UAE says Iran wasted no time in undermining regional security

 

UAE says Iran wasted no time in undermining regional security

The United Arab Emirates said on Saturday Iran had wasted no time in undermining regional security since it sealed a nuclear deal with world powers last year.

“Against all optimistic expectations, Iran wasted no time in continuing its efforts to undermine the security of the region, through aggressive rhetoric, blatant interference, producing and arming militias, developing its ballistic missile program, in addition to its alarming designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed told the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders.

(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)

Vatican ‘Letter gate’ scandal comes to a head as text released  

Vatican ‘Letter gate’ scandal comes to a head as text released 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS.COM)

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican “Lettergate” scandal came to a head on Saturday when the Holy See, under pressure from the media and conservatives, released a full text by former Pope Benedict that before was cited only selectively.

A series of 11 booklets on The Theology of Pope Francis and a letter from former Pope Benedict, which was read out at the presentation of the work, are seen at the Vatican in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters March 15, 2018. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

The Vatican Secretariat for Communication, which had come under sharp criticism all week for blurring part of a photograph of the letter and for withholding another section, said in a statement there had been “no intent of censorship”.

It said the letter, written for the presentation of a Vatican-published 11-booklet series on the theology of Pope Francis, was private and therefore officials had cited only the “opportune and relative” parts.

But the episode, which has cast a shadow over the Vatican for a week, has proven to be a public relations fiasco, particularly for its communications chief, Monsignor Dario Vigano.

At the book presentation on Monday, Vigano read out the parts of the letter in which Benedict rejected the “stupid prejudice” of those who say Francis’ theology is lacking.

Benedict also disputed suggestions by conservatives that Francis’ academic qualities were lacking, praising his successor as a “man of deep philosophical and theological formation” and finding an “interior continuity between the two pontificates”.

But a press release handed out at the event omitted a paragraph in which Benedict apologized for not having had the time to read all 11 volumes and thus declining a request to write a “short and dense theological” introduction for the series.

The final paragraph, released for the first time on Saturday, went further, showing that Benedict was irritated by the fact German theologian Peter Hunermann had been chosen by the Vatican publishing house LEV to write one of the volumes.

Hunermann, Benedict noted had “led anti-papal initiatives” during Benedict’s 2005-2013 papacy and had also attacked some of the writings of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.

“I am certain that you will understand my denial (of the request to write an introduction),” Benedict tells Vigano.

Luis Badilla, who writes for the Vatican-affiliated website Il Sismografo, issued a thinly veiled call for Vigano’s head, calling the whole episode “a gigantic mess”. In an editorial on Saturday, Badilla said Vigano and the head of the Vatican’s publishing house, Father Bruno Cesareo, “have some explaining to do” and that “consequences must be drawn”.

Conservative critics of Francis saw the blurring and the selective citings from the letter as part of a plot to censor the thoughts of the former pope.

Many conservative Catholics still look up to Benedict as a bulwark against liberals, and have lambasted Francis for being too lenient on divorced Catholics and homosexuals.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Chris Reese

U.S. Army’s Bergdahl spared prison time for deserting

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF YAHOO NEWS AND REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

U.S. Army’s Bergdahl spared prison time for deserting

Reuters
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U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walks out of the courthouse after the judge said he would continue deliberating on his sentence during Bergdahl’s court martial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walks out of the courthouse after the judge said he would continue deliberating on his sentence during Bergdahl’s court martial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S., November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) – U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl on Friday was spared prison time for endangering fellow troops when he deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009, but a military judge ordered he should be dishonorably discharged from the service.

Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and spent five years under brutal captivity by the insurgent group. He had faced up to life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

(Reporting by Greg Lacour; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Taking aim at China, India tightens power grid, telecoms rules

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

Exclusive: Taking aim at China, India tightens power grid, telecoms rules

FILE PHOTO: A worker levels a salt pan near electricity pylons in Mumbai, India, January 16, 2017.Shailesh Andrade/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India is tightening the rules for businesses entering its power transmission sector and making stringent checks on both power and telecoms equipment for malware – moves that government and industry officials say aim to check China’s advance into sensitive sectors.

Chinese firms such as Harbin Electric (1133.HK), Dongfang Electronics (000682.SZ), Shanghai Electric (601727.SS) and Sifang Automation either supply equipment or manage power distribution networks in 18 cities in India.

Local firms have long lobbied against Chinese involvement in the power sector, raising security concerns and saying they get no reciprocal access to Chinese markets.

With India and China locked in their most serious military face-off in three decades, the effort to restrict Chinese business has gathered more support from within the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, worried about the possibility of a cyber attack.

The Indian government is considering a report prepared by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) that sets new conditions for firms bidding for power transmission contracts, tipping the scales in favor of local companies.

According to an official involved in drafting the report, who asked not to be named, it says companies looking to invest in India should have been operating there for at least 10 years, have Indian citizens as top executives, and employees of the foreign firm should have lived in India for a certain period, the official said.

Those companies have to detail where they procure the raw materials for transmission systems, and will be barred from further operations in India if their materials contain malware.

Though the report makes no direct reference to China, the official said the recommendations are intended to deter China from making further headway in India, because of the security risks.

CEA Chairman R.K. Verma said the possibility of a crippling cyber attack on India’s power systems was a key consideration while drafting the policy. “Cyber attacks are a challenge,” he told Reuters.

A representative of a Chinese enterprise engaged in exporting electric power equipment in India told China’s state-run Global Times that India’s industry has long tried to block foreign competition under the garb of safety issues.

“Now, as Sino-Indian relations are getting intense, the old tune is on again. But in fact, it is unrealistic to completely ban China and India power investment cooperation. India will pay a huge price for this,” the paper said.

Shanghai Electric, Harbin Electric, Dongfang Electronics and state-run China Southern Power Grid Co Ltd, all involved in India or trying to enter, did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the proposed Indian investment rules.

TELECOMS

FILE PHOTO: A woman talks on her mobile phone in Kolkata, India July 5, 2017.Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

The Indian government is moving simultaneously on the telecoms sector, demanding higher security standards in an area dominated by Chinese makers of equipment and smartphones.

In a letter reviewed by Reuters, the ministry of electronics and information technology has asked 21 smartphone makers, most of them Chinese, to provide details about the “safety and security practices, architecture frameworks, guidelines, standards, etc followed in your product/services in the country.”

Chinese vendors such as Xiaomi [XTC.UL], Lenovo (0992.HK), Oppo, Vivo and Gionee together account for over half of India’s $10 billion smartphone market. The letter, dated Aug. 12, was also sent to Apple (AAPL.O), Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) and local maker Micromax (MINR.NS), a ministry source said.

India has also privately raised objections to Chinese firm Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group’s (600196.SS) proposed $1.3 billion takeover of Indian drugmaker Gland Pharma, it emerged last month.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“There’s a lot of resentment against China for meddling in our internal affairs, supporting Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism, and, on the other hand, posing a huge loss to our trade and industry each year,” said Satish Kumar, national president of the Swadesh Jagran Manch, a right-wing nationalist group with ties to Modi’s ruling party.

The group has this year run a campaign asking Indians not to buy Chinese goods to protect local industry and reset a trade deficit of more than $51 billion.

CHEAP GOODS

India has used Chinese equipment for power generation and distribution as it looks to provide affordable electricity to an estimated 250 million people who are off the grid.

China Southern Power Grid, in association with CLP India Pvt Ltd, is among Chinese firms bidding for power transmission lines, Power Minister Piyush Goyal told Parliament this month.

Sunil Misra, director-general of the Indian Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers’ Association, said the new rules for power transmission would help local industry and were in line with the limited access China gives to foreigners in its market.

Indian firms engaged in the power sector include Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL.NS), Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals Ltd (CROP.NS) and Larsen & Toubro Ltd LART.N.

Security agencies have implemented a series of protocols and checks for Chinese equipment coming into the power sector, said another person involved in drafting the CEA report.

“This is recent and happening quietly,” he said.

Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom and Sankalp Phartiyal in MUMBAI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Japan’s parliament clears way for emperor’s abdication

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Japan’s parliament clears way for emperor’s abdication

Japan’s parliament on Friday passed a law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate, clearing the way for the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in nearly two centuries and the accession of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, probably late next year.

Akihito, 83, who has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, said in rare public remarks last year he feared age might make it hard for him to continue to fulfill his duties.

The soft-spoken Akihito, the first Japanese emperor who was never considered divine, has worked for decades at home and abroad to soothe the wounds of World War Two, fought in his father Hirohito’s name. He will be succeeded by Naruhito, 57.

In a vote televised live on NHK public television, the upper house of parliament passed the bill with a handful of lawmakers sitting out the vote. It cleared the more powerful lower house last week.

Now the government has to hammer out the details of the abdication, including timing, but media reports have said it is likely to take place at the end of 2018, which would mark three decades on the Chrysanthemum throne for Akihito.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

British politics in foment as exit poll shows May failing to win majority

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

British politics in foment as exit poll shows May failing to win majority

By Kate Holton and David Milliken | LONDON

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party will fail to win a parliamentary majority in Britain’s election, according to an exit poll on Thursday, a shock result that would plunge domestic politics into turmoil and could delay Brexit talks.

The exit poll predicted May’s party would not win a majority of the 650 seats in parliament to take office alone, meaning she would have to form a coalition or attempt to govern with the backing of other smaller parties.

The exit poll predicted the Conservatives would win 314 seats and the Labour Party 266, meaning no clear winner and a “hung parliament”.

The exit poll sent shockwaves through financial markets. Sterling fell more than two cents against the U.S. dollar. .

It was an extraordinary failure for May, who was enjoying opinion poll leads of 20 points and more when she called the snap election just seven weeks ago.

But her lead had gradually shrunk over the course of the campaign, during which she backtracked on a major social care proposal, opted not to take part in a high-profile TV debate with her opponents, and faced questions over her record on security after Britain was hit by two Islamist militant attacks that killed 30 people.

“If the poll is anything like accurate, this is completely catastrophic for the Conservatives and for Theresa May,” George Osborne, who was the Conservative finance minister from 2010 to 2016 when he was sacked by May, said on ITV.

Analysts were treating the exit poll with caution. In the last election, in 2015, the corresponding poll predicted May’s predecessor David Cameron would fall short of a majority. But as the night wore on and the actual results came in from constituencies, it became clear he had in fact won a majority, albeit a small one of just 12 seats.

That outcome was a triumph for Cameron though, because he had been predicted to fall well short. For May, who went into the campaign expecting to win a landslide, even a narrow win later in the night would leave her badly damaged.

Until the final results become clear, it is hard to predict who will form the next government.

“It’s difficult to see, if these numbers were right, how they (the Conservatives) would put together the coalition to remain in office,” said Osborne.

“But equally it’s quite difficult looking at those numbers to see how Labour could put together a coalition, so it’s on a real knife edge.”

Political deadlock in London could derail negotiations with the other 27 EU countries ahead of Britain’s exit from the bloc, due in March 2019, before they even begin in earnest.

A delay in forming a government could push back the start of Brexit talks, currently scheduled for June 19, and reduce the time available for what are expected to be the most complex negotiations in post-World War Two European history.

The poll forecast the Scottish National Party (SNP) would win 34 seats, the center-left Liberal Democrats 14, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru three and the Greens one.

If the exit poll is correct, Labour, led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, could attempt to form a government with those smaller parties, which strongly oppose most of May’s policies on domestic issues such as public spending cuts.

May called the snap election to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with the other 27 EU countries and to cement her grip on the Conservative Party after she took over as prime minister in the wake of last year’s Brexit referendum.

If she fails to win a majority, that could call into question her position as Conservative leader and might mean a second election in Britain this year.

If Corbyn’s Labour does take power with the backing of the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, both parties adamantly opposed to Brexit, Britain’s future will be very different to the course the Conservatives were planning and could even raise the possibility of a second referendum.

May had promised to clinch a Brexit deal that prioritized control over immigration policy, with Britain leaving the European single market and customs union, and said no deal would be better than a bad deal.

Labour said it would push ahead with Brexit but would scrap May’s negotiating plans and make its priority maintaining the benefits of both the EU single market and its customs union, arguing no deal with the EU would be the worst possible outcome.

It also proposed raising taxes for the richest 5 percent of Britons, scrapping university tuition fees and investing 250 billion pounds ($315 billion) in infrastructure plans.

(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle, William Schomberg, Andy Bruce, William James, Alistair Smout, Paddy Graham, writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

German cabinet backs troop pullout from Turkey base after row

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

German cabinet backs troop pullout from Turkey base after row

Germany’s cabinet on Wednesday backed the withdrawal of troops from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, the German defense minister said, following Ankara’s refusal to allow German lawmakers access to its soldiers there.

Germany plans to move the 280 German soldiers to an air base in Jordan but has stressed it wants to minimize any disruption to the U.S.-led coalition operation against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, of which it is part.

Turkey has refused to allow German lawmakers to make a routine visit to the base, saying that Berlin needs to improve its attitude towards Turkey first.

Turkey was infuriated when Germany, citing security concerns, banned some Turkish politicians from campaigning on its soil. Ankara responded by accusing Berlin of “Nazi-like” tactics and has since reignited a row over Incirlik.

“Given that Turkey is currently not in a position to allow German parliamentarians the right to visit Incirlik, the cabinet today agreed to move the Bundeswehr from Incirlik to Jordan,” Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

Lawmakers are still discussing whether the proposed withdrawal should be put to a parliamentary vote. German armed forces are subordinated to parliament, not the government, meaning lawmakers have oversight of the troops.

Von der Leyen said she would hold immediate talks with the U.S. military and the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS to minimize the impact of the move and would set the timetable accordingly. She will brief cabinet and parliament next week.

She has said withdrawing German refueling aircraft would take two to three weeks, and the relocation of reconnaissance jets two to three months.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was in Turkey on Monday in a last attempt to convince Ankara to avert a pullout, but said Turkey had once again refused the visits for “domestic political reasons.”

He said he had wanted to avoid further hurting ties with Turkey and pushing it towards Russia.

Critics have accused Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces an election in September, of cozying up to Erdogan to secure his help in stemming the flow of migrants to western Europe.

Ankara reacted angrily to German concerns over a domestic crackdown after a failed coup attempt last July, and relations were further tested by Turkey’s jailing of a German-Turkish journalist.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S. seen trying to calm waters between Qatar and Saudi Arabia  

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

U.S. seen trying to calm waters between Qatar and Saudi Arabia

By Arshad Mohammed and Steve Holland | WASHINGTON

The United States will quietly try to calm the waters between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, current and former U.S. officials said on Monday, arguing that the small Gulf state was too important to U.S. military and diplomatic interests to be isolated.

U.S. officials were blindsided by Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar in a coordinated move with Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the current and former officials said.

In announcing the decision to cut ties, Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of providing support to Shi’ite Iran, which is in a tussle for regional supremacy with Riyadh, and to Islamist militants. [nL8N1J252R]

Washington has many reasons to want to promote comity within the region. Qatar is host to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East at Al Udeid, a staging ground for U.S.-led strikes on the Islamic State militant group that has seized parts of Syria and Iraq. U.S. Donald Trump has made defeating Islamic State a priority of his presidency.

Further, Qatar’s willingness to welcome organizations such as Hamas, which Washington brands a terrorist group, and the Taliban, which has fought U.S. forces in Afghanistan for more than 15 years, allows contacts with such groups when needed.

“There is a certain utility,” one U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “There’s got to be a place for us to meet the Taliban. The Hamas (folks) have to have a place to go where they can be simultaneously isolated and talked to.”

The current and former U.S. officials said they were unable to identify precisely what may have triggered the four countries’ coordinated decision to cut ties, which was later followed by Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives.

They said the Saudis may have felt empowered by the warm embrace that Trump gave them when he visited Riyadh in May and adopted a harsh anti-Iran stance.

“My suspicion is (they felt) emboldened by what Trump said on his visit and … that they feel they have got some kind of backing,” said a former U.S. official. “I don’t know that they needed any more of a green light than they got in public.”

A senior administration official told Reuters the United States got no indication from the Saudis or Emiratis in Riyadh that the action was about to happen. The White House said on Monday it was committed to working to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf.

In Riyadh, Trump made an impassioned appeal to Arab and Islamic leaders to “drive out” terrorists, while singling out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups.

SEEKING RECONCILIATION

U.S. officials in multiple agencies stressed their desire to promote a reconciliation between the Saudi-led group and Qatar, a state of 2.5 million people with vast natural gas reserves.

“We don’t want to see some kind of permanent rift and I suspect we won’t,” said the senior Trump administration official on condition of anonymity, adding the United States would send a representative if the Gulf Cooperation Council nations met to discuss the rift with Qatar. [nL1N1J21IX]

The GCC includes six wealthy Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

“There’s an acknowledgement that a lot of Qatari behavior is quite worrisome not just to our Gulf neighbors but to the U.S.,” said the senior administration official. “We want to bring them in the right direction.”

Marcelle Wahba, a former U.S. ambassador to the UAE and the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington think tank, said the United States had leverage but would use it discreetly.

“The U.S. will step up to the plate. How we will do it? I think it will be very quiet and very much in the background,” she said. “I doubt very much we will sit on the sidelines and let this crisis get more serious.”

Qatar’s backing of Islamists dates to a decision by the current ruling emir’s father to end a tradition of automatic deference to Saudi Arabia, the dominant Gulf Arab power, and forge the widest possible array of allies.

Qatar has for years presented itself as a mediator and power broker for the region’s many disputes. But Egypt and the Gulf Arab states resent Qatar’s support for Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a political enemy.

“We are engaging with all of our partners … to find a way to reassemble some GCC unity to support regional security,” said another U.S. official, saying it was critical to “maintain the fight against terrorism and extremist ideology.”

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Mark Hosenball, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Peter Cooney)

Top U.S. diplomat in China quits over Trump climate policy

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Top U.S. diplomat in China quits over Trump climate policy

By David Brunnstrom and John Walcott | WASHINGTON

David Rank, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has left the State Department over the Trump administration’s decision to quit the 2015 Paris agreement to fight climate change, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

A State Department spokeswoman confirmed Rank’s departure, but said she was unable to verify Twitter posts that said he resigned as he felt unable to deliver a formal notification to China of the U.S. decision last week to quit the agreement.

“He has retired from the foreign service,” said Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the department’s East Asia Bureau. “Mr Rank has made a personal decision. We appreciate his years of dedicated service to the State Department.”

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, President Donald Trump’s pick as the next U.S. ambassador to Beijing, is expected to take up the post later this month.

A tweet from China expert John Pomfret quoted unnamed sources as saying that Rank had resigned as he could not support Trump’s decision last week to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

Another tweet from Pomfret said Rank called a town hall meeting to announce his decision to embassy staff and explained that he could not deliver a diplomatic note informing the Chinese government of the U.S. decision.

A senior U.S. official confirmed the account given in the tweets, but added that after Rank announced his intention to retire on Monday in Beijing, he was told by the State Department to leave his post immediately. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rank, a career foreign service officer who took over the post of deputy chief of mission in Beijing in January 2016, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jonathan Fritz, the embassy’s economics councillor, would serve as chargé in his place, Richey-Allen said.

Rank had been with the department for 27 years and served as the political councillor at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan from 2011-12.

Trump’s announcement last Thursday that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, saying the agreement would undermine the U.S. economy and cost jobs, drew anger and condemnation from world leaders and heads of industry

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and John Walcott, additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, editing by G Crosse)

Philippines: Islamic Murderers Seize Marawi City: This Should Be A Wake up Call To SE Asia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

By Tom Allard | MARAWI CITY, PHILIPPINES

At the beginning of the battle that has raged for the past 12 days in Marawi City at the southern end of the Philippines, dozens of Islamist militants stormed its prison, overwhelming the guards.

“They said ‘surrender the Christians’,” said Faridah P. Ali, an assistant director of the regional prison authority. “We only had one Christian staff member so we put him with the inmates so he wouldn’t be noticed,” he said.

Fighters from the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS), menaced the guards and shouted at prisoners: but no one gave up the Christian man. “When they freed the inmates, he got free,” said Ali.

It was a brief moment of cheer, but over the next few hours the militants took control of most of the city, attacked the police station and stole weapons and ammunition, and set up roadblocks and positioned snipers on buildings at key approaches. The assault has already led to the death of almost 180 people and the vast majority of Marawi’s population of about 200,000 has fled.

The seizing of the city by Maute and its allies on the island of Mindanao is the biggest warning yet that the Islamic State is building a base in Southeast Asia and bringing the brutal tactics seen in Iraq and Syria in recent years to the region.

Defense and other government officials from within the region told Reuters evidence is mounting that this was a sophisticated plot to bring forces from different groups who support the Islamic State together to take control of Marawi.

The presence of foreigners – intelligence sources say the fighters have included militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco – alongside locals in Marawi, has particularly alarmed security officials.

For some time, governments in Southeast Asia have been worried about what happens when battle-hardened Islamic State fighters from their countries return home as the group loses ground in the Middle East, and now they have added concerns about the region becoming a magnet for foreign jihadis.

“If we do nothing, they get a foothold in this region,” said Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence minister of neighboring Malaysia.

Defense and military officials in the Philippines said that all four of the country’s pro-Islamic State groups sent fighters to Marawi with the intention of establishing the city as a Southeast Asian ‘wilayat’ – or governorate – for the radical group.

Mindanao – roiled for decades by Islamic separatists, communist rebels, and warlords – was fertile ground for Islamic State’s ideology to take root. This is the one region in this largely Catholic country to have a significant Muslim minority and Marawi itself is predominantly Muslim.

It is difficult for governments to prevent militants from getting to Mindanao from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia through waters that have often been lawless and plagued by pirates.

The Combating Terrorism Center, a West Point, New York-based think tank, said in a report this week that Islamic State is leveraging militant groups in Southeast Asia to solidify and expand its presence in the region. The key will be how well it manages relations with the region’s jihadi old guard, CTC said.

COMMANDER FIRED

The Maute group’s attack is the biggest challenge faced by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte since coming to power last June. He has declared martial law in Mindanao, which is his political base.

His defense forces were caught off guard by the assault and have had difficulty in regaining control of the city – on Saturday they were still struggling to wipe out pockets of resistance.

On Monday, Brigadier-General Nixon Fortes, the commander of the army brigade in Marawi, was sacked.

An army spokesman said this was unrelated to the battle. But a military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Friday that Fortes was dismissed because not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence had indicated that Islamist militants were amassing there.

The assault came just months after security forces attacked the mountain lair of Isnilon Hapilon, a long-time leader of Abu Sayyaf, or “Father of the Sword”, a notorious Islamist militant group known for kidnapping.

He swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, and quickly got other groups to join him. Most important among them was the Maute group, run by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute from a well-known family in Marawi.

In a video that surfaced last June, a Syria-based leader of the group urged followers in the region to join Hapilon if they could not travel to the Middle East. Hapilon was named IS leader in Southeast Asia last year.

The Philippines military said Hapilon was likely wounded in the raids but managed to escape to Marawi, where he joined up with the Maute group.

According to a statement on a social media group used by Maute fighters, the group wants to cleanse Marawi of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and polytheists – who believe in more than one God. It also wants to ban betting, karaoke and so-called “relationship dating.”

MOUNTAIN LAIRS

Some officials said Philippines security forces became complacent about the threat from IS after the January raids.

“We did not notice they have slipped into Marawi because we are focusing on their mountain lairs,” Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.

Over the past few months, Philippine and Indonesian intelligence sources said, Hapilon’s forces were swelled by foreign fighters and new recruits within Marawi. Many of the outsiders came to Marawi using the cover of an Islamic prayer festival in the city last month, said Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera.

Lorenzana said that Hapilon brought 50-100 fighters to join Maute’s 250-300 men, while two other groups, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters  and the Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines, together brought at least 40 militants with them.

On May 23, four days before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, they launched their attack when Philippine forces made an abortive attempt to capture Hapilon inside Marawi.

After the military retreated in the face of a phalanx of armed guards, about 400 militants quickly fanned out across the city, riding trucks mounted with 50-calibre machine guns and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and high-powered rifles.

Within hours, they attacked the jail and nearby police station, seizing weapons and ammunition, according to accounts from residents.

The Dansalan College, a Protestant institution, and the Catholic Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora, were both razed, and a priest and about a dozen other parishioners captured. They remain hostages.

A Shi’ite mosque was also destroyed, and a statue of Jose Rizal, the Philippines hero of the uprising against Spanish rule, was beheaded.

SNIPERS ON ROOFTOPS

Herrera said the attack had the hallmarks of a professional military operation. “There was a huge, grand plan to seize the whole of Marawi,” he said.

After the initial battle, IS flags flew across the city and masked fighters roamed the streets proclaiming Marawi was theirs, using loud-hailers to urge residents to join them and handing out weapons to those who took up the offer, according to residents.

The military brought in helicopters to fire rockets at militant positions as ground troops began to retake key bridges and buildings, though some residents this has also led to the deaths of civilians.

“ISIS people were running on the street, running away from them. They were bombing them in the street (but) it hit our house and the mosque. Many other houses too,” said Amerah Dagalangit, a pregnant 29-year-old in an evacuation center near Marawi.

“Many people died when the bomb exploded,” she said, adding that a Muslim priest and children were among the victims.

Military officials said they had not received any report of the incident. Reuters could not independently verify the account.

The military has said 20 civilians have been killed in the fighting and that all were at the hands of the militants. It also says 120 rebels and 38 members of the security forces have been killed, including 10 soldiers who died from friendly fire in an airstrike.

“PEOPLE WILL GET KILLED”

Officials in neighboring Indonesia worry that even if the Filipinos successfully take back Marawi in coming days, the threat will still remain high.

“We worry they will come over here,” said one Indonesian counter-terrorism official, noting that Mindanao wasn’t very far from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

More than 2,000 people remain trapped in the center of Marawi, with no electricity and little food and water. Some are pinned down by the crossfire between the military and the militants, while others fear they will be intercepted by the militants as they flee, according to residents.

The bodies of eight laborers who had been shot in the head were found in a ravine outside Marawi last Sunday. The police said they had been stopped by the militants while escaping the city.

There will most likely be more civilian casualties in retaking the city, the military said.

“We are expecting that people will get starved, people will get hurt, people will get killed,” said Herrera, the military spokesman. “In these types of operations, you can’t get 100 per cent no collateral damage.”

(With Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Martin Howell)