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)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for uprising but military loyal to Maduro for now

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.

Early on Tuesday, several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas, and large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent. But by Tuesday afternoon an uneasy peace had returned and there was no indication that the opposition planned to take power through military force.

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota" in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase “La Carlota” in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that “as we understand it” Maduro had been ready to depart for socialist ally Cuba, but had been persuaded to stay by Russia, which has also been a steadfast supporter.

In a message posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday evening, Guaido told supporters to take to the streets once again on Wednesday. He reiterated his call for the armed forces to take his side and said Maduro did not have the military’s support.

“Today Venezuela has the opportunity to peacefully rebel against a tyrant who is closing himself in,” Guaido said.

Maduro appeared in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, among others.

“Today the goal was a big show,” Maduro said, referring to the military members who sided with Guaido as a “small group.” “Their plan failed, their call failed, because Venezuela wants peace.”

He said he had reinstated Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as the head of the Sebin intelligence agency, without providing details on the exit of Manuel Cristopher Figuera at the helm of the agency. Cristopher Figuera replaced Gonzalez Lopez at Sebin last year.

Other U.S. officials said three top Maduro loyalists – Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – had been in talks with the opposition and were ready to support a peaceful transition of power.

“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”

Flanked by uniformed men, Padrino said in a broadcast that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities,” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.

Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests.

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

BOLD, BUT RISKY, MOVE

Tuesday’s move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks sufficient support. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido early on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.

Human rights groups said 109 people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.

“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike.

In a video on his Twitter account, Guaido was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.

Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.

Oil prices topped $73 before easing, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by the U.S. sanctions and the economic crisis.

WHO BACKED WHO?

The crisis has pitted supporters of Guaido, including the United States, the European Union, and most Latin American nations, against Maduro’s allies, which include Russia, Cuba and China.

The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.

“This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.

But accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro. Neither provided evidence.

Trump threatened “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” on Cuba for its support of Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared “weak.”

Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.

The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue.

 

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. senator wants criminal investigation of military base landlords

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh's U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal called on Thursday for a criminal fraud investigation of private landlords who operate housing on U.S. military bases, following Reuters reports that showed how thousands of U.S. military families were subjected to serious health and safety hazards in on-base housing.

Blumenthal was speaking at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee called to discuss how to hold the military and contractors accountable for substandard living conditions on some bases.

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines unveiled a proposed tenant bill of rights on Wednesday that would hand more power to military families facing housing hazards.

(Reporting by Michael Pell; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Phil Berlowitz)

Factbox: So far apart – India and Pakistan engage in war of claim, counter-claim

FILE PHOTO: People hold national flags and placards as they celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An air strike by Indian warplanes inside Pakistan last week, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by the Pakistani air force, pushed the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of another war, but also triggered a fight over the truth about events.

Below is a look at claims and counter claims from both sides. They disagree on most aspects.

PULWAMA ATTACK

The escalation in tension came after a suicide car bombing killed 40 paramilitary troops in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region also claimed by Pakistan, on Feb. 14.

India blames Pakistan for the attack, which was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and says it has provided Pakistan with proof.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Feb. 27 that a dossier was handed over to Pakistan with “specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan”.

Pakistan has denied the accusation, saying it had nothing to do with the Pulwama bombing, which came right before a high-profile visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad on Feb. 17.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament on Feb. 28: “We had such an important visit of the Saudi crown prince coming up. We knew that they would invest, there were contracts. Which country would sabotage such an important event by conducting a terror attack?”

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

AIR STRIKE IMPACT

India said its warplanes struck a JeM training camp near the Pakistani town of Balakot in the early hours of Feb. 26, acting on intelligence that the militant group was planning another suicide attack.

“In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a briefing after the air strike. Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants willing to fight to the death.

Pakistan acknowledged that Indian jets had crossed into its territory, but denied they had hit anything substantial. Under forced hasty withdrawal, Indian aircraft “released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties”, the Pakistan military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said in a tweet.

In New Delhi, a senior government official told reporters that at least 300 militants had been killed, although India’s defense forces have since said they are unable to provide any detail on the number of casualties.

“We hit our target,” the chief of the Indian air force (IAF), B.S. Dhanoa, said on Monday. “The air force doesn’t calculate casualty numbers, the government does that.”

F-16 INVOLVEMENT

On Feb. 27, Pakistan said its air force had locked on to six targets in Indian-administered Kashmir in retaliation for the Indian air strikes the day before. It said it did this to show it could strike key targets but said its pilots deliberately dropped their bombs in open country without causing damage. It said its aircraft did not enter Indian airspace.

Pakistan said it had downed two Indian jets, one of which came down in Pakistani-held territory and the other on the Indian side of the border. It said it had captured two Indian air force pilots. Later, it clarified to say it had only one Indian pilot in its custody. He was later handed over to India.

India said it had detected a “large package” of Pakistan air force jets coming towards Indian territory, and sent up its own fighter aircraft to intercept them.

In the ensuing engagement, India lost a MiG-21 Bison, the IAF said, adding it also shot down a U.S.-built F-16 jet. India denies that it lost a second jet.

On Feb. 28, Indian defense officials displayed what they said were parts of an AMRAAM air-to-air missile that is carried only on the F-16s in the Pakistani air force.

India’s foreign ministry said that there was a “violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan air force and targeting of Indian military posts”.

Pakistan’s military has denied it used F-16s in the attack on India and says it has not lost any of its aircraft.

CEASEFIRE VIOLATIONS

In the past week, India and Pakistan have accused each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border between the two countries in the disputed Kashmir region.

For example, last Thursday, India said Pakistan had begun firing on at least three occasions, violating the ceasefire, killing one civilian on the Indian side.

Pakistani authorities said the ceasefire violations were by India, and four civilians had been killed in Pakistan in what they called a “deliberate” attack by Indian forces.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in ISLAMABAD; Edited by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)