Second Greek migrant camp in flames as arrivals continue to rise

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A fire in a severely overcrowded migrant camp in Greece forced hundreds of people into the streets, compounding their plight with more refugees arriving on Greek islands daily in what an aid group called a worsening “nightmare”.

Greece sent more police to the island of Samos on Tuesday after the fire, which occurred two weeks after a deadly blaze at a troubled camp on nearby Lesbos triggered protests there.

The Samos fire flared outside the camp on Monday night, firefighters said, before spreading inside. Earlier, three Syrians had been taken to hospital with stab wounds suffered in a fight with a group of Afghans, police said.

Several tents and housing containers were destroyed and 600 people were given shelter by aid groups, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity said. It estimates that half of the camp’s residents are women and children.

“This nightmare must end!” MSF wrote on Twitter. “Children and other vulnerable people must be evacuated from the Greek islands to safe accommodation.”

Greece is struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee and migrant flows across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since a 2015 crisis when more than a million streamed into Europe, many of them entering the continent via Greece.

A regional governor, Costas Moutzouris, described the current situation on Greece’s frontline islands as “tragic” and called on the government to act.

More than half of refugees and migrants reaching European Union territory this year from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have been to Greece, according to United Nations data.

Athens has announced a stricter migration policy to deal with the crisis, including plans to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year. But efforts to ease overcrowding have borne little fruit as arrivals have surged to record levels.

The Samos camp, initially built for about 650 people, is unraveling under the weight of more than 5,700 asylum-seekers, according to the latest government data.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the highest level in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, addressing the Greek parliament on Tuesday, said Greece needed to do more to process its backlog of asylum claims.

He cautioned that Greece might not be able to deal with the potential refugee fallout from a military offensive launched by Turkey against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria last week.

“The pressure currently being placed on populations on the Turkey-Syria border may force several thousand Syrians, or others living in the region, to want to cross the border into Turkey. And then what happens?” Avramopoulos said.

“That would be catastrophic for Greece, and for Europe.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Calls for end to Yemen war offer little hope for hungry children

Malnourished Ferial Elias, 2, gestures as she is being weighed at a malnutrition treatment ward at al-Thawra hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

TAIZ, Yemen (Reuters) – Lying on a dust-covered bed in a hospital ward in the Yemen city of Taiz, 10-year-old Ghazi Mohammed barely has enough energy to watch doctors and nurses examine his emaciated body.

The boy weighs 8.5 kg (18 lb), less than a third of the average weight of a child his age. He fled hunger and poverty in his mountain village last year to find only more suffering in Yemen’s third largest city Taiz.

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

“This shows that the humanitarian aid that comes to Yemen does not reach people who really need it. Distribution remains random,” said his doctor, Amen al-Asli.

Western powers who have for three years provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen are now pressing for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

The West toughened its stance after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

His death sparked a global outcry and exposed Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy, including its role in the war in Yemen, which has been criticized by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers.

But calls for an end to the fighting have come far too late for millions of Yemeni civilians, including children, who face acute malnutrition and hunger in a complex, multi-sided war.

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“They need a complete care, here in the hospital and later at home. Of course, it depends on the parents’ financial condition as malnutrition can hit the whole family,” said Youssef al-Salawi, another doctor.

In Taiz, children fighting for their lives in hospitals are traumatized by daily artillery fire, rockets, and anti-aircraft guns as Saudi-backed government forces battle the Iran-aligned Houthis along pulverized streets.

The United Nations says out of 29 million Yemenis, 22 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million are severely hungry.

“We do hope that talk about getting the peace process back on track, that gives us hope, but it is very imperative for the people of Yemen that this conflict stops as soon as possible,” said Stephen Anderson, the World Food Program’s (WFP) country director in Yemen.

OFFENSIVE ON PORT

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the warring parties together before the end of the year.

After seizing the southern port of Aden in 2015, the coalition has made little progress. While it has air supremacy, the Houthis have proved better at guerrilla warfare.

The Houthis still control Yemen’s most populated areas, including the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah.

The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a ceasefire.

Aid groups fear an attack on Hodeidah port would disrupt its operations and endanger more civilians as it remains the main source of food imports as well as much-needed humanitarian aid.

Street fighting and air strikes resumed late on Tuesday in Hodeidah despite a lull in battles as U.N. officials visited the Red Sea city to assess food security.

A resident told Reuters calm descended on Hodeidah on Wednesday after heavy clashes and air strikes rocked the city. “It is very surprising,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Michael Georgy, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, and Angus MacSwan)

For asylum-seekers on Greece’s Lesbos, life ‘is so bad here’

Migrants wash their clothes and fill bottles with water at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Hundreds of asylum-seekers stranded on Greece’s Lesbos island are living in makeshift tents in a field overrun by garbage, without electricity or running water.

Moria, Greece’s biggest migrant camp in a former military base on the island, is holding 9,000 people, nearly three times its capacity, according to the latest government data.

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Aerial footage obtained by Reuters shows several dozen tents have spilled over into an adjacent olive grove, where hundreds of asylum-seekers, most of them Afghan, live in grim conditions.

Young children with muddied faces play among piles of rubbish and women wash clothes and plates in buckets of murky water. Others break off tree branches to shelter their tents from the elements.

“The situation is so bad here,” said Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker who arrived in Greece with his three children in August. “Night is so bad … my children cannot go to the toilet because everywhere it is dark here and we are in a forest.”

Greece has said it will move 2,000 asylum-seekers from the island to the mainland by the end of the month as aid groups increased pressure on the government to ease the overcrowding.

A local governor threatened to shut Moria down next month unless authorities clean up what health inspectors described as “uncontrollable amounts of waste.”

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

In Athens on Wednesday, the European Union’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said it was an EU “priority to create the best possible conditions on the islands”.

Small numbers of migrant boats arrive on Lesbos and other Greek islands near Turkey every week, though they are a fraction of the nearly 1 million people who landed in Greece in 2015.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump says ‘big price to pay’ for Syria chemical attack

A child cries as they have their face wiped following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Dahlia Nehme and Roberta Rampton

BEIRUT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Sunday there would be a “big price to pay” after aid groups said dozens of people were killed by poison gas in a besieged rebel-held town in Syria, an attack the opposition blamed on Syrian government forces.

As international officials worked to try to confirm the chemical attack which happened late on Saturday in the town of Douma, Trump took the rare step of directly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in connection with the incident.

With tension running high, Syrian state television later issued a report of a suspected U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base, prompting a swift U.S. denial of any such attack.

The Syrian state denied government forces had launched any chemical assault. Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, called the reports fake.

Trump threatened action, although it was unclear what he had in mind. Last year, he authorized a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base days after a sarin gas attack on civilians.

“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry warned against military action on the basis of “invented and fabricated excuses.”

The medical relief organization Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the civil defense service, which operates in rebel-held areas, said in a joint statement 49 people died in the attack.

“Yesterday reports emerged of yet another chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime,” said the Syrian Negotiation Committee, a political opposition group.

U.S. government sources said Washington’s assessment was that chemical weapons were used in a besieged rebel-held town in Syria, but they are still evaluating details.

The European Union also said evidence pointed to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.

A European diplomat said Western allies would work on building a dossier based on photos, videos, witness testimony and satellite images of Syrian flights and helicopters. However gaining access to samples on the ground would be difficult.

The U.N. Security Council will meet twice on Monday following rival requests by Russia and the United States.

U.N. war crimes investigators had previously documented 33 chemical attacks in Syria, attributing 27 to the Assad government, which has repeatedly denied using the weapons.

Russia has repeatedly blocked efforts to hold Syria accountable both at the U.N. and OPCW.

‘HORRIBLE’ IMAGES

In the early hours of Monday, Syrian state television reported loud explosions heard near the T-4 airfield in the city of Homs in what it said was a suspected U.S. missile strike. The report ignited a storm of messages on Twitter.

The Pentagon denied any such attack.

“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting air strikes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

“However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable.”

Last week, Trump said he wanted to bring home the 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria working to help fight Islamic State militants. His advisers have urged him to wait to ensure the militants are defeated and to prevent Assad’s ally Iran from gaining a foothold.

Republican U.S. Senator John McCain said Assad was “emboldened” after Trump’s remarks and said the U.S. president now needed to respond decisively.

Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, told ABC’s “This Week” the White House would not rule out launching another missile attack and called photos of the incident “horrible.”

One video of the new attack shared by activists showed bodies of about a dozen children, women and men, some with foam at the mouth. “Douma city, April 7 … there is a strong smell here,” a voice can be heard saying.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Last year, one factor in Trump’s decision to bomb Syria was televised images of dead children.

Two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Trump would likely await a conclusive “high confidence” intelligence assessment that the government used chemical weapons.

The presence of Russian forces at a number of Syrian military bases complicates the process of picking targets for any strike, said one official.

While some in the administration believe Russian forces should not be considered immune to attack because of Moscow’s support for Assad, officials said Putin would see any loss of Russian lives or equipment as a deliberate escalation, and likely would respond by increasing support for Assad, or retaliating in other ways.

NEW TEAM AT WHITE HOUSE

Trump had a previously scheduled meeting at the White House on Monday with senior military leaders. He has shaken up his core national security team, replacing national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, a hard-charging former U.N. ambassador, who officially begins on Monday.

Bolton last year praised Trump’s missile response, though he has generally focused more on Iran as a bigger security threat.

Top White House officials were uncertain what advice Bolton may have given Trump about Syria, said a U.S. official.

However, two officials said Trump has been adamant about withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, despite warnings about the consequences from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other military officials.

SHELTERING IN BASEMENTS

The Ghouta offensive has been one of the deadliest in Syria’s seven-year-long war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The monitoring group said it could not confirm whether chemical weapons had been used in the attack on Saturday.

Medical relief organization SAMS said a chlorine bomb hit Douma hospital, killing six, and a second attack with “mixed agents”, including nerve agents, had hit a nearby building.

Basel Termanini, the U.S.-based vice president of SAMS, told Reuters another 35 people, most of them women and children, had been killed at a nearby apartment building.

SAMS and the civil defense said medical centers had taken in more than 500 people suffering breathing difficulties, frothing from the mouth and smelling of chlorine.

Tawfik Chamaa, a Geneva-based Syrian doctor with the Syria-focused Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a network of Syrian doctors, said 150 people were confirmed dead and the number was growing. “The majority were civilians, women and children trapped in underground shelters,” he told Reuters.

Douma is in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. Assad has won back control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta from rebel groups in a Russian-backed military campaign that began in February, leaving just Douma in rebel hands.

Facing defeat, rebel groups elsewhere in eastern Ghouta have left. Until now, the prominent insurgent group Jaish al-Islam has rejected that option, but the attack led the group to finally give in to the government’s demand to leave.

There was no immediate comment from the group.

Taking Douma would seal Assad’s biggest victory since 2016, and underline his unassailable position in the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people since it mushroomed from protests against his rule in 2011.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme and Tom Perry in Beirut, Mustafa Hashem in Cairo, Roberta Rampton, John Walcott, Mark Hosenball, Matt Spetalnick, Michelle Price and Sarah Lynch in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Anthony Deutsch in Amstersdam, John Irish in Paris, and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry, Roberta Rampton and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Adrian Croft, James Dalgleish and David Gregorio)