Struggle between big powers spells hostile future: report

Munich Security Conference (MSC) chairman Wolfgang Ischinger presents the Munich Security Report for 2019 in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) – A new age of competition between major global powers like China, the United States and Russia leaves the world facing an unpredictable and more hostile future, the hosts of a major security conference said on Monday.

Entitled “The Great Puzzle: Who Will Pick Up the Pieces?”, their report aims to set the agenda for leaders at the Munich Security Conference annual meeting from Thursday.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to attend the event in the Bavarian capital, which comes after Washington said earlier this month it would suspend compliance with a landmark nuclear missile pact with Russia.

“Given the prevailing strategic outlooks in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, expectations of a new era of great power competition are seeming to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the report read.

“If everyone prepares for a hostile world, its arrival is almost preordained … The post-Cold War period and the general optimism associated with it has come to an end.

“But it is unclear what kind of new order will emerge … and whether the transition period will be peaceful.”

Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, urged policymakers from mid-sized powers including the European Union to do more to preserve a liberal international order.

In a newspaper interview, Ischinger suggested France’s nuclear arsenal should serve the purpose of shielding the whole of the EU and not just France. This would mean EU countries would have to share the cost of maintaining France’s nuclear weapons, he told the Funke group of newspapers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addresses the conference on Saturday, is using her last term to focus on a foreign policy aimed at defending and refreshing multilateralism.

But the report said Berlin and Paris needed to work together more effectively to boost the capacity of the “ill-prepared” EU to deal with heightened great power competition.

“With domestic contexts in both capitals unlikely to become less complicated, the coming year will show whether the tandem can work out its differences or whether another window of opportunity has been missed,” the report read.

Running through other mid-sized powers, the report turned to Britain and said “Brexit proceedings will continue to inflict wounds on both sides of the Channel for years to come.”

Looking further east, it said: “Those counting on Japan to anchor security in East Asia may yet have to temper their expectations.”

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Protests for and against gun ownership expected at NRA meeting in Dallas

A cap and shirt are displayed at the booth for the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lisa Maria Garza

DALLAS (Reuters) – Police are bracing for a significant amount of protests for and against guns during the National Rifle Association’s meeting in Dallas this weekend following a spate of mass shootings, pro gun-control marches, and November’s congressional elections sharpening an always volatile debate.

An estimated 80,000 gun-lovers will be in the city for the NRA’s annual convention. President Donald Trump is expected to address the NRA leadership on Friday, the first day of the three-day meeting, and Vice President Mike Pence also is scheduled to attend the convention.

The powerful gun lobby, which boasts 5 million members, faces an invigorated gun-control movement this year that has sought to curb the NRA’s influence since a man shot dead 17 people at a Florida high school on Feb. 14.

Dallas police were hoping for the “highest level of decorum and civility” from the demonstrations, which will include a “die-in” protest outside the convention hall on Friday, when Trump is due to speak.

“We will not tolerate property destruction. We will not tolerate violent behavior,” Dallas Police Assistant Chief Paul Stokes said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The gun debate in America shifted after a 19-year-old former student used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Students who survived became national figures by calling for gun control legislation and a check on the NRA’s influence. Florida quickly passed a law raising the legal age for buying rifles and imposing a three-day waiting period on gun sales while also allowing the arming of some school employees.

Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway had even urged the NRA to find another city for its annual meeting. Caraway is calling on the NRA to discuss strategies that will curb gun violence.

“In Dallas, gun violence survivors, students and activists are laser-focused on harnessing the momentum from the recent March for Our Lives events to push for gun safety and create lasting policy reform,” said Cassidy Geoghegan, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the leading U.S. gun control groups.

Guns are banned from Friday’s leadership forum because of U.S. Secret Service protocol for protecting the president but elsewhere attendees will be able to carry weapons throughout “15 acres of guns and gear” exhibits at the convention center.

Across the street from the center, a coalition of six local gun rights groups plan to hold a counterprotest on Saturday that they expect to draw several hundred people. Participants are encouraged to openly carry sidearms, instead of rifles and body armor, in an effort to appear more approachable.

“Gun control supporters have gone largely unchallenged in the protest arena as of late,” the counterprotest’s organizers wrote on Facebook. “It is time to stand up peacefully and show the media that Gun Rights matter to Texans and that we are not just the fringe.”

Bipartisan support is increasing in favor of stronger gun regulations, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March. Fifty-four percent of Americans support stricter gun control policies such as background checks on gun purchasers and banning so-called assault rifles.

(Reporting Lisa Maria Garza; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Trott)

U.S. evangelist Billy Graham to be laid to rest in North Carolina

Members of the public visit the late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham as he lies in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who preached to millions around the world in a 70-year career, will be laid to rest on Friday in his native North Carolina following a funeral service that will draw thousands of mourners including President Donald Trump.

The service for Graham, who died on Feb. 21 at age 99, comes after he lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol in recognition of a clergyman who counseled presidents and was the first noted evangelist to take his message to the Soviet bloc.

Graham will later be buried in a pine coffin made by Louisiana prison inmates next to his late wife, Ruth, at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, organizers said.

The 90-minute funeral service is scheduled to start at 12 p.m. EST. It will be held at a library parking lot under a tent emblematic of Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival under canvas that marked his breakthrough as an evangelist.

“It was Mr. Graham’s explicit intent that his funeral service reflect and reinforce the Gospel message that he preached” for decades – the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said in a statement.

Trump, a Republican, will be among about 2,300 invited guests, along with first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, organizers said.

Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral service, which will include singing by Grammy winner Michael Smith.

One of the guests, Jim Daly, the head of the Focus on the Family evangelical organization, said the funeral would be “a tribute to a wonderful life. This man lived it well.”

Asked about the prospects of another evangelist like Graham arising, Daly said by phone, “No diamond is alike. In that regard, Billy Graham was a unique gemstone that God created.”

Graham’s headstone will carry his name, dates of birth and death and the inscription “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” above the Bible reference “John 14:6.”

According to his ministry, Graham preached Christianity to more people than anyone else in history. Some 77 million saw him in person, and nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, it has said.

Graham also became the de facto White House chaplain to several presidents, most famously Richard Nixon.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. expected to open embassy in Jerusalem in May, official says

A general view of Jerusalem's Old City shows the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in the foreground as the Dome of the Rock, located on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, is seen in the background January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is expected to open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May, a U.S. official told Reuters on Friday, a move from Tel Aviv that reverses decades of U.S. policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced last year that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating even Washington’s Arab allies and dismaying Palestinians who want the eastern part of the city as their capital.

A May opening appears to represent an earlier time frame than what had been expected. While speaking in the Israeli parliament last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the move would take place by the end of 2019.

The opening will coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mary Milliken; editing by Grant McCool)

Trump says launching ‘largest-ever’ package of sanctions against North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions from to reporters before departing the White House to speak at CPAC in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bour

By Christine Kim and Steve Holland

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States would launch the “largest-ever” package of sanctions against North Korea, intensifying pressure on the reclusive country to giving up its nuclear and missile programs.

“Today I am announcing that we are launching the largest-ever set of new sanctions on the North Korean regime,” Trump said in excerpts of a speech he was to deliver on Friday.

He said the Treasury Department soon will be taking action to further cut off sources of revenue and fuel that North Korea uses to fund its nuclear program and sustain its military.”

He said the effort will target more than 50 “vessels, shipping companies and trade businesses that are assisting North Korea in evading sanctions.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, which is seeking to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, is the Trump administration’s biggest national security challenge. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have taunted each other through the media and Trump has threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Tougher sanctions may jeopardize the latest detente between the two Koreas, illustrated by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in the South, amid preparations for talks about a possible summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had hinted at such a sanctions package two weeks ago during a stop in Tokyo that preceded his visit to South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

North Korea last year conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It defends the weapons programs as essential to deter U.S. aggression.

It has been more than two months since North Korea’s last missile test.

Kim said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, after a high-level delegation, including his sister, returned from the Olympics.

In an extension of that rapprochement, the North agreed on Friday to hold working-level talks on Tuesday for the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics on the North’s side of the border village of Panmunjom.

The new U.S. sanctions will be announced while Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is visiting South Korea. She had dinner with Moon after a closed-door meeting with the president.

“We are very, very excited to attend the 2018 winter Olympic games to cheer for Team USA and to reaffirm our strong and enduring commitment with the people of the Republic of Korea,” Ivanka, a senior White House adviser who has a long been a close confidante of her father’s, said at Incheon airport.

Ivanka Trump’s visit to South Korea coincides with that of a sanctioned North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, blamed for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors. His delegation will attend the closing ceremony and also meet Moon.

The South Korean president said South Korea cannot acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state and talks with the North on denuclearization and improving inter-Korean relations must go hand in hand, Moon’s spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, said at a news conference.

He said close cooperation between the United States and South Korea is important for the talks.

“President Moon also said out of all countries, South Korea has the strongest will to say it cannot acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state,” he said.

Moon made the comments to Ivanka.

The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet.

“RIGHT PERSON”

Kim Yong Chol is the vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and was previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency that South Korea blamed for the sinking of its navy corvette, the Cheonan. North Korea has denied any involvement.

Seoul said it approved the pending visit by Kim Yong Chol in the pursuit of peace and asked for public understanding in the face of opposition protests.

“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialogue with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun in a media briefing.

Kim Yong Chol currently heads the United Front Department, the North’s office responsible for handling inter-Korean affairs.

South Korea’s decision on Thursday to allow in Kim Yong Chol, currently sanctioned by the United States and South Korea, sparked protest from family members of the dead sailors and opposition parties.

Many have been angered at the North’s participation at the Games, which they say has been a reward for bad behavior with no quid pro quo from Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Trott)

Trump threatens to pull aid to Palestinians if they don’t pursue peace

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018

By Steve Holland and Yara Bayoumy

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, saying they had snubbed the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.

Trump, speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum, said he wanted peace. However, his remarks could further frustrate the aim of reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Palestinians shunned Pence’s visit to the region this month after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to begin moving the U.S. embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s endorsement in December of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands — that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The United States said this month it would withhold $65 million of $125 million it had planned to send to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. states and the United states is the largest contributor.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States had taken itself “off the table” as a peace mediator since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can’t have any role unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by phone from Jordan.

Abbas has called Trump’s Jerusalem declaration a “slap in the face” and has rejected Washington as an honest broker in any future talks with Israel. Abbas left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.

Abbas has said he would only accept a broad, internationally backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley also criticized Abbas.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking in Davos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said only the United States could broker a peace deal.

“I think there’s no substitute for the United States. As the honest broker, as a facilitator, there’s no other international body that would do it,” Netanyahu said.

Trump said Palestinians had to come to the negotiating table.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer,” Trump said.

Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works that was a “great proposal for Palestinians” which covers “a lot of the things that were over the years discussed or agreed on”, without providing specifics.

Trump said his declaration on Jerusalem took it off the negotiating table “and Israel will pay for that”, adding “they’ll do something that will be a very good thing” without elaborating.

Earlier at the World Economic Forum, Jordanian King Abdullah said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution.

He said Trump’s decision had created a backlash, frustrating Palestinians who felt there was no honest broker.

But he added: “I’d like to reserve judgment because we’re still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan.”

King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jordan particularly sensitive to any changes of status there.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and because of Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Most countries consider as illegal the Israeli settlements built in the territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel denies its settlements are illegal and says their future should be determined in peace talks.

The United States has said it would support a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to it.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RAMALLAH, Ari Rabinovitch in JERUSALEM, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Noah Barkin and Dmitry Zhdannikov in DAVOS; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Timing of Trump peace plan depends on Palestinians: Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City January 23, 2018.

By Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the timing of a long-awaited U.S. Middle East peace initiative depended on the return of Palestinians to negotiations.

President Donald Trump’s advisers have been working on the outlines of a plan for some time. But Palestinians ruled out Washington as a peace broker after the U.S. president’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” Pence told Reuters in an interview in Jerusalem on the last leg of a three-day Middle East trip. “It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

Trump’s Jerusalem move angered the Palestinians, sparked protests in the Middle East and raised concern among Western countries that it could further destabilize the region. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

A White House official told reporters he hoped the plan would be announced in 2018.

“It’ll come out both when it’s ready and when both sides are actually willing to engage on it,” said the White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged that the United States and the Palestinian leadership had not had any direct diplomatic contact since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

Pence said in the interview that he and the president believed the decision, under which the United States also plans to move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would improve peacemaking prospects.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the Trump administration had dealt a death blow to any prospect for peace.

“The extremist positions of this U.S. administration and the biblical messianic message of Pence not only disqualified the U.S. as a peace broker but created conditions of volatility and instability in the region and beyond,” Ashrawi said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Pence discussed the Jerusalem issue during talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday. He said the two leaders had agreed to convey to the Palestinians that the United States was eager to resume peace talks.

“We want them (the Palestinians) to know the door is open. We understand they’re unhappy with that decision but the president wanted me to convey our willingness and desire to be a part of the peace process going forward,” Pence said.

Asked if the Egyptians and Jordanians had agreed to pressure the Palestinians to return to talks, Pence said: “I wouldn’t characterize it as that.”

SUPPORTER OF NETANYAHU

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its eternal and indivisible capital.

Pence said the U.S. State Department would spell out details in the coming weeks about a plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.

Israeli media have speculated that a 2019 embassy move could help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win reelection in a vote scheduled for November of that year.

Pence said he admired Netanyahu’s leadership and appreciated his friendship. Asked if he hoped for the prime minister’s reelection, Pence said: “I’m a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t get a vote here.”

Pence toured Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with Netanyahu on Tuesday before visiting the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. He stood solemnly with his hand on the wall and left a note, as people who pray there traditionally do.

The vice president also pressed European leaders to heed Trump’s call to forge a follow-up agreement to the Iran nuclear deal established under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“At the end of the day, this is going to be a moment where the European community has to decide whether they want to go forward with the United States or whether they want to stay in this deeply flawed deal with Iran,” he said.

Asked if he thought the United States would succeed in getting that kind of agreement with its European allies, Pence said: “We’ll see.”

Trump said earlier this month the United States would withdraw from the agreement unless its flaws were fixed.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Ralph Boulton)

Pence pays tribute to fallen and heroes from Texas massacre

Pence pays tribute to fallen and heroes from Texas massacre

By Jon Herskovitz

FLORESVILLE, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence traveled on Wednesday to rural southeastern Texas, where he paid tribute to the victims and heroes from a church massacre that stands as the deadliest gun violence ever committed in a U.S. place of worship.

Pence and his wife, Karen, were welcomed with cheers and applause from as many as 2,000 people who filled half of a high school football stadium in Floresville, Texas, for the prayer vigil, about 13 miles from the scene of Sunday’s carnage in the town of Sutherland Springs.

“We gather tonight to offer our deepest condolences, and I offer the condolences of the American people to all those affected by the horrific attack that took place just three days ago,” Pence told the crowd.

The vice president was joined by a group of dignitaries that included Governor Greg Abbott, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Pence was called upon to fill the role of America’s “consoler-in-chief” in the absence of President Donald Trump, who has been out of the country on a state visit to Asia since before the shooting rampage.

“President Trump wanted to come to Texas tonight to tell all of you, ‘We are with you, the American people are with you,’ and as the president said Sunday from halfway around the world, ‘we will never leave your side,'” Pence said to rousing applause.

Earlier, he met with wounded survivors and family members of the victims. Authorities have put the death toll at 26, including the unborn child of a pregnant woman who was among those killed. The number of children slain at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs otherwise stood at eight.

“Whatever animated the evil that descended on that church last Sunday, if the attacker’s desire was to silence their testimony of faith, he failed,” Pence said to cheers.

The killer, Devin Kelley, 26, dressed in black and wearing a human-skull mask, stormed into the church sanctuary and opened fire on worshipers with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Kelley himself was shot twice by another man, Stephen Willeford, who lived nearby and confronted the assailant with his own rifle when the gunman emerged from the church.

Kelley managed to flee the scene in a getaway vehicle but shot himself to death and crashed in a ditch as Willeford and a passing motorist who was flagged down outside the church, Johnnie Langendorff, gave chase in Langendorff’s pickup truck.

Pence saluted the police, emergency personnel and doctors who had tended to the wounded, as well as the bravery of “those Texas heroes” – Willeford and Langendorff – who “pursued the attacker in a high-speed chase and saved the lives of Americans as a result.” Pence said he had met Willeford and Langendorff before Wednesday’s memorial service.

Preceding Pence to the microphone, Governor Abbott also praised Willeford, drawing a standing ovation when he declared, “Thank God there was a neighbor who helped save lives on that day.”

The comments from both politicians were enthusiastically received by the crowd.

“It was beyond good. People were hungry for what they were saying,” Beverly Perez, a retiree from nearby Adkins, Texas. “The community is rallying around those who are hurting. We hurt with them.”

No mention by name was made of Kelley, a former Air Force Airman who was convicted by court-martial and served a year in military detention for assaulting his first wife and infant step-son in 2012. Police records show he also escaped briefly from a mental hospital in New Mexico while facing those charges.

Authorities have said Kelley was more recently embroiled in a domestic dispute involving the parents of his second wife and threatening messages he had sent to his mother-in-law.

One of the women killed at the church, Lula Woicinski White, 71, was reported to be the gunman’s grandmother-in-law.

Reflecting lingering tensions in the aftermath of Sunday’s rampage, police were called to a park in Floresville about 2 1/2 hours before the prayer vigil by an unconfirmed report of a man with a gun. But a search of the park and adjacent cemetery by about 15 officers turned found no sign of an actual threat.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sam Holmes)

VP Pence says Russia’s stance must change before ties improve

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech during a meeting with U.S. troops taking part in NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia August 1, 2017. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that relations with Russia would not improve until Moscow changed its stance on Ukraine and withdrew support for “regimes like Iran and Syria and North Korea”.

The U.S. Congress voted last week for new sanctions on Russia and, at a news conference in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Pence said the “lifting of sanctions will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place”.

“Russia’s destabilizing activities in Ukraine, their support for rogue regimes like Iran and Syria and North Korea … their posture has to change,” he said at a joint news conference with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

Pence said U.S. President Donald Trump would sign the new sanctions on Russia into law this week and said that Trump and Congress were “speaking with a unified voice”.

Keeping to previous U.S. administrations’ line, Pence also condemned Russia’s presence in Georgia.

Moscow, whose annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted U.S. and EU sanctions, still has troops stationed in Georgia after a 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, backing Georgia’s Abkhazia, a region also controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Pence also said the U.S. was still behind Georgia’s application to become a member of NATO.

“We’ll continue to work closely with this prime minister and the government of Georgia broadly to advance the policies that will facilitate becoming a NATO member,” he said.

NATO promised Georgia membership in 2008, and three ex-Soviet Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are already members. Pence has reassured them during this tour that Washington firmly backs NATO’s doctrine of collective defense.

In the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday, he assured them of U.S. support if they faced aggression from Russia.

Asked about Pence’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said nations had the right to choose their partners.

“The only problem for us, is when this involves the expanding of various alliances and their infrastructure toward our borders. This is a cause of concern for us,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

During his visit, Pence attended Georgian-American military exercises, which began in Georgia on Sunday. About 2,800 soldiers from the United States, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, Armenia and Georgia are taking part in the maneuvers, which will last for two weeks.

On Wednesday, Pence visits Montenegro, which joined NATO in June. The tiny Balkan nation won praise from Washington for joining despite pressure against the move from Russia.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Maayan Lubell)

Peaceful outcome for Korean peninsula still possible: Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a media conference with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, April 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed

By Roberta Rampton and Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can still be achieved peacefully because of Washington’s new engagement with China, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday, despite growing fears North Korea could soon conduct a new nuclear test.

South Korea is on heightened alert ahead of another important anniversary in the reclusive North that could be the trigger for a new nuclear test or launch of ballistic missiles, with a large concentration of military hardware massed on both sides of the border.

Tensions have risen sharply in recent months after Pyongyang conducted two nuclear weapons tests last year and carried out a steady stream of ballistic missile tests in defiance of United Nations resolutions and sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile but his deputy said in Sydney on Saturday a peaceful outcome was still achievable because of warming ties between Beijing and Washington.

“We truly believe that, as our allies in the region and China bring that pressure to bear, there is a chance that we can achieve a historic objective of a nuclear-free Korea peninsula by peaceful means,” Pence said.

“We are encouraged by the steps that China has taken so far,” he said at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Earlier this week, Trump praised Chinese efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea” after North Korean state media warned the United States of a “super-mighty preemptive strike”.

Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort in Florida earlier this month and, while taking a hard line with North Korea, has focused his efforts on trying to convince China to put more pressure on its ally and neighbor.

However, Trump has also ordered what he has described as an “armada” to waters off the Korean peninsula as a warning to North Korea. There was some confusion about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group earlier this week.

PILOT EJECTS

While it was thought the carrier group had been steaming toward the Korean peninsula, it had in fact been completing a training exercise with the Australian navy.

Pence said the carrier group was now expected to be in waters off the Korean peninsula before the end of the month, “within days”.

On Friday, the U.S. Navy said a pilot from the USS Carl Vinson had ejected safely while conducting a routine flight south of the Philippines.

It said the incident occurred as the F/A-18E was on a final approach to the carrier. The pilot was recovered by helicopter without injury. The statement did not say when the incident occurred.

In the face of the U.S. moves, North Korea said on Friday the state of affairs on the Korean peninsula was “extremely perilous”.

The North will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday and has marked important events in the past by launching missiles or conducting nuclear tests.

Tuesday’s anniversary also comes as the North finishes winter military drills and as South Korea and the United States wrap up annual joint military exercises.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said on Friday all those military exercises meant there was a lot of military equipment gathered in North Korea, as well as the South.

Satellite imagery analyzed by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, found some activity under way at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but the group said it was unclear whether the site was in a “tactical pause” before another test or was carrying out normal operations.

U.S. officials have also said there was an increased level of activity by Chinese bombers, signaling a possible heightened state of readiness. Russian media has denied reports Moscow was building up its forces near the Korean border.

China’s Defence Ministry, however, said its forces were maintaining normal combat preparedness.

North Korea remained defiant.

“Now that we possess mighty nuclear power to protect ourselves from U.S. nuclear threat, we will respond without the slightest hesitation to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike, and we will emerge victor in the final battle with the United States,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Ben Blanchard on BEIJING, Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON, and Polina Devitt in MOSCOW; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)