U.S. says trade aid payments to farmers to range from $15 – $150 per acre

FILE PHOTO: A farmer drives tractor along a road in Pearl City, Illinois, U.S., July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The U.S. government will pay American farmers hurt by the trade war with China aid ranging between $15 to $150 per acre starting from mid- to late August, Department of Agriculture officials said on Thursday, as part of President Donald Trump’s up to $16 billion support package.

The fresh aid program would be the second round of assistance for farmers after the USDA’s $12 billion plan last year to compensate for lower prices for farm goods and lost sales stemming from trade disputes with China and other nations.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said farmers have been disproportionately hurt by the trade dispute with China and therefore a fresh round of aid was justified. “They are fighting the fight and they are on the front line,” he said.

U.S. farmers, a key Trump constituency, have been among the hardest hit in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Soybeans are the most valuable U.S. farm export, and shipments to China dropped to a 16-year low in 2018.

In the new package, the USDA has developed varying county rates, calculated based on estimated trade damage caused by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China, the top export market for many U.S. agricultural products.

Sign-ups for the payments will begin on Monday and last until Dec. 6, USDA officials said in a conference call. Additional tranches of the payments are scheduled for November and January but will be subject to whether the trade disputes with China and other countries are still ongoing or not by then.

To be considered eligible for payments, acreage of non-specialty crops and cover crops must be planted by Aug. 1, 2019, the USDA said.

The number of farm acres that could not be planted due to weather were at historic levels this year, USDA officials said but added that the department was still working to finalize its estimate.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by P.J. Huffstutter and Karl Plume in Chicago; writing by Caroline Stauffer; editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump supports plan for humanitarian food aid to North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at an event to celebrate the anniversary of first lady Melania Trump's “Be Best” initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korea said that U.S. President Donald Trump supports the country’s plan to provide humanitarian food aid to North Korea, Yonhap reported on Tuesday.

Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke for 35 minutes earlier on Tuesday, during a call in which the two leaders also discussed ways to continue dialogue with Pyonyang, the South Korean news agency reported.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked by reporters in April whether he was prepared to ease some sanctions on North Korea, Trump said he and Moon were discussing “certain humanitarian things” and the possibility of South Korea helping North Korea with food.

Nearly half of North Koreans suffer from severe food insecurity and meager official rations are expected to be cut further after dry spells, heat waves and flooding have led to the worst harvest in a decade, the United Nations said on Friday.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met twice, but talks between the two leaders have stalled. On Saturday, North Korea fired projectiles off its coast, but Trump and his administration have played down the weapons tests.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu)

Yemeni Houthis halt missile attacks on Saudi coalition, raising peace prospects

FILE PHOTO: A Houthi militant sits guard on the roof of a building overlooking fellow Houthis rallying to denounce the rapid devaluation of the Yemeni Rial in Sanaa, Yemen October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Houthi rebels in Yemen said on Monday they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni allies, responding to a demand from the United Nations.

The Iranian-aligned group, which has been battling the Saudi-backed government for nearly four years, also said it was ready for a broader ceasefire if the Saudi-led coalition “wants peace”.

The Houthis’ decision to halt missile attacks could be a turning point in peace efforts as it ends a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. It is by far the biggest concession from the movement since it left the southern port city of Aden in 2015.

International pressure has mounted on Yemen’s warring parties to end the war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the verge of starvation.

The move from the Houthi group came after the coalition ordered a halt in its offensive against Yemen’s main port city Hodeidah, which has become the focus of the war.

“We announce our initiative…to halt missile and drone strikes on the countries of aggression,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said in a statement.

The decision was based on discussions with U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths to show “good faith” and support peace efforts, he said.

Griffiths welcomed the Houthi announcement and called on all parties continue to show restraint “to create a conducive environment for convening the consultations”.

The envoy is trying to salvage peace talks after a round in September collapsed when the Houthis did not show up. He hopes to convene talks before the end of the year in Sweden to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

Yemen’s parties have given “firm assurances” they are committed to attending peace talks, Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Friday, with Britain asking the council to back a humanitarian truce in Yemen on Monday.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Monday reiterated the kingdom’s support for U.N. efforts to end the war. The Riyadh-backed government also announced its willingness to take part in the next round of consultations.

TIRED OF WAR

Yemenis cautiously welcomed the announcement on Monday.

“We pray that this will be the real beginning of peace in Yemen, we are all tired of this war,” said Mona Ibrahim, a teacher in the capital Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since September 2014.

“We just want to live like other humans,” Mohammed al-Ahdal, a resident of Hodeidah said.

The Houthi defense ministry said it would respond to any hostilities from the coalition.

Graham Griffiths, a senior analyst at Control Risks Middle East, said the announcement was potentially important as it comes in response to the coalition’s pausing of operations around Hodeidah.

“Efforts to resume the peace process remain fragile … given the mutual distrust between the warring parties. Nevertheless, given the renewed pressure from the international community, there is a real chance to begin to move the conflict toward a durable de-escalation,” he said.

Houthi-run Al Masirah TV reported on Monday that Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile on Saudi-backed forces in the desert of Midi, bordering Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis say their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia are in retaliation for air raids on Yemen by the Western-backed coalition, which entered Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to restore the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The coalition has carried out thousands of air strikes in the impoverished country that have hit schools, markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of people – though it says it does not target civilians.

Western allies including the United States have called for a ceasefire ahead of the renewed U.N. efforts.

Western countries have provided arms and intelligence to the Arab states in the alliance, but have shown increasing reservations about the conflict since the murder of U.S.-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Hesham Hajali in Cairo and Asma Alsharif in Dubai; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump threatens to cut U.S. aid to Honduras over immigrants

Guatemalan police officers watch as Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the U.S., arrive in Esquipulas city in Guatemala, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened to withdraw funding and aid from Honduras if it does not stop a caravan of people that is heading to the United States.

“The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!” Trump said on Twitter.

Up to 3,000 migrants crossed from Honduras into Guatemala on Monday on a trek northward, after a standoff with police in riot gear and warnings from Washington that migrants should not try to enter the United States illegally.

The crowd more than doubled in size from Saturday, when some 1,300 people set off from northern Honduras in what has been dubbed “March of the Migrant,” an organizer said. The migrants plan to seek refugee status in Mexico or pass through to the United States.

Reuters could not independently verify the number of participants, but images showed a group carrying backpacks and clogging roads near the border, some waving the Honduran flag.

The impoverished nations of Central America, from which thousands of migrants have fled in recent years, are under mounting pressure from Trump’s administration to do more to curb mass migration.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

Indonesian quake survivors scavenging in ‘zombie town’; president ramps up aid

Policemen walk at the ruins of a church after an earthquake hit Jono Oge village in Sigi, Indonesia's Sulawesi island, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said on Wednesday they were scavenging for food in farms as President Joko Widodo made a second visit to the area to ramp up aid efforts five days after disaster struck.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi island last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has yet to be restored.

But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.

Johnny Lim, a restaurant owner reached by telephone in Donggala town, said he was surviving on coconuts.

“It’s a zombie town. Everything’s destroyed. Nothing’s left,” Lim said over a crackling line.

“We’re on our last legs. There’s no food, no water.”

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

In another part of Donggala district, which has a population of 300,000 people, Ahmad Derajat, said survivors were scavenging for food in fields and orchards.

“What we’re relying on right now is food from farms and sharing whatever we find like sweet potatoes or bananas,” said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

“Why aren’t they dropping aid by helicopter?” he asked.

Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, which includes a string of cut-off, small towns along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake’s epicenter.

“Everyone is desperate for food and water. There’s no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing,” Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.

Underlining a growing sense of urgency, President Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.

“What I’ve observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it’s not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

‘PRESIDENT NOT HEARING’

Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an “evacuation” effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.

Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.

“The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu,” he said.

“There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village … There is no aid whatsoever which is why we’re leaving.”

At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colors and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: “Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia”.

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet) scoured its beachfront shortly afterward.

About 1,700 houses in one neighborhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Indonesian Red Cross disaster responders said the village of Petobo, just south of Palu, which was home to almost 500 people, had been “wiped off the map”.

“They are finding devastation and tragedy everywhere,” Iris van Deinse, of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

Nearby, rescue workers, some using an excavator, were searching for 52 children missing since liquefaction destroyed their bible study camp. Bodies of 35 of the children have been found.

Aircraft, tents, water treatment facilities and generators were the main needs for survivors including more than 70,000 displaced people, according to the national disaster mitigation agency spokesman.

Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to quakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Adding to Sulawesi’s woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island, 600 km (375 miles) northeast of Palu, erupted on Wednesday but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Judge rejects bid to block end of aid to Hurricane Maria evacuees

FILE PHOTO: Ysamar Figueroa carrying her son Saniel, looks at the damage in the neighbourhood after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Canovanas, Puerto Rico September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

BOSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge on Thursday rejected a request to block the U.S. government from cutting off aid to hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and are living in hotels and motels across the United States.

But U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, ordered the government to continue providing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria until Sept. 13 so they could prepare.

Lawyers for a group of Puerto Ricans pursuing the lawsuit had argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) decision to terminate aid violated their due process rights and contended that they being discriminated against.

But Hillman said they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims and rejected their request for an injunction that would require FEMA to continue providing aid to evacuees until they obtained temporary or permanent housing.

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A broken traffic light, a street sign and branches lie on the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

“While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result,” Hillman wrote.

He said he could not required FEMA “to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done,” but could only order it to do what the law requires.

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour) on Sept. 20, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the already economically struggling U.S. territory.

On Tuesday, the official death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean island in almost a century, was raised to nearly 3,000.

According to FEMA, 1,044 families displaced by Maria as of Wednesday were receiving aid under a program that pays for hotel lodging. Since its launch the program in total has helped 7,032 families displaced by Maria, FEMA said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Death toll from Indonesia quake climbs over 320

An aerial view of the collapsed Jamiul Jamaah mosque where rescue workers and soldiers search for earthquake victims in Pemenang, North Lombok, Indonesia August 8, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Zabur Karuru/ via REUTERS

By Angie Teo

PEMANANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – The death toll from a huge 6.9 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia’s Lombok island has climbed to more than 320, officials said on Friday, even as relief efforts picked up pace.

The national disaster mitigation agency said it had verified 321 deaths and that over 270,000 people had been forced to flee their homes because of a series of tremors over the past two weeks.

On Thursday, the death toll from Sunday’s quake jumped to 259.

A fresh 5.9 magnitude aftershock prompted fresh panic in the north of the popular holiday destination on Thursday.

Nearly 75 percent of residential structures have been destroyed in northern Lombok because of poor construction unable to withstand strong tremors, the agency said in a statement.

“Aid is being distributed as quickly as possible upon arrival,” Sutopo Nugroho, spokesman for the agency said in a statement, adding that hundreds of volunteers were assisting the efforts.

Mobile kitchens have started distributing much-needed food and water to thousands of evacuees in the worst-hit areas, he said, after several days’ delay due to poor access and communications.

President Joko Widodo on Friday said he was delaying plans to visit Lombok until next week, citing concerns over continuing aftershocks.

“After the emergency period is over, the government will undertake rehabilitation, reconstruction, repairs to residential areas and public facilities,” the cabinet secretariat website quoted Widodo as saying.

Widodo visited the island after a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 29 killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

The quakes have prompted tourists to flee during what is otherwise the peak season for the island destination famous for its beaches.

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana in Jakarta; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Alison Williams)

Syrian offensive uprooted 120,000 people so far, U.N. warns of catastrophe

Residents celebrate the army's arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, northeast of Deraa city, Syria in this handout released on June 29, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by a Syrian army offensive in the southwest since it began last week, a war monitor said on Friday, and a senior U.N. official warned of catastrophe as they risked being trapped between warring sides.

Government forces and their allies appeared to be making significant gains in eastern Deraa province, where state media said they marched into several towns. A rebel official said opposition front lines had collapsed.

The Russian-backed offensive has killed at least 98 civilians, including 19 children, since June 19, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It has also driven tens of thousands of people toward the border with Jordan and thousands more to the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the UK-based monitor said.

Israel and Jordan – which is already hosting 650,000 Syrians – say they will not let refugees in.

“We left under bombardment, barrel bombs, (air strikes by) Russian and Syrian warplanes,” said Abu Khaled al-Hariri, 36, who fled from al-Harak town to the Golan frontier with his wife and five children.

“We are waiting for God to help us, for tents, blankets, mattresses, aid for our children to eat and drink.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was a grave risk of many civilians being trapped between government forces, rebel groups and Islamic State militants who have a small foothold there, an outcome he said would be a “catastrophe”.

“The real concern is that we are going to see a repetition of what we saw in eastern Ghouta – the bloodshed, the suffering, the civilians being held, being under a siege,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have turned their focus to the rebel-held southwest since defeating the last remaining besieged insurgent pockets, including eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. The assault has so far targeted Deraa, not rebel-held parts of nearby Quneitra province at the Golan frontier which are more sensitive to Israel.

The campaign has shattered a “de-escalation” deal negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan that had mostly contained fighting in the southwest since last year.

President Bashar al-Assad pressed ahead with the offensive despite U.S. condemnations and warnings of “serious repercussions”. The United States has told rebels not to expect military support against the assault.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri on Thursday decried “U.S. silence” over the offensive and said only a “malicious deal” could explain the lack of a U.S. response.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will have a detailed discussion about Syria when they meet in July.

EASTERN DERAA PROVINCE

The war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015, when he held just a fraction of the country. Today he commands the single largest part of Syria, though much of the north and east is outside his control.

Syrian troops have seized a swathe of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city. State TV broadcast scenes of what they said were locals celebrating the army’s arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, where they said rebels were turning in their weapons.

State media said that government forces seized al-Harak and Rakham towns, and that insurgents in four other towns agreed to surrender their weapons and make “reconciliation” deals with the government.

“Most of the (people in) the eastern villages have fled to west Deraa and to Quneitra,” said Abu Shaima, a Free Syrian Army rebel spokesman.

Another rebel official said some towns were trying to negotiate deals with the state on their own. “There was a collapse in the eastern front yesterday,” he added. “The front in Deraa city is steadfast.”

Al-Manar TV, run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said the army captured a hill overlooking a road linking eastern and western parts of Deraa province – an advance that would mean rebels could no longer safely use it.

The seven-year-long war has already displaced six million people inside Syria and driven 5.5 million abroad as refugees, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

ISRAEL SENDS AID, WON’T OPEN FRONTIER

Many of the civilians on the move have fled from areas east and northeast of Deraa city and from the heavily populated rebel-held town of Nawa to its northwest.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman, speaking by phone, said some people had also crossed into government-held areas, while others had gone to a corner of the southwest held by an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Jordan reiterated its position that newly displaced Syrians must be helped inside Syria. “Jordan has reached its capacity in receiving refugees,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera late on Thursday.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, in an interview with Tel Aviv Radio 102FM, said: “I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases.”

The Israeli military said an increased number of civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations to people fleeing hostilities.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean and Raissa Kasolowsky)

A month after PNG quake, cash-strapped government struggles to help the hardest-hit

FILE PHOTO - A supplied image shows locals inspecting a landslide and damage to a road located near the township of Tabubil after an earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands, February 26, 2018

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Almost a month after a deadly earthquake, Papua New Guinea is struggling to get aid to desperate survivors, having allocated just a fraction of its relief funds, while a rent dispute left disaster officials briefly locked out of their offices.

The scale of the emergency is testing the finances and capacity of one of the world’s poorest countries, disaster and relief officials say, after the magnitude 7.5 quake rocked its remote mountainous highlands on Feb. 26, killing 100 people.

Thousands of survivors have walked to remote airstrips and jungle clearings, awaiting helicopters bringing supplies of food, water and medicines, aid agencies and authorities say.

“To date, we do not have any money to do all the necessary things,” Tom Edabe, the disaster coordinator for the hardest-hit province of Hela, said by telephone from Tari, its capital.

“(The) government is trying to assist and have budgeted some money, but to date we have not received anything…we have only been given food, and non-food items supplied by other NGOs.”

Continuing aftershocks rattle residents, who have to collect water brought by daily rainstorms to ensure adequate supplies, Edabe, the disaster coordinator, said.

“The biggest thing that people need, apart from food, is water,” said James Pima, a helicopter pilot and flight manager at aviation firm HeliSolutions in the Western Highlands capital of Mt. Hagen, about 170 km (100 miles) from the disaster zone.

“They don’t have clean water to cook or drink … they are standing there staring. The expression on their faces is blank.”

His firm’s three helicopters fly relief missions “fully flat-out every day,” Pima added.

Destruction to roads and runways means authorities must rely on helicopters to fly in relief. But while nimble, the craft can only carry smaller loads than fixed-wing aircraft and cannot fly during the afternoon thunderstorms.

The logistics problems wind all the way to PNG’s disaster center, where officials told Reuters they had been locked out of their office in Port Moresby, the capital, for two days last week after the government missed a rental payment.

“That was correct, Monday and Tuesday,” a spokeswoman said.

In a joint report with the United Nations published on Friday, the agency cited “lack of quality data” about food shortages, limited aircraft assets and “significant gaps” in sanitation support as being the biggest problems it faced.

The office of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters.

On his website, O’Neill has previously said, “There will be no quick fix, the damage from this disaster will take months and years to be repaired.”

‘POLITICAL GAMES’

The government had approved relief funds amounting to 450 million kina ($130 million), O’Neill said initially, but a later statement mentioned only 3 million kina in initial relief – or less than 1 percent – had been allocated to the worst-hit areas.

In its November budget, the government made plans to rein in spending and trim debt projected to stand at 25.8 billion kina in 2018.

The impoverished country is also missing its largest revenue earner, after the quake forced a shutdown of Exxon Mobil Corp’s liquefied natural gas project, which has annual sales of $3 billion at current LNG prices. The firm is still assessing quake damage at its facilities.

O’Neill last week hit out at critics of the aid effort for playing “political games,” while thanking Australia and New Zealand for military aircraft that provided assistance beyond the capacity of PNG’s own defense forces.

His political opponent, former Prime Minister Mekere Morauta, had called the government’s response “tardy” and inadequate.

“Relief sources say mobile medical centers and operating theaters are needed urgently, and that only international partners can supply them,” Morauta said last week.

Foreign aid pledges of about $49 million have come in from Australia, China, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and the United States, says the United Nations, most of it provided by private companies.

Exxon and its partner, Oil Search Ltd, say they have provided $6 million in cash and kind for quake relief.

Local officials say the scale of destruction, with villages buried by landslides and provincial towns flattened, has overwhelmed authorities in Papua New Guinea, which straddles the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

“Policemen are still struggling because there is no support flying in and out,” said Naring Bongi of the quake-damaged police station in the Southern Highlands capital of Mendi.

“There is not enough food to supply care centers, they need fresh water,” he added.

 

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

France demands end to Syria air strikes as more hit rebel-held Ghouta

People and cars are seen in old town in Aleppo, Syria February 8, 2018.

By Dahlia Nehme and Matthias Blamont

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) – France demanded an end to air strikes in Syria on Friday as warplanes mounted further attacks on a rebel stronghold near Damascus where a war monitor said government bombardments have killed 229 people, the deadliest week in the area since 2015.

President Bashar al-Assad, who has seized a clear advantage in the war with Russian and Iranian help, is hammering two of the last key rebel pockets of Syria – the Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

The multi-sided conflict is raging on other fronts too, with Turkey waging a big offensive in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, the Afrin region, where Ankara is targeting Kurdish militia forces it sees as a threat to its security.

Diplomacy is making no progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes, with millions forced out as refugees.

“We are very worried. The air strikes need to end,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on France Inter radio. “Civilians are the targets, in Idlib and in the east of Damascus. This fighting is absolutely unacceptable.”

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, said on Thursday a ceasefire was unrealistic. The United Nations called on Tuesday for a humanitarian truce of at least one month to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of the wounded.

France and 1the United Nations have repeatedly called in past months for the opening of aid corridors to alleviate Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The Paris government has also urged Moscow in private to consider ways to alleviate the crisis, but those efforts have not materialized into results on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the Syrian peace process by phone on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

“CATASTROPHE”

In the Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel area near Damascus, residents described one of the most extensive bombing campaigns of the war, with multiple towns being hit simultaneously and people driven into shelters for days.

“My brother was hit yesterday in an air strike and we had to amputate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by Reuters on Friday. “He was hit by shrapnel while sitting in his home,” said the resident, who identified himself as Adnan, declining to give his full name.

“The people here have collapsed, people are seen talking to themselves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman with the Civil Defence rescue service in the rebel-held area. “We are living a catastrophe.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using what it describes as a range of sources on all sides, said the air strikes had killed 229 people in the last four days, the Eastern Ghouta’s biggest weekly toll since 2015.

“Children in Eastern Ghouta are being starved, bombed and trapped. Schools are supposed to be safe places for children, protected under international law, yet they are being attacked every single day,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director in a statement.

“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

The World Food Programme, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, reiterated the call for a cessation of hostilities to enable aid deliveries, but also noted that the Syrian government was not giving necessary permits to delivery aid.

“It has been now almost 60 days since we had the last convoy to a besieged area,” Jakob Kern, the WFP country director in Syria, told Reuters in a phone interview from Damascus.

“The frustration is two-fold. One is that we don’t get approvals to actually go but even if we got approvals, there just is too much fighting going on,” he said, pointing to hostilities in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, Afrin and the south.

TURKISH AIR CAMPAIGN

The Turkish army, which launched an air and ground offensive into Afrin on Jan. 20, said it carried out air strikes on Kurdish YPG militia targets in the Afrin region. The Observatory said the strikes killed seven combatants and two civilians.

The overnight attacks came after a lull in Turkish air strikes following the shooting down of a Russian warplane elsewhere in Syria last weekend.

The air strikes destroyed 19 targets including ammunition depots, shelters and gun positions, the Turkish armed forces said in a statement without specifying when the raids were conducted. The raids began at midnight, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on neighboring Turkish soil.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by telephone on Thursday and agreed to strengthen military and security service coordination in Syria, according to the Kremlin.

The YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in Syria’s north, including Afrin, since the war began in 2011.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont and John Irish in Paris; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)