Palestinians rally against Kushner’s economic peace plan

A Palestinian boy hurls stones at Israeli forces during clashes at a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan, near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinians burned portraits of President Donald Trump as they protested in both the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday against U.S.-led plans for a conference on their economy in Bahrain.

Many Palestinian business groups have said they will boycott the June 25-26 event, billed as part of Washington’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and spearheaded by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“Down with Bahrain, down with Trump, down with the Manama conference,” chanted crowds in Gaza, which is ruled by the armed Islamist group Hamas. Some burned large paintings of Trump marked with the words: “Deal of the devil”.

Leaders in both territories have accused Washington of pro-Israel bias and railed against the conference’s focus on economics, rather than their aspirations for an independent state.

Kushner told Reuters on Saturday the plan would create a million jobs, halve Palestinian poverty and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

In the West Bank, hundreds marched through Ramallah’s main squares, waving posters in support of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the territory.

Protesters there burned posters of both Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The rallies marked a moment of political unity against the Bahrain conference, despite a 12-year political feud between Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.

“A WEDDING WITHOUT THE BRIDE”

“The Manama conference is a comedy show, a wedding without the bride (the Palestinians) … it will not succeed,” said a protester who gave her name as Siham in Gaza City.

The Bahrain conference will be attended by Gulf Arab states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Israel is expected to send a business delegation but no government officials.

Mahmoud Barhoush, 25, said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what he called Arab states’ “treasonous” participation.

“Enough of your running into the arms of Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” he said at the Ramallah protest.

Other demonstrators criticized the lone Palestinian businessman named as an expected attendee in Bahrain, Ashraf Jabari. A U.S. official told Reuters that at least 15 Palestinians were expected to attend.

“Whoever attends is not a Palestinian and is not welcomed in Palestine. There should be measures taken against them,” said Maisoon Alqadoomi, 32, a Fatah activist from Ramallah.

Palestinian leaders on Monday renewed their calls for a boycott of the conference.

“This workshop is simply a political laundry for settlements and a legitimization of occupation,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told journalists ahead of a cabinet meeting.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said: “They (Palestinians) will not sell out their rights for all treasures on earth”.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. working to designate Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group: White House

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders talks to reporters at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, the White House said on Tuesday, which would bring sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.

“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked President Donald Trump to make the designation, which Egypt has already done, in a private meeting during a visit to Washington on April 9, a senior U.S. official said, confirming a report in the New York Times on Tuesday.

After the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “great president” while a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s record on human rights, efforts to keep him in office for many years and planned Russian arms purchases.

Sisi, who ousted President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and was elected president the following year, has overseen a crackdown on Islamists as well as liberal opposition in Egypt.

White House national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the designation but officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have been opposed and have been seeking more limited action, the senior official said.

The Brotherhood, which estimates its membership at up to 1 million people, came to power in Egypt’s first modern free election in 2012, a year after long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising. But the movement is now banned and thousands of its supporters and much of its leadership have been jailed.

The Egyptian government blamed the organization for a 2013 suicide bomb attack on a police station that killed 16 people. The Brotherhood condemned that attack and denies using violence.

Some conservative and anti-Muslim activists have argued for years that the Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and sought to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate by peaceful means, has been a breeding ground for terrorists.

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist designation could complicate Washington’s relationship with NATO ally Turkey. The organization has close ties with President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and many of its members fled to Turkey after the group’s activities were banned in Egypt.

Turkey is under threat of U.S. sanctions if it pursues plans to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which are not compatible with NATO systems.

Washington also says Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s would compromise the security of F-35 fighter jets, which are built by Lockheed Martin Corp and use stealth technology.

The U.S. administration debated the terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after Trump took office in January 2017.

Some branches of the Brotherhood, including the Palestinian group Hamas, have engaged in anti-government violence and provoked violent government reactions. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, was once a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Other offshoots in Turkey and Tunisia have forsworn violence and come to power by democratic means.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Trott)

Israeli warplanes strike Gaza after rockets fired toward Tel Aviv

Israeli soldiers are seen on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the border between Israel and Gaza on its Israeli side, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza early on Friday after Israel’s military said militants had fired two rockets toward the city of Tel Aviv.

The air strikes, the heaviest in five months, hit about 100 military targets belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, the military said. These included a rocket manufacturing site, a naval post and weapons facility, and a Hamas headquarters, it said.

Palestinian news media reported strikes throughout the densely populated coastal strip that is home to two million Palestinians. Four people were wounded, health ministry officials said.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of firing rockets from Gaza toward Tel Aviv – the first time the seaside city had been targeted since the 2014 Gaza War.

But Hamas denied responsibility and Israeli media, including Ha’aretz and Channel 7 News, later carried reports that the rockets might have been fired from Gaza by mistake.

A security official briefed on the situation, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters the launch was “the result of an error – that an attack on Israel was not intended. Israel holds Hamas responsible, hence the response”.

The exchange was the most serious since a botched Israeli commando incursion into Gaza last November.

In the aftermath of that episode, dozens of Israeli air strikes killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, and destroyed several buildings. Rocket attacks from Gaza sent residents of southern Israel to shelters, wounding dozens and killing a Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank.

SIRENS WAIL

The first rocket attack came on Thursday evening, with warning sirens sounding in the Tel Aviv area and residents hearing explosions.

The Israeli military said two longer-range rockets had been fired from Gaza but caused no casualties or damage. The Israelis retaliated in the early hours of Friday.

Just after dawn, six more missiles were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border towns but all but one were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the military said.

Calm was restored by mid-morning as an Egyptian delegation mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions, a Palestinian official said.

The incident immediately played into the campaign for an election in Israel on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his security credentials.

His right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, demanded that Israel resume its killings of Hamas chiefs.

“The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all,” he said on Thursday night.

Netanyahu also faced pressure from his center-left opponent, former General Benny Gantz, who said: “Only aggressive, harsh action will restore the deterrence that has eroded” under the prime minister’s watch.

Tensions have been high for the past year along the Israel-Gaza frontier, but on Friday morning Palestinian officials canceled the weekly border protests.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations that began a year ago and about 60 more have been killed in other incidents, including exchanges of fire across the border. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by Palestinian fire.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the packed, narrow enclave in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Frustration is growing in Gaza over the dim prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have expanded.

The 2014 Gaza War was the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during that war, most of them civilians, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Indonesian children who joined suicide attacks kept isolated by parents

Anti-terror policemen walk during a raid of a house of a suspected terrorist at Medokan Ayu area in Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The parents of Indonesian children and young adults who took part in deadly suicide bombings in Surabaya had isolated them within a tightly knit circle of militant Islamists, police said on Tuesday.

A family of six killed at least 13 people, including themselves, by bombing three churches in Surabaya on Sunday in the worst militant attack in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country since the bombing of restaurants in Bali in 2005.

On Monday, another militant family of five riding two motorbikes blew themselves up at a police checkpoint in the city, wounding 10 people and killing four of the family and two others. An eight-year-old daughter survived.

“These children have been indoctrinated by their parents. It seems they did not interact much with others,” East Java Police Chief Machfud Arifin told reporters.

The eight-year-old daughter who survived did not have explosives strapped to her, but was thrown three meters (10 ft) into the air by the blast and was receiving intensive care in hospital, police said.

“She’s conscious. She will be accompanied by relatives and social workers when questioned by police,” said Arifin.

Police in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, recovered pipe bombs at an apartment where a blast on Sunday killed three members of a family alleged to have been making bombs.

Three children survived and in interviews with police described how they had interacted only with parents and adults of similar ideology.

Every Sunday evening they were made to attend a prayer circle with these adults, said Arifin, adding that the families behind the two sets of suicide attacks had attended.

Police said that the fathers of the families involved in the church bombing and the apartment in Sidoarjo where bombs were found were also friends.

After some major successes tackling Islamist militancy since 2001, there has been a resurgence in recent years, including in January 2016 when four suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a shopping area in the capital, Jakarta.

MIDDLE CLASS HOUSING COMPLEX

Police suspect the attacks on the churches were carried out by a cell of the Islamic State-inspired group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization on a U.S. State Department terrorist list that is reckoned to have drawn hundreds of Indonesian sympathizers of Islamic State.

The family involved in those attacks lived in a middle class housing complex in the city and police said the father was the head of a local JAD cell.

“I think the family setting and the isolation from the outside world… were perfect settings for him to indoctrinate the rest of his family,” said Alexander Raymond Arifianto, an Indonesia expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini was quoted as saying by news portal Tempo.co that one of the sons had also refused to attend flag raising ceremonies or go to classes on Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, which enshrines religious diversity under an officially secular system.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla urged the public to provide information that could help stop attacks.

“Please be the government’s eyes and ears so these things won’t happen in the future,” Kalla told a conference in Jakarta.

In all, around 30 people have been killed since Sunday in attacks, including 13 suspected perpetrators, police said.

Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in a commentary for the Lowy Institute that the attacks showed how urgent it was for authorities to learn more about family networks.

“If three families can be involved in two days’ worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act,” he said.

(For a graphic on ‘Bomb attacks in Indonesia’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rBtid8)

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Gayatri Suroyo; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, Erdogan says

ILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan looks on ahead of a meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, revisiting an issue that caused outrage among secular Turks and warnings from the European Union when his party raised it more than a decade ago.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party floated the idea in 2004, two years after it first came to power, as part of a broad overhaul of the Turkish penal code. But the proposal caused a backlash from the secular opposition and EU officials said it could jeopardize Turkey’s efforts to join the union.

While Turkey is still technically a candidate to join the union, its accession talks were frozen in the wake of a widespread crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016. In return, Erdogan has been angered by what he sees as EU stalling of the bid and has threatened to walk away from the talks.

“I think it would be very, very well-timed to again discuss the adultery issue, as our society is in a different position with regards to moral values,” Erdogan told reporters following a speech in parliament.

“This is a very old issue, far-reaching. It should be discussed. It was already in our legal proposals (in 2004) in the first place. At that time we took a step in accordance with the EU’s demands, but we made a mistake,” he said.

Erdogan’s comment that by meeting EU standards Turkey made a mistake underscores the growing divide between Ankara and Brussels and may not bode well for a coming summit with the bloc in March.

Turkey decriminalized adultery for women in the late 1990s. It had long been legal for men.

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of crushing democratic freedoms with tens of thousands of arrests and a clampdown on the media since the failed coup, has previously spoken of his desire to raise a “pious generation”.

He has spent his career fighting to bring religion back into public life in constitutionally secular Turkey and has cast himself as the liberator of millions of pious Turks whose rights and welfare were neglected by a secular elite.

Last year, the government announced a new school curriculum that excluded Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, feeding opposition fears that Erdogan was subverting the republic’s secular foundations.

A Reuters investigation last month showed that while students at religious schools make up only 11 percent of the total upper school population, they receive 23 percent of funding, double the spending per pupil at mainstream schools.

While European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially the crackdown, Europe still relies on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank.

Perhaps more immediately, European countries need Turkey to hold up its end of a deal to halt the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan and Hugh Lawson)

New Turkish party could cost Erdogan support, dislodge main opposition

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a conference in Ankara, Turkey, November 1, 2017.

By Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA(Reuters) – A new Turkish political party founded by a former minister and vocal critic of Tayyip Erdogan could cost the president crucial support and potentially unseat the main opposition, a poll suggested on Wednesday.

The survey by prominent polling firm Gezici showed that the Iyi Parti (“Good Party”), founded this month by the breakaway nationalist lawmaker Meral Aksener, could mark a dramatic shift in Turkish politics, eclipsing the secular CHP that dominated Turkish politics for large parts of the republic’s history.

While only five members of the 550-seat parliament have joined Aksener’s party, the survey suggested it could win over voters from several parties, including Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party as well as secular or nationalist groups.

Although Turkey’s next elections are not due until 2019, pollster Gezici asked 4,638 respondents how they would vote in the event of a snap election.

Support for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, which has been in power since 2002, would fall to 43.8 percent, from 49.5 percent in the November 2015 parliamentary polls, the survey showed.

Aksener’s party would win 19.5 percent of the vote, beating the secularist People’s Republican Party’s (CHP) 18.5 percent, it showed. That would mark the first time since 2002 elections that the CHP – established by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – was not the main opposition.

The CHP won 25 percent of votes in 2015.

The nationalist MHP, where Aksener previously served as a lawmaker and interior minister, and the pro-Kurdish HDP were both seen falling below the 10 percent threshold needed to enter the 550-seat parliament.

The MHP was seen polling at 8.8 percent, from 11.9 in 2015. The HDP, whose leaders have been jailed in the crackdown that followed last year’s failed coup, was seen taking 7.0 percent, from 10.8 in 2015.

 

ERDOGAN CRITIC

Gezici was one of the most accurate pollsters on the results of April’s referendum to change the constitution.

The poll was conducted between Oct. 10-15, days before the widely expected announcement of the formation of the Iyi Parti. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of potential political parties, including “Aksener’s party”.

Aksener was expelled last year from the nationalist MHP, the smallest of three opposition parties in parliament, after launching a failed bid to unseat party leader Devlet Bahceli, whose support helped Erdogan to a narrow victory in the April referendum that expanded his authority.

Since her expulsion, the 61-year-old has become one of the most prominent voices in the country, frequently criticizing Erdogan and the government.

In the case of the Iyi Parti not participating in potential snap elections, the AKP would win just over 47 percent, while the CHP would earn 26.8 percent, the poll showed.

The AKP, founded by Erdogan, has held a majority in parliament for nearly 15 years. After winning almost 50 percent of votes in 2015, Erdogan and party officials said they aimed to win more than half the votes in the coming general elections.

 

 

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Raissa Kasolowsky)

 

Islamist’s lure youngsters in the Philippines with payments, promise of paradise

A teenager who fought alongside Islamic-state linked militants in Marawi City, speaks to Reuters during an interview in the southern Philippines July 11, 2017 after fleeing the fighting. REUTERS/Martin Petty

By Martin Petty

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – When he saw his commander holding the severed head of one of his neighbors, teenage Islamist fighter Jalil knew it was time to escape from Marawi City.

Churches and homes had been ransacked, people had been shot or taken hostage, and now Philippines government troops, planes and helicopters were pounding the Islamic State loyalists who had taken over large parts of the town on May 23.

Six days into the occupation, 17-year-old Jalil said he came across a crowd of fellow fighters led by rebel chief Abdullah Maute, including a boy who looked about 10. They were cheering the beheading of a Christian from Jalil’s neighborhood who was accused of being a spy.

“Abdullah Maute was holding a man’s head, he was shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is Greatest),” said Jalil, who spoke on condition his identity was not revealed to protect him from reprisals. “They chanted with him. At that point, I realized I had to get away. I wanted no part in this.”

Jalil’s story could not be independently verified. Authorities have placed him in pinesprotective custody and say he has helped identify militants fighting in Marawi.

Jalil is one of hundreds of Muslim youths lured by Islamic State followers in Mindanao, a poverty-plagued southern island of the Philippines that governments in Southeast Asia fear could become a regional stronghold for the ultra-radical group as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq.

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), says foreign recruiters have been active in Mindanao for years but Islamic State’s powerful propaganda and the rise of the local Maute clan of militants have brought a surge in followers.

“The recruitment is now happening very, very rapidly,” said Banlaoi, who monitors mobilization in Mindanao via informants and police interrogation reports of militants. “They’re very sophisticated. They are serious community organizers and serious recruiters.”

Schools, madrassas (Islamic schools) and even day-care centers with extremist leanings have been identified as recruiting grounds.

Authorities are working with religious teachers to keep radical ideas out of mosques and off curriculums, according to army spokesman Colonel Romeo Brawner. But provincial leaders and some military officers say the efforts are weak, partly because militants have plenty of money to reel youths into their ranks.

 

Government female soldiers wearing white hijabs and child evacuees make peace signs as part of their psychosocial activities at one of the evacuation centres in Balo-i town, Lanao Del Norte, southern Philippines, September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

“BACK IN SERVICE”

Jalil said his involvement began when he was 11 at a mosque in Piagapo, a rustic municipality 20 km (12 miles) from Marawi, where an imam convinced him to join 40 youngsters at a training camp in return for meals and 15,000 pesos ($294) per month.

He underwent daily weapons and combat training, and teachings from the Koran. He was expelled from the program after only three months, he said, when he revealed details about his network during a mock interrogation.

Jalil heard nothing from his recruiters for six years, but the day before the Marawi siege began, there was a knock at his door. Outside was a teenager, and behind him a pickup truck with 10 other youngsters on board.

“I knew them, they were my classmates in training,” he said. “They told me ‘you’re now back in service.'”

The ubiquitous villages with tattered mosques, wooden homes and dirt-track roads carved into the jungles and mountains of Mindanao are fertile ground for recruiting unschooled youngsters and turning them into militants in camps far off the radar.

The army discovered one such training ground in Piagapo, after a three-day battle that killed 36 Maute fighters, among them foreigners and an imam. That was one month before the Marawi siege.

Reuters spoke to two teenagers from that camp, who said they were lured by promises of money, marriage and paradise after death.

They spoke on condition their full identities be withheld because authorities were not aware of their involvement, which they said ceased when the imam was killed. Their accounts could not be independently verified.

“We were trained how to evade checkpoints. We were trained how to ambush, to move silently,” said 18-year-old Abdul, who described how he and others learned to dismantle rifles, make bombs and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Faisal, 19, said the imam held Koran classes in small jungle huts, while foreigners, whose nationalities he did not know, trained them to fight non-believers.

“The imam told us we would be rewarded with marriage to any beautiful girl we want,” he said.

The government says poor and uneducated males like Abdul and Faisal are easy prey in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which comprises five of Mindanao’s 27 provinces.

In 2015-2016, the ARMM had the lowest secondary-school enrolment and the highest dropout rate, according to the education ministry, with just 32.4 percent of ARMM youth in school compared to the national average of 68 percent.

Nearly half of ARMM families live in poverty, under the government’s monthly income threshold of 9,064 pesos ($177), according to official data, compared to the national average of 16.5 percent. In Lanao del Sur, where Marawi is located, 66.3 percent of families live in poverty.

 

ONLINE PROFILING

But not all targets are poor, rural and uneducated.

Urban youth and students are also on the radar of recruiters who have infiltrated schools and universities and mastered social media, both to spread propaganda and to spot candidates for radicalization among Mindanao Muslims, known as Moros.

Prime targets, said Banlaoi, are those posting on social media about economic and social exclusion, or historical injustice. A hot topic is the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) peace deal with the government, which promised to make ARMM a self-governing region called Bangsamoro (nation of Moros) but has been dogged by delays, breakdowns and mistrust.

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s top negotiator, said extremists exploit disillusionment with the Bangsamoro plan and promote violence by teaching only selected verses of the Koran.

“We monitor them, but because the recruitment is so secretive, we cannot manage to do everything,” he told Reuters.

Banlaoi said extremists had access to technology used in the Middle East by Islamic State to track chatter on platforms like Facebook and Telegram, find suitable candidates and probe their friend networks. These recruiters included Indonesians and Malaysian militants who were “very persistent”.

The government’s fight is as much about winning hearts and minds among the Bangsamoro people as it is the battle for Marawi that has now ground on for nearly four months.

Militants try to sway public opinion with slick videos celebrating their triumph over “crusaders” they say are destroying Muslim homes and businesses in Marawi with artillery and air strikes.

The military says its focus groups have shown some displaced Marawi children “idolise” the militants. It has sent female soldiers to counsel children in evacuation camps and identify those already radicalized.

Jalil, the teen fighter said he was at first inspired by the rousing speeches of Abdullah Maute and his brother, Omarkhayam. But he was appalled by the bloodletting that ensued.

“I can’t forget what I saw. Every street corner there were dead bodies, Christians and Muslims,” he said.

On the night of the execution he witnesses, Jalil abandoned his post guarding a bridge and rode a motorcycle for 50 km (31 miles) to evade army checkpoints. He turned himself in to police two weeks later.

A former military intelligence officer who has tracked the Maute clan said the military under-estimated them as a “ragtag group”. But the Mautes have demonstrated a capacity to regroup and, thanks to deep pockets and the respect they command among local youth, would probably strengthen after Marawi is retaken by “filling vacancies” left by hundreds of dead fighters.

The worst-case scenario, the officer said, was if the Maute brothers survive. “Recruitment will be massive,” he said. “There are lots of students idolizing them.”

 

(Additional reporting by Tom Allard in MARAWI CITY and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

 

Hamburg attacker was known to security forces as Islamist: minister

Security forces and ambulances are seen after a knife attack in a supermarket in Hamburg, Germany, July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen

HAMBURG (Reuters) – The migrant who killed one person and injured six others in a knife attack in a Hamburg supermarket on Friday was an Islamist known to German security forces, who say they believed he posed no immediate threat, the city-state’s interior minister said on Saturday.

A possible security lapse in a second deadly militant attack in less than a year, and two months before the general election, would be highly embarrassing for German intelligence, especially since security is a main theme in the Sept. 24 vote.

A Tunisian failed asylum seeker killed 12 people by driving a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in December, slipping through the net after intelligence officers who had monitored him reached the conclusion he was no threat.

Hamburg Interior Minister Andy Grote told a news conference on Saturday that Friday’s 26-year-old attacker was registered in intelligence systems as an Islamist but not as a jihadist, as there was no evidence to link him to an imminent attack.

He also said the attacker, a Palestinian asylum seeker who could not be deported as he lacked identification documents, was psychologically unstable.

The Palestinian mission in Berlin had agreed to issue him with documents and he had agreed to leave Germany once these were ready, a process that takes a few months.

“What we can say of the motive of the attacker at the moment is that on the one side there are indications that he acted based on religious Islamist motives, and on the other hand there are indications of psychological instability,” Grote said.

“The attacker was known to security forces. There was information that he had been radicalized,” he said.

“As far as we know … there were no grounds to assess him as an immediate danger. He was a suspected Islamist and was recorded as such in the appropriate systems, not as a jihadist but as an Islamist.”

Prosecutors said the attacker pulled a 20-centimetre knife from a shelf at the supermarket and stabbed three people inside and four outside before passers-by threw chairs and other objects at him, allowing police to arrest him.

A 50-year-old man died of his injuries. None of the other six people injured in the attack is in a life-threatening condition.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term in office in September. Her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors to more than one million migrants has sparked a debate about the need to spend more on policing and security.

Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri, who could not be deported because he lacked identification documents, carried out his attack at a Christmas market in Berlin in December after security agencies stopped monitoring him because they could not prove suspicions that he was planning to purchase weapons.

(Reporting by Frank Witte in Hamburg; Writing by Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Christians caught up in Philippines’ urban battle with Islamists

A view of a fire caused by continued fighting between the government soldiers and the Maute group, in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 28, 2017.

By Tom Allard

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Bishop Edwin Dela Pena was sipping coffee after dinner in a southern Philippines coastal town last Tuesday when he received a phone call: it was from one of his diocese priests, who sounded panicky and distressed.

Father Teresito “Chito” Sugarno, the vicar general of Marawi City, had been taken hostage by Islamist militants along with about a dozen of his parishioners.

“He was only given a few lines to deliver, and it was simply echoing the demands of the kidnappers – for the troops to withdraw,” said Dela Pena. If the demand was not met, he was told, “something bad would happen”.

There has been no further word from the group of Christians since they were caught up in a ferocious battle that has raged between Islamist insurgents and Philippines soldiers in Marawi for the past week.

As many as 180,000 people, about 90 percent of the population, have fled the usually bustling lakeside town nestled in lush tropical hills that, almost overnight last week, became a theater of urban warfare.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao – the country’s southernmost island and an area the size of South Korea – as troops outside Marawi closed in on  Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed “emir” of Southeast Asia last year after he pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Mindanao has long been a hotbed of local insurgencies and separatist movements: but now, Islamist fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries have converged in Mindanao, stoking fears that it could become a regional stronghold of Islamic State.

More than 90 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Christian, but here Muslims are in the majority. In 1980 Marawi proclaimed itself an “Islamic City” and it is the only city in the country with that designation.

For the small Christian community of Marawi, however, life in the city had until recently been peaceful and prosperous.

“We don’t consider ourselves Muslims or Christians, we are just friends,” said Dela Pena, who has lived for 17 years in Marawi but was out of town when the violence broke out.

That peace was shattered some months ago, he said, after the army bombed an encampment of Islamist groups some 50 km (30 miles) away.

“They said they pulverized the whole camp, but these people simply transferred their base of operation from the jungle to the urban center, to the city, Marawi,” he told Reuters in an interview from Iligan City, 37 km (23 miles) from Marawi.

“They came in trickles, a few people at a time. They have relatives there. They lived, they recruited,” he said, adding that authorities appear to have missed the looming threat.

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28

Members of Philippine Marines walk next to an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) as they advance their position in Marawi City, Philippines May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

CATHEDRAL ATTACKED AND TORCHED

Chaos was unleashed upon Marawi when troops searching for Hapilon were ambushed by heavily armed militants.

More than 200 local and foreign fighters from the Maute group and others allied to Islamic State fanned out across the city, seizing the main hospital and prison before attacking the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora.

Inside, nearby residents told Dela Pena, Father Teresito and a group of worshippers were decorating the church for a holy day to celebrate the life of Mary, a sacred figure in both Christianity and Islam.

Dela Pena said they ran to the nearby bishop’s house, hoping they would be safe there, but the militants burst in after them. That evening, after bundling their captives into vehicles, they torched the church, according to the residents.

Photos showing the priest, a young man and a woman slumped against a wall have circulated on the internet. Dela Pena believes they are being used as human shields by the militants.

“I cannot imagine. I have no words to describe it,” he said.

Still, he remains hopeful that the city can unite again. The vast majority of Marawi’s citizens, whatever their faith, are appalled by the violence and disruption, he said.

“I think we can begin something more effective in terms of working together, in terms of dialogue, in terms of peaceful coexistence,” he said. “After all, we have shared the same predicament.”

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Lincoln Feast)

Thousands of Indonesians expected to rally against rising intolerance

Members of hardline Muslim groups hold a big national flag as they attend a protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian running in the upcoming election, in Jakarta, Indonesia

By Eveline Danubrata

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Thousands of Indonesians are expected to rally on Saturday against what they see as growing racial and religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Religious leaders, human right groups and other organizations will join the parade in central Jakarta, spokeswoman Umi Azalea said by telephone.

The movement was not political but aimed at “celebrating Indonesia’s diversity”, Azalea said.

“Indonesia has so many religions, cultures and ethnicities. Yet now we are seeing some groups that are forcing their own will, and that is very worrying.”

Indonesian police said on Wednesday they would investigate a complaint by Muslim groups that the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, had insulted Islam.

The decision has stoked concerns about rising hardline Islamic sentiment in the country of 250 million people and is also seen by some analysts as a blow to democracy.

More than 100,000 Muslims protested against Purnama earlier this month. Police fired tear gas and water cannon to quell the protest.

There are also signs of rising religious tension elsewhere in Indonesia. Last Sunday, police arrested a suspected militant who threw an explosive device at a church in the eastern island of Borneo.

(Reporting by Eveline Danubrata; Editing by Nick Macfie)