Hong Kong mops up after fresh violence, braces for October 1 anniversary

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong cleaned up on Monday and train services in the city resumed, after another weekend of sometimes violent protests that saw pro-democracy activists vandalize a railway station and a shopping mall.

Nearly 50 people were arrested in the weekend clashes, police said, bringing the total number of arrested in the protests since June to 1,556.

The Chinese-rule territory is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, with authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing.

The Hong Kong government starts an official dialogue with community members this week in a bid to heal rifts in society and has already called off a big fireworks display to mark Oct. 1 in case of further clashes.

The former British colony also marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrestle concessions from Beijing.

Activists plan to gather at so-called Lennon Walls, which feature anti-government messages and are named after the original John Lennon Wall in Communist-ruled Prague in the 1980s, in the heart of the financial center on Saturday and spread to different areas across Hong Kong island.

Another rally is planned on Sunday in the bustling shopping and tourist district of Causeway Bay, the site of some fierce recent clashes between police and protesters.

Police on Sunday fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the latest clashes in more than three months of unrest that has plunged the city into its worst political crisis in decades.

Forty-seven people, 42 males and five females aged between 14 and 64, were arrested.

The biggest of several clashes took place in or near Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations, now a familiar target of attack because stations are often closed at the government’s behest to stop demonstrators from gathering.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered in the New Town Plaza in the New Territories town of Sha Tin on Sunday, chanting: “Fight for freedom” and “Liberate Hong Kong.”

Activists trampled on a Chinese flag near the train station and rounded on a man they believed had opposed them. Protesters also smashed video cameras and ticket booths in the station.

Some started to trash fittings at the entrance of the mall. The protesters then spilled outside where they set fire to barricades made of cardboard, broken palm trees and other debris.

MTR said on Monday train services had returned to normal.

China, which has a People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, has said it has faith in Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to solve the crisis.

Demonstrators are frustrated at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip over the Asian financial hub, which returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” arrangement and denies interfering.

Anti-government protesters, many masked and wearing black, have caused havoc since June, throwing petrol bombs at police, trashing metro stations, blocking airport roads and lighting street fires.

Scores of airlines wrote jointly to the Hong Kong government earlier this month to seek airport fee waivers as they struggle to deal with the financial fallout from the protests that have led to a sharp drop in traveler demand.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson)

Enough! Thousands decry anti-Semitism in France after spike in attacks

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Vincent Kessel and Noemie Olive

STRASBOURG/PARIS, France (Reuters) – Thousands of people rallied across France after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks in recent weeks that culminated on Tuesday with vandals daubing swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery.

Political leaders from all parties, including former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, gathered in Paris filling the Place de la Republique, a symbol of the nation, to decry anti-Semitic acts with one common slogan: “Enough!”

People also lined the streets of cities from Lille in the north to Toulouse and Marseille in the south.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: "No to the trivialisation of hatred". REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: “No to the trivialization of hatred”. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

President Emmanuel Macron paid respects at one of the 96 desecrated graves in the village of Quatzenheim, near the eastern city of Strasbourg.

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished… We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them,” he said, walking through a gate scarred with a swastika as he entered the graveyard.

Macron later visited the national Holocaust memorial in Paris with the heads of the Senate and National Assembly.

France is home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe — around 550,000 — a population that has grown by about half since World War Two, but anti-Semitic attacks remain common. Government statistics released last week showed there were more than 500 anti-Semitic attacks in the country last year, a 74 percent increase from 2017.

“Some people are provoking the authority of the state. It needs to be dealt with now and extremely firmly,” Sarkozy told reporters. “It’s a real question of authority. Violence is spreading and it needs to stop now.”

Among incidents in recent days, “yellow vest” protesters were filmed hurling abuse on Saturday at Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known Jewish writer and son of a Holocaust survivor.

Artwork on two Paris post boxes showing the image of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and former magistrate, was defaced with swastikas, while a bagel shop was sprayed with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. A tree in a Paris suburb in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The series of attacks has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

“I call on all French and European leaders to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message recorded in Hebrew. “It is an epidemic that endangers everyone, not just us.”

A rabbi and three children were killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 by an Islamist gunman, and in 2015 four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris were among 17 people killed by Islamist militants.

(Additional reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Mayaan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Luke Baker and John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

Students plan protests, Washington march, to demand gun control after mass shooting

A senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School weeps in front of a cross and Star of David for shooting victim Meadow Pollack while a fellow classmate consoles her at a memorial by the school in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Zachary Fagenson and Katanga Johnson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Stunned by the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, students mobilized across the country on Sunday to organize rallies and a national walkout in support of stronger gun laws, challenging politicians they say have failed to protect them.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student is accused of murdering 17 people on Wednesday using an assault-style rifle, joined others on social media to plan the events, including a Washington march.

Seventeen candles are seen during a service at Christ Church United Methodist Church for each of the dead in the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Seventeen candles are seen during a service at Christ Church United Methodist Church for each of the dead in the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“I felt like it was our time to take a stand,” said Lane Murdock, 15, of Connecticut. “We’re the ones in these schools, we’re the ones who are having shooters come into our classrooms and our spaces.”

Murdock, who lives 20 miles (32 km) from Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children and six adults were shot to death five years ago, drew more than 50,000 signatures on an online petition on Sunday calling on students to walk out of their high schools on April 20.

GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2nX8ECo

Instead of going to classes, she urged her fellow students to stage protests on the 19th anniversary of an earlier mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Students from the Florida high school are planning a “March for Our Lives” in Washington on March 24 to call attention to school safety and ask lawmakers to enact gun control.

They also plan to rally for gun control, mental health issues and school safety on Wednesday in Tallahassee, the state capital. The students were expected to meet with a lawmaker who is seeking to ban the sale of assault-style weapons like the AR-15 allegedly used in the school shooting.

The demands for change by many still too young to vote has inflamed the country’s long-simmering debate between advocates for gun control and gun ownership.

Students from the Florida school have lashed out at political leaders, including Republican President Donald Trump, for inaction on the issue. Many criticized Trump for insensitivity after he said in a weekend Twitter post that the FBI may have been too distracted with a Russia probe to follow leads that could have prevented the massacre.

“You can’t blame the bureaucracy for this when it’s you, Mr. President, who’s overall responsible,” David Hogg, an 18-year-old Douglas senior, said in a phone interview.

People mourn in front of flowers and mementoes placed in the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the police security perimeter was removed, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People mourn in front of flowers and mementoes placed in the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the police security perimeter was removed, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

‘LISTENING SESSION’

The White House said Trump planned to host “a listening session” with high school students and teachers on Wednesday, but did not specify which students or school would be involved.

Democratic leaders vowed to redouble efforts to fight the nation’s powerful gun lobby to reduce violence from firearms.

“We’re the adults. We’re the leaders in this country who are supposed to keep our children safe – and again and again, our country has let them down,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said on Twitter.

The suspect in the Parkland shooting, Nikolas Cruz, 19, faces multiple murder charges in the deaths of 14 students and three staff members, and the wounding of more than a dozen others in a rampage that eclipsed Columbine as the country’s worst mass shooting at a high school.

Cruz was reported to have been investigated by police and state officials as far back as 2016 after slashing his arm in a social media video, and saying he wanted to buy a gun. Authorities determined, however, he was receiving sufficient support, newspapers said on Saturday.

In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted on Friday that it failed to investigate a warning that Cruz possessed a gun and the desire to kill.

A couple who opened their home to Cruz after his mother’s recent death saw no signs he was planning a rampage, according to the Sun Sentinel in south Florida.

Kimberly and James Snead told the newspaper they knew Cruz had guns, and that they made him lock them in a safe. They thought they had the only key, they said.

Cruz faces charges that could bring the death penalty. Prosecutors have not yet said if they will seek capital punishment.

Four people still hospitalized with wounds from the shooting were in fair condition on Sunday, a spokeswoman for the Broward Health system said.

School officials in Broward County said on Sunday they were aiming to have staff return to the high school campus by the end of the week. They did not say when classes would resume.

(Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Letitia Stein in Detroit and Jeff Mason in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

Iranians chant ‘Death to Israel’, burn Islamic State’s flag at rallies: TV

Iranian demonstrators shout slogans during the annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds Day in Tehran, Iran, June 23, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS. ATTENTITON EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Iranians chanted “Death to Israel” in nationwide rallies on Friday at which they also burned flag of the Islamic State militant group which claimed responsibility for attacks in Tehran this month, state TV reported.

Iranian state media said millions of people turned out for the rallies to mark Al-Quds Day that was declared by Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and which is held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Opposition to Israel is a touchstone of belief for Shi’ite-led Iran, which backs Palestinian and Lebanese Islamic militant groups opposed to peace with the Jewish state, which Tehran refuses to recognize.

Israel, the United States and its chief Sunni Arab ally Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of fomenting tension in the Middle East and of sponsoring terrorism. This is denied by Tehran.

Tensions have risen sharply in the Gulf between Qatar and four Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, in part over Doha’s links with Iran.

“This year’s rally … shows people want our region to be cleaned up from terrorists, backed by the Zionist regime (Israel),” President Hassan Rouhani told state TV.

State TV covering the rallies showed crowds chanting anti-Israel slogans in solidarity with Palestinians whom they urged to continue their fight against the “occupying regime”.

Demonstrators chanted “Death to Israel, Death to America,”, carrying banners reading “Israel should be wiped off the map” while people were shown burning the Israeli flag.

People meted out the same treatment for the banner of Islamic State (IS) which has said it carried out deadly twin attacks in Tehran on June 7. Iran blames regional rival Saudi Arabia for being behind the attacks. Riyadh denies this.

“Daesh (IS), America and Israel are all the same. They are all terrorists,” a young woman marcher in Tehran told TV.

Marchers included soldiers, students and clerics. Black-clad women with small children were among those flocking the streets of central Tehran, many carrying portraits of Khomeini and his successor Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In Tehran’s Vali-ye Asr street, three mid-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles were displayed, including the Zolfaghar missile that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards used on Sunday to target bases of the IS in eastern Syria.

Top Guards’ commanders have repeatedly said that Israel is within range of Iran’s missiles. Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf and Israel say Tehran’s ballistic missile program is a threat to regional security and has led to the United States imposing new sanctions.

“With this rally our nation is telling America that we are determined to continue our path,” Rouhani said, referring to the U.S. Senate’s decision to impose new sanctions.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Venezuela opposition leaders wounded in anti-government march

Riot security forces release jets of water from their water cannon on demonstrators during riots at a march to the state Ombudsman's office in Caracas, Venezuela May 29, 2017. The banner reads "The favorite Ron". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Two Venezuelan opposition leaders were wounded on Monday by security forces dispersing protests in the capital Caracas against President Nicolas Maduro, according to one of the leaders and an opposition legislator.

Maduro’s adversaries have for two months been blocking highways and setting up barricades in protests demanding he call early elections and address an increasingly severe economic crisis that has left millions struggling to get enough to eat.

Fifty-nine people have died in the often violent street melees, which Maduro calls an effort to overthrow his government.

“We were ambushed,” said two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who accompanied protesters in an effort to march to the headquarter of the government ombudsman’s office but was blocked by security forces.

“This government is capable of killing or burning anything,” Capriles said in a press conference.

He said 16 others were injured in the march, adding that he would file a complaint about the issue with state prosecutors.

Legislator Jose Olivares, who is a doctor, tweeted a picture of a bruise on Capriles’ face that he said was the result of a soldier hitting him with a helmet during the clashes.

During the same march, opposition deputy Carlos Paparoni was knocked to the ground by a water cannon sprayed from a truck, requiring that he receive stitches in his head, Olivares said.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Mayhem rages in west Venezuela; Capriles blocked from U.N. trip

Opposition supporters clash with riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Anggy Polanco and Andreina Aponte

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela/CARACAS (Reuters) – Mobs looted shops and fought security forces overnight in Venezuela’s restive western region, where three soldiers were being charged on Thursday with the fatal shooting of a man who was buying diapers for his baby, witnesses said.

Six weeks of anti-government unrest have resulted in at least 44 deaths, as well as hundreds of injuries and arrests in the worst turmoil of President Nicolas Maduro’s four-year rule of the South American OPEC-member country.

Protesters are demanding elections to kick out the socialist government that they accuse of wrecking the economy and turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. Maduro, 54, the successor to late leader Hugo Chavez, says his foes are seeking a violent coup.

One of Maduro’s main opponents, local governor Henrique Capriles, said on Thursday that his passport was confiscated when he was at the airport outside Caracas for a flight to New York, where he was to visit the United Nations and denounce human rights violations.

“My passport is valid until 2020. What they want to do here is avoid us going to the United Nations,” Capriles said, before returning to the capital to join a protest march.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, was due to meet with Capriles in New York on Friday.

“Hope (Capriles’) passport removal is not reprisal linked to planned meeting with me tomorrow,” Zeid said on Twitter.

The move comes a month after Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who was seen by many as the opposition’s best chance in the presidential election scheduled for 2018, was banned from holding political office for 15 years.

Capriles, a sports-loving lawyer who has tried to shake the opposition’s reputation of elitism by focusing on grassroots efforts with poor Venezuelans, narrowly lost the 2013 vote against Maduro, and the two frequently lock horns.

UNREST IN THE WEST

Across the country near the border with Colombia, clashes and lootings raged overnight, even though the government sent 2,000 troops to Tachira state.

Security forces fired teargas at stone-throwing gangs, and crowds smashed their way into shops and offices in San Cristobal, the state capital, and elsewhere.

Manuel Castellanos, 46, was shot in the neck on Wednesday when caught in a melee while walking home with diapers he had bought for his son, witnesses said.

Diapers have become prized products in Venezuela due to widespread shortages of basic domestic items.

The State Prosecutor’s Office said three National Guard sergeants would be charged later on Thursday for their “presumed responsibility” in Castellanos’ killing.

Earlier in the week, a 15-year-old was shot dead when out buying flour for his family’s dinner.

Most shops in San Cristobal, a traditional hotbed of anti-government militancy, were closed on Thursday, with long lines at the few establishments open.

In Caracas, protesters sought to march to the Interior and Justice Ministry but were blocked on a major highway by security forces firing tear gas and using armored vehicles. That sparked now-familiar scenes of masked youths brandishing shields and throwing stones at the security line.

International anxiety about the Venezuelan crisis is growing.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos discussed Venezuela’s “deteriorating situation” at a White House meeting on Thursday.

“We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem,” Trump said. “It is a very, very horrible problem. And from a humanitarian standpoint, it is like nothing we’ve seen in quite a long time.”

France called for mediation amid the worsening situation, and Britain warned its citizens against “all but essential travel” to Venezuela.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Tom Miles in Geneva and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler)

New York girds itself for Trump’s first visit as president

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to staffers setting up for the Commander in Chief's trophy presentation in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York is bracing for President Donald Trump’s first trip back to his hometown since taking office in January in a Thursday visit that is expected to draw protests and snarl traffic in the United States’ most populous city.

The trip could mark a repeat of the chaotic 2-1/2 months between the real estate developer’s Nov. 8 election and Jan. 20 swearing-in, when crowds of protesters and admirers flocked outside his home in the gold-metal-clad Fifth Avenue Trump Tower.

The early days of the Trump administration have brought aggressive rhetoric and moves to crack down on immigration as well as roll back environmental regulations, much of which has ruffled feathers in the liberal northeast city.

Anti-Trump activists, some of whom have organized marches across the country since Trump’s stunning election victory, are planning loud protests to mark the native son’s return.

“A very hot welcome is being planned for Mr. Trump,” said Alexis Danzig, a member of Rise and Resist, an informal group of activists which formed as Trump came to power. “We’ll be out in full force to voice our grievances.”

Trump’s business dealings and romantic fallouts were constant city tabloid fodder in the 1980s and 1990s. His television show, “The Apprentice,” broadcast Trump to the world as the ultimate Big Apple dealmaker during the 2000s.

While the Trump brand is internationally associated with New York, fewer than one in five city residents voted for him.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have said his stance on immigrants has put him at odds with a city where nearly a third of residents are foreign-born.

Protesters plan to gather Thursday near the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier where Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are to have their first in-person meeting. One of the pair’s last exchanges was an acrimonious phone call in January.

New York police declined to provide details of their preparations for Trump’s tour and the protests planned around it.

One lingering issue from the transition period, that of the costs of protecting the president-elect’s building was resolved earlier this week in a proposed federal budget including $61 million to reimburse New York and other local governments for providing Trump-related security.

“That’s good news for our city and the hardworking police officers faced with this unprecedented security challenge,” de Blasio said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)

Venezuelan opposition to hold ‘mother of all marches’ against Maduro

FILE PHOTO: An opposition supporter waves a Venezuelan flag during a gathering against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Oré

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition says it will stage the “mother of all marches” on Wednesday, accusing President Nicolas Maduro of resorting to dictatorial measures to quash popular outrage over a deepening economic crisis.

In the culmination of a fortnight of violent demonstrations that killed five people, marchers around the country will demand the government present a timeline for delayed elections, halt a security crackdown on protests, and respect the autonomy of the opposition-led legislature.

Maduro, who says recent protests have been little more than opposition efforts to foment violence and topple his government, has called on sympathizers of the ruling Socialist Party to hold a competing march in Caracas.

“This is a government in its terminal phase,” two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles told Reuters on Tuesday evening.

“This is going to escalate … and force Maduro, and his regime, to hold free and democratic elections.”

Venezuelans have for years been furious about a collapsing economy in which basic food products are a struggle to obtain and triple-digit inflation is steadily eroding consumer spending power.

But a Supreme Court decision in March to assume the powers of the opposition-led Congress sparked a wave of protests that have not ebbed, even though the court has partly reversed the measure in the face of international condemnation.

Further spurring outrage was a decision by the national comptroller’s office earlier this month to disqualify Capriles from holding office for 15 years, dashing his hopes for the presidency.

The elections council, which is sympathetic to the government, has delayed votes for state governors which were supposed to take place last year. The opposition says this is because the ruling Socialist Party is likely to fare poorly in such a vote.

“QUICK SOLUTION”

Eleven Latin American countries issued a joint statement this week calling on authorities to set a time frame for elections to “allow for a quick solution to the crisis that Venezuela is living through.”

Marches have repeatedly ended in clashes between demonstrators and security forces, with rock-throwing youths squaring off against tear-gas-lobbing security forces in confused melees that drag on well into the evening.

The opposition will congregate at more than two dozen meeting points around Caracas and attempt to converge on the office of the state ombudsman, a guarantor of human rights.

Previous efforts to march there have been blocked by the National Guard, resulting in clashes. As has become common in recent weeks on protest days, Venezuelan authorities will close 27 metro stations and likely set up checkpoints to slow entry to the city.

Socialist Party officials dismiss the opposition marches as efforts to destabilize the government, pointing to protester barricades and vandalism, and have called on supporters to rally around Maduro.

“The great Chavista mobilization toward Caracas has begun,” wrote Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello on Twitter, referring to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

“Let’s all go conquer the peace, defend the fatherland, the constitution, the revolution.”

But pro-government marches no longer have the fervor or numbers of those of Maduro’s predecessor. Opposition leaders also accuse the government of infiltrating marches with violent protesters as a way of discrediting them.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Girish Gupta, Christian Plumb and Lisa Shumaker)

Erdogan makes final push before vote on presidential powers

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan appealed for support from Turkish voters in final campaign rallies on Saturday, the eve of a referendum which could tighten his grip over a country bridging the European Union and a conflict-strewn Middle East.

Opinion polls have given a narrow lead for a “Yes” vote in Sunday’s referendum to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful presidency, a move Erdogan says is needed to confront the security and political challenges Turkey faces.

Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism in a country where 40,000 people were arrested and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in a crackdown following a failed coup attempt against Erdogan last July.

Western countries have criticized that tough response, and relations with the EU – which Turkey has been negotiating to join for a decade – hit a low during the campaign when Erdogan accused European leaders of acting like Nazis for banning referendum rallies in their countries on security grounds.

He has also said Turkey could review a deal under which it limits the flow of migrants – many of them refugees fleeing war in neighboring Syria and Iraq – into the European Union unless the bloc implements plans to grant Turks visa-free travel.

At a rally in Istanbul, one of four he held in the last hours before Sunday’s vote, Erdogan described the constitutional proposals as the biggest change in Turkey since the country was established nearly a century ago, and the culmination of the response to July’s abortive putsch.

“Sunday will be a turning point in the fight against terrorist organizations. We will finish what we started on July 15 this April 16,” he told a crowd in Istanbul’s Tuzla district, decked with Turkish flags and giant pictures of the president.

Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has enjoyed a disproportionate share of media coverage in the buildup to the vote, but the result may be close. A narrow majority of Turks will vote “Yes”, two opinion polls suggested on Thursday, putting his support at only a little over 51 percent.

“Tomorrow is very important, you must absolutely go to the polls,” Erdogan urged the crowd. “Don’t forget that the vote is our honor.”

“TURKEY AT CROSSROADS”

Some 55 million people are eligible to vote at 167,140 polling stations across the nation, which open at 7.00 am (12.00 midnight ET) in the east of the country and close at 5 pm (1400 GMT). Turkish voters abroad have already cast their ballots.

The package of 18 amendments would abolish the office of prime minister and give the president authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency and issue decrees overseeing ministries without parliamentary approval.

Proponents of the reform argue that it would end the current “two-headed system” in which both the president and parliament are directly elected, a situation they argue could lead to deadlock. Until 2014, presidents were chosen by parliament.

They also argue that the current constitution, written by the generals who ruled Turkey in the years following a 1980 coup, still bears the stamp of its military authors and, despite numerous revisions, must be overhauled.

“The presidential system we are bringing with this constitutional change is necessary for the development, growth and stability of our nation,” Erdogan said.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said Turkey was at a crossroads between a democratic parliamentary system and a “one-man regime”. A “Yes” vote would put the country in danger, he said.

“We will put 80 million people onto a bus … we don’t know where it is headed,” he told an opposition rally in the capital Ankara. “We are putting 80 million on a bus with no brakes.”

Also opposing the proposed changes, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) held a rally on Saturday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which was addressed by its jailed co-leader Selahattin Demirtas.

“This campaign was not carried out fairly and equally,” Demirtas, who was arrested last November on terrorism charges, said in a joint letter with other detained HDP members which was read out at the rally.

“The reason behind our arrests was to prevent us from calling to our nation. The entire resources of the state were at disposal to support the ‘Yes’ campaign of the AK Party.”

Erdogan views the HDP as the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in the southeast and claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a police compound in Diyarbakir on Wednesday.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Bolton)

South Korean court throws president out of office, two die in protest

Protesters supporting South Korean President Park Geun-hye clash with riot policemen near the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea. Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Joyce Lee and Cynthia Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s Constitutional Court removed President Park Geun-hye from office on Friday over a graft scandal involving the country’s conglomerates at a time of rising tensions with North Korea and China.

The ruling sparked protests from hundreds of her supporters, two of whom were killed in clashes with police outside the court, and a festive rally by those who had demanded her ouster who celebrated justice being served.

“We did it. We the citizens, the sovereign of this country, opened a new chapter in history,” Lee Tae-ho, who leads a movement to oust Park that has held mostly peaceful rallies in downtown involving millions, told a large gathering in Seoul.

Park becomes South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office, capping months of paralysis and turmoil over the corruption scandal that also landed the head of the Samsung conglomerate in detention and on trial.

A snap presidential election will be held within 60 days.

She did not appear in court and a spokesman said she would not be making any comment. Nor would she leave the presidential Blue House residence on Friday.

“Park is not leaving the Blue House today,” Blue House spokesman Kim Dong Jo told Reuters.

Park was stripped of her powers after parliament voted to impeach her but has remained in the president’s official compound.

The court’s acting chief judge, Lee Jung-mi, said Park had violated the constitution and law “throughout her term”, and despite the objections of parliament and the media, she had concealed the truth and cracked down on critics.

Park has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

The ruling to uphold parliament’s Dec. 9 vote to impeach her marks a dramatic fall from grace of South Korea’s first woman president and daughter of Cold War military dictator Park Chung-hee. Both her parents were assassinated.

Park, 65, no longer has immunity and could now face criminal charges over bribery, extortion and abuse of power in connection with allegations of conspiring with her friend, Choi Soon-sil.

Graphic: Who’s Who in Korea scandal http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/SOUTHKOREA-POLITICS/010030H812T/SOUTHKOREA-POLITICS.jpg

MARKETS RISE

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn was appointed acting president and will remain in that post until the election. He called on Park’s supporters and opponents to put their differences aside to prevent deeper division.

“It is time to accept, and close the conflict and confrontation we have suffered,” Hwang said in a televised speech.

A liberal presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, is leading in opinion polls to succeed Park, with 32 percent in one released on Friday. Hwang, who has not said whether he will seek the presidency, leads among conservatives, none of whom has more than single-digit poll ratings.

“Given Park’s spectacular demise and disarray among conservatives, the presidential contest in May is the liberals’ to lose,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury.

Relations with China and the United States could dominate the coming presidential campaign, after South Korea this month deployed the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in response to North Korea’s stepped up missile and nuclear tests.

Beijing has vigorously protested against the deployment, fearing its radar could see into its missile deployments. China has curbed travel to South Korea and targeted Korean companies operating in the mainland, prompting retaliatory measures from Seoul.

The Seoul market’s benchmark KOSPI index <.KS11> and the won currency <KRW=> rose after the ruling.

The prospect of a new president in the first half of this year instead of prolonged uncertainty would buoy domestic demand as well as the markets, said Trinh Nguyen, senior economist at Natixis in Hong Kong.

“The hope is that this will allow the country to have a new leader that can address long-standing challenges such as labor market reforms and escalated geopolitical tensions,” he said.

Park was accused of colluding with her friend, Choi, and a former presidential aide, both of whom have been on trial, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.

The court said Park had “completely hidden the fact of (Choi’s) interference with state affairs”.

Park was also accused of soliciting bribes from the head of the Samsung Group for government favors, including backing a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015 that was seen as supporting family succession and control over the country’s largest “chaebol” or conglomerate.

Samsung Group leader Jay Y. Lee has been accused of bribery and embezzlement in connection with the scandal and is in detention. His trial began on Thursday.

He and Samsung have denied wrongdoing.

Graphic: South Korea’s impeachment – http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/SOUTHKOREA-POLITICS/010030NC1EQ/SOUTHKOREA-POLITICS.jpg

‘COMMON CRIMINAL’

The scandal and verdict have exposed fault lines in a country long divided by Cold War politics.

While Park’s conservative supporters clashed with police outside the court, elsewhere most people welcomed her ouster. A recent poll showed more than 70 percent supported her impeachment.

Hundreds of thousands of people have for months been gathering at peaceful rallies in Seoul every weekend to call for her to step down.

On Friday, hundreds of Park’s supporters, many of them elderly, tried to break through police barricades at the courthouse. Police said one 72-year-old man was taken to hospital with a head injury and died. The circumstances of the second death were being investigated.

Six people were injured, protest organizers said.

Police blocked the main thoroughfare running through downtown Seoul in anticipation of bigger protests.

Park will be making a tragic and untimely departure from the Blue House for the second time in her life.

In 1979, having served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, she and her two siblings left the presidential compound after their father was killed.

This time, she could end up in jail.

Prosecutors have named Park as an accomplice in two court cases linked to the scandal, suggesting she is likely to be investigated.

North Korean state media wasted little time labeling Park a criminal.

“She had one more year left as ‘president’ but, now she’s been ousted, she will be investigated as a common criminal,” the North’s state KCNA news agency said shortly after the court decision.

Graphic: Falls from grace around the world – http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/SOUTHKOREA-POLITICS-IMPEACH/0100404008D/SOUTHKOREA-PARK-IMPEACHMENT.jpg

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, James Pearson, Heekyong Yang, Jeong Eun Lee, Suyeong Lee and Dahee Kim in SEOUL, Yeganeh Torbati in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel and Jack Kim; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Nick Macfie)