Protesters left on besieged HK campus weigh their options

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – At least eight protesters who had been holding out at a trashed Hong Kong university surrendered on Friday, while others searched for escape routes past riot police who surrounded the campus but said there was no deadline for ending the standoff.

The siege at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula appeared to be nearing an end with the number of protesters dwindling to a handful, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.

Police chief Chris Tang, who took up the post this week, urged those remaining inside to come out.

“I believe people inside the campus do not want their parents, friends … to worry about them,” Tang told reporters.

Those who remain say they want to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges, so hope to find some way to slip past the police or hide.

Sitting in the largely deserted campus, one holdout described how his girlfriend had pleaded with him to surrender to the police.

He had refused, he said, telling her she might as well find another partner because he would likely go to jail.

“A man has to abandon everything otherwise it’s impossible to take part in a revolution,” the protester told Reuters.

Another man sitting nearby agreed, saying it was just as well he was divorced because a “man with family cannot make it to here.”

The campus was so quiet on Friday you could hear the chants of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers exercising on their nearby base.

Many levels of the buildings look like abandoned rebel hideouts strewn with remains — rucksacks, masks, water bottles, cigarette butts, with security cameras smashed throughout. Lockers were stuffed with gas masks and black clothes, and a samurai sword lay on the ground where it was abandoned.

“We are feeling a little tired. All of us feel tired but we will not give up trying to get out,” said a 23-year-old demonstrator who gave his name as Shiba as he ate noodles in the protesters’ canteen.

A Reuters reporter saw six black-clad protesters holding hands walk towards police lines, while a first aid worker said two more surrendered later.

The protests snowballed from June after years of resentment over what many residents see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Protesters, who have thrown fire bombs and rocks and fired bows and arrows at police, are calling for full democracy and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other demands.

Police have responded to the attacks with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and occasional live rounds but say they have acted with restraint in life-threatening situations.

On Friday Hong Kong’s High Court said it would temporarily suspend its ruling that found a controversial law banning protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.

The court said it would suspend its ruling for seven days while appeals processes proceeded.

Beijing has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in its affairs and accuses foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were now making new weapons to protect themselves in case police stormed the campus.

There have been two days and nights of relative calm in the city ahead of district council elections that are due to take place on Sunday.

Tang said police would adopt a “high-profile” presence on Sunday and he appealed to protesters to refrain from violence so people feel safe to vote.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Alun John, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Writing by By Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia, Nick Macfie and Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation
By Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes killed 13 Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday, medical officials said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 23 over a two-day escalation in violence since Israel launched strikes to kill an Islamic Jihad commander.

From early morning Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck from the air, resuming after an overnight lull. There were reports of injuries but no deaths inside Israel, where the military said it shot many of the rockets down with air defenses.

The bodies of six people were brought to Gaza’s Shifa hospital in taxis and ambulances early Wednesday, as relatives wept and screamed. Medics and witnesses said they were civilians who lived in densely populated neighborhoods.

In the north of Gaza City, family members said Rafat Ayyad and his two sons Islam, 25, and Ameer, aged 9, were killed by Israeli fire while rushing to hospital to visit another son who had earlier been injured in a separate attack.

“I got wounded and I called my father. He was coming to see me in hospital and two of my brothers were with him on the motorcycle when they were hit by Israel,” Loay Ayyad, 18, told Reuters during the funeral.

The Israeli military said that it had struck at least five rocket squads on Wednesday morning. Other targets included a rocket warhead manufacturing facility, an Islamic Jihad headquarters and a weapons storage site. Islamic Jihad confirmed that two of its militants were killed in separate strikes.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS

The fighting, the worst in months, erupted on Tuesday after Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a senior commander of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, accusing him of masterminding and planning attacks against Israel.

In response to the killing of Atta and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming on Wednesday morning.

“We will not allow the enemy to return to the policy of cowardly assassination under any circumstances,” said a statement by the ‘Joint Command’ of Palestinian armed factions.

The joint command includes Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza. But while Hamas appeared to be giving the green light for Islamic Jihad to continue, the larger group did not appear to be launching rockets itself, a decision that could reduce the likelihood of the violence escalating further.

Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous confrontations and to avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, following three wars from 2008-2014. In the past Israel has held Hamas responsible for rockets fired by any group in Gaza, but this time it appeared to be avoiding Hamas targets.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday.

“The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.

SIRENS AND EXPLOSIONS

The rockets from Gaza sent Israelis rushing to shelters in towns near the Gaza border and deeper in the country, with air raid sirens going off as far north as Tel Aviv and missiles striking Israeli highways and towns.

The Israeli military assembled armored vehicles along the border with Gaza, though a ground incursion into the territory seemed unlikely at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, having killed the Islamic Jihad commander, was not interested in a broader conflict.

“We don’t want escalation, but we are responding to every attack against us with a very sharp attack and response. Islamic Jihad best understand that now rather than when it’s too late for it,” Netanyahu said.

In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day, as were schools in much of southern Israel.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew troops and settlements in 2005. The territory has been controlled since 2007 by Hamas while under an Israeli security blockade, also backed by Egypt. The blockade has wrecked Gaza’s economy, and the United Nations says its 2 million residents have only limited access to electricity, clean water and medicine.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)

How an Islamist preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools

How a preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso’s schools
By Tim Cocks

FAUBE, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – When an Islamist preacher took up the fight in Burkina Faso’s northern borderlands almost a decade ago, his only weapon was a radio station. The words he spoke kindled the anger of a frustrated population, and helped turn their homes into a breeding ground for jihad.

Residents of this parched region in the Sahel – a vast band of thorny scrub beneath the Sahara Desert – remember applauding Ibrahim “Malam” Dicko as he denounced his country’s Western-backed government and racketeering police over the airwaves.

“We cheered,” said Adama Kone, a 32-year-old teacher from the town of Djibo near the frontier with Mali, who was one of those thrilled by Dicko’s words. “He understood our anger. He gave the Fulani youth a new confidence.”

Mostly herders, young men like Kone from the Fulani people were feeling hemmed in by more prosperous farmers, whom they felt the government in Ouagadougou favored. The preacher successfully exploited their conflicts over dwindling land and water resources, and the frustrations of people angered by corrupt and ineffective government, to launch the country’s first indigenous jihadi movement. That cleared a path for groups affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Since Dicko’s first broadcasts, Burkina Faso has become the focus of a determined jihadi campaign by three of West Africa’s most dangerous armed groups who have carved out influence in nearly a third of the country, while much of the world was focused on the crisis in neighboring Mali. Militant Islamist fighters close schools, gun down Christians in their places of worship and booby-trap corpses to blow up first responders. At least 39 people died last week in an ambush on a convoy ferrying workers from a Canadian-owned mine in the country. There has been no claim for that ambush, but the modus operandi – a bomb attack on military escorts followed by gunmen unleashing bullets – was characteristic of Islamist groups. [nL8N27P0IA]

Since 2016, the violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 500,000 – most of them this year.

In 2019, at least 755 people had died through October in violence involving jihadist groups across Burkina Faso, according to Reuters’ analysis of political violence events recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO. Actual numbers are likely higher – researchers aren’t always able to identify who is involved in the violence.

The teacher Kone is one of many of Dicko’s former supporters who regret their earlier enthusiasm.

“We handed them the microphones in our mosques,” he said. “By the time we realized what they were up to, it was too late.”

He fled to Ouagadougou two years ago, after armed Islamists showed up at his school. More than 2,000 schools have closed due to the violence, the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF said in August.

A LOCAL CHANNEL

A lean, bespectacled Fulani from the north, Malam Dicko broadcast a message of equality and modesty. He reportedly died of an illness in late 2017, but his sermons channeled deep grievances in Burkina Faso’s north where impoverished people have long been frustrated by corrupt officials.

The province of northern Burkina Faso where Dicko lived scores 2.7 on the United Nations Human Development Index, compared with 6 for the area around the capital, Ouagadougou. About 40% of its children are stunted by malnutrition, against only 6% in the capital, according to U.S. AID.

From Ouagadougou to Djibo is a four-hour drive on a road which peters out into a sandy track. Sparse villages dot a landscape of sand and withered trees. Goats devour scrappy patches of grass.

Residents complain that their few interactions with the state tend to be predatory: Bureaucrats demand money to issue title deeds for houses, then never provide the papers; gendarmes charge up to $40 to take down a complaint; there are mysterious taxes and extortion at police roadblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Kanou Coulibaly, a military police squadron commander and head of training for Burkina Faso’s armed forces, acknowledged that northerners “feel marginalized and abandoned by the central government.”

In about 2010 preacher Dicko, who had studied in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, began tapping this discontent, recalled Kone and other former Djibo residents. He denounced corruption by traditional religious leaders and practices that he deemed un-Islamic, including lavish wedding and naming ceremonies.

The movement he created, Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam), opened a path to militants from outside Burkina Faso — particularly Mali.

Early in 2013, French forces were pounding northern Mali to wrest control from al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized the region the previous year. Dicko slipped over the border to join the militants, said Oumarou Ibrahim, a Sufi preacher who knew Dicko and was close to the No. 2 in his movement, Amadou Boly.

In Mali, Ibrahim said, Dicko linked up with Amadou Koufa, a fellow Fulani whose forces have unleashed turmoil on central Mali in recent years. French forces detained Dicko near the border with Algeria; he was released in 2015.

He set up his own training camp in a forest along the Mali-Burkina border, Kone, the teacher, and Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, told Reuters.

Dicko forged ties with a group of Malian armed bandits who controlled drug and livestock trade routes.

On the radio that year, he urged youths to back him, “even at the cost of spilling blood.”

“WHITES AND COLONIZERS”

For some years Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, had managed to keep good relations with Mali’s Islamists. But in 2014, he tried to change the constitution to extend his 27-year-rule. Residents of the capital drove him from office.

Without Compaore, Burkina Faso became a target. Barely two weeks into a new presidency, in January 2016, an attack on the Splendid Hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou killed 30 people. It was claimed by al Qaeda-linked militants based in northern Mali.

Dicko became even more radical after that: He fell out with associates including his No. 2, Boly.

Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, said Boly came to his house in Belhoro village in November 2016, agitated because Dicko had ordered him to raise cash to pay for AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers from Mali.

Boly refused. Dicko threatened him, Ibrahim said. Boly was either with him, “or with the whites and the colonizers.”

Two weeks later, gunmen assassinated Boly outside his Djibo home. Ibrahim said he fled his own village the next day.

The teacher Kone, whose house was down the street, said he heard the gunshots that day. A wave of killings followed. The militants assassinated civil servants, blew up security posts, executed school teachers.

One day in May 2017, Kone was running late for school when he got a phone call from a colleague. Armed men from Dicko’s movement had come and asked after him.

He shuttered the school and sped to Ouagadougou.

BOOBY TRAPS

Now headed by Dicko’s brother Jafar, Ansarul Islam was sanctioned by the United States in February 2018. None of its leaders could be reached.

It still controls much of Burkina Faso’s northern border areas but two other groups have also built a presence on the country’s borders, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara dominates along the eastern frontier with Niger. And Koufa’s Macina Liberation Front, which is closely aligned to al Qaeda, is active on the western border with Mali.

These spheres of influence can be loose: Fighters for all three are believed to cooperate with each other and with bandit groups.

Their attacks – including the kidnap and killing of a Canadian citizen in January claimed by Islamic State – are becoming more brutal. In one instance in March, a Burkinabe security official told Reuters, militants stitched a bomb inside a corpse and dressed it up in an army uniform, killing two medics – a technique used by Malian fighters.

Recent attacks on churches have killed about 20 people, and a priest was kidnapped in March.

The European Union and member states have committed 8 billion euros ($9 billion) over six years to tackling poverty in the region but so far, responses from Ouagadougou and the West have been predominantly military.

The United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali. Almost 200 members have been killed – its deadliest mission ever.

France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The United States has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite all this, Islamist violence has spread to places previously untouched by it, as tensions like those that first kindled support for Dicko intensify.

“You have a solution that is absolutely militarized to a problem that is absolutely political,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “The security response is not addressing these problems.”

CYCLE OF ABUSE

The fact that a large number of recruits are Fulani has triggered a backlash by other ethnic groups, and those who have fled northern Burkina Faso say they had scant protection.

One woman said gunmen on motorbikes attacked her village, Biguelel, last December. The gunmen accused her family of colluding with “terrorists” simply because they were Fulani. They torched her home and shot her husband and dozens of others dead, but she escaped.

The next day the woman, Mariam Dicko, and about 40 others went to a military police post in the nearby town of Yirgou. “They said it was over now, so they couldn’t help us,” said Dicko – a common surname in the country.

Kanou, the military police commander, acknowledged that troops were sometimes not present when needed. “But when patrols are being attacked, it’s more difficult,” he added. “We have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

As Western forces rely increasingly on their Sahel partners, rights groups and residents say they sometimes overlook abuses by locals. Four witnesses described to Reuters summary executions of suspected insurgents during search operations. These included an incident in the village of Belhoro on Feb. 3, in which security forces ordered nine men out of their homes and shot them dead, according to two women who saw the killings.

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 19 such incidents in a report in March, during which it says 116 men and boys were captured and killed by security forces. The government said the army is committed to human rights and is investigating the allegations. “In our struggle there will necessarily be innocent victims, not because we want to, but because we are in a tough zone,” Kanou said. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said America takes up any “mistakes” with the government.

In November 2018, Burkinabe forces raided the village home of a lab technician at a clinic in Djibo, accusing his 60-year-old father of being a terrorist, two friends of his told Reuters.

They killed the father in front of his son.

The following week, the technician, Jibril Dicko, didn’t show up for work. His phone went dead.

Neighbors said he had gone to join the jihad.

 

(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London and Thiam Ndaga in Ouagadougou; Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith)

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico

Bolivia seeks new leader as fallen Morales reaches Mexico
By Monica Machicao and Stefanie Eschenbacher

LA PAZ/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales landed in Mexico on Tuesday pledging to stay in politics as security forces back home quelled unrest over the long-serving leftist’s resignation and opponents sought an interim replacement to fill a power vacuum.

Thanking Mexico’s government for “saving his life,” Morales arrived to take up asylum in the country and repeated his accusation that his rivals had ousted him in a coup after violence broke out following a disputed election last month.

“As long as I am alive, we will remain in politics,” Morales told reporters in brief comments after disembarking the plane to be met by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

Dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt, Morales defended his time in government and said that if he were guilty any crime, it was to be indigenous and “anti-imperalist.”

Morales was then whisked away in a military helicopter, television footage showed. Mexican officials have not said where he will stay, citing security concerns.

Morales arrived in a Mexican Air Force plane from the central Bolivian town of Chimore, a stronghold of Morales supporters where the country’s first indigenous president retreated as his 14-year rule imploded.

The departure of Morales, the last of a wave of leftists who dominated Latin American politics at the start of the century, came after the Organization of American States declared on Sunday that there were serious irregularities during the Oct. 20 vote, prompting ruling party allies to quit and the army to urge him to step down.

Opposition lawmakers wanted to formally accept Morales’ resignation and start planning for a temporary leader ahead of a new vote. But their plans looked at risk as Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) said it would boycott the meeting.

Residents of the highland capital La Paz, rocked by protests and looting since last month’s election, said they hoped politicians would succeed in finally restoring order.

“Democracy has been at risk and hopefully it will be resolved today,” said resident Isabel Nadia.

Morales’ flight out was far from simple.

Takeoff was delayed, with supporters surrounding the airport, then the plane was denied permission to fuel in Peru, Ebrard said. So it stopped instead in Paraguay before arriving in Mexico City just after 11 a.m. local time (1700 GMT).

“His life and integrity are safe,” Ebrard said, tweeting a photo of Morales alone in the jet with a downcast expression, displaying Mexico’s red, white and green flag across his lap.

In a region divided along ideological lines over Morales’ fall, Mexico’s leftist government has supported his accusations of a coup.

In La Paz, roadblocks were in place after soldiers and police patrolled into the night to stop fighting between rival political groups and looting that erupted after Morales’ resignation.

The charismatic 60-year-old former coca leaf farmer was beloved by the poor when he won power in 2006.

But he alienated some by insisting on seeking a fourth term, in defiance of term limits and a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians voted against him being allowed to do that.

(For graphic on timeline, see https://graphics.reuters.com/BOLIVIA-ELECTION/0100B30L25D/bolivia.jpg)

(Reporting by Monica Machicao, Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Daina Beth Solomon, Julia Love and Diego Ore in Mexico City, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis)

Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police

Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police
By Kate Lamb and Josh Smith

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong’s Central financial district and at demonstrators on the other side of the harbour on Tuesday as a senior officer said the unrest had brought the city to “the brink of total breakdown”.

The clashes took place a day after police shot a protester at close range and a man was doused with petrol and set on fire in some of the worst violence in the Chinese-ruled city in decades.

More than 1,000 protesters, many wearing office clothes and face masks, rallied in Central for a second day during lunch hour, blocking roads below some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers and most expensive real estate.

After they had dispersed, police fired tear gas at the remaining protesters on old, narrow Pedder Street. Police made more than a dozen arrests, many pinned up on the pavement against the wall of luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co.

Police said masked “rioters” had committed “insane” acts, throwing trash, bicycles and other debris on to metro tracks and overhead power lines, paralysing transport in the former British colony. TV footage showed activists dropping heavy objects from overpasses on to traffic below, just missing a motorcyclist.

“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told a briefing, referring to the last two days of violence

The demonstrators have been protesting since June against what they believe to be meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to China from British rule in 1997. Tough police tactics in response to the unrest have also fuelled anger.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries including Britain and the United States for stirring up trouble.

STUDENTS DEMONSTRATE

As well as the protests in Central, the heart of the Asian financial hub on Hong Kong island, clashes also erupted in several places on the mainland.

Police fired tear gas at City University in Kowloon Tong and at Chinese University in the New Territories, where protesters threw petrol bombs and bricks at police.

Students in hard hats and gas masks had since morning been barricading City University. Activists, who had home-made shields, stockpiled bricks and petrol and nail bombs on bridges and other approaches.

They overran the campus and smashed up the adjacent Festival Walk shopping mall and set fires, including to a big Christmas tree.

Streets inside and outside the Chinese University campus entrance were littered with bricks, other debris and street fires as police tackled protesters to the ground.

The students were taking part in a heated exchange with the principal when clashes reignited, with police again firing volleys of tear gas and protesters throwing petrol bombs.

Protesters also threw petrol bombs from an overpass on to the highway linking the Northern New Territories with Kowloon, bringing traffic to a standstill in a haze of tear gas smoke.

Several students were wounded in the violence.

Police also fired tear gas in the town of Tai Po, where a truck was set on fire, and in the densely populated Kowloon district of Mong Kok, whose shopping artery Nathan Road has been the scene of many clashes.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said protesters were being selfish and she hoped that universities and schools would urge students not to take part in the demonstrations.

More than 260 people were arrested on Monday, police said, bringing the total number to more than 3,000 since the protests escalated in June. Schools and universities said they would close again on Tuesday.

DEADLY FORCE

The United States on Monday condemned “unjustified use of deadly force” in Hong Kong and urged police and civilians alike to de-escalate the situation.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged Britain and the United States not to intrude, saying: “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference.”

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks since 1997 but it has said it will crush any attempts at independence, a demand for a small minority of protesters.

Geng also said the Chinese government firmly supported Lam’s administration and the Hong Kong police in maintaining order and protecting citizens’ safety.

Yang Guang, spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said China condemned the dousing of the man with petrol and setting him on fire. He demanded that the person responsible be arrested as soon as possible.

Following Tuesday’s violence, the Hong Kong Jockey Club said all off-course betting centres would be closed ahead of Wednesday’s racing at Happy Valley, to ensure the safety of our employees and customers.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Meg Shen, Josh Smith, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Farah Master in Hong Kong and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam

Iraqis pour into streets for biggest protest day since Saddam
By Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis thronged central Baghdad on Friday demanding the root-and-branch downfall of the political elite in the biggest day of mass anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Five people died from injuries sustained overnight after security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters camped out in the capital’s Tahrir Square. At least 103 people were injured, police and hospital sources said.

Protests, in which 250 people have been killed over the past month, have accelerated dramatically in recent days, drawing huge crowds from across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides to reject the political parties in power since 2003.

Thousands have been camped out in the square, with many thousands more joining them by day. Friday, the Muslim main day of prayer, drew the biggest crowds yet, with many taking to the streets after worship.

By the afternoon tens of thousands had packed the square, condemning elites they see as deeply corrupt, beholden to foreign powers and responsible for daily privations.

Protests have been comparatively peaceful by day, becoming more violent after dark as police use tear gas and rubber bullets to battle self-proclaimed “revolutionary” youths.

Clashes have focused on the ramparts to the Republic Bridge leading across the Tigris to the heavily fortified Green Zone of government buildings, where the protesters say out-of-touch leaders are holed up in a walled-off bastion of privilege.

“Every time we smell death from your smoke, we yearn more to cross your republic’s bridge,” someone wrote on a nearby wall.

Amnesty International said on Thursday security forces were using “previously unseen” tear gas canisters modeled on military grenades that are 10 times as heavy as standard ones.

“We are peaceful yet they fire on us. What are we, Islamic State militants? I saw a man die. I took a tear gas canister to the face,” said Barah, 21, whose face was wrapped in bandages.

‘MINI-STATE’

In Baghdad, protesters had set up checkpoints in the streets leading into and surrounding Tahrir Square, redirecting traffic.

Young people swept the streets, many sang about the sit-in. Helmets and gas masks were now a common sight.

A woman pushed her baby in a stroller draped with an Iraqi flag while representatives from several Iraqi tribes waved banners pledging support for the protesters.

Mohammed Najm, a jobless engineering graduate, said the square had become a model for the country he and his comrades hope to build: “We are cleaning streets, others bring us water, they bring us electricity, they wired it up.

“A mini-state. Health for free, tuk-tuks transporting for free,” he said. “The state has been around for 16 years and what it failed to do we did in seven days in Tahrir.”

Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to clean water, electricity, health care or education. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in office for a year, has found no response to the protests.

‘EVIL BUNCH’

In his weekly sermon, top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned of “civil conflict, chaos and destruction” if the security forces or paramilitary groups crack down on the protests. And he gave an apparent nod to protesters who say the government is being manipulated from abroad, above all by Iran.

“No one person or group or side with an agenda, or any regional or international party, can infringe upon the will of Iraqis or force an opinion upon them,” Sistani’s representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Reuters reported this week that a powerful Iran-backed faction had considered abandoning Abdul Mahdi, but decided to keep him in office after a secret meeting attended by a general from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian security official confirmed the general, Qassem Soleimani, had attended Wednesday’s meeting, to “give advice”.

Many see the political class as subservient to one or another of Baghdad’s main allies, the United States and Iran, who use Iraq as a proxy in a struggle for regional influence.

“Iraqis have suffered at the hands of this evil bunch who came atop American tanks, and from Iran. Qassem Soleimani’s people are now firing on the Iraqi people in cold blood,” said protester Qassam al-Sikeeni.

President Barham Salih said on Thursday that Abdul Mahdi would resign if parliament’s main blocs agreed on a replacement.

Protesters say that wouldn’t be enough; they want to undo the entire post-Saddam political system which distributes power among sectarian parties.

“So what if (Abdul Mahdi) resigns? What will happen? They will get someone worse,” said barber Amir, 26.

There were protests in other provinces, with the unrest having spread across much of the southern Shi’ite heartland.

In the southern city of Diwaniya, roughly 3,000 people including many families with small children were out.

Earlier, protesters in oil-rich Basra tried to block the road leading to Majnoon oilfield and pitched a tent but operations were not interrupted, oil sources said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iraqi prime minister’s main backers agree to oust him

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi gives a televised speech in Baghdad,Iraq October 9, 2019. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

Iraqi prime minister’s main backers agree to oust him
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s two main backers have agreed to work to remove him from office as protests against his government gained momentum in Baghdad and much of the Shi’ite south only to be met with violence.

Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads parliament’s largest bloc, had asked Abdul Mahdi to call an early election. When the premier refused, he called on his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri to help oust him.

Amiri – who leads a parliamentary alliance of Iran-backed Shi’ite militia that holds the second-largest amount of seats in parliament behind Sadr’s alliance – issued a statement late on Tuesday agreeing to help oust the prime minister.

“We will work together to secure the interests of the Iraqi people and save the nation in accordance with the public good,” Amiri said in a statement.

Abdul Mahdi took office just a year ago after weeks of political deadlock in which Sadr and Amiri both failed to secure enough votes to form a government. They appointed Abdul Mahdi as a compromise candidate to lead a fragile coalition government.

Mass protests driven by discontent over economic hardship and corruption have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq. At least 250 people have been killed since the unrest started on Oct. 1.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Michael Perry)

Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home

Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home
By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

Hong Kong (Reuters) – “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.

We all met below the Lion Rock.”

– “Below the Lion Rock,” theme song for long-running Hong Kong drama series

From the top of Lion Rock, all of Hong Kong reveals itself: the sprawl of the Kowloon Peninsula directly below, the iconic Star Ferry plying the waters of Victoria Harbor, the moneyed heights of Hong Kong island beyond. Like a crouching beast, the craggy ridgeline stands guard over a city on edge.

In the shadow of the revered mountain rise huge monoliths, drab concrete tower blocks far removed from the glittering glass highrises of Hong Kong island’s steroidal skyline. Here, in a neighborhood of public housing estates called Wong Tai Sin, seemingly endless stacks of aging windows heave with drying laundry and hum with air conditioners sweating droplets onto the pavement below.

At night, the towers slowly light up, each window’s glowing rectangle framing a second glowing rectangle flickering with the latest soaps and news. Every evening, at exactly 6:30, many residents take part in a daily ritual: tuning in to the main newscast on broadcaster TVB for the latest on a political crisis raging in this former British colony now ruled by China.

Sparked by anger against a controversial extradition bill, protests spread through many of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, putting the city’s freedom-loving populace on a collision course with the local government, and China’s Communist Party leaders behind it.

Over the summer and autumn, millions have marched. Protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks at police, sprayed revolutionary graffiti on walls, burned Chinese flags and vandalized businesses linked to the world’s second-largest economy. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, arresting more than 2,600 people on charges including rioting.

The violence has also come to the concrete towers of Wong Tai Sin, home to tens of thousands of working-class families whose struggles are woven into the fabric and lore of Hong Kong’s global rise. And with the unrest has come a test of what Hong Kongers call “the Lion Rock spirit” – this city’s sense of community and grit in the face of hardship.

THE LION ROCK SPIRIT

Elaine Chan heard gunshots. She opened the window of her flat in Lung Kwong House, or Dragon Bright House, and smelled something vinegary. Her eyes and skin began to smart. Tear gas. She started coughing. “I felt like being sick,” said the 39-year-old office worker, who has spent most of her life in Wong Tai Sin.

Two days later, on August 5, clashes broke out again in Wong Tai Sin as hundreds of anti-government protesters dressed in black blocked roads as part of a citywide strike. Chan had just finished eating a bowl of rice noodles at a place in the Temple Mall when a group of youngsters ran past, fleeing riot police.

“Follow me,” she yelled, then guided them into her building’s communal area via a back staircase, keying in the passcode to the security door to let them through to safety.

Chan, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, felt indignant and maternal.

“We had to help them,” she said. “They were terrified.”

She’d seen video clips of police beating skinny teenagers, smashing batons over their bodies and heads. She wondered what the Hong Kong she’s known her whole life had come to.

“Some people say Hong Kongers no longer have the Lion Rock spirit,” Chan said. “The ’60s and ’70s immigrants are different. You felt that they were really striving for Hong Kong. Helping one another, with no airs. Hong Kong has lost this. It’s become zero now.”

Lion Rock speaks to the constantly fluctuating Hong Kong identity over decades of transformation, hardship and reinvention. Many locals revere the peak, in the way Japanese cherish Mount Fuji, or Parisians love Notre Dame cathedral. In recent years, the mountain has become a politically charged space, with banners including those in support of full democracy draped from the peak.

Back in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, began running a television series called “Below the Lion Rock.” Airing periodically for decades, it chronicled the lives of regular Hong Kongers as they worked their way out of poverty, touching on social issues. With diverse characters including a policeman, an odd-jobs man, an office worker and a bookseller abducted by Chinese authorities, the show seemed to illuminate part of Hong Kong’s essence, a kind of can-do spirit that had elevated it from almost nothing into one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

The title song, “Below the Lion Rock,” is an unofficial Hong Kong anthem, and hearing its Cantopop melody and we’re-in-this-together Cantonese lyrics can make normally stoic residents choke up, particularly older ones who suffered deprivation and grinding poverty.

“The impression it gives me is of being very small at the time, watching it on telly,” Chan said, her voice cracking, as she listened on a mobile phone to the opening refrain, “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.”

Today, she said, some people have criticized the protests because the unrest has disrupted the unfettered capitalism for which the city is famous.

“People only feel that this movement has meant they make less money, stops them from going to work,” she said. “Making money is most important.”

She has no time for that kind of thinking.

“The Lion Rock spirit is that no matter how tough things are, Hong Kong people will use each arm and each leg to help one another; if you can’t go on, I’ll help you. If I can’t make it, then you help me back. Real Hong Kong people still have this spirit. I really hope that I can pass this spirit to my next generation.”

MAINLANDERS IN HONG KONG

The only fully landlocked district in the city of 7.4 million, Wong Tai Sin extends along the flanks and approach of Lion Rock with a population of 420,000. Once a squatter area full of tin shacks and wooden shanties, the district was redeveloped by the then-British administration to provide affordable public housing blocks with elevators, running water and toilets to meet the chronic needs of a population that had been swelling with Chinese immigrants for decades.

The first of the modern public housing blocks in Wong Tai Sin, 15 of which are named after dragons, was built in 1982. Some had a then-innovative H-shaped design with open corridors to allow better ventilation and natural light. The apartments, some as small as 200 square feet, are utilitarian, with basic kitchens and bathrooms. Their doors are often left open to let in air, guarded only by concertina metal grilles.

Since the return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, more than 1 million people have arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China, but public housing hasn’t kept pace, meaning queuing times for flats are now over five years.

But for some new arrivals from the mainland, the housing crunch hasn’t mattered.

“It was like heaven on earth when I arrived,” said Chun Hui, a pork butcher at Wong Tai Sin’s Tai Shing Street wet market, a sprawling building crammed with stalls selling everything from pak choi to silver carp.

The 28-year-old came to Hong Kong 10 years ago from a coastal town in eastern Guangdong province after his mother married a Hong Kong man. “The people, the education, the politeness,” he said. “It was so civilized!”

Chun, who has a Japanese manga tattoo of Son Goku from the martial arts cult series “Dragon Ball” on his right forearm, gets to work every day at half past 5 in the morning, when he chops up several whole pig carcasses into cuts of meat for the day’s trade.

“Hong Kong is a good thing. The Hong Kong spirit, the mutual respect,” he said as a man flame-torched a pig’s head behind him.

He said soaring pork prices in China from African swine flu have made life more difficult and eroded his monthly income. He gets home around 8 p.m. and takes one day off a month to spend with his 5-year-old daughter.

He sees the protesters ultimately losing out.

“Hong Kong will become more mainlandized. But so what? We just need to fill our stomachs, wear warm clothes, have a job, buy a mobile phone. What more do you need?” he added, lighting up a cigarette and flicking the ash into a used Nescafe can.

All around him, locals wandered with red plastic bags of groceries, hailed loudly by stall owners and haggling back with equal volume.

Wong Tai Sin had long tended to vote for pro-Beijing candidates in local elections given its older populace and deep-rooted ties to patriotic Chinese political groups in the area. In Hong Kong, such China and government supporters are described as being in the “blue” camp. Yet the recent unrest has seen lots of residents turn against the police given the perceived excessive violence. They’ve shifted to the “yellow” camp of the protesters and democracy advocates, including those who supported the Occupy movement, which spearheaded pro-democracy protests in 2014.

Chun is troubled by this split. “The Lion Rock spirit is about unity. If a society isn’t unified, then the country will collapse,” he said.

He’s uneasy with the violence that has marked some demonstrations. “I feel that if you just protest with some violent individuals, including those who throw petrol bombs, I think this is very wrong,” he said.” I understand that they’re striving for something, but they shouldn’t do it this way.”

“THERE WILL BE TROUBLE”

Many Hong Kongers believe their city’s success is underpinned by not only geography, but also myth. A coastal city on the South China Sea, it has one of the best deep-water harbors in Asia, cradled between the hills of the Kowloon Peninsula to the north and the peaks of Hong Kong island to the south.

The ridgeline of Lion Rock runs uninterrupted down to the seas to the east and west of Kowloon. Nestled in these hills are believed to be the spirits of nine dragons, or Kau Lung, after which the Kowloon Peninsula was named.

“The lion guards over Hong Kong,” said Wai Nang-ping, 69, who has been a soothsayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple for more than three decades.

The temple is one of the most famous in the city, drawing visitors with its promises of luck, wealth and health. The Taoist place of worship has done a roaring trade with a flood of mainland Chinese tourists. The visitors shake fortune sticks that are then read by soothsayers such as Wai, who channels prophecies from the gods from a two-story collective of her fellow seers.

Their building was tear-gassed in the recent protests, and these days, the temple is half-empty as many Chinese stay away from the city given the unrest. The carpark is no longer crammed with tourist coaches, and it’s much easier to get a table for dim sum in the mall next door. Fewer people take selfies beside the sinuous dragons that twist all over the eaves, walls and columns of the temple or the 12 bronze statues of the animals of the zodiac, in anthropomorphized form, arrayed in a half-crescent in front of the public housing estate to the south.

“Lion Rock is very auspicious and has a strong spirit,” Wai said. “Hong Kong is a lucky place. But sometimes the environment changes, and this year, the feng shui has three jade stars coming to the south, so you have squabbles.

“Each year, the environment shifts and the fortune sticks change. Especially for the youth and boys, there will be more trouble.”

A POLICE OFFICER’S SON JOINS PROTESTS

On September 13, Wong Tai Sin residents celebrated the traditional mid-autumn festival at a piazza near the temple surrounded by swirls of incense smoke. The crowds linked arms, singing, holding lanterns.

“Liberate Hong Kong!” came the shouts of hundreds, followed by its paired refrain, “Revolution of our times!” These twin bursts of defiance carried above the roaring traffic on a highway near Wong Tai Sin Lower Estate and its cluster of 15 tawny-sided buildings.

Suddenly the crowd hushed and everyone looked up to a floodlit spot above where a young man in a yellow helmet and goggles held a trombone. He played a few wistful bass notes through his face mask, and the crowd began singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written by an anonymous composer over the summer that has galvanized protesters.

That same evening, Yan, the 17-year-old son of a policeman, climbed Lion Rock with four of his schoolfriends and thousands of other Hong Kongers. The Wong Tai Sin teenager set off at 7 p.m. and didn’t get home until 1 in the morning.

It was so packed at the summit, Yan said, that he couldn’t make it to the very top. Many people shone mobile phone flashlights and headlamps, giving the mountain a halo effect. Across the harbor, on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island, people also shone laser beams, creating a crisscrossing light show with the beams on Lion Rock. The Peak is a wealthy residential neighborhood, while Lion Rock is seen as an egalitarian symbol of the poor and striving in the city.

Hong Kong’s wealth gap is one of the biggest in the developed world. Hong Kong real estate is among the most expensive anywhere, making it difficult for youngsters to get on the home ownership ladder without being left with crippling lifelong mortgages – and feeding a sense of disillusionment in society.

So far, however, the protesters haven’t directed their ire at the city’s billionaire tycoons. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, started off as a penniless migrant from China and still commands respect in this capitalist haven, where even pensioners play the forex markets and the stock exchange.

Yan said the rich and poor came together that evening amid protests that have crossed economic divides. A recent poll of 613 protesters by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey backs him up, showing that demonstrators are fairly evenly split between those living in private apartments, who tend to have higher incomes, and those in public or subsidized housing, who tend to be working or lower-middle class.

“There were a lot of people that night. You can see Hong Kong people, above and below, are of one heart. They go up together and come down together; no one is left behind,” he said.

“It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I was moved, seeing lots of people on the same road going up the hill.”

Yan spoke on the condition that he be identified by his Chinese nickname to protect his father, who declined to talk for this story.

“I’m afraid of being arrested, as my dad works for the force,” he said. “If I’m arrested, it will create pressure for him, especially from his colleagues.”

His dad knows he joins the protests, with a rucksack bulging with kit: body armor, change of clothes and, to shield him from the tear gas, three gas masks, including a 3M 6800 full-face respirator with double filters that he bought on Amazon.

“We just don’t talk about politics,” he said with a shrug. “We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings.”

Yan said of his dad: “He understands that the government ignores people’s voices, and that it’s a good thing for the people to protest. But he doesn’t support violence.”

Yan doesn’t want independence – which China resolutely opposes – but he hopes for a brighter future.

“If we win, I hope young people can take over Hong Kong,” he said. “One day, the future belongs to us.”

A HOMEMAKER IS CHANGED BY THE UNREST

Ah Bi, a homemaker who grew up in Wong Tai Sin, was in the piazza on the evening of the mid-autumn festival. In the disarming euphoria of that night, she said, the protests had brought division, but also unity.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “There’s a connection between people.”

The protests had already changed Ah Bi’s life. On August 3, she was in the Temple Mall on Ching Tak Street with her 12-year-old daughter when a group of riot police blocked the road and shouted at passers-by. As she tried to get closer, she was pushed back and forced against the wall of the Wong Tai Sin Catholic Primary School.

“My daughter sprinted up the steps into the shopping center,” and the two were separated, she said.

A group of police special forces, known as “raptors” or “fast dragons” in Cantonese, charged at the crowds and grabbed a young man by his shirt and pressed him to the ground. The crowd began growing – and getting more agitated. “Black police!” and “Triads!” they yelled, likening the police to members of Hong Kong’s notorious organized criminal gangs, given their beatings of protesters.

When Ah Bi was finally reunited with her daughter and they had made it home, her hands were trembling as she put her daughter to bed. “The police didn’t used to be like this. What happened, mummy?” her daughter said, her head on the pillow.

Ah Bi went out into the streets again after her daughter was in bed, outraged by the actions of the police. She joined crowds outside the station, demanding they release those arrested.

“I prayed very late that night. I couldn’t sleep. We adults are not worried so much about our peace and safety but the future for our children. I want to do something for Hong Kong, to protect our home.”

Days later, Ah Bi did something unprecedented. On August 8, she joined a “citizens press conference” and spoke on behalf of the protest movement in a live broadcast beamed across the city and abroad. She has remained politically active since.

“My mum used to say I didn’t care about politics,” she said. “But that day, my personality changed.”

A RETIREE FEELS HELPLESS

A greater percentage of elderly people live in Wong Tai Sin than any other Hong Kong district. One in four people here are over 65.

Poon Wing-cheung, a retired electrician, lives near the top floor of the 28-story Lung Hing House, or Dragon Vigour House, with his wife and grown daughter. He has a steadfast daily routine: a brisk walk or run into Morse Park with its landscaped grounds and football pitches, followed by an afternoon nap on the sofa and a stroll over to the Tai Shing Street wet market. A contented man with a round Buddha’s face and ready smile, his eyes dance with delight at this simple pleasure.

The 65-year-old moved into Dragon Vigour House 34 years ago when it was first built. The city has changed, he said, but also remained unchanged in other ways. He paused, leaving these words to settle upon the mind.

He talked of politics in the abstract, and said he rarely turns on the television for news of the protests anymore because “they keep doing the same every day. What’s the use? There’s no point watching.”

Some afternoons, when no one else is home, he takes out his DVD of pop singer Roman Tam performing “Below the Lion Rock” from a shelf crammed with a selection of animated films like “Finding Nemo” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” He slips it in, takes out his karaoke mic and starts singing.

“There used to be a lot of things we were unhappy about with the government, but they can’t possibly agree to everything you want,” he said after one of the sessions. “It’s not about not striving for something, but you sometimes have to accept the bigger picture.”

Sitting in his flat with a wall full of family pictures Blu-tacked behind the sofa, he said: “Singing this song at this time seems to have some meaning. I feel a bit helpless somehow. I can’t think of what we should do, how to change things.”

He crossed his arms with a contemplative smile. “Can anyone figure out a way?”

LADY LIBERTY ATOP LION ROCK

The worst violence in months of protests flared on October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Across the city, 269 people were arrested, and a policeman shot an 18-year-old in the chest, an escalation that shocked the city.

In Wong Tai Sin, thousands blocked Lung Cheung Road, one of Kowloon’s key highway links, and battled riot police on the tarmac in front of the Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Yan, the cop’s son, stood a little farther back, extinguishing tear-gas canisters with bottles of water. Elaine Chan watched the smoky projectiles arc in the air toward the youngsters from a footbridge to the Temple Mall. Poon, the retired electrician, stayed home several hundred paces away in Dragon Vigour House. Ah Bi, the homemaker, watched the clashes from her flat overlooking the temple, and went down several times to join the crowds occupying Lung Cheung Road. Chun, the butcher, had been at work at his pork stall since before dawn.

Nearly two weeks later, as the change in weather brought the first of the autumn birds down from the north, a group of protesters hatched a plan. Meeting at midnight at a temple on the lower slopes of Lion Rock, the masked men stood like ninjas in the shadows. Before long, a truck arrived with the cargo they would hoist to the summit.

The men made their way up steep and winding mountain paths, their headlamps flickering upon the dismembered parts of a giant statue known as “Lady Liberty.” The statue, which had been displayed on university campuses and at various protests, was heavy, so the men had dismantled her to make the climb easier. In small teams, they carried her legs, her torso and her upraised arm through the scrubby slopes, then over the craggy ridgeline until they came to the very head of the lion. There, the glowing rectangles of the windows of Wong Tai Sin spread below them.

One of the men, a Wong Tai Sin resident, talked about wanting to create a new Lion Rock spirit. “We feel that it’s not enough to just try hard in life. You also have to care about society,” he said. “This new Lion Spirit is to fight against injustice, and for all of society to strive for freedom.”

As they struggled to tether Lady Liberty with metal struts and wires, the four-meter-high symbol of the protest movement began to sway. They drilled into the granite with power tools in the howling winds of a sudden thunderstorm, and eventually managed to secure it. Then, at dawn, the weather cleared and the statue could be seen from afar, a beacon atop Lion Rock.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; edited by Kari Howard)

IOM suspends some Ebola screening after three aid workers killed in South Sudan

IOM suspends some Ebola screening after three aid workers killed in South Sudan
By Denis Dumo

JUBA (Reuters) – The U.N. migration agency has suspended some screening services for Ebola after three of its aid workers were killed in South Sudan, the latest deadly incident involving relief staff in the violence-ridden country.

In a statement, the International Organization for Migration said the workers – two men and one woman – were hit by crossfire during clashes between rival armed groups in the country’s central Equatoria region.

It said the IOM had stopped screening for Ebola at five border points between South Sudan, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, where an ongoing outbreak of the haemorraghic fever has killed thousands of people.

The dead woman’s four-year-old son was abducted along with another local female IOM volunteer during the armed clash, the IOM said. Two other male volunteers were injured, including one who is recovering from a gunshot wound.

Humanitarian workers are often targeted by rebels operating in South Sudan, which has been in the grip of war that first broke out in late 2013 between soldiers allied to President Salva Kiir and those of his former deputy Riek Machar. Last year, 10 aid workers went missing in Yei, in the same region.

“We …reiterate that humanitarians and civilians are not and should never be subjected to such heinous acts of violence – we are not a target,” IOM Director General António Vitorino said.

It was not clear who was behind the latest fighting.

In the past, government forces have clashed in the region with fighters from the rebel National Salvation Front, led by renegade former General Thomas Cirillo Swaka, who is not a party to a peace deal signed last year by Kiir and Machar.

Lul Ruai Koang, the government’s military spokesman, said that on the day of the attack Cirillo’s fighters had targeted a government position, and that one soldier was killed along with nine from Cirillo’s side.

“If they (National Salvation Front) went and killed the aid workers, this is what I do not know. But the attack on our defense positions didn’t involve any humanitarian workers,” Koang said.

The National Salvation Front was not immediately reachable to comment on the killings.

(Reporting by Denis Dumo with additional reporting and writing by George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies
By Jon Nazca, Jordi Rubio and Isla Binnie

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid.

The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia. Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running.

The interior ministry has dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

“Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organised … by groups who are a minority but are very organised,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. “Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished.”

Some masked youths hurled stones at police late in the afternoon on one city street, but the vast majority of Friday’s rallies were peaceful, with Barcelona’s broad boulevards packed with people draped in the Catalan independence flag.

“We have always been peaceful people, but you get to a point where you get treated in such a way that people are getting angry,” said Carlota Llacuna, a 19-year old student from the Maresca region near Barcelona. “They put our leaders in prison.”

One of the main ringleaders, Catalonia’s former chief Carles Puigdemont, has so far escaped trial after he fled to Belgium in 2017 when the independence drive was thwarted.

Spain this week renewed its bid to get him extradited and he was briefly detained by Belgian police on Friday before a judge ordered his release pending a decision on the Spanish arrest warrant. A court is meant to hear the case on Oct. 29.

EL CLASICO POSTPONED

Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic because of Friday’s marches, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was closed due to the protests, an official told Reuters.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona’s Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, which is known as “el clasico” and is one of the biggest rivalries in world sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport cancelled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers had been set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).

In an apparent effort to hamper the protesters, a Spanish judge ordered on Friday the closure of web pages linked to a pro-independence group, Democratic Tsunami, which has been deftly directing its followers to various demonstrations.

However, as soon as its site was shuttered, the group migrated its homepage to a new url, sidestepping the ruling.

Democratic Tsunami is a new, secretive group that emerged in September and has drawn thousands of followers on both its website and social media.

Although it says it is committed to non-violent protests, many young demonstrators have battled police over the past three nights in Barcelona in scenes reminiscent of the some of the urban unrest that has rocked France over the past year.

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said 42 people needed medical attention.

(Reporting by Jose Elías Rodríguez, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ashifa Kassam, Emma Pinedo and Paola Luelmo in Madrid, Andrea Ariet Gallego; Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)