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

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

By James Mackenzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PURPOSE BUILT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Japan struggles to restore water to flood-hit towns

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

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Mari Saito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hyonhee Shin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘GRAVE SITUATION’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin, newly inaugurated, reviews Russia’s ‘invincible weapons’ on Red Square

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes as he takes part in the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Christian Lowe and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Vladimir Putin watched advanced jets carrying a hypersonic missile he has touted as invincible scream over Red Square on Wednesday, days after the start of his fourth presidential term.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Part of an annual event marking the Soviet Union’s World War Two victory over the Nazis, Putin looked on as thousands of troops marched past him and columns of tanks rumbled across the famous square in a show of military might reminiscent of those displayed during the Cold War.

Putin reviewed the parade from a tribune packed with Soviet war veterans, some of whom wore rows of campaign medals and clutched red roses. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Moscow for talks on Syria, was also present, as was Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Hollywood actor Steven Seagal, who was given a passport by Putin in 2016, was also a guest.

The authorities, backed by state media, use the event to boost patriotic feeling and show the world and potential buyers of military hardware how a multi-billion dollar modernization program is changing the face of the Russian military.

Putin, whose relations with the West are on a hostile trajectory, has said he does not want an arms race while warning potential enemies that his country has developed a new generation of invincible weapons to protect itself just in case.

“We remember the tragedies of the two world wars, about the lessons of history which do not allow us to become blind. The same old ugly traits are appearing along with new threats: egoism, intolerance, aggressive nationalism and claims to exceptionalism,” Putin told the parade.

“We understand the full seriousness of those threats,” added Putin, who complained about what he said were unacceptable attempts to rewrite history while saying Russia was open to talks on global security if they helped keep world peace.

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Putin has sharply increased military spending over the 18 years he has dominated Russian politics, handed the Russian military significant policy-making clout, and deployed Russian forces in Ukraine and Syria, stoking tensions with the West.

As commander-in-chief, he has also at times donned military uniform himself and been filmed at the controls of a strategic bomber and on the conning tower of a submarine in photo opportunities designed to boost his man of action image.

Weapons displayed on Red Square included Russia’s Yars mobile intercontinental nuclear missile launcher, its Iskander-M ballistic missile launchers, and its advanced S-400 air defense missile system, which Moscow has deployed in Syria to protect its forces.

Russian army MiG-29 jet fighters of the Strizhi (Swifts) and Su-30 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic teams fly in formation during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russian army MiG-29 jet fighters of the Strizhi (Swifts) and Su-30 jet fighters of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic teams fly in formation during the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

‘INVINCIBLE MISSILE’

The first public outing of the Kinjal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, carried by advanced MiG-31K interceptor jets, was one of several world premieres for Russian weapons.

Putin disclosed the Kinjal’s existence in March along with other missile systems he touted as unbeatable, describing how it could evade any enemy defenses.

Russian media have said it can hit targets up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles) distant with nuclear or conventional warheads and that the missiles have already been deployed in Russia’s southern military district.

Russia’s most advanced fifth generation Su-57 stealth fighter, which has undergone testing in Syria, also took part in the parade for the first time, as did an unmanned armored reconnaissance and infantry support vehicle, the Uran-9.

Armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, a machine gun, anti-tank missiles and a rocket launcher, it looks like something out of a Hollywood science fiction film.

An unmanned de-mining vehicle, the Uran-6, was also put on show, as were Russia’s latest military drones and an armored vehicle designed to support tanks on the battlefield dubbed “The Terminator” by its maker.

An advanced Russian military snowmobile fitted with a machine gun, the Berkut, built to bolster Moscow’s Arctic ambitions, also traversed the cobbled square.

The Moscow parade was one of many which took place across Russia on Wednesday involving a total of 55,000 troops, 1,200 weapons systems and 150 war planes in 28 Russian cities.

Some politicians in former Soviet republics and satellite states regard the parade as crude sabre-rattling by a resurgent Russia they say poses a threat to Europe’s security. Russia dismisses such allegations as nonsense.

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Exclusive: Russian civilians helping Assad use military base back home – witnesses

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors leaving an airport outside Rostov-on-Don, Russia. REUTERS/Stringe

By Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev

MOLKINO, Russia (Reuters) – The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with Russian civilians fighting in Syria but on three recent occasions groups of men flying in from Damascus headed straight to a defense ministry base in Molkino, Reuters reporters witnessed.

Molkino in southwestern Russia is where the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade is based, according to information on the Kremlin website.

The destination of the Russians arriving from Syria provides rare evidence of a covert Russian mission in Syria beyond the air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops acknowledged by Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 14 Russians may be in Syria but “they are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. He referred Reuters to the defense ministry when asked why civilians fighting in Syria return to a military base. The ministry did not immediately respond.

A duty officer at the 10th special forces brigade, asked why non-military people were entering the military base, said: “Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware … You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything … You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?”

More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.

The contractors are transferred by Syrian airline Cham Wings, the sources said.

Reuters reporters saw a Syrian Cham Wings charter flight from Damascus land at the civilian airport in Rostov-on-Don on April 17 and watched groups of men leave the terminal through an exit separate from the one used by ordinary passengers.

They boarded three buses, which took them to an area mainly used by airport staff. A luggage carrier brought numerous oversized bags and the men, dressed in civilian clothes, got off the buses, loaded the bags and got back on.

The three buses then left the airport in convoy and headed south; two made stops near cafes along the way and one on the roadside. All three reached the village of Molkino, 350 km (220 miles) south, shortly before midnight.

In the village, each bus paused for a minute or two at a checkpoint manned by at least two servicemen, before driving on. About 15-20 minutes later the buses drove back through the checkpoint empty. Publicly available satellite maps show the road leads to the military facility.

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

A still image from a video footage taken on April 6, 2018 shows a bus transferring Russian private military contractors passing a checkpoint before entering the Defence Ministry base in Molkino near Krasnodar, Russia. REUTERS/Stringer

EXCURSION?

The buses took men along the same route from the airport to Molkino on Mar. 25 and Apr. 6, a Reuters reporter saw.

Several relatives, friends and recruiters of fighters told Reuters Russian private contractors have had a training camp in Molkino since the time they fought in eastern Ukraine alongside pro-Russian separatists.

The military facility is known for its recently renovated firing range, where the military trains for counter terrorist operations, tank battles and sniper shooting, the Russian defense ministry website says.

Reuters contacted the owners of some of the buses transporting the groups of men from the airport. They said they rent out their buses but declined to say who to: one said a trip to Molkino could have been an excursion.

One of the buses, a white 33-year-old Neoplan with a slogan of a tourist company on its boards, was imported into Russia in 2007 and initially registered in the town of Pechory. Dmitry Utkin, identified by three sources as leader of the contractors, previously commanded a special forces unit based in Pechory.

Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2K5I3MR

(Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

China warns of more action after military drills near Taiwan

FILE PHOTO - China's aircraft carrier Liaoning (C) takes part in a military drill of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the western Pacific Ocean, April 18, 2018. Picture taken April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Ben Blanchard and Jess Macy Yu

BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) – A series of Chinese drills near Taiwan were designed to send a clear message to the island and China will take further steps if Taiwan independence forces persist in doing as they please, Beijing said on Wednesday, as Taiwan denounced threats of force.

Over the past year or so, China has ramped up military drills around democratic Taiwan, including flying bombers and other military aircraft around the self-ruled island. Last week China drilled in the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

China claims Taiwan as its sacred territory, and its hostility towards the island has grown since the 2016 election as president of Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

China has been issuing increasingly strident calls for Taiwan to toe the line, even as Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo and keep the peace.

Speaking at a regular news briefing, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the message the People’s Liberation Army was sending with its exercises was “extremely clear”.

“We have the resolute will, full confidence and sufficient ability to foil any form of Taiwan independence separatist plots and moves and to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ma said.

“If Taiwan independence forces continue to do as they please, we will take further steps,” he added, without giving details.

The military’s drills were aimed at protecting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the interests of people on both sides of it, Ma said.

In Taipei, the government’s China policy-making Mainland Affairs Council said the people of Taiwan could not accept China’s military pressure and threats which it said had damaged peace in the Taiwan Strait.

“The mainland side should not attribute the consequences of misjudgment to Taiwan. This is an extremely irresponsible act,” it added.

The Republic of China is a sovereign state, the council said, using Taiwan’s formal name, and will brook no slander or criticism from China.

“We sternly warn the other side, do not create incidents again. Only by abandoning armed intimidation, facing up to the reality of the separate control on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, and having pragmatic communication and dialogue can the differences be resolved.”

Amid the growing tension with China, Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Tuesday it will simulate repelling an invading force, emergency repairs of a major air base and using civilian-operated drones as part of military exercises starting next week.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry)

Trump signs budget deal after raising government shutdown threat

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks, as he stands next to Congress' $1.3 trillion spending bill, during a signing ceremony, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump signed Congress’ newly passed $1.3 trillion budget bill on Friday, ending several hours of confusion spurred by a tweeted veto threat that raised the specter of a government shutdown.

Trump said he had signed the bill, despite his qualms on some issues, because a $60 billion increase in military spending had convinced him it was a worthwhile compromise.

“But I say to Congress I will never sign another bill like this again,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to do it again.”

White House and Capitol Hill aides had been left scrambling earlier in the day after Trump criticized the six-month spending bill, despite prior assurances from the administration that he would sign it ahead of a looming midnight deadline.

“I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded,” Trump wrote on Twitter at 9 a.m. EDT.

But by early afternoon, he appeared before reporters in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House to announce he had signed the measure.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill,” he said, patting the more than 2,000 pages of the legislation stacked on a purple box beside him.

It was unclear how seriously Republican leaders took Trump’s shutdown threat. Neither Speaker Paul Ryan nor Senate Leader Mitch McConnell commented publicly on it.

Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Senate and House of Representatives had already left Washington for a scheduled two-week spring recess, and Trump himself was scheduled on Friday to fly to Florida for a weekend at his private resort.

IMMIGRATION CONCERNS

Trump has been frustrated that Congress has not turned over funding to make good on his campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The bill includes $1.6 billion for six month’s of work on the project but he had sought $25 billion for it.

Trump also has been at odds with Democrats in Congress over the fate of Dreamer immigrants – those brought to the United States illegally when they were children.

Trump canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gives work permits to the Dreamers and protects them from deportation. The decision is currently tied up in court cases.

He offered to extend the protections, tied to a sweeping set of changes to immigration laws, but subsequently rejected bipartisan offers from lawmakers.

As the six-month spending budget deal was coming together, there had been reports Trump had balked at the bill and had to be persuaded by Ryan to support it.

The conservative wing of Trump’s party had panned the bill because of its spending increases and some deficit hawks cheered Trump’s Friday morning threat to veto it.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Amanda Becker, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott)

United States official says commitment of Taiwan has never been stronger

Alex Wong, U.S. deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, speaks at American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham)’s yearly dinner event, in Taipei, Taiwan March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Twinnie Siu and Fabian Hamacher

TAIPEI (Reuters) – The United States’ commitment to Taiwan has never been stronger and the island is an inspiration to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong said on Wednesday, in comments certain to anger Beijing.

Wong was speaking during a visit to Taipei at a time of increased hostility between the self-ruled island and Beijing and just a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping issued his strongest warning against Taiwan separatism to date.

China claims Taiwan as its own and considers the self-ruled island a wayward province, which Xi said on Tuesday would face the “punishment of history” for any attempt at separatism.

The island is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint. Underlining that threat, Taiwan sent ships and aircraft earlier on Wednesday to shadow a Chinese aircraft carrier group through the narrow Taiwan Strait, its defense ministry said.

“Taiwan can no longer be excluded unjustly from international fora. Taiwan has much to share with the world,” Wong said at a reception attended by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

“I can assure you, the United States government and the United States private sector will do their part to ensure Taiwan’s stellar international example shines brightly.”

Beijing is already furious over a law signed last week by U.S. President Donald Trump that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa.

President Tsai welcomed the new law on Wednesday.

“We were pleased President Trump signed the Taiwan travel act into law. We are grateful to the Trump administration and to members of the congress for supporting this bill,” she said.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said earlier that the Chinese carrier group, led by the mainland’s sole operational aircraft carrier the Liaoning, entered the Taiwan Strait late on Tuesday, but kept on its western side.

By midday on Wednesday it had left Taiwan’s air defense identification zone heading southwest, the ministry said, adding that it looked like China was conducting drills.

Taiwan’s military sent ships and aircraft to shadow the carrier group the entire way but spotted nothing out of the ordinary and people in Taiwan should not be concerned, it added.

China’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Taiwan says China has ramped up military exercises around the island in the past year or so.

China suspects Taiwan’s Tsai wants to push for formal independence for the island, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing. Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

Separately on Wednesday, China announced that a former ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, has been appointed head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Veteran diplomat Liu has been deputy head of the office since October last year.

(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Ben Blanchard and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

U.S., Israeli troops train together in mock Mideast village

U.S. Marine and an Israeli soldier practice urban combat during Juniper Cobra, a U.S.-Israeli joint air defence exercise, in Zeelim, southern Israel, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen

ZEELIM MILITARY BASE, Israel (Reuters) – The Israeli military hosted U.S. Marines this week for an urban combat drill in a mock-up of a generic Middle East village, sharing know-how and signaling the allies’ shared interests as their leaders close ranks on a host of regional issues.

“We are willing to work and train together, and if God wills it, if we ever need to be side by side, then we will,” Lieutenant-Colonel Marcus Mainz of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit told Reuters during the exercise at Israel’s Zeelim base.

His troops joined Israeli special forces regiments to practise battle formation, helicopter deployment and medical evacuations in a mock-up village in the desert, complete with Arabic graffiti and a fake mosque.

The maneuvers were part of a wider, biennial joint air defense exercise known as Juniper Cobra, which this year took place amid heightened Israeli and U.S. concern over the missile arsenal of Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Mainz said his troops had learned from the Israelis’ experiences in fighting Hamas guerrillas in Gaza, and had in turn shared tips from U.S. warfronts.

“They teach them what to see when they were either in the Gaza Strip or somewhere else on the battlefield, for us in Afghanistan and Iraq, and teach that young soldier what to look for,” he said.

U.S. Marines and Israeli soldiers practice urban combat during Juniper Cobra, a U.S.-Israeli joint air defence exercise, in Zeelim, southern Israel, March 12, 2018. Picture taken March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

U.S. Marines and Israeli soldiers practice urban combat during Juniper Cobra, a U.S.-Israeli joint air defence exercise, in Zeelim, southern Israel, March 12, 2018. Picture taken March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“And what happens is they start getting excited and they are talking about ‘I learned this here’, ‘I learned that there’.”

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has boosted its already strong support for Israel – including by recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a move that angered many Muslims and Arabs who back the Palestinian claim on the city.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Egypt’s military says kills 53 militants in week-long offensive

Egyptian Army's Armoured Vehicles are seen on a highway to North Sinai during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Ismailia, Egypt, in this undated handout picture made available by the Ministry of Defence February 9, 2018. Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

By Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s military and police forces have killed a total of 53 Islamist militants and arrested 680 suspects in a week-long offensive to crush insurgents that is focused on the Sinai Peninsula, a military spokesman said on Thursday.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is seeking re-election in March, ordered the armed forces in November to defeat militants within three months after an attack on a mosque in Sinai killed more than 300 people.

The attack was the deadliest of its kind in Egypt, which is the Arab world’s most populous country and a main regional ally of the United States.

The security operation, which involves the army, navy, air force and police, began last Friday and targeted “terrorist and criminal elements and organizations” in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert, Colonel Tamer al-Rifai told a news conference broadcast on state television on Thursday.

He said forces have destroyed over 1000 kg (2205 lbs) of explosives, 378 militant hideouts and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants.

He added that 680 people, some of them suspected militants or wanted criminals, were also detained in the operation.

The air force, which has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai since the operation began, has focused on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians, air force Brigadier General Alaa Dawara said.

Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of the Military Operations Authority said the operation would end when Sinai was free of “terrorists”.

“It could be extended or shortened according to the situation and that is what will be determined in the coming days,” Abdel Aziz told journalists.

He said after the military operation, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.

Outside the peninsula, the Egyptian military said the operation would cover parts of the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, where other militants have waged attacks, some believed to be staged out of neighboring Libya.

The insurgency poses the greatest challenge to the government in a country that is both the most populous in the Arab World and a main regional ally of the United States.

Islamist insurgents have been targeting security forces since 2013 when the army led by Sisi, then the army chief, ousted President Mohamed Mursi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, following mass protests against his rule.

Some local residents have raised concerns over food and medicine shortages in the peninsula after the army blocked all access to the area.

Rifai said the armed forces has cooperated closely with local authorities to coordinate the delivery of food, medical assistance and other supplies in compliance with local and international laws and human rights norms.

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)