Venezuela opposition takes steps to seize oil revenue as Maduro issues threat

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Corina Pons and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress named new temporary boards of directors to state-oil firm PDVSA on Wednesday, in an effort to wrest the OPEC nation’s oil revenue from President Nicolas Maduro.

An increasingly isolated Maduro lashed out at the congress leader Juan Guaido, saying in an interview that he would face the courts “sooner or later” for violating the constitution after he declared himself interim president last month.

Although many Western countries have recognized Guaido as legitimate head of state, Maduro retains control of state institutions and Guaido needs funds if he is to assemble an interim government.

Controlling PDVSA’s U.S. refiner Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most valuable foreign asset, would go some way to helping in that, though seizing the reigns of PDVSA itself seems improbable while Maduro remains in power.

“We have taken a step forward with the reconstruction of PDVSA,” Guaido said on Twitter, just after congress named the directors. “With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we also avoid continued destruction.”

PDVSA’s crude output has slumped to 70-year lows, due to crushing debts, widespread corruption, and little maintenance of its infrastructure. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which backs Guaido, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector on Jan. 28, aimed at curbing exports to the United States and upping the pressure on Maduro.

The proposed Citgo board would be composed of Venezuelans Luisa Palacios, Angel Olmeta, Luis Urdaneta and Edgar Rincon, all of whom are currently living in the United States, plus one American director.

The nominations fuel a growing duel for control between Guaido and Maduro, who has promised he will not allow Citgo to be “stolen.” The mechanics of how the new board would take over are unclear, and there are likely to be court challenges to the board’s authority, people familiar with the deliberations say.

Citgo and PDVSA did not immediately reply to requests to comment.

Bulgarian security officials said on Wednesday that the country has blocked transfers out of several bank accounts which have received millions of euros from PDVSA.

GUAIDO TO FACE COURTS?

Guaido invoked a constitutional provision three weeks ago to assume Venezuela’s presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Maduro, in an interview released on Wednesday by Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen TV, said Guaido was seeking to divide the country and convince the Trump administration to launch a foreign intervention.

“This person, who believes that politics is a game and he can violate the constitution and the law, sooner or later will have to answer before the courts,” Maduro said, adding he was “absolutely sure” of this.

“If the American empire dares to touch even one palm leaf in our territory, this will turn into a new Vietnam,” he said.

A senior U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday that Congress would not give backing to any U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has said it wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis but Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out military action.

“I think there are a number of solutions, a number of different options, and we look at all options,” Trump said when asked about the issue on Wednesday, in an appearance at the White House with Colombian President Ivan Duque.

In the meantime, the United States and other countries are trying to channel aid to Venezuela.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro, who has refused to let supplies in.

Maduro denies there is an economic crisis despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Corina Pons, Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas, Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Writing by Angus Berwick, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. diplomats leave Caracas embassy as Washington backs Maduro rival

A U.S. flag waves at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Adriana Loureiro

By Marcos Ascanio

CARACAS (Reuters) – Some U.S. diplomats left the embassy in Caracas for the airport on Friday in a convoy escorted by police, according to a Reuters witness, after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke off relations with Washington and ordered American personnel out.

The United States has rejected Maduro, a socialist in power since 2013, as the oil-rich nation’s legitimate head of state and has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

Guaido, who has galvanized the country’s opposition, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday. But he still has no control over the state’s functions, which remain loyal to Maduro despite a deep economic and political crisis.

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The State Department has ordered some U.S. government workers to leave Venezuela and said U.S. citizens should consider leaving the South American country.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the movement of embassy personnel on Friday.

A Reuters witness at around 8:30 a.m. local time (1230 GMT) saw a convoy of sport utility vehicles accompanied by police motorcycles and vehicles with flashing lights drive onto a Caracas highway in the direction of the airport. Other police blocked regular traffic.

Another video circulating on social media showed the same caravan leaving the embassy, a fortified compound overlooking the city center.

Maduro, in a fiery speech on Wednesday, said he was cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States for instigating a “coup” against him, though U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration then said its relations would be with Guaido.

To ratchet up pressure on Maduro, who began a second term on Jan. 10 following an election last year widely considered to be a fraud, the United States is seeking to cut off funds for his government, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Both Guaido, who has not appeared in public since mass anti-government protests on Wednesday, and Maduro are scheduled to hold press conferences on Friday.

In an interview with broadcaster Univision on Thursday, Guaido described the recent events as “the beginning of the end” for Maduro, who has presided over Venezuela’s worst ever economic crisis. Guaido said he would work to guarantee humanitarian aid and take new measures to pressure Maduro.

“Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship,” he said, from an undisclosed location.

(Additional reporting; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Congo fire destroys thousands of voting machines for presidential election

A motorcyclist rides near smoke billowing from fire at the independent national electoral commission's (CENI) warehouse in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

By Giulia Paravicini

KINSHASA (Reuters) – A fire overnight at a warehouse in Congo’s capital destroyed thousands of voting machines and ballot boxes that were due to be used in the country’s long-delayed Dec. 23 presidential election, authorities said on Thursday.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s national electoral commission (CENI) said in a statement the blaze had destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines due to be used in the capital Kinshasa, but said the election would go ahead as scheduled.

CENI did not say who it believed to be responsible for the fire – which broke out about 2 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa that is also home to President Joseph Kabila’s residence – but the ruling coalition and leading opposition candidates immediately traded accusations of blame.

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC), which is backing former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the presidential race, accused opposition candidate Martin Fayulu of inciting violence earlier this month.

“Over the course of this electoral campaign, (Fayulu) called on his supporters and sympathizers to destroy electoral materials,” the FCC said in a statement.

Fayulu rejected the charge and suggested that state security forces might have been behind the blaze.

“The fire erupted in a building guarded by the Republican Guard,” Fayulu told Reuters. “You understand today that the Kabila people do not want to organize elections.”

Felix Tshisekedi, the other leading opposition candidate, also suggested on local radio that the government was responsible. “How is it that what should be the best protected place in the republic at this time can burn so easily?” he said.

Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a Kabila adviser, said police guarding the warehouse had been arrested and that forensic police had launched an investigation.

Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down because of constitutional term limits. The vote has already been delayed by two years due to what authorities said were logistical challenges but the opposition said stemmed from Kabila’s reluctance to relinquish power.

This month’s highly anticipated vote could mark Congo’s first peaceful transition of power after decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups d’etat and civil wars in which around five million people are estimated to have died.

ELECTION DATE MAINTAINED

CENI president Corneille Nangaa told a news conference the destroyed equipment represented the materials for 19 of 24 voting districts in Kinshasa.

“Without minimizing the gravity of this damaging situation for the electoral process, CENI is working to pursue the process in conformity with its calendar,” Nangaa said.

Kikaya said voting machines from elsewhere in Congo would be recalled for use in Kinshasa, which is home to more than 15 percent of the Congolese population.

The introduction of the untested tablet-like voting machines for the election has been widely opposed by opposition candidates competing against Shadary.

They say the machines are more vulnerable to vote-rigging than paper and ink and could be compromised by the unreliability of Congos power supply.

The delay in the elections has coincided with a breakdown in security across much of the vast mineral-rich country. Militants fight over land and resources in the east near the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

Campaigning over the past three weeks has been mostly peaceful, though deadly clashes erupted between police and opposition supporters this week in the southeast.

(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Aaron Ross; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Aaron Ross and Gareth Jones)

A Venezuelan paradox: Maduro’s critics long for change but won’t vote

A motorcycle passes graffiti painted on a fence in Caracas, Venezuela May 12, 2018. Graffiti reads: "Do not vote, please I beg you". Picture taken on May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Months before Venezuela’s opposition coalition called for abstention in Sunday’s presidential election, college student Ana Romano had already decided not to vote.

While volunteering as a witness in October’s election for state governors, Romano said, she lost count of the number of times activists for the ruling Socialist Party walked into voting booths on the pretext of “assisting” voters – a tactic the opposition says is illegal intimidation.

Romano said pro-government workers at the voting center in the rural state of Portuguesa also refused to close its doors at 6:00 p.m. as per regulations, keeping it open for an extra hour while Socialist Party cadres rounded up votes.

Her experience illustrates why some in Venezuela’s opposition say they will boycott Sunday’s presidential vote despite anger at the South American nation’s unraveling under unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

“It was four of them against me and I was 20 years old: I couldn’t do anything,” Romano said, adding that she did not file an official report because the other poll center workers would not have signed it – and because there was no paper available to do so.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this upcoming election,” Romano said. “We’ve already made that mistake.”

Reuters could not independently verify details of her account. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council – the government body in charge of organizing elections – did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Venezuela, a once-wealthy OPEC nation, is suffering hyperinflation and widespread food shortages as its economy collapses, leading hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries.

Yet, despite popularity ratings languishing around 20 percent, Maduro is expected to secure a second, six-year term in his deeply divided country, in part due to low opposition turnout.

Some opposition members say participation would be pointless in the face of efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of Maduro, a former union leader who was elected in 2013 after the death of his mentor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

They cite tactics ranging from the kind of small-scale election-center tricks described by Romano to the detention of the most prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the coercion of government workers to vote for Maduro and the heavy use of state resources in his campaign.

Many in the opposition say there are inadequate guarantees of a free and fair vote: they point to a ban on Western election observers. The government says they would violate its national sovereignty.

The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an independent local election monitoring group, has also flagged problems that include an inadequate timeframe to update the electoral register and develop a network of poll center witnesses, and a reduction in real-time audits of results.

Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government, has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.

Breaking the opposition boycott is former state governor Henri Falcon. Opposition leaders have attacked Falcon – a former Chavez ally or ‘Chavista’ – as a stooge who is only running to legitimize Maduro’s reelection.

Falcon, an ex-soldier and two-time governor of Lara state, counters that they are ceding power to Maduro without a fight and insists he would win if discontented Venezuelans turned out to vote.

“So now I’m a ‘Chavista’ just because I have common sense, because I take a clear position and because I act responsibly toward my country?” Falcon said when asked recently by reporters about the opposition’s criticism.

Falcon’s camp was not immediately available for comment for this story.

Maduro and allies deny the elections are unfair and insist the fractured opposition was beaten in October because its voters did not participate – an argument supported by statistics showing low turnout in its strongholds.

“We have an advantage, which is the strength of the people. That can’t be called an unfair advantage,” Maduro said last month.

Participation forecasts vary but, in general, pollsters believe turnout for Sunday’s vote will be far lower than the 80 percent in the last presidential elections in 2013, when Maduro narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who is banned from running this time.

One survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed that the number of people who said they were “very likely” to vote – its most accurate indicator of how many people will participate – had fallen close to 30 percent in March.

In the Caracas slum of La Vega, Jose Vasquez, 49, described the election as too unfair to warrant participation.

“It’s like a game in which the referee is a family member of the other team’s captain,” said Vasquez, selling 40 gram (1 oz) bags of coffee and sugar on a small table in the street. “Why would I waste my time?

ELECTORAL OBSTACLE COURSE

During his 14 years as president, Chavez racked up repeated ballot-box victories thanks to his charisma and generous spending of Venezuela’s oil revenues – much of it on popular health and nutrition programs, as well as on his own electoral campaigns.

The opposition has cried fraud in the past without demonstrating evidence of it, including after a 2004 recall referendum that Chavez won.

But October’s vote included one incident that some opposition sympathizers see as a tipping point: election officials manually changed results at several voting centers in Bolivar state to tip the result in favor of the Socialist Party candidate, according to election center witnesses.

The witnesses produced official poll statements from their voting centers showing that the number of votes for the opposition candidate was higher than those reflected in the National Electoral Council figures for those same centers.

The elections council – stacked with Maduro’s supporters – has never clarified the issue and did not answer Reuters questions regarding the incident.

Maduro’s government has never commented.

More commonly, the opposition has complained of obstacles that reduce the likelihood of their supporters voting but are difficult to classify as fraud in a traditional sense – such as last-minute changes to the location of voting centers.

In the central state of Lara, Alfredo Alvarez learned just days before the October vote that the elections council had changed his voting center – along with that of an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans in 200 voting centers in predominantly opposition areas.

Alvarez, a 62-year-old journalist, had to drive around the city of Barquisimeto for several hours because he could not get a clear answer on where he was supposed to vote.

“I had to investigate: I had to go to five different voting centers. Who can vote under those conditions?” asked Alvarez, who said he ultimately cast his ballot in a polling center run by Socialist Party activists that had no opposition witnesses.

“I’ve been voting since 1973, but I’m not voting in this election. Not under these circumstances.”

Election officials said the changes were necessary primarily because of security concerns, given that some of the centers were near the site of violent opposition protests. Those protests had ended nearly three months before.

Electoral Council officials were not immediately available to explain that discrepancy.

(For a graphic on ‘Latin America’s upcoming elections’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1)

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Miguel Angel Sulabaran, Maria de los Angeles Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Vivian Sequera in Turmero; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

India drops plan to punish journalists for “fake news” following outcry

FILE PHOTO: Television journalists report from the premises of India's Parliament in New Delhi, India, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Manoj Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the withdrawal of rules punishing journalists held responsible for distributing “fake news”, giving no reason for the change, less than 24 hours after the original announcement.

The move followed an outcry by journalists and opposition politicians that the rules represented an attack on the freedom of the press and an effort by Modi’s government to rein in free speech ahead of a general election due by next year.

Late on Monday, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had said the government would cancel its accreditation of journalists who peddled “fake news”.

After Modi’s intervention, the ministry announced the withdrawal in a one-line statement.

Journalists said they welcomed the withdrawal but could not rule out the possibility that it was a “trial balloon” to test the waters for putting more restrictions on the press.

“A government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution,” a statement issued by the Press Club said.

Co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

Welcoming the change of heart, media groups in India nevertheless cautioned the government against changing its mind.

“The government has no mandate to control the press,” Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, told journalists.

The events in India followed Malaysia’s approval this week of a law carrying jail terms of up to six years for spreading “fake news”.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

India slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The non-profit body said Hindu nationalists, on the rise since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

Venezuela police enter home of imprisoned opposition leader Lopez: wife

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, makes declarations to the media after casting her vote during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents have entered the home of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest for leading protests against President Nicolas Maduro, Lopez’s wife said on Twitter on Thursday.

The arrival of agents of the Sebin came hours after the New York Times published a story in which Lopez described how security forces have sought to prevent him from speaking with reporters.

“Sebin has entered our house and they remain here,” Lilian Tintori tweeted. “It is illegal and inhumane for Sebin to be inside our home with weapons, in the presence of our three children.”

The office of the vice presidency, which oversees Sebin, did not answer calls seeking confirmation and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez is the best-known of dozens of imprisoned opposition activists and leaders accused by Maduro of seeking to overthrow his government through street protests in 2014 and 2017.

He was arrested in 2014 and convicted of having incited protests against Maduro, who describes Lopez as “monster” responsible for dozens of deaths in demonstrations.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July. After calling on citizens to continue protests against Maduro in an internet video, he was taken back to jail in August but returned several days later to house arrest.

Opposition leaders and critics around the world have slammed the case against him as a sham and described the trial as a mockery of justice.

In 2015, one of the prosecutors who led the case said the conviction had been unfair and that he had been under constant pressure from superiors.

Former Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who was sacked last year, said in February she had been pressured about the case by high-ranking Socialist Party officials.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bill Trott)

Venezuela annual inflation at more than 4,000 percent: National Assembly

A woman and a child look at prices in a grocery store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Inflation in January alone was 84.2 percent, opposition lawmakers said, amid an economic crisis in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering food and medicine shortages.

The monthly figure implies annualized inflation of more than 150,000 per cent and that prices will double at least every 35 days.

With cash in short supply and banking and communications infrastructures struggling, day-to-day transactions are becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuelans.

The government blames the problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with a helping hand from Washington.

Critics in turn blame strict currency controls, which were enacted by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago this week. The bolivar is down some 40 percent against the dollar in the last month alone.

A million dollars of Venezuelan bolivars bought when the currency controls were introduced would now be worth just $7 on the black market.

The government has not published inflation data for more than two years though has increased the minimum wage repeatedly in a nod to rising prices.

The government raised the minimum wage 40 percent on Jan. 1, making it roughly equivalent now to just over $1 per month.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Cash or custody: Israel kicks off deportation of African migrants

African migrants wait in line for the opening of the Population and Immigration Authority office in Bnei Brak, Israel February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel has started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave the country or risk being thrown in jail.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is offering the migrants, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination in another country in sub-Saharan Africa.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel is posing a moral dilemma for a state founded as haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government is under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants, while others are calling for them to be taken in.

The government says the migrants are “infiltrators” looking for work rather than asylum, but there is a growing liberal backlash against the plan, including from rabbis, a small group of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and ordinary people who say Israel should show greater compassion to the migrants.

The first eviction notices were handed out on Sunday and job advertisements for immigration inspectors to implement the deportation plan have been posted on government websites.

Rights groups advocating on behalf of the migrants say many fled abuse and war and their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

“I don’t know what to do. Rwanda, Uganda are not my countries, what will a third country help me?” said Eritrean Berihu Ainom, after receiving an eviction notice on Sunday.

The deportation notices do not name the country migrants will be flown to but Netanyahu has said it will be a safe destination. Rights groups have named Uganda and Rwanda as possible host countries.

In a poor neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv that has attracted thousands of African migrants, shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages while abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches.

“I came to Israel to save my life,” said Eritrean Afoworki Kidane, sitting on a street bench.

He said he would rather go to jail than take the cash and plane ticket on offer to leave the country that has been his home for nine years.

BACKLASH BUILDING

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said Israel’s first obligation was to its own citizens, rather than the migrants.

“They are not numbers, they are people, they are human and I am full of compassion and mercy,” Deri told Army Radio. “But the small state of Israel cannot contain such a vast number of illegal infiltrators.”

But opposition to the plan has been building and some Israelis are now offering to take migrants at risk of expulsion into their homes.

On Thursday, a group of 36 Holocaust survivors sent a letter to Netanyahu asking him not to deport the migrants. The U.S.-based Anti Defamation League has also urged Israel to reconsider the plan, citing “Jewish values and refugee heritage”.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a Holocaust survivor, said in a statement the issue required “as much compassion, empathy and mercy that can possibly be marshalled. The experiences of the Jewish people over the ages underscore this commitment.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman has launched a campaign called Miklat Israel (Israel Shelter) for Israelis to take migrants into their homes.

“It’s unconscionable for the Jewish state to deport people to harrowing vulnerability,” she said.

Miklat Israel’s Rabbi Tamara Schagas said 600 Israeli families had already signed up and the organization would begin to connect migrants with potential hosts this week.

MORAL COMPASS

The Supreme Court ruled in August that Israeli authorities can hold illegal migrants for up to 60 days in custody.

Immigration officials have said women, children and men with families in Israel were allowed to stay for now, as was anyone with outstanding asylum requests.

Out of 6,800 requests reviewed so far, Israel has granted refugee status to 11 migrants. It has at least 8,000 more requests to process.

Israeli authorities have said Israeli officials will keep in touch with migrants accepted in a third country to oversee their progress. Rwanda has said it will only accept migrants who have left Israel of their own free will.

Nonetheless, the U.N.’s refugee agency has urged Israel to reconsider, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even perishing on the way.

Rights groups in Israel say the government is simply ridding itself of people it should be recognizing as refugees in Israel and that there was no real guarantee for their safety.

A fence Israel has built over the past few years along its border with Egypt has all but stopped African migrants from entering the country illegally. Beginning in the previous decade, when the border was porous, a total of 64,000 Africans made it to Israel though thousands have since left.

Emmanuel Asfaha from Eritrea crossed into Israel in 2011 with his wife and baby son. His second child was born in Israel.

A narrow grocery store stockroom stacked with bags of flour leads to their two-room apartment in Tel Aviv, a poster of Jesus hanging on the cracked walls above his son’s bed. Asfaha is concerned Israel will eventually deport families too.

“I am worried about the situation,” he said while cooking Shiro, a traditional stew. “Tomorrow it will be for me also.”

A few kilometers away, in a hip, upscale part of Tel Aviv, Ben Yefet, a 39-year-old stockbroker, said he had signed up with Miklat Israel to house two or three migrants in his two-room apartment.

“As Israelis and Jews we are obligated. We have a moral compass, we just have to do it,” he said.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Clarke)

Rocky day for Syria talks in Russia: Lavrov heckled, opposition quits

Participants react as they attend a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018.

By Kinda Makieh and Maria Tsvetkova

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – A Syrian peace conference in Russia was marred by discord on Tuesday after the Russian foreign minister was heckled, an opposition delegation refused to leave the airport on arrival, and delegates squabbled over who should preside over the event.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was hosting what it called a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that it hoped would launch negotiations on drafting a new constitution for Syria.

But in a blow to Moscow, which has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker, the event was boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while powers such as the United States, Britain and France stayed away because of what they said was the Syrian government’s refusal to properly engage.

Western countries support a separate U.N.-mediated peace process, which has so far failed to yield progress toward ending a war that is entering its eighth year. The latest round of those talks took place in Vienna last week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov helped open the conference on Tuesday by reading out a statement from President Vladimir Putin saying the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history.

But some delegates stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with its air strikes.

The incident was broadcast on Russian state TV where two security guards were shown approaching one man in the audience indicating that he should sit down.

Other delegates shouted out their support for Russia. Lavrov told the delegates to let him finish speaking, saying they would have their say later.

Several delegates, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that organizers had later been forced to suspend a plenary session due to squabbling among delegates over who would be chosen to preside over the congress.

FLAG ROW

In a further setback, one group of delegates, which included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey, refused to leave Sochi airport until Syrian government flags and emblems which they said were offensive were removed.

Ahmed Tomah, the head of the delegation, said his group was boycotting the congress and would fly back to Turkey because of the flag row and what he called broken promises to end the bombardment of civilians.

“We were surprised that none of the promises that were given had been kept, the ferocious bombing of civilians had not stopped nor the flags and banners of the regime (been) removed,” he said in a video recorded at the airport.

Artyom Kozhin, a senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, acknowledged there had been some complications.

“Some problems have arisen with a group of the armed opposition that has come from Turkey which has made its participation dependent on additional demands,” Kozhin wrote on social media.

Lavrov had spoken by phone twice to his Turkish counterpart and been told that the problem would be resolved, said Kozhin.

Turkish and Iranian government delegations attended the congress, as did U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian expert on the Middle East employed by de Mistura as an adviser, told reporters that the problems encountered by organizers had not tarnished the event.

“Nothing awful happened,” said Naumkin. “Nobody is fighting anyone else. Nobody is killing anyone. These were standard working moments.”

Russian officials have complained of attempts to sabotage the conference, which was originally billed as a two-day event but was reduced to a one-day event at the last minute.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Tom Miles in Geneva and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

With opposition split, Venezuela mayoral vote will strengthen Maduro

With opposition split, Venezuela mayoral vote will strengthen Maduro

By Andrew Cawthorne and Leon Wietfeld

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelans vote on Sunday in nationwide mayoral polls boycotted by major opposition parties and likely to help leftist President Nicolas Maduro consolidate power ahead of a probable 2018 re-election bid.

After withstanding massive street protests, international sanctions and dissent within his ruling Socialist Party, the 55-year-old president saw his candidates win a surprise majority in October gubernatorial elections.

Now, with 335 mayorships up for grabs, the socialists seem certain to repeat the feat, helped by opposition abstentionism, which would delight Maduro after the international opprobrium he has faced all year.

The crumbling opposition coalition’s main parties – Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action – have opted out of Sunday’s vote, alleging the election system is biased and designed purely to keep a “dictatorship” in power.

“It is crazy not to participate,” said political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. “The government most likely will have one of the best results in its history … Maduro will be very strong after this election. He has the political momentum.”

The socialists already hold more than 70 percent of Venezuela’s mayorships, and are forecast to increase that share, extending their grip at a grassroots level just as Maduro mulls standing for a second six-year term in the OPEC nation.

Despite presiding over one of the worst economic meltdowns to hit any country in modern history, and with ratings barely half when he was elected, Maduro is enjoying a political upturn after the October gubernatorial vote.

He is the favorite to be the government’s candidate at the 2018 presidential election and could win if the opposition does not re-unite and re-enthuse supporters.

“DON’T THROW IN THE TOWEL”

Despite the boycott by major parties, moderate opposition supporters were still planning to vote on Sunday, arguing that it was the only way to stop the socialists amassing power.

Some of the smaller parties are fielding candidates, fuelling acrimony and in-fighting within the coalition.

“There’s huge frustration at everything that has happened this year … but we cannot throw in the towel,” said one of those candidates, Yon Goicoechea of Progressive Advance party.

Just out of jail for allegedly plotting against Maduro, Goicoechea was running for El Hatillo mayorship outside Caracas. “I can’t say when we will achieve democracy – maybe months, maybe years – but we have to fight with our only weapon: votes.”

The election was taking place at the end of a fourth year of crushing economic recession that has brought hunger, hardship and shortages to Venezuelans. Yet with the opposition in such disarray, Maduro and his allies are buoyant.

“We are going to have a great victory!” said Erika Farias running for a Caracas district mayorship. “We are fulfilling the legacy of our ‘commander’ Hugo Chavez.”

With many Venezuelans angry at both the government and opposition, some independents have registered for Sunday’s mayorship races, though there is still no sign of a third-way presidential candidate.

“The country is demanding an alternative. Mine is a protest campaign,” said Nicmer Evans, running against Farias in the capital’s Libertador district for his recently-founded party, New Vision For My Country.

As well as the mayoral elections, voters in oil-rich western Zulia state were choosing a new governor.

The opposition took that state in the October gubernatorial race but the election was annulled after winning candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa refused to swear loyalty to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.

Results were expected to start coming in on Sunday evening.

(Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal and Efrain Otero; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)