More than 100 protestors killed in Iran during unrest: Amnesty International

DUBAI (Reuters) – Amnesty International said on Tuesday that more than 100 protestors had been killed in 21 cities in Iran during unrest that broke out over a rise in fuel prices last week.

Snipers have shot into crowds of protestors from rooftops and, in one case, from a helicopter, Amnesty said.

The anti-government protests began on Friday after fuel price rises of at least 50 percent were announced.

An Iranian official said they had subsided on Tuesday, a day after the Revolutionary Guards warned of “decisive” action if they did not cease.

The London-based Amnesty International said that at least 106 protesters in 21 cities had been killed, according to credible reports from witnesses, verified videos and information from human rights activists.

“The organization believes that the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed,” Amnesty said in a statement.

The reports “reveal a harrowing pattern of unlawful killings by Iranian security forces, which have used excessive and lethal force to crush largely peaceful protests,” it said.

Intelligence and security forces did not return the bodies to their families and forced others to bury bodies quickly without an independent autopsy, Amnesty said.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told a news conference that calm had been restored.

But social media videos posted in defiance of an internet block showed protests continued in several cities on Monday night and a heavy presence of security forces in streets. The images posted on social media could not be verified by Reuters.

About 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested, authorities said.

Members of the security forces and police have also been killed in the protests. Three were stabbed to death near Tehran, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported on Monday.

Hundreds of young and working-class Iranians have expressed their anger at squeezed living standards, state corruption and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

Social media footage has shown protesters burning pictures of senior officials and calling on clerical rulers to step down, as well as clashes between security forces and protesters.

State television said funerals will be held for security guards killed in the protests, adding that thousands of Iranians had rallied in several cities to condemn the unrest.

The U.N. human rights office said it had received reports that dozens of people had been killed. It voiced concern about the security forces’ use of live ammunition and urged authorities to rein in its use of force to disperse protests.

“It is clearly very significant, a very alarming situation and widespread across the country,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday blamed the turmoil on Iran’s foreign foes, including the United States, and denounced protesters as “thugs”.

On Monday, the powerful Revolutionary Guards warned of “decisive” action if the protests went on. The Guards and their affiliated Basij militia quelled unrest in late 2017 in which at least 22 people were killed.

Frustration has grown over a sharp currency devaluation and rises in prices of bread, rice and other staples since Washington began to apply pressure on Iran to make nuclear and security concessions.

The government said the price rises were intended to raise around $2.55 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Editing by Catherine Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Exclusive: North Korean fuel prices drop, suggesting U.N. sanctions being undermined

FILE PHOTO: North Koreans take a truck through a path amongst the fields, along the Yalu River, in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Chen/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – Gasoline prices in North Korea have nearly halved since late March, market data analyzed by Reuters shows, adding weight to suspicions that fuel is finding its way into the isolated economy from China and elsewhere despite U.N. sanctions.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in December to ban nearly 90 percent of refined petroleum exports to North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.

But as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has moved to improve relations with the United States, China and South Korea, concerns have grown that the policy of “maximum pressure” through sanctions and isolation, is losing steam.

Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to work toward denuclearization at their summit in Singapore on June 12. Experts say any fuel aid in breach of sanctions could erode the diplomatic progress.

China said on Tuesday it strictly abided by U.N. sanctions, but indicated it may have resumed some fuel shipments to North Korea in the second quarter of this year.

Gasoline was sold by private dealers in the North Korean capital Pyongyang at about $1.24 per kg as of Tuesday, down 33 percent from $1.86 per kg on June 5 and 44 percent from this year’s peak of $2.22 per kg on March 27, according to Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Daily NK website. Diesel prices are at $0.85 per kg, down about 17 percent from March.

The website is run by North Korean defectors who collect prices via phone calls with multiple traders in the North after cross-checks to corroborate their information, offering a rare glimpse into the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans.

In North Korea, gas is sold via informal channels such as street stalls and informal markets and by weight rather than by volume, as it is in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere, so North Koreans prefer to quote “per kg” rates, said Kang Mi-jin, who works at Daily NK. A 200 liter barrel of petrol holds around 180 kg.

U.S. prices stand at around 75 cents per liter or $2.839 per gallon.

“My assessment is that there was a greater inflow (of fuel supplies) from abroad, especially China since Kim’s trips there,” said Kang, who speaks regularly to sources inside North Korea.

Kim first visited China to meet President Xi Jinping in March, and they held two more summits, in May and June.

SANCTIONS

The latest fuel data comes amid mounting suspicion in Washington that North Korea may be using the recent diplomatic thaw to get a lifeline from China.

North Korea gets most of its fuel from China, its biggest trading partner, and some from Russia. Washington and Seoul officials have said the North imports some 4.5 million barrels of refined petroleum products and 2 million barrels of crude oil each year.

Last year’s U.N. resolution capped refined imports at 500,000 barrels a year.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters on Tuesday that China has consistently and strictly abided by U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea.

China had exported 7,432 tonnes of refined oil products to North Korea in the first six months of this year, out of a total of 60,000 tonnes a year stipulated by the U.N. sanctions.

China had reported its exports to the Security Council’s sanctions committee in a timely manner, Geng added.

“The relevant situation is totally open and transparent,” he said, without elaborating.

Since official Chinese customs data showed no gasoline and diesel exports to North Korea from January to March, Geng’s comments suggested China resumed some shipments some time after Kim and Xi’s first meeting.

Overall, China’s trade with North Korea in the first half of this year tumbled 56 percent on the back of the tightening sanctions, customs data showed on Monday.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused North Korea of “illegally smuggling petroleum products into the country at a level that far exceeds quotas” established by the UN.

“Illegal ship-to-ship transfers are the most prominent means by which this is happening. Every UN member state must step up enforcement,” he wrote on Twitter, without naming any country.

China and Russia delayed a U.S. push last week for a UN Security Council panel to order a halt to refined petroleum exports to North Korea, asking for more detail on a U.S. accusation that Pyongyang breached sanctions, diplomats said.

The United States provided a list to the committee earlier this month of 89 illicit North Korean transactions and a few select photos, seen by Reuters.

Seoul’s foreign ministry said last week that the authorities were investigating two ships with Panama and Sierra Leone flags suspected to have illegally transferred North Korean coal into South Korea via Russia.

NO MAJOR SUFFERING

North Korean rice prices have also been stable since a spike last September, when the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions. Rice has hovered around $0.62 per kg throughout this year.

Stable fuel and rice prices suggest no immediate signs of major suffering in North Korea despite South Korea’s recent estimates the impoverished state’s economy contracted at its sharpest rate in two decades last year.

South Korea’s central bank said North Korea’s gross domestic product shrank 3.5 percent last year, marking the biggest decline since 1997, citing international sanctions and drought.

While other defectors reported some suffering in remote rural regions, Daily NK’s Kang said fuel demand has been steady in North Korea, and overall living conditions have improved in line with a booming unofficial market economy.

The unofficial markets, known as jangmadang, have grown to account for about 60 percent of the economy, according to the Institute for Korean Integration of Society.

“I’ve seen signs the economy was slowly improving over the past five years, and in last year things are still developing but perhaps not as fast as before,” a Western consultant who makes regular trips to North Korea told Reuters.

Kim, who vowed not to let the people “tighten their belt again” in his first-ever public speech in 2012, announced in April a shift in focus from nuclear programs to the economy. Analysts say that will be difficult while sanctions remain in place.

“I don’t think there is an outcry in the markets now, but there could be one toward the end of this year,” said Kim Byeong-yeon, a North Korea economy specialist at the Seoul National University.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Cynthia Kim in SEOUL and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Higher wages, fuel prices turn up cost pressure on airlines

A plane is seen during sunrise at the international airport in Munich, Germany, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle - RC1E5B4C2870/File Photo

By Victoria Bryan

BERLIN (Reuters) – With inflation paramount in investors’ minds at a time of rising wages and oil prices, the line separating winners and losers in the global airline industry this year looks likely to be drawn on how well they manage costs, especially on the labor side.

Industry body IATA in December flagged higher spending on labor and fuel – which make up about half of airlines’ operating expenses – as their members’ biggest challenge in 2018, especially after several years of record profits.

Labor costs surpassed fuel as global airlines’ biggest single expense in 2016, at 22 percent of costs against just under 21 percent for fuel. That is expected to jump this year to 30.9 percent versus 20.5 percent for fuel.

Back in 2013, when oil prices were much higher than now, fuel was 33 percent of expenses against 18 percent for labor.

Staff costs are typically higher in North America and Europe than in Asia, where fuel remains the biggest expense.

The crux of the issue is that amid signs of a global shortage of workers generally, in some regions there’s also a scarcity of qualified pilots at a time of expanding fleets.

“As airlines have been making profit, the workforce has got market power, so that is pushing up the cost of labor,” IATA Chief Economist Brian Pearce said in an interview.

Overall, unit costs – the measure of how much it costs an airline to operate each kilometer and seat flown – will rise 4.3 percent this year versus 1.7 percent in 2017, IATA forecasts.

In the highest profile example of the pressures, budget carrier Ryanair was compelled last year by pilot shortages to cancel thousands of flights, and in December recognized trade unions for the first time.

The battle that forced Ryanair’s hand could put wage pressures on other European budget carriers such as Wizz, industry experts say.

The bigger carriers feel it too.

At Air France, 10 unions representing pilots, cabin and ground staff have called for a strike on Feb. 22 to push a demand for a 6 percent pay rise.

“After three years of strong profitability improvements in the sector, we believe personnel and suppliers are asking for wage/price increases and thus keeping non-fuel costs under control will remain a challenge for the sector,” Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Ruxandra Haradau-Doser wrote.

The wage issue has even extended to the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East trade and financial hub where labor disputes are rare and unions and industrial action are banned.

The region’s largest airline, Dubai-based Emirates, is facing calls from cabin crew to improve conditions and benefits. Employees say management is considering their requests.

Last week, brokerage Kepler Cheuvreux cut its rating on German flagship carrier Lufthansa – already on its lists of stocks to avoid and least preferred in the sector – to “reduce” from “hold”.

In the United States, investors are worried that the three largest carriers – American, Delta and United- are heading for a price war just as higher costs from pay increases agreed last year start to bite.

CONSOLIDATION

Lufthansa, British Airways parent and Air France-KLM are all expected to report improved 2017 profits when they publish results over the next few weeks.

All airlines will need to look at areas where they can save, however.

“The most successful airline managements are the ones that have been very cost-focused every day – not just on staff costs but on aircraft costs, airport charges, distribution costs and so on,” said aviation consultant John Strickland.

The success of Ryanair, which boasts of having the lowest costs in Europe, is partly down to hard negotiating with manufacturers and airports to get good deals on orders and fees, those in the industry say.

Strickland said that while pilot costs would rise, Ryanair was unique in having much lower overall costs than rivals.

“If they can continue to keep other items such as airport and aircraft costs down, then they will still be in a very strong position.”

Lufthansa has been taking a tougher stance lately both with staff and airports.

Unlike in previous negotiations for its main brand in Germany, Lufthansa stayed firm during a series of pilot strikes from 2014 to 2016 and has now struck a deal to cut its cockpit staff costs by 15 percent, while an increase in ground staff’s wages will be partly linked to company profits.

Last year, it also put pressure on Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport by moving planes to Munich. It predicts unit costs will fall by 1-2 percent this year.

Analysts at Barclays say while such measures should help Lufthansa, the rate of improvement is not sustainable and progress still needs to be made at budget unit Eurowings, which earns less than half the margin of its nearest peer.

“There is a significant amount more work for the company to do on its cost base,” they wrote in a note.

Along with strong travel demand thanks to robust economies and low oil prices last year, European airlines have also benefited from some consolidation following the insolvencies of Air Berlin and Monarch, which helped lead to higher ticket prices.

In addition, many European carriers hedged on jet fuel – unlike their U.S. counterparts who got burned making the wrong bets when the oil price starting tumbling in mid-2014 – meaning the impact of higher fuel prices will come through for European airlines later than U.S. ones.

EasyJet’s revenue per seat rose 6.6 percent at constant currencies in the quarter to end-December, the no-frills airline said, citing the struggles of rivals including Air Berlin, Monarch, Ryanair and Alitalia. It forecast a rise of 5-9 percent for the six months to March.

“Airlines need to be careful they don’t lock themselves into cost structures that are too high for weaker economic conditions,” IATA’S Pearce warned. “At the moment, they’re not doing that but it’s always a risk.”

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Gasoline prices spike as Colonial begins bypass around damaged line

Out of fuel signs are pictured on gas pumps at a Mapco gas station at Spence Lane and Lebanon Pike in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.

By David Gaffen

(Reuters) – Retail gasoline prices surged due to continuing problems with Colonial Pipeline Co’s gasoline line that carries fuel to the U.S. East Coast, as the company started to construct a bypass line around the leak.

Colonial said on Saturday evening that it would construct a bypass that circumvents the leak, which occurred more than a week ago in Shelby County, Alabama. It is unclear when construction will be completed but the company has previously said it anticipates reopening the line, which can carry up to 1.2 million barrels of gasoline a day, later this week.

The volume of the spill is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 barrels.

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Georgia rose to $2.26 as of Sunday morning, according motorists’ advocacy group AAA, up more than six cents overnight and more than 15 cents in a week. Prices were up 4 cents in North Carolina to $2.136 and 4 cents in South Carolina to $2.011.

Local media reports have shown gasoline lines forming across the U.S. Southeast due to the shutdown and analysts believe that retail prices could be affected for more than two weeks. New York gasoline futures are up 9 percent in the past week, and rose 0.68 percent to $1.4715 a gallon after the market opened for trading at 6 p.m. EDT on Sunday (0000 GMT Monday).

Colonial shut its main gasoline and distillate lines that run from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast on Sept. 9 after the leak was discovered. The damaged Line 1 can carry 1.2 million barrels of gasoline per day and runs from Houston to Greensboro, North Carolina.

Several states in the Southeast have issued emergency orders waiving certain rules that restrict transport of fuel by road in order to keep filling stations stocked with fuel. It is unclear how quickly the pipeline will be fixed.

“I don’t take much solace in Colonial’s updates,” said Patrick DeHaan, a petroleum analyst who writes a blog called Gas Buddy.

He said prices are moving up roughly one-tenth of 1 cent every hour and that it could take several weeks before prices return to normal.

A Colonial spokeswoman had no immediate response to DeHaan’s assertion.

However, James Williams of WTRG in London, Arkansas, said the projected timeline for restart is possible, even with testing required by federal authorities. He also said consumers’ tendencies to top off their tanks when this type of news hits is not necessarily cause for alarm, either.

“The shortage appears greater because people are filling up more often so you are certain there is a shortage because there are lines at the station but on average they are only purchasing the quarter of a tank of gas instead of three-quarters,” he said.

DeHaan said prices at non-branded chains were rising more quickly than those with larger, branded operations, because larger regional gasoline companies have the ability to tap supply more quickly.

Coming into this week, U.S. East Coast inventories of total motor gasoline, which includes blending components, was higher seasonally than in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

(Reporting By David Gaffen and Dan Freed in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)