Hong Kong protesters rally against planned virus quarantine centers

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of demonstrators rallied for a second day in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against plans to turn some buildings into coronavirus quarantine centers, reviving anti-government protests in the Chinese-ruled city.

The virus has opened a new front for protesters after months of demonstrations over the perceived erosion of freedoms had largely fizzled out over the past month, as people stayed at home amid fears of a community outbreak of the virus.

About 100 people braved rain in the New Territories district of Fo Tan, where authorities plan to use a newly built residential development that was subsidized by the government as a quarantine center. Riot police stood by.

A 38-year-old mother of two said she had waited eight years for her home in the Chun Yeung estate and was expecting to get her keys by the end of this month.

“There’s no consultation and we don’t know how long they’ll use Chun Yeung estate. That’s why we are so mad,” she the woman.

Father-of-two Koby, 36, also expressed frustration at not being told for how long the public housing might be used for quarantine.

“I’ve waited eight years. I have two children studying in kindergarten and have already transferred them to the school in Fo Tan,” he said.

Protesters gathered in other districts on Sunday.

With Hong Kong property prices among the most expensive in the world, owning a home is a distant dream for many, and frustration over housing has triggered protests in the past.

Many Hong Kong people, already angry about what they see as meddling by Beijing in the former British colony’s affairs – which it denies – have criticized the government’s handling of the virus scare, piling pressure on embattled city leader Carrie Lam.

On Friday, the government sought to appease families that have been allocated a flat in the Fo Tan estate by pledging a special subsidy.

Three weeks ago, protesters set alight the lobby of a newly built residential building in another district in the New Territories, that authorities had planned to use as a quarantine facility. The government dropped the plan.

Hong Kong has had 57 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. One person has died of it in the city.

Some Hong Kong people have called on the city government to seal the border with the mainland to block the virus but Lam has ruled that out.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Writing By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. sees signs Iran or its allies may be planning attacks: Pentagon chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that there were indications Iran or the forces it backs may be planning additional attacks and said it was possible the United States might have to take preemptive action to protect American lives.

“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks, that is nothing new … we’ve seen this for two or three months now,” Esper told reporters.

“If that happens then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces to protect American lives.”

Iranian-backed demonstrators who hurled rocks at the U.S. embassy in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against bases of the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. Washington said the air strikes, which killed 25 people, were in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

“The game has changed and we are prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said.

During the same press briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said there had been a sustained campaign by Kataib Hezbollah against U.S. personnel since at least October and the missile attack in northern Iraq was designed to kill.

“Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot, that is designed to inflict damage and kill,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu and David Gregorio)

Fire and petrol bombs after ‘generally peaceful’ Hong Kong march, police say

Fire and petrol bombs after ‘generally peaceful’ Hong Kong march, police say
By Farah Master and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong protesters lit a fire outside court buildings, threw petrol bombs and spray-painted graffiti on government buildings, following a “generally peaceful” march at the weekend, police said on Monday.

Protesters called for strikes across the city on Monday, but most railway and transport links ran smoothly during the morning rush hour and there were no reports of widespread disruptions.

Vast crowds of black-clad demonstrators had thronged the streets of the Asian financial hub on Sunday, in the largest anti-government rally since local elections last month and a resounding show of continued support for the pro-democracy movement.

While the march appeared to be largely peaceful – in marked contrast to some other mass demonstrations over the last six months, where protesters fought pitched battles with police – authorities said there was some damage after it ended.

“Although the event was generally peaceful, acts of breaching public peace happened afterwards,” police said in a statement on Monday.

“Some rioters spray-painted the exterior walls of the High Court, threw petrol bombs and set fire outside the High Court and the Court of Final Appeal, damaging government properties and seriously challenging the spirit of the rule of law,” police said, adding that shops and banks were vandalized in the Causeway Bay and Wan Chai areas of Hong Kong island.

Reuters reporters at the march on Sunday saw graffiti and protesters setting up barricades, but were not in the vicinity of the other incidents.

The Hong Kong Bar Association condemned what it called “acts of arson and vandalism” and said those responsible must be brought to justice.

Protesters estimated the turnout at 800,000, while police said it was 183,000.

Police said they arrested 42 people over the weekend for rioting, possessing weapons and other charges. Some 6,022 people have now been arrested in relation to the unrest since early June, police said.

‘FED UP’

In an editorial, the official China Daily newspaper called on the Hong Kong government to uphold the rule of law.

“Many residents in Hong Kong are fed up with the violence and disruption that have plagued the city for months,” said the newspaper, often used by Beijing to put out its message.

Hong Kong’s new police commissioner had said he would take a “hard and soft approach” to the demonstrations, where acts of violence would be treated harshly but other issues more flexibly.

The chairman and president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong were denied entry over the weekend to the neighboring Chinese territory of Macau, without explanation.

Macau’s security chief, Wong Sio Chak, on Monday said security concerns were the only reason for barring entry into the city, broadcaster RTHK reported.

AmCham Chairman Robert Grieves and President Tara Joseph had been traveling to Macau for an annual ball. The pair were told to sign a statement saying they “voluntarily agreed not to pursue entry to Macau”.

Wong declined to comment specifically on their cases and said it was speculation that their refusal was linked to Beijing’s response to U.S. legislation backing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, RTHK said.

U.S. President Donald Trump last month signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, linking the former British colony’s special treatment under U.S. law to its autonomy from Beijing.

The unrest in the city of about 7.4 million people started in June as demonstrations against a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition to mainland China. It has since morphed into calls for greater democratic freedoms and sometimes violent protests.

Protesters have set out five demands, including universal suffrage and an investigation into alleged police brutality.

China has repeatedly blamed foreign powers, including the United States, for stirring up the unrest.

(Reporting by Farah Master, Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Stephen Coates, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

Demonstrators gather as U.S. Supreme Court hears major gun case

Demonstrators gather as U.S. Supreme Court hears major gun case
By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A legal fight over a New York City handgun ordinance that could give the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority a chance to expand gun rights goes before the nine justices on Monday in one of the most closely watched cases of their current term.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments starting at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) in a legal challenge backed by the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobby group to a regulation that had prevented licensed owners from taking their handguns outside the confines of the most-populous U.S. city.

It is the first major gun case to come before the Supreme Court since 2010.

Three local handgun owners and the New York state affiliate of the NRA – a national lobby group closely aligned with President Donald Trump and other Republicans – argued that the regulation violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

New York City’s regulation was amended in July to loosen the restrictions at issue in the case, but the Supreme Court opted to proceed with the arguments anyway. The justices have said they will consider during the arguments the city’s contention that the change in the regulation has made the matter moot.

Outside the white marble courthouse, hundreds of gun control supporters held a demonstration and carried signs including some reading, “Why are guns easier to buy than a college education?” “Gun laws save lives” and “2nd Amendment written before assault weapons were invented.”

Maryland resident Christina Young said such laws need to reflect modern society, including mass shootings.

“I have an 11-year-old daughter. I never had to worry about guns in my school when I was a kid,” Young said.

Amid the crowd, one gun rights supporter held high a large sign demanding Second Amendment rights.

Gun control advocates have expressed concern that the court, with a 5-4 conservative majority, could use the legal battle over a now-loosened gun control regulation unique to one city to issue a ruling widening gun rights nationwide.

Such a ruling could jeopardize a variety of firearms restrictions passed in recent years by state and local governments across the country, including expanded background checks and confiscations of weapons from individuals who a court has deemed dangerous, according to these advocates.

The dispute centers on New York City’s handgun “premises” licenses that allowed holders to transport their firearms only to a handful of shooting ranges within the city, and to hunting areas elsewhere in the state during designated hunting seasons.

The plaintiffs filed suit in 2013 after they were told by authorities they could not participate in a shooting competition in New Jersey or bring their guns to a home elsewhere in the state. The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the regulation advanced the city’s interest in protecting public safety and did not violate the Second Amendment.

GUN CONTROL LAWS PROLIFERATE

Gun control is a contentious issue in the United States, which has experienced numerous mass shootings. Since 2013, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted more than 300 gun control laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Republican opposition in Congress has been instrumental in thwarting passage of new federal laws.

New York City officials have argued that controlling guns in public takes on particular urgency in the most densely populated urban center in the United States, where the potential for violence, accidents or thefts is heightened.

The regulation dated back to 2001 when New York police tightened handgun transport rules because officers had observed license holders improperly traveling with loaded firearms or with their firearms far from any authorized range.

The city argued that the rule did not prevent training as there are plenty of ranges at which to practice within the city, and individuals could rent firearms at competitions farther afield. The rule also did not prevent homeowners from keeping a separate handgun at a second home outside the city.

The Supreme Court had avoided taking up a major firearms case since 2010, when it extended to state and local regulations a 2008 ruling that recognized for the first time that the Second Amendment protects a person’s right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.

The challengers have said that the history and tradition of the Second Amendment makes clear that the right extends beyond the home. They also are asking the Supreme Court to require lower courts to more strictly review gun curbs, with an eye toward striking them down.

The court’s ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies

Anti-goverment protesters trapped inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University abseil onto a highway and escape before being forced to surrender during a police besiege of the campus in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. HK01/Handout via REUTERS

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies
By Nick Macfie and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police used tear gas and water cannon on Monday against protesters who tried to break through cordons and reach a university at the centre of a week-long standoff between demonstrators and law enforcement.

The black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs as they tried to get to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, occupied by activists during a week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of anti-government demonstrations.

“We have been trying to rescue them all day,” said a young man in a blue T-shirt, cap and spectacles, running down Nathan Road, the Kowloon district’s main commercial street. “They are trapped in there.”

Later, about a dozen protesters pinned inside the campus escaped on the backs of waiting motorbikes after lowering themselves with rope onto the road.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes between protesters and police have escalated sharply since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

On Monday night, protesters under cover of umbrellas huddled along the median strip in Nathan Road, filling bottles with petrol to make crude bombs, a weapon they have used increasingly.

Some residents were trapped at police cordons, and all the shops along a stretch of commercial strip that is usually one of Hong Kong’s busiest were shut.

TIGHTENED CORDON

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas to pin back about 100 anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs and other weapons and stop them from fleeing.

Dozens, choking on the tear gas, tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, but were pushed back.

“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters.

“It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

“All roads to Poly U are blocked,” said a policeman who stopped Reuters reporters at a road block on Monday night. “All are blocked.”

ARRESTS MOUNT

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they show restraint.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday no one should underestimate its will to protect its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

On Saturday, Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up unrest.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb, Farah Master, Jennifer Hughes and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong and Phil Stewart in Bangkok; Writing by Greg Torode and Tony Munroe; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis

Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric steps into crisis
By Ellen Francis and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s highest Christian authority called on Wednesday for a change in government to include qualified technocrats and urged the president to begin talks to address demands of demonstrators in the streets for a seventh day.

Throwing his weight behind demands for at least some change in government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai was the first major religious figure to wade into the crisis.

With a population of 6 million people including around 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been swept by unprecedented protests against a political elite blamed for a deep economic crisis.

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked around the country with vehicles and makeshift barricades on Wednesday, while banks and schools remained shut.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding his government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.

Rai said the measures were welcome but also required replacing current ministers with technocrats.

He did not demand Hariri’s resignation.

Hariri’s government, which took office at the start of the year, groups nearly all of the main parties in the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system.

“The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team with national, qualified figures,” Rai said in a televised speech.

“We call on the president of the republic … to immediately begin consultations with the political leadership and the heads of the sects to take the necessary decisions regarding the people’s demands,” Rai said.

The president is drawn from his Christian Maronite community.

Political sources said a reshuffle was being discussed. One told Reuters the idea of a change in government was “starting to mature”. “But it is not there yet. Not everyone is at the same state of emergency,” the source said.

“The street is imposing its rhythm on the political class, the political class has to be dynamic with it. It is a standoff – who will concede first?” the source said.

GLOBAL UNREST

Lebanon’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of political protests around the world – from Hong Kong and Barcelona to Quito and Santiago – each having its own trigger but sharing some underlying frustrations.

Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, said Lebanon could not remain in such chaos and said he feared any power vacuum.

“Everything the political class is doing now is clearly to buy time … the reform list is a lie. Today the demand is for the government to fall,” said Manal Ghanem, a protester at a barricade in Beirut.

“We want to get an interim government that holds early elections … We need to stay strong, to stay in the streets,” said Ghanem, a university graduate who works in a coffee shop.

Lebanon’s economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth linked to regional turmoil. Capital inflows from abroad, critical to financing the state deficit, have ebbed.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt compared to the size of its economy at around 150%.

The powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and heavily armed, said on Saturday it was against the government resigning and the country did not have enough time for such a move given the acute financial crisis.

The moves announced by Hariri on Monday included the halving of salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as steps toward implementing long-delayed measures vital to fixing state finances.

Under pressure to convince foreign donors he can slash next year’s budget deficit, Hariri has said the central bank and commercial banks would contribute 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion) to help plug the gap, including through an increase in taxes on bank profits.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Wednesday following his return from Washington, where the governor attended International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. He also met a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Eric Knecht, Tom Perry and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies
By Jon Nazca, Jordi Rubio and Isla Binnie

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid.

The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia. Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running.

The interior ministry has dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

“Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organised … by groups who are a minority but are very organised,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. “Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished.”

Some masked youths hurled stones at police late in the afternoon on one city street, but the vast majority of Friday’s rallies were peaceful, with Barcelona’s broad boulevards packed with people draped in the Catalan independence flag.

“We have always been peaceful people, but you get to a point where you get treated in such a way that people are getting angry,” said Carlota Llacuna, a 19-year old student from the Maresca region near Barcelona. “They put our leaders in prison.”

One of the main ringleaders, Catalonia’s former chief Carles Puigdemont, has so far escaped trial after he fled to Belgium in 2017 when the independence drive was thwarted.

Spain this week renewed its bid to get him extradited and he was briefly detained by Belgian police on Friday before a judge ordered his release pending a decision on the Spanish arrest warrant. A court is meant to hear the case on Oct. 29.

EL CLASICO POSTPONED

Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic because of Friday’s marches, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was closed due to the protests, an official told Reuters.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona’s Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, which is known as “el clasico” and is one of the biggest rivalries in world sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport cancelled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers had been set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).

In an apparent effort to hamper the protesters, a Spanish judge ordered on Friday the closure of web pages linked to a pro-independence group, Democratic Tsunami, which has been deftly directing its followers to various demonstrations.

However, as soon as its site was shuttered, the group migrated its homepage to a new url, sidestepping the ruling.

Democratic Tsunami is a new, secretive group that emerged in September and has drawn thousands of followers on both its website and social media.

Although it says it is committed to non-violent protests, many young demonstrators have battled police over the past three nights in Barcelona in scenes reminiscent of the some of the urban unrest that has rocked France over the past year.

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said 42 people needed medical attention.

(Reporting by Jose Elías Rodríguez, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ashifa Kassam, Emma Pinedo and Paola Luelmo in Madrid, Andrea Ariet Gallego; Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)

Dozens killed as uprising sweeps across Iraq

By Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Dozens of demonstrators were killed across Iraq on Thursday and Friday as violent protests against government corruption swelled into a mass spontaneous uprising sweeping much of the country, the worst unrest since the defeat of Islamic State.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for calm but protesters scorned his promises of political reform. The country’s most influential cleric pinned the blame for the violence on politicians who had failed to improve the lives of the public, and ordered them to meet the protesters’ demands.

Another politically powerful cleric pulled his opposition faction’s lawmakers out of parliament, a gesture certain to fuel the passions behind the unrest.

On the streets of Baghdad, a Reuters Television crew saw police snipers stationed on rooftops open fire on a crowd, critically wounding at least one protester hit in the neck.

The violence comes two years after Iraq put down the insurgency by the Sunni Muslim armed group Islamic State. The protests arose in the south, heartland of the Shi’ite majority, but has quickly spread, with no formal leadership from any organized political or sectarian movement.

Security and medical sources gave a death toll early on Friday of 46 killed in three days of unrest, the vast majority of the deaths in the last 24 hours as the violence accelerated.

“It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction,” Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon.

“The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground,” said Sistani, who stays out of day-to-day politics but whose word is law for Iraq’s Shi’ites. “Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening.”

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, ordered his lawmakers to suspend participation in the legislature until the government introduces a program that would serve all Iraqis.

“WE WALK AMONG YOU”

The violence is an unprecedented test for Adel Abdul Mahdi, a mild-mannered veteran politician who came to power last year as a compromise candidate backed by powerful Shi’ite groups that dominated Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In his overnight address, Abdul Mahdi pledged reforms but said there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He insisted politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: “We do not live in ivory towers – we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

A young man in a crowd fleeing sniper shots at a central Baghdad square in the morning was scornful. “The promises by Adel Abdul Mahdi are to fool the people, and today they are firing live gunshots at us,” he said.

“Today this was a peaceful protest. They set up these barricades, and the sniper is sitting right there since last night.”

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread north of the capital. Deaths were also reported in the southern cities of Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely-populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya.

Late on Thursday protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armored vehicle, across the Tigris River from the government compound.

“They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!” a man shouted to Reuters TV.

“Abdul Mahdi, they will cross the bridge. You better resign. Resign. The people demand the fall of the regime!” he shouted as the crowd behind him took up a chant that swept the Middle East during popular uprisings across the region in 2011: “The people demand the fall of the regime!”

“REVOLUTION OF HUNGER”

The unrest comes on the eve of Arbaeen, a Shi’ite pilgrimage which in recent years has drawn 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

Some pilgrims were already taking to the roads on Friday, although in smaller numbers than in recent years. Iran has closed one of the border crossings used by millions of pilgrims. Qatar has told its citizens to stay away.

A senior Iranian cleric blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel, saying they aimed to thwart the pilgrimage.

The protests could grow if they receive formal backing from Sadr, who has long denounced corruption and the political elite.

“We Sadrists support the protests by all means, but we would wait for orders from our leader Sayyed Moqtada before we would take to the streets,” a senior Sadrist politician, Awad Awadi, told Reuters. He called the protests “a revolution of hunger.”

Ahmed al-Kinani, a lawmaker from a party linked to a powerful Iran-backed militia, said most of the protesters were simply demanding their rights, but a minority were using the demonstrations to target the security forces. His party was willing to do what it takes to calm the situation, including accepting a reshuffling of cabinet ministries.

Two years after the defeat of the Islamic State Sunni militant movement, Iraq has finally been at peace and free to trade for the first extended period since the 1970s, with oil exports at record levels. But Iraqis say they have seen few benefits, with infrastructure still in ruins and jobs scarce.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Reuters Television staff in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Ali Hafthi in Hilla; Writing by Peter Graff)

Fresh protests hit Hong Kong as activists seek voice at G20

Demonstrators protest outside police headquarters, demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Si

By Jessie Pang and Vivam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Protesters in Hong Kong blocked roads and forced workers to leave the justice secretary’s offices on Thursday in the latest unrest to rock the city over an extradition bill that has now been suspended.

Millions have thronged the streets in the past three weeks to demand that the bill, which would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, be scrapped altogether.

“You know what everybody has deep in their hearts – is that this is about our future and it’s very very personal,” said 53-year-old Brian Kern, who was attending the protests.

In sweltering heat of 32 degrees C (89.6F), some protesters chanted, “Withdraw evil law, release martyrs…Teresa Cheng, come out,” referring to the justice secretary. Others shouted, “Condemn excessive force by police and release protesters.”

Police formed a cordon to block the demonstrators and one officer held a banner warning them away. Minor scuffles broke out between pro-democracy group Demosisto and officers.

“Fight for Justice”, “Free Hong Kong,” and “Democracy Now” were some of the demands emblazoned on protest banners.

Police chief Stephen Lo warned of consequences for outbreaks of violence and condemned what he said was an environment of hostility making his officers’ task difficult.

BATON CHARGE

In the early hours, riot police wielding batons and shields chased dozens of protesters as they broke up a siege of police headquarters. By nightfall on Thursday, only around 200 protesters remained. Black-clad and masked, they sat peacefully outside government headquarters.

The demonstrators have seized on this week’s G20 summit of world leaders in Japan to appeal for Hong Kong’s plight to be put on the agenda, a move certain to rile Beijing, which has vowed not to tolerate such discussion.

“We know that the G20 is coming. We want to grasp this opportunity to voice for ourselves,” said Jack Cool Tsang, 30, a theater technician who took a day off work to protest.

Images of police firing rubber bullets and tear gas beneath gleaming skyscrapers this month near the heart of the financial center grabbed global headlines and drew condemnation from international rights groups and protest organizers.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who has kept a low profile since her latest public apology over a week ago, bowed to public pressure and suspended the bill a day after the violent protests but stopped short of canceling the measure outright and rejected repeated calls to step down.

Opponents of the extradition bill fear being placed at the mercy of a justice system rights group say is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.

The demonstrations, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, have repeatedly forced the temporary closure of government offices, blocked major roads and caused massive disruptions.

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including the liberty to protest and an independent judiciary.

But many accuse China of increased meddling over the years, by obstructing democratic reform, interfering with elections, suppressing young activists, as well as being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

LAM VOICES SUPPORT FOR POLICE

ay, a Hong Kong government statement said Lam had met senior police officers to express thanks for their dedication during the protests and gave them her full support to maintain law and order in the city.

“She said she understands that members of the force and their family members have been put under pressure and that a small number of people even provoked the police intentionally, which is not acceptable,” the statement said.

Lam also met representatives in the education and religious sectors, senior civil servants as well as foreign consuls to exchange views on the “current social situation,” it said.

(Reporting By Vimvam Tong, Jessie Pang, Delfina Wentzel, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Mark Hienrich)

Black-clad, anti-extradition protesters singing “Hallelujah to the Lord” flood streets of Hong Kong

Protesters gather outside police headquarters in Hong Kong, China June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on Friday as Asia’s leading financial center braced itself for a third weekend of mass protests against an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis.

Groups of mostly students wearing hard hats, goggles and face masks set up roadblocks and trapped vehicles in a generally peaceful protest to demand that leader Carrie Lam, who promoted and then postponed the bill, scrap it altogether.

“Having people here is giving pressure to the government that we don’t agree with your extradition plans,” said student Edison Ng, who was protesting in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (90F).

“It is not clear how long we will stay… To go or not to go, (the) people will decide,” he added.

The protests, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, once again forced the temporary closure of Hong Kong government offices over security concerns.

Roads that would normally be jammed with traffic near the heart of the former British colony were empty, with demonstrators reinforcing roadblocks with metal barriers.

“Never surrender,” echoed through the streets as the protesters chanted near police headquarters and called on police chief Stephen Lo to step down.

Riot police armed with helmets and shields appeared from the balcony of police headquarters but withdrew back inside after heavy chanting from the crowd. Police warned activists through loud hailers not to charge.

Thousands remained outside government buildings on Friday night, with the majority sitting peacefully and spraying each other with water to keep cool. Nearby, a large group sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, which has emerged as the unlikely anthem of the protests.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.

Millions of people, fearing further erosion of those freedoms, have clogged the streets of the Asian financial center this month to rally against the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

It triggered the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Beijing’s squeeze sparked pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days.

Many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Friday’s marchers demanded that the government drop all charges against those arrested in last week’s clashes, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.

A small group of demonstrators hurled eggs at police outside the headquarters to protest against police violence. Amnesty International in a statement on Friday that evidence of unlawful use of force by police during the June 12 protest was “irrefutable”.

The government in a statement late on Friday said the protests had caused much disruption and appealed to protesters to act peacefully and rationally. With regard to the bill, it said the government had put a stop to legislation on the matter.

“SINCERE AND HUMBLE ATTITUDE”

Opponents of the extradition bill fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.

The turmoil has also raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern, two years after she was selected and pledged to “unite and move forward”.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologize over the bill.

“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Cheng wrote in her blog.

“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she had heard the people “loud and clear”, she has rejected repeated calls to step down.

Concerns over the bill spread quickly, from democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government. Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said in a statement that it was asking the government to withdraw the extradition bill and make a commitment that any legislation would not proceed without having a full and open consultation.

Protesters had gathered early on Friday outside government offices before marching toward police headquarters. One activist read a letter of support from a Taiwan student.

“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love,” the protester read through a loud hailer to applause.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.

Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Sijia Jiang Felix Tam, Ryan Chang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)