Khamenei says Iran should give up hope of European help against U.S. sanctions

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday European countries were unlikely to help Iran against U.S. sanctions, and Tehran “should give up all hope” in that regard, according to his official website.

Britain, France and Germany, parties to a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, have tried to set up a trade mechanism to barter humanitarian and food goods with Iran after the United States withdrew from the deal last year and re-imposed sanctions. But the mechanism is still not operational.

Iran has repeatedly said it will ramp up its nuclear activities unless the European countries do more to protect its economy from the impact of the U.S. sanctions.

“Despite their promises, the Europeans have practically adhered to America’s sanctions and have not taken any action and are unlikely to do anything for the Islamic Republic in the future. So one should give up all hope on Europeans,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.

“There should be no trust in countries that have held the banner of hostility to (Iran’s) Islamic system, led by the United States and some European countries, because they are openly hostile to the Iranian people,” Khamenei said.

“The road to interaction and negotiations is open to all countries other than America and the Zionist regime (Israel),” Khamenei told members of a powerful clerical body.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by John Stonestreet and Peter Graff)

Turkey plans to return one million Syrians, warns of new migrant wave in Europe

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, September 5, 2019. Murat Kula/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Nevzat Devranoglu and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey plans to resettle 1 million refugees in northern Syria and may reopen the route for migrants into Europe if it does not receive adequate international support for the plan, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, controls parts of north Syria where it says 350,000 Syrians have already returned. It is setting up a “safe zone” with the United States in the northeast where Erdogan said many more could be moved.

“Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

The comments come as Turkey mounts pressure on Washington for further concessions on the depth and oversight of the planned safe zone in the northeast, and as it comes under increasing pressure in Syria’s northwest Idlib region where a Russian-backed government offensive has pressed north.

Only a small minority of Syrians in Turkey are from the northern strip roughly proposed for re-settlement, according to Turkish government data.

“We are saying we should form such a safe zone that we, as Turkey, can build towns here in lieu of the tent cities here. Let’s carry them to the safe zones there,” Erdogan said

“Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humanitarian living conditions.”

“This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates,” Erdogan said. “Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”

RENEWED CONFLICT

Under a deal agreed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, Ankara agreed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for billions of euros in aid.

However, the number of migrant arrivals in neighboring Greece spiked last month. A week ago, more than a dozen migrant boats carrying 600 people arrived, the first simultaneous arrival of its kind in three years.

Last month, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said only 17% of refugees in Turkey hail from northeast regions controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. Of that region, the proposed safe zone would cover only a fraction.

Last week, senior Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said it is necessary to resettle refugees in their home towns. “Settling hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who are from outside our areas, here would be unacceptable,” he said of the northeast.

In Idlib, where Turkey has troops and where Ankara in 2017 agreed with Moscow and Tehran to reduce fighting, months of renewed conflict intensified in recent weeks and raised prospects of another wave of refugees at Turkey’s borders.

After a truce collapsed in early August, the Russian-backed Syrian army has gained significant ground against rebel forces, some of whom are backed by Turkey.

Nicholas Danforth, Istanbul-based senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said warning about refugees in the context of the safe zone allows Erdogan to pressure both Europe and the United States at once.

“What seems clear is that it would be impossible to settle that many refugees in any zone achieved through negotiations with the United States and the YPG,” he said.

“This looks like an attempt to build pressure for more U.S. concessions on the safe zone, where some refugees could then be resettled for purposes of domestic (Turkish) public relations.”

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)

On the front lines: Trade war sinks North Dakota soybean farmers

Paul and Vanessa Kummer check the soybeans on their farm near Colfax, North Dakota, U.S., August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

By Karl Plume

COLFAX, North Dakota (Reuters) – North Dakota bet bigger on Chinese soybean demand than any other U.S. state.

The industry here – on the far northwestern edge of the U.S. farm belt, close to Pacific ports – spent millions on grain storage and rail-loading infrastructure while boosting plantings by five-fold in 20 years.

Now, as the world’s top soybean importer shuns the U.S. market for a second growing season, Dakota farmers are reeling from the loss of the customer they spent two decades cultivating.

The state’s experience underscores the uneven impact of the U.S.-China trade war across the United States. Although China’s tariffs target many heartland states that, like North Dakota, supported President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, those further south and east are better able to shift surplus soybeans to other markets such as Mexico and Europe. They also have more processing plants to produce soymeal, along with larger livestock and poultry industries to consume it.

For North Dakota, losing China – the buyer of about 70% of the state’s soybeans – has destroyed a staple source of income. Agriculture is North Dakota’s largest industry, surpassing energy and representing about 25% of its economy.

“North Dakota has probably taken a bigger hit than anybody else from the trade situation with China,” said Jim Sutter, CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council.

In its second-quarter agricultural credit conditions survey this month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis said 74% of respondents in North Dakota reported lower net farm income.

China shut the door to all U.S. agricultural purchases on Aug. 5 after Trump intensified the conflict with threats to impose additional tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, some as soon as Sept. 1.

Some farmers were relying on the Trump administration’s $28 billion in farm aid payments to compensate them for trade war losses, only to be disappointed with new payment rates for counties in North Dakota.

The rates are below those for some southern states that rely much less on exports to China. The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined other states had a higher “level of exposure” to tariffs than North Dakota because they also grow other crops, such as cotton and sorghum, that were hit by Chinese tariffs, according to a brief written statement from the USDA in response to questions from Reuters.

With record soy supplies still in storage and another crop to be harvested soon, farmers in the U.S. soybean state with the best access to ports serving China are unable to sell their crops at a profit.

Rail shippers would normally send more than 90 percent of the North Dakota soybeans they buy to Pacific Northwest export terminals. Now they are trying unsuccessfully to make up the shortfall by hauling corn, wheat and other crops with limited demand. Some are moving soybeans south and east to domestic users, a costlier endeavor that ultimately thins margins for both shippers and farmers.

LOST DEMAND

Soy farmers who planted this spring – when the White House was talking up a nearly finished trade deal with China – watched as those trade talks collapsed in May, sending prices well below their costs of production.

Vanessa Kummer checks the quality of their 2018 soybean crops on the family farm near Colfax, North Dakota, U.S., August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

Vanessa Kummer checks the quality of their 2018 soybean crops on the family farm near Colfax, North Dakota, U.S., August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Dan KoeckVanessa Kummer’s farm in Colfax, North Dakota, has yet to sell a single soybean from the fall harvest because of the low prices. Normally, the farm would have forward-sold 50% to 75% of the upcoming harvest.

 

Vanessa Kummer’s farm in Colfax, North Dakota, has yet to sell a single soybean from the fall harvest because of the low prices. Normally, the farm would have forward-sold 50% to 75% of the upcoming harvest

She fears the U.S.-China soy trade is now “permanently damaged” as China shifts its purchases to Brazil, uses less soy in animal feed and consumes less pork as African swine fever kills of millions of the nation’s pigs.

“It will take years to get back to any semblance of what we had over in China,” Kummer said, standing in a sparse field of ankle-high soy plants, where two weeks earlier she hosted a delegation of soy importers from Ecuador and Peru.

Though it is the No. 4 soy state overall, North Dakota is home to two of the top three U.S. soy producing counties in the nation.

Options for North Dakota farmers are limited. U.S. wheat has been losing export market share for years. Demand for specialty crops such as peas and lentils, which grow well in the northern U.S., has been dampened by retaliatory tariffs imposed by India, a major importer of both products.

ROOTS OF DEPENDENCE

North Dakota’s farmers never set out to become so dependent on a single buyer of one crop. But with wheat profits shrinking and Chinese demand for soy growing, soybeans increasingly seemed like the obvious choice.

Companies including Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF expanded rail capacity to open up a West Coast shipping corridor, and Pacific Northwest seaports expanded to handle more exports to China. Seed companies offered North Dakota farmers new varieties that allowed soybeans to thrive in the state’s colder climate and shorter growing season.

A $200 million crop two decades ago blossomed into a $2 billion crop, topping the value of wheat, once North Dakota’s top crop.

The number of high-speed shuttle train loading terminals in North Dakota tripled from about 20 in 2007 to more than 60 currently, according to industry data, with investments totaling at least $800 million.

But one of those facilities, CHS Dakota Plains Ag elevator in Kindred, North Dakota, has gone three or four months without loading a soybean train this year, said Doug Lingen, a grain merchant there. Normally the elevator would load at least one train a month with beans bound for the Pacific Northwest.

LIMPING ALONG

The drop in demand has soybean prices in North Dakota trading at a historic discount to U.S. futures prices, and farmers are putting investments on hold.

Justin Sherlock, who grows corn, soybeans and other crops near Dazey, North Dakota, had been planning to buy a used grain drier this year for around $100,000 to $150,000, passing on a new one that would be at least $350,000.

But an uncertain future has now shelved those plans, even with the latest promise for government aid. According to rates published last month, farmers in Sherlock’s county can apply for aid of $55 per acre, well below the maximum $150 rate offered in 22 counties nationwide.

Sherlock called the latest announcement “disappointing.”

“I’m just going to defer all my investment,” he said, “and try to limp along for a few years.”

(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago, additional reporting by P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Heatwave caused nearly 400 more deaths in Netherlands: stats agency

FILE PHOTO: People cool off underneath a tree during a sunny day in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Almost 400 people more died in the Netherlands during Europe’s recent record-breaking heatwave than in a regular summer week, Dutch national statistics agency CBS said on Friday.

In total, 2964 people died in the Netherlands during the week that started on July 22, the CBS said, which was around 15% more than during an average week in the summertime.

Temperature records tumbled across Europe during late July’s heatwave, and for the first time since records began topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the Netherlands on July 25.

The death toll in the Netherlands during that week was comparable to the rate during two heatwaves in 2006, which were among the longest ever in the country, the researchers said.

About 300 of the additional fatalities were among people aged 80 years and older.

Most of the deaths occurred in the east of the Netherlands, where temperatures were higher and the heatwave lasted longer than in other parts of the country.

The Netherlands has a total population of around 17 million.

The heatwave was the second to hit Europe in a month, and climate specialists warn such bursts of heat may become more common as the planet warms up due to greenhouse gas emissions.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Determined to reach Europe, migrants defy Moroccan crackdown

African migrants stand in a hiding place in the mountains near Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Ahmed Eljechtimi and Ulf Laessing

TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) – Senegalese migrant Ismail, 26, is back in the forests around the northern Moroccan port of Tangier, not long after being stopped there by authorities and bussed 872 kilometers south in an attempt to stop him reaching Europe.

But his desire to get to Spain is unrelenting, and so the cat-and-mouse game with authorities continues.

Last year Morocco became the main departure point for migrants to Europe, overtaking Libya where the coast guard has prevented more departures with help from the European Union.

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

African migrants walk in a hiding place in the mountains away from sights near the city of Tangier as authorities intensify their crackdown against illegal migrants sending them south to prevent crossings to Spain, Morocco June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Morocco is only 14 kilometers south of the Spanish coast and shares land borders with the small Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on its northern coast, which are surrounded by a 6 meter-high fence topped with razor wire.

Under a new crackdown this year, authorities are sending undocumented migrants they pick up to southern towns, far from the land and sea borders with Spain. They are also clearing migrant camps in the forests and halting the sale of dinghies and inflatables.

According to official figures as of May, the country had stopped 30,000 people from illegally crossing to Spain this year and busted 60 migrant trafficking networks.

Authorities say the clampdown on traffickers, in particular, saw migrant arrivals from Morocco to Spain drop in the first six months of 2019 to 12,053 from 26,890 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Morocco is also about to complete a new 3 meter-high fence within its own territory around Ceuta to deter crossings, according to residents near the enclave.

“Authorities conduct surprise raids to comb the forests looking for us, therefore we have to sleep in a spot where we can anticipate their arrival and run before they catch us and send us south again,” said Ismail.

He and other migrants live from begging and wait for their chance to jump the fence surrounding Ceuta.

   ”We do not have 3000 euros ($3,360) to pay smugglers for a sea crossing to Spain,” Ismail added.

He made his way back north hiding even deeper in the forests and avoiding walking in the streets by daylight.

“Our brothers who crossed to Spain are now having a good life,” said Ibrahim from Guinea Conackry, showing scars on his hand from a failed attempt to jump the fence last year.

The displacement campaign has drawn criticism from rights groups such as ASCOMS, a coalition of 27 Sub-Saharan civil society NGOs.

Authorities say they take migrants south to protect them from smugglers and prevent migrants from storming the borders with Ceuta and Melilla.

STAYING PUT

As crossing to Europe becomes ever harder, many Africans are now deciding to stay in Morocco and seek work, benefiting from a legalization policy launched by Morocco in 2013.

Over 50,000 migrants, 75% of whom are from Sub-Saharan Africa, obtained residency cards since 2013, according to official figures.

After five years in Morocco, Sonya, 35, from Cameroon, gave up on the idea of reaching Europe. She now sees in Morocco home for her and her daughter Salma, who attends a local school.

Sonya is taking a training course with a local NGO, hoping to boost her chances of finding work. But work is not easy to find in an economy where informal labor abounds and the unemployment rate stands at 10%, with one in four young people jobless.

Ahmed Skim from Morocco’s migration ministry said state agencies could help migrants find work, and some 400 were employed in the private sector. Moroccan schools received 5,545 children of migrants in 2018, while Moroccan hospitals treated 23,000 migrants.

Most migrants work in the informal sector doing low-paid jobs shunned by Moroccans, however.

The President of Tangier region, Ilyas El Omari, urged the EU to help Morocco and his region integrate migrants through training programs and investment to create jobs and avoid tension between locals and migrants.

The EU promised last year to give 140 million euros in border management aid to Morocco.

For Ismail, only Spain will do, however.

“I want to go to Europe for better living standards and better jobs. Salaries are not that good here,” he said.

“We are exhausted, but we will continue trying to get to Spain.”

($1 = 0.8923 euros)

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

WHO issues warning as measles infects 34,000 in Europe this year

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 34,000 people across Europe caught measles in the first two months of 2019, with the vast majority of cases in Ukraine, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday as it urged authorities to ensure vulnerable people get vaccinated.

The death toll among 34,300 cases reported across 42 countries in the WHO’s European region reached 13, with the virus killing people in Ukraine – which is suffering a measles epidemic – as well as in Romania and Albania. The risk is that outbreaks may continue to spread, the WHO warned.

“If outbreak response is not timely and comprehensive, the virus will find its way into more pockets of vulnerable individuals and potentially spread to additional countries within and beyond the region,” it said in a statement.

“Every opportunity should be used to vaccinate susceptible children, adolescents and adults.”

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can kill and cause blindness, deafness or brain damage. It can be prevented with two doses of an effective vaccine, but – in part due to pockets of unvaccinated people – it is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world including in the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Europe, the majority of measles cases so far in 2019 are in Ukraine, which saw more than 25,000 people infected in the first two months of the year.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and vaccination is the only way to prevent it, the WHO said. Most cases are in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people.

It added that even though the region had its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination in 2017 – at around 90 percent – some countries have had problems, including declining or stagnating immunization coverage in some cases, low coverage in some marginalized groups, and immunity gaps in older populations.

The WHO called on national health authorities across the region to focus efforts on ensuring all population groups have access to vaccines.

“The impact on public health will persist until the ongoing outbreaks are controlled,” it said, adding that health authorities should “identify who has been missed in the past and reach them with the vaccines they need.”

A report by the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF last month found that more than 20 million children a year missed out on measles vaccines across the world in the past eight years, laying the ground for dangerous outbreaks.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Toxin at heart of drug recall shows holes in medical safety net

FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), is seen in London, Britain, April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay -/File Photo

By Alexandra Harney and Ben Hirschler

SHANGHAI/LONDON (Reuters) – A toxin inadvertently produced in the manufacture of a widely prescribed medicine but not spotted for years raises questions about regulators’ ability to detect risks in a sprawling global drug supply chain increasingly reliant on factories in China.

China’s Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical, which produces bulk ingredients for drugmakers, told its customers in late June it had found NDMA in its valsartan, an off-patent blood pressure drug originally developed by Novartis.

The discovery means that some of the 10 billion pills containing valsartan sold worldwide last year to prevent heart attacks and strokes had traces of N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), classified as a probable human carcinogen. No one has been reported as sickened by the toxin, once used in the production of liquid rocket fuel.

Regulators and industry experts say the toxin almost certainly was introduced when Huahai changed the way it produced valsartan in 2012 – a modification that was signed off on by the European body that sets standards. Subsequent inspections by European, U.S., and Chinese regulators also found no problem.

“Everyone failed – the company, the inspectors, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), the Europeans, the Chinese,” said Philippe André, an independent pharmaceutical auditor who inspected two Huahai facilities last August and found no critical concerns. “It’s a system failure.”

Reuters was unable to determine how Huahai first discovered the problem. In a July 7 statement released through the Shanghai Stock Exchange, it said it detected the toxin during the “optimization and evaluation” of its manufacturing process.

A Novartis spokesman told Reuters that its generic drugs arm, Sandoz, spotted the NDMA in the course of intensive testing to prepare for expanding its purchases of valsartan. He declined to comment further, including on the identity of the manufacturer or when the tests took place.

Two other smaller bulk suppliers – Zhejiang Tianyu Pharmaceutical and a unit of India’s Hetero Drugs – have since also discovered traces of NDMA in some of their valsartan.

The three companies declined to comment to comment about the case.

REDUCE WASTE

Huahai said in a document released through the Shanghai Stock Exchange it changed the production process to reduce waste and improve yields.

“The NDMA impurity was produced in trace amounts during the normal manufacturing process according to the company’s current registered process,” it said in a statement on July 24.

“All changes in the company’s valsartan manufacturing process have been approved by each country’s drug regulator, and the company manufactures in compliance with legal and regulatory standards.”

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) regulator, which first publicly raised the alarm in a statement on July 5, told valsartan suppliers in a subsequent memo dated July 16 that the NDMA may have been connected to the combined use of the solvent dimethylformamide and sodium nitrite.

The FDA is also going on that hypothesis, said Janet Woodcock, director of its Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. She stressed the investigation was still going on.

“This (NDMA) was not what you look for in an inspection,” Woodcock said in an interview. “If you don’t test for this you’re not going to have an idea that it’s in there, and you’re not going to see it on an inspection.”

The European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines (EDQM), responsible for setting manufacturing standards, told Reuters it was aware the solvent was being used when it approved the changed process, but that NDMA as a by-product was unexpected and not tested for.

Detecting NDMA would have required gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, a very sensitive level of testing, an EDQM spokeswoman said.

“These techniques are not normally used routinely to test pharmaceutical products,” she said.

RECALLS

Built by Novartis into the $6 billion-a-year brand Diovan, valsartan’s European and U.S. patents expired in 2011 and 2012.

Global sales totaled 10.4 billion pills last year, including combination products, healthcare data consultancy IQVIA estimates. People with high blood pressure typically take one pill daily and heart failure patients two.

More than 50 companies around the world making finished tablets from the tainted valsartan have recalled products in recent weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of national medicines agencies’ records. They include major generic drug manufacturers such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ranbaxy Laboratories, and Sandoz.

Based on the average NDMA impurity detected at Huahai of 60 parts per million (ppm), the EMA says there could be one additional case of cancer in every 5,000 people taking the highest dose for seven years.

The contamination puts a spotlight on manufacturers in China and India, which supply more than two-thirds of all active pharmaceutical ingredients used in medicines, industry executives estimate. China accounts for the lion’s share.

Huahai, founded in 1989 and listed in Shanghai in 2003, was one of the first Chinese companies to get drugs approved in the U.S. market.

The FDA has inspected the site that made the contaminated valsartan three times since 2010, its records show. European inspectors also visited regularly.

The provincial branch of the Chinese FDA (CFDA) also inspected Huahai facilities 10 times in connection with new drug applications between January 2016 and June 2018, the national online database shows.

SCRUTINY

U.S. and European regulators have increased scrutiny of Chinese and Indian drug factories after the adulteration of the blood thinner heparin sickened hundreds and caused the deaths of at least 81 Americans in 2007 and 2008.

The CFDA is also on alert.

Last month, it revealed that Changsheng Bio-technology , a vaccine maker, had fabricated data and sold ineffective vaccines for children. It also found that a diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine sold by the state-owned Wuhan Institute of Biological Products was substandard.

The fact that international inspections do not appear to have detected the NDMA contamination alarms Anders Fuglsang, a former European medicines regulator who runs a pharmaceutical consultancy in Denmark.

“We need to ask ourselves how it is possible – despite pharmacopoeias and agency guidelines, inspection programs with coordination across continents, a system of public quality control, and companies complying with all rules – that a nasty carcinogen can find its way into our drugs and be there for years without anyone noticing,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom, Zeba Siddiqui in Mumbai and Sharnya G in Bengaluru; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Baby powder helping fund Islamic State in Afghanistan: report

FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army troops prepare for an operation against insurgents in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from illegal mining of talc, much of which ends up in the United States and Europe, advocacy group Global Witness reported on Tuesday.

About 500,000 tonnes of talc, used in products ranging from paint to baby powder, were exported from Afghanistan in the year to March, according to Afghan mining ministry figures cited in the group’s report.

Almost all went to Pakistan, where much of it is re-exported. Pakistan provides more than a third of U.S. imports of talc and much also ends up in the European Union, it said.

“Unwitting American and European consumers are inadvertently helping fund extremist groups in Afghanistan,” Nick Donovan, Campaign Director at Global Witness, said in a statement, calling for stronger checks on imports.

Illegal mining of gemstones and minerals such as lapis lazuli is a major source of revenue for Taliban insurgents and the report said Islamic State was fighting for control of mines in Nangarhar, the province where it has its stronghold.

Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has large deposits of talc as well as minerals such as chromite and marble, and sits on major smuggling routes used for drugs and other contraband.

The report quoted a senior Islamic State militant commander as saying that wresting control of mining assets from other armed groups in Nangarhar was a priority: “The mines are in the hands of the mafia … At any price we will take the mines.”

Security officials in Afghanistan have long been concerned about the uncontrolled traffic in Nangarhar of commodities like talc and chromite, which the Global Witness report said “may be the least glamorous of conflict minerals”.

It said that while it was difficult to estimate the value of the trade to Islamic State, revenue from mining in Nangarhar could amount “anywhere from the high tens of thousands to the low millions of dollars a year”. Somewhere in the hundreds of thousands was a plausible mid-range estimate, it added.

The sum did not appear very high, it said, but the U.S. military estimated the strength of Islamic State in Nangarhar at somewhere between 750 to 2,000 fighters, meaning the funds would be a significant source of revenue to the movement.

An Afghan mining ministry spokesman said a special committee had already been established to coordinate approaches to the issue with security and intelligence services. The ministry planned a news conference this week to address some of the specific issues raised in the report.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran hit by global cyber attack that left U.S. flag on screens

FILE PHOTO: A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture taken on March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

DUBAI (Reuters) – Hackers have attacked networks in a number of countries including data centers in Iran where they left the image of a U.S. flag on screens along with a warning: “Don’t mess with our elections”, the Iranian IT ministry said on Saturday.

“The attack apparently affected 200,000 router switches across the world in a widespread attack, including 3,500 switches in our country,” the Communication and Information Technology Ministry said in a statement carried by Iran’s official news agency IRNA.

The statement said the attack, which hit internet service providers and cut off web access for subscribers, was made possible by a vulnerability in routers from Cisco which had earlier issued a warning and provided a patch that some firms had failed to install over the Iranian new year holiday.

A blog published on Thursday by Nick Biasini, a threat researcher at Cisco’s Talos Security Intelligence and Research Group, said: “Several incidents in multiple countries, including some specifically targeting critical infrastructure, have involved the misuse of the Smart Install protocol…

“As a result, we are taking an active stance, and are urging customers, again, of the elevated risk and available remediation paths.”

On Saturday evening, Cisco said those postings were a tool to help clients identify weaknesses and repel a cyber attack.

Iran’s IT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi posted a picture of a computer screen on Twitter with the image of the U.S. flag and the hackers’ message. He said it was not yet clear who had carried out the attack.

Azari-Jahromi said the attack mainly affected Europe, India and the United States, state television reported.

“Some 55,000 devices were affected in the United States and 14,000 in China, and Iran’s share of affected devices was 2 percent,” Azari-Jahromi was quoted as saying.

In a tweet, Azari-Jahromi said the state computer emergency response body MAHER had shown “weaknesses in providing information to (affected) companies” after the attack which was detected late on Friday in Iran.

Hadi Sajadi, deputy head of the state-run Information Technology Organisation of Iran, said the attack was neutralized within hours and no data was lost.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, additional reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington; editing by Ros Russell and G Crosse)