New flight carrying at-risk Afghans arriving in U.S. later on Monday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A new flight carrying evacuated at-risk Afghans will arrive in the United States later on Monday from Ramstein air base in Germany, a senior State Department official said, adding that the pace of flights will ramp up from transit hubs temporarily housing those evacuated from Kabul.

Speaking at a briefing with reporters, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were currently eight transit hubs across six countries that were hosting more than 17,000 people.

“The transit hubs that we have arranged in Germany, Italy and Spain will have the combined capacity to process approximately 15,000 people on a rolling basis, which in turn will enable us to keep evacuating people continuously from Kabul,” the official said.

“Today the first onward flight of SIV applicants took off from Germany to the United States and we expect those to continue to ramp up,” the official added, in reference to the Special Immigrant Visa, designed for issuing visas to people who worked with the U.S. military.

The Taliban seized power just over a week ago as the United States and its allies were withdrawing troops after a 20-year war launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants in 2001.

Panicked Afghans and foreigners have thronged the airport for days, clamoring to catch a flight out before the U.S.-led forces complete their pullout by the end of the month.

The official said the U.S. commitment to at-risk Afghans would not end on Aug. 31, but did not elaborate on how Washington could continue its efforts to airlift people if it withdraws completely from the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the United States expects to evacuate between 50,000 and 65,000 people from Afghanistan. That is fewer than the number eligible for safe harbor, according to estimates by advocates.

The official also dismissed reports that only Americans were able to get through to Kabul airport and that others had been blocked.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by David Holmes)

U.S. slaps sanctions on Nord Stream 2, project’s opponents say not enough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday slapped sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but opponents of nearly-completed project said the move would do little to stop it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the administration has now sanctioned a total of seven persons and identified 16 of their vessels as blocked property under sanctions law passed by Congress.

U.S. President Joe Biden separately issued an executive order on Friday allowing for sanctions to be imposed with respect to certain Russian energy export pipelines.

But opponents of the $11 billion project to bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea said the new sanctions were not strong enough.

“These sanctions do nothing to halt Nord Stream 2,” said Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, which advises the Ukrainian energy industry on the matter.

Biden has opposed the pipeline, like the previous two U.S. presidents, because it bypasses Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative gas transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

But in May the U.S. State Department waived two sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company behind the project, and its chief executive, Matthias Warning, a Putin ally.

Biden has sought to repair U.S. relations with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, as he needs the ally’s help on everything from the economy to relations with China and Iran.

“The only thing that can stop NS2 from becoming operational is lifting the waivers and sanctioning … Nord Stream AG, which they refuse to do,” Vajdich said.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russian state energy company Gazprom and its Western partners, is almost complete with only 9 miles (15 km) left to construct, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, estimated it could be completed by September 3.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; editing by Chris Reese, Kirsten Donovan)

Germany tells its citizens to leave Afghanistan

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany urged its citizens on Thursday to leave Afghanistan on scheduled flights as soon as they can due to the deteriorating security situation.

Taliban fighters captured the strategic city of Ghazni on Thursday, taking them to within 150 km (90 miles) of Kabul following days of fierce clashes as the Islamist group ruled out sharing power with the government based there.

The speed and violence of the Taliban advance has sparked anger among many Afghans over U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the government to fight alone.

“German nationals on the ground are strongly urged to take opportunities to leave the country on scheduled flights as soon as possible,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website.

The defense minister on Monday rejected calls for Berlin to send soldiers back to Afghanistan after the insurgents took Kunduz, the city where German troops were deployed for a decade.

Germany had the second largest military contingent in Afghanistan after the United States, and lost more troops in combat in Kunduz than anywhere else since World War Two.

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Germany to end free COVID tests from Oct. 11 – sources

BERLIN (Reuters) -The German government will stop offering free coronavirus tests from Oct. 11 in a bid to encourage more people to get vaccinated amid concerns about a rise in new cases, sources close to talks with the federal states said on Tuesday.

Less than seven weeks before a federal election, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 federal states met on Tuesday to discuss measures to avoid a new wave of infections, driven by the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant, and avert unpopular restrictions.

They agreed to end free testing for all except those for whom vaccination is not recommended, such as children and pregnant women, the sources said.

They hope that will encourage more people to get COVID-19 shots as unvaccinated people will then have to pay for the tests they need to be able to enter indoor restaurants, take part in religious ceremonies and do indoor sport.

Germany had made the tests free for all in March to help make a gradual return to normal life possible after months of lockdown. Although around 55% of Germans are fully vaccinated, the pace of inoculations has slowed.

In neighboring France, vaccinations jumped after President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a plan for citizens to have to show a health pass for many daily activities, although the plan has also triggered mass demonstrations.

Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel, said Germany needed to increase testing and boost vaccinations.

“We want to and will test more to avoid a new lockdown,” Armin Laschet told the North Rhine-Westphalia assembly.

Hoping to become chancellor after the Sept. 26 election, Laschet is desperate to avoid new restrictions and said Germany should introduce incentives to encourage more people to get vaccinated and also ramp up compulsory testing.

Germany has recorded more than 3,000 cases a day in the last week, bringing the total to 3.79 million. Germany’s death toll is 91,803. The nationwide seven-day incidence rose on Tuesday to 23.5 per 100,000 people, up from 23.1 on Monday.

(Reporting by Matthias Inverardi, Andreas Rinke and Holger HansenWriting by Joseph Nasr, Madeline Chambers and Emma ThomassonEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Mark Potter)

Blast in German industrial park kills one, four others missing

BERLIN (Reuters) -An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday killed at least one person and injured 31 others, setting off a fierce blaze that sent a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen. Four people were still missing.

Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer and Lanxess, that flared up after the blast at 9:40 a.m. (0740 GMT), park operator Currenta said.

“We are deeply shaken by the tragic death of one colleague,” said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich, adding that a search was underway for the four missing people.

Police said five of the 31 injured people were affected seriously enough to need intensive care.

“This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen,” said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.

The area and surrounding roads were sealed off for much of the day.

Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.

Chempark’s Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion, which led to a fire starting in a tank containing solvents.

“Solvents were burned during the incident, and we do not know precisely what substances were released,” Friedrich added. “We are examining this with authorities, taking samples.”

Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency’s mobile phone app warned citizens of “extreme danger.”

Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.

More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro, Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.

Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets for an enterprise value of 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).

($1 = 0.8492 euros)

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan, Madeline Chambers, Caroline Copley; Editing by William Maclean, Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

After the flood, Germany battles to clear mountains of trash

By Andi Kranz and Leon Kuegeler

BAD NEUENAHR, Germany (Reuters) – Germany’s most devastating floods in 60 years have created mountains of trash, from broken fridges to wrecked cars, piled up on roadsides and in makeshift dumps. Disposing of it could take weeks and local leaders have appealed for help.

Amid the stench and fear of disease, the country that pioneered modern waste management is struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of tonnes of wreckage strewn across the towns and villages of its western Rhinelands after the heaviest 24-hour deluge on record.

The flooding claimed at least 180 lives.

A week on, much of the trash has been heaped into piles so that streets are passable or carted off to makeshift dumps.

For resident Hans-Peter Bleken in Bad Neuenahr, a wine-growing hub in Rhineland-Palatinate that was one of the towns worst hit, a clean-up operation led by the fire brigade and army has been a “brilliant help”.

“The next big problem is going to be the huge piles of household rubbish,” he told Reuters, saying the stench from rotting food waste was everywhere.

“We have beaten corona but if we now get the bacteria, the rats and more viruses then that will be our problem.”

Germany pioneered modern waste management in the 1970s, introducing the concept of separating rubbish to go for recycling, incineration or into landfill.

Yet the sheer amount of trash is far more than the waste-management industry can cope with. Construction firms and farmers are helping to shift wreckage, but with storage facilities full up, temporary dumps are having to be found.

“The greatest challenge is the huge amounts of bulky waste,” said Anna Ephan, a spokesperson for Remondis, the largest private waste management company in Germany. “The amounts are inconceivable.”

EXPORTING TRASH

In Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, governor Armin Laschet told a news conference on Thursday: “It won’t be possible to dispose of all the waste locally. We need wider help.”

Laschet is the conservative candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel at a general election in September. A poll this week for Spiegel magazine found 60% of Germans considered Laschet to be a poor crisis manager.

The cathedral city of Cologne, the state’s largest city with a population of more than a million, has issued an appeal on Facebook for help to clear “unimaginable quantities” of trash.

“The districts and households affected need urgent support to quickly cope with this task, as our existing infrastructure is already exhausted,” read the appeal, which included a hotline number for helpers to call.

Most of the rubbish will have to be incinerated, but with municipal and commercial facilities running more or less flat out before the flood catastrophe, there is scant spare capacity.

“This is coming on top of all the rubbish that we already process – and it’s unexpected,” said Bernhard Schodrowski of the BDE waste-management industry association.

There are huge challenges to safely store the rubbish to minimize the risk of disease, said Schodrowski, while many companies in the sector are also battling to restore supplies of clean water and repair sewage systems.

“We’re hopeful but it will be a question of weeks before we are able to master this challenge,” said Schodrowski.

(Additional reporting by Anneli Palmen in Duesseldorf, Writing and additional reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S., Germany deal on Nord Stream 2 pipeline draws ire of lawmakers in both countries

By Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rinke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and Germany will unveil a deal on Wednesday that maps out consequences for Russia if it uses the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to harm Ukraine or other Eastern European countries, but the deal faces opposition in both countries.

The agreement, hammered out by senior U.S. and German officials and first reported by Reuters on Monday, will resolve a long-standing dispute over the $11 billion pipeline, now 98% complete, being built under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia’s Arctic region to Germany.

U.S. officials continue to oppose the pipeline, but say the accord would mitigate the possibility of Russia using energy as a weapon against Ukraine and other countries in the region.

Sources said Germany also agreed to take potential unspecified actions against Russia if it cut off energy supplies to Ukraine, in addition to seeking European Union sanctions, but details about those actions – or what specific behavior by Russia would trigger them – were not immediately available.

Germany would also contribute to a new $1 billion fund aimed at improving Ukraine’s energy independence, including through investments in green hydrogen, according to the sources.

Reports about the agreement drew immediate jeers from lawmakers in both Germany and the United States.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has been holding up President Joe Biden’s ambassadorial nominations over his concerns about Nord Stream 2, said the reported agreement would be “a generational geopolitical win for Putin and a catastrophe for the United States and our allies.”

Cruz and other lawmakers are furious at Biden for waiving congressionally mandated sanctions against the pipeline.

The agreement will avert, for now, the resumption of sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and its chief executive. Biden waived those sanctions in May to allow time for both sides to negotiate a way forward.

Some U.S. lawmakers have already introduced an amendment that would prevent the Biden administration from continuing to waive the sanctions, although the prospects for passage remain uncertain.

U.S. officials have sought to reassure lawmakers that the Biden administration will reserve the right to use sanctions on a case-by-case basis, in line with U.S. law.

In Germany, top members of the environmentalist Greens party, called the reported agreement “a bitter setback for climate protection” that would benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin and weaken Ukraine.

“At a time when Putin is putting massive rhetorical and military pressure on Ukraine and once again questioning the country’s sovereignty, Washington and Berlin are sending the wrong signals to Moscow,” said Oliver Krischer, vice-chairman of the party’s parliamentary group, and Manuel Sarrazin, spokesman for Eastern European policy.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke and Simon Lewis; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Germany counts cost of floods as hopes of finding survivors fade

By Kirsti Knolle and Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – A relief official dampened hopes on Wednesday of finding more survivors in the rubble of villages devastated by floods in western Germany, as a poll showed many Germans felt policymakers had not done enough to protect them.

More than 170 people died in last week’s flooding, Germany’s worst natural disaster in more than half a century, and thousands went missing.

“We are still looking for missing persons as we clear roads and pump water out of basements,” Sabine Lackner, deputy chief of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

Any victims found now are likely to be dead, she said.

One woman in Insul, in the rural Eifel region, said people had emerged from their houses like ghosts last week to see whether their neighbors were alive. In the Ahrweiler district, of which Insul is part, 123 people died.

For immediate relief, the federal government will initially provide up to 200 million euros ($235.5 million) in emergency aid, and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said more funds can be made available if needed.

That will come on top of at least 250 million euros provided by the affected states to repair buildings and damaged local infrastructure and to help people in crisis situations.

Scholz said the government would contribute to the cost of rebuilding infrastructure such as roads and bridges. The full extent of the damage is not clear, but Scholz said that rebuilding after previous floods cost about 6 billion euros.

PUBLIC CRITICISM

The floods have dominated the political agenda before a national election in September and raised uncomfortable questions about why Europe’s richest economy was caught flat-footed.

Two-thirds of Germans believe that federal and regional policymakers should have done more to protect communities from flooding, a survey by the INSA institute for German mass-circulation paper Bild showed on Wednesday.

Interior minister Horst Seehofer, who faced calls from opposition politicians to resign over the high death toll, said there would be no shortage of money for reconstruction.

“That is why people pay taxes, so that they can receive help in situations like this. Not everything can be insured,” he told a news conference.

Insured losses from the floods may total 4 billion to 5 billion euros ($4.7-5.9 billion), said the GDV insurance industry association. Damage in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate is likely to exceed the 4.65 billion euros recorded after a deluge in August 2002, it said.

The estimate does not include losses from the southern German state of Bavaria and in Saxony in the east last weekend.

Only around 45% of homeowners in Germany have insurance that covers flood damage, according to the GDV, triggering a discussion about the need for compulsory insurance.

“As the time interval between heavy natural disasters gets shorter and shorter, one needs a debate about a protection scheme and how it could be designed,” Seehofer said.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told Deutschlandfunk radio aid would include funds to help businesses such as restaurants or hair salons make up for lost revenue.

($1 = 0.8490 euros)

(Writing by Maria Sheahan, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Knee-deep in sewage: German rescuers race to avert health emergency in flood areas

By Ann-Kathrin Weis and Andi Kranz

AHRWEILER, Germany (Reuters) – Red Cross volunteers and emergency services in Germany deployed emergency stand-pipes and mobile vaccination vans to flood-devastated regions on Tuesday, attempting to avert a public health emergency.

Last week’s freak floods killed more than 160 people, and wrecked basic services in the hilly villages of the Ahrweiler district, leaving thousands of residents knee-deep in debris and without sewage or drinking water.

“We have no water, we have no electricity, we have no gas. The toilet can’t be flushed,” said Ursula Schuch. “Nothing is working. You can’t shower…I am nearly 80 years old and I have never experienced anything like it.”

Few have, in a prosperous corner of one of the world’s richest countries, and that sense of disbelief was widely echoed among residents and aid workers coming to terms with the chaos caused by the floods.

If the clean-up operation does not move swiftly ahead, more disease will come in the floods’ wake, just as many had come to believe the coronavirus pandemic was nearly beaten, with rats coming in to feast on the discarded contents of freezers.

Few recovery workers are able to take the kind of anti-infection precautions that are possible in more ordered circumstances, so mobile vaccination plans have come to the region.

“Everything has been destroyed by the water. But not the damn virus,” said Olav Kullak, head of vaccine coordination in the region.

“And since the people now have to work side by side and have no chance of obeying any corona rules, we at least have to try to give them the best protection via vaccination.”

(Reporting by Reuters TV, Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Some 170 still missing around Koblenz, victim numbers set to rise – police

BERLIN (Reuters) – Some 170 people are still listed as missing the area of western Germany hardest hit by deadly flooding, Koblenz deputy police chief Juergen Sues said on Monday, adding the number of victims would surely rise.

Criminal police chief Stefan Heinz added that he expected many bodies were in places the police had not yet reached or where flood waters had still not receded from.

“The focus of our work is on giving certainty as soon as possible,” Heinz told a news conference. “And that includes identifying the victims.”

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Douglas Busvine)