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)

Trump administration seeks emergency court order to continue asylum policy

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers exit the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The Trump administration rushed to save its program of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico by filing an emergency motion with a U.S. Court of Appeals, asking it to block an injunction that is set to shut down the policy on Friday afternoon.

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco the United States faced “a humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and needed immediate intervention to deal with the surging number of refugees.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled the policy was contrary to U.S. immigration law. He issued a nationwide injunction blocking the program and ordered it to take effect at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT).

Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that brought the case, said the stay should be denied to prevent irreparable harm to asylum seekers who could be unlawfully forced to return to Mexico.

Since January, the administration has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to wait the months or years it can take to process claims through an overloaded immigration system.

Seeborg’s ruling also ordered the 11 plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to be brought back to the United States.

Although it is appealing and the lower court order had yet to take effect, Reuters reporters confirmed that the Trump administration was allowing some asylum seekers from Mexico to return to the United States.

President Donald Trump has bristled at limits on his administration’s ability to detain asylum seekers while they fight deportation, and the administration was in the midst of expanding the program when Seeborg blocked it.

The government’s filing on Thursday night with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for two stays: a brief administrative stay, which would remain in place until the parties had argued the issue of a longer stay that would block the injunction during the months-long appeals process.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said there did not appear to be any justification for the request for the administrative stay since asylum seekers were already returning to the United States.

“There’s no urgency,” she said. “They are already complying with the court order.”

The 9th Circuit Court has been a frequent target for Trump’s criticisms of the judicial system, which has blocked his immigration policies on numerous occasions.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Tom Brown)

Doctors pray for sick as blackout batters Venezuelan hospitals

Venezuelans, including doctors, hold banners that read "Solidarity" as they gather outside a church after a mass during an ongoing blackout in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Maria Rodriguez’s daughter has spent a month in Caracas’s J.M. de los Rios children’s hospital with hydrocephalus, a buildup of spinal fluid in the brain, but staff there have faced an uphill battle treating the girl because of a nationwide power outage.

“It has been horrible since the blackout. My daughter needs treatment that lasts six hours: now she is only getting it when there is power available,” said Rodriguez, 36, who said she is also worried about inadequate water and food in the facility.

Venezuela’s hospitals, already struggling with shortages of supplies and equipment amid an economic meltdown, entered crisis mode on Thursday when the South American nation’s power system went down.

Public hospitals typically have generators to provide back-up electricity in the event of an outage, but doctors consulted by Reuters said they were either damaged or idled for lack of fuel.

Julio Castro of the non-governmental organization Doctors for Health says the blackouts have stretched Venezuelan hospitals to the breaking point. The group says at least 21 people have died in public hospitals during the outage.

“This (blackout) is taking place at a moment when hospitals are operating at limited capacity,” Castro said. “It is not the same as when a hospital is functioning correctly.”

Among the most prone to electricity problems in hospitals are newborns, he said. About 10 percent of the 1,500 children born each day in Venezuela require incubators or other such equipment that cannot function without steady power.

Even before the blackouts, the state of the healthcare system was dire. In a report last year, Doctors for Health said doctors in more than half of Venezuela’s hospitals had been attacked by people who were angry the decaying medical system could not do more for their relatives.

Not having power means hospitals struggle to obtain water, fueling sanitation problems that are aggravated by shortages of cleaning products. Constant fluctuations in electricity also risk damaging the limited equipment that hospitals have.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro says last week’s blackout was the result of U.S.-backed sabotage, and Venezuelan health authorities say they have kept services intact despite the circumstances.

“The contingency plan has worked, problems have been corrected and patients have been transferred (to other hospitals) when they have requested it,” Health Minister Carlos Alvarado told state television on Sunday.

DOCTORS’ PRAYERS

A group of doctors on Sunday held a mass to pray for the sick, and later walked to the J.M. de los Rios hospital to seek more details about the situation there.

The doors were locked even though they arrived during visiting hours. Women shouted from the windows that they needed help and that there was no food, but police at the entrance blocked their way, according to a Reuters witness.

Several members of a police special forces group called FAES were stationed inside the hospital, according to witnesses.

Within hours, hospital director Natalia Martinho appeared on state television to assure the public everything was fine.

    ”(The) children are in stable condition. The response to this contingency has been a great achievement,” she said. “We have given food to children and their mothers.”

    But for the relatives of patients seeking hospital treatment, official reassurances are little consolation.

Maria Torres, 46, waited anxiously on Sunday outside Caracas’ El Llanito hospital, where her brother was admitted for injuries sustained in a car accident. She worried for his well-being due to the lack of water, medical supplies and electricity.

“This is a nightmare,” she said.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas; Editing by Vivian Sequera, Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Venezuela aid trucks arrive in Colombia as EU calls for dialogue

A man looks on after trucks arrived at a warehouse, where international humanitarian aid for Venezuela will be stored according to authorities, near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Nelson Bocanegra and Anggy Polanco

CUCUTA, Colombia/TIENDITAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for crisis-stricken Venezuela arrived in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on Thursday as diplomatically-isolated President Nicolas Maduro appeared set to block its entry amid an escalating political crisis.

The arrival of the aid convoy, which includes supplies provided by the United States, has increased the pressure on Maduro hours after a European Union-backed group called for dialogue and elections and warned against interventionism.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

Maduro has rejected the aid convoy as a “political show” and vowed to remain in office despite dozens of nations around the world disavowing his leadership and recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state.

Escorted by police motorcycles, the trucks pulled into Cucuta, where Venezuelans were waiting to see whether Maduro’s government would clear the border road he has blocked and allow the humanitarian shipments to pass.

The crowd waved signs denouncing Maduro as a “cancer” and celebrated the arrival of the convoy.

“This gives me such hope, especially for the family that I left behind, my children, my wife,” said Israel Escobar, 42, a Venezuelan who came to Cucuta a year ago to sell ice-cream on the streets. “This is one more step towards ending that terrible regime.”

Across the border on the Venezuelan side, a group of around 60 protesters demanded that the aid be let through.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling to eat and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

But Maduro showed little sign of relenting on aid, as a bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela remained blocked with a cistern and two shipping containers.

“The so-called ‘humanitarian aid’ operation is a show, a cheap show, a bad show,” Maduro said in an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada published on Thursday. “You can be sure that it won’t disturb Venezuela.”

On Thursday, he appeared in an event at the presidential palace as part of a campaign by government supporters demanding an end to U.S. aggression against Venezuela.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

“Let it in, that’s what we’re asking, let it in,” Abrams told reporters at a State Department briefing, calling on members of Venezuela’s armed forces to persuade Maduro to step down or to disobey his orders.

He said the supplies would be delivered to Venezuelans when it was “logistically safe” to do so.

DIALOGUE AND ELECTIONS

Washington last week implemented crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, which are expected to exacerbate the hyperinflationary economic crisis.

Offering a counterpoint to Washington’s hard-line stance, the EU and a group of Latin American governments that have kept a moderate line on Venezuela called for dialogue and fresh elections.

The EU-backed International Contact Group on Venezuela in its inaugural meeting in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo said overly forceful intervention could aggravate the crisis.

EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini said a resolution ultimately must come from the people of Venezuela.

“This is not only the most desirable result but is the only result if we want to avoid more suffering and a chaotic process,” Mogherini said.

Maduro via Twitter welcomed the call for dialogue.

Critics have said three previous dialogue processes have allowed the ruling Socialist Party to stall for time without making major concessions on key issues including imprisoned opposition politicians and electoral transparency.

Guaido has galvanized the opposition since taking over as head of Venezuela’s National Assembly in January. Last month, he declared himself interim president, opening the door for Washington and others to recognize him as the legitimate leader.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, has maintained power with the backing of Venezuela’s military.

One Venezuelan Air Force general and several Venezuelan diplomats abroad have turned on Maduro and recognized Guaido.

The websites of Venezuelan embassies in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico on Thursday posted statements recognizing Guaido, which the embassies quickly dismissed as the work of hackers, reiterating “absolute support” for Maduro.

The International Monetary Fund, which a new government in Caracas would likely call on for financial assistance, is awaiting guidance from its member countries on whether to recognize Guaido, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Helen Murphy in Bogota, David Lawder, Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart, Lesley Wroughton, Matt Spetalnick and Luc Cohen in Washington; Adam Jourdan in Buenos Aires and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Paul Simao, Adam Jourdan and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Putin defiant on Ukraine crisis despite Trump summit talks threat

FILE PHOTO: Russian jet fighters fly over a bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula with a cargo ship beneath it after three Ukrainian navy vessels were stopped by Russia from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea, Crimea November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn and Anton Zverev

MOSCOW/KERCH, Crimea (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday shrugged off a threat from U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel a meeting with him due to Moscow’s seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships, and accused Ukraine’s president of orchestrating the crisis.

Russia seized the Ukrainian vessels and their crews on Sunday near Crimea, the Ukrainian region which Moscow annexed in 2014, over what it said was their illegal entry into Russian waters, which Ukraine denies.

The episode has raised fears in the West of a wider conflict between the two countries, and Trump said on Tuesday that he might cancel a planned meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina later this week as a response to “aggression”.

Some of Ukraine’s Western allies have also raised the possibility of imposing new sanctions on Russia over the episode, which could deliver a blow to the Russian economy.

But Putin, in his first public comments on the Black Sea incident, said that the Ukrainian vessels had clearly been in the wrong, dismissed the clash as a minor border issue, and accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of having orchestrated the crisis in order to boost his dire ratings.

Putin said he also still hoped to meet Trump at the G20, while the Kremlin said the meeting was still being prepared and Washington had not informed Moscow it was off.

“It was, without doubt, a provocation,” Putin told a financial forum in Moscow of the incident. “It was organized by the president ahead of the elections. The president is in fifth place ratings-wise and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was saddened by what he asserted was Washington’s willingness to encourage Ukraine’s “provocation”.

Putin said the West was willing to forgive Ukrainian politicians because it bought into their anti-Russian narrative.

Kiev has introduced martial law in parts of the country, saying it fears a possible Russian invasion.

Speaking in northern Ukraine, Poroshenko, who has accused Moscow of naked military aggression, talked up his country’s readiness to respond to any future Russian military action.

“It’s important to keep our powder dry and be ready at any moment to push back the aggressor,” said Poroshenko, adding that he had received offers from hundreds of Ukrainian war veterans who said they were ready to return and defend the country.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (R) addresses servicemen as he visits the 169th training centre "Desna" of the Ukrainian Army ground forces in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine November 28, 2018. Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (R) addresses servicemen as he visits the 169th training centre “Desna” of the Ukrainian Army ground forces in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine November 28, 2018. Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

MISSILES FOR CRIMEA

The United States and the EU have both imposed sanctions on Russia over its conduct towards Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula after a pro-Russian leader was toppled in Kiev.

Moscow later backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. Major fighting ended with a 2015 ceasefire but deadly exchanges of fire are still frequent.

A Kremlin aide said on Wednesday that Putin had rebuffed an initiative from Poroshenko for the two men to speak by phone.

Vadim Astafyev, a spokesman for Russia’s southern military district, was cited by Russian news agencies as saying that a new battalion of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles would be delivered to Crimea soon and become operational by year’s end.

The deployment is likely to have been long-planned, but the timing of the announcement appeared designed to send a message to Ukraine and the West that Russia is serious about defending what it regards as its own territory and waters.

Crimea already hosts three battalions of the anti-aircraft missile systems which have a range of up to 400 km (250 miles) allowing Russia to control large swaths of the skies above the Black Sea. The new missile deployment to Crimea would allow Russia to increase its air defense coverage area.

Separately, a Reuters correspondent in Crimea on Wednesday observed a Russian navy minesweeper ship, the Vice-Admiral Zakharin, heading in the direction of the Sea of Azov.

The sea is home to major ports of both Russia and Ukraine and can be reached only through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait near where Sunday’s incident took place.

A court in Crimea’s capital Simferopol on Wednesday ordered nine of the 24 captured Ukrainian sailors – including senior Ukrainian naval officers and at least one member of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency – held for a period of two months. The same court ordered the other 15 sailors on Tuesday to be detained for two months pending a possible trial.

All of the sailors face jail terms of up to six years if found guilty of what Moscow says was a plot to illegally cross the Russian border by trying to pass through the strait without advance notice and ignoring calls to stop.

Ukraine says its ships did nothing wrong and have every right to use the strait without Russian permission.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Daria Korsunksaya, Tom Balmforth, Polina Ivanova, Vladimir Soldatkin, Katya Golubkova, Gleb Stolyarov and Oksana Kobzeva in Moscow, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff)