Canada says safety of Pakistani woman in blasphemy case a ‘priority’

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada urged Pakistan on Tuesday to ensure the well-being of a Pakistani Christian woman whose life is in danger after having been acquitted in the South Asian country last month of blasphemy charges against Islam, a ruling that sparked mass protests.

The case of Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan before being released, has outraged Christians worldwide. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for help to Britain, Canada, Italy and the United States, and so far, Italy has said it would assist her.

“It’s a very important issue, a central priority for our government,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of Bibi’s case after meeting her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Montreal.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbors said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.

“Canada calls on Pakistan to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family,” Freeland said. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can” and is “extremely engaged in this issue,” Freeland said.

Islamists shut down roads in major cities in Pakistan during three days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have threatened to escalate the protests if she is permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands earlier this week because of fears for the safety of his family.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. job growth jumps; annual wage gain largest since 2009

People wait in line at a stand during the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth rebounded sharply in October and wages recorded their largest annual gain in 9-1/2 years, pointing to further labor market tightening that could encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again in December.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday also showed the unemployment rate steady at a 49-year low of 3.7 percent as 711,000 people entered the labor force, in a sign of confidence in the jobs market.

Sustained labor market strength could ease fears about the economy’s health following weak housing data and stalling business spending. President Donald Trump cheered the robust report, which came less than a week before the midterm elections that will decide who controls the U.S. Congress.

“These are incredible numbers,” Trump tweeted.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 250,000 jobs last month as employment in the leisure and hospitality sector bounced back after being held down by Hurricane Florence, which drenched North and South Carolina in mid-September.

There were also big gains in manufacturing, construction and professional and business services payrolls. Data for September was revised to show 118,000 jobs added instead of the previously reported 134,000.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls increasing by 190,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate unchanged at 3.7 percent. The Labor Department said Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in mid-October, “had no discernible effect on the national employment and unemployment estimates for October.”

Average hourly earnings rose five cents, or 0.2 percent, in October after advancing 0.3 percent in September. That boosted the annual increase in wages to 3.1 percent, the biggest gain since April 2009, from 2.8 percent in September.

Employers also increased hours for workers last month. The average workweek increased to 34.5 hours from 34.4 hours in September.

“The report shows a booming U.S. economy with a sufficient whiff of wage inflation to keep the Fed on track to raise rates in December and at least twice next year,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds in New York.

Strong annual wage growth mirrors other data published this week showing wages and salaries rising in the third quarter by the most since mid-2008. Hourly compensation also increased at a brisk pace in the third quarter.

Firming wages support views that inflation will hover around the Fed’s 2.0 percent target for a while. The personal consumption expenditures price index excluding the volatile food and energy components, which is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, has increased by 2.0 percent for five straight months.

The Fed is not expected to raise rates at its policy meeting next week, but economists believe October’s strong labor market data could see the U.S. central bank signal an increase in December. The Fed raised borrowing costs in September for the third time this year.

U.S. stocks were trading mostly lower and the dollar was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies on Friday. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were lower.

WORKER SHORTAGE

Employers, scrambling to find qualified workers, are boosting wages. There are a record 7.14 million open jobs.

Online retail giant Amazon.com Inc announced last month that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour for U.S. employees starting in November. Workers at United States Steel Corp are set to receive a hefty pay rise also.

Employment gains have averaged 218,000 jobs per month over the past three months, double the roughly 100,000 needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

That is seen supporting the economy through at least early 2019 when gross domestic product is expected to significantly slow as the stimulus from the White House’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, increased two-tenths of a percentage point to 62.9 percent last month.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell to 7.4 percent last month from 7.5 percent in September. The employment-to-population ratio rose two-tenths of percentage point to 60.6 percent, the highest since January 2009.

Last month, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 42,000 jobs after being unchanged in September. Retail payrolls rose by only 2,400, likely restrained by layoffs related to Steinhoff’s Mattress Firm bankruptcy as well as some store closures by Sears Holdings Corp.

Construction companies hired 30,000 more workers in October. Jobs in the sector have been increasing despite weakness in the housing market. Government payrolls rose by 4,000 jobs in October.

Manufacturing employment increased by 32,000 jobs in October after adding 18,000 positions in September. Job gains in the sector, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy, could slow after a survey on Thursday showed a measure of factory employment fell in October.

So far, manufacturing hiring does not appear to have been affected by the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy, which has contributed to capacity constraints at factories. The United States is locked in a bitter trade war with China as well as tit-for-tat tariffs with other trade partners, including the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Despite the protectionist measures, the trade deficit continues to deteriorate. In a separate report on Friday, the Commerce Department said the trade gap increased 1.3 percent to $54.0 billion in September, widening for a fourth straight month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Clive McKeef and Paul Simao)

Trump cites ‘historic’ trade pact with Canada, Mexico

FILE PHOTO: Flags of the U.S., Canada and Mexico fly next to each other in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday took credit for salvaging a trilateral free trade accord with Canada and Mexico, marking it as a victory in his campaign to reshape global commerce as financial markets breathed a sigh of relief.

The deal, announced on Sunday, is a reworking of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which underpins $1.2 trillion in trade between the three countries. Trump had described NAFTA as a bad deal for Americans and threatened to eliminate it as part of his “America First” agenda.

The new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is aimed at bringing more jobs into the United States, with Canada and Mexico accepting more restrictive commerce with the United States, their main export partner.

While changing NAFTA and bringing down U.S. trade deficits was a top Trump campaign pledge, Sunday’s agreement largely leaves the broader deal intact and maintains supply chains that would have been fractured under weaker bilateral deals.

U.S., Canadian and Mexican stocks were trading higher on Monday, with the benchmark S&P 500 index.SPX rising more than 0.7 percent and the Toronto Stock Exchange’s S&P/TSX index. GSPTS gaining about 0.4 percent.

The Canadian dollar CAD strengthened to a four-month high against the U.S. dollar, while the Mexican peso rose to near a two-month high against the greenback before paring some gains.

Trump, who is scheduled to make a statement at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), on Twitter called the agreement with the United States’ northern neighbor “wonderful” and “a historic transaction.”

“It is a great deal for all three countries, solves the many deficiencies and mistakes in NAFTA, greatly opens markets to our Farmers and Manufacturers, reduce Trade Barriers to the U.S. and will bring all three Great Nations closer together in competition with the rest of the world,” Trump wrote.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday called it “a good day for Canada” after negotiators worked frantically ahead of the U.S.-imposed midnight deadline. He is scheduled to speak to reporters at noon EDT (1600 GMT).

The pact preserved a key trade dispute settlement mechanism sought by Canada even as Ottawa agreed to open up its dairy markets to U.S. farmers.

The deal effectively maintains the current auto sector and largely spares Canada and Mexico from the prospect of U.S. tariffs on their vehicles, although it will make it harder for global automakers to build cars cheaply in Mexico.

Trump vowed during his 2016 presidential campaign to tear up current U.S. trade deals, which he blamed for a loss of American manufacturing jobs. His administration has abandoned other trade accords and slapped tariffs on a number of key trading partners, including China.

“It’s a promise made, promise kept,” Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser, told Fox News on Monday. “NAFTA is dead. We have USMCA.”

U.S. President Donald Trump takes a question from a New York Times reporter during a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. President Donald Trump takes a question from a New York Times reporter during a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

STEEL TARIFFS

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo on Monday said the new accord could be signed by the three countries’ leaders when they meet at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires in late November.

The deal does not include any changes to separate U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum levied on a number of Washington’s trading partners, including Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray on Monday said he hoped concerns over the metals tariffs could be resolved before the new trilateral deal is signed.

Navarro, in his interview with Fox, said the two trade issues were separate.

U.S. officials intend to sign the new trilateral deal by Nov. 30, Navarro said. It would then be submitted for approval by the U.S. Congress, currently controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.

U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who oversees the Senate’s agricultural committee, said he was “eager to review the details” of the deal and noted the outsized role trade with Canada and Mexico had on rural U.S. states like his.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a top farming state, praised the agreement in a tweet on Monday: “Our farmers need stability and access to markets.”

Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, which borders Canada, also said she would review the terms and was glad her state’s “number one trading partner” was “back in the mix.”

The United States and Mexico clinched a bilateral agreement in late August after the Trump administration sought separate lines of talks, leaving Canada to negotiate its own terms.

A senior source close to the trade talks said Mexico’s Videgaray, Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and White House adviser Jared Kushner helped over the weekend to facilitate Sunday’s agreement. Advisers to Mexico’s incoming government, Marcelo Ebrard and Jesus Seade, were also consulted “in real time,” the source said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Franklin Paul and Paul Simao)

Canada optimistic NAFTA deal can be struck this month: source

FILE PHOTO: Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland takes part in a news conference at the Embassy of Canada in Washington, U.S., August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

By David Ljunggren

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Canada is increasingly optimistic it can reach a deal with the United States to salvage the North American Free Trade Agreement, although it may take until the end of September, a source with direct knowledge of the talks said on Friday.

U.S. and Canadian officials resumed their negotiations this week to modernize the 1994 pact, which governs $1.2 trillion a year in trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs.

President Donald Trump has struck a trade deal with Mexico and threatened to push ahead without Canada, a move that would kill NAFTA.

The talks in Washington are focused on Canada’s dairy supply system, which the United States says hurts its exports, Ottawa’s desire to keep NAFTA’s Chapter 19 dispute resolution mechanism and Canadian media laws that favor domestically produced content.

The Canadian source, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the situation, said Canadian negotiators thought it was quite possible the talks would continue until the end of this month.

A U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday that Canada needed to move further on dairy. In its recent trade deal with the European Union, Canada made concessions on dairy imports.

“We’re down to three issues: Chapter 19, the cultural issues and dairy. We’ve created leverage and driven Canada to the table,” the U.S. official said. “Part of our problem is that Canada has been backsliding on its commitments (on dairy).”

Trump has targeted what he sees as “unfair” trade as part of his “America First” agenda to boost U.S. manufacturing and jobs, imposing tariffs on trading partners, including Canada, China, the EU and Mexico. That has prompted retaliation.

Tens of billions of dollars in Chinese imports have been slapped with U.S. tariffs and a new round of duties are due to be triggered soon.

Both Canada and Mexico want Trump to agree to permanently exempt them from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Washington has used those tariffs as leverage in the NAFTA talks.

Canada has used the provisions of NAFTA’s dispute resolution mechanism to defend its lumber exports to the United States. Washington charges that Canadian lumber unfairly undercuts prices on U.S. lumber.

APPROVAL OF CONGRESS

Trump appeared to set a deadline for a deal this week, prompting aides to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to work well into the evening on Thursday to find ways to move forward.

The Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, Kevin Brady, a powerful voice in Congress on trade, told reporters differences remained between the two sides over Canada’s dairy quota regime, a trade dispute resolution settlement procedure and “other longstanding issues.”

“My sense is that everyone is at the table with the intention of working these last, always difficult issues out,” Brady told reporters after speaking with Lighthizer on Thursday.

Trump has notified Congress he intends to sign the trade deal reached last week with Mexico by the end of November, and officials said the text would be published by around Oct. 1.

Negotiators have blown through several deadlines since the talks started in August 2017. As the process grinds on, some in Washington insist Trump cannot pull out of NAFTA without the approval of Congress.

(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Paul Simao)

Exclusive: U.S., Mexico reach NAFTA deal; talks with Canada to start immediately

FILE PHOTO: Factory employees are seen working in the plant of General Motors in the city of Silao, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico in this November 25, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Henry Romero/Files

By Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and Mexico reached a deal on Monday to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and talks with Canada were expected to begin immediately in the hopes of reaching a final agreement by Friday, a senior U.S. trade official said.

“We are now inviting the Canadians in as well and hope that we can reach a fair and successful conclusion with them as well,” the official told Reuters in an interview.

“There are still issues with Canada but I think they could be resolved very quickly,” the official said.

The U.S.-Mexico deal would require 75 percent of auto content to be made in the United States and Mexico, up from the current level of 62.5 percent, and would require 40 percent to 45 percent of auto content to be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour, a second official said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Global wheat supply to crisis levels; big China stocks won’t provide relief

FILE PHOTO: Arnaud Caron, a French farmer drives an old Mc Cormick F8-413 combine as he harvests his last field of wheat, in Vauvillers, northern France, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Nigel Hunt

LONDON (Reuters) – A scorching hot, dry summer has ended five years of plenty in many wheat producing countries and drawn down the reserves of major exporters to their lowest level since 2007/08, when low grain stocks contributed to food riots across Africa and Asia.

Although global stocks are expected to hit an all-time high of 273 million tonnes at the start of the 2018/19 grain marketing season, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, the problem is nearly half of it is in China, which is not likely to release any onto global markets.

Experts predict that by the end of the season, the eight major exporters will be left with 20 percent of world stocks – just 26 days of cover – down from one-third a decade ago.

The USDA estimates that China, which consumes 16 percent of the world’s wheat, will hold 46 percent of its stocks at the beginning of the season, which starts around now, and more than half by the end.

The 126.8 million tonnes China is estimated to hold is up 135 percent from 54 million five years earlier.

“People need to get rid of China stocks (in their calculations) … if you do that, it’s just exceptionally tight,” said Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co in Chicago.

A repeat of the 2007/2008 crisis, which forced many countries to limit or ban exports, is unlikely in the absence of other drivers at the time, including $150-per-barrel crude oil.

The recent three-year high for wheat prices of $5.93 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade pales in comparison to the high of $13.34-1/2 a bushel in February 2008.

Importers in North Africa also appear to be better placed this time, with higher stocks of their own.

“It could have an impact on food inflation but in North African countries they have a good crop this year, fortunately, so their reliance is not as big as in the past years,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“I don’t think we want to be alarmist in terms of consequences,” he added.

China started stockpiling wheat in 2006, setting a guaranteed floor price to ensure food security and stability.

At around $9.75 a bushel as of last week, Chinese prices are now so high that they cannot sell internationally without incurring a major loss.

Rabobank analyst Charles Clack said he expected China to continue to build stocks into next year but in the long-term, it would look to reduce reserves by curbing domestic production, reducing imports or conducting internal auctions.

“It will be a slow process … I wouldn’t expect exports to come flying out anytime soon,” he said.

Government wheat reserves now total nearly 74 million tonnes, according to Shanghai JC Intelligence Co Ltd, most of it from 2014-2017 but a small amount as old as 2013.

Sylvia Shi, analyst at JC Intelligence, said China would continue to import wheat it cannot produce in sufficient volumes to help meet a growing appetite for high-protein varieties for products like bread and other baked products as diets become Westernised.

DROUGHT

The wheat crop in several of the world’s biggest exporters – Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States – has suffered this year.

A spring drought in the Black Sea bread baskets Russia and Ukraine was swiftly followed by a summer heatwave in the European Union. Dry weather now also threatens crops in another important exporter, Australia.

Evidence of the serious harm done has grown as harvesting progresses.

Forecasts for the 28-member European Union have repeatedly been cut, with Germany set for its lowest grain harvest in 24 years after crops wilted under the highest summer temperatures since records began in 1881.

Russia’s agriculture ministry held a meeting with grain traders on Friday to discuss export volumes.

The ministry denied export limits were discussed but traders, some of whom were at the meeting, said curbs might be imposed later in the season following complaints from domestic meat producers about the rising cost of animal feed.

The United States is best placed to capitalize on a shortfall in global supply, with much higher stocks than rival exporters and rising production.

The outlook provides a much-needed boost for U.S. farmers caught in the crossfire of a trade war with China, a huge importer of U.S. soybeans and corn, as well as Mexico and Japan, two of the top buyers of U.S. wheat.

“The winner in the long term is the U.S. as they should get some demand flow back to them. It has been several years since we have seen the U.S. be in a position to get demand,” said Matt Ammermann, a commodity risk manager with INTL FCStone.

The Black Sea and Europe look set to lose market share, Ammermann said.

Canada, one of the world’s biggest high-quality wheat exporters, is expected to enjoy bigger yields than last year, according to a recent crop tour. But patchy rains have left crops highly variable across the western provinces.

“We don’t have a bin-buster coming. I just don’t see how we can push exports too much higher,” said Paterson Grain trader Rhyl Doyle.

SOUTHERN RESPONSE

The two major wheat exporters in the southern hemisphere, Argentina and Australia, are still months away from harvest.

A record crop is forecast in Argentina but production in Australia is expected to fall to the lowest level in more than a decade due to drought across the east coast.

Francisco Abello, who manages 7,000 hectares of land in western and north-central Buenos Aires province, said he and other growers are out to take advantage of high prices by investing in fertilizers to increase yields.

“We are having a great start to the season,” Abello said. “The ground was moist at planting time. Then it was cold and dry, which are the best conditions for the early wheat growing season.”

The Buenos Aires Grains Exchange has a preliminary wheat harvest estimate of 19 million tonnes, above what it says is the current record of 17.75 million tonnes.

In Australia, the outlook is less rosy. Analysts said production could fall below 20 million tonnes for the first time since 2008, although it is still likely to be well in excess of that year’s crop of just 13 million tonnes.

“The west of the country is looking good so the largest producing region could produce a crop in excess of 9 million tonnes alone. That may keep the headline number up,” said Phin Ziebell, an agribusiness economist at the National Australia Bank. “But with dry weather reducing output on the east, it could reduce exports nationally.”

(Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Chicago, Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu in Beijing, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Sybille de La Hamaide and Valerie Parent in Paris, Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires and Colin Packham in Sydney; Graphics by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Veronica Brown and Sonya Hepinstall)

Two police officers among four fatally shot in Canada: authorities

Emergency vehicles are seen at the Brookside Drive area in Fredericton, Canada August 10, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Kev Bourque/via REUTERS

By Anna Mehler Paperny

FREDERICTON, New Brunswick (Reuters) – Four people, including two police officers, were killed in a shooting in eastern Canada on Friday in the latest eruption of gun violence across the country that has led to calls for weapons bans in cities.

Police said a suspect was taken into custody just three weeks after a gunman walked down a busy Toronto street, killing two people and wounding 13 others before taking his own life.

Police in Fredericton, a city of about 56,000 that is the capital of the province of New Brunswick, said two of the dead were police officers but gave few details about the circumstances of the shooting and did not release names. They said the suspect was being treated for serious injuries.

Local media images showed emergency vehicles converging on a tree-lined residential street. Nearby facilities were closed and authorities imposed a lockdown for residents before issuing an all-clear message.

“It was scary,” said Marlene Weaver, who was in bed on Friday morning when she heard shots ring out in her neighborhood. “It takes you back to the shooting in Moncton.”

Three RCMP officers were killed and two more were wounded in 2014 in Moncton, New Brunswick, about 195 km (121 miles) from Fredericton, in one of the worst incidents of its kind in Canada.

Gun laws in Canada are stricter than in the United States but a proliferation of weapons has led to an increase in gun-related crimes in recent years.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were assisting Fredericton authorities in the investigation.

New Brunswick had only three homicide shootings in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

“Awful news coming out of Fredericton,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter. “My heart goes out to everyone affected by this morning’s shooting. We’re following the situation closely.”

Jeff Magnussen, general manager of a golf course near the site of the shooting, said by phone he heard multiple gunshots before 8 a.m. local time.

“You hear a lot about gun violence in the United States,” he said, “but this morning when I heard those noises, what’s starting to sink in is that those noises were people losing their lives. To have it happen so close to us is shocking. Now we’re becoming the story that nobody wants to hear.”

In the wake of the Toronto bloodshed, the city council voted overwhelmingly to urge the federal government to ban the sale of handguns in the city. Gun laws are under federal jurisdiction.

“Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?” Toronto Mayor John Tory said. Canada’s largest city has had 241 shooting incidents this year, resulting in 30 deaths, a 30 percent increase in fatalities.

On Thursday, Ontario pledged more money for police and to keep suspects behind bars while they await trial on gun crimes charges, as the Canadian province grapples with rising shootings involving domestically obtained weapons.

(Additional reporting by Danya Hajjaji and Allison Martell in Toronto and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jeffrey Benkoe)

As some ‘White Helmets’ escaped Syria, most were left behind

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets holds a document at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

By Khalil Ashawi

MIZANAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Fearing for his life, Daman Ayed registered to be evacuated from Syria along with hundreds of other members of the White Helmets rescue service, hoping for a new life in Canada.

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

But the 20-year-old was not among the several hundred people who were spirited out of the country last weekend over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan. When the list of names approved for evacuation arrived, his was not on it.

“They told us at midnight that the names had come. We were surprised how many names had not been approved,” said Ayed. Only two of the people working at his rescue center were on the list.

Instead, he joined thousands of other people boarding buses for opposition territory in northwest Syria under the terms of the rebels’ surrender to the government.

Many of the rescue workers and their families originally supposed to join the evacuation were not able to reach the frontier because of fighting, the White Helmets said.

Of about 800 people, including about 250 White Helmets, along with 550 family members, in the plans, only about 100 rescue workers and about 300 relatives were able to cross through the Golan Heights and Jordan.

However, other White Helmets, including Ayed, were never cleared for evacuation. “We sent these lists…and some names were refused and some names were accepted,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a White Helmet working at the group’s headquarters in Turkey.

Britain, Canada and Germany were among the countries that offered resettlement and helped to arrange the evacuation.

Asked why some White Helmets were not included in the evacuation plans, a British Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “This was a response to a specific and urgent situation”.

“We have worked, alongside our partners, to use our diplomatic channels to evacuate the maximum number of White Helmets and their families as was possible in an extremely constrained security context.”

German officials declined to comment.

Ayed, who has arrived in the northwest along with his parents and younger brother, said he still sees leaving Syria as his best hope of surviving the war.

“Regarding our departure for Canada, I consider it the only solution to save our lives,” he said.

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

IDENTIFICATION PAPERS

The northwest is the last major area still held by rebels. Idlib faces frequent bombardment and President Bashar al-Assad has said it is now his target.

Rescue workers with the White Helmets, which operates only in opposition-held parts of Syria, are at great risk if captured by the government, Ayed said.

“Our fate is worse than that of army defectors,” he said.

Assad has accused the White Helmets of being an al Qaeda front, and his government says they fabricated chemical weapons attacks as a pretext for Western air strikes.

The group, which receives funding from Western governments, says it is a civilian rescue organization that works under bombardment to pull people from the rubble.

Adding to his fear of capture by Assad’s forces, Ayed said when the army advanced into his district of the southwest this month, it seized paperwork at the White Helmets base.

“The most important thing is the names and identities of the volunteers, and our special identification cards. This is what damages us the most. The papers and the names were not destroyed, but stayed as they were and are in the hands of the regime,” he said.

SHELLING

Assad has crushed one center of the rebellion after another in recent years and last month turned to the opposition stronghold straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest.

Air strikes were followed by ground attacks and offers of surrender in return for safe passage to northwestern Syria for any who refused to come back under government control.

Ayed, who said he has been a White Helmet for 16 months, was based in Lajat, the first rebel area in Deraa to come under attack.

As the army closed in, it shelled the White Helmets center and the rescue workers fled before it was captured, he said. Its 30 staff split up, heading for different parts of the remaining rebel territory.

Some sought refuge in towns that were later captured by the government. “They were surrounded and their fate is unknown,” he said.

Ayed and his family ended up in Quneitra, near the frontier with the Golan Heights, the last patch of rebel ground in southwest Syria to surrender to the government.

He worked at the White Helmets center there for several weeks. Then one evening all its rescue workers were called in for an urgent meeting.

They were told to submit their names for evacuation through Israel and Jordan with the prospect of resettlement in Canada, he said. When the names came back, Ayed was not among them.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Andrew MacAskill in London; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Gunman dead after shooting 14, killing one, in Toronto: Canadian police

People leave an area taped off by the police near the scene of a mass shooting in Toronto, Canada, July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris H

TORONTO (Reuters) – Fourteen people, including a young girl, were shot near downtown Toronto, police in Canada’s biggest city said on Sunday, with one person killed and the gunman also dead.

The young girl was in a critical condition, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said.

People react after the sounds gunshots were heard near the scene of a mass shooting in Toronto, Canada, July 22, 2018, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Twitter @NSXOXOII/via REUTERS

People react after the sounds gunshots were heard near the scene of a mass shooting in Toronto, Canada, July 22, 2018, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Twitter @NSXOXOII/via REUTERS

“We are looking at all possible motives… and not closing any doors,” Saunders told reporters at the site of the shooting.

Paramedics, firefighters and police converged on the shooting in Toronto’s east end, which has many popular restaurants, cafes and shops.

Police said the gunman had used a handgun. Earlier reports said nine people had been shot.

Reports of gunfire in the city’s Greektown neighborhood began at 10 p.m. local time (0200 GMT Monday), CityNews.com said.

Witnesses said they heard 25 gunshots, the news website reported.

Toronto is grappling with a sharp rise in gun violence this year. Deaths from gun violence in the city jumped 53 percent to 26 so far in 2018 from the same period last year, police data last week showed, with the number of shootings rising 13 percent.

Toronto deployed about 200 police officers from July 20 in response to the recent spate in shootings, which city officials have blamed on gang violence.

Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters that the city has a gun problem and guns were too readily available to too many people.

(Reporting by Denny Thomas and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Paul Tait)

U.S., Canada urge delay in vote on Vietnam’s cybersecurity bill

A man uses an iPad device in a coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kham

By Mai Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – The United States and Canada urged Vietnam on Friday to delay a vote on a proposed cybersecurity law, the U.S. Embassy said, amid widespread concern the law would cause economic harm and stifle online dissent in the communist-ruled country.

Vietnamese lawmakers are set to vote on the proposed cybersecurity legislation this month. It aims to impose new legal requirements on internet companies and intensifies policing of online dissent.

Facebook, Google and other global companies are pushing back hard against provisions outlined by the bill that would require them to store personal data locally on users in Vietnam and open offices in the country.

“The United States and Canada urge Vietnam to delay the vote on the draft law to ensure it aligns with international standards,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

“We find the draft cyber law … may present serious obstacles to Vietnam’s cybersecurity and digital innovation future, and may not be consistent with Vietnam’s international trade commitments,” it said.

Trade and foreign investment are key to Vietnam’s export-driven economic growth, while its leaders have been promoting technology for growth.

The Vietnam Digital Communication Association (VCDA) had said of the latest draft that it could reduce Vietnam’s gross domestic product by 1.7 percent and wipe off 3.1 percent of foreign investment if it comes into effect.

The proposed law has also raised fears among activists about tougher restrictions on the voicing of dissent online.

“This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The rights group urged Vietnam to revise the draft law and bring it into compliance with international legal standards.

If passed, the law would require social media companies in Vietnam to remove offending content from their platforms within one day of receiving a request from the Ministry of Information and Communications, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Security, the government body tasked with dealing with dissent.

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Robert Birsel)