Ukraine hit by cyberattack hours after talks wrapped up “no breakthrough”

Matthew 24:6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Important Takeaways:

  • ‘Be afraid’: Ukraine hit by cyberattack as Russia moves more troops
  • Kyiv says around 70 government sites hit by cyberattack
  • Ukraine was hit by a cyberattack splashing a warning across government websites to “be afraid and expect the worst,” while Russia, which has amassed 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s frontier, released pictures of more of its forces on the move.
  • “Drumbeat of war is sounding loud” says U.S. diplomat
  • Moscow says it could take military action unless demands met
  • NATO says it will sign cyber cooperation pact with Kyiv
  • The cyber-attack unfolded hours after talks wrapped up with no breakthrough between Russia and Western allies

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Putin gearing up for war

Matthew 24:6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Important Takeaways:

  • Putin issues terrifying war warning – Russia ready to turn ‘everyone to radioactive ash’
  • America has been warning for weeks that Mr. Putin appears to be readying tens of thousands of troops, tanks and artillery pieces to invade Ukraine, but Mr. Putin has insisted it is merely a defense force – until now.
  • Putin has warned he is willing to take “military measures” in response to “unfriendly” Western action in Ukraine, in the clearest sign yet that the Russian strongman is gearing up for war.
  • Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian media mogul, threatened to “put a gun to America’s head” if NATO forces are stationed in Ukraine and warned the alliance to back off “otherwise, everyone will be turned into radioactive ash.”

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Western troops in Kabul have to plan their own evacuation as deadline looms

(Reuters) – The United States and allies urged Afghans to leave Kabul airport on Thursday, citing the threat of an attack by Islamic State militants, as Western troops race to evacuate as many people as possible and get out themselves by Aug. 31.

The looming deadline has intensified pressure to complete the evacuations of tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who helped Western countries during the 20-year war against the Taliban.

Shots were fired by unknown gunmen at an Italian military plane as it flew out of Kabul on Thursday, an Italian defense source said. It was undamaged.

An Italian journalist on the flight told Sky 24 TG that the plane had been carrying almost 100 Afghan civilians when it came under fire minutes after take-off.

Canadian forces halted their evacuations of around 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens on Thursday, saying they had stayed as long as they could. U.S. and allied troops also have to plan the logistics of their own withdrawal.

“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” acting chief of the defense staff General Wayne Eyre told reporters.

In an alert on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified “security threats”.

In another advisory, Britain told people to move away from the airport area. Its armed forces minister, James Heappey, said intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by IS militants had become “much firmer”.

“The threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal. We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target that is just unimaginable,” Heappey told BBC radio.

A Western diplomat in Kabul said areas outside the airport gates were “incredibly crowded” again despite the warnings.

Australia also issued a warning for people to stay away from the airport while Belgium ended its evacuation operations because of the danger of an attack.

The Netherlands said it expected to carry out its last evacuation flight on Thursday. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said this was the most dangerous phase of the evacuation process.

The warnings came against a chaotic backdrop in Kabul, where the massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before the Taliban captured the city on Aug. 15, capping a lightning advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

‘RISKING LIVES’

The Taliban, whose fighters are guarding the perimeter outside the airport, are enemies of the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region.

“Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Fighters claiming allegiance to ISIS-K first began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but the ultra-radical Sunni movement soon expanded from the area near the border with Pakistan where it first appeared.

Daesh, as it is widely known in Afghanistan, established a reputation for extreme brutality as it fought the Taliban both for ideological reasons and for control of local smuggling and narcotics routes, according to Western intelligence services.

It also claimed a series of suicide attacks in cities like Kabul, where as well as government and civilian institutions, it particularly attacked targets associated with the Shi’ite religious minority.

In Kabul, Ahmedullah Rafiqzai, a civil aviation official at the airport, said people continued to crowd around the gates despite the attack warnings.

“People don’t want to move, it’s their determination to leave this country that they are not scared to even die,” he told Reuters.

A NATO country diplomat said threats from Islamic State could not be ignored.

“Western forces, under no circumstances, want to be in a position to launch an offensive or a defensive attack against anyone,” the diplomat added.

The U.S. military has said it would shift its focus to evacuating its troops in the final two days before the deadline..

President Joe Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, despite European allies saying they needed more time.

Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August.

The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. Women were barred from school or work. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

Ukraine says Russia will soon have over 120,000 troops on its borders

By Matthias Williams and Robin Emmott

KYIV/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Russia will soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday, calling for new Western economic sanctions to deter Moscow from “further escalation.”

Washington and NATO have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Western officials say the concentration of forces is now larger than during that annexation. The figure given by Kuleba is higher than Ukraine’s previous estimate of 80,000 Russian troops, of which 50,000 were new deployments.

“Russian troops continue to arrive in close proximity to our borders in the northeast, in the east and in the south. In about a week, they are expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops,” Kuleba told an online news conference.

“This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Kuleba said, warning of what he said was Moscow’s unpredictability although he said Ukraine did not want conflict with Russia.

“The cost of preventing Russia’s further escalation will always be lower than the cost of stopping it and mitigating its consequences … It is way more effective to clearly make Moscow understand that a new stage of aggression will have dire consequences for Russia, international isolation and painful economic sanctions.”

Kuleba also called for Moscow to re-commit to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have fought Ukrainian troops in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame for a rise in casualties in the conflict in recent weeks. Kuleba said Russian snipers were killing Ukrainian soldiers to provoke Ukraine to counterattack.

Russia has said its troop build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behavior from NATO. Moscow on Tuesday also accused the U.S. and NATO of “provocative activity” in the waters and airspace of the Black Sea.

Kuleba attended a video conference with EU foreign ministers and said he openly “called on colleagues to start considering a new round of sectoral sanctions against Russia”.

He said he did not feel EU ministers were ready for such a move but he told them that individual sanctions on Russian officials were insufficient.

(Editing by Alison Williams and Timothy Heritage)

Russian military build-up near Ukraine numbers more than 150,000 troops, EU’s Borrell says

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russia has concentrated more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and in annexed Crimea, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday after EU foreign ministers were briefed by Ukraine’s foreign minister.

“It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident,” Borrell said, declining to give a source for the figure.

He said no new economic sanctions or expulsions of Russian diplomats were planned for the time being, despite saying that the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was the largest ever.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after addressing EU foreign ministers, called on the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have been rising amid the military build-up and clashes in eastern Ukraine between the army and pro-Russian separatists.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold)

Firefighters, military planes, troops arrive in California to fight massive blazes

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews from across the U.S. West, military planes and National Guard troops poured into California on Sunday to join the fight against two dozen major wildfires burning across the state, as officials warned of more dry lightning storms approaching.

The worst of the blazes, including the second and third largest wildfires in recorded California history, were burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 200,000 people have been told to flee their homes.

“Extreme fire behavior with short and long range spotting are continuing to challenge firefighting efforts. Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said of the largest conflagration, the LNU Lightning Complex.

The fires, which were ignited by lightning from dry thunderstorms across Northern and Central California over the past week, have killed at least six people and destroyed some 700 homes and other structures. All told nearly one million acres have been blackened, according to Cal Fire.

Smoke and ash has blanketed much of the northern part of California for days, drifting for miles and visible from several states away.

The LNU Complex, which began as a string of smaller fires that merged into one massive blaze, has burned across roughly 340,000 acres of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said at a news briefing on Sunday.

It is now the second-largest wildfire on record in the state and was only 17% contained as of Sunday afternoon. To the south the SCU Lightning Complex was nearly as large, at 339,000 acres, and only 10% contained, Berlant said.

CREWS ARRIVE FROM OTHER STATES

Outside the Bay Area, the flames were threatening forests near the University of California at Santa Cruz and a wide swath of the area between San Francisco and the state capital of Sacramento.

Reinforcement crews and fire engines have arrived from Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Texas and Utah, with more on the way, Berlant said. Some 200 members of the National Guard had been activated and the U.S. military sent planes, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday declared the fires a major disaster, freeing up federal funds to help residents and businesses harmed by the fires in seven counties pay for temporary housing and repairs.

Berlant said more dry thunderstorms were forecast through Tuesday and so-called red flag warnings had been issued across much of the northern and central parts of California during a record-breaking heat wave that has baked the state for more than a week, caused by a dome of atmospheric high pressure hovering over the American Southwest.

Meteorologists say that same high-pressure ridge has also been siphoning moisture from remnants of a now-dissipated tropical storm off the coast of Mexico and creating conditions rife for thunderstorms across much of California.

Most of the precipitation from the storms evaporates before reaching the ground, leaving dry lightning strikes that have contributed to a volatile wildfire season.

The American Lung Association has warned that the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the health hazards posed by smoky air and extreme heat. Inhaling smoke and ash can worsen the weakened lungs of people with COVID-19, said Afif El-Hassan, a physician spokesman for the lung association.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps
By Humeyra Pamuk

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Notorious for leaks and chastened by previous security lapses, the White House went to unusual lengths to keep President Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan under wraps, devising a cover story for his movements that included posting scripted tweets while he was in the air, administration officials said.

On Thursday, Trump dropped in unannounced on troops at Afghanistan’s Bagram military air base in his first trip to the country and only his second to a war zone during his presidency. He served soldiers a turkey dinner and posed for selfies, before telling reporters that the United States and Taliban hoped to resume peace talks. [nL1N2880NT]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 33-hour roundtrip, which White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said had been weeks in the making, was the administration’s success in keeping it secret until shortly before the president left Afghanistan to return home.

Frequently wrong-footed by leaks and Trump’s freewheeling use of Twitter, the White House informed only a tight circle of officials about the trip.

On Tuesday, Trump travelled to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida as scheduled, accompanied by the regular caravan of reporters which follows the president on all trips.

When those journalists waited for him to emerge for a Thursday afternoon conference call with the troops, per his official schedule, they learnt that overnight he had flown the 13,400 km (8,331 miles) to Afghanistan to visit them in person.

“It is a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told a small group of correspondents aboard Air Force One on Wednesday evening, explaining why the White House had concealed Trump’s true movements.

Only hours before, that second group of reporters had secretly gathered at a parking lot near the Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, a regular departure spot for Trump, from which they were driven in minivans into the complex.

They had been told ahead of time that Trump would be travelling incognito to an undisclosed location.

Once inside the base, all smart phones and any devices that could send a signal were confiscated and not returned until at least two hours after Trump’s arrival at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Throughout the 13-hour flight, nobody on board Air Force One had access to their phones, including White House staff, Grisham said. The cabin lights were mostly switched off and window blinds stayed shut.

Last Christmas, en route to a troop visit in Iraq, Air Force One was identified above England by a plane spotter who tweeted a photo of its distinctive turquoise livery, sparking a social media storm. Many speculated then that Trump was on his way to a war zone, pointing to his unusually quiet Twitter account, which had sent dozens of tweets the day before.

This time, Grisham said the White House made arrangements to ensure continuity in the president’s Twitter account, which posted happy Thanksgiving tweets as he was in the air, including one thanking the military.

“We just had a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Trump said amid chants of “U-S-A” during his speech at the Bagram base.

“I thought I was going to be doing it someplace else.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michelle Price and Daniel Wallis)

Hong Kong office workers, schoolmates denounce police shooting of teen

By Clare Jim and Yiming Woo

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong office workers and high-school students turned out in their hundreds under a sweltering midday sun on Wednesday to denounce a policeman for shooting and wounding a teenager during the most violent clashes in nearly four months of unrest.

The office workers marched to Chater Garden in the Central business district as the students, some in the same class as the wounded 18-year-old, demonstrated outside his New Territories school.

More than 100 people were wounded during Tuesday’s turmoil, the Hospital Authority said, as anti-China demonstrators took to the streets across the Chinese-ruled territory, throwing petrol bombs and attacking police who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Five remained in a serious condition with 35 stable.

Thirty police were injured, with five in hospital.

During one clash, an officer shot an 18-year-old school student in the chest with a live round after coming under attack with a metal bar, video footage showed. The teen was in stable condition in hospital on Wednesday.

Protesters outside the wounded student’s school, the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, chanted “Free Hong Kong”, condemned the police and urged a thorough investigation.

“(It’s) ridiculous, it can’t happen, and it should not be happening in Hong Kong,” said one 17-year-old who goes to the same school.

“It really disappointed me and let me down about the policeman. I don’t know why they took this action to deal with a Form Five student. Why do you need to shoot? It’s a real gun.”

Protesters have previously been hit with anti-riot bean-bags rounds and rubber bullets and officers have fired live rounds in the air, but this was the first time a demonstrator had been shot with a live round.

Police said the officer involved was under serious threat and acted in self-defense in accordance with official guidelines.

Police said they arrested 269 people – 178 males and 91 females – aged 12 to 71 during the Tuesday turmoil, while officers fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds.

The protests, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, were aimed at propelling the activists’ fight for greater democracy onto the international stage and embarrassing the city’s political leaders in Beijing.

The former British colony has been rocked by months of protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, among other demands.

The outpouring of opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

The pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong condemned Tuesday’s violence and urged the government to impose emergency laws to resolve the crisis.

‘CHILLING DISREGARD’

Many shops and business closed on Tuesday in anticipation of the violence, which is taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade and the central government grapples with a U.S.-China trade war and a global slowdown.

Standard & Poor’s cut its Hong Kong economic growth forecast on Tuesday to 0.2 percent for this year, down from its forecast of 2.2 percent in July, blaming tension in the city for plunging retail sales and a sharp dip in tourism.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce condemned the violence.

“Extremists’ chilling disregard for the rule of law is not only affecting Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial and business center, but also crippling many small businesses and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens,” it said in a statement.

The protesters come from wide-ranging backgrounds. Of 96 charged after violence on Sunday, eight were under 18, some were students, others had jobs ranging from waiter, teacher and surveyor to sales manager, construction worker and a hotel employee.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

The protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said two of its branches came under attack on Tuesday.

“The bank expresses its deepest anger and strongly condemns this illegal, violent behavior,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Yimin Woo; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Bill Rigby, Donny Kwok, Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Special Report: China quietly doubles troop levels in Hong Kong, envoys say

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Last month, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into this restive city. They came in on trucks and armored cars, by bus and by ship.

The state news agency Xinhua described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997. No mention was made of the anti-government protests that have been shaking the metropolis since June.

It was a plausible report: China has maintained a steady level of force in the territory for years, regularly swapping troops in and out. And days earlier, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had told local businesspeople that China had “absolutely no plan” to order the army to put down the demonstrations.

A month on, Asian and Western envoys in Hong Kong say they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. Seven envoys who spoke to Reuters said they didn’t detect any significant number of existing forces in Hong Kong returning to the mainland in the days before or after the announcement.

Three of the envoys said the contingent of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled in size since the protests began. They estimated the number of military personnel is now between 10,000 and 12,000, up from 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement.

As a result, the envoys believe, China has now assembled its largest-ever active force of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other anti-riot personnel and equipment in Hong Kong.

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the build-up includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. While Reuters was unable to determine the size of the PAP contingent, envoys say the bulk of the troops in Hong Kong are from the PLA.

PAP forces would be likely to spearhead any crackdown if Beijing decides to intervene, according to foreign envoys and security analysts. These paramilitary troops are specially trained in non-lethal tactics and methods of riot suppression and crowd control.

The envoys declined to say how exactly they determined that the recent troop movement was a reinforcement or how they arrived at their troop estimates. Reuters reporters visited the areas surrounding multiple PLA bases in Hong Kong and observed significantly increased movements by troops and armored vehicles at the facilities.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, the State Council Information Office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters. In early September, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said China would “not sit idly by” if the situation in the city continued to deteriorate and posed a threat to “the country’s sovereignty.”

The office of Carrie Lam and the PLA garrison in Hong Kong also did not respond to questions. A Hong Kong police spokesperson told Reuters the police force was “capable of maintaining law and order and determined to restore public safety in Hong Kong.”

REVAMPING THE PARAMILITARY

The PAP is a key element in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s drive to reinforce the ruling Communist Party’s control over the nation of 1.4 billion people while building a potent military that can supplant the United States as Asia’s dominant power. The PAP has up to one million troops, according to an April research paper from the U.S.’s National Defense University – about half the size of China’s standing military. The paramilitary’s primary duty is to defend against potential enemies within – countering domestic upheaval and protecting top leaders. In recent years, it has contained unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Elements of this force are also trained for counter-terrorism, securing key infrastructure, disaster relief and international peacekeeping.

After installing himself as commander-in-chief and reshaping the regular military, Xi turned attention to the PAP. His first move was to take personal control. In early 2018, the PAP was brought under direct command of the Central Military Commission, the top military decision-making body that Xi chairs. Previously, the PAP had come under the split command of the commission and the State Council, China’s top government administrative body.

This put Xi at the apex of Beijing’s military and paramilitary forces, further concentrating power in his hands. With the eruption of the protests in Hong Kong, however, Xi now faces the biggest popular challenge to his rule.

News of the reinforcements in Hong Kong comes as city officials are bracing for more demonstrations on Tuesday, Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Intense clashes between protesters and police rocked the city over the weekend ahead of the celebrations.

In her private remarks in August, city Chief Executive Lam played down the possibility that Beijing might deploy the PLA. Foreign envoys and security analysts said they too believe China’s strong preference is not to use troops.

Still, they said, the troop build-up shows Beijing wants to be ready to act if the Hong Kong government and its 30,000-strong police force lose control of the city. Lam herself expressed concern about the force’s ability to keep control. On some days, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets. She said the police are “outnumbered” by the protesters, making enforcement “extremely difficult.”

“Apart from the 30,000 men and women in the force we have nothing,” she told the gathering of businesspeople. “Really. We have nothing. I have nothing.”

Until now, the PAP’s presence in Hong Kong has been limited to a small advance detachment nestled discreetly within existing PLA facilities, according to one of the diplomats. The new deployment marks the first significant entry of the PAP into Hong Kong. It wasn’t mentioned in official accounts of the rotation nor in the state-controlled press.

The combined deployment of the PLA and the PAP follows months of official statements denouncing the protests and dramatic signaling to Hong Kongers. This included news reports and footage showing anti-riot drills by both the PLA and the PAP, released by the military on social media. Last month, hundreds of PAP troops conducted extensive exercises in a football stadium in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Troops in the area could also be deployed to Hong Kong if the crisis deepened, foreign diplomats said.

ENFORCING XI’S ‘RED LINE’

The protests and street violence in Hong Kong erupted in early June, over a bill – since scrapped – that would have paved the way for people to be extradited to the mainland. The unrest came two years after Xi defined a “red line” for Hong Kong. He used the phrase in a 2017 speech in the city, warning that domestic threats to national sovereignty will not be tolerated.

Chinese security forces are better equipped to handle civil unrest than they were a generation ago. In 1989, it was the PLA that was sent in to smash student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It used the tools of war – battle tanks, armored vehicles and infantry.

In Hong Kong, the reinforcement includes equipment tailor-made for quelling urban violence with non-lethal force – including water cannon vehicles and trucks used to lay barbed-wire barricades. Additional transport helicopters have been moved into the city. Reuters reporters have seen these flying frequently around Hong Kong and its hinterlands, the New Territories, an observation confirmed by foreign envoys and security analysts monitoring developments here.

Other trucks, bearing military number plates, have been seen pre-loaded with street fortifications, at times moving about the city. Reuters reporters have tracked increased activity at many of the PLA’s 17 facilities across Hong Kong Island, its neighboring city of Kowloon and the rural New Territories. Most of these facilities were inherited by the PLA under agreement with the departing British forces during the 1997 handover.

Fatigues and other laundry can be seen hanging from the balconies of buildings that had lain dormant for years. Army buses and jeeps are parked in once-abandoned lots.

Some foreign analysts say China’s reinforced military presence was bigger than expected and appears to have been well-prepared. They say the size of the force means it is now far beyond the symbolic role traditionally played by the local garrison.

“They do seem to have an active contingency plan to deal with something like a total breakdown in order by the Hong Kong police,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I would think it would take something like that or some other worst-case scenario for them to deploy. But they are clearly more ready than before, and are leaving nothing to chance.”

So far, the expanded Chinese forces remain firmly within their barracks – a continuation of what has been an unobtrusive presence since the handover.

In 1997, trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers, some carrying flowers, rolled into Hong Kong within hours of Britain’s handover of its colony to Chinese rule. The sight sparked anxiety among politicians, activists and the public that still lingers. Beyond the occasional so-called open day, when the public gets access to the PLA barracks, the troops rarely interact with ordinary Hong Kongers.

Unlike forces on the mainland, soldiers within the Hong Kong garrison are not usually accompanied by their families. They are rarely allowed to socialize outside their bases; for news, they are given access to China’s state media.

“They live like monks,” said one Hong Kong-based mainland security specialist familiar with local PLA forces. “It is a vastly different deployment to anything on the mainland – almost akin to something they might experience on peacekeeping duties in Africa.”

The local Chinese security presence must be squared with handover guarantees that Hong Kong’s autonomy would remain for at least 50 years – including broad freedoms and an independent judiciary, which don’t exist in the rest of China.

Under the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, defense and foreign affairs are the sole responsibility of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. The document states that the PLA garrison “shall not interfere in local affairs,” but Hong Kong can request the garrison’s assistance to maintain public order. And garrison members must abide by local laws.

Chinese law, meanwhile, allows for the standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, to deploy the garrison if a state of war or emergency is declared for Hong Kong. The law cites “turmoil” that threatens national security and is “beyond the control of the (Hong Kong) government.”

ONE PRESENCE, TWO FORCES

The PLA garrison is commanded by Major-General Chen Daoxiang, who is shadowed by a political commissar, Major-General Cai Yongzhong. But neither officer, nor territory leader Lam, would have the authority to deploy the security forces. Any military clampdown on China’s freest and most international city would only be ordered by Xi’s powerful Central Military Commission, say local officials and foreign diplomats.

In June, garrison commander Chen told a visiting Pentagon official that Chinese troops would not interfere in the city’s affairs, according to people briefed on the discussion. U.S. officials at the time said they read the comment as an early signal that Beijing intended to keep them in their barracks.

Less is known about the command structure of the PAP forces in Hong Kong. Few residents of the city are even aware of their presence within existing PLA facilities.

From the early years of its revolutionary struggle against the Nationalists, the Chinese Communist Party fielded a range of paramilitary forces to guard the leadership and key headquarters. These forces assumed an internal security role after the Communists took power in 1949. The PAP was formed in 1982, as the paramount leader of the time, Deng Xiaoping, modernized and downsized the military after the Cultural Revolution. The PAP absorbed thousands of regular army troops.

Still, the PAP was poorly trained and equipped, with a fragmented command, when the 1989 Tiananmen protests threatened the party’s grip. China’s leaders had to call on army units to crush the protests with tanks and machine guns. The scenes of bloodshed on the streets of the Chinese capital were a blow to the party’s reputation. In the aftermath, the leadership reequipped and retrained the PAP in crowd-control operations.

Security analysts say the PAP’s budget has grown as the force has modernized, but figures are undisclosed. The government stopped revealing full domestic security spending numbers in 2014 – after the internal security budget had topped the fast-growing regular military budget for the previous three years.

In the restive region of Xinjiang, the PAP has been used heavily to counter what China describes as a terrorist threat from Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority. As many as a million Uighurs and Muslims from other ethnic groups have been incarcerated in prison camps, according to the United Nations. China counters that the facilities are vocational training centers to help stamp out religious extremism and teach new work skills.

“The PAP can be seen as a blunt instrument with the key function of suppressing domestic unrest,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired British defense ministry intelligence analyst who served as a Hong Kong security official until 1997. “Their role has been streamlined and their command sharpened under Xi.”

‘IT’S TOO RISKY’

The PAP also has been active in southern China, close to Hong Kong. PAP riot police have been sent to quell factory strikes and other labor unrest in the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s key manufacturing areas.

In 2011, before Xi came to power, PAP troops were deployed as part of the clampdown on Wukan. The southern coastal village drew international attention when residents threw up barricades against local authorities to protest land seizures. In a rare climbdown, the provincial government eventually dissolved the old village committee and allowed free elections. Many protest leaders were voted into office.

When fresh protests broke out in 2016, over a failure to resolve the land issues and other grievances, the PAP and other security forces were sent in again. This time, the response was harsher.

Video footage of the clashes was shown by villagers to a Reuters reporter who reached the area soon after the protests erupted. It showed locals hurling bricks at ranks of shield-carrying riot police. The troops used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. No deaths were reported. But a Reuters reporter on the scene observed several injured villagers, some with bloody head wounds.

In Hong Kong, Chinese military forces have been conducting anti-riot drills in their bases in recent weeks. Reuters reporters viewed one drill in late September from a public road near the PLA base in rural Tam Mei. They saw helmeted Chinese troops undergoing exercises, some armed with rifles, shields and batons. Inside the base were dozens of camouflaged armored personnel carriers, command jeeps, large bulldozers and trucks.

Reuters and foreign diplomats have also seen extra forces at the PLA headquarters in central Hong Kong, next to local government offices in the city’s Admiralty district. Protests have broken out repeatedly just meters from the PLA compound. Amid attempts by police to secure the area, protesters have at times hurled petrol bombs near the headquarters’ granite walls. Clouds of police tear gas have wafted into the compound.

So far, though, protesters haven’t targeted PLA bases directly, even as they have vandalized the national flag and other symbols of Chinese sovereignty.

“We don’t mess with the People’s Liberation Army,” said Leo Wong, a young protester, standing near the PLA headquarters during a late-September demonstration. “If we attacked the PLA, anything could happen. It’s too risky.”

(Reporting by Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

China says troops will defend Hong Kong’s prosperity ahead of planned pro-democracy march

Military vehicles of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) pass Huanggang Port for a routine troop rotation in Hong Kong, August 29, 2019. Xinhua via REUTERS

By Donny Kwok and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it described as a routine rotation of the garrison, days before protesters planned to hold a march calling for full democracy for the Chinese-ruled city after three months of demonstrations.

Chinese state media stressed the troop movement was routine and Asian and Western diplomats watching the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces in the former British colony had been expecting it.

Even so, the timing of the redeployment is likely to hit nerves in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region and has been hit by a wave of sometimes violent protests since June.

State news agency Xinhua said the military had completed a p rotation of air, land and maritime forces. It released pictures and footage of armored personnel carriers moving in convoy in Hong Kong before dawn, their lights flashing.

The PLA will make even greater contributions to maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, Xinhua cited its garrison in Hong Kong as saying.

Analysts estimate the garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong.

Trucks full of PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover which ended British rule, raising questions about their role. They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases.

Reuters witnesses on Thursday saw significantly more activity in and around the PLA’s Shek Kong military base in the rural New Territories than has been apparent in recent months.

About a dozen military jeeps inside the base could be seen just inside the base from a nearby public road, with several camouflaged soldiers milling about.

Four black civilian SUV’s drove between military buildings on a nearby hill road. Several larger green army trucks could be seen outside some buildings, flanked by guards.

Unrest in Hong Kong escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.

It has since evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula, which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary.

The protests have posed the biggest challenge for Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

China has denounced the protests and accused the United States and Britain of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong. It has sent clear warnings that forceful intervention is possible.

Hundreds of People’s Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong a day after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about their movements.

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People's Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said the timing of the troop rotation was similar to that of previous years to “meet the demands of defending Hong Kong”.

The protests have rattled Hong Kong’s business community, with Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> the biggest corporate casualty after Beijing demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who support, the demonstrations.

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) said Hong Kong faced an unprecedented test of the “one country, two systems” formula it has been ruled under since 1997.

“AmCham believes that Hong Kong still stands apart from its rivals in the region due to a combination of competitive advantages, including the rule of law, individual freedoms and its deep pool of talent,” it said in a statement.

“While these remain intact for now, they can no longer be taken for granted.”

‘CONFIDENT AND DETERMINED’

Defense Ministry spokesman Ren said the garrison troops would fulfill their obligation of defending Hong Kong according to the law and would follow the orders of the Communist Party.

They had the confidence, determination and capability to “protect and defend Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” he told a briefing in Beijing.

He did not answer a question on whether troop levels in Hong Kong had risen with the new deployment.

Ren said that the People’s Armed Police drills in Shenzhen were routine and that they conduct similar exercises every year.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous mass protests in Hong Kong, plans a rally from Hong Kong’s Central business district to Beijing’s main representative Liaison Office in the city on Saturday.

The group’s leader, Jimmy Sham, was attacked by two men armed with a knife and a baseball bat on Thursday, it said on its Facebook page. He was not hurt but a friend who tried to protect him suffered injuries to his arm.

Protesters targeted the Liaison Office, a symbol of Beijing’s rule, in July, daubing anti-China slogans on its walls and signs.

Police refused permission for the march on Thursday, but the group said it would appeal.

The protest would mark five years since Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong and comes as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, with all its pillars of growth under stress.

Beijing is eager to quell the unrest before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, when Xi will oversee a military parade in Beijing.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Greg Torode, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Nick Macfie, Editing by Robert Birsel and Angus MacSwan)