Islamist violence escalates in Burkina Faso, making widespread hunger worse

By Edward McAllister

DORI, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – Habibou Sore had to pause for breath as she ran barefoot from the approaching gunmen. She was pregnant with twins, due any day.

Soon after arriving at a nearby town in northern Burkina Faso, her feet cut and swollen, Sore gave birth. Then her battle with hunger began.

Attacks by Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed thousands of people this year in Africa’s Sahel region, an arid belt to the south of the Sahara Desert.

The escalating bloodshed has worsened food shortages that threaten millions in a region already hit by climate change, poverty and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixteen months after fleeing her village, Sore lives with relatives in the town of Pisilla and eats one small meal a day.

Her twin sons Hassan and Housein each weigh 7 kg (15.5 pounds), the equivalent of a healthy 4-month-old. Their bony legs are covered in sores, their scalps bare in patches. They scream for the milk their mother cannot provide.

“I am worried about them,” Sore said, as she rocked the boys on her lap in a clinic in the town of Kaya, surrounded by paintings showing mothers how to breastfeed and the foods required for a balanced diet. “They are not doing well.”

Over 7 million people face acute hunger in a vast area comprising landlocked Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as armed groups cut off access to supplies and farmland, figures from the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) show.

Burkina Faso is deteriorating fastest. Over half a million children under 5 are acutely malnourished, U.N. figures show. WFP said in October that over 10,000 people were “one step short of famine”.

“This year has been worse than anything we have seen in the last decade, a worsening situation that is obviously connected to growing conflicts,” said Christelle Hure, spokeswoman for the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council, which offers shelter for the displaced.

‘GREAT LOSS’

This summer’s rainy season was one of the heaviest in years, bringing life to the hilly northern savannah where neem, eucalyptus and acacia trees tower over a sea of waist-high golden grass. Farmers say the conditions are perfect for crops and cattle – if only they could reach them.

Sayouba Zabre should be harvesting 10 hectares of millet and sorghum and tending dozens of cattle near his hometown in the Soum region. Instead he is in a camp for displaced people in the Center-North region after fleeing an attack this year.

Camp residents collect wood and dry hibiscus pods on the roofs of their makeshift tents – anything to make money. Zabre planted millet and peanuts, but it is not enough to feed his family.

“This is a great loss. There is a lot out there this year,” he said, referring to his farm. “I should be there.”

Many citizens rely on food from aid agencies that cannot reach some of the worst-hit areas.

Twice this year, food deliveries were hijacked, said Antoine Renard, WFP’s country director in Burkina Faso.

Dozens of health facilities have closed and about 200 others are operating at minimum staff levels, government figures show.

Malnutrition is overwhelming the clinic in Kaya where Sore took her twins. Before the crisis, it had about 30 child patients. Now it has 500.

“Every day we take children, every day we have severe cases,” said midwife Aminata Zabre.

Mothers come regularly for sachets of baby food, though sometimes there is little improvement.

“I asked one woman ‘why is your child still coming to us?’,” Zabre said. “She told me her father-in-law was eating the child’s rations.”

(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Gazans bury dead after bloodiest day of Israel border protests

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Thousands of Gaza residents turned out on Tuesday for the funerals of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops a day earlier, while on the Gaza-Israel border, Israeli forces prepared to face the expected final day of a Palestinian protest campaign.

Monday’s violence on the border, which took place as the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, was the bloodiest for Palestinians since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

The death toll rose to 60 overnight after an eight-month-old baby died from tear gas that her family said she inhaled at a protest camp on Monday. More than 2,200 Palestinians were also injured by gunfire or tear gas, Palestinian medics said.

Palestinian leaders have called Monday’s events a massacre, and the Israeli tactic of using live fire against the protesters has drawn worldwide concern and condemnation.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet to discuss the situation.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defense to defend its borders and communities. Its main ally the United States has backed that stance, with both saying that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave, instigated the violence.

On Tuesday morning, mourners marched through Gaza, waving Palestinian flags and calling for revenge.

“With souls and blood we redeem you martyrs,” they shouted.

There were fears of further bloodshed as a six-week protest campaign was due to reach its climax.

May 15 is traditionally the day Palestinians mark the “Nakba”, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes in violence culminating in war between the newly created Jewish state and its Arab neighbors in 1948.

The protests, dubbed “The Great March of Return,” began on March 30 and revived calls for refugees to have the right of return to their former lands, which now lie inside Israel.

Israel rejects any right of return, fearing that it would deprive the state of its Jewish majority.

Palestinian medical officials say 105 Gazans have now been killed since the start of the protests and nearly 11,000 people wounded, about 3,500 of them hit by live fire. Israeli officials dispute those numbers. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

More than 2 million people are crammed into the narrow Gaza Strip, more than two thirds of them refugees. Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the enclave, deepening economic hardship and raising humanitarian concerns.

SHARPSHOOTERS

On the Israeli side of the border, Israeli sharpshooters took up positions to stop any attempted breach of the fence should demonstrations break out again. Tanks were also deployed.

A senior Israeli commander said that of the 60 Gazans killed on Monday, 14 were carrying out attacks and 14 others were militants.

He also said Palestinians protesters were using hundreds of pipe bombs, grenades and fire-bombs. Militants had opened fire on Israeli troops and tried to set off bombs by the fence.

Many casualties were caused by Palestinians carrying out devices that went off prematurely,” he said.

“We approve every round fired before it is fired. Every target is spotted in advance. We know where the bullet lands and where it is aimed,” said the commander, who spoke on condition that he not be named, in accordance with Israeli regulations.

“However reality on the ground is such that unintended damage is caused,” he said.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office condemned what it called the “appalling deadly violence” by Israeli forces.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Israel had a right to defend its borders according to international law, but lethal force must only be used a last resort, and was not justified by Palestinians approaching the Gaza fence.

The U.N. rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Michael Lynk, said Israel’s use of force may amount to a war crime.

YOUNG VICTIM

In Gaza City, hundreds marched in the funeral of eight-month-old Leila al-Ghandour, whose body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

“Let her stay with me, It is too early for her to go,” her mother cried, pressing the baby’s body to her chest.

Speaking earlier, her grandmother said the child was at one of the tented protest camps and had inhaled tear gas.

“When we got back home, the baby stopped crying and I thought she was asleep. I took her to the children’s hospital and the doctor told me she was martyred (dead),” Heyam Omar said.

Many shops in East Jerusalem were shut throughout the day following a call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a general strike across the Palestinian Territories. A 70-second siren was sounded in the occupied West Bank in commemoration of the Nakba.

HOLY CITY

Most Gaza protesters stay around tent camps but groups have ventured closer to the border fence, rolling burning tyres and throwing stones. Some have flown kites carrying containers of petrol that spread fires on the Israeli side.

Monday’s protests were fueled by the opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem following its relocation from Tel Aviv. The move fulfilled a pledge by U.S. President Donald Trump, who in December recognized the contested city as the Israeli capital.

Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Netanyahu praised Trump’s decisions but Palestinians have said the United States can no longer serve as an honest broker in any peace process. Talks aimed a finding a two-state solution to the conflict have been frozen since 2014.

Trump said on Monday he remained committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. His administration says it has nearly completed a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan but is undecided on how and when to roll it out.

Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the Gaza violence. Hamas denied instigating it but the White House backed Netanyahu, saying Hamas “intentionally and cynically provoking this response”.

The United States on Monday blocked a Kuwait-drafted U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed “outrage and sorrow at the killing of Palestinian civilians” and called for an independent investigation, U.N. diplomats said.

In the British parliament, junior foreign office minister Alistair Burt said the United States needed to show more understanding about the causes of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hamas’ role in the violence must be investigated, he added.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Exclusive: U.S. team in refugee camps investigating atrocities against Rohingya

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Jason Szep, Matt Spetalnick and Zeba Siddiqui

WASHINGTON/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The U.S. government is conducting an intensive examination of alleged atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, documenting accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offenses in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The undertaking, led by the State Department, has involved more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military crackdown last year in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, two U.S. officials said. The work is modeled on a U.S. forensic investigation of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.

The interviews were conducted in March and April by about 20 investigators with backgrounds in international law and criminal justice, including some who worked on tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

The information will be analyzed in Washington and documented in a report to be sent to the State Department’s leadership in May or early June, the officials said. It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will publicly release the findings, or whether they will be used to justify new sanctions on the Myanmar government or a recommendation for international prosecution.

“The purpose of this investigation is to contribute to justice processes, including community awareness raising, international advocacy efforts, and community-based reconciliation efforts, as well as possible investigations, truth-seeking efforts, or other efforts for justice and accountability,” said a document used by the investigators in the sprawling refugee camps and reviewed by Reuters.

Three U.S. officials in Washington and several people involved in the investigation on the ground in Bangladesh disclosed details of the fact-finding operation to Reuters.

A State Department official, asked to confirm the specifics of the investigation conducted in the refugee camps as reported by Reuters, said “the program details are accurate.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was using all available information and a wide range of tools, but added: “We cannot get ahead of the deliberative, policymaking process.”

As of publication, the Myanmar government and military had not responded to questions from Reuters. Myanmar has said its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

The interviewers in the camps asked the refugees basic demographic questions, the date the person left Myanmar, and to recount their experiences during the wave of violence unleashed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State by the Myanmar military and local Buddhist residents.

The investigators also asked refugees to describe the battalions and weaponry used by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State during operations against the Rohingya, said one person involved with the investigation in the camps, which are located in the Cox’s Bazar district in southern Bangladesh. The investigators have received names of individual perpetrators and the identities of specific battalions allegedly involved, this person said.

A second person involved in the project on the ground said 1,025 refugees have been interviewed and the assignment may include a second phase focused on military units.

Zohra Khatun, 35, a Rohingya refugee in the camps, said she told investigators that soldiers waged a campaign of violence and harassment in her village in Rakhine State starting last August. They made arrests and shot several people, driving her and others to flee, she said.

“One military officer grabbed me by the throat and tried to take me,” she told Reuters, clutching her shirt collar to demonstrate. The military, she said, burned homes in the village, including hers.

The investigation coincides with a debate inside the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill over whether the Trump administration has done enough to hold Myanmar’s military to account for brutal violence against the largely stateless Rohingya.

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

The Rohingya are a small Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Though they have been present in what’s now Myanmar for generations, many Burmese consider them to be interlopers. Violence against them has increased in recent years as the country has made a partial shift to democratic governance.

In November, following the lead of the United Nations and the European Union, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted “ethnic cleansing,” a designation that raised the possibility of additional sanctions against Myanmar’s military commanders and increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar government has denied the accusations.

The United States responded in December by imposing targeted sanctions on one Myanmar general and threatening to penalize others. Washington has also scaled back already-limited military ties with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. Human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers in Washington have urged the Republican White House to widen sanctions and designate the violence as “crimes against humanity,” a legal term that can set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“No decisions have been made on that front, but it’s something being looked at very carefully,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters.

A Reuters investigation published in February provided the first independent confirmation of what had taken place in the village of Inn Din, where 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys were hacked to death by Rakhine Buddhist villagers or shot by security force members. The story was based on accounts not only from Rohingya refugees but also from soldiers, police officers and Buddhist locals who admitted to participating in the bloodshed.

Pictures obtained by Reuters showed the men and boys with their hands tied behind their backs and their bodies in a shallow grave. Two Reuters journalists were jailed while reporting the story and remain in prison in Yangon, where they face up to 14 years in jail on possible charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

So far, there has been resistance by lawyers in the White House and State Department to adopt the terms “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” in describing deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar, the U.S. officials said.

The State Department itself has been divided over how to characterize or interpret the violence against the Rohingya, the officials said.

The East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, staffed largely by career diplomats and representing the view of the embassy in Myanmar, has held at times “to a success narrative” on Myanmar since the lifting of sanctions was announced in October 2016 and the strong public role played by the U.S. government in the historic 2012 opening of the country after decades of military rule, one official said.

Diplomats in Yangon have also been reluctant to jeopardize Washington’s relationship with Suu Kyi, a democratic icon who has faced criticism for failing to do more to rein in the violence against the Rohingya. Some senior U.S. officials still believe Suu Kyi remains the best hope for a more democratic Myanmar, one official said. “They are reluctant to upset that relationship.”

That contrasts with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, based in Washington, which has pushed for tougher sanctions, the officials said. Bridging that gap has been made more difficult because the State Department under President Donald Trump has yet to fill many important diplomatic positions, the officials said.

Officials described the process in the refugee camps of documenting the abuses as rigorous. Each interview was coded with key words according to the alleged crime, such as killing, rape, sexual violence and lynching. Different categories of alleged perpetrator also have codes – from civilians to insurgents, Myanmar military personnel and police.

“After the 1,000 interviews and statistical analysis, we can draw certain conclusions about the perpetrators of crime and patterns of crime,” one official said.

The official said one possible result from the documentation of abuses against the Rohingya could be a vote by the United Nations General Assembly to establish an international body to investigate the most serious crimes committed against the Rohingya, similar to what it’s done with Syria.

The State Department did not respond to questions about divisions within the administration over how to characterize the violence and criticism that the administration was too slow in acting to halt abuses.

Subiya Khatun, 29, who fled her Rakhine home in September and reported seeing three dead bodies in a canal on her way to the Bangladesh border, said she hoped for justice and a safe return to Myanmar.

“They said they have come from America. ‘This investigation will be used for your help,'” she said she was told by the people who interviewed her in the camps. “If Allah wishes, we will get justice and our demands will be fulfilled.”

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in Cox’s Bazar. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

‘We are watching you’: Political killings shake Mexico election

Policemen guard a crime scene where mayoral candidate Santana Cruz Bahena was gunned down at his home in the municipality of Hidalgotitlan, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Angel Hernandez

By Lizbeth Diaz

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Magda Rubio had just launched her campaign for mayor of a small city in northern Mexico, when a chilling voice came through her cell phone. “Drop out,” the caller warned, “or be killed.”

It was the first of four death threats Rubio said she has received since January from the same well-spoken, anonymous man. She has stayed in the race in Guachochi, located in a mountainous region of Chihuahua state that is a key route for heroin trafficking. But two armed body guards now follow her round the clock.

“At 2 a.m., you start to get scared, and you say, ‘something bad is going on here’,” she said.

FILE PHOTO: Guachochi mayoral candidate Magda Rubio speaks during an interview with Reuters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Guachochi mayoral candidate Magda Rubio speaks during an interview with Reuters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

An explosion of political assassinations in Mexico has cast a pall over nationwide elections slated for July 1, when voters will choose their next president and fill a slew of down-ballot posts.

At least 82 candidates and office holders have been killed since the electoral season kicked off in September, making this the bloodiest presidential race in recent history, according to a tally by Etellekt, a security consultancy based in Mexico City, and Reuters research.

Four were slain in the past week alone. They include Juan Carlos Andrade Magana, who was running for re-election as mayor of the hamlet of Jilotlan de los Dolores, located in Mexico’s western Jalisco state. His bullet-ridden body was discovered Sunday morning inside his Toyota Prius on the edge of town; Andrade had just attended a funeral. State prosecutors are investigating, but have made no arrests.

The victims hail from a variety of political parties, large and small, and most were running for local offices far removed from the national spotlight. The vast majority were shot. Most cases remain unsolved, the killers’ motives unclear.

But security experts suspect drug gangs are driving much of the bloodshed. With a record of about 3,400 mostly local offices up for grabs in July, Mexico’s warring cartels appear to be jostling for influence in city halls nationwide, according to Vicente Sanchez, a professor of public administration at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

He said crime bosses are looking to install friendly lawmakers, eliminate those of rivals and scare off would-be reformers who might be bad for business. Local governments are a lucrative source of contracts and kickbacks, while their police forces can be pressed into service of the cartels.

“Criminal gangs want to be sure that in the next government, they can maintain their power networks, which is why they are increasing attacks,” Sanchez said.

Electoral authorities have warned that the bloodshed could affect voter turnout in some areas. The killing spree has stunned even veteran observers who see it as an assault on Mexico’s democracy and the rule of law.

“State and local authorities are outgunned and outmaneuvered and the federal forces cannot be everywhere,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “There is an urgent need…to provide greater protection and insulation against organized crime.”

Mexico’s leaders are now scrambling to mount a response. Federal and state governments are providing candidates with bodyguards and, in some cases, bullet-proof vehicles. But the measures have proved largely ineffective as the death toll continue to rise.

FRAGILE TRUCES

Seeds of the current mayhem were planted more than a decade ago when the Mexican government, backed by the United States, set out to topple the heads of Mexico’s leading drug cartels.

The strategy succeeded in taking down kingpins such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the longtime boss of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, who now sits in a New York prison awaiting trial.

But the crackdown splintered established crime syndicates into dozens of competing gangs. Newcomers ratcheted up the savagery to intimidate rivals as well as police and public servants who might stand in their way.

A gang member from the state of Jalisco, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, explained how his cartel makes sure local officials tip them off to law enforcement actions.

“If they don’t, there will be friction” he said, a polite euphemism for a bullet.

Pre-election violence has hit particularly hard in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, where at least eight candidates for local office have been slain in the past six months. Cartels with names like Los Ardillos (The Squirrels) and Los Tequileros (The Tequila Drinkers) are fighting there over extortion rackets and control of heroin and cocaine smuggling.

Catholic Bishop Salvador Rangel visited the city of Chilapa in early April to forge an election-season truce between warring factions to stop the killing.

It did not last. Within days, Chilapa’s police chief, Abdon Castrejon Legideno, was shot dead while on patrol. A Guerrero state spokesman said in a statement that authorities arrested a suspect found carrying a 9mm firearm near the scene.

The rising body count has been a millstone for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its deeply unpopular standard bearer, President Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexico’s leader has said little publicly about the spate of political killings.

The party is expected to fare poorly in the July vote. Pena Nieto is barred from a second term by Mexico’s constitution. The PRI’s candidate to replace him as president, Jose Antonio Meade, is polling well behind the front-runners.

Security ranks among voters’ biggest worries. Mexico posted a record of nearly 29,000 homicides last year, attributed mainly to organized crime and fallout from the drug war.

‘COYOTE LOOKING AFTER THE CHICKEN’

Some political candidates contacted by Reuters declined to comment or be identified out of fear of reprisals.

But in Chihuahua state, mayoral hopeful Rubio is speaking out about the death threats against her, hoping publicity will spur law enforcement to crack her case and deter any would-be attackers.

Rubio, 42, traveled to meet Reuters in the state’s biggest city, Ciudad Juarez, across the U.S. border from El Paso. Her husband and their four children accompanied her, but she requested that no information about them be revealed out of concern for their safety.

A lawyer and human rights activist, Rubio says she is running as an independent to prod government to do more for the region’s impoverished Raramuri indigenous people. She suspects whoever threatened her is not interested in change.

Her small town of Guachochi sits in the heart of the so-called Golden Triangle crisscrossing the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango, a region flush with leafy marijuana farms and fields dotted with pink and red opium poppies.

Rubio said she has suffered panic attacks since the anonymous caller began his warnings.

“They said, ‘we are watching you. It’s time for you to go’,” Rubio said.

Two local cops now shadow her, but Rubio said she is not resting easy. Cartels have a knack for infiltrating security details like a “coyote looking after the chicken,” she said.

Despite the risks, she said she wants to show her children and other women that Mexico’s institutions can work.

“I cannot quit,” Rubio said. “I’m here because I want a change in my country.”

(Refiles to amend number of posts up for election with latest information from national electoral institute, paragraph 8.)

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Uriel Sanchez in Acapulco; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Marla Dickerson)

Philippine police return to war on drugs, cannot promise to avoid bloodshed

MANILA (Reuters) – Police in the Philippines on Monday resumed President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, making visits to the homes of users and dealers to convince them to surrender, but the national police chief said he could not promise a bloodless campaign.

The announcement came as the justice department filed its first criminal case against police officers in the battle against drugs, bolstering human rights activists’ accusations of fabricated accounts of shoot-outs with drug suspects.

The program of visits, known as “Oplan Tokhang”, made a comeback with an assurance from police chief Ronaldo dela Rosa that it should be free of violence if offenders agreed to go quietly and did not resist.

But he could not promise a “foolproof anti-drug campaign that would be bloodless”, Dela Rosa added, as the police were “not dealing with people who are in their proper state of mind”.

In the dialect of Duterte’s southern hometown of Davao, “Tokhang” is a combination of the words “knock” and “plead”.

Besides the visits, police have also run so-called “buy-bust” or sting operations and raided suspected drug dens and illicit laboratories.

In many of these operations, say rights activists, suspects did not get the chance to surrender, but were executed in cold blood instead. But police insist suspects died because they violently resisted arrest.

Nearly 4,000 drug suspects have died in gun battles with police since June 2016, when Duterte came to power. The government lost 85 police and soldiers in the drugs war, police data show.

More than 1.2 million people had also turned themselves in after the home visits.

Duterte has stopped police anti-drugs operations twice due to questions over the conduct of the force, including the killing of a teenager in a supposed anti-drug operation.

On Monday, the justice department filed murder charges and two drug-related cases against three police officers who killed the teenager, Kian Loyd delos Santos, after witnesses disputed the police version of the killing.

National police spokesman Dionardo Carlos said the force welcomed the filing.

“The police officers have to face their accusers in court and prove their innocence, they have to follow the procedures,” he said, urging due process for the officers.

To ensure transparency, Dela Rosa invited human rights advocates, priests and the media to join the relaunched program of home visits.

The police officers involved would also undergo a vetting process to weed out “rogue” officers, said Dela Rosa, adding that past abuses had involved the police seeking bribes to drop the names of people from the lists they compiled.

“We are certainly hoping that it will be less controversial, because controversy will only blur the real intention, which is really the fight against dangerous drugs,” Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told a regular media briefing.

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

United Nations envoy says Idlib could become the next Aleppo

Evacuees from the Shi'ite Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya ride a bus at insurgent-held al-Rashideen in Aleppo province, Syria

By Stephanie Nebehay and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

GENEVA/AMMAN (Reuters) – A senior United Nations official warned on Thursday that thousands of people evacuated from rebel-held areas of Aleppo after a crushing government offensive could suffer the same fate in their new place of refuge outside the city.

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said a cessation of hostilities across Syria was vital if another battle like the bloody fight for Aleppo was to be avoided.

At least 34,000 people, both civilians and fighters, had been evacuated from east Aleppo in a week-long operation, the latest U.N. figures show.

“Many of them have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo,” de Mistura warned in Geneva.

Thousands of refugees from Aleppo were ferried to Idlib, arousing fears that the rebel-held city in northwestern Syria could be next. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has declared that the war is far from over and that his armed forces would march on other rebel-held areas.

Evacuees from Aleppo had expressed concerns about being taken to Idlib and a senior European diplomat said earlier this month that this would suit Russia, Assad’s main military backer, as it would put “all their rotten eggs in one basket”.

Assad said that regaining full control of Aleppo was a victory shared by his Russian and Iranian allies.

The last group of civilians and rebels holed up in a small enclave was expected to leave in the next 24 hours, with the Syrian army and its allies seizing all of the city, delivering the biggest prize of the nearly six-year war to Assad.

In comments after meeting a senior Iranian delegation, Assad said his battlefield successes were a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syria and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war”.

Russia’s air force conducted hundreds of raids that pulverized rebel-held parts of Aleppo while Iranian-backed militias, led by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, poured thousands of fighters to fight rebels into the city.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that Russian air strikes in Syria had killed 35,000 rebel fighters and halted a chain of revolutions in the Middle East.

Speaking at a gathering of senior military officials that appeared designed to showcase Russia’s military achievements, Shoigu said Moscow’s intervention had prevented the collapse of the Syrian state.

LAST STAGES

More fighters were evacuated overnight from east Aleppo to opposition-held areas under an agreement between the warring sides, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

“In one of the last stages of the evacuation, more than 4,000 fighters were evacuated in private cars, vans, and pick-ups from eastern Aleppo to western rural Aleppo,” ICRC spokeswoman Krista Armstrong said.

This brought to around 34,000 the total number of people evacuated from the district over the past week in an operation hampered by heavy snow and wind, she said.

“The evacuation will continue for the entire day and night and most probably tomorrow (Friday). Thousands are still expected to be evacuated,” Armstrong said.

“Most are heading towards camps, or to their relatives, or shelter locations,” said Ahmad al-Dbis, a medical aid worker heading a team evacuating patients from Aleppo. “The humanitarian situation in northern Syria is very difficult, because the area is already densely populated since it has people displaced from all over Syria.”

Those leaving Aleppo are not only going to Idlib, the name of a city and province southwest of Aleppo, but to villages in the countryside in Aleppo province that lies west and north of the city and has also been heavily bombed.

Ahmed Kara Ali, spokesman for Ahrar al Sham, a rebel group that is involved in departure negotiations, told Reuters “large numbers” were left but it was difficult to estimate how many remained, beyond it being in the thousands.

Hundreds of other people are also still being evacuated from two villages besieged by rebels near Idlib and taken to government lines in Aleppo, part of the deal that has allowed insurgents to withdraw from the city carrying light weapons.

HEAVY SNOW

Another rebel official said a heavy snow storm that hit northern Syria and the sheer numbers of civilians still remaining were among the factors behind the delay in the mass evacuation.

“The numbers of civilians, their cars alongside and of course the weather all are making the evacuation slow,” Munir al-Sayal, head of the political wing of Ahrar al Sham, said, adding he expected the operation to be completed on Thursday.

The tiny pocket they are fleeing is all that remains of a rebel sector that covered nearly half the city before being besieged in the summer, the cue for intense air strikes that reduced swathes of it to rubble. As the months of bombardment wore on, rescue and health services collapsed.

The once-flourishing economic center with its renowned ancient sites has been devastated during the war which has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

ASSAD’S FUTURE

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of Russia's General Staff Valery Gerasimov attend a meeting with top military officials at the Defence Ministry in Moscow, Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of Russia’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov attend a meeting with top military officials at the Defence Ministry in Moscow, Russia December 22, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolskyi via REUTERS

Russia is not discussing the future of Assad in its talks with Iran and Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow on Tuesday and agreed to help broker a new peace deal for Syria.

De Mistura said that cessation of hostilities across Syria was a “priority” and having “regional players like Turkey, Russia and Iran talk to each other is a good thing”.

Quoting Russian President Vladimir Putin, de Mistura said talks expected to be held in Kazakhstan were “not considered a competition, it is complementary and a support to the preparation of the U.N. role (in Syrian peace talks) on 8 Feb.”

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Peter Hobson in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ellen Francis in Beirut, writing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood)

Abbas Offers To Meet Netanyahu

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he delivers a speech in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he was working to stop Palestinian knife attacks and other street violence against Israel and had offered to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rekindle peace efforts.

The remarks appeared to be an effort by the Western-backed Abbas to turn the tables on Israel, which has cast him as responsible for the diplomatic deadlock and the surge of bloodshed.

Speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 TV, Abbas gave rare details on his domestic security drives, a touchy matter as many Palestinians deem such moves collaboration with their enemy.

“Our security forces go into the schools to search pupils’ bags and see if they have knives. You don’t know this,” he said.

“In one school, we found 70 boys and girls who were carrying knives. We took the knives and spoke to them and said: ‘This is a mistake. We do not want you to kill and be killed. We want you to live, and for the other side to live as well.'”

Abbas’s administration and Israel coordinate security in the occupied West Bank despite the stalling two years ago of U.S.-sponsored negotiations on Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu says he is open to renewing talks and that Abbas has been avoiding these while inciting violence with his rhetoric against Israel.

But Abbas told Channel 2 that the onus was on Netanyahu.

“I will meet with him, at any time. And I suggested, by the way, for him to meet,” the Palestinian leader said in English.

Asked what became of that overture, Abbas said: “No, no – it’s a secret. He can tell you about it.”

Netanyahu’s office had no immediate response.

Since October, Palestinian stabbings, car-rammings and gun ambushes have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens. At least 190 Palestinians, 129 of whom Israel says were assailants, have been killed by its forces. Many others were shot in clashes.

Abbas’ Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank under 1993 interim peace deals. Israeli forces now freely operate in PA areas, something Abbas described as sapping his credibility at home. He said he was willing to take action against Palestinians that Israeli intelligence deems a threat.

“If he (Netanyahu) gives me responsibility and tells me that he believes in (the) two-state solution and we sit around the table to talk about (the) two-state solution, this will give my people hope, and nobody dares to go and stab or shoot or do anything here or there,” Abbas said.

Netanyahu has said he would favor the creation of a Palestinian state as long as Israel’s terms are met such as its security needs. Whether Abbas could vouchsafe the Gaza Strip is in doubt, as it is under the de facto control of armed Hamas Islamists who oppose permanent coexistence with Israel.

For his part, Netanyahu has been hazy about whether he would remove Jewish settlements in the West Bank to make way for the Palestinians. He heads a pro-settlement coalition the includes one ultra-nationalist party opposed to Palestinian statehood.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Nick Macfie)