U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Pompeo, in first, accompanies Israeli PM to Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visit the Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem's Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accompanied Israel’s prime minister on a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday in the first such gesture since Washington recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, angering Palestinians.

The ancient Western Wall, the most sacred prayer site in Judaism, is located in the eastern part of the city that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Israel has long considered all of Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they seek in territory Israel took in the June 1967 war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman touch the stones of the Western Wall during a visit to the site in Jerusalem's Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman touch the stones of the Western Wall during a visit to the site in Jerusalem’s Old City March 21, 2019. Abir Sultan/ Pool via REUTERS

Shortly after entering office in January 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump visited the Western Wall, though without Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Later that year Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy and officially recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, though making clear that he was not prejudging a settlement on where the city’s borders should be.

Since that shift, the U.S. ambassador to Israel has paid visits to the Western Wall along with Netanyahu. Pompeo suggested that his own visit as the top U.S. diplomat in Netanyahu’s presence was significant.

“I think it’s symbolic that a senior American official goes there with the prime minister of Israel,” he told reporters prior to arriving in the walled Old City.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The elevated plaza above it is the Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam, containing the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Pompeo, Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman together approached the wall and each leaned against its massive stones with one hand. Pompeo then placed a prayer note in between the stones, as is customary.

Before going to the wall, he visited the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Pompeo, now on a Middle East tour, visited Kuwait before Israel and is due to proceed to Lebanon. His trip to Israel, three weeks before a closely contested election, was portrayed in local media as a Trump administration boost for the right-wing Netanyahu.

(Reporting by Rami Amichay; Writing by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Top North Korea envoy meets Pompeo, headed for talks with Trump

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo escorts Vice Chairman of the North Korean Workers' Party Committee Kim Yong Chol, North Korea's lead negotiator in nuclear diplomacy with the United States, into talks aimed at clearing the way for a second U.S.-North Korea summit as they meet at a hotel in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A North Korean nuclear envoy held talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday and was then due to meet President Donald Trump at the White House, a diplomatic flurry aimed at laying the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit.

The visit of Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyan’s lead negotiator with the United States, marked a rare sign of potential movement in a denuclearization effort that has stalled since a landmark meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year.

Kim Yong Chol and Pompeo, with tight smiles, posed together for photographs at a Washington hotel before holding about 45 minutes of talks that could determine whether the two sides can make headway. There has been no indication of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or over Pyongyang’s demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions.

Hours before Kim Yong Chol’s arrival on Thursday, Trump – who declared after the Singapore summit in June that the nuclear threat posed by North Korea was over – unveiled a revamped U.S. missile defense strategy that singled out the country as an ongoing and “extraordinary threat.”

The State Department said after the meeting that Pompeo had a “good discussion” with Kim Yong Chol “on efforts to make progress on commitments President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un made at their summit in Singapore.” But it provided no specifics.

After the talks with Pompeo, Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former spy chief, the White House confirmed that he would hold a meeting with the president in the Oval Office later on Friday.

The high-level visit could yield an announcement of plans for a second summit. Both Trump and Kim have expressed an interest in arranging but some U.S.-based analysts say it would be premature due to the lack of obvious progress so far.

Their first meeting produced a vague commitment by Kim to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but he has yet to take what Washington sees as concrete steps in that direction.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alistair Bell)

Pompeo says new Mexican government ‘great’ on immigration: Fox

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the press before boarding his plane at Mexico City International Airport in Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/Pool/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday praised the new government of Mexico on immigration issues and said the two sides have discussed the importance of stemming the flow of undocumented migrants before they get to the U.S. border.

“The incoming administration’s been great,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News, citing conversations about how to control traffic from Guatemala and Honduras along Mexico’s southern border. “We have to control that border that is ours and they have to control that border that is theirs.”

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office on Dec. 1. The next day, Pompeo met with Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, to discuss border issues.

“We’re happy to support them. We’re happy to try and do the things we can do to help them,” Pompeo said in the Fox interview.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called the migrants effort to seek asylum in the United States an “invasion” and has deployed the military to the border to reinforce security measures.

He has reiterated his campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, even after Mexico repeatedly rejected his demand that it pay for the billion-dollar project.

Funding for the border wall has been a sticking point in spending bills before the U.S. Congress, and Trump clashed with leading Democrats over the issue during an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday.

Pompeo said he supports the effort to build a wall.

“We have to have the capacity to control entry to our country everywhere,” he said. “And a wall is a vital component of that.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

Frost thaws in U.S.-China ties ahead of G20 meeting

FILE PHOTO: U.S. and Chinese flags are placed for a joint news conference by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom and John Geddie

WASHINGTON/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States and China will hold a delayed top-level security dialogue on Friday, the latest sign of a thaw in relations, as China’s vice president said Beijing was willing to talk with Washington to resolve their bitter trade dispute.

The resumption of high-level dialogue, marked by a phone call last week between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, comes ahead of an expected meeting between the two at the G20 summit in Argentina starting in late November.

It follows months of recriminations spanning trade, U.S. accusations of Chinese political interference, the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.

China and the United States have both described last week’s telephone call between Xi and Trump as positive. Trump predicted he’d be able to make a deal with China on trade.

In a concrete sign of the unfreezing, the U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe will take part in diplomatic and security talks later this week in Washington.

China said last month the two sides had initially agreed “in principle” to hold the second round of diplomatic security talks in October but they were postponed at Washington’s request amid rising tensions over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Mattis had been due to hold talks with Wei in Beijing in October, but those plans were upended after Washington imposed sanctions on China’s People’s Liberation Army for buying weapons from Russia.

Mattis did meet Wei in Singapore on Oct. 18 and told him that the world’s two largest economies needed to deepen high-level ties to reduce the risk of conflict.

Speaking in Singapore on Tuesday, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who is close to Xi, reiterated China’s readiness to hold discussions and work with the United States to resolve trade disputes as the world’s two largest economies stand to lose from confrontation.

“Both China and the U.S. would love to see greater trade and economic cooperation,” Wang told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore.

“The Chinese side is ready to have discussions with the U.S. on issues of mutual concern and work for a solution on trade acceptable to both sides,” he said.

“The world today faces many major problems that require close co-operation between China and the United States,” Wang said.

Wang echoed comments made by Xi on Monday at a major import fair in Shanghai that Beijing will embrace greater openness.

Trump has railed against China over intellectual property theft, entry barriers to U.S. business and a gaping trade deficit, which U.S. data showed reached a record $40.2 billion in September.

The trade war, which has seen both sides impose tariffs on billions of dollars worth of the other’s imports, is beginning to hurt China’s economy and has battered Chinese shares and the yuan currency.

It has also brought purchases of U.S. soybeans by China to a virtual standstill. Soybeans are the largest U.S. agricultural export to China.

Jim Sutter, CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, told Reuters on the sidelines of the Shanghai import fair that both countries understood the need to maintain their relationship.

“I think both sides are optimistic … more optimistic after the call last week that took place, that some kind of a solution can be reached,” he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and John Geddie; Additional reporting by Tom Daly and Michael Martina in Shanghai; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Tony Munroe and Neil Fullick)

U.S. backs disarmament steps along North Korean demilitarized zone: general

General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the US Forces Korea (USFK) speaks during the mutual repatriation ceremony of soldiers' remains between South Korean and U.S at the Seoul National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, 13 July 2018. Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – The outgoing commander of American troops in South Korea voiced support on Monday for controversial measures to reduce military activity along the border with North Korea, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared for talks with North Korean officials on denuclearization and plans for a second leaders’ summit.

Writing in a South Korean military publication, U.S. General Vincent Brooks said recent steps by South and North Korea to disarm areas along the so-called demilitarized zone between the two nations have “the support and agreement of the United States.”

Last week a no-fly zone went into effect along the border, despite private concerns by U.S. officials that the move could restrict training and the ability to monitor the border. Other steps included disarming some areas of the border and removing some landmines and guard posts.

“Together, these activities demonstrate a shared commitment to positive action and work to develop the trust essential to the next steps along the road to a lasting and stable peace,” Brooks wrote.

Pompeo previously expressed “discontent” with the deal that created the no-fly zone, which South Korean sources said became a key sticking point for the United States because it would effectively prevent close air support drills.

Brooks’ comments came as U.S. and South Korean marines conducted military drills under the Korean Marine Exchange Program for the first time in months, according to the South Korean ministry of defense.

The exercises were among the training drills indefinitely suspended in June after U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

Although larger exercises were suspended, the two countries have continued small-scale drills, the South’s Ministry of National Defence said on Monday, adding that the marines were holding a training round near the southern city of Pohang.

Pompeo, interviewed on broadcaster CBS’s “Face the Nation” program said on Sunday he would be in New York at the end of this week to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol.

“I expect we’ll make some real progress, including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place, where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearization,” he added.

North Korea has not tested a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon for nearly a year and has said it has shuttered its main nuclear test site and plans to dismantle several more facilities.

In recent weeks, North Korea has pressed harder for what it sees as reciprocal concessions by the United States and other countries.

Over the weekend, Kim hosted President Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba – another country under U.S. sanctions – during a lavish visit in Pyongyang, where the two leaders vowed to boost their cooperation.

During a banquet on Sunday, Kim said the “two countries are in the same trench in the struggle for defending sovereignty and dignity of their countries and safeguarding international justice,” according to a state media report.

Diaz-Canel, meanwhile, “voiced his will to meet all challenges by the hostile forces” alongside North Korea, according to the report.

‘NO ECONOMIC RELIEF’

On Friday North Korea warned that it could resume development of its nuclear program if the United States did not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.

“The improvement of relations and sanctions are incompatible,” a foreign ministry official said in a statement released through state-run KCNA news agency.

“The U.S. thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ lead to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea.”

South Korea hopes the North and the United States will make “big progress” during the talks set for this week, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said on Monday, but declined to comment on the North’s Friday statement.

American officials have remained skeptical of Kim’s commitment to give up his nuclear arsenal, however, and Washington says it will not support easing international sanctions until more verified progress is made.

Pompeo, interviewed on television’s “Fox News Sunday,” said the Trump administration wants a full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, adding that Trump insisted on “no economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s continuing efforts to engage with North Korea have fanned U.S. concerns that Seoul could weaken pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

In Washington last week, South Korea’s defense minister said the two countries would decide by December on major joint military exercises for 2019. Vigilant Ace, suspended this month, is one of several such exercises halted to encourage dialogue with Pyongyang, which has criticized joint U.S.-South Korea exercises in the past.

The biggest combat-readiness war game ever staged in and around Japan has gone ahead, however, with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan joining Japanese destroyers and a Canadian warship in the ocean off Japan, another key player in the effort to pressure North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)

Saudi king orders Khashoggi probe, Trump sends Pompeo to discuss case

A car with a diplomatic registration plate arrives at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Tulay Karadeniz and Yara Bayoumy

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Monday ordered an internal probe into the unexplained disappearance of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a joint Turkish-Saudi team was set to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was last seen on Oct. 2.

U.S. President Donald Trump said meanwhile he had spoken with King Salman about Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s policies, and that he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet the king immediately.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS.

Trump also said Salman denied “any knowledge of whatever may have happened” to Khashoggi, who disappeared after he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, and told him the Saudis are working closely with Turkey on the case.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, vanished after entering the consulate to get marriage documents. Turkish officials have said authorities believe he was murdered and his body removed, allegations that Saudi Arabia has denied.

The case has provoked an international outcry, with Trump threatening “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and European allies urging “a credible investigation” and accountability for those responsible.

A Turkish diplomatic source said investigators would inspect the consulate on Monday afternoon, after delays last week when Turkey accepted a Saudi proposal to work together to find out what happened to Khashoggi.

“The King has ordered the Public Prosecutor to open an internal investigation into the Khashoggi matter based on the info from the joint team in Istanbul,” a Saudi official, not authorized to speak publicly, told Reuters.

Asked when the public prosecutor could make an announcement about the investigation, the official said: “He was instructed to work quickly.”

A man holds a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as media members film during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

A man holds a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as media members film during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Britain expects Riyadh to provide “a complete and detailed response” to questions over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Monday.

Saudi Arabia has responded to Western statements by saying it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions “with greater action”, and Arab allies rallied to support it, setting up a potential showdown between the world’s top oil exporter and its main Western allies.

King Salman and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and stressed the importance of the two countries creating a joint group as part of the probe.

Broadcaster CNN Turk reported on Monday that the Saudi team had arrived at Istanbul police headquarters.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The Saudi riyal fell to its lowest in two years and its international bond prices slipped over fears that foreign investment inflows could shrink amid international pressure.

The Saudi stock market had tumbled 7.2 percent over the previous two trading days but rebounded 2 percent on Monday.

Foreign capital is key to Saudi plans for economic diversification and job creation.

But concern over the disappearance has seen media organizations and a growing number of attendees pull out of a “Davos in the Desert” investment conference set for Oct. 23-25, which has become the biggest show for investors to promote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform vision.

On Monday, a source familiar with the matter said Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink were pulling out of the summit. Both companies declined comment.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which hosts the conference, has tentatively committed $20 billion to an infrastructure investment planned with Blackstone Group. Prince Mohammed told Reuters last year that Blackstone and BlackRock Inc were planning to open offices in the kingdom.

Bahrain called for a boycott of Uber, in which PIF has invested $3.5 billion after its chief executive officer said he would not attend the conference.

PRELIMINARY EVIDENCE

Similar campaigns trended on social media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. UAE businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor urged a boycott of Virgin, which has suspended discussions with PIF over a planned $1 billion investment.

Khashoggi, a familiar face on Arab talk shows, moved to the United States last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.

The former newspaper editor once interviewed Osama bin Laden and later became a consummate insider, advising former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal when he served as ambassador in London and Washington.

A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators it said identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team which arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.

The Saudi consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh who did not respond to questions about the 15 Saudis.

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Rob Cox of Breakingviews, William James in London; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)

Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack

A general view shows an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran, in this September 22, 2018 photo by ISNA. The photo is watermarked from source. ISNA/Iranian Students' News Agency/Social Media/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT.

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that the attackers who killed 25 people at a military parade were paid by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and that Iran would “severely punish” those behind the bloodshed.

The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also accused the United States and Israeli of involvement in the attack and he said they should expect a devastating response from Tehran.

In the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, thousands packed the streets to mourn the victims of Saturday’s assault, many chanting “Death to Israel and America”. Twelve members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were among the 25 dead.

The coffins, wrapped in the flag of the Islamic Republic, were carried by the mourners. Many held pictures of a four-year old boy killed in the incident, one of the worst such attacks against Iran’s the most powerful military force.

Four assailants fired on a viewing stand in Ahvaz where Iranian officials had gathered to watch an annual parade marking the start of Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq.

“Based on reports, this cowardly act was done by people who the Americans come to help when they are trapped in Syria and Iraq, and are paid by Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Khamenei said on his official website.

Guards Brigadier General Hossein Salami, in a speech broadcast on state TV, said: “You have seen our revenge before. You will see that our response will be crushing and devastating and you will regret what you have done,”

Tasnim new agency also quoted Salami as saying that the “horrific crime” exposed the dark side of an alliance that the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel had created to counter Iranian influence in the region.

The secretary of Iran’s National Security Council said Tehran needed to talk to its neighbors to avoid tensions.

“It’s essential to be fully aware and increase our constructive dialogues to neutralize the plots of enemies who want to create suspicion and disagreement among regional countries,” Ali Shamkhani said.

He also criticized the United States, saying U.S. sanctions against Iran were illegal and that President Donald Trump was using them as a tool for “personal revenge”.

ANTAGONIZE

The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and Washington, rejected Iran’s allegations alluding to its involvement in the violence.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked by a Fox News interviewer if the United States played any role in the attack, said: “When you have a security incident at home, blaming others is an enormous mistake.”

The loss of innocent lives was tragic, Pompeo added. There has been no reaction yet from Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Accusations against Gulf countries will almost certainly antagonize Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia. The oil super-powers are waging a war for influence across the Middle East, backing opposite sides in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

It is, however, highly unlikely the Guards will strike any of its foes directly and risk sparking a regional conflict.

Analyst said the violence has led to a boost in domestic support for the Guards which they could use to silence their critics, who include pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani engineered Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that ushered in a cautious detente with Washington before tensions flared anew with Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the accord and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, said a network of suspects had already been arrested in connection with the attack, the judiciary’s news agency Mizan reported. He did not elaborate..

Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement which seeks a separate state in oil-rich Khuzestan province, and Islamic State have both claimed responsibility.

The Guard Corps was set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution to protect the Shi’ite clerical ruling system and revolutionary values. It answers to Ayatollah Khamenei and has an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

North Korea’s Kim sets denuclearization time line, prompting thanks from Trump

Chief of the national security office at Seoul's presidential Blue House Chung Eui-yong meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea September 5, 2018. Picture taken September 5, 2018. The Presidential Blue House/Handout via REUTERS 


By Hyonhee Shin and Susan Heavey

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has given his first timeline for denuclearization, aiming for the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first term, Seoul officials said on Thursday, prompting thanks from Trump who said they would “get it done together”.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will also meet in Pyongyang on Sept. 18-20 for a third summit and discuss “practical measures” toward denuclearization, Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said a day after meeting Kim.

The summit could provide renewed momentum to talks over denuclearization between North Korea and the United States, after Trump canceled a visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month citing lack of progress.

Kim told South Korean officials his faith in Trump was “unchanged” and that he wanted denuclearization and an end to hostile relations with the United States before Trump’s first term in office ends in early 2021, Chung said.

“He particularly emphasized that he has never said anything negative about President Trump,” Chung said.

Trump welcomed Kim’s remarks in a trademark Tweet.

“Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump.’ Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!” Trump wrote.

In previous, failed talks, North Korea has said it could consider giving up its nuclear program if the United States provided security guarantees by removing troops from South Korea and withdrawing its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from the South and Japan.

U.S. officials involved in the latest negotiations have said North Korea has refused to even start discussions about defining denuclearization or other key terms such as “verifiable” and “irreversible”, and has insisted the United States must first agree to simultaneous steps to reduce economic pressure.

Pompeo, visiting New Delhi, declined to discuss the next steps but said there was a long road ahead in the denuclearization process.

Pompeo visited Pyongyang in July, after which North Korea accused him of making “unilateral and gangster-like demands for denuclearization” while showing little interest in ending the war.

“It is the case that there is still an enormous amount of work to do,” Pompeo told a news conference on Thursday.

Asked about U.S. intelligence that North Korea was still advancing its weapons programs, Pompeo noted that Pyongyang had ceased its nuclear tests and test-firing missiles, “which we consider a good thing.

“But the work of convincing Chairman Kim to make this strategic shift that we’ve talked about for a brighter future for the people of North Korea continues,” Pompeo said.

Moon’s national security adviser Chung said Kim had stressed the need for the United States to reciprocate North Korea’s initial moves, which have included dismantling a nuclear test site and a missile engine facility.

The U.S. embassy in Seoul said it had no information to share on the matter.

FRUSTRATION

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Kim told the South’s envoys that his “fixed stand” was to turn the Korean peninsula into “a cradle of peace without nuclear weapons, free from nuclear threat”.

Chung said Kim showed “frustration over the doubt raised by some parts of the international community about his willingness to denuclearize, and asked us to convey his message to the United States”.

“He said he would appreciate that such good faith is accepted with good faith,” Chung said. “He expressed his strong will to carry out more proactive measures toward denuclearization if action is taken in response to the North’s preemptive steps.”

U.S. officials have previously said they have already made concessions, such as halting joint military exercises with South Korea.

During his meeting with Kim, Chung delivered a message from Trump and will relay comments from Kim to U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, told reporters.

Trump spoke to Moon on the evening before Chung’s trip and asked Moon to act as “chief negotiator” between Washington and Pyongyang, the spokesman said.

WHAT HAPPENS FIRST?

Kim and Trump held a landmark summit in Singapore in June, in which they agreed to work toward complete denuclearization. But negotiations have made little progress, while signs North Korea has maintained work on its weapons have emerged.

Under discussion is whether denuclearization or declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War should come first.

The war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, meaning U.S.-led U.N. forces, including South Korea, are technically still at war with the North.

“The United States shouldn’t delay any further an end-of-war declaration, which the U.S. president promised at the Singapore summit,” the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial.

U.S. officials have said such a declaration could weaken North Korea’s incentive for denuclearization, and create uncertainty about the purpose of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the three-year war.

“Looks like Kim is trying to wash away worries that talks could stall or fail, knowing well that Washington is losing patience,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

“Kim also made it clear that he needs some kind of proof Trump has abandoned the U.S.’s hostile policy before moving toward denuclearization. Kim is trying to prove his sincerity.”

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim Joyce Lee in SEOUL John Walcott and Susan Heavey in WASHINGTON and Phil Stewart in NEW DELHI; Writing by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Chris Cushing and Nick Macfie)

Pompeo upbeat on ‘reset’ with Pakistan after meeting new PM Khan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves to the media before his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday, saying he was hopeful of “a reset of relations” long strained over the war in Afghanistan.

Pompeo’s visit, along with the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was the first high-level U.S. mission to the new government. It aimed to smooth over tensions after President Donald Trump took a tough new line towards Pakistan over longstanding accusations it is not doing enough to root out Afghan Taliban fighters on its territory.

Pompeo met with Khan as well as Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the country’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

“We talked about their new government, the opportunity to reset the relationship between our two countries across a broad spectrum,” including business ties and ending the war in Afghanistan, Pompeo told reporters before leaving for India.

“And I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.”

Khan, a former cricket star who swept to power in the July elections, also struck a positive tone.

“I’m a born optimist. A sportsman always is an optimist. He steps on the field and he thinks he’s going to win,” Khan told reporters.

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

AID CUTS

Pompeo expressed confidence in a new beginning in relations with nuclear-armed Pakistan, but conceded: “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

“We made clear to them that – and they agreed – it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments,” Pompeo said, without specifically mentioning the Taliban.

The meetings come against a backdrop of tense ties and U.S. military aid cuts over Islamabad’s alleged reluctance to crack down on militants.

Washington has accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye to, or helping, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who stage attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies doing so.

Pompeo landed in Islamabad minutes after the plane carrying U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ahead of the talks, Dunford said Trump’s South Asia strategy set clear expectations for Pakistan, including help to drive the Taliban to a peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.

“Our bilateral relationship moving forward is very much going to be informed by the degree of cooperation we see from Pakistan in doing that,” he told reporters.

The United States has withheld $800 million in overall assistance this year, cuts Pakistan says are unwarranted as it incurs expenses in fighting militants who threaten U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Pompeo was also expected to discuss Pakistan’s possible plans to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease currency pressures and avert an economic crisis.

In July, Pompeo said there was “no rationale” for the IMF to give money to Pakistan that would then be used to pay off Chinese loans, comments that further rattled Islamabad.

INDIA NEXT

Pompeo is next due to visit India, Pakistan’s neighbor and bitter foe, where he is expected to put pressure on New Delhi over its purchases of Iranian oil and Russian missile systems.

He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will meet their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on Thursday and are expected to finalize defense pacts that could bring their militaries closer amid growing Chinese influence across Asia.

The talks come as U.S. hostility rises towards India’s traditional allies Iran and Russia, targets of U.S. sanctions. Iran is a big oil supplier to India, and two-thirds of its military equipment is from Russia.

The United States is concerned about India’s planned purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow.

An Indian defense ministry official said the country had nearly concluded commercial negotiations with Russia for the systems and intended to proceed with them, to boost defenses against China.

India has said it will not completely halt oil imports from Iran, but will finalize its strategy on crude purchases after this week’s meeting with U.S. officials.

(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad and Krishna Das in India; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and Kay Johnson; Editing by Andrew Roche)