Trump hopes to decide soon on when to release Mideast peace plan: envoy

FILE PHOTO - Jason Greenblatt (C), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, arrives to visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just outside the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump hopes to decide soon on when to release a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that “will not be ambiguous,” his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt told the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.

Greenblatt and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner have spent two years developing the plan, made up of political as well as economic components, which they hope will provide a framework for renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“President Trump has not yet decided when we will release the political portion of the plan, and we hope to make that decision soon,” Greenblatt told the 15-member Security Council.

While Greenblatt did not reveal any details of the “60-or-so”-page plan, he said the conflict could not be solved using global consensus, international law and references to U.N. resolutions – sparking strong rebuttals from council members.

“For us, international law is not menu a la carte,” Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen told the council.

“There are other instances where U.S. representatives here insist on international law, insist on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, for instance on North Korea,” Heusgen said.

Several council members, including Russia, Britain, France and Indonesia, echoed Heusgen.

“Security Council resolutions are international law, they merely need to be complied with,” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.

France would support any peace effort “so long as this aligns with the approach that we have set out together, so long as this adheres to international law, specifically all resolutions of the Security Council,” French U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said.

The U.S.’ Middle East proposal has two major components – a political piece that addresses core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, and an economic portion that aims to strengthen the Palestinian economy.

Kushner and Greenblatt have not said, however, whether it calls for a two-state solution, a goal of past peace efforts.

“A comprehensive and lasting peace will not be created by fiat of international law or by these heavily wordsmithed, unclear resolutions,” Greenblatt said. “The vision for peace that we plan to present will not be ambiguous, unlike many resolutions that have passed in this chamber.”

He said it would provide enough detail for people to see “what compromises will be necessary to achieve a realistic, lasting, comprehensive solution to this conflict.”

Greenblatt called on the Palestinians “to put aside blanket rejections of a plan they have not even seen” and show a willingness to engage in talks with Israel. He also urged the Security Council to encourage the parties back to the negotiating table.

Nebenzia suggested a visit by the Security Council to the region was overdue and could be helpful. The United States has long objected to a council visit, which has to be agreed by consensus, diplomats said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Paul Simao and G Crosse)

Evidence suggests Saudi crown prince liable for Khashoggi murder: U.N. expert

FILE PHOTO: Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman is seen during the Arab Summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials should be investigated over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi since there is credible evidence they are liable for his death, a U.N. rights investigator said on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the investigator’s report as “nothing new”.

He added in a tweet: “The report of the rapporteur in the human rights council contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

Khashoggi’s killing provoked widespread disgust and damaged the image of the crown prince, previously admired in the West for pushing deep changes including tax reform, infrastructure projects and allowing women to drive.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, called on countries to invoke universal jurisdiction for what she called the international crime and make arrests if individuals’ responsibility is proven.

In a report based on a six-month investigation, she also urged countries to widen sanctions to include the crown prince, who many consider the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and his personal assets abroad, until and unless he can prove he has no responsibility.

Khashoggi, a critic of the prince and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding.

His body was dismembered and removed from the building, the Saudi prosecutor has said, and his remains have not been found.

“What needs to be investigated is the extent to which the crown prince knew or should have known of what would have happened to Mr. Khashoggi, whether he directly or indirectly incited the killing…whether he could have prevented the execution when the mission started and failed to do so,” Callamard told reporters.

“It is the conclusion of the Special Rapporteur that Mr. Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law,” Callamard said in her report.

PROSECUTOR

The Saudi public prosecutor indicted 11 unnamed suspects in November, including five who could face the death penalty on charges of ordering and committing the crime.

Callamard said the Saudi trial should be suspended, citing concerns over secret hearings and a potential miscarriage of justice. Instead, a follow-up international criminal probe should be launched, she said, adding: “Of course there are a range of options, an ad hoc tribunal, a hybrid tribunal, any type of mechanism that will deliver a credible process and a credible outcome.”

The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

The U.N. report publishes excerpts from what it calls conversations inside the consulate shortly before Khashoggi arrived at the building and during his final moments, in which a Saudi official is heard discussing cutting a body into pieces.

The material relies on recordings and forensic work by Turkish investigators and information from the trials of the suspects in Saudi Arabia, the report said. Callamard said that she could not reach firm conclusions about what the team was told was the sound of a “saw” in the operation.

“Assessments of the recordings by intelligence officers in Turkey and other countries suggest that Mr. Khashoggi could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag,” the report said.

Callamard went to Turkey earlier this year with a team of forensic and legal experts and said she received evidence from Turkish authorities.

“There is credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s”, she said.

“Indeed, this human rights inquiry has shown that there is sufficient credible evidence regarding the responsibility of the crown prince demanding further investigation,” she added, urging U.N. Secretary-General to establish an international probe.

Asked if universal jurisdiction meant potential arrests of suspects abroad, Callamard said: “If and when the responsibility of those individuals has been proven, including the responsibilities of a level that warrant arrest, absolutely.”

Judicial authorities in countries that recognize universal jurisdiction for serious offenses can investigate and prosecute those crimes no matter where they were committed.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Stephen Kalin and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Editing by Andrew Heavens and William Maclean)

Bowing to U.S. demands, U.N. to remove phrase seen as code for abortion on sexual violence in conflict

Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad listen to Denis Mukwege speaking at the United Nations Security Council during a meeting about sexual violence in conflict in New York, New York, U.S., April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A U.S. threat to veto U.N. Security Council action on sexual violence in conflict was averted on Tuesday after a long-agreed phrase was removed because President Donald Trump’s administration sees it as code for abortion, diplomats said.

A German-drafted resolution was adopted after a reference was cut referring to the need for U.N. bodies and donors to give timely “sexual and reproductive health” assistance to survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

The U.S. veto threat was the latest in a string of policy reversals that some U.N. diplomats say has been driven by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian who staunchly opposes abortion rights.

Pence was not involved in directing U.S. diplomats during the negotiations, a White House aide said, but added that the adopted text “ended up in a place that is closer in line with the White House’s priorities.”

Acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen did not speak after the council vote.

After the vote French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the 15-member body: “It is intolerable and incomprehensible that the Security Council is incapable of acknowledging that women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict – and who obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant – should have the right to terminate their pregnancy.”

The language promoting sexual and reproductive health is long-agreed internationally, including in resolutions adopted by the Security Council in 2009 and 2013 and several resolutions adopted annually by the 193-member General Assembly.

The text adopted on Tuesday simply reaffirms the council’s commitment to the 2009 and 2013 resolutions. A reference to the work of the International Criminal Court in fighting the most serious crimes against women and girls was also watered-down to win over Washington, which is not a member of the institution.

RUSSIA, CHINA ABSTAIN

Before the vote, Cohen told the Security Council: “None of us can turn our backs on this issue.”

“It requires the engagement of all member states and of the United Nations to support the efforts of those fighting to protect women, provide accountability, and support survivors,” Cohen said.

Thirteen council members voted in favor of the resolution, while Russia and China abstained over a number of concerns – including a German push for expanded U.N. monitoring of sexual violence in conflict – and even circulated their own rival draft text, which they did not put to a vote.

“Please do not even try to paint us as opponents of the fight against sexual violence in conflict. Our stance on this issue remains firm and unyielding, this scourge has to be eliminated,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.

The council voted after hearing briefings from Nobel Peace Prize winners Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who was held as a sex slave by Islamic State militants, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, who treats rape victims, Libyan rights activist Inas Miloud, and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

The Trump administration cut U.S. funding in 2017 for the U.N. Population Fund because it “supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” The United Nations said that was an inaccurate perception.

In 2018 the administration unsuccessfully tried to remove language on sexual and reproductive health from several General Assembly resolutions, then failed in a similar campaign last month during the annual U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington’; Editing by Susan Thomas and Howard Goller)

U.N. urges resolving fate of 2,500 foreign children at Syria camp

Women stand in line to get fuel at al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – A senior United Nations relief official called on governments on Thursday to help resolve the fate of 2,500 foreign children being held among 75,000 people at al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria after fleeing Islamic State’s last stronghold.

“Children should be treated first and foremost as victims. Any solutions must be decided on the basis of the best interest of the child,” Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, told a Geneva briefing.

Solutions must be found “irrespective of children’s age, sex or any perceived family affiliation”, he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Russia, Iran and Turkey agree on Syria constitutional body, call for talks

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on forming a constitutional committee in Syria at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) – The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey said on Tuesday that a new Syrian Constitutional Committee should convene early next year, kicking off a viable political peace process.

In a joint statement read out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the trio met U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, they said that the work of the new body “should be governed by a sense of compromise and constructive engagement”.

De Mistura stayed away from their press event and was to address reporters separately.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Yemen’s warring parties agree to Hodeidah ceasefire at end of peace talks

Head of Houthi delegation Mohammed Abdul-Salam (R) and Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yaman (2 L) shake hands next to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom (L), during the Yemen peace talks closing press conference at the Johannesberg castle in Rimbo, near Stockholm December 13, 2018. TT News Agency/Pontus Lundahl via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT.

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Johan Sennero

RIMBO, Sweden (Reuters) – Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a ceasefire in the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah and placing it under local control at the close of talks on Thursday in a breakthrough for U.N.-led peace efforts to end the war.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that a framework for political negotiations would be discussed at the next round of talks between the Iranian-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Western nations, some of which supply arms and intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015, have pressed the two sides to agree confidence-building steps to pave the way for a wider truce and a political process to end the war that has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed Yemen to the verge of starvation.

The Houthis control most population centers including the capital Sanaa, from where they ousted Hadi’s government in 2014. It is now based in the southern port of Aden.

“You have reached an agreement on Hodeidah port and city, which will see a mutual re-deployment of forces from the port and the city, and the establishment of a Governorate-wide ceasefire,” Guterres said.

“The UN will play a leading role in the port,” he told a news conference in Rimbo, outside Stockholm.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths said armed forces of both parties would withdraw “within days” from Hodeidah port, the main entrypoint for most of Yemen’s commercial imports and vital aid supplies, and later from the city, where coalition troops have massed on the outskirts.

The withdrawal of armed forces would also include Salif port, used for grains, and that of Ras Isa, used for oil, which are both currently under Houthi control.

BREAKTHROUGH

“This is a minor breakthrough. They have been able to achieve more than anyone expected,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula at International Crisis Group.

“Saudi Arabia has taken a firmer hand with the Hadi government, which has in turn been more cooperative.”

Riyadh has come under increased Western scrutiny over the Yemen war and its activities in the region following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in October.

The Sunni Muslim Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi’s government but has been bogged down in a military stalemate for years and wants to exit the costly war.

“Important political progress made including the status of Hodeida,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted.

He attributed the “significant breakthrough” to pressure brought on the Houthis by the offensive on Hodeidah, the group’s main supply line.

Guterres said the parties had made “real progress” and that the United Nations would pursue pending issues “without interruption”.

His envoy had also been seeking agreement on reopening Sanaa airport and shoring up the impoverished Arab country’s central bank. Most basic commodities are out of reach for millions of Yemenis.

Griffiths said he hoped a deal would be struck on reopening the airport over the next week following discussions in Sweden on whether flights would be inspected in government-held airports before flying in and out of Sanaa.

(Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Exclusive: ‘Can’t eat, can’t sleep’ – Rohingya on Myanmar repatriation list

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Ruma Paul

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – For Nurul Amin, a Rohingya Muslim living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, the days since learning he and his family were among a group of people set to potentially be repatriated to Myanmar have been among the most frightening since they fled their home.

“I can hardly sleep at night for fear of getting forcibly repatriated. Since the time I heard that my name is on the list I can’t even eat,” says Amin, 35, who has four daughters, a wife and sister with him in the Jamtoli Camp in southeast Bangladesh.

Reuters identified and spoke to more than 20 of the roughly 2,000 Rohingya refugees on a list of people Myanmar has agreed to take back. Though officials say no-one will be forced to return against their will, all say they have been terrified since learning this month their names were on the list prepared by Bangladeshi officials and vetted by Myanmar.

The list has not been made public and not all those whose names are on it have been informed, say Bangladeshi camp officials, due to concerns of sparking widespread panic in a camp that shelters 52,000 refugees.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in late October to this month begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border to escape a Myanmar army crackdown, even though the United Nations’ refugee agency and aid groups say doubts persist about their safety and conditions in Myanmar should they return.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed from Rakhine state, in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, into Bangladesh from August last year after Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces triggered a sweeping military response.

Refugees said soldiers and local Buddhists carried out mass killings and rape during the violence in 2017, while U.N.-mandated investigators have accused the military of unleashing a campaign with “genocidal intent”.

Myanmar has denied almost all the allegations. It has rejected the U.N. findings as one-sided, and said the military action was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.

WILLING TO RETURN?

This week, the U.N.’s human rights investigator on Myanmar urged Bangladesh to drop the repatriation plan, warning that Rohingya still faced a high risk of persecution in Myanmar.

A Bangladesh foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named, said on Friday the country would not send any Rohingya back forcefully.

“The Bangladesh government is in talks with them to motivate them,” he said.

Separately, another foreign ministry official told Reuters the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would verify whether those shortlisted were willing to return.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a UNHCR representative in Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters that effort would start within a few days.

“We have not started the process yet but we will be carrying out an assessment of the voluntariness,” he said.

Dr Min Thein, director of the disaster management department at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in Myanmar, said his team was preparing for 2,000 people to return.

“The Immigration Department is doing the scrutinizing,” said Min Thein. An official at Myanmar’s Immigration Department declined to answer questions over the phone.

In late October, a delegation from Myanmar visited the camps in an effort to urge Rohingya to participate in the repatriation process.

“THROW US INTO THE SEA”

Refugees who spoke to Reuters said they did not trust the Myanmar authorities to guarantee their safety. Some said refugees would go back only if they got to return to their own land and were given citizenship.

“I’ll just consume poison if I am forced to go back. I saw my cousin shot dead by military … What is the guarantee that we’ll not be persecuted again?” said Abdur Rahim, 47, who previously owned a shop and 2 acres of land in Rakhine.

Nur Kaida, 25, who is the mother of a 19-month-old girl, said it “would be better to die in the camps rather go back and get killed or raped”.

On Friday, an alliance of humanitarian and civil society groups working in Rakhine and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, in a joint statement, warned sending people back would be “dangerous and premature”.

The group called on the governments of the two countries to ensure that refugees in Bangladesh were able to make a free and informed choice about their return. It also said U.N. agencies should have unimpeded access to all parts of Rakhine in order to monitor the situation in areas of potential return.

Recent days have seen dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh attempting to flee via sea to Malaysia, raising fears of a fresh wave of dangerous voyages.

But despite poor conditions in the camps prompting some to risk such a perilous route out, those like Muhammed Wares, 75, whose name is on the list, say it is better than going back.

“Why are they sending us back?” said Wares. “They may as well throw us into the sea.”

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka and Thu Thu Aung in Yangon; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.N. holds emergency meeting in Asia as China battles African swine fever

FILE PHOTO: Piglets are seen by a sow at a pig farm in Zhoukou, Henan province, China June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United Nations is holding an emergency meeting this week with animal health experts in Asia to discuss the threat of African swine fever after the first outbreak of the disease in the region was discovered in China last month.

China has detected eight cases of the highly contagious virus since discovering the first outbreak on Aug. 3, raising concerns about its spread in the world’s largest pork producer and beyond its borders into Southeast Asia.

Its arrival in China marked a new front in the battle to control the disease, which has traveled from Europe over the past decade through Russia.

(Outbreaks of African swine fever in China by location: https://reut.rs/2PCNswR)

First detected in Africa almost a century ago, the virus is often deadly for pigs but does not harm humans.

Specialists from China and nine countries close by and considered to be at risk from a spread of the disease are attending the meeting running from Wednesday to Friday in Bangkok, along with experts from outside the region and participants from the private commercial swine sector.

The nine countries are Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement on Wednesday.

The FAO has repeatedly warned that the arrival of the disease poses a significant threat to Asia.

“It’s critical that this region be ready for the very real possibility that (swine fever) could jump the border into other countries,” said Wantanee Kalpravidh, regional manager of the FAO Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) in Asia.

“That’s why this emergency meeting has been convened – to assess where we are now – and to determine how we can work together in a coordinated, regional response to this serious situation.”

Chinese authorities are rushing to contain the virus, shutting live markets in infected provinces and banning transportation of live pigs and pork products in and out of those regions.

Highlighting the challenge though, South Korea had to ramp up quarantine measures at airports after finding a traveler carrying Chinese food infected with the disease.

The seminar will review recent research studies and technologies and consider lessons from recent and ongoing episodes in Europe, it said.

The disease is transmitted by ticks and direct contact between animals, and can also travel via contaminated food, animal feed, and people traveling from one place to another. There is no vaccine.

(Reporting by Josephine Mason; Editing by Joseph Radford)

U.N. fears chemical weapons in Syria battle with ‘10,000 terrorists’

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows part of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Russia, Iran, and Turkey on Thursday to forestall a battle in Syria’s Idlib province which would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 fighters designated by the U.N. as terrorists, who he said belonged to the al-Nusra Front and al Qaeda.

There could be no justification to use heavy weapons against them in densely populated areas, he said. Miscalculations could lead to unintended consequences, including the possible use of chemical weapons.

“Avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

“We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, said: “We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.”

“I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them,” he added, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area in Syria, serving as what the U.N. has called a “dumping ground” for fighters and civilians evacuated from other battles. It is one of the areas that Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to “de-escalate” last year at a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But a source said on Wednesday that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as “a festering abscess”.

“Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors?,” de Mistura said, referring to Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The potential battlefield contains two crucial roads, transport arteries between major Syrian cities, which the Syrian government argues must be made safe. De Mistura asked if it was necessary to create a “worst-case scenario” just to secure Syrian government access to the roads.

It would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could prove to be a “perfect storm”, he said.

“The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Illusory to think Syrian refugees can return now, France says

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows refugee tents erected at the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen -/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France dismissed on Thursday any suggestion that millions of Syrian refugees could start returning home, as urged by Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said the conditions for a return have not been met, given Assad’s treatment of those who have already gone home and a possible offensive on rebel territory in northern Syria.

In recent weeks Russia has called on Western powers opposed to the Syrian government to help refugees return home and aid reconstruction of areas under his control.

However, Von der Muhll cited a decree depriving refugees and internally displaced people of their properties, the instability of the country and cases of arrest and forced conscription of Syrians returning from Lebanon.

“To consider a return of the refugees is illusory, in the current conditions,” she said.

The seven-year civil war has killed an estimated half a million people, driven 5.6 million out of Syria and displaced around 6.6 million within the country.

Most refugees are from the Sunni Muslim majority, and it is unclear whether Assad’s Alawite-dominated government will allow all to return freely or whether they would want to. Sunnis made up the bulk of the armed opposition to Assad.

France, which backs the opposition, says it will not support reconstruction of areas under Assad’s control until there is a negotiated political transition under U.N. auspices.

“This year has seen the largest movement of displaced people since the beginning of the conflict and … the entire international community has warned of the risks of a major humanitarian and migratory crisis in the event of an offensive against the province of Idlib,” Von der Muhll said.

The Idlib region, a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as jihadist forces, was hit by air strikes and shelling last week, in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by David Stamp)