Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis chafe at coronavirus restrictions

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.

Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority are another sensitive community, where officials say testing for the virus has been lagging.

“There are three ‘Corona Countries’ – the ultra-Orthodox sector, the Arab sector and the rest of the State of Israel,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters on Sunday.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement. On Saturday, a funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners in Bnai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town.

Reprimanded by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan for allowing what he deemed a “threat to life” at the funeral, police issued a statement vowing to “draw lessons to prevent similar situations recurring”.

Public gatherings are currently limited to up to 10 people, people must keep two meters apart and the public has been urged to stay at home unless they need to buy food, get medical attention, or go to work deemed crucial by the state.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ultra-Orthodox head of ZAKA, a volunteer emergency-medicine group, told Israel’s Army Radio that most ultra-Orthodox Jews did follow Health Ministry directives and only a small group defied them, possibly for political reasons.

“Everything they are doing has no value when they constitute a ‘ticking bomb’ because of whom people will get infected,” he said of those not following the government’s guidelines.

Israel has reported 4,347 coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities.

With the Health Ministry warning that the dead could eventually number in the thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due on Monday to convene officials to discuss a proposed lockdown of some of the country.

Bennett has proposed setting up a coronavirus surveillance system that would allow authorities to focus lockdowns on areas most prone to contagion.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Iran says U.S. sanctions on Khamenei mean end of diplomacy

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – New U.S. sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader and foreign minister have closed off diplomacy, Iran said on Tuesday, blaming the United States for abandoning the only route to peace just days after the two foes came within minutes of conflict.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Monday against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact, which would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said he decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” Mousavi tweeted.

In a televised address, President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation around Iran was developing toward a dangerous scenario, RIA news agency reported.

“OPEN DOOR”

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, visiting Israel, repeated earlier offers to hold talks, as long as Iran was willing to go beyond the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers which Trump abandoned last year.

“The president has held the door open to real negotiations to completely and verifiably eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic missile delivery systems, its support for international terrorism and other malign behavior worldwide,” Bolton said in Jerusalem. “All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door.”

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – was the culmination of weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev came to Iran’s support, saying the drone was in Iranian airspace when it was shot down and that the evidence on the tanker attacks was of poor quality and unprofessional, not enough to draw conclusions.

During a visit to Jerusalem, Patrushev also said it was unacceptable to portray Iran as a threat to international security and called for restraint to help defuse the situation.

Washington says forcing Iran to the table is the purpose of its sanctions. Tehran has said it is willing to talk if the United States lifts the new sanctions first, although Tuesday’s statements appear to toughen that stance.

Trump is leaving a path open to diplomacy with Iran but Tehran would be making a mistake if it interprets his restraint over the downing of a drone as weakness, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a conference in Geneva.

“We will not initiate a conflict against Iran, nor do we intend to deny Iran the right to defend its airspace but if Iran continues to attack us, our response will be decisive,” he said.

U.S. officials have launched a diplomatic campaign to rally their allies in the face of the escalating crisis. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East on Monday to meet leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arab states that favor the toughest possible line against Iran.

The U.S. envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, is visiting Europe, where he is likely to get a frostier reception from allies who support the nuclear deal. They believe Trump’s decision to quit the accord was a mistake that has strengthened Iran’s hardline faction, weakened its pragmatists and endangered regional peace.

Iran says it still aims to comply with the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some benefits. It has given European countries until July 8 to find a way to shield its economy from U.S. sanctions, or else it will enrich uranium to levels banned under the deal.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle/Mark Heinrich)

Trump imposes new U.S. sanctions on Iran, including supreme leader

U.S. President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Stephen Kalin

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran on Monday following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called “the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” Trump said.

The Trump administration wants to force Tehran to open talks on its nuclear and missile programs and its activities in the region.

Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, as Washington sought to rally support in the Middle East and Europe for a hardline stance that has brought it to the verge of conflict with its longtime foe.

Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks, which Iran denies. On Monday, the United States said it was building a coalition with allies to protect Gulf shipping lanes.

A coalition of nations would provide both material and financial contributions to the program, a senior U.S. State Department official said, without identifying the countries.

“It’s about proactive deterrence, because the Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say hey we didn’t do it. We know what they’ve done,” the official told reporters, adding that the deterrents would include cameras, binoculars and ships.

The United States accuses Iran of encouraging allies in Yemen to attack Saudi targets.

In a joint statement on Monday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Britain expressed concern over Middle East tensions and the dangers posed by Iranian “destabilizing activity” to peace and security in Yemen and the region.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States heated up last Thursday when Iran shot down an American drone, saying it had flown over its air space.

Washington, which said the drone was in international skies, then appeared to come close to attacking Iranian military targets, with Trump saying that he aborted a retaliatory air strike 10 minutes before it was to go ahead.

Trump said he decided the strike, to punish Iran for shooting down the drone, would have killed too many people.

U.S. media have reported that Washington launched cyber attacks last week even as Trump called off his air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

FEARS OF WAR

Iran dismissed the cyber attacks as a failure.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake by either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but that Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of President Hassan Rouhani.

France, Britain and Germany have sent an official diplomatic warning to Iran if Tehran reduces its compliance with the accord, two European diplomats said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Iran might face for non-compliance.

Washington argues that the agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks while demanding the other side move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions before any talks.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool; Editing by Jon Boyle and Howard Goller)

Trump says he aborted retaliatory strike to spare Iranian lives

FILE PHOTO - U.S. President Donald Trump listens to questions from reporters during a meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he aborted a military strike on Iran because he it could have killed 150 people, a disproportionate response to Tehran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone.

Trump said the plan was to hit three sites in response to the drone’s downing on Thursday, which Tehran said took place over its territory and which Washington said occurred in international airspace over the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

The drone incident aggravated fears of a direct military clash between the longtime foes and oil prices rose about $1 per barrel to above $65.50 on Friday due to worries about possible disruptions to crude exports from the Gulf.

In a sign that the United States is also open to diplomacy, Iranian sources told Reuters, Trump had warned them that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent but saying that he was against war and wanted talks on a range of issues.

In a series of early morning tweets, Trump said he was in no hurry to launch a strike and that U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Iran to curb its nuclear and missile programs and its involvement in regional wars were having an effect.

He also said the United States imposed additional sanctions against Iran on Thursday night following the destruction of the Global Hawk drone by an Iranian surface-to-air missile, but it was not immediately clear what those economic penalties may have been.

“Ten minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” Trump tweeted.

White House national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel, along with the rest of Trump’s team, favored a retaliatory strike, said a senior Trump administration official.

“There was complete unanimity amongst the president’s advisors and DOD leadership on an appropriate response to Iran’s activities. The president made the final decision,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The purported wreckage of the American drone is seen displayed by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

The purported wreckage of the American drone is seen displayed by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

TRUMP MESSAGE TO IRAN

Earlier on Friday, Iranian officials told Reuters that Tehran had received a message from Trump warning that a U.S. attack on Iran was imminent but saying that he was against war and wanted talks on a range of issues.

News of that message, delivered through Oman overnight, came shortly after the New York Times reported that Trump had called off air strikes targeting Iranian radar and missile batteries at the last minute.

“In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues,” one of the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He gave a short period of time to get our response but Iran’s immediate response was that it is up to Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to decide about this issue.”

A second Iranian official said: “We made it clear that the leader is against any talks, but the message will be conveyed to him to make a decision.

“However, we told the Omani official that any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences.”

Khamenei has the last say on all state matters and has ruled out any talks with Washington while Tehran is under sanctions.

Iran shot down the drone after weeks of festering tension amidst a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.

In his initial response on Thursday, Trump said he was not eager to escalate a stand-off with Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile activities and support for proxies in various Middle East conflicts.

He said the unmanned drone might have been shot down in error by someone who was acting “loose and stupid”, though added: “This country will not stand for it.”

In a sign that the United States may be interested in pursuing diplomacy for now, it asked the U.N. Security Council to meet on Iran behind closed-doors on Monday, diplomats said.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Jamie Freed in Singapore, David Shepardson in Washington and Tom Westbrook in Sydney, Tom Balmforth in Moscow, David Alexander, Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart in Washington, Sabine Siebold in Brussels and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Rigby and Alistair Bell)

Trump says Iran ‘made a very big mistake’ by shooting down drone

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a "3 Khordad" system which is said to had been used to shoot down a U.S. military drone, according to news agency Fars, in this undated handout picture. Fars news/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.

By Parisa Hafezi and Phil Stewart

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said Iran made “a very big mistake” by shooting down a U.S. military drone that Tehran said was on a spy mission over its territory, in an incident that fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East.

The United States, which called the event an “unprovoked attack” in international air space, is pursuing a campaign to isolate Iran to contain its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and limit its role in regional wars.

It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May including explosive strikes on six oil tankers as Tehran and Washington have edged toward confrontation.

“Iran made a very big mistake!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how the United States might respond and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Washington had no appetite for war with Iran.

Iran has denied involvement in the tanker attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than $3 to above $63 a barrel on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.

“When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.

Tensions flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade. Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

U.S. MIDEAST FORCES

Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks.

Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.

A U.S. official said the drone, formally called an RQ-4A Global Hawk High-Altitude, Long, Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System, had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf..

Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.

“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international air space,” Urban said. The drone, he added, was downed over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2335 GMT – in the early morning hours of local time in the Gulf.

Separately, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity the debris field from the drone was in international waters in the Strait and U.S. naval assets have been dispatched to the area.

Iran’s foreign ministry said the drone had violated Iranian air space and warned of the consequences of such “illegal and provocative” measures.

Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.

A Iranian Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone’s identification transponder had been switched off “in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy” when it was downed, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported.

IRANIAN “RED LINE”

“Our air space is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our air space,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

The RQ-4A’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, says on its website that it can fly for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes higher than 10 miles (16 km), with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The Trump administration sought on Wednesday to rally global support for its pressure on Iran by displaying limpet mine fragments it said came from an oil tanker damaged in the June 13 attacks, saying the ordnance closely resembled mines publicly displayed in Iranian military parades.

European diplomats have said more evidence is needed to pinpoint responsibility for the tanker strikes.

The U.S. sanctions net draped over Iran, scuttling its oil exports and barring it from the dollar-dominated global finance system, have hammered Iran’s economy, undoing the promise of trade rewards from the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump has sent forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops to the Middle East over the past few weeks. Iran said last week it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on American forces to leave the Gulf.

Tehran has also said it will shortly suspend compliance with the nuclear deal’s curbs on its uranium enrichment, meant to block any pathway to nuclear weapons capability, and threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

But Trump – who sees the nuclear deal as flawed to Iran’s advantage and requiring renegotiation – and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both said they have no interest in starting a war.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Doina Chiacu in Washinigton; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

London’s Gatwick airport reopens after mystery drone saboteur sows chaos

Passengers walk through the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Toby Melville

GATWICK, England (Reuters) – London’s Gatwick Airport reopened on Friday after a mystery saboteur wrought 36 hours of travel chaos for more than 100,000 Christmas travelers by using drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.

After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest airport, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said around 700 planes were due to take off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.

Britain deployed unidentified military technology to guard the airport against what Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said were thought to be several drones.

“I think passengers are safe,” Grayling said. “This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world.”

The motivation of the drone operator, or operators, was unclear. Police said there was nothing to suggest the crippling of one of Europe’s busiest airports was a terrorist attack.

Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinized by security forces and airport operators across the world.

The army and police snipers were called in to hunt down the drones, thought to be industrial style craft, which flew near the airport every time it tried to reopen on Thursday. The last time a drone was spotted at the airport was at 2200 GMT on Thursday.

The perpetrator has not yet been detained but the police said they had a number of possible suspects. No group has claimed responsibility publicly and police said there was no evidence another state was involved.

Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry said they were keeping an open mind about who was responsible.

“In terms of the motivation, there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, from the really high-end criminal behavior that we’ve seen, all the way down to potentially, just individuals trying to be malicious, trying to disrupt the airport,” he said.

After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

THERMAL IMAGING?

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) said it understood “detection and tracking equipment” had been installed around Gatwick’s perimeter.

BALPA said that it was extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.

The defense ministry refused to comment on what technology was deployed but drone experts said airports needed to deploy specialist radar reinforced by thermal imaging technology to detect such unmanned flying vehicles.

Other ways to tackle them is typically by frequency jamming that can disable or disrupt control signals and the GPS signals that allow the drones to navigate.

The drone sightings caused misery for travelers, many sleeping on the airport floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.

Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected at least 120,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday, with thousands more to be disrupted on Friday.

It was not immediately clear what the financial impact would be on the main airlines operating from Gatwick including EasyJet, British Airways and Norwegian.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” meaning airlines are not obliged to pay compensation to affected passengers.

Airlines will have to refund customers who no longer wish to travel however and try to reschedule flights to get passengers to their destinations.

An arrivals board in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A Reuters witness at Gatwick’s South Terminal said the airport was busy, with many people waiting with luggage and queues for service desks, but not unusually so for such a day.

Some airport staff handed out chocolate and Christmas elf toys to stranded passengers.

Some, like Sarah Garghan-Watson, chose to stick it out at the airport overnight, having arrived at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

“It’s now 2 o’clock in the morning at Gatwick, and it’s very bright and very noisy. It’s now also very cold,” she said in a video shown on Sky.

“All I can see tonight … is a sign that says ‘no more sleeps until the beach’. And here we are, sleeping, in the stairs at Gatwick, because there’s no flights.”

 

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel shoots down Syria drone; Netanyahu to meet Putin

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers look at the Syrian side of the Israel-Syria border on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel shot down a drone that flew in from Syria on Wednesday, the Israeli military said, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to for talks with Damascus’s biggest ally about a Syrian advance near the volatile frontier.

A Patriot missile launched to intercept the drone, which set off air-defense sirens on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and nearby Jordanian border, the military said in a statement. It was the second such incident in the area in as many months.

The drone “infiltrated the Israeli border from Syria”, the Israeli military statement said, without immediately elaborating on whether the shoot-down took place over the Golan. Israel captured much of the strategic plateau in the 1967 war with Syria and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.

An Israeli security source said police were scouring the Sea of Galilee, at the Golan foothills in northern Israel, for possible debris.

Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces advance against rebels near the Golan and Jordan. Israel worries that he could deploy troops or allow his Iranian and Hezbollah allies to set up emplacements near Israeli lines.

Russia is Assad’s big-power backer in the 7-year-old civil war. Netanyahu traveled to Moscow on Wednesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, who in the past has turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria while making clear Russia does not want Assad’s rule endangered.

“We will discuss Syria, we will discuss Iran, we will discuss Israel’s security needs,” Netanyahu told reporters before departing. “I very much appreciate the direct, unmediated and excellent contact that I have with the Russian president.”

Israel has threatened to open fire at any Syrian government forces that try to deploy in a demilitarized Golan buffer zone set up under a 1974 U.N.-monitored armistice.

But on Tuesday, Israel also signaled openness to eventual ties with Syria under Assad, a tacit acknowledgment that he was re-consolidating power as he beats back the rebels.

Under Assad family rule, Syria held direct negotiations with Israel in the United States in 2000 and indirect talks mediated by Turkey in 2008, discussions predicated on a full or partial return of the Golan.

Netanyahu’s government has made clear it would not now cede the plateau and has been lobbying for U.S. recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.

On June 24, Israel’s military said it launched a Patriot missile at an incoming drone from Syria, which turned away unscathed. A Syrian commander said the drone was engaged in local operations.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

Greenpeace crashes Superman-shaped drone into French nuclear plant

A Superman-shaped drone crashes into the EDF's Bugey nuclear plant in Bugey, near Lyon, France, July 3, 2018. Greenpeace said it had flown the drone - piloted by one of its activists - into the no-fly zone around utility EDF's Bugey nuclear plant and then crashed it against the wall of the plant's spent-fuel pool building, to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said. Nicolas Chauveau/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) – Greenpeace crashed a Superman-shaped drone into a French nuclear plant on Tuesday to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said.

Greenpeace said it had flown the drone – piloted by one of its activists – into the no-fly zone around utility EDF’s Bugey nuclear plant, near Lyon, and then crashed it against the wall of the plant’s spent-fuel pool building.

“This action again highlights the extreme vulnerability of this type of buildings, which contain the highest amount of radioactivity in nuclear plants,” Greenpeace said.

France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power in 19 nuclear plants operated by state-controlled EDF.

EDF said that two drones had flown over the Bugey site, of which one had been intercepted by French police.

“The presence of these drones had no impact on the security of the installations,” EDF said, adding that it will file a police complaint.

The drone stunt follows a series of staged break-ins by Greenpeace activists into French nuclear plants, which Greenpeace says are vulnerable to outside attack, especially the spent-fuel pools. These pools can hold the equivalent of several reactor cores, stored in concrete pools outside the highly reinforced reactor building.

Greenpeace says the spent-fuel buildings have not been designed to withstand outside attacks and are the most vulnerable part of French nuclear plants.

“Spent-fuel pools must be turned into bunkers in order to make nuclear plants safer,” said Greenpeace France’s chief nuclear campaigner Yannick Rousselet.

EDF said the spent-fuel pool buildings are robust and designed to withstand natural disasters and accidents.

Greenpeace’s security breaches have sparked a parliament investigation into nuclear security, which is due to present its report on Thursday.

In October, Greenpeace activists broke through two security barriers and launched fireworks over EDF’s Cattenom nuclear plant.

In February, a French court gave several Greenpeace activists suspended jail sentences while ordering the group to pay a fine and 50,000 euros ($58,300) in damages to EDF.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough)

Damascus warns Israel of ‘more surprises’ in Syria

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018.

DAMASCUS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will face “more surprises” should it again attack Syrian territory, Damascus said on Tuesday, after Syria’s air defenses shot down an advanced Israeli warplane during the fiercest flare-up between the old foes in 36 years.

The F-16 jet was hit over northern Israel on Saturday as it returned from a raid on a Syrian position blamed for launching an Iranian-made drone across the border. Iran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

“Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised, because it thought this war – this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years – had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sussan said.

“God willing, they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria,” Sussan said during a Damascus news conference.

The downed F-16 was the first warplane Israel has lost to enemy fire since its 1982 Lebanon war. Its two-man crew survived, with injuries, after bailing out of the stricken jet.

Israel retaliated by destroying around half of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, according to an initial assessment shared with Reuters by an Israeli official who requested anonymity.

Israel has said it will press ahead with missions in Syria, where it has launched scores of sorties against suspected arms transfers to Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

“There are no limitations, and nor do we accept any limitations,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.

“We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: ‘This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.'”

Tehran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel. It has also has accused Iran of building precision-guided missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria and Hezbollah celebrated the F-16 shoot-down as a blow to Israeli military superiority. Israel’s Army Radio said on Tuesday that investigators believed pilot error – rather than Syrian capabilities – were mainly at fault for the F-16’s failure to evade what was probably an aged SA-5 missile.

Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on that report, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Saturday’s incident stirred up further questions in Israel about the effectiveness of a coordination mechanism set up with Russia, which has also been reinforcing and arming Assad’s army.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the flare-up by urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in Syria. Moscow said on Monday it did not have information to support Israel’s allegation about an Iranian military presence in the site bombed for launching the drone.

Zeev Elkin, a Russian-speaking Israeli cabinet minister who serves as Netanyahu’s interpreter in the talks with Putin, defended the coordination mechanism on Tuesday as granting Israel “freedom of action in the skies above Lebanon and Syria”.

“I don’t think the Russians ever pledged that they would take military action against the Iranians and the Syrians for us,” Elkin told Israel Radio.

“We are going one-on-one against the Syrians. We don’t need assistance from the Russians. We know how to deal with Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as everyone ultimately saw.”

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Netanyahu says Israel undeterred after Syria shoots down F-16

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 11, 2018.

By Jeffrey Heller and Lisa Barrington

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli forces would press ahead with Syria operations despite their loss of an advanced warplane to enemy fire for the first time in 36 years.

Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed the F-16 as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria early on Saturday. The Iran-backed forces are supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

Israel then launched a second and more intensive air raid, hitting what it said were 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria, including Syrian air defense systems.

However, Israel and Syria have both signaled they are not seeking wider conflict and on Sunday their frontier was calm, though Netanyahu struck a defiant tone on Sunday in remarks to his cabinet broadcast by Israeli media.

“Yesterday we landed hard blows on the forces of Iran and Syria. We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit,” he said.

Iran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat. Israel also has accused Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Israel’s strikes on Saturday had killed at least six people from Syrian government and allied forces. Syrian state media have yet to disclose any casualties or damage.

The downing of the F-16 over northern Israel – as the air force struck back for what it said was an incursion by an Iranian drone launched from Syria – was a rare setback for a country that relies on regional military supremacy.

Security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio the Iranian drone was modeled on the U.S. RQ-170 drone that was downed in Iran in 2011. The U.S. Embassy did not immediately comment.

The jet’s two-man crew survived with injuries, and Israeli generals insisted they had inflicted much greater damage in Syria – even as Damascus claimed a strategic gain in the decades-old standoff with its old foe to the south.

“BROADEST ATTACK” ON SYRIA DEFENSES

Israel said it had destroyed three Syrian anti-aircraft batteries and four targets “that are part of Iran’s military establishment” in Syria during Saturday’s raids.

“This is the broadest attack on Syria’s defense systems since (Operation) Peace for the Galilee,” air force Brigadier-General Amnon Ein Dar told Army Radio, referring to Israel’s 1982 Lebanon offensive, in which it battled Syrian forces.

It was also the first downing of an Israeli warplane by enemy fire since that conflict.

In Syria, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said the country’s air defenses had “destroyed the myth of Israeli air superiority in the region”.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which fights in support of Assad in Syria, spoke of the “start of a new strategic phase” that would limit Israel’s activity in Syrian airspace, where Israeli planes have regularly attacked suspected weapons shipments to the Islamist movement.

Both the United States, Israel’s closest ally, and Russia, which supports Assad in the Syrian civil war, have expressed concern over the latest clashes.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to begin a previously scheduled visit to the region on Sunday, expecting what a State Department official said would be “tough conversations”. He is due to travel to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait during the Feb 11-16 trip.

In a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Netanyahu affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and pledged continued cooperation with Moscow to avoid inadvertent clashes with Russian forces in Syria.

Putin, whose country supplies Syria’s air defense systems, urged Netanyahu to avoid an escalation of the conflict.

The Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy, said in a commentary that “in order to reinforce deterrence, Israeli leaders will probably assess they need to show Iran, Hezbollah and Syria they will continue to strike targets despite the risk”.

“(But) in a fog of war environment, another incident can easily drag the relevant parties toward a regional conflict.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones)