Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis chafe at coronavirus restrictions

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.

Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority are another sensitive community, where officials say testing for the virus has been lagging.

“There are three ‘Corona Countries’ – the ultra-Orthodox sector, the Arab sector and the rest of the State of Israel,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters on Sunday.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement. On Saturday, a funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners in Bnai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town.

Reprimanded by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan for allowing what he deemed a “threat to life” at the funeral, police issued a statement vowing to “draw lessons to prevent similar situations recurring”.

Public gatherings are currently limited to up to 10 people, people must keep two meters apart and the public has been urged to stay at home unless they need to buy food, get medical attention, or go to work deemed crucial by the state.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ultra-Orthodox head of ZAKA, a volunteer emergency-medicine group, told Israel’s Army Radio that most ultra-Orthodox Jews did follow Health Ministry directives and only a small group defied them, possibly for political reasons.

“Everything they are doing has no value when they constitute a ‘ticking bomb’ because of whom people will get infected,” he said of those not following the government’s guidelines.

Israel has reported 4,347 coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities.

With the Health Ministry warning that the dead could eventually number in the thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due on Monday to convene officials to discuss a proposed lockdown of some of the country.

Bennett has proposed setting up a coronavirus surveillance system that would allow authorities to focus lockdowns on areas most prone to contagion.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Lockdown, what lockdown? UK begins tougher action against those ignoring shutdown

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain brought in tough measures on Thursday to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure people obey the government’s virtual lockdown which many thousands are feared to have so far ignored.

The new powers allow police to issue instant fines those who leave their homes without good reason or gather in groups of more than two people.

In northern England, one police force has begun introducing random vehicle checkpoints to ensure the new rules are enforced while the head of the Church of England told Britons who were flouting the instructions to “get your act together”.

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and nearly all shops to close, banned social gatherings and told people to stay at home unless they needed to buy food, go out to essential work or to exercise once a day.

While millions have respected the measures, roads and parks have remained busy, and the authorities across the country have repeatedly reported that people have not respected the 2 metre (6 foot) guidance on social distancing while others have continued to mingle.

On Thursday, a new regulations came into effect which give the authorities the power to impose a 30-pound fixed penalty on those who breach the rules. Repeat offenders could ultimately receive a fine of up to 960 pounds and might be arrested.

Those who did not pay up could be taken to court, where magistrates could impose unlimited fines, the government said.

“The prime minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives,” said Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel.

PARKS CLOSED

Some Britons have continued their daily routine and risked spreading the virus which the government fears could overwhelm the National Health Service if large numbers contract COVID-19.

In east London, police and the Tower Hamlets local authority said they had been forced to close Victoria Park, one of the largest and most popular open public spaces in the area, because people were failing to abide by the guidance.

The Royal Parks, a charity which looks after eight major parks across the capital, said it too was considering shutting its gates.

“It is up to all of us collectively to adhere to the latest guidance, otherwise we will have to consider closing the parks. We will keep the situation under constant review,” said Tom Jarvis, its Director of Parks.

Other cities have already closed some parks and facilities to meet the guidance on social distancing while Greater Manchester firefighters said they had received reports of lots of people having barbecues on moorlands.

Meanwhile police in Devon, southwest England, said when they has asked a young cyclist why he was four miles from his home and not following the rules, he had replied: “It only kills old people”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual head of the Church of England, said people should not act selfishly.

“Get your act together,” he said to those who have been ignoring the strict government social distancing instructions.

“If you are not complying, you are risking other people’s lives, not just your own,” he told ITV News.

To ensure compliance, police in northern England said they would bring in vehicle checkpoints from Thursday, along with foot patrols to disperse any groups.

“We sincerely hope that we won’t have to resort to enforcement action, but if people do not comply, we will,” said Mike Walker, Assistant Chief Constable of North Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said anyone who claimed they had the virus and deliberately coughed at police or other emergency workers could be charged with common assault and face up to two years in jail.

“Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Facebook’s ‘double-edged sword’ in Thai carnage

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – Facebook celebrity doctor Parkphum Dejhutsadin said his phone suddenly started pinging on Saturday – scores of his two million followers in Thailand were desperate and they needed his help.

With nowhere to turn as they cowered in a shopping mall from a rogue soldier who had already killed more than two dozen people, they looked to Facebook and other social media to send their pleas and to try to find escape.

Parkphum could help – and said for the next 16 hours that’s all he did: living up to his panda-eyed Facebook persona as sleepless doctor “Mor Lab Panda”.

“They told me where they were and sent me pictures of their hiding places. Authorities didn’t know where anybody was hiding. But I knew everything,” said Parkphum. “I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t want them to die.”

While social media have been accused of exacerbating or even encouraging mass shootings such as last year’s mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, in Thailand they were also crucial to pulling off a safe and dramatic rescue from the shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima city.

Before 32-year-old killer Jakrapanth Thomma was cornered in a basement and shot dead, Thai commandos managed to coordinate raids into the mall to spring hundreds of people to safety.

“We were communicating on Facebook with the people inside to exchange information,” Pongpipat Siripornwiwat, deputy commander of Nakhon Ratchasima police, told Reuters. “Without it, our work would’ve been very difficult and we wouldn’t have had any idea how many were trapped and what was going on inside.”

FACEBOOK LIFE

The tragedy underscored the extent to which Facebook is the communication platform for daily life in the country of 69 million which has about 56 million active users a month and where the average person spends three hours a day on social media. Most social media activity is on mobile phones.

And it was on Facebook that the killer, apparently angered by a property deal gone sour, first signaled his intentions.

“Do they think they can spend the money in hell?” his post ended, roughly three hours before he opened fire at a house, then moved to an army camp, a temple and then the shopping mall – leaving a trail of murder behind him.

At one point he posted a selfie in front of a fire.

His last message before his Facebook account was shut down – “Should I give up?” – came nearly four hours after the first shot.

But after facing criticism for failing to take down the Christchurch shooter’s livestream quickly and when a Thai father murdered his child on Facebook Live in 2017, the world’s biggest social media company moved faster once it heard what was happening.

It shut his Facebook and Instagram accounts and then worked to remove anything that he had posted and was being shared by others – including by spoof accounts apparently set up in his name by other people after his own was blocked.

“There is no place on Facebook for people who commit this kind of atrocity, nor do we allow people to praise or support this attack,” a Facebook representative said in a statement, adding that it worked closely with Thai authorities to take down content that violated its policies.

“We also responded to emergency requests from the Royal Thai Police to share information related to the shooter to prevent further harm,” it said, without giving further details.

Twitter, where graphic videos of the incident were circulated, said it also took action – a company representative said it monitored its platform to remove video content of the attack and to shield graphic content from view.

But police said the shooter, who killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 before he was stopped, had not only used social media to publicize what he was doing but also to track police movements through online news sites.

“Social media was a double-edged sword. It helped police rescue people, but it also helped him keep up with our movements,” said Pongpipat.

“PANDA EYES”

Parkphum, a medical technologist working for Thailand’s National Blood Center, is so famous he even has his own set of stickers for social media messaging apps with his trademark “panda eyes” and white coat.

“Every message from the people about where they were hiding and how many were with them all turned out to be true when police got there. People were hiding in (fashion store) H&M, Eveandboy (a cosmetics shop), a gym. I now know the entire floor plan of the mall,” he said.

Other Facebook celebrities with millions of followers also stepped in to coordinate and reassure.

“I told them to stay as quiet as possible and mute their phones, to send their locations and phone numbers,” said Witawat Siriprachai, 36, known by Thais as the “Sergeant” of the social commentary page “Drama-addict”.

“I warned them not to livestream from their locations, because the shooter was also using Facebook during the rampage,” said Witawat, who is not a sergeant in real life.

At the shopping mall, 42-year-old Pat said she had just finished a meal when she heard the first shots and ran to hide in a mobile phone store. She said she was still traumatized and did not want to give her full name.

For five hours she said she scrolled through her Facebook newsfeeds to keep up with what was happening. Afraid to make the slightest noise she messaged friends who told her where to contact the police.

“I waited in complete darkness, and then the police replied to ask my exact location,” she said.

Police worked with the information she gave to coordinate an escape route and timing for people on that floor – and when they gave clearance that the shooter was three floors down, everybody just sprinted to the fire exit.

At a crouching run, masked commandos led them to safety.

Just before 11 p.m., she posted to friends that she was safe.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

Gunmen in Pakistan kill two police escorting polio vaccinators

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Gunmen shot and killed two police officers escorting a polio vaccination team on Wednesday forcing a suspension of the immunization campaign in a district of northwest Pakistan, where the crippling disease is endemic.

Previous attacks have been inspired by religious hardliners spreading false rumors, and the latest ambush of a vaccination team comes at a time when the polio cases in Pakistan have jumped from 12 to over 100 in the last one year, making it only one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic.

The gunmen opened fire at the officials when they were escorting the vaccination team in Lower Dir district, said police official Sultan Ghani. “The polio campaign has been suspended after the incident in the area,” he said.

Of the 104 total polio cases in Pakistan, 75 has been reported from the northwest Pakistan, a region plagued by Islamist militancy.

No one claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, though religious hardliners over the past year have raised a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated vaccines.

In the past, militants have called vaccination teams foreign agents, and peddled conspiracy theories that their campaigns were a Western ploy to sterilize Muslims.

Pakistan’s government has tried to counter those falsehoods with public education campaigns, recruiting Muslim religious leaders to reassure people that the vaccine only protects their children.

The involvement of a Pakistani doctor in helping U.S. intelligence agents to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden had fueled suspicion of the anti-polio campaign, though attacks on vaccination teams pre-dated the 2011 killing of the al Qaeda leader in the northwestern town of Abbottabad.

Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other countries where the polio virus, which can cause paralysis or death, remains endemic.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Revolution 101: For hardened teens of Hong Kong protests, violence is one way forward

Revolution 101: For hardened teens of Hong Kong protests, violence is one way forward
By Tom Lasseter

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Fiona’s rebellion against the People’s Republic of China began slowly in the summer months, spreading across her 16-year-old life like a fever dream. The marches and protests, the standoffs with police, the lies to her parents. They’d all built on top of her old existence until she found herself, now, dressed in black, her face wrapped with a homemade balaclava that left only her eyes and a pale strip of skin visible. Her small hands were stained red.

It was just paint, she said, as she funneled liquid into balloons. The air around her stank of lighter fluid. Teenagers hurled Molotov cocktails toward police. Lines of archers roamed the grounds of the university they’d seized; now and then, they stopped to release metal-tipped arrows into the darkness, let fly with the hopes of finding the flesh of a cop.

Down below Fiona, rows of police flanked an intersection. Within a stone’s throw, Chinese soldiers stood in riot gear behind the gates of an outpost of the People’s Liberation Army, one of the most powerful militaries on the planet.

Fiona joined her first march on June 9, a schoolgirl making her way to the city’s financial district on a sunny day as people called out for freedom. It was now November 16, and she was one of more than 1,000 protesters swarming around and barricaded inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Because of their young age and the danger of arrest, Reuters is withholding the full names of Fiona and her comrades.

Night was falling. They were wild and free with their violence, but on the verge of being surrounded and pinned down.

The kids, which is what most of them were, buzzed back and forth like hornets, cleaning glass bottles at one station, filling them with lighter fluid and oil in another. An empty swimming pool was commandeered to practice flinging the Molotov cocktails, leaving burn marks skidded everywhere.

When front-line decisions needed to be made, clumps of protesters came together to form a jittering black nest – almost everyone was dressed from hood to mask to pants in black – yelling about whether to charge or pull back.

They were becoming something different from what they were, a metamorphosis that would have been difficult to imagine in orderly Hong Kong, a city where you line up neatly for an elevator door and crowds don’t step into an empty street until the signal changes. With each slap up against the police, each scramble down the subway stairs to avoid arrest as tear gas ate at their eyes, they hardened. They shifted back and forth between their old lives and their new – school uniforms and dinners with mom and dad, then pulling the masks over their faces once more. It was a dangerous balance.

“We may all be killed by the police. Yes,” said Fiona.

At the crucible of Polytechnic University, Fiona and the others crossed a line. Their movement has embraced the slogan of “be water,” of pushing forward with dramatic action and then pulling back suddenly, but here, the protesters hunkered down, holding a large chunk of territory in the middle of Hong Kong. In their hive of enraged adolescence, they were risking everything for a tomorrow that almost certainly won’t come – a Hong Kong that cleaves greater freedom from an increasingly powerful Chinese Communist Party.

In doing so, Fiona found moments bigger than what her life was before. “We call the experience of protest, like at PolyU, a dream,” she later explained.

But to speak of such things out loud, without the mask that she hid behind, without the throbbing crowds that made it seem within reach, is not possible outside, in the real Hong Kong.

The protesters have left traces of their hopes, confessions and fears across the city, in graffiti scrawled on bank buildings and bus stops alike. One line that’s appeared: “There may be no winners in this revolution but please stay to bear witness.”

GLOBAL REVERBERATIONS

The impact of Hong Kong’s protests, as they pass the half-year mark, is this: Kids with rocks and bottles have fought their way to the sharp edge between two nation states expected to shape the 21st century.

The street unrest resembles an ongoing brawl between police and the young men and women in black. Police have fired about 16,000 rounds of tear gas and 10,000 rubber bullets. Since June, they’ve rounded up people from the ages of 11 to 84, making more than 6,000 arrests. About 500 officers have been wounded in the melee.

Hong Kong’s police officials have said all along that their operations are guided by a desire to maintain public order, rejecting accusations they use excessive force. They issued a plea as recently as Thursday, saying, “If rioters don’t use violence, Hong Kong will be safe and there’s no reason for us to use force.”

After the U.S. Congress was galvanized by the plight of the protesters, it passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which President Donald Trump signed last month. The law subjects Hong Kong to review by the U.S. State Department, at least once a year, on whether the city has clung to enough autonomy from Beijing to continue receiving favorable trading terms from America. It also provides for sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

The protesters were delighted, carrying American flags and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the streets of Hong Kong. Beijing was furious. China has had sovereignty over Hong Kong since the British handed it over in 1997. The Chinese government quickly banned U.S. military ships from docking in Hong Kong, a traditional port of call in the region.

The protesters, including many as young as Fiona, had changed the course of aircraft carriers and guided-missile destroyers.

Chinese state media describe the unrest as the work of “rioters” and “radicals,” accusing foreign governments of fanning anti-China sentiment in the city. Beijing’s top diplomat has demanded that Washington “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

The stakes for the kids of Hong Kong go well beyond a moment of geopolitical standoff. When Britain passed the city to China, like a pearl slipping from the hand of one merchant to another, there was a written understanding that for 50 years Hong Kong would enjoy a great deal of autonomy. Known as “one country, two systems,” the agreement suspended some of the blow of a global finance center coming under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The deal expires in 2047. For Fiona, this means that in her lifetime she will live not in the freewheeling city to which she was born, but, quite possibly, in a place that’s just another dot on the map of China.

Chants at marches revolve around five protester demands, such as universal suffrage, with “Not one less!” the automatic refrain. But conversations soon turn to a larger, more difficult topic at the root of their complaints. China.

During interviews with more than a dozen protesters at Polytechnic and another university besieged at the same time, and continued contact with many of them in the weeks that followed, the subject sprang up repeatedly. It’s never far, they said, the shadow of Beijing over the Hong Kong government’s policies.

“They’re all involved with this shit,” said Lee, who gave only her last name. The 20-year-old nursing student covered her mouth after the obscenity, embarrassed to have said it out loud in the middle of a cafe, and quickly continued. “Of course China is the big boss behind this.”

“If China is going to take over Hong Kong, we will lose our freedoms, we will lose our rights as humans,” she said. Police had taken down her information when she surrendered outside Polytechnic University. She didn’t yet know whether that would lead to an arrest on rioting charges, which could bring up to 10 years of prison.

“In my view, violence is the thing that protects us,” Lee said. “It is a warning to those, like the police, who think they can do anything to us.”

The acceptance of violence isn’t limited to the barricades. Joshua Wong, the global face of the movement’s lobbying efforts, said he understood the need for protesters “to defend themselves with force.”

As Wong spoke during an interview in Hong Kong on Wednesday, the headline on the front page of the South China Morning Post on the table next to his elbow read: “BOMB PLOTTERS ‘INTENDED TO TARGET POLICE AT MASS RALLY'”

If a group of protesters had indeed planned to bomb police, would that have been a step too far?

“I think the fundamental issue,” he said, “is we never can prove which strategy is the most effective or not-effective way to put pressure on Beijing.”

AN AWAKENING

When Fiona first heard about a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be shipped from Hong Kong to mainland China, the initial trigger of the protests, she wasn’t concerned. It was the sort of thing that troublemakers worried about. “The extradition bill seemed good to me,” she said.

Her mother, a housewife from mainland China, is the product of a Communist education system that, as Fiona puts it, doesn’t “allow them to think about politics.” She is still unaware, for example, that there was a massacre around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Fiona’s father, from Hong Kong, drives a minibus taxi. He has concerns about creeping mainland control, but his urge to “treasure our freedom” leaves him afraid of anything that might provoke Beijing’s wrath: “He keeps saying we should not do this and we should not do that.”

They live together in a sliver of a working-class district in Kowloon, the peninsula that juts above Hong Kong island. It is a place of tiny apartments and people just trying to get by.

It was much better, everyone in her household agreed, to avoid politics.

On weekends, Fiona, who has a cartoon sticker of Cinderella on the back of her iPhone, usually went shopping with girlfriends from high school. They looked for new outfits. They chatted and had tea together.

But when Fiona saw the news that more than 3,000 Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black had marched against the proposed extradition bill on June 6, she wondered what was going on.

She clicked through YouTube on her cell phone. She stopped on a Cantonese-language video uploaded less than a week before by a young, handsome guy – hair cropped close on the sides and in a sort of thick flop on top – sitting on the edge of a bed. The video was speeded up so the presenter spoke in a fast blur, delivering on what he billed as, “Extradition bill 6 minute summary for dummies.”

The idea of the bill, on its face, wasn’t a problem, the young man said – public safety and rules are important. The issue was that the judiciary in the mainland and the judiciary in Hong Kong are two totally different things.

The Chinese Communist Party, he said, might use this new linkage between the court systems to come after ordinary people who were exercising their freedom of speech, something protected in Hong Kong but not Beijing: “You may be extradited to China because of telling a joke.”

Fiona was alarmed.

Just a few days after her YouTube awakening, on June 9, she took the subway with a group of friends from high school over to Hong Kong island. The crowd filled the march’s meeting point, Victoria Park, and soon flooded outside its boundaries. Between the glimmering towers of commerce, they yelled: “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” They yelled: “No China extradition! No evil law!” Fiona was astonished. She couldn’t believe so many people had shown up.

The swell of the crowd, the boom and crash of its noise, was adrenaline and inspiration – “all of us were having the same aim,” Fiona said.

The city’s leader, Beijing-backed Carrie Lam, would have to relent, Fiona thought. Faced with the will of so many citizens – a million came out that day, in a city of about 7.5 million – Lam had no choice but to meet with protesters and address their concerns.

That’s not what happened.

Three days later, the Hong Kong police shot rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd.

On July 1, protesters wearing yellow construction hats and gauze masks stormed into the city’s Legislative Council building on the 22nd anniversary of the handover from the British. They smashed through glass doors with hammers, poles and road barriers, spray-painting the walls as the chaos churned – “HONG KONG IS NOT CHINA.”

A PREDICTION OF MORE VIOLENCE

On the night of November 16, as Fiona sat on the terrace at Polytechnic, a teenager slouched at his post on a pedestrian bridge on the other side of the school. Reaching across a highway between the back of the university and a subway stop, the bridge could be a point of entry for police, the protesters feared.

The road underneath the bridge led to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, a main artery linking Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula. The protesters had blocked that route, hoping to trigger a citywide strike. It was becoming clear that would not happen.

The teenager on the bridge, whose full name includes Pak and who sometimes goes by Paco, had the sleeves of his black Adidas windbreaker rolled up his arms. His glasses jutted out of the eye-opening of his ski mask. The 17-year-old, thick-set and volatile, recently had gotten kicked out of his house after arguing with his parents about the protests. They’re both from mainland China, Pak explained. “They always say, ‘Kill the protesters; the government is right.'”

There was a divide between him and his parents that couldn’t be crossed, he said. As a student in Hong Kong, he received a relatively liberal education at school, complete with the underpinnings of Western philosophical and political thought.

“I was born in Hong Kong. I know what is freedom. I know what is democracy. I know what is freedom of speech,” Pak said, his voice rising with each sentence.

His parents, on the other hand, were educated and raised on the mainland. His shorthand for what that meant: “You know, we should love the Party, we should love Mao Zedong, blah, blah, blah.”

In his downtime, Pak hunched over an empty green Jolly Shandy Lemon bottle and poured lighter fluid inside. He gestured to containers of cooking and peanut oil and said he added them as well because they helped the fire both burn and stick once the glass exploded.

He couldn’t count how many he’d filled in the past two days at Polytechnic. Pak was working a shift as a lookout on the bridge. He guzzled soda and coffee to stay awake, lifting his mask to slurp, revealing a round chin and an adolescent’s light dusting of hair on his upper lip. There was a mattress on the floor around the corner for quick naps. On a board leaning against the side of the walkway in front of him, a message was scrawled in capital letters: EYES OPEN!

Where did he think it was all headed? Pak put the bottle down and said he saw nothing but struggle ahead. “I think the violence of the protests will be increased; it will be upgraded,” he said. “But we have no choice.”

When Pak was 12 years old, he watched news coverage of a massive, peaceful protest in Hong Kong, the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution,” a sit-in that called for universal suffrage. The movement ended with protesters being hit by tear gas and hauled off to jail.

The nonviolent tactics, Pak said, got them nowhere.

Did he worry that the violence was taking place so near to a People’s Liberation Army barracks?

Not at all. That morning, a separate barracks in Hong Kong was in the news when some of its soldiers, in exercise shorts and T-shirts, walked out to the road carrying red buckets and helped clean up debris left by protesters near the city’s Baptist University. The event made both local and international headlines for the rarity of PLA soldiers’ appearance in public. Under the city’s mini-constitution, the Chinese military can be called by the Hong Kong government to help maintain public order, but they “shall not interfere” in local affairs.

“I think they are testing us. If we attack the PLA, the PLA can shoot us and say, ‘OK, we were defending ourselves,'” Pak said. “If we don’t attack the PLA, they will cross the line, again and again.”

But, he said, if the protesters continued ramping up violence against the cops, maybe the PLA would be called in. And that, he said, would hand the protest movement victory.

“Other countries like [the] British and America can protect human rights in Hong Kong by sending troops to protect us,” he said. It was, under any reading of the situation, a far-fetched idea. Hong Kong is by international law the domain of Beijing; the Chinese Communist Party can send in troops to clamp down on civil unrest. There’s not been a hint of any Western power being interested in intervening on the ground.

Pak was right about one thing, though. Police officers later massed on the other side of the bridge, piling out of their vehicles and walking in a long file to the head of the structure. The protesters lit the bridge ablaze. People screamed. Flames leapt. A funnel of black smoke filled the air.

The next night, Pak didn’t reply to notes sent by Telegram, the encrypted messaging app he used. A day later, he still didn’t answer notes asking where he was. The day after that, the same. Pak was gone.

“I HAVE TO BECOME TWO PEOPLE”

The young man lay his hands down on the table. They were bandaged and his fingers curved over in an unnatural crook. He’d not been out of his family’s house much in two weeks. Tommy, 19, shredded his hands on a rope when he squeezed it hard as his body whooshed down off a bridge on the side of Polytechnic University.

They were better now, his fingers. A photograph he sent just after, on November 20, showed a deep pocket of flesh ripped from his left pinkie, close to the bone by the look of it, and skin shredded across both hands. “I didn’t wear gloves,” he explained.

After hitting the ground, he’d rushed to a line of waiting vehicles, driven by “parents” – protester slang for volunteers who show up to whisk them away from dangerous situations.

On the morning of November 18, while still inside Polytechnic, he had sent a note saying his actual parents knew he was there and he couldn’t find a way out.

“Worst case might be the police coming in polyu arresting all the people inside and beat them up,” he said in a note on Telegram, the chat platform. “I’m like holy shit and i gotta be safe and not arrested.”

That evening, he was still there. He didn’t see a way to escape. Tommy went to the “front line” to face off with the police, not far from the ledge where Fiona sat a couple nights before. Tommy carried a makeshift shield, a piece of wood and then part of a plastic road barrier, to protect himself from the blasts of a water cannon. He didn’t make it very far.

Unlike most of the protesters who were around him, Tommy is a student at Polytechnic. He has worked hard to get there.

He’s a kid from a far-flung village up toward the border with the mainland, where both of his parents are from. Everyone in his village opposes the protests, he said, and there are “triads” in the area, members of organized-crime groups that are seen as sometimes doing Beijing’s bidding.

Was he sorry that he’d put himself in danger?

“No regrets,” came the first text message response, at 7:29 p.m., even as police continued to mass outside Polytechnic and fears grew of a violent storming of the campus.

“They are wrong”

“We’re doing the right thing”

“It’s so unforgettable and good”

Hours later, he went down the rope.

Now, meeting to talk after a visit to a clinic for his hands, Tommy said he wasn’t sure what would come next for his city. Or himself. Although the university was still closed, he’d been keeping up with his studies, emailing professors and working on a paper about Hong Kong’s solid-waste treatment policy. Unable to go to the gym because of the hand injury – his athletic frame sheathed in an Adidas jogging suit – Tommy had been feeling restless.

It was obvious the troubles would continue, he said. “Carrie Lam will not accept the demands, the protesters will keep going, people will keep getting arrested,” he said. “The government wants to arrest all the people.”

But the future would still arrive and he had his own dreams: of a wife and a family, and being a man who provided for them. Tommy said he’d been thinking of applying for a government job after graduation. They’re steady and have good benefits.

He would also remain a part of the protest movement.

How could he manage both?

Tommy paused a moment before answering. Then, he said:

“I have to become two people.”

AN ARREST, AND READING UP ON LENIN

On the afternoon of December 1, life was sunshine and breeze at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Inside, a youth orchestra was scheduled to play its annual concert, billed as “collaging Chinese music treasures from various soundscapes of China.” Out front, facing the water, a band played cover songs – belting out the lyrics to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Couples strolled on the boardwalk. The palms swayed. A shop sold ice cream.

And there was Pak, sitting on a bench. He’d been arrested trying to flee Polytechnic in the early morning hours of November 19. After a day spent in a police station, he made bail and moved back in with his parents.

Out in the open, in blue sweatpants and a grey sweatshirt, he was a pudgy teenager with the awkward habit of pushing his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose as he spoke. He had a couple pimples above his left eye. Also, he was now facing a rioting charge, and had to report back to the police station in a few weeks.

Since his disappearance, the siege at Polytechnic had ended. The protesters simmered down. There was an election for local district councilors, and pro-democracy candidates won nearly 90% of 452 seats.

But two weeks after his arrest, Pak had shown up ready to protest again. A march was slated to start in a couple hours. He’d taken a bus down from one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts, with a black backpack that held his dark clothes and mask.

The lesson of the elections, he said, was that most Hong Kong citizens not only back the protests but “accept the violence level.” Otherwise, he said, they would have rebuked the reform ticket and cast their lot with pro-government candidates.

“I think,” he said, “the violence of the protesters needs to upgrade to setting off bombs.”

He’d been reading about the Russian Revolution and Vladimir Lenin. If he saw irony in studying the architect of the Soviet communist dictatorship while contemplating his own fight against the world’s preeminent Communist Party, he didn’t say so.

“The protesters, I think, will need some weapons, like rifles,” he said.

If it wasn’t possible to buy them, he said, it seemed easy enough to ransack police cars or even stations to steal them. He described how that could be done.

The protests that day veered back to confrontation. A black flag with the words “HONG KONG INDEPENDENCE” flapped above the crowd. The scene to the north, in Kowloon, “descended into chaos as rioters hijacked public order events and resorted to destructive acts like building barricades on roads, setting fires and vandalizing public facilities,” according to a police account. Any hopes that the elections might bring peace seemed fragile. December was off to a turbulent start.

NO CHOICE BUT TO KEEP FIGHTING

In the weeks after walking out of Polytechnic University, slipping past the police, Fiona kept coming back to the heat of the protests. An assembly to support those who protested at Polytechnic. A rally to stop the use of tear gas, which featured little children carrying yellow balloons and a march past the city’s Legislative Council building.

And on a Saturday afternoon, the last day of November, a gathering of students and the elderly at the city’s Chater Garden. The park sits among thick trappings of wealth and power – the private Hong Kong Club, rows of bank buildings and, just down the street, luxury laced across the store windows of Chanel and Cartier. Fiona was with a friend toward the back, on the top of a wall, out of sight of the TV cameras. Her face was hidden behind a mask, as usual. Even between protesters, they usually pass nicknames and nods, with nothing that identifies them in daily life.

Her friend, a boy who goes to the same high school, held forth on revolution and the perils of greater mainland China influence in Hong Kong. Fiona listened, quietly. She nodded her head. She looked out at the crowd. It felt good to see that she was not alone, Fiona said. Though, she said, it was hard to tell where the movement was headed.

It could grind into the sort of underground movement that Tommy hinted at. It could erupt in the boom of Pak’s bloody fantasy.

For Fiona, she knew there was always the danger that police might track down her earlier presence at Polytechnic, ending her precarious dance between homework and street unrest.

But sitting there, as the chants echoed and the sun began to slide down the sky over Hong Kong, Fiona said there was no choice but to keep fighting.

A week later, on Dec. 8, Fiona was at Victoria Park, almost six months to the day since her first protest started there. Hundreds of thousands of people had come for the march. It took Fiona an hour just to get out of the park as the throngs slowly squeezed onto the road outside.

When they saw messages on their cellphones that police had massed down one side street, Fiona and three friends threw on their respirator masks and goggles. As they jogged in that direction, a stranger in the crowd handed them an umbrella; another stranger gave them bottles of water. They joined a group of others, clutching umbrellas and advancing toward police lines, then coming to a halt.

No tear gas or rubber bullets came. The police looked to have taken a step back.

Fiona and her friends dawdled, unsure of what to do. They joined the march, a great mass of people churning through Hong Kong, at one point holding cell phones aloft, an ocean of bobbing lights. They screamed obscenities at police when they saw them, with Fiona showing a middle finger and calling for their families to die. They watched a man throw a hammer at the Bank of China building and heard the crash of breaking glass.

Someone pulled out a can of black spray paint. In the middle of the road, Fiona and her friends took turns writing on the pavement. They left a message: “If we burn, you burn with us!”

(Reporting by Tom Lasseter; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Felix Tam)

Hong Kong police to enter university as hunt for protesters turns up empty

By Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police said they would enter Polytechnic University on Thursday, bringing their near two-week siege of the campus to an end, after final searches for any pro-democracy protesters still hiding turned up empty.

For a second day on Wednesday security teams from the university scoured the maze of buildings at the campus, a focal point in recent weeks of the citywide protests that first erupted in June, but no one was found.

“As the school has completed the search, the police security team will enter Polytechnic University tomorrow, as we need to process dangerous items and collect evidence,” District Commander Ho Yun-sing told reporters.

Any remaining protesters would be given medical treatment, he said.

The red-brick university on Kowloon peninsula was turned into a battleground in mid-November, when protesters barricaded themselves inside and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas. About 1,100 people were arrested last week, some while trying to escape.

Riot police sealed off the campus, setting up high plastic barricades and a fence on the perimeter.

The number of protesters has dwindled dramatically, with some managing to flee and others brought out. A lone woman found on Tuesday was “physically weak and emotionally unstable”, according to a statement from the university.

The university on Wednesday asked government departments for help removing “dangerous materials” from the site, which is littered with rotting waste and detritus of the siege, urging authorities to take a “humane” approach.

The city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, urged authorities to send medics to the site to take any remaining protesters to hospital.

LULL IN CLASHES

The Polytechnic University campus was the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel linking Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and other arteries.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time.

The protesters had blocked the tunnel’s mouth, smashed toll booths, lit fires and cemented bricks to the road, but it was reopened early on Wednesday, and Hong Kong television showed a steady flow of vehicles passing through.

Hong Kong authorities hope that a lull in clashes over the weekend during local elections, where pro-democracy candidates scored a landslide victory, can translate into more calm after nearly six months of turmoil.

Hundreds of people are facing potential jail time in connection with the unrest.

Secretary for Security John Lee said on Wednesday police had arrested more than 5,800 people since June, the numbers increasing exponentially in October and November, and had charged 923.

Smaller scale protests continued on Wednesday, as crowds in the central business district took to the streets around noon.

‘THANKSGIVING PROTEST’

Reuters also reported that China’s leaders had set up a crisis command center in the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, to deal with protests that have become the biggest populist challenge since China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office in Hong Kong called the report “false”, without elaborating, in a statement posted on its website Tuesday. “No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the Chinese government’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests is unwavering,” it said.

Despite the euphoria among protesters over the electoral victory, in which democracy advocates swept around 86 percent of the 452 district council seats, fresh demonstrations were planned for the weekend, including a march to protest against the use of tear gas on “children”.

A “Thanksgiving” protest, in appreciation of the U.S Congress passing legislation supporting protesters, is scheduled for Thursday, the date of the U.S. holiday.

The city-wide elections drew a record turnout and were seen as a vote of no-confidence in Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, over her handling of the financial hub’s worst crisis in decades.

One Hong Kong newspaper, Sing Pao, published a front-page spread for the second successive day calling for Lam’s resignation. “Hong Kong people had enough, Carrie Lam quit,” it read.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Noah Sin and James Pomfret; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

China tells U.S. and Britain to stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – China’s ambassador to London on Monday accused foreign countries including the United States and Britain of interfering in Chinese internal affairs through their reactions to the violent clashes taking place in Hong Kong.

The Asian financial hub, which was handed over to China by former colonial ruler Britain in 1997 but enjoys a degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula, has been plunged into chaos for almost six months.

In a dramatic escalation, Hong Kong police were laying siege to a university in Hong Kong, firing rubber bullets and tear gas to push back anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs and other weapons to stop them from fleeing.

In London, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming called a news conference at the Chinese Embassy to comment on events in Hong Kong and criticise Western governments and media for their responses to the crisis.

“Some Western countries have publicly supported extreme violent offenders,” he said.

“The U.S. House of Representatives adopted the so-called Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to blatantly interfere in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs.

“The British government and the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons published China-related reports making irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong.”

Liu also said that by criticising violent actions by the authorities as well as by the protesters, Britain was in effect taking sides.

“I think when the British government criticises Hong Kong police, criticises the Hong Kong government in handling the situation, they are interfering into China’s internal affairs,” he said.

“They look like they are balanced but as a matter of fact they are taking sides. That is our position.”

The ambassador also attacked Western media, saying that reporting on Hong Kong was misleading and did not give enough prominence to violence perpetrated by the protesters. He also dismissed Western media reports on the separate issue of what U.N. experts and activists condemn as repression in China’s western Xinjiang region as “pure fabrication”.

As the ambassador’s news conference was unfolding, the British Foreign Office issued the latest in a series of statements about Hong Kong.

“The UK is seriously concerned by the escalation in violence from both the protesters and the authorities around Hong Kong university campuses,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

“It is vital that those who are injured are able to receive appropriate medical treatment, and that safe passage is made available for all those who wish to leave the area. We need to see an end to the violence, and for all sides to engage in meaningful political dialogue ahead of the District Council elections on Sunday.”

Also during the news conference at the embassy, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on all sides to show restraint.

The European Commission on Monday also called on law enforcement authorities to keep their action “strictly proportionate”.

(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Elizabeth Piper and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Alison Williams)

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies

Anti-goverment protesters trapped inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University abseil onto a highway and escape before being forced to surrender during a police besiege of the campus in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. HK01/Handout via REUTERS

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies
By Nick Macfie and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police used tear gas and water cannon on Monday against protesters who tried to break through cordons and reach a university at the centre of a week-long standoff between demonstrators and law enforcement.

The black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs as they tried to get to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, occupied by activists during a week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of anti-government demonstrations.

“We have been trying to rescue them all day,” said a young man in a blue T-shirt, cap and spectacles, running down Nathan Road, the Kowloon district’s main commercial street. “They are trapped in there.”

Later, about a dozen protesters pinned inside the campus escaped on the backs of waiting motorbikes after lowering themselves with rope onto the road.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes between protesters and police have escalated sharply since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

On Monday night, protesters under cover of umbrellas huddled along the median strip in Nathan Road, filling bottles with petrol to make crude bombs, a weapon they have used increasingly.

Some residents were trapped at police cordons, and all the shops along a stretch of commercial strip that is usually one of Hong Kong’s busiest were shut.

TIGHTENED CORDON

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas to pin back about 100 anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs and other weapons and stop them from fleeing.

Dozens, choking on the tear gas, tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, but were pushed back.

“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters.

“It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

“All roads to Poly U are blocked,” said a policeman who stopped Reuters reporters at a road block on Monday night. “All are blocked.”

ARRESTS MOUNT

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they show restraint.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday no one should underestimate its will to protect its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

On Saturday, Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up unrest.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb, Farah Master, Jennifer Hughes and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong and Phil Stewart in Bangkok; Writing by Greg Torode and Tony Munroe; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)

California police find no motive for school shooting

California police find no motive for school shooting By Steve Gorman SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (Reuters) - A 16-year-old student was carrying out a deliberate plan when he shot five teenagers at his California high school then turned the gun on himself, the local sheriff said on Friday, but authorities have no clues about what sparked the bloodshed. "We did not find any manifesto, any diary that spelled it out," Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a briefing. The gunman, whose identity has not been made public, survived the self-inflicted gunshot wound but was in grave condition in a hospital, Villanueva said. Two of the other five students who were shot in the Thursday morning attack died of their wounds. Detectives worked through the night to follow up on tips related to the shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, about 40 miles (65 km) north of Los Angeles. The shooting, which was caught on video, unfolded in 16 seconds, police said. Arriving at school on his 16th birthday, the suspect pulled a .45 semi-automatic pistol from his backpack in an outdoor courtyard, stood in one place and shot his victims in rapid succession before turning the gun and firing the last bullet into his head. Villanueva said authorities did not know the origin of the gun used, nor how the shooter got his hands on it. All Hart District schools in Santa Clarita were closed on Friday, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's office said on Twitter, out of respect for the victims and their families. Two girls aged 14 and 15 were being treated at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California and were listed in good and fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said early on Friday. At the Henry Mayo Hospital in Santa Clarita, authorities said a 14-year-old boy was treated and released. Two other students who had been taken there died. A hospital spokesman could not immediately be reached on Friday. Villanueva identified one of the students killed as Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15. He said the families of the other student killed and those wounded did not authorize him to release their names. The scene at Saugus High School was reminiscent of other mass shootings at U.S. schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student with an assault rifle killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018. It was the 85th incident of gunfire at a school this year, according to Everytown, a gun control advocacy group. (Reporting by Steve Gorman and Alan Devall in Santa Clarita; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter and Barbara Goldberg in New York City, Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Dan Whitcomb in Culver City and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Dan Whitcomb and additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Berkrot)

California police find no motive for school shooting
By Steve Gorman

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (Reuters) – A 16-year-old student was carrying out a deliberate plan when he shot five teenagers at his California high school then turned the gun on himself, the local sheriff said on Friday, but authorities have no clues about what sparked the bloodshed.

“We did not find any manifesto, any diary that spelled it out,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a briefing.

The gunman, whose identity has not been made public, survived the self-inflicted gunshot wound but was in grave condition in a hospital, Villanueva said. Two of the other five students who were shot in the Thursday morning attack died of their wounds.

Detectives worked through the night to follow up on tips related to the shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, about 40 miles (65 km) north of Los Angeles. The shooting, which was caught on video, unfolded in 16 seconds, police said.

Arriving at school on his 16th birthday, the suspect pulled a .45 semi-automatic pistol from his backpack in an outdoor courtyard, stood in one place and shot his victims in rapid succession before turning the gun and firing the last bullet into his head.

Villanueva said authorities did not know the origin of the gun used, nor how the shooter got his hands on it.

All Hart District schools in Santa Clarita were closed on Friday, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s office said on Twitter, out of respect for the victims and their families.

Two girls aged 14 and 15 were being treated at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California and were listed in good and fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said early on Friday.

At the Henry Mayo Hospital in Santa Clarita, authorities said a 14-year-old boy was treated and released. Two other students who had been taken there died. A hospital spokesman could not immediately be reached on Friday.

Villanueva identified one of the students killed as Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15. He said the families of the other student killed and those wounded did not authorize him to release their names.

The scene at Saugus High School was reminiscent of other mass shootings at U.S. schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student with an assault rifle killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.

It was the 85th incident of gunfire at a school this year, according to Everytown, a gun control advocacy group.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Alan Devall in Santa Clarita; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter and Barbara Goldberg in New York City, Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Dan Whitcomb in Culver City and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Dan Whitcomb and additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Berkrot)

Morales lost Bolivia after shock mutiny by police

Morales lost Bolivia after shock mutiny by police
By Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Last Friday night, with Bolivia’s most important city paralyzed by demonstrations against leftist President Evo Morales, the police unit tasked with securing the presidential palace met to help decide the nation’s future.

Bolivia for weeks had been gripped by violent protests after Morales declared victory in a disputed election that appeared to give him a fourth straight term. Election monitors said they suspected fraud.

Members of the Police Operations Tactical Unit, known as UTOP, had repeatedly clashed with anti-government protesters armed with sticks, rocks and makeshift bombs. In the courtyard of the unit’s compound that evening, dozens of assembled officers made a decision: They would cease defending Morales and join demonstrators in calling for his resignation.

By Saturday, UTOP forces had abandoned their posts.

Analysts say UTOP’s pivot, part of a wave of police defections across Bolivia, helped doom Morales’ government. Without the support of local law enforcement, his administration could not control Bolivia’s streets. Losing the allegiance of the unit charged with guarding the presidential palace in La Paz, the nation’s administrative capital, was a particularly cutting blow.

The nation’s military, largely passive amid the unrest, quickly signaled that it would not confront the protesters. On Sunday, Williams Kaliman, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said Morales should step down in order to foster “peace and the maintenance of stability in Bolivia.”

By Sunday afternoon, Morales had resigned. On Tuesday, he flew to Mexico, where he had been granted asylum.

Reuters talked with five UTOP police officers who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the press.

They cited various reasons for withdrawing support from Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who had led the country for nearly 14 years.

Some complained his government had lavished generous salaries and pensions on the armed forces, without offering similar benefits to police. Some said they were ordered by superiors to crack down only on anti-government protesters while avoiding conflict with pro-Morales loyalists. Others said they were simply worn down by weeks of conflict after the president’s controversial Oct. 20 election victory.

“At some point, it was just enough,” one officer said.

Franklin Flores, a congressman with Morales’ socialist MAS party, said the Morales government never used law enforcement for political ends and that police were well treated.

“President Morales has always respected the police and military as institutions,” Flores said. “The Bolivian police, under this government, went around with new trucks, new equipment, appropriate uniforms.”

The episode is key to understanding how Morales lost his grip on power.

A former coca-leaf farmer and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales was an iconic figure of Latin America’s left. He gained admiration for guiding the poor landlocked South American nation through steady growth and relative stability. His government’s social programs pulled millions from poverty.

But over time he alienated some indigenous supporters who had once hailed him as their champion. Morales clashed with native groups over development of tribal lands and constructed an ostentatious new presidential palace that he dubbed the Great House of the People. He also engineered a way around presidential term limits, enraging critics who viewed the move as an authoritarian power grab.

Losing police support spelled the end, said political analyst Franklin Pareja, a professor at Bolivia’s Universidad Mayor de San Andres.

“The government lost its shield,” Pareja said. “As a result, it was totally vulnerable and couldn’t go on.”

Morales has blamed his exit on a “coup” arranged by his political enemies. He has said he would consider returning to Bolivia to help bring peace to a deeply polarized nation in crisis. Supporters of Morales do not recognize the interim government. Street violence and protests continue.

“The most cunning and disastrous coup in history has been carried out,” Morales wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

CIVIC PRESSURE

Signs of trouble for Morales had been building well before this year’s election.

His popularity had slipped amid a softening economy and complaints he had lost touch with his man-of-the-people roots and was now manipulating the levers of power to remain in charge.

Morales first took office for a five-year term in 2006. In 2009, he pushed through a new Constitution that called for early elections that same year, which he won handily. That process effectively re-set the clock on his presidency, allowing him to run for a third term in 2014, even though the Constitution limited presidents to two terms.

Angling for even more time in office, Morales in 2016 held a public referendum asking Bolivians to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters narrowly rejected it.

But the nation’s Supreme Court, stacked with allies, let him run anyway. In a highly controversial 2017 ruling, they deemed term limits a violation of basic human rights.

Morales said he had been subject to a false, foreign-led smear campaign leading up to the referendum. Supporters have said the Supreme Court decision reflected the will of the people because those judges are elected officials in Bolivia.

Public frustration was on display Oct. 4 in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a little more than two weeks before the presidential election. Banners in the crowd read “Dictator Evo.” A civic leader named Luis Fernando Camacho gave a fiery speech slamming Morales’ “illegal” government and called on Bolivians to vote him out of office.

As results rolled in on election day, Morales held a narrow lead over his main rival, Carlos Mesa of the Citizens Community party, in a crowded field of nine candidates.

Bolivia’s electoral system requires a run-off between the top two vote-getters if no presidential candidate wins an outright majority or garners at least 40% of votes, while beating their nearest competitor by at least 10 percentage points.

With more than 80% of the votes tallied, Mesa and Morales appeared headed for a second round. But the count was suddenly halted at around 7:30 p.m. The Organization of American States (OAS), which had been invited to observe the election, expressed alarm.

Almost a day later, the count restarted with tallies showing momentum had shifted dramatically in favor of Morales. He cruised to a 10.5-percentage-point victory, eliminating the need for a runoff.

Protests erupted around the country. Opposition supporters blocked roads and staged mass marches, demanding new elections. Major cities were paralyzed.

Amid unrest, civic leader Camacho became a lightning rod for the opposition. He pledged to march into La Paz and hand Morales a resignation letter to sign.

“Evo’s days in office are numbered,” he told Reuters at a Nov. 5 rally.

BREAKING POINT

Morales’ government was weakened, but still in control. He urged Bolivia to await the results of an election audit, which had been initiated by the OAS.

Then came the Nov. 8 police defections.

What started with one mutiny at a police unit in the central city of Cochabamba in the morning quickly spread to the cities of Potosi, Santa Cruz and La Paz.

Rattled, Morales looked to rally his generals, including armed forces chief Kaliman, a long-time ally. He met with defense officials on Friday at the Great House of the People, but they offered little concrete support.

On Saturday, Kaliman said in a statement the armed forces “would never confront the people.”

Another bombshell came on Sunday at dawn. The OAS released its audit, which cited “serious irregularities” in the election, including phantom votes, forged ballots and “clear manipulations” in the count.

The OAS called for the results to be annulled and a new vote scheduled. Morales agreed to those demands, but was rebuffed by opposition leaders.

“Morales wanted to talk, but we didn’t want to. It was too late,” said Susana Campos Elio, an opposition lawmaker from La Paz.

Morales has since said the OAS “is in the service of the North American empire.”

Major backers of Morales started to jump ship.

Juan Carlos Huarachi, head of the powerful Bolivian Workers’ Center union, who days earlier had rallied miners to support the president in La Paz’s central square, gently urged Morales to step down to “pacify the Bolivian people”.

A slew of ruling party lawmakers resigned, including the head of the lower house and mayors of major cities such as Potosi, Oruro and Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital.

Around 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) military support collapsed. The armed forces released a statement “suggesting” that Morales step aside to quell mounting violence.

Shortly afterward, Morales announced in an emotional address that he would resign.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery in La Paz; Additional reporting by Monica Machicao and Daniel Ramos; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Marla Dickerson)