U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps

FILE PHOTO: The United Nations emblem is seen in the U.N. General Assembly hall during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.N. human rights panel said on Friday that it had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs in China are held in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.

Gay McDougall, a member of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, cited estimates that another 2 million Uighurs and Muslim minorities are forced into so-called “political camps for indoctrination”.

She was addressing the start of a two-day regular examination of the record of China, including Hong Kong and Macao.

A Chinese delegation of some 50 officials made no immediate comment on her remarks at the Geneva session that continues on Monday.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by Tom Miles and Alison Williams)

Hamas fires rockets, Israel bombs Gaza amid talk of truce

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas site that was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon

GAZA/SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday armed factions in Gaza were prepared to halt a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel if the Israeli military stopped its strikes after two days of cross-border violence.

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, and a militant from the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.

The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel. One was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.

The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of an imminent end to the current fighting.

“Factions of the resistance consider this round of escalation over as far as we are concerned, and the continuation of calm depends on the behavior of the occupation,” the official said, using militant factions’ term for Israel.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the official’s remarks.

The official, at a command center used by armed groups in Gaza, said they had been “responding to crimes” by Israel – a reference to the killing on Tuesday, in disputed circumstances, of two Hamas gunmen.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

The latest fighting has stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio before the Palestinian officials comments that Israel was “not eager for war” but would make no concessions to Hamas.

An Israeli policeman walks next to the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was due to hold a security cabinet meeting later in the day after consultations with security officials.

Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 180 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.

Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck more than 150 facilities belonging to Hamas.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel.”

The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.

Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, the latest in 2014.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Hamas says indirect Gaza truce talks with Israel ‘advanced’

Israeli soldiers walk around on the Israeli side near the border line between Israel and the Gaza Strip July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.N.- and Egyptian-mediated talks on a deal to tamp down tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip are in “advanced stages”, a senior member of the Palestinian enclave’s dominant Islamist Hamas group said on Wednesday.

The remarks were echoed by a top Israeli lawmaker, suggesting a possible breakthrough after four months of confrontations and clashes that stirred mutual threats of war.

Still the border remained tense on Wednesday. The Israel army said militant gunfire struck an engineering vehicle along the frontier, and that in response a tank fired at a Hamas post. No injuries were reported.

Shortly after, air raid sirens went off in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, sending residents running for shelter. At least two rockets fell in the area and one person was hurt, according to emergency services.

Palestinian officials then said Israel carried out an air strike in northern Gaza, causing no injuries.

Gazans launched weekly, sometimes violent, border protests against Israel on March 30, their anger exacerbated by a grinding Israeli-Egyptian blockade and funding cuts by Hamas’s rival, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli army has killed at least 158 Palestinians, while a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier. Israel has lost tracts of forest and farmland to fires set by incendiary kites and helium balloons flown over the frontier. There have also been several, mostly bloodless shelling exchanges.

Neither Hamas nor Israel, which last fought a war in 2014, appears keen on another full-blown conflict. But public demands by either side for a detainee release by the other appear to have been a stumbling block in securing a long-term truce.

“We can say that actions led by the United Nations and Egypt are in advanced stages and we hope it could yield some good from them,” Khalil Al-Hayya, deputy Hamas chief in Gaza, told Al Jazeera television.

“What is required is for calm to be restored along the border between us and the Zionist enemy (Israel).”

“NEW DAY”

Israel has played down prospects for a comprehensive ceasefire, speaking in terms of a more limited quid-pro-quo.

In return for calm in Gaza, Israeli officials said on Sunday they would reopen a commercial border terminal that had been shuttered in response to the fire damage, and expand a Palestinian fishing zone.

Netanyahu called off a trip to Colombia this week to attend to the Gaza truce talks, and was due to convene his decision-making security cabinet on Thursday to discuss the negotiations.

Avi Dichter, the committee of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, struck a cautiously upbeat note on Wednesday. “I very much hope that we are on the brink of a new day on the matter of Gaza,” he told reporters.

Neither the United Nations nor Egypt have publicly detailed their proposals for Gaza, beyond saying they should bring extensive economic relief for its 2 million Palestinians, many of them plagued by unemployment and failing public utilities.

Hayya said foreign donors were collecting “hundreds of millions of dollars” for electricity, water, health and job-creation projects in Gaza, but that these “require stability”.

Israel wants to recover the bodies of two soldiers killed in the Gaza war, and wants freedom for two of its civilians who wandered into the enclave, in exchange for any far-ranging truce deal with Hamas.

For its part, Hamas demands that Israel free Palestinian security prisoners – a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners balk at.

“We want to free our brave prisoners and we have no objection to beginning now,” Hayya said. “Let it be a prisoner swap deal, (Palestinian) prisoners in return for Zionist soldiers.”

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)

Trump thanks Kim as North Korea transfers remains of missing U.S. soldiers

A soldier carries a casket containing the remains of a U.S. soldier who was killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

By Joyce Lee and Eric Beech

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea transferred 55 small, flag-draped cases carrying the suspected remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War on Friday, officials said, a first step in implementing an agreement reached in a landmark summit in June.

The repatriation of the remains missing in the 1950-53 conflict is seen as a modest diplomatic coup for U.S. President Donald Trump as it was one of the agreements reached during his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore aimed primarily at securing the denuclearization of the North.

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

A White House statement earlier said: “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”

A U.S. military transport plane flew to an airfield in North Korea’s northeastern city of Wonsan to bring the remains to Osan air base in South Korea, the White House statement said.

Soldiers in dress uniforms with white gloves were seen slowly carrying 55 small cases covered with the blue-and-white U.N. insignia, placing them one by one into silver vans waiting on the tarmac in Osan.

A U.N. honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after it arrived from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuter

A U.N. honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after it arrived from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters

Straight-backed officers looked on next to the flags of the United States, South Korea and the United Nations.

A formal repatriation ceremony would be held at Osan on Wednesday, the White House said.

The remains would then be flown to Hawaii for further processing under the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the U.N. Command said in a statement.

The transfer of the remains coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended fighting between North Korean and Chinese forces on one side and South Korean and U.S.-led forces under the U.N. Command on the other. The two Koreas are technically still at war because a peace treaty was never signed.

Kim paid tribute to the North’s Korean War “martyrs” and to Chinese soldiers killed in the conflict, state media said.

More than 7,700 U.S. troops who fought in the Korean War remain unaccounted for, with about 5,300 of those lost in what is now North Korea.

U.S. soldiers salute to vehicles transporting the remains of 55 U.S. soldiers who were killed in the Korean War at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

U.S. soldiers salute to vehicles transporting the remains of 55 U.S. soldiers who were killed in the Korean War at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

GOODWILL GESTURE

The pledge to transfer war remains was seen as a goodwill gesture by Kim at the June summit and, while it has taken longer than some U.S. officials had hoped, the handover will rekindle hopes for progress in nuclear talks.

Kim committed in a broad summit statement to work toward denuclearization but Pyongyang has offered no details.

South Korea welcomed the return of the remains, calling it “meaningful progress that could contribute to fostering trust” between Pyongyang and Washington.

The two Koreas agreed to hold general-level military talks on Tuesday to discuss ways to implement their own summit in April in which they vowed to defuse tensions, Seoul’s defense ministry said on Friday.

South Korea also said it plans to cut the number of troops from 618,000 to 500,000 by 2020 and the number of generals from 436 to 360 as part of military reforms.

The plan comes amid a thaw in relations between the two Koreas and days after the South pledged to reduce guard posts and equipment along the demilitarized zone on its border with the North.

It would spend 270.7 trillion won ($241.8 billion) on the reforms from 2019-23, which translates into a 7.5 percent rise in its annual defense budget, the ministry said in a statement.

Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the Korean War, calling it the “first process for peace” and an important way Washington can add heft to security guarantees it has pledged in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.

The U.S. State Department says Washington is committed to building a peace mechanism to replace the armistice when North Korea has denuclearised.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate hearing on Wednesday North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs despite of its pledge to denuclearize, even as he argued that the United States was making progress in talks with Pyongyang.

Pompeo said North Korea had begun to dismantle a missile test site, something Kim also promised in Singapore, and called it “a good thing, steps forward”. However, he said Kim needed to follow through on his summit commitments to denuclearize.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning luxury goods said to include recreational sports equipment.

The United States has blocked a request by the International Olympic Committee to transfer sports equipment to North Korea so its athletes can participate in the Olympic Games, United Nations diplomats said on Thursday.

Before Friday’s transfer of remains, the United States and North Korea had worked on so-called joint field activities to recover Korean War remains from 1996-2005. Washington halted those operations, citing concerns about the safety of its personnel as Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear program.

More than 400 caskets of remains found in North Korea were returned to the United States between the 1990s and 2005, with the bodies of some 330 other Americans also accounted for, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Pentagon officials have said discussions with North Korea have included resuming field operations in the North to recover remains.

The program helped bring in vital hard currency to North Korea, which has been under U.S.-led sanctions for decades. However, reviving it could complicate U.S. efforts to persuade countries around the world to maintain economic pressure on Pyongyang over its ballistic and nuclear programs.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Joyce Lee in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Trump’s U.N. envoy: ‘Every day I feel like I put body armor on’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses a United Nations General Assembly meeting ahead of a vote on a draft resolution that would deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump came into office disparaging the United Nations and appointed politician Nikki Haley as the ambassador to carry out his disruptive agenda, but she has also shown Trump how the world body serves his purposes, specifically on North Korea.

The U.N. Security Council’s unanimous adoption of tougher sanctions three times last year that put pressure on Pyongyang to enter talks on scrapping its nuclear weapons program is the example Haley gave Trump in a phone call in June.

In an interview with Reuters, Haley recalled telling Trump: “We would not be in the situation we are with North Korea without the U.N. because that was the only way to get the international community on the same page.”

The United States and other countries believe the sanctions helped to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un around to meeting with Trump at a historic summit in Singapore in June.

Haley said Trump asked her what she thought of the United Nations, then 17 months into her post and after the United States became the first country to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council. She said she rattled off a litany of complaints.

“Unbelievably bureaucratic, it wastes a lot of money, it has some real biases against Israel, against us at times, it ignores a lot that’s going on that needs attention.”

Haley’s relay of their phone call illustrates how she guides the president who shuns the international forums and pacts the United States has helped build over decades. When Trump took office, he called the U.N. “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

Some diplomats have said they see the former South Carolina governor as the stable face of U.S. foreign policy. When Trump leaves them confused, some say they look to her for interpretation.

“My job is to give clarity to everything the administration’s doing so that no one wonders where we are. I always wanted to make sure there was no gray. That it was black and white,” Haley said in the interview during a trip last month to India, the country from which her parents emigrated to the United States.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described Haley’s job as selling the “administration’s anti-U.N. positions to the public.”

“That annoys other diplomats,” Gowan added.

RUSSIA TENSIONS

Haley has long taken a tougher public stance on Russia than her boss. In May she described Russian expansionism in Ukraine as “outrageous” and said the U.S. position “will not waver.”

Days later, however, Trump urged the Group of Seven countries to reinstate Russia, booted out for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Two weeks before Trump’s July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Haley told Reuters that “basically what the president is saying is it’s better for us to have communication than not.”

But then the summit turned into a nightmare for the White House when Trump, at the joint news conference, sided with Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election rather than the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.

A political outcry in Washington drowned out Trump’s message that the two nuclear powers should improve their relations, which are at a post-Cold War low.

Haley has not responded to Reuters’ requests for comment on the summit.

Differences over Russia also caused rare public friction for Haley within the administration when she announced in April that Washington was going to sanction Moscow over its support of Syria’s government. Trump then decided not to go ahead.

“The president has every right to change his mind, every right,” Haley said. Trump never raised the incident with her, she said.

Her U.N. counterparts describe her as charming and yet very tough. She sees herself as a fighter.

“I don’t see (my role) as pushing an ‘America First’ policy, I see it as defending America because every day I feel like I put body armor on. I just don’t know who I’m fighting that day,” Haley said.

Haley carved out a high-profile role within the Trump administration from the moment she was offered the job, telling the president she would only accept it if she was made a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council.

“She’s got an eye and ear for where the politics of an issue are,” said a senior Western diplomat, who, like all those consulted at the United Nations, would only speak on condition of anonymity.

Those kinds of instincts have helped put the 46-year-old mother of two on the list of possible Republican presidential candidates. She dismisses the presidential chatter and said it has never come up with Trump, who intends to run again in 2020, “because he knows he doesn’t need to raise it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

South Korea says sanctions shrank North Korean economy at sharpest rate in 20 years

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean man is photographed from the Chinese side of the border near the town of Changbai, China as he rides a bicycle along the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Hyesan, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Cynthia Kim and Hayoung Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s economy contracted at the sharpest rate in two decades in 2017, South Korea’s central bank estimated on Friday, as international sanctions and drought hit growth hard, with signs living conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea last year shrank 3.5 percent from the previous year, marking the biggest decline since a 6.5 percent drop in 1997 when the isolated nation was hit by a devastating famine, the Bank of Korea said.

North Korea does not publish economic data, and comprehensive public figures on social conditions are nonexistent.

However, analysts believe wider sanctions last year are likely to make the economic deterioration in 2018 worse than 2017, which could add to humanitarian need in the politically isolated state.

“The sanctions were stronger in 2017 than they were in 2016,” Shin Seung-cheol, head of the BOK’s National Accounts Coordination Team said.

“External trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products. It’s difficult to put exact numbers on those but (export bans) crashed industrial production,” Shin said.

Both Seoul and Washington argue that increasingly strict international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program have been instrumental in leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to impose a ban on weapons testing and to negotiate with international leaders.

North Korea has called the sanctions “vicious” but rejects suggestions that the pressure led them to pursue diplomatic talks.

The situation also worsened last year with international experts fearing North Korea was facing the worst drought in 16 years, though late summer rains helped avoid acute food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April vowed to switch the country’s strategic focus from the development of its nuclear arsenal jump starting his economy, but analysts say that will be difficult while sanctions remain in place.

“As long as exports of minerals are part of the sanctions, by far the most profitable item of its exports, Pyongyang will have no choice but to continue with its current negotiations with the U.S.,” said Kim Byeong-yeon, an economics professor at the Seoul National University who specializes in the North Korean economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that sanctions won’t be lifted until Kim moves to give up his nuclear and missile arsenal.

INDUSTRY TAKES A HIT

North Korea’s coal-intensive industries and manufacturing sectors have suffered as the UN Security Council ratcheted up the sanctions in response to years of nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

Industrial production, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s total output, fell 8.5 percent. That marked the steepest decline since 1997 as factory production collapsed on restrictions of flows of oil and other energy resources into the country. Output from agriculture, construction industries fell by 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

China, its biggest trading partner, suspended coal purchases last year which cut North Korea’s main export revenue source while its suspended fuel sales into to country sparked a surge in gasoline and diesel prices, data reviewed by Reuters showed earlier.

Since then, however, fuel prices have stabilized and even dropped in recent weeks, according to a report published last week on the North Korean Economy Watch website.

“My best guess is that it’s a combination of increased smuggling, perhaps aided by China’s declining vigilance in enforcing sanctions and restrictions against illicit trade across the border,” analyst Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in the report.

North Korea’s black market, or Jangmadang, has grown to account for about 60 percent of the economy, according to the Institute for Korean Integration of Society.

“Shrinking trade first hits the Kim regime and top officials, and then later affects unofficial markets,” said Kim at Seoul National University, noting the squeeze would also be felt in household income and private consumption.

China’s total trade with North Korea dropped 59.2 percent in the first half of 2018 from a year earlier, China’s customs data showed last week.

The BOK uses figures compiled by the government and spy agencies to make its economic estimates. The bank’s survey includes monitoring of the size of rice paddy crops in border areas, traffic surveillance, and interviews with defectors.

HUMAN TOLL

Prices for food staples like rice and corn have remained stable under changing sanctions, and there are signs that a growing number of North Koreans have access to electronic appliances, often powered by solar panels, according to data gathered by the DailyNK website.

North Korean defectors in the South, however, say they hear reports of increased suffering.

“The economic status in Hamgyong area was very bad, according to my sources within North Korea,” said Kim Seung-cheol, a defector who heads the NK Reform Radio station in Seoul, referencing an area near the border with China.

“In South Hamgyong, some people died of hunger. Since trade with China fell significantly, foreign traders in the border area are suffering from poverty.”

The United Nations’ top aid official visited the country last week and said there was “clear evidence of humanitarian need.”

Other U.N. officials warn that aid groups face difficulties accessing international banking channels, transporting goods into the North Korea, while rising fuel prices hinder aid delivery.

North Korea’s Gross National Income per capita stands at 1.46 million won ($1,283.52), making it about 4.4 percent the size of South Korea’s, the BOK said.

Overall exports from North Korea dropped 37.2 percent in 2017, marking the biggest fall since a 38.5 percent decline in 1998, the BOK said on Friday, citing data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

($1 = 1,137.5000 won)

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim,; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan hit record as suicide attacks surge

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

By James Mackenzie

KABUL (Reuters) – The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan reached a record in the first half of the year, despite last month’s ceasefire, with a surge in suicide attacks claimed by Islamic State, the United Nations said on Sunday.

Deaths rose 1 percent to 1,692, although injuries dropped 5 percent to 3,430, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its latest civilian casualty report. Overall civilian casualties were down 3 percent.

Hopes that peace may one day be agreed in Afghanistan were raised last month by a three-day truce over the Eid al-Fitr holiday which saw unprecedented scenes of Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in Kabul and other cities.

“The brief ceasefire demonstrated that the fighting can be stopped and that Afghan civilians no longer need to bear the brunt of the war,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the senior U.N. official in Afghanistan said in a statement.

But with heavy fighting seen across the country during the first half the year and repeated suicide attacks in Kabul and major provincial cities like Jalalabad, the report underlines the dire security situation facing Afghanistan.

It also pointed to increased activity by Islamic State, reflected in a doubling in casualties in Nangarhar, the eastern province whose capital is Jalalabad, where the militant group has conducted a series of attacks over recent months.

MINISTRY ATTACKED

The main causes of casualties were ground engagements between security forces and militants, roadside bombs, as well as suicide and other so-called complex attacks, which caused 22 percent more casualties than in the same period last year.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks on targets as diverse as Shi’ite shrines, offices of government ministries and aid groups, sports events and voter registration stations.

On Sunday, the day the report was issued, at least seven people were killed and more than 15 wounded by a suicide attack as staff at a government ministry were going home.

The report said two thirds of civilian casualties were caused by anti-government forces, mainly the Taliban and Islamic State.

Fifty-two percent of the casualties from suicide and complex attacks were attributed to Islamic State, often known as Daesh, while 40 percent were attributed to the Taliban.

The Taliban, who say they take great care to avoid civilian casualties, issued a statement rejecting the report as “one sided” and accused UNAMA of working in close coordination with U.S. authorities to push propaganda against them.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, there is concern about more violence as polling day approaches.

The Taliban, fighting to restore their version of strict Islamic law, have rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks, demanding that foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Robert Birsel and Keith Weir)

Hunt for U.S. Korean War dead will take months to resume, search chief says

U.S. Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency Kelly McKeague, whose agency tracks down and repatriates remains of U.S. soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, speaks at an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, July 9, 2018. Picture taken on July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – North Korea may allow the United States to resume a search for thousands of American war dead from the 1950-53 Korean War, but it will be months before excavations can begin and years until bone fragments are identified, a senior US official said.

“It takes anywhere from a few months to, in many cases, years, before we can make an identification,” Kelly McKeague, head of the U.S. agency that tracks down remains of U.S. soldiers lost on foreign battlefields, said in an interview.

Thirteen years after its last work in North Korea, the agency could return after leader Kim Jong Un agreed at a June 12 summit with President Donald Trump to resume the recovery and repatriation of U.S. remains.

After the summit, Trump said Pyongyang had already “sent back” the remains of 200 U.S. troops. McKeague said no new remains had been returned since the Trump-Kim talks.

“We have yet to see any specifics from that commitment,” said McKeague, director of the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The process could get a kickstart when North Korean and United Nations officials meet on Thursday in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the Koreas to discuss service members missing in action (MIA). DPAA advisers will attend the talks.

“We are hopeful these discussions on July 12 will lead to further discussions and negotiations directly with the North Koreans by which we can actually get down to the detailed planning,” McKeague said.

DPAA investigators face a narrow weather window in North Korea, where the ground is soft enough for digging from mid-March to late September, and rains can stop work in June and August.

The last return of U.S. remains between 1990 and 1995 involved just over 200 caskets. U.S. investigators collected a further 230 boxes of bones and material in a decade of digging.

Using DNA testing, they have identified 630 individuals, of which 330 were matched to missing service members, said Dr. John Byrd, the agency’s director of scientific analysis.

Each person receives a military funeral with full honors.

WORKING IN THE NORTH

Byrd, a forensic anthropologist, was part of a 15-strong DPAA team in North Korea 20 years ago. They lived in tents and traveled to battle sites such as the Chosin Reservoir, where outnumbered U.S. Marine and Army units fought a retreat through overwhelming numbers of Chinese forces in a bitter winter.

Guarded by North Korean soldiers, Byrd said they were careful to avoid arguments that could halt their work.

“We made sure we only brought in really mature experienced people,” he said, adding each day was “going to be negotiated”.

The remains of a South Korean service member identified from that operation will be returned in Seoul on Friday. About 120,000 South Koreans are still missing, according to the DPAA.

Some 7,700 Americans are unaccounted for on the peninsula, with 5,300 believed to be somewhere north of the DMZ.

Detailed historical records allow investigators to locate battlefields, prisoner of war camps and aircraft crash sites.

The Korean peninsula’s colder climate limits digging time, but helps to preserve remains, unlike tropical areas of Asia, where bones rot quickly, McKeague said.

The agency has built up a DNA database from relatives that covers 92 percent of the Korean War missing, versus 85 percent for the Vietnam War and about 5 percent for World War Two.

The North’s lack of economic development since the war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meant it built fewer roads, dams and buildings to disturb or cover remains.

South Korea’s urbanization is one reason why more than a 1,000 U.S. service members are unaccounted for, said McKeague.

If the agency does return to North Korea, he said cooperation will be key. “The most difficult thing in working with the North Koreans was the trust,” he said.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

‘Clear evidence of humanitarian need’ in North Korea: U.N. aid chief

North Korea's Minister of Health Jang Jun Sang meets with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcork in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo released July 11, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS 

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – There is “very clear evidence of humanitarian need” in North Korea, the top U.N. aid official has said during the first visit of its kind to the isolated country since 2011.

U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock arrived in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Monday.

He met Kim Yong Nam, the nominal head of state and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, on Wednesday, the North’s state media said.

Lowcock posted a video online outlining his observations after traveling to several areas in the southwest of the country.

“One of the things we’ve seen is very clear evidence of humanitarian need here,” he said in the video, posted to his official Twitter account and the U.N. website.

“More than half the children in rural areas, including the places we’ve been, have no clean water, contaminated water sources.”

Although humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt under U.N. Security Council resolutions, U.N. officials have warned that international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are exacerbating humanitarian problems by slowing aid deliveries.

About 20 percent of children in North Korea suffer from malnutrition, highlighting the need for more funding for humanitarian aid, Lowcock said.

Access for humanitarian workers was improving, he said without elaborating, but he noted that funding was falling short.

The United Nations says it had to stop nutrition support for kindergartens in North Korea in November because of a lack of funds, and its “2018 Needs and Priorities Plan” for North Korea is 90 percent underfunded.

While visiting a hospital that is not supported by the United Nations, Lowcock said there were 140 tuberculosis patients but only enough drugs to treat 40 of them.

More than 10 million people, some 40 percent of the population of North Korea, need humanitarian assistance, the United Nations said in a statement.

Lowcock was also due to meet humanitarian agency representatives and people receiving assistance to get a better understanding of the humanitarian situation, the United Nations said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.N. view on the European migrant crisis? There isn’t one

FILE PHOTO: Activists from the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms charity place a life jacket on the Christopher Columbus statue after the Open Arms rescue boat arrived at a port in Barcelona, Spain, carrying migrants rescued off Libya, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The European Union is not in the throes of a migration crisis, despite a “toxic narrative” and political spin, U.N. migration experts said on Friday.

Disputes over immigration have divided the European Union, with splits between and within governments about who should take responsibility for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The issue threatened to bring down German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was a major factor in Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

“We consider it a political crisis, not a migrant crisis. The numbers are not that significant,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the U.N. International Organization for Migration.

FILE PHOTO: A crew member of charity ship MV Lifeline reacts during a vigil to commemorate migrants who have lost their lives whilst crossing the Mediterranean, in Valletta's Marsamxett Harbour, Malta July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A crew member of charity ship MV Lifeline reacts during a vigil to commemorate migrants who have lost their lives whilst crossing the Mediterranean, in Valletta’s Marsamxett Harbour, Malta July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

“We are concerned that the toxic narrative against migrants, to put it bluntly, be diminished, and people see migration for what it is. It’s a necessary part of the modern world, provided it’s managed. The issue is that people’s perception is that it’s out of control,” he said.

The numbers of people risking the journey across the sea peaked in 2015, but have fallen sharply in each subsequent year. In the first half of 2018, 46,449 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea, according to the IOM.

“This isn’t a crisis,” said Charley Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. “But what continues to be the case is that a small handful of countries are bearing a disproportionate responsibility for receiving new arrivals.

“What’s needed is for European states to come together with countries in the Mediterranean region as well to establish a fair and equitable distribution of refugees and asylum seekers so that the responsibility is shared.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)