Venezuelans rush to shop, fill tanks before monetary overhaul

People line up to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine (ATM) outside a Banco Mercantil branch in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Shaylim Castro and Isaac Urrutia

CARACAS/MARACAIBO (Reuters) – Jittery Venezuelans on Friday rushed to shops and lined up at gas stations on concerns that a monetary overhaul to lop off five zeros from prices in response to hyperinflation could wreak financial havoc and make basic commerce impossible.

Shoppers sought to ensure their homes were fully stocked with essentials such as food and dry goods and their tanks full before the measure decreed by President Nicolas Maduro takes effect on Monday.

Inflation hit 82,700 percent in July, according to the opposition-run congress, as the country’s socialist economic model continued to unravel, meaning purchases of basic items such as a bar of soap or a kilo of tomatoes require piles of cash that is often difficult to obtain.

“I came to buy vegetables, but I’m leaving because I’m not going to wait in this line,” said Alicia Ramirez, 38, a business administrator, leaving a supermarket in the western city of Maracaibo. “People are going crazy.”

The change appears unlikely to generate the chaos of December 2016 when Maduro removed the largest note in circulation without providing a replacement for it. That led to protests, lootings and hundreds of arrests as the country was effectively left without legal tender.

Drivers also rushed to fill up on Venezuela’s heavily-subsidized gas, the world’s cheapest at around 2,896 gallons per U.S. penny. Some drivers were worried about paying for gas come Monday as there will be no new legal tender small enough to pay for a full tank.

Maduro also said this month that gas price should be increased, but has not provided a timeframe for the price hike. A half-dozen sources at service stations said they had not been briefed about any changes and were not expecting an imminent rise in prices.

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A gas station worker pumps gas into a car at a gas station of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“It’s better to be safe than to try to go out during the weekend and not to find open gas stations… I think people are more sad than angry about this,” said teacher Ana Perez, 50, as she lined up in a station in the once industry-filled city of Valencia.

Maduro, who has said the country is victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries, said the new monetary measure would bring economic stability to the struggling OPEC nation.

But his critics have said the move is little more than an accounting maneuver that would do nothing to slow soaring prices. They blame inflation on failed socialist policies and indiscriminate money printing.

Because many transactions now happen via debit cards over point-of-sale terminals, many worry that the change – which banking industry leaders have said was carried out too quickly – could collapse financial networks.

Maduro has declared a public holiday for Monday when a new set of bills will be introduced with the lower denominations. Internet banking operations will be halted for several hours starting on Sunday evening.

But the primary difference between the upcoming change and Maduro’s 2016 currency decision is that in this instance, most of the current ones will coexist with the new notes for an undetermined period while the new bills come into circulation.

That will in some circumstances leave consumers in the confusing situation of having to use old bills with face value of 1,000,000 bolivars to make purchases valued at 10 bolivars in the new denomination.

Poor Venezuelans without bank accounts have for months been carrying wads of cash to make basic purchases.

Buying one kilo of cheese, worth the equivalent of $1.14 at the most widely used exchange rate, requires 7,500 notes of 1,000 bolivar denomination – a note that was only brought fully into circulation in 2017.

One bar of soap, which sells for the equivalent of $0.53, requires 3,500 of the same notes.

“This is going to be complete disaster, we don’t have information,” said Yoleima Manrique, 42, assistant manager of a home appliance store in Caracas. “It’s going to be crazy for the clients and for us.”

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Tibisay Romero in Valencia; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Diane Craft)

Turkey’s lira weakens 4 percent, Trump says won’t take pastor’s detention ‘sitting down’

A street vendor sells food on a main street in central Ankara, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler, David Dolan and Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s battered lira weakened 3 percent on Friday after a Turkish court rejected an American pastor’s appeal for release, drawing a stiff rebuke from President Donald Trump, who said the United States would not take the detention “sitting down”.

The case of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Christian missionary from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for two decades, has become a flashpoint between Washington and Ankara and accelerated a widening currency crisis.

The lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year as investors fret about President Tayyip Erdogan’s influence over monetary policy.

Heavy selling in recent weeks has spread to other emerging market currencies and global stocks and deepened concerns about the economy, particularly Turkey’s dependence on energy imports and whether foreign-currency debt poses a risk to banks.

Borrowing costs may rise further after both Moody’s and Standard Poor’s ratings agencies cut Turkey’s sovereign credit ratings deeper into “junk” territory late on Friday.

“They should have given him back a long time ago, and Turkey has in my opinion acted very, very badly,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to Brunson. “So, we haven’t seen the last of that. We are not going to take it sitting down. They can’t take our people.”

Trump’s comments came after a court in Izmir province rejected an appeal to release Brunson from house arrest, saying evidence was still being collected and the pastor posed a flight risk, according to a copy of the court ruling seen by Reuters.

Brunson is being held on terrorism charges, which he denies. Trump, who counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters, has increasingly championed the pastor’s case.

It was not immediately clear what additional measures, if any, Trump could be considering. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Trump on Thursday that more sanctions were ready if Brunson were not freed.

The United States and Turkey have imposed tit-for-tat tariffs in an escalating attempt by Trump to induce Erdogan into giving up the pastor. Erdogan has cast the tariffs, and the lira’s sell-off, as an “economic war” against Turkey.

The lira last traded at 6.0100 to the dollar at 2159 GMT, 3 percent weaker after tumbling as much as 7 percent earlier. Turkey’s dollar bonds fell, while the cost of insuring exposure to Turkish debt rose.

As the row deepens, Turkey has sought to improve strained ties with European allies. In a telephone call on Friday, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire discussed U.S. sanctions against Turkey and cooperation between their countries, Albayrak’s ministry said.

SPEED-BUMPS

“Diplomatic negotiations hit speed-bumps and that’s not unusual in these kinds of situations,” said Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney for Trump who is also representing Brunson’s family. “We remain hopeful there will be a prompt resolution. Having said that, we fully support the president’s approach.”

Whatever action the United States takes looks likely to cause more pain for Turkish assets.

People change money at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

People change money at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

“There has been no improvement in relations with the U.S. and additional sanctions may be on the horizon,” said William Jackson of Capital Economics in a note to clients, adding that the lira could see a downward trend in 2019 and beyond.

Turkey’s banking watchdog has taken steps to stabilize the currency, limiting futures transactions for offshore investors and lowering limits on swap transactions. On Friday, it further broadened those caps.

But some economists have called for more decisive moves.

Turkey and its firms face repayments of nearly $3.8 billion on foreign currency bonds in October, Societe Generale has calculated. It estimates Turkey’s short-term external debt at $180 billion and total external debt at $460 billion – the highest in emerging markets.

Companies that for years have borrowed abroad at low-interest rates have seen their cost of servicing foreign debt rise by a quarter in lira terms in two months.

After each downgrading Turkey by one notch, S&P said it expected a recession next year while Moody’s said a weakening of Turkey’s public institutions had made policymaking less predictable.

Fitch Ratings had earlier said the absence of an orthodox monetary policy response to the lira’s fall, and the rhetoric of Turkish authorities, had “increased the difficulty of restoring economic stability and sustainability”.

DEEP CONCERNS

Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, told investors on Thursday that Turkey would emerge stronger from the currency crisis, insisting its banks were healthy and signaling it could ride out the dispute with Washington.

Economists gave Albayrak’s presentation a qualified welcome and the lira initially found some support, helped by Qatar’s pledge to invest $15 billion in Turkey.

Deep concerns remain about the potential for damage to the economy, however. Turkey is dependent on imports, priced in hard currency, for almost all of its energy needs.

Erdogan has remained defiant, urging Turks to sell their gold and dollars for lira. But foreign currency deposits held by local investors rose to $159.9 billion in the week to Aug. 10, from $158.6 billion a week earlier, central bank data showed.

Turkish markets will be closed from midday on Monday for the rest of the week for the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay, Tuvan Gumrukcu, and Nevzat Devranoglu in Ankara; Karin Strohecker and Claire Milhench in London; Jeff Mason and Karen Freifeld in Washington; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish)

U.S. attorney general issues order to speed up immigrant deportations

Women from the Dominican Republic are apprehended by the border patrol for illegally crossing into the U.S. border from Mexico in Los Ebanos, Texas, U.S., August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday sought to speed up the deportation of illegal immigrants, telling immigration judges they should only postpone cases in removal proceedings “for good cause shown.”

Sessions, in an interim order that was criticized by some lawyers, said the “good-cause” standard “limits the discretion of immigration judges and prohibits them from granting continuances for any reason or no reason at all.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes part in a Federal Commission on School Safety meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes part in a Federal Commission on School Safety meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Unlike the federal judiciary system, U.S. immigration courts fall under the Department of Justice and the attorney general can intervene. Sessions, a Republican former U.S. Senator appointed by President Donald Trump, has been unusually active in this practice compared to his predecessors.

Sessions has led efforts by the Trump administration to crack down on illegal immigration, including a “zero tolerance” policy that separated immigrant parents from their children while they were in U.S. detention. Trump abandoned the separation policy in June under political pressure.

Critical in showing “good cause” is whether a person is likely to succeed in efforts to remain in the United States, either by appealing for asylum or receiving some form of visa or work permit, Sessions said on Thursday.

Stephen Kang, an attorney with the ACLU immigrants rights project, described Sessions’ order as “troubling” and one of a series that “has moved in the direction of restricting due process rights for individuals who are in removal proceedings.”

Kang said Sessions seemed to portray immigrants seeking more time to prepare their cases as trying to “game the system and avoid deportation.”

Kang said removal proceedings were complex and people needed time “both to get lawyers to ensure that their due process rights are protected and time just to make sure their cases get a fair hearing.”

The Justice Department has been struggling to reduce a backlog of deportation cases. An analysis by the Government Accountability Office last year found the number of cases that drag on from one year to the next more than doubled between 2006 and 2015, mainly because fewer cases are completed per year.

Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said more immigration judges had been hired, but “unnecessary and improper continuances … continue to plague the immigration court system and contribute to the backlog.”

Sessions said on Thursday that the “use of continuances as a dilatory tactic is particularly pernicious in the immigration context” because people in the country illegally who want to remain have an incentive to delay their deportation as long as possible.

Granting continuances solely for good cause would be an “important check on immigration judges’ authority” and demonstrate public interest in “expeditious enforcement of the immigration laws,” Sessions said.

(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

How a mother’s tough choice gave her son a potential U.S. asylum advantage

Catarina Miguel, aunt of Yaiser, who was separated from his mother at the U.S. Mexico border and is in detention, is interviewed in the room she has ready for him at her home West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., in this still image from video, taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS TV/Zach Fagenson

By Kristina Cooke and Reade Levinson

SAN FRANCISCO/WEST PALM BEACH (Reuters) – For two months in detention after being separated from her 14-year old son by U.S. border officials, Catalina Sales worried about how he was doing and when she would see him again.

On July 25, they were finally brought back together at a facility near El Paso, Texas. The reunion was happy but brief.

Sales, who entered the United States illegally on May 30, made a difficult choice: She refused to sign a paper agreeing that if she were deported, her son Yaiser would accompany her back to Guatemala. She wanted to give him the chance, she said, to pursue asylum in the United States even if she is sent back.

Because of that, she and her son were separated again after just two hours together, and he was sent back to the Florida children’s facility where he had previously been held.

The decision that kept them separated also gave her son a better chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, a Reuters analysis of data from the courts’ Executive Office for Immigration Review suggests.

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

More than 2,500 families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring as part of a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration that ended in June. By separating them from their parents, the government rendered the children “unaccompanied minors,” which conferred certain advantages on them under U.S. immigration law, including a different, more child-friendly asylum process not available to children never separated from their families.

Additionally, a network of immigration lawyers specializing in children often agree to represent unaccompanied minors for free. And should they fail at an initial hearing with an asylum officer, the children have the opportunity to present their claims anew before an immigration judge.

Overall, although this was not something Sales could have known when she made her decision, unaccompanied children from the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras win their immigration cases more than twice as often as others from those countries, Reuters’ analysis found. In the last three years, 40 percent of unaccompanied children from the countries were allowed to remain in the United States compared to 19 percent for others from the countries.

There is no record of how many separated parents have opted for their children to pursue separate asylum proceedings even if it meant leaving them behind. But at least six other reunited families with Sales in El Paso on July 25 made the same decision she did, according to Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at the Annunciation House in El Paso, which is working with the parents.

Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Health and Human Services, which arranges care for children in immigration custody, declined to comment on the Sales’ case.

On Thursday, a San Diego federal judge said the form given to separated parents to sign did not constitute a legally valid waiver of their children’s asylum claims and ordered their deportations temporarily halted until the issue was resolved. The form “was not designed to advise parents of their childrens’ asylum rights, let alone to waive those rights,” wrote Judge Dana Sabraw in his order.

‘HE WANTS A BETTER LIFE’

After being reunified that day in El Paso, parents and children were loaded on a bus and asked to sign papers agreeing to be deported with their children. Those who refused to sign, including Sales, were led off the bus, according to interviews with four detainees and a court filing, leaving their children behind.

Sales said that after speaking to Yaiser for two hours on the bus, she realized she could not sign papers that might forfeit her son’s chance to remain in the United States and study instead of returning to Guatemala, where they were unsafe and Yaiser had fewer educational opportunities.

“He told me that he wanted to stay, that he didn’t want to go back, but that he wanted me to stay with him…. I felt sad,” Sales told Reuters by phone from the immigration detention facility where she is being held. “The simple truth is he wants a better life.”

Sales remains hopeful that both of them will eventually be granted asylum and allowed to stay in the United States. If her asylum claim is unsuccessful, she hopes her son’s will succeed, and that he can live with his aunt and uncle, who have applied to sponsor him.

In an interview with Reuters from the Florida facility where he is being housed, Yaiser said that he and the other re-separated children on the bus that day were sad when their parents were taken away again.

“We started crying because we couldn’t say goodbye after we’d only seen them for a short time.”

Two other fathers on the bus with Sales told Reuters they felt pressured by immigration officials to choose the option of being deported with their child.

“They told us … this was the only option,” said one of the fathers, who spoke on condition that he be identified only by his initials, S.T.

At a July 31 congressional hearing, ICE official Matthew Albence denied that officials were coercing people into agreeing to deportation.

Albence told Congress that many parents want their children to stay in the United States. “A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child returned home with them,” he said. “The reason most of them have come in the first place is to get their children to the United States” and many have spent their life savings to do so, he said.

The government said 154 parents had decided against reunification as of August 16, according to a court filing. The filing doesn’t include the parents’ reasons.

‘IT WOULD BE SAFER’

Another father on the bus, identified in court documents only by his initials J.M., spoke to Reuters about his reason for not agreeing to be deported with his 16-year-old son.

“The problem with Honduras is that they recruit them for gangs, and I didn’t want that for him,” he told Reuters from detention. “Of course, I would have preferred to be with my son, but I made that choice for his well-being. I have to accept that.” His son was returned to the Casa Padre youth shelter in Brownsville, he said.

During their reunion on the bus, Yaiser told his mother he wanted to stay in the U.S. to study and make her proud, Sales said. But he also told her he hoped she could stay with him because “it would be safer.”

Yaiser’s attorney, Jan Peter Weiss, visited him at the Florida facility on Saturday. “He is very sad,” said Weiss. “He asked about his mother every other sentence. ‘Is my mother alright? What do you think is going to happen to her?’”

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the law firm representing Sales, declined to comment for this story.

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in West Palm Beach and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Salvador Rodriguez in San Francisco and Tom Hals in Delaware; Editing by Sue Horton)

Gunman who killed five at Florida airport to get life in prison

FILE PHOTO: Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. on January 9, 2017. Courtesy Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via REUTERS

By Bernie Woodall

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) – A U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq who killed five people during a shooting spree in the arrivals area of a Florida airport last year is due to be sentenced on Friday to life in a federal prison.

Esteban Santiago, 28, pleaded guilty in May to launching the attack near a baggage carousel at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, 2017.

Under a deal with prosecutors that was approved by a federal judge, he escaped the death penalty and will instead be sentenced to five consecutive life terms followed by 120 years in prison, without the right of appeal.

Santiago carried out the rampage after flying to Florida from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, then recovering a 9mm pistol and two ammunition clips from his checked baggage. In addition to killing five people, he wounded six others as he walked through the arrivals area, apparently opening fire at random, security camera footage showed.

After running out of bullets, he placed his weapon on the floor and surrendered to police.

A psychologist testified during a plea hearing in May that Santiago had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The federal judge ruled in March 2017 that he was mentally fit to stand trial.

Santiago, who served in the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, was deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011.

When U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom asked Santiago at the plea hearing why he carried out the attack, he replied: “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time … There were a lot of things going on in my mind, messages.”

Bloom will preside over Friday morning’s hearing in federal court in Miami, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and XX)

New U.S. training unit in Afghanistan faces old problems

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

By James Mackenzie

CAMP DAHLKE, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Captain Joe Fontana, a team leader with the U.S. army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, is part of a new unit but he is working on problems that have been stubbornly familiar to American military advisers in Afghanistan for years.

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade walk at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade walk at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

The 1st SFAB was formed last year as a new force of experienced advisers, to focus U.S. army training and support for Afghan troops and, in future, for other foreign armies.

It deployed to Afghanistan in March, putting U.S. advisers, previously largely restricted to Corps headquarters, together with front-line brigades and battalions for the first time since most international forces left in 2014.

The SFAB has arrived at a time of increasing pressure on the Afghan National Army (ANA) from Taliban fighters who overran a series of outposts and stormed the strategic city of Ghazni this week.

The problems they have found are the same ones that existed a decade ago when the NATO-led coalition began to reshape Afghan forces into an army on U.S. lines – poor logistics and organization as well as a reliance on static checkpoints that are vulnerable to attack.

Like other advisers, Fontana, who served in a combat unit in the southern Afghan provinces of Zabul and Kandahar in 2011-12 as well as in Iraq, speaks admiringly of the fighting spirit of Afghan soldiers.

But he said the army is dogged by persistent problems with supplies, maintaining equipment and making sure units get proper support, issues which for years have been an obstacle to creating Afghan forces capable of standing on their own.

“They’re not scared of much, they will fight back fine, they’re good shots. Some of their soldiers are pretty crack,” Fontana told Reuters. “But it comes down to logistics and mission command.”

The advisers help coordinate air strikes and other tactical support from U.S. forces and work with Afghan commanders on planning operations, frequently pressing them to move away from isolated checkpoints.

SFAB advisers also assisted the 203rd Corps, which is responsible for the volatile provinces south of Kabul, on the front lines in Ghazni.

But a large part of their work consists of helping commanders file requests for vehicle repair and ammunition resupply correctly or pushing units to carry out routine tasks like cleaning and maintaining their weapons and equipment.

It is the basic work of military organization and essential to ensuring army units function but it raises questions about why such problems persist despite the billions of dollars poured into training Afghan forces.

“Every kandak (battalion) we go to, regardless of where they’re located, they all have major sustainment issues,” said Command Sergeant Major Tim Bolyard, the senior non-commissioned officer in Fontana’s battalion.

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

PURPOSE BUILT

After years of training missions by units thrown together for the purpose, the SFABs are supposed to bring more consistency to advising local forces in different parts of the world.

“We needed a purpose-built organization that’s designed for advising,” said Brigadier General Scott Jackson, the 1st SFAB’s commander who was promoted this week.

The 1st SFAB, with some 800 advisers, most officers or NCOs with combat experience in Afghanistan or Iraq, is intended to be followed by five other brigades.

Working alongside mid-ranking and junior Afghan officers and soldiers, the aim is for them to obtain a better perspective on the real strength of Afghan forces.

It is a job needing patience and diplomacy, working through interpreters to coax sometimes reluctant commanders to abandon isolated checkpoints or try to develop their own solutions instead of relying on U.S. air strikes to defeat the enemy.

During a visit to an outpost in the volatile province of Wardak this month, Fontana listened for 40 minutes while a battalion commander explained the problems he was having getting the ammunition his troops needed.

It was not clear whether the correct resupply forms had reached the right person at brigade headquarters and numerous calls ensued to try to find out. It is slow and sometimes frustrating work, but the trainers say it is vital if Afghan forces are ever to stand alone.

“An easy solution for me is, when I fly up there, to drag a couple of thousand pounds of ammunition in the bird (helicopter) and drop it off for them,” Fontana said later.

“Great, but what does that achieve? Now you’re having them become dependent on the U.S. and that is the wrong answer.”

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Rains pile misery on India’s flooded Kerala state as toll rises to 164

A man rescues a drowning man from a flooded area after the opening of Idamalayr, Cheruthoni and Mullaperiyar dam shutters following heavy rains, on the outskirts of Kochi, India August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

By Sivaram Venkitasubramanian and Gopakumar Warrier

KOCHI/BENGALURU, India (Reuters) – The worst floods in a century in the Indian state of Kerala have killed 164 people and forced more than 200,000 into relief camps, officials said on Friday, with more misery expected as heavy rain pushed water levels higher.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit the southwest state later on Friday and its chief minister said he was hoping the military could step up help for the rescue effort, which is already using dozens of helicopters and hundreds of boats.

“I spoke to the defense minister this morning and asked for more helicopters,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told a news conference in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, adding that he planned to send 11 more helicopters to the worst-hit places.

“In some areas, airlifting is the only option … thousands are still marooned,” said Vijayan.

The floods began nine days ago and Vijayan said 164 people had been killed – some in landslides – with about 223,000 people forced into 1,568 relief camps.

A Reuters witness on board a relief helicopter in Chengannur town in the south of the state said people stranded on roof tops were seen waving desperately at navy aircraft.

“The town looked like an island dotted with houses and cars submerged in muddy flood waters and downed coconut trees,” said the witness.

People wait for aid on the roof of their house at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

People wait for aid on the roof of their house at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Two navy helicopters circled as people on roofs of flooded homes waved clothing to call for help.

The helicopters dropped food and water in metal baskets and airlifted at least four people, including a three-year-old child, from roofs, the witness said.

Elsewhere, a man with a cast on his leg was seen lying on the roof of a church as he awaited rescue.

Anil Vasudevan, the head of the Kerala health disaster response wing, said his department had geared up to handle the needs of victims.

“We’ve deployed adequate doctors and staff and provided all essential medicines in the relief camps, where the evacuees will be housed,” he said.

But a big worry was what happens after the flood waters fall. People going home will be susceptible to water-borne diseases, he said.

“We are making elaborate arrangements to deal with that,” he said.

PLANES, TRAINS DISRUPTED

Kerala is a major destination for both domestic and foreign tourists.

The airport in its main commercial city of Kochi has been flooded it has suspended operations until Aug. 26 with flights being diverted to two other airports in the state. Rail and road traffic has also been disrupted in many places.

“Water levels continue to overflow on track and surpassing danger level of bridges at different places,” Southern Railway said in a statement, adding it had canceled more than a dozen trains passing through Kerala.

The office of the chief minister said heavy rain was falling in some places on Friday. More showers are expected over the weekend.

Modi said on Twitter that he would travel to Kerala “to take stock of the unfortunate situation”.

An aerial view shows partially submerged houses at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

An aerial view shows partially submerged houses at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Kerala has been hit with 37 percent more rainfall than normal since the beginning of this monsoon, the Meteorological Department said.

Some plantations have also been inundated. The state is a major producer of rubber, tea, coffee and spices such as black pepper and cardamom.

“It’s very scary. I can still see people on their roofs waiting to be rescued,” said George Valy, a rubber dealer in Kottayam town.

(Reporting by Sivaram Venkitasubramanian in Kochi and Gopakumar Warrier in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Jose Devasia in Kochi and Swati Bhat and Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai; Writing by Euan Rocha and Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Vatican voices ‘shame and sorrow’ over damning sex abuse report

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers a speech after a meeting with Patriarchs of the churches of the Middle East at the St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari, southern Italy July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella and Scott Malone

VATICAN CITY/BOSTON (Reuters) – The Vatican expressed “shame and sorrow” on Thursday over revelations that Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades, vowing to hold abusers and those who protected them accountable.

In a long statement that broke the Vatican’s silence over a damning U.S. grand jury report that has shaken the American Church, spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See was taking the report “with great seriousness”.

He stressed the “need to comply” with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors and said Pope Francis understands how “these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers” and that the pontiff wanted to “root out this tragic horror”.

The grand jury on Tuesday released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years. It contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by priests.

“The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith,” Burke said.

“The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur,” he said.

St. Joseph Catholic Church is seen in Hanover, Pennsylvania, U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barr

St. Joseph Catholic Church is seen in Hanover, Pennsylvania, U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

His statement came hours after U.S. bishops called for a Vatican-led probe backed by lay investigators into allegations of sexual abuse by former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month.. The Vatican did not directly address their request.

Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation in July after American church officials said allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.

McCarrick was possibly the first cardinal to resign since French theologian Louis Billot, who according to the National Catholic Reporter, a US newspaper, left over a disagreement with Pope Pius XI in 1927.

“The overarching goal in all of this is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

The bishops said they would create a new way to report accusations of sexual abuse by clergy members and for claims to be investigated without interference from bishops overseeing priests accused of sex abuse. They said it would involve more church members who were not clergy but had expertise in law enforcement or psychology.

Nick Ingala, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a group formed to promote parishioners’ voices after the abuse scandal surfaced, said it was heartening that bishops wanted to set up an independent review process but he expressed skepticism that it would be successful.

“I don’t know how they are going to work that out,” Ingala said in a telephone interview. “I’m always hesitant to give 100 percent credence to any plan the bishops put forth based upon experiences in the past.”

The Pennsylvania grand jury report was the latest revelation in a scandal that erupted onto the global stage in 2002, when the Boston Globe newspaper reported that for decades, priests had sexually assaulted minors while church leaders covered up their crimes.

Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits and investigations, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.

(Editing by David Gregorio, Toni Reinhold)

U.S. imposes sanctions on Myanmar military over Rohingya crackdown

Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, walk after they received permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue on to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. Reuters photographer Jorge Silva: "This picture was taken after a huge group of people crossed into Bangladesh and then had to wait three days and nights for the Bangladeshi Army's permission to continue walking into the makeshift camps. The line of people seemed endless. Long hours moving slowly across the embankments of the rice field. Mothers with babies and pregnant women, elderly people with illnesses, men carrying their entire life on their shoulders. They were safe from violence, but the challenge of surviving was still waiting for them on this side of the river." REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military and police commanders and two army units for involvement in what it called “ethnic cleansing” and other human rights abuses against the country’s Rohingya Muslims, the Treasury Department said.

The sanctions marked the toughest U.S. action so far in response to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority which started last year and has driven more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh and left thousands of dead behind.

But the Trump administration did not target the highest levels of the Myanmar military and also stopped short of calling the anti-Rohingya campaign crimes against humanity or genocide, which has been the subject of debate within the U.S. government.

“Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, using an alternative name for Myanmar.

“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behavior as part of a broader U.S. government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” Mandelker said.

The sanctions targeted military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing, and border police commander Thura San Lwin, in addition to the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions, the Treasury said.

A Reuters special report in June gave a comprehensive account of the roles played by the two infantry divisions in the offensive against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s military has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Tim Ahmann and Makini Brice, David Brunnstrom; Editing by Bill Rigby)

Kroger begins tests of driverless grocery delivery in Arizona

Nuro's R1 driverless delivery van is seen packed with bags from Kroger's Fry's Food Stores, which will begin a test of the vehicle in Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., this autumn in this undated photo provided August 15, 2018. Courtesy of Kroger/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – U.S. supermarket operator Kroger Co said it will start testing driverless grocery delivery on Thursday with technology partner Nuro at a single Fry’s Food Store in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Kroger and rival Walmart Inc each have teamed up with autonomous vehicle companies in a bid to lower the high cost of “last-mile” deliveries to customer doorsteps, as online retailer Amazon.com rolls out free Whole Foods delivery for subscribers to its Prime perks program.

“Kroger wants to bring more customers the convenience of affordable grocery delivery,” said Kroger Chief Digital Officer Yael Cosset, who added that the test will also gauge consumer demand for the service.

The first phase of the test will use a fleet of Toyota Prius cars equipped with Nuro technology. Those cars have seats for humans who can override autonomous systems in the event of an error or emergency. Nuro’s R1 driverless delivery van, which has no seats, will begin testing this autumn, the companies said.

“While we compete final certification and testing of the R1, the Prius will be delivering groceries and helping us improve the overall service,” a Nuro spokeswoman said.

Self-driving car delivery from the Fry’s store will cost $5.95 with no minimum order. It is only available at addresses within the store’s zip code of 85257, Kroger said.

Walmart and Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car company Waymo are partnering to test a service that shuttles Phoenix shoppers to stores to collect online grocery orders.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)