Greek PM takes responsibility for wildfire as criticism mounts

Burnt cars are seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took political responsibility on Friday for a wildfire that killed at least 87 people and led to opposition accusations that the government failed to protect lives.

Tsipras’ opponents went on the offensive on Friday as three days of mourning ended, accusing the government of failing to apologize for the disaster.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Seeking to deflect public anger, Tsipras told ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.

“I have called you here today first of all to take full political responsibility for this tragedy in front of my cabinet and the Greek people,” he said.

“I won’t hide that I am overwhelmed by mixed feelings right now … Pain, devastation for the human lives unexpectedly and unfairly lost. But also anguish at whether we acted correctly in everything we did.”

Tsipras’ contrition comes after the main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard.

“This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory, which hit the town of Mati, some 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Monday, heckled Tsipras’ coalition partner, saying they had been left to fend for themselves.

Pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to finally extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debit crisis and reap the political benefits.

Tsipras now faces questions over how so many got trapped in the fire as the death toll could rise still further.

Tsipras had not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said.

“NO MORE TRAGEDIES”

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs.

But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and had wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for those still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed by the blaze.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Tsipras promised a national plan to tackle decades of unauthorized construction and to reform and upgrade the Civil Protection Service “to guarantee … that there will be no more tragedies”.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati https://tmsnrt.rs/2K6N3Qc, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; writing by Angeliki Koutantou and Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

In China, #MeToo escalates as public figures are accused of sexual assault

FILE PHOTO: A woman is reflected in a window of an office in Shanghai. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Pei Li and Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – Accusations of sexual assault spread across China’s social media this week as the #MeToo movement took aim at prominent activists, intellectuals, and a television personality.

In a country where issues like sexual assault have traditionally been brushed under the carpet, China’s fledgling #MeToo movement speaks to a changing mindset among the younger generation.

China’s millions of social media users have also ensured that any news, scandals, and grievances spread quickly. The spread of accusations about prominent Chinese figures presents a challenge for the government, which has censored some but not all of the social media posts.

The accusations have stoked heated online debate about sexual misconduct and what constitutes consensual sex or rape. On Friday, “sexual assault evidence collection” was the 2nd-ranked topic on popular social media platform Sina Weibo.

So far this week, more than 20 women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, sparked by an accusation on Monday that has rocked a non-government organization.

Lei Chuang, founder of Yi You, a prominent non-government charity, confessed in an online statement to an accusation of sexual assault. Lei has quit the organization after his confession. Three other activists were embroiled in separate accusations of sexual misconduct by the end of the week.

The most prominent sexual assault allegation this week came from a young legal worker who goes by the pseudonym Little Spirit. The 27-year-old said Zhang Wen – a veteran journalist and online political commentator in China – had raped her after a banquet in May, an allegation that prompted six other women to accuse him of sexual harassment and groping.

Zhang, in a statement Wednesday, denied the rape allegation, saying his affair with the accuser was consensual.

Jiang Fangzhou, a prominent fellow writer and deputy editor-in-chief of the Guangdong-based magazine New Weekly, said on her WeChat account that Zhang had groped her at a meal on one occasion.

Among others, the journalist Yi Xiaohe, and Wang Yanyun, a TV personality, said on social media that Zhang had made unwanted sexual advances toward them.

In his statement, Zhang said it was normal for men and women in intellectual and media circles to “take pictures together, hug and kiss each other after consuming liquor”.

On Thursday, an academic at Communication University of China in Beijing was accused by a student of a sexual assault in 2016. The university in a statement vowed to launch an investigation and deal with the matter with zero tolerance if confirmed.

A former professor at the same university, known to be a training camp for China’s future TV personalities, was also accused Thursday of uninvited sexual advances in 2008 by an ex-student.

CENSORSHIP

Accusations that a prominent personality on the state broadcaster CCTV, molested an intern emerged on Thursday but the posts on Weibo were quickly removed.

The personality could not be immediately reached, while CCTV did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

On Friday, the personality’s name was the top censored topic on Weibo, according to Free Weibo, an independent platform that lists and ranks all search phrases blocked on Sina Weibo. “Metoo” and “Me too” ranked 8th and 9th, respectively.

A Beijing-based magazine, Portrait, on Thursday, told its readers in an online article to share their own stories of being sexually assaulted. It said in a subsequent post that it had received more than 1,700 stories in less than 24 hours.

Portrait’s article on Tencent’s WeChat platform has since been removed.

By contrast, the confession of Lei, the charity head, was widely covered by state media, including China Daily.

Men in sports have also been implicated in the #MeToo accusations this week. On Friday, a 17-year old high school student in the eastern city of Ningbo said online that she had been sexually assaulted by two badminton coaches.

The global #MeToo movement was triggered by accusations by dozens of women against U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, including rape, triggering a wider scandal that has roiled Hollywood and beyond. Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

The catalyst for a Chinese #MeToo-style movement came in December last year when a U.S.-based Chinese software engineer published a blog post accusing a professor at a Beijing University of sexual harassment.

In China, the hashtag #MeToo has so far appeared more than 77 million times on Weibo, although the majority of the posts with that hashtag are not viewable.

On Thursday, the state-controlled People’s Daily posted a Ted Talks video about sexual assault on its Weibo account.

“Hope this post won’t be scrubbed,” one Weibo user commented about the video clip.

(Reporting by Pei Li and Ryan Woo; Editing by Philip McClellan)

U.S. to reunite only half of young migrant children by Tuesday deadline

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children now housed in a tent encampment under the new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Marty Graham and Tom Hals

SAN DIEGO/WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The U.S. government is struggling to reunite immigrant families it separated at the border with Mexico and only about half the children under age 5 will be back with their parents by a court-ordered deadline of Tuesday, a government attorney told a judge on Monday.

U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego last month ordered the government to reunite the approximately 100 children under the age of 5 by Tuesday, and the estimated 2,000 older children by July 26.

Sarah Fabian, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, said 54 children younger than 5 would be reunited with parents by the end of Tuesday, and the number could increase depending on background checks.

The other parents have either been deported, failed a criminal background check, were unable to prove they were the parent or had been released and immigration agents had been unable to contact them, said Fabian.

The children were separated under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that called for the prosecution of immigrants crossing the border illegally. The separations were in place from early May until Trump stopped the practice last month in the face of intense criticism.

Trump made cracking down on illegal immigration a key part of his presidential campaign in 2016.

The judge directed the government to file a detailed accounting of the reunification process and scheduled a hearing for Tuesday at 11 a.m. PDT (1800 GMT).

Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case, said he did not think the government was complying with the reunification order.

“It is very troubling that there are children and parents who are not in some kind of government tracking system,” he said after the court hearing. He added that nonprofit groups were trying to find parents the government had failed to locate, who are mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

He also questioned if the government’s list of children under the age of 5 was accurate.

Gelernt added, however, that he believed the government had made “significant” steps in the past 48 hours to unite parents with their children, and he called the effort “a blueprint for going forward with the remaining more than 2,000 families.”

Fabian told the judge that once parents and children were reunited, they would likely be released from immigration custody. A legal settlement dating from the 1990s only allows the government to detain children in adult centers for a brief period.

Gelernt said the ACLU was concerned that parents would be put on the street without any money in an unfamiliar city.

The organization and government agreed the locations of the releases would not be disclosed, and the government agreed to work with immigration advocates to ensure the parents had money for a hotel and other necessities.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Del.; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

‘Space kingdom’ seeks citizens for life beyond Earth very soon

People attend the inauguration ceremony of Asgardia's first Head of Nation in Vienna, Austria June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

VIENNA (Reuters) – Feel like the world is going to the dogs? Want to get away from it all? Here’s a solution: become a citizen of the nation of Asgardia and hope it makes good on its promise to colonize the moon.

Asgardia was founded just 20 months ago, and it already has about 200,000 citizens, a constitution and an elected parliament. It has a leader, Igor Ashurbeyli, who was inaugurated on Monday.

It also has grandiose ambitions. It wants to build up a population of 150 million within 10 years. It plans to set up “space arks” with artificial gravity in outer space where humans could live permanently.

“This day will certainly be recorded in the annals of the greatest events in the history of humankind,” Ashurbeyli said in his inaugural speech to an audience of several hundred in the Hofburg, Vienna’s former imperial palace.

“We have thus established all branches of government. I can therefore declare with confidence that Asgardia – the first space nation of the united humankind – has been born,” said Ashurbeyli, a Russian engineer, computer scientist and businessman.

Asgardia – named after Asgard, a world in the sky in Norse mythology – says its citizens now live in more than 200 countries, outnumbering the United Nations’ 193 member states. Becoming a citizen online is free.

It wants to attract the 2 percent of the world’s population that is “most creative”. Asked how that was working out so far, Ashurbeyli said, “Citizenship selection will continue. It might even involve IQ tests.”

Ashurbeyli said he intends to have satellites providing Internet access around the globe in five to seven years, space arks operating in 10 to 15 years, and finally to establish a permanent settlement on the moon within 25 years.

Asgardians now pay an annual membership fee of 100 euros. It plans to collect taxes on businesses and private income, which it says will be kept very low.

“For this early phase of Asgardian nationhood … I am primarily responsible for its financing, along with a number of other donors who are citizens of Asgardia,” he said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy and Boris Kavic, editing by Larry King)

Democracies facing crisis of faith: survey

A man leaves a booth during Hungarian parliamentary election at a polling station in Budapest, Hungary, April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – The world’s democracies are facing a severe crisis of public faith, according to the conclusions of a large study published on Thursday.

The report by German polling firm Dalia Research, titled Democracy Perception Index 2018, found that trust in governments appears even lower among people in democracies than in states deemed by the firm to be undemocratic.

“Right now the biggest risk for democracies is that the public no longer sees them as democratic,” said Nico Jaspers, CEO of Dalia Research.

When asked “do you feel that your government is acting in your interest?” 64 percent of respondents living in democracies said “rarely” or “never”.

In non-democracies 41 percent said the same, according to the study, based on 125,000 respondents in 50 countries.

Kenya, Austria, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark were the countries where the largest proportions of people said the government was not acting in their interest.

Kenya is categorized as “partly free” and the other four countries “free” in a ranking by the U.S. organization Freedom House, which Dalia uses.

People in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and China, all countries categorized “not free” by Freedom House, most rarely gave that response.

When asked “Do you feel that the voice of people like you matters in politics?” 54 percent of citizens in democracies said their voices “rarely” or “never” mattered, compared with 46 percent in non-democracies.

Of the 10 countries that had the highest percentages of people saying their voices were rarely or never heard, nine are democracies, Dalia said.

“While citizens in democratic societies might be inherently more critical of their government than those living in non-democratic societies, perception is often as important as reality, and therefore the implications of the findings remain relevant and insightful,” it said in a news release.

The publication of the survey results came on the eve of the opening of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, to be attended by figures including former U.S. vice president Joe Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

The summit and survey are both organized by the non-profit Alliance of Democracies Foundation, founded by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen last year.

(Reporting by Teis Jensen; editing by Andrew Roche)

Anger in India over two rapes puts government in bind US-INDIA-RAPE

People hold placards at a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Krishna N. Das and Rupam Jain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Mounting outrage over two rapes, one in the disputed region of Kashmir and another allegedly involving a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, gripped India on Friday, with government ministers struggling to dampen political fires.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang-rape in the capital.

“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at Thursday’s midnight vigil. “India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”

Modi has yet to speak out on the rapes, which have drawn conflicted responses among the lower ranks of his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Horrifying details of the alleged gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa, in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir state in January, emerged this week from a police charge sheet.

The BJP shares power in the state, where party members joined a rally to show support for eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including a former bureaucrat and four police officers.

“Yet again we’ve failed as a society,” Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said in a Twitter message.

“Can’t think straight as more chilling details on little Asifa’s case emerge…her innocent face refuses to leave me. Justice must be served, hard and fast!”

Amid fears the case could escalate unrest in a region where security forces are battling separatist militants, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq vowed to launch an agitation if any attempt was made to shield culprits or sabotage investigations.

“It is a criminal act and perpetrators of the crime should be punished,” he added.

Thousands of Kashmiris joined street protests in Srinagar this week, following the death of four protesters in a clash with security forces.

In the crime-ridden northern state of Uttar Pradesh, federal police on Friday began questioning a BJP member of the state legislature who is accused of raping a teenage woman in June.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a rising star in the party, asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case this week after the state’s police were heavily criticized for not acting sooner on the victim’s complaint.

A CBI spokesman said the lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was being questioned on Friday, but had not been arrested.

Sengar’s lawyer has said his client was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.

Ministers have insisted that justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.

“We are here to safeguard the interest of our daughters, they are the daughters of the nation,” federal minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters on Thursday.

Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.

Responding to the outpouring of national shame and anger after the 2012 New Delhi case, the then Congress-led government tightened laws on crimes against women.

India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, up from 25,000 in 2012, the latest data show. Rights activists say thousands more go unreported because of a perceived stigma.

(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. gun control movement pushing Congress to act: lawmakers

People take part in a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The youth-led U.S. gun control movement that flexed its public muscle with huge weekend rallies has already nudged Congress to enact minor firearms changes, but must remain active if it hopes to win more meaningful regulations, lawmakers said on Sunday.

The movement that erupted after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has generated a national conversation about gun rights and has chipped away at legislative gridlock on the issue, they said.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Stro

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“The activism of these young people is actually changing the equation,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Washington.

Tucked into a $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week were modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and an end to a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the causes of gun violence.

“These are two things we could not have done in the past,” Kaine said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “But the active engagement by young people convinced Congress we better do something.”

The spending bill, which President Donald Trump signed on Friday, also includes grants to help schools prevent gun violence.

The Trump administration also took a step on Friday to ban the sale of bump stocks – devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns – that helped gunman Stephen Paddock massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in October.

A key focus of Saturday’s march on Washington, which was duplicated in 800 cities across the country and around the world, was an effort to turn emotion into political activism by registering participants to vote.

Americans will vote in November on the entire U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

Gun control advocates have called for universal background checks on people buying guns, bans on assault-style rifles such as the one used to kill 17 students and staff in Parkland, and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Senator Mark Warner, another Virginia Democrat, declared in the wake of the student-led movement that he would now support bans on such rifles and magazines, which he had voted against in recent years.

“I think it’s time to change our positions and re-examine them,” Warner said on the CBS News “Face the Nation” program.

“I think this time it’s going different,” Warner said. “I think we can actually get it done.”

To win significant changes, lawmakers said the young gun control advocates need to maintain their drive in the face of powerful pro-gun lobbying by the National Rifle Association and those who see gun ownership as a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“If they don’t keep it up, those that want no change will just sit on their hands,” Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican who formerly served in Congress, said on CNN.

Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa, said over the weekend that while they supported gun control advocates’ right to protest, they opposed infringing on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum drew an angry response on social media for saying on CNN that, instead of agitating for change, students should “do something about maybe taking CPR classes” or take other training to respond to school shooters.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Paul Simao)

Lesser-known North Korea cyber-spy group goes international: report

Binary code is seen on a screen against a North Korean flag in this illustration photo November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

By Eric Auchard

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A North Korean cyber espionage group previously known only for targeting South Korea’s government and private sector deepened its sophistication and hit further afield including in Japan and the Middle East in 2017, security researchers said on Tuesday.

Cyber attacks linked by experts to North Korea have targeted aerospace, telecommunications and financial companies in recent years, disrupting networks and businesses around the world. North Korea rejects accusations it has been involved in hacking.

U.S. cyber security firm FireEye said the state-connected Reaper hacking organization, which it dubbed APT37, had previously operated in the shadows of Lazarus Group, a better-known North Korean spying and cybercrime group widely blamed for the 2014 Sony Pictures and 2017 global WannaCry attacks.

APT37 had spied on South Korean targets since at least 2012 but has been observed to have expanded its scope and sophistication to hit targets in Japan, Vietnam and the Middle East only in the last year, FireEye said in a report.

The reappraisal came after researchers found that the spy group showed itself capable of rapidly exploiting multiple “zero-day” bugs – previously unknown software glitches that leave security firms no time to defend against attacks, John Hultquist, FireEye’s director of intelligence analysis said.

“Our concern is that their (international) brief may be expanding, along with their sophistication,” Hultquist said.

“We believe this is a big thing”.

APT37 has focused on covert intelligence gathering for North Korea, rather than destructive attacks or financial cyber crime, as Lazarus Group and other similar hacking groups have been shown to engage in order to raise funds for the regime, it said.

The group appears to be connected to attack groups previously described as ScarCruft by security researchers at Kaspersky and Group123 by Cisco’s Talos unit, FireEye said.

“We assess with high confidence that this activity is carried out on behalf of the North Korean government given malware development artefacts and targeting that aligns with North Korean state interests,” the security report said.

From 2014 until 2017, APT37 concentrated mainly on South Korean government, military, defense industrial organizations and the media sector, as well as targeting North Korean defectors and human rights groups, the report said.

Since last year, its focus has expanded to include an organization in Japan associated with the United Nations missions on human rights and sanctions against the regime and the director of a Vietnamese trade and transport firm.

Its spy targets included a Middle Eastern financial company as well as an unnamed mobile network operator, which FireEye said had provided mobile phone service in North Korea until business dealings with the government fell apart.

FireEye declined to name the firm involved, but Egypt’s Orascom <OTMT.CA> provided 3G phone service in the country via a joint venture from 2002 to 2015, until the North Korean regime seized control of the venture, according to media reports.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Orascom said she had no immediate knowledge of the matter and was looking into it.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard, and Nadine Awadalla in Cairo, Editing by William Maclean)

Congress expected to vote on budget to avert government shutdown

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were expected to vote on a proposed budget deal on Thursday that would avert another government shutdown but that has angered fiscal conservatives who complain it would lead to a $1 trillion deficit.

The plan to keep the government operating and to increase spending over the next two years faced resistance from conservatives in the Republican Party, who favor less spending on domestic government programs. At the same time, many liberal Democrats wanted to withhold their support as leverage to win concessions on immigration policy.

That meant the bill’s passage was not assured in the House and would need some Democratic support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has backed the agreement, said on Thursday he believed the chamber will pass the budget deal.

“I think we will,” Ryan told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is a bipartisan bill. It’s going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support.”

Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the deal “eye-popping and eyebrow-raising.”

“We took an official position last night to say we can’t support this,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

The rare bipartisan deal reached by Senate leaders on Wednesday raises spending on military and domestic programs by almost $300 billion over the next two years.

It would allow for $165 billion in extra defense spending and $131 billion more for non-military programs, including health, infrastructure, disaster relief and efforts to tackle an opioid crisis in the country.

It would stave off a government shutdown before a Thursday night deadline and extend the federal government’s debt ceiling until March 2019, putting off for more than a year the risk of a debt default by the United States.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

The agreement, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, disappointed conservative House Republicans and outside groups.

“It’s not like Republicans aren’t concerned about disaster relief, or Republicans aren’t concerned about funding community health centers or dealing with the opioid crisis,” U.S. Representative Warren Davidson, a Republican, said in an interview with National Public Radio.

“But when you add them all up, it adds to an awful lot of spending. … It’s not compassionate to bankrupt America.”

Liberal Democrats meanwhile opposed the deal because it does not include an agreement to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” young people brought illegally to the United States as children.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday staged an eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of immigration legislation, including reading letters from Dreamers pleading to be allowed to stay in the United States.

A number of lawmakers who supported the bill acknowledged the deal was not perfect. “It’s not pretty,” Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger said on CNN.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester said he hoped House Democrats would back the measure. “We don’t want the perfect to get in the road of the good,” he told the cable network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said many lawmakers believe the defense spending in the bill was essential. “We’re going to get it through because most people will support it,” he told Fox News.

Senate Republicans planned a procedural vote on a stand-alone bill to increase military funding for the rest of the year to demonstrate support for Trump’s promised defense build-up.

Democrats will not support it because it does not contain similar spending increases for non-military programs. But the Senate’s failure to advance the bill will not damage the budget legislation, which is due for a vote later in the day.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the agreement provides long-term certainty in the budget and funding for Trump priorities including infrastructure and military funding.

Failure to agree on spending led to a partial three-day shutdown of government agencies last month.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

Saudi Arabia says it has seized over $100 billion in corruption purge

A view shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel's entrance gate in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 30, 2018.

By Stephen Kalin and Katie Paul

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s government has arranged to seize more than $100 billion through financial settlements with businessmen and officials detained in its crackdown on corruption, the attorney general said on Tuesday.

The announcement appeared to represent a political victory for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who launched the purge last November and predicted at the time that it would net about $100 billion in settlements.

Dozens of top officials and businessmen were detained in the crackdown, many of them confined and interrogated at Riyadh’s opulent Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Well over 100 detainees are believed to have been released.

Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of global investor Kingdom Holding, and Waleed al-Ibrahim, who controls influential regional broadcaster MBC, were freed last weekend.

“The estimated value of settlements currently stands at more than 400 billion riyals ($106 billion) represented in various types of assets, including real estate, commercial entities, securities, cash and other assets,” Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb said in a statement.

The huge sum, if it is successfully recovered, would be a big financial boost for the government, which has seen its finances strained by low oil prices. The state budget deficit this year is projected at 195 billion riyals.

In total, the investigation subpoenaed 381 people, some of whom testified or provided evidence, Mojeb said, adding that 56 people had not reached settlements and were still in custody, down from 95 early last week.

The government has generally declined to reveal details of the allegations against detainees or their settlements, making it impossible to be sure how much corruption has been punished or whether the $100 billion figure is realistic.

The only settlement disclosed so far was a deal by senior prince Miteb bin Abdullah to pay more than $1 billion, according to Saudi officials. Miteb was once seen as a leading contender for the throne, so his detention fueled suspicion among foreign diplomats there might be political motives behind the purge.

Although officials said both Prince Alwaleed and Ibrahim reached financial settlements after admitting unspecified “violations”, Prince Alwaleed continued to insist publicly he was innocent, while MBC said Ibrahim had been fully exonerated.

Economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri told CNN this month that most assets seized in the purge were illiquid, such as real estate and structured financial instruments. That suggested the government may not have gained large sums of cash to spend.

In another sign that the investigation was winding down, a Saudi official told Reuters on Tuesday that all detainees had now left the Ritz-Carlton. The hotel, where the cheapest room costs $650 a night, is to reopen to the public in mid-February.

Some detainees are believed to have been moved from the hotel to prison after refusing to admit wrongdoing and reach financial settlements; they may stand trial.

Bankers in the Gulf said the secrecy of the crackdown had unsettled the business community and could weigh on the willingness of local and foreign businesses to invest.

“It’s reassuring if this situation is finally at an end, as the process was not clear from the start and at least if it is now ended, that provides some clarity and closure,” said a banker who deals with Saudi Arabia.

But Prince Mohammed appears to have won widespread approval for the purge among ordinary Saudis, partly because the government has said it will use some of the money it seizes to fund social benefits.

“What has happened is great, it will be counted as a win for the government. Whoever the person is, he is being held accountable, whether a royal or a citizen,” said Abdullah al-Otaibi, drinking at a Riyadh coffee shop on Tuesday.

An international financier visiting the region said authorities’ tough approach might ultimately prove effective.

“There are many different ways to fight corruption and not all of them are effective. Ukraine tried to do it by creating institutions, but that hasn’t really worked as that approach doesn’t change behavior,” he said.

“Saudi’s approach stands a better chance of being effective as it’s more direct.”

(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch in Riyadh and Tom Arnold in Dubai; Reporting by Andrew Torchia and Angus MacSwan)