U.N. war crimes experts urge Turkey to rein in rebels in Syria

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkey must rein in Syrian rebels it supports in northern Syria who may have carried out kidnappings, torture and looting of civilian property, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Tuesday.

The panel also said transfers of Syrian nationals detained by the opposition Syrian National Army to Turkish territory for prosecution may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation.

In a report covering the first half of 2020, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said assassinations and rapes of civilians by all sides, marked by “sectarian undertones”, were on the rise in the conflict that began in 2011.

“In Afrin, Ras al Ain and the surrounding areas, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army may have committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture and rape,” panel chair Paulo Pinheiro told a news briefing.

“Turkey should act to prevent these abuses and ensure the protection of civilians in the areas under its control,” he said.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties during military operations in Syria.

Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides in Syria. Russia, along with Iran, supports President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Turkey backs rebels trying to oust him. Turkey seized control of the border town of Ras al Ain last year in an offensive to push back Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

Turkey wields influence as it funded, trained and allowed the rebel force known as the Syrian National Army to enter Syria from Turkey, panelist Hanny Megally said.

“Whilst we can’t say Turkey is in charge of them and issues orders and has command control over them, we think that it could use its influence much more to bring them into check and certainly to pressure them to desist from the violations being committed and to investigate them,” he said.

Investigations carried out so far by the Syrian National Army are insufficient, even as violations increase, he added.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

IEA says oil demand recovery set to slow for rest of 2020

By Noah Browning

LONDON (Reuters) – The International Energy Agency (IEA) trimmed its 2020 oil demand forecast on Tuesday, citing caution about the pace of economic recovery from the pandemic.

The Paris-based IEA cut its 2020 outlook by 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 91.7 million bpd in its second downgrade in as many months.

“We expect the recovery in oil demand to decelerate markedly in the second half of 2020, with most of the easy gains already achieved,” the IEA said in its monthly report.

“The economic slowdown will take months to reverse completely … in addition, there is the potential that a second wave of the virus (already visible in Europe) could cut mobility once again.”

Renewed rises in COVID-19 cases in many countries and related lockdown measures, continued remote working and a still weak aviation sector are all hurting demand, the IEA said.

China – which emerged from lockdown sooner than other major economies and provided a strong prop to global demand – continues a strong recovery, while a virus upsurge in India contributed to the biggest demand drop since April, the IEA said.

Increasing global oil output and the downgraded demand outlook also mean a slower draw on crude oil stocks which piled up at the height of lockdown measures, it added.

The agency now predicts implied stock draws in the second half of the year of about 3.4 million barrels per day, nearly one million bpd less than it predicted last month, with July storage levels in developed countries again reaching record highs.

However, preliminary data for August showed industry crude oil stocks fell in the United States, Europe and Japan.

As output cuts eased among producers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies such as Russia, global oil supply rose by 1.1. million bpd in August.

After two months of increases, recovery among countries outside the OPEC+ pact stalled, with production in the United States falling 400,000 bpd as Hurricane Laura forced shut-ins.

(Reporting by Noah Browning; editing by Jason Neely)

U.S. expects to identify Belarus sanctions targets in a few days

By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States signaled on Friday that it will soon punish individual Belarusians with sanctions for election fraud and a brutal crackdown on protests as Washington urged Russia to tell Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down.

Lukashenko denies rigging the country’s Aug. 9 election, which official results said he won by a landslide. He also has refused to talk to the opposition, accusing them of trying to wreck the former Soviet republic squeezed between NATO and Russia.

Speaking to reporters during a conference call, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington is coordinating sanctions with the European Union but made clear neither would wait for the other to impose penalties.

“We are looking at targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals who are most responsible for … the violence as well as the theft of the election,” Biegun said, adding wider sanctions might be considered later but Washington was loath to do anything that would hurt the broader population.

A senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters on Sept. 1 Washington was weighing sanctions on seven Belarusians.

Biegun said Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years and is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, is increasingly reliant on Moscow to maintain his rule, saying this could turn Belarusian public opinion against Russia.

“It risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hoped the Kremlin would voice concern about the violence against protesters in Belarus and the abductions of opposition figures.

“A free and fair election will allow Belarusian people to select who will be the next president of Belarus,” he said. “Ultimately we hope the message from Moscow to Minsk is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people.”

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. House members ask Trump to probe Navalny poisoning, suggest sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee called on President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday to investigate the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, suggesting sanctions might be necessary.

“If the Russian government is once again determined to have used a chemical weapon against one of its own nationals, additional sanctions should be imposed,” Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic committee chairman, and Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican, said in a letter to Trump.

Germany, where Navalny is in a hospital, has said Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent and wants the perpetrators held to account. Russia has until now not opened a criminal investigation and said there is no evidence yet of a crime.

Navalny is the most popular and prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin, and the German announcement that he was poisoned by a nerve agent has raised the possibility of further Western sanctions against Moscow.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Trump said on Friday his administration had not yet seen proof that Navalny was poisoned.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Widespread COVID-19 vaccinations not expected until mid-2021, WHO says

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization does not expect widespread vaccinations against COVID-19 until the middle of next year, a spokeswoman said on Friday, stressing the importance of rigorous checks on their effectiveness and safety.

None of the candidate vaccines in advanced clinical trials so far has demonstrated a “clear signal” of efficacy at the level of at least 50% sought by the WHO, spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.

Russia granted regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine in August after less than two months of human testing, prompting some Western experts to question its safety and efficacy.

U.S. public health officials and Pfizer Inc said on Thursday a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October. That would be just ahead of the U.S. election on Nov. 3 in which the pandemic is likely to be a major factor among voters deciding whether President Donald Trump wins a second term.

“We are really not expecting to see widespread vaccination until the middle of next year,” Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“This phase 3 must take longer because we need to see how truly protective the vaccine is and we also need to see how safe it is,” she added. This referred to the phase in vaccine research where large clinical trials among people are conducted. Harris did not refer to any specific vaccine candidate.

All data from trials must be shared and compared, Harris said. “A lot of people have been vaccinated and what we don’t know is whether the vaccine works…at this stage we do not have the clear signal of whether or not it has the level of worthwhile efficacy and safety…,” she added.

The WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance are leading a global vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX that aims to help buy and distribute shots fairly. The focus is on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country such as healthcare workers.

COVAX aims to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021, but some countries that have secured their own supplies through bilateral deals, including the United States, have said they will not join.

“Essentially, the door is open. We are open. What the COVAX is about is making sure everybody on the planet will get access to the vaccines,” Harris said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. Justice Department unveils reforms for FBI wiretap applications

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday it was implementing new compliance reforms at the FBI to minimize errors when it applies for wiretaps, following revelations it made numerous mistakes during its probe into President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

Attorney General William Barr released two new memos outlining sweeping changes, including the creation of a new internal auditing office as well as a list of additional steps the FBI must undertake before filing an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Under the new protocol, if the FBI is seeking to monitor communications of an elected official or candidate, the director must first consider offering the target a defensive briefing, and the wiretap application must be approved by the Attorney General.

“The additional reforms announced today, which we worked on closely with the Attorney General’s office, will build on the FBI’s efforts to bolster its compliance program,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement.

The reforms could help take some heat off the bureau, which has been under fire for missteps in its early-stage investigation known as “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia.

In December, the department’s inspector released a major report scrutinizing the FBI’s FISA applications to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

He uncovered 17 major mistakes in the FBI’s applications – errors that were so substantial, they prompted a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge to issue a rare public rebuke of the FBI.

His findings have also since led to criminal charges against former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who in August pleaded guilty to doctoring in email used as a basis to renew an application to monitor Page.

Pentagon concerned by China’s nuclear ambitions, expects warheads to double

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China is expected to at least double the number of its nuclear warheads over the next decade from the low 200’s now and is nearing the ability to launch nuclear strikes by land, air and sea, a capacity known as a triad, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

The revelations came as tensions rise between China and the United States and as Washington seeks to have Beijing join a flagship nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia.

In its annual report to Congress on China’s military, the Pentagon said that China has nuclear warheads in the low 200’s, the first time the U.S. military has disclosed this number. The Federation of American Scientists has estimated that China has about 320 nuclear warheads.

The Pentagon said the growth projection was based on factors including Beijing having enough material to double its nuclear weapons stockpile without new fissile material production.

The Pentagon’s estimate is in line with an analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“We’re certainly concerned about the numbers … but also just the trajectory of China’s nuclear developments writ large,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told reporters.

Earlier this year, China’s Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times said Beijing needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time.

Sbragia said China was also nearing completion of its nuclear triad capacity, suggesting China is further along than previously publicly known. China has only two of the three legs of triad operational but is developing a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile.

The report said that in October 2019, China publicly revealed the H-6N bomber as its first nuclear capable air-to-air refueling bomber.

Washington has repeatedly called for China to join in trilateral negotiations to extend New START, a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty that is due to expire in February.

China has said it has no interest in joining the negotiation, given that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is about 20 times the size of China’s.

In July, a senior Chinese diplomat said Beijing would “be happy to” participate in trilateral arms control negotiations, but only if the United States were willing to reduce its nuclear arsenal to China’s level.

China’s growing nuclear arsenal should not be used as an excuse for the United States and Russia not to extend New START, Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association advocacy group, said.

It “further reinforces the importance of extending New START and the folly of conditioning extension on China and China’s participation in arms control,” Reif added.

China’s nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the United States’, which has 3,800 nuclear warheads stockpiled, and Russia’s, which has roughly 4,300, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

“PREVENT TAIWAN INDEPENDENCE”

Tensions have been simmering between China and the United States for months. Washington has taken issue with China’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and moves to curb freedoms in Hong Kong. The increasingly aggressive posture comes as President Donald Trump bids for re-election in November.

Another source of tension has been Taiwan. China has stepped up its military activity around the democratic island Beijing claims as sovereign Chinese territory, sending fighter jets and warships on exercises close to Taiwan.

The Pentagon report, based on 2019 information, said China’s military continued to “enhance its readiness” to prevent Taiwan’s independence and carry out an invasion if needed.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Scientists see downsides to top COVID-19 vaccines from Russia, China

By Allison Martell and Julie Steenhuysen

TORONTO/CHICAGO (Reuters) – High-profile COVID-19 vaccines developed in Russia and China share a potential shortcoming: They are based on a common cold virus that many people have been exposed to, potentially limiting their effectiveness, some experts say.

CanSino Biologics’ vaccine, approved for military use in China, is a modified form of adenovirus  type 5, or Ad5. The company is in talks to get emergency approval in several countries before completing large-scale trials, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

A vaccine developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, approved in Russia earlier this month despite limited testing, is based on Ad5 and a second less common adenovirus.

“The Ad5 concerns me just because a lot of people have immunity,” said Anna Durbin, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “I’m not sure what their strategy is … maybe it won’t have 70% efficacy. It might have 40% efficacy, and that’s better than nothing, until something else comes along.”

Vaccines are seen as essential to ending the pandemic that has claimed over 845,000 lives worldwide. Gamaleya has said its two-virus approach will address Ad5 immunity issues.

Both developers have years of experience and approved Ebola vaccines based on Ad5. Neither CanSino nor Gamaleya responded to requests for comment.

Researchers have experimented with Ad5-based vaccines against a variety of infections for decades, but none are widely used. They employ harmless viruses as “vectors” to ferry genes from the target virus – in this case the novel coronavirus – into human cells, prompting an immune response to fight the actual virus.

But many people already have antibodies against Ad5, which could cause the immune system to attack the vector instead of responding to the coronavirus, making these vaccines less effective.

Several researchers have chosen alternative adenoviruses or delivery mechanisms. Oxford University and AstraZeneca based their COVID-19 vaccine on a chimpanzee adenovirus, avoiding the Ad5 issue. Johnson & Johnson’s candidate uses Ad26, a comparatively rare strain.

Dr. Zhou Xing, from Canada’s McMaster University, worked with CanSino on its first Ad5-based vaccine, for tuberculosis, in 2011. His team is developing an inhaled Ad5 COVID-19 vaccine, theorizing it could circumvent pre-existing immunity issues.

“The Oxford vaccine candidate has quite an advantage” over the injected CanSino vaccine, he said.

Xing also worries that high doses of the Ad5 vector in the CanSino vaccine could induce fever, fueling vaccine skepticism.

“I think they will get good immunity in people that don’t have antibodies to the vaccine, but a lot of people do,” said Dr. Hildegund Ertl, director of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center in Philadelphia.

In China and the United States, about 40% of people have high levels of antibodies from prior Ad5 exposure. In Africa, it could be as high as 80%, experts said.

HIV RISK

Some scientists also worry an Ad5-based vaccine could increase chances of contracting HIV.

In a 2004 trial of a Merck & Co Ad5-based HIV vaccine, people with pre-existing immunity became more, not less, susceptible to the virus that causes AIDS.

Researchers, including top U.S. infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a 2015 paper, said the side effect was likely unique to HIV vaccines. But they cautioned that HIV incidence should be monitored during and after trials of all Ad5-based vaccines in at-risk populations.

“I would be worried about the use of those vaccines in any country or any population that was at risk of HIV, and I put our country as one of them,” said Dr. Larry Corey, co-leader of the U.S. Coronavirus Vaccine Prevention Network, who was a lead researcher on the Merck trial.

Gamaleya’s vaccine will be administered in two doses: The first based on Ad26, similar to J&J’s candidate, and the second on Ad5.

Alexander Gintsburg, Gamaleya’s director, has said the two-vector approach addresses the immunity issue. Ertl said it might work well enough in individuals who have been exposed to one of the two adenoviruses.

Many experts expressed skepticism about the Russian vaccine after the government declared its intention to give it to high-risk groups in October without data from large pivotal trials.

“Demonstrating safety and efficacy of a vaccine is very important,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a Harvard vaccine researcher who helped design J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine. Often, he noted, large-scale trials “do not give the result that is expected or required.”

(Additional reporting by Christine Soares in New York, Kate Kelland in London, Polina Ivanova in Moscow and Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

Former FBI lawyer to plead guilty as part of Russia probe: defendant’s lawyer

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A former FBI lawyer will plead guilty to falsifying a document as part of a federal probe into the origins of an investigation into possible contacts between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, an attorney for the former FBI lawyer said on Friday.

The former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, will admit he changed an email from the CIA that was used in seeking renewed court permission in 2017 for a secret wiretap on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, the New York Times reported.

“Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email,” Justin Shur, a lawyer for Clinesmith, told Reuters in an email.

“It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues as he believed the information he relayed was accurate. But Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility,” Shur added.

Prosecutors were not expected to reveal any evidence that shows a broader conspiracy that would cast doubt on the decision by the Obama Administration to open a Russia investigation, according to the Times.

But after Clinesmith’s guilty plea was announced, President Trump suggested further similar cases were in the works.

“That’s just the beginning, I would imagine, because what happened should never happen again,” Trump said on Friday, describing Clinesmith as a “corrupt FBI attorney”.

“The fact is they spied on my campaign and they got caught. And you’ll be hearing more,” Trump said.

Clinesmith wrote texts expressing opposition to President Trump, according to the Times, which said Trump is likely to tout Clinesmith’s anticipated guilty plea as evidence the Russia investigation initiated by the administration of President Barack Obama was illegitimate and politically motivated.

According to a criminal information filed in Federal court in Washington D.C. on Friday, Clinesmith altered an email from another unnamed government agency, believed to be the CIA, to say that an unnamed individual, believed to be Page, “was not a source,” even though an email from the other government agency did not say that.

In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr predicted there would be a “development” on Friday in the investigation by John Durham, a Connecticut-based federal prosecutor whom Barr named to investigate the origins of federal investigations into alleged contacts between Trump advisors and Russia in 2016.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Franklin Paul, Chris Reese and David Gregorio)