Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same U.S. demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line”.

A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.

UNTIL GOALS MET

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.

It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.

Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.

Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.

Ankara views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.

A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.

Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.

The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.

Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.

“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Islamic State fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.

Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.

With U.S. air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam – the country’s largest dam – from Islamic State.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

The Kurdish-led administration in the region said theTurkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.

Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.

In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.

The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Turkey presses offensive in Syria, Erdogan hits out at critics

By Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey pressed its military offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Thursday, shelling towns and bombing targets from the air in an operation that has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

At least 23 fighters with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and eight civilians, two them SDF administrators, have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The SDF has not given a casualty toll, while six fighters with Turkey-backed rebel groups have also been killed.

More than 60,000 people have fled since the offensive began, the Observatory added. The towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya, some 60 km to the east, have been largely deserted as a result of the attack.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told members of his AK Party in Ankara that 109 militants had been killed so far in the two days of fighting, while Kurds said they were resisting the assault.

According to a senior Turkish security official, armed forces struck weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases.

Jets conducted operations up to 30 km (18 miles) into Syria, and a Reuters witness saw shells exploding just outside the town of Tel Abyad.

“The operation is currently continuing with the involvement of all our units… 109 terrorists have been killed so far,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his AK Party in Ankara.

NATO member Turkey has said it intends to create a “safe zone” for the return of millions of refugees to Syria.

But world powers fear the operation could intensify Syria’s eight-year-old conflict, and runs the risk of Islamic State prisoners escaping from camps amid the chaos.

Erdogan sought to assuage those concerns, saying that militants from the jihadist group would not be allowed to rebuild a presence in the region.

Taking aim at the European Union and Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have voiced opposition to the operation, Erdogan said those objecting to Turkey’s actions were dishonest.

He threatened to permit Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to Europe if EU countries described his forces’ move as an occupation. Turkey is hosting around 3.6 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria.

“They are not honest, they just make up words,” Erdogan said in a combative speech, singling out Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.”

The Turkish operation began days after a pullback by U.S. forces from the border, and senior members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s own Republican Party condemned him for making way for the incursion.

The decision has been widely criticized as an abandonment of Syrian Kurds.

Ankara brands the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists because of their ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey. But many members of Congress, and U.S. officials, credit the Kurds with fighting alongside American troops to defeat Islamic State militants.

“BAD IDEA”

The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria said a prison struck by Turkish shelling holds “the most dangerous criminals from more than 60 nationalities” and Turkey’s attacks on its prisons risked “a catastrophe”.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.

There was no immediate comment on the situation in the prisons from Turkey.

Trump called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it. He said he expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis – as Turkey has said it would.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a vocal Trump ally, has criticized his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Their proposed sanctions would target the assets of senior officials including Erdogan, mandate sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system and impose visa restrictions.

They also would sanction anyone who conducted military transactions with Turkey or supported energy production for use by its armed forces, bar U.S. military assistance to Turkey and require a report on Erdogan’s net worth and assets.

The United Nations Security Council will meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.

In a letter to the 15-member Council seen by Reuters, Turkey said its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible”.

The 22-member Arab League said it would hold an emergency meeting on Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Turkey’s military incursion and cautioned about the possibility of ethnic cleansing.

“Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people,” he wrote on Twitter.

Russia said it planned to push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments following the incursion.

Italy condemned the offensive as “unacceptable”, saying military action in the past always led to terrorism.

“The intervention risks greater humanitarian suffering and undermines the focus on countering Daesh (IS),” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Reuters correspondents in the region; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White)

Bahamas in crisis after Hurricane Dorian flattens homes, food scarce

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

By Dante Carrer

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Survivors of Hurricane Dorian on Wednesday picked through the wreckage of homes ripped open by fierce winds, struggled to fuel generators and queued for food after one of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record devastated parts of the Bahamas.

The most damaging storm to strike the island nation, Dorian killed at least seven people, but the scope of the destruction and a humanitarian crisis was still coming into focus as aerial video of the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas showed wide devastation.

Dozens of people took to Facebook to search for missing loved ones, and aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people out of the Bahamas population of 400,000 would need food and other support.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas,September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information.”

LaQuez Williams, pastor at Jubilee Cathedral in Grand Bahama, opened the church as a shelter for about 150 people. As the storm ground on, Williams said that from the higher ground of the church he could see people on their rooftops seeking refuge.

“They were calling for help, but you could not go out to reach,” Williams said. “It was very difficult because you felt helpless.”

Aerial video of Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods littered with upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.

“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” one Twitter user with the handle @mvp242 said, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed.

Other posts on Twitter said entire communities were swept away. Photographs from the airport at Freeport showed a light plane torn in two, with hangars badly damaged and scattered debris.

After rampaging through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, Dorian’s wind speeds dropped on Tuesday to make it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. It maintained that level on Wednesday, but forecasters warned it was still dangerous.

Some minor flooding occurs on the bridges from the beach towards communities from Hurricane Dorian in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

Some minor flooding occurs on the bridges from the beach towards communities from Hurricane Dorian in Jacksonville, Florida, U.S. September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

DANGER FOR U.S. COAST

Residents of coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were preparing for Dorian’s approach on Wednesday, with the National Hurricane Center warning it could make landfall in South or North Carolina on Thursday or Friday.

South Carolina officials said they were expecting storm surges of four to eight feet and wind gusts of 90 mph (140 kph) on Thursday, and told people to evacuate the coast as Dorian drew closer.

“It’s getting here a little weaker than it could have but now it’s gotten here,” Governor Henry McMaster said at a news conference. “Time to get out is running out.”

Florida avoided a direct hit from Dorian.

“We certainly got lucky in Florida, and now if we could get lucky in Georgia, in North Carolina, in South Carolina,” President Donald Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

People crept back into Jacksonville Beach as Florida appeared to be escaping the worst of the storm, with a couple of people seen surfing by its pier on Wednesday morning.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp extended a state of emergency to cover 21 counties as the storm tracked north towards its coast. The emergency covers more than 900,000 Georgia residents, of whom over 400,000 have been ordered to evacuate, according to the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.

Dorian had sustained winds near 105 miles per hour (165 kph) as it churned about 90 miles (140 km) northeast of Daytona Beach, Florida around midday on Wednesday, the NHC said.

Hurricane-force winds had expanded to 60 miles (100 km) from the storm’s core.

Heavy rains and storm-surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Florida, to Surf City, North Carolina. Tornadoes were possible along the Florida coast, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.

BAHAMAS BATTERED

With many telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones on social media sites.

A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 2,000 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday, although some of the comments were also about loved ones being found.

Janith Mullings, 66, from Freeport, Grand Bahama, said she had been through hurricanes all her life but had never seen anything like Dorian.

“We’ve never had hurricanes in none of our islands that have experienced the ocean rising like it did. The ocean was something no one could prepare for,” she said.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

“It’s heartbreaking …,” said Caroline Turnquest, director general of Bahamas Red Cross. “We know from what we’ve been seeing and hearing, that this one will require the help of all the persons.”

Food may be required for 14,500 people in the Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said.

The State Department said it did not believe any U.S. citizens who were in the Bahamas, a popular tourist destination, during the storm were killed.

U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection personnel have airlifted 61 people from the northern Bahamas to the capital Nassau over two days, the U.S. Embassy said.

(Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida, Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida, Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen and Matthew Lavietes in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta, Writing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)

Recovery on Bahamas begins as Hurricane Dorian heads for Florida, Carolinas

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

By Dante Carrer

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – Debris extended for miles and floods covered much of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, in what the archipelago’s prime minister called one of the worst disasters to ever strike the island nation.

Emergency workers struggled to reach victims as search and rescue operations continued into Wednesday and the scope of the damage and humanitarian crisis unfolded.

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “No effort or resources will be held back.”

News media reported early on Wednesday that some storm victims remained stuck on rooftops, waiting for rescue. The official death count of seven is expected rise in the coming days.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

“We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information,” Minnis told a news conference.

“Marsh Harbor has suffered, I would estimate, in excess of 60 percent damage to their homes,” Minnis said, referring to the port on Great Abaco.

“The Mud, as we know, has been completely destroyed or decimated,” he said referring to a shantytown known as the Mud and the Peas.

Aerial video of the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods, pulverized buildings, upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off.

“Victims are being loaded on flatbed trucks across Abaco,” said one Twitter poster with the handle @mvp242, describing a rain-blurred photograph of limp bodies strewn across a truck bed. Other Twitter messages said whole communities were swept away.

Dorian’s winds had diminished to a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, the hurricane grew in size and picked up speed.

Forecasters said it would come dangerously close to Florida’s east coast on Wednesday, where more than a million people have been ordered evacuated.

Dorian packed sustained winds of 105 miles per hour (165 kph) and was moving north-northwest at 8 mph, as it churned about 90 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida, the NHC said in a 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) advisory.

“On this track, the core of Hurricane Dorian will move dangerously close to the Florida east coast and the Georgia coast through tonight,” a 5 a.m. NHC advisory said.

Hurricane-force winds had expanded to 60 miles from the storm’s core. “Dorian is expected to remain a powerful hurricane during the next couple of days,” the NHC said.

Heavy rains and storm surge waters moving inland could cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC said. The risk extended from Jupiter, Fla., to Surf City, N.C. Tornadoes are possible along the Florida coast until tonight, with the risk later moving to Georgia and South Carolina.

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

An aerial view shows devastation after hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, September 3, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. Michelle Cove/Trans Island Airways/via REUTERS

LONG LISTS OF MISSING

With telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones across social media.

A single Facebook post by media outlet Our News Bahamas seeking the names of missing people had 1,600 comments listing lost family members since it went live on Tuesday morning.

The exact toll in the Bahamas will not be clear until the storm passes and rescue crews can get to devastated areas, said Theo Neilly, the Bahamian consul general in Washington.

“We expect it to be very devastating and the damage to be extreme,” Neilly said. Dorian has battered the Bahamas for the past three days.

As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said, in the strongest storm ever to hit the Bahamas.

Food may be required for 14,500 people in the northern Bahamas’ Abaco Islands and for 45,700 people in Grand Bahama, the U.N. World Food Programme said in a statement. The preliminary estimates were based on an assessment by representatives of Caribbean nations, the WFP and other groups.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said on Twitter it was air-lifting critical relief items, such as plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, and water containers, from Miami to the Bahamas. The U.S. Coast Guard said four of its helicopters were assisting in humanitarian efforts.

Dorian, which killed one person in Puerto Rico before striking the Bahamas on Sunday, is tied for the second-strongest Atlantic storm to make landfall with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

Tropical-storm-force winds and rain squalls were already lashing parts of the Florida coast early on Wednesday, and hurricane-force winds are possible today. The winds and heavy surf is likely to hit the Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina coasts by late on Thursday. More than a million people were ordered to evacuate coastal counties in those states.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for South Carolina on Tuesday, freeing funds, other federal resources and manpower to assist during the storm and aftermath recovery. Emergencies have already been declared in Florida and Georgia.

(Reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas; Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Florida; Gabriella Borter in Titusville, Florida; Peter Szekely and Matthew Lavietes in New York;, Rich McKay in Atlanta; Idrees Ali in Washington: Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; and and Rebekah F. Ward in Mexico City; editing by Larry King)

Cholera surge stalks Yemen’s hungry and displaced

A girl, cholera patient, lies on a bed as she receives medical care at a health center in the village of Islim, in the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alrage

By Eissa al-Rajehy

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – In the last two weeks Dr Asmahan Ahmed has seen a surge in suspected cholera cases arriving at her health center in Abs, a small, Houthi-held town in northwest Yemen.

“Every day there are 30-50 cases, no fewer. Suddenly it became like this,” she said in the 15-bed diarrhea treatment center.

Yemen is suffering its third major cholera outbreak since 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to try to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The conflict has put 10 million people at risk of famine in the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

Cholera causes profuse diarrhea and fluid loss which can kill within hours. Children, the elderly and those weakened by years of poor nutrition are most at risk.

The World Health Organization said last week that Yemen had seen more than 724,000 suspected cholera cases and 1,135 deaths this year, but that case numbers had stabilized in recent weeks.

In the clinic, limp children’s faces are covered with flies and their chests heave as they breathe while receiving intravenous fluid tubes in their feet and wrists.

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The recent influx means some patients are forced to lie on the floor and the center has run out of some medicines.

Cholera is spread through dirty water, which more and more Yemenis are forced to drink as water resources are scarce in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation.

Pumps are needed in many parts of the country of 30 million people to bring water to the surface. Fuel shortages have dramatically increased clean water prices.

“We rely on wells which are uncovered and very dirty … We and livestock drink from these wells, as do children,” said Qassem Massoud, a young man standing at a rural well where people haul water up using plastic containers on string.

Others fill containers from a muddy pool as donkeys drink alongside.

Dr Abdelwahab al-Moayad said Yemen’s internally displaced were particularly at risk.

“The number of cases are increasing by the day and if it continues we would consider it a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

A breakthrough in U.N.-led peace efforts last December, the first in more than two years, had sparked hope for improved humanitarian and aid access.

But implementation of a ceasefire and a troop withdrawal initiative in the main port of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions, has dragged on for six months. Violence has continued in other parts of Yemen.

Since the deal, more than 255,000 people have been displaced, U.N. migration agency figures show.

The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, control the biggest population centers. The Saudi-backed government is based in the southern port of Aden.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Yemen; writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Jason Neely)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)

In Oval Office speech, Trump demands a wall but does not declare emergency

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office, about immigration and the southern U.S. border on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown, at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged Congress in a televised speech on Tuesday to give him $5.7 billion this year to help build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico but stopped short of declaring a national emergency to pay for the barrier with military funds.

Facing Democratic opposition in Congress to a wall that he promised to build as a presidential candidate, Trump said in his first prime-time address from the Oval Office that there was a growing security and humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using blunt language in an attempt to win public support, the Republican president said illegal immigrants and drugs flowing across the southern border posed a serious threat to American safety.

“How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?” he said, recounting gruesome details of murders he said were committed by illegal immigrants.

But after days of hinting he might use presidential powers to declare an emergency as a first step toward directing money for the wall without congressional approval, Trump said he would continue seeking a solution to the impasse with Congress.

Trump’s speech came 18 days into a partial government shutdown precipitated by his demand for the wall. Public opposition to the shutdown is growing and that could hurt Trump, as he said last month he would be proud to close the government to fight for the wall.

Democratic leaders, in a rebuttal also carried live on national television, accused the president on Tuesday night of using fear tactics and spreading misinformation about the situation along the border.

“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The fact is, President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation, many of them veterans,” she said.

BLAME GAME

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that 51 percent of adults mainly blamed Trump for the shutdown, up 4 percentage points from late December, while 32 percent blamed congressional Democrats and 7 percent faulted Republicans in Congress.

Republican lawmakers have increasingly expressed concerns about Trump’s handling of the long-running dispute.

But he has shown no signs of giving up. He is scheduled to visit the southwest border on Thursday and may still choose to make the national emergency declaration.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Monday the president was considering the possibility and the White House counsel’s office was studying its legality.

Democrats and other opponents of a wall have threatened to take legal action if Trump issues an emergency order.

They say he is manufacturing a crisis in a bid to meet his 2016 presidential campaign promise for a wall that he said at the time would be paid for by Mexico. The Mexican government has refused to provide such funds.

Trump was to meet at the White House on Wednesday with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.

Politics colored the remarks from both sides on Tuesday.

Trump said African-Americans and Hispanics were especially hard hit by the border crisis; both groups are key Democratic constituencies. Pelosi pointedly mentioned that veterans were hurt by the shutdown; Trump has courted veterans as a candidate and as president.

Trump at times tried to adopt a softer tone. “This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said, suggesting that women and children were among the migrants often victimized by trafficking across the border.

Hoping to demonstrate flexibility during his nearly 10-minute speech, Trump said of the border barrier he wants to be built: “At the request of the Democrats it will be a steel barrier and not a concrete wall.”

But Democrats have opposed not just the construction materials to be used, but the extent of a project that could end up costing more than $24 billion over the long run.

Democrats also argue that a mix of fencing, which already has been constructed in many parts of the border, and higher-tech tools would be cheaper and more effective in securing the border.

Pelosi said Trump rejected bipartisan legislation to reopen the government agencies shuttered as a result of the fight over the wall, and that he was obsessed with “forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall.”

She has previously called the wall immoral. Trump took issue with that in his speech.

“The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized,” he said.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who delivered a rebuttal along with Pelosi, urged the president to reopen the government while the debate over immigration policies continued.

“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” he said. “So our suggestion is a simple one. Mr. President: Reopen the government and we can work to resolve our differences over border security. But end this shutdown now.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Eric Beech and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. touts new evidence of Iranian weaponry in Yemen, Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: A missile that the U.S. Department of Defense says is confirmed as a "Qiam" ballistic missile manufactured in Iran by its distinctively Iranian nine fueling ports and that the Pentagon says was fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia on July 22, 2017 is seen on display at a military base in Washington, U.S. December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg /File Photo

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday displayed pieces of what it said were Iranian weapons deployed to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, a tactic by President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure Tehran to curb its regional activities.

The second presentation of Iranian weapons by the Pentagon, many of which were handed over by Saudi Arabia, coincides with growing concern in Congress over U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, which has led to a deep humanitarian crisis.

Members of Congress have escalated their opposition to Saudi Arabia after the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate. Despite administration pleas to stick with the Saudis and thereby counter Iran, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end military support for the Saudis in Yemen.

If Iran were found to be shipping arms to Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries, it would be in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Reuters was given advanced access to the military hangar at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling just outside of Washington where the U.S. Defense Department put the fragments of weaponry on display and explained how it concluded that they came from Iran.

“We want there to be no doubt across the world that this is a priority for the United States and that it’s in international interest to address it,” said Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

The presentation, the second such one in the last year, is part of a government-wide effort to follow through on Trump’s policy to take a far harder line toward Tehran. He pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, in part for its “malign” regional activities.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis in Yemen with such weaponry and described the Pentagon’s previous arms display as “fabricated.”

WEAPONS TO YEMEN

The Pentagon offered a detailed explanation of why it believed the arms on display came from Iran, noting what it said were Iranian corporate logos on arms fragments and the unique nature of the designs of Iranian weaponry.

The United States acknowledged it could not say precisely when the weapons were transferred to the Houthis, and, in some cases, could not say when they were used. There was no immediate way to independently verify where the weapons were made or employed.

This included a “Sayyad-2” surface to air missile (SAM), which the Pentagon said had been interdicted by the Saudi government in early 2018 en route to Houthi militants in Yemen.

The Pentagon cited a corporate logo of an Iranian defense firm in the warhead section, which was not displayed, and writing in Farsi along the missile as evidence that it was Iranian.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Pentagon did not know if the Houthis had actually used this type of missile before.

The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia in recent months, part of a three-year-old conflict widely seen as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Under a U.N. resolution that enshrines the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country unless approved by the U.N. Security Council. A separate U.N. resolution on Yemen bans the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders.

WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

The United States has long accused Iran of providing weapons to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. In October, Washington targeted two individuals linked to the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for providing material and financial support to the Taliban.

The Pentagon displayed a number of “Fadjr” rockets, that it said had been provided to the Taliban. It said they were Iranian because of the unique markings on the rockets and the paint scheme, along with the markings on them.

The Taliban is known to buy weapons on the black market and defense officials could not say why they were sure these missiles had not been simply bought by the Taliban.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger: humanitarian body

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015, a humanitarian body said on Wednesday, as the U.N. special envoy arrived in Yemen to pursue peace talks.

Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the disastrous conflict, which has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with 8.4 million people believed to be on the verge of starvation.

Save the Children said that according to a conservative estimate based on United Nations data, approximately 84,700 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018 in the impoverished country, where a Western-backed Arab alliance is battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that holds the capital Sanaa.

“We are horrified that some 85,000 children in Yemen may have died because of the consequences of extreme hunger since the war began. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” it said in a statement.

The last available figure from the United Nations for the death toll from the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000.

The world body has not provided figures for the death toll from malnutrition but warned last month that half the population, or some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis, who control the most populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula country.

But since seizing the southern port city of Aden in 2015, the coalition has faced a military stalemate and has been focusing on wresting control of the main port city of Hodeidah to weaken the Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.

NO CEASEFIRE YET

The coalition last week ordered a halt to military operations in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. A few days later the Houthis announced a halt to missile and drone attacks on coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with their Yemeni allies.

However, Hodeidah has witnessed intense fighting in the past two days, mostly taking place at night, as each side tried to reinforce its positions during the de-escalation in hostilities.

“Loud bangs, shelling and gunfire could be heard all over the city until dawn,” a Hodeidah resident said on Wednesday.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source told Reuters on Monday that a ceasefire in Hodeidah would start only after the U.N. Security Council passes a British-drafted resolution on Yemen.

Aid groups have warned against an all-out assault on the city, an entry point for more than 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday to meet with Houthi leaders to discuss convening peace talks in Sweden next month to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in September. Kuwait has offered to provide planes for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

Griffiths faces a daunting challenge to overcome deep mistrust between all sides, including among allies, which makes any peace agreement fragile.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, calls for a halt to fighting in Hodeidah, a stop to attacks on populated areas across Yemen and an end to attacks on countries in the region.

It also calls for an unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian goods across the impoverished country, including a large, fast injection of foreign currency into the economy through the Central Bank of Yemen and more aid funding.

(Writing By Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Venezuelan leaders say migration flows are ‘normal’

Venezuelan migrants peel garlic at a temporary shelter in the San Juan de Lurigancho district of Lima, Peru September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s government said on Monday migratory patterns out of the OPEC nation are “normal” and that the situation was being exaggerated to justify an intervention by foreign powers.

The United Nation’s migration agency said last month the exodus of citizens out of Venezuela, which is suffering a hyperflationary economic collapse, is nearing a “crisis moment” comparable to the situation of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Venezuela's Vice President Delcy Rodriguez talks to the media during a news conference, next to Venezuela's Communications and Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez, at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez talks to the media during a news conference, next to Venezuela’s Communications and Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez, at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“There has been an intent to convert a normal migratory flow into a humanitarian crisis in order to justify an international intervention in Venezuela,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez told a news conference. “We will not allow it.”

She criticized foreign agencies for relying on figures of Venezuelan emigration provided by other countries but did not provide Venezuela’s own figures.

The U.N. migration and refugees organizations said in a joint statement in August 2.3 million Venezuelans are currently living abroad and that more than 1.6 million have left since 2015.

President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised broadcast on Monday night opposition street protests and U.S. financial sanctions had led some Venezuelans to “try their luck” in other countries but many were reconsidering that decision.

“More than 90 percent are regretting it, of this group that isn’t more than 600,000 Venezuelans who have left the country in the last two years, according to confirmed, certified serious figures,” he said, without offering details.

Images of Venezuelans leaving the country on foot through Colombia to escape hyperinflation and food shortages have sent alarm bells through the region as countries such as Ecuador, Peru, and Chile seek to prepare for the growing flow of migrants.

Venezuelan officials have described such scenes as having been staged by the media and political adversaries to tarnish Maduro’s government.

The government announced last month it had repatriated 89 Venezuelans from Peru after they complained of being humiliated.

Migration officials from countries around South America began a two-day meeting in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on Monday to discuss regional strategies for managing the influx of migrants, with conclusions to be announced on Tuesday.

Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador asked on Thursday for international aid to manage the migration surge that is overwhelming public services.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Paul Tait)