U.S. says ready to talk Mideast peace; Abbas calls for conference

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner seen with United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, and lawyer Jason Greenblatt (R) before a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States is “ready to talk” Middle East peace with the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday in remarks directed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a new peace plan, sat behind Haley. Speaking after Abbas made a rare address to the 15-member council, Haley gave no details of the U.S. plan.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” Haley said. Abbas did not stay in the council chamber to listen to her.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said Washington would present a peace plan “when it is done and the time is right.”

The Palestinians no longer view the United States as a neutral negotiator, and Abbas on Tuesday called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened later this year.

The Palestinians are furious over the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and its decision to cut U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“It has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict,” Abbas said. “It is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference.”

Abbas, who shunned a visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month, said the conference should include the Palestinians, Israel, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – the European Union and the United Nations.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council: “We are open to studying the development of the ways of international accompaniment for the peace process.” Deputy British U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen described U.S. leadership on the issue as “indispensable.”

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon told the Security Council that Abbas was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the “only way to move forward is direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the so-called Quartet – made up of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU – and the League of Arab States could play a role in kick-starting the stalled peace process.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Public reports ‘clearly show’ Assad’s use of chemical weapons: McMaster

National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster speaks at the FDD National Security Summit in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Saturday that, despite denials, public reports showed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons, and added that it was time for the international community to hold the Syrian government to account.

“Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” McMaster said at a major international security conference taking place in Munich.

“It is time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions and support the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he said.

McMaster did not specify which public accounts or pictures he was referring to.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine gas, but stressed that the U.S. did not have evidence of sarin gas use.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “France will strike” if chemical weapons are used against civilians in the Syrian conflict in violation of international treaties, but that he had not yet seen proof this is the case.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

In recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib.

Earlier this month, Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded the areas, two of the last major rebel-held parts of Syria.

Diplomatic efforts have made scant progress towards ending a war now approaching its eighth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes.

NORTH KOREA

McMaster called on the international community to do more on North Korea.

“We must pressure the Kim regime, using all available tools, to ensure that this cruel dictatorship cannot threaten the world with the most destructive weapons on earth,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The United States has appeared to endorse closer post-Olympics engagement between North and South Korea with an eye to eventual U.S.-North Korean talks, but has agreed with Seoul that sanctions must be intensified to push Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program.

The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader traded insults and threats, while the U.N. tightened sanctions.

“Nations that evade full enforcement and fail to take these steps are acting irresponsibly, now is the time to do more,” McMaster said, calling on countries to cut off military and commercial ties with Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrea Shalal and Andrew Bolton)

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

Russia looms large as U.S. election officials prep for 2018

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ten months before the United States votes in its first major election since the 2016 presidential contest, U.S. state election officials huddled in Washington this weekend to swap strategies on dealing with an uninvited guest: Russia.

A pair of conferences usually devoted to staid topics about election administration were instead packed with sessions dedicated to fending off election cyber attacks from Russia or others, as federal authorities tried to portray confidence while pleading with some states to take the threat more seriously.

“Everyone in this room understands that what we are facing from foreign adversaries, particularly Russia, is real,” Chris Krebs, a senior cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told an audience of secretaries of state, who in many states oversee elections. Russia, he added, is “using a range of tools against us.”

The department said last year that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers and that a small number of networks were compromised. Voting machines were not directly affected and there remains no evidence any vote was altered, officials say.

While virtually all 50 states have taken steps since the 2016 election to purchase more secure equipment, expand the use of paper ballots, improve cyber training or seek federal assistance, according to groups that track election security, some officials at the conferences expressed an added sense of urgency.

That is because the meetings came immediately after U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed an indictment accusing 13 Russians and three Russian companies of conducting a criminal conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election.

The charges alleged a sophisticated multi-year operation carried out by a Russian propaganda factory to use false personas on social media to boost Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia has repeatedly denied it attempted to meddle.

“Loud and clear I hear that the biggest threat is this campaign of disinformation as opposed to the election process itself,” said Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of state, a Democrat.

DHS has taken the lead on working with states to improve voting machine security, but no federal agency is specifically responsible for combating online propaganda.

Several secretaries of state said they needed more rapid notification from federal partners about not just attempts to breach voting systems but disinformation campaigns as well.

“I don’t want to find out about propaganda two years later, after I elect my congressman,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, in an interview while clutching his own printed copy of the 37-page indictment.

Frustration boiled over at times among the secretaries of state, some of whom criticized a classified briefings U.S. intelligence agencies held with them over the weekend as largely unhelpful.

Federal officials, they said, continued to provide inadequate information to states about the nature of the Russian cyber threat and how to protect against it.

“I would have thought that behind closed doors, I would have heard, ‘This is why this has to be classified.’ And I heard none of it,” said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. Still, other secretaries of state and election directors said relationships with DHS had improved dramatically compared with a year ago.

Speaking on a panel and attempting to quell frustration, Robert Kolasky, another DHS cybersecurity official, stressed that U.S. intelligence officials were genuinely worried about how Russia or others may attempt to interfere in 2018.

“There are reasons we are worried that things could become more serious,” Kolasky said. “The Russians got close enough, and we anticipate it could be different, or worse, the next time around,” he said.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Malicious cyber activity cost U.S. economy $57 billion – $109 billion in 2016: White House report

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration -

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House report estimated on Friday that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016.

The estimate was contained in a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers on the economic costs of cyber threats.

The report quoted the U.S. intelligence community as saying the main foreign culprits responsible for much cyber activity are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

(Reporting By Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. blames Russia for crippling 2017 ‘NotPetya’ cyber attack

A man poses inside a server room at an IT company in this June 19, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/Illustration

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday publicly blamed Russia for carrying out the so-called NotPetya cyber attack last year that crippled government and business computers in Ukraine before spreading around the world.

The statement by the White House came hours after the British government attributed the attack to Russia, a conclusion already reached and made public by many private sector cyber security experts.

The attack in June of 2017 “spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the Americas,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

“It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict,” Sanders added. “This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences.”

Earlier on Thursday Russia denied an accusation by the British government that it was behind the attack, saying it was part of a “Russophobic” campaign that it said was being waged by some Western countries.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Rigby)

U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

More Russian cyber attacks on elections ‘likely’: U.S. intelligence chief

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray; Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo; and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "World Wide Threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Tuesday that Russia, as well as other foreign entities, were “likely” to pursue more cyber attacks on U.S. and European elections.

“Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy,” Coats said at an annual Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump tells Putin more steps needed to scrap North Korea nuclear program

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who complained last month that Moscow was “not helping us at all with North Korea,” told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that more needs to be done to scrap Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the White House said.

“President Trump reiterated the importance of taking further steps to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea,” the White House said in a statement about the call with Putin.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Trump accused Russia of helping North Korea evade international sanctions meant to punish Pyongyang for its pursuit of a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.

“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters.

Moscow denies it has failed to uphold U.N. sanctions.

Trump and Putin spoke after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with the Washington Post, raised the prospect of talks with North Korea.

But Pence, who traveled to South Korea for the Winter Olympics, also said Washington would intensify its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang until it takes a “meaningful step toward denuclearization.”

Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

Russia signed on to the latest rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea imposed last year, including a ban on coal exports, which are an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear program.

But North Korea shipped coal to Russia at least three times last year after the ban was put in place on Aug. 5, three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters.

The North Korean coal was shipped to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)