As tensions over aid rise, Venezuelan troops fire on villagers, kill two

People waiting to cross to Venezuela gesture at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Carlos Suniaga and Nelson Bocanegra

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, witnesses said, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block U.S.-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.

The United States, which is among dozens of Western nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.

With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Maduro, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, says opposition efforts to bring in aid are a U.S.-backed “cheap show” to undermine his government.

The socialist president has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed and threatened to do the same with the Colombian border ahead of a Saturday deadline by the opposition to bring in humanitarian assistance.

A fundraising concert for Venezuela, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson and featuring major Latin pop stars like Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, attracted nearly 200,000 in Cucuta on Friday, organizers said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty toward Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.

With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.

Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid from entering, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.

Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said.

“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”

Seven of the 15 injured earlier on Friday were rushed by ambulance across the border and were being treated at the Roraima General Hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro’s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.

Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.

The United States condemned “the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions”, a State Department official said on Friday.

Meanwhile China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned humanitarian aid should not be forced in because doing so could lead to violence.

BLOODSHED ‘NOT IN VAIN’

The bloodshed contrasted with the joyous ambiance at Branson’s “Venezuela Aid Live” in Cucuta, where Venezuelan and Colombian attendees, some crying, waved flags and chanted “freedom” under a baking sun.

“Is it too much to ask for freedom after 20 years of ignominy, of a populist Marxist dictatorship?” Venezuelan artist Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodreguez asked. “To the Venezuelans there, don’t give up, the blood that has been spilled was not in vain”.

Earlier in the day, Branson held a news conference near a never-used road border bridge that has become a symbol of Maduro’s refusal to let aid in after authorities blocked the bridge with shipping containers.

“What we’re hoping is that the authorities in Venezuela will see this wonderful, peaceful concert…and that the soldiers will do that right thing,” Branson said.

Guaido has vowed the opposition will on Saturday bring in foreign aid being stockpiled in Cucuta, the Brazilian town of Boa Vista and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, setting up more clashes with Maduro’s security forces.

He set off toward the Colombian border on Thursday in a convoy with opposition lawmakers to oversee the effort but did not disclose his location on Friday out of security concerns, according to his aides.

“You must decide which side you are on in this definitive hour,” Guaido wrote on Twitter. “To all the military: between today and tomorrow, you will define how you want to be remembered.”

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Guaido’s move to assume the interim presidency and international backing has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, which has vowed to keep protesting until Maduro steps down. It previously staged major protests in 2014 and 2017 that waned in the face of government crackdowns.

Yet some government critics are concerned it will take more than pressure to force Maduro to step down.

“The truth is that not even 10 concerts will make damned Maduro leave office,” said Darwin Rendon, one of the 3.4 million Venezuelans to have emigrated since 2015 to find work. He sends what little he can earn selling cigarettes back to his family in Caracas.

“This regime is difficult to remove,” he added.

(Reporting by Carlos Suniaga and William Urdaneta in Kumarakapay, Venezuela; Nelson Bocanegra and Steven Grattan in Cucuta, Colombia; Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Lesley Wroughton in Washington Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in BrasiliaWriting by Sarah MarshEditing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

Venezuela’s Guaido declares himself president, Maduro under pressure

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Corina Pons, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to demand an end to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a statement minutes later, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting “Get out, Maduro” and “Guaido, Presidente,” while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas. A rally the night before left four people reported dead, an echo of tumultuous riots two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido, in a speech before a cheering crowd, took an oath swearing himself in as interim president.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end of the usurpation,” he said.

He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections.

The Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens, according to sources.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a fraudulent. His government accuses Guaido of staging a coup and has threatened him with jail.

ARMED FORCES

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

“We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,” said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Alistair Bell)

Indonesia orders flights to steer clear of erupting Anak Krakatau volcano

An aerial view of Anak Krakatau volcano during an eruption at Sunda strait in South Lampung, Indonesia, December 23, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Bisnis Indonesia/Nurul Hidayat/ via REUTERS/File Photo

By Fergus Jensen

LABUAN, Indonesia (Reuters) – Indonesia on Thursday raised the alert level for the erupting Anak Krakatau volcano to the second-highest and ordered all flights to steer clear, days after it triggered a tsunami that killed at least 430 people.

A crater collapse on the volcanic island at high tide on Saturday sent waves up to 5 meters (16 feet) high smashing into the coast on the Sunda Strait, between the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Residents walk among debris after the tsunami at Labuan in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia December 26, 2018, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Akbar Nugroho Gumay/via REUTERS

Residents walk among debris after the tsunami at Labuan in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia December 26, 2018, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Akbar Nugroho Gumay/via REUTERS

Authorities have warned that the crater of Anak Krakatau, or child of Krakatau, remains fragile, raising fears of another collapse and tsunami, and have urged residents to stay away from the coast.

The volcano has been rumbling on and off since June but has been particularly active since Sunday, spewing lava and rocks, and sending huge clouds of ash up to 3,000 meters into heavily overcast skies.

The national geological agency, in raising the alert level to the second-highest, set a 5-km exclusion zone around the island.

“Since December 23, activity has not stopped … We anticipate a further escalation,” said Antonius Ratdomopurbo, secretary of the geological agency.

A thin layer of volcanic ash has been settling on buildings, vehicles and vegetation along the west coast of Java since late on Wednesday, according to images shared by the national disaster mitigation agency.

Authorities said the ash was not dangerous, but advised residents to wear masks and goggles when outside, while aircraft were ordered away.

“All flights are rerouted due to Krakatau volcano ash on red alert,” Indonesia’s air traffic control agency AirNav said in a release.

AirNav’s corporate secretary, Didiet K.S. Radityo, told Reuters there were no disruptions to any international or domestic flights.

The civil aviation authority said no airports would be affected. The capital, Jakarta, is about 155 km east of the volcano.

Indonesia is a vast archipelago that sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

In 1883, the volcano then known as Krakatoa erupted in one of the biggest blasts in recorded history, killing more than 36,000 people in a series of tsunamis and lowering the global surface temperature by one degree Celsius with its ash.

Anak Krakatau is the island that emerged from the area in 1927 and has been growing ever since.

This year, Indonesia has suffered its worst annual death toll from disasters in more than a decade.

‘NO PREPARATIONS’

The latest tsunami, coming during the Christmas season, evoked memories of the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by an earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed 226,000 people in 14 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Tsunami warning systems were set up after 2004 but they have failed to prevent subsequent disasters, often because apparatus has not been maintained, while public education and disaster preparation efforts have been patchy at best.

Ramdi Tualfredi, a teacher in the village of Cigondong, on Java’s west coast, said he had never got any instructions on safety steps and efforts to prepare communities for tsunami had “totally failed”.

“There were no preparations. I didn’t get information from anywhere,” he said, adding there had been little help for residents since disaster struck.

Nearly 22,000 people were displaced by the tsunami, while 1,495 were injured and 159 are missing.

Thousands of displaced are staying in tents and crowded into public buildings.

Hamad Suhaimi, a teacher working as a volunteer at a school being used as an emergency shelter, said the numbers of displaced needing help had surged as authorities expanded the area deemed unsafe.

Volunteers and displaced villagers told Reuters that conditions in the shelters were getting difficult, especially for new mothers and their babies.

“We’re breastfeeding. We have to eat in the morning but food only comes at midday and there are no vegetables,” said Siti Sayaroh, 24.

The government has declared a state of emergency until Jan. 4, to help with the distribution of aid.

(Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe, Cindy Silviana, Nilufar Rizki, Jessica Damiana, Tabita Diela; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

A ‘never-ending nightmare’ for Yemenis one year since blockade

A woman holds a malnourished boy in a malnutrition treatment centre at the al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC17865BEC40

By Heba Kanso

BEIRUT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One year after a Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports temporarily halting life-saving supplies, Yemenis are still living a “never-ending nightmare,” low on food and fuel, a senior aid official said on Tuesday.

Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, is locked in a nearly four-year-old war that pits Iran-aligned Houthi rebels against the government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the West.

For several weeks at the end of 2017, the Saudi coalition imposed a blockade on Yemeni ports which it said was to prevent Houthis from importing weapons. This had a severe impact on Yemen, which traditionally imports 90 percent of its food.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. aid chief who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council said since the blockade, food and fuel imports remain low and prices have soared, leaving millions on the brink of starvation as violence continues.

“The past 12 months have been a never-ending nightmare for Yemeni civilians,” he said in a statement.

Here are some facts about what has been happening inside the war-torn country:

-The brutal war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid out of a population of around 25 million.

-The U.N. aid coordinator warned that a further 10 million Yemenis could face starvation by the end of the year. More than 8 million are already severely short of food.

-Aid group Save the Children said a million more children in Yemen risked falling into famine, taking the total number to 5.2 million.

-Fighting flared this week in Yemen’s main Hodeidah port, where most food imports and relief supplies enter, leaving thousands trapped on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port, according to the U.N.

-Western countries, like the United States and Britain, have called for a ceasefire to support efforts to end a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

-After international pressure the Saudi-led coalition lifted the blockade but tightened ship inspections, slowing down imports.

-Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Sources: Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Reuters

(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Venezuela teen’s political cartoons sketch his country’s downfall

Gabriel Moncada draws at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. Picture taken October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – In one drawing, Lady Justice is seen fleeing Venezuela, a sword in her right hand and a suitcase in the left.

In another, a crying boy tells his father he does not want school to start again. His anguished father, gazing at a list of expensive school supplies, answers: “Me neither, my son.”

In a third drawing, a Venezuelan is seen running toward an alien spaceship, begging for help.

The creator of these evocative political cartoons is Gabriel Moncada, a 13-year-old Venezuelan schoolboy.

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The mature, bespectacled teen always enjoyed drawing animals and cars, but a few years ago began sketching the despair of his compatriots in the face of hyperinflation, mass emigration, and shortages of food and medicine.

“Kids start to realize (what is happening), because they do not go to the movies as much, they realize they cannot stay in the street late, there is not as much food in the house or the same products,” said Moncada, sitting at the desk where he sketches.

“The drawings are a way to express myself. I think it is a creative, fun, and different way of showing the problems we experience daily,” he said.

His mother, 46-year old radio journalist Cecilia Gonzalez, started to publish her son’s cartoons on her Facebook page in late 2016. An impressed friend quickly asked to publish them on her online news site, TeLoCuentoNews, where every Friday for nearly two years they have appeared in a section called “This is how Gabo sees it,” referring to Moncada’s nickname.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown has forced almost 2 million people to flee since 2015, according to the United Nations migration and refugees agencies. President Nicolas Maduro disputes that tally, saying they have been exaggerated by political adversaries, and that those who have left are seeking to return.

Moncada’s mother said the family initially tried to shield him from the reality of the country’s decay but gave up as the problems became increasingly evident.

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings on the floor at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Gabriel Moncada looks at his drawings on the floor at his home in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“Nothing is like it used to be, and they realize that,” said Gonzalez. “You bring your kids to school and there are three or four children eating out of the garbage on the corner.”

The increasingly common sight of people eating from the trash emerged in one of Moncada’s sketches, which shows two rats standing below a pile of garbage as human hands dig through it.

One rat asks “Where’s the food?” The other responds “They have taken it from us.”

(Additional reporting by Shaylim Valderrama and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Brian Ellsworth; editing by Bill Berkrot)

Plight of stranded Syrians worsens as food blocked

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees wait to board a Jordanian army vehicle after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families, in Al Ruqban border area, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the town of Ruwaished, 240 km (149 miles) east of Amman September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians stranded on Jordan’s border with Syria are running out of food as routes leading to their camp are closed by the Syrian army and Jordan is blocking aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said on Thursday.

The Syrian army has tightened its siege of the camp, in Rukban, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, preventing smugglers and traders from delivering food to its 50,000 inhabitants, mostly women and children.

“More than a week ago the Syrian regime cut all the routes of supplies towards the camp. There are now only very small amounts of food that smugglers bring,” Abu Abdullah, the head of the civil affairs council that runs the camp, told Reuters.

“The camp is a balloon that could explode at any moment because of hunger, sickness and lack of aid … if the situation continues like this there will be real starvation,” he added by phone.In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from Islamic State-held parts of Syria that were being targeted by Russian and U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

Rukban is located near a U.S. garrison in southeastern Syria at Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The camp falls within a so-called deconfliction zone set up by the Pentagon with the aim of shielding the Tanf garrison from attacks by pro-Assad forces.

Damascus says the U.S. forces are occupying Syrian territory and providing a safe-haven in that area for rebels it deems terrorists.

Jordan has since the start of the year blocked any aid deliveries to the camp over its frontier and says now that the Syrian government had recovered territory around the camp, it could not be made responsible for delivering aid.

LIVES AT RISK

With Damascus intransigent, U.N. aid agencies have been pressing Jordan to let in urgent deliveries to stave off more deaths, aid workers and diplomatic sources said.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF warned on Thursday that without “critical action” by parties to the conflict to “allow and facilitate access” the lives of thousands of children in the camp were at risk.

“The situation for the estimated 45,000 people – among them many children – will further worsen with the cold winter months fast approaching, especially when temperatures dip below freezing point in the harsh desert conditions,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

Already two more infants died in the last 48 hours, Cappelaere added. Relief workers inside the camp say a woman also died this week.

Jordan wants the United Nations and Russia to put pressure on Damascus to give the written authorizations needed to allow supplies into Rukban from Syrian government-held territory.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said recently that his country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, could not be made responsible for delivering aid to the camp.

Western diplomatic sources believe the siege of the camp is part of a Russian-backed Syrian government effort to put pressure on Washington to get out of Tanf.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

Lights, TVs back on in Indonesia quake city, but fate of thousands unknown

A father holds his daughter's hand in a hospital as she receives medical treatment for injuries sustained from the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – Electricity was restored and shops began reopening in Indonesia’s quake and tsunami-stricken city of Palu on Thursday, but the fate of many thousands of people in outlying districts remained unknown nearly a week after the disaster struck.

The small city of 370,000 people has been the focus of the aid effort launched after last Friday’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on the west coast of Sulawesi island.

A soft toy is seen among the ruins of a house after an earthquake hit the Balaroa sub-district in Palu, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

A soft toy is seen among the ruins of a house after an earthquake hit the Balaroa sub-district in Palu, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

International help for survivors has gathered pace, but communities in more remote areas have been cut off by broken roads, landslides and crippled communications, leaving people increasingly desperate for basic needs as aid has only just begun to trickle through.

By Thursday, the official death toll stood at 1,424, but it is widely expected to rise as most of the dead accounted for have been from Palu, while figures for remote areas are trickling in or remain unknown.

“There are so many challenges with this disaster, it’s never been so bad,” said Frida Sinta, an aid volunteer trying to get basic food and other supplies out to fellow residents of Palu.

The city, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, has teetered close to chaos this week, with outbreaks of looting, but a recovery was evident as some shops and banks reopened and a major mobile phone network was back in operation.

A local resident stands next to damage cars days after the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A local resident stands next to damage cars days after the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Orderly queues formed at petrol stations after the arrival of fuel shipments and late in the day, traffic lights and televisions flickered back to life as the power came back on.

The improvements are helping with the aid effort.

“We carry whatever we can by car or motorbike within the city wherever we can. But not yet to the most inaccessible places,” Sinta said.

State port operator Pelindo IV said Palu’s port, which was damaged by the quake and tsunami, was open, though a Reuters reporter in the city said she had not seen any shipping activity.

Altogether, the worst affected areas in the disaster zone include some 1.4 million people.

Rescue workers are pushing into outlying districts, where residents have said they have been scavenging for coconuts, bananas, and cassava.

Villagers rushed a Red Cross helicopter that landed near the town of Donggala, northwest of Palu, to distribute bread and other food, a Reuters photographer said.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a briefing the main roads to the south, west, and east of Palu had been opened.

But there has been scant information about conditions on the road to the north, along the coast towards the epicenter of the quake, 78 km (50 miles) from Palu.

“There’s no data,” said Abdul Haris of the national search and rescue agency, when asked about the string of small settlements that line the road, which passes some sandy beaches that attract a trickle of tourists.

“Places have been damaged by the tsunami along the coast,” Nugroho said, but he had no details.

Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami queue up for fuel at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami queue up for fuel at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

‘DIFFICULT TIME’

While the power is back in Palu, it will take much longer for people to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Asril Abdul Hamid, 35, a business owner, was poking through the wreckage of his home in Palu’s Balaroa district, which was badly hit by deadly soil liquefaction.

He salvaged a few mementos including a family portrait.

“My immediate family is safe, thank God, but my cousin was killed,” he told Reuters, adding that his family had got food and water in the past few days.

International aid is beginning to arrive, including supplies from Britain and Australia, after the government overcame a traditional reluctance to accept help from abroad.

The United Nations announced an allocation of $15 million on Wednesday while the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was appealing for 22 million Swiss francs ($22 million).

The United States had provided initial funding and disaster experts and was working to determine what other help could be given, the State Department said.

Indonesian Central Bank Governor Perry Warjiyo said the disaster was a huge challenge but he played down the impact on Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

“We are united and we stand strong,” he told a briefing late on Wednesday.

Straddling the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has long been vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

But safety measures implemented after that disaster, including tsunami warning systems, failed on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Tom Allard in PALU, Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA, Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Indonesian quake survivors scavenging in ‘zombie town’; president ramps up aid

Policemen walk at the ruins of a church after an earthquake hit Jono Oge village in Sigi, Indonesia's Sulawesi island, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said on Wednesday they were scavenging for food in farms as President Joko Widodo made a second visit to the area to ramp up aid efforts five days after disaster struck.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi island last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A ship is seen stranded on the shore after the earthquake and tsunami hit an area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, a small city 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has yet to be restored.

But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.

Johnny Lim, a restaurant owner reached by telephone in Donggala town, said he was surviving on coconuts.

“It’s a zombie town. Everything’s destroyed. Nothing’s left,” Lim said over a crackling line.

“We’re on our last legs. There’s no food, no water.”

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

Debris and damaged property are seen following an earthquake in Petobo, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018, in this still image obtained from a social media video. Palang Merah Indonesia (Red Cross)/via REUTERS.

In another part of Donggala district, which has a population of 300,000 people, Ahmad Derajat, said survivors were scavenging for food in fields and orchards.

“What we’re relying on right now is food from farms and sharing whatever we find like sweet potatoes or bananas,” said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

“Why aren’t they dropping aid by helicopter?” he asked.

Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, which includes a string of cut-off, small towns along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake’s epicenter.

“Everyone is desperate for food and water. There’s no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing,” Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.

Underlining a growing sense of urgency, President Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.

“What I’ve observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it’s not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A mother and her son, both injured by the earthquake and tsunami, wait to be airlifted out by a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

‘PRESIDENT NOT HEARING’

Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an “evacuation” effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.

Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.

“The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu,” he said.

“There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village … There is no aid whatsoever which is why we’re leaving.”

At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colors and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: “Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia”.

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet) scoured its beachfront shortly afterward.

About 1,700 houses in one neighborhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Indonesian Red Cross disaster responders said the village of Petobo, just south of Palu, which was home to almost 500 people, had been “wiped off the map”.

“They are finding devastation and tragedy everywhere,” Iris van Deinse, of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

Nearby, rescue workers, some using an excavator, were searching for 52 children missing since liquefaction destroyed their bible study camp. Bodies of 35 of the children have been found.

Aircraft, tents, water treatment facilities and generators were the main needs for survivors including more than 70,000 displaced people, according to the national disaster mitigation agency spokesman.

Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to quakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Adding to Sulawesi’s woes, the Soputan volcano in the north of the island, 600 km (375 miles) northeast of Palu, erupted on Wednesday but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Rains pile misery on India’s flooded Kerala state as toll rises to 164

A man rescues a drowning man from a flooded area after the opening of Idamalayr, Cheruthoni and Mullaperiyar dam shutters following heavy rains, on the outskirts of Kochi, India August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

By Sivaram Venkitasubramanian and Gopakumar Warrier

KOCHI/BENGALURU, India (Reuters) – The worst floods in a century in the Indian state of Kerala have killed 164 people and forced more than 200,000 into relief camps, officials said on Friday, with more misery expected as heavy rain pushed water levels higher.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit the southwest state later on Friday and its chief minister said he was hoping the military could step up help for the rescue effort, which is already using dozens of helicopters and hundreds of boats.

“I spoke to the defense minister this morning and asked for more helicopters,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told a news conference in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, adding that he planned to send 11 more helicopters to the worst-hit places.

“In some areas, airlifting is the only option … thousands are still marooned,” said Vijayan.

The floods began nine days ago and Vijayan said 164 people had been killed – some in landslides – with about 223,000 people forced into 1,568 relief camps.

A Reuters witness on board a relief helicopter in Chengannur town in the south of the state said people stranded on roof tops were seen waving desperately at navy aircraft.

“The town looked like an island dotted with houses and cars submerged in muddy flood waters and downed coconut trees,” said the witness.

People wait for aid on the roof of their house at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

People wait for aid on the roof of their house at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Two navy helicopters circled as people on roofs of flooded homes waved clothing to call for help.

The helicopters dropped food and water in metal baskets and airlifted at least four people, including a three-year-old child, from roofs, the witness said.

Elsewhere, a man with a cast on his leg was seen lying on the roof of a church as he awaited rescue.

Anil Vasudevan, the head of the Kerala health disaster response wing, said his department had geared up to handle the needs of victims.

“We’ve deployed adequate doctors and staff and provided all essential medicines in the relief camps, where the evacuees will be housed,” he said.

But a big worry was what happens after the flood waters fall. People going home will be susceptible to water-borne diseases, he said.

“We are making elaborate arrangements to deal with that,” he said.

PLANES, TRAINS DISRUPTED

Kerala is a major destination for both domestic and foreign tourists.

The airport in its main commercial city of Kochi has been flooded it has suspended operations until Aug. 26 with flights being diverted to two other airports in the state. Rail and road traffic has also been disrupted in many places.

“Water levels continue to overflow on track and surpassing danger level of bridges at different places,” Southern Railway said in a statement, adding it had canceled more than a dozen trains passing through Kerala.

The office of the chief minister said heavy rain was falling in some places on Friday. More showers are expected over the weekend.

Modi said on Twitter that he would travel to Kerala “to take stock of the unfortunate situation”.

An aerial view shows partially submerged houses at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

An aerial view shows partially submerged houses at a flooded area in the southern state of Kerala, India, August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Kerala has been hit with 37 percent more rainfall than normal since the beginning of this monsoon, the Meteorological Department said.

Some plantations have also been inundated. The state is a major producer of rubber, tea, coffee and spices such as black pepper and cardamom.

“It’s very scary. I can still see people on their roofs waiting to be rescued,” said George Valy, a rubber dealer in Kottayam town.

(Reporting by Sivaram Venkitasubramanian in Kochi and Gopakumar Warrier in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Jose Devasia in Kochi and Swati Bhat and Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai; Writing by Euan Rocha and Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Death toll from Indonesia quake climbs over 320

An aerial view of the collapsed Jamiul Jamaah mosque where rescue workers and soldiers search for earthquake victims in Pemenang, North Lombok, Indonesia August 8, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Zabur Karuru/ via REUTERS

By Angie Teo

PEMANANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – The death toll from a huge 6.9 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia’s Lombok island has climbed to more than 320, officials said on Friday, even as relief efforts picked up pace.

The national disaster mitigation agency said it had verified 321 deaths and that over 270,000 people had been forced to flee their homes because of a series of tremors over the past two weeks.

On Thursday, the death toll from Sunday’s quake jumped to 259.

A fresh 5.9 magnitude aftershock prompted fresh panic in the north of the popular holiday destination on Thursday.

Nearly 75 percent of residential structures have been destroyed in northern Lombok because of poor construction unable to withstand strong tremors, the agency said in a statement.

“Aid is being distributed as quickly as possible upon arrival,” Sutopo Nugroho, spokesman for the agency said in a statement, adding that hundreds of volunteers were assisting the efforts.

Mobile kitchens have started distributing much-needed food and water to thousands of evacuees in the worst-hit areas, he said, after several days’ delay due to poor access and communications.

President Joko Widodo on Friday said he was delaying plans to visit Lombok until next week, citing concerns over continuing aftershocks.

“After the emergency period is over, the government will undertake rehabilitation, reconstruction, repairs to residential areas and public facilities,” the cabinet secretariat website quoted Widodo as saying.

Widodo visited the island after a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 29 killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

The quakes have prompted tourists to flee during what is otherwise the peak season for the island destination famous for its beaches.

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana in Jakarta; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Alison Williams)