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)

Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela

Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela
By Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS (Reuters) – Before daybreak on January 8, several dozen police officers swept through the streets of Barrio Kennedy, a hillside slum outside Venezuela’s capital.

Some of the officers came under fire from assailants, unprompted. They shot back, hitting five young men. The five were then taken to a hospital, where they died of their wounds.

That, at least, is the official account, detailed in a statement the next day by the elite unit that conducted the operation – the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police.

The force’s version of events is contradicted by five eyewitness accounts gathered by Reuters. These people say the police killed one of the victims not in a street shootout, but in his home. The official story is also contradicted by video of that victim, reviewed by Reuters and reported here for the first time, that was obtained by investigators at Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The 82-second clip shows the young man sitting shirtless and unarmed in a storage room inside his home, under police interrogation about a nearby car theft, begging officers to spare his life.

“Brother,” says Jose Arevalo, a 29-year-old shop worker who had been convicted of robbery earlier this decade but avoided legal trouble since. “Don’t kill me.”

“If you collaborate, you’ll go free,” responds an unidentified officer, wearing black fatigues and a balaclava. “Otherwise, you’re going to die.”

The footage was recorded in the final minutes of Arevalo’s life, his girlfriend told Reuters. The couple was at home with her two children, she said, when about 15 uniformed officers and an unidentified person in civilian clothes barged in. They ejected her and the kids from the house.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the girlfriend said she believes the video was shot by one of those people, all unknown to her, once she was outside.

From the street, she said, she heard the sound of Arevalo being beaten. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots. Next, she saw officers carry Arevalo out of the house, apparently dead and now fully dressed. The police then riddled the walls of the house with bullets, making it appear that a gunfight had taken place. Just before leaving, she said, they stole a carton of eggs and her kids’ bicycle.

“If my son had committed a crime, they should have charged him and taken him to court,” said Zuleica Perez, Arevalo’s mother, who later identified his body at the morgue. “Instead, they decided to execute him.”

The girlfriend’s account was corroborated by four other eyewitnesses who were near the scene. It is one of 20 cases Reuters has documented across Venezuela in which witnesses have described extrajudicial killings by the Special Action Force, or FAES, as the unit is known by its Spanish acronym.

Jose Dominguez, the chief commissioner of the FAES, declined to discuss Arevalo’s death or the other cases recounted in this story. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment on detailed descriptions of this article’s findings.

The FAES has been accused by the political opposition, the United Nations and many poor Venezuelans of conducting extralegal killings on behalf of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In July, a U.N. report denounced FAES “executions” and called on Maduro to dissolve the force. The report didn’t detail specific cases of abuse or identify any of the individuals killed.

Maduro called the report “biased” and in a nationally televised speech shouted defiantly: “Long live the FAES!”

For months, Reuters, other media, international agencies and human rights groups have reported on allegations surrounding the FAES. Now, after a four-month investigation, Reuters contrasts the accounts of dozens of eyewitnesses, family members of the deceased, and official documents related to their deaths with FAES assertions that its officers killed only after being attacked.

The new reporting provides the deepest insight yet into the methods used by the force to snuff out perceived threats to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

This portrait of the FAES, a force of some 1,500 officers, complements earlier reports in which Reuters examined other blunt instruments used by the leftist leader to control his hungry and impoverished populace – from a multitudinous and loyal cadre of senior military officers to a special intelligence service created with the help of imported security advisors from Cuba.

The FAES is a tool of Maduro’s own devising. He established the force in July 2017 as he faced a surge in violent crime that followed the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-based economy. The force was touted as a means to stem the crime wave.

Instead, according to opposition politicians and former Maduro supporters, the FAES became a means of social control in the country’s poor neighborhoods, wracked by hunger and joblessness, where criminal networks might stir upheaval and threaten government hegemony.

The aim, says one senior former member of the Maduro government, was to spread fear and keep Venezuela’s mean streets from spawning a new political opposition. “Maduro uses the FAES whenever he needs a unit that is completely under his control, to carry out whatever attack, whatever atrocity,” said Zair Mundaray, a former deputy chief prosecutor, who left Venezuela after falling out with Maduro two years ago.

The death of Arevalo shares many characteristics with other FAES killings. In all of the cases reviewed, the FAES followed a pattern, issuing a statement saying that an armed assailant resisted authority and was killed in a shootout. In each case, the official narrative was undermined by witness testimony, crime-scene photographs or official death certificates.

Reuters investigated six killings in Caracas, two in neighboring Miranda state, eight in the north-central state of Lara, and four in the central state of Guarico. This article chronicles five deaths, and an accompanying visual story details an additional six. In those 11 cases, and the other nine reviewed by Reuters, evidence suggests that FAES officers:

• beat or tortured the targets before their deaths.

• staged or altered the scene of the incident, often to create the illusion of aggression by those killed.

• looted the houses they raided or the personal belongings of those who died.

In every case, death certificates show that the deceased received similar, lethal gunshots to the torso – injuries that physicians, morgue workers, and current and former police officers told Reuters are more consistent with executions than with the chaotic ballistics of gunfights.

The wounds are “precise and in the same place,” said the director of a trauma unit where many victims of FAES shootings have been taken. The doctor, like many other local specialists consulted for this story, spoke on condition he not be identified.

International forensic doctors consulted by Reuters were also troubled by details and documentation surrounding the killings, including photographs of the bullet wounds in 10 of the victims’ bodies.

Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathologist in Cardiff, Wales, who has investigated torture and extrajudicial killings for groups including the United Nations and Amnesty International, said: “The number of gunshot wounds in the midline at the lower chest, upper abdomen is worrisome given that the deaths are said to have occurred in the dynamic context of shootouts.”

“THEY ARE NEUTRALIZED”

People familiar with the FAES’ methods say the force relies on a national network of neighborhood informants, often ruling party loyalists, to select targets and plan operations. It often goes after poor, young men with minor rap sheets – marijuana possession and theft are two of the priors among those mentioned in this story – or petty troublemakers who bother local leaders.

Afterwards, the FAES issues statements claiming to have eliminated “antisocial” or “highly dangerous individuals.”

“The community knows who robs, who sells drugs, who extorts,” said Maria Silva, state leader in Lara of the Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement, a militant organization that backs Maduro and provides local intelligence to authorities. “Once they are identified, they are neutralized.”

Venezuela’s government doesn’t publish official figures for FAES killings. Internal government data reviewed by Reuters show 5,280 people died at the hands of all the country’s police after “resisting authority” last year. That marks a 160% increase from 2016, the year before the FAES was created.

Some tallies are higher. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas-based research organization affiliated with universities across the country, counted 7,523 police killings under those circumstances last year.

The FAES faces little outside scrutiny. Dozens of witnesses, as well as current and former police officers, told Reuters forensic investigators allied with the FAES often rubber-stamp the force’s fatality reports, without full analyses, and support its assertions that officers acted in self-defense.

In every case reviewed by Reuters, family members said the only documentation provided by authorities was a death certificate and a brief report, with little medical explanation, claiming their relative died “resisting authority.”

“You cannot take the documents at face value,” said Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner for Tarrant County, Texas, and a forensic advisor with Physicians for Human Rights who has worked in conflict zones including Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Without autopsy reports, medical reports, x-rays, internal injury pictures, any other documentation, there is no way to corroborate what they are saying.”

Human rights groups and families of the dead have called for investigations of the force, but so far only a handful of court cases, all inconclusive, have delved into the accusations against FAES officers.

One homicide detective, who isn’t part of the FAES but is involved with their work, told Reuters the force is largely untouchable. Case files involving FAES violence, like the people who run afoul of the force, “are in eternal sleep,” the detective said.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Crime has increasingly plagued Venezuela since Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, became president in 1999. High oil prices stoked economic growth for much of the following decade. But changes imposed by Chavez enabled a dramatic increase in violent offenses, critics say.

Pursuing his socialist “revolution,” Chavez stacked courts and police posts with allies who politicized law enforcement and the judiciary. The result, former police leaders say, was a collapse of professionalism. Many crimes went uninvestigated. Lawbreakers grew bold.

By the time Chavez died in 2013, the murder rate had quadrupled to one of the highest on the planet – nearly 80 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Observatory of Violence, or nearly 20 times that of the United States at the time.

Oil prices plummeted the following year. Venezuela’s economy withered. Crime spiked even further.

Maduro, a fiery former bus driver and union leader, took over in April 2013 and declared crime a priority. “Stop the violence!” he yelled during rallies.

He ordered security forces into poor barrios to root out criminals. Among those sent in was the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation, or CICPC. The CICPC, once the country’s top crime-fighting unit, soon drew criticism.

Foreshadowing the violence that would accompany FAES raids, the CICPC was accused by human rights activists and the United Nations of excessive force. But it was never as active as the FAES would become. The CICPC, moreover, wasn’t entirely loyal because it included some veteran officers who opposed Maduro’s government.

In June 2017, amid violent protests against Maduro’s rule, a CICPC officer named Oscar Perez commandeered a police helicopter and fired grenades at government buildings. Perez survived the episode and went into hiding.

The next month, the government unveiled the FAES at a ceremony in Caracas. The force, hand-picked by police officials who support the administration, would combat “terrorist groups encouraged by the criminal right wing,” Maduro said on state television. Opponents, he added, had turned Venezuela into a “war zone.”

The FAES soon pursued the CICPC. In January 2018, FAES officers found Perez and killed him.

After that, current and former officers from the CICPC and the National Police told Reuters, the CICPC became little more than a forensics team, mostly at the service of the FAES. Officials from the CICPC didn’t return calls seeking comment.

From an initial corps of about 640 officers, the FAES soon more than doubled in size. Some officers are selected from existing precincts, others directly from police academies. Recruits have also come from “colectivos,” pro-government paramilitary groups known for harassing political opponents.

The rapid expansion, aggressive mandate and spotty training are a dangerous mix, critics say. “They throw them straight onto the street to work, without basic policing skills, and innocent people end up dead,” said William Tovar, head of the main retirees’ association of the National Police.

Members of the force have also earned a reputation for pillaging. Like all civil servants in Venezuela, FAES officers earn miniscule wages that are continuously eroded by hyperinflation – now equal to about $12 a month, including food supplements.

One family in the state of Lara showed Reuters a list of 20 objects they said officers stole after killing their son, including a modem, an air-conditioner and six rolls of toilet paper. In its statement about the death last April, the FAES made no mention of entering the victim’s house, saying it shot the man in a garden after he opened fire on officers.

One senior FAES commander said the force seeks to work responsibly. But individual officers, he said, sometimes go too far. “There are no saints,” the commander said.

“YOU’RE CRIMINALS”

Jose Arevalo grew up in Barrio Kennedy, the slum where FAES agents shot him. Earlier this decade, he served three years in prison for robbery, according to a court document. His family doesn’t dispute that conviction. “When he made that mistake, he took responsibility, and paid for it,” said Perez, his mother.

Upon release in 2017, he worked briefly in Colombia. He returned to Venezuela last year and started working at an uncle’s gold exchange. Locals say he was popular and kind-hearted, helping older residents lug gas canisters through the neighborhood. But some of his friends still had criminal ties, his family said.

Last December, Arevalo posed for a photo with two of them on a rooftop. A pistol was on Arevalo’s lap. He told his family the gun wasn’t his. Several days later, his mother told Reuters, the family received a warning from an anonymous caller: Arevalo should be careful whom he associated with.

The morning of his death, FAES officers smashed open the door and dragged Arevalo naked from the bedroom, his girlfriend said. They ordered her to give them his clothes, then forced everyone but Arevalo out of the house.

In the video, an officer tells Arevalo, who is wearing only shorts, that the police were looking for a car thief. The officer said the thief’s description didn’t match Arevalo, but he wanted information nonetheless. “Stay calm and we won’t do anything to you,” the officer told him.

The cop orders Arevalo to put on his shirt. The young man again says he knows nothing about the theft. The video ends abruptly.

Peerwani, the forensic advisor in Texas, told Reuters clothes can be used to obscure smoke, gunpowder and other ballistic evidence indicating gunfire at close range. “There is no proof, but there is a deductive conclusion,” he said. “Why would a security officer make them put on a shirt and then shoot them?”

The girlfriend said she had been outside about five minutes when the gunshots rang out. The next day, the FAES published its statement, saying it had killed Arevalo and four others who had been “terrorizing” Kennedy. Reuters couldn’t determine in what circumstances the others died.

With its statement, the FAES published the photo of Arevalo with the pistol. It said officers had shot Arevalo in a part of the barrio that is half a kilometer away from the home. “Neutralized,” it wrote in red letters above Arevalo’s face.

Two weeks after the Kennedy raid, Juan Guaido, an opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president. His bid to unseat Maduro, which so far has failed, convulsed the country. In the state of Lara, a hotbed of opposition, protests flared.

On January 25, a dozen FAES vehicles left Barquisimeto, the state capital, where the government last year had deployed hundreds of the force’s officers. The convoy drove to El Tocuyo, a town where demonstrators had burned tires by the residence of the mayor, a Maduro supporter. Local authorities said opponents tried to burn her house down.

In midafternoon, nine witnesses said some 30 FAES officers raided the house of Judith Cortez. Unemployed and with a disabled husband, Cortez lived with her sons, Anderson Torres, 18, and Jose Alfredo Torres, 27.

The elder brother had been arrested for marijuana possession several years earlier, she said, and the younger had spent a night in jail in 2017 after joining a crowd that looted food from a warehouse.

As Anderson sat outside on a beer crate drawing sketches, Cortez told Reuters, FAES officers broke down their gate. They pulled her from the house, drove her two kilometers away, and left her by a bridge.

The officers grabbed Anderson, Jose Alfredo and Cristian Ramos, an 18-year-old friend and neighbor, according to an eyewitness who remained near the house. They forced the men to kneel behind a shed out back and pull their shirts over their heads, the witness said.

One officer, the witness added, beat them for over an hour with a metal tube. “You’re criminals,” the witness said the officer yelled. Then another officer pulled his pistol and shot all three in the chest. Death certificates and photos of their bodies reviewed by Reuters confirm bullet wounds to the torso as the cause of death for each.

After the shootings, according to the family and neighbors, the officers stayed at the house until evening. They fired dozens of additional shots with various weapons, scarring a tree and an exterior wall of the house. They laughed and ate food from Cortez’s refrigerator, these people said.

One officer walked to the home of Ramos around 7 p.m. He asked Ramos’ mother, Lucia Escalona, for a glass of water. “This water isn’t poisoned, is it?” the officer asked, Escalona told Reuters.

“I don’t understand why they killed my son,” she said.

In a statement, the CICPC said police killed the three because the men had fired upon the officers. Kleyder Ferreiro, Lara state security secretary, told reporters the deceased were part of an “organized criminal group” and had taken part in the tire burning.

Family members of all three men denied the accusations.

Ferreiro is no longer with the state government and declined by text message to discuss the episode with Reuters. Gisela Rodriguez, the mayor whose house had been targeted by the protests, didn’t respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.

After the killings, protests in El Tocuyo waned. “It’s as if the whole town died,” said Omar Escalona, Ramos’ uncle.

In late July, a video https://twitter.com/NTN24ve/status/1156953427441795073 circulated online showing a dozen unidentified young men firing guns into the air in Altagracia de Orituco, a town of 50,000 in the state of Guarico. The video, allegedly of members of a drug-trafficking gang known as the “Tren del Llano,” was widely considered a challenge by the gang to authorities.

Reuters couldn’t determine who authored the video.

On August 2, the FAES posted an Instagram video https://www.instagram.com/p/B0qdHkejMFU of heavily-armed officers patrolling the town. It said the FAES had launched a mission to “bring peace, tranquility and security” to the area. Over the next eight days, the FAES in statements said it killed 18 alleged criminals there who had resisted arrest.

One CICPC officer, who saw the scenes of the FAES shootings and is familiar with the Tren del Llano gang, said he didn’t believe those killed had anything to do with the group. FAES officers, he added, removed bodies from the scenes before he and other CICPC colleagues arrived.

The operation, which surprised even local police, was a FAES “media show,” the officer told Reuters.

Families of three of those killed, along with other witnesses, told Reuters that FAES officers grabbed their targets off the street without provocation and then killed them several kilometers away. The relatives denied that any of the three men were members of the gang. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm whether they in fact had any connections to the group or why the FAES may have targeted them.

One of the three men was 25-year-old Jor-Rafer Nares, a mechanic who repaired trucks used by nearby farms to haul crops. Nares was walking in the small town of San Rafael, just south of Altagracia, on August 5 at about 6 p.m. According to his mother, who was nearby, and another eyewitness, a black FAES pickup truck pulled alongside and ordered him to get in. The mother and the witness asked to remain anonymous.

Several hours later, Nares’ mother said, she went to a local police station to determine her son’s whereabouts. An officer told her, “FAES headquarters here is the morgue.” He suggested she go there to look.

There, the mother said, she found the body.

She saw two bullet wounds in her son’s chest, another in his head, and deep bruising along his ribs and arms. His house keys, a debit card and a few dollars he carried were missing, she said. The head wound is visible in a photo – reviewed by Reuters, the CICPC officer, and a physician – taken of Nares at the morgue.

A FAES statement the next day said officers shot Nares after he fired upon them in a rural area 6 kilometers north of where the police allegedly approached him. The site described in the statement is the area where the Tren del Llano video had been filmed.

The FAES, along with its statement, included a photo of a bloodstain and a shotgun on the ground at the scene. The weapon, however, was missing a trigger. The CICPC officer and another policeman told Reuters the gun wouldn’t have fired.

A death certificate reviewed by Reuters said Nares died at 9 p.m., three hours after the witnesses said he entered the FAES truck. The certificate lists the gunshots to his thorax, but not the bullet wound in his head.

Israel Nares, his father, didn’t see his son the day of his death. Like many other relatives of those killed, he sees a willful lack of accountability around the FAES and its operations. “There is an institutional and complicit silence here,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Keren Torres in Barquisimeto and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Hong Kong protesters vow to hit the streets in major ‘illegal’ march

Hong Kong protesters vow to hit the streets in major ‘illegal’ march
By Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigners on Friday vowed to stage a major march at the weekend despite police ruling the rally illegal, setting the scene for possibly more unrest in the Chinese-ruled city, battered by months of violent protests.

Hong Kong has been relatively calm for the past week, with only small, often colorful demonstrations, and Sunday’s march will test the strength of the pro-democracy campaign, which has in the past rallied millions on to the streets.

In rejecting the protesters’ request for a march permit, police said past events had been “hijacked by a group of radical protesters” who set fire to buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police, detonated a home-made bomb and wrecked infrastructure.

“While we always respect citizens’ rights to assembly and freedom of speech, we are alarmed by this epidemic that radical protesters resort to violence in expressing their opinion,” Acting Chief Superintendent of Police Public Relations Branch, Kong Wing-cheung, said in announcing the rejection.

Thousands have defied police in the past and staged mass rallies, often peaceful at the start but becoming violent at night.

“We will not back down even after the attack on the Civil Human Rights Front convener Jimmy Sham. Our most powerful force is the unity and resistance of this civil society,” said the rights group, calling on the public to rally on Sunday.

Prominent rights activist Jimmy Sham was brutally beaten by four men wielding hammers and knives on Wednesday, a move pro-democracy lawmakers said was meant to intimidate protesters and incite violence ahead of Sunday’s planned march.

Protesters on Friday night formed a human chain wearing Jimmy Sham face masks, with a banner reading: “We are all Jimmy Sham. Je Suis Jimmy Sham.”

The human chain was planned to stretch a 40 km (25 miles) along the city’s metro, with many people wearing eccentric masks in defiance on a ban on covering faces at public rallies. Wearing a face mask at a public rally carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

“I am not worried about being prosecuted because I violate the anti-mask law. I think people won’t be afraid to come out on Sunday,” said Kiki, 29, wearing a pig face mask.

Hong Kong has been hit by four months of protests, driven by concerns Beijing is eroding freedoms granted when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

China denies the accusation, blaming foreign nations such as the United States and Britain for inciting the unrest.

The crisis in the Chinese-ruled city is the worst since the handover and poses the biggest popular challenge to China’s President Xi Jinping since he took power. Xi has warned he would crush any attempt to split China.

HONG KONG MAN ACCUSED OF MURDER

Riot police and protesters have fought street battles, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally live rounds against brick and petrol-bomb throwing activists.

Two people have been shot and wounded by police and thousands injured. Police have arrested more than 2,300 people since June.

Many Hong Kong residents are angry with what they believe is excessive force by police and the introduction of the face mask ban by embattled leader Carrie Lam.

Lam has rejected the protesters’ five core demands: universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into police behavior, amnesty for those charged, stop describing protesters as rioters, and the formal withdrawal of an extradition bill.

The bill, which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to Communist Party-controlled courts for trial, was seen as the latest move to erode those freedoms and sparked the unrest. Lam says the bill is now dead, but it has not been formally withdrawn.

The case of a young Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan last year before fleeing back to Hong Kong, was held up originally as an example of why an extradition bill was needed.

Lam’s office said on Friday Chan had written to her saying he would “surrender himself to Taiwan for his alleged involvement in the homicide case in Taiwan upon prison discharge”.

Chan is currently serving a 29-month sentence in Hong Kong for money laundering. It was not immediately clear what had prompted his letter or what plea he planned to make.

Hong Kong hub is facing its first recession as a result of the unrest, which has damaged tourism and retail.

Protesters dressed in black ninja-like outfits have torched metro stations and Chinese banks and shops they believe are linked to mainland China. Many businesses have been forced to close.

China has banned the bulk shipment to the city of black clothing and other items popularly used by Hong Kong protesters, staff at Chinese courier firms said.

Secretary for Transport and Housing, Frank Chan, said on Friday it would be weeks before the metro operated fully.

Pro-democracy candidates will stand in almost all 452 seats in Hong Kong’s upcoming local elections, encouraged by the protests, with the outcome of the November poll a barometer of support for the city’s government.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WARNED OF REPRISALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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