Factbox: What China’s tougher national security regime could mean for Hong Kong

By Greg Torode and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s parliament has approved a decision to go forward with national security legislation on Hong Kong to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in a city roiled by anti-government protests.

The move is seen as a turning point, as leaders of the ruling Communist Party tighten control over China’s freest international city, undermining its reputation as a financial hub with substantial autonomy and an independent legal system.

U.S. reaction was swift, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling Congress that Hong Kong no longer qualified for special status under U.S. law, potentially dealing a crushing blow to its status as a global financial center.

WHAT DOES CHINA WANT?

Greater control and a sense of security. For several years, Chinese officials have expressed increasing frustration and anger over what they see as a weak national security regime in the city.

Last year’s large and sometimes violent anti-government protests have sharpened that frustration, with China determined to thwart what it calls threats of terrorism, independence, subversion of state power, and interference by foreign forces.

SO WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Having been approved by parliament, the legislation will be grafted into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution without any local legislative scrutiny, as has been past practice.

Details of the law are expected to be drawn up in coming weeks. It is expected to be enacted before September.

China says Hong Kong has failed to implement national security laws on its own as stipulated in the city’s mini-constitution under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain.

WHAT REMAINS UNCLEAR?

Hong Kong lawyers are puzzled over how the imposed provisions will work in practice.

Questions include whether all protections already in the Basic Law apply and whether locally based mainland agents have enforcement power.

Another issue is whether the standing committee of the National People’s Congress has extra powers to ultimately interpret Hong Kong court rulings on national security.

“There are suddenly a lot more questions than answers and it is not even clear whether anyone in the Hong Kong government is standing up internally against these changes,” one legal scholar said.

China also said its intelligence agencies would have the right to set up offices in Hong Kong to “safeguard national security”. It is not clear, however, whether they will carry out enforcement activities, a critical concern.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?

The issue sits at the heart of the “one country, two systems” formula under which China agreed to protect Hong Kong’s extensive freedoms, its high degree of autonomy and its independent legal system until 2047.

Those freedoms are protected by the Basic Law, which guides the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.

But Article 23 of the document also says Hong Kong must “on its own” enact laws against treason, secession, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets. It also seeks to outlaw ties between local and foreign political groups.

The Hong Kong government proposed such local legislation in 2003 but encountered vast opposition, with more than 500,000 people marching peacefully against it.

However, the Basic Law also gives Beijing the power to annex national laws into the document – which the Hong Kong government must then legislate for or effectively impose by executive fiat.

Hong Kong lawyers and politicians sometimes call this the “nuclear option”, but some scholars have questioned whether this power of promulgation applies to Article 23.

DO ANY SUCH LAWS ALREADY EXIST?

Yes. Britain left behind a raft of old laws covering most of the elements of Article 23, aside from subversion and secession – the act of formally withdrawing from a state.

Most are decades old and lawyers say they would be hard to deploy, given more recent protections on freedoms of speech, assembly and association written into the city’s Bill of Rights and the Basic Law itself.

IS IT CONTROVERSIAL?

Highly. Given Hong Kong’s protest movements and polarised politics, a fresh push even for local legislation would be tough.

Many fear that new national security legislation would prove a “dead hand” on the city’s large and pugnacious press and rich artistic traditions, while curbing its broad political debates.

Any step by Beijing to impose its own version via promulgation risks panic and chaos, many observers believe, potentially sparking a flight of people and capital and denting Hong Kong’s international financial role.

(Editing by Stephen Coates)

China’s new coronavirus cases drop, world still scared

By Ryan Woo and John Geddie

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China reported on Wednesday its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by Beijing’s senior medical adviser for the outbreak in the country to end by April – but fears of further international spread remained.

The 2,015 new confirmed cases took China’s total to 44,653. That was the lowest daily rise since Jan. 30 and came a day after epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said the epidemic should peak in China this month before subsiding.

His comments gave some balm to public fears and to markets, where global stocks surged to record highs on hopes of an end to disruption in the world’s second largest economy.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) has likened the epidemic’s threat to terrorism and one expert said that while it may be peaking in China, this was not the case beyond.

A man wearing a face mask rides a subway, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing, China February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

“It has spread to other places where it’s the beginning of the outbreak,” Dale Fisher, head of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the WHO, said in an interview in Singapore. “In Singapore, we are at the beginning.”

Singapore has 50 cases, including one found at its biggest bank, DBS <DBSM.SI>, on Wednesday that caused an evacuation at head office.

Hundreds of infections have been reported in dozens of other countries and territories, but only two people have died outside mainland China: one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.

China’s latest figures also showed that the number of deaths on the mainland rose by 97 to 1,113 by the end of Tuesday.

But doubts have been aired on social media about how reliable the data is, after the government last week amended guidelines on classification.

 

QUARANTINED CRUISES

The biggest cluster outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s Yokohama port, with about 3,700 people on board, of whom 175 have tested positive.

There was a happy ending in sight for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines had refused to let dock over fears one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew may have the virus.

Cambodia finally agreed to let it land, the Holland America Line said. Passengers have been whiling away time playing chess and doing puzzles.

“The staff has tried to bolster spirits but you can only play so many games of trivia,” American passenger Angela Jones told Reuters in a video. “I’ve asked others who say they are napping a lot”.

China’s state news agency Xinhua called the epidemic a “battle that has no gunpowder smoke” and chided some officials for “dropping the ball” in some places.

There was no lack of zeal, however, in the city of Chongqing where prosecutors brought charges against a man who strapped on firecrackers, doused himself with gasoline and held up a lighter to defy a ban on public gatherings.

He had planned a birthday banquet, Xinhua said.

The outbreak has been named COVID-19 – CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year that it emerged. It is suspected to have originated in a market illegally trading wildlife in Hubei province’s capital of Wuhan in December.

The city of 11 million people remains under virtual lockdown as part of China’s unprecedented measures to seal infected regions and limit transmission routes.

‘RACIST REPORTING’?

Moves by Washington and others to curb visitors from China have offended Beijing, which says they are an over-reaction.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has also reared on social media.

A Xinhua commentary chided some Western media for “racist reporting” on the coronavirus and ignoring “the unswerving efforts and huge sacrifice China and its people have made”.

“Just as the H1N1 influenza outbreak in the United States in 2009 should not be called an ‘American virus’, the NCP (novel coronavirus pneumonia) is neither a ‘China virus’ nor ‘Wuhan virus’,” it said, in a reference to the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

With companies laying off workers and supply chains disrupted from the car industry to smartphones, China’s economy is taking a big hit. ANZ Bank said first quarter growth may slow to between 3.2-4.0%, down from a projection of 5.0%.

However, the troubles were also triggering innovation.

One company in southwestern China built a tunnel to spray employees with disinfectant, while a steamed bun shop in Beijing is using a wooden board to serve customers and avoid contact.

The latest big event to be cancelled was Formula One’s Chinese Grand Prix, originally set for Shanghai on April 19.

Organisers of a global mobile conference in Barcelona were also mulling whether to pull the plug, two sources said, after several European telecom companies pulled out due to the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu, Judy Hua, Kevin Yao, Zhang Min, Dominique Patton, Se Young Lee, Gabriel Crossley, Colin Qian, Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Keith Zhai and John Geddie in Singapore; Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Kay Johnson in Baghdad; Abhishek Takle in Baku; Isla Binnie in Madrid; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Timothy Heritage and Alex Richardson)

Ukraine wants to search Iran plane crash site for possible missile debris

By Alexander Cornwell, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Natalia Zinets

DUBAI/KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine outlined four potential scenarios on Thursday to explain the deadly crash of one of its airliners in Iran, including a missile strike and terrorism, as Iranian investigators said the plane was on fire before it fell to the ground.

Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the site of Wednesday’s crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military. An initial report by Iran’s civil aviation organization said the plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem.

The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, killing all 176 people on board.

The Iranian report cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.

It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed. The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).

It is so far unclear if any technical issue could be related to a maintenance fault or defective part.

The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.

The Iranian report referred to the crash as an accident.

Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.

A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.

The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.

The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources – three Americans, one European and the Canadian – who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

UKRAINIAN THEORIES

Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said the country’s investigators wanted to search for possible Russian missile debris after seeing information on the internet.

He referred to an unverified image circulated on Iranian social media purportedly showing the debris of a Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile of the kind used by the Iranian military.

Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danylov said.

The Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

In a televised statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

Zelenskiy said he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation in investigating the crash.

Ukraine is looking at various possible causes, including a missile attack, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.

Countries recognized under a UN-administered convention as participants should nominate who they wish to be involved in the Iran-led investigation, the Iranian report said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress the need for Canadian officials “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash”, a Canadian statement said.

“Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered.”

Britain wants a transparent investigation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Thursday following a call between the British leader and Zelenskiy.

“The prime minister said that there needed to be a full credible and transparent investigation into what happened,” the spokesman said.

As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States would usually be allowed to be accredited but neither side has said whether U.S. investigators will be dispatched to Iran.

Iran’s aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify its position.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday. Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq.

The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said. It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.

Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.

Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed on Wednesday. Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.

Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.

Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.

The Tehran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran in the absence of direct flights.

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell & Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Natalia Zinets & Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Steve Scherer in Ottawa, Laurence Frost in Paris, Matthias Williams in Kiev, Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Alexander Cornwell, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)

Pressure mounts on FBI for answers on Florida naval base shooting

By Brad Brooks

PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. investigators face mounting pressure on Monday to deliver answers on the motive that led a Saudi Air Force lieutenant to shoot and kill three people and wounded eight others at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking at a Sunday evening press conference, said he was sure the gunman carried out an act of terrorism. He questioned whether it could have been prevented by better vetting of foreign military officers who train in the United States.

“There is a lot of frustration in our state over this,” DeSantis said. “You have foreign military personnel coming to our base. They should not be doing that if they hate our country.”

The FBI said it thinks that the shooter, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, acted alone when he opened fire inside a classroom at the base early on Friday morning.

The bureau said it was not ruling out labeling the violence as an act of terrorism, but that it still had many people to interview on Monday and was still collecting evidence at what it called an active crime scene.

The New York Times reported late Sunday that it had reviewed an official complaint Alshamrani lodged in April against an instructor at the base who had made derogatory comments about his appearance, but that there was no apparent connection between that incident and the shooting.

The FBI confirmed on Sunday that Alshamrani had legally purchased somewhere in Florida the Glock 9mm pistol he used in the shooting. DeSantis said he was able to buy the firearm because of a “federal loophole” in gun laws that allow nonimmigrant foreign nationals to purchase weapons for an array of reasons, including if they simply have a hunting license.

“I’m big supporter of the Second Amendment, but it’s so Americans can keep and bear arms, not Saudi Arabians,” the governor told reporters.

Alshamrani was on the base as part of a U.S. Navy training program designed to foster links with foreign allies. He had started training in the United States in 2017 and had been in the Pensacola area for the past 18 months, authorities said.

His fellow Saudi students were speaking directly with American investigators and were restricted to the base on order of the Saudi military, Rojas said.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks)

Police treat stabbings at UK shopping mall as terrorism incident

By Peter Powell

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – British police said five people had been injured after a man lunged at passers-by with a large knife in a shopping center in northern England on Friday in a “brutal” attack officers were treating as terrorism.

The man attacked people around him and chased two unarmed officers shortly after entering Manchester’s Arndale shopping center in the heart of the city at about 11.15 a.m. (1015 GMT), police said.

He was overpowered by armed officers, with pictures on social media showing them using a stun gun to detain him. The man, in his 40s, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism although police said his motivation was not yet clear.

“He was armed with a large knife and … he began lunging and attacking people with the knife,” Assistant Chief Constable Russ Jackson told reporters.

“Two unarmed police community support officers … attempted to confront the attacker. He then chased them with a knife as they were calling for urgent assistance. The man attacked people around him and we understand five people were injured by him.”

Earlier, police said three people had suffered stab wounds; two women, one aged 19, and a man aged in his 50s. Jackson said the injuries were “nasty” but none had suffered life-threatening wounds.

“We do not know the motivation for this terrible attack, it appears random – it’s certainly brutal and of course extremely frightening for anyone who witnessed it,” Jackson said.

“We have the man we believe to be the attacker safely in custody. We will now be working to understand why he committed this awful attack.”

Britain has long been at a high state of alert and is currently at its second highest threat level, meaning an attack is considered highly likely.

Manchester was the location for Britain’s most deadly attack in recent years when Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton born to Libyan parents, killed 22 people in May 2017 when he blew himself up at the end of a pop concert by Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena, not far from the Arndale center.

Islamic State said it was responsible in the immediate aftermath of that bombing, but security services have always treated the claim with scepticism. Abedi’s brother, who is suspected of involvement, was extradited from Libya in July.

“This is bound to bring back memories of the awful events of 2017,” Jackson said. “At this time we do not believe there was anyone else involved in this attack but we will constantly be keeping this under review.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter: “Shocked by the incident in Manchester and my thoughts are with the injured and all those affected.”

(Reporting by Michael Holden, James Davey, Costas Pitas and William Schomberg; editing by Stephen Addison)

U.S., allies urge Facebook not to encrypt messages as they fight child abuse, terrorism

By Joseph Menn, Christopher Bing and Katie Paul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and allies are seizing on Facebook Inc’s plan to apply end-to-end encryption across its messaging services to press for major changes to a practice long opposed by law enforcement, saying it hinders the fight against child abuse and terrorism.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia plan to sign a special data agreement on Thursday that would fast track requests from law enforcement to technology companies for information about the communications of terrorists and child predators, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Law enforcement could get information in weeks or even days instead of the current wait of six months to two years, one document said.

The agreement will be announced alongside an open letter to Facebook and its Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on the company to suspend plans related to developing end-to-end encryption technology across its messaging services.

The latest tug-of-war between governments and tech companies over user data could also impact Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as well as smaller encrypted chat apps like Signal.

Washington has called for more regulation and launched anti-trust investigations against many tech companies, criticizing them over privacy lapses, election-related activity and dominance in online advertising.

Child predators have increasingly used messaging applications, including Facebook’s Messenger, in the digital age to groom their victims and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in just the past few years.

Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Associate Attorney General Sujit Raman said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million tips of online child sex abuse last year, over 90% of them from Facebook.

He estimated that up to 75% of those tips would “go dark” if social media companies like Facebook were to go through with encryption plans.

Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposes “government efforts to build backdoors,” which it said would undermine privacy and security.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told Reuters the company was looking at ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and stop predators from connecting with children.

This approach “offers us an opportunity to prevent harms in a way that simply going after content doesn’t,” she said.

In practice, the bilateral agreement would empower the UK government to directly request data from U.S. tech companies, which remotely store data relevant to their own ongoing criminal investigations, rather than asking for it via U.S. law enforcement officials.

The effort represents a two-pronged approach by the United States and its allies to pressure private technology companies while making information sharing about criminal investigations faster.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said disputes over encryption have flared on-and-off since the mid-1990s.

She said government officials concerned with fighting child abuse would be better served by making sure investigators had more funding and training.

“They seem to ignore the low-hanging fruit in favor of going after the thing they’ve been going after for the past 25 years,” she said.

The letter addressed to Zuckerberg and Facebook comes from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

“Our understanding is that much of this activity, which is critical to protecting children and fighting terrorism, will no longer be possible if Facebook implements its proposals as planned,” the letter reads.

“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”

WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart wrote in a public internet forum https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21100588 on Saturday that the company “will always oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would weaken the security of everyone who uses WhatsApp including governments themselves.”

That app, which is already encrypted, is also owned by Facebook.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn and Katie Paul in San Francisco and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. imposes sanctions on North Korean hacking groups blamed for global attacks

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury on Friday announced sanctions on three North Korean hacking groups it said were involved in the “WannaCry” ransomware attacks and hacking of international banks and customer accounts.

It named the groups as Lazarus Group, Bluenoroff, and Andariel and said they were controlled by the RGB, North Korea’s primary intelligence bureau, which is already subject to U.S. and United Nations sanctions.

The action blocks any U.S.-related assets of the groups and prohibits dealings with them. The Treasury statement said any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitated significant transactions or services for them could also be subject to sanctions.

“Treasury is taking action against North Korean hacking groups that have been perpetrating cyberattacks to support illicit weapon and missile programs,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

“We will continue to enforce existing U.S. and U.N. sanctions against North Korea and work with the international community to improve the cybersecurity of financial networks.”

The United States has been attempting to restart talks with North Korea, aimed at pressing the country to give up its nuclear weapons. The talks have been stalled over North Korean demands for concessions, including sanctions relief.

Earlier this month, North Korea denied U.N. allegations it had obtained $2 billion through cyberattacks on banks and cryptocurrency exchanges and accused the United States of spreading rumors.

The Treasury statement said Lazarus Group was involved in the WannaCry ransomware attack that the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom publicly attributed to North Korea in December 2017.

It said WannaCry affected at least 150 countries and shut down about 300,000 computers, including many in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS attack led to the cancellation of more than 19,000 appointments and ultimately cost the service over $112 million, the biggest known ransomware attack in history.

The Treasury said Lazarus Group was also directly responsible for 2014 cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The statement cited industry and press reporting as saying that by 2018, Bluenoroff had attempted to steal over $1.1 billion from financial institutions and successfully carried out operations against banks in Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Chile, and Vietnam.

It said Bluenoroff worked with the Lazarus Group to steal approximately $80 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh’s New York Federal Reserve account.

Andariel, meanwhile, was observed by cyber security firms attempting to steal bank card information by hacking into ATMs to withdraw cash or steal customer information to later sell on the black market, the statement said.

Andariel was also responsible for developing and creating unique malware to hack into online poker and gambling sites and, according to industry and press reporting, targeted the South Korea government military in an effort to gather intelligence, it said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Rosalba O’Brien)

Mexico pushes U.S. to designate El Paso shooting an act terrorism

FILE PHOTO: A man places an American flag in the pile of flowers that has gathered a day after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s government on Wednesday doubled down on its assertion that the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, was an act of terrorism against Mexicans and urged the United States to ensure the incident was designated as such.

Speaking after meetings on Tuesday between U.S. and Mexican government officials about the case, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a regular government news conference that steps needed to be taken to prevent future killings.

“It’s very important to persevere, to specify, clarify and demand that measures are taken so that this is not repeated, and the first measure is to classify it for what it is, an act of terrorism that seeks to take Mexican lives,” Ebrard said.

Twenty-two people lost their lives in the shooting at a Walmart store in the U.S. border city, an event Mexico quickly said it would investigate as a terrorist act.

A four-page statement believed to have been authored by the suspected shooter Patrick Crusius, and posted on 8chan, an online message board often used by extremists, called the El Paso attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

And according to an El Paso police affidavit released on Friday, Crusius told police while surrendering that he had been targeting “Mexicans.”

“There will be those who say, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t terrorism, it’s just one person,'” Ebrard said, alongside Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“Well, it needs to be said that the man who carried out this despicable, abominable and appalling act is part of a network, but he also uploaded a manifesto to the network.”

“What he says is terrible, but it’s not that he’s mad; he is in possession of his faculties,” Ebrard added.

The Mexican government has said it may also request the suspected perpetrator be extradited to Mexico for trial.

The attack caused widespread revulsion in Mexico at a time of persistent diplomatic tensions between Trump administration and the Mexican government over trade and immigration.

Mexico’s government last week pressed the United States to cooperate in helping to identify white supremacists who are a threat to its citizens after the attack.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Richard Chang)

Hong Kong airport grinds to halt as China likens protests to terrorism

Anti-extradition bill protesters rally at the departure hall of Hong Kong airport in Hong Kong, China August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Greg Torode and Vimvam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s airport canceled all flights on Monday, blaming demonstrators for the disruptions, while China said the anti-government protests that have roiled the city through two summer months had begun to show “sprouts of terrorism”.

The airport authority said it was working with airlines to resume flights from 6 a.m. on Tuesday, but the developments raise the stakes after a weekend of skirmishes during which both activists and police toughened their stances.

Some Hong Kong legal experts say official descriptions of some protesters’ actions as terrorism could lead to the use of extensive anti-terror laws and powers against them.

China’s People’s Armed Police also assembled in the neighboring city of Shenzhen for exercises, the state-backed Global Times newspaper said.

People in the Asian financial hub responded by taking to the streets again, picketing a police station and returning in their hundreds to a metro station where police had hit activists with batons, to protest against the heavy-handed tactics.

The increasingly violent demonstrations have plunged the Chinese-ruled territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of his biggest popular challenges since he came to power in 2012.

“Hong Kong has come to a critical juncture,” said Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office spokesman Yang Guang in Beijing.

“Protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging.”

The protests began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to the mainland but have widened to highlight other grievances, winning broad support.

The precise trigger for the airport’s closure was not clear, since protesters occupying the arrivals hall for four days have been peaceful.

“This is about our freedom,” said one of the thousands of protesters who remained there, a 24-year-old wearing a mask, who gave his name only as Yu. “Why should we leave?”

GROUNDED

Hong Kong is the world’s busiest air cargo port and the 8th busiest by passenger traffic, says the Airports Council International (ACI), a global association. It has been filled with anti-government protesters for four days.

The mostly young black-clad protesters have chanted slogans such as “No rioters, only tyranny!” and “Liberate Hong Kong!” while approaching travelers with flyers describing their demands and explaining the unrest.

Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.

The activists at the airport have been polite and passengers mostly unperturbed. “I was expecting something, given all the news,” one arrival, Gurinda Singh, told Reuters.

“I’m just pleased my plane arrived and the protests here seem peaceful.”

Some activists moved to the departure area and caused disruptions, police told a news conference as the cancellations were announced.

Police declined to say if they would move to clear the demonstrators. There was no visible police presence in either the departure or arrivals area.

“Airport operations at Hong Kong International Airport have been seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today,” the city’s airport authority said in a statement, without elaborating.

About 190 flights were hit, Chinese aviation data firm VariFlight said, though planes already en route to Hong Kong were allowed to land.

RESTIVE WEEKEND

Demonstrators threw up barricades across the city at the weekend, as police fired tear gas into crowded underground train stations as well as rubber bullets and pepper pellets at close range.

In response, protesters have sought to channel a Bruce Lee maxim: “Be water,” employing a flash-mob strategy to frustrate authorities and stretch their resources.

Still, scores of protesters were arrested, sometimes after being beaten with batons and bloodied by police. One young female medic was hospitalized after being hit by a pellet round in the right eye.

Hundreds of people returned on Monday to the scene of some of the clashes to protest against the use of force.

“We are completely disappointed with Hong Kong police,” said Terry Ng, 30, a social worker protesting outside Wan Chai police station. “The weight of their shots caused a young girl to lose one eye. Do they still have a conscience?”

Authorities have called the citywide demonstrations illegal and dangerous, while highlighting their impact on the already-faltering economy and residents’ activities.

Beijing says criminals and agitators are stirring violence, but its use of the word “terrorism” on Monday was its starkest warning yet, possibly paving the way for a national-security response to the crisis.

China has used the threat of terrorism to justify tough measures in its regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, which have been criticized by rights groups and Western governments. It warned them off on Monday as well.

“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong and Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

China has also put pressure on big companies, such as Cathay Pacific Airways, whose shares tumbled to a 10-year low on Monday, after it was told to suspend staff engaged in illegal protests.

Police, who have arrested more than 600 people since the unrest began more than two months ago, demonstrated a water cannon.

(Reporting by Greg Torode, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Noah Sin, Brenda Goh, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret, Farah Master, Felix Tam, Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok; Writing by Tom Westbrook; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)

Iran says U.S. sanctions on Khamenei mean end of diplomacy

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – New U.S. sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader and foreign minister have closed off diplomacy, Iran said on Tuesday, blaming the United States for abandoning the only route to peace just days after the two foes came within minutes of conflict.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Monday against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohmmad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact, which would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said he decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security,” Mousavi tweeted.

In a televised address, President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation around Iran was developing toward a dangerous scenario, RIA news agency reported.

“OPEN DOOR”

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, visiting Israel, repeated earlier offers to hold talks, as long as Iran was willing to go beyond the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers which Trump abandoned last year.

“The president has held the door open to real negotiations to completely and verifiably eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic missile delivery systems, its support for international terrorism and other malign behavior worldwide,” Bolton said in Jerusalem. “All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door.”

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – was the culmination of weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev came to Iran’s support, saying the drone was in Iranian airspace when it was shot down and that the evidence on the tanker attacks was of poor quality and unprofessional, not enough to draw conclusions.

During a visit to Jerusalem, Patrushev also said it was unacceptable to portray Iran as a threat to international security and called for restraint to help defuse the situation.

Washington says forcing Iran to the table is the purpose of its sanctions. Tehran has said it is willing to talk if the United States lifts the new sanctions first, although Tuesday’s statements appear to toughen that stance.

Trump is leaving a path open to diplomacy with Iran but Tehran would be making a mistake if it interprets his restraint over the downing of a drone as weakness, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a conference in Geneva.

“We will not initiate a conflict against Iran, nor do we intend to deny Iran the right to defend its airspace but if Iran continues to attack us, our response will be decisive,” he said.

U.S. officials have launched a diplomatic campaign to rally their allies in the face of the escalating crisis. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East on Monday to meet leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arab states that favor the toughest possible line against Iran.

The U.S. envoy on Iran, Brian Hook, is visiting Europe, where he is likely to get a frostier reception from allies who support the nuclear deal. They believe Trump’s decision to quit the accord was a mistake that has strengthened Iran’s hardline faction, weakened its pragmatists and endangered regional peace.

Iran says it still aims to comply with the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some benefits. It has given European countries until July 8 to find a way to shield its economy from U.S. sanctions, or else it will enrich uranium to levels banned under the deal.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle/Mark Heinrich)