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Saudi security suspects give themselves up

DUBAI (Reuters) – Three Saudi men on a list of 23 people wanted by the authorities over security offences have turned themselves in, the interior ministry said on Monday.

The report, carried by state news agency SPA, came as Saudi security forces pushed ahead with an operation in the eastern part of the kingdom to try to flush out armed men, including those on the list announced in January 2012 . The area is home to many of the country’s minority Shi’ite Muslims.

The interior ministry identified the three as Mohammed Isa al-Lubbad, Ramzi Mohammed Jamal and Ali Hassan al-Zayed, and said their “initiative (to surrender voluntarily) will be taken into consideration”.

Many of those on the list have been either killed or captured in recent years . The Saudi Gazette newspaper said that only three of those on the original list remained at large, while eight have surrendered .

The rest were killed during clashes with the security forces, it said.

Saudi security forces have been trying for more than two months to defeat gunmen behind attacks on police in Awamiya, a Shi’ite town of around 30,000 in the eastern region that has been the centre of protests against the Sunni government.

Fighting has intensified over the past two weeks, when elite forces entered the town . In May the authorities began a campaign to tear down the old quarter to prevent gunmen using the narrow streets to evade capture.

Residents estimate that up to 20,000 people have fled to towns and villages nearby . Up to 12 people have been killed in the past week: three policemen and nine civilians, residents say.

The area, in oil-producing Qatif province, has seen unrest and occasional armed attacks on security forces since 2011 “Arab Spring”-style protests .

Residents complain of unfair treatment by the government, something Riyadh denies.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Bolton

Venezuelan chief prosecutor’s office blocked by security forces

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces took up positions outside the office of the country’s chief prosecutor on Saturday, a day after the government inaugurated a new legislative body that the prosecutor said was fraudulently elected.

Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega had asked a local court to halt the inauguration of the country’s new 545-member constituent assembly, citing allegations that the government fudged the results of the vote that created it.

The new legislative body has no checks on its powers.

It could re-write the constitution, re-arrange state institutions and allow socialist President Nicolas Maduro to rule by decree . Assembly members had said they would fire Ortega the first chance they got . It took less than 24 hours from the assembly’s inauguration for her offices to be cordoned off.

Ortega, in a tweet, asked the international community to denounce what she called “arbitrary action” of security forces blocking entrance to her offices.

Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, said he was concerned that evidence against Maduro’s government was at risk of being compromised by the security forces surrounding Ortega’s office.

“Aggression against her is aggression against all of us,” Almagro tweeted, adding that the presence of the security forces “puts evidence of human rights violations and corruption on the part of the (Maduro) regime at risk.”

Venezuelan National Guard members stand guard in front of the Prosecutor’s office in Caracas, Venezuela August 5, 2017.Andres Martinez Casares

Since the opposition started a round of protests in April, Ortega has become the president’s main challenger from within the ruling socialist movement, accusing him of human rights abuses and of running roughshod over democracy.

The opposition, which won control of congress in 2015, boycotted Sunday’s vote, calling it a naked power grab by Maduro .

The boycott meant that all candidates for the new assembly were from Maduro’s coalition, giving him carte blanche to pass laws aimed at locking his policies into place.

The assembly was installed despite opposition street protests . More than 120 people have died in four months of sustained marches against Maduro . Critics say his policies have pushed Venezuela into an economic crisis marked by triple digit inflation and severe shortages of food and medicine.

Maduro says the U.S. “empire” is waging economic war on Venezuela and refuses to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country . He says the new assembly is the only way to unify Venezuela into a peaceful, prosperous socialist state.

Former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, a hard-line Maduro loyalist, was named president of the new assembly.

“There is no humanitarian crisis here . What we have is love . What we have is a crisis of the right-wing fascists,” said Rodriguez, in a fiery inaugural address in which she paid homage to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor.

The assembly will function in the same downtown Caracas legislative complex as the existing opposition-run congress, which could potentially be dissolved . For now, the two bodies are set to hold sessions in parallel, separated by an ornate cobblestone courtyard.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Corina Pons and Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Steve Orlofsky

Australia ramps up airport security after alleged plane bomb plot

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Stricter screening of passengers and luggage at Australian airports will stay in place indefinitely after police foiled an alleged “Islamic-inspired” plot to bring down a plane, which local media said may have involved a bomb or poisonous gas.

The ramped up security procedures were put in place after four men were arrested at the weekend in raids conducted across several Sydney suburbs.

The men are being held without charge under special terror-related powers.

The Australian Federal Police would not confirm media reports the alleged plot may have involved a bomb disguised in a meat grinder or the planned release of poisonous gas inside a plane.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Andrew Colvin told reporters on Monday that the plot specifics were still being investigated.

“What you are seeing at the moment is making sure that there is extra vigilance, to make sure that we aren’t cutting any corners in our security, to make sure that we are absolutely focussed on our security,” Colvin said.

Police on Monday were still searching several Sydney properties for evidence . Pictures showed forensic-specialist officers wearing masks and plastic jumpsuits inside the properties and combing through rubbish bins outside.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton told reporters in Melbourne on Monday that the alleged plot to down an aircraft could prompt longer-term airport security changes.

“The security measures at the airports will be in place for as long as we believe they need to be, so it may go on for some time yet,” said Dutton.

Australian police search items seized from a property during a raid in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba, Australia, July 31, 2017 . AAP/Paul Miller/via REUTERS

“It may be that we need to look at the security settings at our airports, in particular our domestic airports, for an ongoing enduring period,” he said.

Dutton advised passengers to arrive at airports three hours before international flights and two hours for domestic flights in order to clear the heightened security.

Inter-state travellers are subjected to far less scrutiny than those travelling abroad with no formal identification checks required for domestic trips.

Passengers at major Australian airports, including Sydney, experienced longer-than-usual queues during the busy Monday morning travel period .

A Reuters witness said the queues had disappeared at Sydney Airport by lunch-time.

A source at a major Australian carrier said airlines and airports had been instructed by the government to ramp up baggage checks as a result of the threat, with some luggage searches now being conducted as passengers queued to check in their bags.

Counter-terrorism police have conducted several recent raids, heightening tensions in a country that has had very few domestic attacks.

On Monday, three males pleaded guilty in the New South Wales state Supreme Court to “conspiracy to commit acts in preparation for a terrorist act or acts” in 2014, a court spokeswoman said, while another two pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Police previously said the men planned an attack on targets which included the AFP headquarters in Sydney, along with civilian targets . The offences are not related to the alleged plane bomb plot.

The 2014 Lindt cafe siege in Sydney, in which the hostage-taker and two people were killed, was Australia’s most deadly violence inspired by Islamic State militants.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY . Additional reporting by Byron Kaye and Jason Reed in SYDNEY and Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE .

Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Michael Perry