No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps
By Humeyra Pamuk

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Notorious for leaks and chastened by previous security lapses, the White House went to unusual lengths to keep President Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan under wraps, devising a cover story for his movements that included posting scripted tweets while he was in the air, administration officials said.

On Thursday, Trump dropped in unannounced on troops at Afghanistan’s Bagram military air base in his first trip to the country and only his second to a war zone during his presidency. He served soldiers a turkey dinner and posed for selfies, before telling reporters that the United States and Taliban hoped to resume peace talks. [nL1N2880NT]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 33-hour roundtrip, which White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said had been weeks in the making, was the administration’s success in keeping it secret until shortly before the president left Afghanistan to return home.

Frequently wrong-footed by leaks and Trump’s freewheeling use of Twitter, the White House informed only a tight circle of officials about the trip.

On Tuesday, Trump travelled to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida as scheduled, accompanied by the regular caravan of reporters which follows the president on all trips.

When those journalists waited for him to emerge for a Thursday afternoon conference call with the troops, per his official schedule, they learnt that overnight he had flown the 13,400 km (8,331 miles) to Afghanistan to visit them in person.

“It is a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told a small group of correspondents aboard Air Force One on Wednesday evening, explaining why the White House had concealed Trump’s true movements.

Only hours before, that second group of reporters had secretly gathered at a parking lot near the Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, a regular departure spot for Trump, from which they were driven in minivans into the complex.

They had been told ahead of time that Trump would be travelling incognito to an undisclosed location.

Once inside the base, all smart phones and any devices that could send a signal were confiscated and not returned until at least two hours after Trump’s arrival at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Throughout the 13-hour flight, nobody on board Air Force One had access to their phones, including White House staff, Grisham said. The cabin lights were mostly switched off and window blinds stayed shut.

Last Christmas, en route to a troop visit in Iraq, Air Force One was identified above England by a plane spotter who tweeted a photo of its distinctive turquoise livery, sparking a social media storm. Many speculated then that Trump was on his way to a war zone, pointing to his unusually quiet Twitter account, which had sent dozens of tweets the day before.

This time, Grisham said the White House made arrangements to ensure continuity in the president’s Twitter account, which posted happy Thanksgiving tweets as he was in the air, including one thanking the military.

“We just had a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Trump said amid chants of “U-S-A” during his speech at the Bagram base.

“I thought I was going to be doing it someplace else.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michelle Price and Daniel Wallis)

Hong Kong office workers, schoolmates denounce police shooting of teen

By Clare Jim and Yiming Woo

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong office workers and high-school students turned out in their hundreds under a sweltering midday sun on Wednesday to denounce a policeman for shooting and wounding a teenager during the most violent clashes in nearly four months of unrest.

The office workers marched to Chater Garden in the Central business district as the students, some in the same class as the wounded 18-year-old, demonstrated outside his New Territories school.

More than 100 people were wounded during Tuesday’s turmoil, the Hospital Authority said, as anti-China demonstrators took to the streets across the Chinese-ruled territory, throwing petrol bombs and attacking police who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Five remained in a serious condition with 35 stable.

Thirty police were injured, with five in hospital.

During one clash, an officer shot an 18-year-old school student in the chest with a live round after coming under attack with a metal bar, video footage showed. The teen was in stable condition in hospital on Wednesday.

Protesters outside the wounded student’s school, the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, chanted “Free Hong Kong”, condemned the police and urged a thorough investigation.

“(It’s) ridiculous, it can’t happen, and it should not be happening in Hong Kong,” said one 17-year-old who goes to the same school.

“It really disappointed me and let me down about the policeman. I don’t know why they took this action to deal with a Form Five student. Why do you need to shoot? It’s a real gun.”

Protesters have previously been hit with anti-riot bean-bags rounds and rubber bullets and officers have fired live rounds in the air, but this was the first time a demonstrator had been shot with a live round.

Police said the officer involved was under serious threat and acted in self-defense in accordance with official guidelines.

Police said they arrested 269 people – 178 males and 91 females – aged 12 to 71 during the Tuesday turmoil, while officers fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds.

The protests, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, were aimed at propelling the activists’ fight for greater democracy onto the international stage and embarrassing the city’s political leaders in Beijing.

The former British colony has been rocked by months of protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, among other demands.

The outpouring of opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

The pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong condemned Tuesday’s violence and urged the government to impose emergency laws to resolve the crisis.

‘CHILLING DISREGARD’

Many shops and business closed on Tuesday in anticipation of the violence, which is taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade and the central government grapples with a U.S.-China trade war and a global slowdown.

Standard & Poor’s cut its Hong Kong economic growth forecast on Tuesday to 0.2 percent for this year, down from its forecast of 2.2 percent in July, blaming tension in the city for plunging retail sales and a sharp dip in tourism.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce condemned the violence.

“Extremists’ chilling disregard for the rule of law is not only affecting Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial and business center, but also crippling many small businesses and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens,” it said in a statement.

The protesters come from wide-ranging backgrounds. Of 96 charged after violence on Sunday, eight were under 18, some were students, others had jobs ranging from waiter, teacher and surveyor to sales manager, construction worker and a hotel employee.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

The protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said two of its branches came under attack on Tuesday.

“The bank expresses its deepest anger and strongly condemns this illegal, violent behavior,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Yimin Woo; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Bill Rigby, Donny Kwok, Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Special Report: China quietly doubles troop levels in Hong Kong, envoys say

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Last month, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into this restive city. They came in on trucks and armored cars, by bus and by ship.

The state news agency Xinhua described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997. No mention was made of the anti-government protests that have been shaking the metropolis since June.

It was a plausible report: China has maintained a steady level of force in the territory for years, regularly swapping troops in and out. And days earlier, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had told local businesspeople that China had “absolutely no plan” to order the army to put down the demonstrations.

A month on, Asian and Western envoys in Hong Kong say they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. Seven envoys who spoke to Reuters said they didn’t detect any significant number of existing forces in Hong Kong returning to the mainland in the days before or after the announcement.

Three of the envoys said the contingent of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled in size since the protests began. They estimated the number of military personnel is now between 10,000 and 12,000, up from 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement.

As a result, the envoys believe, China has now assembled its largest-ever active force of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other anti-riot personnel and equipment in Hong Kong.

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the build-up includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. While Reuters was unable to determine the size of the PAP contingent, envoys say the bulk of the troops in Hong Kong are from the PLA.

PAP forces would be likely to spearhead any crackdown if Beijing decides to intervene, according to foreign envoys and security analysts. These paramilitary troops are specially trained in non-lethal tactics and methods of riot suppression and crowd control.

The envoys declined to say how exactly they determined that the recent troop movement was a reinforcement or how they arrived at their troop estimates. Reuters reporters visited the areas surrounding multiple PLA bases in Hong Kong and observed significantly increased movements by troops and armored vehicles at the facilities.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, the State Council Information Office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters. In early September, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said China would “not sit idly by” if the situation in the city continued to deteriorate and posed a threat to “the country’s sovereignty.”

The office of Carrie Lam and the PLA garrison in Hong Kong also did not respond to questions. A Hong Kong police spokesperson told Reuters the police force was “capable of maintaining law and order and determined to restore public safety in Hong Kong.”

REVAMPING THE PARAMILITARY

The PAP is a key element in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s drive to reinforce the ruling Communist Party’s control over the nation of 1.4 billion people while building a potent military that can supplant the United States as Asia’s dominant power. The PAP has up to one million troops, according to an April research paper from the U.S.’s National Defense University – about half the size of China’s standing military. The paramilitary’s primary duty is to defend against potential enemies within – countering domestic upheaval and protecting top leaders. In recent years, it has contained unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Elements of this force are also trained for counter-terrorism, securing key infrastructure, disaster relief and international peacekeeping.

After installing himself as commander-in-chief and reshaping the regular military, Xi turned attention to the PAP. His first move was to take personal control. In early 2018, the PAP was brought under direct command of the Central Military Commission, the top military decision-making body that Xi chairs. Previously, the PAP had come under the split command of the commission and the State Council, China’s top government administrative body.

This put Xi at the apex of Beijing’s military and paramilitary forces, further concentrating power in his hands. With the eruption of the protests in Hong Kong, however, Xi now faces the biggest popular challenge to his rule.

News of the reinforcements in Hong Kong comes as city officials are bracing for more demonstrations on Tuesday, Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Intense clashes between protesters and police rocked the city over the weekend ahead of the celebrations.

In her private remarks in August, city Chief Executive Lam played down the possibility that Beijing might deploy the PLA. Foreign envoys and security analysts said they too believe China’s strong preference is not to use troops.

Still, they said, the troop build-up shows Beijing wants to be ready to act if the Hong Kong government and its 30,000-strong police force lose control of the city. Lam herself expressed concern about the force’s ability to keep control. On some days, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets. She said the police are “outnumbered” by the protesters, making enforcement “extremely difficult.”

“Apart from the 30,000 men and women in the force we have nothing,” she told the gathering of businesspeople. “Really. We have nothing. I have nothing.”

Until now, the PAP’s presence in Hong Kong has been limited to a small advance detachment nestled discreetly within existing PLA facilities, according to one of the diplomats. The new deployment marks the first significant entry of the PAP into Hong Kong. It wasn’t mentioned in official accounts of the rotation nor in the state-controlled press.

The combined deployment of the PLA and the PAP follows months of official statements denouncing the protests and dramatic signaling to Hong Kongers. This included news reports and footage showing anti-riot drills by both the PLA and the PAP, released by the military on social media. Last month, hundreds of PAP troops conducted extensive exercises in a football stadium in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Troops in the area could also be deployed to Hong Kong if the crisis deepened, foreign diplomats said.

ENFORCING XI’S ‘RED LINE’

The protests and street violence in Hong Kong erupted in early June, over a bill – since scrapped – that would have paved the way for people to be extradited to the mainland. The unrest came two years after Xi defined a “red line” for Hong Kong. He used the phrase in a 2017 speech in the city, warning that domestic threats to national sovereignty will not be tolerated.

Chinese security forces are better equipped to handle civil unrest than they were a generation ago. In 1989, it was the PLA that was sent in to smash student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It used the tools of war – battle tanks, armored vehicles and infantry.

In Hong Kong, the reinforcement includes equipment tailor-made for quelling urban violence with non-lethal force – including water cannon vehicles and trucks used to lay barbed-wire barricades. Additional transport helicopters have been moved into the city. Reuters reporters have seen these flying frequently around Hong Kong and its hinterlands, the New Territories, an observation confirmed by foreign envoys and security analysts monitoring developments here.

Other trucks, bearing military number plates, have been seen pre-loaded with street fortifications, at times moving about the city. Reuters reporters have tracked increased activity at many of the PLA’s 17 facilities across Hong Kong Island, its neighboring city of Kowloon and the rural New Territories. Most of these facilities were inherited by the PLA under agreement with the departing British forces during the 1997 handover.

Fatigues and other laundry can be seen hanging from the balconies of buildings that had lain dormant for years. Army buses and jeeps are parked in once-abandoned lots.

Some foreign analysts say China’s reinforced military presence was bigger than expected and appears to have been well-prepared. They say the size of the force means it is now far beyond the symbolic role traditionally played by the local garrison.

“They do seem to have an active contingency plan to deal with something like a total breakdown in order by the Hong Kong police,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I would think it would take something like that or some other worst-case scenario for them to deploy. But they are clearly more ready than before, and are leaving nothing to chance.”

So far, the expanded Chinese forces remain firmly within their barracks – a continuation of what has been an unobtrusive presence since the handover.

In 1997, trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers, some carrying flowers, rolled into Hong Kong within hours of Britain’s handover of its colony to Chinese rule. The sight sparked anxiety among politicians, activists and the public that still lingers. Beyond the occasional so-called open day, when the public gets access to the PLA barracks, the troops rarely interact with ordinary Hong Kongers.

Unlike forces on the mainland, soldiers within the Hong Kong garrison are not usually accompanied by their families. They are rarely allowed to socialize outside their bases; for news, they are given access to China’s state media.

“They live like monks,” said one Hong Kong-based mainland security specialist familiar with local PLA forces. “It is a vastly different deployment to anything on the mainland – almost akin to something they might experience on peacekeeping duties in Africa.”

The local Chinese security presence must be squared with handover guarantees that Hong Kong’s autonomy would remain for at least 50 years – including broad freedoms and an independent judiciary, which don’t exist in the rest of China.

Under the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, defense and foreign affairs are the sole responsibility of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. The document states that the PLA garrison “shall not interfere in local affairs,” but Hong Kong can request the garrison’s assistance to maintain public order. And garrison members must abide by local laws.

Chinese law, meanwhile, allows for the standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, to deploy the garrison if a state of war or emergency is declared for Hong Kong. The law cites “turmoil” that threatens national security and is “beyond the control of the (Hong Kong) government.”

ONE PRESENCE, TWO FORCES

The PLA garrison is commanded by Major-General Chen Daoxiang, who is shadowed by a political commissar, Major-General Cai Yongzhong. But neither officer, nor territory leader Lam, would have the authority to deploy the security forces. Any military clampdown on China’s freest and most international city would only be ordered by Xi’s powerful Central Military Commission, say local officials and foreign diplomats.

In June, garrison commander Chen told a visiting Pentagon official that Chinese troops would not interfere in the city’s affairs, according to people briefed on the discussion. U.S. officials at the time said they read the comment as an early signal that Beijing intended to keep them in their barracks.

Less is known about the command structure of the PAP forces in Hong Kong. Few residents of the city are even aware of their presence within existing PLA facilities.

From the early years of its revolutionary struggle against the Nationalists, the Chinese Communist Party fielded a range of paramilitary forces to guard the leadership and key headquarters. These forces assumed an internal security role after the Communists took power in 1949. The PAP was formed in 1982, as the paramount leader of the time, Deng Xiaoping, modernized and downsized the military after the Cultural Revolution. The PAP absorbed thousands of regular army troops.

Still, the PAP was poorly trained and equipped, with a fragmented command, when the 1989 Tiananmen protests threatened the party’s grip. China’s leaders had to call on army units to crush the protests with tanks and machine guns. The scenes of bloodshed on the streets of the Chinese capital were a blow to the party’s reputation. In the aftermath, the leadership reequipped and retrained the PAP in crowd-control operations.

Security analysts say the PAP’s budget has grown as the force has modernized, but figures are undisclosed. The government stopped revealing full domestic security spending numbers in 2014 – after the internal security budget had topped the fast-growing regular military budget for the previous three years.

In the restive region of Xinjiang, the PAP has been used heavily to counter what China describes as a terrorist threat from Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority. As many as a million Uighurs and Muslims from other ethnic groups have been incarcerated in prison camps, according to the United Nations. China counters that the facilities are vocational training centers to help stamp out religious extremism and teach new work skills.

“The PAP can be seen as a blunt instrument with the key function of suppressing domestic unrest,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired British defense ministry intelligence analyst who served as a Hong Kong security official until 1997. “Their role has been streamlined and their command sharpened under Xi.”

‘IT’S TOO RISKY’

The PAP also has been active in southern China, close to Hong Kong. PAP riot police have been sent to quell factory strikes and other labor unrest in the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s key manufacturing areas.

In 2011, before Xi came to power, PAP troops were deployed as part of the clampdown on Wukan. The southern coastal village drew international attention when residents threw up barricades against local authorities to protest land seizures. In a rare climbdown, the provincial government eventually dissolved the old village committee and allowed free elections. Many protest leaders were voted into office.

When fresh protests broke out in 2016, over a failure to resolve the land issues and other grievances, the PAP and other security forces were sent in again. This time, the response was harsher.

Video footage of the clashes was shown by villagers to a Reuters reporter who reached the area soon after the protests erupted. It showed locals hurling bricks at ranks of shield-carrying riot police. The troops used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. No deaths were reported. But a Reuters reporter on the scene observed several injured villagers, some with bloody head wounds.

In Hong Kong, Chinese military forces have been conducting anti-riot drills in their bases in recent weeks. Reuters reporters viewed one drill in late September from a public road near the PLA base in rural Tam Mei. They saw helmeted Chinese troops undergoing exercises, some armed with rifles, shields and batons. Inside the base were dozens of camouflaged armored personnel carriers, command jeeps, large bulldozers and trucks.

Reuters and foreign diplomats have also seen extra forces at the PLA headquarters in central Hong Kong, next to local government offices in the city’s Admiralty district. Protests have broken out repeatedly just meters from the PLA compound. Amid attempts by police to secure the area, protesters have at times hurled petrol bombs near the headquarters’ granite walls. Clouds of police tear gas have wafted into the compound.

So far, though, protesters haven’t targeted PLA bases directly, even as they have vandalized the national flag and other symbols of Chinese sovereignty.

“We don’t mess with the People’s Liberation Army,” said Leo Wong, a young protester, standing near the PLA headquarters during a late-September demonstration. “If we attacked the PLA, anything could happen. It’s too risky.”

(Reporting by Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

China says troops will defend Hong Kong’s prosperity ahead of planned pro-democracy march

Military vehicles of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) pass Huanggang Port for a routine troop rotation in Hong Kong, August 29, 2019. Xinhua via REUTERS

By Donny Kwok and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it described as a routine rotation of the garrison, days before protesters planned to hold a march calling for full democracy for the Chinese-ruled city after three months of demonstrations.

Chinese state media stressed the troop movement was routine and Asian and Western diplomats watching the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces in the former British colony had been expecting it.

Even so, the timing of the redeployment is likely to hit nerves in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region and has been hit by a wave of sometimes violent protests since June.

State news agency Xinhua said the military had completed a p rotation of air, land and maritime forces. It released pictures and footage of armored personnel carriers moving in convoy in Hong Kong before dawn, their lights flashing.

The PLA will make even greater contributions to maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, Xinhua cited its garrison in Hong Kong as saying.

Analysts estimate the garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong.

Trucks full of PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover which ended British rule, raising questions about their role. They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases.

Reuters witnesses on Thursday saw significantly more activity in and around the PLA’s Shek Kong military base in the rural New Territories than has been apparent in recent months.

About a dozen military jeeps inside the base could be seen just inside the base from a nearby public road, with several camouflaged soldiers milling about.

Four black civilian SUV’s drove between military buildings on a nearby hill road. Several larger green army trucks could be seen outside some buildings, flanked by guards.

Unrest in Hong Kong escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.

It has since evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula, which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary.

The protests have posed the biggest challenge for Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

China has denounced the protests and accused the United States and Britain of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong. It has sent clear warnings that forceful intervention is possible.

Hundreds of People’s Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong a day after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about their movements.

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People's Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said the timing of the troop rotation was similar to that of previous years to “meet the demands of defending Hong Kong”.

The protests have rattled Hong Kong’s business community, with Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> the biggest corporate casualty after Beijing demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who support, the demonstrations.

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) said Hong Kong faced an unprecedented test of the “one country, two systems” formula it has been ruled under since 1997.

“AmCham believes that Hong Kong still stands apart from its rivals in the region due to a combination of competitive advantages, including the rule of law, individual freedoms and its deep pool of talent,” it said in a statement.

“While these remain intact for now, they can no longer be taken for granted.”

‘CONFIDENT AND DETERMINED’

Defense Ministry spokesman Ren said the garrison troops would fulfill their obligation of defending Hong Kong according to the law and would follow the orders of the Communist Party.

They had the confidence, determination and capability to “protect and defend Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” he told a briefing in Beijing.

He did not answer a question on whether troop levels in Hong Kong had risen with the new deployment.

Ren said that the People’s Armed Police drills in Shenzhen were routine and that they conduct similar exercises every year.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous mass protests in Hong Kong, plans a rally from Hong Kong’s Central business district to Beijing’s main representative Liaison Office in the city on Saturday.

The group’s leader, Jimmy Sham, was attacked by two men armed with a knife and a baseball bat on Thursday, it said on its Facebook page. He was not hurt but a friend who tried to protect him suffered injuries to his arm.

Protesters targeted the Liaison Office, a symbol of Beijing’s rule, in July, daubing anti-China slogans on its walls and signs.

Police refused permission for the march on Thursday, but the group said it would appeal.

The protest would mark five years since Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong and comes as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, with all its pillars of growth under stress.

Beijing is eager to quell the unrest before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, when Xi will oversee a military parade in Beijing.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Greg Torode, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Nick Macfie, Editing by Robert Birsel and Angus MacSwan)

Clashes at Hong Kong airport after flights halted

Anti-government protesters gesture at police during clashes at the airport in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Tom Westbrook and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Police and protesters clashed at Hong Kong’s international airport on Tuesday evening after flights were disrupted for a second day and the political crisis in the former British colony deepened.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump said the Chinese government was moving troops to the border with Hong Kong and he urged calm.

Police confront anti-government protesters at the airport in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Police confront anti-government protesters at the airport in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

In a second day of unrest at the airport, thousands of black-clad protesters jammed the terminal, chanting, singing and waving banners.

Scuffles broke out after an injured person was taken out of the main terminal by medics after he was held by a group of protesters. Some activists claimed he was an undercover mainland Chinese police officer.

Several police vehicles were blocked by protesters and riot police moved in, pushing some protesters back and using pepper spray. A policeman pulled out a gun at one point.

Protesters also barricaded some passageways in the airport with luggage trolleys, metal barriers and other objects. At least two protesters were taken away by police.

Although the situation looked like it could erupt into serious violence, it calmed down after a few hours without a more forceful police intervention.

The action at the airport followed an unprecedented shutdown on Monday. Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said operations had been “seriously disrupted” on Tuesday and departing passengers had been unable to reach immigration counters.

The weeks of protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China and have swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that enshrined some autonomy for Hong Kong since China took it back from Britain in 1997.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters have roiled the Asian financial hub. Hong Kong’s stock market fell to a seven-month low on Tuesday.

The United Nations human rights commissioner, Michele Bachelet, urged Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and investigate evidence of their forces firing tear gas at protesters in ways banned under international law.

China responded by saying her comments sent the wrong signal to “violent criminal offenders”.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam made an appeal for calm and restraint.

“Take a minute to look at our city, our home,” she said,

her voice cracking, at a news conference in the newly-fortified government headquarters complex.

“Can we bear to push it into the abyss and see it smashed to pieces?” she said.

As she spoke, the benchmark Hang Seng index <.HSI> hit a seven-month low, shedding more than 2% and dragging down markets across Asia.

Demonstrators want Lam to resign. She says she will stay.

The events present Chinese President Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.

Hong Kong legal experts say Beijing might be paving the way to use anti-terrorism laws to try to quell the demonstrations. On Monday,

ANGRY PASSENGERS

“I think paralyzing the airport will be effective in forcing Carrie Lam to respond to us…it can further pressure Hong Kong’s economy,” said Dorothy Cheng, a 17-year-old protester.

As evening fell, protesters at the airport surrounded a man who they suspected to be a Chinese policeman. After an extended standoff when the man’s mainland Chinese identity card was taken and checked, medics and Hong Kong police entered the airport to take the man away, sparking the clashes.

Despite the trouble, some flights were still scheduled to take off early on Wednesday morning with some tourists still waiting in the departure hall and dining areas, according to Reuters journalists in the airport.

Some passengers challenged protesters over the delays as tempers began to fray.

Flag carrier Cathay Pacific said flights might still be canceled at short notice. The airline, whose British heritage makes it a symbol of Hong Kong’s colonial past, is also in a political bind.

China’s civil aviation regulator demanded that the airline suspend staff who joined or backed the protests from flights in its airspace, pushing the carrier’s shares past Monday’s 10-year low.

Other Chinese airlines have offered passengers wanting to avoid Hong Kong a free switch to nearby destinations, such as Guangzhou, Macau, Shenzhen or Zhuhai, with the disruption sending shares in Shenzhen Airport Co Ltd <000089.SZ> surging.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Greg Torode and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Singapore and Stella Qiu in Beijing; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan&rsquo;s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Iran, U.S. in war of words after U.S. drone shot down

FILE PHOTO: The Northrop Grumman-built Triton unmanned aircraft system completed its first flight from the company's manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California, U.S., May 22, 2013. US Navy/Northrop Grumman/Bob Brown/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi and Phil Stewart

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iran on Thursday shot down a U.S. military drone it said was on a spy mission over its territory but Washington said the aircraft was targeted in international air space in “an unprovoked attack”.

The incident fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East as U.S. President Donald Trump pursues a campaign of to isolate Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and role in regional wars.

It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May including explosive strikes on six oil tankers as Tehran and Washington have slid toward confrontation.

Iran has denied involvement in any of the attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than $3 to above $63 a barrel on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.

“When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.

Tensions flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade and Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

U.S. BEEFING UP MIDEAST FORCES

Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks.

Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.

A U.S. official said the drone was a U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton and that it had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf..

Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.

“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international air space,” Urban said. The drone, he added, was downed over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2335 GMT – in the early morning hours of local time in the Gulf.

The Islamic Republic’s Foreign Ministry insisted the drone had violated Iranian air space and warned of the consequences of such “illegal and provocative” measures.

Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.

A Iranian Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone’s identification transponder had been switched off “in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy” when it was downed, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported.

IRANIAN “RED LINE”

“Our air space is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our air space,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

The MQ-4C Triton’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, says on its website that the Triton can fly for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes higher than 10 miles (16 km), with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The Trump administration sought on Wednesday to rally global support for its pressure on Iran by displaying limpet mine fragments it said came from an oil tanker damaged in the June 13 attacks, saying the ordinance closely resembled mines publicly displayed in Iranian military parades.

European diplomats have said more evidence is needed to pinpoint responsibility for the tanker strikes.

SANCTIONS NOOSE

The U.S. sanctions net draped over Iran, scuttling its oil exports and barring it from the dollar-dominated global finance system, have hammered Iran’s economy, undoing the promise of trade rewards from the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump has sent forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops to the Middle East over the past few weeks. Iran said last week it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on American forces to leave the Gulf.

Tehran has also said it will shortly suspend compliance with the nuclear deal’s curbs on its uranium enrichment, meant to block any pathway to nuclear weapons capability, and threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

But Trump – who sees the nuclear deal as flawed to Iran’s advantage and requiring renegotiation – and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both said they have no interest in starting a war.

Heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions have also stoked concerns about increasing bloodshed in countries where Iran and its Saudi-led Gulf Arab regional rivals have long been locked in proxy battles for geopolitical dominance in the Middle East.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for uprising but military loyal to Maduro for now

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.

Early on Tuesday, several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas, and large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent. But by Tuesday afternoon an uneasy peace had returned and there was no indication that the opposition planned to take power through military force.

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota" in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase “La Carlota” in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that “as we understand it” Maduro had been ready to depart for socialist ally Cuba, but had been persuaded to stay by Russia, which has also been a steadfast supporter.

In a message posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday evening, Guaido told supporters to take to the streets once again on Wednesday. He reiterated his call for the armed forces to take his side and said Maduro did not have the military’s support.

“Today Venezuela has the opportunity to peacefully rebel against a tyrant who is closing himself in,” Guaido said.

Maduro appeared in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, among others.

“Today the goal was a big show,” Maduro said, referring to the military members who sided with Guaido as a “small group.” “Their plan failed, their call failed, because Venezuela wants peace.”

He said he had reinstated Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as the head of the Sebin intelligence agency, without providing details on the exit of Manuel Cristopher Figuera at the helm of the agency. Cristopher Figuera replaced Gonzalez Lopez at Sebin last year.

Other U.S. officials said three top Maduro loyalists – Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – had been in talks with the opposition and were ready to support a peaceful transition of power.

“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”

Flanked by uniformed men, Padrino said in a broadcast that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities,” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.

Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests.

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

BOLD, BUT RISKY, MOVE

Tuesday’s move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks sufficient support. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido early on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.

Human rights groups said 109 people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.

“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike.

In a video on his Twitter account, Guaido was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.

Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.

Oil prices topped $73 before easing, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by the U.S. sanctions and the economic crisis.

WHO BACKED WHO?

The crisis has pitted supporters of Guaido, including the United States, the European Union, and most Latin American nations, against Maduro’s allies, which include Russia, Cuba and China.

The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.

“This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.

But accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro. Neither provided evidence.

Trump threatened “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” on Cuba for its support of Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared “weak.”

Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.

The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue.

 

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Russia says it sent ‘specialists’ to Venezuela, rebuffs Trump

FILE PHOTO: A view of the city during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday it had sent “specialists” to Venezuela under a military cooperation deal but said they posed no threat to regional stability, brushing aside a call from U.S. President Donald Trump to remove all military personnel from the country.

Trump said on Wednesday that “all options” were open to make Russia pull troops out of Venezuela after two Russian air force planes landed outside Caracas on Saturday carrying nearly 100 Russian troops, according to media reports.

As Venezuela has descended into political turmoil this year, Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of President Nicolas Maduro while the United States backs the country’s opposition and has imposed sanctions.

Venezuela’s military attache in Moscow said on Thursday Russia had sent “servicemen” to Venezuela, but that they would not take part in military operations, Interfax news agency reported.

“The presence of Russian servicemen in Venezuela is linked to the discussion of cooperation in the military-technical sphere,” Jose Rafael Torrealba Perez was quoted as saying.

Speaking at a weekly news briefing on Thursday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the arrivals only as “Russian specialists”.

“Russia is not changing the balance of power in the region, Russia is not threatening anyone, unlike (officials) in Washington,” she told a weekly news briefing.

“Russian specialists have arrived in Venezuela in line with the provisions of a bilateral inter-government agreement on military-technical cooperation. No one canceled this document,” Zakharova said.

Russia and China have backed Maduro, while the United States and most other Western countries support opposition leader Juan Guaido.

In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro, who retains control of state functions and the country’s military, has said Guaido is a puppet of the United States.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump tells Russia to get its troops out of Venezuela

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Fabiana Rosales, wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Russia to pull its troops from Venezuela and said that “all options” were open to make that happen.

The arrival of two Russian air force planes outside Caracas on Saturday believed to be carrying nearly 100 Russian special forces and cybersecurity personnel has escalated the political crisis in Venezuela.

Russia and China have backed President Nicolas Maduro, while the United States and most other Western countries support opposition leader Juan Guaido. In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“Russia has to get out,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, where he met with Guaido’s wife, Fabiana Rosales.

Asked how he would make Russian forces leave, Trump said: “We’ll see. All options are open.”

Maduro, who retains control of state functions and the country’s military, has said Guaido is a puppet of the United States.

Russia has bilateral relations and agreements with Venezuela and Maduro that it plans to honor, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said on Twitter.

A spokeswoman for Russia&rsquo;s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said the United States should pull troops from Syria before telling Moscow to withdraw from Venezuela.

“Before giving advice to somebody to withdraw from somewhere, the United States should bring to life its own concept of exodus, particularly from Syria,” Zakharova said, speaking on Russia’s state Channel One, TASS agency quoted her as saying.

Venezuela’s economy is in tatters with food and medicine in short supply due to years of hyperinflation. In addition, citizens are now grappling with power blackouts that experts have blamed on years of neglect and maintenance.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, known as PDVSA, to try to cut off revenues to Maduro. Oil provides 90 percent of export revenue for Venezuela, an OPEC member. Trump has said tougher sanctions are still to come.

“TRYING TO BREAK OUR MORALE”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers on Wednesday that rebuilding after Maduro leaves office would be expensive.

“The day and week after is going to be a long process,” Pompeo said. “I’ve seen estimates between $6 (billion) and $12 billion to repair” the economy, he said.

The Trump administration has asked Congress for up to $500 million in foreign aid to help “support a democratic transition in Venezuela,” Pompeo said in written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At the White House, Rosales, Guaido’s wife, told Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that food shortages in Venezuela were hurting children.

“They are trying to break our morale. They want to submerge us in eternal darkness. But let me tell you that there is light, and the light is here,” said Rosales, a 26-year-old journalist and opposition activist.

Guaido was attacked on Tuesday, she told Trump. Upon leaving a National Assembly session, individuals threw stones at the vehicle Guaido was traveling in and tried to open its doors, according to a Reuters witness.

“I fear for my husband’s life,” said Rosales, who was accompanied by the wife and sister of Roberto Marrero, Guaido’s chief of staff, who was arrested and detained last week.

Rosales is slated to meet U.S. first lady Melania Trump in Palm Beach on Thursday on a swing through South Florida, home to the largest community of Venezuelan exiles in the United States.

Rosales also plans to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the Venezuelan diaspora at a prominent Washington think tank.

Pence praised Rosales for being “courageous.” “Our message very simply is: We’re with you,” Pence said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Michelle Nichols in New York, Andrey Ostrokh in Moscow, and Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Leslie Adler)