Migrants on rescue ship to be taken to Malta, sent to four EU states

FILE PHOTO: The humanitarian ship Aquarius is seen at Boiler Wharf in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

VALLETTA (Reuters) – Migrants aboard the charity rescue ship Aquarius will be transferred to a patrol boat in international waters and taken to Malta, which will then send them to four other European Union states, the Maltese government said on Tuesday.

“Malta and France again step up to solve migrant impasse,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Twitter. “With (French President) Emmanuel Macron and other leaders we want to show multilateral approach possible.”

The 58 migrants on the Aquarius “will be transferred onto a Malta armed forces asset in international waters” and brought to Malta before being sent onto four EU states, Muscat’s spokesman Kurt Farrugia tweeted.

(Reporting by Chris Scicluna, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Crispian Balmer)

Exclusive: EU to agree new sanctions regime for chemical attacks

FILE PHOTO: Bags containing protective clothing are seen after Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) left after visiting the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union envoys are set to agree a new mechanism to punish chemical weapons’ attacks by targeting people blamed for using banned munitions regardless of their nationality, diplomats said.

The legal regime, based on a French proposal to combat what Paris and London say is the repeated use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria, would allow the EU to impose sanctions more quickly on specific individuals anywhere in the world, freezing their assets in the bloc and banning them from entry.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 28 governments are expected to approve the regime at their weekly meeting on Wednesday, without debate.

The EU already has sanctions lists for Syria and Russia, but under the current system individuals must be added to special country lists. These are complex to negotiate and difficult to expand because some EU governments are reluctant to criticize close partners, particularly Moscow.

“This is significant because we will be able to add names without a big, sensitive debate,” said one senior EU diplomat involved in the negotiations. “We can try to uphold certain rights rather than just issuing statements.”

Banned two decades ago under an international treaty, the rising use of nerve agents has alarmed Western governments.

Recent cases include the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 and the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in March.

EU diplomats say the new chemical weapons regime could be followed up by a similar mechanism for human rights violations, similar to the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act, which allows Washington to sanction individuals for abuses or corruption.

The regime, due to be given a final stamp of approval by EU foreign ministers on Oct. 15, will still need the support of all EU governments for names to be added, according to a preparatory paper seen by Reuters.

It was not immediately clear if Britain would propose to add two Russians accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter.

But diplomats say it is a possibility as Britain has been unable to convince other EU countries to back new sanctions on Russia over the case.

Britain has charged two Russian men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempting to murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia by spraying a chemical weapon on Skripal’s front door in the English city of Salisbury.

France pushed the EU sanctions regime in part because the United Nations Security Council has been deadlocked over how to set up an independent inquiry for chemical attacks in Syria.

Russia rejected a joint draft resolution by Britain, France and the United States earlier this year.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Ed Osmond)

Greece must urgently move vulnerable migrants from island camp

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria shout slogans in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste”.

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said.

“It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticized as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticized Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU executive to propose new measures to deter migrants

A general view shows tents where migrants live, in the downtown of Nantes, France, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will announce plans next week to strengthen its external borders and push foreign states to do more to deter migrants.

The plans are a last effort by the European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker to toughen policy on an issue that has divided Europe since 2015 when more than a million refugees and migrants arrived across the Mediterranean.

But disagreements between EU states make a comprehensive deal on migration unlikely before the new Commission and parliament arrive next year.

Juncker will also propose more pathways for migrants to get to the EU legally including on study or work visas as he makes his last State of the Union speech in the European Parliament next Wednesday before stepping down.

The Commission will release proposals including to enhance the mandate of the bloc’s Frontex agency for external borders, diplomats and officials said.

At the same time Austria, which currently holds the bloc’s presidency, is trying to break a deadlock between member states over how to handle refugees and migrants who arrive by sea.

Under Vienna’s proposal of “mandatory solidarity”, EU states could accept refugees and migrants, provide experts or equipment for the bloc’s external borders or make other contributions.

The plan does not require all member states to host new arrivals. The EU’s ex-communist eastern members oppose hosting these people – just one issue that has damaged the bloc’s unity.

This year, sea arrivals stand at some 70,000 people, a fraction of the mass influx in 2015 that overwhelmed EU states and stretched services, precipitating a rise in the bloc’s populist, nationalist and anti-immigration parties.

“We are still handling an acute political crisis in the EU, even though the arrivals are next to none,” a senior diplomat in Brussels said.

Italy remains opposed to Austria’s plan. Rome has pushed more rigid anti-immigration policies and denied several rescue ships access to its ports. It says other EU states should take in the migrants.

EU leaders will discuss migration again at a summit in Salzburg on Sept. 19-20.

Tents where migrants live are seen in the downtown of Nantes, France, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Tents where migrants live are seen in the downtown of Nantes, France, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

ENTRENCHED

They will also discuss stepping up returns and deportations of people who make it to the EU but fail to win asylum.

The EU is entering a campaign season with European Parliament elections due next May and a new Commission to be installed in late 2019.

As a result, member states would have to agree a new migration package this year to give the Parliament a chance to approve it before its final session in mid-April, diplomats say.

The Commission’s new measures further develop policies implemented since 2015 that have contributed to a sharp decrease in migration by sea. Rights groups say the policies leave migrants vulnerable to abuses and death on land and at sea.

The bloc’s idea for “regional disembarkation platforms” around the Mediterranean aimed to open EU ports for rescue ships and then spread the migrants on board across the bloc.

The plan was honed after an EU summit last June that saw Italy and Germany face off through the night. But it appears stillborn as member states remain reluctant to take immigrants in, let alone through an obligatory scheme.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

EU says clock is running out on summer-winter time change

FILE PHOTO: A giant sculpture constructed with the faces of clocks is seen outside a Paris train station, March 27, 2009 on the weekend when France moves its clocks forward one hour early Sunday morning, marking daylight savings time. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union said on Friday it would propose a legal change that would end the ritual of switching between summer and winter time, leaving it up to governments across the bloc to agree on whether to permanently use summer time or winter time.

The proposal comes after a survey found 84 percent of 4.6 million citizens across the EU’s 28 member states opposed changing the clocks ahead in the summer or back in the winter or just opposed switching either way.

In response, the EU’s chief executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, said Brussels would propose scrapping an EU law requiring member states to change their clocks.

“Millions … believe that summertime should be all the time,” Juncker said on German television.

Since 1996, EU law has been moving clocks forward an hour on the last Sunday in March and back an hour on the final Sunday in October. The proposal would drop that requirement, a Commission spokesman said. He rebuffed suggestions that would lead to confusing variations in keeping time from one country to the next.

“It would be surprising if the outcome of the directive was one that doesn’t make sense for European citizens and for business,” spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a news briefing.

Spain backs the proposal to stick with just one time, government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said on Friday. But it may have to use another time zone more in line with its western geographical position following the Commission’s proposal, Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters in Vienna.

Critics of the clock change say it can cause long-term health problems, especially among young children and elderly people. Supporters say making the switch to give extra morning daylight in winter and evening light in summer can help reduce traffic accidents and save energy.

Any change would need approval from national governments and European Parliament to become law – a process that can take up to two years.

Participation in the EU’s survey varied country by country. Germans, Austrians and Luxembourgers were the most active – 3.79 percent of people in Germany took part. Elsewhere, less than 1 percent of citizens took part. Italy, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands had some of the lowest participation.

Outside the EU, a handful of European countries have stopped switching between summer and winter time, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus and Iceland.

(Reporting by Gernot Heller and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonel in Brussels, Jesus Aguado in Madrid and Robin Emmott in Vienna; Editing by Larry King)

Britain’s May bows to Brexit pressure in parliament

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, arrives at Downing Street, in central London, Britain July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May bowed to pressure from Brexit supporters in her governing Conservative Party on Monday, accepting their changes to a customs bill that underpins Britain’s departure from the European Union.

May, vulnerable in parliament after losing her party’s majority at an ill-judged election last year, has come under fire from both wings of her party over a hard-won Brexit plan, with one ex-minister calling it the “worst of all worlds”.

Eurosceptic lawmakers had targeted her government’s customs legislation to try to toughen up her plans to leave the EU, but instead of facing them down and fuelling tensions, her spokesman said the government would accept their four amendments.

It was not clear the move would fundamentally change her plans – the changes do little more than to put government policy into law, her spokesman said – but it was a victory of sorts for those lawmakers who say May has betrayed them on Brexit, the biggest shift in British trade and foreign policy for decades.

“We will be accepting those four amendments,” the spokesman told reporters, saying the government believed they were “consistent” with the white paper policy document ministers agreed earlier this month.

“We have accepted these amendments because we believe them to be consistent with the approach that was set out and agreed at Chequers,” he said.

May had to fight hard to get the agreement of cabinet ministers at her Chequers country residence for her vision for Britain’s future ties with the EU, only for it to be undermined by the resignations last week of her Brexit minister David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

The plan, only a starting point for the second phase of talks with the EU, has come under fire from other eurosceptic lawmakers, who say the proposal to keep close customs ties to the EU betrays her commitment for a clean break with the bloc.

The battle over the amendments to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, or customs bill, is unlikely to be the last that May and her team will have to face.

“WORST OF BOTH WORLDS”

On Monday, the other wing of May’s Conservative Party – those lawmakers who want to keep the closest possible ties with the EU after Brexit – spoke up in the voice of former education minister Justine Greening who called for a second referendum.

Greening said such a vote was the only way to break the stalemate in parliament over the best future relationship with the bloc and branded May’s plan as “a fudge I can’t support. It’s the worst of both worlds”.

May’s spokesman said there would be no second referendum under any circumstances, and restated her position that the Chequers plan was the only way to deliver a Brexit that worked in the best interests of the country.

Another pro-EU lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who has led previous efforts to get the government to soften its Brexit stance, said the party needed to accept compromises “or accept that Brexit cannot be implemented and think again about what we are doing”.

For now the impetus lies with the Brexit supporters.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch eurosceptic who proposed the amendments, said he did not expect the bill, or another bill on trade due to be debated on Tuesday, to be blocked outright by the 650-member parliament. Rees-Mogg said that he wanted rather to test the support in parliament for changing her strategy.

“I’m sure Theresa May does not want to split the Conservative Party and therefore she will find that the inevitable consequence of the parliamentary arithmetic is that she will need to change it (the Brexit policy) to keep the party united,” Rees-Mogg said.

(Reporting by William James, additional reporting by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by David Stamp and Gareth Jones)

UK PM May doing ‘fantastic’ job on Brexit, says Trump, promising trade deal

British Prime Minster Theresa May and her husband Philip stand together with U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the entrance to Blenheim Palace, where they are attending a dinner with specially invited guests and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Jeff Mason and William James

CHEQUERS, England (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he looked forward to finalizing a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain, marking an abrupt change from a newspaper interview when he said Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy would kill such an agreement.

In an interview published just hours before the two leaders held talks, Trump chided the “very unfortunate” results of the prime minister’s proposals for Brexit and her negotiating tactics as Britain prepares to leaves the European Union in March next year.

However, Trump later said May was doing a “fantastic job”.

“Once the Brexit process is concluded and perhaps the UK has left the EU, I don’t know what they’re going to do but whatever you do is OK with me, that’s your decision,” Trump told a press conference with May in the garden of her official country residence Chequers.

“Whatever you do is OK with us, just make sure we can trade together, that’s all that matters. This is an incredible opportunity for our two countries and we will seize it fully.”

Last week at the same location, May finally won agreement for her Brexit plans from her cabinet but within days two senior ministers had quit, departures which Trump said earlier in the week had left Britain in turmoil.

Hours after those proposals were formally published, Trump cast further doubt on the strategy, delivering a withering verdict in an interview with the Sun newspaper.

“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal,” Trump said. “I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

Asked about that interview, Trump said he did not criticize the prime minister and was gushing in his praise of his host, saying she was tough and capable.

“This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a story that was done which was generally fine but it didn’t put in what I said about the prime minister and I said a tremendous thing. It’s called fake news.”

“HIGHEST LEVEL OF SPECIAL”

May, likewise, glossed over the comments.

“We agreed today that as the UK leaves the European Union we will pursue an ambitious U.S.-UK free trade agreement,” she said. “The Chequers agreement reached last week provides the platform for Donald and me to pursue an ambitious deal that works for both countries right across our economies.”

May and Trump both spoke of the importance of the “special relationship” between their two countries, something that Brexit supporters hope will reap benefits when Britain leaves the EU, allowing it to forge closer trade ties with the world’s biggest economy.

“I would say I would give our relationship in terms of grade the highest level of special,” Trump said.

However, many have cast May’s “business-friendly” plan as a betrayal that would leave Britain too close to the EU, including lawmakers in her deeply divided Conservative Party who have warned that she might face a leadership challenge.

During the press conference, May also thanked Trump for his support over Russia which Britain has blamed for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in southwest England in March.

Trump is due to meet Putin, who has rejected the nerve agent claims, at a summit when he finishes his four-day visit to Britain, and said he would raise the issue of reducing nuclear weapons.

“It will certainly be something that we bring up and talk about,” the U.S. president said.

As Trump and May spoke, thousands of protesters marched against the president through central London, one of more than 100 demonstrations planned against the president during his stay.

While Trump’s trip was not a full state visit, he has been given red carpet treatment and is scheduled to have tea later with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, where her grandson Prince Harry married U.S. actress Meghan Markle in May.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden, editing by Larry King, Kevin Liffey and David Stamp)

Hungary approves ‘STOP Soros’ law, defying EU, rights groups

Two soldiers stand in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s parliament on Wednesday approved a package of bills that criminalises some help given to illegal immigrants, defying the European Union and human rights groups and narrowing the scope for action by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door migrant policy and has led eastern European opposition to EU quotas that aimed to distribute asylum seekers around the bloc.

Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party tightened its grip on parliament in an April election fought on a fiercely anti-immigration platform that demonised U.S. billionaire George Soros and liberal NGOs he backs. Orban accuses Soros of encouraging mass immigration to undermine Europe, a charge Soros denies.

Under the new law, officially called “STOP Soros”, individuals or groups who help migrants not entitled to protection to submit requests for asylum or who help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

“The Hungarian people rightfully expects the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sandor Pinter wrote in a justification attached to the draft legislation.

“The STOP Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organisation of illegal immigration a criminal offence. We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants,” he said.

Parliament, where Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, also passed on Wednesday a constitutional amendment to state that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary – a swipe at Brussels over its quota plan.

TOUGH STANCE IS VOTE-WINNER

Immigration has become a major concern for voters across the European Union, helping to propel anti-migrant populists to power in Italy and Austria and threatening to fracture Merkel’s three-month-old coalition in Germany.

Orban has drummed up support for his tough measures by exploiting Hungarians’ memories of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East who surged into the country in the summer of 2015.

The vast majority of them moved on to wealthier western European countries, but Orban has branded the migrants a threat to Europe’s Christian civilisation and built a border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more from coming.

Hungarian statistics show 3,555 refugees living in Hungary, a country of 10 million, as of April. Only 342 people were registered as asylum seekers in the first four months of this year, mostly from the Middle East, and 279 were approved.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights group that often represents migrants, said on Wednesday the narrowing definition of who counts as a refugee essentially means nobody entering Hungary by land would be entitled to such treatment.

“Instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors,” Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi said.

The Orban government expects possible legal action by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, over the new law.

Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticised Hungary’s new law as “arbitrary” and vague and said it contravenes European law.

The Venice Commission, an expert body at the Council of Europe, had asked Hungary to refrain from approving the new law until a report it co-authored with the OSCE is published.

Orban has also tightened state control over the media, major business sectors and the courts since taking power in 2010.

In other constitutional changes approved on Wednesday, parliament agreed to set up a new judicial branch for administrative cases that critics say may increase political influence over judges. Another change narrowed the right to free expression and assembly.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU tries to assuage German, Italian concerns on migration

A migrant, part of a group intercepted aboard three dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, leaves a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will try to reassure Germany and Italy over migration at a summit next week as a stand-off in Berlin threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

The union could take steps to stop asylum seekers moving on from the country in which they are registered and start deciding asylum requests at centers to be established beyond EU borders in the future, according to a draft summit statement.

The proposed steps come ahead of the June 28-29 summit in Brussels at which EU leaders will attempt to agree on a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, causing a crisis for the union.

Their joint draft statement is not public and its wording might change. But it showed the bloc is trying to accommodate a new, anti-establishment government in Italy, as well as Berlin where Merkel’s coalition partner issued an ultimatum for an EU-wide deal on migration.

If the summit fails to reach a satisfactory outcome, Berlin would issue a unilateral ban on refugees already registered in other EU states from entering the country, said the junior governing Christian Social Union that has the interior ministry.

German police data suggest any such ban could only affect several hundred people a month and hence would have no big impact on the overall number of refugees in Germany.

The EU border agency Frontex said more than 90 percent of current arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain register for asylum there. Many still often go north, including to Germany. This “secondary movement” violates EU law but has been widespread.

“Member States should take all necessary internal legislative … to counter such movements,” the text said in an indirect response to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

The proposal came as the CSU faces a tough regional vote in Bavaria in October. At its home base, the party faces growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advocated harsh anti-immigration policies.

The AfD on Tuesday accused the CSU of copying its ideas on how to deal with the migrant crisis.

IMMIGRATION LOW, TENSIONS HIGH

The EU has long been bitterly divided over migration.

The bloc has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. The EU has given aid and money to Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Niger and other countries.

Next week, EU leaders will also agree to look into opening “disembarkation platforms” in regions such as north Africa to decide asylum requests before people get to Europe.

European capitals from Rome to Budapest have long called for such centres but concerns that processing people outside EU borders could violate the law have stalled progress.

“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft statement of EU leaders said.

Italy’s government closed its ports to rescue ships and said it prefers to have Frontex working in Africa to prevent people from coming rather than patrol the Mediterranean.

The Libyan government already runs migrant camps where the EU pays the U.N. migration and refugee agencies to help resettle people to Europe legally or return them home further south in Africa, rather than have them try to reach Europe.

Despite pressure from Berlin and Rome, reform of the bloc’s internal asylum rules is stuck. Southern and wealthy central states demand that all EU members host some new arrivals but eastern states refuse leading to a stalemate.

In evidence of that division, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday that the CSU demand for border checks within the EU is unacceptable. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said separately on Tuesday it would be “very difficult to reach a solution” next week.

Otherwise, there is agreement on strengthening external borders and bringing together the border protection databases.

“So much progress has been made, we can’t let all slip away now. So we need to give key countries something to keep them on board,” one EU official said of the proposed text.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Ratz and Michelle Martin in Berlin, Steve Scherer in Rome, Robert Muller in Prague and Johan Sennero, Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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)