Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son

Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son
By Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Heavily armed fighters surrounded security forces in a Mexican city on Thursday and made them free one of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s sons, after his capture triggered gunbattles and a prison break that sent civilians scurrying for cover.

Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said a patrol by National Guard militarized police first came under attack from within a house in the city of Culiacan, 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City.

After entering the house, they found four men, including Ovidio Guzman, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States.

The patrol was quickly outmatched by cartel gunmen, however, and it was withdrawn to prevent lives being lost, the government said. Simultaneously, fighters swarmed through the city, battling police and soldiers in broad daylight. They torched vehicles and left at least one gas station ablaze.

“The decision was taken to retreat from the house, without Guzman, to try to avoid more violence in the area and preserve the lives of our personnel and recover calm in the city,” Durazo told Reuters.

The reaction to Guzman’s capture was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug war, even after his more famous father’s arrests. The chaos was continuing as night fell.

A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison. Residents cowered in shopping centers and supermarkets as gunfire roared. Black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.

Families with young children left their cars and lay flat in the road. Bullets cracked up ahead. “Dad, can we get up now?” a small boy said to his father in a video posted on Twitter.

“No, stay there on the floor,” the man replied, his voice trembling.

Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and 21 injured, according to preliminary information. He said police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen. He advised residents not to leave their homes.

It was not immediately clear if members of the patrol were harmed in the standoff. Reuters TV showed scenes of at least three bodies lying next to cars on the street.

WARNED OF REPRISALS

The chaos in Culiacan, long a stronghold for the Guzmans’ Sinaloa cartel, will increase pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December promising to pacify a country weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting. Murders this year are set to be at a record high.

Thursday’s events follow the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week, and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.

Falko Ernst, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said the release of Ovidio Guzman set “a dangerous precedent” and sent a message that the state itself, including the army, could be blackmailed and was not in control.

Presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces, one video showed, warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzman was not freed.

A state police spokesman confirmed to Reuters that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos. Video footage showed a group of at least 20 prisoners running in the streets. It was not immediately clear how many had escaped.

“They are freeing them,” a panicked woman said in the video apparently filmed from an tall building. “No we can’t go outside!” she said as other voices debated making a dash for their car.

In another video, a man driving repeatedly shouted: “There is a big gunfight,” before taking a sharp turn and leaving his car at a gas station to take cover. His voice then became inaudible because of the rattling roar of automatic gunfire.

‘El Chapo’ Guzman led the Sinaloa cartel for decades, escaping from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the United States. He was found guilty in a U.S. court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.

He is believed to have about 12 children including Ovidio. The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States.

The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28, and said he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for the Guzmans, told news network Milenio that Ovidio had been in touch with the family and said he was free.

(Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. to deploy large number of forces to Saudi Arabia

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced on Friday a new, large deployment of forces to Saudi Arabia to help bolster the kingdom’s defenses following the Sept. 14 attack on its oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran.

The planned deployment, which was first reported by Reuters, will include fighter squadrons, one air expeditionary wing and air defense personnel, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon said it was sending two additional Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

“Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

It was unclear whether some of the newly announced troops might replace other American forces expected to depart the region in the coming weeks or months.

The Pentagon has yet to announce, for example, whether it will replace the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group when it eventually wraps up its deployment to the Middle East.

The deployment is part of a series of what the United States has described as defensive moves following the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month, which rattled global energy markets and exposed major gaps in Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.

Iran has responded to previous U.S. troop deployments this year with apprehension. It denies responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia as well as attacks on oil tankers earlier this year.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)

Rains, military response help curb fires in Brazil’s Amazon in September

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The number of fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has receded, falling 36% in September from August to well below a 20-year historic average for the month, amid improved weather conditions and containment efforts by the country’s military.

Fires during the first eight months of the year had surged to their highest since 2010 in August, according to data from Brazil’s space research agency INPE. That news drew a global outcry that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest, a bulwark against climate change.

But in September, the blazes were at the lowest since 2013, dragging down the number of fires year-to-date compared to previous years, according to INPE. From Jan. 1 through Oct. 3, this year is now the worst for fires in Brazil’s Amazon only since 2017.

The fires in the Amazon are largely man-made and not natural, likely set by farmers to clear land for agriculture, according to scientists. In the dry season – roughly from May to September, although it varies year to year – the fires often get out of control as the vegetation is dry and there isn’t enough rain to help curtail the blazes.

The drop in September is likely partly due to President Jair Bolsonaro authorizing the military to fight the fires in efforts that began on Aug. 24, and partly to improved rain conditions, said Maria Silva Dias, a professor at University of Sao Paulo, who has studied the interaction between forest fires and the weather.

“In the more populated areas you might have a greater effect of the army extinguishing fires and putting some sense into people who would just burn the land to clear it with no care whether this fire will spread,” Dias said.

But the Amazon is so vast that the military is unable to fight fires in much of it, she said.

“The weather helped in some sense. Where it rained, it extinguished fires,” the atmospheric science professor said.

The rainy season, which on average starts on Sept. 20 with regular precipitation, is a bit late this year, she said. But more relief appears to be on the way with scattered rain forecast across the region over the next five days.

“We will probably have a more regular chance of rain everywhere, so it looks like it’s picking up,” Dias said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

China showcases fearsome new missiles to counter U.S. at military parade

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military on Tuesday showed off new equipment at a parade in central Beijing to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, including hypersonic-glide missiles that experts say could be difficult for the United States to counter.

In a speech at the start of the nearly three-hour, highly choreographed spectacle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his country would stay on the path of “peaceful development,” but that the military would resolutely safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security.

China says the parade, the country’s most important political event of the year, which featured more than 15,000 troops marching through part of Tiananmen Square as jet fighters trailing colored smoke soared overhead, is not meant to intimidate any specific country.

But defense experts see it as a message to the world that China’s military prowess is growing rapidly, even as it faces mounting challenges, including months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and a slowing economy.

As expected, China unveiled new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and showcased its advancing intercontinental and hypersonic missiles, designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that undergird U.S. military strength in Asia.

A state television announcer called the missile arsenal a “force for realizing the dream of a strong nation and strong military.”

Among the weapons were the “carrier killer” Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D), unveiled at a military parade in 2015, designed to hit warships at sea at a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed “Guam killer” in reference to the U.S. Pacific island base.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also rolled out a hypersonic missile, known as the DF-17, which theoretically can maneuver sharply at many times the speed of sound, making it extremely difficult to counter.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, professor at Japan’s Nihon University and a retired major general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, said the DF-17 posed serious questions about the effectiveness of the regional missile defense system the United States and Japan are building.

“There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.

Bringing up the rear of the ground parade were 16 upgraded launchers carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent, capable of reaching the United States with multiple nuclear warheads.

State media said 40% of the arms shown in the parade were appearing in public for the first time. Such hardware included new and revamped versions of missiles, such as the long-range submarine-launched and ship-based YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, the official Xinhua news agency said.

China has a practice of only displaying systems in parades it says have entered some form of service, though analysts have cautioned that some of the new equipment could be experimental or prototypes.

For instance, the Gongji-11, described by the state-controlled Global Times as an attack drone and the “final version” of the Sharp Sword drone that first flew in 2013, was displayed for the first time on the back of a truck.

China showed jets in aerial refueling formation, and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to a U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk, also made its public debut, Xinhua said.

RAPID DEVELOPMENT

Many modern Western militaries eschew elaborate, large-scale military parades as costly extravagances and argue such events have almost no value for war beyond a possible boost to morale.

Still, governments around the region and foreign military experts watched the parade closely for signals about China’s military achievements, looking for clues about weapon capabilities and evidence of new systems.

The government of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, said in response to the parade that China was a serious threat to peace and democracy.

As a part of what Chinese military officials said would be a focus on command structure reforms under Xi’s ambitious military reorganization, hundreds of personnel from the PLA’s new Joint Logistics Support Force, Strategic Support Force, and Rocket Force marched in their national day parade debuts.

Xinhua also said there were two female major generals participating in the parade for the first time.

Analysts see progress in combined operations between branches of the military and in mechanizing its forces as a shift in priorities from defending Chinese borders toward having expeditionary forces able to defend the country’s far-flung commercial and diplomatic interests.

Many said the show of force was a reminder to the United States and its allies at how far the PLA has come.

Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, said the pace of China’s military technological development was “breathtaking” and that with defense spending thought to be around 2% of GDP, “they’re not breaking a sweat.”

“The message is pretty blunt. It dramatically erodes the U.S. military edge is Asia, and over the long-term, America’s military primacy in Asia is clearly under threat,” Roggeveen said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Colin Packham in Sydney and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Rain will not extinguish Amazon fires for weeks, weather experts say

A tract of the Amazon jungle burning is seen in Canarana, Mato Grosso state, Brazil August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Weak rainfall is unlikely to extinguish a record number of fires raging in Brazil’s Amazon anytime soon, with pockets of precipitation through Sept. 10 expected to bring only isolated relief, according to weather data and two experts.

The world’s largest tropical rainforest is being ravaged as the number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79% this year through Aug. 25, according to the country’s space research agency.

The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

While Brazil’s government has launched a firefighting initiative, deploying troops and military planes, those efforts will only extinguish smaller blazes and help prevent new fires, experts said. Larger infernos can only be put out by rainfall.

The rainy season in the Amazon on average begins in late September and takes weeks to build to widespread rains.

The rain forecast in the next 15 days is concentrated in areas that need it least, according to Maria Silva Dias, a professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Sao Paulo. Less precipitation is expected in parts of the Amazon experiencing the worst fires, she added.

The far northwest and west of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest will see more rain in coming weeks but the eastern parts will remain very dry, Refinitiv data show.

Even areas with more rain will only get isolated showers, the experts said.

“In some points you could put out some fires, certainly, but these are isolated points, it’s not the whole area,” Dias said.

“The whole area needs it to rain more regularly, and this will only happen further down the line, around October.”

Enough rain has to be concentrated in a short enough period to put out a fire, otherwise, the water will just evaporate, Dias said.

She estimated it would take at least 20 millimeters of rain within 1-2 hours to put out a forest fire, with more required for more intense blazes.

The state of Acre, in the west of Brazil on the border with Peru, is expected to get more fire relief from rains than most of the Amazon. The number of fires in Acre has more than doubled so far this year compared with the year-ago period, with 90 fires registered from Aug. 21-25 alone, according to INPE data.

The western half of the state will get 57.6 mm over the next 15 days, while the east of the state will get 33.5 mm, Refinitiv data show.

Rondonia and southern Amazonas state are expected to get 15-29 mm across the area in the next 15 days.

“In some areas it could reduce the fires, not in general,” said Matias Sales a meteorologist for Brazil weather information firm Climatempo.

The 15-day rain forecast is at or below the average for this period in previous years, according to Climatempo.

The eastern Amazon will stay dry over the next 15 days, with little or no rain in parts of Mato Grosso, Para and Tocantins where fires are up 54% to 161% compared with last year.

The dry season, which varies among parts of the Amazon but runs several months up to September, has been particularly dry this year, Dias said. Mato Grosso has been parched by a cold front that hit earlier in the year, she said.

Dias said she hoped the military would help to prevent new fires but putting out existing fires is a tougher task.

“The small fires will be extinguished but the big fires will go on for a while,” she said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Richard Chang)

As Hong Kong braces for protests, Chinese paramilitary holds drills across border

Chinese soldiers walk in formation on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen across the bay from Hong Kong, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong braced on Thursday for more mass demonstrations through the weekend, as China again warned against foreign interference in the city’s escalating crisis and as mainland paramilitary forces conducted exercises just across the border.

Western governments, including the United States, have stepped up calls for restraint, following ugly and chaotic scenes at the city’s airport this week, which forced the cancellation of nearly 1,000 flights and saw protesters set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathizers.

Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The airport, one of the world’s busiest, was returning to normal but under tight security after thousands of protesters had jammed its halls on Monday and Tuesday nights, part of a protest movement Beijing has likened to terrorism.

Across a bridge linking Hong Kong’s rural hinterland with the booming mainland city of Shenzhen, hundreds of members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police conducted exercises at a sports complex in what was widely seen as a warning to protesters in Hong Kong.

The police could be seen carrying out crowd-control exercises, and more than 100 dark-painted paramilitary vehicles filled the stadium’s parking lots.

Chinese state media had first reported on the exercises on Monday, prompting U.S. concerns they could be used to break up the protests. However, several western and Asian diplomats in Hong Kong told Reuters Beijing has little appetite for putting the PAP or the People’s Liberation Army onto Hong Kong’s streets.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, and police tactics have been toughening.

The protests represent the biggest populist challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012 and show no immediate signs of abating.

Late on Wednesday night, police and protesters faced off again on the streets of the financial hub, with riot officers quickly firing tear gas.

Seventeen people were arrested on Wednesday, bringing the total detained since June to 748, police told a news conference, adding that police stations have been surrounded and attacked 76 times during the crisis.

TRUMP AND TRADE DEAL

U.S. President Donald Trump tied a U.S.-China trade deal to Beijing resolving the unrest “humanely”, and suggested he was willing to meet Xi to discuss the crisis.

“I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi (Jinping) wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Trump said on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned over reports that Chinese police forces were gathering near the border with Hong Kong and urged the city’s government to respect freedom of speech.

It also issued a travel advisory urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution in Hong Kong. China has frequently warned against what it regards as outside interference in an internal issue.

Other foreign governments urged calm. France called on city officials to renew talks with activists, while Canada said China should handle the protests with tact.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized million-strong marches in June, has scheduled another protest for Sunday.

The protesters have five demands, including the complete withdrawal of a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in mainland Chinese courts.

Opposition to the extradition bill has developed into wider concerns about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

RECESSION FEARS

It was not yet clear whether the airport clashes had eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, despite adding to the city’s faltering economy.

The protests could push Hong Kong into a recession, research firm Capital Economics said, and risked “an even worse outcome if a further escalation triggers capital flight”.

Hong Kong’s property market, one of the world’s most expensive, would be hit hard in that scenario, it added.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan unveiled a series of measures worth HK$19.1 billion ($2.44 billion) on Thursday to tackle economic headwinds, but he said it was not related to political pressure from the protests.

Business and citizens’ groups have been posting full-page newspaper advertisements that denounce the violence and back Hong Kong’s government.

The head of Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment, Lui Che-woo, urged talks to restore harmony. The protests have affected the neighboring Chinese territory of Macau, with some visitors avoiding the world’s biggest gambling hub amid transport disruptions and safety concerns.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kevin Liu and Twinnie Siu in HONG KONG, David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON, Mathieu Rosemain in PARIS, and David Ljunggren in OTTAWA; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

U.S. removing Turkey from F-35 program after its Russian missile defense purchase

Turkey and U.S. flags are seen in this picture illustration taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Wednesday that it was removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, a move long threatened and expected after Ankara began accepting delivery of an advanced Russian missile defense system last week.

The first parts of the S-400 air defense system were flown to the Murted military air base northwest of Ankara on Friday, sealing NATO ally Turkey’s deal with Russia, which Washington had struggled for months to prevent.

“The U.S. and other F-35 partners are aligned in this decision to suspend Turkey from the program and initiate the process to formally remove Turkey from the program,” Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told a briefing.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the move was unfair and could affect relations between the two countries.

Lord said moving the supply chain for the advanced fighter jet would cost the United States between $500 million and $600 million in non-recurring engineering costs.

Turkey makes more than 900 parts of the F-35, she said, adding the supply chain would transition from Turkish to mainly U.S. factories as Turkish suppliers are removed.

“Turkey will certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities from this decision,” Lord said. “It will no longer receive more than $9 billion in projected work share related to the F-35 over the life of the program.”

The F-35 stealth fighter jet, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, is used by NATO and other U.S. allies.

Washington is concerned that deploying the S-400 with the F-35 would allow Russia to gain too much inside information about the aircraft’s stealth system.

“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities,” the White House said in a statement earlier on Wednesday.

Washington had long said the acquisition of the S-400 might lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program.

FRAYED TIES

After the Pentagon announcement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “We invite the United States to return from this mistake which would open irreparable wounds in strategic relations.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s annual security forum in Aspen, Colorado, said he was concerned at Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program.

But while the S-400 could not become part of NATO’s shared air and missile defenses, he said, Turkey has aircraft and radars that would remain part of the system.

“The S-400, the Russian air defense system, it’s not possible to integrate into the integrated NATO air defense and missile system, which is about sharing, you know, radar picture, about joint air policing, which is about shared capabilities. And Turkey has not asked for that,” Stoltenberg said.

The S-400 acquisition is one of several issues that have frayed ties between the two allies, including a dispute over strategy in Syria east of the Euphrates River, where the United States is allied with Kurdish forces that Turkey views as foes.

The Pentagon had already laid out a plan to remove Turkey from the program, which included halting training for Turkish pilots on the aircraft.

Lord said all the Turkish F-35 pilots and personnel had “firm plans” to leave the United States and were scheduled to leave by July 31.

Turkey will no longer be able to buy the 100 F-35s it had agreed to purchase.

“These would likely have been delivered at an annual rate of 8-12 aircraft/year through the 2020s,” Byron Callan, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, said in a research note on Wednesday.

The jet’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp and the jet’s program office at the Pentagon “should be able to re-market those delivery positions,” Callan said.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson said: “Over the last several months we’ve been working to establish alternative sources of supply in the United States to quickly” adjust for the loss of Turkey’s contribution to the program.

The United States is considering expanding sales of the jets to five other nations, including Romania, Greece and Poland, as European allies bulk up their defenses in the face of a strengthening Russia.

David Trachtenberg, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the briefing that the United States still valued its relationship with Turkey.

“Our strategic partnership continues, but as I said, this is a specific response to a specific action,” Trachtenberg said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Mike Stone, David Alexander and Jonathan Landay in Washington and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

North Korea says nuclear talks at risk if U.S.-South Korea exercises go ahead

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand at the demarcation line in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States looks set to break a promise not to hold military exercises with South Korea, putting talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons at risk, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

The United States’ pattern of “unilaterally reneging on its commitments” is leading Pyongyang to reconsider its own commitments to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the ministry said in a pair of statements released through state news agency KCNA.

U.S. President Donald Trump revitalized efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons last month when he arranged a spur-of-the-moment meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the border between the two Koreas.

Trump said they had agreed to resume so-called working-level talks, stalled since their second summit in February collapsed. The negotiations are expected in coming weeks.

But a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman cast doubt on that, saying the United States and South Korea were pressing ahead with exercises called Dong Maeng this summer, which he called a “rehearsal of war”.

“We will formulate our decision on the opening of the DPRK-U.S. working-level talks, while keeping watch over the U.S. move hereafter,” the spokesman said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The exercises are expected in August.

North Korea has for years denounced military exercises between the United States and South Korea, but in recent months has increased its criticism as talks with Washington and Seoul stalled.

“It is crystal clear that it is an actual drill and a rehearsal of war aimed at militarily occupying our Republic by surprise attack,” the North Korean spokesman said in a separate statement, adding that Trump had reaffirmed at last month’s meeting with Kim that the exercises would be halted.

Trump, in his first meeting with Kim in Singapore in June last year, said he would stop exercises after the two leaders agreed to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to improve ties.

While the main annual South Korean-U.S. exercises have been stopped, they still hold smaller drills.

“Readiness remains the number one priority for USFK,” said Jacqueline Leeker, a spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). “As a matter of standard operating procedure, and in order to preserve space for diplomacy to work, we do not discuss any planned training or exercises publicly.”

She said U.S. and South Korean troops continued to train together but had adjusted the size, scope, number and timing of exercises in order to “harmonize” training programs with diplomatic efforts.

An official at South Korea’s ministry of defense said it did not have immediate comment, but Seoul officials have previously said the drills are defensive in nature.

Since the Singapore summit, North Korea has not tested any nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles, though it tested new short-range missiles in May.

The United States’ decision to forge ahead with drills less than a month after Trump and Kim last met is “clearly a breach” of the two leaders’ agreements made in Singapore last year, and is an “an undisguised pressure” on North Korea, the foreign ministry spokesman said.

“With the U.S. unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the U.S. as well,” he said.

A North Korean nuclear envoy who steered the talks ahead of the failed February summit is alive, a South Korean lawmaker said on Tuesday, contradicting a South Korean news report that he had been executed.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith.; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Iran says U.S. cyber attacks failed, hints talks are possible

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, while also hinting that it could be willing to discuss new concessions with Washington if the United States were to lift sanctions and offer new incentives.

The longtime foes have come the closest in years to a direct military confrontation in the past week with the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump aborted a retaliatory strike just minutes before impact.

U.S. media have reported that the United States launched cyber attacks even as Trump called off the air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake on either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations began to deteriorate last year when the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

They got sharply worse last month when Trump tightened sanctions, ordering all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

Recent weeks saw a military dimension to the confrontation, with the United States blaming Iran for attacks on vessels at sea, which Iran denies. Iran shot down the drone, saying it was in its air space, which Washington disputes. Washington also blames Iran for attacks by its Yemeni allies on Saudi targets.

Washington argues that the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and that new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Throughout the escalation, both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks but the other side must move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions in line with the deal.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by ISNA news agency as saying on Monday Tehran did not “want a rise of tensions and its consequences”.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of Rouhani.

Trump has suggested that he backed off the military strike against Iran in part because he was not sure the country’s top leadership had intended to shoot down the drone. However, an Iranian commander said Tehran was prepared to do it again.

“Everyone saw the downing of the unmanned drone,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted on Sunday as saying by the Tasnim news agency. “I can assure you that this firm response can be repeated, and the enemy knows it.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

As Venezuela tensions mount, U.S. to deploy hospital ship to region

People hold lit candles and Venezuelan flags while participating in a candlelight vigil held for victims of recent violence in Caracas, Venezuela May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Phil Stewart

(Reuters) – As tensions with Venezuela mount, the United States is planning to announce on Tuesday the deployment of a military hospital ship to the region, U.S. officials say, in the latest sign of the Pentagon’s limited, and targeted, involvement in the crisis.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify where in the region the ship would travel to. Last year, a hospital ship — the USNS Comfort — cared for Venezuelan refugees and others as it stopped in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Honduras.

The U.S. military’s Southern Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Latin America, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The deployment will fall far short of satisfying some of President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have called for more robust U.S. military support to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who seeks to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

The United States and some 50 countries recognize Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called for the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier, something critics say is tantamount to threatening U.S. military intervention to topple Maduro.

President Donald Trump has invested considerable political capital in the diplomatic and economic intervention in the Venezuela crisis. But he has not signaled an intent to use military force.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, however, stressed last week that the Pentagon has been planning a full range of military options.

The announcement of the hospital ship’s deployment would come the same day that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was expected to offer new incentives to Venezuela’s military to turn against Maduro, responding to an attempted uprising that fizzled out last week.

In a speech at the State Department scheduled for 3:25 p.m. (1925 GMT), Pence will also warn that the United States will soon move to impose sanctions on 25 additional magistrates on Venezuela’s supreme court, a senior administration official said.

Pence will also offer assistance for refugees who have fled the country, and an economic aid package contingent on a political transition, according to the official.

Guaido, the president of the country’s national assembly, invoked Venezuela’s constitution in January to declare himself interim president of the country, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro – who has said Guaido is a puppet of Washington – has sought to show that the military remains on his side, but opposition leaders and U.S. officials have said that support is tenuous.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alistair Bell)