U.S. ground troops will not enforce Syria safe zone: defense secretary

U.S. ground troops will not enforce Syria safe zone: defense secretary
By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that no U.S. troops will take part in enforcing the so-called safe zone in northern Syria and the United States “is continuing our deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Friday said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, insisting that a planned “safe zone” will extend much further than U.S. officials said was covered under a fragile ceasefire deal.

The truce, announced by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia pull out of the Turkish “safe zone.”

The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected U.S. retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.

“No U.S. ground forces will participate in the enforcement of the safe zone, however we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF,” Esper told reporters, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

He will be traveling to the Middle East and Brussels in the coming days to discuss issues including the future of counter-Islamic State campaign.

Esper said he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart on Friday and reiterated that Ankara must adhere to the ceasefire deal and ensure safety of people in areas controlled by Turkish forces.

“Protecting religious and ethnic minorities in the region continues to be a focus for the administration. This ceasefire is a much needed step in protecting those vulnerable populations,” Esper said.

He added that he reminded Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar of Turkey’s responsibility for maintaining security of the Islamic State prisoners in areas affected by Turkey’s incursion.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States would continue aerial surveillance in northeastern Syria to monitor prisons holding alleged Islamic State militants.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

Scrambling to limit damage, Trump tells Turkey to stop its Syria invasion

By Steve Holland and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday demanded Turkey stop its military incursion in Syria and imposed new sanctions on the NATO ally as Trump scrambled to limit the damage from his much-criticized decision to clear U.S. troops from Turkey’s path.

Vice President Mike Pence said Trump had told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on Monday to agree to an immediate ceasefire. He also said he would travel to the region soon to try to mediate the crisis.

Pence said Trump had been firm with Erdogan on the phone.

“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further. We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table,” Pence told reporters.

Turkey launched a cross-border operation into northern Syria on Wednesday just days after Erdogan told Trump in a phone call that he planned to move ahead with a long-planned move against America’s Kurdish allies in the region.

Trump abruptly announced a redeployment of 50 American troops from the conflict zone to get them out of harm’s way, dismissing criticism that this would leave the Kurds open to attack. This was widely seen as giving Erdogan a green light for his operation.

With lawmakers in the U.S. Congress moving to impose sanctions of their own, Trump issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against current and former officials of the Turkish government for contributing to Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.

In a statement, Trump said he had increased tariffs on imports of Turkish steel back up to 50 percent, six months after they were reduced, and would immediately stop negotiations on what he called a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey.

“Unfortunately, Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion,” said Trump.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the United States had imposed sanctions on Turkey’s ministers of defense, interior and energy, as well as their departments.

The scenes of carnage from Turkey’s assault have exposed Trump to harsh criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for abandoning the Kurdish allies who were instrumental in the U.S. battle against Islamic State militants in Syria.

As Congress has vowed to act if he will not, Trump said Turkey’s action is precipitating a humanitarian crisis and “setting conditions for possible war crimes” but he made clear he had no plans to reverse his decision to withdraw.

“As I have said, I am withdrawing the remaining United States service members from northeast Syria,” said Trump.

U.S. troops coming out of Syria will stay in the region to monitor ISIS and a small footprint will remain at the Tanf base in southern Syria, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican allied with Trump, expressed his displeasure with the president’s decision in a statement.

“Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would recreate the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS,” he said.

A statement from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic senators Robert Menendez and Jack Reed said the only person who is able to “immediately stop this tragedy unfolding is the president himself.”

“The first step when Congress returns to session this week is for Republicans to join with us in passing a resolution making clear that both parties are demanding the president’s decision be reversed,” they said.

Trump said his executive order would enable the United States to impose sanctions on those current or former Turkish officials who may be involved in human rights abuses. He said it will authorize sanctions such as blocking of property and barring entry into the United States.

Turkey’s lira, which had weakened some 0.8% in the day, reacted minimally to Trump’s announcement. It stood at 5.9300 at 2018 GMT, from 5.9260 beforehand.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Lisa Lambert, Eric Beech, Humeyra Pamuk, Patricia Zengerle and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Sandra Maler and Sonya Hepinstall)

Afghan president renews calls for peace, demands ceasefire

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during an event with Afghan security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Hamid Shalizi and Hameed Farzad

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a renewed call for peace on Monday but insisted the Taliban must observe a ceasefire, as he sought to regain a hold on the peace process following the surprise collapse of talks between the United States and the militants.

Ghani’s comments, to a meeting of military leaders in Kabul, came amid uncertainty over the future of efforts to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan after U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the Taliban at the weekend.

“We are ready for peace talks but if the Taliban think they can scare us, look at these warriors,” Ghani said, declaring that peace could not be unconditional as he repeated demands for a ceasefire that the Taliban have so far refused.

“Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

Trump’s refusal to meet the Taliban has left it unclear whether talks can be revived or whether the two sides, locked in a broad stalemate, will continue fighting.

The insurgents’ determination to step up both attacks on provincial centers and suicide bombings even as peace talks were taking place was a key factor in pushing Trump to cancel talks days after a U.S. soldier was killed in the capital Kabul.

The end of the talks has fueled fears of a further increase in violence across Afghanistan, with heightened security warnings in the Kabul and other centers ahead of a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.

The talks, which had been secret until Trump unexpectedly announced their cancellation on Saturday, would have brought the U.S. president face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland.

WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE

Ghani, who was sidelined from months of negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives, had been deeply suspicious of the talks, which sought to agree a timetable for a withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.

A draft accord agreed last week would have seen some 5,000 U.S. troops withdrawn over coming months in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Afghan officials had argued for months that it was a mistake for the United States to agree a deal on troop withdrawals separately from a broader peace accord.

The collapse of the talks appears to have strengthened Ghani’s position, in part by removing lingering doubts over whether the twice-delayed election – in which he is favorite to win a second five-year term – would go ahead.

Until Saturday’s surprise announcement by Trump, many politicians and Western diplomats had argued that peace talks should take priority over an election seen as a potential obstacle to a deal with the Taliban.

Now officials say there is no excuse for the vote not to be held, with election authorities promising that the problems that dogged parliamentary elections last year will not be repeated.

Ghani, a former World Bank official who came to power after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, has kept up campaigning even as the talks went on, adapting to the worsening security situation by holding “virtual rallies” that address supporters in various provinces through a video link-up.

“Afghanistan is now at a critical juncture because of the election and the peace process,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after presenting NBA Hall of Fame player Jerry West with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops over the coming months.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with U.S. officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior U.S. military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

NEW CIVIL WAR?

For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete U.S. withdrawal.

Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following Thursday’s suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come soon.

The Taliban’s strategy appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

But that has risked undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as by Kabul.

“The Taliban’s leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of holding long negotiations with Baradar?” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

Even within the Taliban ranks, there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from the government side.

“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.

Memories of the bloody 1990s conflict between the Taliban and rival militia groups are vivid. Former U.S. envoys who worked on Afghanistan warned last week that “total civil war” with “catastrophic” consequences for U.S. national security was possible.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.

Some Taliban are based in neighboring Pakistan, where McKenzie held talks on Saturday with a top Pakistani general. More talks are scheduled for Sunday.

McKenzie said he did not know whether any of the planning for the recent wave of attacks in Afghanistan came from Pakistan-based militants.

But McKenzie commended Pakistan for supporting the peace efforts in Afghanistan, in the latest sign of an improvement in long-fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“A lot of Pakistanis have been killed by militant attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan sees the benefits of a stable Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.

(Additional by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Chris Reese and Michael Perry)

Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.N. Security Council considers demanding Libya ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is considering a British-drafted resolution that would demand a ceasefire in Libya and call on all countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance.

Diplomats from the 15-member council are due to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the text that also calls for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya, which has been gripped by anarchy and conflict since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The latest flare-up began almost two weeks ago – during a visit to the country by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – when eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of the capital Tripoli.

Haftar’s forces predicted victory within days, but Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized government has managed to bog them down in southern suburbs with help from armed groups from various western Libyan factions.

The Security Council informally expressed concern on April 5, calling on all forces to de-escalate and halt military activity and specifically calling out the LNA.

However, in the following days the council was unable to issue a more formal statement, diplomats said, as Russia objected to a reference to the LNA, while the United States said it could not agree a text that did not mention Haftar’s forces.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution, seen by Reuters, expresses “grave concern at military activity in Libya near Tripoli, which began following the launching of a military offensive by the LNA … and threatens the stability of Libya.”

It also demands that all parties in Libya immediately de-escalate the situation, commit to a ceasefire, and engage with the United Nations to end hostilities.

Diplomats said the draft text could be put to a vote as early as this week. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, Britain, France, Russia or China to pass.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants, while western powers support Serraj.

The draft U.N. text “calls upon all member states to use their influence to ensure compliance with this resolution.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Battle rages for Libya’s capital, airport bombed

A Member of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepares himself to go to the front line in Tripoli Libya April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A warplane attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on Libya’s capital disregarded global appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

The fighting threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

Casualties are mounting.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in Gaddafi’s army – said 19 of its soldiers had died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

The United Nations said 2,800 people had been displaced by clashes and many more could flee, though some were trapped.

“The United Nations continues to call for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from areas of conflict,” it said in a statement.

But that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Matiga airport, in an eastern suburb, said it was bombed and a resident confirmed the attack. No more details were immediately available.

Haftar’s LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the coastal capital.

Seizing Tripoli, however, is a much bigger challenge for the LNA. It has conducted air strikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road toward the center from a disused former international airport.

MACHINE GUNS ON PICKUPS

However, the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from nearby Misrata port in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southwards.

Serraj who comes from a wealthy business family, has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar. His Tripoli government has reported 11 deaths in the last few days, without saying on which side.

U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame met Serraj in his office in Tripoli on Monday to discuss “this critical and difficult juncture”, the world body’s Libya mission said.

The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi eight years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency expressed anxiety about thousands caught in cross-fire and detention centers in conflict zones in a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”.

As well as the United Nations, the European Union, United States and G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar’s advance and return to negotiations.

Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.

MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning), numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.

Islamic State staged some high profile attacks in Tripoli last year, but the militant group has largely retreated to the desert of southern Libya since the loss of its former stronghold in Sirte late in 2016.

France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.

France established close relations with Haftar under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande and his defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris doubled down support to Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

France’s stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony that has played into the hands of militants and smugglers.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Additional reporting by Hani Amara in Tripoli, Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Tom Miles in Geneva, Robin Emmott in Luxembourg, Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

U.S. committed to pulling foreign forces out of Afghanistan: official

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan January 27, 2019. Presidential Palace office/Handout via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – A senior U.S. government official, speaking after six days of U.S. peace talks with Afghan Taliban militants, said on Monday that Washington was committed to withdrawing foreign forces from Afghanistan to end more than 17 years of war.

The official, who declined to be identified, described “significant progress” in talks last week with the Taliban in Qatar about a foreign troop pullout, but more negotiations were needed on a ceasefire and its timing.

“Of course we don’t seek a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” the official said in the capital Kabul.

“Our goal is to help bring peace in Afghanistan and we would like a future partnership, newly defined with a post peace government,” the official told Reuters. “We would like to leave a good legacy.”

There could not be a withdrawal without a ceasefire, the official said.

The issue looms as a sticking point in the next round of talks on Feb. 25, with the U.S. official saying Taliban negotiators wanted a full withdrawal before a ceasefire.

Despite the presence of U.S.-led foreign forces training, advising and assisting their Afghan counterparts, the Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan and stage near-daily attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and its security forces.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last week that 45,000 members of the country’s security forces had been killed since he took office in 2014.

There were reports last month that the United States was considering pulling out almost half of its forces, but a White House spokesman said U.S. President Donald Trump had not issued orders to withdraw. However, the administration has not denied the reports.

CORE CONCERNS

Both U.S. officials and the hardline Islamic group hailed progress after the talks on Saturday with U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He told the New York Times on Monday that a draft framework had been completed but details still needed to be fleshed out.

Taliban sources told Reuters on Saturday that the United States had agreed on the withdrawal of foreign troops within 18 months of the signing of a pact but the U.S. official said a timeline was not discussed.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission and a U.S. counter-terrorism mission largely directed at groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries are participating in the operation, known as Resolute Support.

The official said progress was made on addressing core U.S. concerns that Afghanistan will not be used as a base by al Qaeda or Islamic State for attacks against the United States and its allies.

“That is why we came to Afghanistan in the first place,” the official said.

Apart from the ceasefire, the Taliban did not discuss the need for talks with the Afghan government to reach a durable political settlement, the U.S. official said.

The Taliban have repeatedly refused to talk to the Afghan government, which they see as a puppet of the United States, throwing into question how effective a peace deal could really be.

The Taliban do want, however, to join an interim government post-deal – something that alarms Ghani.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, met Ghani for four hours on Sunday to outline progress and seek his support.

In response, Ghani said in a televised address that the presence of foreign forces was based on an international agreement and they will not be required for ever.

“No Afghans want foreign forces in their country for the long term,” Ghani said.

“The current presence of foreign forces is based on need…and according to an exact and arranged plan we are trying to bring down that number to zero.”

(Reporting by Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Afghan Taliban call off peace talks with U.S. over ‘agenda differences’

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz

By Jibran Ahmad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban said on Tuesday they had called off peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar this week due to an “agenda disagreement”, especially over the involvement of Afghan officials as well as a possible ceasefire and prisoner exchange.

Two days of peace talks had been set to start on Wednesday, Taliban officials told Reuters earlier, but the hardline Islamic militant group had refused to allow “puppet” Afghan officials to join.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly a trillion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people.

“The U.S. officials insisted that the Taliban should meet the Afghan authorities in Qatar and both sides were in disagreement over declaring a ceasefire in 2019,” a Taliban source told Reuters.

“Both sides have agreed to not meet in Qatar.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier the two sides were still working on the technical details and were not clear on the agenda for the talks.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the cancellation.

The talks, which would have been the fourth round with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, would have involved a U.S. withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders, a Taliban leader had told Reuters.

Taliban sources said that they had demanded U.S. authorities release 25,000 prisoners and they would free 3,000, but that U.S. officials were not keen to discuss the exchange at this stage.

“We would never announce any ceasefire until and unless we achieve major gains on the ground. We have the feeling that Zalmay Khalilzad doesn’t have enough power to make important decisions,” a second Taliban official said.

The Taliban said Khalilzad would visit the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China to continue the discussion. Khalilzad’s office was not available for comment.

The Taliban have rejected repeated requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in the 17-year war.

The insurgents, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops, called off a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this week because of Riyadh’s insistence on bringing the Western-backed Afghan government to the table.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE took part in the last round of talks in December.

Western diplomats based in Kabul said Pakistan’s cooperation in the peace process will be crucial to its success. Independent security analysts and diplomats said the neighboring country’s powerful military has kept close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to Taliban militants in its border regions and using them as an arm of its foreign policy. Pakistan denies the claim.

The United States, which sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and at the peak of the deployment had more than 100,000 troops in the country, withdrew most of its forces in 2014.

It keeps around 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO-led mission aiding Afghan security forces and hunting militants.

Reports last month about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan triggered uncertainty in Kabul which depends on the United States and other foreign powers for military support and training.

As peace talks gained momentum a draft agreement drawn up by the influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation outlining the clauses for a potential peace deal was circulated among Afghan officials and diplomats in Kabul.

The document, reviewed by Reuters, suggests that the United States and NATO withdraw their military missions in phases over an expected period of 18 months. It adds that the United States may continue providing civilian assistance.

(Additonal reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Calls for end to Yemen war offer little hope for hungry children

Malnourished Ferial Elias, 2, gestures as she is being weighed at a malnutrition treatment ward at al-Thawra hospital in Hodeidah, Yemen November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

TAIZ, Yemen (Reuters) – Lying on a dust-covered bed in a hospital ward in the Yemen city of Taiz, 10-year-old Ghazi Mohammed barely has enough energy to watch doctors and nurses examine his emaciated body.

The boy weighs 8.5 kg (18 lb), less than a third of the average weight of a child his age. He fled hunger and poverty in his mountain village last year to find only more suffering in Yemen’s third largest city Taiz.

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

A doctor checks malnourished Ghazi Ahmad, 10, at a hospital in Taiz, Yemen October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

“This shows that the humanitarian aid that comes to Yemen does not reach people who really need it. Distribution remains random,” said his doctor, Amen al-Asli.

Western powers who have for three years provided arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi insurgents in Yemen are now pressing for an end to a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

The West toughened its stance after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policy, at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

His death sparked a global outcry and exposed Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent and aggressive foreign policy, including its role in the war in Yemen, which has been criticized by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers.

But calls for an end to the fighting have come far too late for millions of Yemeni civilians, including children, who face acute malnutrition and hunger in a complex, multi-sided war.

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“They need a complete care, here in the hospital and later at home. Of course, it depends on the parents’ financial condition as malnutrition can hit the whole family,” said Youssef al-Salawi, another doctor.

In Taiz, children fighting for their lives in hospitals are traumatized by daily artillery fire, rockets, and anti-aircraft guns as Saudi-backed government forces battle the Iran-aligned Houthis along pulverized streets.

The United Nations says out of 29 million Yemenis, 22 million need some form of humanitarian assistance, almost 18 million are considered hungry and 8.4 million are severely hungry.

“We do hope that talk about getting the peace process back on track, that gives us hope, but it is very imperative for the people of Yemen that this conflict stops as soon as possible,” said Stephen Anderson, the World Food Program’s (WFP) country director in Yemen.

OFFENSIVE ON PORT

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the warring parties together before the end of the year.

After seizing the southern port of Aden in 2015, the coalition has made little progress. While it has air supremacy, the Houthis have proved better at guerrilla warfare.

The Houthis still control Yemen’s most populated areas, including the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hodeidah.

The Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has renewed its offensive on Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, as Washington and London called for a ceasefire.

Aid groups fear an attack on Hodeidah port would disrupt its operations and endanger more civilians as it remains the main source of food imports as well as much-needed humanitarian aid.

Street fighting and air strikes resumed late on Tuesday in Hodeidah despite a lull in battles as U.N. officials visited the Red Sea city to assess food security.

A resident told Reuters calm descended on Hodeidah on Wednesday after heavy clashes and air strikes rocked the city. “It is very surprising,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Michael Georgy, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, and Angus MacSwan)