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)

Police fire teargas as strikes challenge Macron across France

Protestors light flares as they attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Ingrid Melander and Caroline Pailliez

PARIS (Reuters) – Police scuffled with protesters in Paris and fired teargas and water cannon in the western city of Nantes as strikes broke out across France on Thursday in a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms.

Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare du Nord railway station during a nationwide rail workers protest against plans to reform the state-run rail service, in Paris, France March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare du Nord railway station during a nationwide rail workers protest against plans to reform the state-run rail service, in Paris, France March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Train conductors, teachers and air traffic controllers walked out to join more than 150 mostly peaceful marches in cities and towns – the first time public sector workers have joined rail staff in protests since Macron came to office in May.

“It’s a real mess,” said Didier Samba, who missed his morning commuter train to the suburbs and had more than an hour’s wait for the next at Paris’ Gare du Nord station.

Sixty percent of fast trains, 75 percent of inter-city trains and 30 percent of flights to and from Paris airports were canceled because of the strike.

About 13 percent of teachers walked off the job, the education ministry said, closing many primary schools. Electricity generation dropped by more than three gigawatts, the equivalent of three nuclear reactors, as those workers joined the strike, stoking government fears that the work stoppages could spread.

Public sector workers are angry with plans to cut the public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022, including via voluntary redundancies, and about the introduction of merit-based pay.

Railway workers are worried by government plans to scrap job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and generous early retirement.

“Discontent and worry are spreading very quickly,” said Jean-Marc Canon of UGFF-CGT, one of the largest unions.

While rail workers have planned a three-month rolling strike starting April 3, public sector workers have no plans yet for further action, but they will meet next week to consider it.

“Let me tell you that public sector workers are very mobilized,” Laurent Berger, the head of France’s largest union, the CFDT, told RTL radio.

Protestors attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Protestors attend a demonstration during a national day of strike against reforms in Marseille, France, March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

PARADOX

Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of public sector workers and introducing merit-based pay.

That has led the government, which overhauled labor laws last year and is crafting a series of other reforms to unemployment insurance and training, to say it will stand by its plans, while keeping a close eye on protests.

On Tuesday, following a retirees’ march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by a tax hike, in a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can make exceptions.

“What we need to avoid is that all the grievances fuse together, as was the case in 1995,” a government official said, referring to France’s biggest strike in decades, which forced the government at the time to withdraw reforms after striking public and private sector workers received huge popular support.

“The situation is very different from 1995. At the time there was a big discrepancy with what the government had promised during the elections and what they eventually did.”

Government officials may also have in mind the fact that the May 1968 revolt that convulsed France started 50 years ago, with a student protest at Nanterre university which few at the time expected to trigger unrest that blocked France for weeks.

Police fired teargas and water cannon at a group of hooded protesters who were hurling stones at them in Nantes.

The rest of the morning rally in Nantes was peaceful, with protesters marching behind a banner that read “All together against austerity, let’s defend public services.”

In Paris, police reported scuffles with young protesters ahead of rallies in the city, with a few shop windows damaged.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough, Bate Felix and Julie Carriat in Paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Graphic by Leigh Thomas; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Heavens)

Awkward diplomacy on show as ‘peace’ Games get underway

General view of performers during the opening ceremony.

By James Pearson and Hyunjoo Jin

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – The Winter Olympics sparked to life in a vivid, colorful ceremony of fire and ice in South Korea on Friday, though the diplomacy was tougher to choreograph in the stadium where leaders from nations that are sworn enemies sat close together.

South Korea, which is using the Pyeongchang Games to break the ice with North Korea, seated its presidential couple alongside U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with two of the North’s most senior officials sitting in the row behind.

President Moon Jae-in, who wants to harness the Olympic spirit to pave the way for talks over the North’s nuclear and missile program, warmly shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s smiling sister as well as the North’s nominal head of state.

The South is still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, and the United States and North Korea have recently swapped nuclear threats. Pence vowed only this week to tighten sanctions on the North.

Underlining Moon’s efforts to re-engage with the North, the opening ceremony followed the story line of children wandering through a mythical landscape and discovering a world where people live in peace and harmony.

The Olympics have provided some respite from years of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though just hours before the ceremony hundreds of anti-North Korean protesters scuffled with riot police outside the stadium, burning North Korean flags and pictures of its leader, Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s frigid February, where temperatures have plummeted to minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) at night, has come as a shock to the system for athletes and visitors alike in the leadup to these Games, prompting concerns about hypothermia at the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Performers during the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 – Performers during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The weather was a little milder than forecast on Friday, but spectators still huddled near heaters, holding hot packs and slurping down steaming fishcake soup to ward off the chills.

Bundled up in a scarf, mask and knitted hat, with hot packs tucked into her knee blanket, office worker Shin Hye-sook said she and her three colleagues were coping with the cold.

“It’s okay unless the wind blows,” said the 60-year-old. “We’re sitting as close as we can and trying not to move a lot to save our energy.”

LONG WAIT FINALLY OVER

Pyeongchang has waited a long time for this moment.

The alpine town first bid for the 2010 Games but narrowly lost out to Vancouver, and suffered similar heartbreak when it was beaten to the 2014 Olympics by Sochi.

After announcing its arrival on the international stage by hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea now wants to show the world just how far it has come over the last 30 years with a Games showcasing its culture and technological prowess.

According to Olympic tradition, the Greek contingent headed the parade of athletes into the open-air stadium, followed by the other delegations in order according to the Korean alphabet.

Pence stood to welcome the U.S. athletes as the Korean pop hit Gangnam Style blared around the stadium, sparking the ‘Horse Dance’ in the crowd and among the volunteers.

The moment failed to elicit even a smile from the two senior North Korean officials in the VIPs box, however, as they sat stony-faced in black fluffy hats and long coats.

Elsewhere in the stadium, a Kim Jong Un impersonator was not made as welcome as the North Koreans in the VIP box and was ejected by security. “Well is my sister getting the same treatment?” he demanded to know.

As the athletes made their way around the track, one of the biggest cheers was reserved for muscle-bound Tongan Pita Taufatofua, who repeated his famed Rio Games entrance by marching in shirtless, oiled up and wearing a traditional skirt — this time in sub-zero temperatures.

Another flag-bearer who eschewed warm clothing was Bermuda’s Tucker Murphy wore the territory’s traditional red shorts.

Samaneh Beyrami Baher blinked back tears at the head of Iran’s four-strong athletic delegation, and minutes later the crowd erupted as athletes from North and South Korea marched together under the unification flag for the first time at an Olympics since 2006.

A contingent of North Korean cheerleaders greeted the athletes by waving a controversial version of the flag depicting disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

Norio Maruyama, press secretary at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said he had not seen the flag so he did not want to comment. But he said the Games were a festival of peace and he did not want to undermine that aspect.

(Writing by Peter Rutherford; Additional reporting by Jane Chung and So Young Kim; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Iranian protesters attack police stations, raise stakes in unrest

Opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London, Britain December 31, 2017.

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian protesters attacked police stations late into the night on Monday, news agency and social media reports said, as security forces struggled to contain the boldest challenge to the clerical leadership since unrest in 2009.

Videos on social media showed an intense clash in the central town of Qahderijan between security forces and protesters who were trying to occupy a police station, which was partially set ablaze. There were unconfirmed reports of several casualties among demonstrators.

In the western city of Kermanshah, protesters set fire to a traffic police post, but no one was hurt in the incident, Mehr news agency said.

Demonstrations continued for a fifth day. Some 13 people were reported killed on Sunday in the worst wave of unrest since crowds took to the streets in 2009 to condemn the re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The protests have put pressure on the clerical leaders in power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President Hassan Rouhani made a televised call for calm on Sunday, saying Iranians had the right to criticize but must not cause unrest.

In the central city of Najafabad, a demonstrator opened fire on police with a hunting rifle, killing one and wounding three others, state television said.

Earlier, state TV said armed demonstrators on Sunday had tried to seize police and military bases but were stopped by “strong resistance from security forces.” It gave no further details and there was no independent confirmation.

State TV had reported that 10 people were killed in protests on Sunday. On Monday, that death toll rose when the deputy governor of the western Hamadan Province, Saeed Shahrokhi, told ISNA news agency that another three protesters were killed on Sunday in the city of Tuyserkan.

“NO TOLERANCE”

Hundreds have been arrested, according to officials and social media. Online video showed police in the capital Tehran firing water cannon to disperse demonstrators, in footage said to have been filmed on Sunday.

Protests against economic hardships and alleged corruption erupted in Iran’s second city of Mashhad on Thursday and escalated across the country into calls for the religious establishment to step down.

Some of the anger was directed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, breaking a taboo surrounding the man who has been supreme leader of Iran since 1989.

Video posted on social media showed crowds of people walking through the streets, some chanting “Death to the dictator!” Reuters was not immediately able to verify the footage. The Fars news agency reported “scattered groups” of protesters in Tehran on Monday and said a ringleader had been arrested.

“The government will show no tolerance for those who damage public property, violate public order and create unrest in society,” Rouhani said in his address on Sunday.

Unsigned statements on social media urged Iranians to continue to demonstrate in 50 towns and cities.

The government said it was temporarily restricting access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram. There were reports that internet mobile access was blocked in some areas.

TRUMP, NETANYAHU VOICE SUPPORT

Iran is a major OPEC oil producer and regional power deeply involved in Syria and Iraq as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia. Many Iranians resent those foreign interventions, and want their leaders to create jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent last year.

Among reported fatalities, two people were shot dead in the southwestern town of Izeh on Sunday and several others were injured, ILNA news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying.

“I do not know whether yesterday’s shooting was done by rally participants or the police and this issue is being investigated,” Hedayatollah Khademi was quoted as saying.

Regional governor Mostafa Samali told Fars that only one person was killed in an incident unrelated to the protests, and the suspected shooter had been arrested.

Almost nine years since the “Green movement” reformist protests were crushed by the state, Iran’s adversaries voiced their support for the resurgence of anti-government sentiment.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the “brave Iranians” taking to streets to protest a regime that “wastes tens of billions of dollars spreading hate”.

“I wish the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel urged “all sides (to) refrain from violent actions”.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Robin Pomeroy and David Gregorio)

Pakistani police fire tear gas at Islamists blockading capital

Pakistani police fire tear gas at Islamists blockading capital

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani police used tear gas and watercannon, and fought running battles with stone-throwing Islamist activists, as they moved to clear a sit-in by the religious hard-liners who have blocked the main routes into the capital of Islamabad for more than two weeks.

The protests have spread to other main cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.

The clashes began on Saturday when police launched an operation involving some 4,000 officers to disperse around 1,000 activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, a new hard-line Islamist political party, and break up their camp, police official Saood Tirmizi told Reuters.

Dozens of protesters were arrested, Tirmizi said, and hospitals reported dozens of people were being treated for injuries.

The mass protest, plus the recent gains of two new Islamist parties in Pakistan, demonstrated the religious right’s gathering strength ahead of what are expected to be tumultuous elections next year.

Television footage showed a police vehicle on fire, heavy curtains of smoke and fires burning in the streets as officers in heavy riot gear advanced. Protesters, some wearing gas masks, fought back in scattered battles across empty highways and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

By midday, TV coverage had been cut off and private channels were off the air by orders of the official media regulator.

The protesters have paralyzed daily life in the capital, and have defied court orders to disband, demanding the firing of the minister of law.

Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.

“Death to blasphemers” is a central rallying cry for Tehreek-e-Laibak, which was born out of a protest movement lionizing Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.

The party, which advocates strict rule by Islamic Sharia law, won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar last month.

Since Tehreek-e-Labaik began its sit-in, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams in and around the capital.

The government had tried to negotiate an end to the sit-in, fearing violence during a crackdown similar to 2007, when clashes between authorities and supporters of a radical Islamabad mosque led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

By late morning, Tehreek-e-Labaik supporters were coming out on the streets in other Pakistani cities in support of the Islamabad protesters.

About 500 demonstrators blocked several main roads in Karachi, the southern port that is Pakistan’s largest city, a Reuters witness said. Police fired tear gas to try to disperse them from a main road near Karachi’s airport.

In the eastern city of Lahore, party supporters blocked three roads into the city, provincial government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan said.

“We want them to disperse peacefully. Otherwise we have other options open,” he said. “We don’t want to use force, but we will if there is no other option left.”

In Islamabad, police official Aftab Ahmad said officers were using restraint and denied media reports that rubber bullets were being fired.

However, Labaik spokesman Ashrafi said “several of our workers have got rubber bullet injuries” and also asserted police had fired live rounds, which police denied.

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Christian Schmollinger)

Federal judge limits St. Louis police conduct during protests

Federal judge limits St. Louis police conduct during protests

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that St. Louis police cannot shut down non-violent demonstrations and employ chemical agents to punish protesters, dealing a victory to a civil liberties group that challenged the police response to protests.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry issued her order following complaints of misconduct during protests that gripped the city after the Sept. 15 acquittal of white former officer Jason Stockley on murder charges in the killing of black suspect Anthony Lamar Smith, 24, in December 2011.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in St. Louis on Sept. 22, alleging that police used excessive force and retaliated against people engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.

Protesters cited anger over tactics including the use of pepper spray and “kettling,” in which officers form a square surrounding protesters to make arrests. Some caught inside police lines said officers used excessive force.

The clashes evoked memories of riots following the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

On Wednesday, Perry issued a preliminary injunction limiting police tactics in responding to protests.

“Plaintiffs’ evidence — both video and testimony – shows that officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct,” Perry wrote.

Koran Addo, a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, said the city would comply with the order.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement that the ruling was a win for the First Amendment.

The protests that followed the former officer’s acquittal turned violent at times, with some demonstrators smashing windows and clashing with police.

But Perry, in her order, said police cannot declare an assembly unlawful and enforce it against those engaged demonstrations unless the persons pose an imminent threat of violence.

She also barred the use of pepper spray without probable cause to make an arrest and without providing clear warnings to protesters with a chance to heed them.

The judge also ordered both sides to mediation.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; editing by Grant McCool)