Top House Republican threatens to cut funding to states, cities that don’t protect statues

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation on Thursday that would cut federal aid to state and local governments if they do not protect statues, after protesters attacked monuments to people who owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy.

“It is wrong to erase our history,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement, criticizing “left-wing mobs” who have attacked statues across the United States.

Under his bill, introduced with fellow Republican Representatives Jim Jordan and Sam Graves, some federal funds would be withheld if local governments do not “restore order or arrest rioters.”

During national – and international – protests against racial injustice sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May some demonstrators have taken down or vandalized statues of historical figures such as Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate troops against the United States, and Christopher Columbus.

Republican President Donald Trump, who is campaigning for re-election in November, has harshly criticized such protesters, and criticized U.S. lawmakers who want to remove monuments to those who owned slaves and fought against U.S. forces in the 1860’s Civil War.

Trump has threatened decades-long prison terms for those who deface monuments or statues.

McCarthy introduced his bill as Democrats pushed legislation to remove monuments to slave owners and those who supported slavery from the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

On Thursday, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expected the House would pass such legislation next week or the week after.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Mississippi governor signs bill removing state flag with Confederate emblem

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill into law on Tuesday that replaces the current state flag bearing a Confederate emblem, a gesture triggered by support across the United States to dismantle symbols of slavery and racism.

The removal of the flag, a long-simmering source of controversy in one of the breakaway Southern states that fought in the American Civil War of the 1860’s, follows the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minnesota.

His death has sparked nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, and revived demands for the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus and others considered symbols of racism and colonial oppression.

“I understand the need to commit the 1894 flag to history and find a banner that is a better emblem for all Mississippi,” Reeves said in a televised speech. “We must understand that all who want change are not attempting to erase history.”

The measure signed by Mississippi’s first-term Republican governor also created a commission to design a new state flag. Voters will have the chance to approve the design in November, Reeves’ office said in a statement.

After the signing of the bill, a Mississippi state flag was removed from an array of flags of all states in the Dirksen tunnel at the U.S. Capitol, NBC said, citing a video.

The emblem was replaced with the Great Seal of Mississippi, portraying an eagle with spread wings and a shield with stars and stripes centered on its chest.

The state flag, which prominently features the so-called Confederate battle flag, had flown above the state Capitol building in Jackson for 126 years. It was taken down this weekend after state lawmakers approved the bill, media said.

In the 19th century, southern states faced with the prospect of having to give up slavery formed the Confederacy and broke away from the United States, leading to the Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865.

Symbols of the failed rebellion were erected throughout the South during the years of racial segregation and violence known as the Jim Crow era. Despite years of progress and civil rights for Black Americans, many states resisted removing them.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Maria Ponnezhath; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)

What is Juneteenth and how are people commemorating it this year?

(Reuters) – Juneteenth, an annual U.S. holiday on June 19, has taken on greater significance this year following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other African Americans.

WHAT IS JUNETEENTH?

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and 19th, also is known as Emancipation Day. It commemorates the day in 1865, after the Confederate states surrendered to end the Civil War, when a Union general arrived in Texas to inform the last group of enslaved African Americans of their freedom under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In 1980, Texas officially declared it a holiday. It is now recognized in 46 other states and the District of Columbia. Although in part a celebration, the day is also observed solemnly to honor those who suffered during slavery in the United States with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans over 400 years ago.

WHAT IS SIGNIFICANT THIS YEAR?

This year Juneteenth coincides with global protests against racial injustice sparked by the May 25 death of Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody. It also accompanies the coronavirus outbreak, which has disproportionately affected communities of color. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump, who had already been under fire for his response to both crises, drew further criticism for scheduling a Friday re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has since moved it to Saturday. Tulsa is an important and especially sensitive site where a white mob massacred African-American residents in 1921. Community organizations nationwide will devote the day to discussions on policing and civil rights ahead of the November election.

HOW ARE PEOPLE MARKING THE DAY?

People will mark the 155th anniversary across the country with festive meals and gatherings. While many cities have canceled this year’s annual parades because of the pandemic, other groups have opted for virtual conferences or smaller events. In Washington, groups plan marches, protests and rallies. Amid the wave of racial justice protests, some U.S. businesses have committed to a change of policies, including recognition of the holiday. Among the companies that have announced they will recognize Juneteenth as a paid company holiday are the National Football League, the New York Times, and Twitter and Square.

(Curating by Aurora Ellis; Editing by Howard Goller)

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister
By Tom Perry and Nadine Awadalla

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister said on Thursday the country was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of 1975-90 civil war.

One month after the start of nationwide protests, Lebanon is in serious political and economic trouble with no indication of its leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on Oct. 29.

Despite the magnitude of the economic crisis, the biggest since the war, leaders have not yet been able to agree a new cabinet or to tackle the grievances of demonstrators who say Lebanon has been ruined by corruption and sectarian cronyism.

Though the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a protester was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers on Tuesday. A funeral was held for the protester, a follower of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, while the soldier who opened fire has been detained.

Caretaker Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab said tensions on the street and road closures “have reminded us of the civil war, what happened in 1975. And this situation is very dangerous.”

Bou Saab, a political ally of President Michel Aoun, said demonstrators had the right to protest and to be protected. But the army and security services could not tolerate violence.

Aoun said he hoped a government could be formed in the coming days to meet the demands of the protesters.

He enraged protesters in an televised interview on Tuesday evening with a comment widely understood to mean he was telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run.

Schools, banks and many shops were closed for the third straight day. Some major routes around the capital that had been barricaded by protesters were unblocked by authorities, but the political mood remained brittle.

“WE ARE ALL IN DEEP TROUBLE”

Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of a group representing around 50 importers, said he was among businessmen who had warned of more trouble at a meeting with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh and other top bankers.

“My message to all of them is that we are all in deep trouble, but you have to give priority to the food supply. Because the food is even more important than the fuel,” he said.

Banks, which were shut for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country have been blocked and, with U.S. dollars scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.

So far there has been no sign of significant shortages.

Paul Kallassi, a board member of Kallassi Group, a major buyer and distributor of food, said suppliers have so far continued to ship based on “trust” even as arrears mount, a situation he said was not sustainable.

“They cannot finance millions of dollars just because they trust me,” said Kallassi.

Lebanon’s bank staff union called for employees to stay on strike until it received details of a security plan, especially on how to deal with customers demanding their cash.

A banker said that by remaining closed, banks were also avoiding the problem of depositor panic.

“You have a problem of liquidity, and there is no solution for it, unless you put in place a proper plan to solve the problem, there is no need to open the banks,” a banker said.

“You need to have a political solution, to offer a little bit of confidence, and this will eventually allow you to calm down the market and reopen normally.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Full U.S. pullout from Afghanistan could ignite ‘total civil war’: ex-U.S. envoys

FILE PHOTO: U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie/File Photo

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nine former U.S. ambassadors on Tuesday warned that Afghanistan could collapse in a “total civil war” if President Donald Trump withdraws all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban conclude a peace settlement.

“A major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace,” the nine wrote on the website of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “The initial U.S. drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe they can achieve military victory.”

The nine, including five former ambassadors to Kabul, a former special envoy to Afghanistan and a former deputy secretary of State, issued their warning a day after U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced a draft accord with the Taliban for an initial drawdown of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops.

Khalilzad, speaking on Monday to Tolo News television in Kabul, declined to say how long the rest of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops would stay. But U.S. officials repeatedly have said the pullout would be “conditions-based.”

In exchange, the Taliban would commit to preventing their decades-long ally, al Qaeda, or other extremists from using the country as a springboard for new attacks.

Trump has made clear his impatience to withdraw all U.S. forces and end America’s longest war, which began with a U.S. invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that al Qaeda launched from then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Khalilzad said Trump must approve the draft before it can be signed.

Khalilzad excluded Kabul from the nine rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar. But he has said it would be part of negotiations on a political settlement with the Taliban, which has so far refused to meet directly with Afghan officials.

Maintaining a major U.S. troop presence would have “a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations,” the former diplomats wrote.

“It is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces,” they said.

“There is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state, they wrote.

A new civil war “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” as it likely would see the Taliban maintain their alliance with al Qaeda and allow Islamic State’s growing local affiliate” to further expand, they said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Tom Brown)

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: New chemical weapons team to launch first Syria investigations

FILE PHOTO: A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – A new team established by the global chemical weapons watchdog to attribute blame for the use of banned munitions in Syria will investigate nine alleged attacks during the country’s civil war, including in the town of Douma, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was created in 1997 as a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty. It had until now only been authorized to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them.

Last June, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) was established by the OPCW’s member states during a special session, a move that has brought deeper political division to the U.N. -back agency. Now it has identified the locations of its first investigations to be conducted in the coming three years.

The British-led proposal creating the 10-member team was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies.

Syria has refused to issue visas to the team’s members or to provide it with documentation, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said in comments to member states published last month.

There were reports of dozens of fatalities on April 7, 2018, after an attack on Douma, at the time held by rebels but besieged by pro-government forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the attack on Syrian forces and launched missile strikes on Syrian government targets a week later with the backing of France and Britain.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia deny using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging the attack to implicate Syrian forces.

SARIN, CHLORINE

A Russian representative to the OPCW in The Hague did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, agreeing to open itself up to OPCW inspections and averting threatened military action by then U.S. President Barack Obama.

As part of a deal brokered with Russia, Damascus vowed to completely destroy its chemical weapons capabilities, but attacks with banned munitions have been widespread and systematic during the civil war, which began in 2011.

A United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) carried out the task of assigning blame for chemical weapons attacks, but Russia vetoed a resolution to extend its mandate beyond November 2017.

The new team at the OPCW is focusing on sites of chemical attacks where culprits have not yet been identified by the JIM, dating back as far back as 2015.

The JIM concluded in a series of reports since then that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons, while Islamic State insurgents used sulfur mustard gas on the battlefield.

The OPCW concluded in a March 1 report that a chemical weapons attack occurred in Douma, most likely with chlorine. It did not assign blame.

As of this year, Syria had not fully disclosed its chemical weapons program or explained why inspectors have continued to find traces of prohibited nerve agents or their chemical precursors at multiple locations.

Syria has acknowledged, after more than five years, that it carried out research and development activities on nerve agents it has never admitted having.

“This adds to the growing evidence of deliberately false declarations by Syria, destruction of possible evidence, and the alarming likelihood that Syria continues to possess” banned chemical agents, Canada’s ambassador to the OPCW, Sabine Nolke, told delegates attending meetings at the OPCW in The Hague this week.

“Continued possession of these chemicals by Syria lends additional credence to existing allegations of their use by the regime,” she said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran

What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS

By Angus McDowall and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday, the latest salvo in its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said 11 people were killed. Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers had died and six were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the air raid had mostly targeted Iranian forces, but also hit Syrians helping them. “We will strike at anyone who tries to harm us,” he said.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the nearly eight year civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

With an election approaching, Israel’s government has begun discussing its strikes more openly and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.

The Israeli shift comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a sudden plan to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move long sought by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump’s decision shocked American allies in the region and was opposed by top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian “Quds Force” targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp. Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire.

It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syria said it was Israel that had attacked and its air defenses had repelled the assault. Syria had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles”, but had destroyed most “hostile targets”, state media quoted a military source as saying.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, according to RIA news agency.

In Tehran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth”, according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control. Just two big enclaves are still outside Assad’s grip, including the area Trump plans to exit.

Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.

“EVERY LAST BOOT”

The Israeli military distributed footage of what it said were missiles hitting the Syrian defense batteries, as well as satellite images showing the location of the alleged Iranian targets. Syrian state media showed footage of explosions.

In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch future attacks.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory.

Washington has sought to reassure allies it still aims to eject Iran from Syria despite pulling its own troops out. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the region this month, has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.

Israel has sought reassurances from Moscow that Iranian forces in Syria would not be a threat. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the missile fired at the ski resort was launched from “an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in”.

 

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger: humanitarian body

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015, a humanitarian body said on Wednesday, as the U.N. special envoy arrived in Yemen to pursue peace talks.

Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the disastrous conflict, which has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with 8.4 million people believed to be on the verge of starvation.

Save the Children said that according to a conservative estimate based on United Nations data, approximately 84,700 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018 in the impoverished country, where a Western-backed Arab alliance is battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that holds the capital Sanaa.

“We are horrified that some 85,000 children in Yemen may have died because of the consequences of extreme hunger since the war began. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” it said in a statement.

The last available figure from the United Nations for the death toll from the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000.

The world body has not provided figures for the death toll from malnutrition but warned last month that half the population, or some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis, who control the most populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula country.

But since seizing the southern port city of Aden in 2015, the coalition has faced a military stalemate and has been focusing on wresting control of the main port city of Hodeidah to weaken the Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.

NO CEASEFIRE YET

The coalition last week ordered a halt to military operations in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. A few days later the Houthis announced a halt to missile and drone attacks on coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with their Yemeni allies.

However, Hodeidah has witnessed intense fighting in the past two days, mostly taking place at night, as each side tried to reinforce its positions during the de-escalation in hostilities.

“Loud bangs, shelling and gunfire could be heard all over the city until dawn,” a Hodeidah resident said on Wednesday.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source told Reuters on Monday that a ceasefire in Hodeidah would start only after the U.N. Security Council passes a British-drafted resolution on Yemen.

Aid groups have warned against an all-out assault on the city, an entry point for more than 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday to meet with Houthi leaders to discuss convening peace talks in Sweden next month to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in September. Kuwait has offered to provide planes for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

Griffiths faces a daunting challenge to overcome deep mistrust between all sides, including among allies, which makes any peace agreement fragile.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, calls for a halt to fighting in Hodeidah, a stop to attacks on populated areas across Yemen and an end to attacks on countries in the region.

It also calls for an unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian goods across the impoverished country, including a large, fast injection of foreign currency into the economy through the Central Bank of Yemen and more aid funding.

(Writing By Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Lebanese Christian civil war foes shake hands, make up after 40 years

FILE PHOTO: Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh, October 31, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Christian rivals from the Lebanese civil war, Samir Geagea and Suleiman Frangieh, shook hands with each other on Wednesday, marking a formal reconciliation to end more than four decades of enmity.

Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) political party, and Frangieh, head of the Marada party, have been foes since the early days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two parties had armed militias during the conflict that battled against each other. The war, which drew in regional powers, included fighting between the country’s main sects and rival factions within those sects.

The men, both Maronite Christians, met to reconcile at the seat of the sect’s Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in Bkerki, north of Beirut. They shook hands with Rai and then with each other after several failed reconciliation attempts over the years.

Geagea has been accused of leading a raid in 1978 on the home of Frangieh’s father, Tony Franjieh, a rival Maronite Christian chieftain, who was killed with his wife, daughter, and others. Geagea has said he was wounded before reaching Frangieh’s house and did not take part himself.

This is the second rapprochement of recent years between civil war Maronite Christian rivals.

In January 2016 Geagea endorsed then presidential candidate Michel Aoun for the Lebanese presidency, ending his own rival candidacy for the position, which must be held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Geagea and Aoun, who fought each other in the 1975-90 civil war, have been on opposite sides of the political divide since Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.

President Aoun is a political ally of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, whereas Geagea is a staunch opponent of the group. Frangieh is a close ally of Syrian President and Hezbollah ally Bashar al-Assad.

Tony Frangieh, Suleiman’s son, said the reconciliation was a good thing for all Lebanese and was not connected to any presidential aims.

“We are looking forward to the future by achieving this reconciliation,” he told Lebanese broadcaster al-Jadeed at the ceremony.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Editing by Richard Balmforth)