U.S. to withdraw and withhold funds from Afghanistan, blames corruption

WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States would withdraw about $100 million earmarked for an energy infrastructure project in Afghanistan and withhold a further $60 million in planned assistance, blaming corruption and a lack of transparency in the country.

Pompeo said in a statement the United States would complete the infrastructure project but would do so using an “‘off-budget’ mechanism”, faulting Afghanistan for an “inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources”.

“Due to identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement, the U.S. Government is returning approximately $100 million to the U.S. Treasury that was intended for a large energy infrastructure project,” he added.

The decision comes a day after the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, in a tweet called out the country’s National Procurement Authority (NPA) for not approving the purchase of fuel for thermal electricity.

Residents of Kabul have accused the NPA of ignoring people’s need for energy, as large parts of the city have been without power for more than seven hours every day this month.

Electricity outages have also inflicted losses for manufacturing companies and emergency health services.

“Hearing reports the National Procurement Authority won’t authorize fuel purchases for the power plant providing the only electricity in Kabul – even while the U.S. & Resolute Support help Afghan security forces enable repairs to power transmission lines. Could this be true?” Bass said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The power crisis intensified further this week after insurgents attack pylons in northern provinces. About a third of the country has been hit by blackouts.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington DC, Rupam Jain in Kabul; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Trump slams ‘corrupt’ Puerto Rico as Storm Dorian heads for island

Tropical Storm Dorian is shown in this photo taken by NASA's Aqua satellite MODIS instrument as it moved over the Leeward Islands, as it continues its track into the Eastern Caribbean Sea, August 27, 2019. NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth” as the U.S. territory prepared for a hit by Tropical Storm Dorian, which brought back memories on the island of devastation from hurricanes two years ago.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people just months after it filed for bankruptcy.

Dorian was bearing down on Puerto Rico from the southeast and was expected to become a hurricane soon as it barrels towards Florida, which it could hit as a major hurricane.

After approving an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico late on Tuesday, Trump took a swipe at the U.S. territory in a tweet on Wednesday morning.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!” Trump wrote.

Trump has a history of disputes with Puerto Rico’s leaders. He was heavily criticized for a tepid response to the 2017 hurricanes that battered Puerto Rico.

This week, Democrats in the U.S. Congress also slammed him for shifting $271 million earmarked for disaster aid and cyber security to pay for detention facilities and courts for migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, on Tuesday described the shift as “stealing from appropriated funds.”

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Dorian was blowing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph) about 25 miles southeast of the island of St. Croix on Wednesday morning.

“Dorian is forecast to be near hurricane strength when it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” the NHC said.

Puerto Rican officials warned that the eastern part of the island should brace for particularly heavy rains.

“We are better prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island,” Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez said on Tuesday.

Vazquez, who took office this month after political turmoil led to the resignation of her predecessor, said preparations for the storm were more than 90% complete.

Infrastructure ranging from electric power lines to telecommunications and banking networks were in better shape than they had been in 2017, she added.

BAD HISTORY

Two years ago, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma when Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.

The U.S. response to Maria became highly politicized as the Trump administration was criticized as being slow to recognize the extent of the devastation and in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico, an island of more than 3 million people. Trump later disputed Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 3,000.

Hogan Gidley, a White House deputy press secretary, accused Puerto Rican authorities on Wednesday of misusing taxpayer funds in the 2017 hurricanes.

“The money we sent down there, we now know, several on the ground have been indicted for misusing that money, giving it to politicians as bonuses, watching that food rot in the ports, the water went bad,” he told reporters.

Puerto Rican public schools are closed on Wednesday and public workers have been instructed to stay home, Vazquez said.

Royal Caribbean’s cruise liner “Allure of the Sea” canceled a scheduled visit to the island on Thursday, and Carnival Cruise Line also adjusted its itineraries, the governor said.

The NHC’s latest forecasts predict that Dorian could reach Florida as a major hurricane early on Monday.

The Dominican Republic has also upped storm preparations. Juan Manuel Mendez, director of the emergency operations center, said authorities have identified 3,000 buildings that can be converted into shelters, with capacity for up to 800,000 people.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; additional reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez, Alex Dobuzinskis, Rebekah F Ward, Lisa Lambert and David Alexander; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Alison Williams and Alistair Bell)

Murders in Mexico surge to record in first half of 2019

FILE PHOTO: People stand near bullet casings on the ground at a crime scene after a shootout in the municipality of Tuzamapan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, Mexico, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Yahir Ceballos/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Murders in Mexico jumped in the first half of the year to the highest on record, according to official data, underscoring the vast challenges President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces in reducing violence in the cartel-ravaged country.

There were 14,603 murders from January to June, versus the 13,985 homicides registered in the first six months of 2018, according to data posted over the weekend on the website of Mexico’s national public security office.

Mexico is on course to surpass the 29,111 murders of last year, an all-time high.

For years Mexico has struggled with violence as consecutive governments battled brutal drug cartels, often by taking out their leaders. That has resulted in the fragmentation of gangs and increasingly vicious internecine fighting.

Veteran leftist Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, has blamed the economic policies of previous administrations for exacerbating the violence and said his government was targeting the issue by rooting out corruption and inequality in Mexico.

“Social policies are very important – we agree they’ll have positive effects. But these positive effects will be seen in the long term,” said Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory, a civil group that monitors justice and security in Mexico.

The complexity of fighting criminal groups is a major test for Lopez Obrador’s young administration, which has vowed to try a different approach than that of his predecessor.

His administration last month launched a new militarized National Guard police force tasked with helping to fix the problem.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Russian media, celebrities protest against investigative journalist’s drug bust

Russia's leading newspapers (L to R) RBK, Kommersant and Vedomosti, which published the same front page in support of detained journalist Ivan Golunov, are pictured in Moscow, Russia June 10, 2019. The headline reads "I am/We are Ivan Golunov." REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Three of Russia’s leading newspapers took the unusual step on Monday of publishing identical front page headlines to protest over what they suspect is the framing of an investigative journalist on drug charges.

Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old journalist known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police on Thursday and accused of serious drug offenses which he denies.

Russian journalists critical of authorities have led a dangerous existence since the 1990s – sometimes threatened, physically attacked, and even murdered for their work.

But the crude way supporters say Golunov was set up has triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

Police say they found drugs in Golunov’s rucksack, and he faces between 10 and 20 years in jail if found guilty.

Fellow journalists and members of Russia’s cultural elite suspect a fit-up by corrupt officials wanting to silence him. Golunov’s lawyer says he was assaulted and punched by police officers, something they deny.

The three leading daily newspapers – Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBK — all carried the same headline on Monday in a rare show of solidarity: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov.”

A lawyer comforts Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. The writing on the T-shirt reads "Editorial desk demands blood". REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

A lawyer comforts Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. The writing on the T-shirt reads “Editorial desk demands blood”. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

In a joint statement, they said evidence against Golunov was shaky, cast doubt over the legality of his detention, and demanded a review of police behavior.

“We expect law enforcement agencies to scrupulously observe the law and demand maximum openness when it comes to the investigation,” the statement said. “We demand the law be respected by everyone and for everyone.”

Journalists protested outside Moscow’s police headquarters on Friday and over the weekend to demand the case be dropped.

Celebrities and even some high-profile journalists at state media have spoken out for Golunov, criticizing either the accusations against him or the harsh manner of his detention.

In what some supporters saw as a small victory, a court on Saturday rejected a request to hold Golunov in a pre-trial detention facility and ordered instead that he be held under house arrest for two months while he is investigated.

It is unusual, given the gravity of the accusations, for a court to agree to house arrest and the decision was seen by supporters as a sign that authorities were nervous at the outcry.

State TV on Sunday broadcast a program in which police operatives defended their evidence, but the same program also said that the police’s actions needed to be checked.

The Kremlin said on Monday that the way Golunov’s case had been handled raised many questions.

“We are closely following how this case unfolds and all its nuances,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Tom Balmforth, and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Angus MacSwan)

North Koreans paying bribes to survive: U.N. report

North Koreans are forced to pay bribes to officials to survive in their isolated country where corruption is "endemic" and repression rife, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday in a report that Pyongyang dismissed as politically motivated.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Koreans are forced to pay bribes to officials to survive in their isolated country where corruption is “endemic” and repression rife, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday in a report that Pyongyang dismissed as politically motivated.

The report said officials extorted money from a population struggling to make ends meet, threatening them with detention and prosecution – particularly those working in the informal economy.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the formal name for North Korea, rejected the report, saying it was “politically motivated for sinister purposes”.

“Such reports are nothing more than fabrication … as they are always based on the so-called testimonies of ‘defectors’ who provide fabricated information to earn their living or are compelled to do so under duress or enticement,” its Geneva mission said in a statement to Reuters.

North Korea blames the dire humanitarian situation on U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs since 2006. But the report said that the military receives priority funding amid “economic mismanagement”.

“I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans,” Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe State officials,” she said.

Four in 10 North Koreans, or 10.1 million people, are chronically short of food and further cuts to already minimal rations are expected after the worst harvest in a decade, a U.N. assessment said earlier this month.

“The threat of arrest, detention and prosecution provide State officials with a powerful means of extorting money from a population struggling to survive,” the U.N. rights office report said.

CASH OR CIGARETTES

Bribery is “an everyday feature of people’s struggle to make ends meet”, said the report, entitled “The price is rights”. It denounced what it called a “vicious cycle of deprivation, corruption and repression”.

It is based on 214 interviews with North Korean “escapees”, mainly from the northeastern provinces of Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, bordering China. They were the first to be cut from the public distribution system that collapsed in 1994, leading to a famine estimated to have killed up to 1 million, it said.

“As my father still had to work at a state firm that could no longer afford giving rations, we survived by selling taffy and liquor my mom made,” Ju Chan-yang, a 29-year-old defector, told a news conference hosted by the U.N. rights office in Seoul on Tuesday.

Ju, who defected to the South in 2011, said she also made a living by selling banned South Korean and U.S. products in the underground economy. Sometimes she had to bribe authorities.

“If you get caught and don’t have bribes to pay, you could get executed, just like my relatives,” she said.

Many North Koreans pay bribes of cash or cigarettes not to have to report to state-assigned jobs where they receive no salary, thus allowing them to earn income in rudimentary markets, the report said.

Others bribe border guards to cross into China, where women are vulnerable to trafficking into forced marriages or the sex trade, it added.

“North Korea is a society where all of its members are involved in corruption because they’re forced to do illegal acts only to survive,” said Lee Han-byeol, who came to the South in 2001 and now runs a group that helps defectors.

Bachelet urged North Korean authorities to stop prosecuting people for engaging in legitimate market activity and to allow them freedom of movement within the country and abroad. China should not forcibly repatriate North Koreans, she added.

The United States called on North Korea this month to “dismantle all political prison camps” and release all political prisoners, who it said numbered between 80,000 and 120,000. North Korea denies the existence of such camps.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Andrew Heavens and Darren Schuettler)

Brazil’s grief turns to anger as death toll from Vale disaster hits 60

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

By Gram Slattery

BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Grief over the hundreds of Brazilians feared killed in last week’s mining disaster has quickly hardened into anger as victims’ families and politicians say iron ore miner Vale SA and regulators have learned nothing from the recent past.

By Monday, firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais had confirmed 60 people dead in Friday’s disaster, in which a tailings dam broke sending a torrent of sludge into the miner’s offices and the town of Brumadinho. Nearly 300 other people are unaccounted for, and officials said it was unlikely that any would be found alive.

A member of a rescue team is sprayed with water to remove mud, upon returning from a rescue mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

A member of a rescue team is sprayed with water to remove mud, upon returning from a rescue mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Shares of Vale, the world’s largest iron ore and nickel producer, plummeted 21.5 percent in Monday trading on the Sao Paulo stock exchange, erasing $16 billion

in market cap.

Brazil’s top prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, said the company should be held strongly responsible and criminally prosecuted. Executives could also be personally held responsible, she said.

Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who is acting president since Monday morning when Jair Bolsonaro underwent surgery, also said the government needs to punish those responsible for the dam disaster.

In a tweet, Brazilian Senator Renan Calheiros asked Justice Minister Sergio Moro “how many people should die before federal police charges Vale management before key evidence disappears.” Moro is a previous judge in charge of Brazil’s largest-ever corruption probe.

Israeli military personnel arrive to help search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, at Confins airport in Belo Horizonte, Brazil January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Israeli military personnel arrive to help search for victims of a collapsed tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA, at Confins airport in Belo Horizonte, Brazil January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves

One of Vale’s lawyers, Sergio Bermudes, told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the executives should not leave the company and that Calheiros was trying to profit politically from the tragedy.

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said during a visit to Brumadinho on Sunday that facilities there were built to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable two weeks earlier.

The disaster at the Corrego do Feijao mine occurred less than four years after a dam collapsed at a nearby mine run by Samarco Mineracao SA, a joint venture by Vale and BHP Billiton, killing 19 and filling a major river with toxic sludge.

While the 2015 Samarco disaster dumped about five times more mining waste, Friday’s dam break was far deadlier, as the wall of mud hit Vale’s local offices, including a crowded cafeteria, and tore through a populated area downhill.

“The cafeteria was in a risky area,” Renato Simao de Oliveiras, 32, said while searching for his twin brother, a Vale employee, at an emergency response station.

“Just to save money, even if it meant losing the little guy… These businessmen, they only think about themselves.”

As search efforts continued on Monday, firefighters laid down wood planks to cross a sea of sludge that is hundreds of meters wide in places, to reach a bus in search of bodies inside. Villagers discovered the bus as they tried to rescue a nearby cow stuck in the mud.

A rescue helicopter flies after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

A rescue helicopter flies after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 27, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Longtime resident Ademir Rogerio cried as he surveyed the mud where Vale’s facilities once stood on the edge of town.

“The world is over for us,” he said. “Vale is the top mining company in the world. If this could happen here, imagine what would happen if it were a smaller miner.”

Nestor José de Mury said he lost his nephew and coworkers in the mud.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, it killed everyone,” he said.

SAFETY DEBATE

The board of Vale, which has raised its dividends over the last year, suspended all shareholder payouts and executive bonuses late on Sunday, as the disaster put its corporate strategy under scrutiny.

“I’m not a mining technician. I followed the technicians’ advice and you see what happened. It didn’t work,” Vale CEO Schvartsman said in a TV interview. “We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn’t do it.”

Many wondered if the state of Minas Gerais, named for the mining industry that has shaped its landscape for centuries, should have higher standards.

“There are safe ways of mining,” said Joao Vitor Xavier, head of the mining and energy commission in the state assembly. “It’s just that it diminishes profit margins, so they prefer to do things the cheaper way – and put lives at risk.”

Reaction to the disaster could threaten the plans of Brazil’s newly inaugurated president to relax restrictions on the mining industry, including proposals to open up indigenous reservations and large swaths of the Amazon jungle for mining.

Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque proposed in an interview late on Sunday with newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that the law should be changed to assign responsibility in cases such as Brumadinho to the people responsible for certifying the safety of mining dams.

“Current law does not prevent disasters like the one we saw on Brumadinho”, he said. “The model for verifying the state of mining dams will have to be reconsidered. The model isn’t good.”

The ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the interview.

German auditor TUV SUD said on Saturday it inspected the dam in September and found all to be in order.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Marguerita Choy)

Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.

“SULTAN OF COINS”

Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.

CLERICS

In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Archbishop who called on Pope to resign says corruption reaches the top

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano reads during the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishops James Massa and Witold Mroziewski, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., July 20, 2015. Picture taken July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The archbishop who sparked a crisis in the Catholic Church by calling on Pope Francis to resign has denied he was motivated by personal vendetta and said he sought to show that corruption had reached the top levels of the Church hierarchy.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano has gone into hiding since conservative media published an 11-page statement in which he alleged the pope knew for years about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal and did nothing about it.

Vigano has been communicating through Aldo Maria Valli, an Italian television journalist who Vigano consulted several times before releasing his statement last Sunday when the pope was in Ireland.

Italian media has reported he was upset because he was never made a cardinal by former Pope Benedict or because Francis blocked his further advancement in the Church.

“I have never had feelings of vendetta and rancor in all these years,” he was quoted as telling Valli, who has been publishing statements from Vigano in his blog.

“I spoke out because corruption has reached the top levels of Church hierarchy,” said Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to Washington.

The Vatican had no comment on the new accusations by Vigano.

In his statement, Vigano accused a long list of current and past Vatican and U.S. Church officials of covering up the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month in disgrace.

One of the people he attacks in the statement is Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, who was secretary of state under former Pope Benedict.

Italian media reports have said Vigano was upset because Bertone had blocked any possibility of him becoming a cardinal.

In his comments published on Valli’s blog, Vigano says he himself gave up the possibility of becoming a cardinal “for the good of the Church”.

Vigano did not include any supporting documents in his remarkably blunt statement in which he said cover-ups in the Church were making it look like “a conspiracy of silence not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia”.

On his flight home from Ireland on Sunday, Francis told reporters he would “not say one word” about the accusations.

“Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves,” he said.

Francis’ supporters say the statement contains holes and contradictions and note that Vigano prepared it with help from two journalists who have been critical of Francis, citing this as evidence that it forms part of an ideological anti-Francis strategy. The journalists deny this.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Iran bans 1,300 imports as protesters, police clash over currency weakness

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks at exchange rates by the window of a currency exchange shop in Tehran's business district, Iran January 7, 2012. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi /File Photo

By Andrew Torchia

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran is banning imports of over 1,300 products, preparing its economy to resist threatened U.S. sanctions, amid rare public protests against the plunge of its currency to record lows.

Police patrolled Tehran’s Grand Bazaar on Monday as security forces struggled to restore normality after clashes with protesters angered by the rial’s collapse, which is disrupting business by driving up the cost of imports, witnesses said.

Traders from the bazaar, whose merchants supported Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, told Reuters by telephone that most shops remained closed.

“Police have dispersed the protectors. We are all angry with the economic situation. We cannot continue our businesses like this. But we are not against the regime,” said a merchant in the bazaar, who asked not to be identified.

Industries and trade minister Mohammad Shariatmadari slapped the import ban on 1,339 goods that could instead be produced within the country, Iran’s Financial Tribune newspaper reported on Monday, quoting an official document.

Prohibited imports include home appliances, textile products, footwear and leather products, as well as furniture, healthcare products and some machinery, the Tehran Times said.

The order suggests the U.S. sanctions threat is pushing Tehran back toward running a “resistance economy” designed to conserve foreign exchange reserves and become as self-sufficient as possible in many products.

The rial is under heavy pressure from the U.S. sanctions threat. It sank as low as 90,000 against the dollar in the unofficial market on Monday from 87,000 on Sunday and around 75,500 last Thursday, according to foreign exchange website Bonbast.com. At the end of last year, it stood at 42,890.

After U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from world powers’ deal with Iran on its nuclear program, some U.S. sanctions are to be reimposed in August and some in November.

This may cut Iran’s hard currency earnings from oil exports, and the prospect is triggering a panicked flight of Iranians’ savings from the rial into dollars.

Hundreds of merchants gathered in front of parliament in Tehran on Monday to protest at the rial’s fall, witnesses said.

In the Grand Bazaar, hundreds staged a similar protest, videos posted on social media showed. A larger, sustained series of protests could put pressure on President Hassan Rouhani, who has already been harshly criticized by hardliners for his economic record.

Ali Fazeli, the head of Iran’s Chamber of Guilds, a business association, told the semi-official Tasnim news agency later on Monday: “Business is as usual in the Grand Bazaar.”

State TV quoted Tehran’s deputy governor Abdolazim Rezaie as saying “no one has been arrested in the Tehran protests”, adding that all the shops will be open on Tuesday.

On Sunday, merchants at Tehran’s mobile phone shopping centers Aladdin and Charsou shut their shops to protest against the rial’s slide, Fars news agency reported.

RESISTANCE ECONOMY

Iran eased its “resistance economy” policy after many international sanctions were lifted in January 2016 under the nuclear deal. Rouhani announced plans to boost Iran’s foreign trade and give foreign companies a bigger role in its economy.

With Iran now aiming to close its markets to many foreign products and the government intervening to support locally owned companies, those goals look more distant.

Mehrdad Emadi, an Iranian economist who heads energy risk analysis at London’s Betamatrix consultancy, said the sanctions threat was strengthening interests in the Iranian government that favored tighter state control of the economy.

“In the coming months we will see much more intervention in the economy by the government, a centrally imposed style of management by dictat,” he said.

One result is likely to be a shift of influence over Iran’s non-oil foreign trade from the private sector, along with a strong presence by the government’s Revolutionary Guards, to near-complete dominance by the Guards, he added.

Emadi and other Iranian economists noted that Iran had imposed import bans during the previous sanctions era before 2016 with only limited success.

Many foreign goods continued to enter the country at higher prices as a result of corruption and smuggling, benefiting business interests with the close official ties needed to arrange the shipments.

The government is justifying its latest clampdown on imports by citing economic security. The Tehran Times quoted Mohammad Reza Pourebrahimi, head of parliament’s economic committee, as saying the ban would prevent an outflow of $10 billion of foreign currency.

The International Monetary Fund estimated in March that the government held $112 billion of foreign assets and reserves, and that Iran was running a current account surplus. These figures suggested Iran might withstand the sanctions without an external payments crisis.

But as U.S. pressure constricts Iran’s access to the international banking system, its ability to deploy some of those resources may have suffered. Indian government sources told Reuters last week that New Delhi was looking to revive a rupee trade mechanism to settle part of its oil payments to Iran, fearing foreign channels to pay Tehran might close.

Concern about the rial’s vulnerability is prompting ordinary Iranians to pour money into non-cash assets. Tehran real estate prices have climbed and Iran’s stock market has jumped 17 percent since the end of May to a record high. Prices of gold coins have also risen sharply, local media reported.

(Editing by William Maclean)

Why Yemen is at war?

A pro-Houthi police trooper stands past a patrol vehicle in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The battle for the western Yemeni port of Hodeidah could be an important milestone in the three-year civil war. But analysts say the conflict is so complex that even a decisive outcome there might not bring peace.

Why is Yemen so divided?

Yemen’s internal splits have festered for years. North and south Yemen united into a single state in 1990, but separatists in the south tried to secede from the pro-union north in 1994.

Their forces were swiftly beaten, and more power and resources flowed to the northern capital of Sanaa, angering many southerners.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled north Yemen since 1978 and the unified state after 1990. But he alienated many Yemenis. His relatives controlled core parts of the army and economy, and critics said corruption was rife.

In the far north, some of the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam also chafed. Zaydis had ruled northern Yemen until the 1962 revolution, but their heartland was now impoverished. In the late 1990s, some Zaydis formed the Houthi group, which fought Yemen’s army and grew friendly with Iran.

Though allied to Saleh, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamists were also gaining strength, particularly under General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who built a power base in the army.

Taking advantage of factional rivalries, jihadist fugitives set up al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most powerful wings, and began staging attacks.

How did ‘Arab Spring’ protests lead to war?

When mass protests broke out in 2011, some of Saleh’s former allies turned on him. The army split between units loyal to Saleh and those who followed Ahmar. Separatists rallied in the south. The Houthis seized more areas. AQAP attacks increased.

After a year of crisis, including a bombing that nearly killed Saleh, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors persuaded him to step down, but he stayed in Yemen.

Deputy president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in 2012 to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition. A “National Dialogue” meeting of all Yemen’s opposing groups began hashing out a new constitution.

But despite the dialogue, things were falling apart.

Hadi was widely seen as weak and his administration corrupt. Saleh’s allies in the army and government undermined the transition. AQAP set up a mini-state and hit Sanaa with ever bloodier bombings.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa with help from army units loyal to Saleh, forcing Hadi to share power. When the National Dialogue proposed a federal constitution, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it for blunting their new-found sway.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in early 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The Houthis pursued him, battling loyalists of the transitional government.

Days later, Saudi Arabia entered the war on Hadi’s side, backed by a coalition of Arab allies, to prevent Iran from gaining influence via the Houthis on its border and to preserve the Gulf-brokered transition.

They plucked Hadi from Aden and took him to Riyadh, notionally preserving his internationally recognized government and the democratic transition plan.

Why was there deadlock for so long?

The crisis was now a war between two unstable coalitions.

The Houthis and Saleh were old enemies jointly ruling the populous highlands and Red Sea coast.

Hadi had no personal power base, but became a nominal figurehead for southern separatists, tribes in the northeast, Sunni Islamists and army remnants loyal to Ahmar.

Internal rivalries even emerged in the coalition set up by Saudi Arabia to back Hadi. Riyadh and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates, differed over local allies and tactics.

The Houthis and Saleh’s forces were driven from Aden and its environs in south Yemen, and from central Marib and the desert area to its east in 2015. Years of military stalemate followed.

The Houthis held most of the easily defended highlands. They also held the flat Red Sea coast and its port of Hodeidah – the last entry point for supplying northern Yemen.

The coalition kept up intense air strikes, aiming to split the Houthis and Saleh. They imposed a partial blockade to stop Iran arming the Houthis, something it denies doing. But despite this pressure, U.N.-backed talks went nowhere.

How have internal divisions played out?

Then, last year Saleh finally abandoned his Houthi allies, hoping to cut a deal and regain power for his family. But he was killed fleeing Sanaa in December, 2017.

His loyalists turned on the Houthis, helping the advance toward Hodeidah that culminated in this week’s assault.

Divisions widened on the other side too. The UAE supported separatists in the south who sometimes clashed with fighters backed by Saudi Arabia.

In the north, the Saudis brought in Ahmar to command forces around Marib – a red flag for the UAE because of his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, its biggest bugbear.

Meanwhile, the death toll from air strikes and the near famine aggravated by the partial blockade prompted international outrage, making it harder for Gulf states’ key Western allies to maintain military aid.

If the Hodeidah fighting lasts long, causing big coalition casualties and an outcry over a humanitarian catastrophe, the Houthis may hope the advance will fail.

If the Houthis are driven out and lose all ability to keep supply lines open, they might lose the war. But there is no guarantee the victors could put aside their own divisions and build a real peace.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Mike Collett-White)