Russia denies visa to U.S. senator amid G7 tensions

FILE PHOTO: Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaks after the senate voted on a resolution ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy said on Tuesday that Russia had denied him a visa, amid disagreement within Washington and among U.S. allies over whether the country should be readmitted to the Group of Seven.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week it would be appropriate to let Russia return to the G7 group of advanced industrialized countries, telling reporters that former Democratic President Barack Obama had wanted Russia out of what used to be the G8 but he thought it was “much more appropriate” to include the country.

Other G7 countries have objected.

Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he had planned to visit Russia as part of an upcoming congressional delegation including Democrats and Republicans.

“With the collapse of recent arms control agreements and significant domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, this is potentially a perilous moment for our two nations’ fragile relationship, and it’s a shame that Russia isn’t interested in dialogue,” Murphy said in a statement.

Russia repeatedly has denied visas to U.S. lawmakers in recent years, especially those who have pushed for sanctions against Moscow over its aggression toward Ukraine and interference in U.S. elections.

Separately, a group of senior Democratic senators said on Tuesday they had written to Trump expressing strong opposition to readmitting Russia to the G7, citing its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea.

The letter was signed by Senators Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, as well as Jack Reed, Bob Menendez and Mark Warner, the top Democrats on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, respectively.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Richard Chang)

Macron must take back ‘insults’ for Brazil to accept G7 Amazon aid: Bolsonaro

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Canarana, Mato Grosso state, Brazil August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Lisandra Paraguassu and Gabriel Stargardter

BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he wants French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw the “insults” made against him before he considers accepting a $20 million offer from the G7 nations to help fight forest fires in the Amazon.

The two leaders have become embroiled in a deeply personal and public war of words in recent days, with Bolsonaro mocking Macron’s wife and accusing the French leader of disrespecting Brazil’s sovereignty. Macron has called Bolsonaro a liar and said Brazilian women are probably ashamed of their president.

The fires in the Amazon have created a major crisis for Bolsonaro’s far-right government. The Brazilian leader is losing popularity at home and finding himself increasingly isolated on the global stage over his response to blazes that threaten what many view as a key bulwark against global climate change.

His response to the fires is being closely watched by world leaders increasingly concerned by climate change, and could threaten Brazil’s trade deals and powerful agribusiness sector, which is a crucial driver of its recession-plagued economy.

However, the offer of aid from the Group of Seven wealthy nations, which was made at a leaders summit in the southern French town of Biarritz on Monday, has stirred up emotions within Bolsonaro’s nationalist government. Some officials are grateful for the much-needed help, and others view it as a colonial token that undermines Brazil’s control of its lands.

Bolsonaro raised Macron’s ire on Sunday when the Brazilian leader responded to a Facebook post that compared the looks of his wife Michelle, 37, with Macron’s 66-year-old wife Brigitte. “Do not humiliate the man hahahah,” Bolsonaro wrote, in a comment widely criticized as sexist.

Macron, who has accused Bolsonaro of lying about climate change policy, called the remarks “extremely disrespectful” to his wife.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he would only countenance accepting G7 money if Macron retracted his earlier comments.

“First of all, Macron has to withdraw his insults. He called me a liar. Before we talk or accept anything from France … he must withdraw these words then we can talk,” Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia. “First he withdraws, then offers (aid), then I will answer.”

The French president’s office declined to comment on Bolsonaro’s remarks.

Later, in an at-times fraught discussion with members of his cabinet and governors of Amazon states, Bolsonaro said he did not have anything against the G7 countries, but rather against the president of one of them – a thinly veiled reference to Macron.

He also said he appreciated the environmental work of the G7, but said any efforts to harm Brazil’s agribusiness sector would hurt Latin America’s largest economy.

Other members of his team took a more adversarial tone.

“Where they have passed they have left a trail of destruction, confusion and misery, so they can’t give that kind of advice to anyone,” Augusto Heleno, a retired Brazilian general who is Bolsonaro’s top security adviser, said about France. He also labeled Macron’s posture as childish.

In a boost for the Brazilian leader, U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted his support for Bolsonaro, an ideological peer on the environment, China and trade.

Bolsonaro “is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!” Trump tweeted.

The Brazilian president responded on Twitter: “We’re fighting the wildfires with great success. Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development.”

G7 OFFER

Leaders of the G7 made the aid offer after discussing the fires ravaging the world’s largest tropical rainforest – often dubbed “the lungs of the world”.

Initially, as the fires gained global headlines, Bolsonaro said Brazil did not have the resources to tackle the blazes. Then, in the wake of the G7 offer, his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles called the aid “welcome.”

However, on Monday evening, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni said Brazil would reject the G7 offer, although his office said that was his personal view.

The number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79% this year through Aug. 25, according to Brazil’s space research agency. The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia, near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

But Brazil is at the epicenter of the blazes, which Bolsonaro has blamed on environmentalists, non-government organizations and the weather. He has also said fires in the Amazon were more prevalent under previous left-wing governments.

Weak rainfall is unlikely to extinguish a record number of fires raging in Brazil’s Amazon anytime soon, with pockets of precipitation through Sept. 10 expected to bring only isolated relief, according to weather data and two experts.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

Warplanes dump water on Amazon as Brazil military begins fighting fires

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019, obtained by Reuters on August 25, 2019. Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS

By Jake Spring and Ricardo Moraes

BRASILIA/PORTO VELHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian warplanes are dumping water on the burning forest in the Amazon state of Rondonia, responding to a global outcry over the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

As of Sunday, President Jair Bolsonaro had authorized military operations in seven states to combat raging fires in the Amazon, responding to requests for assistance from their local governments, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Reuters accompanied a firefighting brigade near the state capital of Porto Velho, where there were areas larger than football fields that had been charred, but active fires were contained to small areas of individual trees.

The dozen or so yellow-clad firefighters from environmental enforcement agency Ibama easily cleared brush from around a burning stump with a leaf blower, doused it with jets connected to water packs mounted on their backs and covered it in earth.

A video posted by the Defense Ministry on Saturday evening showed a military plane pumping thousands of gallons of water out of two giant jets as it passed through clouds of smoke close to the forest canopy.

The response comes as leaders of countries in the Group of Seven (G7) nations currently meeting in France expressed grave concerns over the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said the G7 was nearing a deal to provide “technical and financial help” to countries affected by the Amazon fires.

Nearly 80,000 fires have been registered across Brazil through Aug. 24, the highest since at least 2013, according to space research agency INPE.

Bolsonaro announced the military would be sent in on Friday after several days of criticism from the public and world leaders that Brazil’s government was not doing anything to fight the fires.

He also said on Twitter he had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a plane and specialized support for the firefighting operations, following a call between the two leaders.

But outside of Rondonia, the government had yet to provide any operational details for other states. The Defense Ministry said in a briefing on Saturday that 44,000 troops were available in Brazil’s northern Amazon region but did not say how many would be used where and what they would do.

Military personnel around Porto Velho appeared to be largely coordinating firefighting efforts, according to a Reuters witness.

Asked for additional details, the Defense Ministry told Reuters in a statement that in all seven states that have asked for help, the military is planning operations to support firefighting initiatives already underway.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro had also authorized a force of military police to assist in fighting the fires, with 30 set to be sent from Brasilia to Porto Velho. The president’s office posted to Twitter a photo of police officers on a plane bound for Rondonia set to arrive at noon.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles posted a video showing a caravan of yellow fire prevention trucks and other government vehicles, saying they were on the ground responding in Rondonia.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Sunday he would seek a conservation pact with other Amazonian countries – first in bi-lateral meetings in Peru this week and then at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Colombia wants to lead a pact, a conservation pact, between the countries that have Amazon territory,” Duque said after meeting with an indigenous community in the Amazonian city of Leticia in southern Colombia. “We must understand the protection of our Mother Earth and our Amazon is a duty, a moral duty.”

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rain forest and is seen as vital to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.

The Amazon, which provides 20% of the planet’s oxygen, is home to an estimated one million indigenous people from up to 500 tribes as well some three million species of plants and animals, including jaguars, sloths, giant otters, river dolphins, howler monkeys, toucans, reptiles, frogs and insects.

Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre said he worries if 20-25% of the ecosystem is destroyed that the Amazon could reach a tipping point, after which it would enter a self-sustaining period of dieback as the forest converts to savannah. Nobre warned that it is not far off with already 15-17% of the rain forest having been destroyed.

(Reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia and Ricardo Moraes in Porto Velho, Brazil; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Sebastian Rocandio in Porto Velho, Brazil, Simon Carraud and Michel Rose in Biarritz, France; Editing by Sandra Maler)

G7 or G5? Trump and Johnson add unpredictability to French summit

A view shows the beach and Le Bellevue summit venue ahead of the G7 Summit in the French coastal resort of Biarritz, France, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

By John Irish and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Brexit Britain’s overtures to U.S. President Donald Trump risk further complicating the search for common ground this weekend at a Group of Seven summit already clouded by transatlantic rifts over trade, Iran and climate change.

The summit host, President Emmanuel Macron of France, has set the bar low for Biarritz to avoid a repeat of the fiasco last year when Trump threw Canada’s G7 summit into disarray by leaving early, scotching the final communique.

Macron, an ardent europhile and staunch defender of multilateralism, will count on incremental advances in areas where a united front can be presented, with the meeting, which runs from Saturday to Monday, officially focusing on the broad theme of reducing inequality.

On hot-button issues, they will, when necessary, have to agree to disagree.

“We have to adapt formats. There will be no final communique, but coalitions, commitments and follow-ups,” Macron said. “We must assume that, on one subject or another, a member of the club might not sign up.”

The G7 groups the United States, France, Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy and Canada, and the European Union also attends. Macron has also invited the leaders of Australia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Egypt, India, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa, in order to widen the debate on inequality.

TOUGH TOPICS

But the tougher discussions lie elsewhere. The Sino-U.S. trade war has spurred fears of a global economic slump; European powers are struggling to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran; and Trump has shown little enthusiasm for France’s push for a universal tax on digital multinationals such as Google and Amazon, and turned his back on efforts in Europe and around the globe to limit carbon emissions to slow climate change.

The crisis in Kashmir and street protests in Hong Kong may also be touched on during the talks in France’s Atlantic coast surfing capital, where some 13,000 police will be drafted in to prevent any violent anti-globalization demonstrations.

“There’s no doubt that we will discuss how trade frictions could affect the global economy,” a Japanese government official said. “But it is difficult to deliver messages to the outside since a communique won’t be issued.”

Strained relations between the United States and its top allies mean that where once they were in agreement, they now seek the lowest common denominator.

“It won’t be productive to push something that someone — whether it’s America or some other country — would not agree to do,” the Japanese official added.

Moreover, Italy’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday, Canada is heading for an election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s influence on the world stage is waning ahead of her departure, and Britain is probably on the verge of either leaving the EU or a snap election.

POLITICAL NITROGLYCERINE

One unknown is where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will position himself, making his debut on the global stage at a summit that will lay bare new realities as Britain’s influence in Europe collapses and its dependency on the United States grows.

With less than three months to go before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU – with or without a divorce deal, according to Johnson – his government has sought to cozy up to Trump’s White House with a view to future trade deals.

Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the combination of two personalities “not well-known for their self-control” was “political nitroglycerine”.

He said it might be entertaining, “but if it actually gets in the way of more substantive proceedings, that would be another story”.

While Johnson will want to avoid crossing a volatile Trump and putting trade ties at risk, analysts say, he will also be wary of alienating himself from other leaders who have a more multilateral approach to world politics.

One French diplomat who declined to be named said Paris was curious to see how the Trump-Johnson dynamic played out in Biarritz:

“Even with Brexit in the background, we still have the sense that the British reflex when it comes to international crises is to turn to us and the Germans first.”

(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert in Paris and Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey)

Battle rages for Libya’s capital, airport bombed

A Member of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepares himself to go to the front line in Tripoli Libya April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A warplane attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on Libya’s capital disregarded global appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

The fighting threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

Casualties are mounting.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in Gaddafi’s army – said 19 of its soldiers had died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

The United Nations said 2,800 people had been displaced by clashes and many more could flee, though some were trapped.

“The United Nations continues to call for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from areas of conflict,” it said in a statement.

But that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Matiga airport, in an eastern suburb, said it was bombed and a resident confirmed the attack. No more details were immediately available.

Haftar’s LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the coastal capital.

Seizing Tripoli, however, is a much bigger challenge for the LNA. It has conducted air strikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road toward the center from a disused former international airport.

MACHINE GUNS ON PICKUPS

However, the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from nearby Misrata port in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southwards.

Serraj who comes from a wealthy business family, has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar. His Tripoli government has reported 11 deaths in the last few days, without saying on which side.

U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame met Serraj in his office in Tripoli on Monday to discuss “this critical and difficult juncture”, the world body’s Libya mission said.

The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi eight years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency expressed anxiety about thousands caught in cross-fire and detention centers in conflict zones in a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”.

As well as the United Nations, the European Union, United States and G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar’s advance and return to negotiations.

Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.

MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning), numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.

Islamic State staged some high profile attacks in Tripoli last year, but the militant group has largely retreated to the desert of southern Libya since the loss of its former stronghold in Sirte late in 2016.

France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.

France established close relations with Haftar under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande and his defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris doubled down support to Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

France’s stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony that has played into the hands of militants and smugglers.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Additional reporting by Hani Amara in Tripoli, Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Tom Miles in Geneva, Robin Emmott in Luxembourg, Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

Italy looks to put G7 focus on Africa, but other crises encroach

A general view of the Greek Theatre of Taormina, where leaders from the world's major Western powers will hold their annual summit, in Taormina Italy May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – When U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders of the world’s seven major industrialized nations gather in Sicily on Friday, they will enjoy a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea, but won’t get any glimpse of boats full of migrants.

A common sight off Sicily in recent years, the authorities have banned all migrant landings on the island during the Group of Seven Summit for security reasons, telling rescue vessels that pick them up at sea to take them to the mainland during the two-day meeting.

Out of sight does not mean out of mind. Italy chose to host the summit in Taormina, on the cliffs of eastern Sicily, to concentrate minds on Europe’s migrant crisis and to seek ways of developing Africa’s economy to hold back the human tide.

“Africa is very important for us. Indeed, it is perhaps the focus of our G7 presidency,” said Raffaele Trombetta, the senior Italian diplomat who has led behind-the-scenes negotiations on the G7 agenda with colleagues from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Canada.

“We don’t just want to talk about crises, like migration and famine, but also to promote innovation in Africa and see what we can do to help,” he told Reuters.

But various other crises are bound to encroach on the meeting, starting with Monday’s suicide bombing in Manchester that killed at least 22 people and was allegedly carried out by a young British man of Libyan descent.

The six-year old Syrian conflict and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are other hot-button issues. Potential disagreements over climate change and free trade might also overshadow the event in the chic resort town.

Trump will face concerted pressure to commit to the 2015 Paris Agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions and to water down his protectionist trade tendencies.

Diplomats said there had been no agreement on these issues ahead of the gathering, meaning the leaders will seek to strike an accord amongst themselves. One diplomat from an EU country said the other G7 nations might issue a separate statement on climate change if Trump refused to endorse the Paris deal.

NEWCOMERS VS VETERANS

Trump will be one of four leaders making their first appearance at a G7, alongside newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May and the host, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

It will be a second G7 for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a 6th for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the 12th for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“There are so many new leaders here. It will provide an excellent opportunity for them to get to know each other and hopefully have a relaxed meeting,” said Trombetta.

One thing that will change from recent summits is that the final communique will be much more concise – down from more than 30 pages last year to fewer than 10 pages this time around.

“We hope that in this way more people actually read it,” an Italian diplomat joked.

Underscoring the importance of Africa, the leaders of Tunisia, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya will join the discussions on Saturday morning.

Italy had hoped to use the occasion to unveil a multi-billion euro project promoting food security, but neither the United States nor Japan backed it, so the scheme has been scaled back, a diplomatic source said.

However, Italy is determined to encourage a plan to sponsor young African entrepreneurs, looking for ways to strengthen the continent’s economy and dissuade people from fleeing to Europe.

More than half a million migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have reached Italy since 2014 as smugglers took advantage of the chaos in Libya to cram people onto unsafe boats for the dangerous crossing.

The Italian Interior Ministry said on Tuesday more than 50,000 migrants have come ashore so far this year, a record pace for arrivals and up 46 percent on the same period last year. More than 1,300 people have died during the crossing.

“This is a thing that cannot be solved very quickly. We have to think about maybe 20-30 years. We have to improve the living conditions and take Africa seriously,” said Mathias Menge, who oversees rescues on the humanitarian boat Aquarius, which has brought thousands of migrants to Sicily over the past year.

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer)

China to gather friends for biggest summit of year on New Silk Road

China's President Xi Jinping during the official welcoming ceremony in front of the Presidential Palace, in Helsinki, Finland April 5, 2017. Lehtikuva/Martti Kainulainen/via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – China will gather its friends and allies together for its biggest diplomatic event of the year in May, a summit on its New Silk Road plan, with most Asian leaders due to attend but only one from a G7 nation, the Italian prime minister.

President Xi Jinping has championed what China formally calls the “One Belt, One Road” or OBOR, initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark program to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids.

China has dedicated $40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the $50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on Tuesday a list of those attending the conference, including some of China’s most reliable allies – Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are coming too, all generally good partners of China.

“One Belt, One Road is to date the most important public good China has given to the world, first proposed by China but for all countries to enjoy,” Wang said.

“The culture and historical genes of One Belt, One Road come from the old Silk Road, so it takes Eurasia as its main region,” he said, adding that representatives of 110 countries would attend.

While China says the New Silk Road is not political, it has run into opposition from India due to a section of it in Pakistan, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where some projects run through the disputed Kashmir region.

Wang dismissed those concerns, saying the Pakistan project had no direct connection to the dispute and India was welcome to participate in the New Silk Road.

“Indian friends have said to us that One Belt, One Road is a very good suggestion,” he said.

Nevertheless, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not on the list of leaders attending.

Wang also made no mention of any attendance of officials from Japan, South Korea or North Korea, all countries with which China has strained ties. Nor was there mention of Australia, a strong U.S. ally that has close trade links with China.

The list included only one leader from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said China had hoped for at least some senior Western leaders to attend, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, to burnish the plan’s credentials and make it less China-centric.

British finance minister Philip Hammond will come as May’s representative, while Germany and France are having elections at the time and will send high-level representatives, Wang said.

Wang confirmed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as among 28 leaders coming, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers and Swiss and Czech presidents.

“This is a positive, cooperative agreement, and we don’t want to politicize it,” Wang told reporters when asked if China was upset at the absence of most major Western leaders.

“This is an economic cooperation forum, an international cooperation platform that everyone is paying attention to, supports and hopes to participate in,” he said.

GLOBAL FRIEND

China is sensitive to any suggestion that what it sees as its benign intentions do not have a receptive global audience, especially in Western capitals.

China was privately upset in 2015 after most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend a big military parade marking 70 years since the end of World War Two. Western leaders were unhappy that the guest list that included Putin and wary of the message China would send with the show of strength.

While China has portrayed the New Silk Road as a genuine effort to share the bounty of China’s economic development and to fund infrastructure gaps, many Western countries are concerned about a lack of detail and transparency in the project and are suspicious about China’s broader political intents.

Diplomatic sources said the presence of Putin and other leaders from countries with dubious human rights records, like the Philippines and Central Asian states, had contributed to a reluctance among Western leaders to attend.

Still, at a time of uncertainty about the U.S. place in the world following President Donald Trump’s pledges to put America first, China sees an opportunity to become more of a global leader and has found a receptive audience for its New Silk Road.

Leaders from countries that would appear to have little, if any, connection so far to the plan are coming to the summit, including Chile and Argentina.

“Everyone wants to be China’s friend now with Trump in office,” said a senior Asian diplomat in Beijing.

A senior Indonesian government official said China was aiming for a “spectacular” summit.

“The Chinese are gunning for … global leadership so I think this OBOR summit is going to be huge,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Jakarta; Editing by Robert Birsel)

G7 powers seek broad support to isolate Syria’s Assad

(L-R) E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida pose for a family photo during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Steve Scherer and Crispian Balmer

LUCCA, Italy (Reuters) – The Group of Seven major global powers were joined by Middle Eastern allies on Tuesday in a push to isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, hours before the U.S. secretary of state flies to Moscow, Assad’s top backer.

G7 foreign ministers sat down early on Tuesday with their counterparts from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar – all of whom oppose Assad’s rule – to discuss the six-year-old civil war in Syria.

Pressure is building on Russian President Vladimir Putin to break ties with Assad, whose forces stand accused of launching a nerve gas attack on a rebel-held town last week that killed 87 people including 31 children.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump, with both agreeing that there was “a window of opportunity” to persuade Russia to break ties with Assad, May’s office said.

Also on Monday, Britain and Canada said sanctions could be tightened on Moscow if it continued to back Assad. Later in the day, Trump spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase last week – launched in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attack – and thanked her for her support.

“I think we have to show a united position and that in these negotiations we should do all we can to get Russia out of Assad’s corner, at least to the point that they are ready to participate in finding a political solution,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Monday.

“It is the right moment to talk about this, how the international community, with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe, with the U.S., can drive forward a peace process for Syria and avoid further military escalation of the conflict.”

ADDITIONAL STRIKES

The United States fired dozens of cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase near Homs on Friday and has said it is open to authorising additional strikes on Syria if its government uses chemical weapons again or deploys barrel bombs.

Assad’s allies have been robust in their response, however. A joint command centre made up of the forces of Russia, Iran and militias supporting the Syrian president said on Sunday that the U.S. strike crossed “red lines” and it would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.

The missile attack has increased expectations that Trump is ready to adopt a tougher stance with respect to Russia, and that he is ready to engage in world affairs instead of following the more isolationist stance he had previously taken.

Up until the chemical attack, Trump had said Washington would no longer act as the world’s guardian, especially if it was not in the interest of the United States.

But on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the site of a World War Two Nazi massacre in Italy and said Washington would never let such abuses go unchallenged.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson told reporters in Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

G7 efforts to build a united front against Assad comes just ahead of Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, the first for a high-ranking Trump administration official.

Russia has rejected accusations that Assad used chemical arms against his own people and has said it will not cut its ties with the Syrian president.

That means Tillerson, who has significant business experience with Russia as a former chief executive at Exxon Mobil but none in government, is about to face his toughest test yet in international diplomacy.

Besides Syria, the ministers will talk on Tuesday about Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity and rival governments and militias vie for power.

Growing tensions with North Korea are also expected to be on the agenda, as the United States moves a navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Hanna Rantala; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Crispian Balmer, Pravin Char)

U.S. to hold accountable those who commit crimes against ‘innocents’

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, (C) talks to reporters during a ceremony at the Sant'Anna di Stazzema memorial, dedicated to the victims of the massacre committed in the village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema by the Nazis in 1944 during World War II, Italy

y Crispian Balmer and Steve Scherer

LUCCA, Italy (Reuters) – The United States will hold responsible anyone who commits crimes against humanity, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday, days after the U.S. military unexpectedly attacked Syria.

Tillerson is in Italy for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized nations, with his counterparts from Europe and Japan eager for clarity from Washington on numerous diplomatic issues, especially Syria.

Before the April 7 missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, U.S. President Donald Trump had indicated he would be less interventionist than his predecessors and willing to overlook human rights abuses if it was in U.S. interests.

But Tillerson said the United States would not let such crimes go unchallenged. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he told reporters while commemorating a 1944 German Nazi massacre in Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

Trump ordered his military to strike Syria in retaliation for what the United States said was a chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces which killed scores of civilians, including many children.

European ministers are eager to hear whether Washington is now committed to overthrowing Assad, who is backed by Russia. They also want the United States to put pressure on Moscow to distance itself from Assad.

Tillerson, who travels to Russia after the two-day G7 gathering, said at the weekend that the defeat of Islamic State remained the U.S. priority, while the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that “regime change” in Syria was also a priority for Trump.

The mixed messages have confused and frustrated European allies, who are eager for full U.S. support for a political solution based on a transfer of power in Damascus.

“The Americans say they agree, but there’s nothing to show for it behind (the scenes). They are absent from this and are navigating aimlessly in the dark,” said a senior European diplomat, who declined to be named.

Italy, Germany, France and Britain have invited foreign ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to sit down with the G7 group on Tuesday morning to discuss Syria. All oppose Assad’s rule.

SENSITIVE ISSUES

The foreign ministers’ discussions in Tuscany will prepare the way for a leaders’ summit in Sicily at the end of May.

Efforts to reach an agreement on statements ahead of time – a normal part of pre-meeting G7 diplomacy – have moved very slowly, partly because of a difficult transition at the U.S. state department, where many key positions remain unfilled.

Some issues, such as trade and climate change, are likely to be ducked this week. “The more complicated subjects will be left to the leaders,” said an Italian diplomat, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

However, the foreign ministers will talk about growing tensions with North Korea, as the United States moves a navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

They will also discuss Libya. Italy is hoping for vocal support for a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli which has struggled to establish its authority even in the city, let alone in the rest of the violence-plagued north African country.

The Trump administration has not yet defined a clear policy and Rome fears Washington may fall into step with Egypt and Russia, which support general Khalifa Haftar, a powerful figure in eastern Libya.

The struggle against terrorism, relations with Iran and instability in Ukraine will also come up for discussion, with talks due to kick off at 4.30 p.m. (10.30 a.m. ET) on Monday.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Steve Scherer; editing by Andrew Roche)

G7 agrees, need strong message on South China Sea

Participants of the G7 summit meetings (from front in clockwise) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Francois Hollande, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk, Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama attend session 1 working lunch meeting at the Shima Kanko Hotel in Shima, Mie Prefecture, Japan

By Matt Spetalnick and Tetsushi Kajimoto

ISE-SHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – Group of Seven (G7) leaders agreed on Thursday on the need to send a strong message on maritime claims in the western Pacific, where an increasingly assertive China is locked in territorial disputes with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations.

The agreement prompted a sharp rejoinder from China, which is not in the G7 club but whose rise as a power has put it at the heart of some discussions at the advanced nations’ summit in Ise-Shima, central Japan.

“Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe led discussion on the current situation in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Other G7 leaders said it is necessary for G7 to issue a clear signal,” Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko told reporters after a session on foreign policy affairs.

At a news conference late on Wednesday, Abe said Japan welcomed China’s peaceful rise while repeating Tokyo’s opposition to acts that try to change the status quo by force and urging respect of the rule of law – principles expected to be mentioned in a statement after the summit.

The United States is also increasingly concerned about China’s action in the region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying retorted in Beijing that the South China Sea issue had “nothing to do” with the G7 or any of its members.

“China is resolutely opposed to individual countries hyping up the South China Sea for personal gain,” she said.

U.S. President Barack Obama called on China on Wednesday to resolve maritime disputes peacefully and he reiterated that the United States was simply concerned about freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

Obama on Thursday pointed to the risks from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, saying the isolated state was “hell bent” on getting atomic weapons.

But he said there had been improved responses from countries in the region like China that could reduce the risk of North Korea selling weapons or nuclear material.

“It’s something that we’ve put at the center of discussions and negotiations with China,” Obama told reporters.

GLOBAL HEALTH CHECK

The global economy topped the agenda earlier in the day, when G7 leaders voiced concern about emerging economies and Abe made a pointed comparison to the 2008 global financial crisis. Not all his G7 partners appeared to agree.

The G7 leaders did agree on the need for flexible spending to spur world growth but the timing and amount depended on each country, Seko told reporters, adding some countries saw no need for such spending. Britain and Germany have been resisting calls for fiscal stimulus.

“G7 leaders voiced the view that emerging economies are in a severe situation, although there were views that the current economic situation is not a crisis,” Seko said .

Abe presented data showing global commodities prices fell 55 percent from June 2014 to January 2016, the same margin as from July 2008 to February 2009, after the Lehman collapse.

Lehman had been Wall Street’s fourth-largest investment bank when it filed for Chapter 11 protection on Sept. 15, 2008, making its bankruptcy by far the biggest in U.S. history. Its failure triggered the global financial crisis.

Abe hopes, some political insiders say, to use a G7 statement on the global economy as cover for a domestic fiscal package including the possible delay of a rise in the nation’s sales tax to 10 percent from 8 percent planned for next April.

Obama ripped into Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, saying the billionaire had rattled other G7 leaders and that his statements were aimed at getting headlines, not what was needed to keep America safe and the world on an even keel.

Trump has been accused of racism, misogyny and bigotry for saying he would build a giant wall to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants, would temporarily ban Muslims from the United States and after he made a series of comments considered demeaning to women.

Summit pageantry began when Abe escorted G7 leaders to the Shinto religion’s holiest site, the Ise Grand Shrine in central Japan, dedicated to sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, mythical ancestress of the emperor.

On Wednesday night, Abe met Obama for talks dominated by the arrest of a U.S. military base civilian worker in connection with the killing of a young woman on Japan’s southern Okinawa island, reluctant host to the bulk of the U.S. military in Japan.

The attack has marred Obama’s hopes of keeping his Japan trip strictly focused on his visit on Friday to Hiroshima, site of the world’s first atomic bombing, to highlight reconciliation between the two former World War Two foes and his nuclear anti-proliferation agenda.

The G7 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Wilson, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Kylie MacLellan, Ami Miyazaki, and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)