WTO cancels meeting aimed at breaking leadership impasse

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization has cancelled a meeting on Nov. 9 to decide on the appointment of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the body’s next director general after the United States rejected her as a candidate.

Trade sources said they thought a factor in the delay was that there had been no indication the Trump administration – which will continue to govern trade policy in the weeks ahead irrespective of any U.S. election result – had switched its support to Okonjo-Iweala.

A WTO document seen by Reuters said: “For reasons including the health situation and current events, delegations will not be in a position to take a formal decision on 9 November.” It said it had been postponed until further notice.

As well as the impasse over the leadership, Geneva, home to the WTO, implemented COVID restrictions this week including a five-person cap on in-person meetings, although the organization has held many meetings virtually.

The WTO later confirmed the decision on its website, saying consultations would continue. The body usually chooses its new leader by consensus, with trade sources saying they would be reluctant to resort to a vote.

A high-powered WTO panel last month recommended Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister, to lead the global trade watchdog, setting her up to become its first African and first woman head.

However, the U.S.-backed South Korean candidate Yoo Myung-hee, has not withdrawn from the race, despite mounting diplomatic pressure.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

U.S. President Donald Trump has frequently criticized the WTO, calling it “horrible” and biased towards China. His administration has already blocked judge appointments, disabling its top appeals panel last year.

Okonjo-Iweala, currently chairing the GAVI vaccine alliance board, has vowed “positivity all the way” on her Twitter feed.

“Dr. Ngozi is very grateful for the WTO’s support and she’s ready to get to work as soon as possible,” her spokeswoman Molly Toomey said.

The Geneva-based body has been run by four deputies since Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year early in August.

(Reporting by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Goodman and Mark Potter)

Locked out by COVID, refugees’ lives on hold

By Edward McAllister

DAKAR (Reuters) – When Michelle Alfaro left her office at the United Nations in Geneva on March 13, her job finding homes for the world’s most vulnerable refugees was under control.

Four days later, the new coronavirus had knocked it into chaos. Governments across the world announced border closures, lockdowns and flight cancellations. The United Nations was forced to suspend the program.

“Everything collapsed that week,” said Alfaro, who manages resettlements for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

Millions of people have been thrown into limbo by the new coronavirus. Those Alfaro works with had been promised escape from war, violence, conflict or persecution. After submitting to a review process that can take years, and winning a chance to make new lives in countries such as the United States and Canada, thousands suddenly learned – often by phone – their flights would no longer take off.

Ubah Mohamed was one of them. A 23-year-old Somalian, she ran away from her husband after he tried to force her to join the Islamist group al Shabaab, militants who would later kill her father. She was due to fly to the United Kingdom on March 24.

“I didn’t know where I was going,” she said of her five-year ordeal as a refugee. “I was just going. I had no control.”

In the first half of 2020, refugee resettlements fell 69% from 2019 levels to just over 10,000, U.N. data show. The program resumed in June, but at a much slower pace.

The pandemic has hit as attitudes to immigrants have been hardening, loosening another thread in increasingly frayed international efforts to maintain global solidarity.

Nationalism, fear of infection, economic worries and ageing voters’ resistance to change are undermining a long-established post-war consensus that people at risk of persecution, abuse or violence deserve to be sheltered.

The British government this month asked the armed forces to help deal with a rise in the number of boats carrying migrants from France. In Greece, the government has rebuffed thousands of migrants from Turkey this year and stiffened patrols to stop refugees arriving by boat. The European Union has pumped billions of dollars into African states in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants to its southern shores.

The United States rehouses the largest share of refugees in the program, which in recent years has accounted for the majority of U.S. refugee intake. Arrivals under the program have more than halved under President Donald Trump, who came to power in 2017 on an anti-immigration platform and is running for re-election promising more of the same. America accepted one-third of the refugees resettled by the United Nations last year, but is cutting its intake.

The United States stopped taking refugees from March 19 until July 29 because of travel restrictions, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters. As a result, the country resettled fewer than 3,000 people under the U.N. program in the first half of 2020, compared with over 21,000 during the whole of last year, the data show.

Even before COVID-19, the United Nations says it struggled to raise funds and find new homes for the 1.4 million people it estimates need immediate help.

“It has been an especially difficult year for refugees,” said Alfaro, the resettlement officer. “Every single resettlement country we have has been affected – no one is left unscathed.”

NO CONTROL

Mohamed, the 23-year-old Somalian, is stranded 2,000 miles south of Geneva in a refugee camp on a sandy plain outside Niger’s capital Niamey. The mother of two, who shelters in a small tent-like structure in the U.N.’s Hamdallaye camp, was told by UNHCR officials just days before leaving that her flight was off.

“I was so excited to go,” she said in a phone interview with Reuters. “I live in a tent. If I can live in a home in a safe place, I will be satisfied.”

Her journey started in 2015, on a bus to the coastal city of Bosaso, after her father told her the safest thing she could do would be to get away from her husband and leave her children behind.

A man offered her a place on a boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen – a common route for Somalians seeking refuge from conflict over the decades. By accepting, she unwittingly entered a network of migrant smugglers that would rob, rape and sell her from Yemen to Sudan to Libya.

Just days into her journey, she said she called her father to let him know where she was. Her step-mother answered the phone and told her the militants had killed him for helping her escape.

In southern Libya, a smuggler raped her repeatedly. She miscarried his child in the spring of 2016. He discarded her and she continued north.

Later that year, at a halfway house for migrants in northern Libya, another smuggler beat her when she told him she did not have enough money for her travel.

Crossing the Sahara Desert from Sudan to Libya in an open-back pick-up truck in 2016, sipping water that tasted of petrol, her mind was flooded with thoughts of her children. She thinks they are with family.

“I don’t know where they are,” she said. “I am a mother, and I cannot be with them. All I can do is cry.”

She married a fellow Somalian refugee in northern Libya in 2017. The smugglers’ network funneled them towards Europe. They were separated just before she boarded an overcrowded dinghy which broke down and drifted on the Mediterranean for days.

There, the Libyan Coast Guard picked her up and handed her over to the U.N. refugee agency and she was reunited with her husband at a migrant detention centre a few days later. The U.N. flew them from Tripoli to Niamey and moved them into the camp in March 2019, where the resettlement assessment began.

“I wanted to forget everything I had been through,” she said.

She said she has not received any information about when she will leave for the United Kingdom. It has suspended resettlements indefinitely because of flight restrictions and limits to its own visa application services during the pandemic, a Home Office spokeswoman told Reuters. It wants to be sure that resuming arrivals does not pose a public health risk.

“We are not in a position to resume arrivals in the immediate short term,” she said.

The United Nations said it does not comment on specific cases.

CAJOLING COUNTRIES

Alfaro’s employer, UNHCR, has been resettling refugees since the 1950’s when it found new homes for 170,000 who escaped the Hungarian Revolution. Over the past 25 years, it says it has helped one million people out of the world’s trouble spots including Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Myanmar. Dozens of countries receive refugees under the program.

The UNHCR identifies those most in need through interviews and refers them to a receiving country, which conducts its own assessments. Another U.N. agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), makes the travel arrangements.

When COVID-19 hit, receiving countries evacuated embassy staff, so U.N. officials could no longer reach them to help organize departures or process new referrals. Several countries told the United Nations they were suspending all or part of their refugee intake.

Local officials, confined by lockdowns, have been unavailable to stamp exit visas. House-bound U.N. field staff can’t interview applicants. Officials from receiving countries have been unable to reach applicants for face-to-face interviews because of travel restrictions.

In March, Alfaro’s days disappeared on long conference calls and briefings as she tried to persuade governments to keep their borders open to emergency cases, and to accept online interviews for new referrals.

A few hundred critical cases were resettled during the suspension, Alfaro said; some countries have agreed to video interviews. But others, including the United States, still require them to be conducted in person. The United States has taken in refugees at a far slower pace than pre-COVID levels, the State Department spokesperson said: There are still “few or no flights available” from many of the countries who send them.

Staff at the IOM have been scouring airline booking systems for ways to get emergency cases moving, even during the suspension. Flights would appear and then be cancelled.

In all, the agency cancelled 11,000 plane tickets because of the pandemic, said Rana Jaber, its head of resettlements, who worked with refugees in Iraq from 2015 to 2017.

“I felt like I was in Iraq again,” she said. “My lord, my brains were fried.”

SPACES LOST

Because of the slowdown in interviews, global referrals dropped from 40,000 to 20,000 in the first half of the year, the U.N. data show. This means a backlog of tens of thousands of people is building, and there’s a risk these places will be lost indefinitely.

Now refugees are falling victim to COVID-19. In Iraq, Alfaro said the UNHCR is looking after a “significant number” of refugees with urgent medical needs who are unable to be resettled because of travel restrictions. At least two people have died of COVID-19 while awaiting the move.

In Uganda, COVID-19 has spread through slums of the capital Kampala where many who await resettlement are housed in crowded accommodations with no running water or electricity, aid workers said.

The U.N. has resettled about 2,100 refugees since resuming flights – way below the average pace of previous years, said the IOM’s Jaber. Cancellations continue.

“Some are opening up, but not everyone is back online – maybe not until next year,” said Alfaro. “We don’t know how many spaces we’re going to lose.”

There have been bright spots. An Eritrean couple with a young baby were the first refugees to be resettled to Europe since flights were stopped in March, UNHCR said on Twitter on Aug. 14.

Just hours after a vast explosion devastated much of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Aug. 4, IOM staff were back at work. The ancient city holds hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war.

That night, IOM got 30 of them on a flight out, said IOM’s Jaber. In total, 61 were relocated that week.

“There are challenges still,” she said. “We are back, it is slower, (but) it is working.”

(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

U.S. ‘not above scrutiny’, urges other states to be open on racism: statement

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States is grappling with racial discrimination and implementing police reforms after the killing of George Floyd, but other countries should show the same level of openness, a U.S. envoy said on Wednesday ahead of a U.N. debate on racism.

Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, issued a statement hours before the Human Rights Council (HRC) was to open an urgent debate at the request of African countries on racism and “police brutality” against protesters.

Activists said that U.S. officials were heavily lobbying African countries to tone down a draft resolution being considered so that it would not name the United States or set up a U.N. commission of inquiry, but rather a fact-finding mission.

African countries had lobbied to set up a U.N. inquiry into “systemic racism” and “police brutality” in the United States and elsewhere, aiming to defend the rights of people of African descent, the initial draft resolution showed.

“As the world’s leading advocate for human rights, we call upon all governments to demonstrate the same level of transparency and accountability that the U.S. and our democratic partners’ practice,” Bremberg said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned the actions of police officers in Minneapolis, he said, referring to the city where Floyd died last month after being held under the knee of an officer, launching protests across the nation and the world.

Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices even as he pressed for “law and order” nationwide.

“We are not above scrutiny; however, any HRC resolution on this topic that calls out countries by name should be inclusive, noting the many countries where racism is a problem,” Bremberg said.

Bremberg, in a thinly veiled reference to ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, said that another member state stood “accused of running concentration camps directed at an ethnic minority”. In an apparent reference to Iran, he said that another state had murdered more than 1,500 peaceful protesters. Reuters reported in December that about 1,500 were killed in Iran during less than two weeks of unrest last year.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by William Maclean)

U.S., Russia to discuss nuclear arms limits in Geneva on Wednesday: officials

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Representatives from the United States and Russia are set to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to explore the idea of a new accord limiting nuclear arms that could eventually include China, U.S. senior administration officials said on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that he would like to see a new type of arms control deal with Russia and China to cover all types of nuclear weapons, a topic that he has discussed individually with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China is not currently a party to nuclear arms pacts between the United States and Russia.

The U.S. delegation will be led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and will include Tim Morrison, a top aide at the White House National Security Council, as well as representatives from the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Agency, said the U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition on anonymity.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, will lead the Russian delegation, the U.S. officials said.

“We actually feel that – touch wood – we’ve actually got to a point where we can try to start this again,” one of the officials said, listing off a long series of incidents that have soured relations between the United States and Russia during the past year.

“I say touch wood because we’re always just one incident away from unfortunately things getting derailed,” the official said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Exclusive: Venezuela removed 8 tons of central bank gold last week – legislator

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro touches a gold bar as he speaks during a meeting with the ministers responsible for the economic sector at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 8 tons of gold were removed from the Venezuelan central bank’s vaults last week, an opposition legislator and three government sources told Reuters, in the latest sign of President Nicolas Maduro’s desperation to raise hard currency amid tightening sanctions.

The gold was removed in government vehicles between Wednesday and Friday last week when there were no regular security guards present at the bank, Legislator Angel Alvarado and the three government sources said.

“They plan to sell it abroad illegally,” Alvarado said in an interview.

The central bank did not respond to requests for comment.

Alvarado and the government sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say where the central bank was sending the gold. They said the operation took place while central bank head Calixto Ortega was abroad on a trip.

In 2018, 23 tons of mined gold were transported from Venezuela to Istanbul by plane, according to sources and Turkish government data.

The central bank bought part of this gold from primitive gold-mining camps in the south of Venezuela and exported it to Turkey and other countries to finance the purchase of basic food supplies, given widespread shortages, according to more than 30 people with knowledge of the trade.

Some 20 tons of monetary gold were also removed from the central bank’s vaults in 2018, according to the bank’s data, leaving 140 tonnes remaining, the lowest level in 75 years.

Abu Dhabi investment firm Noor Capital said on Feb. 1 that it bought 3 tons of gold on Jan. 21 from the Venezuelan central bank and would not buy more until Venezuela’s situation stabilized. Noor Capital said its purchase was in accordance with “international standards and laws in place” as of that date.

Maduro’s government has been seeking to repatriate some 31 tons of gold in the Bank of England’s vaults on fears it could be caught up in international sanctions on the country.

“As you would expect, the Bank does not comment on individual customer relationships,” the Bank of England wrote in response to a request for comment. “In all its operations, the Bank observes the highest standards of risk management and abides by all relevant legislation.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Wednesday, during a United Nations meeting in Geneva, that the Bank of England had blocked the government’s assets.

Maduro’s government has resorted to selling off gold after falling oil production, the country’s wider economic collapse and mounting sanctions hit public income and made it hard for the country to access credit.

The United States, which is backing an attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaido to force Maduro to step down and call new elections, has warned bankers and traders not to deal in Venezuelan gold.

(Reporting by Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; additional reporting by William Schomberg in London, Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Christian Plumb, Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

Russia acknowledges new missile but says it does not breach treaty

By Stephanie Nebehay and Robin Emmott

GENEVA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russia has recognized the existence of a cruise missile system that has prompted Washington to say it will quit the 1987 INF disarmament treaty, but has denied that it violates the pact, U.S. officials and NATO diplomats said on Monday.

Two weeks before the planned U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, which keeps nuclear-capable missiles out of Europe, Washington’s disarmament ambassador in Geneva said there was still time for Russia to destroy the system.

But after a session of the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, Russian diplomat Alexander Deyneko told Reuters: “We shall not yield to any ultimatums like to liquidate or to eliminate (a) missile that doesn’t fall within the range of the treaty prohibitions.”

Russia had denied developing what U.S. intelligence calls the SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system.

However, NATO diplomats said Moscow did now recognize its existence but argued that its range was within the 500-km limit set by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood said the system was a “potent and direct threat to Europe and Asia” as it had a range of 500 to 1,500 km (310-930 miles), contravening a treaty that is designed to prevent attacks at short notice.

“Russia must verifiably destroy all SSC-8 missiles, launchers and associated equipment in order to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty,” Wood said.

“Unfortunately, the United States increasingly finds that Russia cannot be trusted to comply with its arms control obligations and that its coercive and malign actions around the globe have increased tensions.”

After a meeting with Russian officials in Geneva last week, the United States said Moscow’s offer to save the treaty, negotiated by U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was not genuine because it could not be verified.

The impasse sets the stage for U.S. President Donald Trump to fulfill his threat to start withdrawing from the pact on Feb. 2, potentially allowing Washington to develop its own medium-range missiles.

The United States will still have six months to formally complete its withdrawal, however.

The U.S.-led NATO alliance said it had not given up on bringing Russia back into compliance. NATO’s 29 ambassadors will hold a special NATO-Russia Council with Moscow’s acting envoy to the alliance, Yuri Gorlach, in Brussels on Friday.

NATO diplomats told Reuters that European members of the alliance led by Germany hoped Washington would make a final push to convince the Kremlin to come into line, or possibly to renegotiate the INF to include China.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

U.S. warns on Russia’s new space weapons

The sun reflects off the water in this picture taken by German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station and sent on his Twitter feed July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Gerst/NASA/Handout via Reuters

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States voiced deep suspicion on Tuesday over Russia’s pursuit of new space weapons, including a mobile laser system to destroy satellites in space, and the launch of a new inspector satellite which was acting in an “abnormal” way.

Russia’s pursuit of counterspace capabilities was “disturbing”, Yleem D.S. Poblete, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, told the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament which is discussing a new treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space.

A Russian delegate at the conference dismissed Poblete’s remarks as unfounded and slanderous.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at the Geneva forum in February, said a priority was to prevent an arms race in outer space, in line with Russia’s joint draft treaty with China presented a decade ago.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in March “six new major offensive weapons systems”, including the Peresvet military mobile laser system, Poblete said.

“To the United States this is yet further proof that the Russian actions do not match their words,” she said.

Referring to a “space apparatus inspector”, whose deployment was announced by the Russian defense ministry last October, Poblete said: “The only certainty we have is that this system has been ‘placed in orbit’.”

She said its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before, including other Russian inspection satellite activities, adding: “We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared ‘space apparatus inspector’.”

Russia’s pursuit of counterspace capabilities “is disturbing given the recent pattern of Russian malign behavior,” she said, and its proposed treaty would not prohibit such activity, nor the testing or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities.

Alexander Deyneko, a senior Russian diplomat in Geneva, dismissed what he called “the same unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions, on suppositions and so on”.

The United States had not proposed amendments to the Sino-Russian draft treaty, he said.

“We are seeing that the American side are raising their serious concerns about Russia, so you would think they ought to be the first to support the Russian initiative. They should be active in working to develop a treaty that would 100 percent satisfy the security interests of the American people,” he said.

“But they have not made this constructive contribution,” he said.

China’s disarmament ambassador Fu Cong called for substantive discussions on outer space, leading to negotiations.

“China has always stood for peaceful use of outer space and we are against weaponization of outer space, an arms race in outer space, or even more turning outer space into a battle field,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Syrian war will drag into next decade: senior Kurdish leader

Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish politician is seen in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Russian-led effort to end the war in Syria will fail and the conflict looks set to extend into the next decade, a top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters in an interview.

Aldar Khalil, an architect of Kurdish-led plans for autonomous rule in northern Syria, also said the United States appears in “no hurry” to leave areas where it has helped Kurdish-led forces fight Islamic State, and that he expects ties with Washington to develop as U.S. recovery efforts proceed.

The Syrian Kurds are among the few winners in the almost seven-year-old war, having established control over large parts of the north with a powerful militia that has partnered with the U.S.-led coalition against IS.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, has asked them to take part in an international peace conference on Syria for the first time — a peace congress scheduled in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

“Yes we are invited and we might take part in the show but it will not succeed,” Khalil, co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties, said by telephone.

He questioned what the hundreds of anticipated attendees could accomplish in two days and said more preparation was required.

U.N.-led diplomacy in Geneva was also set for more failure, he said, adding that the war would “ebb and flow” until at least 2021, the end of Assad’s current seven-year presidential term.

“I don’t expect any breakthrough in the Syrian situation before 2021 … it might even go on until ’25,” he said.

“Daesh (IS) might expand in other areas, and of course the Turks might try to stir up problems in some areas.”

The Syrian Kurds’ ascendancy in Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey. Ankara views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of Kurdish parties in Turkey that have been fighting Ankara for more than three decades.

U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters has also strained ties between the NATO allies: Turkey on Wednesday summoned a top U.S. diplomat in Ankara to protest over U.S. support of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Khalil is seen as a key figure in plans to establish a federal region in northern Syria – a plan Washington has opposed despite backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the war with IS.

The Syrian Kurds say independence is not their goal. But Khalil said the Kurdish-led authorities would press ahead with unilateral autonomy plans, though elections to a new regional parliament have been postponed to allow more time to prepare.

WARNING TO ASSAD

With the fight against IS winding down, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month he expected to see a larger U.S. civilian presence in Syria, including contractors and diplomats to focus on stabilization and ensuring IS does not return.

Khalil declined to say how long the United States might maintain a foothold in northern Syria, but said that achieving U.S. goals of helping cities such as Raqqa to recover implied a commitment of at least 18 months to two years.

“These matters will not be completed in less time than this,” he said.

“I can’t confirm to you a long-term relationship, but at least for the foreseeable time, it seems they are not in a hurry to leave,” he said. Pointing to the Mattis remarks, he said he expected U.S. ties to northern Syria to develop further.

The Kurdish-led authorities have held two local elections since September, part of their plan to build new governing structures. Discussions are underway to decide when a third vote — aimed at electing a regional parliament — will happen.

Khalil said the delay was aimed partly at giving a chance for areas recently captured from IS to decide whether to participate.

Though Assad recently condemned the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and their allies as “traitors”, Khalil said the Syrian government was incapable of attacking areas they control and warned that if it tried to “all its forces will be killed”.

He warned that Islamic State sleeper cells posed a big threat. “The Daesh campaign is not over, now the more difficult phase has started,” he said.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Myanmar forces may be guilty of genocide against Rohingya, U.N. says

Myanmar forces may be guilty of genocide against Rohingya, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, the United Nations’ top human rights official said on Tuesday, adding that more were fleeing despite an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to send them home.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that none of the 626,000 Rohingya who have fled violence since August should be repatriated to Myanmar unless there was robust monitoring on the ground.

Myanmar’s ambassador Htin Lynn said that his government was working with Bangladesh to ensure returns of the displaced in about two months and “there will be no camps”.

Zeid, who has described the campaign in the past as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”, was addressing a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva called by Bangladesh.

He described “concordant reports of acts of appalling barbarity committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques.”

“Can anyone – can anyone – rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” he told the 47-member state forum.

Zeid urged the Council to recommend that the U.N. General Assembly establish a new mechanism “to assist individual criminal investigations of those responsible”.

Prosecutions for the violence and rapes against Rohingya by security forces or by civilians “appear extremely rare”, Zeid said.

Marzuki Darusman, head of an independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said by video from Malaysia: “We will go where the evidence leads us…Our focus is on facts and circumstances of allegations in Myanmar as a whole since 2011.”

His team has interviewed Rohingya refugees including children in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, who recounted “acts of extreme brutality” and “displayed signs of severe trauma”, he said.

Myanmar has not granted the investigators access to Rakhine, the northern state from which the Rohingya have fled, he said. “We maintain hope that it will be granted early in 2018.”

Pramila Patten, special representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who interviewed survivors in Bangladesh in November, said: “I heard the most heart-breaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred of these people solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion”.

Crimes included “rape, gang rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity”, Patten said.

Myanmar denies committing atrocities against the Rohingya. Its envoy Htin, referring to the accounts, said: “People will say what they wanted to believe and sometimes they will say what they were told to say.”

The United Nations defines genocide as acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. A U.N. convention requires all countries to act to halt genocide and to punish those responsible.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Syrian walkout from talks ‘an embarrassment to Russia’: opposition

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian government’s decision to quit peace talks last week was an embarrassment to its main supporter Russia, which wants both sides to reach a deal quickly, opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said on Monday.

The delegation left the U.N.-backed talks in Geneva on Friday, blaming the opposition’s demands that President Bashar al-Assad should play no role in any interim post-war government.

“I don’t think that those who support the regime are happy with such a position being taken by the regime. This is an embarrassment to Russia,” Aridi said at the hotel where the opposition delegation is staying in Geneva.

“We understand the Russian position now. They are… in a hurry to find a solution.”

There was no immediate comment from Russian officials at the talks on the withdrawal of the government delegation.

Russia helped to turn the Syrian war in Assad’s favor and has become the key force in the push for a diplomatic solution. Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said a political settlement should be finalised within the U.N. Geneva process.

The opposition, long wary of Russia’s role, now accepts it. Western diplomats say Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev was present at the Riyadh meeting last month where the opposition drew up its statement rejecting any future role for Assad.

Asked if the opposition was willing to compromise on Assad’s role in any post-war government, Aridi said his delegation’s demands were based on the wishes of the Syrian people.

“I believe that our mere presence in Geneva is in itself a compromise. We are sitting with a regime that has been carrying out all these atrocities for the past seven years. What other compromise could we make?”

A source close to government delegation told Reuters on Monday that Damascus was still studying the feasibility of participation in the talks and when a decision was reached it would be sent through ordinary diplomatic channels.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)