Lawfare? Syrian development plan alarms refugees and host nations

A Syrian army soldier walks past the rubble of damaged buildings in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new law allowing the Syrian government to redevelop areas devastated by war has alarmed refugees and the countries that host them, prompting fears that people will lose their property and be less likely to return home.

Seven years into the war that has killed half a million people, the law signals the government’s intention to rebuild areas of Syria where the rebellion has been defeated, even though large parts of the country remain outside its control.

“Law 10” came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.

The law allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.

People forced to flee their homes – more than half the prewar population – will find it hard to make such claims, aid groups say.

Many refugees now face a major problem: whether to return home, even if they think it may be unsafe, and claim their property rights in person, or risk losing them, along with a big incentive to go back to Syria in future.

“If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees,” said a briefing note circulated to EU states at a recent high-level meeting.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, said this week that the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Assad says the law has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government. He told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone”.

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

Assad’s opponents already accuse him of engineering “demographic change” by driving rebels and their families out of Syria’s cities, and say the law confiscates property and homes of the displaced.

Amnesty International has said it effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land.

WHY DID SYRIA PASS LAW 10?

Managing the reconstruction of ruined cities, vital for Syria’s economy, will grow more important for Assad if he is to turn battlefield victories into a full restoration of his rule.

Experts on post-war reconstruction have likened it to laws passed in other war zones, notably in Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war.

Assad is banking on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help with reconstruction as Western states say they will not contribute until a political transition is in place.

Western Syria’s main cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – are now entirely in his hands, but apart from Hama they each have entire districts in ruins.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse Assad of conceiving Law 10 to push his opponents from their homes, since Syria’s most damaged areas were major centers of the uprising.

“If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering. Thousands of Syrians – mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad – risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHY WILL IT PARTICULARLY AFFECT REFUGEES?

Many refugees owned property in Syria but they will find it more difficult to stake their claims than people who stayed.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said 67 percent of refugees it had interviewed said they owned property in Syria, but only 17 percent of them still had ownership documents.

Another big worry is the law’s time frame.

Once a local authority announces a redevelopment plan – and none have yet done so – people will have 30 days to submit ownership claims, making them eligible for compensation.

Government supporters say protections for property owners are generous: family members or people given power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absent owners.

But after years of a war in which government buildings have been destroyed along with their files, and in which people have lost identity cards or land deeds as they fled, it could take months to prove who somebody is – let alone what they own.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria, even if they both have all the right documents, takes a minimum of three months. It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were opposition centers.

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE LAW?

Compensation is offered in the form of shares in the redevelopment company, but aid agencies suggest few original occupants will be able to afford the additional cost of new housing within such projects and might come under pressure to sell their property at low prices.

Since many of the most damaged areas were opposition strongholds, many people who left Syria – and relatives who stayed on – might be afraid to appear before government officials to prove ownership.

The law also targets settlements built without formal approval or legal deeds. Owners of such dwellings can be allocated shares on the basis of the assessed value of their building but will not be able to secure compensation for land without proof of ownership, said an expert on the law.

Many property owners have been killed in the war, sometimes without their relatives obtaining death certificates, setting up likely inheritance disputes that would complicate property claims.

Ownership paper trails were also confused after the fighting began in 2011, as families fled one front line after another, taking only what they could carry and selling their property to neighbors. Some properties were bought and sold many times, without proper documentation.

Property owners cannot challenge the designation of an area for redevelopment, and challenges over the value of their property will be settled by the appeal court.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Putin says will step down as president after term expires in 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen at the stand of Russian state oil major Rosneft during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin said on Friday he would respect the Russian constitution which bans anyone from serving two consecutive presidential terms, meaning he will step down from his post in 2024 when his current term expires.

His remarks, made to reporters at an economic forum in St Petersburg and broadcast on state TV, are not a surprise and do not necessarily mean he will relinquish power in six years.

Putin has stepped down as president once before, in 2008, after serving two back-to-back terms only to return in 2012 after doing a stint as prime minister, a maneuver he would be legally entitled to carry out again.

“I have always strictly abided by and abide by the constitution of the Russian Federation,” Putin said, when asked if and when he would be leaving office.

“In the constitution it’s clearly written that nobody can serve more than two terms in a row … I intend to abide by this rule.”

Putin easily won re-election in March, extending his tenure by six years to 24 – which would make him Moscow’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova/Andrew Osborn; Editing by John Stonestreet)

Farmers worldwide struggle with rising fuel costs

By Stephanie Kelly and Tom Polansek

NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Farmers worldwide are feeling the pinch as fuel costs rise to near four-year highs just as they plant and harvest their fields, eroding agricultural income already hamstrung by depressed crop prices.

The agricultural sector from the United States to Russia, and Brazil to Europe, is seeing profits harmed by the rise in diesel prices. The global oil benchmark, Brent crude, touched $80 a barrel for the first time since late 2014 on Thursday.

Coupled with local economic issues, the increase is making it even harder for many farmers worldwide to turn a profit in the estimated $2.4 trillion agriculture industry, casting a cloud over future investments.

In the United States, fuel accounts for about five percent of farmers’ overall costs, and is hurting margins at a time when farm income is already half that of 2013. Massive harvests have depressed prices of staples such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

Diesel fuel is essential for planting, harvesting, and shipping crops to market. In the United States, farmers will spend an estimated $15.25 billion on fuel and oil in 2018, an 8 percent increase from 2017, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed.

The price of ultra-low sulfur diesel used for farming equipment and transporting crops has not been this high in May since 2014. Heating oil futures, the proxy for ultra-low sulfur diesel, traded at $2.29 a gallon on Thursday.

Ron Heck, who grows soybeans in Perry, Iowa, said his fuel costs could go up $1,000 to $2,000 during the northern hemisphere’s spring.

“You feel the pain right away,” Heck said.

In Russia, fuel prices for farmers are up 50 percent compared with a year ago, Arkady Zlochevsky, the head of Russia’s Grain Union, a non-governmental farm lobby, told Reuters. Farmers will need to spend more ahead of harvesting, which starts in about a month in Russia, he said.

For a graphic on farmers’ cash expenses, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rXHHQf

FINANCIAL STRESS

U.S. farms are also factoring in potential losses of income due to a 25 percent tax China announced on major American imports following the U.S. government’s decision to slap duties on steel and aluminum.

“We’re seeing financial stress occurring in agriculture that we probably haven’t seen for a decade or so,” said Scott Brown, director of strategic partnerships at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “If diesel prices continue to go higher, it continues to put more pressure on [farmers].”

Net farm income is forecast to fall to $59.5 billion in 2018, an 8.3 percent decline from 2017, according to the USDA. It has fallen by 55 percent since 2013.

In Holly Grove, Arkansas, Tim Gannon paid about $17,000 in February to fill a 7,500-gallon tank with diesel used to run equipment and irrigation. The price increase means it may cost up to 25 percent more, or an extra $4,000, to refill it in coming weeks, he said.

“That’s a fairly significant amount of income to lose,” he said. Gannon has been taking steps to cut his diesel costs over the past year by reducing the number of times he plows, or tills.

In Brazil, farmers are also taking steps to deal with higher costs, as diesel prices have climbed 43 percent in the country since July 2017. Eder Ferreira Bueno, a farmer in grain state Mato Grosso, said increased fuel costs meant he had “no other option but to spend less to treat the soil.” Other farmers might hire fewer workers or delay investment plans, he added.

In neighboring Argentina, the top shipper of soybean meal and oil worldwide, farmers are having to deal with a weakening currency at the same time fuel costs are rising.

“Where the impact is felt greatest is in trucking costs. We are already at a disadvantage when compared to our competitors on freight costs within Argentina,” said David Hughes, a farmer in Buenos Aires province and president of Argentine wheat industry chamber Argentrigo.

In Europe, French grain producers say rising oil costs may have a knock-on effect on fertilizers and crop protection products.

“It comes at a time when things are already difficult for farmers economically,” said Philippe Pinta, head of grain growers group AGPB in Paris.

Wamego, Kansas, farmer Glenn Brunkow said he may lock in diesel prices in advance for the first time ever next year, to avoid the pain of future increases.

“You just kind of all of a sudden realize, ‘Wow, it’s pretty high,'” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York and Tom Polansek in Chicago; additional reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide and Valerie Parent in Paris, Polina Devitt in Moscow, Ana Mano and Marcelo Teixeira in Sao Paulo, and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Cyber firms, Ukraine warn of planned Russian attack

Power lines are seen near the Trypillian thermal power plant in Kiev region, Ukraine November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Jim Finkle and Pavel Polityuk

TORONTO/KIEV (Reuters) – Cisco Systems Inc warned on Wednesday that hackers have infected at least 500,000 routers and storage devices in dozens of countries with sophisticated malicious software – activity Ukraine said was preparation for a future Russian cyber attack.

Cisco’s Talos cyber intelligence unit has high confidence that the Russian government is behind the campaign, according to Cisco researcher Craig Williams, because the hacking software shares code with malware used in previous cyber attacks that the U.S. government has attributed to Moscow.

Ukraine’s SBU state security service said the activity showed Russia was readying a large-scale cyber attack against Ukraine ahead of the Champions League soccer final, due to be held in Kiev on Saturday.

“Security Service experts believe the infection of hardware on the territory of Ukraine is preparation for another act of cyber-aggression by the Russian Federation aimed at destabilizing the situation during the Champions League final,” it said in a statement after Cisco’s findings were released.

Russia has previously denied assertions by Ukraine, the United States, other nations and Western cyber-security firms that it is behind a massive global hacking program, which has included attempts to harm Ukraine’s economy and interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted by Reuters on Wednesday.

Cisco said the new malware, dubbed VPNFilter, could be used for espionage, to interfere with internet communications or launch destructive attacks on Ukraine, which has previously blamed Russia for massive hacks that took out parts of its energy grid and shuttered factories.

“With a network like this you could do anything,” Williams told Reuters.

CONSTITUTION DAY ATTACK

The warning about the malware – which includes a module that targets industrial networks like ones that operate the electric grid – will be amplified by alerts from members of the Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA), a nonprofit group that promotes the fast exchange of data on new threats between rivals in the cyber security industry.

Members include Cisco, Check Point Software Technologies Ltd, Fortinet Inc, Palo Alto Networks Inc, Sophos Group Plc  and Symantec Corp.

“We should be taking this pretty seriously,” CTA Chief Executive Officer Michael Daniel said in an interview.

The devices infected with VPNFilter are scattered across at least 54 countries, but Cisco determined the hackers are targeting Ukraine following a surge in infections in that country on May 8, Williams told Reuters.

Researchers decided to go public with what they know about the campaign because they feared the surge in Ukraine, which has the largest number of infections, meant Moscow is poised to launch an attack there next month, possibly around the time the country celebrates Constitution Day on June 28, Williams said.

Some of the biggest cyber attacks on Ukraine have been launched on holidays or the days leading up to them.

They include the June 2017 “NotPetya” attack that disabled computer systems in Ukraine before spreading around the globe, as well as hacks on the nation’s power grid in 2015 and 2016 that hit shortly before Christmas.

VPNFilter gives hackers remote access to infected machines, which they can use for spying, launching attacks on other computers or downloading additional types of malware, Williams said.

The researchers discovered one malware module that targets industrial computers, such as ones used in electric grids, other infrastructure and in factories. It infects and monitors network traffic, looking for login credentials that a hacker can use to seize control of industrial processes, Williams said.

The malware also includes an auto-destruct feature that hackers can use to delete the malware and other software on infected devices, making them inoperable, he said.

(Writing by Jim Finkle and Jack Stubbs; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Foreign media start marathon journey to North Korea nuclear test site

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

Travel will involve an 11-hour train ride, a four-hour bus journey and then a hike of another hour, a reporter with Russia’s RT said on Twitter.

North Korea has suspended talks with the South and threatened to pull out of an upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, but the invitation to media was seen as an indication that its unexpected offer to end its nuclear tests still held.

North Korea invited international media to observe the destruction with explosives of the Punggye-ri site, but not experts as initially promised, casting doubt over how verifiable the plan is and whether it will be safe.

It had also declined to take the South Korean reporters after calling off planned inter-Korean talks in protest against U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills. North Korea has always justified its nuclear program as a deterrent against perceived U.S. hostility.

Reporters from news outlets from the other countries said on Twitter they arrived in the North Korean port city of Wonsan on Tuesday. The eight South Koreans arrived in Wonsan on Wednesday, where they were forced to leave their radiation detectors, satellite phones and Bluetooth mouses before they all set off for the test site, according to South Korean media pool reports.

North Korea had announced it would use explosives to close test tunnels, expected on Thursday or Friday.

Seoul’s unification ministry welcomed Pyongyang’s decision to accept the South Koreans.

“We hope for an early realization of complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula through a North Korea-U.S. summit and dialogue of various levels, starting with the abolition of the nuclear test site,” ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing.

SUMMIT IN DOUBT

North Korea’s last-minute acceptance of South Korean reporters came amid concerns that Kim was starting to back away from his promise to scrap the nuclear program, which it has pursued in defiance of years of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

International journalists left on a marathon journey to a North Korean nuclear test site on Wednesday, after Pyongyang belatedly cleared a number of South Korean media to witness what it says will be the dismantling of its only nuclear test facility.

The North has threatened to pull out of the summit with Trump in Singapore on June 12 if Washington demands it unilaterally abandons its nuclear arsenal. It has also criticized the Max Thunder drills.

Trump said on Tuesday there was a “substantial chance” the summit would not take place.

China said that both the United States and North Korea were still making preparations for the summit and Beijing hoped both sides can “clear away distractions.”

“We really hope that all sides, especially the United States and North Korea, can seize the opportunity, meet each other halfway, and resolve in a balanced way each other’s concerns,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing.

“We still look forward to the meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders proceeding smoothly and achieving positive results.”

Lu said China had played a positive role on the Korean peninsula, after Trump reiterated his suggestion that Kim’s recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping had influenced Kim to harden his stance ahead of the summit.

Seoul is seeking to mediate between the United States and North Korea, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in visiting Washington on Tuesday to urge Trump to seize the rare opportunity to meet Kim.

High-level intra-Korea talks will likely resume after Friday, once Max Thunder finishes, Moon’s media secretary Yoon Young-chan said.

A senior South Korean official told reporters on condition of anonymity: “Given the North’s thinking and statements alike, we would be able to turn around the mood after the Max Thunder drills from the current standoff and restart dialogue.”

North Korea has rejected unilateral disarmament and given no indication that it is willing to go beyond statements of broad support for the concept of universal denuclearisation.

It has said in previous, failed talks that it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States provided security guarantees by removing its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

(Additional reporting by Joori Roh and Josh Smith in SEOUL, and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. officials warn Congress on 2018 election hacking threats

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to reporters after she, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats briefed members of the U.S. House of Representatives on election security at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Trump administration officials warned Congress on Tuesday of ongoing efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterm congressional elections as the federal government prepares to hand out $380 million in election security funding to states.

At a briefing attended by about 40 or 50 members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, the heads of FBI, Homeland Security Department and the director of National Intelligence said states and cities overseeing elections need to be prepared for threats.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters she agreed Russia was trying to influence the 2018 elections.

“We see them continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns,” Nielsen said, but added there is no evidence of Russia targeting specific races.

Nielsen said DHS is watching other countries that have the capability to influence U.S. elections, including China and Iran. “We need to be prepared,” she said.

Chris Krebs, a senior DHS cyber security official, told Reuters that the administration was sending states guidance on how to spend the $380 million approved by Congress in March to help safeguard U.S. voting systems from cyber attacks. The funds are expected to be distributed later this week.

DHS is assisting 48 states with election security. It handed out a chart at the briefing to members that said states need to have auditable systems, spend time on planning, training and drills and they should “consider investing in full system architecture reviews.”

Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said after the briefing that members are concerned that “not only Russia but possibly other foreign adversaries are now going to start looking at how they can meddle in the midterm elections and we need to be prepared. We were caught off guard last time.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian leadership at a very high level was involved in the attempt to interfere in the U.S. election in order to boost President Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Russia has denied interfering in U.S. elections.

Several Democrats after the briefing expressed concern that the federal government was not doing enough to safeguard elections.

“It is clear that our government must do more and whatever possible to secure our elections from foreign interference. The integrity of our democracy is at stake,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

UNPRECEDENTED, COORDINATED

A May 8 U.S. Senate report said that in 2016 “cyber actors affiliated with the Russian Government conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure.” Russian actors “scanned databases for vulnerabilities, attempted intrusions, and in a small number of cases successfully penetrated a voter registration database.”

The report said in a small number of states, “these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.”

Krebs said on Tuesday that DHS wanted states to “increase awareness” and have a “layered defense.”

If a voter’s information was missing, for example, they could request a provisional ballot. “If we do detect something, we can overcome it,” he said.

During the 2016 campaign, hackers stole emails from the personal account of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and from the Democratic National Committee, and they were used to embarrass Clinton.

Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, said members of Congress need to be aware of cyber risks. “We need to focus on it, make it a priority,” he said.

DHS said in March it is prioritizing election cyber security above all other critical infrastructure it protects.

The agency has said that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers in 2016 and that a small number of networks were compromised, but that there remains no evidence any votes were actually altered.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters the federal government should quickly alert states if they learn of election system hacking.

He also wants a “real-time communications channel” between the intelligence community and technology companies in order to assure that internet firms are notified if evidence emerges that Russia is creating fake Facebook Inc <FB.O> pages or taking other actions to influence the elections.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Bill Berkrot)

After re-election, Venezuela’s Maduro faces overseas condemnation

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a vote foes denounced as a farce that cemented autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil-producing nation.

Maduro, 55, hailed his win in Sunday’s vote as a victory against “imperialism,” but his main rival alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition boycotted the election, given that two of its most popular leaders were barred from running, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties from using their names, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists. Turnout was under 50 percent.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced outside the Miraflores presidential palace, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

“The revolution is here to stay!” a jubilant Maduro told the crowd, promising to prioritize economic recovery after five years of recession in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

“Let’s go, Nico!” his supporters chanted until after midnight during party scenes in downtown Caracas.

“We mustn’t cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did. The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro’s socialist predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Senior U.S. State Department officials declared Sunday’s vote a “sham” and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain, which has led European Union criticism of Maduro, also weighed in. “Venezuela’s electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering,” tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation” behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations. China and Russia, which have both poured money into Venezuela in recent years, were also unlikely to join in the international condemnation.

‘TRAGIC CYCLE’ FOR VENEZUELA

The election board said Maduro won 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his chief challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with the opposition boycott to stand.

Turnout was 46 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 percent at the last presidential vote in 2013. Suggesting turnout was even lower, an electoral board source told Reuters 32.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) as most polls shut.

The government used ample state resources during the campaign and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government’s placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called “red spots” close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued “fatherland cards” at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a “prize” promised by Maduro.

The “fatherland cards” are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the ‘Chavismo’ movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

“I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We’re in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it,” tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

Maduro, who faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela’s moribund economy, has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies. The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela’s multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars’ funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed the Venezuelan government and people could handle their own affairs and that everyone should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would “handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention,” but did not elaborate.

 

 

(Reporting by Aexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Marco Aquino in Lima; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus Berwick and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal discharged from UK hospital

FILE PHOTO: The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Alistair Smout and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Sergei Skripal, the Russian former spy who was left in critical condition by a nerve agent attack in Britain more than two months ago, has been discharged from hospital, national health authorities said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain’s accusations that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack led to a Russia-West crisis in which Western governments, including the United States, have expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks and doctors at one point feared that, even if they survived, they might have suffered brain damage. But their health began to improve rapidly, and Yulia was discharged last month.

“It is fantastic news that Sergei Skripal is well enough to leave Salisbury District Hospital,” the hospital’s Chief Executive Cara Charles-Barks said in a statement.

Police have said they will not give any details of the Skripals’ new security arrangements in the interests of their safety, and neither they nor the hospital gave any details of Sergei’s new whereabouts. Yulia was taken to a secure location after her release, the BBC reported at the time.

Britain and international chemicals weapons inspectors say the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. Foreign minister Boris Johnson called on Friday for a meeting of parties to the international Chemical Weapons Convention to find ways to strengthen the agreement.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who called the Salisbury attack a “reckless and despicable act”, welcomed news of Skripal’s discharge.

Moscow has denied involvement in the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that had a weapons-grade nerve agent been used on Skripal, he would be dead.

Russia has suggested Britain carried out the attack itself to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that the agent used in the attack may have never been made in Russia.

Putin on Friday welcomed Skripal’s progress, and Russia’s ambassador to London reiterated Russia’s desire to see the pair, saying that currently Britain was not fulfilling its obligations under international law.

“We’re happy that he’s alright,” Alexander Yakovenko told reporters.

“We’re still demanding the access to these people. We want just to understand how they feel and we want them to say personally what they want. If they don’t want our assistance it’s fine. We want to see them physically.”

Britain has said previously that Yulia, a Russian citizen, has chosen not to take up Russia’s offer of help.

Salisbury Hospital said that patient confidentiality limited the information they could give, but that the “acutely unwell” Skripals had been stabilized and kept alive until their bodies could replace poisoned enzymes with new ones.

(Additional reporting Michael Holden and Ana de Liz; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Russia postpones bill making U.S. sanctions compliance a crime

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Polina Nikolskaya and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lawmakers on Thursday voted to postpone the second reading of a bill being discussed in the lower house of parliament that would make it a crime to comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

The lower house said it would hold talks next week with businesses before proceeding further with discussion of the draft law, a day after business lobby groups on Wednesday publicly voiced opposition to it.

“We support postponing (discussion) for further consultations because of numerous appeals and insufficient legal preparation,” said Nikolai Kolomeytsev, a lawmaker for the Communist party, which often backs the Kremlin on important issues.

Russian lawmakers in a first reading on Tuesday approved a bill making it a crime punishable by up to four years in jail to refuse to supply services or do business with a Russian citizen, citing U.S. or other sanctions.

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs said in a statement on Wednesday that the bill creates risks of unreasonable criminal prosecution of Russian and foreign citizens, and could harm the investment climate.

Business representatives will be invited to discuss the bill with lawmakers next Wednesday.

“I think we can find a construction under which these fears can be removed. And then the law will pass without any fears and, generally speaking, we need it,” lawmaker Valery Gartung said on Thursday. He is a member of the Just Russia party which often allies itself with the Kremlin.

The bill is one of two items of legislation drawn up by lawmakers in response to the United States’ decision to impose sanctions on Russia last month.

Washington blacklisted some of Russia’s biggest companies and businessmen, striking at allies of President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other “malign activities”.

Later on Thursday, lawmakers in a second reading approved the second item of legislation. The bill would give the government authority to ban trade in certain items with countries deemed to be unfriendly to Moscow.

Under the bill, the Russian president would decide which products would be affected by the restrictions, and any decision would be subject to approval from parliament.

The legislation also bars affected countries and those countries’ citizens from taking part in the privatization of Russian property.

The legislation has been diluted since it was first put forward. Lawmakers originally proposed restricting imports of U.S.-made software and farm goods, U.S. medicines that can be sourced elsewhere, and tobacco and alcohol.

The legislation must pass a third reading, before being approved by the upper house of parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin.

(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Russia, after Netanyahu visit, backs off Syria S-300 missile supplies

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is not in talks with the Syrian government about supplying advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles and does not think they are needed, the Izvestia daily cited a top Kremlin aide as saying on Friday, in an apparent U-turn by Moscow.

The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia last month hinted it would supply the weapons to President Bashar al-Assad, over Israeli objections, after Western military strikes on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes had removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold the missiles and Russia’s Kommersant daily cited unnamed military sources as saying deliveries might begin imminently.

But Kozhin’s comments, released so soon after Netanyahu’s Moscow talks with Putin, suggest the Israeli leader’s lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off.

“For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.

The Syrian military already had “everything it needed,” Kozhin added.

The Kremlin played down the idea that it had performed a U-turn on the missile question or that any decision was linked to Netanyahu’s visit.

“Deliveries (of the S-300s) were never announced as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the matter.

“But we did say after the (Western) strikes (on Syria) that of course Russia reserved the right to do anything it considered necessary.”

The possibility of missile supplies to Assad along with its military foray into Syria itself has helped Moscow boost its Middle East clout. with Putin hosting everyone from Netanyahu to the presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Saudi king.

ISRAELI LOBBYING

Israel has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell the S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capabilities against arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected shipments.

On Thursday, Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory. S-300s could have significantly complicated the Israeli strikes.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with significantly different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Though since been superseded by the more modern S-400 system, the S-300s are still regarded as highly potent and outstrip anything that the Syrian government currently has.

Syria currently relies on a mixture of less advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to defend its air space.

Russian media on Friday were actively circulating a video released by the Israeli military which showed an Israeli missile destroying one such system — a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense battery — on Thursday in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)