Authorities must do more to meet airport drone threat: UK police chief

FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait around in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – Government and security officials must “up their game” to tackle the illegal use of drones at airports which brought chaos to London’s Gatwick airport in the run-up to Christmas, Britain’s most senior police officer said on Thursday.

Three days of drone sightings at Britain’s second busiest airport lead to about 1,000 flight cancellations and disrupted the travel of 140,000 passengers in what is thought to be the most disruptive incident of its kind.

London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said no police force around the world could be sure of preventing the problem posed by drones at airports.

“I think the whole country and certainly the government will have watched what’s gone on and said we need to up our game here,” Dick told BBC radio.

“You won’t find a police service in the world I think who would be sitting complacently thinking: ‘well we could always deal with a drone’.”

The drones were first spotted at Gatwick on Dec. 19. Every time the airport sought to reopen the runway, the drones returned and authorities only regained control over the airfield after the army deployed military technology to guard the area.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said on Monday that Britain’s security forces now had detection systems that could be deployed across the country to combat the drone threat.

“The drone technology is always changing. We have to keep up with that. There are a whole variety of tactics and technologies that we are now using, can use and in the future they will have to change again I’m sure,” said Dick.

“I’ve been talking to colleagues around the world. I can tell you this is not an easy problem. We are doing our very best here and going into the future I’m sure working closely with others we will get better and better.”

The police investigation into the Gatwick incident is ongoing. Detectives on Sunday released without charge two people they had suspected of flying the drones.

Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“We need to work even more closely with the private companies, we need to work even more closely with the military, we need to try to be able to prevent the criminal use of drones for whatever motivation near our airports,” Dick said.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by William Schomberg)

Police hunt through eastern France for Strasbourg Christmas market attacker

French soldiers patrol past the traditional Christmas market in Nice, France, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Vincent Kessler and John Irish

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Police searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing at least two people in a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalized while in jail.

Witnesses told investigators the assailant cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he launched his attack on the market, the Paris prosecutor said.

The prosecutor, Remy Heitz, also suggested the suspect may have chosen his target for its religious symbolism.

“Considering the target, his way of operating, his profile and the testimonies of those who heard him yell ‘Allahu Akbar’, the anti-terrorist police has been called into action,” Heitz told a news conference.

Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who is on an intelligence services watch list as a potential security risk.

An investigation had been opened into alleged murder with terrorist intent and suspected ties to terrorist networks with intent to commit crimes, Heitz said.

Two people were killed and a third person was brain-dead and being kept alive on life support, he said. Six other victims were fighting for their lives.

France raised its security threat to the highest alert level, strengthening controls on its border with Germany as elite commandos backed by helicopters hunted for the suspect.

French and German agents checked vehicles and public transport crossing the Rhine river, along which the Franco-German frontier runs, backing up traffic in both directions. Hundreds of French troops and police were taking part in the manhunt.

Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said he could not rule out that the fugitive had already crossed the frontier.

SERIAL CONVICT

The gunman struck at about 1900 GMT on Tuesday, just as the picturesque Christmas market in the historic city was shutting down.

He engaged in two gunfights with security forces as he evaded a police dragnet and bragged about his acts to the driver of a taxi that he commandeered, prosecutor Heitz said.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.

French and German security officials painted a portrait of Chekatt as a serial law-breaker who had racked up more than two dozen convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland and served time in prison.

“It was during these spells in jail that we detected a radicalization in his religious practices. But we there were never signs he was preparing an attack,” Minister Nunez said.

One German security source said the suspect was jailed in southern Germany from August 2016 to February 2017 for aggravated theft but was released before the end of his 27-month sentence so that he could be deported to France.

“He was banned from re-entering Germany at the same time”, the security source in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said. “We don’t have any knowledge of any kind of radicalization.”

BORDER CONTROLS

The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell a month-long public revolt over high living costs that has spurred the worst public unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.

The revelation that Chekatt was on a security watchlist will raise questions over possible intelligence failures, though some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “S File” list.

Of these, about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalized, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, in jail or abroad.

Police had raided the suspect’s home early on Tuesday in connection with a homicide investigation. Five people were detained and under interrogation as part of that investigation.

At the Europa Bridge, the main border crossing in the region used by commuters traveling in both directions, armed police inspected vehicles. Police were also checking pedestrians and trains arriving in Germany from Strasbourg.

“We don’t know where the attacker is and we want to prevent him from entering Germany,” a spokeswoman for the German border police Bundespolizei said.

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said there was no need for the government to declare a state of emergency.

Secular France has for years grappled with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond.

In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.

There have also been attacks in Paris on police on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.

A man drove a trunk into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people.

(Reporting by Vincent Kessler, Geert De Clercq, Sophie Louet, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Emmanuel Jarry and Richard Lough in Paris, Vincent Kessler and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Tourism in Bethlehem booming as Christmas nears

A tourist prays in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

By Rami Ayyub

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest Christmas season on record, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said on Monday, with hotels in the birthplace of Jesus almost fully booked for the holiday.

Tourism has recovered following a fall in knife and car-ramming attacks which helped push visitor numbers in the biblical city to a 10-year low in 2015. Bethlehem store owners also said they were benefiting from a surge of visitors to Israel in its 70th anniversary year.

Filing past a sixteen-meter Christmas tree in Manger Square, lines of pilgrims squeeze through the narrow sandstone entrance to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, a centuries-old basilica whose grotto, Christians believe, is where Jesus was born.

“We have never received this number of tourists coming to Palestine,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Ma’ayah.

“Especially in a city like Bethlehem, tourism creates waves throughout the economy.”

A Palestinian worker carves a figurine for sale during Christmas season, at a workshop in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

A Palestinian worker carves a figurine for sale during Christmas season, at a workshop in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Hotel occupancy rates in Bethlehem are expected to exceed 95 percent by the end of December, the city’s hoteliers’ association said.

“We are fully booked during the Christmas season,” said Wissam Salsa, Manager of the Walled Off Hotel, a quirky Bethlehem guesthouse designed by the British street artist Banksy.

“But of course, our hotel is fully occupied all of the time,” Salsa added. “It is in the West Bank.”

The hotel overlooks a towering concrete section of the barrier that Israel has built through the occupied West Bank, cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Israel says the barrier stops suicide bombings, while Palestinians complain that it loops around Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, where they want to set up a state.

Some American pilgrims in Bethlehem seemed to regard their visit as a continuation of a tour through Israel, rather than a trip to a Palestinian city.

“Coming to Israel has always been on my bucket list,” said Robyn Jackson, 36, a travel adviser from Phoenix, Arizona who was shopping for souvenirs in a Bethlehem street leading to Manger Square. “Being in Bethlehem and all the places where Jesus walked is amazing.”

For one group of American travelers, Israel’s anniversary — together with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to open an embassy there — was certainly a factor.

“I think excitement has been stirred because of the embassy move,” said Keith Jiles, 55, a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia.

Tourists visit the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Tourists visit the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

“People had been afraid in the past to come. But the excitement has built. And you’re gonna see more tourism because of it,” he said.

Trump’s Jerusalem decisions delighted Israelis but infuriated Palestinians and their allies, who warned that a unilateral move could lead to turmoil and hamper U.S. efforts to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The last round of negotiations broke down in 2014.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, editing by Ed Osmond)

Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square gets 720-ton sand nativity scene

An artist works on a sand sculpture representing part of nativity scene in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The traditional nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square won’t be so traditional this year. For the first time, it is made of sand – 720 tons of it.

For the past two weeks, Rich Varano, a professional sand artist, has been guiding three sculptors from the Netherlands, Russia and the Czech Republic, to craft the work, which measures about 5.5 meters high by 16 meters wide (18 feet high by 52 feet wide).

An artist works on a sand sculpture representing baby Jesus as a part of nativity scene in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

An artist works on a sand sculpture representing baby Jesus as a part of nativity scene in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Varano, 60, the artistic director of the massive work, doesn’t mind if you call him “Mr. Sandman”. Sand is his life and love. The American from Florida divides his time between the United States and Italy.

“It’s very special to be making one here in a place with so much history, so much culture, so much art and in the shadow of such masters,” he told Reuters on Thursday as his team worked quietly to finish ahead of Friday’s unveiling to the public.

“It is an incredibly humbling experience to be here,” he said.

Heavy trucks brought the sand, of a type particularly suited for sculpting, from the northern Italian seaside city of Jesolo, near Venice, in mid-November.

It was compacted into a large rectangle and the artists started sculpting away from the top down with tools including sticks, trowels, and even dental utensils for the finer parts.

“What separates us professionals and the average person playing on the beach is that we understand how to make sand stick together well,” the white-bearded Varano said, wearing a yellow hard hat.

The scene consists of Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus, angels, shepherds, animals and the three wise men, kings the Bible says followed a star in the east that led them to Bethlehem.

Varano said beach sand is not suitable, partly because it is not very compactable. The sand is taken from more inland areas and is similar to river sand.

A large overhead canopy will protect the scene from any heavy rain and plastic curtains will be lowered in case of storms or strong winds before it is dismantled in January.

“It’s an ephemeral art in the sense that it is not intended to last forever,” he said, “even though we could make it last indefinitely if we wanted to”.

Varano said he expected some criticism from conservatives who think nativity scenes should be made up of traditional statues.

“I would not be surprised if there were some people who had concerns, but there are so many more who will enjoy it and that makes me happy,” he said.

Once the Christmas season is over, it will be returned there and used for other sand sculptures.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels swap prisoners before New Year

A recently exchanged prisoner of war (POW) from the Ukrainian armed forces is embraced upon his arrival at Boryspil International airport outside Kiev, Ukraine December 28, 2017.

By Valentyn Ogirenko

HORLIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist rebels conducted the largest exchange of prisoners since conflict broke out in 2014, sending hundreds of captives home to their families on Wednesday ahead of New Year and Orthodox Christmas.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and casualties are still reported almost daily despite a ceasefire that froze the frontlines in place since 2015.

“My son rang,” the mother of a Ukrainian prisoner Oleksandr Oliynyk told the Ukrainian news channel 112.

“I have not heard his voice for three-and-a-half years, just letters. He said: ‘Mum, I’m already here.’ You cannot imagine what it means for a mother, to not see your child for three-and-a-half years, since August 2014.”

According to the terms of the deal, Kiev was meant to hand over 306 prisoners to the rebels and receive 74 prisoners in return. A Reuters photographer at the scene saw the Ukrainian prisoners being loaded onto buses in the town of Horlivka and taken to territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

“All 74 Ukrainian hostages are already at home, on the territory controlled by our army,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on social media.

According to Poroshenko, among the prisoners handed to Ukraine were a historian and a “cyborg” – the nickname Ukrainians gave to soldiers who defended Donetsk airport in one of the conflict’s most intense battles in 2014.

Prisoners of war (POWs) from the separatist self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) board a bus during the exchange of captives near the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017.

Prisoners of war (POWs) from the separatist self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) board a bus during the exchange of captives near the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The exact number of prisoners exchanged is uncertain. Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukraine’s representative to ongoing peace talks, said some captives held by Ukraine refused to return to rebel-held areas, according to the Russian news agency TASS.

More prisoners are expected to change hands in 2018, TASS cited Medvedchuk as saying. The Ukrainian state security service said 103 prisoners remained in separatist hands.

There was no immediate comment from the authorities in Moscow, which Ukraine and its Western allies accuse of supporting the pro-Russian separatists with troops, cash and heavy weapons, an accusation Moscow denies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes the exchange in a joint statement and called on both sides to release the remaining captives.

Germany’s foreign ministry said it was a significant step in implementing the ceasefire agreement agreed in the Belarus capital Minsk.

“Above all, it is also an important humanitarian gesture before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas,” a foreign ministry statement said.

The Minsk agreements, intended to end the fighting in Ukraine, were signed by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in the Belarussian capital in early 2015.

A prisoner (back) of war (POW) from the Ukrainian armed forces is embraced during the exchange of captives in Horlivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017.

A prisoner (back) of war (POW) from the Ukrainian armed forces is embraced during the exchange of captives in Horlivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The exchange came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Russia to “lower the level of violence” in eastern Ukraine.

(Writing by Polina Ivanova and Matthias Williams; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Britain escorts Russian ship near national waters amid strained relations

Images from an infrared camera on a helicopter show Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans escorting Russian warship Admiral Gorshkov as it passes close to UK territorial waters through the North Sea in an image from an infrared camera on a helicopter handed out by Britain's Royal Navy December 25, 2017.

A British ship escorted a Russian vessel as it passed near UK territorial waters over Christmas, Britain’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, adding that Russian naval activity near Britain had increased in the holiday period.

The frigate HMS St Albans departed on Dec. 23 to track the new Russian warship Admiral Gorshkov as it moved through the North Sea. The Royal Navy vessel monitored the Russian ship over Christmas and will return to dock in Portsmouth later on Tuesday.

UK defense minister Gavin Williamson said in a statement after the incident that he would “not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression”.

Relations between Britain and Russia are strained, and UK foreign minister Boris Johnson said there was “abundant evidence” of Moscow meddling in foreign elections during a trip to Russia last week. His counterpart Sergei Lavrov said there was no proof for Johnson’s claim.

While Johnson said he wants to normalize relations with Russia, Moscow blames London for the poor state of relations between the countries.

Britain’s defense ministry said another ship, HMS Tyne, was called to escort a Russian intelligence-gathering ship through the North Sea and the English Channel on Christmas Eve. A helicopter was subsequently dispatched to monitor two other Russian vessels.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, editing by Ed Osmond)

Vietnam braces for typhoon as Philippine toll rises to 230 dead

Vietnamese residents are seen at an evacuation center before Tempin storm hits the land in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam December 25, 2017.

By Mi Nguyen and Manuel Mogato

HANOI/MANILA (Reuters) – Authorities in Vietnam prepared to move a million people from low-lying areas along the south coast on Monday as a typhoon approached after it battered the Philippines with floods and landslides that killed more than 230 people.

Typhoon Tembin is expected to slam into Vietnam late on Monday after bringing misery to the predominantly Christian Philippines just before Christmas.

Vietnam’s disaster prevention committee said 74,000 people had been moved to safety from vulnerable areas, while authorities in 15 provinces and cities were prepared to move more than 1 million.

The government ordered that oil rigs and vessels be protected and it warned that about 62,000 fishing boats should not venture out to sea.

“Vietnam must ensure the safety of its oil rigs and vessels. If necessary, close the oil rigs and evacuate workers,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was quoted as saying on a government website.

Schools were ordered to close in the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, a working day in Vietnam.

On Sunday, Tembin hit the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which are contested by several countries, including Vietnam and China.

No casualties were reported in outposts there.

Vietnam, like the Philippines, is regularly battered by typhoons that form over the warm waters of the Pacific and barrel westwards into land.

Tembin will be the 16th major storm to hit Vietnam this year. The storms and other disasters have left 390 people dead or missing, according to official figures.

SCORES MISSING

In the Philippines, rescue workers were still struggling to reach some remote areas hit by floods and landslides that Tembin’s downpours brought, as the death toll climbed to more than 230. Scores of people are missing.

The full extent of the devastation was only becoming clear as the most remote areas were being reached.

Health worker Arturo Simbajon said nearly the entire coastal village of Anungan on the Zamboanga peninsula of Mindanao island had been wiped out by a barrage of broken logs, boulders and mud that swept down a river and out to sea.

“Only the mosque was left standing,” Simbajon said.

“People were watching the rising sea but did not expect the water to come from behind them.”

Manuel Luis Ochotorena, head of regional disaster agency, said he expected the death toll to rise.

“Many areas in Zamboanga peninsula are still without power and communications, some towns are cut off due to collapsed bridges, floods and landslides,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people on Mindanao have been displaced by the storm, which struck late on Friday.

The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons a year and warnings are routinely issued.

But disaster officials said many villagers had ignored warnings this time to get out coastal areas and move away from riverbanks.

In 2013, super typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 8,000 people and left 200,000 families homeless in the central Philippines.

(This version of the story was refiled to fix spelling in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)

Indonesian police warn Islamists against raids in search of Santa hats

Islamic Defenders Front

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police appealed on Thursday for tolerance and respect for other people’s religious celebrations after an Islamist group threatened to raid businesses to check for Muslims being forced to wear Santa Claus hats or other Christmas garb.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) said this week it would conduct “sweeping operations” in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and that forcing Muslims to wear Christmas attire was a violation of their human rights.

Indonesia is home to several religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who follow traditional beliefs.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in an officially secular state though tension between followers of different faiths can flare.

“There can be no sweeping operations … members of the public should respect other religions that are carrying out celebrations,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told police during a security exercise in the capital, Jakarta.

The FPI said it aimed to enforce a fatwa, or decree, issued by Indonesia’s Islamic Clerical Council in 2016 prohibiting business owners from forcing employees to wear Christmas clothing.

“We will raid businesses in anticipation of them being stubborn about this and we will be accompanied by police,” said Novel Bakmukmin, head of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.

Employers forcing staff to wear Christmas clothes were violating their rights.

“Businesses should be aware that there should be no forcing,” he said.

The Islamic Clerical Council’s decrees are not legally binding but serve as guidelines for Indonesian Muslims.

Christmas is widely celebrated across Indonesia and holiday decorations are ubiquitous, especially at shops, restaurants and malls where many enthusiastic workers – even Muslims – don Santa hats or elf costumes.

The FPI built its reputation with raids on restaurants and bars serving alcohol during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In recent years, it has turned its attention to Christian celebrations.

The group has also said it wants the Jakarta city government to stop sponsoring New Year celebrations, which attract many thousands of people.

About 90,000 police officers will be on duty cross the country during the end-of-year holidays, in an operation largely aimed at preventing militant attacks.

Attacks on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve in 2000, killed nearly 20 people. Ever since, authorities have stepped up security at churches and tourist spots for the holiday.

(Reporting by Djohan Widjaya and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)