Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

East Libyan troops close on Tripoli, clashes at airport

Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan troops commanded by Khalifa Haftar said on Friday they had advanced into the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli in a dangerous thrust against the internationally-recognized government.

Fighting was going on near the former international airport.

The moves by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, escalated a power struggle that has splintered the nation since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try and avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

Haftar, 75, who casts himself as an opponent of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres the operation would continue until terrorism was defeated.

The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.

In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This year, he took the south with its oilfields.

As well as visiting Haftar in Benghazi, U.N. boss Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But that plan looked in jeopardy on Thursday as LNA forces took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

From there, Haftar’s forces moved north, first taking the village of Suq al-Khamis, about 40 km from Tripoli, after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Then on Friday, the LNA said it took the areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of the capital, seizing the former Tripoli International Airport, which has been abandoned since a 2014 battle.

SETBACK TO MEDIATION PLAN

There was no independent confirmation of that, but a video posted online purportedly showed LNA fighters inside Qasr ben Ghashir suburb, which includes the airport.

However, the Tripoli interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, later told Ahrar TV his forces had retaken the old airport while there were clashes in the Qasr ben Ghashir area.

The LNA said it had lost five soldiers since Thursday.

While the advance has looked fast, so far Haftar’s force has mainly crossed sparsely-populated areas after taking Gharyan, the last town in the mountains before the road descends to a coastal plain.

In 2014 battles for Tripoli, it took advancing fighters weeks to reach the city center from the old airport as snipers bogged them down.

Forces from Misrata, a city east of Tripoli, sent more reinforcements to defend Serraj, residents said.

Major ministries are still 20 km away.

Despite their gains, Haftar’s forces failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied armed group withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

And in another setback, forces allied to Tripoli took 145 LNA fighters prisoner in Zawiya, west of the capital, a western commander, Mohamed Alhudair, told Reuters.

An LNA source confirmed 128 had been captured.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces.

The offensive is a setback for the United Nations and Western nations trying to mediate between Serraj, 59, who comes from a wealthy business family, and military veteran Haftar.

They met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss power-sharing.

The United Nations wants to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

The UAE, however, joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council due to the military escalation. Russia said it was not helping Haftar’s forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

Tunisia has tightened control on its border with Libya in response to the renewed conflict, the defense ministry said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean and has been a destination for migrants, was very worried, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

“We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating,” Salvini said.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Enough! Thousands decry anti-Semitism in France after spike in attacks

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Vincent Kessel and Noemie Olive

STRASBOURG/PARIS, France (Reuters) – Thousands of people rallied across France after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks in recent weeks that culminated on Tuesday with vandals daubing swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery.

Political leaders from all parties, including former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, gathered in Paris filling the Place de la Republique, a symbol of the nation, to decry anti-Semitic acts with one common slogan: “Enough!”

People also lined the streets of cities from Lille in the north to Toulouse and Marseille in the south.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: "No to the trivialisation of hatred". REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: “No to the trivialization of hatred”. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

President Emmanuel Macron paid respects at one of the 96 desecrated graves in the village of Quatzenheim, near the eastern city of Strasbourg.

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished… We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them,” he said, walking through a gate scarred with a swastika as he entered the graveyard.

Macron later visited the national Holocaust memorial in Paris with the heads of the Senate and National Assembly.

France is home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe — around 550,000 — a population that has grown by about half since World War Two, but anti-Semitic attacks remain common. Government statistics released last week showed there were more than 500 anti-Semitic attacks in the country last year, a 74 percent increase from 2017.

“Some people are provoking the authority of the state. It needs to be dealt with now and extremely firmly,” Sarkozy told reporters. “It’s a real question of authority. Violence is spreading and it needs to stop now.”

Among incidents in recent days, “yellow vest” protesters were filmed hurling abuse on Saturday at Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known Jewish writer and son of a Holocaust survivor.

Artwork on two Paris post boxes showing the image of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and former magistrate, was defaced with swastikas, while a bagel shop was sprayed with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. A tree in a Paris suburb in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The series of attacks has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

“I call on all French and European leaders to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message recorded in Hebrew. “It is an epidemic that endangers everyone, not just us.”

A rabbi and three children were killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 by an Islamist gunman, and in 2015 four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris were among 17 people killed by Islamist militants.

(Additional reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Mayaan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Luke Baker and John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

Eight years after uprising, Egyptians say freedoms have eroded

FILE PHOTO: Anti-government protesters celebrate next to soldiers inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih/File Photo

By Mohamed Abdellah and Mahmoud Mourad

CAIRO (Reuters) – Everyday at sunset, Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best known activists, says good night to his family and heads to a Cairo police station to spend the night under police watch.

While what he describes as ‘half an imprisonment’ has disrupted his family life, career, education and freedoms, Maher considers himself luckier than other activists of the 2011 uprising that ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

Like many young Egyptians who camped out for days at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the 38-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee expected Mubarak’s downfall to pave the way for more freedoms to allow the country to flourish.

Instead, Maher and other activists say things have gotten worse.

“No one imagined that the situation would be this bad,” Maher, an engineer who is also studying for a degree in political science, told Reuters. “Even the right to gather in a crowd or to express an opinion is not available.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood after a year in office that saw the economy suffer, has also targeted secular activists, including many prominent figures of the January 25 uprising.

Many have fled the country, others are in prison while a third group have been cowed into silence.

Maher, freed from a three-year-prison sentence in early 2017 for breaking anti-protest laws, immediately began a three-year-probation period under which he must spend the night, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., at a police station.

Sisi supporters, who now celebrate the anniversary of the June 30, 2013 uprising that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, argue tough action was needed to rescue the economy and get rid of Islamists they accused of trying to take steps to retain power.

Egypt’s economy has begun to turn around since Sisi came to office in 2014, but reforms adopted under a 2016 IMF loan that included devaluing the Egyptian pound and a gradual lifting of state fuel subsidies have also deepened poverty in Egypt.

WORST CRACKDOWN IN MODERN HISTORY

Rights activists say that Sisi has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.

Thousands of activists, most of them Islamists but also includes dozens of liberals and leftists, have been jailed under strict regulations imposed since 2013.

Rights activists say that intellectuals, government critics and human rights campaigners have been rounded up on charges of belonging to “terrorist organizations” or publishing false news or disturbing public order.

They include Wael Abbas, an award-winning journalist, Hazem Abdelazim, a well-known Sisi supporter turned critic, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger jailed for five years.

Ahmed Douma, another figurehead of the 2011 uprising, was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month after he was convicted of rioting and attacking security forces in 2011.

“Every time a human being is tortured, disappeared, extra-judicially killed, executed or arbitrarily arrested, Egypt’s authorities convey a clear message to their people, the change they demanded will not come,” EuroMed Rights, a Copenhagen-based network seeking to bolster ties between NGOs on both sides of the Mediterranean, said in a statement.

Egypt, which denies holding political prisoners, rejects abuse allegations. But Sisi’s admirers say firmness has been necessary to end years of lawlessness and militants behind attacks that have killed hundreds.

“The whole world had thought that the youths of the revolution would play a role in running the country, like in any country that looks for qualified youths would,” said Maher, who founded the April 6 Movement, a grassroots group founded in 2008 that had campaigned against Mubarak’s rule. “Sadly, there is a big hostility towards the youths,” he added.

Last September, 17 U.N. human rights experts criticized Egypt for its use of anti-terrorism laws to detain activists fighting for women’s rights and against graft, torture and extra-judicial killings.

Israa Abdel Fattah, another member of the April 6 Movement, said that Egypt was worse off now than it was before the January 25 uprising. “Egypt can change and everything will be good if it possessed one thing, and that’s justice,” said Abdel Fattah, who like many other activists is barred from traveling abroad.

Activists say the only positive result of the revolution, a two-term limit on presidential terms, could also soon be lost if Sisi supporters pursue plans to amend the constitution.

At a ceremony to mark Police Day, Sisi paid tribute to the January 25 uprising but stayed silent when a speaker asked him to agree to remain in office for two additional four-year terms.

Anwar al-Hawary, former editor of the privately-owned al-Masri al-Youm newspaper, said Sisi appears to favor staying in power beyond a second term, warning that any such move would be “illogical”.

“The country cannot cope with another uprising or a coup,” he said.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

Qatar pays Gaza salaries to ease tensions; Israel says money’s not for Hamas

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A $15 million Qatari cash infusion was paid out to impoverished Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on Friday, offering the enclave’s dominant Hamas Islamists a potential domestic reprieve though Israel said the money would not go to them.

Hamas’s political rival based in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has slashed Gaza budgets, beggaring tens of thousands of government employees. That has helped stoke a half-year of bloody protests and occasional shelling exchanges across the border of Gaza, which Israel keeps under blockade.

Palestinian sources said the Qatari payout, received on Thursday, was the first of a total of $90 million that would come into Gaza over the next six months with Israeli approval.

Israel had previously agreed to the gas-rich Gulf Arab state donating materials for civilian construction projects or fuel, worried that more fungible cash donations could reach Hamas guerrillas, with which it has fought three wars in a decade.

“One day, I have no money to get food or medicine for my children – and now I will buy them food, medicine and clothes,” said Wael Abu Assi, a traffic policeman, outside a Gaza City post office where people queued to draw their salaries.

Branded a terrorist group in the West, Hamas has been under years of embargo by Israel and neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders said in the past they had received funds from other countries including Iran.

Observers for Qatar were present at all 12 post offices across Gaza to monitor the salary disbursements. Employees had to present their identity card and be finger-printed.

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian Hamas-hired employees wait to receive full salaries for the first time in years, in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

ENVOY’S CONVOY STONED

“Long live Qatar!” shouted youths who greeting Doha’s point-man for Gaza relief efforts, Mohammed Al-Emadi, at a site near the border with Israel which has seen frequent demonstrations.

“Long live Gaza!” he replied. But as the diplomat’s convoy departed, some youths threw stones that smashed a window on his bodyguards’ car – suggesting not all Palestinian protesters were pleased with Qatar’s intervention. Al-Emadi’s car was unscathed.

Qatar’s official news agency said the donated money would benefit 27,000 civil servants. “The salaries for the others will be paid from local revenue,” it said.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 people in Gaza since 2007 but many appeared to have been excluded from the list of payees.

“They told me they don’t have money for me,” one employee told Reuters on condition tat he would not be named. “Maybe Israel vetoed my name?”

Officials from Hamas, Qatar and Israel have been largely silent about the details of the Gaza payouts arrangement.

But a member of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet played down their significance.

“This is not money that is going to Hamas activities. It is money that is going to the salaries of civil servants, in an orderly, organized manner,” Environment Minister Zeev Elkin told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

Elkin accused Abbas, whose peace talks with Netanyahu stalled in 2014 and who is boycotting the United States because of its pro-Israel policies, of cutting salaries to “inflame Gaza, because he has not been successful on other fronts”.

“The Qataris came along and said: ‘We are willing to pay this instead of Abu Mazen (Abbas), in order to calm Gaza down’. What does it matter who pays it?” Elkin said.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized the move. “Arrangements through Qatar and elsewhere prolong the crisis of Palestinian division,” Abu Youssef told Reuters.

Doha’s donation, as well as U.N.-Egyptian truce mediation and winter rains, have tamped down the violence at the border, where Gaza medics say Israeli army fire has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the protests began on March 30.

Israel, which says its lethal force prevents armed infiltration, has lost a soldier to a Gaza sniper and tracts of forest and farmland to incendiary material flown over the frontier on kites or helium balloons.

“This is one of the fruits of the ‘March of Return’,” Abraham Baker, a police officer who received a full salary, said, using the Palestinian term for the protests, which demand rights to lands lost to Israel’s in the 1948 war of its founding.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maher Chmaytell in Dubai; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman

By Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan suspended mobile phone networks in major cities on Friday and many schools were closed as Islamist groups protested for a third day against the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

The Supreme Court decision enraged hardline Islamists, in particular, members of a group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), who have taken to the streets to call for the death of the judges who made the decision and the ouster of the government.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said.

The spokesman for the military said the armed forces hoped the “matter is resolved without the disruption of peace”.

“Both sides should talk amongst themselves, and we should not reach the stage where this matter comes under the ambit of the armed forces,” he told state-run PTV channel.

On Friday, telephone networks were down in the capital, Islamabad, and the eastern city of Lahore, where pockets of TLP protesters blocked main roads.

“All services have been shut down by the government,” said a customer service representative at one of Pakistan’s main mobile phone companies, while declining to elaborate.

Authorities in Pakistan often shut down mobile phone networks in the hope of distrusting the organization of protests.

Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed.

In the commercial hub of Karachi in the south, normally bustling markets were shuttered.

A Reuters photographer saw about 100 protesters using stones, pieces of wood and motor-bikes to create a barricade across one main road.

Bibi’s whereabouts were not known on Friday. Her family has been in hiding this week.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Gaza ceasefire largely holding after day-long flareup

A Palestinian woman passes a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire largely held on Sunday along a tense Gaza-Israel border on Sunday following a day of fierce fighting, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defenses in case hostilities resume.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Saturday, killing two teenage boys, and militants fired more than 100 rockets across the border, wounding three people in a southern Israeli town.

The ceasefire, the second between Israel and Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists to be brokered by Egypt this year after a previous day-long flare-up in May, came into force late on Saturday.

“Everyone understands that unless the situation is defused, we will very quickly be back to another confrontation,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov told reporters at his office in Gaza.

Israel’s military said that, after assessing the situation, it was reinforcing its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries in the greater Tel Aviv area and in the south, where thousands of residents spent much of the Jewish Sabbath in shelters.

It also called up a limited amount of reservists to help out its aerial defense command.

Israel said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire militants had fired two rockets across the border, of which one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza.

Later, two mortar bombs were fired towards Israel, which responded by striking the launch tube, the military said.

TENSIONS

Weekly clashes at the Israel-Gaza border have kept tensions at a high for months. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the frontier held every week since March, including a teenager on Friday, Gaza medics said. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the demonstrations, dubbed The Great March of Return, to provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

“Our policy is clear – we hit with great might anyone who harms us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I hope that they (Hamas) have gotten the message. If not, they will yet.”

Netanyahu also instructed the military to keep targeting Palestinian squads that launch incendiary helium balloons and kites into Israeli fields from northern Gaza. Israel’s military fired twice on such groups, wounding three people.

Israel says it has lost at least 7,000 acres (2,830 hectares) of farmland and forests to a recent surge in fires started by Gaza militants using such balloons and kites rigged with flammable material.

Hamas said border demonstrations, at which Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to land lost when Israel was created in 1948, would continue and that the onus was on Israel to show restraint.

“Let the enemy end its aggression first and then the resistance will stop,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a eulogy for Amir al-Namara, 15, and Loay Kheil, 16, who were killed when a half-constructed high rise they were playing in was hit by an Israeli missile.

The Israeli military said the building had been used by Hamas for urban warfare training.

Twelve others, passers-by and visitors of a nearby public garden, were wounded in the attack, one of dozens of Israeli air strikes on the densely populated enclave on Saturday which damaged residential and office buildings, shattered car windows and caused panic among residents.

“He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was just an innocent kid,” said Amir’s grandfather Waleed al-Namara at the boy’s wake. “We want the calm to last, and for them to agree on a solution that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

The surge in violence comes as Palestinian hopes for an independent state have dwindled and peace talks remain stalled. Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of whom depend on foreign aid, has been under Israeli economic sanctions for 12 years.

Separately, a Fatah faction militant and his son were killed in a blast in a building in Gaza on Sunday. Police said the man accidentally set off an old Israeli shell he was trying to dismantle.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)

Egypt says it does not want war as tension grows with Sudan

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi gives a televised statement on the attack in North Sinai, in Cairo, Egypt November 24, 2017 in this still taken from video.

CAIRO (Reuters) – President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Monday Egypt is not conspiring against its neighbors and has no intention to fight, a reference to growing tension with Sudan.

Relations have deteriorated in recent weeks, including over a Sudan-Turkey naval agreement that angered Cairo and an ongoing dispute over a dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile river that runs through all three countries.

In the latest move, Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt without saying when he might be back.

“Let’s always look for peace and development, our people need that. They don’t need us arguing and entering conflict,” Sisi said at an inauguration of new projects in the province of Monofeya.

He said Egypt would not interfere in other countries’ affairs. Khartoum has in the past accused Cairo of political meddling while Egypt has accused Sudan of harboring Egyptian Islamists.

“Egypt will not fight its brothers … I’m saying this as a message to our brothers in Sudan,” Sisi said.

Khartoum and Ankara agreed last month that Turkey would rebuild a ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and construct a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

Egyptian officials reacted with suspicion about what they see as Turkey’s plans to expand its influence in the region.

Separately, Ethiopia is building a hydroelectric dam on the Nile which Cairo fears will restrict the waters flowing down from Ethiopia’s highlands and through Sudan to Egypt.

Ethiopia, which wants to become Africa’s biggest power exporter, says it will have no such impact.

Egypt believes Sudan is leaning toward the Ethiopian position in the dispute.

The Ethiopian foreign minister, who held talks with his Sudanese counterpart on Sunday, is expected to visit Cairo later this week for negotiations after multiple delays.

(Reporting by Mohamed El Sherif; Writing by Arwa Gaballa; Editing by Peter Graff)

Suspected Russian jets bomb residential area near Damascus; kill 30

A boy walks on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 civilians were killed early on Thursday when jets dropped bombs on a residential area in a besieged rebel enclave east of Syria’s capital, a war monitor said, identifying the planes as Russian.

At least four bombs flattened two buildings in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, in an attack that killed around 20 and wounded more than 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and civil defense sources said.

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, at least ten people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.

The Observatory, a war monitor based in Britain, said 11 women and a child were among the dead in the strikes in Misraba, which it said were carried out by Russian planes.

Backed by Russian strikes, government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months, seeking to tighten a siege that residents and aid workers say is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

Russia rejects Syrian opposition and rights groups’ accusations that its jets have been responsible for deaths of thousands of civilians since its major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow says it only attacks hardline Islamists.

Video footage posted on Thursday by activists on social media in Eastern Ghouta showed rescue workers pulling women and children from rubble. The footage could not be independently confirmed.

Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.

The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.

The United Nations says about 400,000 civilians besieged in the area face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the government are blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Scores of hospitals and civil defense centers in Ghouta and across Syria have been bombed during the conflict in what the opposition said is a “scorched earth policy” to paralyze life in rebel-held areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday rebel shelling of the government-held capital Damascus killed one and injured 22 in the Amara district of the city.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

IDLIB PUSH

Supported by Iran-backed militias and intensive Russian bombing, the Syrian army has since last month waged a new campaign to push into the heart of another rebel-held part of Syria, Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Idlib is a heavily populated area where over two million people live.

Rescue workers said there had been a spike in civilian casualties there in the last twenty days from stepped-up aerial strikes on residential areas, documenting 50 dead at least in that period.

“There have been at least six major massacres perpetrated by Russia in indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns with thousands fleeing their homes in the last two weeks,” said Mustafa al Haj Yousef, the head of Idlib’s Civil Defence, rescuers who work in opposition-held areas.

On Wednesday air strikes hit a maternity hospital in Idlib’s Ma’arat al-Nu’man city, killing five people, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity, which supports the hospital, said.

The hospital, which SAMS said delivers around 30 babies a day, had been struck three times in four days and the last strikes temporarily put the hospital out of service.

Overnight, a family of seven was buried under rubble in Tel Dukan village, rescuers said.

The army has been gaining ground in Idlib and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside, with scores of villages seized from rebels mainly belonging to Tahrir al Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups with mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also engaged in the battles.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Monitors criticize Turkey referendum; Erdogan denounces ‘crusader mentality’

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul.

By Gulsen Solaker and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A defiant Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan denounced the West’s “crusader mentality” on Monday after European monitors criticized a referendum to grant him sweeping new powers, which he won with a narrow victory laying bare the nation’s divisions.

Supporters thronged the streets honking horns and waving flags, while opponents banged pots and pans in protest in their homes into the early morning. The main opposition party rejected the result and called for the vote to be annulled.

Election authorities said preliminary results showed 51.4 percent of voters had backed the biggest overhaul of Turkish politics since the founding of the modern republic.

Erdogan says concentrating power in the hands of the president is vital to prevent instability. But the narrowness of his victory could have the opposite effect: adding to volatility in a country that has lately survived an attempted coup, attacks by Islamists, a Kurdish insurgency, civil unrest and war across its Syrian border.

The result laid bare the deep divide between the urban middle classes who see their future as part of a European mainstream, and the pious rural poor who favor Erdogan’s strong hand. Erdogan made clear his intention to steer the country away from Europe, announcing plans to seek to restore the death penalty, which would effectively end Turkey’s decades-long quest to join the EU.

“The crusader mentality in the West and its servants at home have attacked us,” he told flag-waving supporters on arrival in the capital Ankara where he was due to chair a cabinet meeting, in response to the monitors’ assessment.

In the bluntest criticism of a Turkish election by European monitors in memory, a mission of observers from the 47-member Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, said the referendum was an uneven contest. Support for a “Yes” vote dominated campaign coverage, and the arrests of journalists and closure of media outlets prevented other views from being heard, the monitors said.

“In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process,” said Cezar Florin Preda, head of the delegation.

While the monitors had no information of actual fraud, a last-minute decision by electoral authorities to allow unstamped ballots to be counted undermined an important safeguard and contradicted electoral law, they said.

DIVISIONS

The bitter campaigning and narrow “Yes” vote exposed deep divisions in Turkey, with the country’s three main cities and mainly Kurdish southeast likely to have voted “No”. Official results are due to be announced in the next 12 days.

Erdogan, a populist with a background in once-banned Islamist parties, has ruled since 2003 with no real rival, while his country emerged as one of the fastest-growing industrial powers in both Europe and the Middle East.

He has also been at the center of global affairs, commanding NATO’s second-biggest military on the border of Middle East war zones, taking in millions of Syrian refugees and controlling their further flow into Europe.

Critics accuse him of steering Turkey towards one-man rule. The two largest opposition parties both challenged Sunday’s referendum, saying it was deeply flawed.

The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party said it presented complaints about unstamped ballots affecting 3 million voters, more than twice the margin of Erdogan’s victory.

The main secularist opposition People’s Republican Party said it was still unclear how many votes were affected.

“This is why the only decision that will end debate about the legitimacy (of the vote) and ease the people’s legal concerns is the annulment of this election,” deputy party chairman Bulent Tezcan said.

Tezcan said he would if necessary go to Turkey’s constitutional court – one of the institutions that Erdogan would gain firm control over under the constitutional changes, through the appointment of its members.

“ERDOGAN’S RESPONSIBILITY”

The president survived a coup attempt last year and responded with a crackdown, jailing 47,000 people and sacking or suspending more than 120,000 from government jobs such as schoolteachers, soldiers, police, judges or other professionals.

The changes could keep him in power until 2029 or beyond, making him easily the most important figure in Turkish history since state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built a modern nation from the ashes of the Ottoman empire after World War One.

Germany, host to some 4 million Turks, said it was up to Erdogan himself to heal the rifts that the vote had exposed.

“The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is, and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in a joint statement.

Relations with Europe were strained during the referendum campaign when Germany and the Netherlands barred Turkish ministers from holding rallies. Erdogan provoked a stern German response by comparing those limits to the actions of the Nazis.

Thousands of Erdogan supporters waved flags and blasted horns into the early hours on Monday in celebration of a man who they say has transformed the quality of life for millions of pious Turks marginalized for decades by the secular elite.

There were scattered protests against the result, but these were more sporadic. In some affluent, secular neighborhoods, opponents stayed indoors, banging pots and pans, a sign of dissent that became widespread during anti-Erdogan protests in 2013, when the police crushed demonstrations against him.

The result triggered a two percent rally in the Turkish lira from its close last week.

Under the changes, most of which will only come into effect after the next elections due in 2019, the president will appoint the cabinet and an undefined number of vice-presidents, and be able to select and remove senior civil servants without parliamentary approval.

There has been some speculation that Erdogan could call new elections so that his new powers could take effect right away. However, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told Reuters there was no such plan, and the elections would still be held in 2019.

Erdogan served as prime minister from 2003 until 2014, when rules were changed to hold direct elections for the office of president, previously a ceremonial role elected by parliament. Since becoming the first directly elected president, he has set about making the post more important, along the lines of the executive presidencies of France, Russia or the United States.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux in Istanbul and Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler, David Dolan and Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff)