Hong Kong leader says sorry as protesters insist she quits

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By James Pomfret and Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam apologized to its people on Sunday as an estimated 1 million-plus black-clad protesters insisted that she resign over her handling of a bill that would allow citizens to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Organizers said almost 2 million turned out on Sunday to demand that chief executive Lam step down in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since it was handed back by Britain 22 years ago.

Sunday’s demonstration came in spite of Lam indefinitely delaying – though not withdrawing – the bill on Saturday in a dramatic climbdown that threw into question her ability to continue to lead the city.

On Sunday, she apologized for the way the government had handled the draft law, which had been scheduled for debate last Wednesday, but gave no further insight into its fate.

Organizers pressed ahead with the protest to demand the bill’s full withdrawal, as well as to mark their anger at the way police handled a demonstration against it on Wednesday, when more than 70 people were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas.

Some of Sunday’s marchers held signs saying, “Do not shoot, we are HongKonger.”

Police said the demonstration reached 338,000 at its peak. Organizers and police have routinely produced vastly different estimates at recent demonstrations.

Organizers estimated a protest the week before drew 1 million while police said 240,000.

“It’s much bigger today. Many more people,” said one protester who gave her name as Ms Wong. “I came today because of what happened on Wednesday, with the police violence.”

Loud cheers rang out when activists called through loud hailers for Lam’s resignation and the cry “step down” echoed through the streets.

“(An) apology is not enough,” said demonstrator Victor Li, 19.

‘SHORTING’ CARRIE LAM

The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

Critics say the planned extradition law could threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law and its international reputation as an Asian financial hub. Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving personal wealth offshore.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump would raise the issue of Hong Kong human rights at a potential meeting with president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan this month.

In a blog post published on Sunday, Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan sought to play down the impact of the protests.

“Even if the external environment continues to be unclear and the social atmosphere is tense recently, overall Hong Kong’s economic and financial markets are still operating in a stable and orderly manner,” he wrote.

Activist investor David Webb, in a newsletter on Sunday, said if Lam was a stock he would recommend shorting her with a target price of zero.

“Call it the Carrie trade. She has irrevocably lost the public’s trust,” Webb said. “Her minders in Beijing, while expressing public support for now, have clearly lined her up for the chop.”

In another indication of a possible shift of mood in the Chinese capital, a leader of the pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations that galvanized Hong Kong in 2014 appeared set to be released from jail.

Joshua Wong’s pro-democracy Demosisto movement said he would be freed on Monday.

Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the latest series of protests -the largest since crowds demonstrated against the bloody suppression of pro-democracy activists in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989 – amid concerns that any large public rallies could inspire demonstrations on the mainland.

Pompeo said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” he was sure the protests would be among the issues that Trump and Xi will discuss.

“We’re watching the people of Hong Kong speak about the things they value, and we’ll see what Lam’s decision is in the coming days and weeks,” Pompeo said.

Last week U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would require the U.S. government to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from China each year in order to continue the special treatment the city gets under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.

ONE COUNTRY TWO SYSTEMS

The city’s independent legal system was guaranteed under laws governing Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule and is seen by business and diplomatic communities as its strongest asset.

Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula since then, allowing freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China but not a fully democratic vote.

Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Asked repeatedly on Saturday if she would step down, Lam avoided answering directly and appealed to the public to “give us another chance.”

Her reversal was hailed by business groups including the American Chamber of Commerce, which had spoken out strongly against the bill, and overseas governments.

The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter: “Well done HK Government for heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights”.

In the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own, about 5,000 people rallied outside the parliament building in Taipei with banners saying, “No China extradition law” and “Taiwan supports Hong Kong.”

Some of the protesters in Hong Kong also waved Taiwan flags.

China’s top newspaper, the People’s Daily, on Sunday condemned “anti-China lackeys” of foreign forces in Hong Kong.

Lam had argued that the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals hiding in Hong Kong and that human rights would be protected by the city’s courts which would decide on any extradition on a case-by-case basis.

Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, have noted China’s justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and say it is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.

(Reporting by Alun John, Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, John Ruwitch, Marius Zaharia, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Farah Master; Additional reporting by by Richard Cowan in Washington, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Jennifer Hughes; Editing by Michael Perry and John Stonestreet)

French police fire tear gas at protesters in Paris May Day rally

A protester wearing a yellow vest holds a French flag as he walks among tear gas during the traditional May Day labour union march with French unions and yellow vests protesters in Paris, France, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By Clotaire Achi and Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) – French police fired tear gas to push back masked demonstrators in central Paris on Wednesday as thousands of people used an annual May Day rally to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies.

Labor unions and so-called “yellow vest” protesters were on the streets across France, days after Macron outlined a response to months of street protests that included tax cuts worth around 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion).

A Reuters journalist saw riot police use tear gas to disperse a group of hooded and masked protesters who had converged at the front of the traditional May Day labor union march in Paris.

Some protesters wearing hoods or yellow vests responded by throwing projectiles at the police. Television footage showed a van with its windows smashed. Several people were lightly wounded.

By mid-afternoon, the main march crossing the southern part of the capital was finally able to move amid relative calm, although it appeared that yellow-vests and more radical elements rather than labor unions were dominating the march. The hard left CGT union denounced police violence.

People including protesters wearing yellow vests gather near La Rotonde restaurant during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

People including protesters wearing yellow vests gather near La Rotonde restaurant during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

“While the inter-union procession was to start at 14:30 (1230 GMT), unprecedented and indiscriminate repression took place following the acts of violence by some parties,” the union said in a statement. It said union members including the CGT secretary general had been tear-gassed, adding, “This current scenario, scandalous and unprecedented, is unacceptable in our democracy.”

A Reuters photographer saw several masked protesters removing their outfits to merge into the crowd.

French police had warned on Tuesday that there could be clashes with far-left anarchist groups, known as Black Blocs, after calls on social media for radicals to hit the streets.

Authorities had said they expected some 2,000 Black Bloc protesters from France and across Europe to turn up on the sidelines of the traditional May Day union rallies.

Some 7,400 police were deployed in Paris and made 200 arrests.

The “yellow vest” protests, named after motorists’ high-visibility jackets, began in November over fuel tax increases but have evolved into a sometimes violent revolt against politicians and a government seen as out of touch.

Many in the grassroots movement, which lacks a leadership structure, have said Macron’s proposals do not go far enough and most of what he announced lacks detail.

Thousands of people also demonstrated in cities from Marseille to Toulouse and Bordeaux. Some 300 yellow-vest protesters tried to storm a police station in the Alpine town of Besancon.

“We have been trying to fight, to make ourselves heard, for six months and nobody cares. People don’t understand the movement, though it seems pretty simple: We just want to live normally,” said Florence, 58, a trainer in a large company who was marching in Paris.

(Additional reporting by Ardee Soriano, Elizabeth Pineau and Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

French interior minister warns of yellow-vest riots on Saturday

FILE PHOTO: Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration during the Act XXI (the 21st consecutive national protest on Saturday) of the yellow vests movement at the financial district of La Defense near Paris, France, April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – The French interior minister warned on Friday that violence could flare up on the 23rd Saturday of yellow-vest protests, as authorities banned marches around the fire-gutted Notre-Dame cathedral.

The warning comes after weeks of relative calm, with the marches attracting declining numbers as yellow-vest protesters waited for President Emmanuel Macron’s expected response to their various demands which include lower taxes and more government services.

Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said domestic intelligence services had informed him of a potential return of rioters intent on wreaking havoc in Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier and Bordeaux, in a repeat of violent protests on March 16.

That day, hooded gangs ransacked stores on Paris’s famed Champs-Elysees avenue, set fire to a bank and forced Macron to cut short a ski trip in the Pyrenees.

“The rioters will be back tomorrow,” Castaner told a press conference. “Their proclaimed aim: a repeat of March 16,” he said. “The rioters have visibly not been moved by what happened at Notre-Dame.”

Castaner said that planned marches that would have come near the medieval church on the central island on the Seine river had been banned, while one march from Saint-Denis, north of Paris, to Jussieu university on the Left Bank, had been authorized.

The catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral on Monday, one of France’s best-loved monuments, prompted an outpouring of national sorrow and a rush by rich families and corporations to pledge around 1 billion euro ($1.12 billion)for its reconstruction.

That has angered some yellow-vest protesters, who have expressed disgust at the fact their five-month-old movement, which started as an anti-fuel tax protest last year, has not received the same generous donations by France’s elite.

“I’m sorry, and with all due respect to our heritage, but I am just taken aback by these astronomic amounts!” Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the yellow vests’ most recognizable public faces, said on her Facebook page.

“After five months on the streets, this is totally at odds with what we have seen,” she said.

The yellow vest movement poses the biggest challenge so far to Macron’s authority two years into his presidency.

The French leader was due to unveil policies to quell the grassroot movement on Monday, before the blaze at Notre-Dame forced him to cancel the speech. He has yet to set a new date for the announcements.

(Reporting by Danielle Rouquié, writing by Michel Rose; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Venezuela captures rogue officers after uprising at military outpost

Demonstrators stand close to the remains of a burning car used as barricade during a protest near to a National Guard outpost in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials on Monday, the government said, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

An unspecified number of officers early on Monday attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza, a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the presidential Miraflores palace, where they met “firm resistance,” the government said in a statement. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3 a.m. (0700 GMT) in the area.

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Protesters later burned trash and a car outside the outpost, where the officers were arrested, in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that governments around the world have called illegitimate.

Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to force change in the hyperinflationary economy as many people suffer from shortages of food and medicine.

“The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right,” the government said in a statement read out on state television.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, with countries around the world disavowing his government.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.

The opposition-controlled congress’s head, Juan Guaido, said the uprising was a sign of the armed forces’ depressed state of mind. Congress was committed to offering guarantees to officers who helped with “the constitution’s reconstitution,” he said, though he did not want the military to fall into internal conflict.

“We want it to stand as one man on the side of the people, the constitution, and against the usurpation,” he said on Twitter.

In the videos that circulated on Twitter, a group of armed soldiers stood in darkness apparently at the Cotiza outpost while their leader addressed the camera and called for Venezuelans to support their revolt.

“You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops. It’s today when the people come out to support us,” said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.

The government said the men took two vehicles from a police station in the Macarao district in the west of Caracas before driving to a barracks in the eastern Petare slum, where they stole an arms cache and kidnapped four officials.

After they attacked the Cotiza outpost in the early hours of the morning, security forces surrounded them. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish as they chanted “Don’t hand yourself in,” according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

“These soldiers are right to rise up. We need a political change, because we don’t have any water or electricity,” said Angel Rivas, a 49-year-old laborer at the protest.

The United States and many Latin American nations say Maduro has become a dictator whose failed state-led policies have plunged Venezuela into its worst ever economic crisis, with inflation approaching 2 million percent.

Maduro says a U.S.-directed “economic war” is trying to force him from power.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax increases in face of ‘yellow vest’ protests

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By Simon Carraud and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s prime minister on Tuesday suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration after 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said anyone would have “to be deaf or blind” not to see or hear the roiling anger on the streets over a policy that Macron has defended as critical to combating climate change.

“The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn’t manage to convince the French, then something must change,” said Philippe.

“No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation.”

Along with the delay to the tax increases that were set for January, Philippe said the time would be used to discuss other measures to help the working poor and squeezed middle-class who rely on vehicles to get to work and go shopping.

Earlier officials had hinted at a possible increase to the minimum wage, but Philippe made no such commitment.

He warned citizens, however, that they could not expect better public services and lower taxes.

“If the events of recent days have shown us one thing, it’s that the French want neither an increase in taxes or new taxes. If the tax-take falls then spending must fall because we don’t want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizeable,” he said.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement, which started on Nov. 17 as a social-media protest group named for the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their cars, began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household spending brought about by Macron’s taxes on fuel.

However, over the past three weeks, the movement has evolved into a wider, broadbrush anti-Macron uprising, with many criticizing the president for pursuing policies they say favor the rich and do nothing to help the poor.

Despite having no leader and sometimes unclear goals, the movement has drawn people of all ages and backgrounds and tapped into a growing malaise over the direction Macron is trying to take the country in. Over the past two days, ambulance drivers and students have joined in and launched their own protests.

After three weeks of rising frustration, there was scant indication Philippe’s measures would placate the “yellow vests”, who themselves are struggling to find a unified position.

“The French don’t want crumbs, they want a baguette,” ‘yellow vest’ spokesman Benjamin Cauchy told BFM, adding that the movement wanted a cancellation of the taxes.

Another one, Christophe Chalencon, was blunter: “We’re being taken for idiots,” he told Reuters, using a stronger expletive.

GREEN GOALS

The timing of the tax U-turn is uncomfortable for Macron. It comes as governments meet in Poland to try to agree measures to avert the most damaging consequences of global warming, an issue Macron has made a central part of his agenda. His carbon taxes were designed to address the issue.

But the scale of the protests against his policies made it almost impossible to plow ahead as he had hoped.

While the “yellow vest” movement was mostly peaceful to begin with, the past two weekends have seen outpourings of violence and rioting in Paris, with extreme far-right and far-left factions joining the demos and spurring chaos.

On Saturday, the Arc de Triomphe national monument was defaced and avenues off the Champs Elysees were damaged. Cars, buildings and some cafes were torched.

The unrest is estimated to have cost the economy millions, with large-scale disruption to retailers, wholesalers, the restaurant and hotel trades. In some areas, manufacturing has been hit in the run up to Christmas.

CHANGE FRANCE?

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, came to office in mid-2017 promising to overhaul the French economy, revitalize growth and draw foreign investment by making the nation a more attractive place to do business.

In the process he earned the tag “president of the rich” for seeming to do more to court big business and ease the tax burden on the wealthy. Discontent has steadily risen among blue-collar workers and others who feel he represents an urban “elite”.

For Macron, who is sharply down in the polls and struggling to regain the initiative, a further risk is how opposition parties leverage the anger and the decision to shift course.

Ahead of European Parliament elections next May, support for the far-right under Marine Le Pen and the far-left of Jean-Luc Melenchon has been rising. Macron has cast those elections as a battle between his “progressive” ideas and what he sees as their promotion of nationalist or anti-EU agendas.

Le Pen was quick to point out that the six-month postponement of the fuel-tax increases took the decision beyond the European elections.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Richard Lough, John Irish; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Anger in India over two rapes puts government in bind US-INDIA-RAPE

People hold placards at a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Krishna N. Das and Rupam Jain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Mounting outrage over two rapes, one in the disputed region of Kashmir and another allegedly involving a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, gripped India on Friday, with government ministers struggling to dampen political fires.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang-rape in the capital.

“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at Thursday’s midnight vigil. “India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”

Modi has yet to speak out on the rapes, which have drawn conflicted responses among the lower ranks of his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Horrifying details of the alleged gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa, in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir state in January, emerged this week from a police charge sheet.

The BJP shares power in the state, where party members joined a rally to show support for eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including a former bureaucrat and four police officers.

“Yet again we’ve failed as a society,” Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said in a Twitter message.

“Can’t think straight as more chilling details on little Asifa’s case emerge…her innocent face refuses to leave me. Justice must be served, hard and fast!”

Amid fears the case could escalate unrest in a region where security forces are battling separatist militants, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq vowed to launch an agitation if any attempt was made to shield culprits or sabotage investigations.

“It is a criminal act and perpetrators of the crime should be punished,” he added.

Thousands of Kashmiris joined street protests in Srinagar this week, following the death of four protesters in a clash with security forces.

In the crime-ridden northern state of Uttar Pradesh, federal police on Friday began questioning a BJP member of the state legislature who is accused of raping a teenage woman in June.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a rising star in the party, asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case this week after the state’s police were heavily criticized for not acting sooner on the victim’s complaint.

A CBI spokesman said the lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was being questioned on Friday, but had not been arrested.

Sengar’s lawyer has said his client was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.

Ministers have insisted that justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.

“We are here to safeguard the interest of our daughters, they are the daughters of the nation,” federal minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters on Thursday.

Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.

Responding to the outpouring of national shame and anger after the 2012 New Delhi case, the then Congress-led government tightened laws on crimes against women.

India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, up from 25,000 in 2012, the latest data show. Rights activists say thousands more go unreported because of a perceived stigma.

(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Israelis on Gaza border unmoved by Palestinian protests

A farmer tends to a water faucet in a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip border, Israel April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

NAHAL OZ, Israel (Reuters) – Hardened by years of rocket attacks from next-door Gaza, residents of this frontline Israeli village seemed unmoved on Sunday by Palestinians’ mass demonstrations at the border and Israel’s deadly response to them.

Confrontations on each of the last two Fridays have been clearly visible from Nahal Oz, a kibbutz just 800 meters (yards) from the frontier. The sounds of Arabic chants, smoke from burning tyres and the cracks of gunfire from Israeli sharpshooters have wafted in across the wheat, jojoba and sunflower fields.

“I’m sorry about what is happening there. I know the situation is very, very difficult,” Israeli farmer Daniel Rahamim said about economic hardship in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel’s destruction.

“But I don’t talk about a peace deal anymore. Maybe we can achieve a long-term ceasefire,” Rahimim, 63, said as he irrigated his crops. He said his 24-year-old daughter, still “traumatized by rockets” left the area after the demonstrations started.

FILE PHOTO - A demonstrator with a Palestinian flag looks on during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

FILE PHOTO – A demonstrator with a Palestinian flag looks on during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Twenty nine Palestinians have been killed since the protests began on March 30 along the frontier of the Gaza Strip. The demonstrations have been dubbed “The Great March of Return” of refugees and their descendants to ancestral homes now in Israel.

Drawing international criticism for its use of live fire, Israel said it is doing what is necessary to stop violent protesters from damaging or breaching its fence with the blockaded enclave.

Nahal Oz, like dozens of other villages and working class towns on the Gaza periphery, has over the years been targeted by Palestinian short-range rockets and mortar bombs and faced the threat of Hamas cross-border tunnels.

As last Friday’s protest got under way, six Israeli high school students who were on a study visit to Nahal Oz, clambered up an abandoned guard tower to peer into Gaza. They watched impassively and silently as the crowds gathered.

“I don’t feel any empathy for them (Palestinians),” said Ahuva Avraham, 62, who runs the grocery. “I would be happy if we could live in peace, but they don’t want to sit and talk with us.”

Haim Jelin, a legislator from Israel’s opposition centrist Yesh Atid party, and a resident of nearby Kibbutz Beeri, agreed with the government in rejecting U.N. and European Union calls for an inquiry into Israel’s killing of protesters.

“When it comes to the Gaza Strip, there is no coalition and opposition,” he told Reuters in an interview on farmland 300 meters (yards) from the border fence.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Susan Fenton)

Israeli gunfire wounds 40 Palestinians in renewed Gaza border protest: medics

A Palestinian passes burning tires during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli forces shot and wounded at least 40 Palestinian protesters on Friday, Palestinian medics said, as thousands converged on Gaza’s border with Israel and set fire to mounds of tires to launch a second week of demonstrations.

Twenty Palestinians have died since the demonstrations near the heavily guarded Gaza border fence began on March 30, the latest a man who died in a Gaza hospital on Friday of gunshot wounds suffered on the first day of protests.

Five of Friday’s 40 wounded were in critical condition, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Palestinian tent encampments have sprung up a few hundred meters (yards) back from the 65-km (40-mile) frontier but groups of youths have ventured much closer, rolling tyres and throwing stones towards Israeli troops.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return to what is now Israel for refugees – and their descendants – from the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation. Refugees comprise most of the 2 million population of Israeli-blockaded Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist militant movement Hamas.

“I, like everyone around here, am coming to liberate their land,” Hekam Kuhail, 60, told Reuters, flashing a v-for-victory sign and having her photograph taken near the border.

With black tyre smoke and Israeli tear gas rising into the air, Palestinian youths used T-shirts, cheap medical masks and perfume to try and protect themselves. Israel was also trying to douse burning tyres with fire hoses from its side of the border.

The Israeli military has stationed sharpshooters on its side of the frontier to deter Palestinians from trying to break through the fence into Israeli territory. Many of those killed were militants, according to Israel.

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian protects himself from inhaling tear gas at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

CRITICISM OF SHOOTING AT DEMONSTRATORS

Seventeen of the 20 Palestinian dead were killed by Israeli gunfire on the first day of protests a week ago, medics said. The deaths drew international criticism of Israel’s response, which human rights groups said involved live fire against demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life.

The United Nations human rights office urged Israel to exercise restraint.

“We are saying that Israel has obligations to ensure that excessive force is not employed. And that if there is unjustified and unlawful recourse to firearms, resulting in death, that may amount to a wilful killing. And that’s a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell said in Geneva.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border and that its troops have been responding with riot dispersal means and fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

An Israeli military spokesman said on Friday that the army “will not allow any breach of the security infrastructure and fence, which protects Israeli civilians”.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem urged protesters to keep rallies peaceful. “Maintaining the peaceful nature of the protests will strike all fragile Zionist propaganda,” he said.

The Israeli government has ruled out any right of return for Palestinian refugees, fearing that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

The United States has criticised protest organisers. “We condemn leaders and protesters who call for violence or who send protesters – including children – to the fence, knowing that they may be injured or killed,” President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said on Thursday.

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbours.

(Additional reporting by Eli Berlzon and Amir Cohen on the Gaza border, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Stephen Farrell and Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. gun control movement pushing Congress to act: lawmakers

People take part in a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The youth-led U.S. gun control movement that flexed its public muscle with huge weekend rallies has already nudged Congress to enact minor firearms changes, but must remain active if it hopes to win more meaningful regulations, lawmakers said on Sunday.

The movement that erupted after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has generated a national conversation about gun rights and has chipped away at legislative gridlock on the issue, they said.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Stro

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“The activism of these young people is actually changing the equation,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Washington.

Tucked into a $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week were modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and an end to a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the causes of gun violence.

“These are two things we could not have done in the past,” Kaine said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “But the active engagement by young people convinced Congress we better do something.”

The spending bill, which President Donald Trump signed on Friday, also includes grants to help schools prevent gun violence.

The Trump administration also took a step on Friday to ban the sale of bump stocks – devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns – that helped gunman Stephen Paddock massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in October.

A key focus of Saturday’s march on Washington, which was duplicated in 800 cities across the country and around the world, was an effort to turn emotion into political activism by registering participants to vote.

Americans will vote in November on the entire U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

Gun control advocates have called for universal background checks on people buying guns, bans on assault-style rifles such as the one used to kill 17 students and staff in Parkland, and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Senator Mark Warner, another Virginia Democrat, declared in the wake of the student-led movement that he would now support bans on such rifles and magazines, which he had voted against in recent years.

“I think it’s time to change our positions and re-examine them,” Warner said on the CBS News “Face the Nation” program.

“I think this time it’s going different,” Warner said. “I think we can actually get it done.”

To win significant changes, lawmakers said the young gun control advocates need to maintain their drive in the face of powerful pro-gun lobbying by the National Rifle Association and those who see gun ownership as a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“If they don’t keep it up, those that want no change will just sit on their hands,” Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican who formerly served in Congress, said on CNN.

Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa, said over the weekend that while they supported gun control advocates’ right to protest, they opposed infringing on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum drew an angry response on social media for saying on CNN that, instead of agitating for change, students should “do something about maybe taking CPR classes” or take other training to respond to school shooters.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Paul Simao)