Pakistani train smashes into derailed carriages, 36 killed

By Asif Shahzad and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -A train in Pakistan smashed into derailed carriages of another train on Monday, killing at least 36 people, authorities said, the latest accident to highlight the decrepit state of a railway system that dates to the 19th century.

Several passengers were still trapped in mangled coaches strewn across the tracks in the southern province of Sindh, according to railway officials.

Police officer Umar Tufail said at least 36 people were killed and his men could see four more bodies in the wreckage.

“We have not been able to take them out so far, but an operation is underway for that,” he told reporters at the site. “We have saved three more people; they are injured.”

More than 70 passengers were admitted to various hospitals, another police officer Kamran Fazal told Reuters.

An injured passenger, who had been travelling on the train that derailed, recounted how one calamity led to another.

“We felt as if we had been thrown away,” the man, who had a bandaged head, told a television reporter from hospital, speaking of the initial derailing of his train.

“The second train then hit our train (and) that caused more damage,” he said, adding most of the passengers were sleeping at the time in the pre-dawn hours.

A Pakistan Railways spokesman said several carriages of the first train spilled across the adjacent track after the derailment in the Ghotki district. Within minutes, the second train, coming from the other direction, smashed into them.

“The driver tried to apply emergency brakes but the locomotive hit the infringing coaches,” Pakistan Railways said in an initial report.

“The track has got issues on several points, the coaches are old, some as old as 40 years,” railway official Tariq Latif told Geo News TV. “I’ve told high-ups several times: ‘Please do something about it’,” he said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Twitter he was shocked by the “horrific” accident and was ordering a comprehensive investigation into railway safety.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry blamed the crash on what he said was corruption by previous government, saying the exact cause of the accident was yet to be known, and an inquiry had been opened.

The two trains were carrying a total of 1,388 passengers, he told parliament in a speech telecast live.

Accidents on the decaying rail system are common.

In 2005, in the same district, about 130 people were killed when a crowded passenger train rammed into another at a station and a third train struck the wreckage.

Successive governments have for years been trying to secure funds to upgrade the system from a planned laying of a new rail track called ML-1 as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative of energy and infrastructure projects.

Due to certain technical issues the ML-1 project has yet to get under way despite final approval late last year, said Pakistan Railways Chairman Habib-ur-Rehman Gilani.

Certain technical issues have held up the launch of the ML-1 project despite final approval late last year, said Pakistan Railways Chairman Habib-ur-Rehman Gilani.

He told Geo News TV that any spending now to upgrade the track where the crash occurred would be a waste of resources.

“I would say that until we get a permanent solution (ML-1), this track can’t be foolproof,” Gilani said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, India; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Around 20,000 homeless, 40 missing in Congo volcano aftermath, says U.N.

By Djaffar Al Katanty

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – More than 20,000 people are homeless and 40 still missing in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in eastern Congo that killed dozens and continues to cause strong earthquakes in the nearby city of Goma, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Saturday’s eruption sent rivers of lava streaming down the hillside from Mount Nyiragongo, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee, but stopped 300 meters short of Goma airport, the main hub for aid operations in the east of Congo.

The ash cloud caused by the eruption has closed down airports in Goma and Bukavu, and is likely to cause respiratory diseases, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.

People who fled their homes have lost valuable possessions including motorcycles that were either consumed by the lava flow or looted, OCHA said.

More than 200 small and medium earthquakes have since caused cracks in buildings and streets in Goma, just 15 km (9 miles) from Nyiragongo. No deaths have so far been reported, but the cracks have caused panic among residents unsure if the danger has passed.

“Yesterday it was very small, here it is just opposite my house, but today it has widened,” said Susanne Bigakura, 65. “It’s scary. We fear it can collapse and our children can fall in.”

“It scares me because those who saw the 2002 eruption told us that where a crack passes, it will be catastrophic. Now, when we see a fissure after a recent eruption, I’m worried that we are in danger,” said Valentin Kikuni, a welder.

A 1.7 km (1 mile) river of lava that blocked the main road north from Goma is still too hot to be removed, OCHA said, preventing trade and aid deliveries to one of the most food insecure places in Africa.

However, some work has begun on restoring the road, according to images on the government’s Twitter feed.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty and Hereward Holland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

India’s Gujarat state evacuates over 200,000 people as cyclone hits

By Sumit Khanna

AHMEDABAD (Reuters) -More than 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the Indian state of Gujarat and authorities shut ports and major airports as the most powerful cyclone in more than two decades made landfall in the state late on Monday.

Rain intensified and several incidents of power outages were reported in the state. Electricity pylons and trees were uprooted and buildings were damaged in coastal areas of Gujarat, state authorities said.

With the worst of the storm expected to last for several hours after it slammed into the state’s coast, it piles more pressure on Indian authorities already struggling with a huge caseload of COVID-19 infections.

“This cyclone is a terrible double blow for millions of people in India whose families have been struck down by record COVID infections and deaths. Many families are barely staying afloat,” said Udaya Regmi, South Asia head of delegation, International Federation of Red Cross.

The cyclone has already killed at least 16 people and left a trail of destruction as it brushed past the coastal states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, the authorities said.

“The landfall process has started, and it is expected to last for four hours. The intensity of the Cyclone Tauktae will go down once it is over,” Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said in a social media address on late Monday evening.

State revenue secretary Pankaj Kumar told Reuters it would be the most severe cyclone to hit Gujarat in at least 20 years. A 1998 cyclone killed at least 4,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Gujarat.

Regmi said the Indian Red Cross Emergency team was working with authorities and helping with the evacuations from low lying areas to relief centers further inland in the face of what he called a “monster storm”.

PRAYING FOR LIONS

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) categorized the storm, which formed in the Arabian Sea, as an “extremely severe” storm, upgrading it from “very severe”.

The cyclone brought gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph) that would put it on par with a Category 3 hurricane, one level below the IMD’s super cyclone category.

Further down India’s western coast, the cyclone has lashed India’s financial hub of Mumbai, forcing authorities to suspend operations at the city’s airport and to close some main roads due to flooding. Tracks on Mumbai’s urban rail system, one of the world’s busiest, were also flooded.

Two barges with over 400 people on board were adrift near the Mumbai coastline and vessels were sent to provide help, said the local branch of India’s defense ministry.

As well as the 16 deaths reported in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, more than 25 fishing boats were missing, a coastguard official told Reuters.

The Gujarat Maritime Board, the state’s port regulator, directed hoisting of signals VIII to X, indicating great danger, at ports in the state. India’s largest private port at Mundra suspended operations for the day.

Authorities also fretted about the state’s Asiatic lions, an endangered species found only in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat where the cyclone is expected to inflict most damage.

“There are around 40 lions in some patches in coastal Saurashtra, and we are monitoring them. Some lions have already moved to higher grounds. We are keeping fingers crossed, and praying the lions will be safe,” Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat, told Reuters.

Rupani said all measures were being taken to deal with the situation.

“These are special circumstances. The administration is busy with the COVID-19 challenges, and is now gearing up to deal with the impact of the cyclone,” he added.

Gujarat and Mumbai both suspended their vaccination drives on Monday due to the cyclone.

(Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Rajendra Jadhav and Aishwarya Nair in Mumbai; Writing by Nupur Anand; Editing by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)

Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 30 Palestinians and three Israelis, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the Islamist militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential Gaza block collapsed after one of several dozen air strikes. Late into the night, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with near-constant Israeli strikes.

Israelis ran for shelters in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks alongside his defense minister and military chief.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence … their blood is forfeit.”

Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.

The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech that Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem “must be a place of co-existence.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily news briefing with a statement about the situation, saying that President Joe Biden’s primary focus was on de-escalation.

The United States was delaying U.N. Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the U.S. strategy.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Washington is “actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties to achieve a ceasefire” and was concerned that a council statement might be counterproductive at the moment.

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armor to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks, in 2014.

More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed.

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the Gaza block as it toppled over. Electricity in the surrounding area went out.

Residents of the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area around an hour before the air strike, according to witnesses, and there were no reports of casualties two hours after it collapsed.

People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens and explosions were heard around the city. Pedestrians ran for shelter, and diners streamed out of restaurants while others flattened themselves on pavements as the sirens sounded.

The Israel Airports Authority said it had halted take-offs at Tel Aviv airport “to allow defense of the nation’s skies,” but later resumed them.

Video broadcast on Israeli Channel 12 television showed interceptor missiles rising above the runways.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.

“The recent rockets in Israel and air strikes in Gaza represent a dangerous escalation of the tensions and violence witnessed over the past days in Jerusalem, including its Old City,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on the southern city of Ashkelon.

But the Israeli military said many of the rockets fired from Gaza had fallen short and wounded Palestinians, and that Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses had intercepted the bulk of those that made it across the border.

Violence has also ticked up in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller)

Mexico promises answers after metro train collapse kills 24

By Daina Beth Solomon and Sharay Angulo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexico will find out who was responsible for an overpass collapse that killed at least 24 people and injured dozens more when a train on Mexico City’s newest metro line plunged onto a busy road below, the government said on Tuesday.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the investigation should be done quickly and that nothing should be hidden from the public.

“There’s no impunity for anyone,” he told a news conference.

The crash has raised questions about safety on one of the world’s busiest metro systems, which spreads across an urban sprawl home to over 20 million people. The city has been governed since the turn of the century by former mayor Lopez Obrador and his allies.

Firefighters using heavy chains to stabilize the site pulled bodies and survivors from the wreckage. Some 79 people were injured, including three children, authorities said.

Video on social media showed the moment when the overpass plummeted onto a stream of cars near the Olivos station in the southeast of the city at around 10:30 p.m. (0330 GMT on Tuesday), sending up clouds of dust and sparks.

Monserrat, 26, said she was at the back of the train wagon when she heard a loud noise and the lights went out.

“Everybody screamed and we fell on top of each other,” she told Mexican radio, speaking from the Belisario Dominguez hospital where she was receiving treatment for an injured rib.

Workers on Tuesday hoisted one of two train cars dangling from the bridge using several cranes and slowly lowered it close to the ground. Twisted pieces of metal could be seen inside.

ACCIDENTS

It was the second serious accident this year, after a fire at a central control building knocked out service on several lines for weeks. The overpass that collapsed was part of Linea 12, an addition to the network finished less than a decade ago and long plagued by allegations of corruption.

Four people who live in the area told Reuters they observed the support structures below the elevated tracks visibly shaking when trains crossed. Some recalled warnings about the humid soil being unfit for major construction.

“Every time I saw the train, I saw the columns and beams shake,” said Victor Lara, a daily commuter on the line. “They’re not well made.”

Investigations will be carried out by both the attorney general’s office and an external auditor, the government said.

In 2020, two trains collided on another line of the network, killing one person and injuring dozens.

Lopez Obrador was mayor of the city in the early 2000s, and current mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who ran the city when Linea 12 was built, are both senior members of his political movement.

In 2014, just two years after it opened, several of the line’s stations were closed for repairs of structural problems.

After a powerful 2017 earthquake, government data show there were also damages to the line’s support columns.

Linea 12 was built by a consortium of CARSO Infraestructura y Construccion, S.A.B. de C.V (CCICSA), a company controlled by the family of Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, Mexico’s Grupo ICA, and the Mexican unit of France’s Alstom SA.

CCICSA said in a statement to Reuters it stood in solidarity with victims’ families and those injured. “We are going to wait for the official expert opinion,” it said.

Alstom said its involvement in the consortium was limited to certain aspects, including power supply and testing of some electromechanical work. The company said it would aid investigating authorities “in any way necessary.”

ICA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sheinbaum said it appeared a girder had given way on the overpass, which she said was inspected last year.

Ebrard said it was the “most terrible” accident to have hit the local transport system, and that he was ready to cooperate with authorities in the investigation.

At the news conference with Lopez Obrador, Sheinbaum and Ebrard faced questions from reporters about who should be held accountable. Both urged the public to allow investigators to do their work before seeking to apportion responsibility.

The opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party said an investigation and punishment should be carried out “wherever it leads.”

Outside the Belesario Dominguez hospital, family members grew frustrated waiting for information on relatives.

Jorge Hernandez said a woman found his nephew’s phone after he was injured in the accident and called his family. His nephew underwent surgery on his abdomen and was transported via helicopter to another hospital.

Hernandez, a supporter of Lopez Obrador, said he blamed the accident on political corruption, including by those within the president’s inner circle.

“Politicians are used to investing 35% and stealing 65%,” he said. “It’s sad to see how they steal money.”

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Sharay Angulo, additional reporting by Dave Graham, Raul Cortes and Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City and Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)

Two dead, 27 hurt as Chad protesters demand civilian rule

By Edward McAllister and Mahamat Ramadane

N’DJAMENA (Reuters) -At least two people were killed and 27 injured in Chad on Tuesday as demonstrators took to the streets demanding a return to civilian rule after the military took control following President Idriss Deby’s death last week.

Tensions have risen in Chad following Deby’s death and the military transition is struggling to win over a population exhausted by 30 years of monolithic, autocratic rule.

A health official at a hospital in the capital N’Djamena, who requested anonymity, confirmed the death of a man in his 20’s who was brought into the emergency ward along with 27 other people injured during Tuesday’s protests.

Witnesses also reported the death of another protester in Moundou, Chad’s second largest city.

A spokesman for the ruling military council said security forces were attempting to contain the protesters while limiting material damage.

The military council seized power after Deby was killed as he visited troops fighting rebels on April 19.

Some opposition politicians have called the military takeover a coup and asked supporters to protest, even as the army appointed a civilian politician, Albert Pahimi Padacke, as prime minister of a transitional government on Monday.

The military council banned protests in a statement on Monday evening, saying no demonstrations that could lead to disorder were allowed while the country was still in mourning.

‘NO MONARCHY’

Headed by Deby’s son Mahamat Idriss Deby, who was declared president, the military council has said it will oversee an 18-month transition to elections.

“We do not want our country to become a monarchy,” said 34-year-old protester Mbaidiguim Marabel. “The military must return to the barracks to make way for a civilian transition.”

Trucks loaded with soldiers were seen patrolling the streets around central N’Djamena.

“The police came, they fired tear gas. But we are not scared,” said Timothy Betouge, age 70.

Police responded with tear gas as protesters burned tires in several neighborhoods of N’Djamena early on Tuesday. A Reuters witness said firefighters struggled to contain a blaze which was large enough to be seen from far away.

The council is coming under international pressure to hand over power to civilians as soon as possible. The African Union has expressed “grave concern” about the military takeover, while France, the former colonial ruler, and some of Chad’s neighbors are pushing for a civilian-military solution.

Anti-French sentiment was running high among the protesters, who blamed France for having backed the Deby regime against the will of the people. Posts on social media showed protesters burning a French flag.

Reuters reporters in N’Djamena were repeatedly berated by protesters who assumed they were French and told them to “go back to France”. The reporters saw businesses with French connections, such as a Total fuel station, being targeted by protesters.

Deby’s death came as Chad’s military battles an insurrection by Libya-based rebels known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). The rebels came as close as 200-300 km (125-185 miles) from N’Djamena before being pushed back by the army.

Chad’s military council rejected an offer from the rebels for peace talks on Sunday, calling them “outlaws” who needed to be tracked down and arrested for their role in Deby’s death.

(Reporting by Edward McAllister and Mahamat Ramadane, additional reporting by Madjiasra Nako, writing by Cooper Inveen, editing by Bate Felix, William Maclean and Estelle Shirbon)

Witnesses recount deadly tornadoes in Alabama: ‘It came and it took them’

By Elijah Nouvelage

OHATCHEE, Ala. (Reuters) – A day after violent tornadoes killed at least five people in Alabama and left residents sorting through the destruction on Friday, storm forecasters issued another “severe weather risk” warning for the U.S. South this weekend.

In the wake of reports of 24 tornadoes striking Alabama and Georgia on Thursday, rough weather on Saturday could stir more tornadoes in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and the surrounding area, according to the National Weather Service.

Five people were killed in Alabama, NWS reported, although it could be days before the death count is finalized. Dozens of others were injured and entire neighborhoods destroyed.

A sixth death was tied to a tornado in Georgia.

In northern Alabama, the five confirmed fatalities were in Ohatchee, a town of about 1,200 people, according to the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

Survivors described harrowing scenes of seeking cover from the twisters.

As she searched through a mountain of debris that a day earlier had been her father’s Alabama home, Rebecca Haynes Griffis recounted how her brother’s fast thinking helped both men survive the disaster.

“He saw it coming and he put my dad into a big bearhug and held onto him until things stopped moving,” Griffis told Reuters.

“The whole house started to contort around them. There was no roof all of a sudden. It came and it took them,” said Griffis, a COVID-19 travel nurse who was in Georgia when disaster struck in Ohatchee Thursday afternoon.

Her father, Mac Haynes, 78, and brother Philip Haynes, 50, landed in a cow pasture about 40 feet (12 meters) away from the foundation that once supported their trailer home, which was reduced to shreds.

Both men were hospitalized, with her father expected to be released on Friday. Her brother, who suffered fractures to his spine, ribs, shoulder and cheek, will remain hospitalized, said Griffis, as she sifted through the mountain of debris in search of family mementos.

“I found their wedding rings!” she said, clutching velvet boxes containing marriage bands worn by her father and his wife, now deceased.

Griffis, 48, said she has been frantically calling her father and brother from Georgia on Thursday to urge them to seek shelter in a neighbor’s home that has a basement.

“By the time they answered, it was on them,” Griffis said.

For three hours, the fire department cut through debris to reach the injured men in the field when suddenly winds started swirling again, possibly from a nearby tornado.

The fire department grabbed the men and fled to the nearby home’s basement, seeking refuge until they could safely transport the injured to a local hospital, Griffis said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Kashmir villagers hopeful but wary after India and Pakistan agree to ceasefire

By Fayaz Bukhari and Abu Arqam Naqash

SRINAGAR, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Villagers living on both sides of the Line of Control dividing the Himalayan region of Kashmir welcomed an agreement between long-time foes India and Pakistan to stop shelling from each side, but some were skeptical it would hold.

The nuclear-armed neighbors signed a ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) in 2003, but that has frayed in recent years and there have been mounting casualties.

In a joint statement on Thursday, India and Pakistan said they would observe a ceasefire.

“It has given a new lease of life to us. We were living in constant fear of being hit,” said Laldin Khatana, the headman of Churnada village on the Indian side of the border.

Khatana said that two people had been killed last year by shelling in the hillside village, home to 1,600 people, many of whom gathered at a mausoleum to celebrate the new agreement.

“It was affecting our farming and grazing,” he told Reuters via telephone. “And children were scared to go to school.”

Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, which claim the region in full but rule only in part. Tensions reignited after New Delhi withdrew the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir state in August 2019 and split it into two federally administered territories.

Since 2018, Indian data shows that 70 civilians and 72 soldiers have been killed in cross-border firing.

On the Pakistani side, nearly 300 civilians have been killed since 2014, when ceasefire violations began rising, according to a Pakistan military source.

“The fresh announcement is welcome and can help us live a life free of fear, only if implemented in letter and in spirit,” said Danish Shaikh, a resident of Ban Chattar village in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir’s Neelum valley.

“Who knows how seriously and how long they will stick to the fresh understanding?”

The picturesque Neelum valley saw hundreds of hotels and guesthouses sprout up when the ceasefire held, with tourists visiting year round.

But with skirmishes and firing increasing, tourism went into a tailspin and guesthouse operators like Khawaja Owais were forced to dig into their savings.

“This is good news indeed. Not just for us who are running businesses in the valley but for everyone who has faced death and destruction during heavy shelling,” Owais said of the agreement.

“Let’s hope and pray it remains intact.”

(Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Iraqi cleric scolds security forces after protesters die in new tensions

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday berated security forces for failing to protect protesters killed in clashes with rival groups this week in the southern city of Najaf, and urged politicians to pick a government trusted by the people.

The violence in the holy city of Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is based, killed eight anti-government demonstrators after followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed their sit-in protest.

The incident laid bare new tensions on the street in Iraq, where nearly 500 people have been killed in months of unrest.

The most recent events have pitted young anti-government protesters against many of Sadr’s followers, known as blue hats for the caps they wear.

The blue hats turned on protesters in several incidents after Sadr entered a deal with Iran-backed political blocs last week to bring in new Prime Miniser-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi – a move the protesters reject.

Sistani, in remarks delivered by his representative during his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala, condemned the violence in Najaf and blamed security forces for failing to stop it.

“It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble rousers,” the representative said.

“There is no excuse for shirking that duty.”

Sistani holds great influence over public opinion among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. He avoids commenting on politics except during crises. His withdrawal of support for the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi in November sealed the outgoing premier’s fate.

Sistani urged that the new government which Allawi will form be representative of the Iraqi people and said it must have their full trust.

“It must be capable of calming the situation and take steps toward early elections free of the influence of money, weapons and foreign interference,” he said.

SADR’S ‘BETRAYAL’

Some protesters had hoped Sistani would reject Allawi who was named last week ending weeks of deadlock between political blocs.

“We hope Sistani will reject Allawi and the deal between the parties on Friday,” Mahdi Abdul Zahra, a protester in Baghdad, said.

The rival and two most powerful parliamentary blocs of Sadr and a grouping of Iran-backed parties put their differences aside to approve Allawi’s nomination.

Sadr has regularly threatened to call all his followers out to protest alongside the anti-government movement. The followers including the blue hats had been unofficially involved in the demonstrations and at times protected protesters from assaults by security forces and Iran-aligned militiamen.

His move to support Allawi, and subsequent calls for the blue hats to remove protest camps deemed to be preventing schools or businesses from functioning, is seen as betrayal by many.

“I used to support the Sadrist movement. But the minute he did this, I stopped. I’ve erased all by Facebook posts that supported him,” Abdul Zahra said from a main square where protesters skirmished with police.

The protests began in October and swelled in cities throughout the Shi’ite south, pitting impoverished and jobless masses against the Shi’ite-dominated and Iran-aligned government.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen have shot dead nearly 500 people since then.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal
By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf spent the final months of her life building a political party that she hoped would help shape Syria’s future, drawing the attention of U.S. officials who said it would have a say in what happened once the war ended.

To her colleagues in the Future Syria Party and Kurdish communities in Syria’s northeast more broadly, her killing became a symbol of betrayal by the United States.

As recently as Oct. 3, State Department officials reassured her at a meeting that Washington would safeguard northern Syria from a threatened Turkish assault by mediating between Kurdish-led forces and Ankara, according to a colleague who was present.

A state department official said the U.S. message to Syrian partners had been consistent: that American forces would be withdrawing from the country.

Days after the meeting, President Donald Trump announced U.S. forces would quit the region, leaving it vulnerable to attack by Turkey.

Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, key allies in the U.S. battle against Islamic State, said rebels fighting on the Turkish side murdered Khalaf. She was 34.

She was slain on Oct. 12 along with a driver and aide when Turkey-backed fighters stopped their SUV on the M4 highway in northern Syria, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and officials in her party.

The spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebel force, the National Army, at the time denied its fighters killed her, saying they had not advanced as far as the M4.

Last week, the spokesman, Youssef Hammoud, said the incident was being investigated among other “breaches”.

“If America hadn’t decided to withdraw, these factions … would not have dared to carry out their operations in that area,” said Moaz Abdul Karim, a Future Syria Party leader.

The U.S. State Department has said it was looking into reports of Khalaf’s death apparently while in the hands of Turkey-backed forces, calling the reports “extremely troubling”.

An autopsy report circulated by the SDF said Khalaf’s body had been riddled with bullets.

AMERICAN ASSURANCES

On Oct. 3, U.S. State Department representatives visited the Future Syria Party’s headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa and told Khalaf and party president Ibrahim al-Kaftan that American efforts in the region were aimed at mediation.

Since the party was founded in 2018, its leaders say U.S. officials have voiced their support. The party aims to attract members from across the ethnic spectrum in a region where critics said the Kurdish YPG militia had become too powerful.

“Yes, there was encouragement from the Americans to set up a party,” Kaftan said.

“The party was already being worked on by a team who believes in Syrian democracy. It was a Syrian idea, not an American one, but I repeat they were in favor of this idea,” he told Reuters in written answers to questions.

U.S. forces withdrew from a section of the border on Oct. 7, and soon afterwards Turkish troops mounted their third incursion into northern Syria since 2016.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist threat due to their links to a Kurdish insurgency at home. It has also said its operation in Syria was designed to create a buffer where some of the 3.6 million refugees who fled the Syrian conflict into Turkey could be re-settled.

DEEPLY INVOLVED

A civil engineer by training, Khalaf was deeply involved in the politics of northeast Syria from the earliest days of the war, now in its eighth year.

After leaving her job as a state employee, she helped to set up the Kurdish-led administration whose influence would eventually stretch over one third of Syria including predominantly Arab areas.

In 2018, she was elected secretary general of the Future Syria Party, which was launched from Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city where the SDF defeated IS in 2017 with U.S. backing.

Kaftan, an Arab architect from Manbij, was elected its leader, and he said that U.S. and French officials attended the ceremony.

The United States has long adopted a cautious political approach toward northern Syria, even as it backed the SDF militarily in the fight against IS.

Washington opposed the emergence of the Kurdish-led autonomous region and the main Kurdish groups were always kept out of the U.N. political process for Syria, despite their huge influence on the ground.

But according to Kaftan, U.S. officials including the envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told members of his party that it would have a role in international talks over Syria’s future.

The State Department official said the United States wanted a political solution to Syria’s conflict that included “full representation for all Syrians.

“U.S. officials, including Ambassador Jeffrey, made clear that this included the populations of northeast Syria and intervened repeatedly with the UN to this end.”

The fate of Kurds in northern Syria is now more uncertain than it has been for years. Stripped of U.S. protection, the SDF struck a deal for Syrian government forces to deploy into the region it controlled.

The SDF says Washington has stabbed it in the back.

Despite the Turkish incursion, which has sparked an exodus and killed scores of people, leaders of Future Syria Party hope it will have a role in shaping the next phase of Syria’s recovery from war.

Khalaf always believed the solution in Syria must come through dialogue with all concerned parties including the Syrian government and Turkey, Kaftan said.

“Hevrin didn’t sleep more than 4-5 hours a day,” he said. “But she would always say Syria deserves a lot from us, and for the people who have suffered through nine years of war, we must seek to secure a real, safe future for them.”

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White)