Russia moves to mask its soldiers’ digital trail

FILE PHOTO: A Russian Army member, dressed in a historical uniform, takes a selfie as he attends a rehearsal for a military parade to mark the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941, when Soviet soldiers marched towards the front lines at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is moving to ban its soldiers from sharing information on the internet, a step that follows the use of social media posts by investigative journalists to shine a light on Moscow’s clandestine role in foreign conflicts.

Draft legislation proposes banning servicemen and reserve troops from posting anything online that would allow outsiders to glean their whereabouts or role in the military.

The bill, which was approved by lawmakers in its second of three readings in parliament on Tuesday, says the ban would cover photographs, video, geolocation data or other information.

It would also prohibit soldiers sharing information about other servicemen or the relatives of servicemen, while those who break the ban would be subject to disciplinary measures.

“Information shared by soldiers on the internet or mass media is used…in certain cases to form a biased assessment of Russia’s state policy,” the bill’s explanatory note said.

The move comes with online investigative journalism sites drawing on open source data to probe Russia’s alleged role in clandestine operations abroad.

Investigative site Bellingcat used social network posts extensively in reports concluding that Russian soldiers were involved in the downing of passenger flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

A Dutch criminal investigation concluded last year that the plane was shot down with a surface-to-air missile belonging to the 53rd brigade of the Russian army. Moscow denies involvement.

“Social networks were used in many other investigations about the war in Ukraine and the war in Syria, for instance when fellow servicemen or relatives spoke about deceased soldiers,” said Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of investigative site The Insider.

Reuters has used social network posts to identify Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine at a time when Moscow denied its soldiers were fighting there.

If passed, the legislation will formally institute defense ministry recommendations that pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia says were issued to soldiers in 2017.

The lower house still has to vote on the bill once more before it is sent to the upper house for a vote and is then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. military ready to protect diplomats in Venezuela: admiral

People attend a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government at Plaza Bolivar in Lima, Peru February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities in Venezuela if needed, the U.S. admiral in charge of American forces in South America said on Thursday.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

He did not provide any details on how the U.S. military might respond.

Venezuela’s collapse under President Nicolas Maduro, with the country, plunged into poverty and driving some 3 million people to flee abroad, has forced nations worldwide to take a stance, particularly after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president last month.

Major European Union nations have joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as the rightful interim ruler of the South American nation.

Faller said Venezuela had about 2,000 generals and the majority of them were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they have amassed from drug trafficking, petroleum revenue and business revenue.

Still, he said, rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population” of Venezuela.

“The legitimate government of President Guaido has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the Constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” Faller said.

He added that the Venezuelan military was degraded.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

As world looks on, Venezuela’s Guaido to keep up pressure on Maduro

Juan Guaido, President of Venezuela's National Assembly, holds a copy of Venezuelan constitution during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition on Thursday will seek to maintain pressure on isolated President Nicolas Maduro after congress chief Juan Guaido swore himself in as interim head of state with the support of nations around the region.

Guaido won diplomatic backing from the United States, Canada and right-leaning Latin American governments on Wednesday after declaring himself leader before ebullient supporters who thronged the streets of Caracas in hopes of change.

The European Union stopped short of recognizing Guaido as leader but said the democratic will of Venezuelans “cannot be ignored” and called for his “civil rights, freedom and safety” to be respected.

Guaido, 35, an industrial engineer catapulted almost overnight to national leader, has promised free and fair elections, a transition government to revive the hyperinflation-riddled economy and an amnesty for military officers if they help push Maduro from power.

He faces the daunting task of pushing forward the transition plan without control over crucial state institutions and armed forces that have disavowed him.

Military commanders, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, have so far promised to stick with socialist Maduro. Padrino was scheduled to speak on Thursday in support of Maduro, hours after he said the armed forces would not recognize a president “imposed by shadowy interests.”

On Thursday morning, Venezuelan state television broadcast four separate messages from regional military commanders, surrounded by troops, voicing support for Maduro. The recorded messages were broadcast one after the other.

Russia, which has invested heavily in Venezuela’s oil industry and provided support to its armed forces, accused Washington of trying to usurp power in the country and warned against U.S. military intervention.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had not received a Venezuelan request for military help and declined to say how it would respond if it did. But he said Maduro was the legitimate president.

Turkey took a similar line, with President Tayyip Erdogan calling Maduro to offer support.

Among investors holding defaulted debt issued by the government and state-run oil company PDVSA, the political developments fueled hopes that a resolution of the crisis might be coming closer.

Sovereign dollar and PDVSA bonds extended their rally on Thursday, having surged the previous day after Washington backed Guaido. Its 2024 sovereign dollar bond is now at its highest since autumn 2017 when Maduro publicly called for a debt restructuring.

REAL POWER

A total of 14 people were killed in violence linked to anti-government protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to local rights groups Provea and the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Some of the deaths resulted from looting.

Many opposition sympathizers are concerned Guaido could be arrested like other political activists, including his mentor Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest for his involvement in street protests in 2014.

“While it’s true that Guaido has been recognized internationally, the real power of the state is still in the hands of Nicolas Maduro,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a political science professor who focuses on Venezuela at Rosario University in Bogota.

With the country’s economy disintegrating and annual inflation approaching 2 million percent, Maduro has relied extensively on the military to maintain power.

Foreign backing could allow Guaido to raise funds abroad to obtain food and medicine for a population struggling under economic crisis, Rodriguez said, but he would face challenges in getting goods through ports controlled by Maduro allies.

Guaido on Wednesday promised that humanitarian aid would be distributed with the oversight of Congress. He did not announce activities for the coming days.

Referring to Wednesday’s anti-government protests, the EU said Venezuela’s people had “massively called for democracy and the possibility to freely determine their own destiny. These voices cannot be ignored.

“The Venezuelan people have the right to peacefully demonstrate, to freely choose its leaders and decide its future,” the 28-nation bloc said in a statement.

The EU has imposed sanctions on Venezuela and boycotted Maduro’s swearing-in for a second term this month following a widely-boycotted election last year that many foreign governments called a sham.

It aims to set up an international contact group with South American nations in February to seek talks between Maduro and the opposition, which diplomats said would need to include Guaido.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who coordinates EU governments from Brussels, took to Twitter to call on “all of Europe to unite in support of democratic forces” in Venezuela.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Karin Strohecker in London and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Bill Trott)

Hours after U.S. troops killed in Syria, Pence says Islamic State defeated

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to the news media outside the West Wing with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) after a meeting with President Donald Trump and congressional leadership about the partial government shutdown at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday, hours after Americans were killed in a northern Syria bomb attack claimed by the militant group.

Pence did not mention the attack in his address to 184 chiefs of U.S. diplomatic missions who gather annually in Washington from around the world to discuss foreign policy strategy.

“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence told the U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats, referring to Islamic State.

In separate statements later, both the White House and Pence condemned the attack and expressed sympathy for the deaths of the U.S. personnel.

The Pentagon said two U.S. servicemembers, a Department of Defense civilian employee and one contractor working for the military were killed and three servicemembers were injured in the blast in the northern Syria town of Manbij.

An Islamic State-affiliated website said the attack was the work of a suicide bomber.

Trump made a surprise announcement on Dec. 19 that he would withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria after concluding that Islamic State had been defeated there. His decision led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who cited policy differences with the president for his departure.

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Omar Sanadiki/Files/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State’s slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Omar Sanadiki/Files/File Photo

LACK OF PROGRESS

Despite talks of a second leaders’ summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, Pence acknowledged that efforts to convince Pyonyang to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway.

“While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” he said.

The vice president also criticized China’s “unfair” trade practices and loans to developing countries that pushed up their debt levels as it tries to gain greater influence in the world.

“The truth is that too often in recent years China has chosen a path that disregards the laws and norms that have kept the world state prosperous for more than half a century,” he said. “The days of the United States looking the other way are over,” he added.

Pence said the administration’s foreign policy was based on Trump’s “America First” agenda. “No longer will the United States government pursue grandiose, unrealistic notions at the expense of American people,” he said.

He acknowledged that Trump’s foreign policy was “different from what the world has come to expect” and that the United States faced different threats than during the Cold War.

“Today we are not up against one superpower but several great powers competing with us for preeminence across the world,” he said, saying the United States faced a “wolf pack” of rogue states including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)

Special Report: Oil output goes AWOL in Venezuela as soldiers run PDVSA

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Venezuela's Oil Minister and President of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA Manuel Quevedo, shake hands during their meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 5, 2018.Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Alexandra Ulmer and Marianna Parraga

CARACAS (Reuters) – Last July 6, Major General Manuel Quevedo joined his wife, a Catholic priest and a gathering of oil workers in prayer in a conference room at the headquarters of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA.

The career military officer, who for the past year has been boss at the troubled state-owned oil company, was at no ordinary mass. The gathering, rather, was a ceremony at which he and other senior oil ministry officials asked God to boost oil output.

“This place of peace and spirituality,” read a release by the Oil Ministry that was later scrubbed from its web site, “was the site of prayer by workers for the recovery of production of the industry.”

President Nicolas Maduro turned heads in November 2017 when he named a National Guard general with no oil experience to lead PDVSA [PDVSA.UL]. Quevedo’s actions since have raised even more doubts that he and the other military brass now running the company have a viable plan to rescue it from crushing debt, an exodus of workers and withering production now at its lowest in almost seven decades.

Aside from beseeching heaven, Quevedo in recent months has enacted a series of controversial measures that oil industry experts, PDVSA employees and contractors, and even everyday citizens say are pushing the once-profitable and respected company towards ruin.

Soldiers with AK-47s, under orders to prevent cheating on manifests, now board tankers to accompany cargo inspectors, rattling foreign captains and crews.

Workers who make mistakes operating increasingly dilapidated PDVSA equipment now face the risk of arrest and charges of sabotage or corruption. Military chieftains, moonlighting in the private sector, are elbowing past other contractors for lucrative service and supply business with PDVSA.

In a little-noted reversal of the Socialist government’s two-decade drive to nationalize the industry, the lack of expertise among military managers is leading PDVSA to hire outsiders to keep afloat even basic operations, like drilling and pumping oil. To the dismay of many familiar with Venezuela’s oil industry, some of the contracts are going to small, little-known firms with no experience in the sector.

Combined, industry veterans say, the steps leave Venezuela’s most important company – which accounts for over 90 percent of export revenue – with even fewer means to rebuild the nation’s coffers, pay its many creditors and regain self-sufficiency as an oil producer.

“What we are witnessing is a policy of destroying the oil industry,” said Jose Bodas, general secretary of the Oil Workers Federation, a national labor union. “The military officials don’t listen to workers. They want to give orders, but they don’t understand this complicated work.”

Maduro defends the military managers, arguing they are more in synch with his Socialist worldview than capitalist industry professionals who exploit the country for personal profit. “I want a Socialist PDVSA,” the president told allied legislators earlier this year. “An ethical, sovereign and productive PDVSA. We must break this model of the rentier oil company.”

Quevedo, who holds the title of oil minister as well as president of PDVSA, didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. Neither Venezuela’s Information Ministry, responsible for communications for the government and senior officials nor PDVSA’s press office returned phone calls or emails from Reuters.

PDVSA and the Oil Ministry disclose scant information about Quevedo, who is 51, according to his social security registration. He seldom makes public speeches. But at an industry event in Vienna last June, Quevedo told journalists PDVSA is aware of its challenges and hoped within months to make up for plummeting output.

“We hope by year end to recover the lost production,” he said in a forecast that has been missed. “We have the capacity and we have summoned the strength of the workers.”

Nearly 20 years after the late Hugo Chavez launched his “Bolivarian revolution,” much of Venezuela is in tatters. Food and medicines are scarce, hyperinflation has gutted purchasing power for increasingly desperate citizens and roughly three million Venezuelans have fled the country in search of a better life.

At PDVSA, managers long sought to keep the company running, even if the economic meltdown and falling oil prices meant they had fewer resources to invest in exploration, growth and basic maintenance. Despite their efforts, decay led to dwindling production, deteriorating facilities and a progressive loss of skilled workers.

Now, critics say, military officials atop PDVSA have put aside any pretense of running it like a proper business, doing little to stem the fall in production or improve the company’s financial, operational and staffing problems.

A PURGE

No matter the dysfunction, PDVSA remains a rare and crucial source of foreign currency in the enfeebled Andean country. For Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, handing the company over to the military is seen by many as a calculated move to buy loyalty from officers.

“No one will be able to remove the military from PDVSA now,” said Rafael Ramirez, a former oil minister. Ramirez ran the company for a decade under Chavez before clashing with Maduro, who accuses him and many other former executives of corruption. “PDVSA is a barrack.”

PDVSA is struggling to fulfill supply contracts with buyers, including major creditors from China and Russia who have already advanced billions of dollars in payments in exchange for oil. Last month, the head of Rosneft, the Russian oil company, flew to Venezuela and complained to Maduro about the delays, Reuters reported.

Demand remains healthy for Venezuelan oil. Operational problems under Quevedo, however, have caused production to drop 20 percent to 1.46 million barrels per day, according to the latest figures Caracas reported to OPEC, the oil cartel, of which it is a member.

Quevedo in January will assume OPEC’s rotating presidency for one year. PDVSA’s financial problems are likely to demand much of his attention.

The gross value of PDVSA’s oil exports is expected to fall to $20.9 billion this year compared with $24.9 billion last year, according to a calculation provided to Reuters by the International Energy Center at IESA, a Venezuelan business school. Exports a decade ago were over four times as much, reaching $89 billion, according to PDVSA’s accounts for 2008.

PDVSA didn’t publish a 2017 report and hasn’t released financial results in 2018.

Little has been publicly disclosed by PDVSA or Maduro’s government about the military transformation within its ranks.

A Reuters examination based on confidential PDVSA documents – as well as interviews with dozens of current and former employees, shippers, traders, foreign oil executives and others who do business with the company – shows how Quevedo’s National Guard is seeping into every facet of its operations. The documents include employment records, agreements with contractors and internal staff memos.

Quevedo has appointed more than 100 aides and advisors from the military and from a previous post as a government minister to senior positions, according to a person familiar with PDVSA’s human resource records.

At its shabby concrete Caracas headquarters, once brimming with suited executives, military officers are now in charge of operations. Workers say offices in Quevedo’s penthouse sanctum remain luxurious. But in the run-down halls below, socialist propaganda, including portraits of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, is among the scant decor left on the walls.

The shift toward military management was the result of a purge of PDVSA leadership.

Allegations of corruption have been rife across the Venezuelan government in recent years; Maduro himself is the target of U.S. sanctions for graft and human rights violations, which he denies.

In 2017, the president leveled his own accusations against PDVSA, describing it as a den of “thieves.” He accused many former executives of skimming from contracts and laundering money and argued that their graft worsened the country’s crisis.

He ordered the arrest of dozens of top managers, including PDVSA’s two previous presidents, chemist Nelson Martinez and engineer Eulogio Del Pino. Martinez died at a military hospital earlier this month, suffering a heart attack while undergoing kidney dialysis, two people familiar with the circumstances said.

Del Pino remains detained, awaiting trial. Reuters was unable to reach his lawyers for comment. A person familiar with Del Pino’s defense said he has yet, after a year in jail, to have an initial court hearing.

LOYALIST

At the time of the purge, Quevedo had risen from the National Guard ranks to become a prominent government loyalist.

Quevedo’s Twitter profile often features a photo of the general, a stocky and balding man with heavy eyebrows, reviewing paperwork with the president or smiling happily alongside him. His feed consists almost exclusively of retweets of Maduro’s posts.

Since 2001, the general has moved between military and civilian positions. He has a longstanding relationship with Diosdado Cabello, the powerful vice president of the Socialist party: The two were classmates as young men at military school.

Those ties led to senior posts for Quevedo at the Defense Ministry and a program created by Chavez for low-income housing, according to official government gazettes and people who know his trajectory.

In 2014, back in a command role with the National Guard, Quevedo led a unit that clashed with demonstrators during protests that shook Venezuela for four months. At least 43 people, on both sides, died during the demonstrations, sparked by the onset of food shortages.

Quevedo was criticized by many government opponents for using excessive force, which he denied. He appeared frequently on state television at the time, donning an olive-green helmet and bullet-proof vest. “These are terrorist groups,” he said of the protestors, who eventually dissipated, leading him to declare that “the coup has been defeated.”

Pleased with Quevedo’s performance, Maduro in 2015 named him housing minister. In his two years in the post, he again became a fixture on state television, often wearing the red shirt of the Socialist movement and praising Maduro’s “humane” housing policies.

Opposition leaders scoffed at what they saw as Quevedo’s outsized boasts, including an unsubstantiated claim that the government constructed more than 2 million homes, despite widespread shortages of basic building materials. The housing ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In November 2017, intelligence agents arrested former PDVSA chief Del Pino in a predawn raid on unspecified graft charges. By then, Quevedo was Maduro’s choice to lead the all-important company. The announcement prompted widespread skepticism in the industry.

Quevedo said he would need little time to get a handle on the oil businesses. “Give me 10 days,” he told acquaintances, according to one person who spoke with him at the time.

From the start, Maduro made clear the challenge ahead. In a public address during “Powerhouse Venezuela 2018,” a government conference meant to showcase business potential, the president ordered Quevedo to boost oil output by a whopping 1 million barrels per day – roughly a 50 percent increase at the time.

Over the past year, though, Quevedo has failed to reverse the slide.

One of his first challenges, according to people within PDVSA, was to stanch the flow of workers, many of whom deserted the company and Venezuela altogether. PDVSA hasn’t disclosed recent employment figures. But estimates by IPD Latin America, an oil and gas consultancy, indicate PDVSA has about 106,000 workers, 27 percent fewer than in 2016.

Because of cost-of-living increases that now top 1 million percent per year, according to Venezuela’s National Assembly, PDVSA salaries have crumbled to the equivalent of a handful of dollars a month for most workers.

With no money and little real work to do at idle and faulty facilities, some employees only show up to eat at the few company cafeterias that remain open. Shippers told Reuters that PDVSA workers at times board vessels to ask for food.

“MALICE”

To boost manpower, Quevedo has been staffing some jobs, including posts that once required technical knowledge, with National Guard recruits. The terminal of Jose, a Caribbean port in northeast Venezuela, is one of the few remaining facilities from which PDVSA exports crude oil.

The changes are disturbing buyers here. Some tanker captains complain that young soldiers are woefully unprepared to verify technical details, like whether crude density, a crucial attribute of quality, comply with contract specifications, according to three shippers and one PDVSA employee.

Crews fret a stray bullet from the soldiers’ rifles could spark fires and complain that some of the crime afflicting the country is making its way on board. Although Quevedo has tasked the soldiers to help spot graft, some of the low-paid recruits ask for bribes themselves, shippers said, for signing off on paperwork or completing inspections.

“There are many risks,” one captain told Reuters.

Venezuela’s Defense Ministry, which oversees the National Guard, didn’t respond to Reuters phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Even with soldiers as substitutes, PDVSA can’t find the workers it needs to man many posts. From the processing of crude at refineries to contract negotiations with buyers, the shortage of skilled staffers is hobbling the company.

In a recent internal report, PDV Marina, the company’s maritime unit, said staffing was in a “critical state” on PDVSA’s own tankers, forcing some workers to toil far more than allowed by union rules. The “alarming deficit of main staff,” the report read, means “we cannot honor labor agreements.”

Tensions with military managers are causing even more departures, some workers say.

Consider an incident in June, when two tankers docked at Jose. One prepared to take on heavy crude, the other a lighter grade of oil.

As the tankers loaded, PDVSA port employees noticed a mixup – the two crudes had blended. The mistake, the government said later, forced PDVSA to pay the buyers, because of contractual penalties, $2.7 million.

It would also be costly for nine PDVSA employees.

Shortly after the error, soldiers and intelligence agents arrested the workers, and prosecutors charged them with sabotage. “This was premeditated,” said Tarek Saab, Maduro’s chief prosecutor, announcing the arrests on television. “The actions go beyond negligence – there was malice here.”

After three days in an overcrowded military jail, they were released, pending trial. Two workers in the oil industry familiar with their case said poor maintenance, not sabotage, caused the mishap. A faulty valve system, flimsy after years without upkeep, caused the fuels to mix, they said.

Six months later, the government has presented no evidence against the workers.

Reuters was unable to reach the accused or to independently determine the cause of the mishap. Colleagues said the workers are under orders not to speak publicly of the incident.

The arrests have rattled PDVSA employees, especially because soldiers and intelligence agents have also detained workers at other facilities after mistakes.

In July, four PDVSA employees were arrested after crude spilled into a river near an oilfield in the state of Monagas, according to workers and media accounts there. One worker in Monagas told Reuters that faulty turbines caused the spill and that a vehicle shortage kept employees from reaching the site to stem the flow.

“We don’t understand how a lack of resources becomes an excuse to accuse workers of negligence or sabotage,” he said. “They’re being asked to work without safety equipment, tools, even without being able to feed themselves or their families.”

Quevedo has been creating new partnerships that are meant to shore up PDVSA. In August, for instance, the general said the company was “opening its doors” for seven private companies to pursue unspecified “service contracts” across the country.

The move raised eyebrows here, because it ran counter to longstanding efforts to nationalize the entire industry. Chavez himself phased out similar contracts, arguing that they enriched private enterprise for work that the state should do itself.

According to a document seen by Reuters, the companies obtained six-year agreements to operate oilfields on behalf of PDVSA in return for boosting output, financing investments and procuring equipment.

But the companies are unfamiliar even to veterans of Venezuela’s oil industry. None are recognized as having experience operating oilfields. Consorcio Rinoca Centauro Karina, one of those listed on the document, doesn’t appear to have a web site. Reuters was unable to reach it or any of the others.

Critics of the arrangements, and government opponents, say the transactions aren’t transparent. By keeping details from the public, they argue, the company faces little scrutiny over whom it chooses to do business with.

“PDVSA is looking to maintain its confederation of mafias, its quota of looting,” said Jorge Millan, an opposition legislator who in September led a push in the National Assembly to denounce the contracts.

While Quevedo’s militarization of PDVSA hasn’t reversed the company’s decline, the government shows few public signs of displeasure. In October, the government announced a PDVSA board shuffle. Among the changes: Jose Rojas, another National Guard general, replaced a civilian director.

Past executives joke that Quevedo knew what he was doing when he prayed for help.

“He’s right,” said Jose Toro Hardy, an economist who served on PDVSA’s board of directors in the 1990s. “A miracle is needed for an increase in these conditions.”

(Additional reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Ernest Scheyder in Vienna. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

White House to press forward with Trump’s Space Command

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House advisers on Tuesday are set to recommend that U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned U.S. Space Command develop ways for the military to operate in outer space, according to two administration officials briefed on the plans.

The National Space Council, a White House advisory panel, will also recommend a review of existing treaty issues, and will unveil proposed legislation for Congress to create and fund a separate space agency to oversee commercial activities, the officials said.

The council’s recommendations are set to be made at a meeting later on Tuesday at the National Defense University in Washington, where Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to speak.

The Trump administration in August announced an ambitious plan to usher in a new “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the military by 2020. Such a change, which the Defense Department has estimated would cost $13 billon in the first five years, must first be approved by Congress.

Critics, including some Democratic lawmakers, have said its creation is an unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic endeavor that would simply shift work already being done well by other services like the Air Force.

The proposed bill would create the Bureau of Space Commerce under the U.S. Department of Commerce to liaise with industry representatives and organizations, according to a copy provided to Reuters. It also calls for $10 million a year for five years starting in 2020 to fund the commerce arm.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. warships pass through Taiwan Strait amid China tensions

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Yimou Lee, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

TAIPEI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait on Monday in the second such operation this year, as the U.S. military increases the frequency of transits through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.

The voyage risks further heightening tensions with China but will likely be viewed in self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from President Donald Trump’s government amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.

Reuters was first to report U.S. consideration of the sensitive operation on Saturday.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Commander Nate Christensen, deputy spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.

“The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he added.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said it closely monitored the operation and was able to “maintain the security of the seas and the airspace” as it occurred.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province of “one China”, had already expressed “serious concern” to the United States, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing on Tuesday.

“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territory, and is the most important, most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” she said.

China urged the United States to cautiously and appropriately handle the Taiwan issue to promote peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, she added.

The U.S. Navy conducted a similar mission in the strait’s international waters in July, which had been the first such voyage in about a year. The latest operation shows the U.S. Navy is increasing the pace of strait passages.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan, but is bound by law to help it defend itself and is the island’s main source of arms. The Pentagon says Washington has sold Taiwan more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.

STATUS QUO?

China has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island. It raised concerns over U.S. policy toward Taiwan in talks last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Singapore.

As the United States prepared for a fresh passage through the strait, it told China’s military that its overall policy toward Taiwan was unchanged.

Mattis delivered that message to China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe personally on Thursday, on the sidelines of an Asian security forum.

“Minister Wei raised Taiwan and concerns about our policy. The Secretary reassured Minister Wei that we haven’t changed our Taiwan policy, our one China policy,” Randall Schriver, a U.S. assistant secretary of defense who helps guide Pentagon policy in Asia, told reporters traveling with Mattis.

“So it was, I think, a familiar exchange.”

Taiwan is only one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a bitter trade war, U.S. sanctions, and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s relations with China have deteriorated since the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party swept to power in 2016.

Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, responded to the July passage with a warning to the United States to avoid jeopardizing “peace and stability” in the strategic waterway.

It has also viewed U.S. overtures toward Taiwan with alarm, including its unveiling a new de facto embassy in Taiwan and passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages U.S. officials to visit the island.

Military experts say the balance of power between Taiwan and China has shifted decisively in China’s favor in recent years, and China could easily overwhelm the island unless U.S. forces came quickly to Taiwan’s aid.

China has also alarmed Taiwan by ramping up military exercises this year, including flying bombers and other military aircraft around the island and sending its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.

(Reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Lee Chyen Yee in Singapore; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Toby Chopra, Bill Berkrot and Nick Macfie)

New U.S. training unit in Afghanistan faces old problems

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

By James Mackenzie

CAMP DAHLKE, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Captain Joe Fontana, a team leader with the U.S. army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, is part of a new unit but he is working on problems that have been stubbornly familiar to American military advisers in Afghanistan for years.

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade walk at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade walk at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

The 1st SFAB was formed last year as a new force of experienced advisers, to focus U.S. army training and support for Afghan troops and, in future, for other foreign armies.

It deployed to Afghanistan in March, putting U.S. advisers, previously largely restricted to Corps headquarters, together with front-line brigades and battalions for the first time since most international forces left in 2014.

The SFAB has arrived at a time of increasing pressure on the Afghan National Army (ANA) from Taliban fighters who overran a series of outposts and stormed the strategic city of Ghazni this week.

The problems they have found are the same ones that existed a decade ago when the NATO-led coalition began to reshape Afghan forces into an army on U.S. lines – poor logistics and organization as well as a reliance on static checkpoints that are vulnerable to attack.

Like other advisers, Fontana, who served in a combat unit in the southern Afghan provinces of Zabul and Kandahar in 2011-12 as well as in Iraq, speaks admiringly of the fighting spirit of Afghan soldiers.

But he said the army is dogged by persistent problems with supplies, maintaining equipment and making sure units get proper support, issues which for years have been an obstacle to creating Afghan forces capable of standing on their own.

“They’re not scared of much, they will fight back fine, they’re good shots. Some of their soldiers are pretty crack,” Fontana told Reuters. “But it comes down to logistics and mission command.”

The advisers help coordinate air strikes and other tactical support from U.S. forces and work with Afghan commanders on planning operations, frequently pressing them to move away from isolated checkpoints.

SFAB advisers also assisted the 203rd Corps, which is responsible for the volatile provinces south of Kabul, on the front lines in Ghazni.

But a large part of their work consists of helping commanders file requests for vehicle repair and ammunition resupply correctly or pushing units to carry out routine tasks like cleaning and maintaining their weapons and equipment.

It is the basic work of military organization and essential to ensuring army units function but it raises questions about why such problems persist despite the billions of dollars poured into training Afghan forces.

“Every kandak (battalion) we go to, regardless of where they’re located, they all have major sustainment issues,” said Command Sergeant Major Tim Bolyard, the senior non-commissioned officer in Fontana’s battalion.

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie

PURPOSE BUILT

After years of training missions by units thrown together for the purpose, the SFABs are supposed to bring more consistency to advising local forces in different parts of the world.

“We needed a purpose-built organization that’s designed for advising,” said Brigadier General Scott Jackson, the 1st SFAB’s commander who was promoted this week.

The 1st SFAB, with some 800 advisers, most officers or NCOs with combat experience in Afghanistan or Iraq, is intended to be followed by five other brigades.

Working alongside mid-ranking and junior Afghan officers and soldiers, the aim is for them to obtain a better perspective on the real strength of Afghan forces.

It is a job needing patience and diplomacy, working through interpreters to coax sometimes reluctant commanders to abandon isolated checkpoints or try to develop their own solutions instead of relying on U.S. air strikes to defeat the enemy.

During a visit to an outpost in the volatile province of Wardak this month, Fontana listened for 40 minutes while a battalion commander explained the problems he was having getting the ammunition his troops needed.

It was not clear whether the correct resupply forms had reached the right person at brigade headquarters and numerous calls ensued to try to find out. It is slow and sometimes frustrating work, but the trainers say it is vital if Afghan forces are ever to stand alone.

“An easy solution for me is, when I fly up there, to drag a couple of thousand pounds of ammunition in the bird (helicopter) and drop it off for them,” Fontana said later.

“Great, but what does that achieve? Now you’re having them become dependent on the U.S. and that is the wrong answer.”

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Japan struggles to restore water to flood-hit towns

Local residents try to clear mud and debris at a flood affected area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Mari Saito

KURASHIKI, Japan (Reuters) – Municipal workers in western Japan struggled on Friday to restore water supplies a week after floods caused by a record downpour killed more than 200 people in the worst such disaster in 36 years.

Communities that grappled with rising floodwaters last week now find themselves battling scorching summer temperatures well above 30 degrees Celsius (86°F), as foul-smelling garbage piles up in mud-splattered streets.

“We need the water supply back,” said Hiroshi Oka, 40, a resident helping to clean up the Mabi district in one of the hardest-hit areas, the city of Kurashiki, where more than 200,000 households have gone without water for a week.

“What we are getting is a thin stream of water, and we can’t flush toilets or wash our hands,” he added, standing over a 20-liter (4.4-gallon) plastic tank that was only partly filled after almost four hours of waiting.

Water has been restored to some parts of the district, a city official told Reuters, but he did not know when normal operations would resume, as engineers were trying to locate pipeline ruptures.

More than 70,000 military, police and firefighters have fanned out to tackle the aftermath of the floods. There have been 204 deaths, the government said, with dozens missing.

Large piles of tatami straw mats, chairs and bookcases could be seen all over Mabi. The smell of leaked gasoline, mixed with a sour smell of mud and debris, filled the air.

The weather has fueled concerns that residents, many still in temporary evacuation centers, may suffer heat stroke or illness as hygiene levels deteriorate.

Shizuo Yoshimoto, a doctor making the rounds at evacuation centers, said an urgent challenge was to bring necessary drugs to patients with diabetes and high blood pressure who were forced from their homes or whose clinics are closed.

“There are quite a few cases where patients are unable to get a hold of drugs,” he said. “So one issue is how to maintain treatment for those with chronic illness. Another is acute illness, as heatstroke is on the rise.”

A submerged car is seen in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A submerged car is seen in a flooded area in Mabi town in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Public broadcaster NHK has spread advice on coping with high temperatures and maintain hygiene, such as a video tutorial on how to make a diaper from a towel and plastic shopping bag.

More than 70,000 military, police and firefighters have fanned out to help with the rescue operation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government spokesman, urged people in flood-hit areas to guard against thunderstorms.

“People still need to be aware of the possibility of further landslides,” he told reporters.

Severe weather has increasingly battered Japan in recent years, including similar floods last year that killed dozens of people, raising questions about the impact of global warming.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who canceled a scheduled overseas trip to deal with the rescue effort, visited Kurashiki on Thursday, and said he aimed to visit other flood-damaged areas on Friday and over the weekend.

(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Writing by Tim Kelly and Elaine Lies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Two Koreas make progress, agree to talks on military, family reunions

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon shakes hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son Gwon during their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, June 1, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The two Koreas agreed at a high-level meeting on Friday to hold talks this month on military issues and reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, they said in a statement.

The meeting in the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea is the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity intended to sustain a thaw in relations with the isolated North.

North Korea had called off a planned meeting with the South last month in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat exercises before South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put the process back on track during a surprise second summit on Saturday.

While the two Koreas work to improve their ties, North Korea is in talks with the United States on a proposed summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, tentatively set for June 12 in Singapore.

Friday’s talks were led by South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s committee for the peaceful reunification of the country, and were a follow-up to an agreement reached during the first summit between Kim and Moon in April.

Military talks between the old rivals will take place on June 14 on the northern side of Panmunjom, and a separate session on sports exchanges on the southern side on June 18, the two sides said.

Talks about reunions of families divided by the war, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, would be held on June 22 at the Mount Kumgang resort north of the border.

Family reunions are an emotional issue that could help restore trust but they have been stalled in the absence of political engagement, said Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who was in Seoul to discuss plans for reunions and other issues.

“With more engagement and political openings, many hurdles will be lifted,” Sy told Reuters in an interview.

The federation hopes that North Korea will allow it to provide more aid. An estimated 10 million North Koreans or 40 percent of the population need humanitarian assistance, Sy said.

Both Koreas also agreed to an early launch of a liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, where they operated a factory park until its closure during tension in 2016, they said in a statement.

Cho and Ri also agreed to hold regular meetings to expedite various working-level talks which would include cooperation on railways, forests and culture.

‘GRAVE SITUATION’

During the talks, Ri blamed Cho for having brought about a “grave situation” that led to the North’s cancellation of last month’s talks.

Ri did not give specific information but Pyongyang has lashed out at Seoul for allowing Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat to Britain who defected to the South in 2016, to launch a book in parliament in which he describes Kim as “impatient, impulsive and violent”.

The North also demands the repatriation of a dozen North Korean restaurant workers, who came to the South in 2016 via China. The North says they were abducted by the South, but it says they defected freely.

“We don’t talk about what happened in the past. You just need to not repeat it again,” Ri said.

Ri also said an unspecified issue had become “a source of mistrust” and would determine “whether a mood of reconciliation and cooperation, or mistrust and confrontation is created between the North and South”.

“It is a very serious problem,” Ri said. He did not elaborate.

In another indication the process is at times testy, Ri accused South Korean officials of misrepresenting a comment about their joint industrial zone at Kaesong.

Cho did not specify when asked about contentious issues but told reporters they did not discuss the military exercises or nuclear issues. He declined to comment on whether the North demanded the restaurant workers back.

North Korea suggested they hold a joint celebration of the anniversary of a 2000 inter-Korean summit this month in the South, an official at Seoul’s unification ministry told reporters.

But that would not be possible due to scheduling and logistics issues, Cho said.

“There were some things in common and also differences between both sides until we adopted the joint statement,” Ri said, without elaborating.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joint Press Corps; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)