Iraqi cleric scolds security forces after protesters die in new tensions

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday berated security forces for failing to protect protesters killed in clashes with rival groups this week in the southern city of Najaf, and urged politicians to pick a government trusted by the people.

The violence in the holy city of Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is based, killed eight anti-government demonstrators after followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed their sit-in protest.

The incident laid bare new tensions on the street in Iraq, where nearly 500 people have been killed in months of unrest.

The most recent events have pitted young anti-government protesters against many of Sadr’s followers, known as blue hats for the caps they wear.

The blue hats turned on protesters in several incidents after Sadr entered a deal with Iran-backed political blocs last week to bring in new Prime Miniser-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi – a move the protesters reject.

Sistani, in remarks delivered by his representative during his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala, condemned the violence in Najaf and blamed security forces for failing to stop it.

“It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble rousers,” the representative said.

“There is no excuse for shirking that duty.”

Sistani holds great influence over public opinion among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. He avoids commenting on politics except during crises. His withdrawal of support for the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi in November sealed the outgoing premier’s fate.

Sistani urged that the new government which Allawi will form be representative of the Iraqi people and said it must have their full trust.

“It must be capable of calming the situation and take steps toward early elections free of the influence of money, weapons and foreign interference,” he said.

SADR’S ‘BETRAYAL’

Some protesters had hoped Sistani would reject Allawi who was named last week ending weeks of deadlock between political blocs.

“We hope Sistani will reject Allawi and the deal between the parties on Friday,” Mahdi Abdul Zahra, a protester in Baghdad, said.

The rival and two most powerful parliamentary blocs of Sadr and a grouping of Iran-backed parties put their differences aside to approve Allawi’s nomination.

Sadr has regularly threatened to call all his followers out to protest alongside the anti-government movement. The followers including the blue hats had been unofficially involved in the demonstrations and at times protected protesters from assaults by security forces and Iran-aligned militiamen.

His move to support Allawi, and subsequent calls for the blue hats to remove protest camps deemed to be preventing schools or businesses from functioning, is seen as betrayal by many.

“I used to support the Sadrist movement. But the minute he did this, I stopped. I’ve erased all by Facebook posts that supported him,” Abdul Zahra said from a main square where protesters skirmished with police.

The protests began in October and swelled in cities throughout the Shi’ite south, pitting impoverished and jobless masses against the Shi’ite-dominated and Iran-aligned government.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen have shot dead nearly 500 people since then.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two protesters in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya overnight and a Baghdad district became a battlefield on the third day of a drive by security forces to end months of demonstrations against the largely Iran-backed ruling elite.

Clashes over the weekend had already killed at least five protesters and rockets hit the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings.

Security sources told Reuters three people were wounded when at least one rocket landed inside the U.S. embassy compound, the first time in years that an attack on the Green Zone – a regular occurance – had actually hurt staff there.

The Iraqi military said five Katyusha rockets had hit the Green Zone late on Sunday, without reporting casualties. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities began the pushback on Saturday to try to end protests that began in the capital on Oct. 1 and in other southern cities. Demonstrators are demanding the removal of all politicians, free elections and an end to corruption.

In Nassiriya, at least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in overnight clashes when security forces tried to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health sources said.

Unknown gunmen in four pickup trucks had attacked the main protest camp there, shooting dead the two people and setting fire to demonstrators’ tents before fleeing the scene, the sources said.

Some protesters began building more permanent structures using bricks, Reuters witnesses said, while others broke into a police office on Monday and set fire to at least five police vehicles parked inside.

The leaderless movement is an unprecedented challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated and largely Iran-backed ruling elite, which emerged after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“REVOLUTION”

Pitched battles raged in the Khilani area of central Baghdad near Tahrir Square, on Monday with protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces using tear gas, live rounds in the air and slingshots to push them back.

Some of the demonstrators danced on the protest frontline while others shielded themselves behind concrete blocks and trees or by using metal sheets.

“This revolution is peaceful. They use various kinds of fire against us, live ammunition, bullets and teargas canisters. I got injured in my face,” said Allawi, a hooded protester who gave only his first name.

Tuk tuks darted through the crowd to help the wounded and carried away protesters suffering from teargas inhalation.

Demonstrations continued in other southern cities, despite repeated attempts by security forces to clear up their camps.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.

After a lull earlier this month, demonstrations resumed; protesters have controlled three key bridges in Baghdad and maintain camps and road blocks in several cities in the south.

The government has responded with violence and piecemeal reform. The international community has condemned the violence but not intervened to stop it.

Saturday’s push by the authorities began after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that he would halt the involvement of his supporters in the demonstrations.

Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling on all his followers to join in.

“Everyone has come out protesting against the government,” said Hussain, a protester. “We demand that all politicians resign and get out. We don’t want Moqtada or any of them.”

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, Baghdad bureau; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, Editing by William Maclean and Philipaa Fletcher)

Four protesters, two policemen killed as Iraq unrest resumes

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Six Iraqis including two police officers were killed and scores were wounded in Baghdad and other cities on Monday in clashes with security forces, medical and security sources said, as anti-government unrest resumed after a lull of several weeks.

Three protesters succumbed to their wounds in a Baghdad hospital after police fired live rounds in Tayaran Square, security and medical sources said. Two protesters were shot by live bullets while a third was hit by a tear gas canister, they said.

A fourth demonstrator was shot dead by police in the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, the sources added.

Protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades, Reuters witnesses said.

“They (security forces) should stop shooting and aiming, who are they and who are we? Both sides are Iraqis. So why are you killing your brothers?” said one woman protester in Baghdad who declined to give her name.

In the Iraqi oil city of Basra, two policemen were struck and killed by a civilian car during the protest, security sources said. The driver was trying to avoid the scene of clashes between protesters and security forces when he drove into the two officers, they said.

Elsewhere in southern Iraq, hundreds of protesters burned tires and blocked main roads in several cities, including Nassiriya, Kerbala and Amara. They say Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not fulfilled promises including naming a new government acceptable to Iraqis.

Baghdad police said its forces had reopened all roads that were closed by “violent gatherings”. It said 14 officers were wounded near Tahrir square, including some with head wounds and broken bones.

Traffic was disrupted on a highway linking Baghdad to southern cities, a Reuters witness said. Production in southern oilfields was unaffected by the unrest, oil officials said.

Mass protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, with mostly young protesters demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and as keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed.

Numbers had dwindled but protests resumed last week as demonstrators sought to keep up momentum after attention turned to the threat of a U.S.-Iran conflict following Washington’s killing of Tehran’s top general in an air strike inside Iraq.

The killing of Qassem Soleimani, to which Tehran responded with a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops, has highlighted the influence of some foreign powers in Iraq, especially Iran and the United States.

(Reporting by Iraq staff; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Special Report: Iran’s leader ordered crackdown on unrest – ‘Do whatever it takes to end it’

By Reuters staff

(Reuters) – After days of protests across Iran last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared impatient. Gathering his top security and government officials together, he issued an order: Do whatever it takes to stop them.

That order, confirmed by three sources close to the supreme leader’s inner circle and a fourth official, set in motion the bloodiest crackdown on protesters since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15. The toll, provided to Reuters by three Iranian interior ministry officials, included at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women as well as some members of the security forces and police.

The toll of 1,500 is significantly higher than figures from international human rights groups and the United States. A Dec. 16 report by Amnesty International said the death toll was at least 304. The U.S. State Department, in a statement to Reuters, said it estimates that many hundreds of Iranians were killed, and has seen reports that number could be over 1,000.

The figures provided to Reuters, said two of the Iranian officials who provided them, are based on information gathered from security forces, morgues, hospitals and coroner’s offices.

The government spokesman’s office declined to comment on whether the orders came from Khamenei and on the Nov. 17 meeting. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

What began as scattered protests over a surprise increase in gasoline prices quickly spread into one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

By Nov. 17, the second day, the unrest had reached the capital Tehran, with people calling for an end to the Islamic Republic and the downfall of its leaders. Protesters burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the return of Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the toppled Shah of Iran, according to videos posted on social media and eye witnesses.

That evening at his official residence in a fortified compound in central Tehran, Khamenei met with senior officials, including security aides, President Hassan Rouhani and members of his cabinet.

At the meeting, described to Reuters by the three sources close to his inner circle, the 80-year-old leader, who has final say over all state matters in the country, raised his voice and expressed criticism of the handling of the unrest. He was also angered by the burning of his image and the destruction of a statue of the republic’s late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order,” the supreme leader told the group, one of the sources said.

Khamenei said he would hold the assembled officials responsible for the consequences of the protests if they didn’t immediately stop them. Those who attended the meeting agreed the protesters aimed to bring down the regime.

“The enemies wanted to topple the Islamic Republic and immediate reaction was needed,” one of the sources said.

The fourth official, who was briefed on the Nov. 17 meeting, added that Khamenei made clear the demonstrations required a forceful response.

“Our Imam,” said the official, referring to Khamenei, “only answers to God. He cares about people and the Revolution. He was very firm and said those rioters should be crushed.”

Tehran’s clerical rulers have blamed “thugs” linked to the regime’s opponents in exile and the country’s main foreign foes, namely the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for stirring up unrest. Khamenei has described the unrest as the work of a “very dangerous conspiracy.”

A Dec. 3 report on Iran’s state television confirmed that security forces had fatally shot citizens, saying “some rioters were killed in clashes.” Iran has given no official death toll and has rejected figures as “speculative.”

“The aim of our enemies was to endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic by igniting riots in Iran,” said the commander-in-chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hossein Salami, last month, according to Iranian media.

The Revolutionary Guards declined to comment for this report.

Iran’s interior minister said on Nov. 27 more than 140 government sites had been set on fire along with hundreds of banks and dozens of petrol stations, while 50 bases used by security forces were also attacked, according to remarks reported by Iran’s state news agency IRNA. The minister said up to 200,000 people took part in the unrest nationwide.

“SMELL OF GUNFIRE AND SMOKE”

For decades, Islamic Iran has tried to expand its influence across the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Lebanon, by investing Tehran’s political and economic capital and backing militias. But now it faces pressure at home and abroad.

In recent months, from the streets of Baghdad to Beirut, protesters have been voicing anger at Tehran, burning its flag and chanting anti-Iranian regime slogans. At home, the daily struggle to make ends meet has worsened since the United States reimposed sanctions after withdrawing last year from the nuclear deal that Iran negotiated with world powers in 2015.

The protests erupted after a Nov. 15 announcement on state media that gas prices would rise by as much as 200% and the revenue would be used to help needy families.

Within hours, hundreds of people poured into the streets in places including the northeastern city of Mashhad, the southeastern province of Kerman and the southwestern province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq, according to state media. That night, a resident of the city Ahvaz in Khuzestan described the scene by telephone to Reuters.

“Riot police are out in force and blocking main streets,” the source said. “I heard shooting.” Videos later emerged on social media and state television showing footage of clashes in Ahvaz and elsewhere between citizens and security forces.

The protests reached more than 100 cities and towns and turned political. Young and working-class demonstrators demanded clerical leaders step down. In many cities, a similar chant rang out: “They live like kings, people get poorer,” according to videos on social media and witnesses.

By Nov. 18 in Tehran, riot police appeared to be randomly shooting at protesters in the street “with the smell of gunfire and smoke everywhere,” said a female Tehran resident reached by telephone. People were falling down and shouting, she added, while others sought refuge in houses and shops.

The mother of a 16-year-old boy described holding his body, drenched in blood, after he was shot during protests in a western Iranian town on Nov. 19. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she described the scene in a telephone interview.

“I heard people saying: ‘He is shot, he is shot,’” said the mother. “I ran toward the crowd and saw my son, but half of his head was shot off.” She said she urged her son, whose first name was Amirhossein, not to join the protests, but he didn’t listen.

Iranian authorities deployed lethal force at a far quicker pace from the start than in other protests in recent years, according to activists and details revealed by authorities. In 2009, when millions protested against the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an estimated 72 people were killed. And when Iran faced waves of protests over economic hardships in 2017 and 2018, the death toll was about 20 people, officials said.

Khamenei, who has ruled Iran for three decades, turned to his elite forces to put down the recent unrest — the Revolutionary Guards and its affiliated Basij religious militia.

A senior member of the Revolutionary Guards in western Kermanshah province said the provincial governor handed down instructions at a late-night emergency meeting at his office on Nov. 18.

“We had orders from top officials in Tehran to end the protests, the Guards member said, recounting the governor’s talk. “No more mercy. They are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic. But we will eradicate them.” The governor’s office declined to comment.

As security forces fanned out across the country, security advisors briefed Khamenei on the scale of the unrest, according to the three sources familiar with the talks at his compound.

The interior minister presented the number of casualties and arrests. The intelligence minister and head of the Revolutionary Guards focused on the role of opposition groups. When asked about the interior and intelligence minister’s role in the meeting, the government spokesman’s office declined to comment.

Khamenei, the three sources said, was especially concerned with anger in small working-class towns, whose lower-income voters have been a pillar of support for the Islamic Republic. Their votes will count in February parliamentary elections, a litmus test of the clerical rulers’ popularity since U.S. President Donald Trump exited Iran’s nuclear deal — a step that has led to an 80% collapse in Iran’s oil exports since last year.

Squeezed by sanctions, Khamenei has few resources to tackle high inflation and unemployment. According to official figures, the unemployment rate is around 12.5% overall. But it is about double that for Iran’s millions of young people, who accuse the establishment of economic mismanagement and corruption. Khamenei and other officials have called on the judiciary to step up its fight against corruption.

“BLOOD ON THE STREETS”

Officials in four provinces said the message was clear — failure to stamp out the unrest would encourage people to protest in the future.

A local official in Karaj, a working-class city near the capital, said there were orders to use whatever force was necessary to end the protests immediately. “Orders came from Tehran,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Push them back to their homes, even by shooting them.” Local government officials declined to comment.

Residents of Karaj said they came under fire from rooftops as Revolutionary Guards and police on motorcycles brandished machine guns. “There was blood everywhere. Blood on the streets,” said one resident by telephone. Reuters could not independently verify that account.

In Mahshahr county, in the strategically important Khuzestan province in southwest Iran, Revolutionary Guards in armored vehicles and tanks sought to contain the demonstrations. State TV said security forces opened fire on “rioters” hiding in the marshes. Rights groups said they believe Mahshahr had one of the highest protest death tolls in Iran, based on what they heard from locals.

“The next day when we went there, the area was full of bodies of protesters, mainly young people. The Guards did not let us take the bodies,” the local official said, estimating that “dozens” were killed.

The U.S. State Department has said it has received videos of the Revolutionary Guards opening fire without warning on protesters in Mahshahr. And that when protesters fled to nearby marshlands, the Guards pursued them and surrounded them with machine guns mounted on trucks, spraying the protesters with bullets and killing at least 100 Iranians.

Iran’s authorities dispute the U.S. account. Iranian officials have said security forces in Mahshahr confronted “rioters” who they described as a security threat to petrochemical complexes and to a key energy route that, if blocked, would have created a crisis in the country.

A security official told Reuters that the reports about Mahshahr are “exaggerated and not true” and that security forces were defending “people and the country’s energy facilities in the city from sabotage by enemies and rioters.”

In Isfahan, an ancient city of two million people in central Iran, the government’s vow to help low-income families with money raised from higher gas prices failed to reassure people like Behzad Ebrahimi. He said his 21-year-old nephew, Arshad Ebrahimi, was fatally shot during the crackdown.

“Initially they refused to give us the body and wanted us to bury him with others killed in the protests,” Ebrahimi said. “Eventually we buried him ourselves, but under the heavy presence of security forces.” Rights activists confirmed the events. Reuters was unable to get comment from the government or the local governor on the specifics of the account.

(Editing by Michael Georgy, Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)

Congo Ebola center set on fire after armed attack

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – Armed assailants attacked an Ebola treatment center in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, setting off a fire and becoming embroiled in an extended gun battle with security forces, health officials said.

The identity and motive of the assailants were unclear. Aid workers have faced mistrust in some areas as they work to contain an Ebola outbreak.

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

Burned structures are seen after attackers set fire to an Ebola treatment center run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the east Congolese town of Katwa, Democratic Republic of Congo February 25, 2019. Picture taken February 25, 2019. Laurie Bonnaud/MSF/Handout via REUTERS

Dozens of armed militia also regularly attack civilians and security forces in eastern Congo’s borderlands with Uganda and Rwanda, which has significantly hampered the response to the disease.

The health ministry said in a statement that 38 suspected Ebola patients and 12 confirmed cases were in the center at the time of the attack. Four of the patients with confirmed cases fled and are being looked for, it said.

None of the patients who have been accounted for were injured, nor were any staff members, the ministry added.

French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs the center together with the ministry, condemned the “deplorable attack” and said its efforts were focused on the immediate safety of patients and staff.

The attack in the city of Butembo was the second in Congo’s Ebola-hit east this week. On Sunday unidentified assailants set fire to a treatment center in the nearby town of Katwa, killing a nurse.

The current Ebola outbreak, first declared last August, is the second deadliest of the hemorrhagic fever since it was discovered in Congo in 1976. It is believed to have killed at least 553 people so far and infected over 300 more.

(Reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Gareth Jones and Rosalba O’Brien)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Iranian protesters attack police stations, raise stakes in unrest

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

By Michael Georgy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NO TOLERANCE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRUMP, NETANYAHU VOICE SUPPORT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin says St. Petersburg supermarket bombing was terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a state awards ceremony for military personnel who served in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 28, 2017

By Andrew Osborn and Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said a bomb blast in a St. Petersburg supermarket on Wednesday was an act of terrorism, and that security forces whose lives were threatened by terrorist suspects should shoot to kill if necessary.

Putin, who is running for re-election in March, was speaking on Thursday at an awards ceremony in the Kremlin for Russian personnel who served in Russia’s Syria campaign, which Moscow has framed as an anti-terrorism operation.

“You know that yesterday in St. Petersburg a terrorist act was carried out,” Putin told the audience, referring to the explosion that injured 13 shoppers in a branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain.

Investigators have opened a criminal case into Wednesday evening’s blast, which they say was caused by a homemade bomb packed with pieces of metal.

Russian media reports said the bomb was hidden inside a rucksack in a locker where shoppers leave their belongings and said the person who left the bomb, described as being of “non-Slavic appearance”, had been caught on CCTV.

No group has claimed responsibility.

Russia has repeatedly been the target of attacks by Islamist militant groups, including an attack in April that killed 14 people when an explosion tore through a train carriage in a metro tunnel in St. Petersburg.

That attack was claimed by a militant group which said the suicide bomber was acting on the orders of al Qaeda. Russian police detained several suspects in that attack from mainly Muslim states in ex-Soviet central Asia.

“ACT DECISIVELY”

Putin told the ceremony the FSB security service, which he used to run before he became president, had also prevented “another attempted terrorist act”.

A Kremlin spokesman said Putin was referring to a foiled attack on Kazansky Cathedral, in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city.

The Kremlin said earlier this month that a U.S. tip-off had helped thwart the attack in a rare public show of cooperation despite deep strains between the two countries.

An interior view of a supermarket is seen after an explosion in St Petersburg, Russia, in this photo released by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committe on December 28, 2017.

An interior view of a supermarket is seen after an explosion in St Petersburg, Russia, in this photo released by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committe on December 28, 2017. National Anti-Terrorism Committe/Handout via REUTERS

Russian media reported earlier this month that the Federal Security Service had detained seven members of an Islamic State cell who had been planning the attack.

Putin told the same awards ceremony that the security situation in Russia would be much worse if thousands of Russian citizens who fought with Islamic State in Syria had been allowed to return home.

“What would have happened if those thousands of people … returned to us (from Syria). If they returned with good weapons training …,” he said.

Russian security officials have said that thousands of citizens from ex-Soviet Central Asia or from the Muslim-majority North Caucasus region of Russia, which includes Chechnya, traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State.

Putin said security forces should take no chances with their own lives if confronted by terrorist suspects.

“I yesterday ordered the FSB director to act within the framework of the law when detaining these bandits of course, but if there is a threat to the life and well-being of our employees … to act decisively, not take any prisoners, and liquidate the bandits on the spot.”

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by Alison Williams)