Tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman fuel security, oil supply fears

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Barrington and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Attacks on two oil tankers on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman left one ablaze and both adrift, shipping firms said, driving oil prices up 4% over worries about Middle East supplies.

The Front Altair was on fire in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran after an explosion that a source blamed on a magnetic mine. The crew of the Norwegian vessel were picked up by a vessel in the area and passed to an Iranian rescue boat.

A second Japanese-owned tanker was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said. The crew were also picked up.

The attacks were the second in a month near the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway for world oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for last month’s attacks using limpet mines on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a charge Tehran denies.

There were no immediate statements apportioning blame after Thursday’s incidents.

“We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s (seaborne) crude oil passes through the straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” said Paolo Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO tanker association.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programs and influence in the Middle East, pulled the United States out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Thursday’s attacks came as Shinzo Abe – prime minister of U.S. ally Japan, a big importer of Iranian oil until Washington ratcheted up sanctions – was visiting Tehran with a message from Trump. Abe urged all sides not to let tensions escalate.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting the two tankers on Thursday after receiving distress calls. Britain said it was “deeply concerned” about Thursday’s reported explosions and was working with partners on the issue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Thursday’s incidents as “suspicious” on Twitter, noting they occurred during Abe’s Tehran visit. The minister called for regional dialogue.

Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which both have coastlines along the Gulf of Oman, did not immediately issue any public comment.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both majority Sunni Muslim nations with a long-running rivalry with predominantly Shi’ite Iran, have previously said attacks on oil assets in the Gulf pose a risk to global oil supplies and regional security.

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

EXPLOSION

Bernhard Schulte Ship management said the Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the waterline while transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. “Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway’s Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around 0400 GMT carrying a Taiwan-bound cargo of 75,000 tonnes of petrochemical feedstock naphtha, which Refinitiv Eikon data showed had been picked up from Ruwais in the UAE.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

Front Altair’s 23-member crew abandoned ship after the blast and were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel. The crew was then passed to an Iranian rescue boat, Hyundai Merchant Marine said in a statement.

Iranian search and rescue teams picked up 44 sailors from the two damaged tankers and took them to the Iranian port of Jask, Iran’s IRNA reported.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis fired a missile on an airport in Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people. The Houthis also claimed an armed drone strike last month on Saudi oil pumping stations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei told Abe during his visit to Iran that Tehran would not repeat its “bitter experience” of negotiating with the United States, state media reported.

“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” the Iranian leader said.

(Reporting by Koustav Samanta and Jessica Jaganathan in Singapore, Liang-Sa Loh and Yimou Lee in Taipei, Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)

Philippines’ Duterte threatens to close mines that support rebels

Philippines' Duterte threatens to close mines that support rebels

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday threatened to shut down any mine that supports Maoist rebels waging a protracted guerrilla war to overthrow the government.

The Philippines has been in on-again, off-again peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political arm of the communist movement, since 1986 to end a rebellion that has killed more than 40,000 people and stunted growth in resource-rich rural areas.

In a speech honoring soldiers who fought pro-Islamic State militants for five months in the southern city of Marawi, Duterte said that attacks from the Maoist rebels had been on the rise, forcing him to end negotiations, and that he would declare the guerrilla group a terrorist organization.

“If I go against the communists, then everybody has to reconfigure their relationship with the New People’s Army,” he said, referring to the communists’ armed wing. “If you support them financially, I will close you down.”

Duterte said some mines were paying “revolutionary taxes” to the rebels in exchange for allowing their operations in remote areas to continue. He did not name any companies.

Mines in the Philippines, many with foreign partners, are digging for gold, nickel, copper, chromite and coal. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau said the country had estimated $840 billion worth of untapped mineral wealth as of 2012.

The rebels are also engaged in small-scale mining, like gold panning in the south.

Mining companies shared the president’s position, Ronald Recidoro, executive director at the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, said.

“We do not condone any member supporting the New People’s Army through the payment of revolutionary taxes,” Recidoro told Reuters.

“This is clearly against the law and they really should be prosecuted if they are found to be supporting these organizations. And if closure is warranted, that is within the prerogative of the president.”

The Chamber of Mines groups 20 of the country’s 43 operating mines. Recidoro said some mining firm members had experienced some of their equipment being burned by the NPA because of their refusal to pay the taxes.

“I am fighting a rebellion… I have to build a strong army,” Duterte said, adding the military would next year acquire 23 attack helicopters to boost counter-insurgency capability.

Military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla said the Philippines already had approval for the purchase of attack helicopters but had not decided what type or where to source them.

($1 = 50.6 pesos)

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato and Manolo Serapio; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Explosions rock Myanmar area near Bangladesh border amid Rohingya exodus

Rohingya refugees sit as they are temporarily held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

By Simon Lewis and Wa Lone

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) – Two blasts rocked an area on the Myanmar side of the border with Bangladesh on Monday, accompanied by the sound of gunfire and thick black smoke, as violence that has sent nearly 90,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh showed no sign of easing.

Bangladeshi border guards said a woman lost a leg from a blast about 50 meters inside Myanmar and was carried into Bangladesh to get treatment. Reuters reporters heard explosions and saw black smoke rising near a Myanmar village.

The latest violence in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state began on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of villagers to Bangladesh.

A Rohingya refugee who went to the site of the blast – on a footpath near where civilians fleeing violence are huddled in no man’s land on the border – filmed what appeared to be a mine: a metal disc about 10 centimeters (3.94 inches) in diameter partially buried in the mud. He said he believed there were two more such devices buried in the ground.

Bangladeshi border guards said they believed the injured woman stepped on an anti-personnel mine, although that was not confirmed.

Two refugees also told Reuters they saw members of the Myanmar army around the site in the immediate period preceding the blasts which occurred around 2:25 p.m.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the planted devices were landmines and that there was any link to the Myanmar army.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The spokesman for Myanmar’s national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Zaw Htay, said that a clarification was needed to determine “where did it explode, who can go there and who laid those land mines. Who can surely say those mines were not laid by the terrorists?”

“There are so many questions. I would like to say that it is not solid news-writing if you write based on someone talking nonsense on the side of the road,” said Zaw Htay.

The treatment of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of not speaking out for the minority that has long complained of persecution.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come under increasing diplomatic pressure from countries with large Muslim populations such as Turkey and Pakistan to protect Rohingya civilians.

Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” responsible for a string of attacks on police posts and the army since last October.

On Monday, Reuters reporters saw fires and heard gunshots before the explosions near the Myanmar village of Taung Pyo Let Way.

 

‘NO FOOD … NO TREATMENT’

Myanmar officials blamed Rohingya militants for the burning of homes and civilian deaths but rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh say the Myanmar army is trying to force Rohingya out with a campaign of arson and killings.

The number of those crossing the border into Bangladesh – 87,000 – surpassed the number who escaped Myanmar after a series of much smaller insurgent attacks last October that set off a military operation. That operation has led to accusations of serious human rights abuses.

The newest estimate, based on calculations by U.N. workers in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar, takes to about 174,000 the total number of Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh since October.

The new arrivals have strained aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.

“We are trying to build houses here, but there isn’t enough space,” said Mohammed Hussein, 25, who was still looking for a place to stay after fleeing Myanmar four days ago.

“No non-government organizations came here. We have no food. Some women gave birth on the roadside. Sick children have no treatment.”

Hundreds of Rohingya milled beside the road while others slung tarpaulins over bamboo frames to make shelters against the monsoon rain.

Among new arrivals, about 16,000 are school-age children and more than 5,000 are under the age of five who need vaccine coverage, aid workers said over the weekend.

 

INTERNATIONAL ANGER

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who said on Friday that violence against Myanmar’s Muslims amounted to genocide, last week called Bangladesh’s President Abdul Hamid to offer help in sheltering the Rohingya, Dhaka said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met Suu Kyi and other officials in Myanmar on Monday, to urge a halt to the violence.

Suu Kyi’s office said Marsudi expressed the Indonesian government’s “support of the activities of the Myanmar government for the stability, peace and development of Rakhine state”.

They also discussed humanitarian aid and the two countries would collaborate for the development of the state, Suu Kyi’s office said without giving further details.

There were more anti-Myanmar protests in Jakarta on Monday.

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on Suu Kyi to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya, saying “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

In addition to tens of thousands of Rohingya, more than 11,700 “ethnic residents” had been evacuated from northern Rakhine state, the Myanmar government has said, referring to non-Muslims.

The army said on Sunday Rohingya insurgents had set fire to monasteries, images of Buddha as well as schools and houses in the north of Rakhine state. It posted images of destroyed Buddha statues.

 

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR’; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel, Martin Howell)

 

After Islamic State defeat, broken Iraq farmers weigh heavy losses

Workers repair a house after it was damaged during clashes in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017.

By Michael Georgy and Maha El Dahan

QARAQOSH, Iraq/ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Sami Yuhanna was making a decent living as a wheat farmer until a jihadist put a gun to his head and declared his land in Iraq’s Nineveh province the property of Islamic State.

An army offensive has cleared the militants from the eastern half of the provincial capital, Mosul, and nearby towns and villages like Qaraqosh, home to Yuhanna’s fields.

But the terror and mismanagement that characterized their two-year rule after seizing Iraq’s agriculture heartland has devastated farmers and exacerbated the country’s food security problem.

Yuhanna, who used to sell about 100 tonnes of wheat per year, now lives in a small trailer and drives a taxi in the Kurdish capital of Erbil to barely survive. He is still haunted by the day armed militants arrived.

“They just took over everything I owned,” he said.

Farmers fear the agriculture sector could take years to recover, with tractors missing, unexploded mines in the fields and farm compounds damaged by airstrikes on the militants, who sold commodities like wheat to finance their operations.

Nineveh was Iraq’s most productive farming region before the arrival of Islamic State, producing around 1.5 million tonnes of wheat a year, or about 21 percent of Iraq’s total wheat output, and 32 percent of barley.

An estimated 70 percent of farmers fled when Islamic State took over, and those who stayed — either to join the movement or out of fear — faced heavy taxation.

As a Christian, Yuhanna was particularly vulnerable to the Sunni extremists, who tried to build a self-sustaining caliphate and killed anyone opposed to their radical ideas.

“The people that turned on me we were all from this area. I knew every one of them. They joined Daesh,” said Yuhanna, using an acronym for the group.

Reuters was not able to obtain official figures for agricultural output during Islamic State rule because the government had no access to areas under jihadist control.

Haider al-Abbadi, head of the General Union of Farmers Cooperatives, told Reuters in a telephone interview that he estimated output fell to around 300,000 tonnes, based on accounts of how much of the grain farmers had sold.

“Islamic State used to surround farmers in general and prevent them from going out into the fields and farming their land because they were scared they would escape or that they would go and join the government forces,” Abbadi said.

“This season it will be difficult to see an improvement. The only hope is that the farmers might be able to market their produce to the government again. I don’t expect the wheat crop to be more than 500,000 tonnes this season.”

Fadel El Zubi, Iraq Representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agreed the outlook is dire.

“It is extremely important to support farmers as their situation in newly retaken areas is characterized by extreme difficulties that is disabling them to start planting for this season 2016-2017,” Zubi said in written answers to Reuters.

“Seeds, fertilizers, fuel, electricity, sustainable agricultural equipment, as well as irrigation channels and wells and other essential supplies, are not available to enable farmers to restore their usual farming.”

The militants seized 1.1 million tonnes of wheat that was in government silos, according to Zubi. In addition, about 40 percent of agricultural machinery was sold as parts or smuggled into neighboring countries to raise money for militant activities, Abbadi said.

FOOD SECURITY

Ensuring food security has consistently been one of the central government’s biggest — and most pressing — challenges.

Even late dictator Saddam Hussein was cautious when it came to food. A rationing program for flour, cooking oil, rice, sugar and baby milk formula, the Public Distribution System (PDS), was created in 1991 to combat UN-imposed economic sanctions.

Impoverished Iraqis continue to depend on the system, which has become corrupt and wasteful over the years as well as severely curtailed in conflict zones.

The FAO estimates there are around 2.4 million people in Iraq who do not have access to nutritious food that meets their dietary needs.

Islamic State set itself apart from militant groups like Al Qaeda by holding territory and attempting to create an administration that could deliver basic services in order to win public support. But the group failed in areas such as farming.

For one thing, the militants did not match government prices, farmers said. While the state used to pay double the market price for commodities such as wheat, for example, Islamic State paid below the global average.

“They were paying farmers around $200 a ton while the government used to pay up to $600 a ton,” Zubi said.

Ghanem Hussein used to work 100 donhums (250,000 square meters) of wheat and barley crops below mountain ranges. When the jihadists showed up, his planting shrunk to 10 donhums because he didn’t fully cooperate with them.

“They did not buy anything from us. I just grew enough to feed my animals. Total destruction,” said Hussein, throwing seeds by hand on a small plot of land around his house in the village of Omar Khabshi.

He now fears for the safety of his children because dogs that ate corpses left on roadsides by fighting are biting people in his village.

NO HOPE

Islamic State’s failure to meet the basic needs of Iraqis would likely undermine any bid to make a comeback in the country as it tries to recover from losses in Syria and Libya, farmers said.

But the government is not offering much hope either, they said, with most of its resources directed at driving the militants out of Mosul.

Farmer Abdel Hakim Ali, 45, used to sell 50-100 tonnes of wheat and barley annually to state-run silos before Islamic State arrived. He and other farmers have contacted the government to see if the old arrangements could be revived.

Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq,

Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

“They said to wait because the budget is weak,” said Ali. “The state is failing. This is our government. They said wait for God’s mercy.”

This is a familiar story to farmers. When Islamic State took over Mosul in June 2014, farmers in the region had still not received government payments for the wheat they had sold that year.

Kadhum al-Bahadli, the government’s advisor on agricultural affairs, said efforts were underway to pay and compensate farmers and offer loans for seeds despite low oil prices and deteriorating state finances.

“The government has already put plans to compensate Mosul farmers for the wheat delivered to silos before the occupation of Daesh. They should be patient as the process is complicated and needs more time.”

Aref Hassan, head of a farmers association in Basheeqa with 1,100 members, showed Reuters photographs of a town once surrounded by green fields that was reduced to rubble in the effort to dislodge jihadists.

Only a few families have returned.

Hassan walked through an olive grove, despairing at the sight of one tree after another burned by militants in an apparent bid to create smoke to evade airstrikes.

Reviving the grove could take a decade, he said. For now, there are more pressing concerns.

“There are still mines and improvised explosive devices on a lot of land so farmers can’t work,” he said.

“We hope that international organizations and demining organizations will clean up the farming areas. The farmer cannot go back to his land until these farms are cleared.”

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

ISIS Plants Land Mines At Historic Sites

Islamic terrorist group ISIS has planted land mines around some of the world’s most ancient sites according to the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

The group told Sky News they had evidence the mines were places around the ancient ruins in the city of Palmyra on Saturday.

The ancient site was overtaken by the Islamic extremists last month and many major world leaders feared they would destroy the ancient parts of the city in the same manner they destroyed ancient tombs and churches in other captured villages.  However, the terrorists have not destroyed the buildings and even used an amphitheater to force residents to watch executions.

“It is not known if the purpose is to blow up the ruins or to prevent regime forces from advancing into the town,” Rami Abdul Rahan, SOHR Director, told Sky News.

A Syrian antiquities official confirmed the report.

“We have preliminary information from residents saying that this is correct, they have laid mines at the temple site,” Maamoun Abdulkarim said. “I hope that these reports are not correct, but we are worried.”

Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the destination of hundreds of thousands of visitors a year before the Syrian civil war.