‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say
By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of Venezuelans is on track to reach 5 million people, as pressure grows on neighboring countries to provide them with long-term support, United Nations and European Union officials said on Wednesday.

Some 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to official figures, but more are using illegal crossing points because they lack identity papers, said Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the U.N. refugee and migration agencies.

The crisis has worsened since the United States imposed sanctions, including on the pivotal oil industry, in an effort to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Dozens of nations recognize Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged a 2018 election.

Roughly 5,000 people leave Venezuela daily, although the number fluctuates as more states require visas, Stein said.

“The experience of other crises in the world shows us that those who would want to go back to Venezuela if the crisis in political terms were to be solved today, it will take a good two years or maybe even more,” Stein told a news conference.

A U.N. regional humanitarian response plan of $739 million for this year is expected to nearly double for 2020, he added.

The initially welcoming attitude to Venezuelans around South America has soured amid accusations they bring crime, crowd the job market, and strain social services.

The United Nations and European Union are hosting a meeting on Oct. 28-29 in Brussels to raise awareness of needs. Donors and officials from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are due to attend, but no Venezuelan representatives.

“This is the most severe and fastest-growing refugee migrant crisis in Latin American history, at least recent history,” said Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “There are estimates also that it could further increase if the situation does not change, quickly reaching 5 million.”

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants fleeing the long-running crisis, which has caused widespread shortages of food and medicine. Some 1.4 million Venezuelans live in Colombia.

The flow is overwhelming the financial and administrative capacities of host countries to provide education and health services, Stein said.

“Nine receiving countries have agreed to accept expired (Venezuelan) passports as valid documents. And so with an expired passport you can get a temporary permit sometimes for two years,” he stated.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

UK PM Johnson makes final Brexit offer to cool EU reception

By Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kylie MacLellan

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a final Brexit offer to the European Union on Wednesday and said that unless the bloc compromised, Britain would leave without a deal at the end of this month.

In what supporters cast as a moment of truth after more than three years of crisis, Johnson stuck to his hard line on Brexit, giving some of the first, albeit vague, details of what he described as “constructive and reasonable proposals”.

With the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline moving closer, Johnson’s aides cast the proposals to be delivered to Brussels as London’s final gambit to try to break the deadlock – principally over arrangements for the Irish border – and find a path to a smooth departure from the EU.

“We are coming out of the EU on October 31, come what may,” Johnson told party members, after expressing “love” for Europe in a speech that focused mostly on domestic issues such as health, the economy and crime.

“We are tabling what I believe are constructive and reasonable proposals which provide a compromise for both sides,” Johnson said. “Let us be in no doubt that the alternative is no deal.”

Many diplomats fear the United Kingdom is heading towards a no-deal or another delay as they say the British proposals are not enough to get an agreement by Oct. 31. Johnson said further delay was “pointless and expensive”.

The initial reaction from other European capitals was cool. Berlin and Paris said they were awaiting details.

EU diplomats and officials in Brussels were less polite with one calling the reported proposals “fundamentally flawed”.

“If it’s take it or leave it, we better close the book and start talking about the modalities of an extension,” a senior EU official told Reuters.

“Essentially it is a non-runner,” said another EU diplomat.

NO DEAL?

Quitting the EU is Britain’s most significant geopolitical move since World War Two. It is, though, still uncertain if it will leave with a deal or without one – or even not leave at all.

Deutsche Bank said it saw a 50 percent chance of a no-deal Brexit by the end of the year. This would spook financial markets, send shockwaves through the global economy and divide the West. It could also bring chaos to British ports and disrupt supply lines in goods from food products to car parts.

Despite Johnson’s repeated promises to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31, parliament has passed a law stating that Britain must request a delay if it does not have a deal by Oct. 19. Johnson has repeatedly refused to say how he will get around the law.

A senior British official said: “The government is either going to be negotiating a new deal or working on no deal – nobody will work on delay.”

Ireland, whose 500 km (300 mile) land border with the United Kingdom, will become the frontier of the EU’s single market and customs union, is crucial to any Brexit solution.

The problem is how to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a back door into the EU market without erecting border controls that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in which more than 3,600 people were killed.

The Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck last November with the EU says the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.

Johnson said Britain had compromised in putting forward a proposal to try to change that so-called backstop, an insurance policy to ensure there is no return to a hard border.

Giving little detail on his proposals, Johnson said there would be no checks at or near the Irish border. He said London would respect the 1998 peace agreement. He did not explain how.

IRELAND

Britain would “protect the existing regulatory arrangements for farmers and other businesses on both sides of the border” while Northern Ireland would leave the bloc alongside the rest of the United Kingdom, he said.

“By a process of renewable democratic consent by the executive and assembly of Northern Ireland,” Johnson said. “We will go further and protect the existing regulatory arrangements for farmers and other businesses on both sides of the border.”

He said the United Kingdom “whole and entire” would withdraw from the EU, with London keeping control of its own trade policy from the start. Technology could offer a solution, he said, without giving details.

“I hope very much that our friends understand that and compromise in their turn,” said Johnson, who took office in July after May stood down.

With the EU already pouring cold water on some of the reports of his proposal, the likelihood of a no deal appears to be rising – something Johnson’s opponents say they believe is the prime minister’s overriding goal.

John McDonnell, finance policy chief for the opposition Labour Party, described Johnson’s proposals as “a cynical attempt to force through a no-deal Brexit”.

Johnson has repeatedly said he wants a deal.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Elizabeth Piper and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Angus MacSwan)

Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of businesspeople.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

“If I have a choice,” she said, speaking in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend.

Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1. And she said China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets. World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing, “to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world.”

In such a situation, she added, “the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

Three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour. A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters. The meeting was one of a number of “closed-door sessions” that Lam said she has been doing “with people from all walks of life” in Hong Kong.

Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people, and that both were effectively private. “We are therefore not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events,” the spokesman said.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a high-level agency under China’s cabinet, the State Council, did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

‘THE PRICE WOULD BE TOO HUGE’

The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with an escalating strategic rivalry with the United States and a slowing economy. Tensions have risen as the world’s two biggest economies are embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war. Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.

Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”

As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The tone of Lam’s comments in the recording is at odds with her more steely public visage. At times, she can be heard choking up as she reveals the personal impact of the three-month crisis.

“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said.

Lam told the meeting that the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong to quell the protests.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she said.

“They care about the country’s international profile,” she said. “It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda.”

But she said China was “willing to play long” to ride out the unrest, even if it meant economic pain for the city, including a drop in tourism and losing out on capital inflows such as initial public offerings.

‘BIGGEST SADNESS’

Lam also spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong and restoring stability to the city of more than seven million, as well as the need to improve efforts to get the government’s message out. At the end, applause can be heard on the recording.

While Lam said that now was not the time for “self-pity,” she spoke about her profound frustration with not being able “to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers,” or to provide a political solution to “pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular.”

Her inability “to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension,” she said, was the source of her “biggest sadness.”

Lam also spoke about the impact the crisis has had on her daily life.

“Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out,” she said. “I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media.”

If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.

After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute.

HONG KONG ‘IS NOT DEAD YET’

Lam was chosen as city leader in March 2017, vowing to “unite society” and heal divisions in Hong Kong, which remains by far the freest city under Chinese rule. Under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed with Britain, Hong Kong enjoys an array of personal freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China. One of the most cherished of those freedoms is the city’s British-style system of independent courts and rule of law. The protesters say the extradition law would erode that bulwark of liberty.

According to a biography on the Hong Kong government website, Lam, a devout Catholic, attended St Francis’ Canossian College. Her mother, who took care of seven family members on a daily basis, was her role model and inspiration, the biography said. An election manifesto said Lam came from a “grassroots” family and did her homework on a bunk-bed. After studying sociology at the University of Hong Kong, she went on to a distinguished career as a civil servant in Hong Kong. She was elected city leader in March 2017 by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

In her early days as leader, Lam pushed through a series of controversial government policies, drawing public criticism in Hong Kong but winning praise from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On July 1, 2017, the day she was sworn in, Lam donned a white hard hat as she walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which physically links Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics say the bridge could further weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy by deepening its physical links with southern China.

The effective expulsion last year of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, whose visa wasn’t renewed after he hosted an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, also drew condemnation at home and abroad. Lam and her government later came under fire for banning the party and the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers.

Xi praised Lam’s leadership during a visit to Beijing in December 2018. “The central government fully endorses the work of Chief Executive Lam” and the Hong Kong government, Xi said, according to a report in the state news agency Xinhua.

Pollster Robert Chung said Lam’s success in pushing through many controversial proposals bolstered her belief she would be able to ram through the extradition bill.

“All these things made her feel so confident, and when we had the first demonstration, she still thought, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it through in two days and things will be over,'” Chung said. “But she was totally wrong.”

At the meeting last week, Lam said the extradition bill was her doing and was meant to “plug legal loopholes in Hong Kong’s system.”

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she said.

She expressed deep regrets about her push to pass the bill. “This has proven to be very unwise given the circumstances,” she said. “And this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

She gave her audience a gloomy outlook. The police, she said, would continue to arrest those responsible for “this escalating violence,” a group that the government initially estimated numbered between one thousand and two thousand.

It would be “naïve,” she said, to “paint you a rosy picture, that things will be fine.” She did, however, express hope in the city’s ultimate “resurrection.”

“Hong Kong is not dead yet. Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet,” she said.

(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Iran on course to exceed nuclear pact limit within days: diplomats

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

By Francois Murphy and Christopher Gallagher

VIENNA/TOKYO (Reuters) – Iran is on course to breach a threshold in its nuclear agreement with world powers within days by accumulating more enriched uranium than permitted, although it has not done so yet, diplomats said, citing the latest data from U.N. inspectors.

France, one of the European powers caught in the middle in an escalating confrontation between Washington and Tehran, said it would ask U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend some sanctions on Iran to allow negotiations to defuse the crisis.

A week after Trump called off air strikes on Iran minutes before impact, world leaders are trying to pull the two countries back from the brink, warning that a mistake on either side could lead to war.

“I want to convince Trump that it is in his interest to re-open a negotiation process (and) go back on certain sanctions to give negotiations a chance,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in Japan, where he is due to meet Trump on the sidelines of a summit in coming days.

A move by Tehran that clearly breached its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers would transform the diplomatic landscape and probably force European countries to take sides.

Macron said he had two priorities: de-escalating military tension and keeping Iran from violating the accord, which European countries still hope to save even though Trump ignored their advice and quit it last year.

The latest data from U.N. inspectors suggested Iran had not yet violated the deal on Thursday, despite having named it as a day when it might do so.

“They haven’t reached the limit… It’s more likely to be at the weekend if they do it,” said one diplomat in Vienna, headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency IAEA, on condition of anonymity.

“OBLITERATION”

The United States withdrew from the pact last year under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for access to international trade. Iran has said it wants to abide by the agreement but cannot do so indefinitely as new U.S. sanctions mean it is receiving none of the benefits.

The escalating crisis has put the United States in the position of demanding its European allies enforce Iranian compliance with an accord Washington itself rejects.

The United States sharply tightened its sanctions last month, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil, the main source of revenue to feed Iran’s 80 million people.

Trump’s aborted air strikes last week were the culmination of weeks of heightened military tension. Washington accused Iran of being behind attacks on ships in the Gulf, which it denies.

Last week Iran shot down a U.S. drone it said was in its air space. The United States said it was in international skies.

Since the aborted air strikes last week there have been no major incidents, but rhetoric on both sides has become menacing.

This week Trump threatened Iran’s “obliteration” if it attacked U.S. interests while Rouhani, typically the mild-mannered face of the Tehran government, called White House policy “mentally retarded”. Trump later said he hoped to avoid war, which would be short and not involve boots on the ground.

IRANIAN RESPONSE

In the latest volley in the war of words, Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the downing of the U.S. drone had taught Washington the cost of violating Iranian air space.

“Iran’s reaction will be stronger if they repeat their mistake of violating our borders,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Larijani as saying.

The Trump administration says its ultimate goal is to force Iran back to the table for negotiations. It argues that the 2015 deal, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too weak because it is not permanent and does not cover non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

Iran says it cannot negotiate further unless the United States observes the existing agreement and lifts sanctions.

Tehran says Washington would be to blame if it ends up breaching the limit on uranium stockpiles, since the deal allows it to sell excess uranium abroad to reduce its holdings, but U.S. sanctions have prevented this.

It has set a separate deadline of July 7 when it could breach another major threshold, on the level of purity of uranium it has enriched.

(Additional reporting by Christopher Gallagher in Tokyo; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Black-clad, anti-extradition protesters singing “Hallelujah to the Lord” flood streets of Hong Kong

Protesters gather outside police headquarters in Hong Kong, China June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on Friday as Asia’s leading financial center braced itself for a third weekend of mass protests against an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis.

Groups of mostly students wearing hard hats, goggles and face masks set up roadblocks and trapped vehicles in a generally peaceful protest to demand that leader Carrie Lam, who promoted and then postponed the bill, scrap it altogether.

“Having people here is giving pressure to the government that we don’t agree with your extradition plans,” said student Edison Ng, who was protesting in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (90F).

“It is not clear how long we will stay… To go or not to go, (the) people will decide,” he added.

The protests, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, once again forced the temporary closure of Hong Kong government offices over security concerns.

Roads that would normally be jammed with traffic near the heart of the former British colony were empty, with demonstrators reinforcing roadblocks with metal barriers.

“Never surrender,” echoed through the streets as the protesters chanted near police headquarters and called on police chief Stephen Lo to step down.

Riot police armed with helmets and shields appeared from the balcony of police headquarters but withdrew back inside after heavy chanting from the crowd. Police warned activists through loud hailers not to charge.

Thousands remained outside government buildings on Friday night, with the majority sitting peacefully and spraying each other with water to keep cool. Nearby, a large group sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, which has emerged as the unlikely anthem of the protests.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.

Millions of people, fearing further erosion of those freedoms, have clogged the streets of the Asian financial center this month to rally against the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

It triggered the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Beijing’s squeeze sparked pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days.

Many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Friday’s marchers demanded that the government drop all charges against those arrested in last week’s clashes, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.

A small group of demonstrators hurled eggs at police outside the headquarters to protest against police violence. Amnesty International in a statement on Friday that evidence of unlawful use of force by police during the June 12 protest was “irrefutable”.

The government in a statement late on Friday said the protests had caused much disruption and appealed to protesters to act peacefully and rationally. With regard to the bill, it said the government had put a stop to legislation on the matter.

“SINCERE AND HUMBLE ATTITUDE”

Opponents of the extradition bill fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.

The turmoil has also raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern, two years after she was selected and pledged to “unite and move forward”.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologize over the bill.

“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Cheng wrote in her blog.

“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she had heard the people “loud and clear”, she has rejected repeated calls to step down.

Concerns over the bill spread quickly, from democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government. Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said in a statement that it was asking the government to withdraw the extradition bill and make a commitment that any legislation would not proceed without having a full and open consultation.

Protesters had gathered early on Friday outside government offices before marching toward police headquarters. One activist read a letter of support from a Taiwan student.

“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love,” the protester read through a loud hailer to applause.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.

Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Sijia Jiang Felix Tam, Ryan Chang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)

Don’t open ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Middle East, China warns

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez (not pictured) at Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing, China May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Florence Lo

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese government’s top diplomat warned on Tuesday that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced U.S. pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of a landmark nuclear deal.

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since last Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The United States blamed Iran for the attacks, more than a year after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Iran denied involvement in the tanker attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced on the same day the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

Speaking in Beijing after meeting Syria’s foreign minister, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters that China was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension and not head towards a clash.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the U.S. side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said.

“Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said that the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and he urged Iran to be prudent.

“We understand that relevant parties may have different concerns but first of all the comprehensive nuclear deal should be properly implemented,” he added. “We hope that Iran is cautious with its decision-making and not lightly abandon this agreement.”

At the same time, China hopes other parties respect Iran’s legitimate lawful rights and interests, Wang said.

China and Iran have close energy ties, and China has been angered by U.S. threats against countries and companies that violate U.S. sanctions by importing Iranian oil, including Chinese firms.

China has had to walk a fine line as it has also been cultivating relations with Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, the Asian giant’s top oil supplier.

Iran’s foreign minister has visited China twice this year already. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has also visited Beijing this year.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Se Young Lee and Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Why U.S.-Iran tensions could quickly escalate into a crisis

FILE PHOTO: A Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat is seen near the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Strait of Hormuz as U.S. Navy helicopters hover nearby on March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Three years ago, when Iran’s military captured 10 U.S.sailors after they mistakenly strayed into Iranian waters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jumped on the phone in minutes and worked out the sailors’ release in hours.

Could a similar crisis be so quickly resolved today?

“No, Zarif said in a recent interview with Reuters. “How could it be averted?”

Zarif and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have never spoken directly, according to Iran’s mission at the United Nations. They instead tend to communicate through name-calling on Twitter or through the media.

“Pompeo makes sure that every time he talks about Iran, he insults me,” Zarif said.  “Why should I even answer his phone call?”

The open rancor between the nations’ two top diplomats underscores growing concern that the lack of any established channel for direct negotiation makes a military confrontation more likely in the event of a misunderstanding or a mishap, according to current and former U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.

“The danger of an accidental conflict seems to be increasing over each day,” U.S. Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, told Reuters as he called for direct dialogue between the United States and Iran.

A senior European diplomat said it was vital for top U.S. and Iranian officials to be on “speaking terms” to prevent an incident from mushrooming into a crisis.

“I hope that there are some channels still existing so we don’t sleepwalk into a situation that nobody wants,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The rhetoric that we have is alarming.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to address how the administration would communicate with Iran in a crisis similar to the 2016 incident, but said:  “When the time to talk comes, we are confident we will have every means to do so.”

The administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, she said, aims to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

“If the Iranians are willing to engage on changing their ways to behave like a normal nation,” Ortagus said, “we are willing to talk to them.”

TWITTER DIPLOMACY

In 2016, Kerry and Zarif knew one another well from the complex negotiations to reach a 2015 pact to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Three years later, top-level diplomatic relations have all but disintegrated in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact, its tightening of sanctions on Iranian oil, and its recent move to designate part of Iran’s military as a terrorist group.

U.S. military officials cite growing concern about Iran’s development of precise missiles and its support for proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

In the absence of direct talks, Twitter has become a common forum for U.S. and Iranian officials to trade biting barbs. On Wednesday, an advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fired off a tweet at Pompeo castigating him for provoking Iran with military deployments.

“You @SecPompeo do not bring warships to our region and call it deterrence. That’s called provocation,” the advisor, Hesameddin Ashena, tweeted in English. “It compels Iran to illustrate its own deterrence, which you call provocation. You see the cycle?”

That followed a Trump tweet on Sunday threatening to “end” Iran if it sought a fight, and a long history of bitter insults traded by Pompeo and Zarif.

Pompeo in February called Zarif and Iran’s president “front men for a corrupt religious mafia” in a tweet. That same month, another official at Pompeo’s State Department tweeted: “How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving.”

Zarif, in turn, has used the social media platform to condemn Pompeo and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “pure obsession with Iran,” calling it “the behavior of persistently failing psychotic stalkers.”

‘AMERICANS HAVE OPTIONS’

U.S. officials, diplomats and lawmakers said they doubted Zarif would refuse to take a call from Pompeo in a crisis, given the risks for Iran in any conflict with the U.S. military.

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Pompeo appeared to dismiss concerns about Washington’s ability to communicate and negotiate with Iran.

“There are plenty of ways that we can have a communication channel,” Pompeo said.

Diplomats say Oman, Switzerland and Iraq are nations with ties to both countries that could pass messages.

“It’s a little bit like the Israelis – when they need to get messages to people, they can get messages to people,” said a second senior European diplomat.

Representative Michael Waltz – the first U.S. Army Green Beret elected to Congress, said he favored the diplomatic freeze as a way to force Iran into serious negotiations.

“If you don’t have diplomatic isolation, you’re having one-off talks, that lessens the pressure,” said Waltz, who is also a former Pentagon official.

But indirect message-passing can be too cumbersome in a fast-moving crisis, said Kevin Donegan, a retired vice admiral who oversaw U.S. naval forces in the Middle East as commander of the Fifth Fleet when the U.S. sailors were captured by Iran.

Such dealings through intermediaries “require time and will not allow an opportunity to de-escalate a rapidly unfolding tactical situation,” said Donegan, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added that he was not commenting on current U.S. policy.

Donegan and Waltz both said it would be helpful to have some kind of hotline between the U.S. and Iranian militaries, but Donegan and other experts were skeptical Iran would agree to such an arrangement.

BACK CHANNELS THROUGH OMAN, IRAQ & RUSSIA?

On May 3 – after Washington became alarmed by intelligence indicating that Iran might be preparing for an attack on the United States or its interests – it sent messages to Iran via “a third party,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told Congress on May 8 that messages had been sent to “to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognized the threat and we were postured to respond.”

Waltz said Dunford told lawmakers at a closed-door hearing that he had sent a message to Qassem Soleimani – the influential commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – warning him that Iran would be held directly accountable if one of its proxy forces attacks Americans.

“The message now was: ‘We’re not going to hold your proxies accountable'” if they attack U.S. citizens or forces in the region, he said. “‘We’re going to hold you, the regime, accountable.'”

Another official said the United States had authorized Iraq “to let the Iranians know that there is no plausible deniability about attacks on Americans in Iraq” after U.S. intelligence flagged preparations for a possible attack by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Joseph Votel, the now retired four-star general who oversaw U.S. troops in the Middle East until March, noted earlier this year that the U.S. military might be able to indirectly get a message to Iranian forces through an existing hotline with Russia meant to avoid accidental conflicts in Syria.

“The Iranians can talk to the Russians,” he said.  “We have a well-established professional communication channel with the Russians.”

But the prospect of relying on the Russian government to get United States out of a crisis with Iran is hardly reassuring to many current and former officials in the United States.

“That would be a risky choice,” said Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Brian Thevenot)