Mexican president defends security plan after police massacre

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended his security strategy on Tuesday and blamed past administrations for chronic violence, a day after at least 13 police were killed in an ambush by suspected cartel gunmen.

Lopez Obrador told a news conference the ambush in the western state of Michoacan was “very regrettable” but reiterated that his commitment to increased spending on security and tackling the root causes of violence would eventually pay dividends.

“I’m optimistic we’ll secure peace … we’re completely dedicated to this issue, but (past governments) allowed it to grow. There’s a new security model now,” Lopez Obrador said, describing the site of the ambush as a “violent area.”

The leftist leader has sharply criticized past efforts that pursued an army-led approach to battling crime.

But after a record number of homicides in Mexico in 2018, they are on track to go even higher this year, putting Lopez Obrador under increasing pressure to stop massacres like Monday’s ambush in the violent western state of Michoacan.

He hopes his welfare schemes, including youth scholarships and apprenticeships, will help draw people away from crime.

Photos of the crime scene published on social media showed bullet-riddled police vehicles set on fire, as well as the bodies of slain officers on the ground.

They also included placards left on vehicles brazenly signed by Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs, warning police not to support rival outfits.

Federal authorities said 14 police were killed, while Michoacan officials reported that 13 officers died.

Around 80 soldiers and an army helicopter have been dispatched to investigate and find the perpetrators, Gen. Luis Sandoval, the defense minister, told the news conference.

Alongside him, Mexican Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said the use of force is a legitimate government tool to deal with lawlessness, but should only be considered as a last resort.

“We will pacify the country without using violence, without repression,” Durazo said.

After taking office in December, Lopez Obrador created a militarized National Guard police force to contain the violence.

But many of the National Guard have instead been deployed to police Mexico’s borders to placate U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to impose tariffs if Lopez Obrador does not reduce the flow of U.S.-bound migrants from Central America.

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia, Abraham Gonzalez and Diego Ore; Editing by Dave Graham and Alistair Bell)

Dozens killed as uprising sweeps across Iraq

By Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Dozens of demonstrators were killed across Iraq on Thursday and Friday as violent protests against government corruption swelled into a mass spontaneous uprising sweeping much of the country, the worst unrest since the defeat of Islamic State.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for calm but protesters scorned his promises of political reform. The country’s most influential cleric pinned the blame for the violence on politicians who had failed to improve the lives of the public, and ordered them to meet the protesters’ demands.

Another politically powerful cleric pulled his opposition faction’s lawmakers out of parliament, a gesture certain to fuel the passions behind the unrest.

On the streets of Baghdad, a Reuters Television crew saw police snipers stationed on rooftops open fire on a crowd, critically wounding at least one protester hit in the neck.

The violence comes two years after Iraq put down the insurgency by the Sunni Muslim armed group Islamic State. The protests arose in the south, heartland of the Shi’ite majority, but has quickly spread, with no formal leadership from any organized political or sectarian movement.

Security and medical sources gave a death toll early on Friday of 46 killed in three days of unrest, the vast majority of the deaths in the last 24 hours as the violence accelerated.

“It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction,” Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon.

“The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground,” said Sistani, who stays out of day-to-day politics but whose word is law for Iraq’s Shi’ites. “Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening.”

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, ordered his lawmakers to suspend participation in the legislature until the government introduces a program that would serve all Iraqis.

“WE WALK AMONG YOU”

The violence is an unprecedented test for Adel Abdul Mahdi, a mild-mannered veteran politician who came to power last year as a compromise candidate backed by powerful Shi’ite groups that dominated Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In his overnight address, Abdul Mahdi pledged reforms but said there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He insisted politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: “We do not live in ivory towers – we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

A young man in a crowd fleeing sniper shots at a central Baghdad square in the morning was scornful. “The promises by Adel Abdul Mahdi are to fool the people, and today they are firing live gunshots at us,” he said.

“Today this was a peaceful protest. They set up these barricades, and the sniper is sitting right there since last night.”

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread north of the capital. Deaths were also reported in the southern cities of Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely-populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya.

Late on Thursday protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armored vehicle, across the Tigris River from the government compound.

“They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!” a man shouted to Reuters TV.

“Abdul Mahdi, they will cross the bridge. You better resign. Resign. The people demand the fall of the regime!” he shouted as the crowd behind him took up a chant that swept the Middle East during popular uprisings across the region in 2011: “The people demand the fall of the regime!”

“REVOLUTION OF HUNGER”

The unrest comes on the eve of Arbaeen, a Shi’ite pilgrimage which in recent years has drawn 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

Some pilgrims were already taking to the roads on Friday, although in smaller numbers than in recent years. Iran has closed one of the border crossings used by millions of pilgrims. Qatar has told its citizens to stay away.

A senior Iranian cleric blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel, saying they aimed to thwart the pilgrimage.

The protests could grow if they receive formal backing from Sadr, who has long denounced corruption and the political elite.

“We Sadrists support the protests by all means, but we would wait for orders from our leader Sayyed Moqtada before we would take to the streets,” a senior Sadrist politician, Awad Awadi, told Reuters. He called the protests “a revolution of hunger.”

Ahmed al-Kinani, a lawmaker from a party linked to a powerful Iran-backed militia, said most of the protesters were simply demanding their rights, but a minority were using the demonstrations to target the security forces. His party was willing to do what it takes to calm the situation, including accepting a reshuffling of cabinet ministries.

Two years after the defeat of the Islamic State Sunni militant movement, Iraq has finally been at peace and free to trade for the first extended period since the 1970s, with oil exports at record levels. But Iraqis say they have seen few benefits, with infrastructure still in ruins and jobs scarce.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Reuters Television staff in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Ali Hafthi in Hilla; Writing by Peter Graff)

Hong Kong reopens after weekend of clashes, protests

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s businesses and metro stations reopened as usual on Monday after a chaotic Sunday when police fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who blocked roads and threw petrol bombs outside government headquarters.

On Sunday what began as a mostly peaceful protest earlier in the day spiraled into violence in some of the Chinese territory’s busiest shopping and tourist districts.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, many clad in black masks, caps and shades to obscure their identity, raced through the streets, engaging in cat-and-mouse tactics with police, setting street fires and blocking roads in the heart of Hong Kong where many key business districts are located.

The demonstrations are the latest in nearly four months of sometimes violent protests. Protesters are furious over what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs despite promises by Beijing to grant the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms denied in mainland China.

Dozens of university students rallied peacefully on Monday afternoon urging authorities to listen to public demands. Dressed in black, some of them donning face masks, students sang “Glory to Hong Kong” a song that has become a rallying cry for more democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese hub.

At Baptist University hundreds of students also marched to demand the university’s management offer support to a student reporter arrested on Sunday.

The initial trigger for the protests was a contentious extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

The protests have since broadened into other demands including universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into allegations of excessive force by the police.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.

89 ARRESTS IN WEEKEND VIOLENCE

Kung Lui, a third-year university student majoring in sociology, said the protests would continue until all five demands were met. “The protests have revealed lots of social problems and proved that democracy and freedom are the core values of Hong Kong people.”

Police on Monday said 89 people were arrested over the weekend after “radical protesters” attacked two police officers on Sunday evening, hurling petrol bombs, bricks, and threatening the safety of the officers.

Nearly 1,500 people have been arrested since the protests started in June.

Authorities moved quickly to douse the fires and police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse them, including in the bustling shopping and tourist district of Causeway Bay.

At least 18 people were injured, three of them seriously, during Sunday’s violence, according to the Hospital Authority.

The protests have weighed on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade, with tourist arrivals plunging 40 percent in August amid some disruptions at the city’s international airport.

By Sunday evening, the running battles between anti-government protesters and police had evolved into street brawls between rival groups in the districts of Fortress Hill and North Point further east on Hong Kong island. There, men in white T-shirts – believed to be pro-Beijing supporters and some wielding hammers, rods and knives – clashed with anti-government activists.

On a street close to North Point, home to a large pro-Beijing community, a Reuters witness saw one man in a white T-shirt sprawled on the ground with head wounds.

Hong Kong media reported that groups of pro-Beijing supporters had attacked journalists.

Police eventually intervened and sealed off some roads to try to restore order, and they were seen taking away several men and women from an office run by a pro-Beijing association.

Democratic lawmaker Ted Hui was arrested for allegedly obstructing police, according to his Democratic Party’s Facebook page, as he tried to mediate on the streets in North Point.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; and James Pomfret; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after presenting NBA Hall of Fame player Jerry West with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops over the coming months.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with U.S. officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior U.S. military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

NEW CIVIL WAR?

For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete U.S. withdrawal.

Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following Thursday’s suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come soon.

The Taliban’s strategy appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

But that has risked undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as by Kabul.

“The Taliban’s leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of holding long negotiations with Baradar?” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

Even within the Taliban ranks, there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from the government side.

“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.

Memories of the bloody 1990s conflict between the Taliban and rival militia groups are vivid. Former U.S. envoys who worked on Afghanistan warned last week that “total civil war” with “catastrophic” consequences for U.S. national security was possible.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.

Some Taliban are based in neighboring Pakistan, where McKenzie held talks on Saturday with a top Pakistani general. More talks are scheduled for Sunday.

McKenzie said he did not know whether any of the planning for the recent wave of attacks in Afghanistan came from Pakistan-based militants.

But McKenzie commended Pakistan for supporting the peace efforts in Afghanistan, in the latest sign of an improvement in long-fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“A lot of Pakistanis have been killed by militant attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan sees the benefits of a stable Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.

(Additional by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Chris Reese and Michael Perry)

Hong Kong police break up new protest with rubber bullets, tear gas

Protesters erect the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during the "No White Terror No Chinazi" rally in Chater Garden, Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Friday to clear protesters outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clash in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station. We cannot let them get away with it.”

Protesters had gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, where police had fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators this week.

They withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen were dousing the flames.

“The police will use appropriate force to conduct a dispersal operation and warn all protesters to stop all illegal acts and leave immediately,” police said in a statement.

There was no immediate official word of arrests or injuries. Both Mong Kok and Prince Edward stations were closed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures this week to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city, including the formal withdrawal of a bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.

But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since morphed into a broader call for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.

“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.

“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”

Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WEEKEND PLANS FOR THE AIRPORT

Demonstrations have at times paralyzed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.

The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.

The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.

The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.

Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.

Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.

“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.

‘RETURN TO ORDER’

Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.

Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.

In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

At least 25 killed in ‘horrendous’ arson attack on bar in Mexico

A man is comforted at a crime scene following a deadly attack at a bar by unknown assailants in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Angel Hernandez

By Tamara Corro

COATZACOALCOS, Mexico (Reuters) – At least 25 people were killed in an arson attack by suspected gang members on a bar in the southeastern Mexican port of Coatzacoalcos late on Tuesday, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said, in a fresh blow to his efforts to curb violence.

Calling the attack “horrendous,” Lopez Obrador told a regular morning news conference on Wednesday that the deaths occurred after the suspected gangsters closed the emergency exits of the bar in Coatzacoalcos and set fire to it.

The attorney general’s office of the state of Veracruz said overnight that eight women and 15 men died in the fire at the “Caballo Blanco” bar, and 13 people who were seriously wounded were hospitalized for treatment.

Lopez Obrador said 25 people had died so far and that initial investigations indicated that some suspects behind the attack had been in custody this year and were later released.

The attack was one of the worst mass killings since the veteran leftist Lopez Obrador took office in December pledging to pacify Mexico by battling corruption and inequality.

So far, however, the number of murders has continued to rise after hitting record levels in 2018.

The deaths follow an attack in April on another bar in Veracruz in the city of Minatitlan that killed 13 people.

While saying he did not want to blame previous governments, Lopez Obrador nevertheless pointed to past policies for laying the groundwork for the crime.

“This is the rotten fruit of the economic policy that was imposed, the policy of pillage,” the president said.

Veracruz state governor Cuitlahuac Garcia suggested in a post on Twitter that the attack was the result of a dispute between gangs.

The Gulf Coast state is a major transit point for drugs making their way north towards the U.S. border and has long been convulsed by violent turf wars between organized crime groups.

Some Mexican media reports said that gunmen had fired shots on the bar before setting it ablaze with Molotov cocktails.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Toby Chopra, Andrew Heavens, Chizu Nomiyama)

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)