Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 indicated the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel of independent investigators, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide”.

A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.

At a news conference in Myanmar on Friday, military spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi called the accusations “groundless” and based on “talking stories”.

“I cannot read out what they mentioned in their report, because it is not suitable to say in front of women in polite society,” he said.

Myanmar has laws against sexual assault, he added, and soldiers were warned against it at military schools.

“If you look at these experts, don’t they know our country’s law or respect it?” he asked.

The Myanmar government has refused entry to the U.N. investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.

In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.

“The mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.

The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”

It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”

“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the panel said.

The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list to be given to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another U.N. inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

Protesters clash in Hong Kong as cycle of violence intensifies

Protesters clash with riot police during a protest against police violence during previous marches, near China's Liaison Office, Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By James Pomfret and Simon Gardner

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police clashed with thousands of protesters on Sunday, as they sought to defend China’s main representative office from crowds seething over what many see as an increasing cycle of violence against them.

Protests over the past two months spearheaded by anti-government activists against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited from the city to stand trial in courts in mainland China have grown increasingly violent.

A march on Saturday against an assault the previous weekend by suspected triad gang members ended in violent turmoil as riot police waded in to disperse crowds.

On Sunday, a peaceful gathering in a park in the city’s central business district rapidly morphed into a march, as tens of thousands of black-clad protesters set off in several directions, clogging up major thoroughfares.

Thousands of people headed east, toward the shopping district of Causeway Bay, while another large contingent headed west, toward the Chinese government’s representative office, known as the Central Government Liaison Office.

There, hundreds of riot police blocked activists from advancing toward the building, which had been heavily fortified with barricades after it was surrounded and defaced a week earlier. A clear plastic shield had been erected around a national emblem above its front doors.

As the crowds surged, hundreds of riot police with shields advanced, firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon – at protesters, sending clouds of acrid, burning smoke through the streets.

Some protesters were on their knees choking as ambulances raced to take away the injured.

The mostly young activists in hard hats, gas masks and body armor dug in, dismantling street signs and fences which they used to form makeshift barricades to slow police advances.

Many hit metallic surfaces with sticks to create an ominous drumbeat that echoed down the streets.

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“AGE OF REVOLUTION”

China’s Liaison Office, a potent symbol of Beijing’s rule over the city since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, has become a target for growing ranks of increasingly emboldened youngsters, angry at China’s tightening grip on the city’s freedoms.

Under a “one country, two systems” formula instituted as part of China’s sovereignty, the city was promised wide-ranging freedoms denied citizens in mainland China.

“We call this Hong Kong’s age of revolution,” said a masked protester who called himself K Lee. “This movement has been sparked by China’s refusal to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the failure of authorities to listen to the people’s voice.”

After multiple weekends of unrest, the protests have continued to draw large and apparently growing ranks of protesters in increasingly violent stand-offs.

Protesters responded to police with bricks, eggs and slingshots, as well as home-made gas canisters and paintballs.

Last Sunday, protesters took police by surprise with a swoop on the Liaison Office, scrawling graffiti and throwing paint bombs at walls, the national emblem and a plaque. Chinese officials described the vandalism as an attack on China’s sovereignty that would not be tolerated.

“I have no words for Xi Jinping, he is very arrogant in his belief in communism,” said a university student who called herself Miss Ho, referring to the Chinese president. “He is taking away our freedom, and that is something we cannot bear.”

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the violent protests over the proposed legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China were an “undisguised challenge to the formula under which it is ruled.

‘STOP VIOLENCE’

Many of the marchers on Sunday chanted slogans against the police. Some held banners reading: “We rise as one, we fight as one” and “Stop violence”.

The protests have brought the most serious political crisis to Hong Kong since it returned to China, and have posed an increasingly delicate national security headache for China’s Xi at a time of trade tensions with the United States and a slowing Chinese economy.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition law has taken on broader demands. They include the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam, calls for full democracy and an independent inquiry into what some say has been excessive police force against protesters.

Lam has so far refused to accede to any of the demands.

The protesters appeared to be getting more organized and willing to use violence to achieve their aims. On Sunday, activists said they hoped to stretch the police by splitting their marches.

“The police usually surround us and we have nowhere to go. So we adjust our strategy this time. This is much more fluid and flexible,” protester Edward Ng said.

As riot police advanced at the end of the night from several fronts, the protesters, hemmed in and unable to see a way out, began streaming down into the Sheung Wan underground metro station.

The black-clad protesters clambered onto and filled a passenger train, chanting “Free Hong Kong. Age of Revolution”, in an orderly retreat. Many changed out of their black shirts, then changed trains, and vanished into the night.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam and Sijia Jiang; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel, Janet Lawrence and Dale Hudson)

Chinese official urged Hong Kong villagers to drive off protesters before violence at train station

FILE PHOTO: Men in white T-shirts and carrying poles talk to riot police in Yuen Long after attack on anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station in Hong Kong, China, July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By James Pomfret, Greg Torode and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A week before suspected triad gang members attacked protesters and commuters at a rural Hong Kong train station last Sunday, an official from China’s representative office urged local residents to drive away any activists.

Li Jiyi, the director of the Central Government Liaison’s local district office made the appeal at a community banquet for hundreds of villagers in Hong Kong’s rural New Territories.

A front view of the village of Nam Pin Wai, where groups of suspected attackers at the Yuen Long train station were surrounded by police, in Hong Kong, China July 23, 2019. REUTERS/James Pomfret

A front view of the village of Nam Pin Wai, where groups of suspected attackers at the Yuen Long train station were surrounded by police, in Hong Kong, China July 23, 2019. REUTERS/James Pomfret

In a previously unreported recording from the July 11 event obtained by Reuters, Li addresses the large crowd about the escalating protests that have plunged Hong Kong into its worst political crisis since it returned to Chinese from British rule in 1997.

Li chastises the protesters, appealing to the assembled residents to protect their towns in Yuen Long district and to chase anti-government activists away.

“We won’t allow them to come to Yuen Long to cause trouble,” he said, to a burst of applause.

“Even though there are a group of protesters trained to throw bricks and iron bars, we still have a group of Yuen Long residents with the persistence and courage to maintain social peace and protect our home.”

Repeatedly, Li spoke of the need for harmony and unity between the traditional villages and the government, “especially when there is wind and rain in Hong Kong”.

The banquet was attended by a Hong Kong government district officer, Enoch Yuen, and many of the city’s rural leaders.

Responding to Reuters’ questions to Yuen, a spokesman for the Yuen Long district office said it had no comment on the remarks of other speakers.

“District offices would relay local information and concerns gathered to other departments, as appropriate,” he added.

Last Sunday, after anti-government protesters marched in central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office, over 100 men swarmed through Yuen Long train station, attacking black-clad protesters, passers-by, journalists and a lawmaker with pipes, clubs and lampstands.

When some protesters retaliated, the beatings escalated as men and women were hit repeatedly on their heads and bodies by the masked men, who wore white shirts.

Video footage showed victims fleeing the mayhem amid screams, and floors of the train station streaked with blood. Forty-five people were injured, one critically.

China’s Liaison Office did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about Li’s speech, and Li could not be reached for comment.

Johnny Mak, a veteran Democratic Alliance district councilor in Yuen Long who witnessed the train station bloodshed, said he believed Li’s remarks had been an explicit call to arms against protesters.

“If he didn’t say this, the violence wouldn’t have happened, and the triads wouldn’t have beaten people,” he told Reuters in his office close to the station.

Ching Chan-ming, the head of the Shap Pat Heung rural committee which hosted the banquet that night, said he thought Li’s speech was positive and held no malicious intent.

“How could he (Li) make such an appeal like that?,” Ching told Reuters. “I don’t think it was a mobilization call. His main message is that he hopes Hong Kong can remain stable and prosperous.”

TRIADS

The protesters are demanding Hong Kong’s leader scrap a controversial extradition law that many fear will extend China’s reach into the city.

The government’s refusal to do so – it has agreed only to suspend the bill so far – have led to two months of sometimes violent demonstrations across the city.

Beyond the extradition bill, many activists are demanding independent inquiries into the use of police force against them, and far-reaching democratic reforms – anathema to Beijing’s leaders.

China’s Foreign Ministry Office in Hong Kong said earlier this week that “the recent extreme and violent acts in Hong Kong have seriously undermined the foundation of the rule of law … and trampled on the red line of “One Country, Two Systems” which underpins Beijing’s control of Hong Kong.

Two senior police sources told Reuters some of the men who attacked the protesters had triad backgrounds including from the powerful Wo Shing Wo, Hong Kong’s oldest triad society, and the 14K, another large, well-known triad.

Police spokespeople didn’t respond to Reuters questions about triad involvement or any aspect of their operation that night.

While Hong Kong’s triads – ancient secret societies that morphed into mafia-style underworld operations – no longer hold the high profile of previous decades they remain entrenched in some grittier districts and in rural areas, according to police.

Police told reporters in 2014 during the so-called “Occupy” democracy protests, that hundreds of triad members were suspected of mounting operations to infiltrate, beat and harass those in the movement. Several dozen people were arrested at the time.

NO POLICE IN SIGHT

Within hours of Sunday’s violence, police bosses battled criticism they had failed to protect the public given delays getting to the scene.

Police commissioner Stephen Lo said there had been a need to “redeploy manpower from other districts”.

Democratic Party district councilor Zachary Wong said Li’s message was having an impact in the days leading up to Sunday’s violence and he had received repeated calls from associates a day earlier saying something was brewing.

Wong said he called local police on Saturday, and then again on Sunday at 7pm when he heard of men gathering in a Yuen Long park.

“Some people called me and said, ‘We’re really scared, please do something,” Wong told Reuters.

Both Mak and Wong said they were told by police they were aware of the situation and were handling it.

During this time, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was filmed laughing and shaking hands with some of the men in white shirts near the park. Giving them the ‘thumbs up’ sign, he said: “You are my heroes”. The men laughed and cheered in response.

Ho later told reporters he had no knowledge of or involvement in the violence but was merely reaching out to his constituents.

Ho was not immediately available at his office and could not be reached on his mobile telephone.

Several hours later, when the most violent assaults took place at the train station, there were still no police present to prevent the bloodshed.

“It doesn’t make sense that for many hours, there wasn’t a single police car in sight,” said Mak.

Two senior police officers involved in controlling demonstrations and a senior government security official told Reuters privately they were incensed at public perceptions the police somehow acted in concert with triads at Yuen Long.

After the attacks in Yuen Long train station, some of the assailants fled to the traditional walled village of Nam Pin Wai nearby.

There, riot police and other officers surrounded and questioned scores of men in white shirts for several hours, live media coverage showed.

Sometime after 4 a.m., the men in white began to leave. No arrests were made at the time, although a dozen men have since been arrested, police said in a statement.

A police commander told reporters at the scene that no arrests were made as the police could not prove the men were the assailants, and no weapons were found.

Public anger over the incident has built in the days since, and tens of thousands of people are expected to march through Yuen Long on Saturday.

A rare open letter signed by a group of civil servants criticized authorities’ handling of the violence.

“The police’s lack of response on July 21 had made people suspect the government colluded with triads,” wrote a group of 235 civil servants from 44 government departments, including the police force.

“This had not only caused citizens to lose confidence in the police, but also made civil servants suspect that the government departments are not aimed to serve citizens faithfully.”

At a news conference, Police Commissioner Lo denied any collusion between his force and triads but acknowledged the need to restore public confidence.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Vimvam Tong; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Murders in Mexico surge to record in first half of 2019

FILE PHOTO: People stand near bullet casings on the ground at a crime scene after a shootout in the municipality of Tuzamapan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, Mexico, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Yahir Ceballos/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Murders in Mexico jumped in the first half of the year to the highest on record, according to official data, underscoring the vast challenges President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces in reducing violence in the cartel-ravaged country.

There were 14,603 murders from January to June, versus the 13,985 homicides registered in the first six months of 2018, according to data posted over the weekend on the website of Mexico’s national public security office.

Mexico is on course to surpass the 29,111 murders of last year, an all-time high.

For years Mexico has struggled with violence as consecutive governments battled brutal drug cartels, often by taking out their leaders. That has resulted in the fragmentation of gangs and increasingly vicious internecine fighting.

Veteran leftist Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, has blamed the economic policies of previous administrations for exacerbating the violence and said his government was targeting the issue by rooting out corruption and inequality in Mexico.

“Social policies are very important – we agree they’ll have positive effects. But these positive effects will be seen in the long term,” said Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory, a civil group that monitors justice and security in Mexico.

The complexity of fighting criminal groups is a major test for Lopez Obrador’s young administration, which has vowed to try a different approach than that of his predecessor.

His administration last month launched a new militarized National Guard police force tasked with helping to fix the problem.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward; Editing by Dan Grebler)

From ‘Asia’s finest’ to ‘black dogs’: Hong Kong police under pressure

FILE PHOTO: Riot police ask anti-extradition bill protesters to leave in front of public housing after a march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s vaunted police force is facing a crisis of confidence and leadership amid the city’s worsening political tensions, according to serving and retired officers, politicians and security analysts.

The force is struggling to cope amid haphazard decision-making, worsening morale and anger among rank-and-file officers that they are taking the public heat for government unpopularity, they warned.

“The lower ranks are feeling lost and confused,” said one retired officer who remains in close touch with former colleagues. “There is clearly a lack of leadership at key moments and a sense that there is not enough support from the government and that is having an impact on commanders.”

A police statement to Reuters did not respond directly to questions about morale and concerns among officers, but said: “violent protests seriously undermine the rule of law”.

“The police, with the mission of upholding the law of Hong Kong, would definitely stand at the forefront to maintain public safety and order,” the statement said.

As the street-level face of the government during protests, police say they are easy targets for public rage, but protesters say they have used excessive force at times and their surveillance tactics are heavy-handed.

Britain handed the global financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its wide freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest, would be maintained.

Huge street protests last month against a bill to allow people to be sent for trial in mainland China have evolved into almost daily demonstrations.

Though the city’s government insists the bill is now effectively dead, activists continue to demand that it is formally scrapped, and are also calling for independent inquiries into police actions, democratic reforms and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

RUNNING SKIRMISHES

Two initially peaceful protests at the weekend degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding riot police and activists, one in a suburban shopping mall crowded with Sunday shoppers.

The fights followed larger outbreaks of violence between police and protesters in central Hong Kong last month, with police forcing back activists with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.

Thousands surrounded the police’s headquarters a few days later, trapping senior force brass and junior officers inside the building for several hours.

Another senior serving officer said the fact that there was no apparent end in sight to Hong Kong’s political tensions was further fuelling uncertainty across the 30,000-strong force.

“We are in uncharted waters….no one knows where this is going,” he said.

A police union covering some 20,000 junior officers wrote to force chiefs this week to seek fresh guarantees their safety and mental health would be protected. Officers should not be deployed to dangerous situations unless management had “confidence in the conditions, including tactics and equipment”, the letter said.

Beyond a small core of activists who are increasingly prepared to fight police with umbrellas, hard hats and street furniture, some officers are expressing shock at the verbal abuse they are facing during even small, peaceful gatherings.

In recent days, Reuters witnesses have seen groups of police routinely sworn at and cursed by commuters, with some calling them “black dogs”. Others have chased away plainclothes officers taking photographs.

A Wikipedia page on the force was apparently hacked this week, with the phrase “black dogs” inserted.

It marks a swift change, with Hong Kong police long priding themselves on being “Asia’s finest” given the city’s international reputation for public safety and order, and strong working relationships with foreign police agencies.

After battling leftist rioting in the 1960s and institutionalized corruption in the 1970s, force chiefs worked hard to improve training and boost its reputation for professionalism.

Police stand guard at Hong Kong's tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Police stand guard at Hong Kong’s tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

WORSENING TENSIONS

Veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To said he was deeply concerned at the worsening tensions between the police and the public.

To said he was aware that many police felt angry they were “shouldering the blame” for the incompetence of the government. He was worried too that public anger towards law enforcers had reached a level never before seen in the city.

“This a very worrying turn of events and if the government cannot solve things politically, then they should give clear guidance to the police,” said To.

Steve Vickers, a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who now runs a risk consultancy, said it was critical that force morale be sustained and improved “so that they can have confidence that they will not be ‘thrown under a bus’ by Carrie Lam’s administration should they take necessary firmer action.”

He said the government should allow the police to use tear-gas more freely so they can disperse violent groups more safely than using baton charges. “Batons and hand-to-hand fighting always results in serious injury,” he said.

Lam’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions.

If tensions continued to worsen and Hong Kong police struggled to maintain order, some foreign security analysts believed Beijing could be tempted to deploy the mainland’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police to Hong Kong.

While neither governments had any appetite to deploy locally-based Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops, the PAP could be an interim measure, they said.

The PAP is a dedicated anti-riot force that is now under the sole command of China’s Central Military Commission and has units based across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, according to Chinese media reports.

The Chinese Defence Ministry did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

To, the lawmaker, said he believed deploying the PAP would still be a too-dramatic move and would not be acceptable to either the Hong Kong police or the public.

(Reporting By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)

‘They want to kill you’: Anger at Syrians erupts in Istanbul

Syrian shopkeeper Ahmed is pictured at his shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – At 2 am, one Saturday night, Syrian brothers Mustafa and Ahmed were at home hunched over a screen watching live black and white security camera footage of men destroying their clothes shop in Istanbul.

They watched as a small group of Turkish men broke their glass storefront, ripped up Arabic leaflets and signs and set them alight. A few men stood back and stared up at the camera before a hand flashed in front of it and destroyed it, and the screen went black.

Mustafa, 22, and Ahmed, 21, frantically called a Turkish grocer who runs the store next door, to tell him they were on their way to the shop to stop it being burned down. “He told us: Don’t come, they want to kill you,” said Ahmed.

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Their store and other Syrian properties were targeted in the Kucukcekmece district of western Istanbul on the night of Saturday, June 29, one of the occasional bouts of violence which Syrians say erupt against them in Turkey’s largest city.

Such large-scale clashes are rare, with only one other big attack happening this year, also in western Istanbul, in February. Small incidents are more frequently shared by Syrians on social media, and some fear tensions are on the rise.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the Kucukcekmece attackers, but not before they destroyed many of the district’s Syrian stores and tore down Arabic signs.

The area has one of the higher concentrations of Syrians in the city, and Arabic signs are commonplace for shops’ local Syrian customers.

Mustafa and Ahmed waited until the crowd thinned out, and then went back. “We couldn’t go until 5 or 6 in the morning. We emptied out half the merchandise, and waited a couple of days until things calmed down.”

“SYRIANS, GET OUT”

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, the largest population of Syrians displaced by the 8-year civil war, and Istanbul province alone has over half a million, according to Turkey’s interior ministry.

Turkey’s own stumbling economy and rising unemployment has fueled anger against their presence, and many are resented by Turks as cheap labor taking over jobs and using services.

That has led President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which opened its borders to Syrians when the conflict first erupted in 2011, to increasingly highlight the number of Syrians it says have returned to northern Syrian areas now controlled by Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies.

Last week, state-owned Anadolu Agency said nearly 80,000 Syrians returned in the first half of 2019. That number is still only a small fraction of the refugee population in Turkey, many of whom aim to build a new life in Turkey.

Erdogan’s political opponents have criticized him for allowing in so many refugees, and even the new opposition mayor of Istanbul – who campaigned on a ticket of inclusiveness – has said Turks are suffering because of the Syrian influx.

“We will make an effort to create a basis for Syrian migrants to return to their homeland, their free homeland,” Ekrem Imamoglu told Reuters last month.

“Otherwise, we will have some security concerns that would really trouble us all, and there would be street clashes.”

On the night that Imamoglu won the mayoralty, a hashtag spread across social media – “Suriyeliler Defoluyor”, roughly meaning “Syrians, Get Out”.

BROKEN SIGNS, DOORS AND CAMERAS

On June 30, a few blocks away from the brothers’ shop, two Syrians who work next door to each other at a gold store and an electronics shop heard that a mob was attacking Syrian shops.

“We packed up quickly and left,” one of the electronics shop employees, who asked for his name not be used, told Reuters a few days after the incident.

Speaking Arabic with an Aleppo accent, he waved his hand at the empty glass case in front of him. “I usually have phones displayed here, but until now we’re a bit afraid. We’re not showcasing our merchandise because the situation isn’t stable.”

The mob destroyed the gold store’s glass storefront, despite the metal shutters that were drawn down. The electronics shop’s security camera, signs and lights were smashed.

Days later, the signs remained broken. The shopkeepers plan to put up new signs in Turkish, both to protect themselves and because Istanbul’s governor announced last week that shops must ensure at least 75% of signage is in Turkish, not Arabic.

Following the Kucukcekmece attack, Istanbul’s police headquarters said they captured five suspects linked to social media accounts that put out the hashtags “Syrians Get Out” and “I Don’t Want Syrians in My Country”.

Police also said an investigation found a messaging group with 58 members was responsible for inciting the clashes in Kucukcekmece, and 11 members have been detained as investigations continue. Syrians expressed relief that police were acting.

“We are staying, we can’t give up or anything,” said Mustafa. “We can’t close up, how would we live?”

Most shopkeepers said they hoped that things will not get worse and that changing their signs to Turkish will ease tension. Some said the clashes were occasional waves of anger which did not represent how most Turks feel toward Syrians.

“Here it’s like a volcano: every five or six months we have an explosion,” said one customer.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alexandra Hudson)

Exclusive: Colombian armed groups recruiting desperate Venezuelans, army says

FILE PHOTO: People walk along a pathway near the Colombian-Venezuelan border on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

ARAUCA/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuela’s crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.

Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.

Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.

Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia’s eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.

“Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening,” said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia’s eastern border state of Arauca. “The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It’s a major threat to Colombia.”  

Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.

Reuters was not able to independently verify these figures.

The head of Colombia’s military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.

At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.

Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia’s rugged jungle terrain – spread across a country the size of France and Spain – makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.

The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.

Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.

Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.

“They said I’d get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone,” said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.

“I was tempted, but scared… I’d been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn’t want to join,” said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.

An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.

Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.

“They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them,” said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.

RECRUITING IN VENEZUELA

Colombia’s Defense Minister Guillermo Botero has said the military has more than doubled operations against armed groups since President Ivan Duque took office in August, looking to tackle a rise in illicit drug production and trafficking. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

“The ELN has been retreating – at least its leadership – to Venezuela where it’s recruiting for greater strength, to attack us,” Botero said recently.

A FARC dissident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the group was also present on Venezuelan soil and was recruiting Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the conscription of Venezuelans by Colombia’s armed groups.

Venezuela’s government has acknowledged that the ELN and dissident FARC are present on its territory. It has said it does not support the groups or tolerate their presence, and that its troops pursue them as they would any other illegal group.

Representatives of the ELN did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FARC, which became a political party after the peace deal and kept its former acronym, has publicly expelled the armed dissidents.

Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion but is increasingly making money from illegal migration, the officials said.

Military officials and rights workers say the ELN and colectivos – shadowy irregular armed groups in Venezuela affiliated with President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party – control most of the crossing points into Colombia and demand payment from migrants and traders.

PICKING COCA

Army Colonel Rodolfo Morales, head of the army’s 30th Brigade in the border town of Cucuta, said migrants were also being drafted by drug trafficking groups to pick coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Antonio, another Venezuelan migrant who declined to give his second name, said that after crossing the border he was offered money by unidentified men to go into the jungles around Tibu – a border town around 115 km north of Cucuta in the dangerous Catatumbo region – to pick coca leaves.

“I’d rather go hungry than go with them,” said the 33-year old from the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo.

Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, which battled the ELN and FARC for decades, are also recruiting migrants, the military officials said.

The paramilitaries were behind most of the 260,000 killings that occurred during the nation’s half-century conflict and never fully demobilized under a 2006 peace agreement.

Eddinson, 26, a migrant from Venezuela’s coastal state of Aragua, said he and three other Venezuelans were approached by armed men who identified themselves as paramilitaries as they trekked through the mountains of Santander province near the border.

Eddinson said the leader of the eight armed men – who were dressed in khaki uniforms – tried to recruit them.

“He said that training would last six months. We’d be given salaries according to rank,” said Eddinson, adding that he and the other Venezuelans declined the offer. “He told us that we’d know our start date but not when we could leave.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

Sri Lanka police arrest 23 for targeting Muslims after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol a road of Hettipola after a mob attack in a mosque in the nearby village of Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KOTTAMPITIYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police arrested 23 people on Tuesday in connection with a spate of attacks on Muslim-owned homes and shops in apparent reprisal for the Easter bombings by Islamist militants that killed more than 250 people.

Soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the towns hit by sectarian violence this week as residents recalled how Muslims had hid in paddy fields to escape mobs carrying rods and swords, incensed over the militant attacks.

The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels, mostly in Colombo, killing more than 250 people and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest on motorbikes and in buses, ransacking mosques, burning Korans and attacking shops with petrol bombs in rioting that began on Sunday, Muslim residents said.

Police said they arrested 23 people from across the island for inciting violence against Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the situation is under control and no new incidents had been reported on Tuesday.

But a nationwide curfew from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m. would be in effect for a second night.

The lone fatality was a man killed while trying to protect his home from attack.

When mobs arrived in the Kottramulla area on Monday evening, Mohamed Salim Fowzul Ameer, 49, went outside while his wife, Fatima Jiffriya, stayed with their four children.

Jiffriya, 37, then heard shouts and sounds of fighting.

“I opened the door to see my husband on the ground in a pool of blood, the police right in front and the mob running,” she said.

“His heart was still beating hard, I took him into my lap and started to scream for help,” she added, her voice breaking, as women consoled her children at an uncle’s house ahead of Ameer’s burial.

DEEP DIVISIONS

Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East had made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.

Last year, scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as Buddhist mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district previously known for its diversity and tolerance.

Muslims said this week’s violence was more widespread.

Residents in the town of Kottampitiya recalled how a group of about a dozen people had arrived in taxis and attacked Muslim-owned stores with stones just after midday on Monday, with the mob soon swelling to 200, and then 1,000.

The mob attacked the main mosque, 17 Muslim-owned businesses and 50 homes, witnesses said.

“The Muslim community huddled in nearby paddy fields, that’s how no one died,” said one of a group of men gathered outside the white-and-green mosque with smashed windows and doors.

Abdul Bari, 48, told Reuters his small brick shop had been burned down with a petrol bomb. “The attackers were on motorbikes, armed with rods and swords,” he added.

Others blamed the police for failing to disperse the crowd.

“The police were watching. They were in the street, they didn’t stop anything. They told us to go inside,” said Mohamed Faleel, 47, who runs a car paint business.

“We asked police, we said stop them. They didn’t fire. They had to stop this, but they didn’t,” he added.

Police spokesman Gunasekera rejected allegations that police had stood by while the violence unfolded. He said the perpetrators would be punished.

“All police officers have been instructed to take stern action against the violators, even to use the maximum force. Perpetrators could face up to a 10-year jail term,” he said.

A police source said seven of those arrested for the violence in Kottampitiya were young Sinhalese men from nearby Buddhist villages.

“They were leading the charge yesterday. They were instructing people on which stores to attack,” said the police source.

The men said they were seeking revenge for the militant attack in the city of Negombo, where over 100 people were killed at the St. Sebastian’s Church during Easter prayers, the police source said.

A court remanded the men to police custody on Tuesday. They could not be reached for comment.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

Sri Lanka imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and shops owned by Muslims on Monday and imposed a nationwide curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The militants targeted churches and hotels, most of them in Colombo, killing more than 250 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Residents in Muslim parts of North Western Province said mobs had attacked mosques and damaged shops and businesses owned by Muslims for a second day.

“There are hundreds of rioters, police and army are just watching. They have burnt our mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims,” a resident of Kottampitiya area told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“When we try to come out of our house, police tell us to stay inside.”

Police imposed a nationwide curfew until from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m., spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Authorities also imposed a temporary ban on social media networks and messaging apps including WhatsApp after a clash in another part of the country was traced to a dispute on Facebook.

A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.

Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MOSQUE RANSACKED

Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.

A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.

Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.

A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.

But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.

Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.

“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.

Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.

The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.

Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.

Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.

“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.

On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)