Stranded truckers fume as they wait to leave UK after COVID blockade

By Peter Nicholls and Gerry Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.

The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter. “However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue.”

Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.

With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.

Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.

“This is not how it should work. We have no information, the people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.

“This can be done differently. This whole process could’ve been better organized,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.

“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.

Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 1100 GMT.

FURTHER BREXIT DISRUPTION

Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.

The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.

Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.

Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.

Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.

“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything, nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva a driver from Sterlcha in Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by James Davey, Joanna Plucinska, and Yiming Woo; Writing by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

Ukrainian leader says Putin wants his whole country, asks for NATO help

By Thomas Escritt and Andrew Osborn

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday of wanting to annex his entire country and called for NATO to deploy warships to a sea shared by the two nations.

Poroshenko’s comments to German media were part of a concerted push by Kiev to gain Western support for more sanctions against Moscow, securing tangible Western military help, and rallying opposition to a Russian gas pipeline that threatens to deprive Ukraine of important transit revenues.

His Western allies have so far not offered to provide any of these things, despite his warnings of a possible Russian invasion after Moscow seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews on Sunday near Crimea.

Moscow and Kiev blame each other for the incident, which took place in the narrow Kerch Strait off Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014.

“Don’t believe Putin’s lies,” Poroshenko told Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling paper, comparing Russia’s protestations of innocence in the affair to Moscow’s 2014 denial that it had soldiers in Crimea even as they moved to annex it.

“Putin wants the old Russian empire back,” he said. “Crimea, Donbass, the whole country. As Russian tsar, as he sees himself, his empire cannot function without Ukraine. He sees us as his colony.”

Putin has accused Poroshenko of manufacturing the crisis to boost his flagging ratings ahead of next year’s elections in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said on Thursday Russia had imposed a de facto blockade on two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov by barring ships from leaving and entering the sea via the Kerch Strait.

The Kremlin denied it was restricting shipping, saying it had not heard of any problems. If there were any delays they were due to bad weather rather than politics, it said.

WARSHIPS

Poroshenko told Bild he also wanted NATO to deploy warships to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is not a member of the U.S.-led military alliance.

NATO, which has condemned Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she thought there was no military solution to the crisis.

The Kremlin said Poroshenko’s request appeared to be aimed at increasing tensions in the area.

The prospect of NATO warships heading to the Sea of Azov seems remote as it is shallow, access to it is controlled by Russia, and the Kremlin would likely view any attempt by the Atlantic alliance to deploy there as a hostile act.

Poroshenko, who has temporarily imposed martial law in parts of Ukraine over the crisis, also tweeted on Thursday that he would impose unspecified restrictions on Russian citizens in his country. He spoke of banning some foreign currency and banking operations in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s border service said it would only allow Ukrainian citizens to travel to Crimea via its land border with the annexed territory, while the head of the Ukrainian navy said Kiev would try to get Turkey to close the Bosphorus Strait to Russian ships.

There were further signs that Russia was pressing ahead with its plans to fortify Crimea and turn it into what Kremlin-backed media have called a fortress.

MISSILE SYSTEMS

Russia on Thursday deployed a new battalion of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Crimea, its fourth such battalion, TASS news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as saying.

Citing a Crimean security source, Interfax news agency also reported Russian plans to build a new missile early-warning radar station in Crimea next year that would be able to track ballistic and cruise missiles from a long distance.

Russia was also working on a new technical system to allow it to better track shipping around the peninsula in order to protect its maritime borders, Interfax said.

The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized and annexed Crimea after a pro-Russian leader was toppled in Kiev.

Moscow later backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. Major fighting ended with a 2015 ceasefire but deadly exchanges of fire are still frequent.

Poroshenko urged Berlin to halt an undersea pipeline project that would allow Russia to supply more gas to Germany directly.

The Nord Stream 2 project is a potentially serious problem for Ukraine, which currently earns large transit fees from piping Russian gas to Europe and stands to lose out.

“We need a strong, resolute and clear reaction to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” Poroshenko told the Funke newspaper group. “That also means stopping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.”

But Germany’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, dismissed the idea that his country’s commitment to the pipeline undermined efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.

Poroshenko’s attempts to persuade the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia are also unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, diplomats say, given divisions within the bloc over how to deal with Moscow.

Merkel said she would raise the Black Sea issue with Putin at a G20 summit which starts in Argentina on Friday. Putin is also due to hold talks there with U.S. President Donald Trump.

(For a graphic on ‘Ukrainian regions under martial law and also Kerch Strait’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2RhSHmC)

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Berlin and Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)

A ‘never-ending nightmare’ for Yemenis one year since blockade

A woman holds a malnourished boy in a malnutrition treatment centre at the al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC17865BEC40

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One year after a Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports temporarily halting life-saving supplies, Yemenis are still living a “never-ending nightmare,” low on food and fuel, a senior aid official said on Tuesday.

Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, is locked in a nearly four-year-old war that pits Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against the government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the West.

For several weeks at the end of 2017, the Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports which it said was to prevent Houthis from importing weapons. This had a severe impact on Yemen, which traditionally imports 90 percent of its food.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council said since the blockade, food and fuel imports remain low and prices have soared, leaving millions on the brink of starvation as violence continues.

“The past 12 months have been a never-ending nightmare for Yemeni civilians,” he said in a statement.

Here are some facts about what has been happening inside the war-torn country:

-The brutal war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid out of a population of around 25 million.

-The U.N. aid coordinator warned that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by the end of the year. More than 8 million are already severely short of food.

-Aid group Save the Children said a million more children in Yemen risked falling into famine, taking the total number to 5.2 million.

-Fighting flared this week in Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, where most food imports and relief supplies enter, leaving thousands trapped on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port, according to the U.N.

-Western countries, like the United States and Britain, have called for a ceasefire to support efforts to end a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

-After international pressure the Saudi-led coalition lifted the blockade but tightened ship inspections, slowing down imports.

-Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Sources: Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Reuters

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Israel puts tunnel dug under Gaza border on display to show threat

An Israeli soldier stands next to an entrance to what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim, Israel January 18, 2018

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military brought journalists on Thursday to film a 2 km (1.25 mile) tunnel dug by militants from the Gaza Strip to Israel, saying it was putting the construction on display to show the continuing threat it faces from the territory.

The Islamic Jihad militant group has claimed responsibility for building the tunnel, saying its aim was to use it to attack Israel in the next armed confrontation.

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim

A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool

Twelve Gaza militants, most of them from Islamic Jihad, were killed in the destruction of the tunnel and in rescue efforts when Israel destroyed the underground passage on October 30.

The tunnel, around the height and width of an upright person, was lined with concrete slabs. It was discovered about 120 meters inside Israel near Kissufim, about six meters below ground, as tunnelers burrowed towards the surface looking to build an exit, the Israeli military said.

“The tunnel that we see here is one of three tunnels that have been destroyed over the last two months,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said. “The threat has not passed and the terror from Hamas has not passed.”

Palestinian tunnel diggers have long operated in border areas of the Gaza Strip, using the underground passageways to bypass tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of goods and people, and to smuggle weapons.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war. It is home to two million Palestinians, who complain that the blockade has left the enclave isolated and impoverished. Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions, tightened after the Islamist militant group Hamas took power in Gaza more than a decade ago.

(Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Peter Graff)

Yemen blockade needs to be fully wound down: U.N. aid chief

Yemen blockade needs to be fully wound down: U.N. aid chief

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Saudi-led military coalition must fully lift its blockade on Yemen, where seven or eight million are “right on the brink of famine”, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Friday, but he declined to say if maintaining such a blockade was legal.

“That blockade has been partially wound down but not fully wound down. It needs to be fully wound down if we are to avoid an atrocious humanitarian tragedy involving the loss of millions of lives, the like of which the world has not seen for many decades,” he said.

The coalition, fighting the armed Houthi movement in Yemen with backing from the United States, Britain and other countries, eased the blockade this week, allowing aid ships into the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Salif, as well as U.N. flights to Sanaa.

U.N. humanitarian officials have said Yemen cannot rely on humanitarian aid alone but must have commercial imports too, because it relies on imports for the vast majority of its food, fuel and medicine.

The coalition wants tighter U.N. verification and inspection for commercial ships entering the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, the most important hub.

“I’ve called for five things in respect of the Saudi blockade,” Lowcock said. “Some of them have happened like the resumption of humanitarian air services, like partial reopening of the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef on the Red Sea. What I’m interested in is finding solutions.”

According to a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution on Yemen, “arbitrary denial of humanitarian access and depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supply and access, may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Lowcock, launching the U.N.’s humanitarian appeal for 2018, declined to say if Saudi Arabia and its partners were in breach of the law, but said the world body had consistently called on all sides to uphold their obligations.

“It is absolutely essential that people uphold their international obligations. Wars have rules and they need to be complied with,” he said.

“I’m not a lawyer but clearly international humanitarian law includes a requirement to facilitate unhindered access for aid agencies, and that’s what I’ve been trying to secure both in what I’ve said publicly and also in my private dialogue,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Pakistani police fire tear gas at Islamists blockading capital

Pakistani police fire tear gas at Islamists blockading capital

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani police used tear gas and watercannon, and fought running battles with stone-throwing Islamist activists, as they moved to clear a sit-in by the religious hard-liners who have blocked the main routes into the capital of Islamabad for more than two weeks.

The protests have spread to other main cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.

The clashes began on Saturday when police launched an operation involving some 4,000 officers to disperse around 1,000 activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik, a new hard-line Islamist political party, and break up their camp, police official Saood Tirmizi told Reuters.

Dozens of protesters were arrested, Tirmizi said, and hospitals reported dozens of people were being treated for injuries.

The mass protest, plus the recent gains of two new Islamist parties in Pakistan, demonstrated the religious right’s gathering strength ahead of what are expected to be tumultuous elections next year.

Television footage showed a police vehicle on fire, heavy curtains of smoke and fires burning in the streets as officers in heavy riot gear advanced. Protesters, some wearing gas masks, fought back in scattered battles across empty highways and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end,” Tehreek-e-Labaik party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

By midday, TV coverage had been cut off and private channels were off the air by orders of the official media regulator.

The protesters have paralyzed daily life in the capital, and have defied court orders to disband, demanding the firing of the minister of law.

Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.

“Death to blasphemers” is a central rallying cry for Tehreek-e-Laibak, which was born out of a protest movement lionizing Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.

The party, which advocates strict rule by Islamic Sharia law, won a surprisingly strong 7.6 percent of the vote in a by-election in Peshawar last month.

Since Tehreek-e-Labaik began its sit-in, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams in and around the capital.

The government had tried to negotiate an end to the sit-in, fearing violence during a crackdown similar to 2007, when clashes between authorities and supporters of a radical Islamabad mosque led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

By late morning, Tehreek-e-Labaik supporters were coming out on the streets in other Pakistani cities in support of the Islamabad protesters.

About 500 demonstrators blocked several main roads in Karachi, the southern port that is Pakistan’s largest city, a Reuters witness said. Police fired tear gas to try to disperse them from a main road near Karachi’s airport.

In the eastern city of Lahore, party supporters blocked three roads into the city, provincial government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan said.

“We want them to disperse peacefully. Otherwise we have other options open,” he said. “We don’t want to use force, but we will if there is no other option left.”

In Islamabad, police official Aftab Ahmad said officers were using restraint and denied media reports that rubber bullets were being fired.

However, Labaik spokesman Ashrafi said “several of our workers have got rubber bullet injuries” and also asserted police had fired live rounds, which police denied.

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Christian Schmollinger)

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)

Aid agencies say Yemen blockade remains, Egeland calls it ‘collective punishment’

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen, which has cut off food imports to a population where 7 million people are on the brink of famine, is “illegal collective punishment” of civilians, a prominent aid official said on Thursday.

Major agencies said aid was still blocked a day after the Saudi-led military coalition said it would let humanitarian supplies in.

The U.S.-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen said on Wednesday it would allow aid in through the port of Hodeidah, as well as U.N. flights to the capital Sanaa, more than two weeks after blockading the country.

“We have not yet had any movement as of now,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, said of the blockade: “In my view this is illegal collective punishment.”

Egeland, whose group helps 1 million Yemenis, welcomed the coalition announcement as a “step in the right direction”, but added: “We only have it in writing now and haven’t seen it happen.”

The coalition closed air, land and sea access on Nov. 6 to stop the flow of arms to the Houthis from Iran. The action came after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired toward Riyadh. Iran has denied supplying weapons.

“Sending a missile in the direction of Riyadh is really very bad. But those who are suffering from the blockade had nothing to do with this missile,” Egeland told Reuters while in Geneva.

“Even if both the flights and humanitarian shipments will go through now, it is not solving the underlying crisis that a country that needs 90 percent of its goods imported is not getting in commercial food or fuel.”

Houthi authorities who control the capital Sanaa were also imposing restrictions on access for aid workers, he said.

The United Nations says some 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine and 945,000 have been infected since April with cholera. More than 2,200 people have died.

U.N. officials have submitted requests to the coalition for deliveries via Hodeidah and Sanaa, and the “hope and expectation” was that the vital aid pipelines would re-open on Friday, the U.N.’s Laerke said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was vital to get commercial traffic resumed.

“Yemenis will need more than aid in order to survive the crisis and ward off famine,” spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Pakistan issues ‘last warning’ to Islamists blocking entrance to capital

Pakistan issues 'last warning' to Islamists blocking entrance to capital

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s government on Friday issued a final warning to members of a hard-line Islamist party who have blocked a main road into the capital since last week, raising fears of a violent clash as they refuse to budge.

Hundreds of supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party have been blocked the road to Islamabad for nearly 10 days, demanding that the minister of law be sacked for what they term blasphemy.

“You all are being given a last warning,” the Islamabad deputy commissioner said in the order.

A court had already ordered the party to end the protest, the order added. “After this final announcement, you all are being warned to end the illegal sit in immediately.”

Tehreek-e-Labaik blames the minister, Zahid Hamid, for changes to an electoral oath that it says amounts to blasphemy. The government puts the issue down to a clerical error.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law has become a lightning rod for Islamists, especially since 2011 when the liberal governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was murdered by a bodyguard for questioning the law that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.

A spokesman for the Labaik party, Ejaz Ashrafi, refused to comply with the order.

“We’re not moving,” he told Reuters by phone form the sit-in.

A government official, Khalid Abbasi, said the protesters had set up pickets along the route they are occupying manned by party members carrying iron rods and sticks.

Since they got the warning, he said, hundreds of more party workers have joined the sit-in.

Fearing violence, the government has blocked several roads with shipping containers to corral the protesters, but that has caused hours-long traffic jams in and around the capital.

In 2007, a confrontation between authorities and supporters of radical preachers at an Islamabad mosque led to the death of more than 100 people.

“All resources can be used to break this sit-in,” the deputy commissioner’s warning said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.N. pleads for end of Yemen blockade or ‘untold thousands’ will die

U.N. pleads for end of Yemen blockade or 'untold thousands' will die

GENEVA (Reuters) – The heads of three U.N. agencies issued a fresh plea on Thursday for the Saudi-led military coalition to lift its blockade on Yemen, warning that “untold thousands” would die.

The coalition closed all air, land and sea access to Yemen last week following the interception of a missile fired toward the Saudi capital, saying it had to stem the flow of arms from Iran to its Houthi opponents in the war in Yemen.

Yemen already has 7 million people on the brink of famine, but without the reopening of all ports that number could grow by 3.2 million, the statement said.

“The cost of this blockade is being measured in the number of lives that are lost,” David Beasley, Antony Lake and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the heads of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, said in the statement.

“Together, we issue another urgent appeal for the coalition to permit entry of lifesaving supplies to Yemen in response to what is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Saudi Arabia has since said that aid can go through “liberated ports” but not Houthi-controlled Hodeidah, the conduit for the vast bulk of imports into Yemen.

For months, the U.N. has warned that the closure of Hodeidah would dramatically escalate the crisis.

“Without fuel, the vaccine cold chain, water supply systems and waste water treatment plants will stop functioning. And without food and safe water, the threat of famine grows by the day,” the U.N. agency heads said in the statement.

At least one million children are at risk if a fast-spreading diphtheria outbreak is not stopped in its tracks, and there is also the risk of a renewed flare-up in cholera, which was on the wane after the most explosive outbreak ever recorded – with over 900,000 cases in the past six months.

“If any of us in our daily lives saw a child whose life was at immediate risk, would we not try to save her? In Yemen we are talking about hundreds of thousands of children, if not more,” the joint statement said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Toby Chopra)