Wildfires blaze on in drought-hit Turkey as criticism grows

By Mehmet Emin Caliskan and Daren Butler

MARMARIS, Turkey (Reuters) – Firefighters using planes and helicopters, and locals with buckets of water, battled wildfires raging for a sixth day near southern resorts in drought-hit Turkey and the government faced fresh criticism of its handling of the disaster.

Seven fires were still burning on Monday, fanned by temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F), strong winds and low humidity, Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said.

Huge flames engulfed trees on a hillside near the coastal resort of Marmaris, images filmed by Reuters showed, while drone footage revealed a grey landscape nearby where fires had left smoldering buildings and blackened tree trunks.

While 16 planes and 51 helicopters tackled the blazes across a swathe of southwest Turkey, villagers carrying water containers up a hill to fight a fire near Marmaris said the government was not doing enough to help them.

“We are here as the entire village, from the locals to others. We didn’t run or anything, so the government must see this and also not run away. It must send some of its planes here,” a woman called Gulhan told Reuters.

The heatwave exacerbating the fires comes after months of exceptionally dry weather in Turkey’s southwest, according to maps issued by meteorological authorities.

Data from the European Forest Fire Information Service showed there have been three times as many fires as usual this year, while the 136,000 hectares burnt were almost three times the area burnt on average in an entire year.

Engin Ozkoc, a senior figure in the main opposition CHP, called on Pakdemirli to resign for failing to adequately prepare.

“OUR TURKEY IS STRONG”

“You don’t deserve that ministry. You didn’t foresee this and buy firefighting planes,” he said, criticizing the amount of aerial resources available.

The European Union said it had helped mobilize three fire-fighting planes on Sunday. One from Croatia and two from Spain joined teams from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, rejected criticism of the government’s handling of the fires and condemned a social media campaign calling for foreign help.

“Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall,” Altun said on Twitter, describing most information about the fires on social media as “fake news”. “All our losses will be compensated for.”

Eight people have been killed in the wildfires, but there were no reports of further casualties on Monday.

Since Wednesday, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes and some tourists have left their hotels, although Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy said holidaymakers had returned within hours.

The wildfires are another blow to Turkey’s tourism industry following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bulent Bulbuloglu, head of the South Aegean Hoteliers Association, said 10% of reservations had been cancelled in Bodrum and Marmaris. Others had cut their visits short.

(Reporting by Mehmet Emin Caliskan, Mert Ozkan and Ceyda Caglayan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Heavens)

Hungarian journalists say state conceals impact of world’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungarian journalists accused the government on Wednesday of putting lives at risk by barring the media from covering the full extent of what is now the world’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.

In an open letter published by most of the country’s independent news outlets, reporters said they had been blocked from hospitals and barred from speaking to medics, making it impossible to alert the public to the crisis.

Hungary, with 10 million people, reported 302 deaths on Tuesday, its highest since the start of the pandemic, and now has the highest weekly toll per capita in the world. Doctors speaking on condition of anonymity have told Reuters that hospitals are being overrun.

Hungary’s nationalist government denies there is a capacity crisis, and state-run media have depicted the situation in hospitals as under control. The government says it aims to reopen the economy by bringing in vaccines, including shots from Russia and China yet to be approved by the EU.

“Doctors and nurses are not free to talk to the public, while journalists are not allowed in hospitals, so we cannot assess what happens there,” read the letter published in 28 independent newspapers, websites and other outlets.

The Council of Europe said on Tuesday that Hungarian media workers faced increasing problems covering the pandemic. The government dismissed those remarks as “based on presumptions and allegations”.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said there would be no laxer rules, and accused “left-wing portals” of spreading “fake news” to embarrass the country’s health care system.

“We must use hospitals to heal, not shoot footage,” Kovacs wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Hungarian doctors and nurses perform exceptionally. Let them work!”

Activists and international bodies have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government of cracking down on free media since it took power in 2010. The government denies interfering with what it calls a free press.

Doctors have also raised the alarm that news coverage which fails to show the extent of the crisis could make it worse.

“I warn all political forces and their media that one-sided information, censorship delays recognizing the faults of health care, which could cost lives,” Janos Szijjarto, chairman of the doctors’ association from Gyor, Western Hungary, wrote on Facebook earlier this month.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Graff)

Opposition in Kyrgyzstan claims power after storming government buildings

By Olga Dzyubenko and Vladimir Pirogov

BISHKEK (Reuters) – Opposition groups said they had seized power in Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday after taking control of government buildings during post-election protests in the strategically important Central Asian state.

President Sooronbai Jeenbekov said his country, a close ally of Russia, was facing an attempted coup d’etat. Two presidents have been toppled by revolts in Kyrgyzstan in the past 15 years.

Jeenbekov called for calm and ordered security forces not to open fire on protesters after overnight unrest in which the government said one person was killed and 590 wounded. Officials said that Sunday’s parliamentary election would be rerun, but it was not clear who would organize it or govern until then.

Burnt out cars littered Bishkek, the capital, after protesters stormed the main government building, known as the White House, which briefly caught fire before emergency services put out the blaze.

Debris from inside, including government papers, and office furniture, was strewn outside after protesters ransacked parts of it.

Kyrgyzstan, which borders China, has long been a platform for geopolitical competition between Moscow, Washington and Beijing. It houses a Russian military base and its leaders and main opposition groups have traditionally backed close ties with Russia.

On Tuesday, however, unidentified intruders torched a Russian-operated factory at the country’s second-largest gold deposit in Kyrgyzstan, Jeruy, fording its owners to suspend development of the site.

Protesters also showed up at smaller mines developed by Chinese and Turkish companies and demanded that they halt operations, according to local news website Akipress. It was not clear if the companies complied.

Canada’s Centerra Gold, which operates the country’s biggest gold deposit, said it was monitoring political events but that its operations were continuing uninterrupted.

RIVAL GOVERNMENTS

The opposition said it had set up a coordination council and was discussing the line-up of a provisional government. “The leaders of parties that took part in the election have assumed responsibility for restoring public order,” the council said.

Opposition groups also freed Almazbek Atambayev, a former president jailed on corruption charges after falling out with Jeenbekov. Atambayev was not named to any role, however, and Jeenbekov showed no immediate signs of relinquishing power.

The cabinet, housed in a building separate from the White House, said it continued to function although Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov has not appeared since the unrest began.

The central election commission said it had annulled the results of the election and parliament would hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday. Several opposition politicians urged lawmakers to install a provisional cabinet to legitimize a transfer of power.

Interior Minister Kashkar Junushaliyev did not show up for work on Tuesday, a ministry spokesman said, saying that Kursan Asanov, an opposition politician and a former senior security official, had taken over as acting interior minister.

Police had been ordered to ensure citizens’ safety and prevent clashes and looting, the same spokesman said.

The Russian embassy to Kyrgyzstan said it supported resolving the situation in the country through legal means while ensuring stability and people’s safety.

CONTESTED VOTE

Trouble erupted on Monday after police used teargas and water cannon to disperse thousands of people demanding the results of the parliamentary election be annulled.

Western observers said the election, which appeared to have handed most seats to two establishment parties supporting closer links between the former Soviet republic and Russia, had been marred by vote buying.

One of the parties was close to Jeenbekov, the president.

As well as storming the White House, which houses both the president and parliament, protesters took over several other buildings, including the mayor’s office.

They appointed their own acting head of national security, acting prosecutor general and a commandant of Bishkek, although there were no indications of how much power they wielded.

Protesters also freed several former senior officials jailed under Jeenbekov, including ex-prime minister Sapar Isakov and Atambayev’s former chief of staff Farid Niyazov.

Several provincial governors have resigned after rallies began on Tuesday in several provincial centers, most of them anti-government, according to local media reports.

Jeenbekov’s supporters were gathering in the southern city of Osh, the same reports said, where his brother Asylbek Jeenbekov called for unity and order.

(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Philippa Fletcher)

Lebanese demand change after government quits over Beirut blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come close to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes.

The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres across on dock nine, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.

A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 171 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

“It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still (President Michel) Aoun, (Parliament Speaker Nabih) Berri and the entire system.”

For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.

SECTARIAN SYSTEM

The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery.

“It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.

Diab formed his government in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as premier amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The presidency has yet to say when official consultations will take place.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.

A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.

“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jarasevic said eight emergency international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay.

Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds metres from the port.

“As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Unofficial Hong Kong vote sees new generation take over battle for democracy

By Jessie Pang and Yanni Chow

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A younger, more defiant generation of Hong Kong democrats has secured the most votes in unofficial primary elections in the Chinese-ruled city, setting the stage for a battle with pro-Beijing politicians for control of the city’s legislature.

The success of young contenders in the primaries organized by the pro-democracy camp on the weekend to pick candidates for a Sept. 6 election for a 70-seat city assembly comes amid widespread resentment of a national security law that Beijing imposed last month.

Beijing denounced the vote as illegal and warned it may have violated the new security law, which has raised fears for the freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s open society and success as a financial hub.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong won in his district, but he has been disqualified from previous elections and could face similar hurdles this time.

Wong warned against any sweeping disqualification of candidates when he held a news conference with 15 other young politicians who won in their districts.

“If the government cracks down on us and disqualifies all the candidates who joined the primaries, it will cause more outrage in the international community and encourage more people to vote for the pro-democratic camp in September,” Wong said.

The 16 – all but one under 30 and dressed in black T-shirts – are part of a so-called localist or resistance camp, which outshone the cohort of traditional democrats, which had secured 12 candidate slots as of Wednesday afternoon.

Full results are expected later in the day.

The localists – a term for those who do not see themselves as Chinese and focus on saving the former British colony’s freedoms – tend to be more assertive than traditional democrats.

The localists talk of resistance and saving democracy but they do not all have the same vision for Hong Kong’s future. Some dream of independence – anathema for Beijing – but do not speak of it openly, which would see them fall foul of the new security law and face up to life in prison.

Their performance in the primaries reflects frustration, especially among younger voters, with Hong Kong’s more moderate, traditional pro-democracy politicians.

“Localism has become the mainstream,” said localist candidate Henry Wong. “We will resist against the tyranny.”

The new security law punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and sees Chinese intelligence agents operating officially in the city for the first time.

Critics fear it will crush wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will bring stability after a year of often violent anti-government protests.

‘DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND’

The law has already had a chilling effect on many aspects of life.

Earlier on Wednesday, former democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said he was pulling out as an organizer of the weekend vote amid accusations from Beijing that it was illegal.

“Withdrawal is the only choice … (to) protect myself and others,” Au said in a Facebook post.

A spokesman for Beijing’s top office in the city, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, said the pro-democracy camp’s bid for a legislative majority was an attempt to carry out a “color revolution,” referring to uprisings in other parts of the world.

In comments that critics said were aimed at instilling fear, the Liaison Office as well as Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, have all said the primaries could violate the national security law.

Benny Tai, another organizer of the pro-democracy polls, was defiant.

“For those who do not recognize democracy, or do not agree with democratic values, it is difficult to understand the meaning of the primary election,” Tai said.

Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested the vice chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, on charges of unlawful assembly related to a protest in November.

The political tension in Hong Kong has alarmed the business community while the new law has raised concern in countries that support the “one country, two systems” formula of government meant to safeguard its freedoms.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the city.

China said it would impose retaliatory sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities after Trump signed a law penalizing banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new law.

In an interview with state agency Xinhua, Chief Executive Lam said U.S. sanctions won’t hurt Hong Kong and in time, concern about the security law would prove unfounded.

In another blow to the city’s standing, the New York Times said it would shift part of its Hong Kong office to Seoul, as worries grow that the security law will curb media and other freedoms.

(Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Mexican president to hold bilateral talks with Trump on July 8

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will hold bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on July 8 in Washington, where he will underline his commitment to trade and investment, Mexico’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has not left his country since taking office in December 2018, and paying his first foreign visit to Trump is politically risky because the U.S. Republican president is widely disliked in Mexico.

The Mexican president has described the planned visit, which is intended to celebrate the start of a new North American trade deal on July 1, as a matter of economic necessity.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Lopez Obrador would hold bilateral talks with Trump on the afternoon of July 8. Trilateral matters that include Canada will be on the agenda on the morning of July 9, he added.

Mexico wanted to stress its commitment to trade, investment and social welfare at the Washington summit, Ebrard told a news conference, standing alongside Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador floated the idea of talks in Washington to mark the July 1 start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is replacing the 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mexico has urged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take part in the meeting, and Ebrard said he expected Canada’s government to detail its plans soon.

So far, Canada had not responded to the invitation to participate in Washington, Lopez Obrador said.

Many Mexicans have held Trump in low regard since he described Mexican migrants as rapists and drug runners in his 2015-16 election campaign and vowed to make Mexico pay for his planned border wall.

He has also made repeated threats against Mexico’s economy to pressure its government to stem illegal immigration.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Major West Bank annexation move not imminent, Israeli minister signals

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli minister played down on Tuesday the likelihood of major moves to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on July 1, the planned start date for cabinet debate on the issue.

Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel still did not have the green light it seeks from Washington to begin extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu said in a speech he had met U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and White House adviser Avi Berkowitz to discuss “the sovereignty question,” adding: “We are working on it in these very days and will continue working on it in the coming days.”

Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, European powers and Arab countries have all denounced any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a 1967 war.

“Whoever painted a picture of everything happening in one day on July 1, did so at their own risk,” Elkin, minister of higher education, told Army Radio when asked what would happen on Wednesday. “From tomorrow, the clock will start ticking.”

No cabinet session for Wednesday has been announced.

Friedman and Berkowitz are in Israel as part of the White House’s efforts to win consensus within its government for annexation as envisioned in an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in January.

The proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

Palestinians say the blueprint would make the state they seek in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unviable. Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Netanyahu says the Jewish people have a legal, historic and moral claim to the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu and his main coalition government partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, are at odds over annexation, which the right-wing prime minister has promoted.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Timothy Heritage)

China passes national security law in turning point for Hong Kong

By Clare Jim and Yew Lun Tian

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago.

Details of the law – which comes in response to last year’s often-violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces – were yet to be released.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam nevertheless welcomed the law’s passage and said it would come into effect later on Tuesday, giving the city’s 7.5 million people little time to digest what is expected to be highly complex legislation.

Amid fears the law will crush the global financial hub’s freedoms, and reports that the heaviest penalty under it would be life imprisonment, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong’s Demosisto group said it would dissolve.

“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” Wong said on Twitter.

The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.

The United States, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defense exports and restricting technology access.

China said it would retaliate.

Lam, in a video message to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”.

She said the law would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said on Twitter the heaviest penalty under the law was life imprisonment.

As the law was passed in Beijing, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong held a drill which included exercises to stop suspicious vessels and arrest fugitives, according to the Weibo social media account of state-run CCTV’s military channel.

‘OVERPOWERING’

The legislation may get an early test with activists and pro-democracy politicians saying they would defy a police ban, amid coronavirus restrictions, on a rally on the anniversary of the July 1 handover.

At last year’s demonstration, which came amid a series of pro-democracy protests, a crowd stormed and vandalized the city’s legislature.

“We will never accept the passing of the law, even though it is so overpowering,” said Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai.

It is unclear if attending the unauthorized rally would constitute a national security crime.

A majority in Hong Kong opposes the legislation, a poll conducted for Reuters this month showed, but support for the protests has fallen to only a slim majority.

Police dispersed a handful of activists protesting against the law at a shopping mall.

Dozens of supporters of Beijing popped champagne corks and waved Chinese flags in celebration in front of government headquarters.

“I’m very happy,” said one elderly man, surnamed Lee.

“This will leave anti-China spies and people who brought chaos to Hong Kong with nowhere to go.”

This month, China’s official Xinhua news agency unveiled some of the law’s provisions, including that it would supersede existing Hong Kong legislation and that interpretation powers belong to China’s parliament top committee.

Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time and could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases.

Judges for security cases are expected to be appointed by the city’s chief executive. Senior judges now allocate rosters up through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.

It is not known which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they carry.

Britain, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and others have also criticized the legislation.

China has hit back at the outcry, denouncing “interference” in its internal affairs.

(Additional reporting by Yanni Chow, Carol Mang, Joyce Zhou, Tyrone Siu, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Israeli campaigners want Jewish ruins included in West Bank annexations

By Rinat Harash

NEAR JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) – The Israeli government faces calls from campaigners to declare sovereignty over ancient Jewish ruins on land in the occupied West Bank that Israel does not plan to annex under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

The annexation plan, which the government is due to start discussing as of Wednesday, envisages Israel annexing Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley – some 30% of the West Bank. Under Trump’s plan, a Palestinian state would be created in the rest of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since a 1967 war.

An Israeli advocacy group called “Safeguarding Eternity” is worried about what will happen to Jewish archaeological sites on parts of the West Bank not included in Trump’s annexation map.

It wants Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to guarantee Israeli control over sites such as the remnants of hilltop Hasmonean and Herodian forts dating back two millennia, and hundreds of ruins from earlier Jewish rule.

“This entire plan – its right, its essence – is the connection of the Jewish people to their land and our heritage,” Eitan Melet, a director of Safeguarding Eternity, said as he stood among a jumble of limestones that were the foundation of the desert fortress of Cypros, overlooking the Palestinian city of Jericho.

“If we don’t take our heritage sites into account, this plan has no right to exist at all.”

The Israeli government has not commented on the campaigners’ demands. The Palestinians reject Trump’s blueprint and Israel’s plan to annex territory they seek for a future state.

PALESTINIAN MINISTRY: SITES ARE PROTECTED

Assaf Avraham, an archaeologist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said he too was worried about the fate of archaeological sites in the West Bank.

“If these areas are not in the hands or under the sovereignty of (authorities) that know how to take care of and maintain archaeological sites, and which have the motivation to do so, we really fear for these places,” he said.

The Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry dismissed such concerns.

It said in a statement that it is “able to protect and preserve the cultural heritage sites under Palestinian control, as maintenance and restoration work is carried out continuously”.

The Palestinians say Trump’s plan is biased, and most world powers view Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal.

Interim 1993 peace accords granted the Palestinians limited self-rule in West Bank areas, where they agreed to secure Jewish heritage sites for Israeli visits.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)