Portland has night without tear gas as feds withdraw

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Portland had its first night in weeks without tear gas after state police took over from federal agents guarding a courthouse that has been the focal point of violence between protesters and tactical officers.

The agents withdrew under a deal between Oregon’s governor and U.S. officials to end a deployment that sparked a standoff between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic mayors over the use of federal officers in their cities.

A few hundred people demonstrated outside the federal courthouse until around 2 a.m. when they left of their own accord, according to a Reuters reporter. On previous nights they had been dispersed with tear gas and other munitions fired by federal agents.

“Things went a lot better last night, last night was the first night in about two months that our officers and agents inside the federal court building there in Portland didn’t come under a direct and immediate threat of being burned alive,” said U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, whose Border Tactical Unit officers have been among Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents in Portland.

Oregon State Police said around 100 of its officers took over security at the courthouse with some regular Federal Protective Service agents remaining.

DHS agents remain on standby in the city and National Guard troops could be sent in should state police be overrun, DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News after Trump threatened such action on Thursday

Separately, a DHS spokesman said Wolf had ordered an intelligence unit to stop collecting information on American journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, after a media report on the practice.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported that the department compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists using a government system meant to share information about suspected terrorists and violent actors.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Andrew Hay and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Federal agents fire tear gas again at Portland protesters

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – Federal agents fired tear gas canisters at Black Lives Matter demonstrators in downtown Portland early on Friday in a 56th straight day of protests, amid growing scrutiny over the use of border patrol officers in the city.

Positioned behind a steel fence, agents began firing tear gas after a small group of protesters, many helmeted and wearing face masks, lit a fire at the entrance of the building shortly after midnight.

Saying they were being hit with projectiles and lasers, federal agents declared an unlawful assembly and forced protesters back up a block from the federal courthouse.

The agents then retreated to a different corner of the courthouse and confronted protesters there, lobbing more canisters that bounced off the walls of buildings into protesters. Journalists were clearly identifiable in the crowd.

Security forces have frequently tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators during the unrest. The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it would investigate the use of force by federal agents in Portland after another night of unrest in which Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed.

The investigations follow public anger over the deployment of federal border patrol officers to Portland against the wishes of local officials. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it is sending a similar contingent to Seattle.

Earlier on Thursday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring federal law enforcement from using force against journalists and legal observers at the Portland protests. This followed a lawsuit filed on behalf of journalists whom federal agents had hit with non-lethal “impact munitions.”

RE-ELECTION BATTLE

Demonstrators and local officials see the deployment of the agents in Portland as a ploy by Trump to drum up a “law and order” campaign as he faces an uphill re-election battle.

Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has said all federal agents have been making lawful arrests and properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.

Mayor Wheeler, a Democrat, has called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said U.S. police and security forces must not use disproportionate force against protesters and journalists, or detain them unlawfully.

“It is very important that people are able to protest peacefully, that people aren’t subject to unnecessary, disproportionate or discriminatory use of force,” Liz Throssell, U.N. human rights spokeswoman, said.

Earlier in the evening a crowd of thousands of Black Lives Matter supporters gathered in the city center.

“I’m so inspired to see a sea of people who don’t look like me who are saying Black Lives Matter,” said Damany Iqwe, referring to the majority-white crowd.

Iqwe, 43, is a Black man who grew up in Portland and has frequently attended protests that have continued since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“This city is one of the most systematically racist places to live in as a Black man,” Iqwe said.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Additional reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru and , Editing by Gerry Doyle and Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Portland mayor is tear-gassed in another night of unrest in U.S. city

By Deborah Bloom

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – The mayor of the U.S. city of Portland, Ted Wheeler, was stung by tear gas early on Thursday morning after he joined demonstrators protesting against racial injustice and police brutality.

Security forces have frequently tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators during weeks of unrest and Wheeler, visiting the protest site outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, urged federal agents to be withdrawn from the city.

“They’re not wanted here,” he said.

But Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, was jeered at by demonstrators who called on him to resign and chanted “Shame on You.” Some said he should have done more to protect Portland’s citizens.

The deployment of federal agents in Portland on July 4 is a flash point in a national debate over civil liberties that has roiled the United States since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Demonstrators and local officials see the move as a political ploy by U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, to drum up a “law and order” campaign as he faces an uphill re-election battle.

Wheeler, a Democrat, has called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence. Wednesday saw bigger and bigger crowds of supporters joining the demonstrations.

After a few demonstrators had set trash bags on the fire outside the courthouse, federal agents inside the Justice Center fired tear gas, flash bangs and pepper balls into the area.

Wheeler stood at the front of the line, in a surgical mask and goggles, and began to cough, a Reuters reporter said. He experienced two rounds of heavy tear gas. His eyes and nose were running, his face was red and his eyes were bloodshot.

USE OF FORCE

He was whisked away by his security team to the city’s municipal services building.

Prior to the incident, Wheeler faced an angry crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators packed outside the courthouse.

The mayor’s office had said Wheeler would attend the demonstration that night to talk to protesters and attempt to de-escalate tensions that have played out between demonstrators and law enforcement over the past 54 nights.

Demonstrators screamed expletives at him and a few chucked water bottles at him.

The mayor has been criticized by demonstrators for the local police’s unchecked use of force against demonstrators, which has included tear gassing, trampling, and pummeling protesters.

Speaking to the crowd, Wheeler decried the presence of federal law enforcement officers, who were caught last week snatching protesters from the street into unmarked cars.

“They’re not wanted here. They’re not properly trained to be here. And we’re asking them right this minute – we’re demanding that they leave. We’re demanding that the federal government stop occupying our city,” he said.

One demonstrator asked him if he was willing to abolish the police, to which he replied ‘no’, and was loudly booed by many.

Asked about his experience of getting tear-gassed, Wheeler told Reuters: “You can’t really comply with any orders that are being issued because, frankly, you’re not paying attention to what’s around you, you’re focusing on your eyes. You’re focusing on trying to breathe.”

Asked if he might rethink the use of tear gas by local police officers, Wheeler said: “It makes me think long and hard on whether or not this is a viable tool.”

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Jon Boyle, William Maclean)

Black Americans disproportionately die in police Taser confrontations

By Linda So

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As police confront protesters across the United States, they’re turning to rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and other weapons meant to minimize fatalities.

But some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die, according to a Reuters analysis.

Reuters documented 1,081 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, the vast majority of them after 2000. At least 32% of those who died were black, and at least 29% were white. African-Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic whites 60%.

To explore the Reuters database of deaths involving police and Tasers, click here:

“These racial disparities in Taser deaths are horrifying but unsurprising,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police violence is a leading cause of death for black people in America, in large part because over-policing of black and brown communities results in unnecessary police contacts and unnecessary use of force.”

In 13% of the deaths identified in police reports, autopsies or other records as involving people of Hispanic ethnicity, Reuters was unable to document race. The race of the person who died was also unknown in the remaining 26% of the cases.

The deaths illustrate a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics. Tasers, which deliver a pulsed electrical current meant to give police several seconds to restrain a subject, have been nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as a less lethal alternative to firearms. About 94% of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.

Tasers drew fresh attention over the weekend after the Friday night death of Rayshard Brooks. A police officer shot the 27-year-old with his handgun after Brooks ran away with an officer’s Taser and pointed it at police following a scuffle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. A lawyer for the Brooks family, L. Chris Stewart, said Brooks’ wielding of the Taser didn’t justify his shooting, noting that police routinely argue in court that the devices are non-lethal weapons.

In a series of reports in 2017, however, Reuters identified more than a thousand cases since 2000 in which people died after being shocked by police with the weapons, typically in combination with other forms of force.

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly. But the Reuters investigation found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks, and the weapons are often misused. Tasers fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge or can be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain.

Some recent examples of Taser misuse highlight the risks and confusion surrounding the weapon.

On May 30, during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, two college students, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and Messiah Young, 22, had gone out to get food and were stuck in traffic due to the demonstrations in Atlanta.

In a confrontation with police caught on bodycam video, one officer repeatedly struck the driver’s side window with a baton as a second officer stunned Pilgrim with a Taser. A third officer used a Taser on Young, as the police dragged the black students out of the car.

Video footage of the officers shocking them drew criticism around the country. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. “How we behaved as an agency, as individuals was unacceptable,” she said. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Brooks killing.

After the May 30 incident, one officer wrote in a police report that he used his Taser because he was unsure whether the students were armed. The Taser’s manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc, warns in guidelines distributed to police departments that the weapon should not be used on people who are driving or restrained. And law enforcement experts say Tasers generally shouldn’t be used on anyone who is already immobilized, such as in a car.

Six police officers involved in the incident — five of them black, one white — were charged for using excessive force. Four have been fired. Two have sued the mayor and police chief seeking their jobs back. An attorney representing the two officers says he believes the firings were politically motivated.

“The question police should be asking is not: ‘Can I use the Taser?’ but ‘Should I?’” said Michael Leonesio, a retired police officer who ran the Oakland Police Department’s Taser program and has served as an expert witness in wrongful death lawsuits against Axon. “This is a dangerous weapon,” Leonesio said. “The more it’s used, the more people are going to die.”

Axon says its weapons are not risk-free but are safer than batons, fists, tackles and impact munitions. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect both officers and the community,” the company said in an email to Reuters.

“TASE HIS ASS”

On a hot July day in 2017, Eurie Martin, 58, wanted a drink of water. After walking more than 12 miles to visit relatives for his birthday, he stopped to ask a homeowner for water in Deepstep, a town of about 130 people in central Georgia. The homeowner refused and called police to check out Martin, “a black man,” according to the district attorney.

Martin was walking on the side of the road when a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and tried to speak with him. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, ignored him and kept walking. The deputy called for backup.

The officers said Martin got “defensive” and “clinched his fists,” ignoring commands to place his hands behind his back, the district attorney said. One deputy told another to “Tase his ass,” according to the officers’ dashboard camera video.

When the deputy fired the Taser, Martin fell to the ground, removed the Taser prong from his arm, and walked away. A third deputy arrived and fired his stun gun at Martin’s back, causing him to fall.

The deputies surrounded Martin as he lay face down, applying the weight of their bodies and deployed their Tasers 15 times. Martin could be heard crying out in pain saying, “they killing me.” He died of cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint, according to an autopsy.

“He was a victim of walking while black,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing Martin’s family. The deputies, who were fired after they were indicted, said they followed their training on use of the stun gun.

Last November, a judge granted the three deputies – all white – immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go trial on murder charges in Martin’s death.

In its guidelines distributed to police departments, Axon warns against using multiple Tasers at the same time. Law enforcement experts say repeated applications and continuous use of stun guns can increase the risk of death and should be avoided.

The sheriff’s office declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.

The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was “justified” and “reasonable under the circumstances.” Citing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, the judge wrote all people have the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves against “death or great bodily injury.”

The district attorney appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court in August. If the high court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the murder charges against the deputies will be reinstated.

Martin died “for daring to ask for a drink of water in the Georgia sun,” said his sister Helen Gilbert. “Every person of common sense knows he did nothing to deserve his death. I will not rest until this long walk to justice is complete.”

SCRUTINY

Deaths involving Tasers typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often they’re used or how many of those deployments prove fatal. Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. And there are no uniform national standards governing police use of Tasers.

Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks from Tasers mounted, the manufacturer made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest.

But on March 3 in Tacoma, Washington, that warning wasn’t heeded.

Newly released video and audio recordings show Tacoma police officers using a Taser and beating a black man as he shouted, “I can’t breathe” — similar to George Floyd’s desperate cry when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck on May 25.

Police said they found Manuel Ellis, 33, trying to open doors of unoccupied cars and that he attacked a police vehicle and two officers. An attorney for his family said he was walking home from a convenience store when the confrontation with police took place.

Police handcuffed Ellis and bound his legs with a canvas strap after firing a Taser into his chest, according to an autopsy report. He lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy listed his cause of death as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.

His death sparked protests in Tacoma on June 5 after video of the incident surfaced. The governor called for a new investigation, and the city’s mayor demanded the four officers involved be fired and prosecuted. Two officers are white, one is black and the other is Asian. They have been placed on administrative leave, but have not been charged.

One of the officers, Christopher Burbank, declined to comment. Attempts by Reuters to reach the other three were unsuccessful. The Tacoma Police Department said it was cooperating with county and state investigators.

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith. Editing by Jason Szep)

Protests, looting erupt in Minneapolis over racially charged killing by police

By Eric Miller and Nicholas Pfosi

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – Protesters clashed with riot police firing tear gas for a second night in Minneapolis on Wednesday in an outpouring of rage over the death of a black man seen in a widely circulated video gasping for breath as a white officer knelt on his neck.

The video, taken by an onlooker to Monday night’s fatal encounter between police and George Floyd, 46, showed him lying face down and handcuffed, groaning for help and repeatedly saying, “please, I can’t breathe,” before growing motionless.

A man is injured after being hit in the head by an object at a protest near the Minneapolis Police third precinct after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Miller

The second day of demonstrations, accompanied by looting and vandalism, began hours after Mayor Jacob Frey urged prosecutors to file criminal charges against the white policeman shown pinning Floyd to the street.

Floyd, who was unarmed and reportedly suspected of trying to pass counterfeit bills at a corner eatery, was taken by ambulance from the scene of his arrest and pronounced dead the same night at a hospital.

The policeman shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck and three fellow officers involved were dismissed from the police department on Tuesday as the FBI opened an investigation.

Hundreds of protesters, many with faces covered, thronged streets around the Third Precinct police station late on Wednesday, about half a mile from where Floyd had been arrested, chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.”

The crowd grew to thousands as night fell and the protest turned into a standoff outside the station, where police in riot gear formed barricade lines while protesters taunted them from behind makeshift barricades of their own.

Police, some taking positions on rooftops, used tear gas, plastic bullets and concussion grenades to keep the crowds at bay. Protesters pelted police with rocks and other projectiles. Some threw tear gas canisters back at the officers.

Television news images from a helicopter over the area showed dozens of people looting a Target store, running out with clothing and shopping carts full of merchandise.

Fires erupted after dark at several businesses, including an auto parts store. Eyewitnesses said the blazes appeared to be the work of arsonists. Media said a smaller, peaceful protest was held outside the home of one of the police officers.

People gather near the Minneapolis Police third precinct after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Miller

ANGER ON THE WEST COAST

Outrage at Floyd’s death also triggered a rally in his name against police brutality by hundreds of people in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon.

That demonstration turned violent after a crowd marched onto a nearby freeway and blocked traffic, then attacked two California Highway Patrol cruisers, smashing their windows, local media reported. One protester who clung to the hood of a patrol car fell to the pavement as it sped away, and was treated at the scene by paramedics, news footage of the incident showed.

The video of Monday’s deadly confrontation between Minneapolis police and Floyd led Mayor Frey to call on Wednesday for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman “to charge the arresting officer in this case”.

The city identified the four officers as Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J Alexander Kueng. It did not say who knelt on Floyd’s neck, and gave no further information.

The local police union said the officers were cooperating with investigators and cautioned against a “rush to judgment”.

A protester vandalizes an O’Reilly’s near the Minneapolis Police third precinct, where demonstrators gathered after a white police officer was caught on a bystander’s video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

“We must review all video. We must wait for the medical examiner’s report,” the union statement said.

The county attorney’s office said it would decide how to proceed once investigators had concluded their inquiries.

The case was reminiscent of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in New York City who died after being put in a banned police chokehold.

Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement calling attention to a wave of killings of African-Americans by police using unjustified lethal force.

(Reporting by Eric Miller and Nicholas Pfosi in Minneapolis; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Stephen Coates, Clarence Fernandez and Gareth Jones)

Thousands protest Chinese security law as unrest returns to Hong Kong

By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of people who rallied on Sunday to protest against Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the city.

In a return of the unrest that roiled Hong Kong last year, crowds thronged the Causeway Bay shopping area in defiance of curbs imposed to contain the coronavirus. Chants of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out,” echoed through the streets.

To Communist Party leaders, calls for independence for the semi-autonmous city are anathema and the proposed new national security framework stresses Beijing’s intent “to prevent, stop and punish” such acts.

As dusk fell, police and demonstrators faced off in the nightlife district of Wan Chai.

The day’s events pose a new challenge to Beijing’s authority as it struggles to tame public opposition to its tightening grip over Hong Kong, a trade and business gateway for mainland China.

The security laws have also worried financial markets and drawn a rebuke from foreign governments, human rights groups and some business lobbies.

“I am worried that after the implementation of the national security law, they will go after those being charged before and the police will be further out of control,” said Twinnie, 16, a secondary school student who declined to give her last name.

“I am afraid of being arrested but I still need to come out and protest for the future of Hong Kong.”

The demonstrations come amid concerns over the fate of the “one country, two systems” formula that has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. The arrangement guarantees the city broad freedoms not seen on the mainland, including a free press and independent judiciary.

Washington said on Sunday China’s proposed legislation could lead to U.S. sanctions.

“It looks like, with this national security law, they’re going to basically take over Hong Kong and if they do … Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo will likely be unable to certify that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy and if that happens there will be sanctions that will be imposed on Hong Kong and China,” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC television.

As the city government sought to give reassurances over the new laws, police conducted stop-and-search operations in Causeway Bay and warned people not to violate a ban on gatherings of more than eight.

That restriction, imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus, has kept protesters largely off the streets in recent months.

Protesters set up roadblocks and hurled umbrellas, water bottles and other objects, police said, adding that they responded with tear gas and made more than 120 arrests.

Many shops and other businesses closed early.

The scenes evoked memories of last year’s sometimes violent anti-government protests, which drew up to two million people in the biggest single protest.

Anti-government protesters march against Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong, China May 24, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“WE HAVE TO RESIST IT”

A small group of democracy activists protested outside Beijing’s main representative office in the city, chanting: “National security law is destroying two systems.”

“In the future, they can arrest, lock up and silence anyone they want in the name of national security. We have to resist it,” protester Avery Ng of the League for Social Democrats told Reuters.

Nearly 200 political figures from around the world said in a statement the proposed laws were a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.

China has dismissed foreign complaints as “meddling,” and said the proposed laws will not harm Hong Kong’s autonomy or investors.

Beijing’s top diplomat said the proposed legislation would target a narrow category of acts and would have no impact on the city’s freedoms nor the interests of foreign firms.

Last year’s anti-government protests plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis in decades, battered the economy, and posed the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Pak Yiu; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by John Stonestreet and Angus MacSwan)

Indian police fire tear gas on jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown

By Sanjeev Miglani and Sumit Khanna

NEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Police in western India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said on Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country’s 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.

But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

Many have been walking for days, some with families including small children, on deserted highways with little access to food or water.

On Sunday, about 500 workers clashed with police in the western city of Surat demanding they be allowed to go home to other parts of India because they had no jobs left.

“The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available…However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat deputy commissioner of police Vidhi Chaudhari said.

She said the workers, most of them employed in the shuttered textile industry in Surat, were driven indoors by tear gas volleys and on Monday 93 of them were detained for violating lockdown orders.

TIP OF ICEBERG

India has registered 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on Monday. The number of known cases is small compared with the United States, Italy and China, but health officials say India is weeks away from a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

A health official said the large scale movement of people into the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus widely, compounding the challenge of containing the outbreak in the world’s second most populous country.

“It’s an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up, like having migratory populations moving from one place to another. Like non-affected states adjoining affected states,” said Dr S.K. Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks of illness.

Homeless people wait for food, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, health workers dressed in protection suits sprayed disinfectant on a group of migrant workers who were also trying to make the journey home to their villages, local television showed. They were made to sit on a street corner in the Bareilly district and doused with hose pipes, prompting anger on social media.

Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, later said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal they had also turned their hoses onto migrant workers.

“I have asked for action to be taken against those responsible for this,” he said in a tweet.

The federal government said on Monday that it had no plans to extend the shutdown beyond the three-week period.

But neighbouring Nepal announced it would prolong its shutdown for another week from Tuesday. The landlocked country has reported only five cases of the virus and no deaths, but it is concerned contagion will spread as more people travel.

(Additional reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greek islanders opposed to new migrant center clash with police

ATHENS (Reuters) – Riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing protesters angry over the creation of a new detention center for migrants, the latest bout of unrest over the matter.

The Athens government infuriated residents of five Aegean islands – all straddling a key route to Europe used by thousands of migrants – by announcing two weeks ago that it would expedite the construction of secured detention centers to replace open-access, severely overcrowded camps.

Local residents say they are concerned such an arrangement could become permanent.

In a second straight day of disturbances on Wednesday, local crowds tried to approach a site earmarked for a new migrant center, triggering clashes with helmeted police on a road winding through a hilly forest.

“More than 1,000 people protesting at the new facility… threw stones at police, smashing their helmets. Police were forced to use chemicals,” a police spokesman said, using a euphemism for tear gas.

At least 10 protesters and dozens of police officers were injured during the clashes before they subsided early in the evening, another police official said.

More police were deployed this week to the five affected islands to deal with the protesters. On the island of Chios on Wednesday, local people stormed into a hotel where newly arrived police officers were staying, precipitating scuffles.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of people gathered in the town of Mytilene on Lesbos as part of a general strike to protest at government plans to create the new closed migrant facility.

On Tuesday, locals used vehicles and rubbish trucks to try to block police reinforcements and heavy machinery in a port.

The Athens government says the closed centers will offer greater security and safety to both asylum seekers and local residents, and plans to build them on the islands of Samos, Kos, Leros and Chios in addition to Lesbos.

Locals say the islands are carrying a disproportionate burden from a migrant crisis that began in 2015 when more than one million people fled violence in the Middle East and beyond via Turkey, reaching Greece and then moving on to wealthier central and northern Europe, their preferred destinations.

Border closures imposed since then along the migrant corridor through the Balkans and central Europe north of Greece have left many thousands of later arrivals marooned on Greek islands near Turkey.

(Reporting by Costas Baltas and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Hong Kong police fire tear gas to break up Christmas Eve protest chaos

By Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong riot police fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district as pro-democracy rallies escalated into Christmas Eve chaos.

Protesters inside the malls threw umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.

Some demonstrators occupied the main roads and blocked traffic outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon.

A man was shown on public broadcaster RTHK as falling from the second floor to the first floor of a mall in the rural Yuen Long district as he tried to evade police. He was conscious as he was taken away by paramedics.

There was a heavy police presence into the night in Tsim Sha Tsui with hundreds of officers standing guard on the roads as thousands of Christmas shoppers and tourists, some wearing Santa hats, looked on. A water canon and several armored police Jeeps were parked nearby.

Dozens of protesters started digging up bricks from the roads and set up barricades, as police said in a statement they would deploy “minimum force to effect dispersal” and arrest “rioters”.

Many families with children had congregated in the area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbor.

The protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organizers, showing strong support for the movement.

Scores of black clad, mask wearing protesters chanted slogans including “Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” and “Hong Kong independence” as they roamed the malls.

“Lots of people are shopping so it’s a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for.” said Ken, an 18-year-old student.

“We fight for freedom, we fight for our future.”

A bank branch of global banking group HSBC was vandalized in Mong Kok, according to television footage. The bank on Friday became embroiled in a saga involving an official crackdown on a fund-raising platform supporting protesters in need.

HSBC denied any link between a police clampdown on the platform, called Spark Alliance, and the earlier closure of an HSBC bank account tied to the group.

Protesters had nevertheless called for a boycott of the bank at its headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district.

Around 100 protesters also trashed a Starbucks inside a mall called Mira Place, breaking the glass counters displaying pastries and spraying graffiti on the walls.

The coffee shop chain has been a common target of protesters after the daughter of the founder of Maxim’s Caterers, which owns the local franchise, condemned the protesters at a U.N. human rights council in Geneva.

Metro operator MTR Corp said it shut two stations, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, early on Tuesday night due to protests in the area. Train services were meant to run overnight on Christmas Eve.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year’s Day.

Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.

Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

In a video posted on her Facebook page, Chief Executive Carrie Lam wished Hong Kong citizens “a peaceful and safe Merry Christmas”.

Lam has so far refused to grant protesters’ demands which include an independent inquiry into police behavior and the implementation of full universal suffrage.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Mari Saito and James Pomfret; writing by Farah Master; editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)

French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)