In Kabul children’s hospital, medics struggle with staff shortages

By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

KABUL (Reuters) – In Kabul’s main children’s hospital, the crumbling of Afghanistan’s health system is reflected in the eyes of exhausted staff as they eke out fast-diminishing stocks of medicines.

As crowds of mothers and sick children fill waiting rooms in the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, medical staff are squeezing three babies into a single incubator and doubling them up in cot-like infant warmer beds.

Nurses who once took care of three or four babies each are now having to look after 20 or more to make up for the absence of staff who fled the country when the Taliban seized power in August.

“We tell each other that we have do this work, if we don’t do it, these problems will become big, it’s a loss for ourselves, our society and for our country,” said Dr. Saifullah Abassin as he moved from bed to bed in the crowded intensive care unit.

Although the number of blast victims and war wounded have fallen since the fighting ended, Afghanistan’s hospitals are grappling with the fallout of a rapidly spreading economic crisis that has threatened millions with hunger.

U.N. agencies say as much as 95% of the population does not regularly have enough to eat and last month, the head of the World Health Organization warned the health system was on the brink of collapse as international aid has dried up.

Lack of support for the $600 million Sehatmandi health service project administered by World Bank, has left thousands of facilities unable to buy supplies and pay salaries, threatening health services at all levels from village clinics to hospitals offering caesarian sections.

STAFF NOT PAID IN MONTHS

For the medical team, it is the acute staff shortage that is causing the heaviest strain. They have not been paid in months and often struggle even to pay their car fare to work.

“We only ask from the government firstly that, they should increase our staff,” says Marwa, the nursing supervisor in the nursery ward. “Because of the changes, most of our colleagues left the country.”

Nurses who would normally be taking care of three or four babies for each nurse are now handling 23. “It is a lot of load on us,” she said.

Mohammad Latif Baher, assistant director of the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, said officials from the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF have given some help but more is needed quickly to fill the shortage of medicines and supplies to treat malnourished children.

“They (international organizations) have promised more aid. And we hope that they will keep their promises,” Baher says.

The hospital, built during the Soviet era in 1985 and financed by Indian aid money, has 360 beds but is operating well over capacity because of the lack of functioning clinics in the provinces around Kabul.

With a heavy flow of families coming in, the hospital has admitted 450 children and turned others away, he said.

Arzoo, who brought her eight-month-old daughter Sofia in for treatment, already lost one of her five children to malnourishment-related illness and is desperate not to lose another.

“We had a water tank at home – we sold that and used that for treatment,” she said, even though the cost means Sofia’s four siblings at home do not have much to eat.

“Their father came in the morning and told me the kids don’t have anything. When they (hospital) provide some food, I portion it out and send some home to the kids.”

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. grants licenses for more aid flow to Afghanistan despite sanctions

By Daphne Psaledakis

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States on Friday further paved the way for aid to flow to Afghanistan despite U.S. sanctions on the Taliban, who seized control of the country last month, issuing general licenses amid concern that Washington’s punitive measures could compound an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. Treasury Department said it issued two general licenses, one allowing the U.S. government, NGOs and certain international organizations, including the United Nations, to engage in transactions with the Taliban or Haqqani Network – both under sanctions – that are necessary to provide humanitarian assistance.

The second license authorizes certain transactions related to the export and re-export of food, medicine and medical devices.

“Treasury is committed to facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support their basic human needs,” Andrea Gacki, director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement.

She added that Washington will continue to work with financial institutions, NGOs and international organizations to ease the flow of agricultural goods, medicine and other resources while upholding sanctions on the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others.

The United Nations said that at the start of the year more than 18 million people – about half of Afghanistan’s population – require aid amid the second drought in four years.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that Afghanistan is on “the verge of a dramatic humanitarian disaster” and has decided to engage the Taliban in order to help the country’s people.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is committed to allowing humanitarian work in Afghanistan to continue despite Washington listing the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the Islamist militant group and bar Americans from dealing with them, including the contribution of funds, goods or services.

Reuters reported last month that Washington issued a license authorizing the U.S. government and its partners to continue to facilitate humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

Friday’s move expands on that specific license, allowing international organizations and NGOs to pay taxes, fees, import duties or permits, licenses or other necessary transactions for assistance to reach the people of Afghanistan.

A Taliban offensive as foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a 20-year war culminated in the capture of the capital Kabul on Aug. 15, two decades after they were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Charity say migrants on Polish-Belarus border seriously ill

WARSAW (Reuters) – A Polish refugee charity said on Wednesday 25 migrants camped on the Poland-Belarus border were unwell, including a mother of five who would soon die without help from the authorities.

The Ocalenie Foundation say the Polish Border Guard’s refusal to let anyone from the Polish side deliver food or medicine to the 32-strong group, who have been on the Belarus side of the border for around two weeks, is putting lives at risk. It said 12 were seriously ill.

Polish opposition lawmaker Franciszek Sterczewski was filmed trying to run past Border Guard officers with a bag he said contained food and medicine before being bundled to the ground.

The group of migrants has become embroiled in a broader dispute between the European Union and Belarus.

The European Union accuses Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the arrival of thousands of people at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in retaliation for sanctions imposed on the former Soviet republic.

The Belarusian foreign ministry on Tuesday accused Poland of provoking migrant flows from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. coalition, according to the state-run Belta news agency. It blamed the breakdown in border cooperation on the EU.

Poland, which said this week it would build a fence on the border and double the number of troops there to halt the flow, says responsibility for the migrants lies with Belarus.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday that a convoy of humanitarian aid offered by Poland had been refused by Minsk. His deputy foreign minister said Belarusian authorities were providing the migrants with water, food and cigarettes.

Belarus authorities were not immediately available to comment.

The Ocalenie Foundation, which has been communicating with the migrants using a translator with a megaphone from a distance, said they were desperate.

“They don’t have drinking water. They have had nothing to eat since yesterday,” it said.

“Fifty-two-year-old Mrs. Gul will soon die in front of her five children. Rescue is needed NOW,” it said on Twitter.

It said the woman was from Afghanistan and she had two sons and three daughters with her, the youngest of whom was aged 15. It declined to provide further details, but said the other migrants were also from Afghanistan.

Poland’s Border Guard said on Friday it had asked Belarusian authorities three times to intervene with the group and that Belarus said it was doing so.

“We don’t know what the state of these people’s health is,” Border Guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the condition of the migrants’ health.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

Demonstrations, defiance as Myanmar marks 4 months since coup

(Reuters) -Pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in towns around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce the country’s military, marking four months since it ousted an elected government and unleashed a wave of nationwide anger.

Despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, Myanmar’s military is still struggling to impose order amid protests and strikes, and fighting on multiple fronts in border regions as civilians take up arms against the junta.

Protests took place in the south in Luang Lone, several areas of the Sagaing division including Kale and Monywa, and the commercial hub Yangon, according to images carried by mainstream and social media.

“This is not over yet. We still have our turn,” read a sign carried by one protester.

Schools officially reopened across Myanmar for the first time since the Feb. 1 coup, but turnout was low due to security concerns and a boycott over the junta’s suspension of tens of thousands of teachers opposed to its rule.

Some students held demonstrations with blood-splattered white uniforms.

Security forces have killed 840 people since the coup, according to figures from activists cited by the United Nations. The junta says about 300 people have died.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, says it seized power because of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a quote from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on Tuesday saying the current crisis was caused by “dishonesty of democracy” in the election, under a large headline that said “Tatmadaw values democracy”.

The military’s use of lethal force against its own people has caused outrage among western countries, and concern among its neighbors. In April, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced a five-point consensus towards resolving the crisis, though no timeframe was agreed.

But four diplomatic sources have told Reuters that the chair and secretary-general of ASEAN are planning to visit Myanmar this week, to meet junta leaders, among other stakeholders.

It was not clear if they would meet detainees or members of a shadow unity government formed to challenge the junta and undercut its efforts to gain international recognition.

HEAVY TOLL

The unrest has taken a heavy toll in the countryside, where clashes between Myanmar’s well-equipped military and ethnic minority armies or newly formed People’s Defense Forces have displaced tens of thousands of people.

On Tuesday, a local aid group said 8,000 people were in camps having fled the town of Mindat in Chin State, which the army took control of last month after days of clashes with militias armed mostly with hunting rifles.

The people’s militias have stepped up ambushes in recent weeks on troops in Kayah state bordering Thailand, where witnesses said fierce fighting and retaliatory shelling and air strikes had taken place late on Monday in the town of Demoso.

A resident shared video and images with Reuters of soldiers he said were killed in Demoso late on Monday. He said he saw six bodies and residents had counted 20.

The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force said on its Facebook page that 80 army soldiers had been killed on Monday, while one of its fighters and a civilian were also casualties.

Reuters could not verify the information and a spokesman for the junta did not answer calls seeking comment.

Myanmar state television made no mention of the Demoso unrest in its nightly news bulletin.

Fighting in Kayah has displaced about 37,000 people in recent weeks, according to the United Nations. Many have fled into jungles and are in need of food and medicine.

The Elders, a group of former national leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela, on Tuesday called on the international community, including ASEAN, to turn up pressure on the junta.

“Myanmar is currently on a dangerous path towards state failure,” its chair, Mary Robinson, said in a statement.

“Allowing the coup to succeed through inaction and disregard would further undermine the international rules-based order upon which global stability depends.”

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Exodus to jungles, villages as Myanmar troops retake town

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents of a hill town in northwest Myanmar were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys on Monday after fleeing an assault by state troops, witnesses said, as the army advanced into the town after days battling local militias.

Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, has seen some of the most intense fighting since a Feb. 1 coup that has led to the emergence of ragtag local armies that are stifling the junta’s bid to consolidate power.

Martial law was declared in Mindat on Thursday before the army launched its assault, using artillery and helicopters against a newly formed Chinland Defense Force, a militia armed mainly with hunting rifles, which said it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.

Several residents reached by Reuters said food was in short supply and estimated as many as 5,000 to 8,000 people had fled the town, with roads blocked and the presence of troops in the streets preventing their return.

“Almost everyone left the city,” said a volunteer fighter who said she was in a jungle. “Most of them are in hiding.”

A representative of the local people’s administrative group of Mindat said he was among some 200 people, including women and children, who had trekked across rocky roads and hills carrying blankets, rice and cooking pots.

He said the group was attacked with heavy weapons when troops spotted smoke from their cooking fires.

“We have to move from one place to another. We cannot settle in a place in the jungle,” he told Reuters by phone.

“Some men were arrested as they went into town to get more food for us. We cannot get into town currently. We are going to starve in few days.”

The Chinland Defense Forces in a statement on Monday said it had killed five government troops in Hakha, another town in Chin State.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF in a tweet urged security forces to ensure safety of children in Mindat, the latest international call for restraint after human rights groups, the United States and Britain condemned the use of war weapons against civilians.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced more sanctions against businesses and individuals tied to the junta. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged more countries to follow suit.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the military battling armed and peaceful resistance on multiple fronts, adding to concerns about economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis from old conflicts reigniting in border regions.

The fighters in Chin State say they are part of the People’s Defense Forces of the shadow government, which has called on the international community for help.

In an effort to coordinate the anti-junta forces, the shadow government on Monday issued a list of instructions to all the civilian armies, which it said must operate under its command and control.

Aid groups in direct contact with residents of Mindat made urgent calls on social media on Monday for donations or food, clothing and medicine.

Salai, 24, who has been organizing an emergency response, said she had spoken to people hiding in a valley and on farmland who had fled the advance of soldiers.

“They looted people’s property. They burned down people’s houses. It is really upsetting,” said Salai.

“Some in the town were injured by gunshots, including a young girl. She cannot get medical treatment.”

A military spokesman did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said security forces returned fire after coming under attack from insurgents in Mindat, who fled, and that government troops had been attacked elsewhere in Chin State.

So far, 790 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military disputes that figure. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

The military says it intervened after its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were ignored.

An international monitoring group on Monday said the results of that election “were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar”.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Rescuers hunt for survivors after cyclone kills 119 in Indonesia

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rescuers searched for dozens missing in the remote islands of southeast Indonesia on Tuesday, as reinforcements arrived to help in the aftermath of a tropical cyclone that killed at least 119 people.

Helicopters were deployed to aid the search, and ships carrying food, water, blankets and medicine reached ports previously blocked by high waves whipped up by tropical cyclone Seroja, which brought heavy rain and triggered deadly floods and landslides on Sunday.

Indonesia’s disaster agency BNPB revised upwards the death toll from the cyclone in the East Nusa Tenggara islands, after earlier saying 86 had died. Seventy-six people were still missing.

“The rescue team is moving on the ground. The weather is good,” BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati told a news briefing.

Search and rescue personnel, however, had trouble transporting heavy equipment for use in the search.

“Search for victims is constrained, the existing heavy equipment cannot be sent to their destination, especially in Adonara and Alor,” the head of BNPB, Doni Monardo, said.

The Adonara and Alor islands were among the islands worst hit by the cyclone, with 62 and 21 people dead respectively.

Aerial images from Adonara on Tuesday showed brown mud and flood water covering a vast area, burying houses, roads and trees.

The military and volunteers arrived on the islands on Tuesday and were setting up public kitchens, while medical workers were brought in.

Video taken by a local official in Tanjung Batu village on Lembata, home to the Ile Lewotolok volcano, showed felled trees and large rocks of cold lava that had crushed homes after being dislodged by the cyclone.

Thousands of people have been displaced, nearly 2,000 buildings including a hospital were impacted, and more than 100 homes heavily damaged by the cyclone.

Two people died in nearby West Nusa Tenggara province.

There were also concerns about possible COVID-19 infections in crowded evacuation centers.

In neighboring East Timor, at least 33 were killed in floods and landslides and by falling trees. Civil defense authorities were using heavy equipment to search for survivors.

“The number of victims could still increase because many victims have not been found,” the main director of civil protection, Ismael da Costa Babo, told Reuters.

“They were buried by landslides and carried away by floods.”

Some residents of Lembata island may have also been washed away by mud into the sea.

A volcano that erupted on Lembata last month wiped out vegetation atop the mountain, which allowed hardened lava to slide towards 300 houses when the cyclone struck, a senior district official said, hoping help was on the way.

“We were only able to search on the seashore, not in the deeper area, because of lack of equipment yesterday,” Thomas Ola Langoday told Reuters by phone.

He feared many bodies were still buried under large rocks.

President Joko Widodo urged his cabinet to speed up evacuation and relief efforts and to restore power.

Weather agency head Dwikorita Karnawati said once-rare tropical cyclones were happening more often in Indonesia and climate change could be to blame.

“Seroja is the first time we’re seeing tremendous impact because it hit the land. It’s not common,” she said.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Stanley Widianto and Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta and Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo and Fathin Ungku; Editing by Martin Petty, Tom Hogue and Bernadette Baum)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Brawls in shops as Lebanon’s financial meltdown hits supply of food

By Maha El Dahan and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The collapse of Lebanon’s currency has forced many grocery shops to temporarily shut within the last 24 hours, raising fears that a country reliant on imports could soon face shortages of food.

Food shops around the country were locking their doors, halting online deliveries or restricting customers’ orders. Others stayed open, but could not say for how long.

“There’s a big possibility we will close if it stays like this. I don’t know where will we get supplies, and no one is helping us,” said Beirut grocer Mohieldin Fayed, who has kept his shop open.

The pound tumbled to 15,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, losing a third of its value in the last two weeks. It has now sunk by 90% since late 2019.

“If this persists, things will start to disappear, traders will prioritize what to get,” said Hani Bohsali, head of the foodstuffs importers syndicate. “We’ll have to buy less, in variety and quantity, because we can’t find the money.”

He estimated the country has roughly two months of supplies, while it was getting more and more difficult for importers to obtain the dollars they need to keep buying.

The economy’s collapse has pushed much of the population into poverty and poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Social media users have been sharing videos of supermarket brawls, such as a fight between a man and a woman trying to buy powdered milk. Prices of many consumer goods such as diapers or cereals have nearly tripled during the crisis.

Nabil Fahed, head of the syndicate of supermarket owners, said some of the shops that had shut on Tuesday reopened on Wednesday after replenishing stocks. But he said permanent closures would happen if no exchange stability was reached.

“What we’re afraid of is that these eventually turn from temporary closures … that it becomes final because it is a dire situation, their capital is being eroded and they don’t have money to pay for goods.”

The vice president of Lebanon’s bakeries’ syndicate said bakeries were supplying the country with bread for now, but could not do so indefinitely without a solution. Lebanon imports almost all of its wheat.

“If we continue at this pace, in the end we will reach a forced closure until the exchange rate stabilizes,” Ali Ibrahim, who tried to resign from his position two weeks ago because of the dire situation, said in a statement.

LOOMING SUBSIDY REMOVAL

Many shops in Lebanon were already shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, and streets have also been closed by roadblocks during anti-government demonstrations. But until this week, groceries had mostly stayed open. Many have been offering deliveries online.

On Tuesday, a number of online grocery shops disappeared from apps. Others refused to accept orders.

Lebanon’s central bank has drawn on already critical foreign reserves to subsidize three key commodities – wheat, fuel and medicine – and a basket of other basic goods, as dollars inflows dried up. It has provided hard currency to importers at the old peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

But the state, fast running out of cash, has signaled multiple times that the subsidies would soon be lifted, although it has yet to give a timeline or announce a plan.

Supermarket syndicate head Fahed said the central bank was often slow to release dollars to food importers, causing shortages which in turn provoke consumers to hoard goods. In one example, he said a supermarket had sold a typical month’s stock of 5,000 gallons of subsidized cooking oil in only five hours.

The looming removal of subsidies has triggered fears of shortages, said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former cabinet minister.

“As soon as you announce that subsidies might be lifted or reduced…automatically consumers hoard goods,” he said.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Ellen Francis, Imad Creidi and Alaa Kanaan; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Peter Graff)

China says 10 workers trapped in gold mine are searching for others

By Emily Chow

QIXIA, China (Reuters) – The 10 known survivors trapped since a deadly Jan. 10 gold mine explosion in northern China have been using laser pointers and loudspeakers to try to find their missing colleagues, state media reported on Friday.

The rescue operation, which has been able to get food and medicines to the miners, was expected to take at least another two weeks, authorities have said.

White bottles of food and water sent down to the trapped workers had a note stuck on them saying, “We are all waiting for you, keep going!”, photos shared by propaganda department officials with Reuters on Friday showed.

The food items sent to the workers include millet porridge, quail eggs, pickles and sausages and medical supplies included disinfectant, masks and cotton socks.

“The physical condition, psychological condition and living environment of 10 miners in the middle section of the mine are good,” the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, reported on Friday.

“The miners continued to search for other trapped persons through laser pointer projection and loudspeaker shouting,” it said.

A total of 22 workers were trapped in the Hushan mine by the Jan 10 blast in Qixia, a major gold-producing region under the administration of Yantai in coastal Shandong province.

One has died and 11 were not in contact with the rescue teams, according to a Xinhua radio report on Thursday.

At least 15 days may be needed to clear the “severe blockages” as rescuers continued to drill shafts to reach the 10 men, officials said on Thursday.

At the site, security was tight on Friday and Reuters journalists were not permitted to get close to the rescue operation.

Workers in orange high visibility clothing could be seen operating heavy machinery. At the entrance to the site, a medical tent had been set up to administer COVID tests for rescue workers.

About 570 people are involved in the rescue, the newspaper said.

China’s mines are among the world’s deadliest. It has recorded 573 mine-related deaths in 2020, according to the National Mine Safety Administration.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Qixia and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Shivani Singh; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philippa Fletcher)

South Korea acts to stop defectors sending aid, messages to North Korea

By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A day after North Korea suspended communication hotlines with South Korea over defectors who send propaganda and contraband into the North, South Korea said it would take legal action against two organizations that conduct such operations.

North Korea gets enraged when the defectors in the South send material such as anti-North leaflets and rice – usually by balloon over the heavily fortified border or in bottles by sea – and its media has in recent days denounced the “mongrel dogs” who do it.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, recently called defectors “human scum little short of wild animals” and said North Korea would cut communication with South Korea because of its failure to stop them.

South Korea, which is trying to improve ties with the North, said on Wednesday two defector-run groups, Kuensaem Education Center and Fighters for a Free North Korea, had violated the Inter-Korean Exchange and Co-operation Act by sending the leaflets, as well as aid like rice and medicine.

The two defector groups “have created tension between the two Koreas and caused danger to the border-area residents’ lives and safety”, said the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key.

One defector, Park Sang-hak, who left North Korea in 2000 and heads the Fighters For Free North Korea, has been sending leaflets about once a month for the last 15 years.

“You can never buy peace with flattery and begging,” he said of the South Korean government’s response to the North Korean criticism.

About 33,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea.

As part of the effort to improve ties with the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has sought to discourage the leaflet and rice campaigns, and defectors complained of pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.

On Monday, activists were stopped by residents when they tried to send plastic bottles stuffed with rice by releasing them at sea.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith)