Threat to evacuate U.S. diplomats from Iraq raises fear of war

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Washington has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut its embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats said, a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.

Any move by the United States to scale down its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks.

That in turn would open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website.

By Sunday, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, those sources and the two Western diplomats said.

The concern among the Iraqis is that pulling out diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, issued a statement last week pleading for groups to avoid an escalation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.

One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes.”

The U.S. State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq.”

PERENNIAL RISK

In a region polarized between allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battle ground in a proxy war.

That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq.

Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, supported by the United States, while Tehran still maintains close links to powerful Shi’ite armed movements.

Rockets regularly fly across the Tigris towards the heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic compound, constructed to be the biggest U.S. embassy in the world in central Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone during the U.S. occupation after a 2003 invasion.

In recent weeks rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the U.S.-led military coalition. One roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.

On Monday three children and two women were killed when two militia rockets hit a family home, the Iraqi military said. Police sources said Baghdad airport was the intended target.

Two Iraqi intelligence sources suggested plans to withdraw American diplomats were not yet in motion, and would depend on whether Iraqi security forces were able to do a better job of halting attacks. They said they had received orders to prevent attacks on U.S. sites, and had been told that U.S. evacuations would begin only if that effort failed.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Iraqis are concerned about the impact of November’s presidential election on the Trump administration’s decision-making.

While Trump has boasted of his hard line against Iran, he has also long promised to withdraw U.S. troops from engagements in the Middle East. The United States is already drawing down its force sent to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq from 2014-2017.

Some Iraqi officials dismissed Pompeo’s threat to pull out diplomats as bluster, designed to scare armed groups into stopping attacks. But they said it could backfire by provoking the militias instead, if they sense an opportunity to push Washington to retreat.

“The American threat to close their embassy is merely a pressure tactic, but is a double-edged sword,” said Gati Rikabi, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary security committee.

He and another committee member said U.S. moves were designed to scare Iraqi leaders into supporting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militia groups, with scant success.

HAWKS ON BOTH SIDES

The militias are under public pressure to rein in supporters who might provoke Washington. Since last year, public opinion in Iraq has turned sharply against political groups seen as fomenting violence on behalf of Iran.

Publicly, the powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite militia groups which control large factions in parliament have tried to distance themselves from attacks on Western targets.

U.S. officials say they think the Shi’ite militias or their Iranian backers have created splinter offshoots to carry out such attacks, allowing the main organizations to evade blame.

A senior figure in a Shi’ite Muslim political party said he thought Trump might want to pull out diplomats to keep them out of harm’s way and avoid an embarrassing pre-election incident.

Militia attacks were not necessarily under Tehran’s control, he said, noting that Iran’s foreign ministry had publicly called for a halt to attacks on diplomatic missions in Iraq.

“Iran wants to boot the Americans out, but not at any cost. It doesn’t want instability on its Western border,” the Shi’ite leader said. “Just like there are hawks in the U.S., there are hawks in Iran who have contact with the groups carrying out attacks, who aren’t necessarily following state policy.”

(Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A flight bound for Shanghai carrying U.S. diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington’s Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday.

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The U.S. is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Thursday’s flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China’s consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the U.S. move, which had “severely harmed” relations.

It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 U.S. diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring U.S. diplomats back amid disagreement over COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

(Reporting by Humeyra Paumuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)

Exclusive: U.S. delays diplomats’ return to China amid concerns over coronavirus testing, quarantine

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has postponed flights for dozens of diplomats who had planned to return to China later this month, after failing to reach agreement with Beijing over issues including COVID-19 testing and quarantine.

Five months after the coronavirus epidemic forced the evacuation of some 1,300 U.S. diplomats and family members from China, Washington and Beijing remain locked in negotiations over conditions for their return, according to more than a dozen internal State Department emails seen by Reuters and people familiar with the matter.

The impasse comes as the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the world, including the United States, with the global tally this week topping 10 million cases and half a million deaths.

It also comes as relations between the world’s two largest economies have sunk to their lowest in decades over issues including China’s handling of the pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

In a previously unreported June 30 email, Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, told embassy staff that two charter flights for diplomats returning to Shanghai and Tianjin planned for July 8 and July 10 respectively had been scrapped and would be rescheduled.

“Protecting the health and safety of our community remains our guiding principle and our top priority in this unprecedented situation,” Branstad wrote. “This means that flight plans will not be confirmed until we have reached an agreement that meets these goals.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the flight cancellations.

In an emailed response to Reuters questions, the State Department did not specifically discuss negotiations with Beijing, but said: “Mission China and the Department have engaged with Chinese authorities at both the Central Government and the local level to receive assurances of the safe and orderly return of our employees and family.”

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been close communication regarding the return of U.S. diplomats to China.

“The virus is still spreading overseas and China continues to be under a fair amount of pressure to prevent the import of cases from overseas,” the spokesperson said in fax response to Reuters’ questions.

“The epidemic control measures for the diplomatic corps in China are applied equally across the board. China strives to preserve its hard-won achievement in countering the virus together with the diplomatic corps, and to provide good conditions and a good living environment for everyone to work and live in China.”

‘SIGNIFICANT LOGISTICAL HURDLES’

People familiar with the matter say Washington and Beijing have not been able to overcome the “significant logistical hurdles”, including the lack of an agreement on Chinese testing and quarantine procedures for diplomats and families that were cited in a May 28 State Department email to China staff.

Diplomats say agreeing to be tested contravenes the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. While an internal State Department guideline dated June 17 says it has approved a plan that includes testing under Chinese procedures upon arrival, sources familiar with the matter say the agency does not want to waive the diplomatic inviolability of staff and is still negotiating with Chinese authorities on the issue.

Several diplomats said they were concerned about the potential for Chinese authorities to take DNA samples and the possibility of parents being separated from their children if some family members tested positive.

“This essentially puts us at the mercy of the Chinese government, with whom tensions have run extremely high,” a U.S. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters while preparing to return to work in China.

“We are in a situation where officers are being forced to decide between being separated from their families or bringing them into a potentially dangerous situation,” the diplomat said.

The experiences of diplomats taking the first and so far only flight back to China, to Tianjin in late May, had concerned some others planning to return, several diplomatic sources said.

Around 60 passengers of ‘Flight One’ were met by more than 150 Chinese officials in HAZMAT suits who directed them for COVID-19 testing, according to a newsletter for China Mission staff, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

Swabs were taken by U.S. medical officials, with the tests conducted by Chinese labs.

Diplomats were questioned about their activities prior to the 18-hour journey in a cargo plane from Washington.

“Have you been to any parties? Have you eaten in a restaurant? Do you feel good?” Chinese officials asked before the American diplomats were ushered into a VIP lounge to wait some 10 hours for their test results before they could leave.

Uncertainty about returning has been magnified by regulations that cap the amount of time the State Department can cover the expenses of diplomats evacuated from their posts.

“A lot of people don’t feel like going back, but after 180 days, you’re out of options,” said another foreign service officer familiar with the matter. “Basically your choice is to curtail your job and choose a different assignment.”

A State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that 180 days was the limit for evacuees to receive allowances, and said the agency continued to “assess options on how best to protect and support employees and family members in China and across the globe.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson)

Neurotoxin may have caused diplomats’ illness in Cuba: study

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fumigation against mosquitoes in Cuba and not “sonic attacks” may have caused some 40 U.S. and Canadian diplomats and family members in Havana to fall ill, according to a new study commissioned by the Canadian government.

The incidents took place from late 2016 into 2018, causing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to charge that diplomats were attacked by some sort of secret weapon. Canada has refrained from such charges.

The United States in 2017 reduced its embassy staff to a minimum and Canada followed more recently, citing the incidents and the danger posed to staff from what has become known as the “Havana Syndrome.”

Various scientific studies have yet to identify the cause of the diplomats’ cognitive ailments, ranging from dizziness and blurred vision to memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

The Canadian study by a team of researchers affiliated with the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority studied Canadian victims and even the brain of a pet dog after its demise in Canada.

The study was the first to include diplomats for whom there was baseline medical testing from before their postings in Havana, so as to better compare with the tests from afterwards. Canada started implementing the practice after diplomats first started complaining of sickness.

The researchers said they had detected different levels of brain damage in an area that causes symptoms reported by the diplomats and which is susceptible to neurotoxins. They then concluded that cholinesterase, a key enzyme required for the proper functioning of the nervous system, was being blocked there.

Some pesticides work by inhibiting cholinesterase, the report said, and during the 2016-2018 period when diplomats became ill normal fumigation in Cuba was stepped up due to the Zika epidemic in the Caribbean.

The report said the diplomats’ illnesses coincided with increased fumigation in and around residences where they lived. One of the authors of the study, Professor Alon Friedman, clarified in an email to Reuters that both Canadian and Cuban authorities were fumigating.

“We report the clinical, imaging and biochemical evidence consistent with the hypothesis of over-exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors as the cause of brain injury,” the study concluded while cautioning that other causes could not be ruled out and more study was needed.

Friedman said it was not clear whether the broader Cuban population was affected by the fumigation and if not, why, but his team was planning a further study on this together with Cuban scientists.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.N. Security Council considers demanding Libya ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is considering a British-drafted resolution that would demand a ceasefire in Libya and call on all countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance.

Diplomats from the 15-member council are due to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the text that also calls for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya, which has been gripped by anarchy and conflict since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The latest flare-up began almost two weeks ago – during a visit to the country by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – when eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of the capital Tripoli.

Haftar’s forces predicted victory within days, but Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized government has managed to bog them down in southern suburbs with help from armed groups from various western Libyan factions.

The Security Council informally expressed concern on April 5, calling on all forces to de-escalate and halt military activity and specifically calling out the LNA.

However, in the following days the council was unable to issue a more formal statement, diplomats said, as Russia objected to a reference to the LNA, while the United States said it could not agree a text that did not mention Haftar’s forces.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution, seen by Reuters, expresses “grave concern at military activity in Libya near Tripoli, which began following the launching of a military offensive by the LNA … and threatens the stability of Libya.”

It also demands that all parties in Libya immediately de-escalate the situation, commit to a ceasefire, and engage with the United Nations to end hostilities.

Diplomats said the draft text could be put to a vote as early as this week. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, Britain, France, Russia or China to pass.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants, while western powers support Serraj.

The draft U.N. text “calls upon all member states to use their influence to ensure compliance with this resolution.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Canadian diplomats hit by Cuba illness feel ‘abandoned’: paper

People pass by the Canada's Embassy in Havana, Cuba, April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

OTTAWA (Reuters) – A group of Canadian diplomats who left the embassy in Cuba after they suffered unusual health symptoms says their foreign ministry has abandoned them, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on Monday.

Canada said in April it would remove the families of staff posted to Havana, where both Canadian and U.S. diplomats have complained of dizziness, headaches and nausea.

The diplomats complained the foreign ministry – unlike the U.S. State Department – had said very little about the matter in public and did not appear to be making their case a priority. Getting specialized medical care had been difficult, they added.

“We did not expect to be abandoned, or more precisely, sacrificed — that’s how we’re feeling now,” the paper quoted one of them as saying.

Several of those affected believe Ottawa has said little in public because it wants to maintain friendly relations with Cuba, the Globe added.

The office of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was not immediately available for comment. The Globe cited Freeland spokesman Adam Austen as saying “we will continue to do all we can to provide advice and support” to those affected.

U.S. and Cuban officials met at the State Department in September to discuss the mysterious health problems. The United States has reduced embassy staffing in Cuba from more than 50 to a maximum 18.

NBC News said in September that U.S. officials believe the health problems may have been caused by sophisticated electromagnetic weapons.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Susan Thomas)

State Department still investigating diplomats’ illnesses in Cuba, China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. officials are still investigating health problems at the U.S. embassy in Cuba, and do not know who or what was behind the mysterious illnesses, which began in 2016 and have affected 26 Americans.

“We don’t know who is responsible and we don’t know what is responsible for this,” Kenneth Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

The administration of President Donald Trump, which has partly rolled back a detente with Cuba, responded to the health problems by sharply reducing staff in Havana and in October expelled 15 Cuban diplomats.

Cuban officials, who are conducting their own investigation, have denied any involvement or knowledge of what was behind it.

Symptoms have included hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, headaches and fatigue, a pattern consistent with “mild traumatic brain injury,” State Department officials have said.

In April, Canada said it would remove families of diplomats posted at its embassy in Cuba as information from medical specialists raised concerns about a new type of brain injury.

The State Department said last month it brought a group of diplomats home from Guangzhou, China, over concern they were suffering from a mysterious malady resembling brain injury.

Merten said he was not aware of any other embassies having been affected.

“We have taken this … very seriously, both in the Cuba context and the China context which is, frankly, still very much evolving,” he said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Susan Thomas)

Daughter of poisoned Russian spy declines embassy help: statement

An undated photograph shows Yulia Skripal, daughter of former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal, taken from Yulia Skripal's Facebook account in London, Britain, April 6, 2018. Yulia Skripal/Facebook via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned in Britain last month along with her father, a former Russian spy, said on Wednesday she did not wish to take up the offer of services from the Russian Embassy in London.

In a statement issued on her behalf by British police, Skripal said her father, Sergei, remained seriously ill and she was still suffering from the effects of nerve gas used against them in an attack that led to one of the biggest crises in Britain’s relations with Moscow since the Cold War.

“I have access to friends and family, and I have been made aware of my specific contacts at the Russian Embassy who have kindly offered me their assistance in any way they can,” Yulia Skripal said.

“At the moment I do not wish to avail myself of their services, but, if I change my mind I know how to contact them.”

The Russian Embassy in London has previously said it had not been granted consular access to the 33 year-old woman.

Following Yulia Skripal’s statement, the embassy said: “We continue to insist on a meeting with Yulia and Sergei Skripal. The situation around them looks more and more like a forceful detention or imprisonment.”

Yulia Skripal was discharged from a hospital in the English city of Salisbury on Monday, where, she said, she was treated ” with obvious clinical expertise and with such kindness”.

Skripal said she was not yet strong enough to give a media interview and she said comments made by her cousin to Russian media were not her’s nor those of her father.

“I thank my cousin Viktoria for her concern for us, but ask that she does not visit me or try to contact me for the time being,” the statement quoted her as saying.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks after the March 4 attack before their health improved.

Sergei Skripal, who was recruited by Britain’s MI6, was arrested for treason in Moscow in 2004. He ended up in Britain after being swapped in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the United States.

Britain accused Russia of being behind the nerve agent attack and Western governments including the United States expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

(Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Poisoned Russian agent Sergei Skripal is getting better fast, hospital says

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTERS

By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal is no longer in a critical condition and his health is improving rapidly more than a month after he was poisoned with a nerve agent in England, the British hospital treating him said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of spies to Britain’s foreign spy service, and his daughter Yulia were found slumped unconscious on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain blamed Russia for the poisoning, the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Moscow denied any involvement and suggested that Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

“He is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition,” Christine Blanshard, Medical Director at Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

Russia has said it does not have such nerve agents and President Vladimir Putin said it is nonsense to think that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter.

A British judge said last month, nearly three weeks after the attack, that it might have left them with compromised mental capacity and that it was unclear whether they would recover.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

But Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

Both Moscow and London have accused each other of trying to deceive the world with an array of claims, counter-claims and threats.

“PLAYING WITH FIRE”

At a session of the executive of the global chemical weapons watchdog this week, Russia called for a joint inquiry into the poisoning of the Skripals, but lost a vote on the motion.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, Russia warned Britain that “you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry” over its accusations.

Given the twists and turns in the affair, British and Russian diplomats have variously claimed the mystery to be worthy of Sherlock Holmes or of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

In an exchange at the United Nations, the ambassadors of Britain and Russia quoted extracts from “Alice in Wonderland” at each other.

The hospital in Salisbury said it was providing the medical update in response to “intense media coverage yesterday.”

Russian state television reported that Yulia had phoned her cousin in Russia and told her that she and her father were both recovering and that she expected to leave hospital soon.

Yulia’s health has improved rapidly. On Thursday, she issued a statement through British police to thank hospital staff and people who came to her help when “when my father and I were incapacitated”.

Sergei Skripal, who was recruited by Britain’s MI6, was arrested for treason in Moscow in 2004. He ended up in Britain after being swapped in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the United States.

Since emerging from the John le Carre world of high espionage and betrayal, Skripal lived modestly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found poisoned.

British police believe a nerve agent was left on the front door of his home. Skripal’s cat was put down by British authorities. His guinea pigs were discovered dead.

“When a vet was able to access the property, two guinea pigs had sadly died,” a British government spokeswoman said.

“A cat was also found in a distressed state and a decision was taken by a veterinary surgeon to euthanise the animal to alleviate its suffering,” the spokeswoman said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)