Putin savors record win, securing six more years at Russia’s helm

Russian President and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at his election headquarters in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. Sergei Chirkov/POOL via Reuters

By Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin basked in his biggest ever election victory on Monday, extending his rule over the world’s largest country for another six years at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.

Putin’s victory will take his political dominance of Russia to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, making him the longest ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Putin, who will be 71 at the end of his term, has promised to beef up Russia’s defenses against the West and raise living standards.

In an outcome that was never in doubt, the Central Election Commission, with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted, announced that Putin, who has run Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, had won 76.68 percent of the vote.

With more than 56 million votes, it was Putin’s biggest ever win and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader.

In a late-night victory speech near Red Square, Putin told a cheering crowd the win was a vote of confidence in what he had achieved in tough conditions.

“It’s very important to maintain this unity,” said Putin, before leading the crowd in repeated chants of “Russia! Russia!”

Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 percent, he faced no credible threat from a field of seven challengers.

His nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8 percent while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6 percent. His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.

Critics alleged that officials had compelled people to come to the polls to ensure that boredom with the one-sided contest did not lead to low participation.

“NO SERIOUS COMPLAINTS”

Near-final figures put turnout at 67.47 percent, just shy of the 70 percent the Kremlin was reported to have been aiming for before the vote.

The Central Election Commission said on Monday morning that it had not registered any serious complaints of violations. Putin loyalists said the result was a vindication of his tough stance toward the West.

“I think that in the United States and Britain they’ve understood they cannot influence our elections,” Igor Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament, said on state television.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down suggestions on Monday that tensions with the West had boosted turnout, saying the result showed that people were united behind Putin’s plans to develop Russia.

He said Putin would spend the day fielding calls of congratulation, meeting supporters, and holding talks with the losing candidates.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations to Putin, but Heiko Maas, Germany’s new foreign minister, questioned whether there had been fair political competition.

Opposition leader Navalny is expected to call for protests demanding a re-run of an election that he says was neither free nor fair. International observers were due to give their verdict later on Monday.

The longer-term question is whether Putin will now soften his anti-Western rhetoric.

His bellicose language reached a crescendo in a state-of-the-nation speech before the election when he unveiled new nuclear weapons, saying they could strike almost any point in the world..

AT ODDS WITH THE WEST

Russia is currently at odds with the West over Syria, Ukraine; allegations of cyber attacks and meddling in foreign elections; and the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. As a result, relations with the West have hit a post-Cold-War low.

Britain and Russia are locked in a diplomatic dispute over the poisoning, and Washington is eyeing new sanctions on Moscow over allegations that it interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which Russia denies.

Putin said late on Sunday it was nonsense to think that Russia would have poisoned the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Britain, and said Moscow was ready to cooperate with London.

How long Putin wants to stay in power is uncertain.

The constitution limits the president to two successive terms, obliging him to step down at the end of his new mandate.

Asked after his re-election if he would run for yet another term in the future, Putin laughed off the idea.

“Let’s count. What, do you think I will sit (in power) until I’m 100 years old?” he said, calling the question “funny”.

Although Putin has six years to consider a possible successor, uncertainty about his future is a potential source of instability in a fractious ruling elite that only he can keep in check.

“The longer he stays in power, the harder it will be to exit,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “How can he abandon such a complicated system, which is essentially his personal project?”

(Restores dropped ‘it’ in paragraph 11, cuts extraneous word ‘calls’ in paragraph 14.)

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk and Maria Kiselyova, Reuters reporters in Russia, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff and Kevin Liffey)

Cyclone wreaks havoc in Tonga’s capital, parliament flattened, homes wrecked

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Twitter Virginie Dourlet/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By John Mair

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tonga’s neighbors scrambled to deliver emergency relief on Tuesday after Cyclone Gita tore across the Pacific island nation in the middle of the night, flattening the parliament, tearing roofs off homes and causing widespread flooding.

There were no confirmed reports of deaths from the Category 4 storm that bought winds of around 200 km (125 miles) per hour, but there were a lot of injured people, some seriously, said Graham Kenna, an Australian government adviser at Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office.

Photos posted on social media showed a wrecked Parliament House building in the capital, as well as extensive flooding and downed power lines. Access to areas outside the capital were hindered by the storm damage and debris.

“The full extent of damage caused by Cyclone Gita is still being assessed but there is an immediate need for assistance on the ground,” NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement.

“About 5,700 people sought shelter in evacuation centres overnight, and it is expected these numbers will increase substantially tonight.”

New Zealand is donating NZ$750,000 ($545,000) in aid, and a NZ Air Force Hercules aircraft was due to fly emergency relief supplies into Tonga on Tuesday.

Australia is donating A$350,000 ($275,000) worth of emergency shelter, kitchen and hygiene kits, while the country’s foreign minister said the Australian Defence Force personnel would assist with clean-up efforts.

The cyclone was heading towards Fiji’s southern islands on Tuesday, with some forecasts reporting it intensifying towards a Category 5 storm. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned residents to “heed warnings and prepare”, although the storm is expected to bypass heavily populated areas.

Gita had pummeled Samoa and American Samoa, about 900 km (560 miles) to the northeast, over the weekend, flooding the Samoan capital, Apia.

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

POWER DOWN

Tonga’s clean-up began in the early hours of Tuesday as the tail of the cyclone was still over the capital, Nuku’alofa.

“Every second power pole has been knocked over and the lines are just everywhere,” Kenna said, saying it would likely be days before power could be restored. Water supplies and radio networks were also disrupted.

“They turned the power off very early before the cyclone came, knowing that the power lines would be blown down, which was a good move.”

The worst of the cyclone hit around a low tide, so there were no reports of storm surges worsening the impact of the wind and rains.

Kenna estimated around 40 percent of houses in the capital had suffered some damage, many with roofs blown off.

“A lot of the older houses, especially some of the older heritage houses, have been badly damaged or destroyed, which is very sad, they’re quite historical,” he said. “They’ve been through cyclones before, but this is the biggest cyclone this island has had for at least 60 odd years.”

($1 = 1.3776 New Zealand dollars)

($1 = 1.2718 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by John Mair in Wellington.; Additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell and SImon Cameron-Moore)

Soros donation to halt Brexit causes storm in Britain

Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News that billionaire financier George Soros is a backer of a campaign group seeking to keep Britain in the EU added fire to Britain’s Brexit debate on Thursday, with supporters of quitting the bloc accusing opponents of plotting a “coup”.

The Best of Britain campaign group confirmed it had received 400,000 pounds from Soros. Soros, best known in Britain for earning billions betting against the pound in the early 1990s, is the target of a hostile media campaign by the nationalist government in his native Hungary and a hate figure for rightwing campaigners in eastern Europe and the United States.

Best of Britain said it had obeyed all rules on political funding in accepting the donation from Soros.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office repeated its long-standing position that the decision to leave the EU in 2019 after a vote in 2016 was final and would not be reversed. It also defended the right of campaign groups to accept donations.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which first reported Soros’s involvement, said the 87-year-old former hedge fund manager was backing a “secret plot” to stop Brexit. The article was written by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to May.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British diplomat who is chair of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the group had never hidden its aims, which include staying in the EU.

“George Soros’s foundations have along with a number of other major donors also made significant contributions to our work,” Malloch-Brown said in a statement, confirming Soros had contributed 400,000 pounds through his charitable foundations.

May’s spokesman said: “There are many political and campaign groups in this country, that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy.”

“The prime minister’s position on this matter is clear, the country voted to leave the European Union, that’s what we are going to deliver and there won’t be a second referendum.”

BREXIT REVERSED?

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent, or 17.4 million people, voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent, or 16.1 million people, voted to stay. Both sides accepted large donations from wealthy individuals.

Ever since the shock vote, supporters of EU membership have been exploring an array of different legal and political methods to prevent what they see as the biggest mistake in post-World War Two British history.

Brexiteers say such efforts threaten political stability as they go against the democratic will of 17.4 million people. They have vowed to fight any attempt to stop Brexit.

“The new Soros-led coalition is planning a coup in Britain, against the democratic will of the people,” Richard Tice, who chairs the Leave Means Leave campaign group, told Reuters. “They have been outed and will be defeated.”

May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

Opponents of Brexit hope to focus their efforts on blocking British parliamentary approval for the exit deal, a step that if successful could sink May’s premiership. There is, though, little sign so far of a change in opinion among voters, and the supporters of EU membership lack a popular leader who could unite the disparate groups opposed to Brexit.

Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage say public opposition to Brexit from the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein are unlikely to sway British public opinion.

With no deal, Britain would face a disorderly Brexit that many investors fear would imperil Britain’s $2.7 trillion economy, disrupt trade across the world’s biggest trading bloc and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.

($1 = 0.7209 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

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)

Italian president dissolves parliament ahead of election

Italian President Sergio Mattarella signs a decree to dissolve parliament at the Quirinale Presidential palace in Rome, Italy,

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) – Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday dissolved parliament ahead of an election which is expected to produce a period of instability in the euro zone’s third largest economy.

Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s cabinet began meeting to fix the date of the vote, which political sources have said will probably be March 4.

Earlier on Thursday Gentiloni defended the record of his year-old government and said he would remain in office and ensure continuity until a new government is in place.

With opinion polls pointing to a hung parliament, he told reporters Italy should be prepared to deal with instability but should not fear it, noting that it was now common to many European countries.

“We mustn’t dramatize the risk of instability, we are quite inoculated against it,” he said, in reference to Italy’s frequent changes of government, adding that elsewhere in Europe there has been “an Italianisation of political systems”.

All Italy’s main parties are promising to raise the budget deficit and slash taxes despite record high public debt, and immigration is set to be a central theme of the election, with right-wing parties frequently warning of a migrant “invasion”.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leads opinion polls with about 28 percent of the vote, followed by the ruling Democratic Party (PD), of which Gentiloni is a member, on around 23 percent.

However, most seats in parliament are seen going to a conservative alliance made up of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!) on around 16 percent and the right-wing Northern League and Brothers of Italy, with 13 and 5 percent respectively.

Speaking at the prime minister’s traditional end of year news conference, Gentiloni appealed to political parties not to spread fear and make unrealistic promises in the “imminent” election campaign.

“I think it is in the interests of the country to have an election campaign that limits as much as possible the spreading of fears and illusions, these are the risks we have before us,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie,; Editing by Alison Williams)

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

By Sonya Dowsett

MADRID (Reuters) – An election in Catalonia will fail to conclusively resolve a political crisis over an independence drive in the region, the final surveys before the Dec. 21 vote showed on Friday.

The ballot will result in a hung parliament, a Metroscopia poll showed, with parties favoring unity with Spain tipped to gain a maximum of 62 seats and pro-secession factions 63, both short of a majority in the region’s 135-seat legislature.

Spain’s worst political crisis since its transition to democracy four decades ago erupted in October, when Madrid cracked down on an independence referendum it had declared illegal and took control of the wealthy northeastern region.

The standoff has bitterly divided society, led to a business exodus and tarnished Spain’s rosy economic prospects, with the central bank on Friday blaming events in Catalonia for a cut in its growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019.

Both the Metroscopia poll, published in El Pais, and a second survey in another newspaper, La Razon, predicted a record turnout for a Catalan election.

But the vote looks likely to trigger weeks of haggling between different parties to try to form a government.

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is campaigning from Brussels, where he moved shortly after he was fired by Madrid following a unilateral declaration of independence by the region.

With Friday the last day polls were permitted before the ballot, the El Pais survey – which questioned 3,300 people in Catalonia between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13 – showed his party winning 22 seats.

Pro-unity party Ciudadanos, which has backed the minority central government of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) in parliamentary votes, will win most seats, closely followed by pro-independence ERC.

But at a maximum of 36 for Ciudadanos and 33 for ERC, both fall far short of the 68 seats needed for a majority.

The survey’s inconclusive split between pro-unity and pro-independence parties would leave the regional offshoot of left-wing party Podemos, which supports unity but wants a referendum on independence, as potential kingmaker.

Further muddying the waters, its leader Xavier Domenech favors a left-wing alliance across parties that both back and reject independence.

The La Razon poll, which surveyed 1,000 Catalans also between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13, showed parties in favor of independence winning 66 seats and unity supporters 60, leaving the Catalan Podemos arm with nine.

(Editing by Paul Day and John Stonestreet)

China makes disrespect of national anthem a crime

China's President Xi Jinping arrives at a welcoming ceremony for Brazil's President Michel Temer (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 1, 2017.

By Christian Shepherd and Venus Wu

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Anyone who mocks China’s national anthem faces up to 15 days in police detention after parliament criminalized such acts in a new law on Friday that covers Hong Kong and Macau.

Since taking over as president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ushered in new legislation aimed at securing the country from threats both within and outside its borders, besides presiding over a sweeping crackdown on dissent and free speech.

Protecting “the dignity of the national anthem” will help “promote patriotism and nurture socialist core values”, says the new law passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC).

It governs when, where and how the anthem, the “March of the Volunteers”, can be played.

The law bans its use as background music and in advertisements, rules out playing it at funerals and on other “inappropriate occasions” and prescribes administrative detention for any “distorted” or “mocking” renditions.

Those attending public events must stand to attention and sing in a solemn manner when the anthem is played.

The new law brings treatment of the anthem into line with desecration of China’s national flag, or its emblem, which has been a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 days’ detention since the 1990s. Those laws also apply in Hong Kong and Macau.

Wu Zeng, the office head of the NPC’s national laws panel, confirmed that lawmakers had agreed the law should also apply to Hong Kong and Macau by being written into their constitutional provisions, the Basic Laws.

The law has fueled concern in Hong Kong, whose residents have grown nervous over China’s perceived encroachment of the city’s autonomy following such events as the disappearance of booksellers who later emerged in mainland Chinese custody.

Hong Kong lawyer and pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said she expected “a series of obstacles” when the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, adopts the law.

“The rights and freedoms protected under Hong Kong laws have come under challenge in recent years,” she said. “So it is right for people to be concerned.”

The city’s Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, said he hoped “the intention of the national law would be upheld without affecting Hong Kong people’s basic rights and freedoms”.

In 2015, Hong Kong football fans booed the Chinese anthem during a World Cup qualifier, prompting a fine for the territory’s football association from world body FIFA.

Last month, Shanghai police detained three men for having “hurt patriotic feelings” by dressing up as Japanese soldiers and posing for photographs outside a memorial to China’s war with Japan, state media said.

 

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

UK armed police arrest suspected knifeman near parliament

Armed police officers stand outside the Palace of Westminster, in central London, Britain June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Will James

By William James and Costas Pitas

LONDON (Reuters) – British armed police detained a man on suspicion of having a knife after he ran, shouting, toward one of the gates of the Westminster parliament in central London on Friday.

“The man – aged in his 30s – was arrested,” police said.

A witness at the scene told Reuters the man ran toward one of the gates to parliament where a militant killed a policeman less than three months ago.

“You could tell he was suspicious, he was stood there fists clenched. He looked quite an angry geezer,” Bradley Allen, 19, told Reuters.

“We got seconds down the road and they had him on the floor, pinned. Police around him, telling everyone to move back.”

The incident occurred less than three months since a man drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, and then stabbed a policeman to death in the grounds of parliament, the first of three deadly attacks in Britain which has put the security services on high alert.

Another witness near parliament on Friday told Reuters he saw police threatening to use a stun gun on the man. Pictures from the scene showed the man on the ground with an officer pointing a gun at him.

“There were about three or four policeman, one of them shouting at the crowd to get back,” the witness, who declined to give their name, told Reuters.

“The guy was on the ground on his front on the pavement alongside Parliament Square. They had him on the ground and were warning they would taze (stun) him again.”

Officers later put the man in the back of a police van, a Reuters reporter said. Parliament said it was aware of the incident.

The gates to parliament were closed and armed police were patrolling as usual inside the perimeter, a Reuters reporter inside the building said.

On March 22, Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four people, before he ran into the grounds of parliament and stabbed a police officer to death. He was shot dead at the scene and his attack prompted a review of security around Westminster.

That attack was followed by a suicide bombing in Manchester and a similar deadly attack on London Bridge, thrusting security and policing to the fore of campaigning before last Thursday’s election.

The spate of recent attacks were the deadliest in Britain since four British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people on the London transport system in July 2005.

(Reporting by William James and Costas Pitas, writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Michael Holden)

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

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

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second attacker was shot dead, he said.

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

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

THIRD ATTACK FOILED – MINISTRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Near-impossible’ to stop London-style attack: Israeli security expert

FILE PHOTO: A man walks next to a newly erected concrete barriers at the entrance to Jabel Mukaber, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, the morning after a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Attacks like the one in London are almost impossible to stop, the former head of VIP protection at Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said on Thursday, acknowledging that even Israel struggled to prevent them.

Despite building a barrier intended to prevent Palestinian attackers protesting against occupation entering from the West Bank, Israel has suffered dozens of low-tech vehicle or knife attacks in the last two years on civilians, police and soldiers.

“What happened in London was basically in a public area and, when it comes to public areas, it’s nearly impossible (to prevent),” said Shlomo Harnoy, who spent 25 years in the Shin Bet, sometimes coordinating protection for U.S. presidential visits. He now directs Sdema Group, a global security consultancy.

“There are ideas to build public areas to counter specific security threats, especially when it comes to explosive materials, but when it’s an attack on a bridge or something like that, it’s very difficult.”

In Wednesday’s attack, the suspect drove his rented vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman at the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Four people were killed and at least 40 injured. The attacker, identified by police as British-born, was shot dead.

In Israel, Palestinians have rammed cars and trucks into civilians or members of security forces standing in particular at bus stops, tram stations and security posts.

In January, four soldiers were killed and 17 injured when a Palestinian drove his truck at high speed into a group of cadets waiting by the side of the road in Jerusalem.

BLOCKS AND BOLLARDS

Steel bollards have been put up in sensitive areas, and there are now concrete blocks stopping vehicles from approaching tram stops.

But Harnoy said that “you can’t put concrete blocks and barriers everywhere, especially in the center of a city like London. It can’t be like a military installation”.

“To my mind, the best solution for stopping an attack is having people who know how to use arms, including civilians,” he said.

In Israel, police carry guns, it is not uncommon to see armed soldiers on the streets, and many civilians, most of whom have done army service, carry pistols. When attacks occur, video footage often shows civilians drawing weapons at the scene.

“But of course in Britain that is very difficult,” Harnoy said. “Even most police don’t carry weapons. For me, that is one of the mistakes in Britain, not allowing police to have weapons.”

Even in Israel, Harnoy is not convinced that most civilians who carry a weapon are sufficiently trained to handle an attack.

He also noted that Israel allowed its intelligence services more freedom to dig up background information on individuals than Britain, which had to strike more of a balance with privacy and human rights.

“This is a war,” said Harnoy. “When it comes to intelligence, you need 10 to 15 years of information on people, and in doing that you have to think carefully about their rights, about the balance between freedom and security.

“To implement such an intelligence system, you have to make a different balance with democratic rights.”

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Kevin Liffey)