Deadly shooting rocks Beirut as tensions over blast probe erupt

By Maha El Dahan, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Six Shi’ites were shot dead in Beirut on Thursday, in an attack on supporters of Hezbollah and its ally who were gathering to demand the removal of the judge investigating the explosion that ripped through the city’s port last year.

The shooting, which took place on a frontline of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and evoked scenes reminiscent of that conflict, marks the deadliest civil violence in Beirut since 2008.

It also highlights a deepening crisis over the probe into the catastrophic August 2020 explosion that is undermining government efforts to tackle one of the most dramatic economic meltdowns in history.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, accused the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian party that has close ties to Saudi Arabia, of mounting the attack.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said snipers had opened fire and aimed at people’s heads.

The LF denied any involvement and condemned the violence, which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator into the port blast, which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and devastated swathes of Beirut.

Coming after repeated warnings from Hezbollah and its allies that continuing Bitar’s probe would split the country, the violence may create a pretext to shut down or shelve further investigation into the explosion.

LF leader Samir Geagea, whose group had a powerful militia in the war, said earlier that the shooting was the result of uncontrolled weapons in society, saying civil peace must be preserved.

During the attack, local television stations broadcast footage of bullets bouncing off buildings and people running for cover. One of the dead was a woman who was struck by a bullet while in her home, a military source said.

At a nearby school, teachers instructed infant children to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their heads, a Reuters witness said. A lifeless body was dragged from the street by bystanders in footage broadcast by al-Jadeed TV.

The army said in a statement the gunfire had targeted protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle located in an area dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighborhoods.

The shooting began from the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, from where the civil war was set off, before spiraling into an exchange of fire, a military source said.

Interior Minister Mawlawi said all the dead were from one side, meaning Shi’ites.

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement said groups had fired at protesters from rooftops, aiming at their heads in an attack they said aimed to drag Lebanon into conflict.

As Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for calm, the army deployed heavily in the area around Teyouneh and said it would open fire against any armed person on the road.

Bursts of gunfire were heard for hours.


The United States and France said the Lebanese judiciary needed to allowed to investigate the port explosion in an independent and impartial manner.

“The Lebanese people deserve no less and the victims and families of those lost in the port blast deserve no less,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said during a visit to Beirut.

“Today’s unacceptable violence makes clear what the stakes are,” said Nuland, in comments echoed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Judge Bitar has sought to question a number of senior politicians and security officials, including Hezbollah allies, suspected of negligence that led to the port explosion, caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate and one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record.

All have denied wrongdoing.

Hezbollah has led calls for Bitar’s removal, accusing him of bias.

On Wednesday, Geagea rejected what he described as any submission to “intimidation” by Hezbollah over Bitar, calling on Lebanese to be ready for peaceful strike action if the “other side” tried to impose its will by force.

The standoff over Bitar’s investigation is diverting the newly formed government’s attention away from addressing a deepening economic crisis, which has plunged more than three quarters of Lebanese into poverty.

Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized investigation only focused on certain people.

These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shi’ite Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts, including former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil who told al-Mayadeen TV this week the path of the probe threatened to push Lebanon “towards civil strife”.

A court earlier on Thursday dismissed a legal complaint against Bitar, documents showed, allowing him to resume his investigation.

The violence is the worst since 2008 when followers of the Sunni-led government fought battles in Beirut with gunmen loyal to Hezbollah which took the streets until the government rescinded decisions affecting Hezbollah, including taking steps against a telecommunications network operated by the group.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Alaa Kanaan, Laila Bassam, Mohamed Azakir, Tom Perry; Writing By Tom Perry; Editing by John Stonestreet and Samia Nakhoul)

More than 100 protestors killed in Iran during unrest: Amnesty International

DUBAI (Reuters) – Amnesty International said on Tuesday that more than 100 protestors had been killed in 21 cities in Iran during unrest that broke out over a rise in fuel prices last week.

Snipers have shot into crowds of protestors from rooftops and, in one case, from a helicopter, Amnesty said.

The anti-government protests began on Friday after fuel price rises of at least 50 percent were announced.

An Iranian official said they had subsided on Tuesday, a day after the Revolutionary Guards warned of “decisive” action if they did not cease.

The London-based Amnesty International said that at least 106 protesters in 21 cities had been killed, according to credible reports from witnesses, verified videos and information from human rights activists.

“The organization believes that the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed,” Amnesty said in a statement.

The reports “reveal a harrowing pattern of unlawful killings by Iranian security forces, which have used excessive and lethal force to crush largely peaceful protests,” it said.

Intelligence and security forces did not return the bodies to their families and forced others to bury bodies quickly without an independent autopsy, Amnesty said.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told a news conference that calm had been restored.

But social media videos posted in defiance of an internet block showed protests continued in several cities on Monday night and a heavy presence of security forces in streets. The images posted on social media could not be verified by Reuters.

About 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested, authorities said.

Members of the security forces and police have also been killed in the protests. Three were stabbed to death near Tehran, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported on Monday.

Hundreds of young and working-class Iranians have expressed their anger at squeezed living standards, state corruption and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

Social media footage has shown protesters burning pictures of senior officials and calling on clerical rulers to step down, as well as clashes between security forces and protesters.

State television said funerals will be held for security guards killed in the protests, adding that thousands of Iranians had rallied in several cities to condemn the unrest.

The U.N. human rights office said it had received reports that dozens of people had been killed. It voiced concern about the security forces’ use of live ammunition and urged authorities to rein in its use of force to disperse protests.

“It is clearly very significant, a very alarming situation and widespread across the country,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday blamed the turmoil on Iran’s foreign foes, including the United States, and denounced protesters as “thugs”.

On Monday, the powerful Revolutionary Guards warned of “decisive” action if the protests went on. The Guards and their affiliated Basij militia quelled unrest in late 2017 in which at least 22 people were killed.

Frustration has grown over a sharp currency devaluation and rises in prices of bread, rice and other staples since Washington began to apply pressure on Iran to make nuclear and security concessions.

The government said the price rises were intended to raise around $2.55 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Editing by Catherine Evans and Angus MacSwan)

New York police poised to thwart New Year’s Eve suicide bombers

New York Police Department Counterterrorism Bureau members stand in Times Square to provide security ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations in Manhattan, New York, U.S. December 28, 2017

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The New York Police Department is providing officers with specialized training to stop any suicide bombers at Sunday’s New Year’s Eve celebration, when up to 2 million people will flood the streets of Times Square, officials said on Thursday.

The stepped-up training is in response to an attempted bombing in a Times Square subway station walkway on Dec. 11. It comes on top of increasingly stringent security for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The New York Police Department will also deploy observation teams trained to spot snipers, increase the number of explosive-detecting dogs and position more officers throughout the area this year.

Police have said they will incorporate lessons learned from what they have labeled as three terrorist attacks in the city in the past 15 months, in addition to their ongoing analysis of all attacks worldwide.

That intelligence will form part of the massive security operation for the “ball drop” celebration, a tradition that dates to 1907 and is now televised around the world.

“You will see an increase in heavy weapons, bomb squad personnel, radiological detection teams, and our technology to include over 1,000 cameras in and around the area of Times Square for the event,” the NYPD’s chief of counterterrorism, James Waters, told a news conference, two days before the event.

Officers involved in the New Year’s Eve security operation will receive a tactical bulletin and a training video on suicide bombers that they will be able to review on their department-issued phones starting Friday.

“We owe it to the cops to give them some kind of guidelines,” Waters said.

The training material will include instructions on protecting bystanders if officers suspect someone has a bomb and guidance on apprehending and disarming suspects with the assistance of the bomb squad, he said.

Police will also be on the lookout for snipers in response to the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival on Oct. 1, when a 64-year-old American opened fire from his 32nd-floor hotel room, killing 58 people and wounding some 500.

Detectives posted in hotels will keep an eye on guests, and additional emergency services and critical response teams will be on hand, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

O’Neill declined to say how many of the department’s 36,000 officers will work on New Year’s Eve, in order to keep would-be attackers guessing.

People who want to see the New Year’s Eve musical acts and other entertainment up close in Times Square will have to pass by dogs trained to detect explosives and heavily armed officers, go through a magnetometer to check for weapons, have their bags inspected, and then repeat all those steps a second time.

Police will again use dump trucks filled with sand, police cars and cement blocks to close streets starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday. About 125 parking garages in the vicinity will be emptied of all cars and sealed.

Even so, police acknowledged a possible suicide bomber could manage to get close to large crowds of people before the checkpoints are set up, as evident by the Dec. 11 attack.

On that day, police said, a Bangladeshi man set off a homemade pipe bomb strapped to his body in a subway pedestrian tunnel beneath Times Square, wounding himself and two bystanders.

Asked how to stop someone with such an intent, Waters said, “As a last resort: deadly physical force.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

‘Fight to the death’: snipers slow down Iraqi forces in Mosul’s Old City

A machine gun is seen on the floor next to a map drawn to show distances, on the wall of a sniper's nest in a building controlled by Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Ulf Laessing

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Taking aim through a telescope on his rifle, the police officer opened fire on an Islamic State sniper from the top floor of a tower in Mosul before quickly pulling back to take cover.

“Hit the sniper at the mosque,” his commanding officer told him as he aimed at his target in the Old City, one of the only districts still in the militants’ hands in their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

Iraqi forces are trying to advance through the narrow, maze-like streets toward the symbolic al-Nuri mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014.

But progress is much slower than in the early phases of the campaign, during which government forces took nearly three quarters of the city within five months.

The front line has hardly moved in the past three weeks, and the militants, along with roughly 400,000 residents, are trapped inside a ring of Iraq troops.

The soldiers expect the militants to fight to the death.

“Daesh fighters are resisting on a professional level because they have no escape routes left,” said a second policeman Hussein Qassem, using an Arabic acronym for the militants.

“They are resisting until they are killed. God willing we will not leave any Islamic State fighters. We will fight till the end.”

But advances are hard-won and fragile.

On Thursday, members of the Federal Police co-leading the advance said it was not safe to go to Mosul museum, which they had retaken three weeks ago.

“There is a lot of sniper activity over there behind that building,” a third police officer said, pointing toward an area behind the museum about 100 meters (yards) away.

Just days ago, they had taken journalists to the museum, and other areas closer to the front line.

“It’s now only about snipers and car bombs,” said an officer deployed from a Baghdad unit, as gunfire rang out and soldiers took cover among troop carriers and Humvees behind piles of sand. “They don’t have many snipers but they move around.”

They now face an extra danger.

Late on Thursday, the militants shot down a helicopter providing air support for the Federal Police, the first aircraft downed by Islamic State over Mosul since the start of the U.S.-backed offensive in October.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

At former jihadist training camp, Iraqi police face drones, crack snipers

Iraqi federal police

By Michael Georgy

MOSUL (Reuters) – As a walkie-talkie carried word of another casualty from an Islamic State mortar attack, an Iraqi policeman peered through leaves at enemy positions just across the Tigris River. He kept his head low to avoid snipers but also had an eye on the sky.

Minutes later, the militants sent a drone overhead. It carried out surveillance and dropped an explosive. Then mortar bombs landed nearby, sending the policemen running for safer ground.

More than three months into the battle to drive them from their biggest stronghold, the hardline Sunni militants of Islamic State remain lethal and determined, despite being driven from the eastern half of the city of more than a million people.

Few are more acutely aware of the danger they pose than police Lt-Colonel Falah Hammad Hindi, who instructed his men to take cover as mortars landed ever closer.

“The weapon of choice is the drone,” said Hindi, whose unit faces sometimes 16 drone attacks in a single day as well as mortar bombs and snipers.

His unit, charged with holding ground while Iraqi troops prepare to expand their offensive to west Mosul, is stationed on a former Islamic State training ground and closed military area on the east bank of the Tigris.

He has gained insight into the militants’ thinking and strengths and gave a frank assessment of their capabilities, starting with the snipers he can spot without binoculars.

“The snipers are highly effective. They are foreign fighters, the most committed,” Hindi told Reuters.

When Islamic State swept into Mosul in 2014 and declared a caliphate on land straddling Iraq and Syria, they attracted volunteers from as far afield as Afghanistan and Tunisia and also won many sympathizers in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.


Mosul’s predominantly Sunni population was angered by Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated army, accusing it of widespread abuses of their minority sect, allegations rejected by the government.

Islamic State exploited that resentment, hunting down and executing members of the army and police as it tightened its grip on Mosul and simultaneously attracting local volunteers who saw it, initially, as a bulwark against Shi’ite power.

New recruits were trained at the site where Hindi and his men are now based, a former plant nursery, family park and state-owned honey farm.

Here they learned the group’s credo, a version of Islam even more radical than its predecessor in Iraq, al Qaeda.

Trees and lush greenery provided ideal cover from air strikes, so jihadists could become indoctrinated in relative safety. To be extra cautious, the militants built an underground tunnel with sandbags for air raids.

Aside from weapons training, jihadists learned discipline. They were made to suffer in the cold when it rained or snowed.

“Some men were fed only a few potatoes per week,” said Hindi, who lost a brother to an Islamic State attack. “Others were only allowed to eat three dates per day. They became battle-ready here.”

In order to battle Islamic State militants positioned about 500 meters across the river at a hospital and hotel, policemen study their training for clues.

They also rely on intelligence from residents of west Mosul, turned against Islamic State by the brutality of its rule.

“They hide in their homes and provide information about the jihadists. Their movements, their weapons,” said Hindi, 32.

The risks are high. Some informers have been executed.

The campaign for west Mosul will likely involve far tougher and more complex street fighting because the west’s narrow streets mean far fewer tanks and armored vehicles can be deployed against Islamic State.

The militants are also expected to put up a much fiercer fight in the western half of Mosul because the battle will determine whether their self-proclaimed caliphate will survive.

“They have no escape route in the west so they will fight to the death,” said Hindi.

The conflict will play to the group’s strengths: suicide bombers, whom Hindi said were being reserved and positioned for that battle, car bombs and booby traps.

Just as Hindi and his men made it to what they thought was a more secure area, they took cover behind trees, after concluding another drone was circling above. A mortar bomb landed a few hundred meters away.

Eventually he sat in his office, discussing future challenges over cups of sweet tea. Another senior officer, who also lost a brother to jihadists, paid a visit.

“Two days ago, 38 terrorists snuck over the river in a boat to carry out an attack,” he told Hindi. The men were killed.

“They want to show they are still a threat and in control.”

Even if Islamic State is defeated in all of Mosul, the Shi’ite-led government and army faces the daunting task of easing sectarian tensions and winning over the Sunni city, once a vibrant trade hub.

“It all depends on how the army behaves,” said Hindi. “If there are abuses again, a new generation of Daesh (Islamic State) fighters will be back.”

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Bunkers and booby-traps as Islamic State makes a stand in Libya

Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government gather at the eastern frontline of fighting with Islamic State militants, in Sirte, Libya

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) – Sheltering in tunnels, improvised bunkers and rooms fortified by sand-filled fridges, Islamic State is holding out in the Libyan city of Sirte, defending itself with snipers, booby-traps and car bombs against pro-government forces.

After a six-month campaign of often fierce street fighting, Islamic State militants are surrounded in a district less than one-kilometer square, after hundreds of U.S. air strikes that began in August in support of Libyan forces.

The battle for Sirte, taken by Islamic State more than a year ago, may be over soon. But how the militants managed to survive may give insight into the kind of tactics they could use to defend other cities.

The fall of Sirte would mean the loss of the militant organization’s main stronghold outside Iraq and Syria just as a U.S.-led alliance supports Iraqi forces moving to retake the city of Mosul, its main base in Iraq.

Sirte fell to Islamic State as the militants profited from infighting among Libyan factions to gain territory, steadily taking the city and imposing their hardline vision on Muammar Gaddafi’s former home town.

A U.N.-backed government is now in Tripoli trying to unite Libya’s competing factions of armed brigades who once battled together to oust Gaddafi in 2011, but have since turned against one another.

Six months ago, powerful brigades from the nearby city of Misrata began a campaign to flush the militants out of Sirte, which posed a direct threat to their city.

In the early days of the battle, Misrata forces suffered heavy casualties from snipers. More than 500 Misrata fighters have been killed, many by gunshots as they pushed in from the city outskirts.

Fighting has ebbed and flowed along with casualties as Misrata forces slowly encircled the last districts under Islamic State control, leading militants to change to more hit-and-run tactics, car bombs and explosive devices.

Some Misrata commanders said progress had been slowed by snipers and explosive devices left behind, but also by a lack of weapons and hospital facilities, especially when heavy fighting led to casualties in double digits.

But U.S. air strikes since August have targeted car bombs and militant firing positions, allowing progress. Western special forces teams are advising on the ground as well as providing forward air controllers who guide air strikes.

“Each round of fighting has its own circumstances … and it’s difficult to predict when the battle will be over. But the end of Daesh will be very soon,” said Mohammad Ghasri, a spokesman for pro-government forces, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.


With Misrata forces closing around the city center midway through the campaign, militants at first appeared to be holed up in the Ouagadougou conference hall, a central complex once used by Gaddafi for African summits.

As U.S. air strikes intensified, militants pulled back into dense residential neighborhoods as the battle destroyed much of the city. But it has been a fighting withdrawal, taking a toll on Libyan forces.

At the end of August, 35 Misrata brigade fighters were killed as their forces moved forward several hundred meters among emptied residential blocks in neighborhood Number One, near the sea front.

Now with less than one square kilometer under their control, militants have the sea front on one side and Misrata forces all around them, controlling high ground over part of the 600 district and the Ghiza Bahriya area, witnesses said.

Abandoned houses have revealed some of their defenses: Household fridges packed with earth act as reinforcements, and bunkers dug under foundations offer protection from air strikes.

Last week, Misrata forces found improvised tunnels and a makeshift field hospital. A Reuters witness said that in one house graffiti on the walls indicated a quick escape route for the next fighter to use that hideout.

Improvised bombs made from fragmentation grenades and rocket shells are common traps. Garages often contain unexploded car bombs, a Reuters reporter on the ground said. Suicide belts are sometimes left behind by fleeing fighters.

Misrata forces have also been increasingly using tanks and heavily armored vehicles to approach buildings, blasting a way ahead before brigade fighters, some often in flip flops and jeans, make their way in to clear them.

On Thursday, five foreign captives – two Turks, two Indians and a Bangladeshi – were freed after fighting that killed 20 Islamic State militants. Losing captives may be a sign of the group coming under more pressure. But it also makes Misrata forces cautious.

“Sometimes the battle takes a long time because we face unexpected situations like civilians being detained,” Rida Issa, another spokesman said. “The battle is now in residential areas and that means tough, street-by-street fighting.”

How many militants are left in Sirte is unclear. At the start of the campaign, some estimates said as few as 600 fighters remained. Some commanders and militants may have already fled before Sirte was encircled, Misrata officials say.

That has raised the risk of guerrilla attacks. Already a suicide bomber has hit a field hospital outside the city. This week more roadside bombs were found near a field hospital and a helicopter landing area 5 km (3 miles) outside Sirte, witnesses said.

(Reporting by Ismail Zitouni and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Giles Elgood)