Trump leaves ‘question mark’ over use of force to protect Gulf oil

Flight deck of the U.S aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is seen as sailors swip the deck for foreign object and debris (FOD) walk-down on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) in Arabian Sea, May 19, 2019. Garrett LaBarge/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Sylvia Westall

GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to take military action to stop Tehran having a nuclear bomb but left open whether he would sanction the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since Washington blamed long-time foe Iran for Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane.

Tehran denies responsibility but the incidents, and similar attacks in May, have further soured relations that have plummeted since Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark international nuclear deal with Iran in May of last year.

Since exiting the accord, which gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program, Trump has restored and extended U.S. sanctions. That has forced countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

But in an interview with Time magazine, Trump, striking a different tone from some Republican lawmakers who have urged a military approach to Iran, said last week’s tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman had had only a “very minor” impact so far.

Asked if he would consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, Trump said:

“I would certainly go over nuclear weapons, and I would keep the other a question mark.”

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran aimed to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb but Trump says the deal failed to address Iran’s missile program or punish it for waging proxy wars in Middle East countries.

Tehran has decried the toughening of U.S. sanctions and urged other signatories to take action to save the nuclear pact or see Iran turn its back on the deal.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Iran said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much-enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord could prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The White House National Security Council condemned the statement as “nuclear blackmail” while Russia and China, two other signatories of the accord, on Tuesday urged restraint.

Russia told the United States it should drop what it called provocative plans to deploy more troops to the Middle East and cease actions that looked like a conscious attempt to provoke war with Iran, and urged restraint on all sides.

“What we see are unending and sustained U.S. attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and yes military pressure on Iran in quite a provocative way,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was cited as saying by Russian media.

“They (these actions) cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war,” he said.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi warned the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and urged Tehran to heed the deal.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany, another signatory, was doing all it could to ease tensions with Iran but said Iran must abide by the 2015 deal.

IRAN DEFIANT

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech that Iran did not seek war and dismissed U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

Heightened Iran-U.S. tensions have stoked fears of increased violence in countries where Iran and its Gulf Arab regional rivals are locked in a sometimes bloody struggle for influence.

Saudi air defenses intercepted two drones fired by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, Saudi media said on Tuesday. The group’s Al Masirah TV said the Houthis had sent drones to strike the airport of the Saudi city of Abha.

MILITARY BASE

Three rockets landed on a military base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad late on Monday, an Iraqi military statement said, without providing further details. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

U.S. officials said last month there was an increased threat from Iran-backed militias against U.S. interests in Iraq, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad evacuated hundreds of staff.

The United States is discussing options with its allies on how to protect international shipping in the Gulf of Oman following the recent attacks, two senior Trump administration officials said last week.

A senior Gulf official said Washington was considering establishing a military coalition, including other nations, to protect oil tankers.

“We hope they will implement this proposal soon,” said the official, who said he had been briefed by a U.S. official and had heard details from Gulf “partners”.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)

Tanker attacks seen as calibrated but risky Iranian response to U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: An Iranian navy boat tackles a fire on an oil tanker after it was attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – If, despite its firm denials, Iran was behind attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf last week and a further four last month, they represent a calibrated yet risky pushback against a U.S. sanctions squeeze, regional experts say.

The targeting of six vessels on a major artery for world oil supplies was a vivid reminder of the stakes involved in the standoff pitting Iran against the United States and its regional allies.

The latest two attacks, on Thursday, were much more complex than last month’s because the tankers were moving rather than at anchor as previously, said Hossein Aryan, a military analyst who served 18 years in Iran’s navy before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Two government security sources, one American and one European, also noted the sophistication of the attacks, which damaged the tankers without seriously injuring anyone. They told reporters this indicated deliberate calculation.

The two sources, who declined to be named, said the attacks appeared designed to show that Iran could create chaos if it wanted to but at this point did not want to, perhaps in the hope of persuading the United States and other antagonists to back off rather than trigger conflict.

They did not provide direct evidence of Iranian involvement, but the United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran publicly for both sets of attacks.

Whereas some U.S. sources said they believed Iran encouraged allied militants or militia to carry out last month’s attacks, the U.S. military has released a video and still images which it says show Iran’s Revolutionary Guards removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the latest vessels to be targeted.

Tehran expressed concern over the May attacks and said the footage released after the latest ones by the United States military proved nothing and Iran was being made a scapegoat.

Germany said last week the video was not enough to apportion blame, while Britain said no other state or non-state actor could have been responsible. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation.

The head of the company which owns the Japanese tanker hit said last week its crew had reported flying objects damaged the ship, but Aryan said whoever attacked it and a Norwegian tanker had attached magnetic limpet mines with a timer when they were anchored or using a boat or marine drone when they were moving.

Iran’s military said on Monday that if it decided to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital gateway in the Gulf for the oil industry, it would do so publicly, and both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have said Iran does not want war.

Tehran has been at pains to underline its capabilities, however.

“If attacked, we can make the maritime regions unsafe for the aggressors,” said an Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

BACKFIRED?

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Crisis Group think-tank, and other regional sources said that if Iran was responsible, it was clearly trying to show it could threaten global oil supply with a view to deterring the U.S. and its allies from further ratcheting up the pressure.

Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other regional rivals are backing U.S. efforts to cut off Iran’s oil exports with pledges to boost their own oil production to keep prices stable. But a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Gulf of Oman and the attacks hit vessels on both sides of the waterway.

“The message being sent by Iran is that we can disrupt operations on east and west. If they can’t export, no one should,” said a Gulf industry source who asked not to be identified.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 international nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions, aiming to push Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy, which Washington says is destabilizing the Middle East.

Washington then sent an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to the region last month in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests there.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Vaez said Tehran did not appear to have been cowed so far.

“The irony is that the U.S. maximum pressure strategy was supposed to temper Iranian behavior,” he said. “In practice, however, it has clearly backfired.”

LOW COST

Iran could use “relatively inexpensive asymmetric attacks to inflict costly damage,” according to Tom Sharpe, a former commander in Britain’s Royal Navy who is now a communications consultant.

“They have jet skis and fast boats that are trained for swarm attacks and just one £1,000  jet ski could disable a £1 billion warship,” he told Reuters.

Sharpe said the United States and Western allies were prepared to tackle such attacks.

But the ability of Iran-linked groups to strike goes beyond the Strait of Hormuz.

In the same week that the four oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the Emirates last month, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis struck two oil pumping stations within Saudi Arabia with armed drones.

A few days later, a rocket was fired near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had already evacuated non-emergency staff a week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise trip to Baghdad to talk to Iraqi officials about U.S. concerns of threats from Iran-backed militias.

Two Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups said talk of threats was “psychological warfare” by Washington.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, both Iran and Iraq attacked tankers and merchant ships in the Gulf, which drew the United States into the conflict.

Iran learned lessons from that period, which became known as the “Tanker War,” and now has many more tools at its disposal, such as mines and speed boats, to use in asymmetric warfare to send a signal, Aryan said.

“That signal is to show to the Arab states and to the United States that, despite all their military might and presence in the region, the lines of communication in the region are vulnerable, and to show that vulnerability.”

The danger for Iran, if it is pursuing that strategy, is that a small incident could quickly escalate, observers say.

“This is an extremely risky strategy,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The gamble of Islamic Republic strategists … may end up provoking a war Iran can ill afford.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Julia Payne in London and Parisa Hafezi and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. housing starts fall, but prior months revised up

FILE PHOTO: Single family homes being built by KB Homes are shown under construction in San Diego, California, U.S., April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. homebuilding unexpectedly fell in May, but data for the prior two months was revised higher and building permits increased, suggesting that the housing market was drawing some support from a sharp decline in mortgage rates.

Housing starts dropped 0.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.269 million units last month amid a drop in the construction of single-family housing units, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

Data for April was revised up to show homebuilding rising to a pace of 1.281 million units, instead of increasing to a rate of 1.235 million units as previously reported. Housing starts in March were also stronger than initially estimated.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts edging up to a pace of 1.239 million units in May. Single-family housing starts fell in the Northeast, the Midwest and West, but rose in the South, where the bulk of homebuilding occurs.

Building permits rose 0.3% to a rate of 1.294 million units in May. It was the second straight monthly increase in permits. Building permits have been weak this year, with much of the decline concentrated in the single-family housing segment. The housing market hit a soft patch last year and has been a drag on economic growth for five straight quarters.

The sector is being constrained by land and labor shortages, which are making it difficult for builders to fully take advantage of lower borrowing costs. As a result, the housing market continues to struggle with tight inventory, leading to sluggish sales growth.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci) ((Lucia.Mutikani@thomsonreuters.com; 1 202 898 8315; Reuters Messaging: lucia.mutikani.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

U.S. military landlord filed false maintenance logs, earning bonuses, Reuters finds

Homes that were constructed by Balfour Beatty are seen in a neighborhood at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By M.B. Pell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A unit of UK infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty plc falsified housing maintenance records at a major U.S. military base to help it maximize fees earned from the Department of Defense, a Reuters investigation found.

At Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, the company’s U.S.-based unit used a second set of books and altered records to make it appear responsive to maintenance requests, Reuters found in a review of company and Air Force emails, internal memos and other documents, as well as interviews with former workers.

The practice boosted the company’s apparent performance at completing work on time, making it eligible to receive bonus fees from the Pentagon while persuading Air Force brass to ignore warnings from military base employees. The maintenance delays left tenants exposed to environmental hazards, residents said, such as asbestos, mold and sewage.

Balfour Beatty Communities, the U.S. unit that manages housing on military bases for the Pentagon, said in a statement that one employee acted “improperly” in 2016 and that the problems were not widespread. Since then, the company said, it has worked with the Air Force to strengthen its maintenance process.

“As an organization, BBC has not and does not condone the falsification of records in any way,” the company said in a statement.

Air Force housing employees stationed at Tinker reported instances of questionable record-keeping and slum-like living conditions to Air Force officials from late 2015 through 2018, emails and interviews show. Attempts to hold Balfour Beatty accountable were often blocked by the Air Force Civil Engineering Center, or AFCEC, an office based in San Antonio, Texas, tasked with monitoring private landlords.

John Henderson, the Air Force assistant secretary for installations, said AFCEC took the accusations seriously and since late last year has withheld all incentive fees from Balfour Beatty at Tinker and two other of the company’s bases. He said “allegations of fraud” were referred to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2017.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations does not discuss investigations, said a spokesperson. But she added: “Conversations are still taking place with the U.S. Department of Justice about what avenues (criminal or civil) if any – can be pursued against Balfour Beatty.”

Balfour Beatty earns $33 million in annual profit through its U.S. military housing activities. The incentive fees alone on those operations are worth about $800 million over the life of the 50-year contracts the company holds for 43,000 homes on 55 Air Force, Navy and Army bases, Reuters calculates.

A full version of this report, produced in partnership with CBS News, can be read on Reuters.com.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Hong Kong leader signals end to extradition bill but refuses to quit

Pro-democracy activists Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow attend a news conference regarding the proposed extradition bill, outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, China June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday signaled the end of a controversial extradition bill that she promoted and then postponed after some of the most violent protests since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a closely watched press conference, Lam apologized for the turmoil but refused to say the bill would be “withdrawn”, only that it wouldn’t be re-introduced during her time in office if public fears persist.

This was the strongest indicator yet that the government was effectively shelving legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face trial, even if it fell short of protester demands for the government to scrap the bill altogether.

“Because this bill over the past few months has caused so much anxiety, and worries and differences in opinion, I will not, this is an undertaking, I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed,” Lam told reporters.

Lam, appearing both contrite and defiant, used much of the same language as a previous press conference on Saturday when she announced a postponement of the bill. A day later, about two million people spilled on to the streets, many demanding that she step down.

Lam, asked repeatedly whether she would quit, refused to do so, saying there remained important work ahead in the next three years, which would bring her to the end of her current five-year term of office.

“After this incident, I think work in the next three years will be very difficult … but myself and my team will work harder to rebuild public confidence.”

Lam apologized for plunging the city into major upheaval, saying she had heard the people “loud and clear” and would try to rebuild trust.

But some protest organizers and opposition Democrats said Lam remained tone-deaf to public demands, namely that she state categorically a retraction of the bill, step down immediately and pledge not to prosecute any protesters on rioting charges.

“Carrie Lam is continuing to lie,” said Jimmy Sham, the convener of the Civil Human Rights Front. “We hope the people of Hong Kong can unite with us … to keep working hard to withdraw the evil law,” he told reporters.

Alvin Yeung, a Democratic lawmaker, said Lam had failed again to lower the political temperature in the city of seven million.

“Hong Kong will not accept this,” he said.

Lam’s climb-down, with the approval of China’s Communist Party leaders, was the biggest policy reversal since 1997 and presented a new challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping who has ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 2012.

Since the proposed amendments to the Fugitives Offenders’ Ordinance were first put to the legislature in February, Lam has repeatedly rebuffed concerns voiced in many quarters, including business groups, lawyers, judges, and foreign governments against the bill.

Critics say the bill would undermine Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and rule of law, guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China, by extending China’s reach into the city and allowing individuals to be arbitrarily sent back to China where they couldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.

Chinese courts are ultimately controlled by the Communist Party.

Lam issued an apology on Sunday night through a written government statement that many people said lacked sincerity. It failed to pacify many marchers who said they no longer trusted her and doubted her ability to govern.

Lam, a career civil-servant known as “the fighter” for her straight-shooting and tough leadership style, took office two years ago pledging to heal a divided society. Some observers say she is unlikely to step down immediately but any longer-term political ambitions she may have harbored are now all but dead.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree and Hong Kong newsroom; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Don’t open ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Middle East, China warns

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (not pictured) at Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing, China May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Florence Lo

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese government’s top diplomat warned on Tuesday that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of a landmark nuclear deal.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since last Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The United States blamed Iran for the attacks, more than a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran denied involvement in the tanker attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on the same day the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Speaking in Beijing after meeting Syria’s foreign minister, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters that China was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension and not head towards a clash.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the U.S. side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said.

“Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said that the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and he urged Iran to be prudent.

“We understand that relevant parties may have different concerns but first of all the comprehensive nuclear deal should be properly implemented,” he added. “We hope that Iran is cautious with its decision-making and not lightly abandon this agreement.”

At the same time, China hopes other parties respect Iran’s legitimate lawful rights and interests, Wang said.

China and Iran have close energy ties, and China has been angered by U.S. threats against countries and companies that violate U.S. sanctions by importing Iranian oil, including Chinese firms.

China has had to walk a fine line as it has also been cultivating relations with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, the Asian giant’s top oil supplier.

Iran’s foreign minister has visited China twice this year already. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has also visited Beijing this year.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Se Young Lee and Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Trump says U.S. agency will begin removing millions of illegal immigrants

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees arrive at FCI Victorville federal prison in Victorville, California, U.S. June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday that U.S. authorities would begin next week removing millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “They will be removed as fast as they come in,” he said. He did not offer specifics.

There are an estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, mainly from Mexico and Central America.

Under a deal reached earlier this month, Mexico has agreed to take Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the United States until their cases are heard in U.S. courts.

The agreement, which included Mexico pledging to deploy National Guard troops to stop Central American immigrants from reaching the U.S. border, averted a Trump threat to hit Mexican imports with tariffs.

Trump also said in the tweet that Guatemala “is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence suggested last week that Guatemala could receive asylum seekers from its neighbors as a so-called safe third country.

Details of the plan have not been made public, and Guatemala has not publicly confirmed talks that the U.S. State Department said were taking place in Guatemala on Friday.

U.S. rights group Human Rights First said, however, it was “simply ludicrous” for the United States to assert that Guatemala was capable of protecting refugees when its own citizens are fleeing violence.

Mexico has agreed that if its measures to stem the flow of migrants are unsuccessful, it will discuss signing a safe third country agreement with the United States.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

Migrant deaths rise among Venezuelans, Central Americans: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S.-Mexico border is seen near Lukeville, Pima County, Arizona, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – At least 380 Latin American migrants have died on their journeys this year, many of them Venezuelans drowning in the Caribbean or Central Americans perishing while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday.

The toll, 50 percent more than the 241 recorded as of mid-June 2018, also coincides with tightened security along the U.S. southern border, which often leads migrants to turn to underground criminal smugglers and take riskier routes, it said.

President Donald Trump has made reducing illegal migration one of his signature policy pledges. His administration on Monday cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, after Trump blasted the three Central American countries because thousands of their citizens had sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“This month has been marked by several tragedies on the U.S.-Mexico border, where at least 23 people have died since May 30 May, that is more than one per day,” spokesman Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration told a briefing.

IOM figures show that so far, 144 migrants are known to have died in Mexico, 143 in the Caribbean, 66 along Mexico’s southern border with Central America and 27 in South America.

A further 42 reported deaths were under investigation in Mexico, and of several dozen more refugees and migrants crossing the Darien jungle in Panama, he added.

“So we are seeing a level of fatality that we haven’t seen before. We caution that with the summer months just beginning, with the intense heat that brings, we can expect it to get worse,” Millman said.

Four million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, most of them since an economic and humanitarian crisis began in 2015, the U.N. refugee agency says. Most went overland to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.

The overall toll includes more than 80 Venezuelans who have died or disappeared in three shipwrecks in the Caribbean in the past two months, Millman said.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch called for better search and rescue operations to save Venezuelans fleeing via the Caribbean.

“As Venezuelans continue to use dangerous sea routes to leave their country, the U.N. refugee agency is calling for more coordinated search and rescue efforts to prevent further loss of life,” Baloch said.”It is also absolutely vital that people are able to access safe territory in ways that do not require them to risk their lives,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump says U.S., Chinese teams to restart trade talks ahead of G20

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping and that the two leaders’ teams would restart trade talks after a long lull in order to prepare for a meeting at the G20 summit later this month.

The United States and China are in the middle of a costly trade war that has pressured financial markets and damaged the world economy. Talks between the two sides to reach a broad deal broke down last month and interaction since then has been limited.

Trump has made no secret that, despite his threat to escalate the dispute with more U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, he would like to meet with Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in Japan next week. Though he has repeatedly said the two parties would talk, the Chinese side has not confirmed a meeting would take place.

In a Twitter post, Trump said he and his Chinese counterpart had agreed to start preparations during a phone call.

“Had a very good telephone conversation with President Xi of China. We will be having an extended meeting next week at the G-20 in Japan. Our respective teams will begin talks prior to our meeting,” Trump tweeted.

Those remarks eased concerns that such a meeting would not take place, which would have been seen as a snub to Washington and possibly have triggered another round of tariffs.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Iran says it won’t wage war, Russia tells U.S. to stop stoking tensions

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Sylvia Westall

GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday Iran would not wage war against any nation, while Russia told the United States it should drop what it called provocative plans to deploy more troops to the Middle East.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since Washington blamed its long-time foe for Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane.

Relations had already deteriorated following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from an international pact under which Iran agreed curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since exiting that accord in May last year Trump has restored and extended U.S. sanctions, forcing countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

Tehran, which has denied involvement the tanker attacks last week and in May, has urged other signatories to take action to save the nuclear pact or see Iran turn its back on the deal.

On Monday Iran warned it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord could prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The White House National Security Council condemned the development as “nuclear blackmail.”

The growing standoff drew calls for restraint from Russia and China, both signatories of the nuclear accord.

China’s top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia told the United States to cease actions that looked like a conscious attempt to provoke war with Iran, and urged restraint on all sides.

“What we see are unending and sustained U.S. attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and yes military pressure on Iran in quite a provocative way,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was cited as saying by Russian news agencies.

“They (these actions) cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war,” he said.

IRAN DEFIANT

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new U.S. deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

Rouhani said Iran did not seek conflict and dismissed U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and suggested the Trump administration was inexperienced in international affairs.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who said Iran was responsible for Gulf security and urged U.S. forces to leave the region.

Heightened Iran-U.S. tensions have stoked fears of increased violence in countries where Iran and its Gulf Arab regional rivals are locked in a sometimes bloody struggle for influence.

Saudi air defenses intercepted two drones fired by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, one of them targeting a residential area in the southern Saudi city of Abha, Saudi media said on Tuesday. The group’s Al Masirah TV said the Houthis had launched drone attacks on Abha airport.

Three rockets landed on a military base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad late on Monday, an Iraqi military statement said, without providing further details. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

U.S. officials said last month there was an increased threat from Iran-backed militias against U.S. interests in Iraq, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad evacuated hundreds of staff.

WARNINGS

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran aimed to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by his Democratic predecessor, failed to address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.

Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world and Russia’s Ryabkov said Moscow had repeatedly warned Washington and its regional allies against the “unthinking and reckless pumping up of tensions in an explosive region.”

In Beijing, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi told reporters the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran. China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and urged all sides to ease tension.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)