Berlin imposes entry ban, arms freeze over Khashoggi killing

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany banned Saudi citizens suspected of involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from much of Europe on Monday and moved to halt all arms sales to the kingdom in a firming of its stance towards Riyadh.

The entry bans, targeting 18 Saudis suspected of playing a role in the killing of Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate, bind all members of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen zone, suggesting that Germany is willing to use its influence as the EU’s largest country to push for a tougher line.

“We have coordinated closely with our French and British friends and decided, as Germany, to put an entry ban beside their names in the Schengen system database,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger told a regular news conference.

A spokesman later added that the government would further cut down on arms exports by pressuring arms manufacturers with valid export licenses to stop shipments that had already been authorized.

The moves represent a sharpening of the position of Germany, which last month imposed a ban on the issuing of future export weapons export licenses to Saudi Arabia until the circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing have been fully cleared up.

Any member of the 26-country Schengen area can unilaterally impose a binding entry ban on anyone it deems a security risk, although it unusual for a country to impose such a large number of bans at once in such a politically sensitive case.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels the decision was closely coordinated with France, which is part of the Schengen zone, and Britain, which is not. He said EU states expressed “great support” for the decision when he briefed them in Brussels on Monday.

“We also had a joint statement on the issue this weekend, which indicates we are not satisfied with the results of the investigation thus far … and that we retain the right to take further steps,” he said.

Burger said the members of the 15-strong squad accused of carrying out the killing of the critic of Saudi policy, and a further three who are suspected of organizing it, had been given entry bans. He declined to name the individuals.

Asked if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen by U.S. intelligence as having ordered the killing, was among their number, Burger declined to comment.

Saudi prosecutors said last week that the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, knew nothing of the operation, in which Khashoggi’s body was dismembered, removed from the building and handed over to an unidentified “local cooperator”.

An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said the ban would apply even if any of those sanctioned held diplomatic passports, which normally offer immunity to members of the Saudi royal family and key diplomats.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt, Riham Alkousaa and Andrea Shalal, Editing by Michelle Martin and Alison Williams, William Maclean)

A century on from WW1, 100 years of work remains to clear munitions

A diver from a bomb-disposal unit gies up the surface an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Claudia Wyatt

VILOSNES-HARAUMONT, France (Reuters) – As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One draws near next month, bomb disposal experts are still digging up munitions sunk in the killing fields of eastern France — and it could be another 100 years before they are done.

A deminer from a bomb-disposal unit moves an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

A deminer from a bomb-disposal unit moves an unexploded shell recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 23, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

In Vilosnes-Haraumont, where the River Meuse snakes north and west from Verdun, the German army dumped thousands of artillery shells into the river’s slowly shifting waters after the battle of Mort Homme in 1916.

Last week a pair of scuba divers plunged into the chilly waters to tie ropes around dozens of shells buried in the river bed, before a crane dragged and carefully lifted a string of the rusted ordnance onto the grassy bank.

In one day’s work, more than five tonnes of unexploded shells were dredged from the river, an unusually large haul.

In a normal year, the Metz Demining Centre says it collects between 45 and 50 tonnes of ordnance, and it estimates there are at least 250 to 300 tonnes still buried in the nearby rivers and rolling hills of eastern France.

For Guy Momper, the bomb clearance specialist overseeing the clear-up, it is a painstaking but essential task to protect people from ammunition that could still explode and return the French landscape to the way it was before the war.

Unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River are seen on the bank at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River are seen on the bank at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

“We need to tidy up the land,” said Momper, who estimates it could take more than a century to clear all the munitions. “As a matter of principle, from the moment a shell is reported, we go out and collect it.”

ACCIDENTS

World War One was largely fought on French and Belgian soil. The bulk of the grinding conflict took place in trenches — sometimes only a few meters apart — dug into the soil along the borders of France, Germany and Belgium.

More than 10 million soldiers, including 1.4 million French, died in the conflict, which came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918, dramatically altering France’s demography and landscape.

The physical impact can still be seen, with the traces of old trench networks scarring the fields, and the ground pockmarked by the blast holes from exploded shells.

Deminers from a bomb-disposal unit place in boxes unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Deminers from a bomb-disposal unit place in boxes unexploded shells recovered in the Meuse River at Sivry-sur-Meuse, close to WWI battlefields, near Verdun, France, October 24, 2018 before the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

While the munitions pulled from the River Meuse have little risk of exploding, Momper and his team want to make sure there are no accidents. Alongside the river, they stack dozens of shells in neat rows, ready to be packed and removed.

“There are regularly accidents involving people who fancy themselves as deminers but who go too far,” said Benoit, a deminer working with the Metz team. “Unfortunately that costs lives in the worst cases.”

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, claims secret Iranian nuclear site

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

By John Irish and Arshad Mohammed

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described on Thursday what he said was a secret atomic warehouse in Tehran and accused Europe of appeasing Iran as he sought to rally support for U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu showed an aerial photograph of the Iranian capital marked with a red arrow and pointed to what he said was a previously secret warehouse holding nuclear-related material. He argued this showed Iran still sought to obtain nuclear weapons, despite its 2015 agreement with world powers to curb its program in exchange for loosening of sanctions.

Netanyahu spoke four-and-a-half months after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, arguing it did too little to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and triggering the resumption of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.

Netanyahu said the site contained some 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of radioactive material that has since been moved called on the U.N. atomic agency to inspect the location immediately with Geiger counters.

“I am disclosing for the first time that Iran has another secret facility in Tehran, a secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and materiel from Iran’s secret nuclear program,” Netanyahu said.

Iran did not immediately respond to Netanyahu’s allegations.

He did not identify the material or specifically suggest that Iran had actively violated the nuclear deal.

An outspoken opponent of the deal, Netanyahu has previously made allegations about Iran’s nuclear activities that are difficult or impossible to verify, including presenting a cartoon bomb to the General Assembly in 2012 warning of how close Tehran was to producing a nuclear device.

In April, Netanyahu presented what he said was evidence of a large secret archive of documents related to Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program at a different site in Tehran.

He said Israeli agents removed vast amounts of documents from that site. At the time, Iran said the documents were fake.

In a speech in which he said relatively little about efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Iran had since begun moving items out of the second site.

“Since we raided the atomic archive, they’ve been busy cleaning out the atomic warehouse. Just last month they removed 15 kilograms of radioactive material. You know what they did with it?” he said. “They took it out and they spread it around Tehran in an effort to hide the evidence.”

He said Iranian officials still had a lot of work to do because there were some 15 shipping containers full of nuclear-related equipment and materials stored at the second site.

“This site contained as much as 300 tonnes – 300 tonnes – of nuclear-related equipment and materiel,” he said.

Under the nuclear deal struck by Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly said Tehran was abiding by its commitments to the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including in a document reviewed by Reuters on Aug. 30.

France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia have stayed in the pact, vowing to save it despite the restoration of U.S. sanctions and this week discussing a barter mechanism they hope may allow Iran to circumvent the U.S. measures.

Netanyahu criticized Europe for doing so in unusually harsh language that evoked European nations’ initial failure to confront Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“While the United States is confronting Iran with new sanctions, Europe and others are appeasing Iran by trying to help it bypass those new sanctions,” Netanyahu said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is aware of the facility Netanyahu announced and described it as a “warehouse” used to store “records and archives” from Iran’s nuclear program.

A second U.S. intelligence official called Netanyahu’s comments “somewhat misleading. First, we have known about this facility for some time, and it’s full of file cabinets and paper, not aluminum tubes for centrifuges, and second, so far as anyone knows, there is nothing in it that would allow Iran to break out of the JCPOA any faster than it otherwise could.”

The Israeli leader also lambasted Iran’s ballistic missile activity, identifying three locations near Beirut airport where he said Lebanon’s Hezbollah was converting missiles.

“In Lebanon, Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles, missiles that can target deep inside Israel within an accuracy of 10 meters (yards),” he said.

The IAEA, Iran and Hezbollah were not immediately available for comment.

The Israeli military released a video clip and photos of what it said were Hezbollah Shi’ite militia rocket building sites in Lebanon, shortly after Netanyahu’s address.

(Reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Yara Bayoumy and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott in Washington, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Russian ‘fake news’ machine going mad, says French envoy to U.S.

FILE PHOTO: French Ambassador to the U.N. Gerard Araud addresses the Security Council during a meeting about the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine, at United Nations headquarters in New York, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s envoy to the United States on Tuesday accused Moscow of spreading fake news after Russia’s Defence Ministry said a French frigate in the Mediterranean had launched missiles on Syria.

The ministry initially said a Russian military plane had been shot down by Israeli warplanes and that Russian air control radar systems had detected rocket launches from the French frigate Auvergne.

The ministry later said the aircraft had been shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft systems in what President Vladimir Putin said was the result of tragic and chance circumstances.

“Russian fake news machine getting mad: accusing the French to have shot down a Russian plane (in fact victim of a Syrian « friend(ly) » fire),” France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud tweeted, in English.

French army spokesman Patrik Steiger denied that France had been involved in the incident or fired any missiles but several hours later Russian media continued to ask the question.

Quoting a military expert, Tass news agency said Paris was partly at fault after launching cruise missiles from the Auvergne.

France’s presidency, Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry had yet to respond officially to the Russian assertions.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Leigh Thomas)

France accuses Russia of spying on military from space

French Defence minister Florence Parly and her Finnish counterpart Jussi Niinisto (not pictured) during a joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland, August 23, 2018. Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen/via REUTERS

TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) – Russia attempted to intercept transmissions from a Franco-Italian satellite used by both nations’ armies for secure communications, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Friday, describing the move as an “act of espionage”.

In a speech outlining France’s space policy for the coming years, Parly said the Russian satellite Louch-Olymp had approached the Athena-Fidus satellite in 2017.

Parly said it came so close “that anyone would have thought it was attempting to intercept our communications.” She added: “Attempting to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, it’s an act of espionage.

The minister’s remarks come a week after President Emmanuel Macron urged the European Union to modernize its post-Cold War ties with Moscow despite tensions with the West, including over allegations of meddling in foreign elections.

Built by Thales Alenia Space, the satellite provides secure communications to the French and Italian armed forces and emergency services.

Parly described the Russian efforts as a “little Star Wars” and said measures were taken immediately to prevent sensitive communications being compromised. The Louch-Olymp had since targeted other satellites, she added.

“We are in danger. Our communications, our military exercises, our daily lives are in danger if we do not react,” Parly said, emphasizing that Paris would complete a strategic space defense plan by the end of the year.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in August announced an ambitious plan to usher in a new “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the U.S. military by 2020.

It would be responsible for a range of space-based U.S. military capabilities, which include everything from satellites enabling the Global Positioning System (GPS) to sensors that help track missile launches.

“I have heard many people mock the announcement of the creation of an American Space Force. I am not one of them… all I see is an extremely powerful sign, a sign of future confrontations,” Parly said.

(Editing by Johanna Decorse; writing by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough)

Illusory to think Syrian refugees can return now, France says

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows refugee tents erected at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen -/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France dismissed on Thursday any suggestion that millions of Syrian refugees could start returning home, as urged by Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said the conditions for a return have not been met, given Assad’s treatment of those who have already gone home and a possible offensive on rebel territory in northern Syria.

In recent weeks Russia has called on Western powers opposed to the Syrian government to help refugees return home and aid reconstruction of areas under his control.

However, Von der Muhll cited a decree depriving refugees and internally displaced people of their properties, the instability of the country and cases of arrest and forced conscription of Syrians returning from Lebanon.

“To consider a return of the refugees is illusory, in the current conditions,” she said.

The seven-year civil war has killed an estimated half a million people, driven 5.6 million out of Syria and displaced around 6.6 million within the country.

Most refugees are from the Sunni Muslim majority, and it is unclear whether Assad’s Alawite-dominated government will allow all to return freely or whether they would want to. Sunnis made up the bulk of the armed opposition to Assad.

France, which backs the opposition, says it will not support reconstruction of areas under Assad’s control until there is a negotiated political transition under U.N. auspices.

“This year has seen the largest movement of displaced people since the beginning of the conflict and … the entire international community has warned of the risks of a major humanitarian and migratory crisis in the event of an offensive against the province of Idlib,” Von der Muhll said.

The Idlib region, a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as jihadist forces, was hit by air strikes and shelling last week, in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by David Stamp)

China defies U.S. pressure as EU parts ways with Iranian oil

A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

By Chen Aizhu and Florence Tan

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China, seeking to skirt U.S. sanctions, will use oil tankers from Iran for its purchases of that country’s crude, throwing Tehran a lifeline while European companies such as France’s Total are walking away due to fear of reprisals from Washington.

The United States is trying to halt Iranian oil exports in an effort to force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement and to curb its influence in the Middle East.

China, which has cut imports of U.S. crude amid a trade war with Washington, has said it opposes unilateral sanctions and defended its commercial ties with Iran.

On Monday, sources told Reuters Chinese buyers of Iranian oil were beginning to shift their cargoes to vessels owned by National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) for nearly all their imports.

The shift demonstrates that China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, wants to keep buying Iranian crude despite the sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States withdrew in May from a 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“The shift started very recently, and it was almost a simultaneous call from both sides,” said one source, a senior Beijing-based oil executive, who asked not to be identified as he is not allowed to speak publicly about commercial deals.

Tehran used a similar system between 2012 and 2016 to circumvent Western-led sanctions, which had curtailed exports by making it virtually impossible to obtain shipping insurance for business with Iran.

Iran, OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, relies on sales of crude to China, Japan, South Korea, India and the EU to generate the lion’s share of budget revenues and keep its economy afloat.

The United States has asked buyers of Iranian oil to cut imports from November. Japan, South Korea, India and most European countries have already slashed operations.

French oil major Total, previously one of the biggest European buyers of Iranian oil, has said it had no choice but to halt imports and abandon Iranian projects to safeguard its operations in the United States.

On Monday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said Total had officially left Iran’s South Pars gas project.

Total later confirmed it had notified the Iranian authorities of its withdrawal from South Pars after it failed to obtain a waiver from U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials had earlier suggested China’s state-owned CNPC could take over Total’s stake and Zanganeh said the process to replace the French company was under way.

“As for the future of Total’s share, we have not been informed of an official CNPC position, but as we have always said, CNPC, a Chinese state-owned company, has the right to resume our participation if it decides so,” Total said in an emailed statement.

WALK AWAY

French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for safeguarding the Iranian nuclear deal and defended the interests of EU companies in Iran.

But most European companies have conceded that they would be forced to walk away from Tehran for fear of sanctions and losing access to operations that require U.S. dollars.

The first round of U.S. sanctions, which included cutting off Iran and any businesses that trade with it from the U.S. financial system, went into effect on Aug. 7.

A ban on Iranian oil purchases will start in November. Insurers, which are mainly U.S.- or European-based, have begun winding down their Iranian business to comply with the sanctions.

To safeguard their supplies, state oil trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp and Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest refiner, have activated a clause in long-term supply agreements with National Iranian Oil Corp (NIOC) that allows them to use NITC-operated tankers, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

The price for oil under the long-term deals has been changed to a delivered ex-ship basis from the previous free-on-board terms, meaning Iran will cover all costs and risks of delivering the crude as well as handling the insurance, they said.

In July, all 17 tankers chartered to carry oil from Iran to China were operated by NITC, according to shipping data on Thomson Reuters Eikon. In June, eight of 19 vessels chartered were Chinese-operated.

Last month, those tankers loaded about 23.8 million barrels of crude oil and condensate destined for China, or about 767,000 barrels per day (bpd). In June, the loadings were 19.8 million barrels, or 660,000 bpd.

In 2017, China imported an average of 623,000 bpd, according to customs data.

Sinopec declined to comment. A spokesperson for Nam Kwong Group, the parent of Zhenrong, declined to comment.

NIOC did not respond to an email seeking comment. An NITC spokesman said it would forward a request from Reuters for a comment to the country’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

It was not immediately clear how Iran would provide insurance for the Chinese oil purchases, worth some $1.5 billion a month. Insurance usually includes cover for the oil cargoes, third-party liability, and pollution.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Cyril Altmeyer in Paris; Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Dale Hudson)

Trump claims NATO victory after ‘go it alone’ ultimatum

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as he holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

By Jeff Mason and Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Donald Trump claimed a personal victory at a NATO summit on Thursday after telling European allies to increase spending or lose Washington’s support, an ultimatum that forced leaders to huddle in a crisis session with the U.S. president.

Trump emerged declaring continued commitment to a Western alliance built on U.S. military might that has stood up to Moscow since World War Two.

People present said he had earlier warned he would “go it alone” if allies, notably Germany, did not make vast increases in their defense budgets for next year.

“I let them know that I was extremely unhappy,” he said, but added that the talks ended on the best of terms: “It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the summit “very intense”, and other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, played down the extent to which they had pledged to accelerate spending plans as fast as Trump wanted.

“He said they must raise spending by January 2019 or the United States would go it alone,” one person said of the clash at NATO headquarters when Trump spoke in a debate that was meant to move to other matters after rows over spending on Wednesday.

Macron and others said they did not interpret Trump’s words as a direct threat to quit the alliance Washington founded in 1949 to contain Soviet expansion. Trump, asked if he thought he could withdraw from NATO without backing from Congress, said he believed he could but it was “unnecessary”.

Others say Congressional approval would be required — and would be unlikely to be forthcoming.

Trump hailed a personal victory for his own strategy in complaining loudly that NATO budgets were unfair to U.S. taxpayers, and the emergence of what he said was a warm consensus around him.

Several diplomats and officials said, however, that his undiplomatic intervention — including pointing at other leaders and addressing Merkel as “you, Angela” — had irritated many.

As the drama unfolded, a day after Trump launched a virulent public attack on German policy, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cleared the room of many officials and the invited leaders of non-members Georgia and Afghanistan so that the other 28 leaders could hold a closed session with the president.

SPENDING TARGETS

NATO members have committed to spending at least two percent of their national income on defense by 2024, though the terms allow for stretching that in some cases to 2030. The United States, far the biggest economy, spent 3.6 percent last year, while Germany, the second biggest, paid out just 1.2 percent and only a handful of countries met the 2 percent target.

Trump told leaders he wanted them all to hit that target by January, prompting consternation. Many have already settled their 2019 budgets and the sums involved are immense — even if they wanted to, many would struggle to make useful purchases.

Merkel told reporters there followed a discussion with assurances to Trump that spending was increasing — something he later acknowledged was happening at an unprecedented rate.

“The American president demanded what has been discussed for months, that there is a change in the burden sharing,” Merkel said. “I made clear that we are on this path. And that this is in our own interests and that it will make us stronger.”

Asked when exactly the allies would now reach their two percent of GDP target, Trump said it would over the coming years. Macron said France, which last year spent 1.8 percent on defense, would meet the target by the 2024 deadline.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who like the summit host, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, was singled out in the room by Trump for spending less that 1 percent of GDP on defense, said Madrid would also meet the target by 2024.

“We have a very powerful, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said. “Secretary Stoltenberg gives us total credit, meaning me, I guess, in this case, total credit. Because I said it was unfair.”

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alissa de Carbonnel and Humeyra Pamuk in Brussels, John Walcott in Washington, Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)

Greenpeace crashes Superman-shaped drone into French nuclear plant

A Superman-shaped drone crashes into the EDF's Bugey nuclear plant in Bugey, near Lyon, France, July 3, 2018. Greenpeace said it had flown the drone - piloted by one of its activists - into the no-fly zone around utility EDF's Bugey nuclear plant and then crashed it against the wall of the plant's spent-fuel pool building, to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said. Nicolas Chauveau/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) – Greenpeace crashed a Superman-shaped drone into a French nuclear plant on Tuesday to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks, the environmental group said.

Greenpeace said it had flown the drone – piloted by one of its activists – into the no-fly zone around utility EDF’s Bugey nuclear plant, near Lyon, and then crashed it against the wall of the plant’s spent-fuel pool building.

“This action again highlights the extreme vulnerability of this type of buildings, which contain the highest amount of radioactivity in nuclear plants,” Greenpeace said.

France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power in 19 nuclear plants operated by state-controlled EDF.

EDF said that two drones had flown over the Bugey site, of which one had been intercepted by French police.

“The presence of these drones had no impact on the security of the installations,” EDF said, adding that it will file a police complaint.

The drone stunt follows a series of staged break-ins by Greenpeace activists into French nuclear plants, which Greenpeace says are vulnerable to outside attack, especially the spent-fuel pools. These pools can hold the equivalent of several reactor cores, stored in concrete pools outside the highly reinforced reactor building.

Greenpeace says the spent-fuel buildings have not been designed to withstand outside attacks and are the most vulnerable part of French nuclear plants.

“Spent-fuel pools must be turned into bunkers in order to make nuclear plants safer,” said Greenpeace France’s chief nuclear campaigner Yannick Rousselet.

EDF said the spent-fuel pool buildings are robust and designed to withstand natural disasters and accidents.

Greenpeace’s security breaches have sparked a parliament investigation into nuclear security, which is due to present its report on Thursday.

In October, Greenpeace activists broke through two security barriers and launched fireworks over EDF’s Cattenom nuclear plant.

In February, a French court gave several Greenpeace activists suspended jail sentences while ordering the group to pay a fine and 50,000 euros ($58,300) in damages to EDF.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough)

Iran stands ground on nuclear inspections as France warns of red line

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Francois Murphy and Sudip Kar-Gupta

VIENNA/PARIS (Reuters) – Iran will not cooperate more fully with atomic inspectors until a standoff over its nuclear deal is resolved, its U.N. envoy said, as one signatory warned Tehran against moving ahead with preparations to boost its uranium enrichment capacity.

Tehran meanwhile signaled its resolve to expand its enrichment capability by detailing plans to build advanced centrifuges – the machines that enrich uranium.

European powers have been scrambling to salvage the agreement they signed in 2015 since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out last month and said he would reimpose far-reaching U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Foreign and finance ministers from those three countries – France, Britain and Germany – have written to U.S. officials to stress their commitment to upholding the pact, and to urge Washington to spare EU firms active in Iran from secondary sanctions.

An Iranian withdrawal from the deal, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, would “further unsettle a region where additional conflicts would be disastrous,” the ministers wrote in the letter dated June 4 and seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Since the U.S. pullout was announced, authorities in Tehran have sent mixed signals on whether they believe the nuclear deal’s remaining signatories, which also include China and Russia, can salvage it.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Monday he had ordered preparations to increase uranium enrichment capacity if the agreement collapsed.

Tehran also informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog that polices restrictions placed on its activities under the deal, of “tentative” plans to produce the feedstock for centrifuges.

In Paris on Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that, while that initiative remained within the framework of the nuclear deal, it was unwelcome and risked sailing close to a “red line”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that Washington was aware of reports Iran plans to increase its uranium enrichment and he vowed not to allow Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon. “Iran is aware of our resolve,” he said.

Emphasizing that Tehran’s patience with European efforts to save the deal was not unlimited, its envoy to the IAEA said it had granted the three powers a few weeks.

“A few weeks means a few weeks, not a few months,” Reza Najafi said outside a quarterly meeting of the agency’s Board of Governors in Vienna.

STANDOFF

He also dismissed calls by the IAEA to go the extra mile in cooperating with the nuclear watchdog’s inspectors, telling reporters that, while the standoff over the deal continued, “no one should expect Iran to go to implement more voluntary measures.”

“But I should emphasize that it does not mean that right now Iran will restart any activities contrary to the (deal),” Najafi added. “These are only preparatory works.”

Iran’s nuclear chief on Wednesday inaugurated work on a facility in Natanz plant in central Iran designed to build advanced centrifuges and said the center would be fully functional in a month.

“After the supreme leader’s order we prepared this center within 48 hours. We hope the facility to be completed in a month,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said on state television.

Although the move was not a violation of the nuclear deal, it sent a strong signal to the West that Tehran would not succumb to the pressures.

Answering a question about a remark by Pompeo last month that Iran must halt all uranium enrichment, Salehi said: “We are far beyond that point. That man has been talking for himself.”

The agency has said Tehran is implementing its commitments, but also called for “timely and proactive cooperation” on providing access for snap inspections.

Diplomats who deal with the agency say an inspection in late April went down to the wire in terms of how quickly the IAEA team gained access to one site.

(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier in Berlin, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Eric Beech in Washington; writing by John Stonestreet; editing by William Maclean and James Dalgleish)