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)

60,000 North Korean children may starve, sanctions slow aid: UNICEF

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated 60,000 children face potential starvation in North Korea, where international sanctions are exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

World powers have imposed growing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last week the United States announced fresh sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt from sanctions, Omar Abdi, UNICEF deputy executive director, said.

“But what happens is that of course the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods are very careful. They don’t want to take any risk of later on being associated (with) breaking the sanctions,” Abdi told a news briefing.

“That is what makes it more difficult for us to bring things. So it takes a little bit longer, especially in getting money into the country. But also in shipping goods to DPRK. There are not many shipping lines that operate in that area,” he said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sanctions on fuel have been tightened, making it more scarce and expensive, Abdi added.

Reuters, citing three Western European intelligence sources, reported exclusively last week that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We are projecting that at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death. It’s protein and calorie malnutrition,” said Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.

“So the trend is worrying, it’s not getting any better.”

In all, 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 60,000 with the most severe form that can be lethal, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF had projected 60,000 children would suffer severe acute malnutrition last year, and reached 39,000 of them with therapeutic feeding, spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

“Diarrhoea related to poor sanitation and hygiene and acute malnutrition remains a leading cause of death among young children,” it said in Tuesday’s appeal to donors that gave no toll.

UNICEF is seeking $16.5 million this year to provide nutrition, health and water to North Koreans but faces “operational challenges” due to the tense political context and “unintended consequences” of sanctions, it said.

It cited “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices”.

“It’s a very close, and tightly monitored intervention which is purely humanitarian in its essence,” Fontaine said.

UNICEF is one of only a few aid agencies with access to the isolated country, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Suspected Russian jets bomb residential area near Damascus; kill 30

A boy walks on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 civilians were killed early on Thursday when jets dropped bombs on a residential area in a besieged rebel enclave east of Syria’s capital, a war monitor said, identifying the planes as Russian.

At least four bombs flattened two buildings in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, in an attack that killed around 20 and wounded more than 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and civil defense sources said.

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, at least ten people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.

The Observatory, a war monitor based in Britain, said 11 women and a child were among the dead in the strikes in Misraba, which it said were carried out by Russian planes.

Backed by Russian strikes, government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months, seeking to tighten a siege that residents and aid workers say is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

Russia rejects Syrian opposition and rights groups’ accusations that its jets have been responsible for deaths of thousands of civilians since its major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow says it only attacks hardline Islamists.

Video footage posted on Thursday by activists on social media in Eastern Ghouta showed rescue workers pulling women and children from rubble. The footage could not be independently confirmed.

Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.

The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.

The United Nations says about 400,000 civilians besieged in the area face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the government are blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Scores of hospitals and civil defense centers in Ghouta and across Syria have been bombed during the conflict in what the opposition said is a “scorched earth policy” to paralyze life in rebel-held areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday rebel shelling of the government-held capital Damascus killed one and injured 22 in the Amara district of the city.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

IDLIB PUSH

Supported by Iran-backed militias and intensive Russian bombing, the Syrian army has since last month waged a new campaign to push into the heart of another rebel-held part of Syria, Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Idlib is a heavily populated area where over two million people live.

Rescue workers said there had been a spike in civilian casualties there in the last twenty days from stepped-up aerial strikes on residential areas, documenting 50 dead at least in that period.

“There have been at least six major massacres perpetrated by Russia in indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns with thousands fleeing their homes in the last two weeks,” said Mustafa al Haj Yousef, the head of Idlib’s Civil Defence, rescuers who work in opposition-held areas.

On Wednesday air strikes hit a maternity hospital in Idlib’s Ma’arat al-Nu’man city, killing five people, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity, which supports the hospital, said.

The hospital, which SAMS said delivers around 30 babies a day, had been struck three times in four days and the last strikes temporarily put the hospital out of service.

Overnight, a family of seven was buried under rubble in Tel Dukan village, rescuers said.

The army has been gaining ground in Idlib and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside, with scores of villages seized from rebels mainly belonging to Tahrir al Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups with mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also engaged in the battles.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Pakistan summons U.S. ambassador after Trump’s angry tweet

David Hale, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, speaks at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, Pakistan, July 26, 2016.

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s angry tweet about Pakistani “lies and deceit”, which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif dismissed as a political stunt.

David Hale was summoned by the Pakistan foreign office on Monday to explain Trump’s tweet, media said. The ministry could not be reached for comment but the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed on Tuesday that a meeting had taken place.

Trump said the United States had had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted on Monday.

His words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but long-time ally China defended Pakistan.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.

Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.

The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled that it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

Islamabad bristles at the suggestion that it is not doing enough to fight Islamist militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.

“DEAD-END STREET”

Foreign Minister Asif dismissed Trump’s comments as a political stunt born out of frustration over U.S. failures in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban militants have been gaining territory and carrying out major attacks.

“He has tweeted against us and Iran for his domestic consumption,” Asif told Geo TV on Monday.

“He is again and again displacing his frustrations on Pakistan over failures in Afghanistan as they are trapped in dead-end street in Afghanistan.”

Asif added that Pakistan did not need U.S. aid.

A U.S. National Security Council official on Monday said the White House did not plan to send an already-delayed $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time” and that “the administration continues to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation”.

Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned”.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States.

“We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.”

Pakistani officials say tough U.S. measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD, Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI, Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Exclusive: U.S. suspends aid to Somalia’s battered military over graft

Exclusive: U.S. suspends aid to Somalia's battered military over graft

By Katharine Houreld

NAIROBI (Reuters) – The United States is suspending food and fuel aid for most of Somalia’s armed forces over corruption concerns, a blow to the military as African peacekeepers start to withdraw this month.

African Union (AU) troops landed in Mogadishu a decade ago to fight al Shabaab Islamist militants and Somali forces are supposed to eventually take over their duties.

But the United States, which also funds the 22,000-strong peacekeeping force, has grown frustrated that successive governments have failed to build a viable national army.

Diplomats worry that without strong Somali forces, al Shabaab could be reinvigorated, destabilize the region and offer a safe haven to other al Qaeda-linked militants or Islamic State fighters.

The U.S. suspension of aid came after the Somali military repeatedly failed to account for food and fuel, according to private correspondence between the U.S. and Somali governments seen by Reuters.

“During recent discussions between the United States and the Federal Government of Somalia, both sides agreed that the Somali National Army had failed to meet the standards for accountability for U.S. assistance,” a State Department official told Reuters last week, on condition of anonymity.

“We are adjusting U.S. assistance to SNA units, with the exception of units receiving some form of mentorship, to ensure that U.S. assistance is being used effectively and for its intended purpose,” the official said.

The U.S. suspension comes at a sensitive time. The AU force – with troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – is scheduled to leave by 2020. The first 1,000 soldiers will go by the end of 2017.

The State Department official said Washington would continue to support small, Somali special forces units mentored by U.S. personnel and would work with the Somali government to agree criteria that could restore support to other units.

“It is true that some concerns have been raised on how support was utilized and distributed. The federal government is working to address these,” Somali Minister of Defence Mohamed Mursal told Reuters.

WHERE’S THE AID?

Documents sent from the U.S. Mission to Somalia to the Somali government show U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated that the military is unable to account for its aid.

The documents paint a stark picture of a military hollowed out by corruption, unable to feed, pay or arm its soldiers – despite hundreds of millions of dollars of support.

Between May and June, a team of U.S. and Somali officials visited nine army bases to assess whether the men were receiving food the United States provides for 5,000 soldiers.

“We did not find the expected large quantities of food at any location … there was no evidence of consumption (except at two bases),” the U.S. team wrote to the Somali government.

At one base, less than a fifth of the soldiers listed by Somali commanders were present. The best-staffed base had 160 soldiers out of 550. Only 60 had weapons.

“Many appeared to be wearing brand new uniforms. This implied they were assembled merely to improve appearances,” the letter, seen by Reuters, said.

An ongoing assessment of the Somali military this year by the Somali government, African Union and United Nations drew similar conclusions.

The joint report seen by Reuters said many soldiers lacked guns, uniforms, food, vehicles or tents. Troops relied on support from AU forces or local militias to survive.

“The SNA is a fragile force with extremely weak command and control,” the report said. “They are incapable of conducting effective operations or sustaining themselves.”

Most units don’t have radios, leaving soldiers to rely on runners to get help when mobile networks go down, the report said. Troops lacked paper to write reports, toilets, boots and medical equipment such as tourniquets. Many slept under trees.

SNA units were at 62 percent of their authorized strength on average. Only 70 percent of them had weapons, the report said.

Although the report was deeply critical, diplomats praised the government for trying to quantify the scope of the problem.

“The government deserves massive praise for doing it and being willing to talk about it,” Michael Keating, the U.N.’s top official in Somalia, told Reuters.

CASH PAYMENTS SUSPENDED

The United States also suspended a program paying soldiers $100 monthly stipends in June after the federal government refused to share responsibility for receiving the payments with regional forces fighting al Shabaab.

Washington has spent $66 million on stipends over the past seven years but has halted the program several times, concerned the money was not going to frontline soldiers.

One Somali document seen by Reuters showed members of a 259-strong ceremonial brass band were receiving stipends this year meant for soldiers fighting militants.

The State Department’s watchdog said in a report published in October there were insufficient checks on the program and U.S. stipends could fund forces that commit abuses – or even support insurgents.

Officially, Somalia’s military is 26,000 strong, but the payroll is stuffed with ghost soldiers, pensioners and the dead, whose families may be receiving their payments, diplomats say.

Intermittent payments from the government have forced many active soldiers to sell their weapons, ammunition or seek other work – practices the U.S. stipends were designed to curb.

Washington has whittled down the number of troops it pays to 8,000 from over 10,000 but there is still no reliable payroll, said a Mogadishu-based security expert.

Defence Minister Mursal said the United Nations is creating a biometric database and plans to help the Somali government make cash payments directly to soldiers via mobile phones.

The new government will also set up a separate system for widows, orphans, and the wounded so the payroll would adequately represent military strength, he said.

UNDER ATTACK

The weakness of Somali forces has deadly consequences. The insurgency is striking with ever larger and more deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu and major towns.

A truck bomb killed more than 500 people in October and a suicide bomber killed at least 18 at a police academy on Thursday.

Yusuf, a 35-year-old Somali soldier stationed near the Indian Ocean port of Kismayu, knows what it’s like to depend on local militias and AU forces to stay alive.

On Sept. 26, insurgents attacked his base at Bula Gadud, killing 15 colleagues and wounding scores more before the local Jubaland militia and AU peacekeepers saved them.

“We lost several key members in that battle especially my close friend,” he told Reuters. “We tried to retreat … after using all the ammunition we had.”

A senior Somali security source said when the attack happened, the battalion of more than 1,000 soldiers had only been issued 300 guns.

Defence Minister Mursal said the Somali troops at Bulagadud have since been sent more weapons.

Somalia’s national security plan calls for a military of 18,000 soldiers, funded by the central government and operating country-wide.

Getting there will be hard. Security experts say the military is dominated by a powerful clan, the Hawiye, which would be reluctant to lose control of the lucrative security assistance revenue stream.

Many regional governments within Somalia already see the Hawiye-dominated federal forces as rivals rather than allies.

The government’s ability to push reforms depends on balancing demands from federal member states, lawmakers, clan leaders and international partners, the U.N.’s Keating said.

“It’s going to take a long time and its going to run into massive clan resistance,” he said. “Some clans are very dominant in the security forces.”

Somalia’s partners also need to get serious and coordinate better, said Matt Bryden of the think-tank Sahan Research.

According to Sahan, donors – including the EU, AU, Turkey and Uganda – have trained more than 80,000 Somali soldiers since 2004. Bryden said records are so poor it was not clear if many had taken multiple courses, or just quit afterwards.

“It’s like sand through your fingers – where are they all?”

(Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington D.C. and Khadar Hared in Nairobi; editing by David Clarke)

Medical supplies, U.N. aid workers reach Yemen after blockade eased

Medical supplies, U.N. aid workers reach Yemen after blockade eased

GENEVA/SANAA (Reuters) – Humanitarian aid workers and medical supplies began to arrive in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Saturday, U.N. officials said, after the easing of a nearly three-week-old military blockade that caused an international outcry.

International aid groups have welcomed the decision to let aid in, but said aid flights are not enough to avert a humanitarian crisis. About 7 million people face famine in Yemen and their survival depends on international assistance.

“First plane landed in Sanaa this morning with humanitarian aid workers,” WFP’s regional spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told Reuters in an email, while officials at Sanaa airport said two other U.N. flights had arrived on Saturday.

The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) said one flight carried “over 15 tonnes” of vaccines that will cover some 600,000 children against diphtheria, tetanus and other diseases.

“The needs are huge and there is much more to do for

#YemenChildren,” the world body said on its Twitter account.

Airport director Khaled Al Shayef said that apart from the vaccinations shipment a flight carrying eight employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross had also landed.

“Sanaa airport was closed from Nov. 6 until today, more than 18 days and this closure caused an obstruction to the presence of aid workers,” Shayef told Reuters television in Sanaa.

“There are more than 500 employees trapped either inside or outside being denied travel as well as 40 flights that were denied arrival at Sanaa airport,” he added.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the armed Houthi movement in Yemen said on Wednesday it would allow aid in through the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Salif, as well as U.N. flights to Sanaa, but there has been no confirmation of any aid deliveries yet.

FAMINE

A spokesman for the U.S.-backed coalition said in a statement issued on Friday that 82 permits have been issued for international aid missions since Nov. 4, both for the Sanaa airport and Hodeidah, the country’s main port where some 80 percent of food supplies enter.

“That includes issuing clearance for a ship today (Rena), carrying 5,500 Metric Tons of food supplies, to the port of Hodeidah,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki Al Maliki said in a statement issued in a status update published by the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Officials at the port said on Saturday that no ships have arrived yet and they were not expecting any to dock soon.

The coalition closed air, land and sea access in a move it said was to stop the flow of arms to the Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, from Iran.

The action came after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired toward Riyadh. Iran has denied supplying weapons.

The blockade drew wide international concern, including from the United States and the United Nations secretary-general.

Sources in Washington said that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had asked Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen before the kingdom decided to do so.

The heads of three U.N. agencies had earlier urged the Saudi-led military coalition to lift the blockade, warning that “untold thousands” would die if it stayed in place.

The coalition has asked the United Nations to send a team to discuss ways of bolstering its UNVIM programme which was agreed in 2015 to allow commercial ships to enter Hodeidah.

The coalition joined the Yemen war in March 2015, after the Houthis forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to flee their temporary headquarters in the southern port city of Aden into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Yemen was has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than two million, caused a cholera epidemic that had affected nearly one million people, and drove Yemen to the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Alexander Smith)

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to ask the U.S. Congress on Friday for about $45 billion in additional aid for disaster relief to cover damage from hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida and other disaster damage, a congressional aide said on late Thursday.

The request would be significantly short of what some government officials say is needed.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello on Monday requested $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals devastated by Hurricane Maria. The state of Texas earlier this month submitted a request for $61 billion in federal aid.

Last month, Congress approved $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters and said it planned to seek another round of funding after it reviewed requests from federal agencies and state and U.S. commonwealth governments.

Puerto Rico sought $31.1 billion for housing, followed by $17.8 billion to rebuild and make more resilient the power grid.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said late Thursday at a congressional hearing his staff had been briefed on the White House that would be released on Friday that he called “wholly inadequate” but he did not disclose the precise amount.

He said the White House had also “short-changed” funding for wildfires that have struck the western United States. The October disaster assistance bill included $576.5 million for wildfire-fighting efforts.

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

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Myanmar corrects state media report on U.N. ‘agreement’ to help house refugees

Myanmar corrects state media report on U.N. 'agreement' to help house refugees

NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – A Myanmar state-run newspaper on Saturday corrected a report that a U.N. settlement program, UN-Habitat, had agreed to help build housing for people fleeing violence in the west of the country, where an army operation has displaced hundreds of thousands.

The development underscores tension between Myanmar and the United Nations, which in April criticized the government’s previous plan to resettle Rohingya Muslims displaced by last year’s violence in “camp-like” villages.

More than 600,000 have crossed to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya militants sparked an army crackdown. The U.N. says killings, arson and rape carried out by troops and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs since then amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM) newspaper said it had “incorrectly stated that UN-Habitat had agreed with the Union government to provide technical assistance in building housings for displaced people in northern Rakhine.”

“Union officials say that the issue is still under negotiation. The GNLM regrets the error,” said the newspaper.

In its report on Thursday, the daily said UN-Habitat had agreed to provide technical assistance in housing the displaced and the agency would work closely with the authorities to “implement the projects to be favorable to Myanmar’s social culture and administrative system”.

But the U.N. told Reuters in an email that no agreements had been reached “so far” after the agency’s representatives attended a series of meetings with Myanmar officials this week in its capital Naypyitaw.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged that anyone sheltering in Bangladesh who can prove they were Myanmar residents can return, but it remains unclear whether those refugees would be allowed to return to their homes.

Rohingya who return to Myanmar are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the government, according to Myanmar officials and plans seen by Reuters.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar in August suggested that U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme have provided food to Rohingya insurgents, adding to pressure on aid groups which had to suspend activities in Rakhine and pull out most of their staff.

Thousands of refugees have continued to arrive cross the Naf river separating Rakhine and Bangladesh in recent days, even though Myanmar says military operations ceased on Sept. 5.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

Myanmar gives green light to resume food aid to Rakhine, says U.N.

Myanmar gives green light to resume food aid to Rakhine, says U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar authorities have agreed to allow the United Nations to resume distribution of food in northern Rakhine state which was suspended for two months, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.

The agreement, whose details are still being worked out, came as UNICEF reported that Rohingya refugee children fleeing into Bangladesh were arriving “close to death” from malnutrition.

The WFP was previously distributing food rations to 110,000 people in northern Rakhine state – to both Buddhist and the minority Muslim Rohingya communities.

Rohingya insurgent attacks on police stations triggered an army crackdown, that the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing”, and U.N. humanitarian agencies have not been able to access northern Rakhine to deliver aid since then. WFP deliveries have continued to 140,000 people in central Rakhine.

“WFP has been given the green light to resume food assistance operations in northern part of Rakhine. We are working with the government to coordinate the details,” WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told journalists in Geneva.

She had no timeline or details on the proposed distribution of rations to northern Rakhine, and said it was still being discussed with the authorities in Myanmar.

“We just have to see what the situation on the ground is. It’s very hard to say these things if you can’t get in,” Luescher said.

Some 604,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh in the past two months, bringing the total to 817,000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

Malnutrition rates in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in Rakhine, where the vast majority of the Rohingya refugees originate, were already above emergency threshold rates before the crisis, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

“Since August 25, we have had to stop treating 4,000 children with severe acute malnutrition in northern Rakhine because we have had no access,” UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told the briefing.

UNICEF has screened nearly 60,000 Rohingya refugee children arriving in Bangladesh, nearly 2,000 of whom have been identified as having severe acute malnutrition, with another 7,000 moderately acutely malnourished, she said.

The agency screened 340 children among recent arrivals, a “rough and rapid exercise” that found 10 percent to be severely acutely malnourished, she said.

“This is an extremely small number of children so these numbers are not representative,” Mercado said.

“But what they do tell us is that some of the children are close to death by the time they make it across the border.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay,; editing by Tom Miles and Richard Balmforth)

Trump says he will work with Congress on more aid for Puerto Rico

Trump says he will work with Congress on more aid for Puerto Rico

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will work with the U.S. Congress to approve grants and loans to help rebuild Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria a month ago.

Already mired in debt after years of recession, the U.S. territory faces storm-related damages that some estimates have pegged as high as $95 billion, and has asked the federal government to make exceptions to rules that typically require states and local governments to shoulder part of the cost of recovery.

Trump did not give any specifics about how much money the government may give or loan to the cash-strapped territory, home to 3.4 million U.S. citizens.

“I have given my blessing to Congress, and Congress is working with you and your representatives on coming up with a plan and a payment plan and how it’s all going to be funded. Because you are talking about some substantial numbers,” Trump said to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello at the beginning of an Oval Office meeting.

Trump and some of his top aides suggested last week that there would be limits to how much help Puerto Rico could expect from Washington. But on Thursday, the president’s remarks were broadly supportive.

The hurricane laid waste to the island’s power grid, destroying homes, roads and other vital infrastructure. The bankrupt territory is still struggling to provide basic services like running water. An oversight board charged with resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has said the island’s government would run out of money by the end of the month without help.

Trump emphasized that repayment of federal loans and other storm-related debt owed by Puerto Rico would come before repayment of the island’s existing $72 billion in debt.

“Any money that’s put in by people – whether it’s public or private – they’re going to want to come in first position,” Trump said.

“We’re going to coming before – far before – any existing debt that’s on the island,” he said.

Trump declined to opine on whether the process would be easier if Puerto Rico were a state rather than a territory – a hot-button political issue on the island.

“You’ll get me into trouble with that question,” he told a reporter.

SENATE TO VOTE

While in Washington, Rossello also met with Senate leaders. The Senate is expected to vote in coming days on an aid package that includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been helping Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from three massive hurricanes.

Some senators would like to see more funds added to that package, Senator John Thune, a member of the Republican leadership, told reporters.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who has been deeply involved in discussions over the aid, said earlier on Thursday that he wants to tweak the bill so the island could more quickly access funds.

Congress is expected to consider another aid package by the end of December, but that could be too late for the island, which currently has no tax revenue, Rubio said.

“I know from experience the further away we get from these hurricanes, the less of a sense of urgency there is,” Rubio said.

Rossello has asked the federal government for approval to use disaster aid to cover a broad range of costs. He has also asked the White House and Congress for at least $4.6 billion in block grants and other types of funding.

“The reality is that we still need to do a lot more for the people of Puerto Rico and that’s why we’re meeting,” Rossello said.

“This is not over, not over by a long shot.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Dan Grebler and Rosalba O’Brien)