Six killed as severe storms, tornadoes rip through U.S. South

(Reuters) – At least six people were killed on Sunday as a strong storm system swept across Mississippi and Louisiana, spinning off more than a dozen tornadoes and leaving behind a path of destruction, state and local authorities said.

The storms hit on Easter Sunday as residents across the U.S. South, like most Americans, were under strict “stay-at-home” orders by the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana due to the nationwide coronavirus pandemic.

Damaged planes and buildings are seen in the aftermath of a tornado in Monroe, Louisiana, U.S. April 12, 2020, in this still image obtained from social media. Courtesy of Peter Tuberville/Social Media via REUTERS.

All six fatalities were recorded in Mississippi, the state’s emergency management agency said on Twitter, and tornado warnings remained in place across several counties into the evening.

The National Weather Service said 13 tornadoes were believed to have touched down across the region.

Images on local media showed the devastation left behind by twisters, including destroyed homes, downed power lines, twisted billboards and overturned cars.

The city of Monroe, Louisiana, posted photos of wrecked buildings on social media and said that Monroe Regional Airport had canceled all flights until further notice due to debris on the runway and weather conditions.

“By the grace of God, early reports show only a few minor injuries. Pray for our city! Many neighbors & friends suffered catastrophic damage,” Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo said on Twitter.

Tornado warnings were also issued for parts of Texas into Sunday night.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

Cyclone kills one, leaves trail of destruction across Mozambique

Damaged properties are pictured after Cyclone Kenneth swept through the region in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique April 26, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Picture taken from inside a vehicle. UNICEF via REUTERS

By Emma Rumney and Stephen Eisenhammer

JOHANNESBURG/LUANDA (Reuters) – Cyclone Kenneth killed at least one person and left a trail of destruction in northern Mozambique, destroying houses, ripping up trees and knocking out power, authorities said on Friday.

The cyclone brought storm surges and wind gusts of up to 280 km per hour (174 mph) when it made landfall on Thursday evening, after killing three people in the island nation of Comoros.

It was the most powerful storm on record to hit Mozambique’s northern coast and came just six weeks after Cyclone Idai battered the impoverished nation, causing devastating floods and killing more than 1,000 people across a swathe of southern Africa.

The World Food Programme warned that Kenneth could dump as much as 600 millimeters of rain on the region over the next 10 days – twice that brought by Cyclone Idai.

One woman in the port town of Pemba died after being hit by a falling tree, the Emergency Operations Committee for Cabo Delgado (COE) said in a statement, while another person was injured.

In rural areas outside Pemba, many homes are made of mud. In the main town on the island of Ibo, 90 percent of the houses were destroyed, officials said. Around 15,000 people were out in the open or in “overcrowded” shelters and there was a need for tents, food and water, they said.

There were also reports of a large number of homes and some infrastructure destroyed in Macomia district, a mainland district adjacent to Ibo.

A local group, the Friends of Pemba Association, had earlier reported that they could not reach people in Muidumbe, a district further inland.

Mark Lowcock, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned the storm could require another major humanitarian operation in Mozambique.

“Cyclone Kenneth marks the first time two cyclones have made landfall in Mozambique during the same season, further stressing the government’s limited resources,” he said in a statement.

FLOOD WARNINGS

Shaquila Alberto, owner of the beach-front Messano Flower Lodge in Macomia, said there were many fallen trees there, and in rural areas people’s homes had been damaged. Some areas of nearby Pemba had no power.

“Even my workers, they said the roof and all the things fell down,” she said by phone.

Further south, in Pemba, Elton Ernesto, a receptionist at Raphael’s Hotel, said there were fallen trees but not too much damage. The hotel had power and water, he said, while phones rang in the background. “The rain has stopped,” he added.

However Michael Charles, an official for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said heavy rains over the next few days were likely to bring a “second wave of destruction” in the form of flooding.

“The houses are not all solid, and the topography is very sandy,” Charles said.

In the days after Cyclone Idai, heavy inland rains prompted rivers to burst their banks, submerging entire villages, cutting areas off from aid and ruining crops. There were concerns the same could happen again in northern Mozambique.

Before Kenneth hit, the government and aid workers moved around 30,000 people to safer buildings such as schools, however authorities said that around 680,000 people were in the path of the storm.

(Reporting by Emma Rumney and Stephen Eisenhammer; Writing by Emma Rumney; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Alexandra Zavis)

Hawaiians brave volcanic gases, lava to retrieve pets, belongings

Kilauea volcano's summit lava lake shows a significant drop of roughly 220 metres below the crater rim in this wide angle camera view showing the entire north portion of the Overlook crater in Hawaii, U.S. May 6, 2018. Picture taken on May 6, 2018. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

By Terray Sylvester

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Lava spewing in fountains up to 300 feet high from an erupting Hawaiian volcano has destroyed 35 homes and other buildings, officials said on Monday, warning residents allowed brief visits to their properties to be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice.

Lava advances towards a metal barrier in Puna, Hawaii, U.S., May 6, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media video. WXCHASING via REUTERS

Lava advances towards a metal barrier in Puna, Hawaii, U.S., May 6, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media video. WXCHASING via REUTERS

Many of the 1,700 people under orders to evacuate from the Leilani Estates neighborhood on the eastern side of the Big Island were permitted to return home during daylight hours on Sunday and Monday, during a lull in seismic activity from Kilauea.

“Be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice,” the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said in an alert on its website. Residents of a second area, Lanipuna Gardens, were barred from returning home on Monday due to deadly volcanic gases.

Leilani Estates, some 12 miles from the volcano, was evacuated due to the risk of sulfur dioxide gas, which can be life threatening at high levels.

“Please, the residents of Leilani need our help. This is not the time for sightseeing. You can help tremendously by staying out of the area,” the agency said.

Kilauea, which began exploding on Thursday with fountains and rivers of lava flowing into neighborhoods, has opened 10 volcanic vents since then, officials said. Lava was not flowing from any of the vents on Monday.

So far, no deaths or major injuries have been reported, but the civil defense agency said at least 35 structures had been destroyed, many of them homes.

Residents of the Leilani Estates subdivision pass a checkpoint while driving to their homes to pick up belongings after being evacuated due to eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano on Monday in Pahoa, Hawaii, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Residents of the Leilani Estates subdivision pass a checkpoint while driving to their homes to pick up belongings after being evacuated due to eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano on Monday in Pahoa, Hawaii, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

The southeast corner of the island was rocked by a powerful magnitude 6.9 earthquake on the volcano’s south flank on Friday, the strongest tremor since 1975, and more earthquakes and eruptions have been forecast, perhaps for months to come.

Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and one of five on the island, has been in constant eruption for 35 years. It predominantly blows off basaltic lava in effusive eruptions that flow into the ocean but occasionally experiences more explosive events.

“It’s been a bit of a chaotic week, a very stressful situation. It’s one of those hopeless, helpless outlooks. It’s hard to explain but the lava is right behind my house and it’s pretty surreal,” Leilani Estates homeowner Jared McManus told Reuters.

The Hawaii Star-Advertiser newspaper reported that a Hawaii-based utility, Puna Geothermal Venture, had 60,000 gallons (227,124 liters) of flammable pentane gas stored in the area that could not be removed until containers were delivered.

Some area residents returned for pets, medications and to check property on Sunday and Monday. Jeremy Wilson found his home surrounded by fissures hundreds of feet long.

“My house is right in the middle,” said Wilson, a 36-year-old social worker who turned back when he saw steam coming from cracks in the road.

The semi-rural wooded area had become a magnet for newcomers to the Big Island of Hawaii, home to about 200,000 people, who were prepared to risk living near an active volcano for more affordable real estate.

Jessica Gauthier, 47, said she and other local real estate agents had seen vacation renters cancel their reservations, though the volcanic activity is far from tourist centers.

“There’s no way to know that if you’re sitting in your living room in Ohio and watching the national news,” she said.

Hawaii’s 4,028-square-mile Big Island accounts for less than a fifth of the state’s tourism. State data show that in the first three months of 2018, 16 percent of the $4.81 billion visitors spent in Hawaii came from the Big Island, less than half of the levels seen in Oahu and Maui.

Gauthier predicted tourism would pick back up as a new kind of visitor began to appear.

“Within a month we’ll start getting lava tourists,” she said.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester; additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Writing by Andrew Hay and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler)

Trump’s Jerusalem move will hasten Israel’s destruction: Iran

Trump's Jerusalem move will hasten Israel's destruction: Iran

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will hasten the country’s destruction, Iran’s defense minister said on Monday, while a top Revolutionary Guards commander phoned two Palestinian armed groups and pledged support for them.

Leaders of Iran, where opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause has been central to foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution, have denounced last week’s announcement by the U.S. president, including a plan to move the U.S. embassy to the city.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

“(Trump’s) step will hasten the destruction of the Zionist regime and will double the unity of Muslims,” Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, said on Monday, according to state media.

The army’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Baqeri, said Trump’s “foolish move” could be seen as the beginning of a new intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

Iran has long supported a number of anti-Israeli militant groups, including the military wing of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which the deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, said was “stronger than the Zionist regime.”

Similarly, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the branch of the Guards that oversees operations outside of Iran’s borders pledged the Islamic Republic’s “complete support for Palestinian Islamic resistance movements” after phone calls with commanders from Islamic Jihad and the Izz al-Deen Qassam brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, on Monday according to Sepah News, the news site of the Guards.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday stepped up efforts to rally Middle Eastern countries against U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which EU foreign ministers meanwhile declined to support.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; editing by John Stonestreet)

Hiscox estimates $150 million net claims from Harvey

FILE PHOTO: Jesus Rodriguez rescues Gloria Garcia after rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded Pearland, in the outskirts of Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Noor Zainab Hussain

(Reuters) – Lloyd’s of London underwriter Hiscox Ltd <HSX.L> estimated it would face net claims of about $150 million from Hurricane Harvey and said it has yet to determine losses from Hurricane Irma.

Insurers and reinsurers are counting the cost of Harvey, which lashed Texas in the last week of August causing flooding that put it on the scale of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Hiscox said it had two main areas of exposure to the hurricane – reinsurance and insurance lines, including flood cover for homeowners and businesses.

“This (claims) is within the group’s modelled range of claims for an event of this nature, and reinsurance protections for the group remain substantially intact,” Hiscox said in a statement. It said its claims’ estimate was based on an industry forecast that Harvey would lead to a total insured market loss of $25 billion.

Hiscox shares fell 3.1 percent to 1212 pence by 0913 GMT, the second biggest loser on the Stoxx Europe 600 Price Index <.STOXX>, as analysts expected the company would face bigger losses from Hurricane Irma than Harvey.

Germany’s Munich Re <MUVGn.DE> last week warned it could miss its profit target this year, the first major reinsurer to flag a hit to earnings from damage caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Shore Capital analyst Eamonn Flanagan noted that the loss from Harvey equated to about 6 percent of Hiscox’s net tangible asset value as at the June end.

Hiscox said it would announce an estimate of net claims arising from Hurricane Irma, once the impact of that storm has become clearer.

Chief Executive Bronek Masojada said the storms meant insurance rates were on an uptrend.

“After a long period of price reductions, insurance rates in the affected areas and in specific sectors such as large property are likely to increase. In the wider global insurance market for large risks, we expect rates to stabilise and begin to increase,” Masojada said.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean storms on record, ravaged several islands in the northern Caribbean, killing at least 60 people, before barrelling into Florida’s Gulf Coast, causing further destruction.

“With Irma expected to be a larger event, our initial view is this is slightly more negative than we had anticipated. We expect Hiscox to trade down today and expect uncertainty to persist around Beazley <BEZG.L> and Lancashire <LRE.L> who are yet to publish their own estimates,” Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Rufus Hone, said, referring to other Lloyd’s of London insurers.

Hone added that while the this year would likely be a net loss overall for Hiscox, it would not have “much of an impact” on the insurer’s expansion plans or put the dividend under threat.

Risk modelling firms RMS estimates insured losses from Harvey of $25-$35 billion, while AIR Worldwide forecast total insured losses in the United States for Irma of $25-35 billion.

 

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru Editing by Anjuli Davies and Susan Fenton)

 

More Florida Keys residents return home to survey Irma’s destruction

Residents walk though a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Carlo Allegri

KEY LARGO, Fla. (Reuters) – More residents who had fled the Florida Keys ahead of Hurricane Irma were allowed to return to their homes on Saturday, as authorities prepared to reopen Key West at the end of the devastated archipelago on Sunday.

As Florida struggled to return to normal after the powerful storm struck this week, Governor Rick Scott ordered all nursing homes in the state to obtain emergency generators.

The order followed the deaths of eight elderly people this week at a sweltering nursing home north of Miami that lost power.

“I am outraged over the deaths of eight Floridians at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County and I am demanding answers as we furiously investigate this terrible loss of life,” Scott said in a statement on Saturday.

Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record before striking the U.S. mainland as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10. It killed at least 84 people, many of them in the Caribbean. The storm killed at least 33 in Florida.

In the Keys, Irma tore apart houses, flattened mobile homes and pushed boats onto the highway linking the archipelago, prompting authorities to largely shut down access to the islands. Thousands of anxious residents who evacuated have been pressing to be allowed to return home.

Cudjoe Key, where Irma made landfall in the lower Florida Keys, and nearby areas were especially hard hit.

A resident carries belongings next to a U.S. flag in a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A resident carries belongings next to a U.S. flag in a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

“The damage in those areas is just beyond belief,” Monroe County Mayor George Neugent told the Miami Herald.

Authorities on Saturday allowed local residents to drive to the checkpoint just before Marathon in the middle of the keys, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which polices the Keys.

Some gasoline stations were reopening, but cell phone service and electricity remained out in most of the islands. Residents were advised to boil water before drinking.

On Sunday morning, residents will regain access to Key West at the end of the archipelago, the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Florida utilities restored power to more residents on Saturday. The state had 1.1 million customers without electricity, down from 1.5 million on Friday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Eight patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died this week after being exposed to the heat. The center was left without full air conditioning after the hurricane hit, and the deaths stirred outrage over what many saw as a preventable tragedy.

Scott on Saturday ordered emergency rules requiring all assisted living facilities and nursing homes to obtain a generator within 60 days. The goal is to ensure such facilities can operate for at least 96 hours after an outage.

Administrators at the nursing home said they repeatedly called Florida Power & Light Co and state officials after a transformer powering the home’s air conditioning system went out during the storm on Sunday.

The utility did not arrive until Wednesday after some patients began experiencing health emergencies, prompting evacuation of the center, according to a timeline provided by the nursing home.

Scott on Saturday blamed the nursing home for what he described as its failure to protect life.

“As ANY health care provider knows to do, if their patients are in danger – they MUST call 911,” Scott said in a written statement.

 

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio)

 

Macau enlists Chinese army as authorities struggle with typhoon fallout

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers clean debris after Typhoon Hato hits in Macau, China August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Venus Wu and Farah Master

MACAU (Reuters) – Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops were deployed on the streets of Macau on Friday to help clean up in the aftermath of a devastating typhoon and amid mounting criticism authorities were unprepared for the severity of the storm.

Macau public broadcaster, TDM, reported some 1,000 Chinese PLA troops left their Macau barracks to assist in the recovery. Chinese troops are rarely seen on Macau streets.

Dressed in fatigues and caps, some used shovels to shift mounds of stinking rubbish and debris cluttering public spaces, including smashed furniture, sofa and televisions, while processions of green military trucks rumbled along roads.

Macau’s leader Fernando Chui requested the Chinese army’s involvement in “disaster relief” after the highest category 10 Typhoon Hato pummeled the world’s biggest gambling hub on Wednesday, the government said.

Under Macau law, the assistance of Chinese troops can be sought for such humanitarian purposes.

The death toll from Hato stood at nine, with scores missing. Hato, with destructive winds of more than 200 kph (124 mph), was the worst storm since 1968 to hit Macau, causing almost city-wide blackouts, flooding, disrupting water supplies, smashing scores of vehicles and damaging buildings.

“This is horrible, horrible. We live like refugees,” said a resident in her 60s surnamed Yeung.

Hong Kong’s weather observatory said there were indications another storm, brewing close to the Philippines, could hit southern China in the next few days, though it wasn’t expected to be as strong as Hato.

“NO TIME TO PREPARE”

Amid mounting outrage at the government’s handling of the storm, including the perceived failure to adequately warn residents as it approached, Macau leader Chui apologized and said the head of the local observatory would step down.

Some residents said it wasn’t enough.

“The official who left is just a scapegoat to protect Chui…the government is useless,” said Protia Chow, a resident in her 50s who helps run a trading company.

“Chui will not step down but many people think he should,” said Macau resident Cheng Kin-ching. “People are angry at the local government … people were still going to work and it was very dangerous. People died and it’s the government’s responsibility. People had no time to prepare.”

Sonia Chan, an official with the Secretariat for Administration and Justice, who visited some badly affected areas, deflected questions on the public outrage.

“We are here today for disaster relief. We hope to do something concrete,” she said.

As nearby Hong Kong shut down and closed financial markets on Wednesday ahead of Hato, Macau’s authorities failed to raise a sufficiently high typhoon warning signal, critics said, leading many residents to go to work that day.

Authorities have struggled to restore order in the city of 600,000, with some residents having to queue for water from fire hydrants. Many of Macau’s large casinos were relying on back-up generators.

Macau has been rapidly transformed since its return from Portuguese to Chinese rule in 1999 into a gambling hub many times larger than Las Vegas, with major U.S. casinos piling in.

Infrastructure, however, has mostly failed to keep pace with its development despite the rise of a wave of glitzy casino resorts.

Macau gambling stocks fell again in Friday trade with shares of MGM China leading the slide and down nearly 2.5 percent. Wynn Macau fell nearly 2 percent, and Melco International dropped 1.6 percent. Galaxy Entertainment eased 1.5 percent.

(Reporting by Venus Wu, Farah Master and Tyrone Siu; Additional reporting by Donny Kwok; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry and Richard Borsuk)

Macau struggles to recover from Typhoon Hato’s destruction

Macau struggles to recover from Typhoon Hato's destruction

By Tyrone Siu and Farah Master

MACAU/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chaos and confusion gripped Macau on Thursday after one of the strongest typhoons on record hit the territory, killing at least nine people, and leaving more than half the city still without water and power, and casinos relying on back-up generators.

Rescuers on Thursday searched submerged cars for trapped people in the former Portuguese territory, while overwhelmed emergency services scrambled to respond to crisis calls.

A man looks out from inside an apartment where some windows have been broken by typhoon Hato in Macau, China August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

A man looks out from inside an apartment where some windows have been broken by typhoon Hato in Macau, China August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Many residents and tourists complained that the government was woefully unprepared for Typhoon Hato and its destructive winds of more than 200 kmh (124 mph).

Macau’s government broadcaster TDM said Typhoon Hato, a maximum signal 10 storm, was the strongest since 1968 to hit the world’s biggest gambling hub and home to around 600,000 people.

“The city looks like it was just in a war,” said one civil servant, who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Fallen trees and debris are seen on a road following Typhoon Hato in Macau, China, August 24, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Karen Yung via REUTERS

Fallen trees and debris are seen on a road following Typhoon Hato in Macau, China, August 24, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Karen Yung via REUTERS

Hato on Wednesday hit the nearby financial hub of Hong Kong, uprooting trees, flooding streets, forcing hundreds of airline flights to be canceled and halting financial trading. There were reports of 34 people injured in Hong Kong, which had not been hit by a signal 10 typhoon for five years.

At one stage as Hato intensified, Hong Kong posted a signal 8 storm warning, saying it was likely to go higher, yet Macau’s government rated Hato only a signal 3 typhoon.

“I am shocked with the late notice and lack of preparation that was given for this superstorm. Residents are in peril and unable to assess if help is on the way,” said Ashley Sutherland-Winch, a marketing consultant in Macau.

Exteriors of buildings, including parts of multi-billion dollar casinos, were ripped away by Hato’s powerful winds.

Video footage from Macau residents sent to Reuters showed a man struggling to keep his head above water in an enclosed carpark filled with debris, while another showed a large truck toppling over and pedestrians flung across pavements. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

While most of Macau’s large casinos, especially those operating on the Las Vegas style Cotai strip, were trying to operate as normal, many were relying on back-up generators.

Casino stocks listed in Hong Kong fell versus a rise in the benchmark Hang Seng Index on Thursday with the full impact on gambling revenues and economic cost still unknown, analysts said.

Nolan Ledarney, director of Crafted 852, a food website in Hong Kong, who was staying inside Galaxy’s casino resort with his wife and three children said guests had been corralled into safe areas.

Supermarket staff sell goods outside a supermarket during power outages after Typhoon Hato hit in Macau, China August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Supermarket staff sell goods outside a supermarket during power outages after Typhoon Hato hit in Macau, China August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Severe flooding overwhelmed Macau, which is in the process of building new infrastructure such as a light rail, to cope with a surge in visitors.

Macau has rapidly transformed from a sleepy fishing village over a decade ago into a major gambling hub, although infrastructure has mostly failed to keep pace with its development.

Transportation remained in chaos with damage to both of Macau’s ferry terminals and roads crammed with traffic. Schools, museums and public venues remained closed on Thursday.

“The government cannot handle the challenge as the people would expect from a self claimed first class city,” said Macau resident and political commentator Larry So.

Hato had been downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday and was about 680 km (422 miles) west of Hong Kong and expected to weaken further as it moves inland over China.

(Writing by Farah Master; additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong and Andrew Galbraith in Shanghai; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.N. lauds U.S.-Russian truce in Syria, but warns on partition risk

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference during the Intra Syria talks at the U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland

By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Agreements to de-escalate the fighting in Syria could simplify the conflict and help to stabilise the country, but such accords must be an interim measure and avoid partition, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told a news conference on Monday.

Speaking at the start of five days of peace talks in Geneva, de Mistura said discussions were being held in Amman to monitor implementation of a ceasefire for southwest Syria brokered by the United States and Russia, the first peacemaking effort of the war by the U.S. government under President Donald Trump.

“When two superpowers … agree fundamentally at that level in trying to make that ceasefire work, there is a strong chance that that will take place,” he said. So far, the agreement that went into force mid-day on Sunday was broadly holding, he added.

He also struck a positive note on ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week, which failed to agree on a monitoring mechanism for a Russian-Iranian-Turkish de-escalation deal but produced a lot of work “in the right direction”.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Turkey discussing a particular problem area on Monday, the rebel-held town of Idlib in Syria, de Mistura said, adding that it was a deal that “could almost have been announced”.

The world was perhaps witnessing the simplifying phase of the most complex conflict of our time, the veteran mediator said, adding that de-escalation of the war must be an interim phase and not undermine Syria’s territorial integrity. It should lead rapidly to a stabilisation phase, he said.

“This could become very much a priority anyway just after the liberation of Raqqa,” de Mistura said, referring to the Islamic State stronghold in northeastern Syria.

Asked if the war was ending after almost six and a half years and hundreds of thousands of deaths, de Mistura said several stars were aligning – on the ground, regionally and internationally.

“In that sense … there is a higher potential than we are seeing in the past for progress.”

De Mistura said he was not expecting breakthroughs in this week’s talks, but he had had a working lunch with the heads of the three rival opposition delegations, and he hoped that they could work together more.

In six rounds of talks since early 2016, the fractured opposition has never united in one delegation, meaning that de Mistura cannot hold face-to-face talks between the Syrian government and a single, united opposition delegation.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

 

Old City bears the brunt of Islamic State’s last stand in Mosul

An old bridge destroyed by clashes is seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017

By Stephen Kalin

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Piles of concrete and metal rubble reach up to the second story of surrounding buildings in parts of the historic quarter where Islamic State is making its last stand in Mosul.

Soldiers passing through the narrow alleyways and abandoned homes of the Old City on Sunday scrambled over stone blocks, reinforced steel poles and sheets of aluminum to inspect the military’s latest gains while their comrades fought on nearby.

Charred bodies, mostly covered with blankets, lay amid the rubble. A man’s hand stuck out from under one cover, another’s dusty feet extended from another. Some were clearly militants but others looked like civilians, including a woman and a child.

As the nearly nine-month U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul draws to an end, the Old City has been among the hardest hit areas by the house-to-house fighting backed by air strikes, artillery and heavy machine guns to uproot the insurgents who have resisted with suicide bomb attacks.

The riverside district, whose mosques, churches and markets date to the Medieval Ages and even earlier, were long neglected before Islamic State took over in 2014.

The insurgents have blown up several landmarks there including the iconic Hadba minaret and its adjoining Grand Nuri Mosque, where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a modern-day “caliphate” three years ago.

Several hundred militants were holed up in the Old City among tens of thousands of civilians when Iraqi forces breached the area last month.

Those numbers have dwindled, with a few dozen militants maintaining resistance as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Mosul to declare victory.

Moments before his arrival on Sunday, a half dozen air strikes pounded the last pocket of the city where the insurgents are gathered. The blasts sent unidentified fragments toward the sky including what appeared to be an Islamic State flag.

The explosions, mixed with sporadic gunfire, continued on Monday as Abadi met with local officials.

 

CLEARING RUBBLE

Soldiers combing the ruins passed a hole knocked into the side of a building, revealing a relatively intact living room, with cushioned chairs and a couch covered in dust.

Another small room was furnished with foam sleeping mats and scattered with food scraps, indicating it was recently inhabited by retreating insurgents or advancing soldiers, or possibly both in quick succession.

The soldiers walked through a burnt-out elementary school and an outdoor basketball court where a mural painted on one wall bears the adage: “Cleanliness is part of faith”.

A bulldozer was already clearing rubble in an open area nearby. In another section of the Old City with broader streets and taller buildings, federal police dot a moonscape scene.

Storefronts were gutted, a six-storey apartment block had collapsed in on itself and a two-storey home was knocked off its foundations and leaned on its side.

Smoke rises from clashes in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier

Smoke rises from clashes in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The police showed off explosive vests they found alongside the militants, who they said were of Asian origin. They said they still had to clear tunnels running underneath the Old City to make sure Islamic State fighters were not hiding there.

While some Mosul districts were only lightly affected by the battle, nearly a third of western neighborhood have been heavily damaged according to the United Nations, which estimates it will take more than $1 billion and at least a year just to repair restore basic services to the entire city.

A soldier returning from the front on Sunday unfurled a black Islamic State flag, holding it upside down and posing for pictures. He boasted it is the last of its kind in Mosul.

In reality, military officials say Islamic State has set up sleeper cells across the city and that they are working to prevent a new wave of guerrilla-style attacks as the group goes to ground.

 

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)