Hundreds surrender in last Islamic State enclave as SDF advance

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory.

Many of the men were limping as they crossed out of the Baghouz enclave along a dirt path over a rocky hill, with weeping children and fully veiled women, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them.

Some men trudged along on crutches with bandages wrapped around their legs. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind in the dust.

Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the many thousands who have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks.

“They are coming out this way in case there are snipers or someone wants to attack.”

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said some 1,300 jihadists and their families came out on Thursday. SDF fighters said they included foreigners.

The militants surrendered during a pause in the U.S.-backed assault to seize the final patch of populated Islamic State territory – a self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

In the morning, explosions rang out at the front line as artillery fire pounded Baghouz and warplanes buzzed overhead.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, said the jihadists had deployed more than 20 suicide bombers in counter-attacks in the last two days.

It said at least 112 militants had been killed since it resumed the offensive at the weekend.

No Islamic State commanders are believed to be in Baghouz village, a U.S. defense official has said. U.S. government experts strongly believe its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The jihadists are still assessed to be a potent security threat with a foothold in remote areas and widely expected to escalate a wave of guerrilla attacks.

TWISTED METAL, FALLEN PALM TREES

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and meting out punishments such as crucifixion.

The militants suffered their major military defeats in 2017, when they lost the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They were then forced down the Euphrates River to their last bastion at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets on the eastern bank.

In part of the Islamic State encampment which the SDF seized a few days ago, collapsed tents and fallen palm trees lay among a scattering of rubble and twisted metal.

Dirty, ripped blankets, carpets, mattresses and abandoned motorcycles littered the ground.

The SDF assault had been postponed repeatedly over the last few weeks to evacuate people from the enclave, many of them wives and children of fighters.

Overall, tens of thousands have fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months. The SDF has mostly transferred to a camp at al-Hol in the northeast.

The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine. They have warned of diseases spreading.

Aid agencies say scores of people, mostly children, have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Freed Yazidi woman in Syria endured years of Islamic State slavery

Yazidi woman Salwa Sayed al-Omar, who escaped from the Islamic State, talks during an interview with Reuters near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria March 7, 2019. REUTERS/STRINGER

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Salwa Sayed al-Omar spent years as a Yazidi prisoner of Islamic State but she escaped its clutches this week, fleeing its last populated enclave in east Syria along with two Iraqi boys pretending to be her brothers.

Islamic State overran the Yazidi faith’s heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, forcing young women into servitude as “wives” for its fighters and massacring men and older women.

The Yazidis are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State considers them devil worshippers and its attacks on the group were condemned as a “genocide” by the United Nations.

“They took women, abused them and killed them,” said Omar, describing how jihadists bought and sold their Yazidi captives or passed them around as sexual slaves.

“A woman was shifted from one man to another unless it was to one who had a bit of mercy… if she was in good condition, she would carry on. If not, she would get married to avoid being abused,” she said.

Omar was eventually married to a Tajik jihadist.

As the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) besieged the enclave at Baghouz, some surviving Yazidi women and children emerged among many thousands of others fleeing deprivation and bombardment, including the group’s own unrepentant supporters.

The SDF is waiting to evacuate all civilians from the Baghouz enclave before forcing the remaining jihadists there to surrender or storming the tiny area by force.

Omar escaped along with two Iraqi children, Mustafa and Dia, who had been her neighbors for two years as their respective households moved through Syria together during Islamic State’s long retreat to Baghouz.

EATING GRASS

As Islamic State’s many enemies advanced against it, the group would move its captives from place to place. “They were hiding us in different places so we couldn’t be seen or helped,” Omar said.

Their Islamic State captors were “rigorous” in checking who left, said the teenage boys, Mustafa and Dia, who said they had stayed longer in the enclave to help Omar leave.

After a month of siege in the tiny pocket at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border, they were reduced to eating grass and hiding in holes when there was fighting, they said.

They all managed to get away from her “husband” by paying him money. Many Islamic State fighters remained in Baghouz as they left on Thursday, dug into tunnels under the area, the boys said.

Speaking in the desert outside Baghouz, where people who had left the enclave were searched, questioned and sorted between civilians and fighters, Omar spoke of how she had been captured.

“They took me from Iraq. They captured us on the road and said ‘we won’t do anything bad to you, but you must convert to Islam’. We were afraid to be killed so we converted,” she said.

It did not save them. After months of capture, the women were split from the men, whom she never saw again. Captured boys aged 7-15 were taken to be brainwashed and trained as Islamic State fighters, she said.

She was taken to Raqqa, the group’s Syrian “capital”, which fell to the SDF during Islamic State’s year of big defeats in 2017, and then down the Euphrates to Baghouz.

“Today I reached the democratic forces and they said ‘we will let you go out of the Islamic State’… and thank God, they helped me and let me out,” she said.

(Reporting By Reuters TV; additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo; writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Exclusive: Venezuela removed 8 tons of central bank gold last week – legislator

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro touches a gold bar as he speaks during a meeting with the ministers responsible for the economic sector at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 8 tons of gold were removed from the Venezuelan central bank’s vaults last week, an opposition legislator and three government sources told Reuters, in the latest sign of President Nicolas Maduro’s desperation to raise hard currency amid tightening sanctions.

The gold was removed in government vehicles between Wednesday and Friday last week when there were no regular security guards present at the bank, Legislator Angel Alvarado and the three government sources said.

“They plan to sell it abroad illegally,” Alvarado said in an interview.

The central bank did not respond to requests for comment.

Alvarado and the government sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say where the central bank was sending the gold. They said the operation took place while central bank head Calixto Ortega was abroad on a trip.

In 2018, 23 tons of mined gold were transported from Venezuela to Istanbul by plane, according to sources and Turkish government data.

The central bank bought part of this gold from primitive gold-mining camps in the south of Venezuela and exported it to Turkey and other countries to finance the purchase of basic food supplies, given widespread shortages, according to more than 30 people with knowledge of the trade.

Some 20 tons of monetary gold were also removed from the central bank’s vaults in 2018, according to the bank’s data, leaving 140 tonnes remaining, the lowest level in 75 years.

Abu Dhabi investment firm Noor Capital said on Feb. 1 that it bought 3 tons of gold on Jan. 21 from the Venezuelan central bank and would not buy more until Venezuela’s situation stabilized. Noor Capital said its purchase was in accordance with “international standards and laws in place” as of that date.

Maduro’s government has been seeking to repatriate some 31 tons of gold in the Bank of England’s vaults on fears it could be caught up in international sanctions on the country.

“As you would expect, the Bank does not comment on individual customer relationships,” the Bank of England wrote in response to a request for comment. “In all its operations, the Bank observes the highest standards of risk management and abides by all relevant legislation.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Wednesday, during a United Nations meeting in Geneva, that the Bank of England had blocked the government’s assets.

Maduro’s government has resorted to selling off gold after falling oil production, the country’s wider economic collapse and mounting sanctions hit public income and made it hard for the country to access credit.

The United States, which is backing an attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaido to force Maduro to step down and call new elections, has warned bankers and traders not to deal in Venezuelan gold.

(Reporting by Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; additional reporting by William Schomberg in London, Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Christian Plumb, Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

For Yazidi survivors of Islamic State killings, the nightmares go on

Yazidi women prepare bread at a refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

By Ayat Basma and Kawa Omar

SINJAR, Iraq (Reuters) – Ever since Islamic State visited death and destruction on their villages in northern Iraq nearly five years ago, Yazidis Daoud Ibrahim and Kocher Hassan have had trouble sleeping.

For Hassan, 39, who was captured, it is her three missing children, and three years of imprisonment at the hands of the jihadist group.

For Ibrahim, 42, who escaped, it is the mass grave that he returned to find on his ravaged land.

“They burnt one house down, blew up the other, they torched the olive trees two-three times…There is nothing left,” the father of eight told Reuters.

More than 3,000 other members of their minority sect were killed in 2014 in an onslaught that the United Nations described as genocidal.

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A Yazidi man walks through the ruins of his house, destroyed by Islamic State militants near Sinjar, Iraq February 5, 2019. Picture taken February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Ibrahim and Hassan lived to tell of their suffering, but like other survivors, they have not moved on.

She will never set foot in her village of Rambousi again. “My sons built that house. I can’t go back without them…Their school books are still there, their clothes,” she said.

‘THEY WANT TO BE BURIED’

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to announce the demise of the Islamist group in Syria and Iraq, U.N. data suggests many of those it displaced in the latter country have, like Hassan, not returned home.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim and his family live in a barn next to the pile of rubble that was once their home. He grows wheat because the olive trees will need years to grow again. No one is helping him rebuild, so he is doing it himself, brick by brick.

“Life is bad. There is no aid,” he said sitting on the edge of the collapsed roof which he frequently rummages under to find lost belongings. On this day, it was scarves, baby clothes and a photo album.

“Every day that I see this mass grave I get ten more gray hairs,” he said.

The grave, discovered in 2015 just outside nearby Sinjar city, contains the remains of more than 70 elderly women from the village of Kocho, residents say.

“I hear the cries of their spirits at the end of the night. They want to be buried, but the government won’t remove their remains.” They and their kin also want justice, Ibrahim adds.

When the militants came, thousands of Yazidis fled on foot towards Sinjar mountain. More than four years later, some 2,500 families – including Hassan and five of her daughters – still live in the tents that are scattered along the hills that weave their way towards the summit.

The grass is green on the meadows where children run after sheep and the women pick wild herbs.

But the peaceful setting masks deep-seated fears about the past and the future.

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp in Mount Sinjar, Iraq February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

GRATEFUL FOR THE SUN

Until a year and a half ago, Hassan and five of her children were kept in an underground prison in Raqqa with little food and in constant fear of torture.

She doesn’t know why Islamic State freed her and the girls, then aged one to six, and hasn’t learned the fate of the three remaining children: two boys Fares and Firas, who would be 23 and 19 now, and Aveen, a girl who would be 13.

There is no electricity or running water in the camp where they live today. She doesn’t remember when her children last ate fruit. “Life here is very difficult but I thank God that we are able to see the sun,” she said.

During the day, her children go to school and are happy, but at night “they are afraid of their own shadow”, and she herself has nightmares.

“Last night, I dreamt they were slaughtering my child,” she said.

Mahmoud Khalaf, her husband, says Islamic State not only destroyed their livelihoods. The group broke the trust between Yazidis and the communities of different faiths and ethnicities they had long lived alongside.

“There is no protection. Those who killed us and held us captive and tormented us have returned to their villages,” Khalaf, 40, said referring to the neighboring Sunni Arab villages who the Yazidis say conspired with the militants.

“We have no choice but to stay here…They are stronger than us.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; editing by John Stonestreet)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

Evidence shows Khashoggi murder planned, carried out by Saudi officials

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – A United Nations-led inquiry into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said on Thursday that evidence pointed to a brutal crime “planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia”.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, said that Saudi officials had “seriously undermined” and delayed Turkey’s efforts to investigate the crime scene at its Istanbul consulate in October.

Reporting on a week-long mission with her team of three experts to Turkey, she said that they had had access to part of “chilling and gruesome audio material” of the Washington Post journalist’s death obtained by the Turkish intelligence agency. She had “major concerns” about the fairness of proceedings for 11 Saudis facing trial in the kingdom and had sought a visit there.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

A legacy of war: U.N. clears thousands of explosives in Iraq

FILE PHOTO: Damaged buildings are seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations cleared almost 17,000 bombs, suicide belts and other explosive hazards in Iraq last year and the dangerous work of sifting through the debris of war – 7.6 million tonnes in Mosul alone – will take many years, U.N. experts said on Thursday.

There are 100,000 damaged buildings in the country that could harbor explosive hazards such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by retreating Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, said Pehr Lodhammar, head of the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq.

The bulk of the clearance work is likely to take a decade, and 2 million displaced people are keen to go home. UNMAS trained almost 500,000 people last year to help them recognize the risks.

Last year’s haul of around 17,000 explosive hazards included a “staggering” 2,000 IEDs, Lodhammer told a news conference, noting these had pressure plate fuse triggers, trip wires, infrared devices, anti-lift devices, remote control devices, or a combination of those things.

That figure included 782 suicide belts, many of them actually fitted on dead ISIS fighters found in the debris, he said.

Islamic State held Mosul for three years, and UNMAS arrived when the fighting ended in 2017. Its experts are finding explosive hazards almost everywhere, Lodhammar said. It is also working in Fallujah, Tikrit and Kirkuk, and expanding to Sinjar.

Picking through the flattened wreckage of Western Mosul in temperatures close to 40 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) is gruesome work and physically and psychologically demanding, UNMAS director Agnès Marcaillou said.

“You have decomposing body parts that are still attached to suicide belts. You are walking around in a stench and clouds of flies, and at any given time you can have a rat or a cat or dog actually detonating something that is buried under there,” she said.

Lodhammar said the task was not traditional one-dimensional mine clearance.

“These are not mines any longer. An anti-personnel mine would have up to 230-250 grams (8.1-8.8 oz) of explosives in it. Now we’re looking at 10-20 kilos (22-44 lb).”

Buildings up to nine storeys high needed to be searched and made safe, while many of the bombs and shells dropped on Mosul by Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition had failed to go off, he said.

There were 250-pound (113 kg) bombs and 500-pound bombs, some still buried 7-8 meters (23-26 ft) down.

Generally at least 10 percent of bombs are assumed not to explode, and if not cleared away they may turn up decades later, like the World War Two bombs that are still discovered in Germany, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Frances Kerry)

As opium poppies bloom, Mexico seeks to halt heroin trade

Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Lizbeth Diaz

JUQUILA YUCUCANI (Reuters) – In the mountains of Mexico’s tropical Sierra, an ever-growing expanse of pink poppy flowers has pushed prices so low for opium paste, the gummy raw ingredient of heroin, that farmer Santiago Sanchez worries how he will feed and clothe his family.

The area of Mexico that illegally farms opium poppies grew by more than one-fifth last year, to an area the size of Philadelphia, according to a U.N.-backed study published in November.

A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation near Pueblo Viejo in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation near Pueblo Viejo in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

That, along with a trend toward mixing synthetic opiate fentanyl in Mexico’s tarry black heroin, has slashed what criminal gangs pay farmers like Sanchez for a kilo of opium. Now, Sanchez earns about $260 per kilo, a fifth of the average price two years ago.

While Mexico’s top drug traffickers still make billions of dollars supplying U.S. addicts, at the bottom of the supply chain, the villagers are hardly surviving.

“We can’t keep living like this,” said Sanchez, who is a local leader in the remote Mixtec Indian village of Juquila Yucucani, where hundreds of poppy farmers have seen already meager incomes shrivel. “We can barely afford our food.”

HEROIN TRADE

In the United States, overdose deaths from opioids have increased almost six-fold in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 15,000 people died of heroin overdoses in 2017 alone.

Heroin from Mexico accounted for 86 percent of the heroin found on U.S. streets, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most recent annual narcotic report.

The heart of illegal poppy cultivation is in the hills of Guerrero state, in some of the poorest mountain districts – such as Juquila Yucucani, some 800 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border. Guerrero is now among the country’s bloodiest states. 

Despite unprecedented violence across the country, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that the government had “officially” ended its war against drug trafficking, a military-led offensive launched in 2006 that led to a surge in bloodshed as criminal groups splintered.

The government’s focus will now be on meeting the needs of marginalized communities, Lopez Obrador said, as part of a broader strategy to curb an illegal drug trade that is thriving despite the capture of high-profile kingpins like Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who is on trial in New York for drug trafficking that spanned more than two decades.

Lopez Obrador has not entirely turned his back on using soldiers to tackle violence stemming from drugs – he plans to create a new militarized National Guard police force. But he is also exploring a crop substitution program, relaxing prohibition and amnesties for low-level drug dealers and farmers.

On a visit to Guerrero in January, Lopez Obrador pledged price supports for grains, including around $300 a tonne for corn, part of a strategy meant to give farmers alternatives to planting illicit crops.

“Here, in the hills, we are going to pay a little more, so that corn is planted and people are compensated for their effort. So that other crops are not planted,” he said.

Lopez Obrador has backed a legislative bill to legalize marijuana, and along with the former head of Mexico’s military and other members of his team, he suggested last autumn that legalizing medical opium could be part of the solution.

The government appears to be backing away from that idea after opposition from the United States.

“WE ARE NOT TRAFFICKERS”

The farmers in Juquila Yucucani do not consider themselves criminals and say current poppy eradication efforts by the army also sometimes destroy legal crops.

“They have killed the food crops that my family use to eat,” said Lazaro Lopez, 65, who said the military should apologize. Although Reuters could not independently verify Lopez’s account, human rights groups have documented military abuses in parts of Guerrero. The army did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

For Sanchez, who said his village would embrace legalization, crop substitution is a poor alternative.

Other than poppies, few plants take to the thin soil on Juquila Yucucani’s stony slopes. Some land is apt for planting mango or avocado trees, Sanchez said, but they would take years to mature. The narrow ribbon of twisted dirt road connecting the village to the outside world would make it almost impossible to transport bulky or delicate crops to markets, he added.

Arturo Garcia, a farmers rights activist in the state, said the government’s new ideas would only work if a really sustained and well-funded effort were made to offer residents a way out of the drug trade.

“The state must throw all its weight into this region so that it begins to alleviate the conditions that have allowed violence,” he said.

For now, several hours journey from the nearest hospitals or schools, Juquila Yucucani’s poppy farmers say they have two choices to make a living: sneak illegally into the United States, or grow poppies.

“We are not drug traffickers, we want a dignified life,” said elderly Nieves Garcia, who has grown poppies since she was a child and speaks a variant of the indigenous Mixtec language, but no Spanish. “My kids have left this place because there’s no way of getting ahead,” she said.   

For photo essay, please click on: https://reut.rs/2UJSwSF

(Writing by Michael O’Boyle and Frank Jack Daniel; Additional reporting by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Diane Craft)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for new protests as pressure on Maduro rises

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido accompanied by his wife Fabiana Rosales, speaks to the media after a holy Mass at a local church in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed president, on Monday called for new street demonstrations as pressure intensified on President Nicolas Maduro and the crisis-stricken OPEC nation.

Countries around the world have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, and the United States vowed to starve Maduro’s administration of oil revenue after he was sworn in Jan. 10 for a second term that was widely dubbed illegitimate.

Maduro says the United States is promoting a coup against him and promised to stay in office, backed by Russia and China, which have bankrolled his government and fought off efforts to have his government disavowed by the United Nations.

Guaido said opposition sympathizers should take to the streets on Wednesday to pass out copies of a pamphlet proposing amnesty that would give some legal protection to members of the military in hopes they will turn against Maduro.

“We must remain united as active agents of change in every corner of the country,” Guaido tweeted on Monday. “We’re doing well, very well, Venezuela!”

On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined countries backing the 35-year-old Guaido, and U.S. President Donald Trump said his government had accepted Venezuelan opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as a diplomatic representative to the United States.

Guaido took advantage of a major street demonstration on Jan. 23 to swear himself in as the country’s rightful leader, accusing Maduro of usurping power following a disputed 2018 re-election that countries around the world described as a fraud.

Guaido is asking for help in getting control of the Venezuelan government’s offshore assets.

In recent days, he urged British Prime Minister Theresa May and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to block Maduro’s government from collecting more than $1 billion in gold held by the Bank of England.

Venezuela’s once-buoyant socialist economic system has imploded from corruption and mismanagement since the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, pushing inflation to almost 2 million percent and driving millions of Venezuelans to neighboring countries.

Maduro says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against the country since 2017.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. has offered to hold arms control talks with Russia -official

FILE PHOTO: National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has offered to hold talks on arm control issues with Russia on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in Beijing next week, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.

Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson told reporters the talks almost certainly would include a dispute over a Cold War-era treaty limiting intermediate-range missiles.

Washington has pledged to withdraw from the pact because of what it charges is the deployment by Moscow of a new cruise missile that violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty).

Moscow has denied that the missile in question, the Novator 9M729 (called the SSC-8 by NATO), violates the agreement, which bars either side from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe.

Moscow says the missile’s range keeps it outside of the treaty and has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to leave an accord it wants to exit anyway to develop its own new missiles.

Thompson said the United States has presented Russia with a proposal for a “verifiable” test of the missile’s range but Moscow has not embraced the plan.

Unless the Russians come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, the United States will make good on its decision to suspend its compliance with the pact at the end of a 60-day period on Feb. 2, Thompson said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)