Special Report: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village

Rehana Khatun, whose husband Mohammed Nur was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture with her child at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 19, 2018. Picture taken January 19, 2018.

By Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski

INN DIN, Myanmar (Reuters) – Bound together, the 10 Rohingya Muslim captives watched their Myanmar Buddhist neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept. 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops, two of the gravediggers said.

“One grave for 10 people,” said Soe Chay, 55, a retired soldier from Inn Din’s Rakhine Buddhist community who said he helped dig the pit and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead.”

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017.

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017. REUTERS

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October.

The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings aimed at rubbing them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. But most Burmese consider them to be unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh; the army refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis.” In recent years, sectarian tensions have risen and the government has confined more than 100,000 Rohingya in camps where they have limited access to food, medicine and education.

Reuters has pieced together what happened in Inn Din in the days leading up to the killing of the 10 Rohingya – eight men and two high school students in their late teens.

Until now, accounts of the violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state have been provided only by its victims. The Reuters reconstruction draws for the first time on interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.

This account also marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel themselves. Members of the paramilitary police gave Reuters insider descriptions of the operation to drive out the Rohingya from Inn Din, confirming that the military played the lead role in the campaign.

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A MASSACRE

The slain men’s families, now sheltering in Bangladesh refugee camps, identified the victims through photographs shown to them by Reuters. The dead men were fishermen, shopkeepers, the two teenage students and an Islamic teacher.

Three photographs, provided to Reuters by a Buddhist village elder, capture key moments in the massacre at Inn Din, from the Rohingya men’s detention by soldiers in the early evening of Sept. 1 to their execution shortly after 10 a.m. on Sept. 2. Two photos – one taken the first day, the other on the day of the killings – show the 10 captives lined up in a row, kneeling. The final photograph shows the men’s bloodied bodies piled in the shallow grave.

 

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village September 1, 2017. Handout via REUTERS

The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters. The reporters, Burmese citizens Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine.

Then, on Jan. 10, the military issued a statement that confirmed portions of what Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were preparing to report, acknowledging that 10 Rohingya men were massacred in the village. It confirmed that Buddhist villagers attacked some of the men with swords and soldiers shot the others dead.

The statement coincided with an application to the court by prosecutors to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, which dates back to the time of colonial British rule. The charges carry a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

But the military’s version of events is contradicted in important respects by accounts given to Reuters by Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim witnesses. The military said the 10 men belonged to a group of 200 “terrorists” that attacked security forces. Soldiers decided to kill the men, the army said, because intense fighting in the area made it impossible to transfer them to police custody. The army said it would take action against those involved.

Buddhist villagers interviewed for this article reported no attack by a large number of insurgents on security forces in Inn Din. And Rohingya witnesses told Reuters that soldiers plucked the 10 from among hundreds of men, women and children who had sought safety on a nearby beach.

Scores of interviews with Rakhine Buddhist villagers, soldiers, paramilitary police, Rohingya Muslims and local administrators further revealed:

– The military and paramilitary police organized Buddhist residents of Inn Din and at least two other villages to torch Rohingya homes, more than a dozen Buddhist villagers said. Eleven Buddhist villagers said Buddhists committed acts of violence, including killings. The government and army have repeatedly blamed Rohingya insurgents for burning villages and homes.

– An order to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets was passed down the command chain from the military, said three paramilitary police officers speaking on condition of anonymity and a fourth police officer at an intelligence unit in the regional capital Sittwe. Security forces wore civilian clothes to avoid detection during raids, one of the paramilitary police officers said.

– Some members of the paramilitary police looted Rohingya property, including cows and motorcycles, in order to sell it, according to village administrator Maung Thein Chay and one of the paramilitary police officers.

– Operations in Inn Din were led by the army’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, supported by the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion, according to four police officers, all of them members of the battalion.

POTENTIAL CRIMINAL CASES

Michael G. Karnavas, a U.S. lawyer based in The Hague who has worked on cases at international criminal tribunals, said evidence that the military had organized Buddhist civilians to commit violence against Rohingya “would be the closest thing to a smoking gun in establishing not just intent, but even specific genocidal intent, since the attacks seem designed to destroy the Rohingya or at least a significant part of them.”

Evidence of the execution of men in government custody also could be used to build a case of crimes against humanity against military commanders, Karnavas said, if it could be shown that it was part of a “widespread or systematic” campaign targeting the Rohingya population.

Kevin Jon Heller, a University of London law professor who served as a legal associate for convicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, said an order to clear villages by military command was “unequivocally the crime against humanity of forcible transfer.”

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018 REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In December, the United States imposed sanctions on the army officer who had been in charge of Western Command troops in Rakhine, Major General Maung Maung Soe. So far, however, Myanmar has not faced international sanctions over the violence.

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has disappointed many former supporters in the West by not speaking out against the army’s actions. They had hoped the election of her National League for Democracy party in 2015 would bring democratic reform and an opening of the country. Instead, critics say, Suu Kyi is in thrall to the generals who freed her from house arrest in 2010.

Asked about the evidence Reuters has uncovered about the massacre, government spokesman Zaw Htay said, “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.” If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said. “And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to our existing law.”

When told that paramilitary police officers had said they received orders to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets, he replied, “We have to verify. We have to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs and Myanmar police forces.” Asked about the allegations of looting by paramilitary police officers, he said the police would investigate.

He expressed surprise when told that Buddhist villagers had confessed to burning Rohingya homes, then added, “We recognize that many, many different allegations are there, but we need to verify who did it. It is very difficult in the current situation.”

Zaw Htay defended the military operation in Rakhine. “The international community needs to understand who did the first terrorist attacks. If that kind of terrorist attack took place in European countries, in the United States, in London, New York, Washington, what would the media say?”

NEIGHBOR TURNS ON NEIGHBOR

Inn Din lies between the Mayu mountain range and the Bay of Bengal, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe. The settlement is made up of a scattering of hamlets around a school, clinic and Buddhist monastery. Buddhist homes cluster in the northern part of the village. For many years there had been tensions between the Buddhists and their Muslim neighbors, who accounted for almost 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 people in the village. But the two communities had managed to co-exist, fishing the coastal waters and cultivating rice in the paddies.

In October 2016, Rohingya militants attacked three police posts in northern Rakhine – the beginning of a new insurgency. After the attacks, Rohingya in Inn Din said many Buddhists stopped hiring them as farmhands and home help. The Buddhists said the Rohingya stopped showing up for work.

On Aug. 25 last year, the rebels struck again, hitting 30 police posts and an army base. The closest attack was just 4 km to the north. In Inn Din, several hundred fearful Buddhists took refuge in the monastery in the center of the village, more than a dozen of their number said. Inn Din’s Buddhist night watchman San Thein, 36, said Buddhist villagers feared being “swallowed up” by their Muslim neighbors. A Buddhist elder said all Rohingya, “including children,” were part of the insurgency and therefore “terrorists.”

On Aug. 27, about 80 troops from Myanmar’s 33rd Light Infantry Division arrived in Inn Din, nine Buddhist villagers said. Two paramilitary police officers and Soe Chay, the retired soldier, said the troops belonged to the 11th infantry regiment of this division. The army officer in charge told villagers they must cook for the soldiers and act as lookouts at night, Soe Chay said. The officer promised his troops would protect Buddhist villagers from their Rohingya neighbors. Five Buddhist villagers said the officer told them they could volunteer to join security operations. Young volunteers would need their parents’ permission to join the troops, however.

The army found willing participants among Inn Din’s Buddhist “security group,” nine members of the organization and two other villagers said. This informal militia was formed after violence broke out in 2012 between Rakhine’s Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, sparked by reports of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. Myanmar media reported at the time that the three were sentenced to death by a district court.

Inn Din’s security group built watch huts around the Buddhist part of the village, and its members took turns to stand guard. Its ranks included Buddhist firefighters, school teachers, students and unemployed young men. They were useful to the military because they knew the local geography, said Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay.

Most of the group’s 80 to 100 men armed themselves with machetes and sticks. They also had a handful of guns, according to one member. Some wore green fatigue-style clothing they called “militia suits.”

ORGANIZING THE ARSON ATTACKS

In the days that followed the 33rd Light Infantry’s arrival, soldiers, police and Buddhist villagers burned most of the homes of Inn Din’s Rohingya Muslims, a dozen Buddhist residents said.

Two of the paramilitary police officers, both members of the 8th Security Police Battalion, said their battalion raided Rohingya hamlets with soldiers from the newly arrived 33rd Light Infantry. One of the police officers said he received verbal orders from his commander to “go and clear” areas where Rohingya lived, which he took to mean to burn them.

The second police officer described taking part in several raids on villages north of Inn Din. The raids involved at least 20 soldiers and between five and seven police, he said. A military captain or major led the soldiers, while a police captain oversaw the police team. The purpose of the raids was to deter the Rohingya from returning.

“If they have a place to live, if they have food to eat, they can carry out more attacks,” he said. “That’s why we burned their houses, mainly for security reasons.”

Soldiers and paramilitary police wore civilian shirts and shorts to blend in with the villagers, according to the second police officer and Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay. If the media identified the involvement of security personnel, the police officer explained, “we would have very big problems.”

A police spokesman, Colonel Myo Thu Soe, said he knew of no instances of security forces torching villages or wearing civilian clothing. Nor was there any order to “go and clear” or “set fire” to villages. “This is very much impossible,” he told Reuters. “If there are things like that, it should be reported officially, and it has to be investigated officially.”

“As you’ve told me about these matters now, we will scrutinize and check back,” he added. “What I want to say for now is that as for the security forces, there are orders and instructions and step-by-step management, and they have to follow them. So, I don’t think these things happened.”

The army did not respond to a request for comment.

A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”

The night watchman San Thein, a leading member of the village security group, said troops first swept through the Muslim hamlets. Then, he said, the military sent in Buddhist villagers to burn the houses.

“We got the kerosene for free from the village market after the kalars ran away,” he said, using a Burmese slur for people from South Asia.

A Rakhine Buddhist youth said he thought he heard the sound of a child inside one Rohingya home that was burned. A second villager said he participated in burning a Rohingya home that was occupied.

“I STARTED HACKING HIM WITH A SWORD”

Soe Chay, the retired soldier who was to dig the grave for the 10 Rohingya men, said he participated in one killing. He told Reuters that troops discovered three Rohingya men and a woman hiding beside a haystack in Inn Din on Aug. 28. One of the men had a smartphone that could be used to take incriminating pictures.

The soldiers told Soe Chay to “do whatever you want to them,” he said. They pointed out the man with the phone and told him to stand up. “I started hacking him with a sword, and a soldier shot him when he fell down.”

Similar violence was playing out across a large part of northern Rakhine, dozens of Buddhist and Rohingya residents said.

Data from the U.N. Operational Satellite Applications Programme shows scores of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state burned in an area stretching 110 km. New York-based Human Rights Watch says more than 350 villages were torched over the three months from Aug. 25, according to an analysis of satellite imagery.

In the village of Laungdon, some 65 km north of Inn Din, Thar Nge, 38, said he was asked by police and local officials to join a Buddhist security group. “The army invited us to burn the kalar village at Hpaw Ti Kaung,” he said, adding that four villagers and nearly 20 soldiers and police were involved in the operation. “Police shot inside the village so all the villagers fled and then we set fire to it. Their village was burned because police believed the villagers supported Rohingya militants – that’s why they cleaned it with fire.”

A Buddhist student from Ta Man Tha village, 15 km north of Laungdon, said he too participated in the burning of Rohingya homes. An army officer sought 30 volunteers to burn “kalar” villages, said the student. Nearly 50 volunteered and gathered fuel from motorbikes and from a market.

“They separated us into several groups. We were not allowed to enter the village directly. We had to surround it and approach the village that way. The army would shoot gunfire ahead of us and then the army asked us to enter,” he said.

After the Rohingya had fled Inn Din, Buddhist villagers took their property, including chickens and goats, Buddhist residents told Reuters. But the most valuable goods, mostly motorcycles and cattle, were collected by members of the 8th Security Police Battalion and sold, said the first police officer and Inn Din village administrator Maung Thein Chay. Maung Thein Chay said the commander of the 8th Battalion, Thant Zin Oo, struck a deal with Buddhist businessmen from other parts of Rakhine state and sold them cattle. The police officer said he had stolen four cows from Rohingya villagers, only for Thant Zin Oo to snatch them away.

Reached by phone, Thant Zin Oo did not comment. Colonel Myo Thu Soe, the police spokesman, said the police would investigate the allegations of looting.

THE VICTIMS ARE CHOSEN

By Sept. 1, several hundred Rohingya from Inn Din were sheltering at a makeshift camp on a nearby beach. They erected tarpaulin shelters to shield themselves from heavy rain.

Among this group were the 10 Rohingya men who would be killed the next morning. Reuters has identified all of the 10 by speaking to witnesses among Inn Din’s Buddhist community and Rohingya relatives and witnesses tracked down in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Five of the men, Dil Mohammed, 35, Nur Mohammed, 29, Shoket Ullah, 35, Habizu, 40, and Shaker Ahmed, 45, were fishermen or fish sellers. The wealthiest of the group, Abul Hashim, 25, ran a store selling nets and machine parts to fishermen and farmers. Abdul Majid, a 45-year-old father of eight, ran a small shop selling areca nut wrapped in betel leaves, commonly chewed like tobacco. Abulu, 17, and Rashid Ahmed, 18, were high school students. Abdul Malik, 30, was an Islamic teacher.

According to the statement released by the army on Jan. 10, security forces had gone to a coastal area where they “were attacked by about 200 Bengalis with sticks and swords.” The statement said that “as the security forces opened fire into the sky, the Bengalis dispersed and ran away. Ten of them were arrested.”

Three Buddhist and more than a dozen Rohingya witnesses contradict this version of events. Their accounts differ from one another in some details. The Buddhists spoke of a confrontation between a small group of Rohingya men and some soldiers near the beach. But there is unanimity on a crucial point: None said the military had come under a large-scale attack in Inn Din.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay referred Reuters to the army’s statement of Jan. 10 and declined to elaborate further. The army did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rohingya witnesses, who were on or near the beach, said Islamic teacher Abdul Malik had gone back to his hamlet with his sons to collect food and bamboo for shelter. When he returned, a group of at least seven soldiers and armed Buddhist villagers were following him, these witnesses said. Abdul Malik walked towards the watching Rohingya Muslims unsteadily, with blood dripping from his head. Some witnesses said they had seen one of the armed men strike the back of Abdul Malik’s head with a knife.

Then the military beckoned with their guns to the crowd of roughly 300 Rohingya to assemble in the paddies, these witnesses said. The soldiers and the Rohingya, hailing from different parts of Myanmar, spoke different languages. Educated villagers translated for their fellow Rohingya.

“I could not hear much, but they pointed toward my husband and some other men to get up and come forward,” said Rehana Khatun, 22, the wife of Nur Mohammed, one of the 10 who were later slain. “We heard they wanted the men for a meeting. The military asked the rest of us to return to the beach.”

FRESH CLOTHES AND A LAST MEAL

Soldiers held and questioned the 10 men in a building at Inn Din’s school for a night, the military said. Rashid Ahmed and Abulu had studied there alongside Rakhine Buddhist students until the attacks by Rohingya rebels in October 2016. Schools were shut temporarily, disrupting the pair’s final year.

“I just remember him sitting there and studying, and it was always amazing to me because I am not educated,” said Rashid Ahmed’s father, farmer Abdu Shakur, 50. “I would look at him reading. He would be the first one in the family to be educated.”

A photograph, taken on the evening the men were detained, shows the two Rohingya students and the eight older men kneeling on a path beside the village clinic, most of them shirtless. They were stripped when first detained, a dozen Rohingya witnesses said. It isn’t clear why. That evening, Buddhist villagers said, the men were “treated” to a last meal of beef. They were provided with fresh clothing.

On Sept. 2, the men were taken to scrubland north of the village, near a graveyard for Buddhist residents, six Buddhist villagers said. The spot is backed by a hill crested with trees. There, on their knees, the 10 were photographed again and questioned by security personnel about the disappearance of a local Buddhist farmer named Maung Ni, according to a Rakhine elder who said he witnessed the interrogation.

Reuters was not able to establish what happened to Maung Ni. According to Buddhist neighbors, the farmer went missing after leaving home early on Aug. 25 to tend his cattle. Several Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers told Reuters they believed he had been killed, but they knew of no evidence connecting any of the 10 men to his disappearance. The army said in its Jan. 10 statement that “Bengali terrorists” had killed Maung Ni, but did not identify the perpetrators.

Two of the men pictured behind the Rohingya prisoners in the photograph taken on the morning of Sept. 2 belong to the 8th Security Police Battalion. Reuters confirmed the identities of the two men from their Facebook pages and by visiting them in person.

One of the two officers, Aung Min, a police recruit from Yangon, stands directly behind the captives. He looks at the camera as he holds a weapon. The other officer, police Captain Moe Yan Naing, is the figure on the top right. He walks with his rifle over his shoulder.

The day after the two Reuters reporters were arrested in December, Myanmar’s government also announced that Moe Yan Naing had been arrested and was being investigated under the 1923 Official Secrets Act.

Aung Min, who is not facing legal action, declined to speak to Reuters.

VENGEANCE FOR A MISSING FARMER

Three Buddhist youths said they watched from a hut as the 10 Rohingya captives were led up a hill by soldiers towards the site of their deaths.

One of the gravediggers, retired soldier Soe Chay, said Maung Ni’s sons were invited by the army officer in charge of the squad to strike the first blows.

The first son beheaded the Islamic teacher, Abdul Malik, according to Soe Chay. The second son hacked another of the men in the neck.

“After the brothers sliced them both with swords, the squad fired with guns. Two to three shots to one person,” said Soe Chay. A second gravedigger, who declined to be identified, confirmed that soldiers had shot some of the men.

In its Jan. 10 statement, the military said the two brothers and a third villager had “cut the Bengali terrorists” with swords and then, in the chaos, four members of the security forces had shot the captives. “Action will be taken against the villagers who participated in the case and the members of security forces who broke the Rules of Engagement under the law,” the statement said. It didn’t spell out those rules.

Tun Aye, one of the sons of Maung Ni, has been detained on murder charges, his lawyer said on Jan. 13. Contacted by Reuters on Feb. 8, the lawyer declined to comment further. Reuters was unable to reach the other brother.

In October, Inn Din locals pointed two Reuters reporters towards an area of brush behind the hill where they said the killings took place. The reporters discovered a newly cut trail leading to soft, recently disturbed earth littered with bones. Some of the bones were entangled with scraps of clothing and string that appeared to match the cord that is seen binding the captives’ wrists in the photographs. The immediate area was marked by the smell of death.

Reuters showed photographs of the site to three forensic experts: Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights; Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations; and Luis Fondebrider, president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who investigated the graves of those killed under Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. All observed human remains, including the thoracic part of a spinal column, ribs, scapula, femur and tibia. Pounder said he couldn’t rule out the presence of animal bones as well.

The Rakhine Buddhist elder provided Reuters reporters with a photograph which shows the aftermath of the execution. In it, the 10 Rohingya men are wearing the same clothing as in the previous photo and are tied to each other with the same yellow cord, piled into a small hole in the earth, blood pooling around them. Abdul Malik, the Islamic teacher, appears to have been beheaded. Abulu, the student, has a gaping wound in his neck. Both injuries appear consistent with Soe Chay’s account.

Forensic pathologist Fondebrider reviewed this picture. He said injuries visible on two of the bodies were consistent with “the action of a machete or something sharp that was applied on the throat.”

Some family members did not know for sure that the men had been killed until Reuters returned to their shelters in Bangladesh in January.

“I can’t explain what I feel inside. My husband is dead,” said Rehana Khatun, wife of Nur Mohammed. “My husband is gone forever. I don’t want anything else, but I want justice for his death.”

In Inn Din, the Buddhist elder explained why he chose to share evidence of the killings with Reuters. “I want to be transparent on this case. I don’t want it to happen like that in future.”

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; editing by Janet McBride, Martin Howell and Alex Richardson.)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

Senior Yemen Qaeda leader calls for knife and car attacks on Jews

Defying warnings of new conflict, Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital

DUBAI (Reuters) – A senior leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch has called for knife and car attacks on Jews in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the U.S. SITE monitoring group said on Tuesday.

Citing a video recording by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Malahem media foundation, SITE said that Khaled Batarfi, believed to be the number two man in AQAP after Qassim al-Raymi, also warned that no Muslim had the right to cede any part of Jerusalem.

“The Muslims inside the occupied land must kill every Jew, by running him over, or stabbing him, or by using against him any weapon, or by burning their homes,” Batarfi said in the 18-minute-long recording entitled “Our duty towards our Jerusalem”, according to SITE.

“Every Muslim must know that the Americans and the disbeliever West, and on top of them Britain and France, are the original reason behind the existence of the Jews in Palestine.”

Trump enraged Muslims last month when he announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he intends to transfer the U.S. embassy there.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on a regional visit, said on Monday that the U.S. Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv before the end of 2019.

Batarfi was one of some 150 jailed AQAP members who were freed when the militant group, regarded by the United States as one of the deadliest branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, captured the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in 2015, where he was held.

Yemeni forces, baked by a Saudi-led coalition have since recaptured Mukalla and driven AQAP out, but Batarfi, who has since assumed a senior position in the group, remains at large.

AQAP has plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. AQAP also has boasted of the world’s most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and the Pentagon estimates it has between about 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.

Batarfi said Muslims in Western countries, including the United States, were obliged to target the interests of Jews and the Americans.

“They must be eager to prepare themselves as much as possible, and to carry out jihadi operations against them,” he added, according to SITE.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City with its holy sites, as the capital of their own future state. Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967 in a move not internationally recognized, regards all of the city as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi)

More Rohingya flee Myanmar as Bangladesh prepares to start repatriation

Rohingya refugees line up for daily essentials distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018.

By Zeba Siddiqui

TEKNAF, Bangladesh (Reuters) – More than 100 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Wednesday, with the latest refugees saying army operations are continuing in troubled Rakhine State, raising doubts about plans to send back 655,500 who had already fled.

Scores more were waiting to cross the Naf river that forms the border, even as Dhaka prepares to start repatriating next week some of the Rohingya who have escaped from what the Myanmar military calls counter-insurgency operations since late August.

Bangladesh and Myanmar said on Tuesday they had agreed to complete the return of the refugees within two years, with the process due to begin on Jan. 23.

The United Nations has described the Myanmar military operations in the northern part of Rakhine, launched in response to attacks by militants on police and soldiers on Aug. 25, as a classic case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

One boat crossed the Naf river carrying 53 people early Wednesday, and another boat arrived from the Bay of Bengal with 60 people Thursday morning, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence official in Dhaka, and aid officials at the sprawling Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar.

Those waiting on the Myanmar side to cross were stuck there because they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen, the recent arrivals said. They said they paid between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat ($20-$30) a person for the night-time trips on rickety boats to Teknaf, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.

Most of the recent arrivals said they came from Sein Yin Pyin village in Buthidaung district, and escaped because they feared they would be picked up by the military if they left their homes to go to work.

LOOTING IN THE FOREST

Mohammad Ismail, 48, and four others said two weeks ago they saw a dead body hanging by a rope in a forest where Ismail used to collect wood to sell at the market.

“After this I never went to the forest again, and all my money was gone, so my family had nothing to eat for three days,” said Ismail.

Myanmar Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesman for the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said “there’s no clearance operation going on in the villages”. But, he added, “security forces are still trying to take control of the area” in northern Rakhine. He declined to elaborate.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.

Myanmar’s military said in October that it was withdrawing soldiers from western Rakhine state.

Villagers from Sein Yin Pyin said a group of soldiers caught around 200 of them sleeping in the forest on their journey to Bangladesh and looted them of their belongings, including rice, phones, solar chargers and money.

They were stopped again later that day at a beach in Dongkhali village, where around 20 soldiers recorded video of them on their smartphones, while questioning the group and urging them to stay.

“Why are you leaving? You are safe here, don’t go. We will give you a car, go back to your village. If you leave, you will not be able to come back again,” Arif Ullah, 20, said the soldiers told the group.

More than two dozen refugees that Reuters interviewed recounted a similar version of events.

“First their men looted us, and then they stopped us again to ask why we were leaving,” said Umme Habiba, 15. “We left because we were scared.”

Fayazur Rahman, a 33-year-old labourer from southern Buthidaung, said 12 soldiers barged into his home two weeks ago and sexually assaulted his 18-year-old sister. “Day by day, things were getting worse,” he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts the new arrivals gave. Myanmar has denied most allegations of abuses leveled against its security forces during the operations in Rakhine.

REPATRIATION START DATE?

In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told Reuters that the deadline of next Tuesday for starting the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar “may not be possible”.

“The return has to be voluntary, safe and dignified,” said the official, who was part of a 14-member team at talks with Myanmar this week about the repatriation.

He said Myanmar would take back 1,500 Rohingya a week, “although our demand was 15,000 per week”, adding the number could be ramped up over the next few months.

They would sheltered in a temporary transit camp in Myanmar before being moved to “houses as per their choices”.

“They (Myanmar) will create all kind of provisions including for their livelihood. We want to make sure there’s a sustainable solution to the crisis,” the official said.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

Nigeria holds mass burial for 73 people killed in communal violence

People cry as a truck carries the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAKURDI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seventy-three people killed since the start of the year in communal violence between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers were buried in Nigeria on Thursday highlighting a bloody conflict over fertile land that is taking on political significance.

The mass burial took place in Makurdi, in the central state of Benue, where thousands of mourners took to the streets to watch the funeral procession. The killings occurred in remote parts of Benue, the state worst hit by clashes that have killed at least 83 people since Dec. 31.

Thousands of herdsmen mainly from the Fulani ethnic group have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.

The spike in violence has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, accusing him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.

Feelings ran high on the streets of Makurdi where thousands of people, many clad in black, waved wreaths as coffins on lorries passed by carrying the dead who were mainly from rural communities of Benue.

Some mourners held banners featuring pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us”.

“Something that is disturbing that I have heard about is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is brooking such kind of evil acts,” said the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, this week, adding that such violence predated Buhari’s administration.

The herdsmen are mostly Muslim and the settled farmers are often Christian.

Despite the recent outbreaks of violence, Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.

Clashes in the last few months have occurred in parts of the northwest and southeast, but the middle belt – where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict – has been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.

Peter Zion,31, a member of a state government task force set up to defend farms, was recuperating in hospital after being shot and cut across his face and torso by herdsmen wielding guns and cutlasses on Jan. 2 in the state’s Guma district.

“They killed some of my colleagues and the neighbors that were there all died,” said the father-of-two whose face had been cut and whose hands and legs were heavily bandaged. He described attackers going door-to-door shooting people.

The executive secretary of the Benue emergency agency, Emmanuel Shior, on Thursday said around 80,000 people who had fled herdsmen attacks were living in four camps located across the state.

Herdsmen traditionally roam freely across West Africa, entering and leaving Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger and Cameroon. They have also accused Nigerian farmers of violent attacks in the last few years.

Improving security was a key promise in Buhari’s successful 2015 presidential election campaign. The 75-year-old has not yet said whether he will seek re-election next year.

“Security of life and property continues to be top of our agenda, in line with our election pledge and promises,” said Buhari in a tweet on Thursday, which linked to a list of ways in which the government has responded to the killings.

He bolstered the police presence in Benue on Monday and ordered the head of police to relocate to the state.

The violence is likely to further stretch security forces already contending with Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast and the threat of attacks on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta of the type that in 2016 helped to push Africa’s largest economy into recession.

(Additional reoporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament passed an amendment on Tuesday that would make it harder for it to cede control over parts of Jerusalem in any peace deal with the Palestinians, who condemned the move as undermining any chance to revive talks on statehood.

The legislation, sponsored by the far-right Jewish Home coalition party, raises to 80 from 61 the number of votes required in the 120-seat Knesset to approve any proposal to hand over part of the city to “a foreign party”.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump angered the Palestinians, Middle East leaders and world powers by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, Jerusalem’s status is one of the most sensitive issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s Dec. 6 decision sparked regional protests and prompted the Palestinians to rule out Washington as a peace broker in any future talks.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem and the passage of the amendment as “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people”.

“The vote clearly shows that the Israeli side has officially declared an end to the so-called political process,” Abu Rdainah said, referring to U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood that collapsed in 2014.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians seek to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

The amendment, long in the legislative pipeline, was passed with 64 lawmakers voting in favor and 52 against.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog said Jewish Home was leading Israel “toward a terrible disaster”. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, said the vote showed that Israel would keep control of all of Jerusalem forever.

“There will be no more political skulduggery that will allow our capital to be torn apart,” Bennett said on Twitter.

A bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led by the president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has so far shown no progress.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party unanimously urged legislators in a non-binding resolution to effectively annex Israeli settlements built in the West Bank.

Political commentators said Likud’s decision might bolster right-wing support for Netanyahu, who could seek a public mandate in an early election while he awaits possible criminal indictments against him on corruption suspicions. He denies wrongdoing.

Parliamentary elections are not due until November 2019 but the police investigations in two cases of alleged corruption against Netanyahu and tensions among coalition partners in his government could hasten a poll.

Some commentators, pointing to an existing law that already sets a similar high threshold for handing over territory in a land-for-peace deal, have said Jewish Home was essentially competing with Likud for support among the right-wing base.

(This version of the story refiles to remove extraneous word in paragraph 14.)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)

India aims for law that could jail Muslim men who instantly divorce wives

Television journalists report from the premises of India's Parliament in New Delhi, India, February 13, 2014.

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s lower house of parliament passed a bill on Thursday aimed at prosecuting Muslim men who divorce their wives through the “triple talaq”, or instant divorce.

The bill now moves to the upper house of parliament, where it is likely to be approved.

In August, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional a law which allows Muslim men to divorce their wives simply by uttering the word “talaq”, which means divorce in Arabic, three times.

Muslim women had petitioned the court, arguing the practice of husbands divorcing them through triple talaq not only violated their rights but left many women destitute.

“Only a law can explicitly ban triple talaq, we have to enforce legal procedures to provide for allowances and protect custody of children,” said Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The bill would make the practice a non-bailable offense with a possible three-year jail term.

Muslims are the biggest religious minority in Hindu-majority India and relations between the communities have sometimes been strained since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a 2014 election.

India is one of the few countries where the practice of instant divorce has survived in law, and while some Muslim groups have said it is wrong, they believe it should be reviewed by the community itself.

Members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board said the government had no right to outlaw instant triple talaq, as it was directly interfering with Muslim personal law.

India’s civil codes are designed to protect the independence of religious communities. Unlike most Hindu civil laws, which have been codified and reformed, Muslim personal laws have largely been left untouched.

Zakia Soman, founder of a Muslim women’s group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, said that once triple talaq became a legal offense, victims could approach the police and the legal system to initiate action against offenders.

(Reporting by Nigam Prusty, Rupam Jain; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Malini Menon, Robert Birsel and Andrew Bolton)

Indonesian police warn Islamists against raids in search of Santa hats

Islamic Defenders Front

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police appealed on Thursday for tolerance and respect for other people’s religious celebrations after an Islamist group threatened to raid businesses to check for Muslims being forced to wear Santa Claus hats or other Christmas garb.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) said this week it would conduct “sweeping operations” in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and that forcing Muslims to wear Christmas attire was a violation of their human rights.

Indonesia is home to several religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who follow traditional beliefs.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in an officially secular state though tension between followers of different faiths can flare.

“There can be no sweeping operations … members of the public should respect other religions that are carrying out celebrations,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told police during a security exercise in the capital, Jakarta.

The FPI said it aimed to enforce a fatwa, or decree, issued by Indonesia’s Islamic Clerical Council in 2016 prohibiting business owners from forcing employees to wear Christmas clothing.

“We will raid businesses in anticipation of them being stubborn about this and we will be accompanied by police,” said Novel Bakmukmin, head of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.

Employers forcing staff to wear Christmas clothes were violating their rights.

“Businesses should be aware that there should be no forcing,” he said.

The Islamic Clerical Council’s decrees are not legally binding but serve as guidelines for Indonesian Muslims.

Christmas is widely celebrated across Indonesia and holiday decorations are ubiquitous, especially at shops, restaurants and malls where many enthusiastic workers – even Muslims – don Santa hats or elf costumes.

The FPI built its reputation with raids on restaurants and bars serving alcohol during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In recent years, it has turned its attention to Christian celebrations.

The group has also said it wants the Jakarta city government to stop sponsoring New Year celebrations, which attract many thousands of people.

About 90,000 police officers will be on duty cross the country during the end-of-year holidays, in an operation largely aimed at preventing militant attacks.

Attacks on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve in 2000, killed nearly 20 people. Ever since, authorities have stepped up security at churches and tourist spots for the holiday.

(Reporting by Djohan Widjaya and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Nazareth Christmas celebrations will be held as normal

Israeli Arabs perform a nativity scene for tourists in the northern town of Nazareth December 22, 2008.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Nazareth, the Israeli Arab city where Jesus is thought to have been raised, will celebrate Christmas as usual, its mayor said, denying the festivities would be curtailed in protest at the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On Wednesday, a city spokesman said there would be some cuts to the celebrations to protest against President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem that angered Palestinians as well as U.S. allies in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Mayor Ali Salam told Reuters on Saturday that three singers who had been due to perform would not appear. He gave no reason for their absence, but said that the celebrations would proceed as normal.

“I don’t know why people thought that there would be cuts to the celebrations. Everything, except for three singers who will not be coming, will be held as normal. We have already welcomed 60,000 people to the city today,” Salam said.

Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel with a population of 76,000 Muslims and Christians, is one of the Holy Land’s focal points of Christmas festivities which begin officially on Saturday evening.

Nazareth’s imposing Basilica of the Annunciation is built on a site that many Christian faithful believe was the childhood home of Jesus’ mother, Mary.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

‘We are one’: Palestinian Christians and Muslims unite against Trump’s Jerusalem call

'We are one': Palestinian Christians and Muslims unite against Trump's Jerusalem call

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Less than an hour after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians protested by turning off the lights on the Christmas tree outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

It was a timely reminder that while headlines focused on Islamist calls for uprisings and Trump’s references to Jewish historical ties, the president’s words also stirred deep feelings among the Palestinians’ small Christian community.

Coming out of the Sunday service in his Assyrian Catholic church in Jerusalem, Fredrick Hazo accused Trump of “dragging all the world into trouble”, and called on the U.S. leader to reverse his decision.

“We are united – Christians, Muslims, we are one,” said the 59-year-old Palestinian musician, standing in an alley in the heart of the Old City, surrounded by shops selling religious trinkets.

He was frustrated by the politics, but confident the delicate balance the three faiths kept in the holy city would prevail. “In this sacred place, God is protecting us all. We are guarded by his angels in Jerusalem,” Hazo added.

Christians make up around just one percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – though they punch above their weight in local and national politics.

Back in July, Hazo protested alongside Muslims against Israel’s installation of security scanners at the nearby al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – after two Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli police officers at the site.

It removed the metal detectors after days of bloody clashes, scenes that have not been repeated in the city since Trump’s declaration.

UNITED IN PRAYER

The appeals to religious unity inside Jerusalem’s walls stand in contrast to the more divided voices outside.

In the hours running up to Trump’s statement, Pope Francis called for the status quo in the city to be respected. The Episcopal Church of the United States said Trump’s announcement “could have profound ramifications on the peace process and the future of a two-state solution”.

But Trump’s decision found strong backing from another corner of the Christian community – many among his own country’s politically powerful evangelicals who see God’s hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland.

Trump convened a circle of evangelical advisers during his presidential bid, and he was the overwhelming favorite of white evangelical voters in last year’s U.S. election.

“We are all bible-believers and we believe that this is the bible-land and that Jerusalem is the ancient capital of Israel back to the days of King David,” said Dallas-based Mike Evans, part of an evangelical group that met Trump on Monday.

“So for our president to stand up and declare it makes us extremely proud and honored.”

For Palestinian supermarket cashier Mohammed al-Hawa, however, Trump’s words and the logic behind them ignored the more complex reality on the ground.

People of all faith in Jerusalem were united in prayer, the 33-year-old said, even if they were divided over politics.

“Christians, Jews and Muslims live in this city together. There is no problem between them. Only the politics. The governments want to make wars,” he said.

“This is my city – my blood, my life,” added a 70-year-old Palestinian, walking through the pilgrim-packed courtyard of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’s tomb.

The church is packed into a small parcel of land that also holds the al-Aqsa compound and Judaism’s Western Wall

“I can go to the church, to anywhere in Jerusalem, not Trump nor Netanyahu can stop me,” added the man who identified himself only as a “Jerusalemite”.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh in Bethelem; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)