Kushner urges world to keep ‘open mind’ about upcoming Middle East plan: source

White House adviser Jared Kushner at the "2019 Prison Reform Summit" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner urged a group of ambassadors on Wednesday to keep an “open mind” about President Donald Trump’s upcoming Middle East peace proposal and said that it will require compromises from both sides, a source familiar with the remarks said.

Kushner said the peace plan is to be unveiled after Israel forms a governing coalition in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory and after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early June, the source said.

“We will all have to look for reasonable compromises that will make peace achievable,” Kushner said, according to the source, who asked to remain unidentified.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Suicide bomber kills 14 after Afghan clerics outlaw suicide bombings

Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A motorcycle suicide bomber killed 14 people near a gathering of Muslim clerics in the Afghan capital on Monday after they had issued a fatwa against suicide bombings, officials said, in the latest in a series of attacks to hit Kabul.

The bomb exploded at the entrance to a giant tent, near residential buildings in the west of Kabul, after most the clerics had left, a witness said. Women living nearby were crying as they gathered with their families.

The bomb killed seven clerics, four security officers and three people whose identities were unknown, a senior government official said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which underlines deteriorating security ahead of parliamentary and district council elections set for Oct. 20.

The Taliban, fighting to restore strict Islamic rule after their 2001 ouster at the hands of U.S.-led troops, denied involvement.

More than 2,000 religious scholars from across the country began meeting on Sunday at the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) tent, denouncing years of conflict. They issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, outlawing suicide bombings and demanding that Taliban militants restore peace to allow foreign troops to leave.

A series of bombings in Kabul has killed dozens of people in recent months and shown no sign of easing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

On Wednesday, gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the heavily fortified headquarters of the interior ministry, battling security forces for more than two hours.

In April, two explosions in Kabul killed at least 26 people, including nine journalists who had arrived to report on an initial blast and were targeted by a suicide bomber.

A week earlier, 60 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a voter registration center in the city.

Militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Kabul but security officials say several are much more likely to be the work of the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban.

Provincial cities have also been hit as the Taliban have stepped up operations across the country since they announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive in April.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Pakistan heatwave kills 65 people in Karachi – welfare organization

Men and children cool off from the heatwave, as they are sprayed with water jetting out from a leaking water pipeline in Karachi, Pakistan May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A heatwave has killed 65 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, a social welfare organization said on Tuesday, amid fears the death toll could climb as the high temperatures persist.

The heatwave has coincided with power outages and the holy month of Ramadan, when most Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. Temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) on Monday, local media reported.

Faisal Edhi, who runs the Edhi Foundation that operates morgues and an ambulance service in Pakistan’s biggest city, said the deaths occurred mostly in the poor areas of Karachi.

Residents sleep on a building pavement, to escape heat and frequent power outage in their residence area Karachi, Pakistan. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Residents sleep on a building pavement, to escape heat and frequent power outage in their residence area Karachi, Pakistan. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

“Sixty-five people have died over the last three days,” Edhi told Reuters. “We have the bodies in our cold storage facilities and their neighborhood doctors have said they died of heat-stroke.”

A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

But Sindh province’s Health Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho told the English-language Dawn newspaper that no one has died from heat-stroke.

“Only doctors and hospitals can decide whether the cause of death was heat-stroke or not. I categorically reject that people have died due to heat-stroke in Karachi,” Pechuho was quoted as saying.

Nonetheless, reports of heat stroke deaths in Karachi will stir unease amid fears of a repeat of a heatwave in of 2015, when morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed and at least 1,300 mostly elderly and sick people died from the searing heat.

In 2015, the Edhi morgue ran out of freezer space after about 650 bodies were brought in the space of a few days. Ambulances left decaying corpses outside in sweltering heat.

The provincial government has assured residents that there would be no repeat of 2015 and was working on ensuring those in need of care receive rapid treatment.

Edhi said most of the dead brought to the morgue were working class factory workers who came from the low-income Landhi and Korangi areas of Karachi.

“They work around heaters and boilers in textile factories and there is eight to nine hours of (scheduled power outages) in these areas,” he said.

Temperatures are expected to stay above 40C until Thursday, local media reported.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alison Williams)

Protest camps quiet as Gazans fast and fill sandbags

A Palestinian man reads the Koran inside a tent during the holy month of Ramadan, at a protest camp near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Young men filled sandbags to prepare for future protests at encampments along Gaza’s Israeli border on Thursday, though tents were mostly empty as Palestinians joined Muslims around the world observing the daylight fast at the start of Ramadan.

After the bloodiest day for Palestinians in years on Monday, when 60 were killed by Israeli gunfire during mass demonstrations that Israel said included attempts to breach its frontier fence, calm and a heatwave descended on the area.

Organisers of the protests that began on March 30 set Friday as a day to honour the dead and urged Gazans to flock again to the tent cities. But Ramadan traditions – prayer, family visits and feasts – seemed to keep crowds away during the hot hours.

At one encampment, about 70 young men filled sandbags in anticipation of people returning to the protest sites.

“We are making a sand barrier so people can feel a bit safer,” one of the men said, declining to give his name.

Ramadan is usually a time of celebration, but after dozens of funerals during the week the mood was bleak in Gaza.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said on Wednesday neighboring Egypt had put pressure on Hamas, the armed Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, to scale back the protests.

Hamas denied it had come under Egyptian pressure to curb the protests, which provoked international condemnation of Israel’s deadly tactics in putting down the unrest. The organizing committee for the demonstrations said Muslims’ abstinence from food and drink during the hot mornings and afternoons of Ramadan would be taken into account in further protests.

The “March of Return” demonstrations advocate the return of Palestinians to lands lost to Israel during its founding in 1948, and are also intended to draw attention to harsh conditions in Gaza, where the economy has collapsed under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.

Israel, with U.S. backing, says Hamas is behind the protests, deliberately provoking violence for propaganda aims. Hamas says the demonstrations are a popular outpouring of anger, and Israel carried out a “massacre” in response.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Dawoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee, said activities at the encampments would get under way only in the late afternoon when temperatures drop. Late-night prayers will also be held there, he said.

“The marches are continuing and there are calls on people to gather in mass on Friday in a day we have dedicated to glorifying the martyrs,” Shehab told Reuters.

The message was echoed in appeals blared by loudspeakers on vehicles that drove into Gaza neighborhoods to urge people to turn out. Organisers said the protest would stretch into June.

Violence along the border has been comparatively limited over the past two days, with no casualties reported by either side since Tuesday, when two Palestinians were killed while dozens of others were buried.

Early on Thursday, Israeli aircraft hit four Hamas targets in the northern Gaza Strip in response to heavy machine gun fire that struck houses in the Israeli town of Sderot, the Israeli military said.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade since Gaza fell under control of the militant group that denies Israel’s right to exist. Israel and Egypt say their de facto blockade of the strip is necessary for security reasons.

The World Bank says it has driven Gaza to economic collapse, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 2 million people are now dependent on aid.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff)

Taliban emerge from hiding to battle Afghan forces in city near Iran

Residents look at an Army vehicle which was damaged during battle between Afghan security forces and Taliban in Farah province, Afghanistan May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Storay Karimi and Mohammad Stanekzai

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Taliban fighters emerged from hiding in the dead of night to launch attacks in the Afghan city of Farah, battling government forces who thought they had cleared out the insurgents following heavy clashes earlier in the week, residents and officials said.

The heavily armed fighters had gone to ground in residential areas following their surprise attack on Tuesday, when they nearly overran Farah, before Afghan troops backed by U.S. air power fought them off.

“From one side, there were Taliban and from the other side, war planes firing from the air. People were terrified,” said city shopkeeper Qudratullah.

The Taliban fighters emerged from their hiding places about an hour before midnight on Wednesday, some of them firing on security forces from rooftops, with gunbattles raging into the early hours of Thursday.

At least one suicide bomb attack was launched near the city’s police headquarters.

“The city has been turned into a military zone, people are worried and shops are closed,” said resident Baz Mohammad.

“After what happened last night, anything can happen any time.”

Schools were also declared closed for the whole of the month of Ramadan, which began on Thursday, because of the security situation, said Kabir Haqmal, media advisor to the ministry of education.

After months of relative calm over the winter, the latest fighting underlines the challenge facing the Kabul government and its U.S. allies who are struggling to contain the Taliban insurgency.

The United States has sent thousands of extra trainers to help Afghan forces and stepped up air strikes dramatically, with the aim of pressing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but there has been little to indicate the plan is working.

BLAMING IRAN

In Farah, U.S. forces have provided air support with A-10 attack aircraft and pilotless drones, while the Afghan air force has conducted numerous strikes with its own helicopters and A-29 ground attack aircraft.

Officials had earlier said the city was clear of Taliban but confirmed the fighting overnight.

“A number of Taliban clashed with Afghan forces in different parts of the city,” said Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, the city’s police chief.

“Right now there is no fighting but a search and clearance operation is underway,” he said.

He said a number of foreign fighters appeared to be operating with the Taliban but there was no way of independently verifying that. Officials in Farah often blame neighboring Iran for helping the Taliban in the area.

Fighting has increased across Afghanistan in recent weeks with government forces under heavy pressure in provinces including Badakhshan, Baghlan and Faryab in the north, Farah in the west and Zabul and Ghazni south of the capital Kabul.

In addition, Kabul itself has been targeted by a wave of suicide attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of people since the beginning of the year.

Remote and sparsely populated Farah, on the border with Iran has seen heavy fighting for months with Taliban forces inflicting heavy casualties on the police and army and even on elite special forces units.

(Additional reporting by Qadir Sediqi in KABUL; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

The lives of three men show why Syria’s rebels are losing the war

FILE PHOTO: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The war has cost one man part of his liver and intestines. Another his home and work. A third his homeland and studies.

All three have lost hope.

Abu Farhan, Fouad al-Ghraibi and Abu al-Baraa took the rebels’ side in the violence which began after the government put down street protests that started on March 15, 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Ghraibi, who has a business renting out construction machinery, joined a rebel group and later set up his own fighting unit. Abu al-Baraa, then just 16, joined a militant group, the Nusra Front, and became a jihadist fighter. Abu Farhan, a student and part-time kitchen fitter, joined the first protests in the central Syrian city of Homs and went on to became an opposition activist.

The harrowing tales of the three men — they don’t know each other but all risked their lives by siding against President Bashar al-Assad — help show why the rebellion is failing.

All three quickly became disillusioned with divisions among the rebels and what they saw as various fighting groups’ intolerance of anyone who does not think like them — a trait similar to what they see in Assad.

Two of them have concluded the war is unwinnable, especially as Assad now has heavy military support from Russia and Iran that far outweighs the weapons shipped to rebels by the United States, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.

But hatred of Assad means fighters like Ghraibi battle on. Men such as Abu al-Baraa and Abu Farhan are so disillusioned with both sides that they see no life for them in Syria.

“What happened destroyed my whole future,” Abu al-Baraa, who now lives in exile in Turkey, told Reuters by telephone. He fled across the border after falling out with the Nusra Front, which he says imprisoned and tortured him.

Ghraibi, 37, has recovered from abdomen and hand wounds and lost part of his liver and intestines, and a finger, says he will fight to the death with the rebels but also believes the rebellion’s original ideals are dead.

“We’ll keep fighting to our last breath, even against the whole world,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST

Abu Farhan shares that sense of despair. Now 30, he was forced out of Homs by the fighting in 2014. Although he has found work and an apartment in Syria’s northern Idlib province, he is deeply disillusioned by what has become of Syria and dreams of leaving to start a new life abroad.

“We didn’t want to destroy our country and create this rift among Syrians,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined the protests.”

He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of upsetting rebels in Idlib.

The civil war has killed 511,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and forced over 5.4 million to flee the county, according to U.N. data. It has also caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and western Europe and inspired fatal attacks from Nice to Los Angeles.

(Years of deadly days in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2HB9bkG)

It is a civil war that has laid bare the international community’s inability to resolve conflicts on such a scale, increasing strains between Russia and the West.

Abu Farhan had studied physical education at university in Homs before the war and was working as a kitchen fitter. He threw his lot in with Assad’s opponents when he joined anti-government protesters pouring out of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.

Abu Farhan put aside his studies and his hopes of marriage, and began organizing protests.

His best friend and favorite cousin both disappeared under arrest. Last year he found out that they were killed – a fate which human rights groups say has befallen tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons. The president denies the accusations.

By February 2012, the Syrian army was regularly shelling the district where Abu Farhan lived in the Jouret al Shayyah district of Homs near the Old City. But he chose not to fight.

“I knew that taking up arms would be a curse, not a blessing,” he said.

As fighting intensified and warplanes began bombing city blocks in late 2012, he left his home with his parents and two siblings for al-Waer, a quieter opposition area in another part of the city.

Waer was soon subjected to a siege that lasted until 2017 and food became more scarce. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when people traditionally eat delicacies at night after fasting through the daylight hours, he says the family usually had only bulgur wheat to break their fast.

“Sometimes we didn’t even have that,” he said.

Terrified of arrest by Assad’s security forces – which he believed would lead to torture and summary execution – Abu Farhan and his family joined rebels who left for Idlib in a negotiated withdrawal, surrendering Waer to the government.

Idlib will never feel like home for Abu Farhan. “I am a refugee here,” he said.

After leaving Waer, he and his sister both found jobs in Idlib, with Abu Farhan working as a fitness instructor.

Despite overcrowding caused by the flood of refugees from other parts of Syria, they were able to rent an apartment. For now, though, Abu Farhan is unable to get to work in the southern part of Idlib because bombing by pro-Assad forces makes his journey too dangerous.

The bombing, destruction and what he sees as the intolerance of rebel groups running Idlib have convinced him there is no point staying in Syria. He has started learning Turkish and hopes to gain refugee status.

JIHADIST AND EXILE

Abu al-Baraa was a schoolboy in Waer when the protests began, but volunteered as a hospital orderly and helped injured demonstrators hide from the police. He briefly became a medical student, while it was still possible to travel into the university in central Homs.

Realising he was now a wanted man because of his actions, he joined the Nusra Front. He said the group seemed to represent his conservative religious views and that he became aware of its true nature and violent militancy only later.

“We didn’t know then that the Nusra Front was affiliated to al Qaeda. We had a religious upbringing, and they lured us in with their religious beliefs,” said Abu al-Baraa.

The Nusra Front’s brutal methods were soon evident to Abu al-Baraa, as was the split between jihadist and nationalist groups that has plagued the uprising.

“They established security apparatuses and prisons just like the (Assad government) regime, where they tortured people,” Abu al-Baraa said. “I know of at least one man who died under torture and was later shown to be innocent.”

After only a few months fighting with the group, he was stripped of his gun and mobile phone for opposing its actions and he started volunteering at a medical center.

His disillusionment with the Nusra Front and other rebels grew and he publicly argued with the group’s local commander, who threw him into prison.

He was held in a dark underground cell infested with rats and was tortured, he said.

“They faked 15 accusations against me, including theft and spying for the regime. After 12 days of living hell, I collapsed and confessed to the fake accusations,” he said.

While he wasted in prison the rebellion, undermined by internal wrangling and facing a government strengthened by the arrival of Russian warplanes, was losing ground.

When its enclave in the city of Aleppo fell to Assad in late 2016, it led to a series of surrenders of other small opposition pockets around Syria. Waer was one of them.

Abu al-Baraa was stuck in prison, but he still had friends in the Nusra Front who managed to smuggle him out. He was able to board one of a number of green buses sent by the government to evacuate the rebels, and made it to Idlib.

For Abu al-Baraa, worried he was in danger from the Nusra Front and now using false documents, the misery and poverty of Idlib offered no haven.

“Two or three families shared one small apartment, taking turns to sleep,” he said.

Six weeks after arriving there, he made the dangerous border crossing into Turkey with the help of the same people who had rescued him from prison. It was his seventh attempt.

Mow living in Istanbul with his mother and younger brother, Abu al-Baraa says the trauma of that time, when the sound of jets meant an attack could be imminent, still affects them.

“We live near the airport. Whenever a plane takes off or lands, my brother runs crying to his mother,” he said.

Their father did not make it out of Syria. He died of a stroke in Waer in 2014. Abu al-Baraa still fears his former rebel allies enough to be identified only by his nom de guerre.

REBEL COMMANDER

When anti-government protests began in the city of Idlib in 2011, Fouad al-Ghraibi quickly joined them.

There was never any question where his allegiances lay. Thirteen of his uncles and cousins, all from the family’s home village of Kafr Oueid in Idlib province, were killed or jailed when government forces crushed a years-long revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, in 1982.

Ghraibi was shot in the hand and abdomen when Assad cracked down on the protesters and was taken to Turkey for treatment.

Returning to Idlib months later, he gathered friends to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an alliance of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab countries.

Disappointed by divisions in the FSA, he later joined Jaish al-Islam, a better organized Islamist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia where he was put in charge of 150 fighters.

Three of his brothers, Mokhlis, Khaled and Mustafa, were killed in combat in the northwest, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. An air strike on his village in June 2015 killed 33 civilians, including his niece.

When an alliance of jihadist groups led by the Nusra Front, which changed its name in 2016, took over much of Idlib last year, Ghraibi returned home to Kafr Oueid.

Once there, he set up a group of 45 local fighters which he hopes will defend the village from both Assad and the Islamist factions, and return the revolution to the ideals he believes it originally espoused.

All it has done so far is contribute yet another small armed faction to a civil war that shows no sign of ending.

(Editing by Angus McDowall and Timothy Heritage)

Indonesian police warn Islamists against raids in search of Santa hats

Islamic Defenders Front

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police appealed on Thursday for tolerance and respect for other people’s religious celebrations after an Islamist group threatened to raid businesses to check for Muslims being forced to wear Santa Claus hats or other Christmas garb.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) said this week it would conduct “sweeping operations” in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and that forcing Muslims to wear Christmas attire was a violation of their human rights.

Indonesia is home to several religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who follow traditional beliefs.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in an officially secular state though tension between followers of different faiths can flare.

“There can be no sweeping operations … members of the public should respect other religions that are carrying out celebrations,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told police during a security exercise in the capital, Jakarta.

The FPI said it aimed to enforce a fatwa, or decree, issued by Indonesia’s Islamic Clerical Council in 2016 prohibiting business owners from forcing employees to wear Christmas clothing.

“We will raid businesses in anticipation of them being stubborn about this and we will be accompanied by police,” said Novel Bakmukmin, head of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.

Employers forcing staff to wear Christmas clothes were violating their rights.

“Businesses should be aware that there should be no forcing,” he said.

The Islamic Clerical Council’s decrees are not legally binding but serve as guidelines for Indonesian Muslims.

Christmas is widely celebrated across Indonesia and holiday decorations are ubiquitous, especially at shops, restaurants and malls where many enthusiastic workers – even Muslims – don Santa hats or elf costumes.

The FPI built its reputation with raids on restaurants and bars serving alcohol during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In recent years, it has turned its attention to Christian celebrations.

The group has also said it wants the Jakarta city government to stop sponsoring New Year celebrations, which attract many thousands of people.

About 90,000 police officers will be on duty cross the country during the end-of-year holidays, in an operation largely aimed at preventing militant attacks.

Attacks on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve in 2000, killed nearly 20 people. Ever since, authorities have stepped up security at churches and tourist spots for the holiday.

(Reporting by Djohan Widjaya and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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)

Mosul Old City residents spend hungry and fearful Ramadan under IS rule

Displaced Iraqi family from Mosul eat a simple meal for their Iftar, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a refugee camp al-Khazir in the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq June 10, 2017. Picture taken June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For Salam, a resident in the Islamic State-held Old City of Mosul, the holy fasting month of Ramadan this year is the worst he’s seen in a lifetime marked by wars and deprivations.

“We are slowly dying from hunger, boiling mouldy wheat as soup” to break the fast at sunset, the 47 year-old father of three said by phone from the district besieged by Iraqi forces, asking to withhold his name fearing the militants’ retribution.

The only wish he makes in his prayers is for his family to survive the final days of the self-proclaimed caliphate declared three years ago by IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a nearby mosque.

The eight-month old U.S.-backed campaign to capture Mosul, IS’s de-facto capital in Iraq, reached its deadliest phase just as the holy Muslim month started at the end of May, when militants became squeezed in and around the densely populated Old City.

Up to 200,000 people are trapped behind their lines, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds have been killed while trying to escape to government-held lines, caught in the cross-fire or gunned down by Islamic State snipers. The militants want civilians to remain in areas under their control to use them as human shields.

Many bodies of the dead remain in the street near the frontlines. Four of them are relatives of Khalil, a former civil servant who quit his job after IS took over Mosul.

“Daesh warned us not to bury them to make them an example for others who try to flee,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Those who decide not to run the risk of fleeing are living in fear of getting killed or wounded in their homes, with little food and water and limited access to healthcare.

“Seeing my kids hungry is real torture,” said Salam, who closed his home appliances shop shortly after the start of the offensive as sales came to a complete stop.”I wish the security forces would eliminate all Daesh fighters in a flash; I want my family to have normal life again.”

Where food can be found, the price has risen more than 20-fold. A kilo of rice is selling for more than $40. A kilo of flour or lentils is $20 or more.

The sellers are mainly households who stockpiled enough food and medicine to dare sell some, but only to trusted neighbors or relatives, or in return for items they need. If militants find food they take it.

Residents fill water from a few wells dug in the soil. The wait is long and dangerous as shelling is frequent.

“The well-water has a bitter taste and we can smell sewage sometimes, but we have to drink to stay alive,” said Umm Saad, a widow and mother of four, complaining that the militants are often seen with bottled water and canned food.

“We have been under compulsory fasting even before the start of Ramadan,” she said. “No real food to eat, just hardened old bread and mouldy grains.”

About 800,000 people, more than a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps. But in areas still held by the militants escape has become harder than ever.

“Fleeing is like committing suicide,” said Khalil, the ex-civil servant, who lives near the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, the offensive’s symbolic focus, where Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph.

IS’s black flag has been flying over its landmark leaning minaret since June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants, giving them their biggest prize, a city at least four times bigger than any other they came to control in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; editing by Peter Graff)

Islamic State calls for attacks in United States, Russia, Middle East, Asia during Ramadan

CAIRO (Reuters) – An audio message purporting to come from the spokesman of Islamic State called on followers to launch attacks in the United States, Europe, Russia, Australia, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the Philippines during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began in late May.

The audio clip was distributed on Monday on Islamic State’s channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging application. It was attributed to the militant group’s official spokesman, Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer.

The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified, but the voice was the same as a previous audio message purported to be from the spokesman.

“O lions of Mosul, Raqqa, and Tal Afar, God bless those pure arms and bright faces, charge against the rejectionists and the apostates and fight them with the strength of one man,” said al-Muhajer. Rejectionist is a derogatory term used to refer to Shi’ite Muslims.

“To the brethren of faith and belief in Europe, America, Russia, Australia, and others. Your brothers in your land have done well so take them as role models and do as they have done.”

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Alison Williams)