Hong Kong suspends four more border crossings to curb spread of virus

By Felix Tam and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China on Monday, leaving just three checkpoints open, but stopped short of demands for the entire border to be closed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which emerged in central China in December and has killed more than 360 people there and sent jitters through global markets.

Carrie Lam, chief executive of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, was speaking hours after more than 2,500 workers from the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) went on strike to call for the border to be shut and better protection for hospital staff, among other demands.

“We should be united if we have the same goal. At this critical moment, (some people are) taking extreme means and it is inevitable it will affect the rights of patients,” Lam said.

“Those using extreme means to try to force the government’s hand will not succeed.”

The Hospital Authority said those using extreme means “to try to force the government and Hospital Authority‚Äôs hands will not succeed”.

Striking workers at the Hospital Authority building booed as they watched Lam speak, calling her a liar and chanting: “Close all borders.”

The medical workers, members of the newly formed union, held a press conference shortly after Lam spoke and said they planned to keep up their strike action.

HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu said she expected around 9,000 of the alliance’s roughly 18,000 members to strike on Tuesday.

Pro-democracy protesters have in recent months formed about 40 unions as a way to press their demands on the government and at least a dozen have come out in support of the HAEA’s strike.

Reflecting concerns in the broader business community, three-quarters of American business leaders polled said they wanted Hong Kong to shut the border with the mainland, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Lam has rejected calls to shut the entire border, saying such a move would be “inappropriate and impractical” as well as “discriminatory”.

By making it inconvenient for people to cross the border, Lam said she hoped it would help contain the spread of the virus although she does not “rule out future measures as the situation evolves”.

The health scare comes after months of at times violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong triggered by fears the city’s autonomy, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, is being eroded by Beijing.

China denies meddling and accuses foreign governments of fomenting the unrest.

The virus is expected to heap more pressure on the former British colony, which on Monday reported its economy contracted for the first time in a decade in 2019.

The HAEA’s five demands are for the government to close the border, distribute masks to the public, ensure that front-line medical workers have adequate supplies and protection, provide enough isolation wards for patients and guarantee no reprisals for strikers.

Panic-stricken residents have emptied shelves in major supermarkets in Hong Kong, stockpiling meat, rice and cleaning products as fears escalate over the coronavirus.

About 90 percent of the city’s food is imported, with the bulk coming from the mainland, according to official data.

Toy shop owner Lam Wa-yin, 45, said closing the border would intensify worries about supplies of staples.

“They’ve started rushing to buy supplies even before they fully close the borders,” Lam said.

“It’ll get worse if it is fully closed. Especially food. People have been rushing to buy oil, salt and rice, not to mention the face masks.”

(Reporting By Felix Tam, Joseph Campbell, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Yoyo Chow; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Iraq orders truce with Kurds to allow peaceful deployment at border crossings

Iraq orders truce with Kurds to allow peaceful deployment at border crossings

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered a 24-hour suspension to military operations against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, to allow for the peaceful deployment of Iraqi troops at the border crossings with the Kurdistan region.

A Kurdish spokesman earlier said the two sides reached an agreement on Friday to stop fighting which broke out on Oct. 16, after Iraqi forces seized the oil-city of Kirkuk.

Abadi ordered the offensive on Kirkuk and other Kurdish-held territory in retaliation to the Sept. 25 vote for independence in a referendum organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – a drive that was all but crushed by the surprise attack.

The 24-hour truce “should allow a joint technical committee … to work on the deployment of federal Iraqi forces in all disputed areas, including Fish-Khabur, and the international border”, Abadi said in a statement.

“This should prevent bloodshed between the children of the same country.”

He wants to take control of border crossings with neighboring countries, including one in the Fish-Khabur area through which an oil export pipeline crosses into Turkey, carrying Iraqi and Kurdish crude oil.

The KRG on Wednesday proposed an immediate ceasefire, a suspension of the referendum result and “starting an open dialogue with the federal government based on the Iraqi constitution” – call rejected by Baghdad.

According to the KRG, which is based in the Kurdish autonomous region’s capital of Erbil, the ceasefire entered effect at 1 a.m. on Friday (2200 GMT Thursday).

“The ceasefire is holding,” Vahal Ali, the director of KRG President Masoud Barzani’s media office, told Reuters.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also urged dialogue to start, in a call to Abadi, the Iraqi central government said in a statement on Friday morning.

U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-backed paramilitaries and Kurdish fighters fought alongside each other to defeat Islamic State, also called ISIS, but the alliance has faltered with the militants largely defeated in the country.

OIL REVENUE

The multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the KRG official boundaries, fell to Iraqi forces without much resistance on Oct. 16 but the Kurdish Peshmerga began to fight back as they withdrew closer to the core of the Kurdish region.

The fall of Kirkuk, considered by many Kurds as the heart of their fatherland, was a major symbolic and financial blow to the Kurdish drive for independence championed by Barzani, as it halved the region’s oil export revenue.

The most violent clashes happened in the northwestern corner as the Peshmerga fought back offensives toward Fish-Khabur, and also south of their capital Erbil, leaving dozens of casualties on both sides.

Speaking in Geneva on Thursday, Tillerson said he was “disappointed that the parties have been unable to reach an entirely peaceful resolution” and that he had encouraged Abadi to accept the KRG “overtures for talks on the basis of the Iraqi constitution”.

Abadi demanded on Thursday that the Kurds declare their referendum void, rejecting the KRG offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks. “We won’t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution,” he said in a statement during a visit to Tehran.

The spokesman of the U.S.-led anti Islamic State coalition in Baghdad, U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon, told Reuters: “Both parties are talking with one another, but it is not an official ceasefire.”

In an interview with Kurdish TV Rudaw, Dillon called on the two sides to extend the deal to a complete halt in hostility and “refocus our efforts on defeating ISIS”. “We are encouraging dialogue, we are trying to get the tensions down,” he added.

Iraqi forces on Thursday launched an offensive to recapture the last patch of Iraqi territory still in the hands of Islamic State, on the border area with Syria.

Abadi has expressed hope the group will be completely defeated in Iraq before the end of the year.

The militant group also holds parts of the Syrian side of the border, but the area under their control is shrinking as they retreat in the face of two sets of hostile forces – a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition and Syrian government troops with foreign Shi’ite militias backed by Iran and Russia.

Islamic State’s self-declared cross-border caliphate effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq, in a gruelling battle which lasted nine months.

The militants’ Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, fell to U.S.-backed forces earlier this month.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared the caliphate from Mosul in mid-2014, released an audio recording on Sept. 28 that indicated he was alive, after several reports he had been killed. He urged his followers to keep up the fight despite setbacks.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Alison Williams)

700-900 migrants may have died at sea this week

Migrants from a capsized boat are rescued during a rescue operation by Italian navy ships "Bettica" and "Bergamini" off the coast of Libya

By Steve Scherer

ROME (Reuters) – At least 700 migrants may have died at sea this past week in the busiest week of migrant crossings from Libya towards Italy this year, Medecins San Frontieres and the U.N. Refugee agency said on Sunday.

About 14,000 have been rescued since Monday amid calm seas, and there have been at least three confirmed instances of boats sinking. But the number of dead can only be estimated based on survivor testimony, which is still being collected.

“We will never know exact numbers,” Medecins San Frontieres said in a Tweet after estimating that 900 had died during the week. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 700 had drowned.

Migrants interviewed on Saturday in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo told of a large fishing boat that overturned and sank on Thursday with many women and children on board.

Initial estimates were that 400 people died, but the UN Refugee agency said on Sunday there may have been about 670 passengers on board.

According to testimony collected by EU border agency Frontex, when the motorless fishing boat capsized, 25 swam to the boat that had been towing it, while 79-89 others were saved by rescuers and 15 bodies were recovered. This meant more than 550 died, the UNHCR said.

The migrants — fleeing wars, oppression and poverty — often do not know how to swim and do not have life jackets. They pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to make the crossing from Libya to Italy, by far the most dangerous border passage for migrants in the world.

This week’s arrivals included Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians and many other West Africans, humanitarian groups say. Despite the surge this week, as of Friday 40,660 arrivals had been counted, 2 percent fewer than the same period of last year, the Interior Ministry said.

Most of the boats this week appear to have left from Sabratha, Libya, where many said smugglers had beaten them and women said they had been raped, said MSF, which has three rescue boats in the area.

The migrants are piled onto flimsy rubber boats or old fishing vessels which can toss their occupants into the sea in a matter of seconds.

About 100 are thought to have either been trapped in the hull or to have drowned after tumbling into the sea on Wednesday.

On Friday, the Italian Navy ship Vega collected 45 bodies and rescued 135 from a “half submerged” rubber boat. It is not yet known exactly how many were on board, but the rubber boats normally carry about 300.

“Some were more shaken than others because they had lost their loved ones,” Raffaele Martino, commander of the Vega, told Reuters on Sunday in the southern port of Reggio Calabria, where the Vega docked with the survivors and corpses, including those of three infants.

“It’s time that Europe had the courage to offer safe alternatives that allow these people to come without putting their own lives or those of their children in danger,” Tommaso Fabri of MSF Italy said.

(This refiled version of the story adds byline)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Reuters TV in Reggio Calabria; Editing by Richard Balmforth)