Barcelona van attacker may still be alive, on the run: police

People gather around an impromptu memorial a day after a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

By Andrés González, Angus Berwick and Carlos Ruano

BARCELONA (Reuters) – The driver of the van that plowed into crowds in Barcelona, killing 13 people, may still be alive and at large, Spanish police said on Friday, denying earlier media reports that he had been shot dead in a Catalan seaside resort.

Josep Lluis Trapero, police chief in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia, said he could not confirm the driver was one of five men killed.

“It is still a possibility but, unlike four hours ago, it is losing weight,” he told regional TV.

The driver abandoned the van and fled on Thursday after speeding along a section of Las Ramblas, the most famous boulevard in Barcelona, leaving a trail of dead and injured among the crowds of tourists and local residents thronging the street.

(For a graphic on Barcelona crash, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2fOJ9Sm)

It was the latest of a string of attacks across Europe in the past 13 months in which militants have used vehicles as weapons – a crude but deadly tactic that is near-impossible to prevent and has now killed nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and Spain.

Suspected jihadists have been behind the previous attacks. Islamic State said the perpetrators of the latest one had been responding to its call to target countries involved in a U.S.-led coalition against the Sunni militant group.

Hours after the van rampage, police shot dead five people in the Catalan resort of Cambrils, 120 km (75 miles) down the coast from Barcelona, after they drove their car at pedestrians and police officers.

The five assailants had an ax and knives in their car and wore fake explosive belts, police said. A single police officer shot four of the men, Trapero said.

A Spanish woman was killed in the Cambrils incident, while several other civilians and a police officer were injured.

Trapero had earlier said the investigation was focusing on a house in Alcanar, southwest of Barcelona, which was razed by an explosion shortly before midnight on Wednesday.

Police believe the house was being used to plan one or several large-scale attacks in Barcelona, possibly using a large number of butane gas canisters stored there.

However, the apparently accidental explosion at the house forced the conspirators to scale down their plans and to hurriedly carry out more “rudimentary” attacks, Trapero said.

FOUR ARRESTS

Police have arrested four people in connection with the attacks – three Moroccans and a citizen of Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla, Trapero said. They were aged between 21 and 34, and none had a history of terrorism-related activities.

Another three people have been identified but are still at large. Spanish media said two of them may have been killed by the blast in Alcanar while one man of Moroccan origin was still sought by the police.

Police in France are looking for the driver of a white Renault Kangoo van that may have been used by people involved in the Barcelona attack, a French police source told Reuters.

WORST SINCE 2004

It was the deadliest attack in Spain since March 2004, when Islamist militants placed bombs on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people.

Of 126 people injured in Barcelona and Cambrils, 65 were still in hospital and 17 were in a critical condition. The dead and injured came from 34 countries, ranging from France and Germany to Pakistan and the Philippines.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said an American citizen was confirmed dead, and Spanish media said several children were killed.

As Spain began three days of mourning, people returned to Las Ramblas, laying flowers and lighting candles in memory of the victims. Rajoy and Spain’s King Felipe visited Barcelona’s main square nearby to observe a minute’s silence.

Defiant crowds later chanted “I am not afraid” in Catalan.

Foreign leaders voiced condemnation and sympathy, including French President Emmanuel Macron, whose nation has suffered some of Europe’s deadliest recent attacks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after media reports that some Germans were among those killed, said Islamist terrorism “can never defeat us” and vowed to press ahead with campaigning for a general election in Germany in September.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent his condolences to Spain.

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking by phone with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday, pledged the full support of the United States in investigating the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

In a message to the cardinal of Barcelona, Pope Francis said the attack was “an act of blind violence that is a grave offense to the Creator”.

Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said the attack showed the European Union’s system of migrant relocation was wrong. “It is dangerous. Europe should wake up,” he said. “We are dealing here with a clash of civilisations.”

(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, Sarah White, Andres Gonzalez, Silvio Castellanos and Kylie MacLellan; Writing by Adrian Croft and Julien Toyer; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Lisa Shumaker)

Duke University removes contentious Confederate statue after vandalism

The empty plinth where a statue of Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee once stood is flanked by statues of Thomas Jefferson and the poet Sidney Lanier at the entrance to Duke University's Duke Chapel after officials removed the controversial statue early Saturday morning in Durham, North Carolina, U.S., August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Miczek

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Duke University removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the entrance of a chapel on the Durham, North Carolina, campus, officials said on Saturday, days after it was vandalized.

The decision to take down the statue followed discussions among students, faculty, staff and alumni about maintaining safety on campus, university President Vincent E. Price said in a statement.

“I took this course of action to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university,” Price said.

The prestigious university will preserve the statue of Lee, who led Confederate forces in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, and use it as an educational tool so that students can study “Duke’s complex past,” Price added.

The Confederacy, comprised of 11 Southern states, broke from the Union largely to preserve the institution of slavery.

Symbols of the Confederacy have come into focus since last weekend, when white nationalists, angered at the planned removal of a statue of Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, engaged in violent protests where a counter-protester was killed.

The Robert E. Lee statue, one of 10 outside Duke Chapel, was vandalized and defaced late on Wednesday night. Campus security discovered the damage early Thursday, according to university officials. The incident was under investigation.

“Wednesday night’s act of vandalism made clear that the turmoil and turbulence of recent months do not stop at Duke’s gates,” Price said.

“We have a responsibility to come together as a community to determine how we can respond to this unrest in a way that demonstrates our firm commitment to justice, not discrimination,” he said.

Duke will form a committee to advise the school on how to properly memorialize historical figures on campus, and to recommend teaching programs, exhibitions and forums to explore its past.

There are more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy, including 700 monuments and statues, in public spaces across the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The large majority of these were erected long after the Civil War ended in 1865. Many went up early in the 20th century during a backlash among segregationists against the civil rights movement.

More than a half-dozen have been taken down since last week.

 

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

 

German critic of Turkey’s Erdogan arrested in Spain

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Trabzon, Turkey, August 8, 2017. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) – German-Turkish author Dogan Akhanli was arrested in Spain on Saturday after Turkey issued an Interpol warrant for the writer, a critic of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Der Spiegel magazine reported.

The arrest of the German national was part of a “targeted hunt against critics of the Turkish government living abroad in Europe,” Akhanli’s lawyer Ilias Uyar told the magazine.

Ties between Ankara and Berlin have been increasingly strained in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup in Turkey as Turkish authorities have sacked or suspended 150,000 people and detained more than 50,000, including other German nationals.

Spanish police arrested Akhanli on Saturday in the city of Granada, Der Spiegel reported. Any country can issue an Interpol “red notice”, but extradition by Spain would only follow if Ankara could convince Spanish courts it had a real case against him.

Akhanli, detained in the 1980s and 1990s in Turkey for opposition activities, including running a leftist newspaper, fled Turkey in 1991 and has lived and worked in the German city of Cologne since 1995.

On Friday, Erdogan urged the three million or so people of Turkish background living in Germany to “teach a lesson” to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in September’s general election by voting against her. That drew stinging rebukes from across the German political spectrum.

Calls to the German foreign ministry regarding the arrest of Akhanli were not immediately returned.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

U.S. consumer sentiment rises to seven-month high: University of Michigan

A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago in this September 21, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

(Reuters) – U.S. consumer sentiment improved to its strongest level in seven months in early August, reflecting confidence in the outlook for the economy and in personal finances as the U.S. stock market holds near record highs, a key survey showed on Friday.

The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index rose to 97.6 in the first half of August from 93.4 the month before, which was an eight-month low. The result exceeded expectations for a reading of 94, according to a Reuters poll.

Whether that optimism holds in the weeks ahead, however, is a major question following recent events stemming from a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, said Richard Curtin, chief economist for the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers. There were not enough survey interviews conducted following the protests, in which one woman died as white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters, to assess how much the events might weaken sentiment.

Curtin said the backlash over Charlottesville and U.S. President Donald Trump’s response could weigh on subsequent survey readings.

Trump has blamed the Charlottesville violence on not just the white nationalist rally organizers but also the counter-protesters, and said there were “very fine people” among both groups. His remarks drew rebukes from Republican and Democrat lawmakers as well as business leaders and U.S. allies.

“The fallout is likely to reverse the improvement in economic expectations recorded across all political affiliations in early August,” Curtin said. “Moreover, the Charlottesville aftermath is more likely to weaken the economic expectations of Republicans, since prospects for Trump’s economic policy agenda have diminished.”

FALLOUT FROM CHARLOTTESVILLE

The private sector has reacted to Trump’s remarks as well. Earlier this week, several chief executives quit Trump’s two business advisory groups in protest, resulting in the president disbanding the groups altogether.

Moreover, speculation emerged that key officials, notably director of National Economic Council Gary Cohn, could resign due to Trump’s controversial comments.

Cohn is seen leading the White House’s effort on tax reform and is a front-runner to possibly succeed Janet Yellen as head of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

On Thursday, rumors on social media of Cohn resigning spurred a sell-off on Wall Street and buying of U.S. Treasury bonds — a safe-haven market instrument in times of uncertainty — as traders feared Trump’s economic agenda would stall.

CURRENT, FUTURE DIVERGE

The rebound in University of Michigan’s overall consumer reading in early August was due to a jump in the survey’s expectations component. It rose to 89.0 from 80.5 in July.

On the other hand, the survey’s current conditions measure fell to 111.0 from 113.4 in late July.

“I would say that the economy is in good shape and is not especially sensitive to the latest political buzz, but how much of a hit confidence takes remains to be seen,” Stephen Stanley, Amherst Pierpoint Securities’ chief economist, wrote in a research note.

(Reporting By Dan Burns; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Chizu Nomiyama)

Japan launches satellite for advanced GPS operation

A H-IIA rocket carrying Michibiki 3 satellite, one of four satellites that will augment regional navigational systems, lifts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center on the southwestern island of Tanegashima, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 19, 2017. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan on Saturday launched an H-2A rocket carrying a geo-positioning satellite into orbit after a week-long delay, the government said.

The launch of Japan’s third geo-positioning satellite is part of its plan to build a version of the U.S. global positioning system (GPS) to offer location information used for autopiloting and possible national security purposes.

The government postponed the launch a week ago because of a technical glitch.

“With the success of the third satellite, we have made another step closer for having signals from four satellites in the future,” Masaji Matsuyama, minister in charge of space policy, said in a statement.

The government plans to launch a fourth satellite by the end of the year to start offering highly precise position information by next April.

Japan plans to boost the number of its geo-positioning satellites to seven by 2023, making its system independently operational even if the U.S. GPS becomes unavailable for some reason, a government official said previously.

The satellite was manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric Corp and was blasted into orbit by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

(Reporting by Junko Fujita and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Iraqi forces prepare to retake Tal Afar from Islamic State militants

Displaced Iraqis from Talafar are seen in Salamya camp, east of Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2017. Picture taken August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Five weeks after securing victory in Mosul, Iraqi forces have moved into positions around the city of Tal Afar, their next objective in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State militants, Iraqi military commanders say.

A longtime stronghold of hardline Sunni insurgents, Tal Afar, 50 miles (80 km) west of Mosul, was cut off from the rest of the Islamic State-held territory in June.

The city is surrounded by Iraqi government troops and Shi’ite volunteers in the south, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.

About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to U.S. and Iraqi military commanders. They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments, and by the lack of fresh supplies.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate all but collapsed last month when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul after a brutal nine-month campaign. But parts of Iraq and Syria remain under its control, including Tal Afar, a city with a pre-war population of about 200,000.

Waves of civilians have fled the city and surrounding villages under cover of darkness for weeks now, although several thousand are estimated to remain, threatened with death by the militants who have held a tight grip there since 2014.

Thousands of troops stand ready at the frontline, awaiting orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to start the offensive, Iraqi army Major-General Uthman al-Ghanimi said this week.

TURKEY WORRIES

The main forces deployed around Tal Afar are the Iraqi army, Federal Police and the elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi commanders told Reuters.

Units from the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), some of which are trained and armed by Iran, are also likely to take part in the battle, as well as volunteers from Tal Afar fighting alongside government troops, they said.

The involvement of the PMF is likely to worry Turkey, which claims an affinity with the area’s predominantly ethnic Turkmen population.

Tal Afar experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of Islamic State’s most senior commanders.

Iraqi forces have already begun conducting air strikes aimed at “wearing them down and keeping them busy,” Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said.

The coalition’s targets on Friday included weapons depots and command centers, in preparation for the ground assault.

The war plan provides for the Iraqi forces to gradually close in on the city from three sides — east, west and south — under the cover of air and artillery strikes.

Major General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters last month he expected an easy fight in Tal Afar. He estimated fewer than 2,000 militants and their families were left there and they were “demoralized and worn down”.

“I don’t expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded,” al-Jabouri said.

Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted.

“[Fighters] have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes,” said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. “Their faces looked desperate and broken.”

But Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said he “fully expects this to be a difficult fight”.

“Intelligence gathered shows clearly that the remaining fighters are mainly foreign and Arab nationals with their families and that means they will fight until the last breath,” said Colonel Kareem al-Lami from the Iraqi army’s 9th Division.

But Lami said Tal Afar’s open terrain and wide streets will allow tanks and armored vehicles easy passage. Only one part of Tal Afar, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets, moving house-to-house in a battle that resulted in the near total destruction of the historic district.

Lieutenant Colonel Salah Abdul Abbas of the 16th Infantry Division, said they were bracing for guerrilla street-fighting fight, based on the lessons learned in West Mosul.

CIVILIANS HAVE FLED

The United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that about 10,000 to 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages. Iraqi commanders say the number of people left inside the city itself, including militants and their families, is closer to 5,000.

However, aid groups say they are not expecting a huge civilian exodus as most the city’s former residents have already left.

On Sunday, 2,760 people fleeing Tal Afar and the surrounding area were processed by the IOM before being sent on to displaced persons’ camps.

“We were living in horror and thinking of death at every moment,” Haj Mahmoud, the retired teacher, said. He decided to make a run for it with his wife and four sons and has been living with them at the Hammam al-Alil camp ever since.

Residents spoke of fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid the militants, who shot anyone caught trying to escape.

“We escaped at night, during evening prayers,” said 20-year-old Khalaf. “All the IS fighters were praying at the mosque, so they didn’t catch us. If they had, they would’ve sprayed bullets into our heads”, like they did his neighbors.

Khalaf said he fled five weeks ago with his two children and 40 other people from his village of Kisik. They walked for a full day to reach safety at a Peshmerga checkpoint.

“People in Kisik are completely trapped,” he said. “Those left tell us there’s no water, no food, no bread, no medicines – nothing.” Up until he left, 1kg bag of rice cost roughly $40.

Sultan Abdallah and his family escaped Kisik with Khalaf. They are now all living at the al-Salamiya refugee camp.

“We had spent three months with no food,” said Abdallah. He still has a brother, a cousin and an uncle left in Kisik, but he has not been able to speak to them since he left.

“You were forced to work for the militants to feed your family,” Abdallah said.

Saad al-Bayati fled Tal Afar five days ago with his family, fearing aerial bombardments. He is now living in the Hammam al-Alil camp with his wife and sick baby.

“I heard what happened in Mosul’s Old City, where whole families were killed by air strikes,” al-Bayati said. “I didn’t want to see my family buried under the rubble.”

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles, Writing by Raya Jalabi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

What’s in a name? Virginia school enters Confederate symbols battle

Stonewall Jackson High School is pictured in this still image from video, in Manassas, Virginia, U.S., August 17, 2017. Image taken August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Greg Savoy

By Fatima Bhojani

MANASSAS, Va. (Reuters) – In the northern Virginia county where Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous moniker, a battle has begun to remove his name from the local high school where it appears in large white letters on the red brick facade.

Inspired by last weekend’s race-fueled violence in Charlottesville, a local official proposed renaming the school, extending the debate over Confederate monuments to institutions whose names honor the leaders of the pro-slavery Southern states in the U.S. Civil War.

“It’s time to recognize that these schools were named in error,” said Ryan Sawyers, who is chairman of the Prince William County school board and is also running for U.S. Congress next year as a Democrat. “It’s time to right that wrong.”

His proposal on Wednesday set off a firestorm of debate in the picturesque suburban county about 40 miles (65 km) southwest of Washington, D.C., and provided a taste of what likely awaits similar new efforts in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

“Despicable,” Corey Stewart, the Republican chairman of Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors and a 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, said of the idea of changing the name of Stonewall Jackson High School.

A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Stewart ran unsuccessfully for governor this year largely on a platform of preserving Confederate monuments.

Trump has faced a storm of criticism over his remarks on last Saturday’s unrest in Charlottesville, where white nationalists rallied to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue and a woman was killed when a car plowed through counter-protesters. The president has blamed the violence on not just the rally organizers but also on the anti-racist activists who confronted them.

Trump has also sided with those who favor keeping Confederate monuments in place, saying they are beautiful and will be missed if removed. Opponents of such monuments view them as a festering symbol of racism since the Confederacy fought for the preservation of slavery. Supporters say they honor American history. Some of the monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists.

General Jackson, who led Confederate troops in several key victories, earned his nickname in July 1861 during one of two major battles fought near Manassas, when a fellow general is said to have shouted: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”

“He’s revered throughout Virginia and in Prince William County,” Stewart said. “To take his name off a school is really a slap in the face to an American hero.”

Stonewall Jackson High School, named in 1964 at the height of the civil rights era, is three miles (5 km) from Manassas battlefield. Its 2,400 students are 17 percent black, 19 percent white and more than half Hispanic.

Historians note that much like the installation of many Confederate statues, such school names were given decades after the Civil War ended in 1865, mostly as a response by local officials to growing calls for racial equality in the United States.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, said it was aware of about 100 U.S. schools and nearly 500 roads named after Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals. About half of the schools are in Virginia and Texas.

In Dallas, where at least four schools are named for Confederate figures, the school board president said this week he had added the issue to the agenda of an upcoming meeting.

“It’s very hard for me to come up with an answer to an African-American child, or any child, who asks, ‘Why is this school named in honor for someone who fought to keep my ancestors enslaved?'” said the president, Dan Micciche.

THE LAST STRAW

Sawyers, of the Prince William County school board, said the Charlottesville events were “the last straw” for him. An online fundraising campaign he started to avoid using taxpayer funds for a name change to Stonewall Jackson High School has raised about $2,000.

Two district teachers, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the controversy, criticized the idea of spending up to $750,000 on replacing signage, buying new sports uniforms and revamping facilities.

Parents on Sawyers’ Facebook page echoed that concern. But Cedric Lockhart, who has three children in the school system, contributed money.

“Having a school named after somebody who fought to enslave African-American families like mine – it just feels inappropriate in 2017,” he said in a phone interview.

Lockhart, who grew up in Prince William and attended another high school, said he always found the school’s name disturbing.

Mikayla Harshman, a 2014 graduate of Stonewall Jackson High, said she opposed changing the name.

“They’re erasing history,” said Harshman, 21, who is white and majoring in American history at Radford University. “I feel like taking something like that away is taking away an opportunity to learn.”

Confederate memorials are widespread in Virginia, which saw some of the deadliest Civil War battles. There is a cannon from the era at the entrance of the historic district of downtown Manassas, which seems plucked from the past with its small, quaint buildings.

Standing outside the local museum, Shiine Jackson, 32, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, said she supported changing the high school name.

“The name stands for the Confederacy,” said Jackson, who is black. “This is the South. As a minority, I’ve experienced a lot of racism in my life.”

(This story corrects 4th paragraph, corrects direction to “southwest,” not “east”)

(Reporting and writing by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina and Fatima Bhojani in Manassas, Virginia; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Frances Kerry)

Regional nations plus U.S. condemn Venezuela’s new constituent assembly

Delcy Rodriguez (C), president of the National Constituent Assembly, speaks during a meeting of the Truth Commission in Caracas, Venezuela August 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Hugh Bronstein and Mitra Taj

CARACAS/LIMA (Reuters) – A group of 12 regional nations plus the United States rejected Venezuela’s new government-allied legislative superbody, saying they would continue to regard the opposition-controlled congress as the country’s only legitimate law maker.

The move came after an announcement on Friday that the newly-created constituent assembly, elected in late July to re-write the crisis-hit country’s constitution, would supersede congress and pass laws on its own.

The Lima Group, including Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and seven other regional governments, late on Friday joined the United States in criticizing the assembly for “usurping” the powers of Venezuela’s tradition congress.

The congress has been controlled by the opposition since 2016, but has been neutered by President Nicolas Maduro’s loyalist Supreme Court, which has tossed out almost every law it has passed.

“We reiterate our rejection of the constituent assembly and its actions,” the 12-member Lima Group said in a statement published by Peru’s foreign ministry.

“We ratify our full support for the Venezuelan congress.” it added.

Maduro has slapped the opposition with several measures blaming it for the unrest that killed more than 125 people in recent months as security forces met rock-throwing protesters with rubber bullets and water cannon. The U.N. says government troops used excessive force in many cases.

One of the measures is the assembly’s new truth commission that will investigate opposition candidates running in October gubernatorial elections, to see if they were involved in the deadly protests. Considering that many opposition figures supported the demonstrations, the commission could hobble their efforts at winning governorships in the upcoming vote.

Anti-government marches have stalled since the assembly was inaugurated on Aug. 5. The opposition was stunned by a threat of U.S. military action in Venezuela issued by President Donald Trump on Aug. 11.

The threat played into Maduro’s hands by supporting his oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. “empire” wants to invade Venezuela to steal its oil. The idea had been easily dismissed as absurd by opposition and U.S. officials before Trump’s surprise statement that “a military option” was on the table for dealing with Venezuela’s political crisis.

Over the days ahead the assembly says it will pass a law against “expressions of hate and intolerance,” which rights groups say is so vaguely worded it could allow for the prosecution of almost anyone who voices dissent.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Mitra Taj; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Solar eclipse presents first major test of power grid in renewable era

FILE PHOTO -- An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, California, U.S. on December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ruthy Munoz

HOUSTON (Reuters) – As Monday’s total solar eclipse sweeps from Oregon to South Carolina, U.S. electric power and grid operators will be glued to their monitoring systems in what for them represents the biggest test of the renewable energy era.

Utilities and grid operators have been planning for the event for years, calculating the timing and drop in output from solar, running simulations of the potential impact on demand, and lining up standby power sources. It promises a critical test of their ability to manage a sizeable swing in renewable power.

Solar energy now accounts for more than 42,600 megawatts (MW), about 5 percent of the U.S.’s peak demand, up from 5 MW in 2000, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a group formed to improve the nation’s power system in the wake of a 1964 blackout. When the next eclipse comes to the United States in 2024, solar will account for 14 percent of the nation’s power, estimates NERC.

For utilities and solar farms, the eclipse represents an opportunity to see how well prepared their systems are to respond to rapid swings in an era where variable energy sources such as solar and wind are climbing in scale and importance.

Power companies view Monday’s event as a “test bed” on how power systems can manage a major change in supply, said John Moura, director of reliability assessment and system analysis at the North American Electric Reliability Corp.

“It has been tested before, just not at this magnitude,” adds Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator (CISO), which controls routing power in the nation’s most populous state.

CISO estimates that at the peak of the eclipse, the state’s normal solar output of about 8,800 MW will be reduced to 3,100 MW and then surge to more than 9,000 MW when the sun returns.

CISO’s preparation includes studying how German utilities dealt with a 2015 eclipse in that country. Its review prompted the grid overseer to add an additional 200 MW to its normal 250 MW power reserves.

“We’ve calculated that during the eclipse, that solar will ramp off at about 70 MW per minute,” said Greenlee. “And then we’ll see the solar rolling back at about 90 MW per minute or more.”

Power utilities say the focus will be on managing a rapid drop off and accommodate the solar surge post the eclipse. Utility executives say they do not expect any interruption in service, but are prepared to ask customers to pare usage if a problem arises.”We want to assure our customers that we have secured enough resources to meet their energy needs, even with significantly less solar generation on hand,” said Caroline Winn, chief operating officer at utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

In the Eastern United States, utilities will have more time to watch the results of their Western counterparts. PJM Interconnection, which coordinates electricity transmission among 13 states from Michigan to North Carolina, says non-solar sources such as hydro and fossil fuel can easily supplant the 400 MW to 2,500 MW solar loss, depending on the cloud cover.

For small-scale solar providers, the eclipse is a drop in the revenue bucket. Ron Strom, a North Carolina real estate developer, sells the power from a 58 kilovolt system atop a commercial property in Chapel Hill to Duke Energy.

“The event may cost me eighteen cents or thereabouts if my panels don’t produce solar for three hours,” said Strom.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Diane Craft)

Lebanese army, Hezbollah announce offensives against Islamic State on Syrian border

Lebanese army helicopters are pictured from the town of Ras Baalbek, Lebanon August 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

By Tom Perry and Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Lebanese army launched an offensive on Saturday against an Islamic State enclave on the northeastern border with Syria, as the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah announced an assault on the militants from the Syrian side of the frontier.

The Lebanese army operation got underway at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT), targeting Islamic State positions near the town of Ras Baalbek with rockets, artillery and helicopters, a Lebanese security source said. The area is the last part of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier under insurgent control.

A security source said the offensive was making advances with several hills taken in the push against the militants entrenched on fortified high ground, in outposts and in caves.

The operation by Hezbollah and the Syrian army targeted the area across the border in the western Qalamoun region of Syria.

Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV said that its fighters were ascending a series of strategic heights known as the Mosul Mountains that overlook several unofficial border crossings used by the militants.

A Hezbollah statement said the group was meeting its pledge to “remove the terrorist threat at the borders of the nation” and was fighting “side by side” with the Syrian army.

It made no mention of the Lebanese army operation.

The Lebanese army said it was not coordinating the assault with Hezbollah or the Syrian army.

SENSITIVE

Any joint operation between the Lebanese army on the one hand and Hezbollah and the Syrian army on the other would be politically sensitive in Lebanon and could jeopardize the sizeable U.S. military aid the country receives.

Washington classifies the Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

“There is no coordination, not with Hezbollah or the Syrian army,” General Ali Kanso said in a televised news conference, adding that the army had started to tighten a siege of IS in the area two weeks ago.

“It’s the most difficult battle so far waged by the Lebanese army against terrorist groups – the nature of the terrain and the enemy,” he said, characterizing the 600 Islamic State fighters in the area as 600 “suicide bombers”.

In a recent speech, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the Lebanese army would attack Islamic State from its side of the border, while Hezbollah and the Syrian army would simultaneously assault from the other side.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad said that “naturally” there was coordination between the operations.

Last month, Hezbollah forced Nusra Front militants and Syrian rebels to leave nearby border strongholds in a joint operation with the Syrian army.

The Lebanese army did not take part in the July operation, but it has been gearing up to assault the Islamic State pocket in the same mountainous region.

Footage broadcast by Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV showed the group’s fighters armed with assault rifles climbing a steep hill in the western Qalamoun.

The Lebanese Shi’ite group has had a strong presence there since 2015 after it defeated Syrian Sunni rebels who had controlled local villages and towns.

Many rebels, alongside thousands of Sunni refugees fleeing violence and Hezbollah’s control over their towns, took shelter on the Lebanese side of the border strip.

Hezbollah has provided critical military support to President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s six-year-long war. Its Lebanese critics oppose Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.

Northeastern Lebanon was the scene of one of the worst spillovers of Syria’s war into Lebanon in 2014, when Islamic State and Nusra Front militants attacked the town of Arsal.

The fate of nine Lebanese soldiers taken captive by Islamic State in 2014 remains unknown.

Hezbollah and its allies have been pressing the Lebanese state to normalize relations with Damascus, challenging Lebanon’s official policy of neutrality towards the conflict next door.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Editing by Richard Pullin and Andrew Bolton)