North Korea seen reinstalling border loudspeakers; satellite photos show liaison office standing but damaged

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is reinstalling loudspeakers blaring propaganda across the border in its latest step away from inter-Korean peace agreements, prompting the South’s military to explore similar moves, a South Korean military source said on Tuesday.

Tension between the two Koreas has risen in recent weeks after the North blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue and threatened military action.

North Korea’s military was seen putting up loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Such systems were taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts,” the military official said.

“We’re also considering reinstalling our own loudspeakers,” he said. “But the North hasn’t begun any broadcast yet, and we’re just getting ready to be able to counteract at any time.”

A spokeswoman at Seoul’s defense ministry declined to confirm North Korea’s moves but reiterated at a regular briefing that Pyongyang would “have to pay for the consequences” if it continues to defy joint efforts to foster peace.

The two countries have for decades pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South aired a blend of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the South and praised its own socialist system.

Commercial satellite imagery of the liaison office site on Monday showed that the building remained standing, but had been heavily damaged.

Analysts at U.S.-based 38 North, which tracks North Korea, said last week that the explosion “was clearly not a controlled detonation, as the building was not leveled and there was significant collateral damage to the adjacent buildings.”

The North began taking its recent actions as it denounced North Korean defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets across the border.

Several defector-led groups have regularly sent flyers, food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news, usually by balloon or in bottles in rivers.

One group, led by Park Sang-hak, who fled the isolated state in 2000, said on Tuesday it flew 20 balloons containing 500,000 leaflets, 500 booklets on South Korea and 2,000 $1 bills.

South Korea’s government has pursued legal action to stop such activities, citing safety concerns for residents in border towns, but controversy remains over whether it violates the country’s protections for freedom of expression.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs issued a statement vowing a stern response to the leaflet launches by Park’s group.

Pyongyang’s state media said on Monday angry North Koreans have also prepared some 12 million leaflets to be sent back.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Chinese bomber approaches Taiwan in latest fly-by near island

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Chinese air force jets, including at least one bomber, briefly entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Monday, before being warned off by its air force, the island’s military said, the eighth such encounter in two weeks.

The encounter came on the day President Tsai Ing-wen oversaw a test flight of a new locally-developed advanced trainer jet as she pushes to boost democratic Taiwan’s defenses, particularly as China ramps up its own military modernization.

Taiwan’s air force named the Chinese aircraft involved as the H-6 bomber and J-10 fighter jet but did not say how many planes in total flew into the identification zone to the island’s southwest.

The Chinese air force received verbal warnings to leave via radio, and patrolling Taiwanese fighters also “proactively drove off” the aircraft, Taiwan’s air force said in a short statement, without giving details.

The H-6 is a nuclear-capable bomber based on an old Soviet design that has participated in several such drills near Taiwan, including what China calls “island encirclement” exercises around the Chinese claimed-island.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has previously said its drills near the island are routine and designed to show Beijing’s determination to protect its sovereignty. Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by autocratic China.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Trump to lay out strategy Wednesday to prevent suicides by veterans: officials

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration will lay out a broad strategy on Wednesday aimed at helping to prevent suicides by U.S. veterans and other Americans, administration officials told Reuters.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will hold an event at the White House to highlight the plan, which outlines a set of recommendations including starting a public health awareness campaign, providing suicide prevention training and improving research.

“By employing a public-health approach to suicide prevention, President Trump’s roadmap will equip communities to help veterans get the right care, whenever and wherever they need it,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said in a statement.

The plan, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters ahead of its release, says the number of suicides in the United States increased by 35 percent from 1999 to 2018, when 48,344 deaths were estimated to have resulted from suicide.

Veterans and active members of the military are especially vulnerable.

Following one of the recommendations, the administration plans to launch an awareness campaign later this summer that will seek to change the culture around suicide, encouraging veterans and others to talk about mental health issues rather than taking their lives.

The administration is also looking at legislative options to help in the effort, one official said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. crowds defy curfew to protest Floyd’s death, but violence subsides

By Jonathan Ernst and Brendan O’Brien

WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – U.S. protesters ignored curfews overnight as they vented their anger over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police, but there was a marked drop in the violence that led President Donald Trump to threaten to deploy the military.

George Floyd died after a white policeman pinned his neck under the officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, reigniting the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans five months before the November presidential election.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities coast to coast for an eighth night as National Guard troops lined the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

There was sporadic violence in Washington and Portland, Oregon, with protesters tossing fireworks and bottles answered by police flash grenades and tear gas.

Clashes between protesters and police and looting of some stores in New York City gave way to relative quiet in the early hours of Wednesday. Police told media they made 200 arrests, largely for curfew violations.

In Los Angeles, many demonstrators who defied the curfew were arrested, but calm had been restored by mid-evening to the extent that television stations switched from wall-to-wall coverage back to regular programming.

Large marches and rallies also took place in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver and Seattle.

The officer who knelt on Floyd, Derek Chauvin, 44, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved in the incident were fired but have not been charged.

‘SILENCE IS VIOLENCE’

Although rallies on behalf of Floyd and other victims of police brutality in recent days have been largely peaceful, many have turned to vandalism, arson and looting after dark. On Monday night, five police officers were hit by gunfire in two cities.

Outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday afternoon a throng took to one knee, chanting “silence is violence” and “no justice, no peace,” as officers faced them just before the government-imposed curfew.

Many of the protesters used the slogan “take a knee”, referring both to how Floyd died and a long-standing protest against racism in America that started in 2016 with a football player taking a knee instead of standing during the National Anthem.

The crowd remained after dark, despite the curfew and vows by Trump to crack down on what he has called lawlessness by “hoodlums” and “thugs,” using National Guard troops or even the U.S. military if necessary.

The Republican president, who is seeking re-election in November, continued his hard-line rhetoric, urging police to “get tough” in a series of tweets on Wednesday, a day after his likely challenger former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden vowed to heal the nation’s racial divide.

In Atlanta, four police officers and two former officers were charged with using excessive force while arresting two students. Minneapolis launched an investigation into possible discriminatory practices in the police department over the last 10 years.

In New York, thousands of chanting protesters ignored the curfew to march from the Barclays Center in Flatbush toward the Brooklyn Bridge as police helicopters whirred overheard.

The crowd halted at an entrance to the Manhattan Bridge roadway, chanted at riot police: “Walk with us! Walk with us.”

New York state police arrested a 30-year-old woman Tuesday after she drove a car striking three police officers at a demonstration in Buffalo on Monday.

On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, hundreds of people filled the street, marching past famous landmarks of the film industry. Others gathered outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown, in some cases hugging and shaking hands with a line of officers outside.

Los Angeles was the scene of violent riots in 1992, following the acquittal of four policemen charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, that saw more than 60 people killed and an estimated $1 billion in damage.

The past week’s demonstrations have reverberated outside America, and a growing chorus of companies, celebrities and athletes have also denounced Floyd’s death and urged change.

In Rome, Pope Francis called for national reconciliation in the United States, saying that while racism is intolerable, the street violence that has broken out is “self-destructive and self-defeating”.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters.

The survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday found 64% of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.

In Minneapolis, Roxie Washington, mother of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, told a news conference he was a good man.

“I want everybody to know that this is what those officers took from me …,” she said, sobbing. “Gianna does not have a father. He will never see her grow up, graduate.”

(Reporting by Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Anne Saphir, Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Brad Brooks, Diane Craft, Jonathan Allen, Sharon Bernstein, Dan Whitcomb, Aakriti Bhalla, Rich McKay and Philip Pullella; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Simao)

Five police shot during U.S. protests, Trump says he could bring in military

By Jonathan Ernst and Brendan O’Brien

WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – At least five U.S. police were hit by gunfire during violent protests over the death of a black man in police custody, police and media said, hours after President Donald Trump said he would deploy the military if unrest does not stop.

Trump deepened outrage on Monday by posing at a church clutching a bible after law enforcement officers used teargas and rubber bullets to clear the way for him to walk there after he made his remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

Demonstrators set fire to a strip mall in Los Angeles, looted stores in New York City and clashed with police in St Louis, Missouri, where four officers were taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

An emotional St Louis police commissioner, John Hayden, said about 200 protesters were “jumping up and down like crazy people”, looting and throwing fireworks and rocks at officers.

“We had to protect our headquarters building, they were throwing fireworks on officers, fireworks were exploding on officers,” he told reporters. “They had officers with gas poured on them. What is going on? How can this be? Mr Floyd was killed somewhere else and they are tearing up cities all across the country.”

A police officer was also shot during protests in the Las Vegas Strip area, AP news agency said, quoting police. Another officer was “involved in a shooting” in the same area, the agency said.

It gave no details of the shootings or the officers’ condition. Police declined to comment to Reuters.

Trump has condemned the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who died after a white policeman pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, and has promised justice.

But, with anti-police brutality marches and rallies having turned violent after dark each day in the past week, he said rightful protests could not be drowned out by an “angry mob”.

“Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled,” Trump said. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Floyd’s death has reignited simmering racial tensions in a politically divided country that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with African Americans accounting for a disproportionately high number of cases.

CRITICISM OF CHURCH VISIT

After his address, Trump posed for pictures with his daughter, Ivanka, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House.

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church diocese in Washington D. C., Michael Curry, was among those who criticized Trump’s use of the historic church for a photo opportunity.

“In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes,” he said on Twitter. The church suffered minor fire damage during protests on Sunday night.

The White House said it was clearing the area before a curfew.

A few hours later, thousands of people marched through Brooklyn, shouting “Justice now!” while some passing drivers honked in support.

Television images showed crowds smashing windows and looting luxury stores along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan before the city’s 11 p.m. curfew. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the curfew would be moved to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Two police officers were struck by a car at a demonstration in Buffalo, New York, on Monday night. Officials said the driver and passengers were believed to be in custody. It was not clear whether the incident was intentional.

In Hollywood, dozens of people were shown in television images looting a drug store. Windows were shattered at a nearby Starbucks and two restaurants.

AUTOPSIES

A second autopsy ordered by Floyd’s family and released on Monday found his death was homicide by “mechanical asphyxiation,” or physical force that interfered with his oxygen supply. The report says three officers contributed to his death.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner later released autopsy findings that also called Floyd’s death homicide by asphyxiation. The county report said Floyd suffered cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by police and that he had arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and recent methamphetamine use.

Derek Chauvin, the 44-year-old Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd, was arrested on third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges. Three other officers involved in the arrest have not been charged.

Floyd’s death was the latest case of police brutality against black men that was caught on videotape and prompted an outcry over racism in U.S. law enforcement.

Dozens of cities are under curfews not seen since riots after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The National Guard deployed in 23 states and Washington, D.C.

 

(Reporting by Aakriti Bhalla, Subrat Patnaik, Lisa Lambert, Andy Sullivan, Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely, Lucy Nicholson, David Shepardson, Michael Martina, Brendan O’Brien, Sharon Bernstein, Lisa Richwine and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Nick Macfie; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Lincoln Feast, and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. imposes new rules on exports to China to keep them from its military

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – The United States said on Monday it will impose new restrictions on exports to China to keep semiconductor production equipment and other technology away from Beijing’s military.

The new rules will require licenses for U.S. companies to sell certain items to companies in China that support the military, even if the products are for civilian use. They also do away with a civilian exception that allows certain U.S. technology to be exported without a license, if the use is not connected to the military.

The rules, which were posted for public inspection and will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, could hurt the semiconductor industry and sales of civil aviation equipment to China, if the U.S. presumes they are for military applications.

The changes, which include requiring licenses for more items, also expand the rules for Russia and Venezuela, but the biggest impact will be on trade with China.

“It is important to consider the ramifications of doing business with countries that have histories of diverting goods purchased from U.S. companies for military applications,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

Washington trade lawyer Kevin Wolf said the rule changes for China are in response to its policy of military-civil fusion: finding military applications for civilian items.

He said the regulatory definitions of military use and user are broad and go beyond purchases by entities such as the People’s Liberation Army.

For example, Wolf said, if a car company in China repairs a military vehicle, that car company may now be a military end user, even if the item being exported is for another part of the business.

“A military end user is not limited to military organizations,” Wolf said. “A military end user is also a civilian company whose actions are intended to support the operation of a military item.”

Another rule change involves eliminating civilian license exceptions for Chinese importers and Chinese nationals for certain integrated circuits. Other telecommunications equipment, radar and high-end computers will be caught as well.

The administration also posted a third proposed rule change that would force foreign companies shipping certain American goods to China to seek approval not only from their own governments but from the United States as well.

The actions come as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

U.S. states, cities desperate for coronavirus help, military prepares

By Stephanie Kelly and Doina Chiacu

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. governors and mayors on Monday became more desperate in their pleas for help from the federal government to fight coronavirus as the military prepared to set up field hospitals in New York and Seattle to ease the strain on creaking health services.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to approve an economic relief package and appealed for ventilators and medical equipment, even asking for help from private citizens.

“Anyone out there who can help us get these supplies, we have only days to get them in place. That is the reality,” de Blasio told CNN. New York, the most populous U.S. city, is now at the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.

Karine Raymond, a nurse at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in New York’s Bronx borough, said most nurses were unable to get specialized N95 masks and even simpler surgical masks were in short supply. Nurses are being told to wear them for as long as possible, she said.

“We are the be all and end all and lifeline to these patients, and yet we are being contaminated and cross contaminating,” Raymond said.

As health authorities struggled to cope with the rising number of sick people and the U.S. Senate failed to advance an economic stimulus package, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. military is preparing to deploy field hospitals to New York and Seattle.

The planned hospitals, essentially tent facilities that can be rapidly set up, can only handle a limited number of patients and are less suited to treating highly infectious people who need to be isolated. But they can relieve pressure on hospitals by treating patients with illnesses other than COVID-19.

The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to convert hotels and dormitories into treatment facilities for sick patients as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases nationwide topped 40,000 on Monday, more than 500 of whom have died.

New York’s de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to provide more help.

“I want to appeal to everyone in the House and Senate, you have got to help cities, towns, countries, states, public hospitals, private hospitals. You’ve got to get all of them direct relief,” he said.

A far-reaching economic package for the coronavirus crisis failed to advance in the Senate after Democrats said it contained too little money for hospitals and not enough restrictions on a fund to help big businesses. Democrats predicted a modified version would win passage soon.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they are aware that failure to agree on the bill could have a devastating effect on states, cities and businesses, and trigger further heavy losses in U.S. stock markets.

The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out an unprecedented new array of programs aimed at blunting the “severe disruptions” to the economy caused by the coronarvirus outbreak.

The central bank will back the purchases of corporate bonds and direct loans to companies. It will expand its asset holding by as much as needed to stabilize financial markets and roll out a program to get credit to small and medium-sized business.

The steps briefly lifted U.S. stock index futures more than 3% but share prices quickly dropped back into the red, putting the S&P 500 <.SPX> on pace for its worst month since World War Two.

With the addition of Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and Massachusetts on Monday, 15 out of 50 U.S. states have now imposed restrictions on people’s movements to curtail the virus, putting the country on a track similar to those of the most devastated European countries such as Italy and Spain.

The population affected by the state lockdowns amounts to more than 150 million people out of a U.S. total of about 330 million.

STAY AT HOME

In what appeared to send a conflicting message about the federal government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus health crisis, a senior White House advisor said that President Donald Trump is considering measures to reopen the U.S. economy.

Trump issued guidelines a week ago that he said aimed to slow the spread of the disease over 15 days. Late on Sunday, he tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” adding that at the end of the 15-day shutdown period, “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

Trump senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow followed up on Monday, telling Fox News: “The president is right … We’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

A lack of coordinated federal action was causing chaos for states and municipalities, and even putting them in competition with each other for resources, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Illinois said.

The states “are all out looking for the same thing,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told CNN on Monday.

Leaving states to fend for themselves has put them in bidding wars with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other U.S. states and even against other countries, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said.

“We’re competing against each other on what should be a national crisis where we should be coming together and the federal government should be leading, helping us,” Pritzker told the “Today” program.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on Washington to put in place the federal defense production act to eliminate this “ad hoc” system. Trump on Sunday defended his decision to hold off using this power, on the grounds that nationalizing businesses “is not a good concept.”

General Motors Co <GM.N> and medical equipment maker Ventec are speeding up efforts under a partnership code-named “Project V” to build ventilators at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Dan Levine and Nathan Layne; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)

After raucous welcome in India, Trump clinches $3 billion military equipment sale

By Steve Holland and Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that India will buy $3 billion worth of military equipment, including attack helicopters, as the two countries deepen defense and commercial ties in an attempt to balance the weight of China in the region.

India and the United States were also making progress on a big trade deal, Trump said. Negotiators from the two sides have wrangled for months to narrow differences on farm goods, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs.

Trump was accorded a massive reception in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state on Monday, with more than 100,000 people filling into a cricket stadium for a “Namaste Trump” rally.

On Tuesday, Trump sat down for one-on-one talks with Modi followed by delegation-level meetings to try and move forward on issues that have divided them, mainly the festering trade dispute.

After those meetings, Trump said his visit had been productive with the conclusion of deals to buy helicopters for the Indian military. India is buying 24 SeaHawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin equipped with Hellfire missiles worth $2.6 billion and also plans a follow-on order for six Apache helicopters.

India is modernizing its military to narrow the gap with China and has increasingly turned to the United States over traditional supplier, Russia.

Trump said the two countries were also making progress on a trade deal, which had been an area of growing friction between them.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” said Trump in remarks made alongside Modi.

The two countries had initially planned to produce a “mini deal”, but that proved elusive.

Instead both sides are now aiming for a bigger package, including possibly a free trade agreement.

Trump said he also discussed with Modi, whom he called his “dear friend”, the importance of a secure 5G telecoms network in India, ahead of a planned airwaves auction by the country.

The United States has banned Huawei, arguing the use of its kit creates the potential for espionage by China – a claim denied by Huawei and Beijing – but India, where telecoms companies have long used network gear from the Chinese firm, is yet to make a call.

Trump described Monday’s rally in Ahmedabad and again praised Modi and spoke of the size of the crowd, claiming there were “thousands of people outside trying to get in..

“I would even imagine they were there more for you than for me, I would hope so,” he told Modi. “The people love you…every time I mentioned your name, they would cheer.”

In New Delhi, Trump was given a formal state welcome on Tuesday at the red sandstone presidential palace with a 21-cannon gun salute and a red coated honor guard on horseback on a smoggy day.

HUG GETS TIGHTER

India is one of the few big countries in the world where Trump’s personal approval rating is above 50% and Trump’s trip has got wall-to-wall coverage with commentators saying he had hit all the right notes on his first official visit to the world’s biggest democracy.

They were also effusive in their praise for Modi for pulling off a spectacular reception for Trump.

“Modi-Trump hug gets tighter,” ran a headline in the Times of India.

But in a sign of the underlying political tensions in India, violent protests broke out in Delhi on Monday over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims and is a further attempt to undermine the secular foundations of India’s democracy. They say the law is part of a pattern of divisiveness being followed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

At least 7 people were killed and about 150 injured in the clashes that took place in another part of the capital, away from the center of the city where Modi is hosting Trump.

In his speech on Monday, Trump extolled India’s rise as a stable and prosperous democracy as one of the achievements of the century. “You have done it as a tolerant country. And you have done it as a great, free country,” he said.

Delhi has also been struggling with high air pollution and on Tuesday the air quality was moderately poor at 193 on a government index that measures pollution up to a scale of 500. The WHO considers anything above 60 as unhealthy.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Aftab Ahmed, Neha Dasgupta; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.

Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.

Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.

In turn, the Kremlin accused Turkey of flouting agreements with Russia to neutralize militants in Idlib and said attacks on Syrian and Russian forces there were continuing.

Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for the past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

An extensive campaign of air strikes and artillery shelling was underway along the M4 highway, which links Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the contested crossroads town of Saraqeb south of Idlib city, a humanitarian source said on Wednesday.

The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.

Many villages along the M5 highway, running south from the city of Aleppo, were now deserted, the source said.

Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.

“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.

Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.

This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.

“The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” he told reporters. “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”

WAVES OF DISPLACED

The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.

Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.

In the last five days, some 52,000 people have fled toward the border, mostly from the towns of Atarib and Darat Izza west of Aleppo city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

In total, the number of people displaced since the fighting intensified in November was about 870,000, he said. Some 400 concrete block dwellings and 2,300 tents had been set up for the displaced people, 70% of whom are children, he said.

Speaking from the border area in northwest Syria, Tosun said traffic was jammed up for several kilometers. Cold weather, a lack of health facilities and the risk of epidemics were all threatening those on the move.

“They have been worn out by the war. They want at least some welfare and peace. They want the attacks to stop,” he said.

The U.N. regional spokesman on Syria, David Swanson, said people were fleeing by night in trucks or by foot in an effort to avoid the attacks.

“People are fleeing northwards not knowing where they will find shelter. Some are seeking shelter in host communities, in camps, makeshift shelters, abandoned buildings, schools, mosques and some people are out in the open in the cold and others are in their vehicles, having fled, and are trapped there. They are waking up each morning not knowing which direction to go,” he told Reuters from Turkey.

Many were also flocking into Idlib city, already host to tens of thousands of previously displaced people.

U.S. INCIDENT

Damascus and Moscow say the attacks are targeting hardline Islamist militants who control Idlib. Turkey says they are hitting civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call the sides would continue contacts on Syria, the Kremlin said. Erdogan said he discussed with Putin the issue of the Turkish casualties.

The U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, met Erdogan aide Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara and the two sides said diplomatic efforts needed to be ramped up urgently to halt the wave of displaced, Anadolu news agency said.

Turkish artillery has been supporting the rebels as they battle to hold on to areas of Idlib. Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.

Separately, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said its troops opened fire on Wednesday at a checkpoint in northeast Syria after they came under small arms fire, an incident that underscored the multi-faceted nature of the conflict.

(This story adds dropped words in paragraphs 3, 5)

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Emma Farge in Geneva, Tom Balmforth and Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow, Suleiman Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)