Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)

Mexican president defends security plan after police massacre

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended his security strategy on Tuesday and blamed past administrations for chronic violence, a day after at least 13 police were killed in an ambush by suspected cartel gunmen.

Lopez Obrador told a news conference the ambush in the western state of Michoacan was “very regrettable” but reiterated that his commitment to increased spending on security and tackling the root causes of violence would eventually pay dividends.

“I’m optimistic we’ll secure peace … we’re completely dedicated to this issue, but (past governments) allowed it to grow. There’s a new security model now,” Lopez Obrador said, describing the site of the ambush as a “violent area.”

The leftist leader has sharply criticized past efforts that pursued an army-led approach to battling crime.

But after a record number of homicides in Mexico in 2018, they are on track to go even higher this year, putting Lopez Obrador under increasing pressure to stop massacres like Monday’s ambush in the violent western state of Michoacan.

He hopes his welfare schemes, including youth scholarships and apprenticeships, will help draw people away from crime.

Photos of the crime scene published on social media showed bullet-riddled police vehicles set on fire, as well as the bodies of slain officers on the ground.

They also included placards left on vehicles brazenly signed by Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs, warning police not to support rival outfits.

Federal authorities said 14 police were killed, while Michoacan officials reported that 13 officers died.

Around 80 soldiers and an army helicopter have been dispatched to investigate and find the perpetrators, Gen. Luis Sandoval, the defense minister, told the news conference.

Alongside him, Mexican Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said the use of force is a legitimate government tool to deal with lawlessness, but should only be considered as a last resort.

“We will pacify the country without using violence, without repression,” Durazo said.

After taking office in December, Lopez Obrador created a militarized National Guard police force to contain the violence.

But many of the National Guard have instead been deployed to police Mexico’s borders to placate U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to impose tariffs if Lopez Obrador does not reduce the flow of U.S.-bound migrants from Central America.

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia, Abraham Gonzalez and Diego Ore; Editing by Dave Graham and Alistair Bell)

Backstory: Finding some solace amid the bloodshed in Christchurch and Colombo

FILE PHOTO: A security officer stands guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Tom Lasseter

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The island nations of New Zealand and Sri Lanka are separated by some 6,600 miles (10,600 km) of ocean. But in just over a month’s time, each has seen mass killings that generated similar headlines.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, a man with his finger on the trigger of an AR-15 assault rifle stormed into mosques during Friday prayers on March 15. By the end of it, 51 people who had come to worship in two houses of God were dead.

In Colombo and other Sri Lankan cities, a group of nine suicide bombers struck in coordinated explosions on April 21. They strolled into St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital, St. Sebastian’s Church in nearby Negombo and a church to the east of the country as the faithful sat in pews on Easter Sunday.

They also entered crowded restaurants in the Shangri-La and other hotels, as families tucked into breakfast buffets. The explosions that followed killed at least 253 people in total.

I flew into both cities in the aftermath of the massacres.

There was an obvious temptation to dwell on the symmetry of the tragedies.

The gunman in Christchurch had names written down the side of his rifle evoking past crusades by Christians against Muslims. Videos surfaced of the alleged ringleader of the Sri Lankan bombings, a radical Muslim preacher, calling for death to non-believers.

As I crisscrossed Sri Lanka in the back of a sport utility vehicle last week, though, I wondered about investing too much in the similarities, of seeing them as a part of an inevitable string of modern terror.

Instead, I thought about the different paths taken by two Muslim men we profiled – one a victim, one a suspected killer.

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

In Christchurch, I wrote about Ibrahim Abdelhalim. He moved to New Zealand in 1995. He’d enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Cairo, but wanted a better future for his children.

Once there, the only job he could find was as a clerk at Work and Income, the government agency for employment services and financial assistance. No matter.

He also served as an imam, or spiritual leader, at a mosque.

When the gunman began shooting into the mosque where Abdelhalim was praying, the 67-year-old grandfather watched, helpless, as bullets pinned down his son on the floor before him. Abdelhalim’s wife was shot in the arm. It seemed possible he was about to witness the slaughter of his loved ones.

But after the violence, which his family survived, Abdelhalim threw himself into counseling the relatives of the dead. His heart was broken, but Abdelhalim decided to serve and to rebuild.

About a month later, I traveled with a colleague from the Singapore bureau, Shri Navaratnam, to the Sri Lankan town of Kattankudy. There we dug into the background of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday bombings.

He was expelled from his Islamic studies school for being too radical. Throughout his life, he was shunned by many of the Muslims around him.

Zahran went into hiding in 2017 after a fight in which his men confronted Sufi Muslims with swords. He disappeared again the next year after popping up in another town, where Buddha statues were vandalized.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

The variation in that pair of narratives is, to me, worth remembering. During my years of covering war and its aftermath in Iraq and then Afghanistan, I saw communities warped by the shock of repeated violence and the sometimes brutal forces of identity and clan-based power. But even on the bloodiest of days, there were hints of solace.

After our story about Zahran was published last Friday, there was another development.

His father and two brothers were killed during a gun battle when security forces stormed their safe house. They had recorded a video calling for jihad, or holy war.

I suppose you could dwell on that and the fact that others close to him had gone down the same road.

But this is what caught my eye: the cops raided the house based on a tip that armed strangers had moved into the community. Passing that information along could have put the sources at risk. Who had spoken up? Muslims at a local mosque.

(Additional reporting by Shri Navaratnam and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Gunmen storm Save the Children aid group office in Afghanistan

Afghan police officers take position during a blast and gun fire in Jalalabad, Afghanistan January 24,

By Rafiq Sherzad and Ahmad Sultan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Gunmen stormed an office of the Save the Children aid agency in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad on Wednesday and at least five people were killed and 25 wounded in a daylong battle with security forces before the attack was finally suppressed.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assault, which began with a suicide car bomb outside the office in the morning and continued as gunmen entered the compound where they resisted Afghan security forces for about 10 hours.

Black smoke funneled into the sky from the area as gunmen battled special forces through the afternoon. Up to 45 people who had taken refuge in a fortified “safe room” in the compound were rescued by late afternoon, but fighting continued past nightfall when officials said the last attacker was killed.

“The fight is over,” the provincial governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told reporters.

Authorities said three Save the Children employees had been killed, including one guard, as well as a member of the Afghan security forces and a shopkeeper.

In addition to the suicide bomber who blew himself up, four other gunmen were shot by security forces. Witnesses said at least some of them were in police uniform, a commonly used tactic.

The raid began with a huge blast at around 9 a.m. that rocked the neighborhood, where other aid groups and government buildings are based. A neighboring building of another aid group caught fire but all staff were evacuated.

“Right after that children and people started running away,” said Ghulam Nabi, who was nearby when the bomb exploded. “I saw a vehicle catch fire and then a gunfight started.”

Islamic State, in a statement on its Amaq news agency, said the attack targeted British, Swedish and Afghan government institutions. Save the Children was founded in Britain, and a Swedish aid group office and a building of the Afghan Department of Women’s Affairs are near the compound.

The attack underlines how difficult operating in Afghanistan has become for humanitarian aid groups, which have faced heavy pressure from armed groups and kidnappers. In 2017, a total of 17 aid workers were killed and 32 injured in the country.

“OUTRAGEOUS”

Save the Children, which says it reaches almost 1.4 million children in Afghanistan, said that for the moment it had closed its offices in Afghanistan. It has operated in Afghanistan since 1976, working in eight provinces as well as in three others through partnership agreements.

“We are shocked and appalled at the violence carried out against our staff in Afghanistan, who are dedicated humanitarians, committed to improving the lives and wellbeing of millions of children across the country,” Save the Children International CEO Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in a statement.

“We have temporarily suspended our operations across the country following today’s events. However, we remain fully committed to helping the most deprived children of Afghanistan.”

In October, the Red Cross said it was drastically reducing operations in Afghanistan following attacks that killed seven of its staff.

“An attack against an organization that helps children is outrageous. Civilians and aid workers must not be targeted,” said Monica Zanarelli, head of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, in response to Wednesday’s attack.

“Increased violence has made operating in Afghanistan increasingly difficult for many organizations.”

President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been under heavy pressure to improve security, also condemned the attack in a statement in which he called on neighboring countries not to help militant groups.

Jalalabad is the capital of Nangarhar province on the porous border with Pakistan. Nangarhar has become a bastion of Islamic State, which has grown into one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous militant groups since it appeared around the beginning of 2015.

Backed by intensive U.S. air strikes, Afghan forces have claimed growing success against the Taliban and other militant groups, including Islamic State. But militant attacks on civilian targets have continued, causing heavy casualties.

The attack in Jalalabad occurred just days after Taliban militants raided the Hotel Intercontinental in the capital, Kabul, killing at least 20 people, including 13 foreigners.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and James Mackenzie in KABUL, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA and Eric Knecht in CAIRO; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli strikes kill two Gaza gunmen, but anti-Trump protests subside

Israeli strikes kill two Gaza gunmen, but anti-Trump protests subside

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes in Gaza killed two Palestinian gunmen on Saturday after rockets were fired from the enclave, in violence that erupted over President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Gaza militants launched at least three rockets toward Israeli towns from the Gaza Strip – which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas – after dark on Friday. The day had been declared a “day of rage” by Palestinian factions protesting against Trump’s announcement on Wednesday.

“IAF (Israeli Air Force) aircraft targeted four facilities belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip: two weapons manufacturing sites, a weapons warehouse, a military compound,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

A Hamas source confirmed the two men killed in the pre-dawn air strikes belonged to the group, which has urged Palestinians to keep up the confrontation with Israeli forces.

Palestinian protests on Saturday were far less intense on than on previous days.

About 60 Palestinian youths threw stones at Israeli soldiers across the Gaza-Israel border and the health ministry said one bystander was wounded by Israeli gunfire.

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Palestinians set fire to tires and threw stones at Israeli troops, who used tear gas. In East Jerusalem about 60 people demonstrated near the walled Old City, where paramilitary border police and officers on horseback tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas.

On Friday, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in protest and two Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops on the Gaza border. Scores more were wounded there and in the West Bank. Across the Arab and Muslim worlds, thousands more protesters had gathered to express solidarity.

Trump’s reversal of decades of U.S. policy has infuriated the Arab world and upset Western allies, who say the move is a blow to peace efforts and risks sparking more violence in the region.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday the United States could no longer broker peace talks.

Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is leading efforts to restart the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, efforts that so far have shown little progress.

“A GIFT TO RADICALISM”

A senior United Arab Emirates (UAE) official said on Saturday that Trump’s move was a boon to radicals.

“These issues are a gift to radicalism. Radicals and extremists will use that to fan the language of hate,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said at the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain.

The status of Jerusalem has been one of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians for generations.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future independent state of their own.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in the 1967 Middle East War, to be occupied territory. It includes the Old City, home to sites considered holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

For decades, Washington, like most of the rest of the international community, held back from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying its status should be determined as part of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Trump also said on Wednesday he was starting the process of moving the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Trump administration argues that the peace process has become moribund, and outdated policies need to be jettisoned for the sides in the conflict to make progress.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ammar Awad in Jerusalem and Stephen Kalin in Manama; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Gunmen shoot dead police officer and family in southwest Pakistan

Gunmen shoot dead police officer and family in southwest Pakistan

By Gul Yousafzai

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead a senior Pakistani police officer, as well as his wife, son and grandson on Wednesday as the family was driving in Baluchistan province, officials said.

Two attackers opened fire on the vehicle carrying District Superintendent Muhammad Ilyas and his relatives to Quetta, the capital of the southwestern region, police said.

His four-year-old granddaughter survived and was taken to hospital, they added.

Authorities say there has been a surge in attacks on security officials in Baluchistan, with five suicide bombings and one armed attack targeting police in the past six months.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s shooting – though Sunni militants and sectarian groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, as well as the Taliban, operate in the region that borders Afghanistan and Iran.

Separatists have also fought a long insurgency there, demanding a greater share of the region’s gas and mineral resources and an end to what they say is discrimination.

Baluchistan is at the center of the $57 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a planned transport and energy link from western China to Pakistan’s southern deep-water port of Gwadar.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Gunmen kill five Egyptian police south of Cairo

CAIRO (Reuters) – Gunmen ambushed an Egyptian security checkpoint on Friday, opening fire on a car and killing five policemen in an area just south of the capital, the state-run MENA news agency and the Interior Ministry said.

Three gunmen on a motorbike attacked police in al-Badrasheen area of Giza province, 30 km (20 miles) south of Cairo, killing two officers and three conscripts in the latest attack on Egyptian security forces battling an Islamist insurgency.

“A police officer who was near the site of the attack exchanged fire with the assailants forcing them to flee,” the ministry statement said.

Witnesses said attackers blasted the vehicle with automatic rifles then took equipment and threw petrol bombs inside the car before fleeing. Residents extinguished the fire.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Egyptian security forces have been battling the local affiliate of Islamic State in the northern Sinai area and attacks have spread to other parts of Egypt.

Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013 in the Sinai Peninsula. At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs hit two checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

Islamic State has also intensified attacks in other areas, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

In May gunmen assault on a group of Copts in a bus traveling to a monastery, killing 29 people and two bombings of churches killed more than 40 people a month earlier.

Church sources on Thursday said Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians and the Egyptian Catholic church have been told by church leaders to cancel all events, camps and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams)

Gunmen kill four police in Pakistani city of Quetta

Relatives react outside the hospital after policemen were shot dead in Quetta, Pakistan July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

By Gul Yousafzai

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Islamist gunmen on Thursday killed a senior police official and three other policemen guarding him in the Pakistani city of Quetta, police said, in an attack claimed by both the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State.

Superintendent of Police Mubarak Shah, 56, was killed en route to his office when four gunmen riding on motorcycles attacked his vehicle, said city police officer Muhammad Sultan.

“The head and upper parts of all the four victims were targeted,” said Sultan, adding that one policeman was critically wounded.

A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, carried out the attack, according to the faction’s spokesman, Asad Mansur.

Islamic State (IS) also claimed the attack on it Amaq News Agency website. Jamaat ur Ahrar and IS have in the past jointly claimed responsibility for attacks in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack, his office said.

It was second such attack in a week targeting senior police officers in the volatile Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. Quetta is the provincial capital.

A suicide bomber on Monday killed a district police chief and his guard in the town of Chaman on the Afghan border. The Pakistani Taliban claimed that bombing in text messages and emails to media.

Violence in Baluchistan has raised concern about security for projects in the $57-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a planned transport and energy link from western China to Pakistan’s southern deep-water port of Gwadar.

Resource-rich Baluchistan has long been plagued by insurgencies by separatists. Islamist groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State also carry out attacks in the region.

Islamist militants have killed thousands of people in Pakistan over the last decade or more, in their bid to impose hardline rule.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Robert Birsel)

Iran attackers fought for Islamic State in Syria, Iraq: ministry

Members of Iranian forces take position during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Omid Vahabzadeh/TIMA

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran said on Thursday that gunmen and bombers who attacked Tehran were Iranian members of Islamic State who had fought in the militants’ strongholds in Syria and Iraq – deepening the regional ramifications of the assaults.

The attackers raided Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum on Wednesday morning, in a rare strike at the heart of the Islamic Republic. Authorities said the death count had risen to 17 and scores were wounded.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards have also said regional rival Saudi Arabia was involved, further fuelling tensions between Sunni Muslim power Riyadh and Shi’ite power Tehran as they vie for influence in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia dismissed the accusation.

Iran’s intelligence ministry said on Thursday five of the attackers who died in the assault had been identified as Iranians who had joined the hardline Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State on its main battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria.

“They earlier left Iran and were involved in the crimes of the terrorist group in Raqqa and Mosul,” the ministry said, referring to Islamic State’s effective capital in Syria and a city it captured in Iraq.

“Last year, they returned to Iran … to carry out terrorist attacks in the holy cities of Iran,” the ministry added in a statement on state news agency IRNA.

The attacks were the first claimed by Islamic State inside the tightly controlled country, one of the powers leading the fight against the militants in neighboring Iraq and beyond that Syria.

Islamic State claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks against Iran’s majority Shi’ite population, seen by the hardline Sunni militants as heretics.

Iran’s intelligence ministry said earlier on Thursday it had arrested more suspects linked to the attacks, on top of six Iranians, including one woman, detained on Wednesday.

Militant attacks are rare in Tehran and other major cities although two Sunni militant groups, Jaish al-Adl and Jundallah, have been waging a deadly insurgency, mostly in remote areas, for almost a decade.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Attackers bomb Iran parliament and mausoleum, at least 12 dead: Iranian media

Members of Iranian forces take cover during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Iran’s parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran on Wednesday morning, killing at least 12 people in a twin assault at the heart of the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials and media said.

Islamic State claimed responsibility and released a video purporting to show gunmen inside the parliament building and one man, who appeared wounded, on the floor.

The rare attacks were the first claimed by the hardline Sunni Muslim militant group inside the Shi’ite Muslim country. Iran is one of the powers leading the fight against Islamic State militants in neighbouring Iraq and, beyond that, Syria.

Attackers dressed as women burst through parliament’s main entrance in central Tehran, deputy interior minister Mohammad Hossein Zolfaghari said, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

“One of them was shot dead and another one detonated his suicide vest,” he said.

About five hours after the first reports, Iranian news agencies said four people who had attacked parliament were dead and the incident was over.

At least 12 people were killed by the attackers, the head of Iran’s emergency department, Pir-Hossein Kolivand, was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB.

“I was inside the parliament when shooting happened. Everyone was shocked and scared. I saw two men shooting randomly,” said one journalist at the scene, who asked not to be named.

Soon after the assault on parliament, another bomber detonated a suicide vest near the shrine of the Republic’s revered founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, a few kilometres south of the city, Zolfaghari said, according to Tasnim.

A second attacker was shot dead, he said.

Members of Iranian forces take cover during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Members of Iranian forces take cover during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

THIRD ATTACK FOILED – MINISTRY

The Intelligence Ministry said security forces had arrested another “terrorist team” planning a third attack, without giving further details.

The attacks took place less than a month after the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, whose landslide victory defeated candidates supported by the hardline clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is responsible for national security.

“The atmosphere is tense. It is a blow to Rouhani. How can four armed men enter the parliament, where a very tight security has always been in place,” said a senior official, who asked not to be named.

The Intelligence Ministry called on people to be vigilant and report any suspicious movement. Despite unconfirmed reports of a hostage situation, state television said parliament had resumed, and broadcast footage of what it said was the opening session proceeding normally.

“Some coward terrorists infiltrated one of the buildings of parliament. They were confronted. It was not a major issue. Our security forces have taken necessary steps,” parliament speaker Ali Larijani said in an open session broadcast live by state TV.

Attacks are highly rare in Tehran and other major cities though a Sunni militant group named Jundallah and its splinter group Ansar al Furqan have been waging a deadly insurgency, mostly in more remote areas, for almost a decade.

Iran’s restive Sistan and Baluchestan province, in the southeast on the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to the Balouch minority and has long been a hotbed of Sunni insurgents fighting the Shi’ite-led Islamic Republic.

Last year Iranian authorities said they had foiled a plot by Sunni militants to bomb targets in Tehran and other cities during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Islamic State has often urged its fighters to attack Iranian targets and lambasted “heretic” Shi’ite Iran for helping the Syrian and Iraqi governments battle Islamic State, which considers Shi’ites to be infidels.

The video released by Islamic State’s news agency Amaq included an audio track of a man saying: “Oh God, thank you. [Gunshots]. Do you think we will leave? No! We will remain, God willing.”

A boy is evacuated during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Omid Vahabzadeh/TIMA via REUTERS

A boy is evacuated during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2017. Omid Vahabzadeh/TIMA via REUTERS

(Writing and additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Andrew Heavens)