Palestinians rally against Kushner’s economic peace plan

A Palestinian boy hurls stones at Israeli forces during clashes at a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan, near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinians burned portraits of President Donald Trump as they protested in both the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday against U.S.-led plans for a conference on their economy in Bahrain.

Many Palestinian business groups have said they will boycott the June 25-26 event, billed as part of Washington’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and spearheaded by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“Down with Bahrain, down with Trump, down with the Manama conference,” chanted crowds in Gaza, which is ruled by the armed Islamist group Hamas. Some burned large paintings of Trump marked with the words: “Deal of the devil”.

Leaders in both territories have accused Washington of pro-Israel bias and railed against the conference’s focus on economics, rather than their aspirations for an independent state.

Kushner told Reuters on Saturday the plan would create a million jobs, halve Palestinian poverty and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

In the West Bank, hundreds marched through Ramallah’s main squares, waving posters in support of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the territory.

Protesters there burned posters of both Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The rallies marked a moment of political unity against the Bahrain conference, despite a 12-year political feud between Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.

“A WEDDING WITHOUT THE BRIDE”

“The Manama conference is a comedy show, a wedding without the bride (the Palestinians) … it will not succeed,” said a protester who gave her name as Siham in Gaza City.

The Bahrain conference will be attended by Gulf Arab states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Israel is expected to send a business delegation but no government officials.

Mahmoud Barhoush, 25, said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what he called Arab states’ “treasonous” participation.

“Enough of your running into the arms of Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” he said at the Ramallah protest.

Other demonstrators criticized the lone Palestinian businessman named as an expected attendee in Bahrain, Ashraf Jabari. A U.S. official told Reuters that at least 15 Palestinians were expected to attend.

“Whoever attends is not a Palestinian and is not welcomed in Palestine. There should be measures taken against them,” said Maisoon Alqadoomi, 32, a Fatah activist from Ramallah.

Palestinian leaders on Monday renewed their calls for a boycott of the conference.

“This workshop is simply a political laundry for settlements and a legitimization of occupation,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told journalists ahead of a cabinet meeting.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said: “They (Palestinians) will not sell out their rights for all treasures on earth”.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Twitter tumbles on fear of conservative backlash

A 3D printed Twitter logo is seen in front of displayed stock graph in this illustration picture made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Noel Randewich

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Shares of Twitter Inc tumbled 6 percent on Thursday after reports that Fox News had not tweeted for three weeks sparked fears of a backlash by conservatives protesting a perceived liberal bias by the company.

Twenty-First Century Fox Inc’s Fox News has not tweeted to its 18.3 million followers since Nov. 8, an apparent boycott of the social network, Politico reported on Wednesday.

It stopped tweeting after activists used Twitter to post the home address of prominent news host Tucker Carlson, media news site Mediaite reported on Nov. 9. Demonstrators targeted Carlson’s home in Washington with a protest and shouted threats, he told the Washington Post.

Fox News and Twitter declined to comment.

Facebook and other social media networks are facing calls for increased regulation and criticism of their handling of user data and the role their platforms have played in a divisive U.S. political climate in recent years.

Still, analysts viewed Thursday’s stock drop as an over-reaction.

“I think the people who want to be alarmist will say this is the first step toward losing the conservatives, and that this could snowball. But at this point, I think that’s overly alarmist, and I don’t see it as a big deal. So I see this as a buying opportunity,” said FBN analyst Shebly Seyrafi, who has an “outperform” rating on Twitter’s stock.

Last month, Twitter posted quarterly results that far exceeded Wall Street’s estimates even after it purged millions of fake accounts used for disinformation and other abuses.

Conservatives in the past have complained about having their accounts unfairly closed by Twitter, and about alleged political bias in the California company’s rules.

Twitter this week reinstated the account of conservative commentator Jesse Kelly after U.S. Senator-elect Josh Hawley said that Congress should investigate the company after it closed Kelly’s account, and the account of Canadian feminist Megan Murphy.

The company said on Wednesday that it had suspended an account for impersonating Russian President Vladimir Putin.

(Reporting by Noel Randewich, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Erdogan says Turkey will boycott U.S. electronics, lira steadies

Businessmen holding U.S. dollars stand in front of a currency exchange office in response to the call of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Turks to sell their dollar and euro savings to support the lira, in Ankara, Turkey August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler and Behiye Selin Taner

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Turkey would boycott electronic products from the United States, retaliating in a row with Washington that helped drive the lira to record lows.

The lira has lost more than 40 percent this year and crashed to an all-time low of 7.24 to the dollar on Monday, hit by worries over Erdogan’s calls for lower borrowing costs and worsening ties with the United States.

The lira’s weakness has rippled through global markets. Its drop of as much as 18 percent on Friday hit European and U.S. stocks as investors fretted about banks’ exposure to Turkey.

On Tuesday the lira recovered some ground, trading at 6.4000 to the dollar at 1751 GMT, up almost eight percent from the previous day’s close and having earlier touched 6.2995.

It was supported by news of a planned conference call in which the finance minister will seek to reassure investors concerned by Erdogan’s influence over the economy and his resistance to interest rate hikes to tackle double-digit inflation.

Erdogan says Turkey is the target of an economic war and has made repeated calls for Turks to sell their dollars and euros to shore up the national currency.

“Together with our people, we will stand decisively against the dollar, forex prices, inflation and interest rates. We will protect our economic independence by being tight-knit together,” he told members of his AK Party in a speech.

The United States has imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the trial on terrorism charges of a U.S. evangelical pastor in Turkey, and last week Washington raised tariffs on Turkish metal exports.

It was unclear whether Erdogan’s call was widely heeded, but a Turkish news agency said traders in Istanbul’s historic Eminonu district converted $100,000 into lira on Tuesday.

Chanting “Damn America”, they unfurled a banner saying “we will win the economic war”, the Demiroren agency said. Amid calls to “burn” the dollars, the group headed to a bank branch where they converted the money, it said.

Erdogan also said Turkey was boycotting U.S. electronic products. “If they have iPhones, there is Samsung on the other side, and we have our own Vestel here,” he said, referring to the Turkish electronics company, whose shares rose 5 percent.

His call met a mixed response on Istanbul streets.

“We supported him with our lives on July 15,” shopkeeper Arif Simsek said, referring to a failed 2016 military coup. “And now we will support him with our goods. We will support him until the end.”

But shopkeeper Umit Yilmaz scoffed. “I have a 16-year-old daughter. See if you can take her iPhone away … All these people are supposed to not buy iPhones now? This can’t be.”

INVESTMENT INCENTIVES

Erdogan said his government would offer further incentives to companies planning to invest in Turkey and said firms should not be put off by economic uncertainty.

“If we postpone our investments, if we convert our currency to foreign exchange because there’s danger, then we will have given into the enemy,” he said.

Although the lira gained some respite on Tuesday, investors say measures taken by the Central Bank on Monday to ensure liquidity failed to address the root cause of lira weakness.

“What you want to see is tight monetary policy, a tight fiscal policy and a recognition that there might be some short-term economic pain — but without it there’s just no credibility of promises to restabilize things,” said Craig Botham, Emerging Markets Economist at Schroders.

Dollar-denominated bonds issued by selected Turkish banks continued to fall on Tuesday, although sovereign bonds steadied.

Relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States are at a low point, hurt by a series of issues from diverging interests in Syria, Ankara’s plan to buy Russian defense systems and the detention of pastor Andrew Brunson.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on Monday met Turkey’s ambassador to the United States to discuss Brunson’s detention. Following the meeting, U.S. officials have given no indication that the United States has been prepared to give ground in the standoff between the two countries’ leaders.

Ankara has repeatedly said the case was up to the courts and a Turkish judge moved Brunson from jail to house arrest in July. Infuriated by the move, Trump placed sanctions on two Turkish ministers and doubled tariffs on metal imports, adding to the lira’s slide.

Brunson’s lawyer said on Tuesday he had launched a fresh appeal to a Turkish court for the pastor’s release.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Ezgi Erkoyun, Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Dominic Evans, Editing by William Maclean and Jon Boyle)

A Venezuelan paradox: Maduro’s critics long for change but won’t vote

A motorcycle passes graffiti painted on a fence in Caracas, Venezuela May 12, 2018. Graffiti reads: "Do not vote, please I beg you". Picture taken on May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Months before Venezuela’s opposition coalition called for abstention in Sunday’s presidential election, college student Ana Romano had already decided not to vote.

While volunteering as a witness in October’s election for state governors, Romano said, she lost count of the number of times activists for the ruling Socialist Party walked into voting booths on the pretext of “assisting” voters – a tactic the opposition says is illegal intimidation.

Romano said pro-government workers at the voting center in the rural state of Portuguesa also refused to close its doors at 6:00 p.m. as per regulations, keeping it open for an extra hour while Socialist Party cadres rounded up votes.

Her experience illustrates why some in Venezuela’s opposition say they will boycott Sunday’s presidential vote despite anger at the South American nation’s unraveling under unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

“It was four of them against me and I was 20 years old: I couldn’t do anything,” Romano said, adding that she did not file an official report because the other poll center workers would not have signed it – and because there was no paper available to do so.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this upcoming election,” Romano said. “We’ve already made that mistake.”

Reuters could not independently verify details of her account. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council – the government body in charge of organizing elections – did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Venezuela, a once-wealthy OPEC nation, is suffering hyperinflation and widespread food shortages as its economy collapses, leading hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries.

Yet, despite popularity ratings languishing around 20 percent, Maduro is expected to secure a second, six-year term in his deeply divided country, in part due to low opposition turnout.

Some opposition members say participation would be pointless in the face of efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of Maduro, a former union leader who was elected in 2013 after the death of his mentor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

They cite tactics ranging from the kind of small-scale election-center tricks described by Romano to the detention of the most prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the coercion of government workers to vote for Maduro and the heavy use of state resources in his campaign.

Many in the opposition say there are inadequate guarantees of a free and fair vote: they point to a ban on Western election observers. The government says they would violate its national sovereignty.

The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an independent local election monitoring group, has also flagged problems that include an inadequate timeframe to update the electoral register and develop a network of poll center witnesses, and a reduction in real-time audits of results.

Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government, has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.

Breaking the opposition boycott is former state governor Henri Falcon. Opposition leaders have attacked Falcon – a former Chavez ally or ‘Chavista’ – as a stooge who is only running to legitimize Maduro’s reelection.

Falcon, an ex-soldier and two-time governor of Lara state, counters that they are ceding power to Maduro without a fight and insists he would win if discontented Venezuelans turned out to vote.

“So now I’m a ‘Chavista’ just because I have common sense, because I take a clear position and because I act responsibly toward my country?” Falcon said when asked recently by reporters about the opposition’s criticism.

Falcon’s camp was not immediately available for comment for this story.

Maduro and allies deny the elections are unfair and insist the fractured opposition was beaten in October because its voters did not participate – an argument supported by statistics showing low turnout in its strongholds.

“We have an advantage, which is the strength of the people. That can’t be called an unfair advantage,” Maduro said last month.

Participation forecasts vary but, in general, pollsters believe turnout for Sunday’s vote will be far lower than the 80 percent in the last presidential elections in 2013, when Maduro narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who is banned from running this time.

One survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed that the number of people who said they were “very likely” to vote – its most accurate indicator of how many people will participate – had fallen close to 30 percent in March.

In the Caracas slum of La Vega, Jose Vasquez, 49, described the election as too unfair to warrant participation.

“It’s like a game in which the referee is a family member of the other team’s captain,” said Vasquez, selling 40 gram (1 oz) bags of coffee and sugar on a small table in the street. “Why would I waste my time?

ELECTORAL OBSTACLE COURSE

During his 14 years as president, Chavez racked up repeated ballot-box victories thanks to his charisma and generous spending of Venezuela’s oil revenues – much of it on popular health and nutrition programs, as well as on his own electoral campaigns.

The opposition has cried fraud in the past without demonstrating evidence of it, including after a 2004 recall referendum that Chavez won.

But October’s vote included one incident that some opposition sympathizers see as a tipping point: election officials manually changed results at several voting centers in Bolivar state to tip the result in favor of the Socialist Party candidate, according to election center witnesses.

The witnesses produced official poll statements from their voting centers showing that the number of votes for the opposition candidate was higher than those reflected in the National Electoral Council figures for those same centers.

The elections council – stacked with Maduro’s supporters – has never clarified the issue and did not answer Reuters questions regarding the incident.

Maduro’s government has never commented.

More commonly, the opposition has complained of obstacles that reduce the likelihood of their supporters voting but are difficult to classify as fraud in a traditional sense – such as last-minute changes to the location of voting centers.

In the central state of Lara, Alfredo Alvarez learned just days before the October vote that the elections council had changed his voting center – along with that of an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans in 200 voting centers in predominantly opposition areas.

Alvarez, a 62-year-old journalist, had to drive around the city of Barquisimeto for several hours because he could not get a clear answer on where he was supposed to vote.

“I had to investigate: I had to go to five different voting centers. Who can vote under those conditions?” asked Alvarez, who said he ultimately cast his ballot in a polling center run by Socialist Party activists that had no opposition witnesses.

“I’ve been voting since 1973, but I’m not voting in this election. Not under these circumstances.”

Election officials said the changes were necessary primarily because of security concerns, given that some of the centers were near the site of violent opposition protests. Those protests had ended nearly three months before.

Electoral Council officials were not immediately available to explain that discrepancy.

(For a graphic on ‘Latin America’s upcoming elections’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1)

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Miguel Angel Sulabaran, Maria de los Angeles Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Vivian Sequera in Turmero; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Hollywood executives back Netflix over anti-Israel ‘Fauda’ boycott

A scene from the Israeli television series Fauda. REUTERS/Courtesy Netflix

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – More than 50 Hollywood executives have thrown their support behind Netflix, which is facing a campaign by a Palestinian-led movement to drop Israeli television series “Fauda” from its streaming platform.

In a letter on Tuesday to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, the executives from record labels and Hollywood talent agencies called the move by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement a “blatant attempt at artistic censorship.”

“Fauda” is an Israeli-made television thriller set in the West Bank about an Israeli undercover agent who comes out of retirement to hunt for a Palestinian militant.

The show, which features dialog in both Hebrew and Arabic, was first broadcast on Israeli television in 2015 and premiered on Netflix in December 2016. Netflix is due to release the second season in May.

In a posting on its website last week, the BDS called on Netflix to “nix ‘Fauda’,” saying the series “glorifies the Israeli military’s war crimes against the Palestinian people.”

“Failing to do so will open Netflix to nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability,” the posting added.

Netflix declined to comment on Wednesday.

In its letter of support, the U.S.-based Creative Community for Peace called “Fauda” a “nuanced portrayal of issues related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

“We want you to know that we stand behind you and Netflix in the face of this blatant attempt at artistic censorship,” the letter said. Signatories included Universal Music Publishing Group Chief Executive Jody Gerson, Geffen Records president Neil Jacobson and Steve Schnur, music president at videogame producer Electronic Arts.

The campaign against “Fauda” is the latest move since 2005 by BDS to promote a global cultural boycott against Israel.

It has succeeded in recent years in dissuading a number of music acts, including Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, from performing in Israel.

(This version of the story corrects typographical error in penultimate paragraph to against instead of again)

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Russia, China, others boycott U.S. meeting at U.N. on Venezuela

Russia, China, others boycott U.S. meeting at U.N. on Venezuela

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia, China, Egypt and Bolivia boycotted an informal public United Nations Security Council meeting on Venezuela on Monday organized by the United States, saying the 15-member body should not be involved in the situation.

“The issue is about meddling with the internal domestic affairs of Venezuela,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters, adding that he hoped the country could settle its issues peacefully without any external interference.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the meeting: “The fact that the (Venezuelan) government would go so far as to try and get people not to show up to a meeting is guilt. And that’s unfortunate.”

Venezuela is suffering from a harsh economic crisis and President Nicolas Maduro’s government has clamped down on the opposition, jailing or otherwise barring from office many dissenting leaders and activists.

Dozens of people have died in violence since the opposition began a sustained wave of protests in April. Met by rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas fired by the National Guard, the protesters say the crisis demands an early presidential election that they are sure Maduro would lose.

His popularity has been pounded lower by triple-digit inflation and acute food and medicine shortages.

“We received pressure from regional partners not to have this meeting,” Haley said. “This goal is not to degrade anyone. This is not to humiliate a region. This is only to lift up the region.”

Uruguay’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Luis Bermudez attended the U.N. meeting, but said his country did not believe the situation in Venezuela was a threat to international peace and security.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Rafael Dario Ramirez spoke to reporters as the meeting was being held, flanked by Nebenzia, Chinese Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wu Haitao and Bolivian U.N. Ambassador Sacha Sergio Llorentty Soliz.

“The meeting is a hostile and clearly interfering act of the United States that undermines the principle of sovereignty of a member state of the U.N.,” Ramirez said. “We condemn this act of political manipulation.”

European Union foreign ministers approved economic sanctions, including an arms embargo, on Venezuela on Monday, saying regional elections last month marred by reported irregularities had deepened the country’s crisis.

The United States has also imposed targeted sanctions on top Venezuelan officials.

The U.N. Security Council also met behind closed doors in May, at Washington’s request, to discuss the crisis in Venezuela.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Qatar says no sign Arab states willing to negotiate over boycott

Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani gestures during a joint news conference with Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Doha, Qatar August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

DOHA (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that his country was willing to negotiate an end to a Gulf diplomatic rift but had seen no sign that Saudi Arabia and other countries imposing sanctions on Doha were open to mediation.

Kuwait and the United States are trying to heal a bitter dispute between Qatar and four Arab countries that has damaged business ties and disrupted travel for thousands of citizens in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Emirates severed political and trade ties with the small gas-rich country on June 4, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charges.

A visit this week to the UAE and Qatar by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed no signs of having eased tensions among the Gulf Arab powers.

“Qatar maintains its position that this crisis can only be achieved through a constructive dialogue … but the blockading counties are not responding to any efforts being conducted by Kuwait or other friendly countries,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told reporters in Doha on Wednesday at a news conference with his Russian counterpart.

The UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, in an interview with U.S.-based magazine the Atlantic on Monday, said his country would negotiate with Qatar so long as Doha did not set any preconditions for talks.

Sheikh Mohammed said on Wednesday Qatar planned to bolster trade with Russia, one of the world’s biggest gas exporters, and that Qatar could no longer rely on neighboring states to support its economy or guarantee food security.

Lavrov said if face-to-face negotiations started, Russia would be ready to contribute to the mediation and that it was in Russia’s interest “for the GCC to be united and strong”.

(Reporting by Tom Finn; Editing by Alison Williams)

Qatar Airways evaluates routes opened by boycotting countries

FILE PHOTO: Qatar Airways aircraft at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon/File Photo

DOHA (Reuters) – Qatar Airways is evaluating whether it will use air routes which media reports said were opened this week by countries embroiled in a political dispute with Qatar, the airline’s chief executive said on Wednesday.

Qatari-owned aircraft are blocked from using the airspace of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as part of economic sanctions enforced by the four countries in June.

Qatar Airways is studying “the flexibility and benefit” of one “very short route” while another route off the Egyptian coast was “useless” to the airline, Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker said at a Doha press conference.

Al-Baker did not say where the short route was located or when the airline would decide if it would use the routes.

The United Nation’s aviation agency said on Aug. 8 Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to open some of its airspace to Qatari aircraft, according to media reports.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE severed ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants.

Qatar has denied the allegations.

The airspace closures have forced Qatar Airways to fly longer, more expensive routes, prompting Doha to call for the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization to intervene.

 

(Reporting by Tom Finn, writing by Alexander Cornwell. Editing by Jane Merriman)

 

Deadly protests mar Venezuela ballot as voters snub Maduro assembly

Flames erupt as clashes break out near security forces members (R) while the Constituent Assembly election is being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela,

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela, (Reuters) – Deadly protests rocked Venezuela on Sunday as voters broadly boycotted an election for a constitutional super-body that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a “new era of combat” in the crisis-stricken nation.

Anti-Maduro activists wearing hoods or masks erected barricades on roads, and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse demonstrators who denounced the election as a naked power grab by the president.

Authorities said 10 people were killed in the confrontations, which made Sunday one of the deadliest days since massive protests started in early April.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro show his ballot as casts his vote at a polling station during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela July 30, 2017.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro show his ballot as casts his vote at a polling station during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela July 30, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Maduro, widely disliked for overseeing an unraveling of Venezuela’s economy, has promised the assembly will bring peace by way of a new constitution after four months of opposition protests in which more than 120 people have been killed.

Opposition parties sat out the election, saying it was rigged to increase Maduro’s powers, a view shared by countries including Spain, Canada, Colombia and the United States.

The Trump administration is considering imposing U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil sector in response to Sunday’s election, U.S. officials said.

Potential U.S. sanctions on sales of light crude to Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA would hamper its already weak refining network.

Caracas was largely shut down, streets were deserted and polling stations were mostly empty, dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the vote. A bomb exploded in the capital and wounded seven police officers in what could be the spread of more aggressive tactics.

Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power. The opposition vowed to hold protests again on Monday and to keep pressuring Maduro’s cash-strapped government until he’s forced from office.

“Even if they win today, this won’t last long,” said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old doctor in a wealthier Caracas district. “I’ll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end.”

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader narrowly elected in 2013, dismisses criticism of the assembly as right-wing propaganda aimed at sabotaging the brand of socialism created by his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

“The ’emperor’ Donald Trump wanted to halt the Venezuelan people’s right to vote,” said Maduro as he rapidly voted at 6 a.m. in a low-income area of Caracas that has turned on the government.

“A new era of combat will begin. We’re going all out with this constituent assembly,” he said.

But with polls showing some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the vote, the country’s 2.8 million state employees are under huge pressure to participate – with some two dozen sources telling Reuters they were being threatened with dismissal. Workers were being blasted with text messages and phone calls asking them to vote and report back after doing so.

The opposition estimated participation was at around a paltry 12 percent, but warned the government was gearing up to announce some 8.5 million people had voted.

 

‘SLAP MADURO’

Fueling anger against Maduro is an unprecedented economic meltdown in the country of some 30 million people, which was once a magnet for European migrants thanks to an oil boom that was the envy of Latin America.

However, nearly two decades of heavy currency and price controls have asphyxiated business. Venezuelans have seen their purchasing power shredded by the world’s highest inflation rate.

Millions of Venezuelans now struggle to eat three times a day due to shortages of products as basic as rice and flour.

“Sometimes I take bread from my mouth and give it to my two kids,” said pharmacy employee Trina Sanchez, 28, as she waited for a bus to work. “This is a farce. I want to slap Maduro.”

To show the massive scale of public anger, the opposition organized an unofficial referendum over Maduro’s plan earlier this month.

More than 7 million voters overwhelmingly rejected the constituent assembly and voted in favor of early elections.

The opposition’s bid last year to hold a recall referendum against Maduro was rejected, regional elections have been postponed and the president has repeatedly ignored Congress.

 

BOMB BLAST

In Sunday’s gravest incident, a bomb went off as a group of police officers on motorbikes sped past Caracas’ Altamira Plaza, an opposition stronghold. The state prosecutor’s office said seven officers were wounded and four motorbikes incinerated.

Clashes were also reported in the volatile Andean state of Tachira, whose capital is San Cristobal, where witnesses told Reuters an unidentified group of men had showed up at two separate street protests and shot at demonstrators.

Fatalities over the weekend included two teenagers and a candidate to the assembly killed during a robbery in the jungle state of Bolivar. The state’s Socialist Party governor, Francisco Rangel, said the death was a “political hit job” and blamed it on the opposition.

Supporters of “Chavismo,” the movement founded by Chavez, Maduro’s more charismatic predecessor who enjoyed high oil prices for much of his mandate, said they wanted to halt the unrest.

“The (opposition) wants deaths and roadblocks and the government wants peace,” said Olga Blanco, 50, voting for candidates to the assembly at a school in Caracas.

The assembly is due to sit within 72 hours of results being certified, with government loyalists such as powerful Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Maduro’s wife and son expected to win seats.

 

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Girish Gupta, Corina Pons, Jaczo Gomez, Hugh Bronstein and Carlos Garcia in Caracas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Matt Spetalnick and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

 

Arab states demand Qatar closes Jazeera, cuts back ties to Iran

The Al Jazeera Media Network logo is seen on its headquarters building in Doha, Qatar June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon - RTX39N4R

By William Maclean and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Four Arab states boycotting Qatar over alleged support for terrorism have sent Doha a list of 13 demands including closing Al Jazeera television and reducing ties to their regional adversary Iran, an official of one of the four countries said.

The demands aimed at ending the worst Gulf Arab crisis in years appear designed to quash a two decade-old foreign policy in which Qatar has punched well above its weight, striding the stage as a peace broker, often in conflicts in Muslim lands.

Doha’s independent-minded approach, including a dovish line on Iran and support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has incensed some of its neighbors who see political Islamism as a threat to their dynastic rule.

The list, compiled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, which cut economic, diplomatic and travel ties to Doha on June 5, also demands the closing of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the official told Reuters.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik rejected the demand, saying any call for the base to be shut would represent interference in Ankara’s relations with Doha. He suggested instead that Turkey might bolster its presence.

“Strengthening the Turkish base would be a positive step in terms of the Gulf’s security,” he said. “Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda.”

Qatar must also announce it is severing ties with terrorist, ideological and sectarian organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Arab official said, and surrender all designated terrorists on its territory.

QATAR WON’T NEGOTIATE UNDER BOYCOTT

The four Arab countries accuse Qatar of funding terrorism, fomenting regional instability and cozying up to revolutionary theocracy Iran. Qatar has denied the accusations.

Qatari officials did not reply immediately to requests for comment. But on Monday, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said Qatar would not negotiate with the four states unless they lifted their measures against Doha.

The countries give Doha 10 days to comply, failing which the list becomes “void”, the official said without elaborating, suggesting the offer to end the dispute in return for the 13 steps would no longer be on the table.

“The demands are so aggressive that it makes it close to impossible to currently see a resolution of that conflict,” said Olivier Jakob, a strategist at Switzerland-based oil consultancy Petromatrix.

Several Qataris who spoke to Reuters described the demands as unreasonable. “Imagine another country demanding that CNN be closed,” said 40-year-old Haseeb Mansour, who works for telecom operator Ooredoo.

Abdullah al-Muhanadi, a retired public sector shopping for groceries in Doha on Friday morning, said the boycott must be lifted before negotiations to resolve the dispute could start.

“There’s a lot on the list that is simply not true or unreasonable, so how can we comply?” he said. “There are no IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) elements in Qatar and the agreement with Turkey is a long-standing diplomatic agreement so we cannot ask them to leave.”

The demands, handed to Qatar by mediator Kuwait also require that Qatar stop interfering in the four countries’ domestic and foreign affairs and stop a practice of giving Qatari nationality to citizens of the four countries, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Qatar must pay reparations to these countries for any damage or costs incurred over the past few years because of Qatari policies, he added. Any resulting agreement to comply with the demands will be monitored, with monthly reports in the first year, then every three months the next year, then annually for 10 years, the official said without elaborating.

U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a tough stance on Qatar, accusing it of being a “high level” sponsor of terrorism, but he has also offered help to the parties in the dispute to resolve their differences.

Turkey has backed Qatar during the three-week-old crisis. It sent its first ship carrying food aid to Qatar and dispatched a small contingent of soldiers and armored vehicles there on Thursday, while President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Saudi Arabia’s leaders on calming tension in the region.

(Additional reporting by Tom Finn and Tom Arnold in Doha, and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Rania El Gamal, Paul Tait and Richard Balmforth)