Change in New York State law to usher in ‘tidal wave’ of child sex abuse lawsuits

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in New York, U.S., September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – Thousands of child sexual abuse lawsuits are expected to flow into New York State courts in the coming weeks exposing decades-old misconduct at schools, hospitals, churches and youth clubs, according to lawyers for victims.

On Aug. 14, the Child Victims Act takes effect, giving people one year to sue over allegations of sexual abuse, regardless of when they said it occurred.

Under the law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in February, New York has gone from one of the toughest states to bring a case because of its strict statute of limitations to one of the easiest, potentially unleashing decades of unresolved claims.

“It’s going to be a tidal wave of litigation,” said lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, best known for representing victims of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Cases will cut across society, illustrating the systemic nature of the abuse, victims’ lawyers said, although they expect many of the lawsuits to be against Catholic organizations and the Boy Scouts of America.

Both the scouts and the church said they were cooperative with people making allegations of abuse against their organizations.

“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward,” the Boy Scouts of America said in a statement.

New York State Catholic Conference spokesman Dennis Poust said that Catholic leaders dropped opposition to the new law once it was broadened to include public institutions.

“All survivors deserve to be heard,” Poust said.

The Child Victims Act arrives as victims have been empowered by the #MeToo movement and a steady stream of scandals, exposing a range of abusers from public figures to the team doctor of USA Gymnastics.

Lawyers for victims said they were teaming up to maximize resources and reconnecting with old clients whose cases were barred by the statute of limitations.

Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy sex abuse cases, said his law firm has dedicated almost 100 people to New York cases.

‘COME FORWARD’

After several states made it easier to sue, TV ads soliciting child sex abuse lawsuits spiked to more than 1,700 in both March and April, up from just 46 in January, according to X Ante, a consulting firm that tracks lawyer ad spending.

“If you were abused in a scouting program you are not alone,” said an ad by San Diego, California-based AVA Law Group, which X Ante said was one of the most frequently broadcast. “Come forward. New laws may allow you a path to significant financial compensation.”

However, victims and advocates often say the money is secondary, and many sue to expose perpetrators, hold organizations accountable and to further the healing process.

Some organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, are acknowledging abuse, apologizing and reporting the accused to law enforcement authorities.

Others have offered compensation. The Archdiocese of New York has paid $65 million to 325 people since 2017. Only one person rejected an offer, according to the archdiocese.

Those who accept an offer give up their right to sue. Some victim advocates said compensation programs kept stories of abuse secret.

“I think the potential is huge for all kinds of things coming to the surface like we’re seeing with Epstein,” said victims’ attorney James Marsh, referring to the criminal sex trafficking charges against the once politically connected American financier Jeffrey Epstein. He pleaded not guilty and is jailed pending trial.

Victims’ lawyers said insurance policies will provide a significant amount of money. The Archdiocese of New York and the Boy Scouts of America have already become embroiled in disputes over insurance coverage.

The Travelers Cos have said they are planning to bolster reserves related to laws reviving old abuse claims.

Coordinating scores of lawsuits against an organization could also be difficult, although few New York cases are expected to go to trial.

Many lawyers said they expect organizations to file for bankruptcy, which would stop the litigation and create one forum where all the claims can be settled at once.

“Bankruptcy is the way to go,” said lawyer Tim Kosnoff, who specializes in cases against the Boy Scouts. “Most clients come out of it pretty satisfied.”

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

Venezuela healthcare collapse: Four children die in same hospital this month

Relatives carry a coffin containing the body of Erick Altuve, a 11-year-old boy who died from respiratory problems while in care for stomach cancer at the public Jose Manuel de los Rios hospital, at Petare neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Under a wooden arch decorated with white balloons in a small house in Caracas’ largest slum, the body of 11-year-old Erick Altuve lay in a small coffin covered in cuddly toys and cartoon drawings, one of four children who have died this month in Venezuela’s main pediatric hospital.

Altuve died on May 26 from respiratory problems while being treated for stomach cancer at the Jose Manuel de los Rios public hospital, a concrete tower ringed by a white security fence in the center of Caracas.

For the past six months, Altuve had not received his medication, his mother, Jennifer Guerrero, said, because of widespread shortages of drugs and medical equipment that have devastated Venezuela’s health system.

“My son really wanted to live,” said Guerrero, a 30-year-old housewife, during a protest over the deaths of the four children by their relatives and nurses outside the hospital.

Children have paid an especially heavy price from the collapse in Venezuela’s healthcare system as the economy has shrunk by over a half during six years of recession.

The most recent figures from Venezuela’s Health Ministry show that infant mortality, covering children age 1 and below, rose 30% to 11,466 cases in 2016 from the year before. There is no official data on children’s’ deaths from cancer.

More broadly, the mortality rate for children under 5 years has risen by 40% since 2000, the humanitarian group Save the Children said in its 2019 report.

Altuve’s death in particular has generated a wave of anger and grief across Venezuela, with outraged newspaper headlines, calls from the opposition for an investigation and an outcry from medical nongovernmental organizations.

Altuve and the three other children who died were part of a group of 30 kids at the hospital, better known as JM, waiting to go to Italy to receive bone marrow transplants under a 2010 agreement financed by the Venezuelan government that was intended to cover the cost of transportation and the operation.

The opposition has blamed their deaths on President Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist administration has presided over the collapse of the once-wealthy nation’s economy and severe reductions in health-care spending.

Maduro’s government, however, says U.S.-imposed sanctions were responsible for the children’s deaths, by freezing funds allocated to buy medicine and send the children to Italy for treatment under the 2010 agreement.

Maduro’s critics noted that his government in 2013 cut the allocation of foreign currency to the health sector by one-fifth.

According to hospital and pharmacy representatives, the supply of medicine and medical equipment has steadily declined since the cuts to dollar funding in 2013, while the U.S. government began to impose sanctions in August 2017.

Virginia Segovia, president of the Foundation to Help Children with Cancer (Fundanica) in Carabobo state west of Caracas, said that in its first 22 years, the charity registered 98 child deaths from the disease in that region.

“In the past two years, we already have 105 dead children … and that is due to the lack of supplies and equipment in hospitals, the extreme emergency we have due to lack of medicines and chemotherapy,” she said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry, which handles news media inquiries, and the health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

‘SENTENCED TO DEATH’

Altuve was taken to the JM hospital on Dec. 25, 2018, due to a sharp pain in his stomach, his mother said. The hospital cleared him to go home after a few days but he returned on Jan. 14, 2019 and never left, according to his mother.

“He was saying that he was going to get better and the cancer wouldn’t take him,” his mother said.

On Friday, dozens of mourners carried his coffin through the narrow streets of Caracas’ eastern Petare slum from his grandparents’ house where the wake was held to a cemetery outside the city.

Children from his school clustered around to say goodbye as speakers played Vallenato, accordion-based music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. “Erick, one more angel in heaven,” read a note on the coffin.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Monday that state-run oil firm PDVSA had signed a cooperation agreement in 2010 with Italy’s bone marrow transplant association. State-funded Venezuelan television network Telesur reported on Tuesday that the agreement had funded treatment and transplants for almost 900 patients since then.

Arreaza said on Twitter that U.S. sanctions had frozen 1.6 billion euros ($1.78 billion) of government funds held at Portugal’s Novo Banco, including 5 million euros ($5.57 million) allocated for fund bone marrow transplants for 24 Venezuelan patients.

Novo Banco and the Italian transplant association did not respond to requests for comment.

There are 52,800 new cases of cancer among adults each year in Venezuela, which has a population of 30 million people, according to Juan Saavedra, director of Venezuela’s anti-cancer society. In 2017, 26,510 people died from cancer, 15% more than the year before, Saavedra said.

“When you are born in Venezuela, you are already sentenced to death,” said Mauricio Navas, whose six-year-old daughter Mariana is being treated for leukemia at the JM hospital.

(Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

Backstory: Reporting from the dark in Venezuela

Locals gather at a street food cart during a blackout in Caracas, March 29. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

(Reuters) – Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.

Two waves of major electricity outages plunged Venezuela into darkness last month, putting even more strain on a nation struggling with food shortages and hyperinflation.

With a diesel-powered generator in their Caracas bureau, Reuters staff are better-placed than most Venezuelans to cope with the blackouts.

But reporting from a darkened city and making sure all journalists and support personnel are safe present multiple obstacles.

“Everything will go down for a minute or two, the TVs and screens will turn off, then maybe a minute later, the power generator will kick in,” said Brian Ellsworth, Reuters senior correspondent in Caracas.

That is when the problems start.

No electricity means pumps do not work, leading to shortages of clean water. Cell networks cannot operate, meaning mobile phones are useless. Bank networks go down. Transport is unpredictable.

“At first, we weren’t totally prepared for it,” said Ellsworth, who has come to accept short outages as normal after 15 years reporting in the country’s capital.

Once it was clear that March’s first blackout would be longer than usual, the bureau immediately stocked up on water and bought food for the team as payment systems collapsed.

Only the bureau has a generator, not the building it is housed in, which makes getting into the office more complicated. To make it easier, a staff member slept in the newsroom most evenings, opening the emergency staircase from the inside so reporters could start work early the next day.

Gathering the news gets more difficult to coordinate.

“Cell reception comes in and out. We can make calls over WhatsApp but we can’t call anyone in the country because no one has a functioning cell line,” Ellsworth said. “We have to rely on short-wave radios which function to about 3 km (1.9 miles), but that can be really fuzzy.”

UNCERTAINTY CLOUDS EVERYTHING

With phones unusable, Venezuelans are cut off from one another and from sources of news and social media.

Ellsworth reported on a rally in eastern Caracas to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.

“How did you know about the rally?” he asked one protester. The answer: she did not. She was looking for her mother. “When I got to her building, they told me she was here, so that’s why I came.”

Hospitals cannot perform some vital functions without electricity. Already scarce food starts to spoil. Schools are closed during power outages, which means looking after children becomes an added burden.

“All of that affects us as a bureau because people have to take care of their own homes,” Ellsworth said. “We try to make sure that all those folks have what they need,” he said.

During busy news periods, the Reuters team in Caracas can include as many as 25 people, from reporters, photographers and television staff to security, cleaning and transport crews. The bureau also tries to provide meals for the building’s security guards who are not formally linked to the company.

“They have the same problems, they are stuck here for 24 hours, and when they leave here they don’t know how they are going to get home, if they will have power at home. They don’t have a way to communicate with their families,” said Ellsworth.

“Reuters needs to look out for people that are helping us maintain the operation.”

Maduro and ruling Socialist Party officials have offered a wide range of explanations for the blackouts, including electromagnetic sabotage by the United States and opposition-linked snipers firing on the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as the country’s head of state, says it is the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

As Ellsworth walks up seven flights of stairs to his family’s apartment to light candles in the darkness, he reflects on the state of uncertainty he and 2 million other inhabitants of Caracas now face as a matter of course.

“They don’t give clear answers as to when power is going to come back on, people don’t really believe them when they say the power’s about to come back on, and when it is back, people don’t really believe it will stay back on,” he said. “The uncertainty starts to cloud everything.”

(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller)

Venezuelans set up burning barricades over lack of power, water

Demonstrators set up a fire barricade at a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) – Angry Venezuelans set up burning barricades near the presidential palace in Caracas and in other parts of the country on Sunday in protests over constant power outages and shortages of drinking water in the wake of two major blackouts this month.

The situation has fueled frustration with the government of President Nicolas Maduro and frayed nerves as schools and much of the nation’s commerce have been interrupted by problems with public services for nearly three weeks.

Protesters, some carrying rocks and their faces covered, burned tires and tree trunks along a stretch of downtown Caracas as they demanded Maduro improve the situation.

“We’re here fighting for water and power, we’ve gone twenty-some days without water,” said Yofre Gamez, 32, an informal vendor. “They put the power on for two hours, then turn it off at night, it comes on the next day for half an hour and then it goes off again – we’re tired of this.”

A Reuters witness heard shots ring out as Gamez spoke.

Demonstrators reported that one woman had been injured by gunfire, which they attributed to pro-government gangs. Reuters was unable to confirm who fired the shots.

Similar protests took place in other parts of the country, including the central state of Carabobo, where demonstrators burned tires and blocked roads, according to witnesses.

Rights group Penal Forum said that 12 people were arrested nationwide in protests against public services.

Venezuela suffered a week-long nationwide blackout starting on March 7 that left hospitals unable to attend to the sick and businesses giving away perishable food before it rotted.

The power went out again on March 25 and has been intermittent since.

Maduro in a televised broadcast on Sunday night announced a 30-day plan of “load management regime to balance the process of generation and transmission with consumption,” a phrase widely interpreted on social media as power rationing.

He did not offer further details on how this would work. Maduro first mentioned load management last week.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said in a statement on Sunday that school activities, which were called off for most of last week, would remain suspended. Business hours will run only until 2 p.m., he said.

The government has offered a variety of explanations for the blackouts, ranging from Washington-backed cyberattacks to opposition-linked snipers causing fires at the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Critics insist it is the result of more than a decade of corruption and incompetent management of the power system, which the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized in 2007.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has called on residents to organize at the neighborhood level to demand better services.

Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and that he usurped power when he was sworn in for a second term.

Maduro calls Guaido a puppet of the United States, which he says is seeking to force him from office through a coup.

Washington has levied crippling sanctions against Maduro’s government in an effort to push him from power. He has hung on in large part thanks to the continued loyalty of top military commanders.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Dan Grebler and Michael Perry)

Venezuela blackout leaves streets empty, school and work canceled

Commercial area is pictured during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela canceled work and school on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left streets mostly empty in Caracas and residents of the capital wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic and political crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, which blamed the United States and the opposition for the previous power cut, blamed an “attack” on its electrical system for the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage shuttered businesses, plunged the city’s main airport into darkness and left commuters stranded in Caracas.

The blackout came amid tensions with the United States over the weekend arrival of Russian military planes, which led Washington to accuse Moscow of “reckless escalation” of the country’s situation.

Russia, which has major energy investments in OPEC member Venezuela, has remained a staunch ally of Maduro, while the United States and most other Western nations have endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Citing the constitution, Guaido in January assumed the interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent. Maduro says Guaido is a U.S. puppet attempting to lead a coup against him and has blamed worsening economic difficulties on sanctions imposed by Washington.

Power was restored to much of the country by Monday evening but went out again during the night.

Western cities, including Maracaibo and Barquisimeto, both in the west of the South American country, as well as the central city of Valencia, had no power on Tuesday, according to witnesses.

Many people on Caracas’ streets went to work because they did not know about the government’s suspension of the workday, which was announced by the presidential press office in a 4 a.m. (0800 GMT) tweet.

“How am I supposed to find out, if there’s no power and no internet?” said dental assistant Yolanda Gonzalez, 50, waiting for the bus near a Caracas plaza. “Power’s going to get worse, you’ll see.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday said the blackout that began in the early afternoon was the result of an attack on Venezuela’s main hydroelectric Guri dam which had affected three major transmission lines.

Rodriguez did not explicitly blame Monday’s outage on any particular individual or group. But he said, “the intention of Venezuela’s far right is to attack, generate anxiety and anguish, in order to seize power and steal all our resources.”

The country suffered its worst blackout ever starting on March 7. For nearly a week it left millions of people struggling to obtain food and water and hospitals without power to treat the sick. Looting in the western state of Zulia destroyed hundreds of businesses.

Electricity experts say the outages are the result of inadequate maintenance and incompetent management of the power grid since the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized the sector in 2007.

Russia, which has warned Washington against military intervention in Venezuela, declined to comment on the planes on Tuesday or respond to the accusations from the U.S. State Department.

Venezuelan Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello confirmed that two planes had flown to the country from Russia during the weekend, but he did not give a reason or say whether they carried troops.

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said the “military option” was on the table regarding Venezuela, prompting a strong backlash from regional leaders wary of U.S. troops being deployed to Latin American soil.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – like Trump, a Republican – on Tuesday wrote on Twitter, “I hope the members of Congress & the regional leaders who said they opposed U.S. ‘military intervention’ in #Venezuela will be just as forceful now that #Russia is sending (its) military to Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Diego Oré and Vivian Sequera; writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Doctors pray for sick as blackout batters Venezuelan hospitals

Venezuelans, including doctors, hold banners that read "Solidarity" as they gather outside a church after a mass during an ongoing blackout in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Maria Rodriguez’s daughter has spent a month in Caracas’s J.M. de los Rios children’s hospital with hydrocephalus, a buildup of spinal fluid in the brain, but staff there have faced an uphill battle treating the girl because of a nationwide power outage.

“It has been horrible since the blackout. My daughter needs treatment that lasts six hours: now she is only getting it when there is power available,” said Rodriguez, 36, who said she is also worried about inadequate water and food in the facility.

Venezuela’s hospitals, already struggling with shortages of supplies and equipment amid an economic meltdown, entered crisis mode on Thursday when the South American nation’s power system went down.

Public hospitals typically have generators to provide back-up electricity in the event of an outage, but doctors consulted by Reuters said they were either damaged or idled for lack of fuel.

Julio Castro of the non-governmental organization Doctors for Health says the blackouts have stretched Venezuelan hospitals to the breaking point. The group says at least 21 people have died in public hospitals during the outage.

“This (blackout) is taking place at a moment when hospitals are operating at limited capacity,” Castro said. “It is not the same as when a hospital is functioning correctly.”

Among the most prone to electricity problems in hospitals are newborns, he said. About 10 percent of the 1,500 children born each day in Venezuela require incubators or other such equipment that cannot function without steady power.

Even before the blackouts, the state of the healthcare system was dire. In a report last year, Doctors for Health said doctors in more than half of Venezuela’s hospitals had been attacked by people who were angry the decaying medical system could not do more for their relatives.

Not having power means hospitals struggle to obtain water, fueling sanitation problems that are aggravated by shortages of cleaning products. Constant fluctuations in electricity also risk damaging the limited equipment that hospitals have.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro says last week’s blackout was the result of U.S.-backed sabotage, and Venezuelan health authorities say they have kept services intact despite the circumstances.

“The contingency plan has worked, problems have been corrected and patients have been transferred (to other hospitals) when they have requested it,” Health Minister Carlos Alvarado told state television on Sunday.

DOCTORS’ PRAYERS

A group of doctors on Sunday held a mass to pray for the sick, and later walked to the J.M. de los Rios hospital to seek more details about the situation there.

The doors were locked even though they arrived during visiting hours. Women shouted from the windows that they needed help and that there was no food, but police at the entrance blocked their way, according to a Reuters witness.

Several members of a police special forces group called FAES were stationed inside the hospital, according to witnesses.

Within hours, hospital director Natalia Martinho appeared on state television to assure the public everything was fine.

    ”(The) children are in stable condition. The response to this contingency has been a great achievement,” she said. “We have given food to children and their mothers.”

    But for the relatives of patients seeking hospital treatment, official reassurances are little consolation.

Maria Torres, 46, waited anxiously on Sunday outside Caracas’ El Llanito hospital, where her brother was admitted for injuries sustained in a car accident. She worried for his well-being due to the lack of water, medical supplies and electricity.

“This is a nightmare,” she said.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas; Editing by Vivian Sequera, Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Yemen war a ‘living hell’ for children: UNICEF

A woman carries a child at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA (Reuters) – In the malnutrition ward of a hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, doctors weigh toddlers with protruding rib cages and skeletal limbs.

Twenty children, most under the age of two, being treated at the ward in Sab’een Hospital are among hundreds of thousands of children suffering from severe malnutrition in the impoverished country that has been ravaged by a more than three years of war.

“The conflict has made Yemen a living hell for its children,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, told Reuters.

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

She said more than 11 million children, or about 80 percent of the country’s population under the age of 18, were facing the threat of food shortages, disease, displacement and acute lack of access to basic social services.

“An estimated 1.8 million children are malnourished in the country. Nearly 400,000 of them are severely acute malnourished and they are fighting for their lives every day.”

A coalition of Sunni Muslim Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Iranian-aligned Houthis after they drove the internationally recognized government out of the capital Sanaa.

The war has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis in the nation of 28 million, where 8.4 million people are believed to be on the verge of starvation and 22 million people are dependent on aid.

The coalition has imposed stringent measures on imports into Yemen to prevent the Houthis from smuggling weapons but the checks have slowed the flow of commercial goods and vital aid into the country.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE say they are providing funds and supplies to support aid efforts in Yemen. The Houthis blame the coalition for choking off imports into the country.

In Sab’een hospital a toddler in diapers lay wrapped in blankets with a tube inserted in the child’s nose. Another child cried while being lowered naked unto a scale to be weighed.

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

The families of the children declined to speak to the media.

“The situation of the families without jobs, without income and in the middle of the war, is catastrophic,” Relano said.

She said UNICEF had provided more than 244,000 severely malnourished children under the age of five with therapeutic treatment since the beginning of 2018, in addition to micronutrient treatment to over 317,000 children under five.

“The human cost and the humanitarian impact of this conflict is unjustifiable,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said in a statement on Thursday.

“Parties to the conflict are obliged to do absolutely everything possible to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and ensure people have access to the aid they are entitled to and need to survive.”‘

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.N. shares locations of Idlib hospitals and schools, hoping to protect them

FILE PHOTO: A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. officials have notified Russia, Turkey and the United States of the GPS coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in the Syrian province of Idlib, in the hope the move will help protect them from being attacked.

“We share these coordinates so there is no doubt that a hospital is a hospital,” Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, told a briefing.

“We would like to see civilians not targeted, hospitals not bombed, people not displaced.”

An estimated 2.9 million people live in Idlib, the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian government and Russian warplanes began air strikes last week in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive.

Four hospitals in Hama and Idlib have been hit by air strikes in the past week, constituting “serious attacks” that violate international law, Moumtzis said. “A hospital is a hospital and has to be respected by all on the ground.”

Moumtzis called on all warring sides to ensure that civilians in Idlib were able to move freely in any direction to flee fighting or bombing, and for aid workers to have access to them.

He quoted a Russian official as telling a humanitarian task force meeting in Geneva on Thursday that “every effort to find a peaceful solution to the problem is being made”.

The United Nations is working 24/7 to ensure delivery of shelter, food and other assistance if, as feared, hundreds of thousands of people flee, he said.

“In no way am I saying we are ready. What is important is that we are doing our maximum to ensure a level of readiness,” Moumtzis said. “As humanitarians, while we hope for the best we are preparing for the worst.”

An estimated 38,300 people have fled hostilities in Idlib this month, U.N. figures show. About 4,500 of them have returned to their homes following a slight calming, Moumtzis said, calling it a “barometer”.

At least 33 people have been killed and 67 wounded in aerial and ground-based bombing, according to a partial U.N. toll from Sept. 4-9.

Moumtzis said he was going to Turkey for talks with government officials and to oversee preparations for stepping up cross-border aid deliveries to Idlib, where the U.N. is providing supplies to two million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Syria’s Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’ as more bombs fall

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 27 people died and more than 200 were injured on Wednesday. At least 299 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

WARNINGS

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

The Observatory said many of the planes over Ghouta appear to be Russian. Syrians say they can distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because the Russian aircraft fly higher.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding four people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of “de-escalation zones” under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)