Russian spy networks: diplomats

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrive to begin work at the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain is seeking help from other European countries to take action against Russian spy networks that could be preparing similar attacks as the nerve agent assault on a former Russian spy in England, diplomats said.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will urge “coordinated action” among European Union governments at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, where she will also try to persuade the bloc’s leaders to condemn Russia squarely over the attack in Salisbury.

May accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in the English city on March 4.

In the worst crisis between the two powers since the Cold War, May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats whom she says were spies working under cover. Moscow, which has denied involvement in the attack, has taken retaliatory steps.

“Britain says there are these networks that organize such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders and that it would be good to go after them together,” a senior EU diplomat said.

“They have already been approaching EU states on that bilaterally and today May will tell EU leaders more.”

Diplomats stressed May was not seeking a formal or immediate EU strategy because the bloc has little joint competence on intelligence, meaning any such work would be done directly with other governments.

“There is movement among several willing states to do something together in reaction to Skripal,” said another EU diplomat. This could be done bilaterally outside the EU so as not to press too hard on those bloc members worried about their ties with Moscow, the person said.

Reluctance from countries – Greece and Hungary among them – mean a draft joint statement by EU leaders now says only that they take “extremely seriously” London’s assessment that it was highly likely Russia was responsible for the attack.

But May will push fellow EU leaders to blame Moscow directly for the poisoning of the Skripals who British authorities say have been critically ill since the attack by a Soviet-produced military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.

A British official confirmed London was seeking to work with groups of countries on intelligence sharing over spy networks.

“Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner,” said another British official, who stressed however that Britain was not seeking new economic sanctions.

May will seek to demonstrate to EU governments that all Western countries are vulnerable to such attacks, as well as what NATO says is a Russian strategy to undermine the West, officials said.

“The Russia threat does not respect borders and as such we are all at risk,” a second senior British official said.

PROOF

May will need to overcome reluctance from the Russia doves in the EU since the bloc is traditionally split on how to deal with Moscow.

Ties between Moscow and the West plummeted over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Kiev and support for rebels in east Ukraine, which have triggered sanctions by the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday the Salisbury attack could not go without response.

Macron and May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump, have already said in a joint statement they “share” Britain’s assessment of Russian responsibility.

Diplomats said EU leaders could to settle for similar language, though some bloc members remained concerned there was not enough direct proof to incriminate Russia in the attack.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair the summit and has sided with Britain, said: “It is clear we should improve our preparedness for future attacks.”

He wants the bloc to discuss how to better protect itself from chemical and biological attacks, including in cooperation with NATO, as well as to how to beef up counter-intelligence capabilities to combat hybrid threats.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Richard Lough, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

U.S. hints at shift on Russia with sanctions and condemnation

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – By imposing new sanctions on Russia and condemning a suspected Russian chemical attack in Britain, Washington has hinted at a tougher stance toward Moscow despite President Donald Trump’s stated desire for better ties.

The U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on 19 Russian citizens and five entities for election meddling and cyber attacks in the most significant steps the United States has taken against Russia since Trump took office amid U.S. intelligence agency allegations that Moscow tried to help him win the 2016 election.

While the Treasury put off targeting oligarchs and officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it said further sanctions were coming and for the first time blamed Moscow for cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the U.S. power grid, including nuclear facilities.

After initially equivocating about a chemical attack on a former Russian double agent in Salisbury, England, the White House joined a statement by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany in which they said they “abhor the attack” and blamed it on Moscow.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the poisoning.

Thursday’s actions have caused some Russia analysts to ask whether the administration is taking a more confrontational stance despite Trump’s repeated statements in the election campaign that he wanted a better relationship with Moscow, his praise for Putin and apparent reluctance to criticize the Russian leader.

“I think we have hit an inflection point in the current administration’s approach towards Russia,” said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There has been a shift in balance.”

The diplomat attributed the evolution partly to a clash between U.S.-backed and Russian-backed forces in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor in February; Russia pounding Syria’s eastern Ghouta enclave of anti-government rebels with air strikes during the past month; and Putin showing a video on March 1 of a weapon appearing to hover over what looked like a map of Florida, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

“Those three things, taken together, have caused a shift in analysis in parts … of the administration,” said the diplomat.

TRUMP EXASPERATED

While there was a sense at the White House that there has been a hardening of Trump’s view toward Russia, at least for now, it was unclear whether this represented a long-term shift.

A senior administration official said there was some feeling that the goodwill that Trump extended toward Russia when he took over has not been reciprocated and that the Russians do not want to have good relations with the United States.

This has exasperated Trump, who instructed his team to make sure the United States appeared to be in solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack.

Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, suggested Trump’s approach may ultimately be guided by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia meddled in the election campaign.

The Kremlin denies interfering. Mueller is also investigating any potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow officials, something Trump denies.

“My hypothesis is … the White House stance on Russia is going to be determined to a large extent by how much they think the investigation threatens their political position,” Rumer said.

Officials from multiple U.S. agencies discussed next steps at a meeting on Thursday, with one aim being to avoid personally attacking Putin and taking in-your-face steps that could prompt retaliation.

In announcing Thursday’s sanctions, U.S. officials made clear more would follow.

“This is just one of a series of ongoing actions that we’re taking to counter Russian aggression,” one U.S. official told reporters. “There will be more to come, and we’re going to continue to employ our resources to combat malicious Russian activity and respond to nefarious attacks.”

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center on March 4 after being exposed to what the British authorities have identified as a military-grade, Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Another U.S. official attributed the sharper edge to U.S. policy to increasingly brazen behavior by Russia in cyberspace and on the ground, culminating in the Salisbury attack.

This U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also pointed to Russia’s refusal to restrain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the role of Russian “mercenaries” in Syria, now entering its eighth year of civil war.

The official said it was unclear if Trump himself saw Russia as an adversary but suggested Putin may have “overplayed his hand” by leaving Russian fingerprints on the hacking, the chemical attack, the deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles which the U.S. says violate an arms control treaty, and a March 1 speech on “invincible” Russian weaponry.

“If the president felt like Putin was one-upping him, not to mention stealing the limelight, then it wouldn’t be surprising that he would react,” the official said.

While more sanctions are expected, it was not clear if the Trump policy toward Russia was changing, especially given Trump’s unpredictability, said a third official, who is involved in talks on next steps.

“Tomorrow is another day,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Warren Strobel; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Grant McCool and Paul Tait)

Trump tells Israel peace means compromise; U.S. envoy under fire

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump told Israel on Friday that it too would need to make “significant compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, even as they accused one of his Middle East envoys of bogging down diplomacy with what they see as pro-Israel bias.

The Palestinians were outraged by Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a move overturning decades of U.S. reticence on the city’s status, and say they are looking at additional world powers as potential mediators.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper that was excerpted ahead of its full publication on Sunday, Trump described his Jerusalem move as a “high point” of his first year in office.

The language of Trump’s announcement did not rule out a presence in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, who want the eastern part of the city – captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally – as their own capital.

“I wanted to make clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Regarding specific borders, I will grant my support to what the two sides agree between themselves,” he told the conservative Israel Hayom daily, in remarks published in Hebrew.

“I think that both sides will have to make significant compromises in order for achieving a peace deal to be possible,” Trump added, without elaborating.

The interview coincided with fresh strains between the Palestinians and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, following the killing by a Palestinian of a Jewish settler.

After the settler was stabbed to death on Monday, Friedman tweeted that he had previously donated an ambulance to the slain man’s community and that he was praying for the next-of-kin, adding: “Palestinian ‘leaders’ have praised the killer.”

That drew a rebuke from the Palestinian administration.

“The American ambassador’s statements make us wonder about his relationship with the occupation,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement. “Is he representing America or Israel?”

“Friedman’s recommendations and advice, which do not aim to achieve a just peace on the basis of international legitimacy, are what led to this crisis in American-Palestinian relations,” Abu Rdainah said.

Friedman, among the top Trump advisers who promoted the Jerusalem move, is a former contributor to settler causes.

In addition to East Jerusalem, Palestinians want the occupied West Bank for a future state and see Israel’s Jewish settlements there as a major obstacle. Israel disputes this.

Most world powers deem the settlements illegal, but the Trump administration has taken a softer tack.

A liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published a column criticizing Friedman’s stance and dubbing the settlement he had supported as “a mountain of curses” – a play on its Hebrew name, Har Bracha, which means “Mount Blessing”.

The ambassador took the unusual step of firing back at the daily in another tweet on Friday: “Four young children are sitting shiva (Jewish mourning rite) for their murdered father …. Have they (Haaretz) no decency?”

Haaretz’s publisher, Amos Shocken, responded over the platform with a critique that echoed Palestinian complaints.

“As long as the policy of Israel that your Government and yourself support is obstructing (the) peace process … there will be more Shivas,” Shocken tweeted.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Taliban active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

Afghan security forces take position on a roof of a building the site of a blast and gunfire between Taliban and Afghan forces in PD 6 in Kabul, Afghanistan March 1, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, fully controlling 4 percent of the country and demonstrating an open physical presence in another 66 percent, according to a BBC study published on Tuesday.

The BBC estimate, which it said was based on conversations with more than 1,200 individual sources in all districts of the South Asian country, was significantly higher than the most recent assessment by the NATO-led coalition.

The coalition said on Tuesday that the Taliban contested or controlled only 44 percent of Afghan districts as of October 2017.

Afghanistan has been reeling over the past nine days from a renewed spate of violence that is adding scrutiny to the latest, more aggressive U.S.-backed strategy to bolster Afghan forces battling the Taliban in a 16-year-old war.

A bomb hidden in an ambulance struck the city center and killed more than 100 people, just over a week after an attack on the Hotel Intercontinental, also in Kabul, which left more than 20 people dead, including four U.S. citizens.

The BBC counted 399 districts in Afghanistan, but the NATO-led force counted 407. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

The BBC study said the Afghan government controlled 122 districts, or about 30 percent of the country. Still, it noted, that did not mean that they were free from Taliban attacks.

“Kabul and other major cities, for example, suffered major attacks – launched from adjacent areas, or by sleeper cells – during the research period, as well as before and after,” the report said.

Asked about the BBC’s study, the Pentagon did not comment directly, but pointed to the latest figures by the NATO-led coalition asserting that about 56 percent of Afghanistan’s territory was under Afghan government control or influence.

Captain Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the coalition in Kabul, said the BBC estimate overstated the militants’ “influence impact”.

“This is a criminal network, not a government in waiting,” Gresback said in an emailed statement.

“What really matters is not the number of districts held, but population controlled. RS assesses that around 12 percent of the population is actually under full Taliban control,” he said, referring to the Resolute Support mission.

The study by Britain’s public broadcaster quoted a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing down the findings.

The BBC study also said Islamic State had a presence in 30 districts, but noted it did not fully control any of them.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, addional reporting by Robert Birsel in KABUL; Editing by G Crosse and Nick Macfie)

Senior Yemen Qaeda leader calls for knife and car attacks on Jews

Defying warnings of new conflict, Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital

DUBAI (Reuters) – A senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has called for knife and car attacks on Jews in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the U.S. SITE monitoring group said on Tuesday.

Citing a video recording by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Malahem media foundation, SITE said that Khaled Batarfi, believed to be the number two man in AQAP after Qassim al-Raymi, also warned that no Muslim had the right to cede any part of Jerusalem.

“The Muslims inside the occupied land must kill every Jew, by running him over, or stabbing him, or by using against him any weapon, or by burning their homes,” Batarfi said in the 18-minute-long recording entitled “Our duty towards our Jerusalem”, according to SITE.

“Every Muslim must know that the Americans and the disbeliever West, and on top of them Britain and France, are the original reason behind the existence of the Jews in Palestine.”

Trump enraged Muslims last month when he announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he intends to transfer the U.S. embassy there.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on a regional visit, said on Monday that the U.S. Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv before the end of 2019.

Batarfi was one of some 150 jailed AQAP members who were freed when the militant group, regarded by the United States as one of the deadliest branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, captured the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in 2015, where he was held.

Yemeni forces, baked by a Saudi-led coalition have since recaptured Mukalla and driven AQAP out, but Batarfi, who has since assumed a senior position in the group, remains at large.

AQAP has plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP also has boasted of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and the Pentagon estimates it has between about 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

Batarfi said Muslims in Western countries, including the United States, were obliged to target the interests of Jews and the Americans.

“They must be eager to prepare themselves as much as possible, and to carry out jihadi operations against them,” he added, according to SITE.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City with its holy sites, as the capital of their own future state. Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967 in a move not internationally recognized, regards all of the city as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi)

U.N. says Syrian forces killed 85 civilians in besieged zone

A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 6, 2018.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and their allies have killed at least 85 civilians since Dec. 31 in stepped-up attacks against the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the U.N. human rights chief said on Wednesday.

Conditions in the enclave, the last major rebel-held zone near Damascus and where at least 390,000 civilians have been besieged for four years, amount to a humanitarian catastrophe, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“Residential areas are being hit day and night by strikes from the ground and from the air, forcing civilians to hide in basements,” he said in a statement.

Zeid said warring parties were obliged by law to distinguish between civilians and lawful military targets, and reports from Eastern Ghouta suggested of the attackers were flouting those principles, “raising concerns that war crimes may have been committed.”

Among the dead civilians were 21 women and 30 children, Zeid said.

Backed by Russian strikes, Syrian government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months. Russia rejects accusations that its jets have been targeting civilians.

Zeid said failure to evacuate urgent medical cases from the enclave was also against international humanitarian law.

Armed opposition groups holed up in Eastern Ghouta had also continued to fire rockets into residential areas of Damascus, which he said caused terror among the population.

A rocket landed near a bakery in Old Damascus on Jan. 4, killing a woman and injuring 13 other civilians, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and John Stonestreet)

New York to install 1,500 more sidewalk barriers after vehicle attacks

Additional bollards are seen on sidewalks and plazas to protect pedestrians in Times Square, New York City, New York, U.S., January 2, 2018.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City will install more than 1,500 new barrier posts on sidewalks and plazas to protect pedestrians from vehicles after at least two instances last year of drivers killing people after mounting the curb, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

The thin, cylindrical, waist-height metal bollards are intended to be a more attractive alternative to the hulking concrete blocks the New York Police Department had deposited in busier areas around the city following the vehicle attacks, de Blasio said.

“We understand what’s happening around the world and we even saw some tragedies here,” the mayor said at a Times Square announcement in front of a line of the posts. Similar bollards were installed in Times Square in 2016.

There has been a spate of attacks on pedestrians in European and U.S. cities by people using cars or trucks, a tactic that the Islamic State militant group encourages its supporters to use. In July 2016, a driver used a truck to kill 86 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. Similar carnage unfolded at a Christmas market in Berlin a few months later.

De Blasio spoke within sight of the place where an intoxicated man in May steered a car along sidewalks for three city blocks, killing a young woman and injuring at least 22 people.

Last November, a man was charged with murder and providing support to Islamic State after he plowed down people on a Manhattan bike lane the previous month, killing eight.

“We know we have to do even more to keep people safe,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. The city will spend an additional $50 million on installing the new bollards in busy, high-profile areas and other efforts to protect public spaces, the mayor said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Iranian protesters attack police stations, raise stakes in unrest

Opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London, Britain December 31, 2017.

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian protesters attacked police stations late into the night on Monday, news agency and social media reports said, as security forces struggled to contain the boldest challenge to the clerical leadership since unrest in 2009.

Videos on social media showed an intense clash in the central town of Qahderijan between security forces and protesters who were trying to occupy a police station, which was partially set ablaze. There were unconfirmed reports of several casualties among demonstrators.

In the western city of Kermanshah, protesters set fire to a traffic police post, but no one was hurt in the incident, Mehr news agency said.

Demonstrations continued for a fifth day. Some 13 people were reported killed on Sunday in the worst wave of unrest since crowds took to the streets in 2009 to condemn the re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The protests have put pressure on the clerical leaders in power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President Hassan Rouhani made a televised call for calm on Sunday, saying Iranians had the right to criticize but must not cause unrest.

In the central city of Najafabad, a demonstrator opened fire on police with a hunting rifle, killing one and wounding three others, state television said.

Earlier, state TV said armed demonstrators on Sunday had tried to seize police and military bases but were stopped by “strong resistance from security forces.” It gave no further details and there was no independent confirmation.

State TV had reported that 10 people were killed in protests on Sunday. On Monday, that death toll rose when the deputy governor of the western Hamadan Province, Saeed Shahrokhi, told ISNA news agency that another three protesters were killed on Sunday in the city of Tuyserkan.

“NO TOLERANCE”

Hundreds have been arrested, according to officials and social media. Online video showed police in the capital Tehran firing water cannon to disperse demonstrators, in footage said to have been filmed on Sunday.

Protests against economic hardships and alleged corruption erupted in Iran’s second city of Mashhad on Thursday and escalated across the country into calls for the religious establishment to step down.

Some of the anger was directed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, breaking a taboo surrounding the man who has been supreme leader of Iran since 1989.

Video posted on social media showed crowds of people walking through the streets, some chanting “Death to the dictator!” Reuters was not immediately able to verify the footage. The Fars news agency reported “scattered groups” of protesters in Tehran on Monday and said a ringleader had been arrested.

“The government will show no tolerance for those who damage public property, violate public order and create unrest in society,” Rouhani said in his address on Sunday.

Unsigned statements on social media urged Iranians to continue to demonstrate in 50 towns and cities.

The government said it was temporarily restricting access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram. There were reports that internet mobile access was blocked in some areas.

TRUMP, NETANYAHU VOICE SUPPORT

Iran is a major OPEC oil producer and regional power deeply involved in Syria and Iraq as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia. Many Iranians resent those foreign interventions, and want their leaders to create jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent last year.

Among reported fatalities, two people were shot dead in the southwestern town of Izeh on Sunday and several others were injured, ILNA news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying.

“I do not know whether yesterday’s shooting was done by rally participants or the police and this issue is being investigated,” Hedayatollah Khademi was quoted as saying.

Regional governor Mostafa Samali told Fars that only one person was killed in an incident unrelated to the protests, and the suspected shooter had been arrested.

Almost nine years since the “Green movement” reformist protests were crushed by the state, Iran’s adversaries voiced their support for the resurgence of anti-government sentiment.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the “brave Iranians” taking to streets to protest a regime that “wastes tens of billions of dollars spreading hate”.

“I wish the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel urged “all sides (to) refrain from violent actions”.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Robin Pomeroy and David Gregorio)