U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Damascus warns Israel of ‘more surprises’ in Syria

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018.

DAMASCUS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will face “more surprises” should it again attack Syrian territory, Damascus said on Tuesday, after Syria’s air defenses shot down an advanced Israeli warplane during the fiercest flare-up between the old foes in 36 years.

The F-16 jet was hit over northern Israel on Saturday as it returned from a raid on a Syrian position blamed for launching an Iranian-made drone across the border. Iran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

“Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised, because it thought this war – this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years – had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sussan said.

“God willing, they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria,” Sussan said during a Damascus news conference.

The downed F-16 was the first warplane Israel has lost to enemy fire since its 1982 Lebanon war. Its two-man crew survived, with injuries, after bailing out of the stricken jet.

Israel retaliated by destroying around half of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, according to an initial assessment shared with Reuters by an Israeli official who requested anonymity.

Israel has said it will press ahead with missions in Syria, where it has launched scores of sorties against suspected arms transfers to Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

“There are no limitations, and nor do we accept any limitations,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.

“We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: ‘This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.'”

Tehran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel. It has also has accused Iran of building precision-guided missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria and Hezbollah celebrated the F-16 shoot-down as a blow to Israeli military superiority. Israel’s Army Radio said on Tuesday that investigators believed pilot error – rather than Syrian capabilities – were mainly at fault for the F-16’s failure to evade what was probably an aged SA-5 missile.

Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on that report, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Saturday’s incident stirred up further questions in Israel about the effectiveness of a coordination mechanism set up with Russia, which has also been reinforcing and arming Assad’s army.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the flare-up by urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in Syria. Moscow said on Monday it did not have information to support Israel’s allegation about an Iranian military presence in the site bombed for launching the drone.

Zeev Elkin, a Russian-speaking Israeli cabinet minister who serves as Netanyahu’s interpreter in the talks with Putin, defended the coordination mechanism on Tuesday as granting Israel “freedom of action in the skies above Lebanon and Syria”.

“I don’t think the Russians ever pledged that they would take military action against the Iranians and the Syrians for us,” Elkin told Israel Radio.

“We are going one-on-one against the Syrians. We don’t need assistance from the Russians. We know how to deal with Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as everyone ultimately saw.”

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Years late, Syria’s children of war learn to read and write in school

Students sit in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – – Hussein al-Khalaf, aged 13, burst into tears as he sat in his classroom at the Ahmed Baheddine Rajab school near Damascus, recounting why he is learning to read and write for the first time in his life.

He was five years old when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, shattering his life and that of his family in the city of Albu Kamal, which soon became a bastion for Islamic State.

Khalaf is one of thousands of Syrian children in a UNICEF emergency education program for those born during the war and who haven’t been able to attend school. Their school runs two shifts a day to allow as many children as possible to catch up with other kids.

“My parents said I should be in grade 1 but I wanted to be in grade 5 so that other children here won’t ridicule me. They mock me because I’m in grade 1 but I don’t respond”, said Khalaf, who fled with his family to Sahnaya near Damascus last year.

“I haven’t been to school since I was born. Daesh wanted to take us to join them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“My friends all left, we all got separated. I found a phone number for one of my friends and called him. He told me ‘your friend Majed died’,” said a tearful Khalaf.

“Majed used to play with us. We were all together and living happily before Daesh came in. I want nothing. I just want to see my friends again.”

 

VICTIMS

Besides the fear that Islamic State would indoctrinate their children or take them as fighters, many parents did not send their children away because they might still be exposed to heavy bombing by Syrian and Russian planes.

Most children at the Rajab school were from the war-torn areas of Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Idlib and Albu Kamal. They were all displaced during fierce fighting.

These children are among the principal victims of the war, now entering its eighth year. The trauma of what they have been through is visible on their faces, in their uneasy silences, sad eyes or tearful outbreaks.

They have paid a high price in a conflict beyond their understanding. Their lives have been broken with grief, their families displaced and dispersed, and they have been robbed of an education and a future.

In Syria, an estimated 7.5 million children are growing up knowing nothing but war, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

 

WAR AND DESTRUCTION

“All that was there was war and destruction,” said Saleh al-Salehi, 12, who fled eastern Aleppo, a rebel bastion subjected to massive bombardment.

“My brother was killed. They dropped barrel bombs on us and fired rockets,” said Salehi, adding that it felt strange to be going to school for the first time in his life.

The school itself bears the scars of war. Classrooms are freezing cold and heating is a luxury, with fuel available only at sky-high prices.

The desks and benches are decrepit. Nothing of what is now common in modern schools, from laptops to digital activity centres, a library or cafeteria, was to be seen.

Even the headmaster was rushing out to a second job to make some more money to support his family. After 25 years, one teacher said her monthly salary was $80 and this had not increased in seven years.

Many kids look malnourished with black circles under their eyes, tattered clothes and torn shoes not warm enough to withstand the bitter cold.

 

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018.

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

EMBARRASSED

While most said they were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with other children, they felt embarrassed and uneasy about their age and new environment.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar Badawi, 12, said: “I was dreaming about school. I haven’t been to school at all. A rocket fell on the school in our neighborhood and destroyed it. I want to catch up with the other kids of my age.”

Aya Ahmed, 13, from eastern Ghouta, a fought-over suburb of Damascus, said she was terrified of coming to school because she knew nobody and had no friends.

“In Ghouta I had friends but we couldn’t play. I didn’t know how to read and write.”

“I feel embarrassed when people ask me what grade I am. They look at me and say, all this height and you’re in grade 1. I was very late to get into school but I want to study and become an important person. I want to be a lawyer.”

The headmaster, Thaer Nasr al-Ali, said: “The conflict has affected all the people but the children paid a big price. They were deprived of education and were psychologically hurt. The schools were shut, they were cut off from education.”

“We had severe cases of trauma among the children because of the war and the violence they witnessed. Many kids lost parents and relatives and saw horror and death in front of their eyes.”

As well as losing out on education, many kids had to work to help their families or were recruited by militias and fighters, Ali and U.N. officials said.

CATCHING UP

UNICEF set up an emergency plan for accelerated learning in coordination with the education ministry so that students can catch up with other children.

The plan compresses one year into two and runs two shifts a day. There are 64 teachers for each shift and each class has 40-50 students. The school has 1,750 students, double the number before the war.

Syria had 20,000 schools before the war but only 11,000 are functioning; the rest are destroyed, semi–destroyed or being used by the armed forces or militia groups, UNICEF said.

In seven years of civil war, marked by sieges and starvation and the death of 400,000 people, half the 23 million population has been displaced or forced into exile. One third of the country has been internally displaced.

According to UNICEF there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children living outside the country and 2.6 million internally displaced. The long term-impact on these children is huge.

“The drama of the Syrians is not finished. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the impact will be felt for generations,” said one relief official in Damascus, who declined to be named.

(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Giles Elgood)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Liberians vote in historic, delayed election

George Weah, former soccer player and presidential candidate of Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), prepares his ballot during presidential elections at a polling station in Monrovia, Liberia, December 26, 2017.

By James Giahyue and Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) – Liberians went to the polls on Tuesday for a presidential election they hope will mark their first democratic transfer of power in more than seven decades, despite allegations of fraud.

Former world footballer of the year George Weah is squaring up against vice president Joseph Boakai, both of them promising to tackle poverty and corruption in a country where most citizens have no reliable electricity or clean drinking water.

They are bidding to succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a run-off vote delayed for more than a month after Boakai and another candidate alleged widespread fraud in October’s first-round vote, a challenge that the Supreme Court rejected this month.

There were no reports of violence as voting proceeded under sunny skies in the capital Monrovia. Election agents told Reuters first indications pointed to a lower turnout than in the first round.

“It is great day for Liberia – a test day for democracy,” said Boakai after casting his vote in Paynesville. “We will accept the results provided they meet all the standards.”

Officials said results were expected in the next few days, declining to give a specific date.

Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year rule cemented peace in the West African country after civil war ended in 2003, and brought in much needed aid.

But critics, including much of the country’s youth, say her administration was marred by corruption and that she did little to raise most Liberians out of dire poverty.

Liberia was also racked by the Ebola crisis, which killed thousands between 2014 and 2016, while a drop in iron ore prices since 2014 has dented export revenues.

Weah, world footballer of the year in 1995, won with 38 percent in the first round versus Boakai’s 29 percent.

“I voted George Weah because I believe that he will do better for me and my country. I want change,” said Miama Kamara, a 32-year-old businesswoman, after casting her ballot in the capital.

“MARKED IMPROVEMENTS”

Observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute said polling stations were better organised than in the first round.

The National Elections Commission said there were isolated incidents of voting irregularities, including one woman caught trying to vote twice, but no sign of widespread graft.

“So far the election process has been smooth and there are marked improvements on the Oct. 10 poll,” NEC said.

Boakai has found it harder to convince voters that he will bring change, given that he worked alongside Johnson Sirleaf for 12 years. Weah, by contrast, has won the hearts of mostly young Liberians through his star performances for Europe’s biggest football teams in the 1990s.

His arrival at a polling station in Paynesville was met with cheers by a crowd of supporters.

People wait to vote during the presidential election at a polling station in Monrovia, Liberia December 26, 2017.

People wait to vote during the presidential election at a polling station in Monrovia, Liberia December 26, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

“My focus now is to win,” he told reporters. “From there, I am going to get on the drawing board with my team and then we’ll put a plan together to move our country forward.”

Some however are wary of Weah’s lack of political experience, education and concrete policy.

“Boakai understands diplomacy,” said McArthur Nuah Kermah, a school registrar in Paynesville. “Weah is not experienced and doesn’t know the workings of government.”

Turnout appeared low on the day after the Christmas holiday, in contrast to the high turnout for the first round, although official figures are yet to be released.

NEC did its best to rally young voters and conjure a sense of occasion in a morning Twitter post.

“First-time voters MUST vote on December 26 Run-Off elections,” its tweet said. “This is the first big process you are a part of … you must complete it in order to be a part of tomorrow’s glorious and democratic Liberia!”

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)

Food security in Middle East, North Africa deteriorating, says U.N. agency

A Syrian woman and her children wait for food aid in front of an humanitarian aid distrubition center in Syrian border town of Jarablus, Syria, December 13, 2017.

CAIRO (Reuters) – Food security in the Middle East and North Africa is quickly deteriorating because of conflict in several countries in the region, the United Nations said on Thursday.

In those hardest hit by crises — Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Sudan — an average of more than a quarter of the population was undernourished, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in its annual report on food security.

A quarter of Yemen’s people are on the brink of famine, several years into a proxy war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi that has caused one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent times.

The report focused on changes to food security and nutrition across the region since 2000.

It said that undernourishment in countries not directly affected by conflict, such as most Gulf Arab states and most North African countries including Egypt, had slowly improved in the last decade. But it had worsened in conflict-hit countries.

“The costs of conflict can be seen in the measurements of food insecurity and malnutrition,” the FAO’s assistant director-general Abdessalam Ould Ahmed said.

“Decisive steps towards peace and stability (need to be) taken.”

Several countries in the region erupted into conflict following uprisings in 2011 that overthrew leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Syria’s civil war, which also began with popular demonstrations, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made more than 11 million homeless.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Florida city to say goodbye to streets named for Confederate generals

By Bernie Woodall

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) – Three streets in Hollywood, Florida named for Confederate generals were changed to Freedom, Hope and Liberty, the city’s commission voted on Wednesday.

The commission voted unanimously to change the names from Forrest, Hood and Lee, named for leader of the Confederate army, Robert E. Lee, and fellow generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Bell Hood. Officials did not say when the signs would be switched.

The planned change highlights a persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the rebel side who fought for the preservation of slavery in the 1861-1865 Civil War.

Several cities including New Orleans, Dallas, St. Louis, and Lexington, Kentucky, have recently removed or relocated statues and memorials.

Such efforts gained momentum after violence at an Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The violent protests over the planned removal of a statue of Lee renewed the national debate over whether the memorials are symbols of heritage or hate.

In Hollywood, about 20 miles (32 km) north of downtown Miami, the issue led to three protests, two in support of the street name changes, and one against. There were several heated city commission meetings, the most recent in late August when the city voted that the streets would be renamed.

On Wednesday, the new names for the streets were finalized.

In August, people who supported keeping the Confederate street names – which date from the 1920s – said they did not think of Confederate generals but rather their own personal histories as they drove, or resided, on them.

Linda Anderson, who asked in June for the city to change the names, said she was part of an unsuccessful effort to rename them 15 years ago. She lives on the newly named Hope Street.

“It’s good to finally remove those names because they were for slavery,” said Anderson in a phone call with Reuters. “I’ll be glad when the new signs go up.”

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Kentucky city removes two Confederate statues

Kentucky city removes two Confederate statues

(Reuters) – Statues of two leaders of the Confederacy will be moved from public places in Lexington, Kentucky, to a cemetery where the men they represent are buried, an action that began quietly on Tuesday in the midst of a national debate about memorials to those who fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War.

The city council in August voted to remove the statues of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, a U.S. vice president and Confederate secretary of war, the Lexington Herald Leader reported, showing video of the removal work that began without advance notice.

The Kentucky vote came soon after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists angered at the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee clashed with counter-protesters.

The Kentucky statues, which have been in the city for about 130 years, will be taken to a private storage facility as the city works on an arrangement with the Lexington Cemetery about placing them there, it said.

The Lexington mayor’s office was not immediately available for comment.

Breckinridge and Morgan are buried at the cemetery, and private donors are providing funds to pay for the upkeep and security of the statues there, the newspaper reported.

Opponents of Confederate memorials view them as tributes to the South’s slave-holding past, while supporters argue that they represent an important part of history.

Kentucky was a slave-holding state at the time of the Civil War but it did not join the Confederacy.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz)

Philippines’ Duterte says no peace talks without communists’ ceasefire

Philippines 'President Rodrigo Duterte stands at attention during a courtesy call with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Ministers in Manila, Philippines, September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Pool/Mark Cristino

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday ruled out a resumption of stalled peace talks with communist rebels if they do not stop guerrilla attacks, two days after lawmakers ousted the last leftist from his cabinet.

An angry Duterte in May ordered the scrapping of formal peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) after the military said fighters from the CPP’s military wing, the New People’s Army, stepped up offensives in the countryside.

“There will be no talks until you declare a ceasefire, period,” he said in a speech in his home city of Davao. “And if you say you want another war, be my guest.”

Duterte gave two cabinet positions to left-wing activists recommended by the CPP when he assumed power last year to show his commitment to ending nearly five decades of conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.

The legislature’s Commission on Appointments on Wednesday rejected the appointment of leftist Rafael Mariano as agrarian reform minister.

Mariano’s exit came less than a month after the same panel ousted Judy Taguiwalo, another leftist, as social welfare minister, in what some commentators say is a move by Duterte’s allies to punish the CPP.

But Duterte’s office in both cases expressed disappointment the ministers had not been approved. In the Philippines, all ministers must be approved by the house panel, but the process can take more than a year.

The president is furious about repeated attacks by the communist rebels who, he said, have killed many soldiers and police.

He is also angered by what he sees as duplicity by the CPP’s exiled political leaders, to whom he says he has made many concessions and has shown good faith by making the peace process a top priority for his administration.

The rebels’ chief negotiator, Luis Jalandoni, has said the government’s demand to stop guerrilla attacks is “ridiculous” because soldiers are attacking villages where rebels are based.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Nick Macfie)