After raucous welcome in India, Trump clinches $3 billion military equipment sale

By Steve Holland and Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that India will buy $3 billion worth of military equipment, including attack helicopters, as the two countries deepen defense and commercial ties in an attempt to balance the weight of China in the region.

India and the United States were also making progress on a big trade deal, Trump said. Negotiators from the two sides have wrangled for months to narrow differences on farm goods, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs.

Trump was accorded a massive reception in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state on Monday, with more than 100,000 people filling into a cricket stadium for a “Namaste Trump” rally.

On Tuesday, Trump sat down for one-on-one talks with Modi followed by delegation-level meetings to try and move forward on issues that have divided them, mainly the festering trade dispute.

After those meetings, Trump said his visit had been productive with the conclusion of deals to buy helicopters for the Indian military. India is buying 24 SeaHawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin equipped with Hellfire missiles worth $2.6 billion and also plans a follow-on order for six Apache helicopters.

India is modernizing its military to narrow the gap with China and has increasingly turned to the United States over traditional supplier, Russia.

Trump said the two countries were also making progress on a trade deal, which had been an area of growing friction between them.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” said Trump in remarks made alongside Modi.

The two countries had initially planned to produce a “mini deal”, but that proved elusive.

Instead both sides are now aiming for a bigger package, including possibly a free trade agreement.

Trump said he also discussed with Modi, whom he called his “dear friend”, the importance of a secure 5G telecoms network in India, ahead of a planned airwaves auction by the country.

The United States has banned Huawei, arguing the use of its kit creates the potential for espionage by China – a claim denied by Huawei and Beijing – but India, where telecoms companies have long used network gear from the Chinese firm, is yet to make a call.

Trump described Monday’s rally in Ahmedabad and again praised Modi and spoke of the size of the crowd, claiming there were “thousands of people outside trying to get in..

“I would even imagine they were there more for you than for me, I would hope so,” he told Modi. “The people love you…every time I mentioned your name, they would cheer.”

In New Delhi, Trump was given a formal state welcome on Tuesday at the red sandstone presidential palace with a 21-cannon gun salute and a red coated honor guard on horseback on a smoggy day.

HUG GETS TIGHTER

India is one of the few big countries in the world where Trump’s personal approval rating is above 50% and Trump’s trip has got wall-to-wall coverage with commentators saying he had hit all the right notes on his first official visit to the world’s biggest democracy.

They were also effusive in their praise for Modi for pulling off a spectacular reception for Trump.

“Modi-Trump hug gets tighter,” ran a headline in the Times of India.

But in a sign of the underlying political tensions in India, violent protests broke out in Delhi on Monday over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims and is a further attempt to undermine the secular foundations of India’s democracy. They say the law is part of a pattern of divisiveness being followed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

At least 7 people were killed and about 150 injured in the clashes that took place in another part of the capital, away from the center of the city where Modi is hosting Trump.

In his speech on Monday, Trump extolled India’s rise as a stable and prosperous democracy as one of the achievements of the century. “You have done it as a tolerant country. And you have done it as a great, free country,” he said.

Delhi has also been struggling with high air pollution and on Tuesday the air quality was moderately poor at 193 on a government index that measures pollution up to a scale of 500. The WHO considers anything above 60 as unhealthy.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Aftab Ahmed, Neha Dasgupta; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Trump team to wrap up impeachment trial defense as Bolton controversy simmers

By Susan Cornwell and Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lawyers for President Donald Trump were set on Tuesday to wrap up their arguments urging acquittal in his U.S. Senate trial as Democrats ramped up their calls for former national security adviser John Bolton to testify about explosive allegations regarding Trump’s role in a pressure campaign targeting Ukraine.

Trump’s lawyers made the case to the Senate on Monday that the Republican president’s actions as described in Bolton’s unpublished book manuscript – even if true – do not represent an impeachable offense. Trump’s legal team was due to deliver its third and final day of arguments starting at around 1 p.m. (1800 GMT). A source close to the team said the lawyers will wrap up in around two to 2-1/2 hours.

Directly contradicting Trump’s account of events, Bolton in the manuscript said the president told him he wanted to freeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine until Kiev helped with investigations into Democrats including Democratic political rival Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden, the New York Times reported.

Bolton’s allegations go to the heart of impeachment charges against Trump. Democrats have said Trump abused his power by using the security aid – passed by Congress to help Ukraine battle Russia-backed separatists – as leverage to get a foreign power to smear a political rival.

Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3. Biden is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to face Trump.

The trial will determine whether Trump is removed from office after being impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his conduct toward Ukraine.

Senate Republicans, who have so far refused to allow any witnesses or new evidence in the trial, faced mounting pressure from Democrats and some moderates in their own party to summon Bolton.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer made a fresh appeal for four Republican senators – the number needed for a majority – to join Democrats in voting to call witnesses. Schumer also dismissed as “absurd” a proposal floated by Republican Senator James Lankford for Bolton’s manuscript to be made available for senators to review in a classified setting.

Bolton left his White House post last September. Trump has said he fired Bolton. Bolton said he quit after policy disagreements.

Schumer criticized Trump’s legal team for stating during its arguments to the Senate that there was no eyewitness testimony detailing abuse of power by Trump “when we know that John Bolton has eyewitness testimony and is willing to testify.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who was at the White House on Tuesday morning, wrote on Twitter that he supports Lankford’s proposal about making Bolton’s manuscript available on a classified basis.

Trump is expected to be acquitted in the 100-seat Senate, where Republicans hold 53 seats and a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office under the U.S. Constitution.

‘CLEAR FROM HISTORY’

Alan Dershowitz, a constitutional law professor who is a member of Trump’s legal team, told the Senate on Monday: “Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense. That is clear from the history. That is clear from the language of the Constitution. You cannot turn conduct that is not impeachable into impeachable conduct simply by using words like ‘quid pro quo’ and ‘personal benefit.'”

Trump has denied telling Bolton he sought to use the Ukraine aid as leverage to get Kiev to investigate the Bidens. He has denied any quid pro quo – a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor – in his dealings with Ukraine.

Lankford late on Monday urged Bolton to speak publicly outside of the impeachment trial.

“John Bolton is no shrinking violet,” Lankford said in a video posted to his Facebook page. “My encouragement would be: If John Bolton’s got something to say, there’s plenty of microphones all over the country – that he should step forward and start talking about it right now.”

The Senate may resolve the issue of whether to call witnesses in a vote on Friday or Saturday. Some moderate Republican senators, including Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, said the disclosures were likely to sway at least four Republicans to call Bolton to testify, which would give Democrats the votes necessary in the Republican-led Senate to summon him.

The focus was on whether two other moderate Republicans, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski, would vote to hear from Bolton.

“The question is: Do they want to hear the truth or do they want to hide the truth?” Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow told reporters.

Romney told Reuters on Tuesday that the idea of a “one-for-one” witness deal, with one witness called by Democrats and one by Republicans, “has merit,” but added: “I wouldn’t suggest any particular names.”

It was not clear when senators would begin submitting their questions to U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, the next step in the trial. Roberts is presiding over the trial.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice, Karen Freifeld, David Morgan, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump taps lawyer Dershowitz, others for impeachment trial defense

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former independent counsel Ken Starr and lawyer Alan Dershowitz will join U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial defense team led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, Trump’s legal team and a source said on Friday.

Trump adviser Pam Bondi and former independent counsel Robert Ray will also be on the team, according to the source who is familiar with the team’s composition.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell)

In gesture to Trump, US allies close to deal to pay more for NATO running costs

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies are closing in on a deal to contribute more to allied running costs to reduce the United States’ share of funding, three diplomats familiar with the matter said.

Agreement would meet a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump, though France has made clear it will have no part in the deal, which the alliance hopes to reach before its 70th anniversary summit in London next week.

Trump has accused European allies, especially Europe’s biggest economy Germany, of taking U.S. protection for granted and says they need to spend much more on their own defense.

The reform of financing for the U.S.-led military alliance would seal months of negotiations after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put forward a proposal.

The agreement would mean European allies, Turkey and Canada contribute more towards the annual $2.5-billion budget to run the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that allies spend on their armed forces each year, it is a small sum. But it is one that allies hope would silence Trump’s statement in July 2018 that the United States “pays tens of billions of dollars too much to subsidize Europe”.

“It is a political gesture,” one senior NATO diplomat of the possible deal. “There is no alliance without the Americans.”

France opposed the proposal long before President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance on Nov. 7 as “experiencing brain death”, French diplomats have said.

With 30,000 troops deployed and ships across the world, Paris says it already does more than its fair share in defense, maintaining a high level of combat readiness of French forces and pouring billions of euros into defense research.

Paris will not block the proposal, but will abstain, the three NATO diplomats said.

France’s defense spending is higher than Germany’s as a percentage of economic output, data shows. Paris says it will also meet a NATO target to spend 2% of national output on defense by 2025 at the latest, while Germany will reach that level only in 2031, according to French and German officials.

NUMBERS GAME

Canada has said its support for the funding agreement should not set a precedent for other international organizations, the diplomats said. Italy has yet to decide its position, they said.

All 29 NATO member states contribute to the budget on an agreed formula based on gross national income, but this formula would change after the proposed reform.

“It will be a more cumbersome mechanism,” a second NATO diplomat said.

Under the proposal being negotiated for the 2021 budget, the U.S. contribution to the alliance’s annual budget would fall to around 16% from 22%. Germany’s would rise to the same level as the United States and others’ contributions would also rise.

Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of national output on defense – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. officials warn Congress on risks of drones, seek new powers

A sign at a downtown city park informs people the area is a no drone zone in San Diego, California, U.S., May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration urged Congress on Wednesday to give it new powers to disable or destroy threatening drones, according to testimony viewed by Reuters.

David Glawe, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Hayley Chang, DHS’ deputy general counsel, told the Senate committee that oversees the department that it needs new authority.

“Terrorist groups overseas use drones to conduct attacks on the battlefield and continue to plot to use them in terrorist attacks elsewhere. This is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront,” the officials’ written testimony said.

A bipartisan group of senators including Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, a Republican, and the committee’s top Democrat, Claire McCaskill, last month introduced legislation to give DHS and the Justice Department authority to “to protect buildings and assets when there is an unacceptable security risk to public safety posed by an unmanned aircraft.”

Johnson noted a bipartisan group of senators backs the legislation.

“The federal government does not have the legal authorities it needs to protect the American public from these kinds of threats. The threats posed by malicious drones are too great to ignore,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the number of drone flights over sensitive areas or suspicious activities has jumped from eight incidents in 2013 to an estimated 1,752 incidents in 2016, citing federal statistics.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a letter to the committee that it opposes the bill, which “amounts to an enormous unchecked grant of authority to the government to forcefully remove drones form the sky in nebulous security circumstances.”

FBI deputy assistant director Scott Brunner told the committee the agency is “concerned that criminals and terrorists will exploit (drones) in ways that pose a serious threat to the safety of the American people.”

Threats could include surveillance, chemical, biological or radiological attacks or attacks “on large open air venues” like concerts and sporting events and attacks against government facilities, he said.

The DHS testimony noted a number of recent incidents involving drones.

In March, a Coast Guard helicopter in California was forced to take evasive action to avoid a drone. A drone recently landed on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Sea Lion in San Diego harbor.

DHS said despite upgraded security efforts in U.S. capital area, “we are still experiencing (drone) incidents … that require an appropriate response – even if they are nuisance or non-compliant operators who disregard the rules.”

In 2017, a small civilian drone struck a U.S. Army helicopter near New York City damaging a rotor blade. Since 2017, federal officials have banned drones over U.S. military bases, national landmarks, nuclear sites and other sensitive areas.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in January that more than 1 million drones have been registered. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation picked 10 pilot projects allowing drone use at night, out of sight operations and over populated areas.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Michael Perry and G Crosse)

Scores more homes destroyed by lava flow on Hawaii’s Big Island

Lava destroys homes in the Kapoho area, east of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Terray Sylvester

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – A growing river of molten rock flowing from a fissure at the foot of Kilauea Volcano is believed to have demolished scores of additional homes and filled in a small bay at the eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, civil defense officials said on Tuesday.

Lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester T

Lava erupts in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester T

The latest estimates – up to 80 more structures than previously counted as destroyed by lava smothering two newly evacuated subdivisions – could bring the total number of homes and other buildings lost over the past month to nearly 200.

Such a tally would put property losses from the current upheaval of Kilauea, which entered its 34th day on Tuesday, on par with the 215 structures destroyed by lava during all 35 years of the volcano’s last eruption cycle, which began in 1983.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense agency was putting the confirmed number of buildings lost to the current eruption at 117 on Monday, mostly residential properties. About 80 of those were destroyed in the Leilani Estates community, where lava-spouting fissures in the ground first opened on May 3 downhill from the volcano’s eastern flank.

Another three-dozen homes were confirmed destroyed at the weekend when a large lava stream creeping 6 miles (10 km) across the landscape reached the far eastern edge of the Big Island, pouring into the ocean at Kapoho Bay.

A civil defense official told Reuters on Tuesday at least 60 to 80 more homes were believed to have been devoured as the lava flow, measuring about half a mile wide and 10 to 15 feet (3-4.6 meters) tall, inundated the adjacent subdivisions of Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacationland.

The official said aerial surveillance of the area showed only the northern portion of Kapoho Beach and the southernmost “sliver” of Vacationland – the latter consisting of only about half a dozen homes – were left unscathed.

Civil defense spokeswoman Janet Snyder said later county tax records show the two subdivisions consist of 279 homes combined and that “many of those 279 homes are feared destroyed.” She said it would be some time before precise losses were confirmed.

Lava flows on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Lava flows on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

LAVA FILLS IN BAY

Video footage from a helicopter showed two seaside homes engulfed in flames as clouds of white steam and hydrochloric acid fumes billowed from the water, where red-hot lava was pouring into the ocean.

Civil defense officials said Kapoho Bay itself had been filled in with lava that extended seven-tenths of a mile from what had been the shoreline.

“What used to be the bay is now all lava bed, new land, almost a mile out into the ocean,” the civil defense spokesman said.

Authorities began evacuating the greater Kapoho area last week and ushered most of the last remaining residents to safety early on Saturday, hours before the lava flow severed all road access to the region. Several holdouts were airlifted by helicopter on Sunday, leaving no more than a handful of people who refused to leave, officials said.

Barbara McDaniel, a retiree who moved with her husband to Vacationland from Washington state five years ago, said they fled as soon as evacuations began, taking little else but their dog and cat with them.

They worried their house would be spared by the lava but rendered inaccessible, leaving them stuck with the mortgage for an abandoned home and a fire insurance policy that was of no value, she told Reuters.

“Right now, I’m hoping that it burns down,” she said. “If lava takes it, we’re covered.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

Texas leaders want more screening and more guns to prevent more shootings

Ten roses are left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at the Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Texas political leaders are considering installing airport-style security at public schools and screening students for mental health issues as alternatives to gun control to thwart a repeat of last week’s deadly shooting at a Houston-area high school.

The focus on school security and mental health has emerged since the shooting because Republican Governor Greg Abbott is facing few calls to overhaul gun laws in a state where the majority of the electorate backs gun ownership. The governor’s office said he would hold roundtable discussions from Tuesday to focus on the best options.

Eight students and two teachers were killed when a 17-year-old student opened fire at Santa Fe High School last week in the latest mass shooting at a U.S. school.

Craig Bessent, an assistant superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District in Abilene, said in an interview that he will take part in the roundtable and that he favored more police or security officers and more screening of students as they entered school campuses.

He also supports arming some teachers as “a good first line of defense,” a position that President Donald Trump has advocated.

“There’s not just the one thing you can do that will stop this and be a cure-all,” Bessent said. “There’s not a single answer.”

The shooting at Santa Fe High School occurred about three months after 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stoking the national debate over gun control.

About two-thirds of Texas Republicans believe if more people carried guns, the state would be safer, according to a statewide survey in late 2017 from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune.

The shooting rampage in Florida sparked a gun control campaign by students and parents that has piled on pressure nationwide for lawmakers to enact gun control legislation.

“Texas Republicans look at this tragedy and they do not see the gun as the problem,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “They see the person as the problem and security as the second problem.”

One of the state’s most prominent Republican leaders, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, said he wanted to limit entrances to schools and stagger class starting times to allow for searches. He acknowledged that such airport-style screening would carry a high cost for the thousands of school districts in the state.

The Republican-controlled legislature is out of session until January 2019, making it nearly impossible for the state to implement and fund any major changes that come out of this week’s three roundtable discussions.

“The roundtables are more political theater than anything else,” Jones said.

The governor has said he sees the roundtables as an essential step in coming up with a consensus approach to enhance school safety. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Political analysts said if Abbott wanted to implement changes already floated, such as adding more metal detectors in schools and allowing for court orders to remove firearms from a person who presents a danger, he would call for a special legislative session. Abbott has given no indication that he would do so.

Texas has 5.4 million students enrolled in its public schools and any changes it made statewide would be costly.

One program being run out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock to screen students who could harm themselves or others has Abbott’s attention. He said after the shooting that he wanted to use it across the state.

The program trains people, using FBI threat-assessment criteria, to go to schools and screen students, according to Billy Philips, an epidemiologist and director of the Office of Rural Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

About 42,000 students have been screened through the program, according to data provided by Texas Tech. About 1 percent of them were referred to licensed counselors.

“Roughly about a third of those that were triaged were for suicidal intention, and they’re mostly female; females act in, males act out,” Phillips said.

Before the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Democrats had filed about 15 bills related to gun violence, almost all of which died when the legislative session ended last year. They included measures to buy back guns, improve gun safety education and create a lethal violence protective order to stop a potentially dangerous person from buying or possessing a firearm.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba in Santa Fe, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty)

Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Israeli troops facing 7000 Gaza protesters, fire shots, tear gas at Gaza

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during clashes at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli troops fired live rounds and tear gas at Palestinians thronging the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as part of a long-running protest, injuring about 350 people.

Medics said around 50 people were shot and wounded with live fire, three of them critically, and 300 more treated for gas inhalation and other injuries along the Gaza side of the 25-mile (40-km) border fence, where Palestinians set up tent encampments on March 30 for what they call “The Great March of Return”.

A Palestinian protester is seen in front of a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

A Palestinian protester is seen in front of a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

Youths rolled burning tires to within 300 meters (yards) of the fence, trying to use the smoke as cover for throwing stones across it while eluding Israeli snipers. Army gunfire has killed at least 43 Palestinians on the frontier over the last month.

Protesters said they used slingshots to down two small Israeli observation drones. The army confirmed the drone losses.

Facing international censure over its use of live fire in the protests, Israel says it is protecting its border and takes such action only when protesters, some hurling firebombs and trying to plant explosives, approach too closely.

On Friday, troops faced “approximately 7,000 Palestinians participating in riots in five locations along the Gaza Strip border,” a military spokesman said, adding that one group had tried to breach the fence and enter Israeli territory.

As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Palestinians mourn what they call the “Nakba” (Catastrophe) of their people’s mass dispossession during the conflict that broke out in 1948.

Two-thirds of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are war refugees or their descendants. The protests have seen thousands gather – in greater numbers on Fridays – to demand access to their families’ lost homes or lands, now in Israel.

A demonstrator uses a racket to return tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A demonstrator uses a racket to return tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

“GIVE US A STATE”

Israel rules that out, concerned it would lose its Jewish majority. Alternatives, such as accommodating refugees and their descendants in a future Palestinian state, have been discussed in peace talks that date back to 1993 but which are now stalled.

“If it wasn’t for the occupation we would have lived as free as people like in other countries,” Ahmed, 24, said at a protest site east of Gaza City. “If they don’t allow us back, at least they should give us a state.”

Israel says the protests have been organized by Hamas – an Islamist group that controls Gaza and is sworn to Israel’s destruction – to provide cover for attacks, and that most of the dead were militants. Palestinians deny those allegations.

The protests take place at a time of growing frustration as prospects for an independent Palestinian state look poor. While the peace talks are stuck, Israel, which withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, has expanded its settlements in the occupied West Bank.

An added focus this year is President Donald Trump’s decision to begin moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Trump’s moves angered Palestinian leaders, who have refused to talk to his administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Israel’s government celebrated the U.S. decision, saying it recognized the “reality” that Jerusalem was the historic capital of the Jewish people.

Visiting the Middle East earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lent his support to Israel’s handling of the border protests. “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves,” he said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Heinrich)

North and South Korea start to dismantle border speakers, fulfilling summit pledge

South Korean soldiers move loudspeakers that were set up for propaganda broadcasts near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

By Joori Roh

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea began dismantling loudspeakers that blared propaganda across their heavily fortified border on Tuesday, South Korea’s defense ministry said, fulfilling a promise made at last week’s historic summit.

The moves are the first practical, if small, steps toward reconciliation after Friday’s meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong Un.

Moon, meanwhile, asked that the United Nations help verify North Korea’s planned shutdown of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in a phone conversation on Tuesday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a statement from the presidential Blue House said.

Guterres said the requests need approval from the U.N. Security Council, but he wanted to cooperate to build peace on the Korean peninsula and would assign a U.N. official in charge of arms control to cooperate with South Korea, the statement said.

Several days before Friday’s summit, the North surprised the world by declaring it would dismantle the test site to “transparently guarantee” its dramatic commitment to stop all nuclear and missile tests.

The Punggye-ri site, where North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests, consists of a system of tunnels dug beneath Mount Mantap in the northeastern part of the country.

Some experts and researchers have speculated the most recent – and by far largest – blast in September had rendered the entire site unusable. But Kim said there were two additional, larger tunnels that remain “in very good condition”.

BORDER LOUDSPEAKERS REMOVED

Along the border, South Korea started taking down its loudspeakers on Tuesday afternoon, a defense official said. Activity at several spots along the border indicated North Koreans were doing the same, he said.

For decades, with only a few breaks, the two sides have pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South broadcast a mixture of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the southern government and praised its own socialist system.

As a sign of goodwill, the South had stopped its propaganda ahead of the summit, and the North followed suit.

The incremental steps come amid speculation about where Kim will meet U.S. President Donald Trump, who said their planned summit could take place in three or four weeks.

Trump tweeted Monday that meeting Kim at the Peace House in the demilitarized zone, where Moon met Kim, would be an excellent venue.

“There’s something that I like about it because you’re there, you’re actually there. Where, if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third-party country,” Trump later told reporters at the White House.

But a senior U.S. official said Singapore was still high on the list of potential sites.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday Singapore had not had any request to host the Kim-Trump meeting.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House seemed to welcome the prospect of hosting the meeting in Panmunjom, the border village where the Peace House is located.

“Panmunjom is quite meaningful as a place to erode the divide and establish a new milestone for peace,” a senior presidential official told reporters, asking not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Wouldn’t Panmunjom be the most symbolic place?”

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Ju-min Park, writing by Malcolm Foster. Editing by Lincoln Feast)