U.S. Jerusalem embassy lies ‘at the end of the world’

FILE PHOTO: Construction site is seen near the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – “On the edge of wilderness.” That is how one of Israel’s most famous authors once described the area where the new U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem on Monday. Others remember it very differently.

Standing in the valley below the hillside where Israeli and U.S. flags were being hoisted, Palestinians said the land used to be the fields of Arab villagers, who grew fig trees, grapes and wheat there.

Everything about Jerusalem is contested, and always has been. The status of the holy city is at the heart of a bitter conflict.

Upon one thing Israelis and Palestinians are agreed: the decision of a global superpower to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – on Israel’s 70th anniversary – is a definitive moment. But there agreement ends.

Israelis believe that President Donald Trump’s administration lends weight to their long-held position that Jerusalem is the ancient capital of the Jewish people, and home to sacred sites such as the Western Wall and the Jewish temples of antiquity.

But Palestinians are outraged at the U.S. stance on a city that is home to more than 300,000 Arabs, and is the third holiest city in Islam.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet American officials, and said the United States can no longer be regarded as an honest broker.

And as a microcosm of the wider argument the little patch of land chosen for the embassy has its own bundle of complexities, sitting as it does in Arnona, now a mostly Jewish neighborhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.

FILE PHOTO: A worker on a crane hangs a U.S. flag next to an Israeli flag, next to the entrance to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A worker on a crane hangs a U.S. flag next to an Israeli flag, next to the entrance to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

NO MAN’S LAND

The site straddles the line between West Jerusalem and an area known as No Man’s Land, which was created at the end of the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

After a 1949 armistice Israeli forces pulled back to the west of an agreed line, and Jordanians to the east. In some areas there was a space in between that became known as No Man’s Land.

One of those areas was an enclave between the Jewish neighborhood of Talpiot and Arab villages to the east.

The area remained a demilitarized zone until the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, later expanding the limits of Jerusalem and annexing some of the Arab villages into the city.

The move was not recognized internationally and the Palestinians continue to claim East Jerusalem, demanding that it should be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

In February, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert conceded that the embassy site “is located partly in West Jerusalem and what’s called the no man’s land”.

This was confirmed by a senior United Nations official, who was not authorized to speak publicly given the sensitivity of the issue.

“There is some uncertainty about exactly where the line runs through the property, but I don’t think there is any uncertainty about the fact that the line runs through it,” he told Reuters.

“Under international law it is still occupied territory, because neither party had any right to occupy the area between the lines.”

When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital he left the door open for Israel and the Palestinians to divide the city between them by stating he was not taking a position on “the resolution of contested borders”.

But Nabil Shaath, a veteran Palestinian diplomat, said the embassy’s relocation could complicate future peace talks. “Setting the embassy on No Man’s Land is really a violation of the demographic and geographic division of Jerusalem,” he said last week.

However Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the location of the embassy would be inconsequential were Palestinians and Israelis to revive the peace process.

“Ultimately if we have to reach arrangements in Jerusalem, as I hope we will do, then we will have to set a very precise line and we will have to compensate,” Beilin told Reuters.

END OF THE WORLD

On a clear day, the Dead Sea and Jordan can be seen from the street that runs above the embassy compound.

That street was once the edge of Talpiot, a neighborhood built in the 1920s by newly arrived Jewish immigrants and which housed such figures as S.Y. Agnon, the father of modern Hebrew literature and a Nobel Laureate in 1966.

Decades later, one of Israel’s most famed writers, Amos Oz, wrote in his 2002 autobiography, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ of his own childhood memories of Talpiot.

There Oz visited his uncle Joseph Klausner, a prominent scholar and rival of Agnon, and describes his aunt and uncle on a Saturday evening walk down their street standing above the valley:

“At the end of the cul-de-sac which was also the end of Talpiot, the end of Jerusalem, and the end of the settled land: beyond stretched the grim, barren hills of the Judean desert. The Dead Sea sparkled in the distance like a platter of molten steel … I can see them standing there, at the end of the world, on the edge of wilderness.”

But Mohammad Jadallah, 96, a Palestinian from the village of Sur Baher – across the valley from the site – says he remembers his father’s generation tending the soil on that spot.

“Everything has changed. Now, it’s the existence of the U.S. embassy here – they are against the Arabs and the Palestinians,” he said.

(For a graphic on ‘U.S. embassy site in Jerusalem’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2wtlDCi )

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by David Stamp)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Dentists, soldiers mix cocktails to leave crisis-hit Venezuela

Carlos Alzaibar takes documents as he packs his suitcase at his home in Caracas, Venezuela March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – Like many young Venezuelans in recent years, dentist Carlos Alzaibar felt forced to leave the country when he could scrape together only a few dollars equivalent each month doing two jobs.

So on a recent day, just before flying to Madrid, he was sadly packing a red suitcase – while stacking diplomas from a half a dozen trades he picked up in the last year from bakery and bartending to photography and burger-flipping.

Those, he hoped, would help him find work in Spain and fund the medicines his mother needs for a kidney transplant.

“If not, she’s going to die,” Alzaibar, 28, said, folding socks and shirts in his family’s middle-class Caracas apartment.

Droves of Venezuelans, including professionals like Alzaibar and even retired soldiers and prosecutors, have been taking short courses to prepare for life abroad.

Suffering a severe economic crisis that has left many people short of food and basics, nearly a million Venezuelans have departed since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, calls it one of the biggest population flows in its nearly 70-year history.

The OPEC nation sits on the world’s largest oil supplies, but has seen annual production slump to a three-decade low, along with a four-year economic recession.

COCKTAILS AND COFFEE

Valentina Maggi, 22, studied graphic design and dreams of illustrating children’s stories, but has followed in friends’ footsteps to learn how to mix cocktails at the National Bartender Academy.

“I have many friends who have left the country and have told me to do this type of course because when you get there, you have more work options,” she said in a room with a long table where she had just completed her final test: a Gin Fizz made from gin, lemon, sugar and soda water.

At the academy, 6,000 students are expected to graduate this year – up from 4,500 a couple of years ago.

With Maggi were a 60-year-old retired military officer and a 52-year-old former Supreme Court prosecutor, both hoping to land work at bars in the United States and Argentina respectively.

Asking not to disclose his name for fear of reprisal, the former soldier said his monthly pension of some $5 at the black market exchange rate, left nothing for food after paying for his two sons’ schools.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown is one of the worst slumps in modern Latin American history.

Gross domestic product is shrinking on a scale akin to that of the United States during the Great Depression and inflation is the highest in the world, nearly 9,000 percent annually, according to National Assembly data.

A monthly minimum wage is worth less than a carton of eggs.

While critics lambaste President Nicolas Maduro for failed socialist economic policies and corruption, he says a U.S.-led “economic war” including financial sanctions are to blame.

“From six or eight months ago, everyone’s getting ready to go,” said Pietro Carbone, surrounded by the aroma of freshly crushed coffee beans at his barista training center where places are fully booked for the next three months.

(Reporting by Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos; Additional reporting by Efrain Otero; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney; Twitter: @ReutersVzla, @jammastergirish)

Exclusive: U.S. team in refugee camps investigating atrocities against Rohingya

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Jason Szep, Matt Spetalnick and Zeba Siddiqui

WASHINGTON/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The U.S. government is conducting an intensive examination of alleged atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, documenting accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offenses in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The undertaking, led by the State Department, has involved more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military crackdown last year in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, two U.S. officials said. The work is modeled on a U.S. forensic investigation of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.

The interviews were conducted in March and April by about 20 investigators with backgrounds in international law and criminal justice, including some who worked on tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

The information will be analyzed in Washington and documented in a report to be sent to the State Department’s leadership in May or early June, the officials said. It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will publicly release the findings, or whether they will be used to justify new sanctions on the Myanmar government or a recommendation for international prosecution.

“The purpose of this investigation is to contribute to justice processes, including community awareness raising, international advocacy efforts, and community-based reconciliation efforts, as well as possible investigations, truth-seeking efforts, or other efforts for justice and accountability,” said a document used by the investigators in the sprawling refugee camps and reviewed by Reuters.

Three U.S. officials in Washington and several people involved in the investigation on the ground in Bangladesh disclosed details of the fact-finding operation to Reuters.

A State Department official, asked to confirm the specifics of the investigation conducted in the refugee camps as reported by Reuters, said “the program details are accurate.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was using all available information and a wide range of tools, but added: “We cannot get ahead of the deliberative, policymaking process.”

As of publication, the Myanmar government and military had not responded to questions from Reuters. Myanmar has said its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

The interviewers in the camps asked the refugees basic demographic questions, the date the person left Myanmar, and to recount their experiences during the wave of violence unleashed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State by the Myanmar military and local Buddhist residents.

The investigators also asked refugees to describe the battalions and weaponry used by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State during operations against the Rohingya, said one person involved with the investigation in the camps, which are located in the Cox’s Bazar district in southern Bangladesh. The investigators have received names of individual perpetrators and the identities of specific battalions allegedly involved, this person said.

A second person involved in the project on the ground said 1,025 refugees have been interviewed and the assignment may include a second phase focused on military units.

Zohra Khatun, 35, a Rohingya refugee in the camps, said she told investigators that soldiers waged a campaign of violence and harassment in her village in Rakhine State starting last August. They made arrests and shot several people, driving her and others to flee, she said.

“One military officer grabbed me by the throat and tried to take me,” she told Reuters, clutching her shirt collar to demonstrate. The military, she said, burned homes in the village, including hers.

The investigation coincides with a debate inside the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill over whether the Trump administration has done enough to hold Myanmar’s military to account for brutal violence against the largely stateless Rohingya.

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

The Rohingya are a small Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Though they have been present in what’s now Myanmar for generations, many Burmese consider them to be interlopers. Violence against them has increased in recent years as the country has made a partial shift to democratic governance.

In November, following the lead of the United Nations and the European Union, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted “ethnic cleansing,” a designation that raised the possibility of additional sanctions against Myanmar’s military commanders and increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar government has denied the accusations.

The United States responded in December by imposing targeted sanctions on one Myanmar general and threatening to penalize others. Washington has also scaled back already-limited military ties with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. Human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers in Washington have urged the Republican White House to widen sanctions and designate the violence as “crimes against humanity,” a legal term that can set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“No decisions have been made on that front, but it’s something being looked at very carefully,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters.

A Reuters investigation published in February provided the first independent confirmation of what had taken place in the village of Inn Din, where 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys were hacked to death by Rakhine Buddhist villagers or shot by security force members. The story was based on accounts not only from Rohingya refugees but also from soldiers, police officers and Buddhist locals who admitted to participating in the bloodshed.

Pictures obtained by Reuters showed the men and boys with their hands tied behind their backs and their bodies in a shallow grave. Two Reuters journalists were jailed while reporting the story and remain in prison in Yangon, where they face up to 14 years in jail on possible charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

So far, there has been resistance by lawyers in the White House and State Department to adopt the terms “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” in describing deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar, the U.S. officials said.

The State Department itself has been divided over how to characterize or interpret the violence against the Rohingya, the officials said.

The East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, staffed largely by career diplomats and representing the view of the embassy in Myanmar, has held at times “to a success narrative” on Myanmar since the lifting of sanctions was announced in October 2016 and the strong public role played by the U.S. government in the historic 2012 opening of the country after decades of military rule, one official said.

Diplomats in Yangon have also been reluctant to jeopardize Washington’s relationship with Suu Kyi, a democratic icon who has faced criticism for failing to do more to rein in the violence against the Rohingya. Some senior U.S. officials still believe Suu Kyi remains the best hope for a more democratic Myanmar, one official said. “They are reluctant to upset that relationship.”

That contrasts with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, based in Washington, which has pushed for tougher sanctions, the officials said. Bridging that gap has been made more difficult because the State Department under President Donald Trump has yet to fill many important diplomatic positions, the officials said.

Officials described the process in the refugee camps of documenting the abuses as rigorous. Each interview was coded with key words according to the alleged crime, such as killing, rape, sexual violence and lynching. Different categories of alleged perpetrator also have codes – from civilians to insurgents, Myanmar military personnel and police.

“After the 1,000 interviews and statistical analysis, we can draw certain conclusions about the perpetrators of crime and patterns of crime,” one official said.

The official said one possible result from the documentation of abuses against the Rohingya could be a vote by the United Nations General Assembly to establish an international body to investigate the most serious crimes committed against the Rohingya, similar to what it’s done with Syria.

The State Department did not respond to questions about divisions within the administration over how to characterize the violence and criticism that the administration was too slow in acting to halt abuses.

Subiya Khatun, 29, who fled her Rakhine home in September and reported seeing three dead bodies in a canal on her way to the Bangladesh border, said she hoped for justice and a safe return to Myanmar.

“They said they have come from America. ‘This investigation will be used for your help,'” she said she was told by the people who interviewed her in the camps. “If Allah wishes, we will get justice and our demands will be fulfilled.”

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in Cox’s Bazar. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

Syria is death trap for civilians, U.N. refugee chief warns

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi adresses the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) following their talks in Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Civilians can no longer flee fighting and bombing raids in Syria because borders are so tightly controlled and neighboring countries are overwhelmed by refugees, creating some of the worst suffering in modern times, a top U.N. agency chief said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was warning of a new disaster if the rebel-controlled Syrian city of Idlib was the next target of the Syrian military.

“The country is becoming a trap, in some places a death trap for civilians,” Grandi told Reuters during a donor conference for Syria.

“There is an entire population out there that cannot bear its refugees anymore, that is suffering from one of the worse ordeals in modern history.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said last month about 511,000 people had been killed in the war since it began in March 2011.

Some 5.5 million Syrians are living as refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now account for a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Another 6.1 million people are still in Syria but have been forced to flee their homes.

Grandi is hoping to raise $5.6 billion from international donors for emergency humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees this year, but that money is not for Syria itself, instead going to help host countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 civilians trapped in besieged areas throughout Syria.

That the number could rise dramatically because 2 million people live in northwestern Idlib region, the largest populated area of Syria in the hands of insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

Some aid agencies are predicting suffering on an even greater scale than during the siege of Aleppo last year and in eastern Ghouta and Raqqa this year if the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian backers turn their full fire on Idlib.

Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians have fled to the area from parts of the country which the army has recaptured with the help of Russia and Iran.

“Idlib is where an area where a lot of fighters have transferred,” Grandi said. “If fighting moves more decisively to that area, it could be very dangerous for civilians.”

However, Grandi and other aid agencies predict they will have nowhere to flee to because Turkey’s southern border with Syria at Gaziantep is tightly controlled, mainly letting aid supplies through to Idlib, forcing refugees deeper into Syria.

“I think we are going to lose not only a generation but a population,” Grandi said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams)

China says 32 nationals killed when bus falls off bridge in North Korea

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Thirty-two Chinese tourists and four North Koreans died when a bus crashed off a bridge in North Korea, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday, with two Chinese nationals in critical condition.

Chinese tourists make up about 80 percent of all foreign visitors to North Korea, says a South Korean think-tank, the Korea Maritime Institute, which estimates that tourism generates revenue of about $44 million each year for the isolated country.

Chinese diplomats visited the scene of Sunday’s crash in North Hwanghae province, the foreign ministry said.

State television’s main Chinese-language news channel showed images of a crashed blue bus with its wheels in the air, in footage taken in pouring rain in the dark.

It also showed at least one person being treated in hospital.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters he could not give additional details of the accident as an investigation was under way.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had asked the Foreign Ministry and Chinese embassy to take “all necessary means” to handle the accident, the ministry said in a later statement.

In a separate statement, China’s health ministry said it was sending a team of medical experts, along with equipment and drugs, to North Korea, to help treat survivors.

The North Hwanghae province that borders South Korea is home to Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital thronged by tourists.

North Korea is a popular, if offbeat, tourist destination for Chinese, especially those from the country’s northeast.

China said more than 237,000 Chinese visited in 2012, but stopped publishing the figures in 2013.

China is North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, despite Beijing’s anger at Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and missile tests and support for strong United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

North and South Korea are in the final stages of preparations for a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Friday.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Turkey’s Erdogan declares early elections on June 24

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 18, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and David Dolan

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called a snap presidential and parliamentary election on June 24, more than a year earlier than planned, saying the country urgently needed to make the switch to an executive presidency.

Bringing the elections forward means that they will take place under a state of emergency that has been in place since a July 2016 attempted coup and was extended by parliament on Wednesday for another three months.

In 15 years of rule as prime minister and later president, Erdogan has transformed a poor country at the eastern edge of Europe into a major emerging market. Yet Turkey’s rapid economic growth has also come with increased authoritarianism, as Erdogan has accelerated a crackdown on dissent since the failed coup.

Erdogan and his ministers had previously dismissed the prospect of early polls. Last year he narrowly won a referendum to change the constitution and create an executive presidency, which will come into effect with the next presidential vote.

He said Turkey’s military operations in neighboring Syria “and the developments in our region of historic importance, have made it mandatory to remove the election issue from our agenda”.

In a speech broadcast live on television he said it was also “urgent to switch to the new executive system in order to take steps for our country’s future in a stronger way…We came to the agreement that we should approach this early election positively.”

He said he made the decision after speaking to the head of the nationalist MHP party, Devlet Bahceli, who a day earlier had floated the prospect of an early election. The elections had been slated for November 2019.

Bahceli’s small MHP party is expected to form an alliance with Erdogan’s AK Party in the parliamentary election.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

The main opposition CHP party called for an immediate end to the emergency, which allows Erdogan and the government to bypass parliament in passing new laws and allows them to suspend rights and freedoms.

“There cannot be an election under emergency rule,” CHP spokesman Bulent Tezcan said. “The country needs to brought out of the emergency rule regime starting today.”

The United Nations last month called for an end to the emergency and accused Ankara of mass arrests, arbitrary sacking and other abuses. Some 160,000 people have been detained and a similar number of civil servants dismissed since the failed putsch, it said.

Media outlets have been shut down and scores of journalists have also been jailed.

Parliament last month passed a law revamping electoral regulations that the opposition has said could open the door to fraud and jeopardize the fairness of voting. The law grants the High Electoral Board the authority to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts.

LIRA FIRMS

Turkey’s lira firmed against the dollar on Wednesday and was at 4.0189 at 1500 GMT. The yield on Turkey’s benchmark bond fell some 10 basis points and the main stock index jumped more than 2 percent.

Some investors had already been factoring in the prospect of early elections, citing the difficulty of the government keeping the economy going at its current breakneck pace – it expanded at 7.3 percent in the fourth quarter – until late next year.

The economy is likely to expand 4.1 percent this year, well short of the government’s target of 5.5 percent, a Reuters poll showed. Such a slowdown could hurt Erdogan, who has built much of his reputation on his stewardship of the economy, above all his record of delivering roads, hospitals and public services to millions of pious poor and middle-class people.

Investor concerns about double-digit inflation and Erdogan’s pressure on the central bank to keep rates down have sent the lira to a series of record lows. The currency’s sell-off may have figured in the call for early elections, some investors said.

“A continued depreciation of the currency would likely negatively impact voter behavior and may jeopardize Erdogan’s plans for victory,” said Paul Greer, a portfolio manager at Fidelity International in London.

“We read the early election announcement as a recognition from the government of a need for a tighter monetary and fiscal adjustment sooner rather than later.”

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, with additional reporting by Sujata Rao and Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Threat of Western strikes hangs over Syria, U.S., France assail Assad at U.N.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors and members of Congress at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Tom Perry and Michelle Nichols

BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States and its ally France assailed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations on Friday for using chemical weapons as the prospect of U.S.-led military action that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East.

As chemical weapons experts arrived in Syria to investigate a suspected poison gas attack by government forces, international diplomacy was in high gear to head off an escalation, though accusations flew thick and fast between Washington and its allies, and Russia, Assad’s main backer.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the toxic gas assault on April 7 that killed dozens of people in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Russia says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma and has warned the United States and its allies against carrying out any military strike.

While Trump himself was silent on Syria on Friday, giving no further clues on whether U.S. military action was imminent, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington estimated Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons at least 50 times during the seven-year-long Syrian conflict.

“Our president has not yet made a decision about possible action in Syria. But should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree,” Haley told the U.N. Security Council.

“All nations and all people will be harmed if we allow Assad to normalize the use of chemical weapons.”

There was no word from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, though his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow was in contact with Washington to discuss an atmosphere which he described as alarming.

“God forbid anything adventurous will be done in Syria along the lines of the Libyan and Iraqi experience,” Lavrov told a news conference, referring to past Western military interventions elsewhere in the region.

“Even non-significant incidents would lead to new waves of migrants to Europe and to other consequences, which neither we nor our European neighbors need,” Lavrov said.

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Putin and expressed concern about a worsening situation.

Striking a conciliatory note, Macron’s office said: “The President of the Republic called for dialogue with Russia to be maintained and stepped up to bring peace and stability back to Syria.”

But this was balanced by a warning from the French ambassador to the United Nations, Francois Delattre, who told the Security Council that the Syrian government’s decision to use chemical weapons again meant they had “reached a point of no return”.

The world must provide a “robust, united and steadfast response”, Delattre said.

Since 2015 France has carried out air strikes against Islamic State in Syria as part of allied forces linked to the U.S.-led coalition, conducting about 5 percent of total coalition air missions.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce meanwhile rejected a charge by a Russian defense ministry spokesman that Britain was involved in staging a fake chemical weapons attack in Douma.

“This is grotesque, it is a blatant lie, it is the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine,” Pierce told reporters.

AVERTING WAR – A PRIORITY

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich took an apparent swipe at Trump’s tweets. “We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” he said at a forum.

Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, said he “cannot exclude” war between the United States and Russia. “The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening … unless Trump and (Israeli leader Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

U.S. allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Some other of Trump’s European allies are anxious to avert a U.S.-Russian showdown. Apart from Macron’s phone conversation with Putin, NATO members Germany and the Netherlands have said they will not take part in any military action.

Tayyip Erdogan, president of Syria’s neighbor Turkey which is also in NATO, said on Friday he had spoken by phone with Trump and Putin and told both that increasing tension in the region was not right.

A first team of experts from the global Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has arrived in Syria, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

The investigators, who are only mandated to determine if chemical weapons were used and not who used them, were expected to start their investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

In Geneva, U.N. war crimes investigators condemned on Friday the suspected use of chemical weapons in Douma and called for evidence to be preserved with a view to future prosecutions.

ASSAD TIGHTENS GRIP

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any U.S.-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

Global stock markets have had a whipsaw week, largely fueled by Trump’s tendency to change his mind over top policy issues.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a center of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

Assad, who is supported by Iranian-back fighters as well as the Russian air force, has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country. Rebels and jihadist insurgents are largely contained to two areas along Syria’s northern and southern borders.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Maria Tsvetkova, Leigh Thomas and Ingrid melander; Writing by Richard Balmforth)

Myanmar not ready for return of Rohingya Muslims, says UNHCR

FILE PHOTO: A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – The U.N. refugee agency called a Myanmar minister’s visit to Bangladesh to meet Muslim Rohingya refugees a confidence-building measure, but said conditions in Myanmar were not ready for their return.

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, who heads rehabilitation efforts in Myanmar’s troubled western Rakhine state, told about 50 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday that getting the repatriation process moving was top priority.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday Myanmar was not prepared.

“Conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees,” it said in a statement, adding that the responsibility remains with the government to create such conditions.

According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine to escape a military crackdown since August, amid reports of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar troops and Buddhist vigilantes which the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its security forces launched a legitimate counter-insurgency operation on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks.

The refugees are living in cramped camps in the port of Cox’s Bazar and Bangladesh is keen for them to return home soon, especially with the oncoming monsoons expected to cause major devastation at the camps.

The UNHCR called on Myanmar to provide the agency unhindered access in Rakhine to assess the situation and monitor the return and reintegration of refugees if and when they voluntarily return.

Acknowledging the mistrust and fear of the Rohingya of Myanmar, Win Myat Aye told the group of refugees on Wednesday to set aside the past and to prepare to go back, promising new villages would be built with hospitals and schools.

But some refugees have said they are worried about going back, fearing persecution.

(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Edgy times on China’s border with North Korea

Policemen control a check point after preventing Reuters reporters from driving through, near the border of China and North Korea, just outside the village of Sanhe, China, November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Sue-Lin Wong

YANBIAN, China (Reuters) – I sat on a metal bench, the chill seeping through my down jacket, as a Chinese government official towered above me, shouting.

It was a Saturday morning in March, just after daybreak. I was on China’s border with North Korea, trying to follow up on reports that the country was making preparations for a large-scale influx of North Korean refugees. As usually happens when I report from this part of the world, the Chinese authorities were telling me to go away.

Cui Changwan, the local government official who had been called in when border guards stopped me, shoved a document into my hands and jabbed his finger on the page which stated that “without approval, foreigners are not permitted to enter areas out of bounds to foreigners.”

I asked him to show me the rule that said I was in such a place.

“It’s an internal document which you’re not allowed to see,” he replied, spittle flying at me. In the office behind us, a colleague of his played video games.

China has long posted military and police along its border with North Korea. The border is marked by two rivers which often freeze over in the winter, making it easier for North Koreans to cross – a particular concern for China’s state security.

Despite a recent thaw in relations between North Korea and both China and the United States, locals say that over the past six months, China has stepped up military patrols here. Media reports in South Korea and elsewhere say China has been bolstering its defences along the border – some have said as many as 300,000 troops have been added.

Two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters the number of Chinese military on the border could be up to 200,000 or possibly 300,000. This would be an increase from just 100,000 in August last year. China’s foreign ministry declined to respond to a question on the numbers or the intensified activity.

Many of the military bases are in Yanbian, an area which includes Sanhe village, where the authorities had detained me.

On assignment in November with photographer Damir Sagolj, we documented the ways some people who live on the frontier say they interact across it. Spots like this village underline how Beijing also maintains a wary eye on its neighbor.

Chinese border control staff called in at our hotel. We were prevented from continuing our trip along the border at three separate roadblocks around Tumen. At one point, plain clothes police hovered as Damir took photos of tourists. They followed us in two cars.

“We have secret military installations here,” one soldier told me in November. A declassified CIA document from May 1970 says China had begun constructing personnel trenches – with possible forward firing positions facing the border – in 1969.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have already traveled through China as they left one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 31,000 of them eventually sought refuge in South Korea. Others have stayed in China.

Both China and North Korea have bolstered efforts to prevent North Koreans from making the journey to South Korea through countries including Laos and Thailand, according to Human Rights Watch. Last year, it said, Chinese authorities intensified their crackdown on arriving North Koreans and the networks which help them. China says it handles North Korean arrivals in accordance with humanitarian principles; North Korea’s mission to the United Nations didn’t respond to a request for comment.

If war were to break out in North Korea, the Chinese have made extensive plans to respond and are likely to intervene in some way, two diplomatic sources said. China’s foreign ministry told us it consistently supports denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula and believes in the need for dialogue.

Late last year, a document that appeared to be from a Chinese state-owned company was leaked online, outlining plans for China to build refugee camps along its border with North Korea. At the time, neither the company or the government made any comment on the plans.

Around 20 people I spoke to who live along or near the border said they had seen no sign of camps being built. But none doubted plans were being made.

Many locals said the government’s focus was fortifying its military presence. If North Korea were to collapse and millions were to rush into China, the Chinese government could easily convert abandoned homes in villages all along the border into temporary accommodation, they told me.

“Border regions anywhere in the world are sensitive, but it’s particularly sensitive up here because the river is narrower and historically there has been a lot of interaction between the two sides,” said Li Zhonglin, a China-North Korea specialist at Yanbian University.

In recent years, Chinese media have reported that villagers have been killed by North Koreans sneaking across the border, often in search of food.

China is more likely to look at the issue of North Koreans rushing across its border as a military threat rather than a humanitarian disaster, some Chinese academics say.

Yang Guosheng tends to 100 cows near China’s border with Russia and North Korea. He said Chinese border control personnel come by at least 10 times every day, night and day. There are cameras at the edge of his property, which hugs the bank of the Tumen river.

All along the border, signs remind people to be on the lookout for spies and other suspicious activities.

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Edited by Sara Ledwith)