Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

India welcomes Pakistan’s return of captured pilot, as powers urge de-escalation

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of an Indian Air Force pilot after he was captured by Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

By Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Indian military officials said on Thursday they welcomed Pakistan’s planned return of a captured pilot, but refused to confirm they would de-escalate a conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan, became the human face of the flare-up over the contested region of Kashmir following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.

“We are happy our pilot is being released,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, at a joint news conference of India’s three armed forces on Thursday evening.

He did not say when asked by reporters if India considered the return a de-escalation in the conflict.

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, to the relief of many Indians, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by India firing across the disputed border in Kashmir.

“As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow,” Khan told Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers thumped their desks in response.

“We will celebrate his release tomorrow,” said Vinay Bhardwaj, 34, a plumber in Nawshera, a border town in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “People are very happy about that here.”

The United States, China, European Union and other powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

The Muslim-majority Himalayan region has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the separate countries of Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India.

It is divided between India, which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.

On Tuesday, India said it hit a training camp for a Pakistan-based group who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and a senior government source told reporters that 300 militants had been killed.

Pakistan denies this, saying the attack was a failure and no one died, with bombs dropped on a largely empty hillside. It denies any militant camp was in the area. Local people said they had seen no sign of major casualties or significant damage, with only one man known to have been slightly hurt by the bombs.

Asked about the damage caused by Indian warplanes in Tuesday’s air strike, Kapoor said it was premature to provide details about casualties. But they said they had “credible” evidence of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.

“Whatever we intended to destroy, we did,” he said.

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Tuesday’s escalation marked the latest deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Khan had spoken of “mending ties” with India.

Khan’s decision to release the pilot came after several countries offered diplomatic assistance to mediate between two countries, that have gone to war three times since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after Khan’s announcement that he had spoken to the leaders of both countries and urged them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”.

Earlier, U.S. President Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan, adding that the United States was trying to mediate.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.

“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also offered to facilitate talks between the two sides.

Khan’s office said the prime minister had spoken to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and that both had appreciated his willingness to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their militaries.

Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

“The world is observing our collective will. It is necessary that we shouldn’t do anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us,” he said, in his first remarks since the downing of planes on Wednesday.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s foreign minister and expressed “deep concern”.

The United States, Britain and France proposed the United Nations Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack. China is likely to be oppose the move.

As a precaution amid the increased military activity, Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute. Thai Airways International announced on Thursday that it had canceled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

FIRING CONTINUES

Both countries said they downed enemy jets on Wednesday, though each disputed the claims of the other side, and each accused the other of breaching cease fire agreements.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on at least three occasions on Thursday, with the firing instigated by Pakistan every time, according to New Delhi. Pakistan said the ceasefire violations were by India.

Pakistan’s military said four civilians had been killed and two wounded in what it called a “deliberate” attack by India during the past 48 hours. A civilian on the Indian side of the border was killed in the firing on Thursday, an Indian official said.

Troops from India and Pakistan first exchanged fire on Thursday in the Poonch district for over an hour at 6 a.m., according to a statement from the Indian army. Pakistan said the firing began overnight.

Aijaz Ahmad, a resident in the Indian-controlled portion of the district, said he could hear heavy firing on Thursday afternoon.

“Loud sounds of mortar shells are being heard from a distance. Shops … are open but there is a lot of tension,” he said.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers for families in Jammu and Kashmir state living close to the border, hoping to keep them safe near their homes rather than evacuate them.

With a general election due in India by May, a surge in nationalism from any conflict with Pakistan could become a key factor, potentially favoring Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“This has brought a pro-Modi wave all through the country,” B.S. Yeddyurappa, a BJP leader in the southern state of Karnataka, told reporters. “The effect of this will be seen in the elections.”

(This story has been refiled to fix typo in headline, no change to text)

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Fayaz Bukhari, Drazen Jorgic, Aditya Kalra, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Sanjeev Miglani, Neha Dasgupta and Abu Arqam Naqash; additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Michelle Nicholls; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alison Williams)

India launches air strike inside Pakistan; Islamabad denies militant camp hit

India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Abu Arqam Naqash and Sanjeev Miglani

BALAKOT, Pakistan/NEW DELHI (Reuters) –

Pakistan said it would respond at a time and place of its choice, with a military spokesman even India said its warplanes killed “a very large number” of fighters when they struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, raising the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, although Pakistan officials denied there had been casualties. alluding to its nuclear arsenal, highlighting the escalation in hostile rhetoric from both two sides since a suicide bombing in Kashmir this month.

The spokesman said a command and control authority meeting, which decides over the use of nuclear weapons, had been convened for Wednesday, adding: “You all know what that means.”

The air strike near Balakot, a town 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, was the deepest cross-border raid launched by India since the last of its three wars with Pakistan in 1971 but there were competing claims about the damage it caused.

The Indian government, facing an election in the coming months, said the air strikes hit a training camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed the suicide car bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said “a very large number” of militants were killed in the strikes in northeast Pakistan.

“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis, could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Gokhale said. Pakistan denies harboring JeM.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed in the strikes and that the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50 miles) inside Pakistan. But no evidence was provided to back up the claims of casualties.

The government said the action was ordered as India said it had intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.

Pakistani officials dismissed the Indian claims, saying the Indian aircraft had dropped their bombs in a wooded area, causing no damage or casualties.

Villagers near the town of Balakot were shaken from their sleep by the air strikes. They said only one person was wounded in the attack and they knew of no fatalities.

“We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.

A resident, who did not want to give his name, said there was a nearby madrasa Islamic college run by Jaish, though most villagers were guarded in talking about any militant neighbors.

JeM is a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been on a U.N. terrorist list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked India’s parliament, which almost led to a fourth war.

HOSPITALS ON ALERT

There has been mounting impatience in India to avenge the Feb. 14 attack, which was the most deadly seen in Kashmir during an insurgency that has last three decades, and as news of the raid broke, celebrations erupted across the country.

“I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to cheers at a rally in western India hours after the raid. “I won’t let the country down.”

Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders rejected India’s comments that it had struck a “terrorist camp” inside Pakistan, warning that they would retaliate.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top officials including Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, said Khan would “engage with global leadership to expose irresponsible Indian policy”. It also warned that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” to Indian aggression.

China, Pakistan’s long-time ally, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both countries to exercise restraint.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Indian diplomats met foreign ambassadors to assure them no escalation was planned.

But as fears grew that the conflict could escalate, hospitals in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were ordered to set a quarter of beds aside for “a national cause”, officials said.

“We put all hospitals in the province on high alert due to the present situation on the border with India and issued directives to all heads of the hospitals to be prepared for any sort of emergency,” provincial secretary health Dr Farooq Jameel told Reuters.

Indian and Pakistan troops exchanged gunfire along several sectors of their contested border in Kashmir later on Tuesday and local officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded.

Giving the Pakistan military’s account of the Indian incursion, spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistani aircraft were patrolling and identified Indian jets on the Indian side of the border near Okara and Lahore in Punjab as well as Muzaffarabad where they crossed and were engaged. They left Pakistani airspace after only four minutes.

He denied the incursion had caused any damage, saying there was no debris, “not even a single brick” and no casualties.

“You have proved you are not a democracy, you have chosen the path of war,” he said, addressing his remarks to India.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Drazen Jorgic, Asif Shahzad, Fayaz Bukhari, Neha Dasgupta, Aftab Ahmed, Nidhi Verma; and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams and James Dalgleish)

Russia ignores Western calls to free captured Ukrainian ships

People attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat in the Kerch Strait , in the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin

By Andrew Osborn and Natalia Zinets

MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – Russia on Monday ignored Western calls to release three Ukrainian naval ships it fired on and captured near Crimea at the weekend and accused Kiev of plotting with its Western allies to provoke a conflict.

Seized Ukrainian ships, small armoured artillery ships and a tug boat, are seen anchored in a port of Kerch, Crimea November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Seized Ukrainian ships, small armored artillery ships, and a tugboat, are seen anchored in a port of Kerch, Crimea November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

Kiev, in turn, accused Russia of military aggression and put its armed forces on full combat alert, saying it reserved the right to defend itself. Ukrainian lawmakers were due to decide whether to introduce martial law for two months later on Monday, a move President Petro Poroshenko has backed.

With relations still raw after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the crisis risks pushing the two countries towards a wider conflict and there were early signs it was renewing Western calls for more sanctions on Moscow.

The crisis erupted when Russia’s border patrol boats belonging to Russia’s FSB security service seized two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat after opening fire on them and wounding several sailors on Sunday.

They had been trying to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The FSB said it had opened a criminal case into what it called the ships’ illegal entry into Russian territorial waters.

On Monday maritime traffic resumed in the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland, but Moscow showed no sign of releasing the ships and their crew.

Activists of far-right parties attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat in the Black Sea on Sunday, in central Kiev, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Activists of far-right parties attend a rally to support the Ukrainian navy after Russia seized two Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tugboat in the Black Sea on Sunday, in central Kiev, Ukraine November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

COMBUSTIBLE

The stand-off is more combustible now than at any time in the past four years because Ukraine has rebuilt its armed forces, previously in disarray, and has a new generation of commanders who are confident and have a point to prove.

Kiev is also strengthened by the knowledge that most Western governments, especially Washington, lean towards Ukraine and are liable to view Russia’s version of events with some skepticism.

NATO called an emergency meeting with Ukraine on Monday after the alliance’s head Jens Stoltenberg held a phone call with Poroshenko. He offered NATO’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

European Council President Donald Tusk also condemned Russia’s seizure of the vessels and urged it to return the vessels and crews.

Domestic politics adds to the combustibility of the situation. Poroshenko faces a tough re-election fight early next year, with opinion polls showing him trailing his opponents.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has also seen his high approval rating fall because of unpopular domestic policies. In the past, successful military action beyond Russia’s borders has buoyed his popularity.

Using bellicose language, the Russian foreign ministry accused Kiev of deliberately staging what it called a provocation to harm Russian interests and said it would react harshly to any attempts to undermine its sovereignty,

“It’s obvious that this painstakingly thought-through and planned provocation was aimed at igniting another source of tension in the region in order to create a pretext to ramp up sanctions against Russia,” the ministry said in a statement.

Russia’s rouble currency weakened 1.4 percent against the dollar in Moscow on Monday, its biggest one-day fall since Nov. 9, while Russian dollar-bonds fell.

Markets are highly sensitive to anything that could trigger new Western sanctions and therefore weaken the Russian economy. A fall in the price of oil — Russia’s biggest source of revenue — has made its economy more vulnerable.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Stine Buch Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Karin Strohecker in London, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Matthias Williams in Kiev and European bureaux; Writing by Andrew Osborn/Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump says he wants two-state solution for Mideast conflict

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a bilateral meeting during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he wanted a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the clearest expression yet of his administration’s support for such an outcome.

The Trump administration has in the past said it would support a two-state solution if both sides agreed to it.

Trump, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, also said he wanted to unveil a peace plan in the next two to three months.

“I like a two-state solution. That’s what I think works best … That’s my feeling,” said Trump, who is attending the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders.

Netanyahu has said that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized and must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people – conditions that Palestinians say show he is not sincere about peacemaking.

The United States’ Arab allies are strong proponents of a two state solution.

“I really believe something will happen. They say it’s the toughest of all deals,” Trump said.

He added that Israel will have to do something good for the other side without elaborating.

Doubts have mounted over whether Trump’s administration can secure what he has called the “ultimate deal” since December, when the U.S. President recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moved the U.S. Embassy there.

“It is a dream of mine to get that done prior to the end of my first term,” Trump said of an agreement on the conflict.

“I don’t want to do it in my second term. We’ll do other things in my second term,” he said. “I think a lot of progress has been made. I think that Israel wants to do something and I think that the Palestinians actually want to do something.”

Jerusalem is one of the major issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides claim it as a capital. Trump’s move outraged the Palestinians, who have since boycotted Washington’s peace efforts, led by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally. It regards all of the city as its eternal and indivisible capital.

Asked what Israel might have to give up in return for the embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Trump replied: What will Israel have to give up after U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem? “I took probably the biggest chip off the table.

“And so obviously we have to make a fair deal, we have to do something. Deals have to be good for both parties … Israel got the first chip and it’s a big one.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Grant McCool)

Trump tells Iran ‘never, ever threaten’ U.S. or suffer consequences

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he begins a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress at the White House in Washington, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

By Warren Strobel and Parisa Hafezi

WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump told Iran it risked dire consequences “the like of which few throughout history have suffered before” if the Islamic Republic made more threats against the United States.

His words, spelled out in capital letters in a late night Twitter message, came hours after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Trump that hostile policies toward Tehran could lead to “the mother of all wars.”

Despite the heightened rhetoric, both sides have reasons to want to avoid starting a conflict that could easily escalate.

Trump’s comments come in the context of a barrage of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and pressure Iran to end its nuclear program and its support of militant groups, according to U.S. officials.

Iran has faced increased U.S. pressure and possible sanctions since Trump’s decision in May to withdraw the United States from a 2015 international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.

In his message directed at Rouhani, Trump wrote: “Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!”.

Earlier on Sunday, Rouhani had told a gathering of Iranian diplomats: “Mr Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret.”

“America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” said Rouhani, quoted by the state news agency IRNA.

Rouhani left open the possibility of peace between the two countries, at odds since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But Iran’s most powerful authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday negotiations with the United States would be an “obvious mistake”.

Rouhani also scoffed at Trump’s threat to halt Iranian oil exports and said Iran has a dominant position in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping waterway.

A senior commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards reacted angrily to Trump’s threats by saying Tehran would continue to resist its enemies, Iran’s Students news Agency ISNA reported.

“We will never abandon our revolutionary beliefs … we will resist pressure from enemies … America wants nothing less than (to) destroy Iran … (but) Trump cannot do a damn thing against Iran,” Brigadier General Gholamhossein Gheybparvar said.

“WAR OF WORDS”

Trump’s warning to Iran came hours after a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who denounced Iran’s clerical leadership as a “mafia” and promised unspecified backing for Iranians unhappy with their government.

Tehran reacted to Pompeo’s speech as an interference in Tehran’s affairs, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

“Such policies will unite Iranians who will overcome plots against their country,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump’s “strong stance” on Iran.

At the same time, Germany said threats of war were “never helpful”.

There is limited appetite in Washington for a conflict with Iran, not least because of the difficulties the U.S. military faced in Iraq after its 2003 invasion but also because of the impact on the global economy if conflict raised oil prices.

Many ordinary Iranians are worried that the war of words might lead to a military confrontation but insiders in Tehran told Reuters that the U.S. administration would not drag the country into another quagmire in the Middle East.

With popular discontent over Iran’s faltering economy and sliding currency, and the prospect of tough new U.S. sanctions, Iran’s leaders have called for unity.

Many ordinary Iranians are largely skeptical of the Trump administration’s support for Iranian citizens because of the harsh U.S. sanctions on the country and a visa ban imposed on Iranians barring them from entering the United States.

Iran’s faction-ridden religious and political elites have closed ranks against Trump’s hawkish approach to Tehran.

However, growing strains with the U.S. will eventually boost Rouhani’s anti-Western hardline rivals who fear losing power if the nuclear deal, championed by Rouhani, ended the country’s political and economic isolation.

Rouhani’s apparent threat earlier this month to disrupt oil shipments from neighboring countries came in reaction to efforts by Washington to force all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

Washington initially planned to shut Iran out of global oil markets completely after Trump abandoned the deal that limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions, demanding all other countries stop buying Iranian crude by November.

But the United States has somewhat eased its stance, saying it may grant sanction waivers to some allies that are particularly reliant on Iranian supplies.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Washington, Dubai newsroom, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

In face of Ghouta defeat, Syrian rebels blame each other

FILE PHOTO: Rebel fighters gather and pray before they leave, at the city limits of Harasta, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebel factions are blaming each other for opening the way to their defeat near Damascus, underlining splits that plagued the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad since its earliest days.

The rivalry between the factions of eastern Ghouta – Failaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – had led to the effective partition of the enclave since 2016 and fueled bouts of deadly violence that played to the government’s advantage.

Their rivalry has at some points mirrored tensions between their regional sponsors: Saudi Arabia, which has backed Jaish al-Islam, and Qatar, which supported Failaq al-Rahman.

With the help of Russian air strikes, the army has waged one of the most ferocious offensives of the war to recapture eastern Ghouta, killing more than 1,600 people since Feb. 18 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Still, in media comments late on Sunday, the groups laid blame on each other for speeding up the government’s advances.

The Jaish al-Islam military spokesman, in an interview with al-Hadath TV, said Failaq al-Rahman had rejected a proposal to mount a shared defense of Ghouta and accused it of cutting water supplies needed to fill defensive trenches.

“These trenches dried up which sped up the regime’s advances,” said Hamza Birqdar, the spokesman.

The Failaq al-Rahman spokesman told the same TV station that Jaish al-Islam had staged a weak defense of the enclave, which advancing government forces split into three separate pockets.

“Failaq al-Rahman was stabbed in the back … via the frontlines that Jaish al-Islam was supposed to be at,” said Wael Olwan, Failaq al-Rahman’s Istanbul-based spokesman.

A Syrian official said the “conflict between the terrorist groups” in eastern Ghouta was one of the factors that had helped the military “achieve what it has achieved in a short space of time”.

It echoes a pattern at other key moments in the seven-year-long war: rebels blamed each other as government forces and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias thrust into opposition parts of eastern Aleppo, won back by Assad in 2016.

Thousands of Failaq al-Rahman fighters, accompanied by their families, are leaving their zone of eastern Ghouta in a negotiated withdrawal to insurgent territory in northern Syria.

Jaish al-Islam says it is holding out in its part of the enclave in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma. Assad’s Russian allies said on Monday that Jaish al-Islam fighters were also ready to lay down their arms and leave, which the group denied.

Rebels who have left eastern Ghouta so far have gone to Idlib, an insurgent-held region at the Turkish border. Idlib has also been blighted by fighting between the dominant faction – fighters formerly affiliated to al Qaeda – and other rebels.

The fragmented state of the anti-Assad armed opposition has been seen as one of its critical weaknesses since the start of the conflict, which the UK-based Observatory says has killed half a million people since 2011.

Russian and Iranian military backing for Assad has also far outstripped support that had been offered to rebel groups from foreign states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory at the frontier with Jordan and Israel, and small enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

The pain of Syrian refugees: Parents try to forget as children cling to lost past

Syrian refugee children run in a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Ayat Basma

(Reuters) – Warda, a Syrian refugee, wishes she could erase her old life, so painful have the memories become. By contrast, as the conflict in Syria slides into its eighth year, her younger children have nothing to remember of their homeland – nor to forget.

They are part of a new generation of Syrians whose parents fled war and destruction in their millions but who themselves are too young to remember their homeland.

For Warda’s children, home is a makeshift tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon which they share with their grief-stricken, 34-year-old mother.

“Even though I know I can’t, I want to forget Syria. I would forget my home, I would forget the place where I lived, I would forget my friends – I would forget everything. But one can’t forget,” Warda said as tears ran down her face.

Five million people have fled Syria since the war erupted after anti-government protests were put down with force in 2011. The eight-year anniversary of when these protests began is on March 15.

Warda and her son Bilal, 13, daughter Rayan, 7, and her youngest, a 3-year-old boy named Ibrahim, are among the one million refugees who stayed in neighboring Lebanon. Most live like them in rickety tents with no running water and inadequate sanitation.

“When my oldest son and I sit together, we reminisce about the things we used to do, going to the public garden or when I dropped him at school,” she said.

“But she doesn’t know what Syria is,” she said of her daughter Rayan, who sat on her lap.

“She repeats what everyone else says. She says things like: ‘when I saw my father’ or ‘when I met my uncle and grandmother’ – but she doesn’t know any of them and it really hurts,” says Warda, who managed to get work as a fruit picker on nearby farms a few days a week. She earns $5 a day.

Warda has heard nothing of her husband, who remarried and remained in Syria, for the past two years.

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

OUR CHILDREN DON’T KNOW SYRIA

Moussa Oweid al-Jassem from Aleppo is also struggling to keep the memory of Syria alive for his seven children. His youngest is four years old and the oldest is 16.

“Our youngest knows nothing about Syria, she knows this camp. The children here don’t know,” said Jassem, who is 43 and a former textile factory worker.

His family has nothing to remind them of home or of the lives they lived before. When they left, they had no time to take family albums or even the deeds to the lands they owned, he says.

“We were not prepared to witness the things we have seen. The scale of the violence, the bombings and the airstrikes, we had seen nothing like it before.”

In this small camp on the outskirts of the town of Qab Elias, residents say they are trying their best to make this place feel like a home.

The center of the tented settlement has been kept free to host weddings and wakes, and for the children to play.

On a sunny day, chickens strutted by and a cat looked for scraps as women peeled potatoes and chopped onions on mats spread outside. Black pigeons made nests in tires used as fortifications on tent roofs.

His sons Khaled, 16 and Majed, 14, are among the few whose memories of Syria have not faded completely.

“It felt better than heaven, ” said Majed, when asked to describe what home was like.

What it is like to live in a camp?

“Hell,” replied Khaled.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Syrian war will drag into next decade: senior Kurdish leader

Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish politician is seen in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Russian-led effort to end the war in Syria will fail and the conflict looks set to extend into the next decade, a top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters in an interview.

Aldar Khalil, an architect of Kurdish-led plans for autonomous rule in northern Syria, also said the United States appears in “no hurry” to leave areas where it has helped Kurdish-led forces fight Islamic State, and that he expects ties with Washington to develop as U.S. recovery efforts proceed.

The Syrian Kurds are among the few winners in the almost seven-year-old war, having established control over large parts of the north with a powerful militia that has partnered with the U.S.-led coalition against IS.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, has asked them to take part in an international peace conference on Syria for the first time — a peace congress scheduled in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

“Yes we are invited and we might take part in the show but it will not succeed,” Khalil, co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties, said by telephone.

He questioned what the hundreds of anticipated attendees could accomplish in two days and said more preparation was required.

U.N.-led diplomacy in Geneva was also set for more failure, he said, adding that the war would “ebb and flow” until at least 2021, the end of Assad’s current seven-year presidential term.

“I don’t expect any breakthrough in the Syrian situation before 2021 … it might even go on until ’25,” he said.

“Daesh (IS) might expand in other areas, and of course the Turks might try to stir up problems in some areas.”

The Syrian Kurds’ ascendancy in Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey. Ankara views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of Kurdish parties in Turkey that have been fighting Ankara for more than three decades.

U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters has also strained ties between the NATO allies: Turkey on Wednesday summoned a top U.S. diplomat in Ankara to protest over U.S. support of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Khalil is seen as a key figure in plans to establish a federal region in northern Syria – a plan Washington has opposed despite backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the war with IS.

The Syrian Kurds say independence is not their goal. But Khalil said the Kurdish-led authorities would press ahead with unilateral autonomy plans, though elections to a new regional parliament have been postponed to allow more time to prepare.

WARNING TO ASSAD

With the fight against IS winding down, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month he expected to see a larger U.S. civilian presence in Syria, including contractors and diplomats to focus on stabilization and ensuring IS does not return.

Khalil declined to say how long the United States might maintain a foothold in northern Syria, but said that achieving U.S. goals of helping cities such as Raqqa to recover implied a commitment of at least 18 months to two years.

“These matters will not be completed in less time than this,” he said.

“I can’t confirm to you a long-term relationship, but at least for the foreseeable time, it seems they are not in a hurry to leave,” he said. Pointing to the Mattis remarks, he said he expected U.S. ties to northern Syria to develop further.

The Kurdish-led authorities have held two local elections since September, part of their plan to build new governing structures. Discussions are underway to decide when a third vote — aimed at electing a regional parliament — will happen.

Khalil said the delay was aimed partly at giving a chance for areas recently captured from IS to decide whether to participate.

Though Assad recently condemned the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and their allies as “traitors”, Khalil said the Syrian government was incapable of attacking areas they control and warned that if it tried to “all its forces will be killed”.

He warned that Islamic State sleeper cells posed a big threat. “The Daesh campaign is not over, now the more difficult phase has started,” he said.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Turkey warns Greek Cypriots, oil companies against offshore energy grab

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the 22nd World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2017.

By Ece Toksabay and David Dolan

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey warned Greek Cypriots on Friday not to make a grab for energy reserves around the divided island and President Tayyip Erdogan told oil companies to be careful they did not lose a “friend” by joining in.

Talks to reunite the ethnic Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus collapsed in anger and recrimination in the early hours of Friday, ending a process many saw as the most promising in generations to heal decades of conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, speaking at an energy conference in Istanbul, called on Greek Cypriots to refrain from taking “one-sided measures” after talks failed.

It was a clear reference to plans by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government to exploit potential hydrocarbon deposits around the Mediterranean island.

The government has already issues a maritime advisory for a natural gas drill from July to October.

“We want to remind once again that the hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus belongs to both sides,” Yildirim said.

“The Greek Cypriot leadership must seek a constructive approach rather than setting an obstacle for peace. We advise that they refrain from unilateral measures in the east Mediterranean.”

Erdogan, speaking later at the same conference, went further, with a not-very-veiled threat to oil companies who may be tempted to participate in the Greek Cypriots’ plans.

“It is impossible to appreciate that some energy companies are acting with, and becoming part of some irresponsible measures taken by, Greek Cypriots,” Erdogan said. “I want to remind them that they could lose a friend like Turkey.”

 

NEW TENSIONS

Greek Cypriots say it is its sovereign right to explore for hydrocarbons, and it has signed maritime delimitation agreements with most of its neighbors.

Asked on Sunday if there was any pressure on Cyprus regarding the drilling schedule, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said: “Nothing (pressure) is being applied, nor will there be a postponement.”

A number of energy companies have already beaten a path to the island.

Italy’s ENI, ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Korea’s KOGAS have won offshore exploration licenses

A drilling ship contracted by Total, the West Capella, is already heading for Cyprus.

“What we expect from anyone who takes sides in the developments in Cyprus is that they should refrain from steps that might pave the way for new tensions in the region,” Erdogan said.

Asked by Reuters at the petroleum conference whether the company was worried that drilling could alienate Turkey, Arnaud Breuillac, Total’s president of exploration and production, said the company had “no concerns”.

The issue has risen to the fore again because of the failure of the latest round of reunification talks, which were started in part to try to solve the energy issue.

A week of United Nations-mediated talks in the Swiss Alps culminated in a “yelling and drama” session, leaving the conflict unresolved.

Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived estranged since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek- inspired coup.

Turkey has 30,000 troops stationed in northern Cyprus and their status in any post-settlement peace deal proved to be the undoing of a process one diplomat lamented came “so, so close” to succeeding.

Cyprus talks have collapsed before, most spectacularly in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint in a referendum while Turkish Cypriots backed it. It took several years for the United Nations to re-engage.

 

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Written by Jeremy Gaunt and David Dolan; Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Athens; Editing by Larry King)