U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Exclusive: Colombian armed groups recruiting desperate Venezuelans, army says

FILE PHOTO: People walk along a pathway near the Colombian-Venezuelan border on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

ARAUCA/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuela’s crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.

Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.

Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.

Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia’s eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.

“Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening,” said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia’s eastern border state of Arauca. “The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It’s a major threat to Colombia.”  

Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.

Reuters was not able to independently verify these figures.

The head of Colombia’s military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.

At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.

Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia’s rugged jungle terrain – spread across a country the size of France and Spain – makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.

The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.

Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.

Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.

“They said I’d get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone,” said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.

“I was tempted, but scared… I’d been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn’t want to join,” said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.

An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.

Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.

“They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them,” said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.

RECRUITING IN VENEZUELA

Colombia’s Defense Minister Guillermo Botero has said the military has more than doubled operations against armed groups since President Ivan Duque took office in August, looking to tackle a rise in illicit drug production and trafficking. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

“The ELN has been retreating – at least its leadership – to Venezuela where it’s recruiting for greater strength, to attack us,” Botero said recently.

A FARC dissident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the group was also present on Venezuelan soil and was recruiting Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the conscription of Venezuelans by Colombia’s armed groups.

Venezuela’s government has acknowledged that the ELN and dissident FARC are present on its territory. It has said it does not support the groups or tolerate their presence, and that its troops pursue them as they would any other illegal group.

Representatives of the ELN did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FARC, which became a political party after the peace deal and kept its former acronym, has publicly expelled the armed dissidents.

Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion but is increasingly making money from illegal migration, the officials said.

Military officials and rights workers say the ELN and colectivos – shadowy irregular armed groups in Venezuela affiliated with President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party – control most of the crossing points into Colombia and demand payment from migrants and traders.

PICKING COCA

Army Colonel Rodolfo Morales, head of the army’s 30th Brigade in the border town of Cucuta, said migrants were also being drafted by drug trafficking groups to pick coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Antonio, another Venezuelan migrant who declined to give his second name, said that after crossing the border he was offered money by unidentified men to go into the jungles around Tibu – a border town around 115 km north of Cucuta in the dangerous Catatumbo region – to pick coca leaves.

“I’d rather go hungry than go with them,” said the 33-year old from the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo.

Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, which battled the ELN and FARC for decades, are also recruiting migrants, the military officials said.

The paramilitaries were behind most of the 260,000 killings that occurred during the nation’s half-century conflict and never fully demobilized under a 2006 peace agreement.

Eddinson, 26, a migrant from Venezuela’s coastal state of Aragua, said he and three other Venezuelans were approached by armed men who identified themselves as paramilitaries as they trekked through the mountains of Santander province near the border.

Eddinson said the leader of the eight armed men – who were dressed in khaki uniforms – tried to recruit them.

“He said that training would last six months. We’d be given salaries according to rank,” said Eddinson, adding that he and the other Venezuelans declined the offer. “He told us that we’d know our start date but not when we could leave.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

‘IRA’ claims responsibility for Londonderry car bomb

The scene of a suspected car bomb is seen in Londonderry, Northern Ireland January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Amanda Ferguson

Belfast (Reuters) – A group calling itself the “IRA” said it was responsible for placing the car bomb which detonated in Londonderry in a statement sent to the Derry Journal on Tuesday.

Northern Irish police said the main focus of the investigation was on the New IRA – one of a small number of groups opposed to a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence in the British-run province.

“We also caution those who collaborate with the British that they are to desist immediately as no more warnings will be given,” the statement to the Journal said.

No one was injured in the blast outside a courthouse on Jan. 19 but the incident highlighted the threat still posed by militant groups opposed to the peace agreement.

Police in Northern Ireland and European Union member Ireland have said that a return to a hard border between the two after Britain leaves the EU, complete with customs and other checks, could see a return to strife.

In the statement the group denied that Brexit was a motivating factor for their actions.

“All this talk of Brexit, hard borders, soft borders, has no bearing on our actions and the IRA won’t be going anywhere.”

“Our fight goes on,” it said.

The IRA was the principal nationalist paramilitary group during the decades of violence between Protestant Unionists and mainly Catholic Republicans until it agreed to a ceasefire in 1994.

(Reporting by Graham Fahy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament passed an amendment on Tuesday that would make it harder for it to cede control over parts of Jerusalem in any peace deal with the Palestinians, who condemned the move as undermining any chance to revive talks on statehood.

The legislation, sponsored by the far-right Jewish Home coalition party, raises to 80 from 61 the number of votes required in the 120-seat Knesset to approve any proposal to hand over part of the city to “a foreign party”.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump angered the Palestinians, Middle East leaders and world powers by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, Jerusalem’s status is one of the most sensitive issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s Dec. 6 decision sparked regional protests and prompted the Palestinians to rule out Washington as a peace broker in any future talks.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem and the passage of the amendment as “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people”.

“The vote clearly shows that the Israeli side has officially declared an end to the so-called political process,” Abu Rdainah said, referring to U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood that collapsed in 2014.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its “eternal and indivisible” capital.

Palestinians seek to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

The amendment, long in the legislative pipeline, was passed with 64 lawmakers voting in favor and 52 against.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog said Jewish Home was leading Israel “toward a terrible disaster”. Jewish Home’s leader, Naftali Bennett, said the vote showed that Israel would keep control of all of Jerusalem forever.

“There will be no more political skulduggery that will allow our capital to be torn apart,” Bennett said on Twitter.

A bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led by the president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has so far shown no progress.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party unanimously urged legislators in a non-binding resolution to effectively annex Israeli settlements built in the West Bank.

Political commentators said Likud’s decision might bolster right-wing support for Netanyahu, who could seek a public mandate in an early election while he awaits possible criminal indictments against him on corruption suspicions. He denies wrongdoing.

Parliamentary elections are not due until November 2019 but the police investigations in two cases of alleged corruption against Netanyahu and tensions among coalition partners in his government could hasten a poll.

Some commentators, pointing to an existing law that already sets a similar high threshold for handing over territory in a land-for-peace deal, have said Jewish Home was essentially competing with Likud for support among the right-wing base.

(This version of the story refiles to remove extraneous word in paragraph 14.)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Israel: No peace talks with Palestinian government reliant on Hamas

Israel: No peace talks with Palestinian government reliant on Hamas

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday it would not hold peace negotiations with a Palestinian government dependent on the Islamist Hamas group, responding to a new reconciliation agreement between the two main Palestinian factions.

Hamas, dominant in Gaza, and West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction sealed a deal last week in Cairo in which Hamas agreed to cede administrative control of Gaza, including the key Rafah border crossing.

Under the Egyptian-brokered accord, the Fatah-backed government headed by Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah will run Gaza and the West Bank and Palestinian officials said there were no plans to add Hamas ministers to the government.

The last Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an earlier attempt at a Fatah-Hamas unity pact, and to Israeli settlement building on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

In a statement on Tuesday after a meeting of senior Israeli ministers known as the Security Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed longstanding Israeli demands that Hamas abandon militancy.

“Pursuant to previous decisions, (Israel) will not conduct diplomatic negotiations with a Palestinian government that relies on Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel, as long as it does not fulfill the following conditions,” the statement began.

It outlined seven conditions including a demand that Hamas recognize Israel and disarm, sever its ties with Iran, return bodies of Israeli soldiers and civilians Israel believes are alive and held in Gaza, and that Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) assume full security control of the coastal enclave.

Under the reconciliation deal, about 3,000 Fatah security officers are to join the Gaza police force but Hamas will remain the most powerful armed Palestinian faction in the territory, with some 25,000 well-equipped militants.

Hamas seized Gaza from Fatah forces in a brief Palestinian civil war in 2007 and previous Egyptian mediation efforts to reconcile the rivals fell short.

Analysts said the current deal is more likely to stick, given Hamas’s growing isolation from erstwhile donor states and realization of how hard it would be to govern and rebuild Gaza.

PALESTINIANS UNMOVED

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said the Palestinians would not be swayed by Israel’s statement as it “will not change the official Palestinian position to move forward with reconciliation efforts.”

He said the deal and the PA’s return to Gaza had been welcomed by major powers including the United States and this would “achieve the aspirations of our people … ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state.”

Netanyahu’s call is certain to please the right flank of his coalition and settler supporters with whom he has tried to find favor. On Tuesday, Israel announced more plans to build hundreds of new settler homes in the occupied West Bank.

But it could hamper U.S. mediation attempts to resume peace negotiations. U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have held discussions to achieve what Trump hopes will be the “deal of the century”.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)