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)

Syrians displaced in the northwest call on Turkey to open border

A displaced Syrian child sleeps on a mat laid out on the floor in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Camped on the Turkish border to escape bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces, many displaced Syrians are angry and frustrated that Turkey has not done more to protect them from the bombs or let them cross the frontier to safety.

The border wall a few hundred meters (yards) away offers a degree of cover for thousands of people, since air strikes are rare so close to Turkey. But it also blocks any chance they have of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of refugees abroad.

“Turkey is our only option today,” said Abu Abdallah, 51, who left his village at the start of the war in 2011 to seek sanctuary near the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, until it was captured by Syrian government forces in early May.

“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians living in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves, some of them only 50 meters (yards) from the border.

Some 180,000 people were displaced by the recent attacks in northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. The increase in shelling killed dozens of people and marked the most intense period of violence for months between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, who launched a counter-attack last week.

The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. The dominant insurgent faction in the region is the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), although the army offensive has not focused on the central Idlib area where it is most concentrated, an HTS-aligned opposition figure said.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories which was set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

Shells from Syrian government territory also hit a Turkish military observation post, one of 12 set up near the Idlib borders by Ankara, which backs the rebels.

At the border, many of the displaced were angry at the lack of Turkish action in response to the recent offensive, and called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape.

“We didn’t ask to go into Turkey before,” said 32-year-old Khsara Ahmed al-Hussein. “But when you set up a de-escalation zone and … you guarantee that I won’t get struck, but then even the Turkish observation point is struck by the regime, then what’s the point of protection if you can’t even protect yourself?”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“LIKE WORLD WAR THREE”

When bombardment of Hussein’s village intensified, his family dug holes in the earth outside their house and slept in them. When the situation became unbearable, they headed to the border, where he has been living under trees for two weeks.

“There were eight planes in the air, bombing intensively, as if it were World War Three,” he said.

Air strikes have hit 18 health facilities and dozens of schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 38 children have been killed since the start of last month, Save the Children said.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said last week that attacks on schools and hospitals did not constitute fighting terrorism. His defense minister spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday about reducing tension in Idlib, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

Near the border village of Atmeh, dozens of people sat under trees with a few blankets and pillows arranged on the hard earth. A blue plastic tarp was draped over the trees to protect them from the burning sun.

Um Bassan wants to join her children who have been in Turkey for over a year, after she and their father spent everything they had to smuggle them out of Syria.

“I want this torture to end and to see my children,” she said. “No one prefers another country over their own, but I want release from the bombardment and to see my children there.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans and Edmund Blair)

Sri Lanka police discover suspected training camp for Islamist militants

A police officer stands inside a training camp allegedly linked to Islamist militants, in Kattankudy near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KATTANKUDY (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police on Sunday discovered a 10-acre camp in the eastern town of Kattankudy, where Islamist militants linked to the deadly Easter attacks are believed to have practiced shooting and bombmaking.

The walled terrain is nestled in a poor residential area on the outskirts of the home town of Zahran Hashim, who is believed to have been a key player in plotting the April 21 attacks. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the church and hotel bombings that killed more than 250 people.

A police officer stands inside a training camp allegedly linked to Islamist militants in Kattankudy, near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

A police officer stands inside a training camp allegedly linked to Islamist militants in Kattankudy, near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The narrow, sandy plot is dotted with a cinderblock four-story watchtower, as well as mango trees, a chicken coop and a goat shed.

“They wanted to show this place was normal. If someone comes to see, it looks like a farm. But what they were doing is terrorism,” said a senior police officer in the Batticaloa area, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Police found bullet holes in the wall on one side of the grounds, as well as long tubes suspected of holding bombs, the officer said.

Two owners of the plot of land have been arrested, the officer said.

(Reporting by Reporting By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam in KATTANKUDY, additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by A. Ananthalakshmi and David Goodman)

Father, two brothers of suspected Sri Lanka bombings mastermind killed in gun battle

A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alasdair Pal and Shri Navaratnam

KALMUNAI/COLOMBO (Reuters) – The father and two brothers of the suspected mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were killed when security forces stormed their safe house on the east coast two days ago, police and a relative said on Sunday.

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father Mohamed Hashim, who appear in a video circulating on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers, were among at least 15 killed in a fierce gun battle with the military on the east coast on Friday.

Kamal Jayanathdhi, the officer in charge at Kalmunai police station on the east coast, confirmed the three men had died along with a child that appears in the video, and that the undated clip in which they discuss martyrdom, had been shot in the same house where the gun battle took place.

Two people who were inside the house, a woman and a seven-year-old girl believed to be relatives of the men, survived, he said, while a woman was killed in crossfire on a nearby street.

Niyaz Sharif, the brother-in-law of Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the wave of Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the island nation, told Reuters the video showed Zahran’s two brothers and father.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since the attacks on Easter Sunday, with nearly 10,000 soldiers deployed across the island to carry out searches and hunt down members of two local Islamist groups believed to have carried out the attack.

Authorities have detained more than 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt since the April 21 bombings.

On Sunday police in the eastern town of Kattankudy raided a mosque founded by Zahran which doubled up as the headquarters of his group, the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ).

HOLY WAR

In the video, Rilwan Hashim is seen calling for ‘jihad’ or holy war, while children cry in the background.

“We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land and therefore we need to do jihad,” Rilwan says in the video, sitting beside his brother and father.

“We need to teach a proper lesson for these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims.”

Rilwan, who has a damaged eye and badly disfigured hand in the video, had recently been injured while making a bomb, Jayanathdhi said.

On Sunday, when Reuters visited the house, police were sifting through the wreckage, taking fingerprints and video footage.

Watermelon rinds and a box of dates were still on the kitchen counter, while four pairs of children’s flip-flops were by the front door.

But in the main room, where the three men filmed the video, a huge crater had punched a hole in the concrete floor, while bloodstains covered the wall.

LOCAL VIGILANCE

Two men had moved into the three-room rented house in the Sainthamaruthu area of Kalmunai, days before the Easter Sunday attacks, police and locals said. After more people arrived, locals grew suspicious, said Mohammed Majid, the secretary of the Grand Masjid Sainthamaruthu, one of the town’s main mosques.

After evening prayers on Friday, a group of men from the local Hijra Mosque came to the house to question the occupants.

When one man brandished an assault rifle, the men fled, alerting police who arrived shortly afterward. One man was killed after running into the street with a gun to confront police, while a series of explosions came from the house, eyewitnesses said.

DANGER REMAINS

Authorities suspect there may be more suicide bombers on the loose. Defense authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

At a nearby house where police seized more explosives and a flag of the Islamic State on Friday, locals said they feared more violence.

“People were coming and going but we didn&rsquo;t know their names,” said Juneedha Hasanar, who runs a shop at the bottom of the street, yards from the house. “Now we are afraid.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, and on Sunday the group said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours in Friday’s gun battle on the east coast before detonating their explosive vests, the militant group’s news agency Amaq said.

The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack, but the Sri Lankan military has denied this. A police source told Reuters two policemen were slightly injured in the battle.

Police have said six children were among the other 12 people who died in the gun battle, and on Sunday recovered the partial remains of a child no more than a few months old.

(Reporting Shri Navaratnam, Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Alasdair Pal in KALMUNNAI; editing by Richard Pullin and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Bombs kill more than 200 in Sri Lankan churches, hotels on Easter Sunday

Foreign relatives of a victim of the explosion react at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – More than 200 people were killed and at least 450 injured in bomb blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the first major attack on the Indian Ocean island since the end of a civil war 10 years ago.

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The government declared a curfew in Colombo and blocked access to social media and messaging sites, including Facebook and WhatsApp. It was unclear when the curfew would be lifted.

But in a sign that the attacks on three churches and four hotels could lead to communal violence, police reported on Sunday night that there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwestern district of Puttalum and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the western district of Kalutara.

The government has acknowledged that it had “prior information” of attacks on churches involving a little known local Islamist group but didn’t do enough about it.

Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.

In February-March last year, there were a series of religious clashes between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in the towns of Ampara and Kandy.

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

POLICE KILLED

On Sunday afternoon, three police officers were killed during a security forces raid on a house in the Sri Lankan capital several hours after the attacks, many of which officials said were suicide bomb explosions. Police reported an explosion at the house.

Thirteen arrests have been made, all of whom are Sri Lankans, police said.

“Altogether, we have information of 207 dead from all hospitals. According to the information as of now we have 450 injured people admitted to hospitals,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told reporters.

Government officials said that 32 foreigners were killed and 30 injured in the explosions that tore through congregations and gatherings in hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

They included five British people, two of whom had dual U.S. citizenship, and three Indians, according to officials in those countries.

Also among the fatalities were three people from Denmark, two from Turkey, and one from Portugal, Sri Lankan officials said. There were also Chinese and Dutch among the dead, according to media reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. nationals were among those killed, but did not give details.

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

PRIOR INFORMATION

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, a time when bomb blasts in the capital were common.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe acknowledged that the government had some “prior information of the attack”, though ministers were not told.

He said there wasn’t an adequate response and there needed to be an inquiry into how the information was used.

He also said the government needs to look at the international links of a local militant group.

Agence France Presse reported that it had seen documents showing that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”. He cited a foreign intelligence service as reporting that a little-known Islamist group was involved.

A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.

BLOOD ON CHURCH PEWS

Dozens were killed in one of the blasts at St. Sebastian’s Gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Gunasekera said the police suspected a suicide attack there. Pictures from the site showed bodies on the ground, blood on the church pews and a destroyed roof.

Local media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.

The hotels hit in Colombo were the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, the Cinnamon Grand and the Tropical Inn near the national zoo. There was no word on casualties in the hotels, but a witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground beside the Tropical Inn.

The first six explosions were all reported within a short period in the morning just as church services were starting.

One of the explosions was at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.

The explosion at the Tropical Inn happened later and there was an eighth explosion at the house that was the subject of the police raid in Colombo.

“I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” said Sri Lanka’s prime minister in a Tweet.

“Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

The military was deployed, a military spokesman said, and security stepped up at Colombo’s international airport. Schools, universities and the Colombo Stock Exchange will be closed on Monday as the island state tries to recover from the attacks.

ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS

The Christian community had already felt under pressure in Sri Lanka in recent years.

Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organizations.

This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.

The heads of major governments condemned the attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump said America offered “heartfelt condolences” to the Sri Lankan people and stood ready to help, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there was “no place for such barbarism in our region”, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the bombings were “an assault on all of humanity”.

Pope Francis, addressing people in St. Peter’s Square, said: “I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, where a gunman shot 50 people dead in two mosques last month, said in a statement: “Collectively we must find the will and the answers to end such violence.”

(Writing by John Chambers and Martin Howell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)

A legacy of war: U.N. clears thousands of explosives in Iraq

FILE PHOTO: Damaged buildings are seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations cleared almost 17,000 bombs, suicide belts and other explosive hazards in Iraq last year and the dangerous work of sifting through the debris of war – 7.6 million tonnes in Mosul alone – will take many years, U.N. experts said on Thursday.

There are 100,000 damaged buildings in the country that could harbor explosive hazards such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by retreating Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, said Pehr Lodhammar, head of the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq.

The bulk of the clearance work is likely to take a decade, and 2 million displaced people are keen to go home. UNMAS trained almost 500,000 people last year to help them recognize the risks.

Last year’s haul of around 17,000 explosive hazards included a “staggering” 2,000 IEDs, Lodhammer told a news conference, noting these had pressure plate fuse triggers, trip wires, infrared devices, anti-lift devices, remote control devices, or a combination of those things.

That figure included 782 suicide belts, many of them actually fitted on dead ISIS fighters found in the debris, he said.

Islamic State held Mosul for three years, and UNMAS arrived when the fighting ended in 2017. Its experts are finding explosive hazards almost everywhere, Lodhammar said. It is also working in Fallujah, Tikrit and Kirkuk, and expanding to Sinjar.

Picking through the flattened wreckage of Western Mosul in temperatures close to 40 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) is gruesome work and physically and psychologically demanding, UNMAS director Agn&egrave;s Marcaillou said.

“You have decomposing body parts that are still attached to suicide belts. You are walking around in a stench and clouds of flies, and at any given time you can have a rat or a cat or dog actually detonating something that is buried under there,” she said.

Lodhammar said the task was not traditional one-dimensional mine clearance.

“These are not mines any longer. An anti-personnel mine would have up to 230-250 grams (8.1-8.8 oz) of explosives in it. Now we’re looking at 10-20 kilos (22-44 lb).”

Buildings up to nine storeys high needed to be searched and made safe, while many of the bombs and shells dropped on Mosul by Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition had failed to go off, he said.

There were 250-pound (113 kg) bombs and 500-pound bombs, some still buried 7-8 meters (23-26 ft) down.

Generally at least 10 percent of bombs are assumed not to explode, and if not cleared away they may turn up decades later, like the World War Two bombs that are still discovered in Germany, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Mail bomb suspect in court on Monday as CNN reports fresh package

Cesar Altieri Sayoc appears in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. in this August 31, 2005 handout booking photo obtained by Reuters October 26, 2018. Hennepin County SheriffÕs Office/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A suspicious package addressed to CNN was intercepted in Atlanta, the network announced on Monday, as a man accused of mailing bombs to the network and some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s leading critics was due to make his first appearance before a federal judge in Miami on Monday.

The package addressed to the news network was intercepted at an Atlanta post office, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said in a post on Twitter.

Zucker said there was no imminent danger and that since Wednesday all mail to CNN has been screened at offsite facilities. The Time Warner Center in New York, where CNN’s New York operation is located, was evacuated on Wednesday after a suspicious package turned up there.

Cesar Sayoc, a former male stripper and part-time pizza deliveryman, was arrested on Friday on suspicion of mailing at least 14 pipe bombs to CNN, a range of prominent Democrats, and other frequent targets of Trump’s scorn, including former President Barack Obama. Sayoc was due to appear in court in Miami later on Monday.

(Writing by Rich McKay; editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)

FBI arrests man in Florida suspected of sending parcel bombs

New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers stand outside a U.S. Postal Service facility after a suspicious package was discovered there in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Zachary Fagenson and Bernie Woodall

PLANTATION, Fl. (Reuters) – Federal authorities arrested a man in Florida on Friday suspected of sending at least a dozen parcel bombs to high-profile critics of U.S. President Donald Trump days ahead of congressional elections, officials said.

Two federal law enforcement officials named the suspect as Cesar Sayoc, born in 1962. He was taken into custody in the parking lot of an AutoZone store in Plantation, near Fort Lauderdale, where two witnesses told Reuters they heard a loud blast at the time of the arrest.

Local television stations showed investigators using a large blue tarp to cover a white van that was plastered with decals and stickers, before removing it on a truck.

A federal law enforcement official said more arrests could follow. Another law enforcement source said charges would likely be brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

The U.S. Justice Department was due to hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT. (1830 GMT), a spokeswoman said.

No one had claimed responsibility for parcel bombs, which were denounced by authorities as terrorism, and came less than two weeks ahead of U.S. congressional elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington.

Police found two of the suspicious packages on Friday addressed to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and James Clapper, the former U.S. director of national intelligence, officials said.

The 11th package was addressed to Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, and was discovered at a mail sorting facility in Florida, the FBI said. A 12th package was addressed to Clapper at cable network CNN and was intercepted at a New York City post office, a federal law enforcement official said.

A thirteenth suspicious parcel was discovered addressed to Democratic U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, CNN said.

A federal law enforcement official said earlier on Friday that the focus had intensified on Florida as a key location for the investigation and possible point of origin of the packages.

Police closed roads around the AutoZone parking lot where Sayoc was arrested and helicopters flew overhead.

A man named Dre, a manager at a used car dealership next door to the AutoZone, said he heard a loud noise that sounded like an explosion shortly after 11 a.m.

“I heard like a bomb,” Dre, who declined to give his full name, said in a telephone interview. “I opened the door and saw the FBI there.”

Dre said they were told by FBI agents to stay inside as the area was on lockdown.

A woman who lives nearby and declined to give her name said she was in her yard weeding on Friday morning when she heard a loud bang, saw smoke and heard a lot of shouting.

‘SWIFT JUSTICE’

Florida Governor Rick Scott said he had been briefed on developments in the investigation.

“ANY attempt to harm others is disgusting and has no place in Florida or our country,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “I appreciate the hard work of law enforcement to bring swift justice to whoever is responsible for these cowardly acts.”

CNN reported that Sayoc has a criminal history and ties to New York. Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.All the people targeted by the suspicious packages have often been maligned by right-wing critics. They included former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and billionaire Democratic Party donor George Soros.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that at least five of the packages bore a return address from the Florida office of U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

There has been an outcry from Trump’s critics, who charged that his inflammatory rhetoric against Democrats and the press has created a climate for politically motivated violence.

After first calling for unity and civil discourse on Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Thursday at the “hateful” media. His supporters accused Democrats of unfairly suggesting the president was to blame for the bomb scare.

On Friday, Trump said the incidents were distracting from successful efforts by Republican candidates.

“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this “Bomb” stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”

None of the devices detonated and no one has been hurt. They were believed to have been fashioned from bomb-making designs widely available on the internet, according to a federal law enforcement source. Still, investigators have treated the devices as “live” explosives, not a hoax, officials said.

Investigators have declined to say whether they were built to be functional. Bomb experts and security analysts say that based on their rudimentary construction it appeared the devices were more likely designed to sow fear rather than to kill.

But two federal officials involved in the investigation cautioned that it was too early to say whether the devices were incapable of firing or were deliberately designed to frighten rather than explode.

Two packages were sent both to U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Others targeted for parcel bombs included former Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan and actor Robert De Niro.

“I thank God no one’s been hurt, and I thank the brave and resourceful security and law enforcement people for protecting us,” De Niro said in a statement. “There’s something more powerful than bombs, and that’s your vote. People MUST vote!”

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson and Bernie Woodall; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus, Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York, Mark Hosenball, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Police find packages sent to ex-U.S. intel chief Clapper, Senator Booker

A U.S. Postal Inspection Service facility is pictured near Miami International Airport, in Miami, Florida, U.S., October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Authorities found two more suspicious packages on Friday addressed to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and James Clapper, the former U.S. director of national intelligence, amid a manhunt for the person who sent bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of U.S. President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) walks to an elevator as he leaves the Senate chamber after a procedural vote on the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) walks to an elevator as he leaves the Senate chamber after a procedural vote on the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The 11th package was found at a mail sorting facility in Florida and was addressed to Booker, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, the FBI said on Twitter. A 12th package was addressed to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and sent to CNN, the cable network reported.

Meanwhile, a local police bomb squad and canine units joined federal investigators on Thursday to examine a sprawling U.S. mail distribution center at Opa-Locka, northwest of Miami, Miami-Dade County police said.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that Florida appeared to be the starting point for at least some of the bomb shipments.

“Some of the packages went through the mail. They originated, some of them, from Florida,” she said during an interview with Fox News Channel on Thursday. “I am confident that this person or people will be brought to justice.”

Authorities called the parcel bombs an act of terrorism. They were sent less than two weeks before national elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington.

FILE PHOTO: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U .S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

FILE PHOTO: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U .S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombs, and the public was asked to report any tips.

All the people targeted were frequently maligned by right-wing critics. They included Democratic Party donor George Soros, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that at least five of the packages bore a return address from the Florida office of U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Authorities believe the packages, which were intercepted before reaching their intended recipients, all went through the U.S. Postal Service at some point, a source said. None detonated and no one has been hurt.

The devices were thought to have been fashioned from bomb-making designs widely available on the internet, a federal law enforcement source told Reuters.

Still, investigators are treating the devices as “live” explosives, not a hoax, said James O’Neill, the New York City police commissioner. Two of the parcels surfaced there.

“It does remain possible that further packages have been or could be mailed,” William Sweeney, assistant director of the FBI, told a news conference in New York.

Investigators have declined to say whether the devices were built to be functional. Bomb experts and security analysts say that based on their rudimentary construction it appeared they were more likely designed to sow fear rather than to kill.

The parcels each consisted of a manila envelope with a bubble-wrap interior containing “potentially destructive devices,” the FBI said. Each was affixed with a computer-printed address label and six U.S. “Forever” postage stamps, the agency said.

Others who received the bombs were former Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters of California, and actor Robert De Nero. Two packages were sent both to Waters and Biden.

Brennan’s package was sent in care of the New York bureau of CNN, where he has appeared as an on-air analyst.

The episode sparked an outcry from Trump’s critics, who charged that his inflammatory rhetoric against Democrats and the press has created a climate for politically motivated violence.

After first calling for “unity” and civil discourse on Wednesday, Trump lashed out again Thursday at the “hateful” media. His supporters accused Democrats of unfairly suggesting the president was to blame for the bomb scare.

“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, “it’s just not Presidential!” Trump said on Twitter at about 3:15 a.m. EST (0715 GMT) on Friday.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Second day of bombs target Democrats, critics of Trump

Police officers check a street after a suspected bomb was found in New York City, U.S., October 25, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Terry McAllister/via REUTERS

By Susan Heavey and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Authorities discovered suspicious packages sent to former Vice President Joe Biden and actor Robert de Niro on Thursday, a day after several high-profile Democrats and critics of U.S. President Donald Trump were targeted with similar devices.

None of the nine confirmed devices exploded but authorities stepped up their manhunt for the would-be serial bomber, with crucial congressional elections less than two weeks away in what has become a contentious campaign season.

Leading Democrats called the threats a symptom of a coarsening brand of political rhetoric promoted by Trump, who also condemned the acts but blamed the media, his frequent foil, for much of the angry tone of the time.

A suspicious package addressed to Biden was found at a mail facility in New Castle County in Delaware, a federal law enforcement official told Reuters. MSNBC reported a second suspicious package also was discovered.

De Niro, who received a loud ovation when he hurled an obscenity at Trump at the Tony Awards last June, also was targeted, the official said.

At a Wisconsin rally Wednesday night Trump, who has denounced the media as an “enemy of the people,” called attention to “how nice I’m behaving tonight” but on Thursday morning he attacked the media.

“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” Trump wrote. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

All the people who were targeted are frequently maligned by right-wing critics, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder.

Also targeted were former CIA Director John Brennan, prominent Democratic Party donor George Soros and California Representative Maxine Waters, an outspoken critic of Trump. Two packages were sent to Waters, who Trump has called “an extraordinarily low IQ person.”

The bomb packages were sent as the nation prepared for Nov. 6 elections that will decide whether Democrats take control of one or both houses of Congress from Republicans and deny Trump the majority his party now holds in both chambers.

There has been no claim of responsibility.

Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, described the package bombs as an act of terrorism.

“Someone is trying to intimidate. Someone is trying to quash voices in this country using violence,” De Blasio said. “I am confident that we will find the perpetrator or perpetrators.”

The CNN bureau in New York received a package addressed to Brennan, who has appeared as a CNN analyst, leading police to evacuate the Time Warner building in a busy Manhattan neighborhood near Central Park.

The package sent to CNN, which Trump has frequently derided for its coverage of him, contained an envelope of white powder that experts were analyzing, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

‘AGGRESSIVE INVESTIGATION’

Trump told the Wisconsin rally his government would conduct “an aggressive investigation.”

“Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself,” Trump said. “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony.”

Last week, Trump, who joined other Republicans in accusing Democrats of encouraging “mob” tactics, heaped praise on a Montana congressional candidate who assaulted a reporter during his successful 2017 campaign.

The first package turned up on Monday and was addressed to Soros, the billionaire financier and advocate of liberal, open-border values who is a frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theories.

The parcel intended for Holder ended up rerouted to the return address printed on all the packages – the Florida office of U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, according to the FBI.

The FBI said on Wednesday the packages consisted of a manila envelope with a bubble-wrap interior containing “potentially destructive devices.” Each bore a computer-printed address label and six “Forever” postage stamps, the FBI said.

Other officials said the devices contained in the envelopes were similar to the one found in the mailbox of the Soros home and later detonated by police. At least one bomb was packed with shards of glass, a federal source said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe)