Witnesses say many dead, injured in shooting at New Zealand mosque

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said 49 people have been killed and injured in a shooting at a mosque in the center of Christchurch, New Zealand.

New Zealand police tweeted that officers responded to a “serious ongoing firearms incident” around 1:40 p.m. Friday (8:40 p.m. Thursday ET). They said schools in the city had been placed on lockdown and urged people to stay indoors.

Nearly two hours after the initial response, police tweeted that the situation was “serious and evolving.”

“Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high.”

There was no official word on casualties, but witnesses said the Masjid Al Noor mosque was full for Friday afternoon prayers and many people were dead.

Witness Len Peneha told the Associated Press he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror. Peneha, who has lived next door to the mosque for about five years, said the gunman ran outside, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in Peneha’s driveway, and fled before emergency services arrived.

Peneha said he went into the mosque to try and help.

“I saw dead people everywhere,” he said. “There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque. It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.”

Zayd Blissett, chairman of the Association of Marlborough, told Stuff.co.NZ that he received a text the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) saying “50 shot” at the mosque.

“I’m just heartbroken,” he said. “In fact, I’m sitting here crying. This is New Zealand. This can’t happen here.”

A third witness, Mohammed Nazir, told TVNZ he saw three women shot and bleeding outside the mosque. He told police that he called the police climbed a wall to escape, leaving his shoes behind in the process.

A witness who declined to give his name told Stuff the gunman was wearing a helmet and fired more than 50 shots.

“He had a big gun and a lot of bullets and he came through and started shooting like everyone in the mosque, like everywhere, and they have to smash the door and the glass from the window and from the small door to try and get out,” he said.

The Guardian reported that police had discovered a bomb in a beige Subaru that had crashed in the center of Christchurch, approximately two miles from the mosque. The paper reported that police officers had cordoned off the street and were keeping a safe distance from the vehicle.

Christchurch, located on New Zealand’s South Island, is the third-largest city in the country with a population of just over 400,000. It was affected by a devastating earthquake in February 2011, which killed 185 people and triggered the collapse of thousands of buildings across the city.

Rockets fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens

Two rockets were fired at the Israeli city of Tel Aviv Thursday night, triggering air raid warning sirens, the country’s military said.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed in a Hebrew-language tweet that two rockets were fired into Israeli territory from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli media initially reported that one of the rockets was intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome missile defense system. However, the IDF later said neither of the rockets was, adding that they landed in the sea or on open land.

People living in the area reported hearing an explosion in addition to the sirens. It was not clear what caused that explosion. No damage or casualties were reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an urgent meeting with senior military officials, including his military chief and other top advisers, following the attack to plan a response.

Israel’s Channel 10 news, citing anonymous military officials, said the rockets were Iranian-made Fajr rockets. Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the Israeli army’s chief spokesman, said officials had no prior warning of the attack and were trying to determine who had fired the rockets. Israel holds Gaza’s Hamas rulers responsible for all fire out of the territory.

Tel Aviv has not been attacked by rocket or missile fire since a 2014 war with Hamas militants. There was no immediate claim of responsibility Thursday night, but the attack is likely to trigger a swift and firm reaction from Israel.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said he had ordered the city to open public air raid shelters as a protective measure. But he said there were no special instructions and encouraged residents to stick to their daily routines.

“Continue life as usual,” he told Channel 10 TV. “Be calm, but be alert.”

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis condemned the rocket launches.

“Hamas and other terror groups indiscriminately fire rockets towards Israeli cities,” Marquis said. “Actions like this make it impossible for the international community to assist the Palestinians in Gaza. The United States strongly supports Israel’s right of self-defense.”

Earlier this week, Israel struck Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket fire on southern Israel, near the border. Late Thursday, local media said Egyptian mediators who were in Gaza trying to strengthen a cease-fire between Gaza militants and Israel left the territory.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu issued a warning to Hamas, rejecting suggestions that Israel would be reluctant to take tough action in Gaza ahead of national elections next month.

“I suggest to Hamas, don’t count on it,” he told his Cabinet. “We will do anything necessary to restore security and quiet to the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and to the south in general.”

In addition to Hamas, the Gaza Strip is home to other militant groups, including Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed armed organization that also has a formidable rocket arsenal. Last month, the group boasted on Iranian television that Tehran had helped it develop a new missile capable of striking Tel Aviv, Israel’s second-most populous city and the Jewish state’s commercial and cultural capital.

Thai parties woo young voters, but one may hit the mark

BANGKOK – You could call it the 7 million-voter question: Will young people like the ones who turned out on a recent Saturday night to listen to politically hip rappers also make it to the polls for Thailand’s upcoming general election? And do they share the anger at the established order being sung and shouted about onstage?

The country in which this year’s 7 million eligible first-time voters have grown up has experienced two army coups since 2006, violent political polarization and a nasty crackdown on freedom of expression by the military clique that has held the reins since a 2014 takeover.

Topping the recent concert bill was the group Rap Against Dictatorship, whose surprise hit, “My Country’s Got That,” lambasts the hypocrisy of Thai society. Some of the song’s milder lyrics describe Thailand as “the country whose Parliament is a parlor.”

The breakthrough song has garnered almost 59 million views since its release on YouTube last October. Judging by the crowd at the concert, most of its fans hail from the 18-to-35-year-old demographic that makes up roughly a quarter of Thailand’s 51 million-strong electorate.

This generation is too young to hold many memories of a Thailand that was not politically troubled.

If it is unsympathetic to army rule, it also does not harbor any nostalgic affection for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist whose 2006 overthrow ushered in a political dark age in what had been one of Southeast Asia’s most promising democracies.

Unlike Thaksin’s hardcore “red shirt” followers and his rabid “yellow shirt” opponents — groups whose violent street protests helped derail electoral politics — their allegiances are up for grabs.

Political parties are taking notice, mostly by showcasing their younger candidates.

The Democrat Party, the country’s oldest, has its “New Dem” group of 21 young politicians led by 26-year-old Parit Wacharasindhu, a nephew of party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva, a former prime minister who himself once capitalized on his youthful image. Another of its members is Surabot Leekpai, the 30-year-old son of another former Democrat prime minister, Chuan Leekpai.

Another group, Bhumjaithai, previously known as an old-fashioned patronage-driven regional party, has been rebranding with campaign posters hitting hot-button issues close to urban millennials’ hearts — liberalization of marijuana laws, clear legalization of ride-sharing services and the easing of repayment terms for student loans.

Even the Palang Prachatrath Party, more or less a proxy for the military that supports returning the current army-installed prime minister to office, showed off 30 young members at a news conference, many contesting parliamentary seats in the capital, Bangkok.

But it’s the Future Forward Party, founded last March, that seems to have captured the imagination of many young voters.

Party chief Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who can tap into a family fortune from the auto parts industry, projects an image similar to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Tall and trim, and favoring casual dress, the 40-year-old is tech-savvy and practices extreme sports. He also has a low-profile history of supporting progressive organizations, while most of his core team is younger and directly involved in activist groups promoting causes such as rights for the disabled, the LGBT community and the #MeToo movement.

“My idea is to make this party stand for democratic principles,” Thanathorn said at the party’s debut last year. “We will make democracy a part of every decision-making process from the choosing of party members, the determining of party direction and strategy, to the developing of party policies.”

The party’s broad-stroke policies are a response to Thailand’s political impasse: radically reforming the coup-inclined military and rewriting the military-imposed constitution to restore democracy.

“I think the conflict over the last 12 years has educated the people that politics is important to their lives,” Thanathorn said in an interview at a campaign event at Siam University in Bangkok. “Political awareness in this country has never been higher.”

Boonyanuch Prachasingh, a 20-year-old student at the university, said she is looking for a party with strong policies on education, democratization and transparency, and capable of change. She said Future Forward sounds interesting “because they are making a point of encouraging us to pay attention to politics.”

A fellow student, 21-year-old Kittiphum Pannadermitri, believes the economy is the most pressing issue.

“I think Thanathorn is from a new generation and has new ideas. I think he could help improve the economy, help Thai farmers, and tackle pollution problems,” he said.

Concertgoer Sawitree Puangngern, 23, said interest in the election is high among her peers, and she has already decided to vote for Future Forward.

“I am interested in the party that says they want change,” she said. “I want the military out from politics and I want people to have their rights back.”

Although Future Forward is hoping it can pick up as many as 50 to 70 parliamentary seats, it faces substantial hurdles as a newly established grass-roots party facing experienced opponents.

It also has drawn scurrilous attacks online from conservative elements of Thai society, who paint Thanathorn as a stalking horse for Thaksin because he espouses progressive policies that also are supported by Thaksin’s supporters. That his uncle was a top member of Thaksin’s party and served in one of his Cabinets heightens their suspicions.

Still, the party’s prospects for capturing the youth vote look good, said Prajak Kongkirati, a lecturer in political science at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“They are popular and their policies are popular,” he said. “They advocate change and radical reforms. So the youth who are frustrated with the stagnation of the country, they want to see a real change. And Thanathorn is kind of their hope, represents something new, speaks their own language and can connect to the youth.”