Missiles ‘will be coming’ to Syria, Trump warns Russia

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, declaring that missiles “will be coming” and lambasting Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump was reacting to a warning from Russia on Tuesday that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria over the deadly assault on a rebel enclave would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

“You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump tweeted, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad.

In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post that “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not towards the lawful government”.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said any U.S. missile strike could be an attempt to destroy evidence of the reported gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, for which Damascus and Moscow have denied any responsibility.

In Damascus, the foreign ministry accused the United States, which has supported some rebel groups in the Syrian civil war, of using “fabrications and lies” as an excuse to hit its territory.

“We are not surprised by such a thoughtless escalation by a regime like the United States regime, which sponsored terrorism in Syria and still does,” the state news agency SANA cited an official source in the ministry as saying.

After the Douma attack, the insurgent group dug in there – Jaish al-Islam – finally agreed to withdraw. That sealed a major victory for Assad in the war, crushing a protracted rebellion in the eastern Ghouta region near the capital Damascus.

White House officials did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for more detail about Trump’s remarks. The U.S. Defense Department said it “does not comment on potential future military actions”.

Trump’s decision to disclose his decision to strike as well as the kind of weaponry to be used in a future military operation is likely to frustrate military planners, who hold such information closely.

He had repeatedly said he would not telegraph military moves toward foes, including North Korea and Islamic State. On Monday Trump said he would make a decision within 48 hours on a strong, forceful response to the attack in Syria, later telling reporters: “When I will not say, because I don’t like talking about timing.”

43 DEAD FROM CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPOSURE -WHO

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that 43 people had died in Saturday’s attack on Douma from “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”, and more than 500 in all had been treated.

Moscow’s threat to down U.S. missiles came from its ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said he was referring to a statement by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian armed forces chief of staff.

Zasypkin also said that any hostilities with Washington should be avoided and Moscow was ready for negotiations.

But his remarks could raise fears of direct conflict for the first time between major powers backing opposing sides in Syria’s protracted civil war.

Oil prices hit their highest level in more than three years on Wednesday after Trump’s threat to unleash missiles, and U.S. stock index futures fell sharply over rising concern about possible Russian-U.S. conflict over Syria.

The Kremlin said earlier on Wednesday it hoped all sides involved in Syria would avoid doing anything to destabilize an already volatile situation in the Middle East, and made clear it strongly opposed any U.S. strike on Damascus.

STANDOFF

Moscow and Washington stymied attempts by each other at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Trump canceled on Tuesday a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus instead on talks with Western allies about possible military action to punish Assad.

Zasypkin, the Russian ambassador, made his comments to Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. “If there is a strike by the Americans, then … the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” he said in Arabic.

The Russian military said on March 13 that it would respond to any U.S. strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and its devastating air power has helped him wrest back large areas of territory from rebels since 2015.

Zasypkin also said a clash between Russia and the United States over Syria “should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations”.

MISSILE SALVO FROM MEDITERRANEAN?

Any U.S. strike is likely to involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defence systems. A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

With tensions growing, pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria over the next 72 hours.

Eurocontrol said that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used within that period and there could be intermittent disruptions of radio navigation equipment.

Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

Both Russia and Iran, Assad’s other main ally, have warned his enemies against military action in recent days, underlining their commitment to the Syrian government they have armed and supported through years of conflict.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said during a visit to Damascus on Tuesday that an Israeli attack on an air base in Syria earlier this week would “not remain without response”.

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Members of Syrian forces of President Bashar al Assad stand guard near destroyed buildings in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

RISK OF “UNCONTROLLABLE ESCALATION”

On Monday, U.N. Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura cited the air base strike along with other recent events in Syria in a briefing to the Security Council, cautioning against a “situation of uncontrollable escalation”.

Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 jet in February during a previous bombing run against what Israel described as Iranian-backed positions in Syria.

Last year, the United States carried out strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base after another toxic gas attack on a rebel-controlled pocket.

The U.S. and Russian militaries have sought to avoid conflict in Syria, notably last year in the Euphrates River Valley where they supported rival sides in the campaign against Islamic State militants.

However, U.S. forces in February killed or injured hundreds of Russian contractors fighting on Assad’s side during a confrontation in Deir al-Zor province.

SYMPTOMS OF POISON GAS ATTACK

The WHO said that among the more than 500 people treated for symptoms of gas poisoning in Douma, “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed”.

France and Britain discussed with the Trump administration how to respond to the Douma attack. Both stressed that the culprit still needed to be confirmed.

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Assad’s government had been asked to make necessary arrangements for an OPCW investigation team to visit shortly.

The mission will aim to determine whether banned munitions were used but not assign blame.

Despite the international revulsion over chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents in Syria is only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since the war erupted in 2011.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Steve Holland, Idrees Ali, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Jamie Freed in Singapore, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by David Stamp)

With Syria in focus, Trump cancels trip to Latin America

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to cancel his first official trip to Latin America this week to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House said on Tuesday.

Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia. The trip had been expected to be tense and awkward because of Trump’s repeated disparagement of the region over immigration, narcotics and trade.

His travel plans changed after a Saturday night attack on the Syrian town of Douma which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Trump has vowed to make a swift decision to respond to what he called “atrocities.”

“At the president’s request, the vice president will travel in his stead. The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack. It was not yet clear what decision Trump will make in response to the latest attack. Syria and Russia have denied there was a chemical weapons attack and have proposed international inspections.

This will be the second trip to the region for Vice President Mike Pence. He met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Some 200 migrants in Mexico caravan to seek U.S. asylum: organizers

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, gesture as they arrive from Puebla city to La Casa del Peregrino, a temporary shelter set up for them by the Catholic church in Mexico City, Mexico April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Delphine Schrank

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – At least 200 Central American migrants in a “caravan” traveling through Mexico that provoked the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump plan to seek asylum in the United States, organizers said on Monday.

After arriving in Mexico City on Monday, hundreds of migrants poured into the Basilica of Guadalupe, a Roman Catholic shrine, to give thanks, collect themselves or unleash emotions coiled tight during their long journey together from the southern border.

The number looking to claim U.S. asylum was more than double what organizers had anticipated, said Rodrigo Abeja, a coordinator from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transnational organization that staged the caravan.

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, march from La Casa del Peregrino, a temporary shelter set up for them by the Catholic church, to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, march from La Casa del Peregrino, a temporary shelter set up for them by the Catholic church, to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

For many, the arduous trek to the capital began days or weeks before, each hinging on a personal decision to flee conditions too difficult to bear in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

Barely across the cathedral’s threshold, dozens fell to their knees, heads bowing or eyes glistening as they gazed across the vaulted expanse and strained to hear a priest leading them in prayer.

Honduran Misael George beamed, grateful to have made it this far, and said that after the service he would meet with the other migrants who wanted to seek asylum in the United States.

With his three children and his wife, he went on the run from Honduras after a close relative was killed by a gang, and the threat spread to his family, he said. But with no proof on paper, he knew his odds for claiming asylum were long.

“Difficult, yes,” he said. “But not impossible.”

Trump last week lashed out at the caravan, accusing Mexico of failing to stop illegal immigrants headed to the border.

Manuel de Jesus Rodas, 27, from Honduras, daubed his tears with a tissue but could not staunch the emotion that choked his voice. His mother had just told him to come home, he said, because she was sick and in pain.

Now he waited for guidance about whether to go home – or go on. “I don’t know, but I think I have to follow my route,” he said.

Others in the caravan said they would stay in Mexico.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Trump says to make fast decision after suspected Syrian chemical attack

A girl looks on following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Steve Holland and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

WASHINGTON/AMMAN (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday condemned a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town in Syria that killed dozens of people and said he would decide on a response probably by the end of the day.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Trump said he was talking to military leaders and would decide who was responsible for what he called a “heinous attack” on innocent Syrians — whether it was Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Iran, or all of them together.

“We’ll be making that decision very quickly probably by the end of the day. But we cannot allow atrocities like that,” Trump said. “Nothing is off the table,” he said, when asked if U.S. military action was a possibility.

Asked if there was any doubt over who was responsible for the attack, Trump said: “To me there’s not much of a doubt but the generals will figure it out probably over the next 24 hours.”

International bodies led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were also trying to establish exactly what happened on Saturday in Douma, a besieged town in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement in the attack.

U.S. government sources said on Monday that the administration’s initial assessment suggested that a nerve agent was used but further evidence was needed to determine what specifically it was.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also said earlier he would not rule out military action such as air strikes if blame was proven. He accused Russia of falling short on its obligations to ensure that Syria abandoned its chemical weapons capabilities.

“The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons,” Mattis told reporters.

Trump said on Sunday after initial reports of an attack that there would be a “big price to pay”.

A Syria medical relief group said at least 60 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured in several sites in Douma.

The stakes were further raised on Monday when unidentified war planes struck a Syrian air base near Homs, killing at least 14 people, including Iranian personnel. Syria and Russia accused Israel of carrying out the attack.

Israel, which has struck Syrian army locations many times in the course of its neighbour’s seven-year-old civil war, has neither confirmed nor denied mounting the raid.

But Israeli officials said the Tiyas, or T-4, air base was being used by troops from Iran and that Israel would not accept such a presence in Syria by its arch foe.

The two incidents in Douma and Tiyas demonstrated the complex and volatile nature of the Syria war, which started in March 2011 as an anti-Assad uprising and now involves a number of countries and a myriad of insurgent groups.

Assad now has the upper hand in the conflict, largely thanks to Russian intervention on his side, but any international action could delay his efforts to bring it to close.

RANGE OF OPTIONS

The United Nations Security Council will meet on Monday following rival requests by Russia and the United States to discuss the situation. Senior officials in the Trump administration were also to meet in the White House.

Britain said it was working with its allies to agree a joint response to the reported chemical attack on Douma.

“If there is clear verified evidence of the use of chemical weapons and a proposal for action where the UK would be useful, then we will look at the range of options,” Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said.

France said it would work closely with the United States on a response to the suspected chemical attack. Both countries agreed responsibility for the strike must be established.

President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Trump by telephone on Sunday, had issued repeated warnings previously that France would strike if proof of lethal chemical attacks were established. But Paris stopped short of apportioning blame on Assad’s forces for Saturday’s attack.

Trump had referred in a Tweet to “Animal Assad” and criticised Russia and Iran for backing the Syrian leader, directly naming Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such allegations were false and a provocation. Lavrov also said the strike on the T-4 base was a dangerous development.

Syrian government forces had launched an air and ground assault on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the eastern Ghouta district, on Friday.

The Union of Medical Care Organizations (UOSSM) said at least 60 people had been killed by the alleged chemical attack.

“The numbers keep rising as relief workers struggle to gain access to the subterranean areas where gas has entered and hundreds of families had sought refuge,” it said.

One video shared by activists showed bodies of about a dozen children, women and men, some with foam at the mouth. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

The OPCW, based in the Hague, said people were possibly gassed to death by a poisonous cocktail of sarin and chlorine.

Dr. Muhammad, a doctor in Ghouta quoted by UOSSM, said patients were coughing blood, a symptom not seen in previous chemical attacks.

U.N. war crimes investigators had previously documented 33 chemical attacks in Syria, attributing 27 to the Assad government, which has repeatedly denied using the weapons.

The United States fired missiles on a Syrian air base a year ago in response to the killing of dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in an opposition-held town in northwest Syria, blamed on Assad.

RED LINES

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said at least 14 people were killed in Monday’s air strike on the T-4 base, including foreign fighters – a reference to Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia members, mostly from Iraq, Lebanon and Iran fighting alongside the Syrian army.

Iran’s Fars news agency said three Iranians were killed.

The Russian military said two Israeli F-15 war planes carried out the strike. Interfax news agency cited the Russian Defence Ministry as saying Syrian air defence systems had shot down five of eight missiles fired.

Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a military source, carried a similar report.

The Israeli government had no immediate comment.

Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, while not confirming that Israel had carried out the attack, said his country had clear interests in Syria.

“We laid down red lines there, which said that we would not allow Syrian land to be a springboard for game-changing weaponry to Lebanon, we would not allow the building of an Iranian army in Syria and we would not allow the opening of another front on the Golan Heights,” he told Israel Radio.

“In this context we are taking action with all means, over time.”

In Washington, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged Trump and his administration to destroy Assad’s air capabilities, enforce safe zones inside Syria, and target Assad directly.

“This president has the chance to do exactly the opposite of (former U.S. President Barack) Obama – send a strong signal that there’s a new sheriff in town and America’s back,” Graham told Fox News in an interview.

(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah, Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Ellen Francis, Maria Kiselyova, Dan Williams, John Irish, Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

Iran tells Trump he would regret dropping nuclear deal

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

LONDON (Reuters) – Donald Trump will regret it if he pulls out of the nuclear deal with Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday, warning the U.S. President that Tehran’s response would be stronger than he thinks.

U.S. sanctions that were lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 will resume unless Trump waives them again on May 12. Trump has effectively set that as a deadline for European powers to “fix the terrible flaws” of the deal.

“The new U.S. president – who has big claims and many ups and downs in his words and actions – has been trying for 15 months to break the JCPOA … but the structure of the JCPOA is so strong that it has not been shaken by such quakes,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television.

“Iran will not violate the nuclear deal, but if the United States withdraws from the deal, they will surely regret it. Our response will be stronger than what they imagine and they would see that within a week.”

Iran has warned that it would ramp up its nuclear program if the JCPOA collapses, to achieve a more advanced level than before the deal.

Rouhani was speaking as Tehran marked National Nuclear Technology Day and unveiled what it said were its latest nuclear achievements including a nuclear battery and centrifuges for the oil industry.

Rouhani said Iran has been preparing for every possible scenario, including a JCPOA without the United States – which would still include European signatories, China and Russia – or no deal at all.

France, Britain and Germany are seeking to persuade their EU partners to back new sanctions on Iran, as a way to persuade Trump to stick with the nuclear deal curbed on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

Those sanctions would not involve measures that were lifted under the nuclear deal but would target individual Iranians that the EU believes are behind Iran’s ballistic weapons program and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rouhani said on Monday that Iran’s missile capabilities were purely defensive.

“We will produce any weapons necessary to defend our country in such a volatile region. But we will not use our weapons against our neighbors,” Rouhani said.

Iran’s currency hit a new low on Monday on continued concerns over a return of crippling sanctions if Trump carries out his threat.

The U.S. dollar jumped in a day from 54,700 rials to 58,000 rials in the open market in Tehran, local media reported. A dollar was 36,000 rials in mid-September.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

North Korea tells U.S. it is prepared to discuss denuclearization: source

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea has told the United States for the first time that it is prepared to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets President Donald Trump, a U.S. official said on Sunday.

U.S. and North Korean officials have held secret contacts recently in which Pyongyang directly confirmed its willingness to hold the unprecedented summit, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The communications, still at a preliminary stage, have involved State Department officials talking to North Korea apparently through its United Nations mission, and intelligence officers from both sides using a separate backchannel, the official said.

Until now, the United States had relied mostly on ally South Korea’s assurance of Kim’s intentions.

South Korean envoys visited Washington last month to convey Kim’s invitation to meet. Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, surprised the world by quickly agreeing to meet Kim to discuss the crisis over Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.

But North Korea has not broken its public silence on the summit, which U.S. officials say is being planned for May. There was no immediate word on the possible venue for the talks, which would be the first ever between a sitting U.S. president and North Korean leader.

The U.S. official declined to say exactly when the U.S.-North Korea communications had taken place but said the two sides had held multiple direct contacts.

“The U.S. has confirmed that Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula‎,” said a second U.S. official.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House welcomed the communication between North Korea and the United States, with one official saying the development was “positive”.

“We are aware contact between North Korea and the United States is going well,” said another Blue House official on condition of anonymity.

“We don’t know, however, up to what extent information is being shared between the two.”

On Monday, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton is due to begin his role as Trump’s national security adviser, while on Thursday Senate confirmation hearings begin for Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Both have taken hawkish stances on North Korea.

The second South Korean official said the South’s National Security Office head, Chung Eui-yong, could speak with Bolton over the telephone as early as Tuesday.

Questions remain about how North Korea would define denuclearization, which Washington sees as Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea has said over the years that it could consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

Some analysts have said Trump’s willingness to meet Kim handed North Korea a diplomatic win, as the United States had insisted for years that any such summit be preceded by North Korean steps to denuclearize.

Tension over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile surged last year and raised fears of U.S. military action against Pyongyang.

But anxieties have eased significantly since North Korea sent athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. The neighbors are technically still at war after a 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire, not a truce.

North and South Korea will hold their first summit in more than a decade towards the end of April.

The two Koreas have been holding working talks since March to work out details of the summit, like the agenda and security for the two leaders.

Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a surprise visit to Beijing in late March, his first trip outside the isolated North Korea since he came to power in 2011.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstromm; Additional reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Peter Cooney and Rosalba O’Brien)

Migrant caravan heading to U.S. border puts Mexico in tough spot with Trump

Central American migrants participating in a caravan heading to the U.S. take a pause from their journey in Matias Romero, Oaxaca, Mexico April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jose de Jesus Cortes

By Delphine Schrank and Mica Rosenberg

IXTEPEC, Mexico/EDINBURG, Texas (Reuters) – In some of the Mexican towns playing host to a “caravan” of more than 1,200 Central American migrants heading to the U.S. border, the welcome mat has been rolled out despite President Donald Trump’s call for Mexican authorities to stop them.

Local officials have offered lodging in town squares and empty warehouses or arranged transport for the migrants, participants in a journey organized by the immigrant advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras. The officials have conscripted buses, cars, ambulances and police trucks. But the help may not be entirely altruistic.

“The authorities want us to leave their cities,” said Rodrigo Abeja, an organizer from Pueblo Sin Fronteras. “They’ve been helping us, in part to speed the massive group out of their jurisdictions.”

At some point this spring, the caravan’s 2,000-mile (3,200-km) journey that began at Tapachula near the Guatemalan border on March 25 will end at the U.S. border, where some of its members will apply for asylum, while others will attempt to sneak into the United States.

So far the Mexican federal government has provided little guidance on how to handle the migrants but Abeja worries that local reactions will change.

“There’s a lot of pressure from authorities to stop the caravan because of Donald Trump’s reaction,” he said.

Trump railed on Twitter against the caravan on Monday, accusing Mexico of “doing very little, if not NOTHING” to stop the flow of immigrants crossing the U.S. border illegally. “They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA,” he concluded.

Mexico’s interior minister Alfonso Navarrete did not directly address the caravan, but he wrote on Twitter that he spoke to the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday, and that the two had “agreed to analyze the best ways to attend to the flows of migrants in accordance with the laws of each country.”

Mexico must walk a delicate line with the United States as the countries are in the midst of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) along with Canada. At the same time, Mexican left-wing presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has an 18-point lead ahead of the July 1 election, according to a poll published on Monday. A Lopez Obrador victory could usher in a Mexican government less accommodating toward the United States on both trade and immigration issues.

Mexican Senator Angelica de la Pena, who presides over the Senate’s human rights commission, told Reuters that Mexico should protect migrants’ rights despite the pressure from Trump.

Former President Vicente Fox called for Mexican officials to take a stand against Trump’s attacks. Trump keeps “blackmailing, offending and denigrating Mexico and Mexicans,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Under Mexican law, Central Americans who enter Mexico legally are generally allowed to move freely through the country, even if their goal is to cross illegally into the United States.

‘WE’RE SUFFERING’

Migrants in the caravan cite a variety of reasons for joining it. Its members are disproportionately from Honduras, which has high levels of violence and has been rocked by political upheaval in recent months following the re-election of U.S.-backed president, Juan Orlando Hernández in an intensely disputed election.

Maria Elena Colindres Ortega, a member of caravan and, until January, a member of Congress in Honduras, said she is fleeing the political upheaval at home. “We’ve had to live through fraudulent electoral process,” she said. “We’re suffering a progressive militarization and lack of institutions, and … they’re criminalizing those who protested.”

Colindres Ortega, who opposed the ruling party in Honduras, said she spiraled into debt, after serving without pay for the last 18 months of her four-year term. She decided to head north after a fellow congressman from her party put out word on Facebook that a caravan of migrants was gathering in southern Mexico, leaving home with a small bag with necessities and photos of her children.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras has helped coordinate migrant caravans for the last several years, though previously they had a maximum of several hundred participants. During the journey members of the organization instruct the migrants about their rights.

“We accompany at least those who want to request asylum,” said Alex Mensing, Pueblo Sin Fronteras’ program director. “We help prepare them for the detention process and asylum process before they cross the border, because it’s so difficult for people to have success if they don’t have the information.”

Typically, Central Americans have not fared well with U.S. asylum claims, particularly those from Honduras. A Reuters analysis of immigration court data found that Hondurans who come before the court receive deportation orders in more than 83 percent of cases, the highest rate of any nationality. Hondurans also face deportation in Mexico, where immigration data shows that 5,000 Hondurans were deported from Mexico in February alone, the highest number since May 2016.

Maunel Padilla, chief of the border patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, one of the busiest crossing points on the U.S. Mexico border, said in an interview with Reuters that he worries the caravan could “generate interest for other groups to do the same thing,” but he was not terribly nervous about coping with the group currently traveling.

“Not to be flippant,” Padilla said, “but it’s similar numbers to what we are seeing every day pretty much.”

(Reporting by Delphine Schrank and Mica Rosenberg; Additional reporting by Dave Graham, Lizbeth Diaz, Diego Ore and Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Shumaker)

China says North Korea’s Kim pledged commitment to denuclearization

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in this still image taken from video released on March 28, 2018. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited China from Sunday to Wednesday on an unofficial visit, China's state news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday. CCTV via Reuters TV

By Ben Blanchard and Joyce Lee

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearization and to meet U.S. officials, China said on Wednesday after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold friendship with its isolated neighbor.

After two days of speculation, China and North Korea both confirmed that Kim had traveled to Beijing and met Xi during what China called an unofficial visit from Sunday to Wednesday.

The visit was Kim’s first known trip outside North Korea since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency made no mention of Kim’s pledge to denuclearize, or his anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that is planned for some time in May.

China has traditionally been secretive North Korea’s closest ally but ties have been frayed by its pursuit of nuclear weapons and China’s backing of tough U.N. sanctions in response.

China’s Foreign Ministry cited Kim in a lengthy statement as telling Xi the situation on the Korean peninsula was starting to improve because North Korea had taken the initiative to ease tension and put forward proposals for talks.

“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim Jong Un said, according to the ministry.

North Korea was willing to talk with the United States and hold a summit between the two countries, he said.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said.

‘NUCLEAR UMBRELLA’

Kim Jong Un’s predecessors, grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il, both promised not to pursue nuclear weapons but secretly maintained programs to develop them, culminating in the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 under Kim Jong Il.

The North had said in previous, failed talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

Many analysts and former negotiators believe this still constitutes North Korea’s stance and remain deeply skeptical Kim is willing to give up the weapons his family has been developing for decades.

At first wrapped in secrecy, the announcement of Kim Jong Un’s visit soon became the third-most discussed topic on China’s Weibo microblogging site, although many state media outlets blocked their comments sections.

Widely read Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times praised the meeting as proving naysayers wrong about Beijing-Pyongyang relations.

“China and North Korea maintaining their friendly relations provides a positive force for the whole region and promotes strategic stability in northeast Asia,” it said in an editorial.

Kim’s appearance in Beijing involved almost all the trappings of a state visit, complete with an honor guard and banquet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Kim and Xi also met at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where Kim Il Sung planted a tree in 1959 that still stands.

State television showed pictures of the two men chatting and Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, getting a warm welcome from Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan.

TRUMP BRIEFED

China briefed Trump on Kim’s visit and the communication included a personal message from Xi to Trump, the White House said in a statement.

“The United States remains in close contact with our allies South Korea and Japan. We see this development as further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea,” it said.

Analysts said the meeting strengthened North Korea’s position ahead of any meeting with Trump by aligning Beijing and Pyongyang while reassuring China it was not being sidelined in any negotiations.

“It seems that North Korea is not ready to deal with the United States without support and help from its longtime ally China,” said Han Suk-hee, professor of Chinese Studies at South Korea’s Yonsei University.

A top Chinese diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, will brief officials, including President Moon Jae-in, in Seoul on Thursday about the Beijing talks, the presidential office in Seoul said.

Kim told a banquet hosted by Xi the visit was intended to “maintain our great friendship and continue and develop our bilateral ties at a time of rapid developments on the Korean peninsula”, according to KCNA.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju, and Chinese President Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan meet, as Kim Jong Un paid an unofficial visit to Beijing, China, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 28, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju, and Chinese President Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan meet, as Kim Jong Un paid an unofficial visit to Beijing, China, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 28, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters

Xi had accepted an invitation “with pleasure” from him to visit North Korea, KCNA said.

China made no mention of Xi accepting an invitation, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang pointed to a line in their statement citing Xi as saying he is willing to maintain regular communications with North Korea via visits and exchanges of envoys and messages.

“I have to say that China and North Korea have a tradition of high-level mutual visits,” Lu told a daily news briefing.

China had largely sat on the sidelines as North Korea improved relations with South Korea recently, raising worry in Beijing that it was no longer a central player in the North Korean issue, reinforced by Trump’s subsequent announcement of his proposed meeting with Kim Jong Un in May.

“China is North Korea’s lifeline, so the notion, from a Chinese perspective, that Kim Jong Un could have had these other two meetings before meeting with Xi Jinping, I think the Chinese just thought that is not going to happen,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing and the former White House representative to North Korea denuclearization talks from 2007-2009.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL, David Stanway and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI and Ayesha Rascoe in WASHINGTON; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

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)

Turkey says will drive Kurdish YPG from Syrian border area if no deal with U.S.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the south eastern city of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will drive the Kurdish YPG militia away from the Syrian border if it does not reach agreement with the United States on a plan to remove the group from Syria’s Manbij region, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.

“If this plan is not realised, the only option left will be clearing away terrorists. This is not just valid for Syria, but also for Iraq,” he said in interview with state-run Anadolu news agency.

He added that President Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump will speak by telephone on Thursday.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan)