Iran makes arrests over plane disaster as protests rage on

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Tuesday it had arrested people accused of a role in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and had also detained 30 people involved in protests that have swept the nation for four days since the military belatedly admitted its error.

Wednesday’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 people aboard, has led to one of the biggest public challenges to the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers since they took power four decades ago.

In a step that will increase diplomatic pressure, Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism to challenge Iran for breaching limits on its nuclear program under an agreement which Washington abandoned in 2018.

Since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3, Tehran has faced escalating confrontation with the West and unrest at home, both reaching levels with little precedent in its modern history.

Iran shot down the airliner on Wednesday when its military was on high alert, hours after it had fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. After days of denying a role in the air crash, it admitted it on Saturday, calling it a tragic mistake.

Protesters, many of them students, have held daily demonstrations since then, chanting “Clerics get lost!” and calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power for more than 30 years.

Police have responded to some protests with a violent crackdown, video posts on social media showed. Footage showed police beating protesters with batons, wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters. The judiciary said 30 people had been detained in the unrest but said the authorities would show tolerance toward “legal protests”.

‘WHERE IS JUSTICE?’

Video posts on Tuesday showed scores gathered peacefully at two Tehran universities. “Where is justice?” one group chanted.

The extent of the unrest is difficult to assess because of limits on independent reporting. Demonstrations tend to gather momentum later in the day and clashes have been at night.

President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgivable error” of shooting down the plane. He spoke in a television address on Tuesday, the latest in a series of apologies from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some of those accused of having a role in the plane disaster had been arrested, although he did not say how many or identify them.

Most of those on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the plane have scheduled a meeting on Thursday in London to consider legal action against Tehran.

The disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.

Missiles launched at a U.S. base in Iraq killed an American contractor in December, an attack Washington blamed on an Iran-backed group. Confrontation eventually led to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militias.

Iran’s government was already reeling from the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, which quit an agreement with world powers under which Tehran would secure sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear program.

SEEKING COMPLIANCE

Since Washington withdrew, Tehran has stepped back from its nuclear commitments and has said it would no longer recognize limits on enriching uranium. After months of threatening to act, European signatories to the deal, France, Britain and Germany, activated the agreement’s dispute mechanism on Tuesday.

The European Union’s top diplomat said the European move aimed to bring Tehran bank to compliance, not impose sanctions.

Iran’s leaders have been facing a powerful combination of pressure both at home and abroad.

Just two months ago, Iran’s authorities put down anti-government protests, killing hundreds of demonstrators in what is believed to be the most violent crackdown on unrest since the 1979 revolution.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where Iran has wielded influence through a network of allied movements and proxies, governments that include powerful Iran-sponsored armed factions have faced months of hostile demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s president said in his address that those responsible for shooting down the plane would be punished, describing the military’s admission of its mistake “a good first step.”

Rouhani also said the government would be accountable to Iranians and those nations who lost citizens. Iranian state television said aviation officials from Canada, which had 57 citizens on the doomed flight, as well as from Iran and Ukraine, met in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)

Venezuela’s Guaido pushes past troops to enter congress after socialist takeover

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces let U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido enter the legislative palace on Tuesday amid a showdown for control of parliament after the ruling socialist party installed its own rival congressional chief.

Guaido, who was re-elected on Sunday to a second one-year term as head of the opposition-held congress, had pledged to preside over Tuesday’s opening session after security forces blocked him from the building over the weekend to allow socialist legislators to swear in their own speaker.

Local television images early Tuesday showed Guaido arguing for half an hour with troops wielding riot shields who again blocked the entrance to the legislative building, but eventually allowed him to push past them.

“This is not a barracks. This is the house of laws,” Guaido told the soldiers blocking his entrance. “The military does not get to decide who can enter the house of laws.”

But inside, a brief session led by Luis Parra – who was sworn in by allies of President Nicolas Maduro as parliament chief Sunday – had already ended, according to Reuters witnesses.

Parra’s swearing in on Sunday gave Maduro sway over the last major state institution that had remained outside his control and appeared to mark a setback to Washington’s efforts to unseat him.

The gambit marked an escalation in Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition, whose key international ally – the Trump administration – has so far been unsuccessful in its year-long attempt to oust Maduro through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

U.S. special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams on Monday said Washington was preparing new sanctions to step up pressure on Caracas. But Maduro’s move suggests he does not expect major consequences from the United States, though the government has steered clear of actions – like arresting Guaido – that could provoke a harsher response.

“We once again handed imperialism a defeat,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said on his talk show Monday night.

Parra, who was elected to congress in 2015, had been expelled from the First Justice opposition party in late 2019 due to corruption allegations, which he has denied.

Dozens of countries, including the United States, denounced Parra’s appointment as illegitimate, and said they continued to recognize Guaido as the parliament’s head and as Venezuela’s rightful president.

On Sunday, after soldiers prevented Guaido from entering parliament, he held a separate session elsewhere in which 100 lawmakers backed his bid despite the earlier swearing-in of Parra. The legislature has 167 seats.

‘THE PEOPLE ARE IN CHARGE’

Guaido had vowed to preside over Tuesday’s legislative session despite what he called Parra’s “parliamentary coup.” Parra has rejected that description, while saying he wants to end confrontations with Maduro’s government. “We came to save parliament from destruction,” he said on Twitter.

After security forces opened the gates to allow him to pass, Guaido stood in the leadership post and sang the Venezuelan national anthem with allies. Electricity swiftly went out in the chamber, and state television – which had broadcast footage of Parra’s session – cut away from the congress.

“In here, the people are in charge,” lawmakers chanted as Guaido entered.

Guaido was elected head of the congress in January 2019 and invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as a usurper who had secured re-election in a 2018 vote widely considered fraudulent.

So far, Maduro has fended off Guaido’s challenge, retaining control of the armed forces and tightening the noose around opposition lawmakers. More than 30 of Guaido’s congressional allies are in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

Guaido has also been losing support as Venezuelans tired with Maduro lose patience with his floundering movement. It remains to be seen whether his defiant response to Maduro’s move could galvanize his supporters, who turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest Maduro early last year.

Parra’s new policy agenda focuses on reducing conflict with the government. Maduro was quick to celebrate his swearing-in, highlighting a “rebellion” among opposition lawmakers.

Parra said Monday his priority was to set up a new electoral council to preside over free and fair elections.

His brief session included a debate over proposals to tackle widespread shortages of gasoline. The session began around 10 a.m. and ended in under an hour.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

U.S. says it disrupted ‘imminent attack’ with killing of Iran commander

 

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge on Friday after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.

Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani

The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, but did not elaborate.

The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.

It followed a sharp increase in longrunning U.S.-Iranian hostilities last week when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Iraq’s prime minister said that with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.

CONCERN OVER ESCALATION

Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country. Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.

Oil prices jumped more than $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.

Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the United States and Israel.

In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

‘STICK OF DYNAMITE’

Trump critics called the operation reckless.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, a contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Over two decades he was at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.

“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a teacher.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.

Israel has long seen Soleimani as a major threat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the U.S. action. Israeli Army Radio said the military was on heightened alert.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense called the killing a “short-sighted” step that would lead to escalations in the region.

PREVIOUS ATTACKS

The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil plants of Saudi energy giant Saudi Aramco. Washington also blamed Tehran for earlier raids on Gulf shipping.

Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of warmongering by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s main export, oil, in order to force Tehran to renegotiate a deal to freeze its nuclear activities.

Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

The Quds Force, tasked with operating beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militias defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken in Washington, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump
By Alexandra Alper

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday brushed off North Korea’s warning of a “Christmas gift”, saying the United States would “deal with it very successfully,” amid U.S. concerns that Pyongyang might be preparing a long-range missile test.

“We’ll find out what the surprise is and we’ll deal with it very successfully,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “We’ll see what happens.”

“Maybe it’s a nice present,” he quipped. “Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”

North Korea warned Washington earlier this month of a possible “Christmas gift” after its leader Kim Jong Un gave the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over his country’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the two long-time adversaries.

In issuing the warning, North Korea accused Washington of trying to drag out denuclearization talks ahead of Trump’s re-election bid next year and said it was “entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

U.S. military commanders have said that the North Korean response could involve the testing of a long-range missile, something North Korea has suspended, along with nuclear bomb tests, since 2017.

Trump has repeatedly held up the suspension of such tests as evidence that his policy of engaging with North Korea, which has involved unprecedented summits with Kim, was working.

ICBM TEST IN 2017

North Korea’s last test of an intercontinental ballistic missile took place in November 2017. That involved a Hwasong-15 ICBM, the largest missile it has ever tested, and which it said was capable of reaching all of the United States.

Trump and Kim have met three times since 2018, but there has been no substantive progress in dialogue. North Korea has demanded an end to international sanctions while the United States says Pyongyang must first commit to giving up its nuclear weapons.

Recent days have seen a flurry of international diplomacy aimed at preventing a complete breakdown of dialogue and avoiding a return to the heated confrontation seen two years ago that raised fears of war.

China, North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, together with Russia, proposed last week that the U.N. Security Council lift some sanctions to break the current deadlock.

A U.S. State Department official responded by saying it was not the time to consider lifting U.N. sanctions when North Korea was “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

North Korea has conducted repeated tests of short-range missiles this year and this month carried out what appeared to be engine tests at a rocket-testing facility U.S. officials have said Kim promised Trump he would close.

Pyongyang said the tests were aimed at “restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Tim Ahmann and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

U.S. House approves Space Force, family leave in $738 billion defense bill

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives approved on Wednesday a $738 billion defense policy bill providing the first paid family leave for all federal workers and the creation of a Space Force, a top military priority for President Donald Trump.

The Democratic-controlled chamber voted by 377-48, easily sending the conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to the Republican-controlled Senate, which is expected to pass it by the end of next week.

Trump said he would sign the bill as soon as it passes.

“Wow!” he said on Twitter. “All of our priorities have made it into the final NDAA: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force! Congress – don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!”

The establishment of the U.S. Space Force as the sixth Armed Service of the United States, under the Air Force, fulfills one of Trump’s most high-profile requests.

Despite broad bipartisan support, a handful of left-leaning Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans opposed the measure because it did not include policy planks that would have restrained Trump’s war powers, including a ban on support for Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA also does not bar the Republican president from using military funds to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and lacks strong language that would have forced the cleanup of chemicals known as PFAS believed to contaminate some water supplies.

Those provisions were included in a version of the NDAA the House passed in October, but not in one passed by the Senate. They were removed during months of negotiations with Senate Republicans and Trump administration officials.

Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the bill, pointing to the family leave policy and other benefits for troops and the difficulty reaching compromise in a bitterly divided government.

“This was not an easy process. This is an incredibly important piece of legislation,” he said.

A provision prohibiting the transfer of firearms export oversight to the Department of Commerce from the Department of State was also removed, clearing the way for a rule change that would allow easier international sales of U.S.-made assault weapons.

MORE MONEY FOR THE MILITARY

The fiscal 2020 NDAA increases defense spending by about $20 billion, or about 2.8%. It includes $658.4 billion for Department of Defense and Department of Energy national security programs, $71.5 billion to pay for ongoing foreign wars and $5.3 billion in emergency funding for repairs from natural disasters.

It increases pay for the troops by 3.1% and mandates 12 weeks’ paid leave so federal workers can care for their families, a U.S. first.

Because the NDAA is a “must pass” bill that has cleared Congress for 58 straight years, lawmakers use it as a vehicle for a wide range of policy provisions in addition to determining how many aircraft or ships the Pentagon can buy or what it can pay the troops.

While this year’s NDAA allows the Pentagon to buy 12 more Lockheed Martin-made F-35 jets <LMT.N> than the administration initially requested, it prohibits the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey.

It expresses a Sense of Congress that Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and threatens the F-35, constitutes a significant transaction under U.S. sanctions law.

The bill says Trump should implement sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase.

The NDAA also reauthorizes $300 million of funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, to include lethal defensive items as well as new authorities for coastal defense cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.

Military aid to Ukraine has been at the center of the impeachment inquiry into Trump, after his administration held up security assistance for Kiev last summer even as the country dealt with challenges from Russia.

The NDAA also contains provisions intended to address potential threats from China, including requiring reports on China’s overseas investments and military relations with Russia.

It says Congress “unequivocally supports” residents of Hong Kong as they defend their rights and seek to preserve their autonomy with China and calls for improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Additional reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son

Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son
By Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Heavily armed fighters surrounded security forces in a Mexican city on Thursday and made them free one of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s sons, after his capture triggered gunbattles and a prison break that sent civilians scurrying for cover.

Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said a patrol by National Guard militarized police first came under attack from within a house in the city of Culiacan, 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City.

After entering the house, they found four men, including Ovidio Guzman, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States.

The patrol was quickly outmatched by cartel gunmen, however, and it was withdrawn to prevent lives being lost, the government said. Simultaneously, fighters swarmed through the city, battling police and soldiers in broad daylight. They torched vehicles and left at least one gas station ablaze.

“The decision was taken to retreat from the house, without Guzman, to try to avoid more violence in the area and preserve the lives of our personnel and recover calm in the city,” Durazo told Reuters.

The reaction to Guzman’s capture was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug war, even after his more famous father’s arrests. The chaos was continuing as night fell.

A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison. Residents cowered in shopping centers and supermarkets as gunfire roared. Black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.

Families with young children left their cars and lay flat in the road. Bullets cracked up ahead. “Dad, can we get up now?” a small boy said to his father in a video posted on Twitter.

“No, stay there on the floor,” the man replied, his voice trembling.

Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and 21 injured, according to preliminary information. He said police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen. He advised residents not to leave their homes.

It was not immediately clear if members of the patrol were harmed in the standoff. Reuters TV showed scenes of at least three bodies lying next to cars on the street.

WARNED OF REPRISALS

The chaos in Culiacan, long a stronghold for the Guzmans’ Sinaloa cartel, will increase pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December promising to pacify a country weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting. Murders this year are set to be at a record high.

Thursday’s events follow the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week, and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.

Falko Ernst, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said the release of Ovidio Guzman set “a dangerous precedent” and sent a message that the state itself, including the army, could be blackmailed and was not in control.

Presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces, one video showed, warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzman was not freed.

A state police spokesman confirmed to Reuters that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos. Video footage showed a group of at least 20 prisoners running in the streets. It was not immediately clear how many had escaped.

“They are freeing them,” a panicked woman said in the video apparently filmed from an tall building. “No we can’t go outside!” she said as other voices debated making a dash for their car.

In another video, a man driving repeatedly shouted: “There is a big gunfight,” before taking a sharp turn and leaving his car at a gas station to take cover. His voice then became inaudible because of the rattling roar of automatic gunfire.

‘El Chapo’ Guzman led the Sinaloa cartel for decades, escaping from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the United States. He was found guilty in a U.S. court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.

He is believed to have about 12 children including Ovidio. The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States.

The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28, and said he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for the Guzmans, told news network Milenio that Ovidio had been in touch with the family and said he was free.

(Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. to deploy large number of forces to Saudi Arabia

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced on Friday a new, large deployment of forces to Saudi Arabia to help bolster the kingdom’s defenses following the Sept. 14 attack on its oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran.

The planned deployment, which was first reported by Reuters, will include fighter squadrons, one air expeditionary wing and air defense personnel, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon said it was sending two additional Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

“Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

It was unclear whether some of the newly announced troops might replace other American forces expected to depart the region in the coming weeks or months.

The Pentagon has yet to announce, for example, whether it will replace the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group when it eventually wraps up its deployment to the Middle East.

The deployment is part of a series of what the United States has described as defensive moves following the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month, which rattled global energy markets and exposed major gaps in Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.

Iran has responded to previous U.S. troop deployments this year with apprehension. It denies responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia as well as attacks on oil tankers earlier this year.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)

Rains, military response help curb fires in Brazil’s Amazon in September

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The number of fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has receded, falling 36% in September from August to well below a 20-year historic average for the month, amid improved weather conditions and containment efforts by the country’s military.

Fires during the first eight months of the year had surged to their highest since 2010 in August, according to data from Brazil’s space research agency INPE. That news drew a global outcry that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest, a bulwark against climate change.

But in September, the blazes were at the lowest since 2013, dragging down the number of fires year-to-date compared to previous years, according to INPE. From Jan. 1 through Oct. 3, this year is now the worst for fires in Brazil’s Amazon only since 2017.

The fires in the Amazon are largely man-made and not natural, likely set by farmers to clear land for agriculture, according to scientists. In the dry season – roughly from May to September, although it varies year to year – the fires often get out of control as the vegetation is dry and there isn’t enough rain to help curtail the blazes.

The drop in September is likely partly due to President Jair Bolsonaro authorizing the military to fight the fires in efforts that began on Aug. 24, and partly to improved rain conditions, said Maria Silva Dias, a professor at University of Sao Paulo, who has studied the interaction between forest fires and the weather.

“In the more populated areas you might have a greater effect of the army extinguishing fires and putting some sense into people who would just burn the land to clear it with no care whether this fire will spread,” Dias said.

But the Amazon is so vast that the military is unable to fight fires in much of it, she said.

“The weather helped in some sense. Where it rained, it extinguished fires,” the atmospheric science professor said.

The rainy season, which on average starts on Sept. 20 with regular precipitation, is a bit late this year, she said. But more relief appears to be on the way with scattered rain forecast across the region over the next five days.

“We will probably have a more regular chance of rain everywhere, so it looks like it’s picking up,” Dias said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

China showcases fearsome new missiles to counter U.S. at military parade

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military on Tuesday showed off new equipment at a parade in central Beijing to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, including hypersonic-glide missiles that experts say could be difficult for the United States to counter.

In a speech at the start of the nearly three-hour, highly choreographed spectacle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his country would stay on the path of “peaceful development,” but that the military would resolutely safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security.

China says the parade, the country’s most important political event of the year, which featured more than 15,000 troops marching through part of Tiananmen Square as jet fighters trailing colored smoke soared overhead, is not meant to intimidate any specific country.

But defense experts see it as a message to the world that China’s military prowess is growing rapidly, even as it faces mounting challenges, including months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and a slowing economy.

As expected, China unveiled new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and showcased its advancing intercontinental and hypersonic missiles, designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that undergird U.S. military strength in Asia.

A state television announcer called the missile arsenal a “force for realizing the dream of a strong nation and strong military.”

Among the weapons were the “carrier killer” Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D), unveiled at a military parade in 2015, designed to hit warships at sea at a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed “Guam killer” in reference to the U.S. Pacific island base.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also rolled out a hypersonic missile, known as the DF-17, which theoretically can maneuver sharply at many times the speed of sound, making it extremely difficult to counter.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, professor at Japan’s Nihon University and a retired major general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, said the DF-17 posed serious questions about the effectiveness of the regional missile defense system the United States and Japan are building.

“There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.

Bringing up the rear of the ground parade were 16 upgraded launchers carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent, capable of reaching the United States with multiple nuclear warheads.

State media said 40% of the arms shown in the parade were appearing in public for the first time. Such hardware included new and revamped versions of missiles, such as the long-range submarine-launched and ship-based YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, the official Xinhua news agency said.

China has a practice of only displaying systems in parades it says have entered some form of service, though analysts have cautioned that some of the new equipment could be experimental or prototypes.

For instance, the Gongji-11, described by the state-controlled Global Times as an attack drone and the “final version” of the Sharp Sword drone that first flew in 2013, was displayed for the first time on the back of a truck.

China showed jets in aerial refueling formation, and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to a U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk, also made its public debut, Xinhua said.

RAPID DEVELOPMENT

Many modern Western militaries eschew elaborate, large-scale military parades as costly extravagances and argue such events have almost no value for war beyond a possible boost to morale.

Still, governments around the region and foreign military experts watched the parade closely for signals about China’s military achievements, looking for clues about weapon capabilities and evidence of new systems.

The government of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, said in response to the parade that China was a serious threat to peace and democracy.

As a part of what Chinese military officials said would be a focus on command structure reforms under Xi’s ambitious military reorganization, hundreds of personnel from the PLA’s new Joint Logistics Support Force, Strategic Support Force, and Rocket Force marched in their national day parade debuts.

Xinhua also said there were two female major generals participating in the parade for the first time.

Analysts see progress in combined operations between branches of the military and in mechanizing its forces as a shift in priorities from defending Chinese borders toward having expeditionary forces able to defend the country’s far-flung commercial and diplomatic interests.

Many said the show of force was a reminder to the United States and its allies at how far the PLA has come.

Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, said the pace of China’s military technological development was “breathtaking” and that with defense spending thought to be around 2% of GDP, “they’re not breaking a sweat.”

“The message is pretty blunt. It dramatically erodes the U.S. military edge is Asia, and over the long-term, America’s military primacy in Asia is clearly under threat,” Roggeveen said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Colin Packham in Sydney and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)