Syria’s Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’ as more bombs fall

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 27 people died and more than 200 were injured on Wednesday. At least 299 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

WARNINGS

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

The Observatory said many of the planes over Ghouta appear to be Russian. Syrians say they can distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because the Russian aircraft fly higher.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding four people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of “de-escalation zones” under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Venezuela annual inflation at more than 4,000 percent: National Assembly

A woman and a child look at prices in a grocery store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Inflation in January alone was 84.2 percent, opposition lawmakers said, amid an economic crisis in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering food and medicine shortages.

The monthly figure implies annualized inflation of more than 150,000 per cent and that prices will double at least every 35 days.

With cash in short supply and banking and communications infrastructures struggling, day-to-day transactions are becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuelans.

The government blames the problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with a helping hand from Washington.

Critics in turn blame strict currency controls, which were enacted by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago this week. The bolivar is down some 40 percent against the dollar in the last month alone.

A million dollars of Venezuelan bolivars bought when the currency controls were introduced would now be worth just $7 on the black market.

The government has not published inflation data for more than two years though has increased the minimum wage repeatedly in a nod to rising prices.

The government raised the minimum wage 40 percent on Jan. 1, making it roughly equivalent now to just over $1 per month.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Air strikes pound Syria’s last rebel strongholds, gas chokes civilians

A man is seen near the remains of a rocket in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 22, 2018.

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Warplanes launched heavy attacks on the two last major rebel-held areas in Syria, killing at least 29 people in the Ghouta suburb near the capital and choking people with gas in Idlib in the northwest, rescue workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has vowed to retake all of Syria from rebels who have lost large swathes of the territory they have held in a war now entering its eighth year.

A years-long siege on the last major rebel-held area near the capital Damascus, the suburb of eastern Ghouta, has tightened in recent months. In the northwest, the government and its militia allies have been trying to advance in mostly rural Idlib, the last province still largely under rebel control.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said warplanes attacking eastern Ghouta near Damascus had struck the towns of Zamalka, Arbaeen, Hazza and Beitu Soua, killing at least 29 people. State media said rebel fighters shelling the government-held capital killed a woman.

International concern has been growing over the fate of eastern Ghouta, where residents say they have been running out of food and medicine.

In the northwest, the other main battlefield in the war between Assad’s government and its main rebel opponents, bombing also intensified on Sunday night after rebels shot down a Russian warplane on Saturday.

Rescue workers said at least nine people had suffered breathing problems from chemicals dropped from the air. Aid groups and rescuers said three hospitals had also been struck.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a charity which supports hospitals in Syria, said its doctors in Idlib reported 11 patients “with symptoms indicative to usage of chlorine”.

Two barrels containing chemical gasses had been dropped from helicopters on Sunday night, Radi Saad, from the chemical weapons team of the White Helmets civil defense group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the White Helmets and the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said healthcare facilities in northwestern Syria had been hit by air strikes.

“With the majority of hospitals no longer operating in these areas, these latest attacks will deprive tens of thousands of life-saving care,” the ICRC said on Twitter.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chlorine or other chemical weapons during Syria’s conflict. Rescue workers and medical groups have accused government forces of using chlorine gas against the rebel-held eastern Ghouta at least three times over the last month, most recently on Thursday.

“ABHORRENT ACT”

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013. In the past two years, a joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. The inquiry also said the Islamic State group has used sulfur mustard.

The German government called on Monday for a thorough investigation into reports Syria had used chemical weapons in both Idlib and eastern Ghouta.

“If it is confirmed that the Syrian government has once again used chemical weapons, that would be an abhorrent act and an egregious violation of the moral and legal obligation to avoid the use of chemical weapons,” a German foreign ministry official said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon, and Washington was also concerned about the potential use of sarin.

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes. Neighbors and global powers have been drawn into the multi-sided conflict, sponsoring allied groups on the ground.

Turkish forces are in northwest Syria, entering Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement reached with Assad’s backers Russia and Iran. They also expanded their operation two weeks ago into the nearby Afrin region to fight against Kurdish militias who hold that territory.

The Turkish army said on Monday its forces had set up a military post southwest of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the deepest position they have established so far inside northwest Syria under their deal with Russia and Iran.

The “de-escalation” in violence they were supposed to monitor has collapsed. In December, the Syrian army alongside Iran-backed militias and heavy Russian air power launched a major offensive to take territory in Idlib province.

The Observatory said the new Turkish observation post was near the village of al-Eis. That would place it less than five km (three miles) from territory held by Syrian government forces and their allies, and deeper inside Syria than the three observation posts set up by the Turkish army so far.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowell in Beirut, Daren Butler and Tulay Karadeniz in Turkey, Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

Wave of looting shutters stores, spreads fear in Venezuela

A worker closes the security shutter of a window display at a shoes store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela January 16, 2018.

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – A wave of looting by hungry mobs across Venezuela has left streets of shuttered shops in provincial towns and pushed some store owners to arm themselves with guns and machetes, stirring fear that the turmoil could spread to the capital Caracas.

Worsening food shortages and runaway inflation have unleashed the spate of pillaging since Christmas in the South American country, in which seven people have reportedly died.

The unrest was sparked by shortages of pork for traditional holiday meals, despite socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s promise of subsidized meat to alleviate shortages.

Looters have ransacked trucks, supermarkets and liquor stores across the nation of 30 million people, which ranks as one of the most violent in the world.

The plunder is heaping more pain on battered businesses, raising questions about how much longer they can survive. Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s richest countries, is suffering a fifth straight year of recession and the world’s highest inflation rate, which the opposition-run Congress says topped 2,600 percent last year.

In the first 11 days of January alone, some 107 lootings or attempted lootings have taken place, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a rights group.

In one of the most dramatic incidents, a mob slaughtered cattle grazing in a field in the mountainous western state of Merida.

Skeptical that authorities can protect them, shopkeepers in the Andean town of Garcia de Hevia in the neighboring state of Tachira have taken matters into their own hands.

“We’re arming ourselves with sticks, knives, machetes, and firearms to defend our assets,” recounted William Roa, the president of the local shopkeepers’ association.

Roa, who owns a restaurant and liquor store, estimated that more than two-thirds of stores in the small town near the Colombian border were shut.

“A person spends the night in each store and we communicate using WhatsApp groups, coordinating by block 24 hours a day,” he said.

In Ciudad Guayana, a former industrial powerhouse on the Orinoco river in eastern Venezuela, many stores remain closed after a wave of nighttime lootings.

Garbage fills the streets and few cars circulate, though buses crammed with people crisscross town looking for places to buy food.

Businessmen in Caracas now fear the lootings, so far concentrated in the poorer and more lawless provinces, will spread to the sprawling capital, with its teeming hillside slums.

The owners of patisserie Arte Paris, in the city’s gritty downtown, reinforced the storefront with metal shutters last month. They now only stock ingredients like sugar for a handful of days and have considered hiring a costly nighttime guard.

“The fear is real,” said Sebastian Fallone, one of the owners, as men and children begged patrons for food. “I leave at night without knowing what I will find the next morning.”

‘NO HOPE’

Government critics say Maduro’s refusal to reform the OPEC nation’s floundering economy is to blame for the chaotic fight for survival in the country home to the world’s largest crude reserves.

With a presidential election looming this year, Maduro retorts that Venezuela’s oil-reliant economy is under attack by U.S.-backed saboteurs seeking to stoke conflict and discredit socialism in Latin America.

While videos of ransacking have gone viral, Maduro’s government has stayed largely mum. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for information on the scale and impact of the looting.

The unrest has also stoked fears Venezuelan society could unravel as chaos sets in, fuelling mass emigration to nearby South American countries or a full-blown social explosion at home.

People line up outside a supermarket with its security shutters partially closed as a precaution against riots or lootings, in San Cristobal, Venezuela January 16, 2018.

People line up outside a supermarket with its security shutters partially closed as a precaution against riots or lootings, in San Cristobal, Venezuela January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“Small-scale protests will be numerous and increasingly violent; any of these protests could contain the spark to serious unrest,” said consultancy Teneo Intelligence in a note to clients about the year ahead in Venezuela.

In an effort to curb voter anger over inflation, the government agency tasked with ensuring “fair prices” ordered some 200 supermarkets to slash their rates this month, triggering frenetic buying.

Roadside lootings have also scared truck drivers, disrupting the food distribution chain that is traditionally slower anyway in January because of holidays.

For Mery Cacua, manager of La Gran Parada, a supermarket chain in Tachira’s state capital San Cristobal, it has become too much to handle.

“We’re closing in two weeks. There’s no hope anymore,” said Cacua, adding she and her siblings had not yet mustered the strength to break the news to their 87-year-old father, who founded the business 60 years ago.

The family does not know what to do but is considering starting from scratch in Colombia.

Venezuelan supermarkets that remain open are often a shadow of what they once were. Many shelves are barren and poor Venezuelans increasingly mass outside stores, imploring entering shoppers to buy them goods.

“What are they going to loot here? There’s nothing. The warehouse is empty,” said an employee at a big supermarket in Caracas, as a colleague behind him filled empty shelves with water bottles to make them look stocked.

(Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Andreina Aponte and Leon Wietfeld in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sandra Maler)

United Nations hopes imports will help stave off famine in Yemen as diphtheria spreads

A nurse holds a premature baby in an incubator at the child care unit of a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – United Nations aid agencies called on Tuesday for the Yemeni port of Hodeidah to remain open beyond Friday, the date set by a Saudi-led military coalition, to permit continued delivery of life-saving goods.

Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, where 8.3 million people are entirely dependent on external food aid and 400,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a potentially lethal condition, they said.

The Arab coalition, under international pressure, eased a three-week blockade which was imposed on Yemeni ports and airports in November in response to a ballistic missile fired by the Houthi movement toward the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Four mobile cranes arrived in the important Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port, the U.N. said on Monday, after the coalition agreed to let them into Yemen, where nearly three years of war have pushed it to the verge of famine.

“The port in theory is going be open to the 19th of this month. Then we don’t know if the coalition will close or (leave) it open,” Meritxell Relano, U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Yemen, told a news briefing in Geneva.

“Obviously the feeling is that they extend this period so that the commercial goods can come in, but especially the fuel,” she said, speaking from the capital Sanaa.

Before the conflict, Hodeidah port handled around 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, including food and humanitarian supplies.

Fuel is vital to power water and sanitation stations to provide clean water and help avoid diseases, she said.

More than 11 million Yemeni children – virtually all – need humanitarian assistance, Relano said. UNICEF figures show 25,000 Yemeni babies die at birth or before the age of one month.

A child lies in a bed at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018

A child lies in a bed at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

“Yemen is in the grips of the world’s biggest hunger crisis,” World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said. “This is a nightmare that is happening right now.”

“We appeal to parties on (the) ground in order to stave off famine that we can continue regularly to get food in, to get medicines in, to get fuel in, be it from the humanitarian or the commercial side,” she said.

Luescher, asked about prospects for the Hodeidah port lifeline to remain open, replied: “Obviously since the cranes were imported and are operational, we are hopeful and optimistic that our work can continue.”

A diphtheria outbreak in Yemen is “spreading quickly”, with 678 cases and 48 associated deaths in four months, Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organisation said.

The number of cases has doubled since Dec 22, when the WHO reported 333 people affected by the highly-contagious disease, with 35 deaths. Ibb and Hodeidah are the worst-hit of the 19 affected governorates, Chaib said.

“We can stop the outbreak by providing antibiotics and also vaccinating,” she said. Some 2.5 million doses have been imported for a planned immunization campaign, she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Larry King, William Maclean)

Lootings, scattered protests hit Venezuelan industrial city

A general view of the damage at a mini-market after it was looted in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela January 9, 2018.

By Maria Ramirez

CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – A second day of lootings and scattered street protests hit the Ciudad Guayana in southeastern Venezuela on Tuesday, as unrest grows in the once-booming industrial city plagued with food shortages and a malaria outbreak.

At least five food stores were looted overnight, with police sources saying some 20 people had been arrested. Angry Venezuelans also blocked three major roads to demand anti-malaria medicine, food, cooking gas and spare parts for trucks.

There has been increasing unrest around the South American OPEC member in the last few weeks as a fourth straight year of painful recession and the world’s highest inflation leaves millions unable to eat enough.

Erika Garcia tearfully recounted how looters ransacked her food shop and home just 10 minutes after National Guard soldiers who had been patrolling the area withdrew late on Monday night.

“They stole everything. They broke off the water pipes, they ripped off the toilet bowl, they took away the windows, the fences, the doors, the beds. Everything. They did not kill us because we ran, but they did beat us up,” said Garcia, 38, who planned to sleep at a relative’s house on Tuesday night

She said there was no way she could reopen her store.

The overnight lootings follow at least four similar in the early hours of Monday. Around 10 liquor stores were also looted on Christmas day in southeastern Bolivar state, according to the local chamber of commerce head Florenzo Schettino.

Critics blame President Nicolas Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party for Venezuela’s economic mess, saying they have persisted with failed statist policies for too long while turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and suffering.

The government says it is the victim of an “economic war” by political opponents and right-wing foreign powers, intent on bringing down Maduro in a coup. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the lootings on Tuesday.

The wave of plunder has spooked many in Ciudad Guyana, leading more people to stay indoors come nightfall and dissuading some stores from opening.

Metal worker Alvaro Becerra lives near a store that was ransacked overnight.

“We lived a night of terror,” said Becerra, 52, adding he heard gunshots and saw people carrying a freezer full of food.

“Today everything is closed. There’s no place to buy. The only people who are working are those who sell vegetables,” he said.

(Reporting by Maria Ramirez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Talks with rebels in no-man’s land as Russia eyes post-war role in Syria

A man is seen near rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels under siege near Damascus have resorted to talks with the government’s ally Russia, sometimes meeting in no-man’s land, as they seek to hang on to their enclave.

The meetings on eastern Ghouta – the only major rebel bastion around the capital – underline Moscow’s deepening role in trying to shape Syria’s future after the conflict, which broke out in 2011.

The rebels have won almost nothing from the negotiations so far, but they say they have little choice.

They believe the Russians, whose air force all but won the war for the government, will have the final say on Syria’s fate.

The two main rebel forces in the suburbs signed ceasefires with Russia in the summer, but fighting has carried on. Both said they have been talking to Russian officials regularly for several months.

“It’s better to negotiate with the one calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime,” said Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman insurgents. “So the factions are forced to sit down with them. This is the reality.”

The Russian defense and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the talks. Moscow says the reconciliation center at its air base in Syria routinely holds peace talks with armed factions across the country.

The Syrian government’s minister for national reconciliation has said the state intends to get all militants out of eastern Ghouta and restore its full control.

But the insurgents want their enemies to observe the truce, which they say includes lifting the siege, opening crossings, and letting dying patients out. It would also involve evacuating the few hundred fighters of al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

Both factions accuse Moscow of not honoring the deals, or turning a blind eye to Syrian army violations.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants.

“We send them documentation of how the aircraft drops missiles on residential areas,” said Hamza Birqdar, a military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebels.

“Either there is silence … or baseless excuses,” he said. “They say government authorities denied bombing. Then these planes flying over the Ghouta, who do they belong to?”

(Graphic: Syria areas of control http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTrjp1)

TRUCE PROCESS

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. Monitors and opposition activists blame Russian bombing for thousands of civilian deaths and much of the destruction – allegations Moscow denies.

After turning the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has seized the reins of international diplomacy in the past year. It has sought to build a political process outside of failed U.N. peace talks in Geneva.

Other countries including the United States, meanwhile, have wound down support for the array of mostly Sunni rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first sent warplanes to help Assad in 2015, is pushing for a congress of national dialogue between Syria’s many combatants.

With the map of Syria’s conflict redrawn, Russia wants to convert military gains into a settlement that stabilizes the shattered nation and secures its interests in the region.

To this end, Moscow has been negotiating behind the scenes with armed factions across Syria.

“We communicate exclusively with them,” said Birqdar. “Because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions … except under Russian orders.”

With official and secret talks, Russia has built ties to local groups partly to gain influence on the ground, said Yury Barmin, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the foreign ministry.

“There’s one goal. Their inclusion in the truce process,” he said. “All this is done with the aim of populating these Russian processes, ones led by Russia, with such opposition groups.”

NO MAN’S LAND

Since 2013, Syrian government forces and their allies have blockaded eastern Ghouta, a densely populated pocket of satellite towns and farms.

The military has suppressed opposition enclaves across western Syria, with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. Nearly seven years into the war, Assad has repeatedly vowed to take back every inch of Syria.

The Ghouta remains the only big rebel enclave near the heavily fortified capital.

“Our communications with the Russian side are through (their) official in Damascus in charge of this file, by phone and in meetings,” said Yasser Delwan, a local Jaish al-Islam political official.

They meet Russian forces in no-man’s land, the abandoned farmland between rebel and government territory, at the edge of the nearby Wafideen camp.

“We talk about the deal we signed … implementing it from paper into something practical,” he said.

Both rebel forces said Russia instigated the talks. They said Russian officials sometimes blame Iran-backed forces for breaking the truce or use jihadists as a pretext for attacks against the Ghouta.

Failaq al-Rahman only negotiates with Russian officials outside Syria, said Olwan, their spokesman.

“In reality, Russia has never been honest in its support of the political track,” he said. “But with the failure of the international community … the factions were forced to negotiate with the enemy.”

DE-ESCALATION DEALS

Eastern Ghouta falls under ceasefire plans for rebel territory that Russia has brokered across Syria in the past year, with help from Turkey and Iran.

When the insurgents signed the “de-escalation” deal with Russia last summer, residents and aid workers hoped food would flow into the suburbs, home to around 400,000 people. But they say it has brought no relief.

Despite lulls in air strikes, the siege got harsher. In some frontline districts, fierce battles rage on. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled, especially after the shutdown of smuggling tunnels.

A Syrian official in Damascus said the army has only retaliated to militants in the suburbs shelling districts of the capital. “As for the Russian allies, every action takes place on Syrian land in full and total coordination with the Syrian government,” the official said. “They have a big role.”

The Ghouta’s rebel factions, which have long been at odds, say they have no direct contacts with Assad’s government.

“In its communications, Russia has always tried to present itself as the solution,” Olwan said. “We don’t see them as mediators. We see them as the final commander in the regime’s ranks.”

The Damascus government mostly does not play a role in the talks, said Barmin, the Russia analyst. “Damascus is presented with a fait accompli and must either accept it or not.”

(Additional reporting by Moscow bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood and Anna Willard)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)