U.S. to send 100 agents to Mexico border to cut delays: congresswoman

FILE PHOTO: Trucks wait in a long queue for border customs control to cross into U.S., at the Cordova-Americas border crossing bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will send about 100 agents to the Mexico border to speed up crossing times, a U.S. congresswoman said on Thursday, as businesses grapple with trade delays after officers were redeployed to immigration duties.

The slowdowns began late last month after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to close the border if Mexico did not halt a surge of people seeking asylum in the United States.

The administration moved several hundred border agents to handle the influx of migrants, triggering long delays for cross-border traffic because of the staffing shortage.

As soon as Monday, CBP plans to send officers from the Canadian border and other parts of the country to El Paso, Texas, said Democratic U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, noting she had been informed by CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez.

CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Rio Grande Valley, on the eastern edge of the border, was being considered as another point to deploy extra officers, Escobar added.

Wait times totaling hours have hit industrial trade hard.

Losses have amounted to $800,000 a day for transportation businesses in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, said the head of Mexican trucking association CANACAR, Manuel Sotelo.

Data from border business association Index Juarez showed that losses from 28 exporting firms in Ciudad Juarez that utilize the crossing total $15 million over the past week.

In El Paso, several truckers said they usually did four crossings a day and were now managing only one.

Some manufacturing plants, including automotive factories that depend on constant cross-border shipments, have turned to expensive air freight to stay on schedule.

Passenger vehicles that would normally wait up to an hour and a half to cross are now facing four-hour waits.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso, Texas; Additional reporting by Sharay Angulo in Mexico City; Editing by Peter Cooney and Stephen Coates)

Venezuela aid trucks arrive in Colombia as EU calls for dialogue

A man looks on after trucks arrived at a warehouse, where international humanitarian aid for Venezuela will be stored according to authorities, near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Nelson Bocanegra and Anggy Polanco

CUCUTA, Colombia/TIENDITAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for crisis-stricken Venezuela arrived in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on Thursday as diplomatically-isolated President Nicolas Maduro appeared set to block its entry amid an escalating political crisis.

The arrival of the aid convoy, which includes supplies provided by the United States, has increased the pressure on Maduro hours after a European Union-backed group called for dialogue and elections and warned against interventionism.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

Maduro has rejected the aid convoy as a “political show” and vowed to remain in office despite dozens of nations around the world disavowing his leadership and recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state.

Escorted by police motorcycles, the trucks pulled into Cucuta, where Venezuelans were waiting to see whether Maduro’s government would clear the border road he has blocked and allow the humanitarian shipments to pass.

The crowd waved signs denouncing Maduro as a “cancer” and celebrated the arrival of the convoy.

“This gives me such hope, especially for the family that I left behind, my children, my wife,” said Israel Escobar, 42, a Venezuelan who came to Cucuta a year ago to sell ice-cream on the streets. “This is one more step towards ending that terrible regime.”

Across the border on the Venezuelan side, a group of around 60 protesters demanded that the aid be let through.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling to eat and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

But Maduro showed little sign of relenting on aid, as a bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela remained blocked with a cistern and two shipping containers.

“The so-called ‘humanitarian aid’ operation is a show, a cheap show, a bad show,” Maduro said in an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada published on Thursday. “You can be sure that it won’t disturb Venezuela.”

On Thursday, he appeared in an event at the presidential palace as part of a campaign by government supporters demanding an end to U.S. aggression against Venezuela.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

“Let it in, that’s what we’re asking, let it in,” Abrams told reporters at a State Department briefing, calling on members of Venezuela’s armed forces to persuade Maduro to step down or to disobey his orders.

He said the supplies would be delivered to Venezuelans when it was “logistically safe” to do so.

DIALOGUE AND ELECTIONS

Washington last week implemented crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, which are expected to exacerbate the hyperinflationary economic crisis.

Offering a counterpoint to Washington’s hard-line stance, the EU and a group of Latin American governments that have kept a moderate line on Venezuela called for dialogue and fresh elections.

The EU-backed International Contact Group on Venezuela in its inaugural meeting in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo said overly forceful intervention could aggravate the crisis.

EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini said a resolution ultimately must come from the people of Venezuela.

“This is not only the most desirable result but is the only result if we want to avoid more suffering and a chaotic process,” Mogherini said.

Maduro via Twitter welcomed the call for dialogue.

Critics have said three previous dialogue processes have allowed the ruling Socialist Party to stall for time without making major concessions on key issues including imprisoned opposition politicians and electoral transparency.

Guaido has galvanized the opposition since taking over as head of Venezuela’s National Assembly in January. Last month, he declared himself interim president, opening the door for Washington and others to recognize him as the legitimate leader.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, has maintained power with the backing of Venezuela’s military.

One Venezuelan Air Force general and several Venezuelan diplomats abroad have turned on Maduro and recognized Guaido.

The websites of Venezuelan embassies in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico on Thursday posted statements recognizing Guaido, which the embassies quickly dismissed as the work of hackers, reiterating “absolute support” for Maduro.

The International Monetary Fund, which a new government in Caracas would likely call on for financial assistance, is awaiting guidance from its member countries on whether to recognize Guaido, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Helen Murphy in Bogota, David Lawder, Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart, Lesley Wroughton, Matt Spetalnick and Luc Cohen in Washington; Adam Jourdan in Buenos Aires and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Paul Simao, Adam Jourdan and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. sends food, medical aid to Colombia-Venezuela border

People cross into Venezuela over the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is sending food and medical supplies to Colombia’s border with Venezuela where it will be stockpiled until it can be delivered to the economically shattered nation, U.S. officials with knowledge of the plan said on Tuesday.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aid will be prepositioned at the main Colombian-Venezuelan border crossing at Cucuta.

It is unclear how the supplies will get into Venezuela without the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro and cooperation of the Venezuelan military, which has remained loyal to the socialist leader and is stationed on the Venezuelan side of the border.

The U.S. officials said trucks carrying the humanitarian aid were headed to Cucuta and would arrive later this week at the request of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who last month declared himself to be the South American nation’s interim president.

Prepositioning aid in warehouses or in truck convoys at border posts for weeks, or sometimes months, is common while officials negotiate the safe passage of humanitarian supplies to those in need. In countries like Myanmar, South Sudan and Syria, aid has often been stockpiled as sides negotiated the terms of allowing aid into areas.

Pressure is growing on Maduro to step down after more than a dozen European Union nations, including Britain, Germany and France, on Monday joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

However Russia, China and Turkey continue to back Maduro, accusing Western nations of meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

The 35-year-old Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has galvanized the opposition with a hopeful message. He has repeatedly called on Venezuela’s military, which has remained loyal to Maduro, to support a transition to democracy.

The United States could attempt to seek the approval of the United Nations Security Council to deliver aid without Maduro’s cooperation, but Russia could block such a move.

So far, Maduro has rejected foreign aid. “We are not beggars. You want to humiliate Venezuela, and I will not let our people be humiliated,” he said on Monday.

FLOW OF MIGRANTS

Maduro’s government, overseeing an economic collapse that has prompted 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country, lashed out at the EU nations, saying their move would affect relations with Caracas.

In a statement, it accused them of submitting to a U.S. “strategy to overthrow the legitimate government” and singled out Spain, which had previously led mediation efforts, for acting “cowardly.”

With almost no information about how aid will be distributed, the Cucuta crossing from Venezuela appeared to be quiet on Tuesday.

The largest city along the frontier, Cucuta has borne the brunt of the arriving migrants. Thousands of people cross the pedestrian bridge daily lugging suitcases and plastic bags.

“Maduro doesn’t want help,” said Carolina Rozo, 20, as she crossed the bridge with a wheeled metal shopping cart. “He wants us to be poor. We have to come to buy food because we cannot even get cooking oil and eggs in Venezuela.”

Those who settle in Cucuta are often Venezuela’s poorest.

Others walk and bus hundreds of kilometers to other cities in Colombia, or follow thousands of others to Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Michelle Nicols at the United Nations, Roberta Rampton in Washington, Helen Murphy in Bogota and Anggy Polanco and Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. Pacific islands brace for long recovery after ‘catastrophic’ typhoon

A downed power line sits on a damaged building after Super Typhoon Yutu hit Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S., October 25, 2018 in this image taken from social media. Brad Ruszala via REUTE

(Reuters) – Authorities in the Northern Mariana Islands called for urgent supplies and equipment on Friday and were preparing for weeks without power after being hit by their most powerful typhoon in half a century, killing one woman and causing widespread destruction.

Super Typhoon Yutu, a category five storm, struck the U.S. Western Pacific territory overnight on Wednesday, pulling down hundreds of electricity poles, damaging homes and commercial properties and the international airport on Saipan, located about 6,000 km (3,700 miles) west of Hawaii.

A damaged structure is seen at Saipan International Airport after Super Typhoon Yutu hit the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S., October 25, 2018 in this image taken from social media. Brad Ruszala via REUTERS

A damaged structure is seen at Saipan International Airport after Super Typhoon Yutu hit the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S., October 25, 2018 in this image taken from social media. Brad Ruszala via REUTERS

On the island of Tinian, which took a direct hit from Yutu, the mayor asked for tools, machetes and chainsaws to help clear debris and urged residents to be patient and conserve fuel, food and water as emergency supplies had yet to arrive.

“Please be calm, help is on its way,” mayor Joey Patrick San Nicolas said in a Facebook Live video.

“Our stores are not opening, restaurants have been destroyed and we are left with what we have in our refrigerators in our homes. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of emergency of military aircraft.”

With winds of about 270 kph (168 mph), Yutu was the strongest typhoon seen in the archipelago of 52,000 people since 1968, according to governor Ralph Torres.

He said a long recovery period was ahead and he was pressing the central government for a major disaster to be declared and approved by U.S. President Donald Trump, so the Marianas could receive federal disaster assistance.

Torres said a 44-year-old woman in Saipan had been killed while sheltering in an abandoned building that collapsed.

“This is an unfortunate incident,” he said, adding that authorities were focusing on saving and preserving lives.

“Our first responders remain vigilant and (are) working around the clock.”

U.S. health secretary, Alex Azar, declared a public health emergency for the islands on Thursday to boost access to medical care after what he described as a “catastrophic” storm.

Water pipes were damaged and all flights to Saipan’s airport halted. Images on social media showed some buildings near the airport leveled by the storm, beneath them crushed vehicles and debris scattered over large areas.

Some 200-300 power poles had been toppled, and 400-500 were leaning. Authorities requested at least 700 replacements and transformers and said restoring power to pump water was top priority.

Yutu was traveling at 20 kph on Friday, with winds of 180 kph and gusts 220 kph and headed toward the northern Philippines, where the state weather agency said it could make landfall early on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Michael Perry)

Tourists flee Indonesia’s Lombok island after earthquake kills 98

People crowd on the shore as they attempt to leave the Gili Islands after an earthquake Gili Trawangan, in Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018, in this still image taken from a video. Indonesia Water Police/Handout/via REUTERS

By Kanupriya Kapoor

PEMENANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – Scenes of destruction greeted rescue workers across Indonesia’s resort island of Lombok on Monday, after an earthquake of magnitude 6.9 killed at least 98 people and prompted an exodus of tourists rattled by the second powerful quake in a week.

People recover a motorcycle from a damaged home near a mosque after a strong earthquake in Gunungsari, West Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi/ via REUTERS

People recover a motorcycle from a damaged home near a mosque after a strong earthquake in Gunungsari, West Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi/ via REUTERS

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said it expected the death toll to rise once the rubble of more than 13,000 flattened and damaged houses was cleared away.

Power and communications were severed in some areas, with landslides and a collapsed bridge blocking access to areas around the quake epicenter in the north. The military said it would send a ship with medical aid, supplies and logistics support.

In a message on social network Twitter, the Indonesian Red Cross said it helped a woman give birth after the quake at a health post. One of the names she gave the baby boy was ‘Gempa’, which means earthquake.

Lombok was hit on July 29 by a 6.4 magnitude quake that killed 17 people and briefly stranded several hundred trekkers on the slopes of a volcano.

The Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) said more than 120 aftershocks were recorded after Sunday evening’s quake, whose magnitude the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) revised down to 6.9 from an initial 7.0. At that magnitude it released more than five times the energy of the quake a week earlier, the USGS website showed.

The dead included no foreigners and there were 236 people injured, BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a news conference.

Residents sit outside their home with their belongings following a strong earthquake in Pemenang, North Lombok, Indonesia August 6, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi/ via REUTERS

Residents sit outside their home with their belongings following a strong earthquake in Pemenang, North Lombok, Indonesia August 6, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Ahmad Subaidi/ via REUTERS

HOSPITALS OVERFLOWING

The tremor was powerful enough to be felt on the neighboring island of Bali where, BNPB said, two people died. The first quake was also felt on Bali.

Indonesia sits on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Nugroho said more than 20,000 people had been displaced.

Among them were residents of a northern village called Mentigi, who fled to nearby hills. Blue tarpaulins dotted the landscape as people prepared to spend the nights outdoors because of aftershocks or because their homes were destroyed.

“We are getting some aid from volunteers, but we don’t have proper tents yet,” said a 50-year-old villager sheltering with his wife and children, who gave his name only as Marhun.

Ambulances with sirens blaring raced along the coast from north Lombok, but BNPB spokesman Nugroho said emergency units in its hospitals were overflowing and some patients were being treated in parking lots.

The main hospital in the town of Tanjung in the north was severely damaged, so staff set up about 30 beds in the shade of trees and in a tent on a field to tend to the injured.

A boy with a heavily bandaged leg wailed in pain, an elderly man wore a splint improvised from cardboard strips of cardboard on a broken arm, and some hurt by falling debris still had dried blood on their faces.

Chief Water Police of Lombok Dewa Wijaya takes a picture in front of hundreds of people attempting to leave the Gili Islands after an earthquake Gili Trawangan, in Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Indonesia Water Police/Handout/via REUTERS

Chief Water Police of Lombok Dewa Wijaya takes a picture in front of hundreds of people attempting to leave the Gili Islands after an earthquake Gili Trawangan, in Lombok, Indonesia, August 6, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Indonesia Water Police/Handout/via REUTERS

“THIS IS IT FOR ME INDONESIA”

Sengiggi, a seaside tourist strip on Lombok, wore an abandoned look. Amid collapsed homes, some hotels seemed to have shut, restaurants were empty and beaches deserted.

Long lines formed at the airport of Lombok’s main town, Mataram, as foreign visitors cut their holidays short. BNPB said 18 extra flights had been added for leaving tourists.

“I was at the rooftop of my hotel and the building started swaying very hard … I could not stand up,” said Gino Poggiali, a 43-year-old Frenchman, who was with his wife and two children at the airport.

His wife Maude, 44, said the family was on Bali for the first quake and Lombok for the second.

“This is it for me in Indonesia. Next time we will stay in France, or somewhere close,” she said.

Dutch tourist Marc Ganbuwalba injured his knee in a stampede of diners from a restaurant after the quake.

“We are cutting short our holiday because I can’t walk and we’re just not in the mood anymore,” said the 26-year-old, sitting on a trolley at the airport with his leg bandaged.

Officials said more than 2,000 people had been evacuated from the three Gili islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, where fears of a tsunami spread among tourists.

Michelle Thompson, an American holidaying on one of the Gilis, described a “scramble” to get on boats leaving for the main island during which her husband was injured.

“People were just throwing their suitcases on board and I had to struggle to get my husband on, because he was bleeding,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Fransiska Nangoy, Gayatri Suroyo, Fanny Potkin, Agustinus Beo da Costa, Bernadette Christina Munthe, Tabita Diela, Cindy Silviana and Jessica Damiana in JAKARTA, Jamie Freed and Jack Kim in SINGAPORE, and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Neil Fullick and Clarence Fernandez)

Aid convoy delivers food in Syria’s besieged Ghouta despite bombardment

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An emergency aid convoy crossed front lines into the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta and delivered its supplies on Friday, braving shellfire and air strikes in the area amid a fierce government offensive.

The 13 food trucks unloaded all their food aid in the town of Douma and returned to government-held territory despite fighting which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said came “extremely close” to the convoy.

In less than two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken nearly all the farmland in eastern Ghouta under cover of near ceaseless shelling and air strikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns – about half the territory – still under insurgent control.

The onslaught has killed more than 1,000 people, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Thursday. The war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Friday gave a death toll of 950 civilians in the campaign.

For eastern Ghouta’s civilians, trapped in underground shelters but deprived of food and water, there is a constant dilemma – whether to seek supplies or stay inside.

“People were hopeful after the bombardment decreased and went out onto the streets. But then air strikes began again, and there are still people under the rubble that we couldn’t get out,” said Moayad al-Hafi, a man in the town of Saqba.

Damascus and its main ally Moscow have both said the assault is needed to stop rebel shelling of the nearby capital Damascus and end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians in eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people live.

But U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said, in comments criticized by Syria’s government, that the assault was “legally, and morally, unsustainable”.

There was a pause in the government’s bombardment overnight, but it soon resumed air strikes and shelling after the convoy carrying food parcels crossed into eastern Ghouta, according to residents and the Observatory.

Syrian state television and a witness later said bullets and mortars were fired from inside the rebel enclave at the al-Wafideen crossing point, through which the convoy had entered eastern Ghouta.

“Shelling in proximity of Douma (in) eastern Ghouta today is putting the…convoy at risk,” U.N. resident coordinator Ali al-Za’tari said in a statement.

The fighting had resurged, he added, “despite assurances of safety from parties including the Russian Federation”.

Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s Middle East director, said in a statement: “We were taken aback by the fighting that broke out despite guarantees.”

A Douma resident, in a voice message over which loud explosions were audible, said four jets were in the sky and residential areas had come under air attack.

The food was supposed to be delivered on Monday when another aid convoy entered Douma, but fighting forced it to leave early without unloading everything.

The 2,400 food parcels delivered can sustain 12,000 people for one month, and 3,248 wheat flour bags were also unloaded, according to the ICRC.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would deal the rebels their biggest blow since the fall of Aleppo – Syria’s second city – in December 2016 by forcing them from their only big stronghold near Syria’s capital.

For President Bashar al-Assad, it would mark a victory as he builds on the military momentum created by Russia’s 2015 entry into the war, which has restored his rule over swathes of Syria.

In many cases, rebels have surrendered terrain in return for safe passage to other opposition areas along with relatives and other civilians loath to fall back under Assad’s rule.

“ONE MEAL IN SEVERAL DAYS”

Bilal Abu Salah, a resident of Douma, said shortages were causing great hardship. “Entire families eat one meal in several days,” he said.

U.N. aid agencies have pleaded with the Syrian government and its ally Russia to halt the campaign and let aid in.

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Fridayaid agencies in Syria often struggled to access besieged areas even with permission from political leaders.

“It’s very much the checkpoint on the ground that doesn’t allow you to go through. This is the reality of that terrible war,” he said in Beirut.

The Syrian government has opened what it calls safe routes out of the enclave, but no inhabitants are known to have left yet.

Damascus and Moscow accuse the insurgents of shooting at civilians to prevent them fleeing the fighting into government areas. A Reuters witness said there was small arms and mortar fire from rebel areas on the al-Wafideen crossing on Friday.

Rebels deny stopping anyone leaving and say people have not crossed into government territory for fear of persecution.

The terror of the bombardment and the increasingly unbearable living conditions may push people to brave the fighting and flee, according to one resident of Douma.

“I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want any harm to happen to my family,” said Abu Ahmad al-Ghoutani, who said he has two children.

State media have reported people in eastern Ghouta raising Syrian government flags and holding small protests in support of Assad. The Observatory has reported protests in one village to demand an end to the bombardment and the departure of rebels.

Tens of thousands of people have fled further into the enclave in the face of the warfare, a U.N. official said on Thursday, and residents of Douma said shelters are crowded with the new arrivals.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Dahlia Nehme and Yara Abi Nader in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Angus McDowall; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Papua New Guinea aid workers race to deliver supplies as aftershocks strike

People displaced by an earthquake gather at a relief centre in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea March 1, 2018. Milton Kwaipo/Caritas Australia/Handout via REUTERS

By Sonali Paul and Charlotte Greenfield

MELBOURNE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Aid workers struggled to reach remote areas of Papua New Guinea’s rugged highlands on Tuesday as aftershocks rattled the region, more than a week after a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake killed dozens of people.

Two aftershocks above magnitude 5 and one of magnitude 6.7 hit the mountainous Southern Highlands, about 600 km (370 miles) northwest of the capital Port Moresby, with the constant shaking driving people from their homes to makeshift shelters for fear of landslides.

There were no immediate reports of damage from the magnitude 6.7 tremor, which struck shortly after midnight, Wednesday morning, local time.

Local media outlets on Tuesday reported the death toll had grown to 75, after government officials said previously that 55 people had been killed.

James Komengi, a United Church project officer, speaking from Tari, the capital of quake-affected Hela province, said his church’s assessment and response center had counted up to 67 deaths in that province alone.

“Mothers and children are so traumatized. Even my own children are refusing to sleep in our house. Every little movement scares them,” said Komengi.

Concerns were also growing about access to safe drinking water after the shaking destroyed many water tanks, while land slips had poured mud into natural water sources.

“Because of the landslides … it’s very dirty water,” said Udaya Regmi, Director the International Red Cross in Papua New Guinea. Provincial health officials and Red Cross volunteers were urgently trying to improve sanitation systems and carry out hygiene training to avoid an outbreak of dystentry, Regmi said.

Local hospitals had seen a number of people with stomach conditions, but it was not yet confirmed whether these were due to contaminated water, he added.

Aid agencies were struggling to get aid by helicopter to all of the nearly 150,000 people who remained in urgent need of emergency supplies.

“The logistics are still a massive problem,” said Anna Bryan, an aid worker for CARE Australia based in the capital Port Moresby.

Australia, New Zealand and the Red Cross have all pledged aid, although reaching the remote area has proved difficult as forbidding terrain and bad weather, as well as damaged roads and runways, have delayed aid efforts.

“Right now the main challenge in the affected areas is accessibility by roads. There are big cracks along the roads and even roads completely cut off. So that’s making it quite difficult to get water, food and medicine to the remote areas,” said Milton Kwaipo, Caritas Australia’s disaster response and management officer in Papua New Guinea.

The quake has also been felt on global gas markets, with ExxonMobil Corp declaring force majeure on exports from Papua New Guinea, according to an industry source, pushing up Asian spot liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices.

The company declined to comment on the force majeure, but said it would take about 8 weeks to restore production.

 

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in MELBOURNE, Charlotte Greenfield in WELLINGTON and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; editing by Richard Pullin and Kevin Liffey)

Puerto Rico governor: ‘hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries

The contents of a damaged home can be seen near the town of Comerio.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday he ordered an investigation of water distribution on the hurricane-battered island and warned that there would be “hell to pay” for mishandling of the supplies.

In an interview with CNN, Rossello said drinking water supplies have been restored to roughly 60 percent of the island but some areas in the north remained at only 20 percent nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory.

“We’re delivering food to all of the municipalities, and water,” he said. “There were complaints that that water in some places was not getting to the people so I ordered a full investigation.”

The distribution of supplies including food, water and fuel has been a major challenge for the struggling government after Maria wiped out its power grid, flooded roads and crippled the communications system.

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017. Picture Taken October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

“If there is a place, a locality that is not delivering food to the people of Puerto Rico that need it, there’s going to be some hell to pay,” Rossello said.

He said the government was trying to identify problems in the distribution pipeline, looking to ensure that local leaders deliver resources to the Puerto Rican people as soon as they arrives in the municipality.

“I think that there are places where water is being withheld and food is being withheld,” Rossello said. “We need to showcase it, we need to push it forward to the people.”

Three weeks after the storm hit, Puerto Rico still has a long road to recovery, having only 15 percent of electrical power restored and struggling to regain communication services. The White House has asked Congress for $29 billion in hurricane relief for Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida.

 

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

Trump lifts foreign shipping restrictions for storm-hit Puerto Rico

By Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily lifted restrictions on foreign shipping on Thursday to help get fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico as the U.S. territory reels from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Trump, at the request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, “has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a Twitter post.

The waiver of the act, which limits shipping between U.S. ports to U.S. owned-and-operated vessels, was signed by acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and would be in force for 10 days, the DHS said in a statement. It would cover all products being shipped to Puerto Rico, the department said.

Puerto Rico’s government had sought a waiver to ensure as many supplies as possible, including badly needed fuel, reach the island of 3.4 million people quickly.

The waiver aimed to “ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms,” Duke said, referring not just to Maria but to Hurricane Irma, which grazed Puerto Rico earlier this month.

Rossello retweeted Sanders’ announcement with a “Thank you @POTUS” – referring to Trump’s official Twitter handle.

Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, knocking out power to the entire island, causing widespread flooding and major damage to homes and infrastructure.

The U.S. government has periodically lifted the Jones Act for a temporary period following violent storms, including after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit Texas and Florida in late August and earlier this month.

Even as federal emergency management authorities and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts in Puerto Rico, many residents have voiced exasperation at the prolonged lack of electricity, reliable supplies of drinking water and other essentials.

Rossello has strongly praised Trump’s response, defending the Republican administration against complaints of being slow to act. Critics have said the island is not getting the same response from the federal government as it would if it were a U.S. state, even though its residents are U.S. citizens.

“The president has been very diligent, he has been essentially talking to us every day,” the governor said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

Outlining some of the problems facing the island, Rossello said, “Really our biggest challenge has been the logistical assets to try to get some of the food and some of the water to different areas of Puerto Rico.”

He said the territory was working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We need truck drivers,” he said, adding he had asked the Department of Defense to send troops to help with transportation.

“The food is here, the water is here. We welcome more help. But critically, what we need is equipment,” and people, either national or state troops, Rossello said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Bill Trott)

Delta to cancel about 800 flights due to Irma

Empty runways and gates are see at Miami International Airport after Hurricane Irma strikes Florida, in Miami, U.S. September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

(Reuters) – Delta Air Lines Inc said it would cancel about 800 flights on Monday as it braces for Tropical Storm Irma at its Atlanta hub.

“Hurricane Irma is expected to bring to the Atlanta hub strong crosswinds that exceed operating limits on select mainline and regional aircraft,” Delta said on Monday.

The No. 2 U.S. airline by passenger traffic, whose business is heavily dependent on operations at the Atlanta airport, said it was planning to resume service to airports in Florida.

Irma, ranked as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, hit a wide swath of Florida over the past day. It is now a tropical storm with sustained winds of up to 70 miles per hour (110 km per hour).

Bigger rival American Airlines Group Inc said on Sunday it would not resume commercial flights at its Miami International Airport hub on Monday, but may operate flights to bring in staff and supplies.

 

(Reporting by Arunima Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)