Iran social media posts call for more protests after plane disaster

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians called on social media on Wednesday for fresh demonstrations a week after the shooting down of a passenger plane, seeking to turn the aftermath of the crash into a sustained campaign against Iran’s leadership.

Protesters, with students at the forefront, have staged daily rallies in Tehran and other cities since Saturday, when after days of denials the authorities admitted bringing down a Ukrainian plane last week, killing all 176 aboard.

“We’re coming to the streets,” one posting circulating on social media said on Wednesday, urging people to join nationwide demonstrations against a “thieving and corrupt government”.

Most of those killed on the plane were Iranians or dual citizens, many of them students returning to studies abroad from holiday visits with their families.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will lead to sustained violence. After several days of unrest, when images posted to the internet showed demonstrators being beaten by the police and shocked with electric batons, protests on Tuesday appear to have been quieter. Two months ago, authorities killed hundreds of demonstrators to put down protests sparked by fuel price hikes.

The plane was downed by air defenses on Jan. 8 when the armed forces were on high alert for U.S. reprisals following tit-for-tat military strikes, the latest escalation in a crisis that has rumbled on for years over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has dismissed the idea of a new deal to resolve the nuclear row, as proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and described by Britain’s prime minister as a “Trump deal.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump, who quit an existing nuclear pact in 2018, broke his promises.

The military and top officials apologized profusely for the “unforgivable error” that brought the plane down and said it would prosecute those to blame, in a bid to quell the outrage.

Thousands of protesters have been shown in videos gathering in the past four days in cities across Iran. Many have been outside universities. Tehran’s central Azadi Square has also been a focus. But the scale of protests and unrest is difficult to determine due to restrictions on independent reporting.

State-affiliated media has offered few details on rallies.

OUTRAGE

Police have denied shooting at protesters and say officers were told to show restraint. The judiciary said it had arrested 30 people but would show tolerance to “legal protests”.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a person who had posted a video online last week of a missile striking the plane has been taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that said one of its operators shot down the plane.

Iranians were outraged the military took days to admit it had shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. They asked why the plane had been allowed to take off at a time of high tension.

Iran had launched missile strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq on Jan. 3.

Security camera footage showed two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, hitting the plane after takeoff, the New York Times reported. U.S. intelligence officials said on Jan. 9 heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.

The disaster and unrest have piled pressure on the Iran’s rulers, who are already struggling to keep the economy running under stringent U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington withdrew from the nuclear pact Tehran had with world powers.

Britain’s ambassador to Tehran was detained, accused of attending a protest. He said he was paying respects at a vigil for victims.

Judicial officials urged the authorities to expel the envoy and social media posts said he had left. The foreign ministry in Britain, which has long had strained ties with Iran, said he was on a previously planned trip and was not leaving permanently.

On Thursday, London hosts a meeting of Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed plane to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine said.

Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, has sent investigators to Iran, where they toured the crash site on Tuesday, Iranian media reported.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi and the London bureau; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)

Iran makes arrests over plane disaster as protests rage on

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Tuesday it had arrested people accused of a role in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and had also detained 30 people involved in protests that have swept the nation for four days since the military belatedly admitted its error.

Wednesday’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 people aboard, has led to one of the biggest public challenges to the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers since they took power four decades ago.

In a step that will increase diplomatic pressure, Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism to challenge Iran for breaching limits on its nuclear program under an agreement which Washington abandoned in 2018.

Since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3, Tehran has faced escalating confrontation with the West and unrest at home, both reaching levels with little precedent in its modern history.

Iran shot down the airliner on Wednesday when its military was on high alert, hours after it had fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. After days of denying a role in the air crash, it admitted it on Saturday, calling it a tragic mistake.

Protesters, many of them students, have held daily demonstrations since then, chanting “Clerics get lost!” and calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power for more than 30 years.

Police have responded to some protests with a violent crackdown, video posts on social media showed. Footage showed police beating protesters with batons, wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters. The judiciary said 30 people had been detained in the unrest but said the authorities would show tolerance toward “legal protests”.

‘WHERE IS JUSTICE?’

Video posts on Tuesday showed scores gathered peacefully at two Tehran universities. “Where is justice?” one group chanted.

The extent of the unrest is difficult to assess because of limits on independent reporting. Demonstrations tend to gather momentum later in the day and clashes have been at night.

President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgivable error” of shooting down the plane. He spoke in a television address on Tuesday, the latest in a series of apologies from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some of those accused of having a role in the plane disaster had been arrested, although he did not say how many or identify them.

Most of those on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the plane have scheduled a meeting on Thursday in London to consider legal action against Tehran.

The disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.

Missiles launched at a U.S. base in Iraq killed an American contractor in December, an attack Washington blamed on an Iran-backed group. Confrontation eventually led to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militias.

Iran’s government was already reeling from the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, which quit an agreement with world powers under which Tehran would secure sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear program.

SEEKING COMPLIANCE

Since Washington withdrew, Tehran has stepped back from its nuclear commitments and has said it would no longer recognize limits on enriching uranium. After months of threatening to act, European signatories to the deal, France, Britain and Germany, activated the agreement’s dispute mechanism on Tuesday.

The European Union’s top diplomat said the European move aimed to bring Tehran bank to compliance, not impose sanctions.

Iran’s leaders have been facing a powerful combination of pressure both at home and abroad.

Just two months ago, Iran’s authorities put down anti-government protests, killing hundreds of demonstrators in what is believed to be the most violent crackdown on unrest since the 1979 revolution.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where Iran has wielded influence through a network of allied movements and proxies, governments that include powerful Iran-sponsored armed factions have faced months of hostile demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s president said in his address that those responsible for shooting down the plane would be punished, describing the military’s admission of its mistake “a good first step.”

Rouhani also said the government would be accountable to Iranians and those nations who lost citizens. Iranian state television said aviation officials from Canada, which had 57 citizens on the doomed flight, as well as from Iran and Ukraine, met in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)

‘Clerics get lost!’: Iran protests rage on over plane disaster

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Protesters denouncing Iran’s clerical rulers took to the streets and riot police deployed to face them on Monday, in a third day of demonstrations after authorities acknowledged shooting down a passenger plane by accident.

Demonstrations, some apparently met by a violent crackdown, are the latest twist in one of the most serious escalations between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution swept the U.S.-backed shah from power.

Video from inside Iran showed students on Monday chanting slogans including “Clerics get lost!” outside universities in the city of Isfahan and in Tehran, where riot police were filmed taking out positions on the streets.

Images from the previous two days of protests showed wounded people being carried and pools of blood on the ground. Gunshots could be heard, although the police denied opening fire.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who raised the stakes last week by ordering the killing in a drone strike of Iran’s most powerful military commander, tweeted to Iran’s leaders: “don’t kill your protesters.”

Tehran has acknowledged shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner by mistake on Wednesday, killing all 176 aboard, hours after it had fired at U.S. targets in Iraq to retaliate for the killing on Jan. 3 of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Iranian public anger, rumbling for days as Iran repeatedly denied it was to blame for the plane crash, erupted into protests on Saturday when the military admitted its role.

Scores, possibly hundreds, of protesters were videoed at sites in Tehran and Isfahan, a major city south of the capital.

“They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics,” they chanted outside a Tehran university, referring to Iranian students returning to studies in Canada who were on the plane.

‘DON’T BEAT THEM’

Videos posted late on Sunday recorded the gunfire around protests in Tehran’s Azadi Square. Wounded were being carried and security personnel ran gripping rifles. Riot police hit protesters with batons as people shouted “Don’t beat them!”

“Death to the dictator,” other footage showed protesters shouting, directing their fury directly at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader since 1989.

Reuters could not authenticate the footage. State-affiliated media has reported protests in Tehran and other cities but has provided few details.

“At protests, police absolutely did not shoot because the capital’s police officers have been given orders to show restraint,” Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi said in a statement on state media.

Tehran’s showdown with Washington has come at a precarious time for the authorities in Iran and the proxy forces they support to wield influence across the Middle East. Sanctions imposed by Trump have hammered the Iranian economy.

Iran’s authorities killed hundreds of protesters in November in what appears to have been the bloodiest crackdown on anti-government unrest since 1979. In Iraq and Lebanon, governments supported by Iran-backed armed groups have faced mass protests.

Adding to international pressure on Tehran, five nations, including Canada, Britain and Ukraine, whose citizens died when the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 crashed, meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters.

In his latest tweet directed at Iran, Trump wrote on Sunday that “I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and ‘don’t kill your protesters’.”

ESCALATION

Iran’s government spokesman dismissed Trump’s comments, saying Iranians were suffering because of his actions and they would remember he had ordered the killing of Soleimani.

Trump had precipitated the escalation with Iran since 2018 by pulling out of a deal between Tehran and world powers under which sanctions were eased in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program. Trump says he wants a more stringent pact.

Iran has repeatedly said it will not negotiate as long as U.S. sanctions are in place. It denies seeking nuclear arms.

The recent flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the strike on Soleimani.

Iran retaliated on Wednesday by firing missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were stationed, but did not kill any Americans. The Ukrainian plane, on its way to Kiev, crashed shortly after. Most of those killed were Iranians or Iranian dual nationals. Scores were Canadians, many dual nationals who had traveled to Iran to visit relatives.

After days of denying responsibility, commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards issued profuse apologies. Iran’s president called it a “disastrous mistake”. A top commander said he had told the authorities on the day of the crash it had been shot down, raising questions about why Iran had initially denied it.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff, William Maclean)

Rock-throwing Iraqi militias quit U.S. embassy after protests

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the U.S. embassy’s perimeter and hurled rocks in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.

The demonstrators, angry at U.S. air strikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group that killed at least 25 people, threw stones at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

But by mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi’ite militia, which said the demonstrators’ message had been heard.

Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.

Iraq’s military said all protesters had left by the evening.

The protests mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020, on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

On Tuesday, crowds chanted ‘Death to America!’, lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras. They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.

BIGGEST U.S. EMBASSY

The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad’s fortified “green zone” during American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.

Washington said its diplomats were safe and was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.

The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.

The anti-American action comes after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias which support it. Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.

Iraq’s government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes. Trump spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the U.S. attacks. Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

U.S. officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces. The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.

Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their main goal.

‘DEVIL’S DEN’

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.

Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.

The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.

Overnight, demonstrators had pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.

“Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent. Don’t clash with security,” one protest leader told the crowd from a stage erected at the embassy before the departure.

Young men, some in fatigues, waved militia flags and chanted “Death to America” as Apache helicopters circled above.

The embassy’s outer walls bore scorch marks and graffiti.

“Iraq is not safe for America and its followers,” one read.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Andrew Cawthorne)

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region
By Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and prompting the United States to send additional troops to the Middle East.

The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, posed a new foreign policy challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020. He threatened to retaliate against Iran, but said later he does not want to go to war.

The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.

Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.

The Pentagon said that in addition to Marines sent to protect embassy personnel, about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were being sent to the Middle East and that additional troops were prepared to deploy over the next several days.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 750 troops would initially be based out of Kuwait. The officials said that as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days if needed.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.

The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein. But political stability has been elusive.

Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump said in a tweet.

Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Trump told reporters: “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”

Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

The embassy incident came seven years after the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and led to multiple congressional investigations.

TENSIONS OVER AIR STRIKES

The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet. “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”

Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.

“The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate, while others chanted: “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.

The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but had not been physically attacked by demonstrators in that way before.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that U.S. officials never contemplated evacuating the embassy and had kept the heat on Iraqi officials to ensure the compound was safe.

“We reminded them throughout the day of their continued responsibility,” he said.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias that have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiaman and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in the thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Idrees Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Fla. and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu, Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

Violent protests erupt around U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after U.S. air strikes

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Protesters and militia fighters enraged by U.S. air strikes on Iraq staged a violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, torching a security post and hurling stones as security forces and embassy guards hit back with stun grenades and tear gas.

Iraqi officials said the ambassador and other staff had been evacuated but this could not be confirmed with American officials.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence and said Tehran would be held responsible.

The protesters and militiamen stormed and burned a security post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy but did not breach the main compound, Reuters witnesses said.

They threw stones at the gate while others chanted, “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them entering the embassy. U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces later reinforced them.

Medical sources said 12 militiamen were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

U.S. planes on Sunday had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia – an action that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran at a time when mass protests are challenging Iraq’s political system.

The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet.

“Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified.”

Two Iraqi foreign ministry officials said the U.S. ambassador and other staff had left, but they did not say when.

The Washington Post reported that inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats and staffers were huddled in a fortified safe room, according to two reached by a messaging app.

A few hours into the protest, tear gas was fired in an attempt to disperse the crowd and some of the militias encouraged protesters through loudspeakers to leave.

“We have delivered our message, please leave the area to avoid bloodshed,” one announcement said.

Security guards inside the embassy also fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound. Reuters correspondents heard at least seven loud bangs.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiamen and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away from the scene.

‘CLOSED IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE’

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in their thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government.

But on Tuesday, it was the militias who protested, spraying “Closed in the name of the people” on the gates of the U.S. Embassy and smashed the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior leaders were among the protesters.

“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters.

Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shi’ite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al-Amiri were also at the protest.

There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq supporting local forces, though Iraq has rejected any long-term presence of additional U.S. forces that crossed its border during an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

Sunday’s air strikes killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55.

(Reporting By Ahmed Rasheed, Maher Nazeh and Thaier al-Sudani; writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Hong Kong marchers target malls on third day of Christmas protests

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters marched through Hong Kong shopping malls on Thursday, disrupting business in the Asian financial hub for a third day over the festive period and prompting riot police to close off a mall in a tourist district.

The “shopping protests” have targeted malls across the Chinese-ruled city since Christmas Eve, turning violent at times with police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in areas filled with shoppers and visitors.

While the turnout on Thursday was smaller than on the previous two days, riot police stepped up patrols at shopping centers on the Kowloon peninsula and in the rural New Territories.

Dozens of police with batons and shields surrounded and sealed off the Langham Place shopping mall in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district after black-clad, masked protesters occupied it.

“I think the purpose for us to come out is to… let people realize that so many front-line protesters sacrificed (things) for them. They should not forget and (simply) celebrate Christmas,” said Sandy, a young demonstrator who wore a black mask to hide her identity.

“…We have been fighting for almost seven months now, and the Hong Kong police have done so many bad things.”

The protests began more than six months ago in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

They have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement, and became more confrontational over the festive season. Earlier in December, after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections, they had been largely peaceful.

Many protesters have been angered by what they see as the use of unnecessary force by the police, and demanded an independent inquiry into the force’s behavior.

Police, who say they have used only minimum force to control the protests, on Thursday detained several people at a mall in rural Tai Po, north of the city’s financial center, public broadcaster RTHK said.

Demonstrators are also angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering, saying it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time, and blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the protesters in a Facebook post on Wednesday, saying many Hong Kongers and tourists were disappointed their Christmas Eve celebrations had been ruined, while local businesses had also been hit.

On Thursday, some restaurants and stores pulled down their shutters in the malls as protesters, some wearing balaclavas and carrying black flags, marched by.

The government on Thursday criticized “unprecedented violence” by some protesters, but said that protecting freedoms and human rights remained a top priority.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet)

Hong Kong police fire tear gas to break up Christmas Eve protest chaos

By Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong riot police fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district as pro-democracy rallies escalated into Christmas Eve chaos.

Protesters inside the malls threw umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.

Some demonstrators occupied the main roads and blocked traffic outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon.

A man was shown on public broadcaster RTHK as falling from the second floor to the first floor of a mall in the rural Yuen Long district as he tried to evade police. He was conscious as he was taken away by paramedics.

There was a heavy police presence into the night in Tsim Sha Tsui with hundreds of officers standing guard on the roads as thousands of Christmas shoppers and tourists, some wearing Santa hats, looked on. A water canon and several armored police Jeeps were parked nearby.

Dozens of protesters started digging up bricks from the roads and set up barricades, as police said in a statement they would deploy “minimum force to effect dispersal” and arrest “rioters”.

Many families with children had congregated in the area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbor.

The protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organizers, showing strong support for the movement.

Scores of black clad, mask wearing protesters chanted slogans including “Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” and “Hong Kong independence” as they roamed the malls.

“Lots of people are shopping so it’s a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for.” said Ken, an 18-year-old student.

“We fight for freedom, we fight for our future.”

A bank branch of global banking group HSBC was vandalized in Mong Kok, according to television footage. The bank on Friday became embroiled in a saga involving an official crackdown on a fund-raising platform supporting protesters in need.

HSBC denied any link between a police clampdown on the platform, called Spark Alliance, and the earlier closure of an HSBC bank account tied to the group.

Protesters had nevertheless called for a boycott of the bank at its headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district.

Around 100 protesters also trashed a Starbucks inside a mall called Mira Place, breaking the glass counters displaying pastries and spraying graffiti on the walls.

The coffee shop chain has been a common target of protesters after the daughter of the founder of Maxim’s Caterers, which owns the local franchise, condemned the protesters at a U.N. human rights council in Geneva.

Metro operator MTR Corp said it shut two stations, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, early on Tuesday night due to protests in the area. Train services were meant to run overnight on Christmas Eve.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year’s Day.

Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.

Many Hong Kong residents 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 and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

In a video posted on her Facebook page, Chief Executive Carrie Lam wished Hong Kong citizens “a peaceful and safe Merry Christmas”.

Lam has so far refused to grant protesters’ demands which include an independent inquiry into police behavior and the implementation of full universal suffrage.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Mari Saito and James Pomfret; writing by Farah Master; editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong protest tide turns into sea of flames

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese-ruled Hong Kong introduced a bill into the legislature in February that would have allowed the extradition of defendants to mainland China for the first time to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

The move touched a raw nerve, with many in the liberal, free-wheeling financial hub fearing an erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence and individual rights, amid fears individuals wouldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with promises that its autonomy and freedoms were guaranteed. But in recent years, many have been angered by a perceived tightening grip by China. The extradition law was seen as a final straw.

The first protests flared in March and April and snowballed. On June 9, an estimated one million people took to the streets. The city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, suspended the extradition bill on June 14 but this didn’t pacify the protesters who wanted it to be scrapped entirely.

A protester holding up an anti-extradition bill banner fell from the roof of a luxury mall and died. Protesters consider this to be the first death of the movement during a demonstration.

On July 1, anti-government protesters held a mass march, after which they stormed the legislature. Hardline activists rampaged through the building, smashing furniture and spray-painting walls and the coat of arms.

The unprecedented attack marked a turning point from a peaceful, 79-day pro-democracy street sit-in in 2014 that had achieved nothing. Young protesters would use violence more often in a bid to exert more pressure on the city government, trashing government buildings, shopping malls and metro stations.

As the arrests of protesters began to mount, some began using petrol bombs to slow police advances on the crowds and to allow people time to escape.

The violence in one of the safest major cities in the world was becoming more regular. Police countered petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and eventually the occasional live round. A water cannon was deployed by police for the first time in the industrial New Territories town of Tsuen Wan on Aug. 25.

Weekend after weekend, streets of the city, in different places but often in the up-market Central business area and the Causeway Bay shopping district, would become a sea of flames. Tear gas billowed between the high-rises as sirens wailed on some of the most densely populated streets on Earth.

There were several injuries but no deaths from direct police fire.

Protesters were now railing against perceived police brutality that helped fuel public anger and protest turnouts.

After nearly two months of upheaval, with the protests now morphing into a fully-fledged anti-government movement with five key demands, including full democracy, the protesters turned their attention to the airport, one of Asia’s most spectacular aviation hubs, built by the British in the dying days of colonial rule and reached by a series of gleaming bridges.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Thousands of protesters staged a sit-in inside the arrivals hall that led to the airport shutting down for several days. The move garnered international headlines with the travel plans of thousands of foreign nationals thrown into disarray.

The protests kept up their momentum, week after week, until Hong Kong’s leader eventually formally withdrew the detested extradition bill on Sept. 4.

But many protesters said it was too little, too late.

They continued to press their other demands, including an amnesty for the thousands already arrested and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality.

Tension was also building between protesters and pro-Beijing residents, including those in one of the “reddest” pro-China districts of North Point on Hong Kong island. Chinese banks and businesses, or those perceived as being pro-Beijing, came under attack.

In mid-November, students turned several university campuses into fortresses, barricading themselves inside and clashing with riot police on the periphery. On Nov. 12, riot police at Chinese University fired more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas at protesters.

A few days later, hundreds of front-line protesters became trapped inside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, at the mouth of the now-closed Cross-Harbour Tunnel on the Kowloon side of the water. They manufactured an arsenal of petrol bombs and practised firing bows and arrows in the half-empty swimming pool as police blocked the exits.

The protesters battled riot police for several intense days amid fears of a bloody clampdown. In the end, hundreds of arrests were made, while scores of protesters resorted to desperate means to escape, including rappelling off bridges on ropes and hopping on to the backs of motorbikes and even trying to swim out through the sewers.

After the siege of PolyU, Hong Kong held a city-wide election on Nov. 24 that pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide with a record-high turnout.

Democrats seized nearly 90 percent of the nearly 450 seats on offer. A mass year-end march on Hong Kong island also drew an estimated 800,000 people showing continued public support.

The crisis has not only shaken Hong Kong, but posed one of the gravest populist challenges to Chinese President Xi Jinping, with some protesters calling for outright independence from China.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and blames the unrest on the West, specifically the United States and Britain. It has backed Hong Kong leader Lam in her efforts to quell the violence but says it will not tolerate any threat to Chinese sovereignty.

China’s People’s Liberation Army garrison in the territory has stayed in barracks since the handover in 1997. It has beefed up its numbers in the city amid the unrest and troops also helped clear protester barricades outside a barracks in November.

China has warned that any attempt at independence will be crushed.

Hong Kong’s fiery protests in pictures: https://reut.rs/2PNZ4zZ

(Reporting by James Pomfret; editing by Nick Macfie)