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Critics using BP America’s Facebook page allege they have been harassed [Erika Blumenfeld/Al Jazeera]
Update: Public Relations firm Ogilvy has contacted Al Jazeera and denied that either “Griffin” or “Ken Smith” named as trolls in the report below have any affiliation with the company or with BP. Furthermore, in interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that Levin Papantonio, one of the partners of the law firm Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, has recently been involved in legal action against BP.
New Orleans, United States – BP has been accused of hiring internet “trolls” to purposefully attack, harass, and sometimes threaten people who have been critical of how the oil giant has handled its disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.The oil firm hired the international PR company Ogilvy & Mather to run the BP America Facebook page during the oil disaster, which released at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf in what is to date the single largest environmental disaster in US history.
The page was meant to encourage interaction with BP, but when people posted comments that were critical of how BP was handling the crisis, they were often attacked, bullied, and sometimes directly threatened.
“Marie” was deeply concerned by the oil spill, and began posting comments on the BP America Facebook page. Today, she asks that she remain anonymous out of what she described to Al Jazeera as “fear for my personal safety should the BP trolls find out that I am the whistleblower in this case”.
In internet slang, a troll is someone who sows online discord by starting arguments or upsetting people, often posting inflammatory messages in an online community, or even issuing physical threats.
Marie sought assistance from the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a non-profit group in Washington DC, and has produced boxes of documents and well-researched information that may show that the people harassing BP’s critics online worked for BP or Ogilvy.
“We’d been hearing of this kind of harassment by BP when we were working on our health project [in the Gulf of Mexico], so it sparked our interest,” GAP investigator Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera. “We saw Marie’s documentation of more serious threats made on the BP page, and decided to investigate.”
According to both Marie and Devine, some of the threats began on the page, but then escalated off the page.
Threats included identifying where somebody lived, an internet troll making reference to having a shotgun and making use of it, and “others just being more derogatory”, according to Devine. “We’ve seen all this documentation and that’s why we thought it was worth bringing to the ombudsman’s office of BP, and we told them we thought some of it even warranted calling the police about.”
“We have thousands of documents regarding communications posted through various Facebook websites,” said certified legal investigator Steve Lockman of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor. “In addtion, we are in possession of communications between the federal government and the ombudsman’s office of BP regarding the internet communications, and the federal government requesting BP to control the harassment through their Facebook page and their interactions.”
“The harassment communications are not something that BP and their people are not aware of,” Lockman told Al Jazeera. “It’s not a hidden secret that the personal attacks, broadcast abuse, and type-written harassment were happening and continue to go on.”
Marie provided the firm and Al Jazeera with files of complaint letters, computer screenshots of the abuse, and a list of Facebook profiles used by the people who harassed her and others.
“I was called a lot of names,” Marie added. “I was called a streetwalker and a lot of things like that, and eventually had gun threats.”
According to Marie, the harassment didn’t remain on the BP page. Trolls often followed users to their personal Facebook pages and continued to harass them there.
“They resorted to very demeaning methods of abuse,” Marie said. “They were racist, sexist, and threatened me and others with legal action and violence. They’ve insinuated that some commenters are ‘child molesters’, and have often used the tactic of mass reporting with the goal of having their targets completely removed from Facebook.”
One troll using the name “Griffin” makes several allusions to gun violence, while another, named “Ken Smith” also harassed and threatened users, even going so far as to edit a photo of a BP critic’s pet bird into the crosshairs of a gunsight, before posting the photo online – along with photos of an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.
Another instance occurred involving “Griffin” and an environmentalist who posted a picture of a rendition of Mother Earth saying “Mother Earth Has Been Waiting for Her Day in Court, BP”. “Griffin” posted a comment to the picture that read, “A few rounds from a .50 cal will stop that b**ch”.
According to Marie, Lockman and GAP, BP’s “astroturfing” efforts and use of “trolls” have been reported as pursuing users’ personal information, then tracking and posting IP addresses of users, contacting their employers, threatening to contact family members, and using photos of critics’ family members to create false Facebook profiles, and even threatening to affect the potential outcome of individual compensation claims against BP.
Marie, along with several other targets of harassment, wrote and sent two letters to BP America, asking the company to respond to the allegations and deal with the matter. Neither letter received a response, which is why Marie decided to contact GAP, as well as the law firm.
While Marie’s evidence appears to tie Ogilvy and BP together via the trolls, the law firm Lockman works for is investigating further, in order to conclusively determine the extent of BP’s involvement.
Spinning the disaster
Stephen Marino worked for Ogilvy during the BP disaster. BP had been a client of Ogilvy for five years before the spill, and when the disaster occurred, “we were responsible for all the social media for BP during the spill”,Marino said during a lecture he gave at the University of Texas, Austin, on April 19, 2012.
His team, which he called the “digital influence team”, was “responsible for the crisis response”. Marino told the audience that his job during the BP disaster was to run a ” reputation management campaign ” and gave this specific example of the depths to which Ogilvy worked to maintain a positive appearance for BP:
“We were putting out ads, if you guys remember those ads that came out where it would be Iris in the Gulf of Mexico and she’d be talking about how she grew up there and she wasn’t going to go away,” he explained . “The way we were working with the strategy on that was we would cut the ads one day, we would edit them overnight, we’d air them on Tuesday let’s say, and then we’d look at social media to see what the response was to the ads – and based upon the feedback we were getting on social media, the advertising agency would then go back and re-cut the ads to fix the message to make it resonate more with what the constituents wanted… that was the first key strategy.”
Chris Paulos, an attorney with the firm investigating Marie’s case, believes this is a perfect example of “subversive attempts by corporations to put forward their ideology of what we should think about them, and doing it in a way that is not decipherable to the average person”.
According to Paulos, the public should be concerned about this because we can no longer tell if people online are truly who they say they are, “or are working for a corporation and talking their script to control the dialogue about whatever issue they are addressing”.
“We are in unprecedented times with technology, and [in] the disparity between the power of corporations and autonomous consumers,” Paulos told Al Jazeera. ” Citizens United has basically emboldened corporations with their ability to speak as individuals with First Amendment rights. Ever since that decision, corporations have been outspoken and vigorously protecting themselves while doing it.”
Billie Garde, BP’s deputy ombudsman, in a letter to the Government Accountability Project dated December 18, 2012, stated clearly that “BP America contracts management of its Facebook page to Ogilvy Public Relations” and added, “Ogilvy manages all of BP America’s social media matters”.
“According to BP America, Ogilvy has a group of 10 individuals in different time zones that perform comment screening of the page,” wrote Garde.
Interestingly, Garde’s letter addressed the fact that, at that time, according to Ogilvy’s data, 91 percent of all the comments on BP’s Facebook page were considered to be “unsupportive” of BP, while only nine percent were considered “supportive”. She added that “i n previous years, the number of comments that were ‘unsupportive ‘ of BP was larger than the present 91 per cent “.
Her letter stated that Ogilvy follows a “three strike” policy for all comments, “meaning if they find a comment to be in violation of the commenting policy, they delete the comment and record a ‘strike’ against the user, and three strikes means a user is no longer able to comment on the page. It is also noted that Ogilvy will delete offending comments and send a note to the user indicating the comment was inappropriate”.
Garde added: “BP America has informed our office that Ogilvy strictly adheres to the Commenting Policy as stated on the BP America Facebook page. This policy serves as the guidelines that Ogilvy follows when evaluating the appropriateness of comments. Ogilvy does not evaluate a comment with respect to it being a positive or negative statement towards BP. Likewise, they do not delete any comments based on either of these qualifiers.”
According to Garde, BP America’s Director of Employee Concerns Oversight, Mike Wilson, was apprised of the situation. Wilson was provided examples of harassment and was asked if the examples were reviewed by Ogilvy. “The discussion is ongoing, and Mr Wilson is addressing these specific concerns internally,” Garde added.
A BP spokesman provided the following statement for Al Jazeera: “The BP America Facebook page, and its moderators, do not endorse or dictate any user activity. All users’ comments and actions are their own. BP created the BP America Facebook page to engage the public in an informative conversation about our ongoing commitment to America and to facilitate constructive dialogue for any and all who wish to participate. No users are compensated for participating in the Facebook community. More information on our commenting policy can be found here .”
Marie, however, staunchly believes that BP is responsible for the pro-BP Facebook trolls.
“I have no doubt that they are, and I’ve found the links between the trolls and their friends who work for BP,” she told Al Jazeera. “The Government Accountability Project, through the inquiry they’re conducting for me, is still trying to find out. But we are being stonewalled on the other end, as far as BP doing some type of an internal investigation into these connections that I’ve uncovered.”
According to Marie, the harassment “almost ceased completely at around the same time GAP received Garde’s letter. I say ‘almost’ because at least two of the people who were involved in the prior harassment are still allowed to comment on BP’s page to this day, and [one of those] was still checking on people’s profiles to obtain their state of residence, and would use this against them on the page.”
Lockman’s investigation continues, as do the efforts of recovering additional documentation and sifting through information on hand that links the trolls to both BP and Ogilvy as well as to other subcontracted companies used by BP as creative storytellers.
“The information we possess regarding Marie’s claims, printed out, fills two file boxes, and that does not include all the DVDs which are currently being duplicated at this time,” Lockman said. “It is an unbelievable amount of documentation that has been developed. This documentation, support materials, and information is coming from several different sources. It is like a spider web and we just got started.”
Al Jazeera asked the firm Lockman works for what the possible legal ramifications would be for the alleged actions of BP and Ogilvy.
“What these guys are doing is bordering on illegal,” said Paulos the attorney. “Marie’s allegations are that these guys have made overt acts beyond what they did online, and it does sound like people who’ve been the victims of these actions believe they are in imminent danger of bodily harm, and that can become the basis for a claim of assault.”
Paulos went on to say that if people who had pending claims against BP were being targeted “it can become a claim of extortion or fraud, depending on how the money is being used”. The same applies in cases where money or other benefits are offered in exchange for ceasing the harrassment.
Yet these are not the worst possible crimes.
“They [BP/Ogilvy] are obviously trying to silence folks who are opposed or critical of what they are doing,” Paulos claimed. “But it appears as though it has moved into threats that can be considered terroristic threats depending on the intent behind them, so there are a lot of laws they can be treading on, including stalking, and tortious interference with someone’s businesses. I understand they’ve called the workplaces of people on the websites, and depending on what’s being said that may become actionable under US civil law. So there are a lot of ways they could be breaching the law based on the intent of their communication and how that has been received.”
Paulos believes Marie’s case is an example of how corporations such as BP use their money and power to take advantage of a lack of adequate legal regulations over the use of internet trolls and vigorous PR campaigns, and that this should give the general public pause.
“Marie’s story shows that corporations do not refrain from cyber-bullying, and they are doing it in a very aggressive fashion.”
Linda Hooper Bui, an associate professor of entomology at Louisiana State University, experienced a different form of harassment from BP while working on a study about the impact of the oil disaster on spiders and insects.
“BP was desperately trying to control the science, and that was what I ran into,” Bui told Al Jazeera. According to her, BP’s chief science officer “tried to intimidate me”, and the harassment included BP “bullying my people” who were working in the field with her on her study that revealed how “insects and spiders in the oiled areas were completely decimated”.
While collecting data for the study, Bui and her colleagues regularly ran into problems with BP, she said.
“Local sheriffs working under the auspices of BP, as well as personnel with Wildlife and Fisheries, the US Coast Guard – all of these folks working under BP were preventing us from doing our job,” Bui explained. “We were barred from going into areas to collect data where we had previous data.”
Bui said personnel from the USCG, Fish and Wildlife, and even local sheriffs departments, always accompanied by BP staff, worked to prevent her from entering areas to collect data, confiscated her samples, and “if I’d refused to oblige they would have arrested me” – despite her having state permits to carry out her work.
Bui has also been harassed online, by what she thinks was “a BP troll”, but she remained primarily concerned about what BP was doing to block her science. Her frustration about this prompted her to write an opinion article for The New York Times , titled A Gulf Science Blackout .
That is when she received a call from BP.
“August 24, 2010, at 7:15am the morning my op-ed was published, I received a call from BP’s chief science officer who tried to get me to be quiet,” Bui said. “He said he’d solve my problem, and asked me how much money I needed.”
Bui explained to him she was only interested in being allowed to conduct her studies, and was not interested in working with BP, “that I was publishing science and it involved the entire scientific community”, and she never heard back from him.
She believes her method of dealing with the overall situation was a success. “When somebody starts to mess with me, I publicise it and say: ‘Don’t f**k with me,'” she concluded. “And if you do, I’m going to go very public with it, and that’s what I did.”
BP did not respond to Al Jazeera for comment regarding her specific allegation.
GAP’s Shanna Devine told Al Jazeera she believes the onus is on BP to investigate the possibility that there is a connection between the harassment and Ogilvy and BP employees.
“But so far they’ve taken a very hands-off approach,” she explained. “They’ve not taken responsibility and they are not willing to share information with us.”
Violence has reached levels not seen since 2008, when US forces were still fighting for control of Iraq [Reuters]
|Unidentified gunmen have killed 18 people and injured six others working on a gas pipeline in Iraq, police sources have told Al Jazeera.
Gunmen in three vehicles used machine guns in the attack on Friday evening in the town of Imam Wais, 65km east of Baghdad.
Fifteen Iranian and three Iraqi workers were killed, while five Iranians and one Iraqi were wounded.
The workers were laying the foundation for a gas pipeline which is set to connect Iraq with neighbouring Iran.
Also on Friday, a series of car bombs and attacks in Iraq killed 18 people, and wounded 37 others, according to Al Jazeera police sources.
A car bomb exploded near a security checkpoint in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing six people, and injuring at least ten.
In a drive-by shooting in Baghdad’s Ghazaliyah area, gunmen shot and killed two people, including a government employee, in their car.
Two separate car bombs also exploded near the capital: the first, near a fish market in Nahrawan, killed five people and wounding at least 14, while another exploded in Madain, just south of Baghdad, killing five people and injuring 13.
Violence in Iraq has reached a level this year not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of rampant sectarian killings. Nearly 950 people were killed in the month of November alone.
More people died in the first eight days of December 2013 than in the whole of last December, according to AFP news agency figures based on security and medical sources.
Elsewhere in the capital on Friday, at least 22 Iraqi detainees facing terrorism charges escaped from a Baghdad prison, after killing at least one prison guard, authorities say.
Following a police manhunt, Iraqi security forces recaptured 13 prisoners and killed one, while another eight prisoners were still at large.
A police colonel said the detainees had seized weapons from guards before their escape from the al-Adela facility in the northern Baghdad area of Kadhimiyah.
The prisoners had lured a guard into their cell while his colleagues were sleeping, claiming an inmate was critically ill. They then stabbed the security guard to death, two senior security officials said.
Several guards were later detained and questioned over suspicions they had helped in the escape, a prison official said.
The jail break was the latest in a series of prison escapes in Iraq. More than 500 inmates escaped, including several al-Qaeda leaders, and dozens were killed, after an al-Qaeda linked group attacked two prisons last July.
The security breaches have cast doubts on the ability of the Iraqi authorities to secure the country amid the countrywide increase in violence.
The reported execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle has caused worries over the stability of the isolated country, with various governments expressing concern over the potential implications of the move.
The state-run KCNA news agency announced on Friday that a special military trial was held for the once-influential Jang Song-thaek before he was executed on Thursday.
Jang, who had been branded as “traitor” and dismissed from his positions and powers on Monday, was accused of a string of criminal acts including corruption, womanising and drug-taking.
“The North usually curbs internal instability by waging provocations externally,” the Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the South Korean unification minister said, warning the purge could be followed by military actions, including another nuclear test.
China, Pyongyang’s major ally and economic lifeline, said Jang’s execution was an “internal matter” but also stressed the need for stability.
“As a neighbour we hope to see national stability, economic development and people living in happiness in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing.
Tokyo said that it was “closely watching the situation”.
“We will calmly monitor the situation while communicating with other countries and collect relevant information,” the Kyodo news agency quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as saying.
Washington said that the execution was “another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime”.
|The North usually curbs internal instability by waging provocations externallyRyoo Kihl-Jae, South Korea’s unification minister|
“We are following developments in North Korea closely and consulting with our allies and partners in the region,” Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said.
London expressed “deep concern about the impact of this unpredictable regime on stability in the region”.
“Our embassy in Pyongyang is monitoring the situation closely and we will continue to maintain close contact with our allies on this,” a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Bangkok, said the execution has laid bare a massive power struggle in the secretive country.
“It’s an incredibly public condemnation of this once very powerful man,” our correspondent said.
KCNA said earlier this week that Jang had been removed from all his posts and expelled from the Workers’ Party.
“From long ago, Jang had a dirty political ambition. He dared not raise his head when Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were alive,” KCNA said, referring to leader Kim’s grandfather and father, who were previous rulers of the dynastic state.
“He began revealing his true colours, thinking that it was just the time for him to realise his wild ambition in the period of historic turn when the generation of the revolution was replaced.”
Jang was married to Kim’s aunt, the daughter of the North’s founding leader Kim Il-sung, and was widely considered to be working to ensure his nephew firmly established his grip on power in the past two years.
Jang had been a prominent fixture in many of the reports and photographs of Kim Jong-un’s public activities, but his appearances have tapered off sharply this year and he has not appeared in official media since early November.
|French troops are to begin disarming rebel fighters across the Central African Republic, as thousands of foreign soldiers pour into the country in an effort to stop recent violence.
The plan to seize weaponry comes after the country’s president told Al Jazeera that he was not in complete control of his country.
Michel Djotodia said he could not stop armed groups operating, as a wave of killings left hundreds dead in just a few days.
“It is too much to say I have no control. I control my men. The men I can’t control are not my men,” said Djotodia, who came to power after a mainly Muslim armed group now known as Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize earlier this year.
The former rebels who control the country were on Sunday patrolling neighbourhoods across the capital, Bangui, despite an order to return to their barracks.
The Red Cross says 400 bodies were found after three days of fighting between Seleka and a largely Christian armed group named Anti-Balaka [“anti-machete”, the weapon of choice of many Seleka fighters].
Meanwhile, thousands more international troops are on their way to the embattled country.
The African Union has about 2,500 troops there now, but is increasing that to 6,000.
In addition, the 1,200 French troops already in the country have been bolstered by the arrival of 400 more soldiers.
On Saturday, the country’s interim authorities ordered all forces except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard off the streets of Bangui, after a hospital in the capital was been attacked by Seleka rebels.
The armed men reportedly pulled injured victims from Bangui’s Amitie hospital, and shot dead at least 10.
The hospital has since been abandoned.
Al Jazeera has learned that the Anti-Balaka group contains elements of Bozize’s army, and is regrouping outside the capital, awaiting reinforcements.
French President Francois Hollande also said on Saturday it would be difficult for the current head of CAR to stay in place because he let the crisis there unfold.
“I don’t want to point fingers but we cannot keep in place a president who was not able to do anything, or even worse, who let things happen,” he said in an interview broadcast on the France 24 TV channel.
Hollande said elections should be held before 2015 when Djotodia’s mandate ends. “The idea is to head as fast as possible towards elections,” he said.
French forces started deploying to the north and west of the country to secure main roads and towns outside the capital, French army spokesman Gilles Jarron said on Saturday.
“Peacekeepers are patrolling the main roads. This is helping keep the looting down. But the atrocities are inside the neighbourhoods,” said Amy Martin, head of the UN officer for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“If they can get into the neighbourhoods, we might start seeing a reduction in these crimes. The level of atrocities and the lack of humanity, the senseless killing defies imagination.”
The latest bloodshed started on Thursday as armed Christians from Anti-Balaka raided Muslim neighbourhoods, in a country that has been seeing tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups since Bozize’s downfall in March.
The Yemeni Defence Ministry said the attack on its compound had targeted a hospital [EPA]
|A suicide bombing has rocked Yemen’s defence ministry complex in the heart of the capital Sanaa, followed by a gun battle that left many casualties, according to the Yemeni Defence Ministry.
“At least 30 people have been killed in the attack” on Thursday, including “most” of the gunmen in the firefight that followed, the ministry said in a brief statement.
The ministry said that the attackers had targeted and badly damaged a hospital inside the complex but that the situation was now under control. Foreign doctors and nurses are reported to be among the ones killed.
The suicide explosion was caused by a bomber who drove a car packed with explosives into the gate, media reports quoted the defence ministry as saying. The blast was followed by another car of gunmen opening fire at the ministry.
Plumes of smoke billowed across the complex, situated on the edge of the Baba al-Yaman neighbourhood.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Yemen has been plagued with a series of violent attacks, as the interim government grapples with southern secessionists, al-Qaeda-linked groups and northern Houthi rebels, as well as severe economic problems inherited from veteran President Ali Abdallah Saleh who was forced out of office following protests against his rule in 2011.
Fighters were emboldened by a decline in government control over the country and seized several southern cities before being driven out in 2012 in an offensive supported by United States and drones.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have killed hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and members of the security forces in a series of attacks since then.
In July last year, a suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army uniform killed more than 90 people rehearsing for a military parade in Sanaa. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Yemen’s defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad, escaped a car bomb on his motorcade in September 2012 that killed at least 12 other people.
The report in the Washington Post says the NSA inadvertently gathers US location records [Reuters]
|It is being reported that the National Security Agency is gathering nearly five billion records a day on the whereabouts of mobile telephones around the world.
That is according to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden published by the Washington Post.
The newspaper says the NSA inadvertently gathers US location records, along with the billions of other records it collects by tapping into worldwide mobile network cables.
The programme is detailed in documents given to the Post by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Such data means the NSA can track the movements of almost any mobile phone around the world, in addition to tracking who that cell user is calling.
The report said the NSA does not target Americans’ location data intentionally, but acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellular telephones “incidentally.”
One manager told the newspaper the NSA obtained “vast volumes” of location data by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve US mobile phone as well as foreign ones.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report.
NSA officials have said no NSA programme gathers data on US mobile phones inside the US.
‘Guilt by association’
Senior Staff Attorney at the non profit advocacy Electronic Frontier Foundation Kurt Op-Sal told Al Jazeera that the programme was against civil liberties.
“It is being used to track people to find out associations between one person and another and to build guilt by association,” he said.
“If we want a future that has freedom we need to have privacy.
“The UN has recognised a freedom of association without having the government making assumptions based on those associations.This programme is designed to destroy that.”
Facing a public outcry and concern that programmes are targeting average Americans as well as international terrorism suspects, Republican and Democratic members of Congress are writing legislation to clamp down on the data collection and increase public access to information about it.
Advocates responded to the Post report by calling on Congress to take up legislation to reform NSA data-gathering programmes.
“How many revelations of NSA surveillance will it take for Congress to act? Today’s news is the latest startling blow to the right to privacy,” Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights, said in a statement.
No-confidence vote at parliament breaks into shouting and shoving match between members of rival political parties.
Last updated: 03 Dec 2013
Thousands gather outiside parliament in Kiev as lawmakers debate a no confidence vote against the government [AFP]
|Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has warned that the anti-government demonstrations in the capital Kiev are becoming “out of control” and could turn into a coup.
Azarov issued the statement as the parliament votes on Tuesday on a no confidence motion against his government.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Kiev, said that the ongoing debate inside the parliament has broken into “shouting and shoving” between administration and opposition politicians.
“There’s a fair amount of chaos inside the parliament,” Challands said.
Opposition members shouted “shame” and “revolution” as pro-government lawmakers spoke, while opposition speakers drew boos and jeer.
Outside, demonstrations are continuing and crowds are now blockading the main government buildings, in an ongoing standoff after President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign a key EU pact.
“Blocking the work of state institutions is not a peaceful demonstration. This has all the signs of a coup,” Azarov told ambassadors from the European Union, Canada, and the United States. “That is very serious.”
Over the weekend, police forced the protesters off the square, causing injuries to nearly 200 people, including journalists.
The crackdown led to a horrified reaction in the West and the demand by current EU chair Lithuania to launch a probe.
Azarov said Ukraine’s authorities were “ready for dialogue” with the protesters and promised that violence would not be used against peaceful demonstrators.
“The authorities are guaranteeing non-use of force against peaceful protesters,” he said.
As the demonstration rages, Yanukovych is set to travel to China, leaving the country plunged into crisis by his decision to spurn a landmark EU deal, and boost ties with Ukraine’s Soviet ally Russia.
Our correspondent said Yanukovych’s decision to leave for China is seen as “running away from the country at a time when he should be here.”
|Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has rejected the demands of anti-government protesters, who are attempting to topple her government and replace it with a “people’s council’, saying the demonstrations are unconstitutional.
“Anything I can do to make people happy, I am willing to do… but as prime minister, what I can do must be under the constitution,” she said in a televised address on Monday on her first comments since violence broke out late on Saturday after weeks of peaceful protests.
“The armed forces will be neutral and I know they want to see the country in peace,” the prime minister said, adding her immediate aim was to restore “peace” to the capital restive streets. She also vowed that “police will not use force against the people”.
Her comments came amid fresh skirmishes between Thai security forces and opposition demonstrators.
Police used tear gas and water cannons at the heavily guarded government headquarters to drive thousands of protesters back, as demonstrators hurled sticks, stones, bottles and other projectiles at security forces, manning barriers at the besieged complex.
‘Live ammunition used’
Al Jazeera’s Robert Kennedy, reporting from Bangkok, said that a group of protesters about 200 metres away from the government office claimed live ammunition was fired earlier in the day, showing photos of a man with what looked like a gunshot wound to the thigh, and what looked like a bullet hole that had pierced a silver truck.
Thana Narkboonnam, 49, an anti-government protester, told Al Jazeera: “We want a revolution to be able to choose better representatives. This government is full of corruption, the political system needs to be entirely changed.”
Loud periodic booms rang out as tear gas canisters were launched, Kennedy said, adding that he saw medics rush a wounded man on a stretcher into an ambulance with a wound to the right side of his torso.
The protesters had set Sunday as “Victory Day” to topple the government, but failed to achieve their goal of seizing the prime minister’s office.
The United Nations closed its main office in Bangkok, dozens of schools stayed empty and many civil servants did not show up at work on Monday after the unrest that rippled around the key government buildings in the capital over the weekend.
In an e-mailed statement to its staff, the UN’s security department said that “there could be violence [on Monday] on a large scale… staff should avoid government offices” and other protest locations.
Protest leader meets PM
Oppsition leader Suthep Thaungsuban said on Sunday that he met Yingluck Shinawatra but insisted there were no negotiations to end the political crisis.
Thaungsuban said he told the prime minister that the opposition would accept nothing less than her resignation and an appointed council taking over the government.
The protests were triggered by an amnesty bill, which opponents feared would have allowed Thaksin Shinawatra to return to the country.
PM Yingluck Shinawatra told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the government was no longer trying to pass the controversial bill that would have pardoned many people involved in corruption.
The latest conflict in Thailand put Bangkok’s urban population against the rural supporters of Shinawatras.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra from his seat in a 2006 coup.
Two years later, anti-Thaksin protesters occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months.
The opposition rally is by far the biggest seen in the Ukrainian capital since the Orange Revolution nine years ago [AP]
|More than 100,000 demonstrators have chased away police to rally in the centre of Ukraine’s capital, defying a government ban on protests in Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger over the president’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union.
Chants of “revolution” resounded across a sea of EU and Ukrainian flags on the square, where the government had prohibited rallies starting on Sunday.
A group of protesters used a tractor to try to break through police lines near the office of President Viktor Yanukovich, eyewitnesses said.
The approach to the entrance to the presidential administration building was blocked by a line of buses as well as several metal barriers.
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, addressing the protesters, called on Yanukovich and his government to resign, saying they had “stolen” Ukraine’s dream of European integration.
‘They stole the dream’
“The government and the president should resign,” said the heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition politician.
“They stole the dream. If this government does not want to fulfill the will of the people, then there will be no such government, there will be no such president. There will be a new government and a new president,” he said to cheering crowds.
The opposition rally, by far the biggest seen in the Ukrainian capital since the Orange Revolution nine years ago, came a day after a police crackdown on protesters which inflamed demonstrators further after Yanukovich’s U-turn on Europe.
In a bid to defuse tensions ahead of the rally, Yanukovich issued a statement saying he would do everything in his power to speed up Ukraine’s moves toward the European Union.
In a sea of blue and gold, the colours of both the EU and Ukrainian flags, protesters flooded the streets of central Kiev, angered by Yanukovich’s decision last month to forego signing a landmark EU deal in favour of closer ties with Kiev’s former Soviet master, Russia.
“We are furious,” said Mykola Sapronov, a 62-year-old retired businessman. “The leaders must resign. We want Europe and freedom.”
‘We will respond’
The crowds then moved on to Independence Square, the site of the pro-EU rally that police violently broke up on Saturday.
The interior minister warned that police would respond to any disorder and said Ukraine had no place among the ranks of countries like Libya or Tunisia, where popular uprisings overthrew old guard leadership.
“If there are any calls to disorder, we will respond,” Interfax reported Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko as saying.
But riot police, who had sealed off part of Independence Square following Saturday’s crackdown, withdrew as the marchers approached the square.
Sunday’s rally also marked the anniversary of a 1991 referendum that ushered in Ukraine’s independence from the then-crumbling Soviet Union.
Since he was toppled in July, Morsi’s supporters have been staging near-daily protests [AP]
|Hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt and clashes erupted when police tried to break up some of the demonstrations, days after a hotly-disputed protest law was adopted.
At least 86 people were arrested across the country on Friday, according to the interior ministry, which added that clashes raged in several areas.
Protesters in the city of Giza threw Molotov cocktails at one police station where clashes raged for hours, the interior ministry told Al Jazeera.
Violence between police and protesters also broke out in the country’s second largest city, Alexandria, after Muslim prayers, with security forces firing tear gas to disperse hundreds of people.
The Mediterranean city has been tense since a court handed down heavy sentences of 11 years in prison to 21 female supporters of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi, many of them juveniles, for holding a peaceful protest.
The office of the president on Friday, however, said the women and girls would be granted a full pardon by the interim president once their cases had gone through the appeal and cessation courts.
They have been held for weeks after being arrested during a protest demanding the reinstatement of Morsi, who was ousted by the military on July 3. The youngest girl is 15-years-old.
One person was killed and several injured on Thursday during a crackdown on students protesting the harsh sentences – which have infuriated many Egyptians – in the capital Cairo.
On Friday, hundreds of mourners joined the funeral procession for the dead man, Mohamed Rewda, who studied at Cairo University.
Since July, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been staging near-daily protests calling for his reinstatement, with Friday’s weekly Muslim prayers a key time for mobilising their largest numbers.
The rallies have often descended into street clashes with security forces or anti-Brotherhood protesters.
In an effort to quash the rallies, authorities adopted the controversial law restricting the right to protest.
Among other rules, it requires organisers to notify the Interior Ministry three days before holding a demonstration, while also setting prison terms and high fines for violators.