Trump: Kim wants to meet again, apologized for missile tests
JILL COLVIN,•Trump says he’s received ‘beautiful’ letter from Kim Jong Un BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — President Donald Trump said Saturday that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un wants to meet once again to „start negotiations” after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises end. He also said Kim apologized for the flurry of recent short-range missile tests that has rattled U.S. allies in the region.Trump is tweeting more details from the „beautiful” three-page letter he told reporters on Friday that he’d received from Kim. Trump, who is on vacation at his golf club in New Jersey, said Kim spent much of his letter complaining about „the ridiculous and expensive exercises,” which North Korea sees as a threat.He said Kim offered him „a small apology” for the recent tests and assured him „that this testing would stop when the exercises end.” North Korea on Saturday fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, according to South Korea’s military — the fifth round of launches in less than three weeks.”I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future!” Trump wrote.The two leaders have met three times — in Singapore, Hanoi and at the Korean Demilitarized Zone — but critics say Trump has received few concessions in the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the meetings.At their second summit in Vietnam in February, Trump rejected Kim’s demand for widespread sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the North’s main nuclear complex, a partial disarmament step.The U.S. and South Korea have scaled down their major military exercises since Trump and Kim’s first summit in June 2018. But the North insists even the downsized drills violate agreements between Kim and Trump and compel it to „develop, test and deploy the powerful physical means essential for national defense.”When they last met in June of this year, Trump and Kim agreed to resume working-level nuclear talks that have been stalled since February, but there have been no known meetings between the two sides since then.
North Korea Kim New Powers
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — There’s no question that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in full control of his nation. But a recent change to the way he’s being formally described in the North Korean Constitution may allow him even more diplomatic leverage as he steps with increasing confidence onto the world stage for negotiations over his powerful weapons program.
Despite a flurry of unprecedented summits between Kim and the world powers that surround him, the outcome of that crucial diplomacy is very much in question amid currently deadlocked nuclear disarmament talks and an outburst of North Korean weapons tests in recent weeks.
North Korea on Friday said that its rubber-stamp parliament will hold its second meeting of the year on Aug. 29. It follows weeks of intensified North Korean weapons tests and belligerent statements over U.S.-South Korea military exercises and the slow pace of nuclear negotiations with the United States.
Kim has said he said he would seek a „new way” if Washington doesn’t change its hard-line stance on sanctions relief by the year’s end, though experts doubt he’ll fully abandon diplomacy and give away his hard-won status as a global statesman.
President Donald Trump on Saturday said that Kim wrote him a „beautiful” three-page letter in which he expressed desire to meet once again to „start negotiations” after U.S.-South Korea military exercises end, and also apologized for the flurry of short-range missile tests.
The North’s new constitutional changes, which show Kim’s further consolidation of his already formidable powers, could allow him to act more clearly as a diplomat on the world stage, technically signing a peace treaty with Trump, for instance, or giving speeches at the U.N. General Assembly, analysts say.
The changes, which were only made public recently on the country’s Naenara website, appear linked to an unusual political reality in the North: While Kim Jong Un is the undisputed leader, it is Kim’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, who is enshrined as North Korea’s eternal president.
Kim has governed from his position as chairman of Pyongyang’s powerful State Affairs Commission, which was established in 2016 to replace his father’s military-based National Defense Commission as the country’s top decision-making institution.
The constitution makes clear that Kim’s role as chairman of the new commission makes him the country’s supreme leader. But it now adds that he also „represents the country.” This signals potential changes from previous decades, analysts say, when it was the president of the presidium of North Korea’s parliament — the Supreme People’s Assembly — who acted as the ceremonial head of state.
„You could argue that the head-of-state business is meant to put Kim on the same plane as Xi, Trump or Putin. It certainly elevates his stature,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Whatever the new changes mean, no one, inside or outside the country, is disputing Kim’s status as the ultimate decision maker, and despite the new constitutional description, he has already been doing high-level diplomatic work on the world stage, releasing statements with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in following those respective summits.
The North’s new constitution is the „Kim Jong Un Constitution,” according to South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with Seoul’s main spy agency. It is clearly designed with Kim’s future role in diplomacy in mind, including negotiations with the U.S. and also potential activities on the U.N. stage, the think tank said. Kim will be handling the important stuff in foreign affairs, while the head of the parliament will be mostly relegated to formalities, such as issuing credential letters to diplomats, it added.
North Korea’s government has yet to weigh in on the change.
„The constitutional revisions reinforce the shift Kim Jong Un has been trying to make away from the ‘military first’ politics of his father’s era, toward a new strategy of prioritizing economic development,” said John Delury, a Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University. It allows Kim to „represent North Korea in the international community.”
Following a flurry of nuclear and missile tests in 2017, including three launches of long-range missiles potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, Kim declared his nuclear arsenal as complete and urged a shift in national focus toward economic growth. But there are doubts whether he’ll ever fully deal away an arsenal he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.
The new constitution maintains a description of North Korea as an „invincible political and ideological power, a nuclear power and an indomitable military power” and emphasizes Kim’s commitment to economic growth and developing science and technology.
North Korea’s weapons tests in recent weeks have been accompanied by rising frustration over the pace of nuclear talks and continued military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which the North claims are an invasion rehearsal. The series of short-range ballistic launches are seen as measured brinkmanship aimed at pressuring Washington and Seoul and building leverage ahead of negotiations, which could resume sometime after the end of the military drills later this month.
The United States has called for North Korea to commit to completely relinquishing its nuclear and missile program and rejected the North’s demands for sanctions relief in exchange for piecemeal deals toward partially surrendering its nuclear capabilities.
Klug reported from Tokyo.
- A Russian military ammunition depot that exploded on Monday has exploded again, injuring at least another 10 people.
- The ammunition storage facility, believed to house tens of thousands of artillery shells, caught fire and exploded on Monday, killing one and injuring 13 others, as a result of „human error.”
- The latest incident was reportedly caused by lightning after the facility’s lighting-defense systems were damaged in the earlier explosion.
- In the past week, Russian military facilities have seen multiple explosions, as well as more than a dozen casualties.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Russian military can’t seem to catch a break, as more explosions continue to rock an ammunition depot that blew up earlier this week.
At least 10 people were injured Friday when two new explosions ripped through the ammunition storage facility at a Russian military base in Siberia, Russia’s state-run TASS News Agency reported Friday. The injured are currently receiving medial treatment while authorities evacuate nearby residents to safety.
The depot, which Russian media said was home to tens of thousands of artillery shells, first exploded Monday, setting off fires that continued to burn until the next day. One person was killed, more than a dozen were injured, and around 16,000 people living within 20 kilometers, or about 12 miles, of the blast were evacuated.
People were able to return to their homes on Tuesday after the gunpowder charges had stopped detonating, TASS reported.
„Human error” was identified as the cause of the accident at the ammunition depot located in the Kamenka settlement in the Krasnoyarsk region.
Friday’s explosions were caused by lightning after the earlier incident damaged the facility’s lighting defense system, the Associated Press reported.
The local governor’s office, according to Russian state media, said that the latest ammo depot explosions occurred during a shell-clearing operation.
While the fires and explosions at the military ammunition depot have been problematic, they haven’t been Russia’s only worry this week. On Thursday, a missile engine exploded at a military test site in northern Russia, killing two and injuring six.
The rally by almost 50,000 people was one of the largest protests since President Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012
Moscow (AFP) – Nearly 50,000 opposition supporters rallied and dozens were arrested in Moscow on Saturday at one of the largest authorised protests since President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
Demonstrators crowded the central Prospekt Andreya Sakharova street, where city authorities deployed a massive police presence, including officers in riot gear, after giving permission for the rally to go ahead.
The White Counter, an NGO that tracks participants in rallies, counted 49,900 people, while Moscow police gave a much lower attendance figure of 20,000.
Police in Moscow said they detained more than 130 people. A further 80 were arrested in Russia’s second-largest city of Saint Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors detentions at protests.
In recent weeks, thousands have attended street protests calling for free and fair elections after the exclusion of several opposition figures, including allies of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny, from local Moscow polls next month.
While the rally was authorised, Navalny — who is currently in jail — had urged supporters to walk peacefully through the city afterwards.
Navalny’s associate, Boris Zolotarevsky, told protesters to proceed to Putin’s administration offices. He was detained by police shortly afterwards.
– ‘Citizens are hostages’ –
At the rally, some protesters carried placards with slogans such as „Give us the right to vote!” and „You’ve lied to us enough”, while others held up pictures of activists arrested at earlier demonstrations.
„I’m outraged by this injustice at every level. They’re not letting candidates stand who have collected all the necessary signatures. They are arresting people who are protesting peacefully,” said one protester, Irina Dargolts, a 60-year-old engineer.
„It feels like the country is a prisoner and its citizens are hostages… No one represents the people,” said Dmitry Khobbotovsky, an activist for the Open Russia movement funded by Kremlin foe and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Showing the movement’s appeal to young Russians, one of the country’s most famous rappers, Oxxxymiron, attended the rally and another popular rapper Face performed on stage.
„I’m performing here today so that my people have freedom and the right to choose,” said Face, 22, known for his facial tattoos.
– Police crackdown –
Riot police and the national guard had detained over 2,000 people at the previous two rallies, which were not authorised by city officials, and a dozen protesters face criminal charges and risk jail terms for „mass disorder”.
Most opposition candidates banned from participating in the Moscow election have now been jailed for violating protest laws.
One of the rally speakers was the wife of opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, who is serving a 30-day sentence.
„Each of us has the right to run for office and they are very afraid of that,” said Valeriya Gudkova.
„We have real support from the public and they just have criminals in their electoral commissions.”
– ‘Attempt to gag us’ –
As he enters his third decade in power, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped significantly and critics say the authorities fear any outlet calling for wider political change.
The latest demonstration came this week as authorities mounted their harshest attack yet on Navalny’s team, focusing on his anti-corruption foundation which publishes investigations of officials close to Putin.
One of the foundation’s lawyers, Lyubov Sobol, was detained Saturday at her campaign office by police in riot gear, she wrote on social media.
Riot police also raided the studio where Navalny’s supporters were set to run a live broadcast of the protest, activists said.
On Thursday, investigators raided the foundation’s office as part of a probe into alleged acceptance of donations of laundered money and a court froze the foundation’s accounts.
„This is the most aggressive attempt yet to gag us,” Navalny wrote in a blog entry he issued through lawyers while serving a 30-day sentence.
An estimated 24,000 protesters gathered in front of the government’s headquarters in Bucharest, waving the national flag and shouting „Thieves!”
Bucharest (AFP) – Thousands of people rallied in Bucharest on Saturday calling for the government’s resignation, exactly one year after a demonstration was violently suppressed by security forces.
According to the Romanian news agency Agerpres, an estimated 24,000 protesters gathered outside the government’s headquarters in the capital, waving the national flag and shouting „Thieves!” and „Resign!”.
„The country is going in the wrong direction. There’s no future for young people,” 19-year-old medical student Bogdan Iliescu told AFP.
„We want a government that works for us, not in its own interests,” he said.
Another demonstrator, 60-year-old Lenuta Iancu, said she had come to protest against „the daily injustices” such as widespread political corruption and a dilapidated healthcare system.
Both had been among some 80,000 people dispersed by tear gas, water cannons and rubber batons at a peaceful rally at the same site on August 10, 2018.
More than 450 people were hurt and 700 filed complaints against the security forces. But a year on, the investigations against police chiefs have stalled.
Romania’s centre-right president Klaus Iohannis — who regularly clashes with the Social Democrat government of Prime Minister Viorica Dancila — has described last year’s events as a „tragedy” and urged police not to resort to force this time round.
The demonstrators on Saturday also paid tribute to two teenage girls, Alexandra and Luiza, whose killings shocked the country and sparked street protests.
A suspect from the southern town of Caracal has confessed to the separate kidnappings and murders of the girls.
Authorities came under fire after it emerged that one of the girls, aged 15, made three calls to emergency services to report her own kidnapping but that the police failed to react in time.
Several top officials including police chief Ioan Buda and interior minister Nicolae Moga have been sacked over the affair.
The seeds of the Trump-era trade war between the U.S. and China were planted during the last presidential campaign, when then-candidate Donald Trump said Beijing couldn’t be allowed to continue to “rape our country.”
Any hopes of a reprieve in the U.S.-China trade war were dashed Friday when President Donald Trump said he wasn’t yet ready to make a deal and suggested the next round of talks could be canceled.
For investors, it was the latest turn of the screw in a long-running dispute that has rocked stock markets and raised the possibility of a rare currency-market intervention by Washington.
The seeds of the Trump-era trade war between the U.S. and China were planted during the last presidential campaign, when then-candidate Trump said Beijing couldn’t be allowed to continue to “rape our country.”
That’s what Trump said during a May 2016 rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., when the Republican candidate bemoaned the U.S.’s trade deficit with China.
Fast forward to August 2019 and Washington and Beijing have placed tariffs on each other’s products despite what Trump has called a good relationship with President Xi Jinping. On Monday, China’s currency USDCNY, +0.0000% fell through the level of 7 to the dollar, prompting Trump to accuse Beijing of manipulation. Hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department made it official.
A weaker yuan makes Chinese goods cheaper overseas, exactly the effect Trump dislikes as he tries to lessen the flow of imports into the U.S. On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial AverageDJIA, -0.34% plummeted more than 700 points as investors feared the trade war was undermining economic growth and creating financial instability. On Tuesday morning, stock prices recovered some ground after China’s central bank signaled it would not let the yuan fall much further. Friday, equities SPX, -0.66% fell once again after Trump said, “We’ll see whether or not we keep our meeting in September. If we do, that’s fine. If we don’t, that’s fine.”
The yuan’s slump on Monday came after Trump last Thursday pledged to impose 10% tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods beginning Sept. 1.
But those tariffs will hardly be the first, if they go into effect. Back in January 2018, Trump announced tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, including from China.
Two months later, Trump ordered tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imports. In response, China imposed tariffs on American goods including pork, fruit and other commodities.
Despite trade talks, the tariffs kept coming. In June 2018, Trump approved tariffs on about $50 billion in Chinese goods. Then in September 2018, he imposed a 10% tariff on $200 billion of Chinese products. This time the Chinese hit back with tariffs on $60 billion in American goods.
A meeting between Trump and Xi led to the resumption of trade talks in Beijing in January of this year.
But later, in early May, Trump’s top economic advisers said China had reneged on previous commitments.
Trump soon boosted the 10% tariffs to 25%. China raised its own tariffs in response.
In his tariff threat last week, Trump left open the possibility that he could hold off on the latest levies if progress is made.
“We look forward to continuing our positive dialogue with China on a comprehensive Trade Deal, and feel that the future between our two countries will be a very bright one!” he said on Twitter.
Analysts, meanwhile, aren’t optimistic about Trump holding his fire.
Henrietta Treyz of Veda Partners said in a note on Monday she expects with 95% probability that the tariffs will go into effect on Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, Chris Krueger of Cowen Washington Research Group says a currency-market intervention is becoming more likely. Trump said Friday he wasn’t telling his administration to devalue the dollar, but he has complained about its strength, saying it hurts U.S. manufacturers.
“With the dollar DXY, -0.60% remaining near multiyear highs, and the president continuing to tweet his unhappiness with the Fed (and other central banks), odds are rising of a U.S. Treasury intervention to weaken the dollar,” Krueger wrote Monday.
The U.S. imported a record $539.5 billion in goods from China in 2018. By contrast, the U.S. shipped a much smaller $120.3 billion in goods to China last year.
President Trump on Friday dismissed the calls for a boycott of SoulCycle and Equinox, luxury exercise chains owned by a conglomerate whose chairman was hosting a lucrative fundraiser for the president’s reelection.
Trump spoke to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House as he was leaving to attend the closed-door luncheon at the Southampton, N.Y., home of Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins and chairman of the Related Cos., the parent company of SoulCycle and Equinox.
News of the fundraiser spurred a backlash on social media, with some high-profile activists and celebrities, including Chrissy Teigen and Billy Eichner, urging customers to boycott the chains.
“Stephen Ross is a great friend of mine,” Trump said in response to a question about the boycott. “He’s a very successful guy. We were competitors but friends in real estate in New York in the old days. He’s a great guy. He is, by the way, probably more inclined to be a liberal, if you want to know the truth. But he likes me.”
Trump added that he was told tickets for the luncheon, which ranged from $100,000 to $250,000, were “totally sold out.”
On Wednesday, as the backlash surrounding the event intensified, Ross released a statement saying, “I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others, and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions.”
Both Equinox and SoulCycle released statements distancing the companies from the event and Ross himself.
“SoulCycle in no way endorses the political fundraising event being held later this week,” SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan said, adding: “Mr. Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of SoulCycle.”
Trump, for his part, thought the controversy was a good thing for his friend.
“I think it makes Steve much hotter,” he said. “The controversy makes Steve Ross hotter.”
Trump says Ross is a ‘great guy’
Crowds were filing out of Broadway theaters Tuesday evening when a series of loud booms and cracks filled the air. Firecrackers? Gunshots? A terrorist explosion?
At the Shubert Theater, where “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in its final scene, the cast fled to their dressing rooms as the audience screamed and crouched behind upholstered seats. At the Imperial, where the curtain of “Dear Evan Hansen” had only just fallen, the building went on lockdown. At the Hirschfeld, where “Moulin Rouge” had only minutes before received a standing ovation, departing crowds pushed and bumped and cried and ran until everyone around them had stopped running.
There was no shooter. The sound was a backfire from a group of motorcycles on West 45th Street. But the panic, the sense that what they had dreaded was taking place, the shock mixed with an eerie familiarity, was evidence of the new normal in America, where there have been 255 mass shootings so far this year. Two of the deadliest had taken place just the previous weekend.
“It’s like we never thought it would happen but we always thought it could happen, and now it was happening,” said Robin Gorman Newman, a Tony Award-nominated producer who was one of those who found herself running with a crowd after seeing “Moulin Rouge.” “You realize how much life has changed.”
Fear is not new to America. There have long been streets that are unsafe, and neighborhoods that are at risk of riots, blackout drills and schoolchildren sheltering under their desks. Since 9/11 (or maybe Columbine, or perhaps Oklahoma City), it has been a steady thrum beneath the studied layer of normalcy in the U.S. Concrete barriers here. Shoes off at security checks there. Bans on backpacks.
But this time, in the wake of the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that fear has felt closer to the surface, ready to flare at a rumor, an unexpected sound, a glimpse of a stranger.
The odds of being killed in a mass shooting within the U.S., whether by a foreign terrorist or a white supremacist, are still small — less than the odds of being struck by lightning. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson tried to make this point on the afternoon of the Dayton shooting, tweeting that the 34 people “horrifically lost” that weekend did not compare with the numbers who died in other ways over a typical 48 hours: 500 from medical errors, 300 from the flu, 200 from car accidents, 250 from suicide and 40 from homicide with a handgun.
“Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” he wrote.
He was pummeled on social media for the remarks, and he apologized. While the lesson he intended to teach may have been one of respecting data, the one he learned was that the victims of a mass shooting are not only those who have been shot, or even those in their immediate circles, but also the millions whose own feelings of security are dented even from thousands of miles away.
A review of the literature of the psychological impact of mass shootings published in the Journal of Trauma, Violence and Abuse concluded that “such events lead to at least short-term increases in fears and declines in perceived safety.”
When they come at a rate of one or more a day, as they do now (there were 84 mass shootings in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, a rate of about eight a year, compared with the 255 so far this year), the short term can feel permanent, the trauma unrelenting.
Which is why Elizabeth Wade, a nurse in Portland, Ore., canceled her plans to see “Hamlet” at Shakespeare in the Park at Laurelhurst Park in Portland on Sunday, after reading the morning’s news. She stayed home and watched Netflix instead.
And while Christopher Conner, who directs homeless response in Denver, did go out that day — he took his wife to the Water World theme park in Thornton, Colo., to celebrate her birthday — he stood on line for the Voyage to the Center of the Earth ride and stared out intently at the wooded area beyond the chain-link fence, watching for signs of a shooter, imaging where all the children in the line could run should one appear.
Those who say they factor fear into the calculus of their everyday life can’t always pinpoint the moment when it began. But this weekend made it clear how true it is right now.
They describe avoiding a lengthening list of places — houses of worship, buses and trains, crowded movie theaters.
Tara Egan, a parent coach and former school psychologist from Charlotte, N.C., now insists that her 14-year-old daughter, who has diabetes, take her insulin kit everywhere, even a few steps away to the bathroom at a restaurant, because “what if there is a lockdown and she’s stuck for hours with no sugar or insulin?”
Sarah Imrie, who is raising three sons in Newburyport, Mass., has taken to scouting exits and choosing a meet-up location when they go to places like the mall. “They have to understand this is the world we live in,” she says. “It makes me furious, but I don’t know a better solution.”
New Yorker Andrea Sachs now steers away from the big crowded spectacles that are the quintessential experiences of New York life — like the New York City Marathon or the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River. “The bombings at the Boston Marathon scared the hell out of me,” she says.
Chicagoan Dasha Snyder, for her part, has cut down on the number of protests she attends, out of the same new fear of crowds. “Although I consider myself an activist, I have greatly curtailed my in-person activism,” she says, “choosing to avoid big rallies in favor of phone banking. When the people you are protesting have guns and hate you, looking for cars and concrete walls to dive behind in the event of shots fired really takes a toll on my psyche.”
And Julia Beck, a workplace recruitment and retention consultant in Washington, D.C., has taken to “working from home more often, just because it feels safe.” She shops mostly online, even from stores that are a mere 2 miles from her house in Chevy Chase, Md., so that she doesn’t have to go to the mall. And that was all before her 21-year-old daughter, Lila, was among the employees evacuated from the Gannett Building in McLean, Va., on Wednesday, in response to what turned out to be false reports of an active shooter at USA Today headquarters.
When Lila was younger, her mother would send her out the door with the warning to “make good choices” out in the world, Beck remembers.
“I still say it,” Beck says, even as she recognizes the limitations of that advice, that the dangers in the world “are not their choices. These are not our choices.”
Muslim pilgrims pray for their sins at Mount Arafat, a rocky hill southeast of Mecca also known as Mount of Mercy, in a ritual that is regarded as the high point of the annual hajj
Mount Arafat (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – Nearly 2.5 million Muslim hajj pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia Saturday marshalled by tens of thousands of stewards in a bid to prevent any repetition of previous years’ deadly stampedes.
Movable crowd control barriers were erected all around the foot of the rocky hill outside Mecca, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, where the faithful arrived on foot and in a seemingly endless line of buses.
Raising their palms skywards, the pilgrims set off on the climb to the summit where they held prayers to atone for their sins in a ritual that is regarded as the high point of the annual hajj.
„Really, I am very satisfied,” said Lassina Coulibaly, a 47-year-old Malian business employee.
„Fatigue is part of the pilgrimage,” added the father of seven.
Clutching brightly coloured umbrellas, pilgrims first braved the blazing sun and then heavy downpours that many welcomed as a blessing.
Some burst into tears as they chanted prayers.
Thousands of faithful had spent the night under the stars, sleeping on prayer rugs or pieces of cardboard.
Trucks were parked at regular intervals on the route leading up to the hill, distributing bottles of water and meals.
Thousands of workers prepared to clear the rubbish that littered the ground.
Helicopters criss-crossed overhead, part of the tight security precautions taken by the pilgrimage’s Saudi hosts.
– ‘It is an honour’ –
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.
„I came last year during Ramadan, now I am there for the hajj,” said Indonesian pilgrim Zakir Uddin.
„It is an honour, praise be to God,” added the 27-year-old cook.
Like other male pilgrims, he wears a seamless white garment that covers only one shoulder and emphasises unity regardless of social status or nationality.
The women wear loose dresses, most of them white, exposing only their faces and hands.
They are designed to help pilgrims enter a state of purity, called ihram.
Uddin, who works in the Saudi city of Jeddah less than 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Mecca, says he is happy to see so many of his compatriots among the pilgrims.
„Indonesians make up the single largest contingent, such is the will of God,” he said.
Pilgrims travelling from abroad account for 1.86 million of the 2.48 million taking part in this year’s hajj, according to official figures.
After sunset prayers, pilgrims will make their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, another holy site where they will sleep under the stars to prepare for the final stage of hajj, a ritual „stoning of the devil”.
That marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, marked on Sunday.
Sheep are traditionally slaughtered for the three-day event, a tribute to the prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son.
Pilgrims then return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final „tawaf” or walk around the Kaaba.
– Logistical challenge –
The scale of the pilgrimage presents vast security and logistical challenges, with tens of thousands of safety officers deployed.
Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the deadliest stampede in the gathering’s history.
This year’s hajj takes place to a backdrop of Gulf tensions following a series of attacks on tankers, the downing of drones and the seizure of ships.
Riyadh blames regional foe Tehran for the attacks on commercial shipping, accusations Iran vehemently denies.
Despite the absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries, some 88,550 Iranian pilgrims are due to take part in the hajj this year according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
As in previous years, Saudi authorities have been at pains to stress that the hajj is a religious event and have sought to prevent its politicisation.
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — More than 2 million pilgrims were gathered in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Friday to perform initial rites of the hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage that takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
The hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equalizer and unifier among Muslims, with pilgrims shedding overt displays of wealth and materialism. All male pilgrims wear simple terry cloth white garments and women don conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume in an effort to draw closer to God and engage in intense worship for the five-day hajj.
On Friday, thousands of pilgrims circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. They circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise, their hearts tilting toward the structure that’s meant to symbolize the monotheistic principle of the oneness of God in Islam. Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba daily, using compasses to help them pray in its direction.
The hajj is one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world, drawing more than 1.8 million people from around the world this year, according to Saudi officials. Several hundred thousand more pilgrims are Saudi residents or citizens. Last year, 2.4 million people took part in the hajj, with similar numbers expected for 2019.
„I am very happy now. It is the first time I am here in Mecca. I am very excited,” Siti Haslina Yousof, a Malaysian pilgrim in Mecca, said.
The U.S. consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia said some 20,000 U.S. citizens and residents were expected to take part in this year’s hajj.
The pilgrimage this year takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and as conflicts continue to flare in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Muslim minorities around the world also face increased threats, with Uighurs facing repression in China, Rohingya facing genocide in Myanmar and Kashmiris under a sweeping curfew and communication blackout in the Indian-administered territory.
„I cannot express my feelings. The atmosphere is spiritual, still and tranquil. We hope Yemen will be united for good,” said Ali Ahmed Al-Sudani, a Yemeni pilgrim who said he was praying for unity in his war-torn country.
Saudi King Salman invited as his guests to the hajj this year 200 survivors and relatives of victims of a shooting spree in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white gunman opened fire and killed 51 people in two mosques.
Those on the hajj view the pilgrimage as an opportunity to strengthen one’s faith, erase past sins and start anew. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.
For the well-heeled, the pilgrimage includes a partial stay in towering five-star hotels with lavish buffets overlooking the Kaaba. But for most, it means sleeping in simple accommodations or even spending weeks sleeping on the ground around Mecca’s Grand Mosque to perform daily prayers and rites near the Kaaba ahead of the hajj.
Many pilgrims will save for years to perform the hajj. Charities and wealthier Muslims often also help fund those unable to cover the costs.
In addition to being financially costly, the hajj is physically demanding, involving much walking and travel between various points along the route.
To ease the journey, the kingdom recently unveiled the first phase of a new high-speed train connecting pilgrims between holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina. The kingdom also has a new e-visa system in place for pilgrims.
Still, the hajj remains a precarious journey. In 2015, several thousand pilgrims died in a stampede and crush of pilgrims in Mina on a narrow pedestrian-only road leading to a site where Muslims take part in the symbolic stoning of the devil during the last three days of the hajj. The government never released a final death count.
To curb the potential for a viral outbreak of any kind, Saudi Arabia this year stopped issuing visas to people from Congo, citing the Ebola outbreak there.
By Friday evening, most pilgrims will be in Mina, where they will spend the night in air-conditioned tents, before heading to Mount Arafat early Saturday, an area about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mecca. There, the more than 2 million pilgrims will stand shoulder to shoulder for an emotional day of repentance and supplication at the site where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
„We feel very excited and will pray for all people,” said Malaysian pilgrim, Farida bin Abdulrahman, as she prepared to depart toward Mina for the evening.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Haifa (Israel) (AFP) – A huge earthquake hits northern Israel, killing thousands and knocking out infrastructure — this doomsday scenario was the premise for a multi-national naval drill this week.
Sailors from France, Greece and the United States arrived on their vessels and were joined by the Israelis off the Israeli port city of Haifa for the four-day exercise, called Mighty Waves.
They simulated extracting wounded civilians to sea for treatment, fishing people out of the water and transferring humanitarian aid, with representatives of seven other navies taking part as observers.
It was the first time Israel hosted and organised a drill of such scope, said Lieutenant Colonel Liav Zilberman.
One of the main goals was „of course to learn from these navies” and having them „learn from us”, he said.
Israel is always looking to boost its profile among Western allies as well as reinforce its image as the Middle East’s most powerful military, and the drill was a chance to do that, said Eran Lerman, former deputy to Israel’s national security adviser.
„The very fact that Israel is perceived by key global players as a state that can and should be cooperated with militarily conveys a message of deterrence to potential enemies, while strengthening the increasing ties with like-minded Arab states,” said Lerman, now vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Jerusalem (AFP) – The Israeli army said its troops shot dead four heavily armed Palestinians on the Gaza border early Saturday, alleging one of them had managed to cross and throw a grenade at soldiers.
Separately, security forces said they had arrested two Palestinians suspected of killing an off-duty Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
There have been frequent clashes along the Gaza border since the Palestinians began organising regular mass protests there in March 2018.
But Saturday’s exchange was unusual due to the weaponry the Israeli army said was involved on the Palestinian side.
„The terrorists were equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, RPG grenade launchers and hand grenades,” an army statement said.
A spokeswoman said „the army opened fire after one of the terrorists scaled the barrier and hurled a grenade at the soldiers.”
No Israeli casualties were reported.
Army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the four Palestinians were all wearing „uniforms” — without elaborating — and were equipped with food and a medical kit as well as the rifles.
A Hamas statement condemned Israel’s killing of the four Palestinians as a „crime”.
But the Islamist rulers of the Palestinian enclave made no claim of responsibility and did not say if the four were members of its armed wing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his government’s stance that Hamas is responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
„Israel will continue to act to thwart infiltrations of its territory and attacks on our citizens,” he said in a statement.
Palestinian demonstrations at the border demanding the lifting of Israel’s more than decade-old blockade have often led to violence and a deadly response from the Israeli army.
At least 301 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since March 2018, the majority during the demonstrations.
Seven Israelis have also been killed.
The protests have declined in intensity in recent months following a UN and Egypt-brokered truce under which Israel agreed to ease aspects of its blockade in return for calm.
Sporadic violence has continued but the Israeli army has said most of it has consisted of lone-wolf attacks.
– Elections ahead –
Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a major flare-up in the Palestinian territories as Israel prepares for a snap general election on September 17, its second polls this year.
But he is likely to face political pressure to act firmly against any significant attack.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.
On August 1, a Palestinian seeking to avenge his brother’s death by Israeli fire entered Israel from Gaza armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and hand grenades. He was killed and three Israeli soldiers wounded, the army said.
The latest killings on the Gaza border came days after off-duty soldier Dvir Sorek was found dead „with stabbing marks” near the West Bank settlement of Migdal Oz.
Israel’s domestic intelligence agency said Saturday that two Palestinians suspected of killing him had been arrested.
„After an intensive intelligence operation by security services, the Israeli police and army arrested suspects” in his murder, Shin Bet said in a statement.
The killing of the 19-year-old, between Bethlehem and the flashpoint city of Hebron, further hiked Israeli-Palestinian tensions ahead of the elections.
The Israeli army said separately that some 100 „rioters” had attacked security forces with rocks as they apprehended „the terrorist squad” suspected of killing him.
Netanyahu commended the swift arrests.
„In recent years our forces have laid hands on all of the Palestinian murderers who have attacked Israelis and today they have done so again,” he said.
NEW DELHI (AP) — Authorities enforcing a strict curfew in Indian-administered Kashmir promised easing of restrictions on Sunday and essential supplies for an Islamic festival, as the divided Himalayan region remained in a lockdown after India’s decision to strip it of its constitutional autonomy.
Pakistan said that with the support of China, it will take up India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir with the U.N. Security Council and may approach the U.N. Human Rights Commission over what it says is the „genocide” of the Kashmiri people.
Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan and is divided between the archrivals. Rebels have been fighting New Delhi’s rule for decades in the Indian-controlled portion, and most Kashmiri residents want either independence or a merger with Pakistan.
Gov. Satya Pal Malik said in interviews with television networks that there would be easing of restrictions and adequate essential supplies for Monday’s Eid al-Adha festival.
His comments came as India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, on Saturday demanded a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the situation in Kashmir, saying there are reports of violence and people dying.
Talking to reporters in New Delhi, Gandhi said „things are going very wrong there,” and called for the Indian government to make clear what is happening.
Authorities in Srinagar, the region’s main city, said there have been instances of stone pelting by protesters but no gun firing by security forces in the past six days. Television images on Saturday showed movement of cars and people in some parts of Kashmir.
„There has been no untoward incident barring minor stone-pelting, which was dealt with on the spot and was nipped in the bud,” Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh told the Press Trust of India news agency.
On Thursday, Modi assured the people of Jammu and Kashmir that normalcy would gradually return and that the government was ensuring that the current restrictions do not dampen the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha on Monday.
New Delhi rushed tens of thousands of additional soldiers to one of the world’s most militarized regions to prevent unrest and protests after Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government said Monday that it was revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status and downgrading its statehood. Modi said the move was necessary to free the region of „terrorism and separatism.”
The indefinite 24-hour curfew was briefly eased on Friday for weekly Muslim prayers in some parts of Srinagar, but thousands of residents are still forced to stay indoors with shops and most health clinics closed. All communications and the internet remain cut off.
Following Friday prayers, police used tear gas and pellets to fight back the protesters who gathered in their largest numbers since authorities clamped down and detained more than 500 political and separatist leaders.
Other stone-throwing incidents were reported from the northern and southern parts of Kashmir.
Authorities were closely watching for any anti-India protests, which will determine a further easing of restrictions for the Eid holiday.
The region’s top administrative official, Baseer Khan, said that essential commodities including food, grains and meat will be delivered to different parts of the region by Sunday.
In the meantime, most residents have been waking up before dawn to get food and other supplies stockpiled by neighborhood shopkeepers and pharmacists inside their homes. Shortly after dawn, police and paramilitary soldiers swiftly occupy the roads and streets as part of the restrictions on movement.
While some easing on the movement and opening of shops is expected around Eid, officials still held reservations about restoring mobile and internet services. Some relaxation of curbs on landline communication, however, could be considered, they said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met with his Chinese counterpart and other top officials in Beijing on Saturday. He said that China fully supports Pakistan in taking the Kashmir issue to the U.N. Security Council.
He also said Pakistan is considering going to the U.N. Human Rights Commission over the situation.
„When a demographic change is made through force, it’s called genocide, and you are moving toward genocide,” he told reporters in Islamabad after returning from Beijing.
With India moving to erase the constitutional provision that prohibited outsiders from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir state, Indians from the rest of the country can now purchase real estate and apply for government jobs there. Some fear this may lead to a demographic and cultural change in the Muslim-majority region.
Qureshi said that India’s moves have increased the threat to regional peace and raised fears of bloodshed in Kashmir.
He also said that while Pakistan is not planning to take any military action, it is ready to counter any potential aggression by India.
Also Saturday, a regional political party from Kashmir petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the government’s move to scrap the region’s special status and divide the state into two federal territories. The National Conference in its plea claimed the move was illegal. An opposition Congress party activist has already filed a petition challenging the communications blockade and the detentions of Kashmiri leaders.
The United States on Friday said that there has been no change in its policy on Kashmir, as Washington continues to regard it as a territory disputed between India and Pakistan.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus described Kashmir as „certainly an incredibly important issue” that the United States continued to „follow closely.”
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.