Trump says no U.S. troops hurt in Iran strikes, Tehran ‘standing down’

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday Iranian missile strikes on bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops stationed there and damage was minimal, an outcome he said showed Tehran wanted to prevent an escalation into conflict.

Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq early on Wednesday, saying it was in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone strike of powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.

“All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” Trump said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” the U.S. president said in an address, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and military officers.

He urged world powers to quit a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that Washington withdrew from in 2018 and work for a new deal, an issue that has been at the heart of rising tension between Washington and Tehran. Iran has rejected new talks.

There was no immediate reaction from Iranian officials to Trump’s comments. The semi-official Fars news agency described the U.S. president’s remarks as a “big retreat from threats.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier on Wednesday addressed a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America”, said Iran’s attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

ELECTION YEAR

Trump’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s attacks had been to say on Twitter that “All is well!” and that Washington was assessing damage.

That early tweet and the comment by Iran’s foreign minister had acted to soothe some initial concerns about a wider war and calmed jittery financial markets. Oil prices slipped back after an early spike. [O/R]

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

But an Iranian army spokesman had denied “foreign media reports” suggesting there had been some kind of coordination between Iran and the United States before the attack to allow bases to be evacuated, Fars news agency said.

The U.S. president, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, had at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.

Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil in Iraq were struck.

Iranian television had said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed, without saying how it obtained this information.

Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action. Iraq said its forces did not suffer casualties.

Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.

State media showed footage of what it said were Iran’s missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”.

AVOIDING CONFLICT

But analysts said Iran wanted to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces.

U.S. officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets, although they did not provide evidence.

Before Soleimani was buried, his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds. A stampede at his funeral on Tuesday killed at least 56 people.

After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers.

“His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.

Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.

“We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he said.

Khamenei, in his speech on Wednesday, ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on the 2015 nuclear pact.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order Soleimani’s killing and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Eric Beech in Washington, Writing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation
By Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes killed 13 Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday, medical officials said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 23 over a two-day escalation in violence since Israel launched strikes to kill an Islamic Jihad commander.

From early morning Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck from the air, resuming after an overnight lull. There were reports of injuries but no deaths inside Israel, where the military said it shot many of the rockets down with air defenses.

The bodies of six people were brought to Gaza’s Shifa hospital in taxis and ambulances early Wednesday, as relatives wept and screamed. Medics and witnesses said they were civilians who lived in densely populated neighborhoods.

In the north of Gaza City, family members said Rafat Ayyad and his two sons Islam, 25, and Ameer, aged 9, were killed by Israeli fire while rushing to hospital to visit another son who had earlier been injured in a separate attack.

“I got wounded and I called my father. He was coming to see me in hospital and two of my brothers were with him on the motorcycle when they were hit by Israel,” Loay Ayyad, 18, told Reuters during the funeral.

The Israeli military said that it had struck at least five rocket squads on Wednesday morning. Other targets included a rocket warhead manufacturing facility, an Islamic Jihad headquarters and a weapons storage site. Islamic Jihad confirmed that two of its militants were killed in separate strikes.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS

The fighting, the worst in months, erupted on Tuesday after Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a senior commander of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, accusing him of masterminding and planning attacks against Israel.

In response to the killing of Atta and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming on Wednesday morning.

“We will not allow the enemy to return to the policy of cowardly assassination under any circumstances,” said a statement by the ‘Joint Command’ of Palestinian armed factions.

The joint command includes Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza. But while Hamas appeared to be giving the green light for Islamic Jihad to continue, the larger group did not appear to be launching rockets itself, a decision that could reduce the likelihood of the violence escalating further.

Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous confrontations and to avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, following three wars from 2008-2014. In the past Israel has held Hamas responsible for rockets fired by any group in Gaza, but this time it appeared to be avoiding Hamas targets.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday.

“The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.

SIRENS AND EXPLOSIONS

The rockets from Gaza sent Israelis rushing to shelters in towns near the Gaza border and deeper in the country, with air raid sirens going off as far north as Tel Aviv and missiles striking Israeli highways and towns.

The Israeli military assembled armored vehicles along the border with Gaza, though a ground incursion into the territory seemed unlikely at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, having killed the Islamic Jihad commander, was not interested in a broader conflict.

“We don’t want escalation, but we are responding to every attack against us with a very sharp attack and response. Islamic Jihad best understand that now rather than when it’s too late for it,” Netanyahu said.

In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day, as were schools in much of southern Israel.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew troops and settlements in 2005. The territory has been controlled since 2007 by Hamas while under an Israeli security blockade, also backed by Egypt. The blockade has wrecked Gaza’s economy, and the United Nations says its 2 million residents have only limited access to electricity, clean water and medicine.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)

Hong Kong violence prompts reminder that China troops close at hand

Hong Kong violence prompts reminder that China troops close at hand
By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police shot and critically wounded a protester and a man was set on fire on Monday in violence that prompted leader Carrie Lam to denounce “enemies of the people” and drew a chilling warning from a senior Chinese newspaper editor.

Protesters threw petrol bombs at police after a weekend of clashes across the Chinese-ruled territory, marking a dramatic escalation in more than five months of often violent pro-democracy unrest.

“The violence has far exceeded the call for democracy and the demonstrators are now the people’s enemy,” Hong Kong chief executive Lam said in a defiant televised address.

“If there’s still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence, the Hong Kong … government will yield to pressure, to satisfy the so-called political demands, I’m making this statement clear and loud here: that will not happen.”

Police fired tear gas in the narrow streets of the Central business district where some protesters, crouching behind umbrellas, blocked streets as office workers crowded the pavements and hurled anti-government abuse.

Some passersby took cover inside the Landmark mall, one of the oldest and most expensive, as volleys of tear gas rained down.

There have been almost daily protests in Hong Kong, but it was rare for tear gas to be fired during working hours in Central, lined with bank headquarters and top-brand shops. Some offices closed early.

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks throughout the unrest, but it has vowed to crush any attempts at independence, a demand for a very small minority of protesters.

The editor in chief of China’s Global Times tabloid, published by the state-owned People’s Daily, said Hong Kong police had nothing to be scared of.

“You have the backing of not only Hong Kong and Chinese people, but also Chinese soldiers and People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong,” Hu Xijin wrote on his blog. “They can go into Hong Kong to provide support at any time.”

SHOOTING CAUGHT ON VIDEO

Police fired live rounds at close range at protesters in Sai Wan Ho on the eastern side of Hong Kong island and one 21-year-old protester was wounded. Police said the victim was in critical condition.

Resident Anson Yip, 36, said protesters were building a road block when police ran to the scene.

“They didn’t fight and the police ran and directly shot. There were three sounds, like ‘pam, pam, pam’,” Yip said.

Video footage showed polystyrene boxes and other debris littering a crossing and blocking traffic. A protester wearing a white hoodie and mask walks towards a policeman, as if to challenge him. The officer draws his gun and points it at him at close range and grabs him round the neck.

As the officer holds the man with his left hand, he shoots another approaching masked protester at close range with his right hand. Three shots ring out and the man falls to the ground.

The fallen man is pinned to the ground by an officer holding a gun to his head. The man in white escapes.

A friend visited the wounded man in hospital.

“My friend didn’t actually attack the police or do anything,” Rigan, 19, said. “They just shot him. My friend is optimistic, friendly and willing to help others.”

The man fell just a couple of metres from a large makeshift memorial to a student who died from a fall in a car park last week, the blood staining the street next to candles, flowers, and anti-government posters.

“The live rounds fired by police are clear evidence of reckless use of force,” Amnesty International Hong Kong said in a statement. “Another policeman was seen driving at high speed into a group of protesters on a motorbike. These are not policing measures – these are officers out of control with a mindset of retaliation.”

Police said the motorcycling officer had been suspended.

Video images online also showed a man dousing petrol on another and setting him on fire outside Ma On Shan Plaza in the New Territories. Engulfed in flames, the man was able to rip off his shirt and douse the blaze. Police said he was in critical condition.

More than 60 people were wounded on Monday, Lam said in her address.

CAMPUS CHAOS

The unrest also spread to densely populated Mong Kok on the Kowloon peninsula, often the site of street clashes. Police used water cannon and tear gas to try to break up protesters who regrouped, digging up bricks to throw at police and blocking Nathan Road, a major artery. A taxi driver who drove close to the crowds was beaten.

The clashes looked set to last into the night as they have done many times before.

Police said more than 120 places has been either vandalised or blocked on Monday. Some 266 people had been arrested since last Monday.

Protesters are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed to the former British colony by the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

The violence comes after student Chow Tsz-lok, 22, died in hospital last week following a fall as protesters were being dispersed by police.

Police fired tear gas at Chinese University, where students hurled petrol bombs and barricaded the campus like a fortress. There were at least four arrests.

“I feel a strong sense of helplessness,” said one Chinese University student who gave his name as Chan. “Who wouldn’t want to attend class if they could? The government still isn’t listening to us.”

The university said it would again suspend classes on Tuesday.

Protesters threw petrol bombs at police at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. Petrol bombs were also thrown at Hong Kong University on the main island.

Hong Kong’s stock market <.HSI>, closed down 2.6%, outpacing losses in other parts of the region.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Kate Lamb, Josh Smith, Sarah Wu, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Merchant ships urged to avoid using private armed teams in Mideast Gulf

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) – Shipping companies sailing through the Middle East Gulf are being urged to avoid having private armed security guards onboard as the risk of escalation in the region rises, industry associations say.

Relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly strained after Britain seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar last week and London said its warship HMS Montrose had to fend off Iranian vessels seeking to block a British-owned tanker from passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

The most recent incidents followed a spate of attacks on tankers since May around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which the United States has blamed on Iran and are denied by Tehran.

An advisory issued in recent days by leading shipping associations warned against using private armed guards in the critical areas.

“The use of force against threats recently encountered in the Gulf of Oman carries significant risk and has the potential to escalate security situations to the detriment of the safety of ship and crew,” the advisory said.

“The use of unarmed maritime advisors to assist with onboard security and watch-keeping is sensible,” it said, noting relevant legal guidelines.

A rise in Somali piracy, which was at its height a decade ago, prompted shipping companies to deploy private armed security teams in the Gulf of Aden.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said there were stringent restrictions on the use of armed guards in the Gulf, whereas there was approval by flag states for their deployment off Somalia.

“The message is do not use private armed guards in these waters – it is not advised,” he told Reuters on Friday.

While it is still possible for ships to sail through the Strait of Hormuz with private armed guards on board, few ports in the Gulf allow ships carrying weapons to enter.

“The legal implications for insurers and vessel owners are widespread. Breaches of rules bring about significant financial penalties, adverse reputational issues and in some cases custodial sentences,” said Jonathan Moss, head of transport and shipping with law firm DWF.

“The navies will be aware that additionally recruited armed security personnel may lead to the possible escalation of violence.”

Mark Gray, co-founder of British company MNG Maritime, which runs a UK regulated floating armoury some 26 nautical miles from the coast of the United Arab Emirates, said UK security companies that were licensed to carry and move firearms in the region were restricted to counter-piracy activity.

“Any British security company that uses those firearms … to counter the forces of a state like Iran would be in breach of that license and therefore breaking the law,” he said.

“Armed guards are not the solution – all you need are more eyes and ears looking at all sides of the ship especially the rear when passing through those waters.”

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

Tense calm on Gaza-Israel border after flareup

Israeli soldiers stand in a field next to armoured Israeli military vehicles near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Schools reopened in southern Israel and traffic clogged Gaza’s streets on Wednesday in signs of a pullback from the most serious escalation of cross-border fighting in months.

But while violence eased amid Egyptian mediation, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants were on hair-trigger footing, with rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli air strikes in the enclave briefly resuming late on Tuesday after a day-long lull.

Despite dozens of rocket launchings and Israeli attacks, no deaths have been reported. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors have destroyed some of the rockets and Palestinian militants vacated facilities targeted in the air strikes.

Towns in southern Israel, where rocket-warning sirens have disrupted daily life since the current round of fighting began on Monday, reopened classrooms. In Gaza, schools were also operating and cars filled the streets.

The Gaza frontier remained tense, however, with Israeli troops and tanks deployed along the border. Both Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group made clear that attacks by the other side would not be tolerated.

Even if the crisis subsides, it could shadow Israel’s April 9 election, in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough security platform.

TENSIONS BUILDING

The latest fighting has added to tensions that were already building ahead of the first anniversary on March 30 of the start of weekly Gaza protests at the border. Some 200 Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire during those protests, and one Israeli soldier has been killed.

Israel says its use of lethal force is meant to stop attempts to breach the border and launch attack on its troops and civilians.

The protesters are demanding the right to return to lands Palestinians fled or were forced to leave in Israel during fighting that accompanied its founding in 1948.

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday’s initial rocket attack that hit the village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza. No other casualties in Israel have been reported. Twelve Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli strikes, Gaza health officials said.

Egypt was expected to pursue further truce talks on Wednesday, said a Palestinian official involved in the efforts.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with Egypt to secure a ceasefire and that a fragile calm had taken hold.

Security is a major issue for Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations that he denies. He is facing his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

In Dheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops during clashes with stone-throwers, an ambulance service official said, identifying him as a volunteer wearing a paramedic uniform. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Gareth Jones)

Syrian army steps up attacks in southwest, Jordan concerned

FILE PHOTO: Men inspect a damaged house in Busra al-Harir town, near Deraa, Syria March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army stepped up shelling of opposition-held parts of the southwest as it mobilizes for a campaign to regain the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, opposition sources said.

Violence erupted at the frontline town of Kafr Shams, near the Syrian-held Golan Heights, and further east in the town of Busra al Harir, which was struck by dozens of mortars from nearby army positions, the sources said.

Syrian state media said militants had escalated attacks on civilians in the area which is part of a “de-escalation” zone agreed by the United States and Russia last year with the aim of containing the conflict in the southwest.

An offensive in the southwest would risk a major escalation of the seven-year-old war. The area is of strategic importance to Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Iranian influence in Syria. Washington has warned it will take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to violations of the “de-escalation” deal.

U.S.-allied Jordan is increasingly worried about a spillover of violence and has been engaged in stepped up diplomatic efforts to preserve the de-escalation zone which it also helped to broker last year, a Jordanian source said.

Rebels say Iranian-backed fighters allied to President Bashar al-Assad have boosted their numbers in the area, though a commander in the regional alliance fighting in support of Assad denied Tehran-aligned forces had a big presence there.

Elite government troops known as the “Tiger” force, which have spearheaded a campaign that recaptured the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, have also been mobilized for the attack.

The pro-Damascus newspaper al-Watan said there were “growing indications about preparations for the start of a wide military operation to liberate” the south.

HIT AND RUN ATTACKS

Assad said earlier this month the government, at Russia’s suggestion, was seeking to strike a deal in the southwest similar to agreements that have restored its control of other areas through withdrawals of rebel forces.

But he also said there had been no results yet and blamed “Israeli and American interference”. He said the territory would be recovered by force if necessary.

One major objective for the government is recapturing the border crossing with Jordan that served before the conflict as a vital trade gateway for goods moving across the region. Its closure has hit both the Syrian and Jordanian economies hard.

Rebels say elite army troops backed by Iranian-backed local militias have been escalating hit and run attacks on their posts in a so-called “Triangle of Death”, which connects southern Damascus countryside with Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

A rebel commander said a bomb injured several fighters in Naba al Sakr town, saying it was one of a growing number of such attacks blamed on Iranian-backed militias in the area.

“They are moving more reinforcements and there have been several infiltration attempts which we have so far repelled,” said Abu Ayham, a rebel commander in the Salah al Din brigades operating in Quneitra.

Residents and opposition sources say that in the few days they saw larger movements of troops with armored vehicles and tanks along two main highways that cut through rebel areas.

The last two days have seen wider skirmishes, an air strike and rebel ambushes along two main highways being used by the army to reinforce the city of Deraa, which is split into areas controlled separately by the government and rebels.

The army and rebels have also been exchanging gun fire and shelling in a frontline in Deraa city.

Employees and hospital staff in two government hospitals in Sweida and Deraa provinces have also been put on high alert, according to a resident contacted by phone from Deraa city.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)