What about us? Russia’s coronavirus supplies to United States spark criticism at home

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian medical equipment delivery to the United States to help fight the coronavirus drew anger from critics of the Kremlin on Thursday who pointed out that Russia was itself experiencing severe shortages of such items.

A Russian military plane carrying protective gear and ventilators landed in New York City on Wednesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow had paid half the cost with the other half picked up by Washington.

Critics of President Vladimir Putin said the delivery was a publicity stunt that squandered precious medical resources which Russia’s regions are lacking.

“Russia has actually sold the United States masks and medical equipment when doctors and nurses across the country are left without masks and are infecting one another,” prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter.

“It’s monstrous. Putin is crazy.”

The Kremlin has cast the move as a goodwill gesture at a time when it says all nations need to unite to take on coronavirus and said it hopes Russia might be able to access U.S. medical equipment in future if necessary.

“There is always criticism like this”, Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Russia has so far recorded 3,548 coronavirus infections in 76 of its more than 80 regions. Thirty people have died across the country, authorities say.

The Health Ministry said on Wednesday it was pleased with Russian regions’ readiness to tackle the virus. But some say they are experiencing shortages of the most basic equipment.

Doctors at a hospital in the Moscow region told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper they had been asked to sew their own masks, while state television in Bashkortorstan, a region about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) east of Moscow, last month showed viewers how to make their own masks because pharmacies had run out.

The Alliance of Doctors, a trade union for medical workers which is often critical of the authorities, said it had been collecting money across Russia to buy protective gear for doctors and was distraught to see the country now shipping the same equipment to the United States.

“It’s just making a mockery of everything,” the trade union wrote on Twitter.

Another Russian Twitter user pointed out that while ventilators had landed in New York, similar shipments were not reaching needy Russian cities such as Saratov and Voronezh.

Russia’s Health Ministry said on Thursday that the country had enough ventilators to meet its current needs and that hospitals would receive another 8,000 by the end of May.

Russia’s delivery has angered some people in the United States too. Former U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk was among those criticising President Donald Trump for serving up what he called “a propaganda bonanza” to Putin.

Moscow has also flown several flights carrying medical supplies to Italy, which has recorded more than 13,000 dead. Several European Union and NATO officials characterised the aid as a geopolitical move to extend Russian influence in Europe.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Russian plane takes off for U.S. with coronavirus help onboard: state TV

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian military transport plane took off from an airfield outside Moscow early on Wednesday and headed for the United States with a load of medical equipment and masks to help Washington fight coronavirus, Russian state TV reported.

President Vladimir Putin offered Russian help in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two leaders discussed how best to respond to the virus.

The flight, which was organised by the Russian Defence Ministry, is likely to be unpopular with some critics of Trump who have urged him to keep his distance from Putin and who argue that Moscow uses such aid as a geopolitical and propaganda tool to advance its influence, something the Kremlin denies.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday night. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to 187,000 and nearly 3,900 people have already died there from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

In Russia, where some doctors have questioned the accuracy of official data, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337 cases with 17 deaths.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to election interference, something Russia denies.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.

Peskov, who complained about difficulties expediting the aid to the United States thrown up by some U.S. officials, was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception … there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance”.

Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

Moscow tightens coronavirus rules

By Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow authorities will on Monday impose tighter restrictions on residents in an attempt to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

Muscovites will only be allowed to go out to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk the dog or take out the bins.

Those needing to go to work will also be allowed to leave their flats, and authorities will introduce a system of passes in the coming days.

“Gradually but steadily, we will keep tightening control as needed in this situation,” Sobyanin said on his website.

Russia has been relatively lightly hit so far, with nine deaths and 1,534 cases, but it recorded 270 new infections in the past day.

Earlier on Sunday, Sobyanin said the coronavirus outbreak had entered a new phase as the number of cases exceeded 1,000 in the capital and complained that many residents took recommendations to stay home very lightly.

The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church exhorted believers to pray at home and urged people to adhere strictly to authorities’ instructions “before someone dies in our families”.

“Refrain from visiting churches,” Russian news agency RIA cited Patriarch Kirill as saying, even though Orthodox services went ahead, including one led by him.

About 60% of Russia’s 144 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians, but fewer were worshipping in churches on Sunday and some were wearing masks, according to media reports.

Russia has halted international flights, closed borders, announced a non-working week from this weekend, and closed shops and entertainment venues in Moscow and some other regions.

Sobyanin said many Muscovites were still going out. At least 52,000 people took walks in city parks on Saturday, and many elderly people made long trips on public transport, Sobyanin said.

“The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase,” Sobyanin wrote. “An example of miserable Italian and Spanish cities, even New York, where tens and hundreds of people die every day, is in front of everyone’s eyes.”

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Louise Heavens, Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood)

Russia to use mobile phones to track people at risk of coronavirus

By Gleb Stolyarov, Polina Nikolskaya and Olesya Astakhova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Monday gave the authorities five days to develop a system to track people who have come into contact with anyone with coronavirus by using mobile phone geolocation data.

Under the new system, people would be sent information if they came into contact with someone who was infected and the same information would be passed on to special regional headquarters set up to fight the pandemic.

The Kremlin said the measure was legal and part of measures Russia is taking to try to halt spread of the virus.

The measure will trace “citizens who are in contact with patients with new coronavirus infection on the basis of information from cellular operators about the geolocation of a cell phone of a particular person”.

This “would allow citizens to be notified (over the phone) if they have been in contact with a person suffering from the new coronavirus, sending relevant messages to inform them of the need for self-isolation…” the communications ministry said in a statement.

Russia, which has temporarily banned the entry of foreigners to limit the spread of coronavirus, has 438 confirmed infections and one virus-related death – less than many European countries.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told residents of the capital over 65 and those with chronic illnesses to remain at home.

Russia is gradually tightening quarantine rules and readying its healthcare system for more cases. Sobyanin told the elderly and other vulnerable residents to only visit pharmacies and food shops if absolutely necessary from Thursday until April 14.

STAY AT HOME OR DACHAS

Where possible, he also advised the elderly to leave the city and stay at their dachas – out-of-town cottages on private plots of land which many Russian families traditionally own.

The city, which has 262 confirmed infections, will give 4,000 rubles ($49) to all over 65s and people with chronic illnesses.

City hall has required mobile phone operators not to switch off phone and internet access for the elderly if their balance hits zero, and temporarily canceled fines for late payment of utility bills.

Moscow has also changed its coronavirus testing system. Samples will no longer be sent to a lab in Siberia for a second round of testing to confirm a positive result received during tests conducted in labs in the capital, the city’s coronavirus response headquarters said in a statement.

Russia is also taking steps to prepare its food supply and medical system for a potential upsurge in infections.

The government said it had asked the agriculture ministry and other officials to prepare proposals on whether exports of any food, essential products or medicine should be limited.

It also ordered the labor and justice ministries to devise plans to prevent workers from being fired for coronavirus-related reasons, such as self-isolation.

“I believe that overall, we have the situation with coronavirus under control,” Mishustin said. “But preparation for more serious challenges is necessary.”

Russia’s emergency ministry said in a statement to Reuters that it had suspended non-essential foreign business trips and advised its employees to avoid leaving the country.

The interior ministry, which operates Russia’s police force, among other law enforcement agencies, issued a similar order, a document seen by Reuters showed.

Some Russians have also called on members of the country’s wealthy elite to step in and contribute. Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin, co-owner of mining giant Norilsk Nickel <GMKN.MM>, said on Monday his charitable fund would provide 1 billion rubles to support nonprofit and cultural organizations affected by the coronavirus.

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

Saudi Arabia floods markets with $25 oil as Russia fight escalates

By Olga Yagova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is flooding markets with oil at prices as low as $25 per barrel, specifically targeting big refiners of Russian oil in Europe and Asia, in an escalation of its fight with Moscow for market share, five trading sources said on Friday.

The sources, from oil majors and refiners which process crude in Europe, said Saudi state oil company Aramco told them it would supply all requested additional volumes in April.

Sources previously told Reuters Saudi Arabia is also seeking to replace Russian oil with Chinese and Indian buyers, although not all refiners received volumes they had asked for.

Tanker rates soared as Saudi Arabia provisionally chartered around 31 supertankers to take extra oil, including to the United States, where Russian oil is usually less in demand.

Oil prices have halved since the start of the year because demand has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak and after Russia and OPEC failed to reach a new deal on supply cuts.

Moscow refused to support new deeper cuts, saying the impact from the virus could be much worse than thought, and Riyadh retaliated by opening its taps and pledging to pump record volumes on to the market.

Russia has so far said it is not planning to come back to the negotiating table despite feeling the pressure from the extraordinary Saudi moves.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Friday Russia saw no grounds so far for returning to discussions with its OPEC+ partners and can increase its oil production by a modest 200,000 barrels per day in April.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has pledged to raise output by 2.6 million bpd in April, including from stocks. Fellow Gulf producers like the United Arab Emirates has had to join in the battle for market share and has also announced production increases.

Saudi Arabia has made a deep cut to its official selling prices for oil. Arab Light and Arab Medium barrels were offered at selling price of $25-28 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, traders said.

On Friday, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) also offered steep discounts for its Murban crude for April, announcing forward prices for the first time in its history. It previously set prices retroactively.

Russia’s main blend Urals has been offered slightly higher than $30 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.

“We are happy with our allocation. The requests for April were confirmed. I look forward to May if prices remain that attractive”, a trader with a European oil company involved in the talks told Reuters.

European oil refiners including Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR have all had allocations for additional Saudi crude oil supplies in April confirmed, the sources said.

Saudi Aramco declined to comment. Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

On Thursday, sources told Reuters Saudi Arabia started focusing on boosting supplies to traditional buyers of Urals as it is trying to replace Russian oil in refiners’ feedstock around the world, from Europe to India.

Brent crude prices were on track for their biggest weekly fall since the 2008 financial crisis on Friday as investors fretted over the impact of the virus on demand and the Russian-Saudi price war. [O/R]

(Reporting by Olga Yagova; Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul, Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; Editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov/Jan Harvey/David Evans/Jane Merriman)

Turkey says U.S. offering Patriot systems if S-400s remain unboxed

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara promises not to operate a rival Russian system, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, in what he called a significant softening in Washington’s position.

Two Turkish officials told Reuters that Turkey was evaluating the U.S. offer but that Ankara had not changed its plans for the Russian S-400 systems, which it has said it will start to activate next month.

NATO allies Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Ankara’s purchase last year of the S-400s, which Washington says are incompatible with the alliance’s defense systems.

After heavy fighting in northwestern Syria’s Idlib region this year Turkey asked Washington to deploy Patriots along its border with Syria for protection but the United States said Turkey cannot have both the S-400s and the Patriots.

Speaking to reporters on his return flight from Brussels, Erdogan said Ankara had told Washington to deploy Patriot systems to Turkey and that it was ready to purchase the systems from the United States as well.

“We made this offer to the United States on the Patriot: If you are going to give us Patriots, then do it. We can also buy Patriots from you,” he said.

“They also softened significantly on this S-400 issue. They are now at the point of ‘promise us you won’t make the S-400s operational’,” Erdogan added.

Previous talks between Turkey and the United States on the purchase of the Patriots have collapsed over a host of issues, from the S-400s to Ankara’s dissatisfaction with Washington’s terms. Turkey has said it will only agree to an offer if it includes technology transfer and joint production terms.

While ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained, the United States has offered support for its ally as it battle to stop Russia-backed Syrian government advances in Idlib.

But U.S. officials said on Tuesday Ankara had to clarify its position on the S-400s for their security ties to advance.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield told reporters on a conference call from Brussels that Washington was discussing with NATO what support it can offer Turkey militarily.

Jeffrey also said they had considered possible responses should Russia and the Syrian government break a ceasefire in Idlib, officials said.

He suggested other NATO states could individually or as an alliance provide military support to help Turkey. But he ruled out sending ground troops and said there still needed to be a resolution to the S-400 issue for the security relationship to move forward.

“You can forget ground troops. Turkey has demonstrated that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own,” Jeffrey said. “The issue is the situation in the air and it’s what we are looking at,” he said.

Washington did not believe that Russia and Syrian had any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib, he said.

“They are out to get a military victory in Syria and our goal is to make it difficult for them to do that,” Jeffrey said.

“Our goal is…to make them think twice. If they ignore our warnings and preparations and move forward, then we will react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our NATO and European allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be.”

POSITION “UNCHANGED”

While Erdogan has frequently referred to the S-400 purchase as a “done deal” and said Turkey will not turn back from it, he did not repeat that stance in his comments on Tuesday. Turkish officials, however, said Turkey’s position remained unchanged.

“The United States has once again brought up the Patriot offer. The United States’ previous strong stance isn’t the case any more. They are approaching Turkey more empathetically now,” a senior official said.

“The core condition is that the S-400s are not activated, or in other words that they are not unboxed. This offer is being evaluated, but there is no change of stance on the S-400s,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

A separate Turkish official told Reuters the latest offer by Washington also included Turkey’s return to the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, which Turkey was involved in both as manufacturer of plane parts and customer for the jets.

After Ankara bought the S-400s, Washington suspended its involvement in the program and threatened sanctions.

“There is a U.S. offer for Patriots, but this offer includes the F-35s,” the Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Air defense systems can be purchased, but Turkey’s conditions are clear: there has to be issues like the know-how transfer and joint production.”

Turkey has said it plans to activate the S-400s it received from Russia in April. The United States has warned that such a move will trigger U.S. sanctions, though Ankara has repeatedly said good ties between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to avert this.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay, additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daren Butler, Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Putin approves changes allowing him to stay in power until 2036

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday opened the door to constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power until 2036, but said he favored term limits once the country became politically “mature”.

Putin, who in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, is required by the constitution to step down in 2024 when his second sequential and fourth presidential term ends.

But addressing the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, he gave his qualified blessing to a proposed change to the constitution that would formally reset his presidential term tally to zero.

“The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution,” Putin said.

He said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt serving four terms because of the upheaval his country was going through at the time was an example of why presidential term limits were sometimes superfluous.

“In conditions when a country is experiencing such shocks and difficulties, of course … stability is perhaps more important and must be a priority,” he said, adding that Russia was still recovering from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

If, as Putin’s critics suspect, the constitutional court gives its blessing to the amendment and it is backed in a nationwide vote in April, Putin could serve another two back-to-back six year terms.

Were he to do that, and his health and electoral fortunes allowed, he could stay in office until 2036 at which point he would be 83.

Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny said he believed Putin was now set to become president for life, while Navalny’s ally, Ivan Zhdanov, decried the move as tantamount to a constitutional coup.

‘ROOM TO MANEUVER’

Putin, 67, now had more room to maneuver politically, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

His stance handed him the option to run again in 2024 should he choose to do so and removed political challenges raised by what had been seen as his last term in the Kremlin, she added.

“The successor issue disappears. The issue of Putin as a lame duck disappears,” said Stanovaya.

Opposition activists said they planned to protest against what some called a rewriting of the constitution in the interests of the ruling elite. One group said it had applied for permission to stage a demonstration on March 21.

A former KGB officer, Putin, who is serving his fourth presidential term and has also served as prime minister, has dominated the Russian political landscape for two decades.

Putin has not spelled out what his plans for the future are, but he has said he does not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.

Putin appeared before parliament on Tuesday after Valentina Tereshkova, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party and the first woman in space, told parliament she was proposing to amend the constitution in a way that would reset his presidential term count to zero.

Explaining the surprise move, Tereshkova said voters had told lawmakers in recent meetings that they wanted Putin to “stay nearby”, whatever constitutional changes occurred.

“What if suddenly something goes wrong?” asked Tereshkova. “He (Putin) will be able to support, help and have our backs.”

Her proposal came as parliament was examining and preparing to vote on Putin’s constitutional shake-up in the second of three readings, something it later did, approving it and Tereshkova’s amendment.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Devitt, Darya Korsunskaya, Anton Zverev and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Russia-Turkey ceasefire broadly holds despite clashes in Syria’s Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Deadly clashes erupted in parts of northwest Syria on Friday but a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey aimed at ending months of intense conflict was largely holding elsewhere in the country’s last rebel-held enclave.

A war monitor and rebel sources said the fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Idlib province between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Fifteen people were killed, the Syrian Observatory said.

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

The clashes, while limited, underline the fragility of Thursday’s deal between Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Turkey. Ankara supports rebel fighters but has less sway over hardline jihadists who control large parts of Idlib.

The ceasefire aims to contain a conflict that has displaced nearly a million people in three months in Idlib, which borders Turkey. But analysts and residents said they feared it would not hold in part because it did not address the humanitarian crisis nor air protection in any detail.

“The deal is a failure and a joke,” said Amar Ahmed, 32, a farmer who has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a destroyed building. “We want to go back home, to our lands, and for the (Assad) regime to leave our home towns.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had vowed repeatedly in recent weeks to reverse advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib. However, Thursday’s deal froze the conflict along existing front lines, cementing significant gains by Syrian government forces.

“There may be criticism but our priority was for a ceasefire and we achieved it. Some goals were not reached but that goes for both sides,” a senior Turkish official said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The recent fighting sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has tried to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Russia had repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring troops and equipment into Idlib since early last month. About 60 Turkish troops have been killed in that time.

The ceasefire deal establishes a security corridor stretching 6 km (3.7 miles) to the north and south of Idlib’s east-west M4 highway, where joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin on March 15, effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into the province.

Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed. The latest one did not detail a “safe zone” or describe how displaced people could return to their homes.

“Any ceasefire arrangement in Idlib, unless it has a no-fly zone dimension, is bound to fail. Deals in the past never de-escalated. They merely froze the crisis until the next escalation,” said Galip Dalay, IPC-Mercator fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Zagreb, Dutch minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire should be cemented with a no-fly zone to stop any further bombing of hospitals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped the deal “will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone”.

Erdogan said the sides would work together to supply aid to Syrians in need, but that Turkey retained the right to “respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

TENSE CALM

Residents and fighters in the region said the front lines – which have seen heavy air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets, and intense Turkish artillery and drone strikes – were largely quiet after the midnight ceasefire came into effect.

“There is a ceasefire but there are violations,” said Abdul Ghani al Sheikh, a rebel fighter from the Turkey-backed Failaq Sham rebel group. He said government forces were shelling Jabal al Zawya and Atareb, to the south and east of Idlib.

“But the situation overall is better. Everyone thinks this is all temporary and Turkish reinforcements are still coming,” he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that the first eight hours of the ceasefire had passed with “relative calm”, and the skies had been free of Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

A Syrian state reporter, broadcasting from the town of Saraqeb recaptured by Syrian forces last week, said they were reinforcing positions at the front lines.

Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions called the National Liberation Front, said government forces had violated the ceasefire with shelling and attempts to storm a front line, leaving little trust between the sides.

Ahmad Rahhal, a former general in Syria’s government forces who defected to the opposition, said: “There is no pullout, and where will the displaced go (who) would never accept going to (Assad) regime areas? What we have heard is not comforting.”

(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Samar Hassan in Cairo and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Syrian government forces reenter strategic town, Turkey vows to keep up strikes

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.

Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.

Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.

A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.

A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defense systems.

Russia, for its part, said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over Syria, and Damascus said it was closing Syrian air space over the Idlib region.

HOPES FOR PUTIN TALKS

Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

“We will go to Moscow to evaluate these developments with Mr Putin. My hope is that we take the necessary steps there, whether it is a ceasefire or any other steps needed,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has insisted it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation.

“A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered,” a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017, or face being driven back by the Turkish military.

“The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting,” a senior Syrian opposition source said.

Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx of migrants from Syria.

Turkey opened its western borders on Friday to let migrants reach Europe, in an apparent move to demand EU support in Syria by repudiating a 2016 agreement to shut the frontier.

The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, but said sending migrants to Europe cannot be the answer.

Turkey had shut the border in return for EU funds under a 2016 deal to end a crisis in which more than a million people entered Europe and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean Sea. On Monday, a child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey re-opened its border last week.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant also died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces acted to stop migrants entering Greece by land. Athens denied the incident.

More than 1,000 migrants have arrived by sea on Greek islands since Sunday and more than 10,000 have attempted to cross by land at the border, where guards from both sides have fired tear gas into crowds caught in no-man’s land.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Alex Richardson and Peter Graff)