U.S. launches strike in southern Libya as U.N. warns of escalation

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Wednesday they killed 11 suspected militants in their second air strike in a week near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq, as the U.N. envoy warned of a growing risk of armed escalation and rights abuses in the country.

The strike comes as rival factions have been locked in a battle around the capital Tripoli, about 500 miles (800km) to the north, which forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to capture since April.

The U.S. attack, carried out on Tuesday deep in Libya’s southern desert, followed a Sept. 19 strike that the U.S. said had killed eight suspected militants.

“This air strike was conducted to eliminate ISIS (Islamic State) terrorists and deny them the ability to conduct attacks on the Libyan people,” Major General William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement.

Some Islamic State militants retreated south into Libya’s desert as the group lost its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016.

The U.S., which has carried out occasional strikes in desert areas, has said it will not allow militants to use the fighting around Tripoli for cover.

The offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) upended U.N.-led plans to broker a political settlement in Libya and soon stalled in the capital’s outskirts.

The conflict has spread outside Tripoli, with air and drone strikes against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

It had also triggered a “micro-conflict” in Murzuq, where more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed over the past two months, he said.

“The conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war,” Salame said by video link. “It is fanned by widespread violations of the U.N. arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

“Serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed with total impunity, including increased summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment as well as conflict-related sexual violence.”

Libya has been divided between rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, three years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Haftar’s LNA is battling forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was set up in 2016 following a U.N.-brokered deal.

Haftar’s foreign backers include the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who diplomats and analysts say are vying for influence in the oil-rich nation with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.

At least 128,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since April, according to U.N. estimates.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Netanyahu tells Hezbollah’s Nasrallah to ‘calm down’ after drone incident

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news briefing following the talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev, Ukraine August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday to “calm down” after Nasrallah said his movement was preparing a response to the crash of two Israeli drones in a Beirut suburb.

In a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah accused Israel of carrying out an attack with an exploding drone earlier that day.

“I say to the Israeli army on the border from tonight, stand guard (on high alert). Wait for us one, two, three, four days,” said Nasrallah, whose movement last waged a major war against Israel in 2006.

One of the two crashing drones exploded near the ground, causing some damage to Hezbollah’s media center in the southern suburbs of the capital which it dominates. Israeli officials have declined to comment when asked if Israel was responsible.

“I heard what Nasrallah said. I suggest to Nasrallah to calm down. He knows well that Israel knows how to defend itself and to pay back its enemies,” Netanyahu said in a speech.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Monday his country had a right to defend itself, likening Israeli drone strikes to a “declaration of war”. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri urged diplomats to help prevent “dangerous escalation”.

Late on Saturday, Israeli air strikes killed two Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in Syria, where the group is providing military support to Damascus.

Israel, which regularly strikes Iranian-linked targets in Syria, said it hit a compound controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds force, accusing it of planning killer drone attacks.

Netanyahu, speaking at the groundbreaking for the Jerusalem headquarters of a self-driving car technology firm, also issued warnings to Lebanon and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, which the Israeli leader said aspires to destroy Israel.

“Watch what you say, and moreover be careful about what you do,” Netanyahu said.

Soleimani, reacting to the Israeli airstrike in Syria and the Beirut drones incident, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that “these were the last struggles” of Israel.

Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that patrols the border with Israel, told Lebanon’s state news agency NNA that the situation in the area remains quiet.

“UNIFIL continues to work with the parties to ensure that there are no misunderstandings or incidents that may endanger the cessation of hostilities,” Tenenti said, referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an end to the fighting in 2006.

In public comments during a visit on Sunday to Israel’s north, where he met army commanders, Netanyahu appeared to hold out the prospect of targeting Lebanon directly for attack if Hezbollah struck Israel.

“Any country that allows its territory to be used for aggression against Israel will face the consequences, and I repeat: the country will face the consequences,” he said, echoing a message Israeli leaders have voiced in recent years.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Ari Rabinovitch in; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch, Alison Williams and Peter Graff)

Iran to boost uranium enrichment level above nuclear pact’s limit

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during meeting with health ministry top officials in Tehran, Iran, June 25, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will boost its uranium enrichment after July 7 to whatever levels it needs beyond the cap set in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, while calling on Washington to rejoin the pact.

Iran announced this week it has stockpiled more low-enriched uranium than is permitted under the accord, a move that prompted U.S. President Donald Trump – who withdrew the United States from the deal last year – to warn Iran was “playing with fire”.

European co-signatories said on Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” by Tehran’s apparent breach of the deal while Israel said it was preparing for possible involvement in any military confrontation between Iran and the United States.

Weeks of tensions crested last month when Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and Trump responded with a decision to launch air strikes only to call them off at the last minute. Washington also accused Iran of being behind attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies.

“Our level of enrichment will no longer be 3.67. We will put this commitment aside by whatever amount we feel like, by whatever amount is our necessity, our need. We will take this above 3.67,” said Rouhani, according to IRIB news agency.

Uranium refined to a fissile purity of 3.67% is deemed suitable for electricity generation and is the maximum allowed by the deal. Enrichment to 90% yields bomb-grade material.

Rouhani added that the Islamic Republic’s actions were reversible. “All of our actions can be returned to the previous condition within one hour, why are you worried?” he said.

His tone was unusually tough. Rouhani was the architect of the nuclear pact and is seen as a pragmatist, unlike senior clerics in Iran’s ruling elite who opposed his opening to the West and have kept up their denunciations of the United States.

Rouhani further urged the Trump administration to “adopt a rational approach again” and return to the negotiating table.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy aims to push Iran into negotiate a wider-ranging deal also reining in its ballistic missile program and its backing of proxies around the Middle East in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.

HEAVY-WATER REACTOR

Rouhani said that if the other signatories did not protect trade with Iran promised under the deal but blocked by Trump’s reimposition of tough sanctions, Tehran would also start to revive its Arak heavy-water reactor after July 7.

As required by the accord, Iran said in January 2016 that it had removed the core of the reactor and filled it with cement.

“From (July 7) onward with the Arak reactor, if you don’t operate (according to) the program and time frame of all the commitments you’ve given us, we will return the Arak reactor to its previous condition,” said Rouhani.

“Meaning, the condition that you say is dangerous and can produce plutonium,” he said, referring to a key potential component of a nuclear bomb. “We will return to that unless you take action regarding all your commitments regarding Arak.”

He kept the door open to negotiations, saying Iran would again reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium below the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear pact if signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China honored their deal pledges.

Iran will gain nothing by departing from the terms of the deal, the French foreign ministry cautioned on Wednesday.

“Putting (the deal) into question will only increase the already heightened tensions in the region,” ministry spokesman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

U.S. SANCTIONS NOOSE

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since Trump pulled Washington out of the pact in May 2018 and acted to bar all international sales of Iranian oil, the Islamic Republic’s economic lifeblood.

The European signatories to the accord have sought to pull the two longstanding adversaries back from the verge of military conflict, fearing a mistake could spiral into a wider Middle East war endangering global security and energy supplies.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear accord by exceeding the cap on low-enriched uranium, saying Iran is exercising its right to respond after the U.S. withdrawal.

The nuclear accord lifted most global sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its uranium enrichment capacity.

It aimed to extend the time Tehran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

Tehran has denied any intent to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran’s main demand – in talks with the European parties to the deal and as a precondition to any talks with the United States – is to be allowed to sell its oil at the levels that prevailed before Trump left the deal and restored sanctions.

Iranian crude exports were around 300,000 barrels per day or less in late June, industry sources said, a small fraction of the more than 2.5 million bpd Iran shipped in April 2018, the month before Trump abandoned the nuclear deal.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Last-ditch talks to keep Iran under nuclear limits headed for failure

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi and Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Helga Schmit attend a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By John Irish and Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Last-ditch talks to persuade Tehran not to exceed nuclear limits within days were on course for failure on Friday, as Iranian officials said their demands had not been met and Washington rebuffed European calls to ease sanctions to allow negotiations.

A week after Washington called off air strikes just minutes before impact, diplomats say Iran is on course within days to exceed the threshold of enriched uranium allowed under its nuclear deal with world powers, which Washington quit last year.

Any such move would reshape the diplomatic landscape, at a time when European officials are warning that a small mistake on either side could push the United States and Iran to war.

Iranian officials met in Vienna with representatives of the countries that are still party to the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Iranians repeated their demand that they be allowed to sell oil.

The talks were a “last chance for the remaining parties … to gather and see how they can meet their commitments towards Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Despite abandoning the deal, Washington has demanded European countries force Iran to continue complying with it. Iran says it cannot do so unless the Europeans provide it with some way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

“For one year we exercised patience. Now it is the Europeans’ turn to exercise patience,” Mousavi said. “They should try to find solutions, practical solutions.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that he would ask U.S. President Donald Trump to ease sanctions to allow negotiations to begin. But the plea seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, with Trump’s Iran envoy saying on Friday sanctions would remain in place to end Iranian oil exports altogether.

“We will sanction any imports of Iranian crude oil… There are right now no oil waivers in place,” Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative On Iran, told reporters in London.

European countries, which opposed Trump’s decision to abandon the deal and reimpose sanctions, have promised to find ways to allow Iran access to trade in return for continuing to comply. But in practice, the effort has failed, with major European companies canceling all plans to invest in Iran.

DEADLINES

Iran has set a number of deadlines in recent weeks after which it would cease complying with specific terms of the nuclear deal. The first expired on Thursday, the date Tehran said the quantity of enriched uranium it is holding could exceed the deal’s permissible threshold.

Diplomats in Vienna, headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency IAEA, told Reuters on Thursday that the latest data from inspectors suggested the threshold had not yet been breached, but it could be as soon as Saturday or Sunday.

Another deadline, when Iran says it could enrich uranium to a purity forbidden under the deal, expires on July 7.

Iran says that if it does exceed thresholds, the steps would be reversible and it still aims to keep the deal in place.

The crisis between Iran and the United States that began with Trump’s withdrawal from the pact has escalated in recent weeks after Washington sharply tightened its sanctions from the start of May to halt all Iranian oil exports.

The Trump administration argues that the 2015 agreement reached under his predecessor Barack Obama was too weak because many terms are not permanent and it excludes non-nuclear issues such as missiles and Iran’s regional behavior. Washington says the aim of sanctions is to force Tehran to renegotiate.

Tehran says there can be no talks as long as sanctions are in place and Washington is ignoring the deal it already signed.

The confrontation took on a military dimension in recent weeks, with Washington blaming Tehran for attacks on ships in the Gulf, which Iran denies. Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week, saying it had entered its air space. Washington said the drone was in international skies, and Trump ordered, then aborted, retaliatory air strikes on Iranian targets.

Any move by Iran that violated the terms of the nuclear deal would put pressure on the Europeans to take sides.

“We will repeat to the Iranians that nuclear issues are not negotiable. We want them to stay in the accord, but we won’t accept them messing us around,” a senior European diplomat said before Friday’s meeting.

The cornerstone of European efforts to placate the Iranians is the creation of INSTEX, a mechanism to use barter to allow some trade that would avoid entanglement in U.S. sanctions.

Almost six months after it was created, it is still not operational and diplomats say it will be able to handle only small volumes for items like medicine, not the large oil sales Iran is seeking.

“If INSTEX fails to meet Iran’s demands within the framework of the nuclear deal, we will take the next steps more decisively,” Mousavi said, adding that “the implementation of the EU’s trade mechanism has been delayed due to some lack of commitments”.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Guy Faulconbridge in London and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran says U.S. cyber attacks failed, hints talks are possible

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while also hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions with Washington if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

The longtime foes have come the closest in years to a direct military confrontation in the past week with the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump aborted a retaliatory strike just minutes before impact.

U.S. media have reported that the United States launched cyber attacks even as Trump called off the air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake on either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations began to deteriorate last year when the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

They got sharply worse last month when Trump tightened sanctions, ordering all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

Recent weeks saw a military dimension to the confrontation, with the United States blaming Iran for attacks on vessels at sea, which Iran denies. Iran shot down the drone, saying it was in its air space, which Washington disputes. Washington also blames Iran for attacks by its Yemeni allies on Saudi targets.

Washington argues that the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and that new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Throughout the escalation, both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks but the other side must move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions in line with the deal.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by ISNA news agency as saying on Monday Tehran did not “want a rise of tensions and its consequences”.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of Rouhani.

Trump has suggested that he backed off the military strike against Iran in part because he was not sure the country’s top leadership had intended to shoot down the drone. However, an Iranian commander said Tehran was prepared to do it again.

“Everyone saw the downing of the unmanned drone,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted on Sunday as saying by the Tasnim news agency. “I can assure you that this firm response can be repeated, and the enemy knows it.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Syrians displaced in the northwest call on Turkey to open border

A displaced Syrian child sleeps on a mat laid out on the floor in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Camped on the Turkish border to escape bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces, many displaced Syrians are angry and frustrated that Turkey has not done more to protect them from the bombs or let them cross the frontier to safety.

The border wall a few hundred meters (yards) away offers a degree of cover for thousands of people, since air strikes are rare so close to Turkey. But it also blocks any chance they have of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of refugees abroad.

“Turkey is our only option today,” said Abu Abdallah, 51, who left his village at the start of the war in 2011 to seek sanctuary near the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, until it was captured by Syrian government forces in early May.

“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians living in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves, some of them only 50 meters (yards) from the border.

Some 180,000 people were displaced by the recent attacks in northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. The increase in shelling killed dozens of people and marked the most intense period of violence for months between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, who launched a counter-attack last week.

The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. The dominant insurgent faction in the region is the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), although the army offensive has not focused on the central Idlib area where it is most concentrated, an HTS-aligned opposition figure said.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories which was set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

Shells from Syrian government territory also hit a Turkish military observation post, one of 12 set up near the Idlib borders by Ankara, which backs the rebels.

At the border, many of the displaced were angry at the lack of Turkish action in response to the recent offensive, and called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape.

“We didn’t ask to go into Turkey before,” said 32-year-old Khsara Ahmed al-Hussein. “But when you set up a de-escalation zone and … you guarantee that I won’t get struck, but then even the Turkish observation point is struck by the regime, then what’s the point of protection if you can’t even protect yourself?”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“LIKE WORLD WAR THREE”

When bombardment of Hussein’s village intensified, his family dug holes in the earth outside their house and slept in them. When the situation became unbearable, they headed to the border, where he has been living under trees for two weeks.

“There were eight planes in the air, bombing intensively, as if it were World War Three,” he said.

Air strikes have hit 18 health facilities and dozens of schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 38 children have been killed since the start of last month, Save the Children said.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said last week that attacks on schools and hospitals did not constitute fighting terrorism. His defense minister spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday about reducing tension in Idlib, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

Near the border village of Atmeh, dozens of people sat under trees with a few blankets and pillows arranged on the hard earth. A blue plastic tarp was draped over the trees to protect them from the burning sun.

Um Bassan wants to join her children who have been in Turkey for over a year, after she and their father spent everything they had to smuggle them out of Syria.

“I want this torture to end and to see my children,” she said. “No one prefers another country over their own, but I want release from the bombardment and to see my children there.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans and Edmund Blair)

Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attend a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 19, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.

India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.

The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.

Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times”.

“I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.”This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.

“I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians. There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.

Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.

“China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”

The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.

At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over”, said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the South Asian neighbors.

In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.

“As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.

“Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.

China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore)

Israeli warplanes strike Gaza after rockets fired toward Tel Aviv

Israeli soldiers are seen on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) near the border between Israel and Gaza on its Israeli side, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas targets in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza early on Friday after Israel’s military said militants had fired two rockets toward the city of Tel Aviv.

The air strikes, the heaviest in five months, hit about 100 military targets belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, the military said. These included a rocket manufacturing site, a naval post and weapons facility, and a Hamas headquarters, it said.

Palestinian news media reported strikes throughout the densely populated coastal strip that is home to two million Palestinians. Four people were wounded, health ministry officials said.

The Israeli military accused Hamas of firing rockets from Gaza toward Tel Aviv – the first time the seaside city had been targeted since the 2014 Gaza War.

But Hamas denied responsibility and Israeli media, including Ha’aretz and Channel 7 News, later carried reports that the rockets might have been fired from Gaza by mistake.

A security official briefed on the situation, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters the launch was “the result of an error – that an attack on Israel was not intended. Israel holds Hamas responsible, hence the response”.

The exchange was the most serious since a botched Israeli commando incursion into Gaza last November.

In the aftermath of that episode, dozens of Israeli air strikes killed seven Palestinians, at least five of them gunmen, and destroyed several buildings. Rocket attacks from Gaza sent residents of southern Israel to shelters, wounding dozens and killing a Palestinian laborer from the occupied West Bank.

SIRENS WAIL

The first rocket attack came on Thursday evening, with warning sirens sounding in the Tel Aviv area and residents hearing explosions.

The Israeli military said two longer-range rockets had been fired from Gaza but caused no casualties or damage. The Israelis retaliated in the early hours of Friday.

Just after dawn, six more missiles were fired from Gaza toward Israeli border towns but all but one were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the military said.

Calm was restored by mid-morning as an Egyptian delegation mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions, a Palestinian official said.

The incident immediately played into the campaign for an election in Israel on April 9 in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his security credentials.

His right-wing rival, Naftali Bennett, demanded that Israel resume its killings of Hamas chiefs.

“The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all,” he said on Thursday night.

Netanyahu also faced pressure from his center-left opponent, former General Benny Gantz, who said: “Only aggressive, harsh action will restore the deterrence that has eroded” under the prime minister’s watch.

Tensions have been high for the past year along the Israel-Gaza frontier, but on Friday morning Palestinian officials canceled the weekly border protests.

Some 200 Palestinians have been killed during the demonstrations that began a year ago and about 60 more have been killed in other incidents, including exchanges of fire across the border. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by Palestinian fire.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the packed, narrow enclave in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

Frustration is growing in Gaza over the dim prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have expanded.

The 2014 Gaza War was the third between Israel and Hamas in a decade. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during that war, most of them civilians, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

India cites ‘active mobile phones’ to back air strike casualty claim

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Asif Shahzad

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian government surveillance agency had detected 300 active mobile phones at a suspected militant camp in Pakistan that India says its fighter jets bombed last week, the interior minister said on Tuesday, seeking to quell rising doubts about the success of the operation.

“Some people are asking how many were killed,” Rajnath Singh said at an election rally. “You are seeking answers from us! India’s respected and authentic NTRO surveillance system has said that before Indian pilots dropped the bombs, 300 mobile phones were active there. There’s no need to tell you how many were killed.”

Singh was referring to the National Technical Research Organisation that is under direct control of the prime minister’s office.

Indian opposition leaders are increasingly raising doubts about the government’s official claims that a “very large number” of members of an Islamist militant group were killed in the strike by Indian warplanes early on Feb. 26. The government has rejected the demand for proof.

Pakistan has said the Indian bombs hit a largely empty hillside near the northeastern town of Balakot without hurting anyone.

A top Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that at least 300 suspected militants were killed in the air strike, while the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, put the figure at more than 250.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das)

India, Pakistan claim to down each other’s jets as Kashmir conflict heats up

India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fenced border with Pakistan in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Pakistan both said they shot down each other’s fighter jets on Wednesday, with Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, prompting world powers to urge restraint.

Both countries have ordered air strikes over the last two days, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.

Tension has been running high since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants were killed in Tuesday’s strike. Pakistan says no one was killed.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with India and hoped “better sense” would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate.

“History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that, given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation,” Khan said during a brief televised broadcast to the nation. “We should sit down and talk.”

The Pakistan government’s official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was an Indian pilot who had been shot down.

The man, whom Pakistan has named as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, whose face is bloodied and blindfolded, gives his name and service number, before telling a man questioning him: “I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”

A statement from India’s foreign ministry said the pilot’s treatment was a “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention”, ordering his immediate release. India has not yet named the pilot.

In a second video circulating on social media, a screenshot of which was shared by the same Pakistan government account, the pilot was seen sipping tea while praising his treatment by the Pakistani military.

Reuters could not independently verify the second video’s authenticity.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and went to the brink a fourth in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India’s parliament.

The latest escalation marks a sudden turnaround in relations between the two countries, that both claim Kashmir in full but rule in part. As recently as November, Pakistan’s Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.

The conflict also comes at a critical time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months.

Modi’s decision to order air strikes could benefit him politically, according to analysts and pollsters, but he was accused on Wednesday by opposition parties of capitalizing on conflict.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticized the “blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our armed forces”, in a joint statement by 21 opposition parties, the first time they have broken ranks with the government over the issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday’s air strike.

“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I also encouraged both ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity,” he said.

Both China and the European Union have also called for restraint.

AERIAL BATTLE

Many of the facts in the latest series of engagements are disputed by the two sides.

Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces, said two Indian jets had been shot down after they entered Pakistani airspace while responding to a Pakistani aerial mission on targets in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

    One of the jets crashed on the Indian-controlled side of the de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, and the other on the Pakistani side.

    Ghafoor said the Pakistani aircraft had carried out the strikes in response to India’s air strike the day before but had taken deliberate action to ensure no casualties were caused.

    The Pakistani jets had locked on to six targets, in a demonstration of their capacity to hit strategic installations, but deliberately fired into open spaces where there would be no casualties.

“This was not a retaliation in a true sense, but to tell Pakistan has capability, we can do it, but we want to be responsible, we don’t want an escalation, we don’t want a war,” Ghafoor told a news conference.

One of the aircraft fell on India’s side of Kashmir, while the second came down in Pakistani-held territory with two pilots captured, he added.

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, gave a different account, telling a news briefing that the Pakistan air strikes on military targets had been “foiled”.

India shot down one Pakistani plane that landed in Pakistani territory, and that it had lost one of its own planes, not two, with the pilot “missing in action”, Kumar added.

“Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” Kumar said.

Pakistan denies it lost a plane in the encounter.

At the Pakistani briefing, Ghafoor produced photographs of weapons and identity documents he said were carried by Indian pilots.

Pakistan initially said that two Indian pilots had been captured, before clarifying it only had one in its custody.

The Indian air force has ordered Kashmir’s main airport in Srinagar along with at least three others in neighboring states to close, an official said.

Pakistan shut its airspace, with commercial flights in the country canceled. Flights from the Middle East and India were also affected.

In a separate incident, police officials in Indian-occupied Kashmir said that four passengers and a civilian had died after an Indian aircraft crashed in Kashmir. The craft was initially reported by officials to be a plane, but a partial tail number from the craft seen by a Reuters witness showed it to be an Mi17 military helicopter.

The cause of the crash was unknown.

CIVILIAN FRIGHT

The aerial engagement followed overnight artillery fire by both sides. Pakistan used heavy caliber weapons in 12 to 15 places along the Line of Control, a spokesman for the Indian defense forces said on Wednesday.

“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and number of casualties,” the spokesman said.

Five Indian soldiers suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning, he added.

“So far there are no (civilian) casualties but there is panic among people,” said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district on the Indian side where some of the shelling took place.

“We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas,” he said.

Officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded, including civilians, with thousands evacuated and schools closed in border areas.

“Only those families are still here which have concrete bunkers built within or along their homes,” said Muhammad Din, a resident of Chakothi, a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the de facto border.

India has also continued its crackdown on suspected militants operating in Kashmir, and on Wednesday security forces killed two Jaish militants in a gun battle, Indian police said.

Syed Maqsood, the superintendent of a government hospital in Indian-occupied Kashmir, said that all hospitals in the region had been asked to paint a red cross on their roofs in case of further Pakistani air strikes.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal; Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari, Devjyot Ghoshal, Aditi Shah, Aditya Kalra, Drazen Jorgic, Rupam Jain, Abu Arqam Naqash, Eric Beech and Praveen Menon; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)