Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests spread, Brussels police arrest hundreds in riot

Riot police are seen during the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian police detained more than 400 people on Saturday after “yellow vest” protesters inspired by riots in France threw rocks and firecrackers and damaged shops and cars as they tried to reach official buildings in Brussels.

destroyed car is seen after the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

A destroyed car is seen after the “yellow vests” protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

n the second violence of its kind in the capital in eight days, a crowd which police estimated at around 1,000 faced riot squads who used water cannon and tear gas to keep people away from the European Union headquarters and the nearby Belgian government quarter. Calm was restored after about five hours.

The movement in Belgium, inspired by the “gilets jaunes”, or yellow vest, protests in neighboring France over the past month, has given voice to complaints about the cost of living and demanded the removal of Belgium’s center-right coalition government, six months before a national election is due in May.

French police said more than 30,000 people demonstrated there and more than 30 people were injured in a second successive Saturday of violence in Paris.

Demonstrators clash with police during the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Demonstrators clash with police during the “yellow vests” protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian protesters wearing the fluorescent yellow vests carried by all motorists for emergencies also briefly blocked a motorway near Belgium’s border with France.

(Reporting by Clement Rossignol and Robin Emmott; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Edmund Blair)

France dangles wealth tax review as ‘yellow vest’ anger persists

A protester wearing a yellow vest, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, holds a flag near burning debris at the approach to the A2 Paris-Brussels Motorway, in Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron could amend a wealth tax that critics say goes too easy on the rich, his government indicated on Wednesday, a day after suspending further fuel-tax hikes in the face of protests across France over living costs.

The Macron administration is struggling to defuse the anger driving the “yellow vest” protests, as it reels from the worst riots seen in central Paris in five decades last Saturday.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said all tax-related policies needed to be periodically evaluated and, if deemed not to be working, should be changed. He said the wealth tax could be reassessed in the autumn of 2019.

“If a measure that we have taken, which is costing the public money, turns out not to be working, if it’s not going well, we’re not stupid – we would change it,” Griveaux told RTL radio.

The unrest over the squeeze on household budgets comes as OECD data showed that France has become the most highly taxed country in the developed world, surpassing even high-tax Denmark.

Griveaux later told a weekly news conference that Macron had called on all political parties, trade unions and business leaders to press the need for calm.

Student protests and planned trade union strikes in the energy and port sectors next week underscored the risk of contagion.

A Macron aide denied that any eventual revision of the wealth tax would represent a major climb-down by Macron, a pro-business former investment banker, adding that the president remained committed to his reform drive.

Griveaux defended Macron’s decision last year to narrow the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – to a tax on real estate assets, rather than all of an individual’s worldwide assets, from jewelry to yachts to investments, over the value of 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million).

Those changes earned Macron the label “president of the rich” among the hard-pressed middle-class voters and blue-collar workers who criticize the president for pursuing policies that favor the wealthy and do nothing to help the poor.

Griveaux said the wealth tax reform had not been “a gift to the rich” and was aimed at encouraging wealthy individuals to invest more in France.

“This money was to be invested in our SMEs for them to develop, innovate and hire. If that is not the case … then we can reopen it for discussion.”

U-TURN

The “yellow vest” movement – so-called because of the high-vis jackets worn by protesters – began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes but morphed into a broader, sometimes-violent rebellion against 40-year-old Macron.

His administration’s shift on fuel tax came after rioters ran amok in central Paris, torching cars, looting boutiques vandalizing cafes and private residences and cafes in affluent neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the six-month suspension to the carbon tax would be used to examine other measures to bolster household spending power.

It marked the first major U-turn by Macron in his 18-months in office, at a time polls show that barely one in five French people think he is doing a good job.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to mock Macron over the policy shift, which could make it harder for France to meet its CO2 emissions reduction target, a core element of the Paris climate agreement of 2015.

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump tweeted late on Tuesday, as U.N. climate talks take place in Poland.

“The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters.”

Adding to Macron’s difficulties, college students are agitating and the hardline CGT trade union on Wednesday called for strikes in the energy industry and at ports on Dec. 13.

“We too want a freeze on the planned closures of coal plants,” the CGT union said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Total said a rising number of its filling stations were running dry as a result of “yellow vest” roadblocks.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Richard Lough and Sophie Louet; Writing by Luke Baker and Richard Lough; Editing by Toby Chopra and Alison Williams)

Macron tells PM to hold talks after worst unrest in Paris for decades

Burned cars are seen on avenue Kleber after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel taxes, in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

By Jean-Baptiste Vey and John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron ordered his prime minister on Sunday to hold talks with political leaders and demonstrators, as he sought a way out of nationwide protests after rioters turned central Paris into a battle zone.

Riot police on Saturday were overwhelmed as protesters ran amok in Paris’s wealthiest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.

Firemen extinguish burning cars set afire by protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel taxes, during clashes near the Place de l'Etoile in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Firemen extinguish burning cars set afire by protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers’ protest against higher diesel fuel taxes, during clashes near the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

The unrest began as a backlash against fuel tax hikes but has spread. It poses the most formidable challenge yet to Macron’s presidency, with the escalating violence and depth of public anger against his economic reforms catching the 40-year-old leader off-guard and battling to regain control.

After a meeting with members of his government on Sunday, the French presidency said in a statement that the president had asked his interior minister to prepare security forces for future protests and his prime minister to hold talks with political party leaders and representatives of the protesters.

A French presidential source said Macron would not speak to the nation on Sunday despite calls for him to offer immediate concessions to demonstrators, and said the idea of imposing a state of emergency had not been discussed.

Arriving back from the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron had earlier rushed to the Arc de Triomphe, a revered monument and epicenter of Saturday’s clashes, where protesters had scrawled “Macron resign” and “The yellow vests will triumph”.

The “yellow vest” rebellion erupted out of nowhere on Nov. 17, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to some shopping malls, fuel depots and airports. Violent groups from the far right and far left as well as youths from the suburbs infiltrated Saturday’s protests, the authorities said.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux had indicated the Macron administration was considering imposing a state of emergency. The president was open to dialogue, he said, but would not reverse policy reforms.

“We won’t change course. We are certain of that,” he told Europe 1 radio.

As he spoke, workmen in the upper-crust district of central Paris set about cleaning the defaced Arc, removing charred hulks of cars and replacing the shattered windows of banks, restaurants and glitzy boutiques.

Workmen place a metal panel on the window of a vandalized bank the morning after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel taxes, in Paris, France, December 2, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Workmen place a metal panel on the window of a vandalized bank the morning after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers’ protest against higher diesel fuel taxes, in Paris, France, December 2, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

MACRON UNYIELDING

While the protests were initially against Macron’s fuel tax hikes – necessary he says to combat climate change – they have also mined a vein of deep dissatisfaction felt toward his liberal reforms, which many voters feel favor the wealthy and big business.

Police said they had arrested more than 400 people in Paris on Saturday and that 133 were injured. Some 10,000 tear gas canisters and stun grenades were fired as well as water cannon as security forces fought for control.

Macron’s plight illustrates a conundrum: How do political leaders’ introduce policies that will do long-term good for the environment without inflicting extra costs on voters that may damage their chances of re-election?

His unyielding response has exposed him to charges of being out of touch with common folk outside of France’s big cities who worry about the squeeze on household budgets and job security.

The protests have driven Macron’s popularity to record lows and left him facing a lose-lose situation, said Gael Sliman, president of the Odoxa polling institute said.

Either Macron caves into the pressure and is derided by opponents as weak, or he puts down the dissent, Sliman said.

“In the second scenario, Macron will still come out the loser, because what everyone will remember is that he wrestled with the popular classes. He would be victorious but at the cost of having crushed them.”

Before heading into Sunday’s meeting, Macron met under heavy security with police and firefighters near the Champs Elysees boulevard. Some bystanders cheered, others jeered and called on him to resign.

So too did Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of hard-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who both demanded the government unwind its fuel tax hikes. They called for parliament to be dissolved and snap elections held.

Damaged vehicles are seen on avenue Kleber after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel taxes, in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Damaged vehicles are seen on avenue Kleber after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers’ protest against higher diesel taxes, in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Such an outcome is unlikely, however. Macron has 3 1/2 years left of his five-year mandate and a strong majority in parliament, albeit with signs of simmering unease on the backbenches over his response to the protests.

TV footage showed the interior of the Arc ransacked, a statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, smashed, and graffiti scrawled on the exterior ranging from anti-capitalist slogans to social demands and calls for Macron’s resignation.

On nearby streets, some Parisians worried of a repeat of the violence next weekend. The yellow vests have already called another demonstration in Paris.

“The violence is increasing at an exponential rate,” said Claude, a resident in the affluent 16th district. “The state is losing control, it is scary. They cannot let this happen. Maybe the army should intervene.”

(Reporting by John Irish, Richard Lough, Emmanuel Jarry, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Matthias Blamont, Myriam Rivet, Simon Carraud and Luke Baker; Writing by John Irish and Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Susan Fenton)

Charlottesville confronts identity one year after clashes

A U.S. flag flies from the back of a car, ahead the one-year anniversary of the fatal white-nationalist rally, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Joseph Ax

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – For many residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year’s white nationalist rally shattered the city’s carefully curated reputation as a progressive, idyllic place to live.

But for Nikuyah Walker, an activist who was elected mayor just three months later, the violent clashes only underscored deep racial and economic inequities that have long divided this picturesque college town. In her view, the rally has forced Charlottesville to confront its own complicated legacy.

“You can have three or four generations who are struggling, and that family has not been able to move out of poverty wages – that’s a significant portion of Charlottesville,” Walker, the city’s first black female mayor, told Reuters outside City Hall. “And then you have this very wealthy community that loves and raves about it.”

As Charlottesville prepares for the one-year anniversary this weekend, it is still agonizing over clashes last year in which one woman was killed when an Ohio man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, stands at the memorial at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, stands at the memorial at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Some residents have argued that the vast majority of the marchers last year were from out of town, but Walker said that narrative ignores the city’s broader problems.

She noted that the main instigators of the “Unite the Right” rally, Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe the loose coalition of white nationalists, and Jason Kessler, a local blogger, graduated from the University of Virginia on the western side of town.

The rally was billed as a protest over the city council’s plan to remove two Confederate statues from downtown parks. Last year, a judge blocked the city from taking down the statues, which are encircled by orange plastic fencing and are off-limits to residents.

Several officials including the police chief, the city manager, and the city attorney left their positions after widespread criticism that Charlottesville had been ill-prepared to manage the hundreds of white nationalists who descended upon it, many armed with shields, clubs and other weapons.

“We recognize that we have to earn the community’s trust,” said Brian Wheeler, the city’s chief spokesman. “The way that we can best do that this year is learn from the mistakes.”

Local and state police have vowed to have zero tolerance for any violence this weekend, in stark contrast with last year when some officers did not intervene to break up fights. Virtually the entire downtown will be closed to vehicles.

Police have said that they are preparing for the worst, even though Kessler, who organized last year’s event, lost a bid to get a permit this year. Instead, he has received permission to rally outside the White House on Sunday and has said he will focus on Washington.

A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A CITY AT ODDS WITH ITSELF

The effects of last year’s violence are still felt every day in Charlottesville.

City council meetings have frequently devolved into shouting matches. At a recent community outreach meeting where police officials detailed security plans for this weekend, residents asked one after another how they were supposed to trust the police after 2017.

“Charlottesville has had a tendency to self-congratulation; it’s constantly in the magazines as the best place to live,” said Reverend Will Peyton, who oversees St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“The violence was perpetrated by outsiders, yes, but the response from the black community is like, ‘Really, this isn’t us? We don’t have a problem here?’ Because, of course, there’s entrenched inequality and entrenched structural racism,” Peyton said.

At the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in downtown Charlottesville, an exhibit documents the struggle of black residents who fought for equal access to public education.

“I don’t know that people understood that this narrative of progressive Charlottesville had flaws,” said Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director. “Now those flaws have been exposed.”

When Mayor Walker, 38, announced her run for city council last spring after years of activism on behalf of low-income residents, she adopted the motto “Unmasking the Illusion,” aiming to dispel the notion that Charlottesville was a diverse, liberal utopia. She has focused her attention on issues like affordable housing and policing.

Last month, she joined residents on what they called a “civil rights pilgrimage” to the lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama, bringing along soil from a site where a black Charlottesville man was lynched in 1898.

Reverend Tracy Howe Wispelwey, a local activist, said last year’s rally was eye-opening for many in Charlottesville.

“You have a lot of white liberals who have not grappled with our history and want to dismiss it,” she said. “That’s just not truth.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Israeli troops kill four Palestinians in fourth week of protests

A demonstrator gestures as he hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

y Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinians and wounded 12 in renewed unrest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as a series of mass protests in the enclave reached its half-way mark.

Some Palestinians brought wire-cutters to cut through the border fence. As the crowd grew, Israeli soldiers called out warnings in Arabic over loudspeakers to individuals who approached the border fence.

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Despite the warnings, two Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian health officials said, bringing the death toll in the past few weeks of protests to at least 33. Several hundred people have also been wounded by Israeli sharpshooters.

Away from the border, Israeli-American Hollywood actress Natalie Portman announced she would not attend a ceremony in Israel to accept a million-dollar prize because of “distressing” events in the country.

The protests have been staged every Friday for the past month to push demands for Palestinian refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel. They are expected to culminate on May 15.

The Israeli military said that in the latest incident, about 3,000 Palestinians were rioting and tried to approach what it called security infrastructure. Troops responded “with riot dispersal means and are firing in accordance with the rules of engagement,” it said.

The use of live fire has drawn international criticism but Israel says it is protecting its borders and takes such action when protesters come too close to the border fence.

It accuses Hamas, the Islamist militant group which rules Gaza, of staging riots and trying to carry out attacks. Although the main protest campaign is intended to be peaceful, Gazans have hurled stones and burning tyres near the border fence.

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Some protesters on Friday fitted kites with cans of flammable liquids which they flew across the border to start fires in Israel.

“We aim to distract the soldiers from shooting and wounding or killing our people. Israeli soldiers will be worried those fire-kites may fall on their heads or torch bushes around them,” said Mohammad Abu Mustafa, 17, who lost his right leg a few months ago after being shot by an Israeli soldier.

“These kites also torch bushes and trees and not only cause them losses, but keep them busy trying to put out fires,” he said, leaning on crutches.

Early in the morning, the Israeli military used a new tactic, dropping leaflets into Gaza warning residents to not approach the border.

“The Hamas terror organization is taking advantage of you in order to carry out terror attacks. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is prepared for all scenarios. Stay away from the fence and do not attempt to harm it,” said the leaflets scattered by Israeli aircraft in areas along the border.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies this.

PACKED IN

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

The protest campaign, dubbed The Great March of Return, is leading up to May 15, when Palestinians mark Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe, commemorating their displacement around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.

It takes place at a time of growing frustration over the prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further fueled Palestinian anger.

In an apparent sign of concern over the bloodshed on the border, the actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, said she would not attend a prize ceremony in Israel.

In a statement, the Genesis Prize Foundation quoted a representative for Portman as saying: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

It gave no further details of her reasons. But the foundation said it “admires her humanity, and respects her right to publicly disagree with the policies of the government of Israel”.

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, suggested the actress was supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate Israel economically over its treatment of Palestinians. Israel sees the BDS movement as an attempt to delegitimise it.

The Genesis Prize is awarded to individuals for excellence in their professional fields and “who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values”.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing Angus MacSwan)

German police raid flats in hunt for G20 rioters

German police raid flats in hunt for G20 rioters

BERLIN (Reuters) – Police raided apartments across Germany on Tuesday, hunting for evidence on anti-capitalist protesters who clashed with officers during July’s Group of 20 leaders summit in Hamburg.

Officers searched 23 properties believed to be used by “Black Bloc” anti-capitalist group in eight German states, the Hamburg force said. They seized 26 computers and 36 mobile phones, but made no arrests.

Around 200 police officers were hurt in July in scuffles with the left-wing group, named after its members’ black hoods and masks.

Police described how 150-200 people separated themselves off from peaceful marches, donned scarves, masks and dark glasses, then grabbed stones from the pavement and projectiles from building sites to hurl at police.

“We are talking about a violent mob, acting together … Whoever participates in this is, in our view, making themselves culpable,” Jan Hieber, head of the police Special Commission, told reporters.

“The militant action was not accidental. There must have been a degree of planning and agreement,” he said.

Police said nearly 600 officers raided properties in states from Hamburg and Berlin to western North Rhine-Westphalia and southern Baden-Wuerttemberg.

They also carried out searches in the southern city of Stuttgart and Goettingen in northern Germany – home to well-known centers of left-wing activism.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Catherine Evans and Andrew Heavens)

Eleven dead in Kenya as post-election riots flare

Anti riot policemen clash with protesters supporting opposition leader Raila Odinga in Mathare, in Nairobi, Kenya August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Katharine Houreld and Maggie Fick

NAIROBI/KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) – Kenyan police killed at least 11 people in a crackdown on protests as anger at the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta erupted in the western city of Kisumu and slums ringing the capital, officials and witnesses said on Saturday.

The bodies of nine young men shot dead overnight in Nairobi’s Mathare slum had been brought to the city morgue, a security official told Reuters. The men were killed during police anti-looting operations, the official added.

Separately, a young girl in Mathare was killed by police firing “sporadic shots”, a witness said. The run-down neighborhood is loyal to 72-year-old opposition leader Raila Odinga, whose party rejected Tuesday’s vote as a “charade”.

A Reuters reporter in Kisumu, center of post-election ethnic violence a decade ago in which 1,200 people died nationwide, said tear gas and live rounds were fired. One man had been killed, a government official said.

The unrest erupted moments after Kenya’s election commission announced late on Friday that Kenyatta, 55, had secured a second five-year term in office, despite opposition allegations that the tally was a fraud.

Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i said the trouble was localized and blamed it on “criminal elements” rather than legitimate political protest.

Odinga’s NASA coalition provided no evidence for its rejection of the result. Kenya’s main monitoring group, ELOG, said on Saturday its tally matched the official outcome, undermining NASA’s allegations of fraud.

In addition to the deaths, Kisumu’s main hospital was treating four people for gunshot wounds and six who had been beaten by Kenyan police, its records showed.

One man, 28-year-old Moses Oduor, was inside his home in the impoverished district of Obunga when police conducting house-to-house raids dragged him out of his bedroom and beat him with clubs.

“He was not out fighting them. He was rescued by my sister who lives next to him. She came outside screaming at the police, asking why they are beating people,” his brother, Charles Ochieng said, speaking on behalf of a dazed Oduor.

More shooting was heard outside the hospital on Saturday morning. In Nairobi, armed police units backed by water cannon moved through the rubble-strewn streets of Kibera, another pro-Odinga slum.

“CRIMINAL ELEMENTS”

Interior minister Matiang’i defended the police against accusations of brutality.

“Let us be honest – there are no demonstrations happening,” he told reporters.

“Individuals or gangs that are looting shops, that want to endanger lives, that are breaking into people’s businesses – those are not demonstrators. They are criminals. And we expect police to deal with criminals how criminals should be dealt with.”

As with previous votes in 2007 and 2013, this year’s elections have exposed the underlying ethnic tensions in the nation of 45 million, the economic engine of East Africa and the region’s main trading hub.

In particular, Odinga’s Luo tribe, who hail from the west, had hoped an Odinga presidency would have broken the Kikuyu and Kalenjin dominance of central government since independence in 1963. Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, is a Kikuyu.

Even before the declaration, Odinga’s NASA coalition had rejected the outcome, saying the election commission’s systems had been hacked, the count was irregular and foreign observers who gave the poll a clean bill of health were biased.

NASA provided no evidence for any of its accusations but singled out former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former South African president Thabo Mbeki – who both led teams of election observers – for criticism.

Top Odinga lieutenant James Orengo said NASA would not challenge the results in court – as Odinga did when he lost in 2013 – but hinted at mass action by praising the history of Kenyans in standing up to previous “stolen” elections.

“Going to court is not an option. We have been there before,” Orengo told reporters.

In addition to the thumbs-up from foreign monitors, Kenya’s ELOG domestic observation group, which had 8,300 agents on the ground, published a parallel vote tally on Saturday that conformed with the official results.

ELOG’s projected outcome put Kenyatta on 54 percent with a 1.9 percent error margin – compared to an official tally of 54.3 percent.

“We did not find anything deliberately manipulated,” ELOG chairwoman Regina Opondo said.

(Additional reporting by Humphrey Mulalo and Linda Muriki; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Adrian Croft)

Kenyans stockpile food, police get first aid kits ahead of vote

An election clerk organises polling material a day ahead of the presidential election in Mombasa, Kenya, August 7, 2017.

By Maggie Fick

KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) – Nervous Kenyans stockpiled food and water on Monday and police prepared emergency first aid kits as families headed to their ethnic heartlands on the eve of an election many fear could descend into violence.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, 72, who lost elections in 2007 and 2013, has already said President Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, can only win if his ruling Jubilee party rigs the vote, a stance that increases the chances of a disputed result and unrest.

Opinion polls before Tuesday’s presidential election put the pair neck-and-neck. Kenyans will also be voting for members of parliament and local representatives.

In 2007, Odinga’s call for street protests after problems with the vote count triggered a widespread campaign of ethnic violence in which 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 displaced.

The violence also hammered East Africa’s biggest economy as regional trade ground to a halt and tourists, the biggest source of foreign exchange, canceled holidays.

Much of the killing a decade ago was in Kisumu, a city of a million people, most of them from Odinga’s Luo tribe, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

On Sunday, its open-air markets and shops were packed with customers stocking up on last-minute essentials.

“We are fearful because before there was rigging and that led to violence,” said orange seller Christine Okoth.

Wilson Njenga, a central government official overseeing the western region, said police had received disaster equipment including first aid and gloves but insisted it was all part of normal contingency planning.

“We don’t want to be caught flat-footed,” he told reporters.

On the campaign trail last week, Odinga told Reuters that Kenyatta could not win without cheating, a message that has fired up supporters in his back yard, where some talk openly of violent confrontation.

“If he doesn’t win, we are going to the streets and we’ll demonstrate,” said 28-year-old Kisumu potato seller Ruth Achieng. “The ones that die, we’ll just bury them and life will go on.”

Deputy President William Ruto, who was charged along with Kenyatta by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for organizing the 2007 violence, tweeted a prayer for peaceful and transparent polls.

The ICC cases against both him and Kenyatta collapsed.

 

INTIMIDATION ACCUSATIONS

Going back to rural roots to vote is a long-standing Kenyan tradition, driven by a desire to catch up with friends and family as well as choose a suitable local political representative.

More recently, fear of unrest has become a factor.

In all, 150,000 security personnel including park rangers have been called up to maintain order across the country, including preventing demonstrations in hotspots immediately before or after the polls.

In Kisumu, where many people feel neglected by a central government led by a president from the Kikuyu ethnic group since 2002, County Commissioner Mohamed Maalim said street protests near election day had been banned.

Such edicts are likely to fuel opposition accusations of intimidation and dirty tricks by the security forces.

“I have never seen this level of intimidation by the state against the electorate,” 71-year-old Senator Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, an Odinga ally running for Kisumu county governorship, told Reuters.

Acting interior minister Fred Matiang’i said Kenyans had no reason to be afraid and stressed that police officers were deployed to keep the peace, not take sides.

“We have no plan in place to be violent or mistreat our people. It does not exist in our code of conduct for the police,” he told reporters. “We’ve come a long way since 2007.”

Indeed, hate-speech has been notably absent from large public speeches in both campaigns – an important difference from 2007. However, two incidents in the last week have put the nation of nearly 50 million on edge.

A key election official was found tortured and murdered a week ago, and on Friday two foreign political advisers to Odinga were arrested and deported by plain-clothes police. Their laptops were also seized.

Some Kisumu residents said they were headed to villages outside the city to vote and hunker down in case of trouble. Members of Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group headed the other direction, away from Odinga’s strongholds.

One supermarket manager who asked not to be identified said suppliers of televisions and furniture had halted deliveries over the past week due to fears of looting.

“They fear to come to this side of the country,” the manager, a Kikuyu, said. He had already sent his family to a Kikuyu-majority city and would be joining them in the evening, he added.

 

(Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alison Williams)

 

Muslim protesters clash with police in central Jerusalem

Palestinians react following tear gas that was shot by Israeli forces after Friday prayer on a street outside Jerusalem's Old city July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Luke Baker and Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police tightened security around Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday as Muslims protested against its installation of metal detectors at a flashpoint shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims.

There have been daily confrontations between Palestinians hurling rocks and Israeli police using stun grenades since the detectors were placed at the entrance to the shrine on Sunday, after the killing of two Israeli policemen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet decided on Thursday night to keep the detectors in place.

In protest, hundreds of worshippers gathered at various entrances to the compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, before Friday prayers, but refused to enter, preferring to pray outside.

“We reject Israeli restrictions at the Aqsa Mosque,” said Jerusalem’s senior Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammad Hussein.

Muslim leaders and Palestinian political factions had urged the faithful to gather for a “day of rage” on Friday against the new security policies, which they see as changing delicate agreements that have governed the holy site for decades.

But by early afternoon, with police mobilizing extra units and placing barriers to carry out checks at entrances to the Old City, there had been little violence.

Access to the shrine for Muslims was limited to men over 50 as well as women of all ages. Roadblocks were in place on approach roads to Jerusalem to stop buses carrying Muslims to the site.

At one location near the Old City, stone throwers did try to break through a police line, and police used stun grenades.

The Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance service said at least 30 people had been hurt, two seriously and some suffered from tear gas inhalation.

Ahmad Abdul Salaam, a local businessman who came to pray outside the Noble Sanctuary said: “Putting these metal detectors at the entrance to our place of worship is like putting them at the entrance to our house. Are you really going to put me through a metal detector as I go into my house?”

The hill-top compound, which contains the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, has long been a source of religious friction. Since Israel captured and annexed the Old City, including the compound, in the 1967 Middle East war, it has also become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

“This is our place of prayer, we have sovereignty here,” Salaam added.

SECURITY CABINET DECISION

On Thursday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to press for the removal of the metal detectors.

Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations’ special coordinator for long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace talks, appealed for calm and the White House urged a resolution. Jordan, which is the ultimate custodian of the holy site, has also been involved in mediation efforts.

But Netanyahu’s 11-member security cabinet decided in a late-night meeting to keep the metal detectors in place to ensure no weapons were smuggled in, a week after three Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli policemen in the vicinity of the complex.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s government – which relies on religious and right-wing parties for support – had publicly urged him to keep the devices in place.

“Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount and the freedom of access to the holy places,” the security cabinet said in a statement.

“The cabinet has authorized the police to take any decision in order to ensure free access to the holy places while maintaining security and public order.”

As well as anger at having to submit to Israeli security policies, Palestinians are alarmed at what they see as a slow chipping away at the status quo at the Noble Sanctuary.

Since Ottoman times, while Jews are permitted to visit the area – considered the holiest place in Judaism, where an ancient temple once stood – only Muslims are allowed to pray there.

Over the past decade, however, visits by religious-nationalist Jews have increased sharply and some attempt to pray. While police are supposed to eject them if they do, the rules are not always enforced, fuelling Muslim anger.

In 2000, a visit by then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon triggered clashes that spiraled into the second Intifada, or uprising, when an estimated 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed in four years of violence.

(Writing by Luke Baker and Ori Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)