‘Very stressful’: COVID-19 surge slices U.S. demand for big Thanksgiving turkeys

By Tom Polansek and Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) – All summer, Greg Gunthorp slaughtered and froze 15- to 24-pound turkeys on his northeastern Indiana farm for Thanksgiving sales to retailers, restaurants and families across the Midwest.

But as surging COVID-19 cases prompted U.S. cities and states to urge Americans to stay home just weeks before the holiday, customers swapped out orders for whole birds for smaller turkey breasts.

As a last-minute shift toward small-scale celebrations upends demand for the star of Thanksgiving tables, turkey producers and retailers are scrambling to fill orders for lightweight birds and partial cuts.

“It was very stressful,” Gunthorp said. “It cut our numbers on being able to fill customer sizes that they wanted for turkeys – way too short.”

Gunthorp raised and sold nearly 7,000 pasture-raised turkeys this year, up 75% from a year ago. Restaurants and meat shops in major Midwestern cities, his primary clients, cut orders by 10% to 20%, but Gunthorp has made up the difference by partnering with online retailers, shipping turkeys as far away as Los Angeles.

Suppliers need to be nimble as about half of Americans plan to alter or skip traditional festivities due to local health advisories against big gatherings, according to market research firm Nielson. About 70% are planning a Thanksgiving with fewer than six people, compared with 48% last year.

Demand for smaller birds will trim turkey production to 1.445 billion pounds in the last quarter, down five million pounds from previous expectations, according to a Nov. 17 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have seen our supply chain adjust to market disruptions and shifting consumer needs,” said Beth Breeding, spokeswoman for the industry group National Turkey Federation. “Like the rest of the country, it has been a challenging year for turkey production.”

While best known for beef, Nebraska-based Omaha Steaks this year offered 3-pound turkey breasts for the first time to cater to smaller Thanksgiving gatherings, said Nate Rempe, president and chief operating officer. The pre-cooked product sold out online, as some consumers are avoiding grocery stores.

Omaha Steaks also sold out of 10-pound turkeys earlier than usual, Rempe said.

“The number of individual Thanksgiving meals being prepared … is going to be much higher because of the separation of gatherings,” he said.

Butterball, the largest U.S. producer of turkey products, shipped 1,900 truckloads of whole turkeys to grocers in the past two weeks, said Al Jansen, executive vice president of marketing and sales. Many major chains booked orders in the first quarter before the coronavirus outbreak, he added.

Retailers have slashed whole-turkey prices by about 7% to an average of $1.21 per pound, the lowest since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That cuts the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people by 4% to $46.90, Farm Bureau said.

The decline is welcome news for the nearly 24 million households facing empty cupboards due to COVID-19-related job losses. Food insecurity has nearly tripled since the pandemic began, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“Thanksgiving will not be a holiday that all Americans can enjoy this year,” said Joseph Llobrera, research director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Alarming levels of food hardship will last through the holidays and beyond unless policymakers immediately provide robust COVID relief.”

Some Americans who had relied on others to cook on Thanksgiving are ordering part or all of their meals from restaurants for the first time. Others simply do not want the hassle of preparing a feast for just a few guests.

“Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year, and we know there’s a lot of cooking fatigue out there right now,” said Tracy Hostetler, a vice president for Perdue Farms. The company launched turkey “ThanksNuggets” as an alternative to traditional turkey dinners.

In Houston, independent marketing consultant Anh Nguyen, 50, will dine with about 10 relatives on a smoked turkey from a local restaurant. Normally, three times as many of her family members gather to gobble up two 20-pound turkeys cooked at home.

“It’s a little weird,” said Nguyen. “Thanksgiving has been historically just one of the holidays where everybody is together.”

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper and Tom Polansek; Editing by Richard Chang)

Nagorno-Karabakh says its two largest cities under fierce attack

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – Three residents of Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city were killed during overnight shelling by Azeri forces, the enclave’s ethnic Armenian-controlled Emergency and Rescue Service said on Friday, as the battle for control of its major settlements intensified.

Azerbaijan denied the reports of shelling in Stepanakert. Two independent observers said fighting appeared to be moving deeper into the enclave, with Azeri troops stepping up attacks on its biggest two cities.

At least 1,000 people – and possibly many more – have died in nearly six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

The conflict has underlined the influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a former Soviet region long dominated by Moscow, which has a defense pact with Armenia. It also threatens the security of Azeri oil and gas pipelines.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Emergency and Rescue Service said residential buildings and public infrastructure in Stepanakert had been targeted. It said that the three people killed had been inside the same house.

Reuters was unable independently to verify these reports. Three sources working in Stepanakert said that the city – known in Azerbaijan as Khankendi – had come under heavy shelling late on Thursday.

Shushi, 15 km (9 miles) to the south and the enclave’s second-largest city, had also come under bombardment overnight and several houses were on fire, the Emergency and Rescue Service said. The city is of strategic importance to both sides.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said allegations that it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”.

It has previously accused Armenian-controlled forces of shelling cities under its control, including Terter and Barda, as well as Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan. Dozens were killed in those attacks.

Thomas de Waal, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, said the conflict appeared to be moving toward a potentially bloody battle for Shushi, known to Azeris as Shusha.

“Shusha has great importance for Azerbaijanis, as a cultural and historical center and the town where they had a majority population before the war,” de Waal told Reuters.

“That is almost certainly why their military operation was diverted from Lachin towards the city,” he said. “It has great importance for Armenians too: it sits above Stepanakert and is the site of Karabakh’s cathedral.”

BROKEN CEASEFIRES

Three ceasefires have failed to halt the bloodiest fighting in the South Caucasus for more than 25 years. Both sides accused each other of launching attacks within hours of an agreement on Oct. 30 to avoid deliberately targeting civilians.

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry said combat operations continued overnight along all major sections of the front line. It said that “multiple attempts” to attack Shushi were repelled.

Olesya Vartanyan, Crisis Group’s Tbilisi-based senior analyst for the South Caucasus, told Reuters that fighting near Shushi had “been intensifying during the last week, with more face-to-face clashes closer to the town”.

“The side that controls Shushi automatically gains control over Stepanakert,” she said. “Even if Baku decides to stop the war after taking Shushi, this will still significantly decrease the chance of ethnic Armenians returning to their homes in Stepanakert.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry says 1,177 of its troops have been killed. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, while Russia has estimated 5,000 deaths on both sides.

Around 30,000 people were killed in the 1991-94 war.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Alex Richardson)

New clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh; Pompeo says Turkey makes situation worse

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenian and Azeri forces fought new clashes on Friday, defying hopes of ending nearly three weeks of fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Turkey for inflaming the situation by arming the Azeris.

The worst outbreak of violence in the South Caucasus since Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the enclave in the 1990s, the fighting risks creating a humanitarian disaster, especially if it draws in Russia and Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

Turkey has increased military exports six fold this year to its close ally Azerbaijan. Russia, is close to both sides but has a defense pact with Armenia. News agency RIA reported the Russian navy had started planned military exercises in the Caspian Sea.

(Graphic: Ethnic tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, https://graphics.reuters.com/ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN/xklpyqoddpg/armenia-azerbaijan-2020_ethnic.jpg)

There were further signs on Friday that a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreed last Saturday to allow the sides to swap detainees and the bodies of those killed had all but broken down.

Armenia and Azerbaijan each accused the other of launching attacks, and each said it had the upper hand.

Armenian defense ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said Azerbaijan had conducted artillery bombardments of Nagorno-Karabakh from the north, “with total disregard for the humanitarian truce”. He added that Azeri forces had been repelled and had suffered significant losses.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Nagorno-Karabakh forces had been forced to retreat and Azeri forces retained the advantage along the line of contact that divides the sides.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Baku also accused Yerevan of a missile attack on Ordubad in Nakhchivan autonomous province, a region which belongs to Azerbaijan but is surrounded by Armenia and Iran. Armenia denied such an attack.

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry reported 29 more military casualties, bringing to 633 the number of servicemen killed since fighting broke out on Sept. 27. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties. The Azeri prosecutor-general’s office said 47 civilians had been killed and 222 wounded.

U.S. CRITICISM OF TURKEY

The hostilities, close to pipelines in Azerbaijan that carry gas and oil to global markets, are stoking concern in Europe and the United States that Turkey and Russia, already at loggerheads over Syria and Libya, will be dragged in.

Pompeo said Turkey had worsened the conflict by providing resources to Azerbaijan. A diplomatic resolution was needed, rather than “third-party countries coming in to lend their firepower to what is already a powder keg of a situation,” he said in an interview with broadcaster WSB Atlanta.

Ankara accuses Armenia of illegally occupying Azeri territory. Armenia says Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan to pursue a military solution to the conflict, putting Armenian civilians in danger.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan had spoken by phone with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, asking the international community to “neutralize” Azeri actions which he said posed “an existential danger of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh”.

Meanwhile Iran tweeted that its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had offered the Azeri side Teheran’s help with the peace process.

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

The conflict between the two former Soviet republics threatens to further damage their economies, already hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and, in Azerbaijan’s case, weak oil prices.

With 43,280 COVID-19 cases, Azerbaijan said it would close secondary schools and shut the underground rail system in the capital Baku between Oct. 19 and Nov. 2.

Armenia said on Friday its caseload had risen to 61,460.

In projections drafted before fighting started, the World Bank predicted Armenia’s economy would shrink 6.3% this year, while expecting Azerbaijan to contract 4.2%.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises

By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Hopes of a humanitarian ceasefire ending fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh sank further on Thursday as the death toll mounted and Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of launching new attacks.

Armenia accused Turkey of blocking flights carrying emergency aid from using its airspace, and Azerbaijan’s president warned of “new victims and new bloodshed” from fighting over the mountain enclave that broke out on Sept. 27.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia “halt attempts to capture liberated territories back” and said his country would take all regions of Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia “acts negatively.”

Last Saturday’s ceasefire, aimed at letting the sides swap detainees and bodies of those killed in the clashes, has had little impact on the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

In the deadliest flare-up since a 1990s war killed about 30,000 people, 604 Nagorno-Karabakh defense personnel have been killed, ethnic Armenian authorities say.

On Thursday, three Azeri civilians were killed and three were wounded during a funeral in Azerbaijan’s Terter region when an artillery shell fell on a cemetery, presidential aid Hikmet Hajiyev said on Twitter.

That would add to Azeri estimates provided on Wednesday that 43 civilians had so far been killed. Baku does not disclose military casualties. The prosecutor’s office said earlier on Thursday that two civilians had been wounded in shelling of the Aghdam area.

The Armenian prosecutor-general’s office said Azeri drones had killed two soldiers in the Vardenis region of Armenia on Wednesday, raising the Armenian military death toll to five. The servicemen were not involved in military action, it said.

A tweet from Nagorno-Karabakh’s ombudsman accused Azerbaijan of using heavy rockets to target civilian infrastructure in the town of Stepanakert.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS

International organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have warned that the conflict, coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, could leave tens of thousands of people in need of aid over coming months.

Zareh Sinanyan, Armenian High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, said the delivery of 100 tonnes of aid from the United States was being delayed as Turkey had prohibited Armenia-bound humanitarian aid flights over its airspace.

Armenia’s civil aviation committee was told on Wednesday the Qatar Airways flight from Los Angeles was cancelled but gave no reasons, said the committee’s head, Tatevik Revazyan.

“We have grounds to claim that Turkey closed the air route deliberately,” Revazyan told Reuters, adding alternative routes over Russia or Georgia were being sought.

Turkey’s foreign ministry, which handles airspace issues, was not immediately available to comment.

Aside from humanitarian concerns, fears are growing of Russia and Turkey being sucked in. Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, data shows, and Armenia has a defense pact with Russia.

In a phone call on Wednesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about the participation of Middle East fighters in the conflict, though Turkey and Azerbaijan deny the presence of such fighters.

The fighting is also close to Azeri pipelines which carry natural gas and oil to international markets. Aliyev accused Armenia on Wednesday of trying to attack the pipelines, a charge that Armenia denied.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Humanitarian crisis feared as Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire buckles

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other on Tuesday of violating a ceasefire agreed three days ago to quell fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, drawing warnings from international groups of a humanitarian crisis in the region.

The Russia-brokered truce is buckling despite mounting calls from world powers to halt the fighting, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minsk Group security watchdog among those urging greater commitment to the ceasefire terms.

A Reuters cameraman witnessed shelling in the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed and populated by ethnic Armenians.

A Reuters television crew in Terter in Azerbaijan also said the city center was being shelled earlier on Tuesday.

Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of “grossly violating the humanitarian truce”, which was agreed on Saturday to allow the sides to swap prisoners and bodies of those killed..

Defense ministry spokesman Vagif Dargiahly said Armenia was shelling the Azeri territories of Goranboy and Aghdam, as well as Terter. Azeri forces were not violating the truce, he added.

Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan denied the accusation. She said Azeri forces had resumed military operations after an overnight lull, “supported by active artillery fire in the southern, northern, northeastern and eastern directions”.

The fighting which erupted on Sept. 27, is the worst since a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed about 30,000.

It is being closely watched abroad, not only due to its proximity to Azeri energy pipelines to Europe but also because of fears that Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.

Russia has a defense pact with Armenia and Turkey is allied with Azerbaijan.

“CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES”

The Minsk Group called on the Armenian and Azeri leaders to immediately implement the ceasefire to prevent “catastrophic consequences for the region”.

The 11-member group includes both Russia and Turkey, but the latter is not involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested holding talks that would include Turkey.

Ceasefire demands were “reasonable,” according to Cavusoglu, but he said the international community should ask Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory.

“Sadly no such call is being made,” he told reporters.

Influential Turkish politician Devlet Bahceli, whose party supports President Erdogan’s AKP in parliament, took a more belligerent note, telling Azerbaijan to secure Nagorno-Karabakh by “hitting Armenia over the head over and over again.”

While Turkey denies military involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian told Germany’s Bild newspaper Ankara’s behavior was worrying.

“I worry because, firstly, there is a third party involved. If it were only about Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, I would be much more hopeful that the conflict can be contained,” he said.

DEAD AND WOUNDED

The death toll has risen further, meanwhile. Nagorno-Karabakh officials said 542 servicemen had been killed so far, up 17 from Monday.

Azerbaijan has reported 42 Azeri civilian deaths and 206 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed military casualties.

Martin Schuepp, Eurasia regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said his organization was in “continuous discussions” to facilitate the handover of detainees or bodies of those killed.

But the security situation meant “it has not been possible for us to access all locations that might have been affected,” Schuepp said.

The conflict is also worsening the spread of COVID-19, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a United Nations briefing in Geneva.

Armenia’s new cases had doubled over the past 14 days as of Monday, while new infections were up approximately 80% over the past week in Azerbaijan, Jasarevic said. He warned of “direct disruption to health care and a further burden on health systems that are already stretched during the COVID pandemic.”

With tens of thousands of people potentially needing help in coming months, the ICRC is appealing for another 9.2 million Swiss francs ($10.10 million) to fund its humanitarian efforts in the region, Schuepp said.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Riham Alkousaa in Berlin, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Giles Elgood, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire strained by new fighting reports

By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces accused each other on Monday of launching new attacks in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, increasing strains on a two-day old humanitarian ceasefire intended to end heavy fighting over the mountain enclave.

Russia, which brokered the ceasefire, appealed for both sides to respect it and Luxembourg reiterated European Union calls for Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, to do more to secure an end to hostilities that have killed hundreds of people.

The fighting, the deadliest over Nagorno-Karabakh in over 25 years, is being watched closely abroad partly because of the proximity of the fighting to Azeri gas and oil pipelines and the risk of regional powers Turkey and Russia being dragged in.

Both Ankara and Moscow are under growing pressure to use their influence in the region to end the fighting.

The humanitarian ceasefire is meant to allow ethnic Armenian forces and Azerbaijan to swap prisoners and bodies of people killed in two weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed and populated by ethnic Armenians.

But the ceasefire has frayed quickly. Azerbaijan said on Sunday it launched airstrikes against an Armenian regiment, following what it said was an Armenian rocket attack on an apartment building. Armenia denied carrying out such an attack.

On Monday, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Armenian forces had tried to attack its positions around the Aghdere-Aghdam and Fizuli-Jabrail regions, and were shelling territories in the Goranboy, Terter and Aghdam regions inside Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh said its forces had inflicted losses on Azeri forces and that large-scale military operations were continuing in the Hadrut area of the mountain enclave.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia, was monitoring the events and asked Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces to respect the ceasefire.

APPEALS TO TURKEY

Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Armenia’s foreign minister, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. He accused Azerbaijan of acting to expand Turkey’s influence in the region and of using pro-Turkish mercenaries – charges Ankara has denied.

Accusing Azerbaijan of ceasefire violations, Mnatsakanyan said: “We want the ceasefire, we want verification mechanisms on the ground, which will indicate the perpetrator, which will demonstrate the party, which is not faithful to this ceasefire.”

Speaking before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, urged Turkey to do more to end the latest flare-up of the decades-old conflict.

“Turkey has not called for a truce yet, and I believe they are completely wrong with this position,” Asselborn said.

“I think the message from Luxembourg will be a call on Turkey, a NATO member, to help arrange a ceasefire quickly.”

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev repeated calls for Turkey, which has voiced strong support for Azerbaijan since the fighting began, to be involved in peacemaking. Mediation has for years been led by France, Russia and the United States.

“Even if many Western countries do not want to accept it, Turkey’s word is big, it’s fully independent,” he said.

The renewed fighting is the worst since a 1994 ceasefire ended a war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed at least 30,000.

Azerbaijan said 41 Azeri civilians had been killed and 207 wounded in the fighting since Sept. 27. Azerbaijan has not disclosed information about military casualties.

Nagorno-Karabakh has said 429 of its servicemen and more than 20 civilians have been killed in the fighting.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Writing by Sujata Rao, Editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

Assad blames Turkey for Nagorno-Karabakh fighting, Russia sees ‘terrorism’ risk

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan of being the main instigator in the deadliest fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces for more than 25 years.

In an interview published on Tuesday that is likely to exacerbate international frictions over the clashes in the South Caucasus, Assad also said militants from Syria were being deployed to the conflict area.

Turkey has denied involvement in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave that belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but is governed by ethnic Armenians, and has dismissed accusations that it sent mercenaries to the area.

But Assad told Russian news agency RIA: “He (Erdogan) … was the main instigator and the initiator of the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia.”

Reiterating accusations first levelled by French President Emmanuel Macron that Turkey has sent Syrian jihadists to fight in the conflict, Assad said: “Damascus can confirm this.”

Assad appeared to offer no evidence for his allegation. Ankara, which backs rebels trying to oust him, did not respond immediately but has described similar accusations as part of attempts by Armenia to create “dark propaganda” about Turkey.

The fighting that broke out on Sept. 27 has increased concern that a wider conflict could be triggered, dragging in Turkey, which has expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

The head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, underlined Moscow’s concerns by warning that Nagorno-Karabakh could become a launch pad for “international terrorist organisations” to enter Russia and other countries.

But Russian news agency TASS also quoted him as saying in a statement that he expected Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to the negotiating table.

LONG-RUNNING CONFLICT

The fighting is the latest in a decades-old conflict that is closely watched abroad, partly because of Nagorno-Karabakh’s proximity to pipelines that carry Azeri gas and oil to Europe.

Nearly 300 people have been reported killed – and many more are feared dead – in the worst fighting since a 1991-94 war that killed about 30,000.

Azerbaijan says Azeri cities outside Nagorno-Karabakh have been struck, and both sides say the other has hit civilian areas. Each denies targeting civilians.

Armenia’s defence ministry said the situation was now “relatively calm”, but it remained tense. The Azeri defence ministry told the army to be ready to launch “large-scale” strikes on military infrastructure if Armenia fired short-range Russian-made Iskander missiles.

Nagorno-Karabakh said 244 of its servicemen and 19 civilians had been killed since Sept. 27 and many more have been wounded.

The Azeri prosecutor’s office said 27 Azeri civilians had been killed in the renewed fighting. Azerbaijan has not provided details of its military casualties.

Ceasefire appeals led by the United States, Russia and France, which have for years led mediation efforts, have failed to halt the fighting.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a visit to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, on Tuesday that international peace efforts had achieved no concrete results in decades and a ceasefire alone would not end the fighting.

“The whole world now needs to understand this cannot go on like this,” Cavusoglu said after talks with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who hailed Turkey’s support and Ankara’s “stabilising role in the region.”

Armenia has said it will engage with Washington, Paris and Moscow on peace moves. Azerbaijan says Armenia must set a timetable to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azeri territories, and wants Turkey involved in peace efforts.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, and Alexander Marrow and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood)

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

By Stephanie Nebehay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Hagia Sophia becomes mosque after court ruling

By Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque…to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Erdogan had earlier proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th Century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court in Ankara, said in its ruling.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH EXPRESSES REGRET

The association which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He is due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), his head of communications said.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument’s ancient Christian iconography.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.

Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Turkey turns to medical diplomacy to heal damaged relations

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Emblazoned with Turkish flags and presidential seals, crates packed with medical equipment are loaded onto planes, part of a major aid campaign by Ankara which has dispatched supplies to dozens of countries since the new coronavirus pandemic erupted.

“There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness,” says a message on every shipment – a line from 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, which looks to better days not just in the battle against COVID-19 but also for Turkey’s fraught diplomacy.

With its relations with NATO allies in Europe and the United States darkened by disputes over Russian missile defenses, human rights, and Western sanctions on Iran, Turkey hopes the virus crisis is an opportunity to soothe recent tensions.

Despite battling one of the world’s biggest coronavirus outbreaks at home – where the death toll now exceeds 3,700 -, Turkey has sent medical aid to 61 countries, including the United States, Spain, Italy, France, and Britain.

By its own calculations, Ankara has been the world’s third-biggest aid distributor during the outbreak, sending face masks, protective suits, testing kits, disinfectant, and respirators.

In a letter to President Donald Trump sent with one shipment, President Tayyip Erdogan said he hoped the “spirit of solidarity” Turkey had shown would help U.S. politicians “better understand the strategic importance of our relations”.

Ankara faces potential U.S. sanctions over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, which it bought last year but has not yet fully deployed. Despite the threat of sanctions, it says the systems will ultimately be activated.

On Saturday, Erdogan also called on the European Union to increase its cooperation with Turkey in light of the support Ankara provided member states during the outbreak. “I hope the EU now understands that we are all in the same boat,” he said.

Turkey remains a candidate for EU membership but the process has long stalled amid disputes over Turkey’s human rights record, the handling of Syrian refugees, and gas exploration around Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the aid initiative had lifted the mood with Washington.

“Has there been a positive atmosphere after the latest aid Turkey sent? Yes, and there is a positive atmosphere in the eyes of the (U.S.) public too,” Cavusoglu said, adding however that “the core problems with the United States still persist”.

Turkish aid shipments were also sent to Libya, Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Russia, the Balkans and to China, where the new coronavirus first emerged.

Turkey says it has also sent aid to Israel, despite tensions over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem. Both sides expelled their top diplomats in 2018.

Turkey has sent aid to 15 countries in Africa, where it is seeking to expand influence and commercial ties.

Not all aid shipments have gone smoothly. A commercial shipment of ventilators to Spain was delayed over export licenses. Another commercial shipment of 400,000 protective suits to Britain was criticized after some failed quality checks, but both Ankara and London said that was not a government-to-government shipment, and that there had been no problem with aid sent directly by Turkey.

While the diplomatic outreach may have brought a change of tone to some of Ankara’s troubled international relations, analysts say lasting results are unlikely without concrete steps to address fundamental differences.

“No amount of goodwill, no amount of medical diplomacy will alter the negative repercussions that Turkey’s deployment of the S-400s has produced in Washington,” said Fadi Hakura, consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

“If Turkey wants to curry favor with Washington, it has to terminate the S-400s.”

Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, said Turkey’s differences with the EU would also not be resolved overnight.

“While some countries have welcomed Turkish aid, Ankara’s problems with its neighbors and Western allies are too serious to be resolved by a few symbolic steps,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler and Gareth Jones)