Biden to speak about Afghanistan, translators amid swift U.S. pullout

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday will offer his most extensive comments to date about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a pullout that is raising concerns about a civil war there and drawing Republican criticism.

A senior administration official said Biden will provide an update on U.S. plans to move thousands of Afghan interpreters out of the country by the end of August.

The Democratic president, scheduled to speak at 1:45 p.m. (1745 GMT), has been under pressure from critics to give a more expansive explanation for his decision to withdraw.

The United States last weekend abandoned Bagram air base, the longtime staging ground for U.S. military operations in the country, effectively ending America’s longest war. The Pentagon says the withdrawal of U.S. forces is 90% complete.

Washington agreed to withdraw in a deal negotiated last year under Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden overruled military leaders who wanted to keep a larger presence to assist Afghan security forces and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a staging ground for extremist groups.

Instead, the United States plans to leave 650 troops in Afghanistan to provide security for the U.S. Embassy.

Biden’s order in April to pull out U.S. forces by Sept. 11 after 20 years of conflict has coincided with major gains by the Islamist militant Taliban movement against overwhelmed Afghan forces after peace talks sputtered.

The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, warned last week that the country may be headed toward a civil war.

The U.S. intelligence community believes the Afghan military is weak and that the Kabul government’s prospects for survival in the short term are not good, U.S. government sources familiar with official assessments said.

Biden’s administration is also grappling with its plan for expedited visas for Afghan people most at risk of being attacked by the Taliban, including translators who worked with foreign forces. Rights groups are pushing to add up to 2,000 vulnerable women to the list, and Biden is expected to mention women’s rights in his remarks.

The senior administration official said the United States plans to move the interpreters to temporary locations while awaiting valid U.S. visas. Locations are still being worked out. Guam, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are possible locations.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would meet his national security team ahead of his remarks on Thursday “to receive a periodic update on the progress of our military drawdown from Afghanistan.”

“The president will make comments on our continued drawdown efforts and ongoing security and humanitarian assistance to the ANDSF and the Afghan people,” she said, referring to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

Some Republicans are criticizing Biden for the pullout, although Trump had also sought to end American involvement in the war.

Biden met Afghan leaders at the White House on June 25 and said U.S. support for Afghanistan would continue despite the pullout.

“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” he said at the time.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

Gaza conflict intensifies with rocket barrages and air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in Gaza and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.

The four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time”.

Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

At least 87 people have been killed in Gaza, including 18 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. Hospitals already under heavy pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic have faced further strain.

Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States is sending an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have so far offered no sign of progress.

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wants to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns, Israel’s commercial heartland, with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.

Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv.

Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building in Gaza that it said belonged to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.

Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.

Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”

In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.

“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A number of foreign carriers have cancelled flights to Israel because of the unrest.

‘DISRUPTING’ HAMAS

Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities”, but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.

“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.

He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.

Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border”, a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.

Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.

“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.

FOREIGN APPEALS

So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel”, and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.

School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.

Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.

One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness”.

Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive election in March.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Dan Williams, Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

Why Republican voters say there’s ‘no way in hell’ Trump lost

By Brad Brooks, Nathan Layne and Tim Reid

SUNDOWN, Texas (Reuters) – Brett Fryar is a middle-class Republican. A 50-year-old chiropractor in this west Texas town, he owns a small business. He has two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree, in organic chemistry. He attends Southcrest Baptist Church in nearby Lubbock.

Fryar didn’t much like Donald Trump at first, during the U.S. president’s 2016 campaign. He voted for Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries.

Now, Fryar says he would go to war for Trump. He has joined the newly formed South Plains Patriots, a group of a few hundred members that includes a “reactionary” force of about three dozen – including Fryar and his son, Caleb – who conduct firearms training.

Nothing will convince Fryar and many others here in Sundown – including the town’s mayor, another Patriots member – that Democrat Joe Biden won the Nov. 3 presidential election fairly. They believe Trump’s stream of election-fraud allegations and say they’re preparing for the possibility of a “civil war” with the American political left.

“If President Trump comes out and says: ‘Guys, I have irrefutable proof of fraud, the courts won’t listen, and I’m now calling on Americans to take up arms,’ we would go,” said Fryar, wearing a button-down shirt, pressed slacks and a paisley tie during a recent interview at his office.

The unshakable trust in Trump in this town of about 1,400 residents reflects a national phenomenon among many Republicans, despite the absence of evidence in a barrage of post-election lawsuits by the president and his allies. About half of Republicans polled by Reuters/Ipsos said Trump “rightfully won” the election but had it stolen from him in systemic fraud favoring Biden, according to a survey conducted between Nov. 13 and 17. Just 29% of Republicans said Biden rightfully won. Other polls since the election have reported that an even higher proportion – up to 80% – of Republicans trust Trump’s baseless fraud narrative.

Trump’s legal onslaught has so far flopped, with judges quickly dismissing many cases and his lawyers dropping or withdrawing from others. None of the cases contain allegations – much less evidence – that are likely to invalidate enough votes to overturn the election, election experts say.

And yet the election-theft claims are proving politically potent. All but a handful of Republican lawmakers have backed Trump’s fraud claims or stayed silent, effectively freezing the transition of power as the president refuses to concede. Trump has succeeded in sowing further public distrust in the media, which typically calls elections, and undermined citizens’ faith in the state and local election officials who underpin American democracy.

In Reuters interviews with 50 Trump voters, all said they believed the election was rigged or in some way illegitimate. Of those, 20 said they would consider accepting Biden as their president, but only in light of proof that the election was conducted fairly. Most repeated debunked conspiracy theories espoused by Trump, Republican officials and conservative media claiming that millions of votes were dishonestly switched to Biden in key states by biased poll workers and hacked voting machines.

Many voters interviewed by Reuters said they formed their opinions by watching emergent right-wing media outlets such as Newsmax and One American News Network that have amplified Trump’s fraud claims. Some have boycotted Fox News out of anger that the network called Biden the election winner and that some of its news anchors – in contrast to its opinion show stars – have been skeptical of Trump’s fraud allegations.

“I just sent Fox News an email,” Fryar said, telling the network: “You’re the only news I’ve watched for the last six years, but I will not watch you anymore.”

The widespread rejection of the election result among Republicans reflects a new and dangerous dynamic in American politics: the normalization of false and increasingly extreme conspiracy theories among tens of millions of mainstream voters, according to government scholars, analysts and some lawmakers on both sides of the political divide. The trend has deeply troubling long-term implications for American political and civic institutions, said Paul Light, a veteran political scientist at New York University (NYU).

“This is dystopian,” Light said. “America could fracture.”

Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is among the few party members to publicly recognize Biden’s victory. He called his Republican colleagues’ reluctance to reject Trump’s conspiracies a failure of political courage that threatens to undermine American democracy for years. If citizens lose faith in election integrity, that could lead to “really bad things,” including violence and social unrest, he said in an interview.

David Gergen – an adviser to four previous U.S. presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans – said Trump is trying to “kneecap” the Biden administration before it takes power, noting this is the first time a sitting American president has tried to overthrow an election result.

It may not be the last time. Many Republicans see attacks on election integrity as a winning issue for future campaigns – including the next presidential race, according to one Republican operative close to the Trump campaign. The party, the person said, is setting up a push for “far more stringent oversight on voting procedures in 2024,” when the party’s nominee will likely be Trump or his anointed successor.

Other Republicans urged patience and faith in the government. Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist, does not believe Republican lawmakers will continue backing Trump’s fraud claims after Biden is inaugurated. They will need White House cooperation on basic government functions, such as appropriations and defense bills, he said.

“People will come to see we still have a functioning government,” Black said, and Republicans will become “resigned to Biden, and see it’s not the end of the world.”

The Biden campaign declined to comment for this story. Boris Epshteyn, a strategic advisor to the Trump campaign, said: “The President and his campaign are confident that when every legal vote is counted, and every illegal vote is not, it will be determined that President Trump has won re-election to a second term.”

‘THERE’S JUST NO WAY’

Media outlets declared Biden the election winner on Nov. 7. As calls were finalized in battleground states, Biden’s lead in the Electoral College that decides the presidency widened to 306 to 232.

Many Republican voters scoff at those results, convinced Trump was cheated. Raymond Fontaine, a hardware store owner in Oakville, Connecticut, said Biden’s vote total – the highest of any presidential candidate in history – makes no sense because the 78-year-old Democrat made relatively few campaign appearances and seemed to be in mental decline.

“You are going to tell me 77 million Americans voted for him? There is just no way,” said Fontaine, 50.

The latest popular vote total for Biden has grown to about 79 million, compared to some 73 million for Trump.

Like many Trump supporters interviewed by Reuters, Fontaine was deeply suspicious of computerized voting machines. Trump and his allies have alleged, without producing evidence, a grand conspiracy to manipulate votes through the software used in many battleground states.

In Grant County, West Virginia – a mountainous region where more than 88% of voters backed the president – trust in Trump runs deep. Janet Hedrick, co-owner of the Smoke Hole Caverns log cabin resort in the small town of Cabins, said she would never accept Biden as a legitimate president.

“There’s millions and millions of Trump votes that were just thrown out,” said Hedrick, 70, a retired teacher and librarian. “That computer was throwing them out.”

At the Sunset Restaurant in Moorefield, West Virginia – a diner featuring omelets, hotcakes and waitresses who remember your order – a mention of the election sparked a spirited discussion at one table. Gene See, a retired highway construction inspector, and Bob Hyson, a semi-retired insurance sales manager, said Trump had been cheated, that Biden had dementia and that Democrats planned all along to quickly replace Biden with his more liberal running mate for vice president, Kamala Harris.

“I think if they ever get to the bottom of it, they will find massive fraud,” said another of the diners, Larry Kessel, a 67-year-old farmer.

Kessel’s wife, Jane, patted him on the arm, trying to calm him, as he grew agitated while railing against anti-Trump media bias.

Trump’s rage against the media has lately included rants against Fox News. He has pushed his supporters towards more right-wing outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, which have championed the president’s fraud claims.

Rory Wells, 51, a New Jersey lawyer who attended a pro-Trump “stop the steal” election protest in Trenton last week, said he now watches Newsmax because Fox isn’t sufficiently conservative.

“I like that I get to hear from Rudy Giuliani and others who are not immediately discounted as being crazy,” he said of Trump’s lead election lawyer.

Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy said the network’s viewership has exploded since the election, with nearly 3 million viewers nightly via cable television and streaming video devices.

Ruddy said Newsmax isn’t saying that Biden stole the election – but they’re also not calling him the winner given that Trump has valid legal claims. “The same media who said Biden would win in a landslide now want to not have recounts,” he said in a phone interview.

Charles Herring, president of One America News Network, said in a statement that his network has seen three weeks of record ratings, as “frustrated Fox News viewers” have tuned in.

‘NO WAY IN HELL’

Some Trump supporters said they would accept Biden as the winner if that is the final, official result. Janel Henritz, 36, echoed some others in saying that she believed the election included fraud, but perhaps not enough to change the outcome. Henritz, who works alongside her mother Janet Hedrick at their log cabin resort in West Virginia, said she would accept the outcome if Biden remains the winner after recounts and court challenges.

“Then he won fair and square,” she said.

In Sundown, Texas, Mayor Jonathan Strickland said there’s “no way in hell” Biden won fairly. The only way he’ll believe it, he said, is if Trump himself says so.

“Trump is the only one we’ve been able to trust for the last four years,” said Strickland, an oilfield production engineer. “As far as the civil war goes, I don’t think it’s off the table.”

If it comes to a fight, Caleb Fryar is ready. But the 26-year-old son of Brett Fryar, the chiropractor, said he hoped Trump’s fraud allegations would instead spark a massive mobilization of Republican voters in future elections.

Asked whether Trump might be duping his followers, he said it’s hard to fathom.

“If I’m being manipulated by Trump … then he is the greatest con man that ever lived in America,” Caleb Fryar said. “I think he’s the greatest patriot that ever lived.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Texas, Nathan Layne in West Virginia and Tim Reid in California; editing by Brian Thevenot)

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)