Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 indicated the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel of independent investigators, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide”.

A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.

At a news conference in Myanmar on Friday, military spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi called the accusations “groundless” and based on “talking stories”.

“I cannot read out what they mentioned in their report, because it is not suitable to say in front of women in polite society,” he said.

Myanmar has laws against sexual assault, he added, and soldiers were warned against it at military schools.

“If you look at these experts, don’t they know our country’s law or respect it?” he asked.

The Myanmar government has refused entry to the U.N. investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.

In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.

“The mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.

The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”

It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”

“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the panel said.

The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list to be given to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another U.N. inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

Iran tanker heads to Greece after release, Iran warns U.S against seizure attempt

FILE PHOTO - Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, sails after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

DUBAI (Reuters) – An Iranian tanker sailed through the Mediterranean toward Greece on Monday after it was released from detention off Gibraltar, and Tehran said that any at U.S. move to seize the vessel again would have “heavy consequences”.

The Grace 1, renamed the Adrian Darya 1, left anchorage off Gibraltar about 11 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Sunday. Refinitiv ship tracking data showed on Monday that the vessel was heading to Kalamata in Greece and was scheduled to arrive next Sunday at 0000 GMT.

The seizure of the tanker by British Royal Marines near Gibraltar in July 4 on suspicion of carrying oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions led to a weeks-long stand-off between Tehran and the West. It also heightened tensions on international oil shipping routes through the Gulf.

Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, lifted the detention order on Thursday but the next day a federal court in Washington issued a warrant for the seizure of the tanker, the oil it carries and nearly $1 million.

FILE PHOTO - A crew member raises the Iranian flag on Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, as it sits anchored after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

FILE PHOTO – A crew member raises the Iranian flag on Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, as it sits anchored after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Gibraltar said on Sunday it could not comply with that request because it was bound by EU law. Washington wanted to detain the tanker on the grounds that it had links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which it has designated a terrorist organization.

“We are happy this ordeal has ended and I hope this will lead to less escalation,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said while visiting Finland.

He also said the U.S. warrant had no legal basis and was politically motivated to “make more escalation”.

Greek authorities had no immediate comment on the situation.

Iran said on Monday any U.S. attempt to seize the tanker would have “heavy consequences”.

Asked whether the United States could renew its seizure request after the tanker sailed from Gibraltar, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “Such an action, and even the talk of it … would endanger shipping safety in open seas.”

“Iran has issued the necessary warnings through official channels, especially the Swiss embassy, to American officials not to commit such an error because it would have heavy consequences,” Mousavi said in remarks broadcast on state television.

Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

The Adrian Darya 1, which was re-flagged to Iran after being de-listed by Panama on May 29, was fully laden and carrying about 2 million barrels of oil, Refinitiv data showed. The cargo was valued at tens of millions of dollars.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May last year, while the European Union is still part of the accord, which allows Tehran to sell its oil.

Washington wants to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero and has re-imposed U.S. sanctions which place heavy penalties on any breaches even for non-U.S. citizens and companies, including asset freezes and being cut off from the U.S. financial system.

While EU regulations still allow for companies and citizens in the bloc to trade with Iran, falling foul of U.S. sanctions has meant most banks are unwilling to process even authorized transactions such as for food and medicine, finance sources say.

This is likely to be the first major foreign policy challenge for Greece’s new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis since he took office in July if the vessel enters Greek territorial waters.

Zarif said Iran could not reveal where the oil would go.

“Because of US sanctions we cannot be very transparent with the destination,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Greek coastguard said they had no formal information the vessel is heading to Kalamata and are monitoring the matter.

TANKER HELD BY IRAN

Separately, a senior Iranian lawmaker said a crisis in Iran’s ties with Britain, which included Tehran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker last month, would not be over until the tanker reached its destination.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on July 19 seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz waterway for alleged marine violations, two weeks after the Grace 1 was commandeered.

“Until the Iranian oil tanker arrives at its destination the British must help end the crisis,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of parliament’s national security and foreign affairs committee, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

“The crisis with Britain is not over. Britain has the primary responsibility for ending the oil tanker crisis,” Falahatpisheh said.

Mousavi said that Tehran was waiting for a court decision on alleged maritime violations by the Stena Impero and he hoped the procedures would be completed as soon as possible.

The head of Iran’s judiciary Ebrahim Raisi also said “Iran should claim damages…to teach a lesson to those who acted against international laws and regulations by seizing the tanker”.

Iran has denied its tanker was ever headed to Syria, a close ally of Tehran.

The two vessels have since become pawns in a bigger game, feeding into wider hostilities since the United States pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Parisa Hafezi, Lisa Barrington, Anna Ringstrom in Helsinki Jonathan Saul in London, George Georgiopoulos in Athens and Harshith Aranya in Bengaluru; Editing by Angus MacSwan/William Maclean)

North Korea took $2 billion in cyber attacks to fund weapons program: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korea has generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyberattacks to steal from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges, according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters on Monday.

Pyongyang also “continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs although it did not conduct a nuclear test or ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) launch,” said the report to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee by independent experts monitoring compliance over six months.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment on the report, which was submitted to the Security Council committee last week.

The experts said North Korea “used cyberspace to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks to steal funds from financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges to generate income.” They also used cyberspace to launder the stolen money, the report said.

“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cyber actors, many operating under the direction of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, raise money for its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs, with total proceeds to date estimated at up to two billion US dollars,” the report said.

North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Reconnaissance General Bureau is a top North Korean military intelligence agency.

The U.N. experts said North Korea’s attacks against cryptocurrency exchanges allowed it “to generate income in ways that are harder to trace and subject to less government oversight and regulation than the traditional banking sector.”

The Security Council has unanimously imposed sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Council has banned exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capped imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

U.S. President Donald Trump has met with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un three times, most recently in June when he became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.

They agreed to resume stalled talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. The talks have yet to resume and in July and early August, North Korea carried out three short-range missiles tests in eight days.

The U.N. report was completed before last week’s missile launches by North Korea, but noted that “missile launches in May and July enhanced its overall ballistic missile capabilities.”

The U.N. experts said that despite the diplomatic efforts, their “investigations show continued violations” of U.N. sanctions.

“For example, the DPRK continued to violate sanctions through ongoing illicit ship-to-ship transfers and procurement of WMD-related items and luxury goods,” the U.N. report said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. still hopes for talks after latest North Korean missile tests

People watch a TV broadcast of a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s latest missile launches did not violate a pledge its leader Kim Jong Un made to U.S. President Donald Trump, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday, but efforts to resume denuclearization talks remained in doubt.

Kim oversaw the first test firing of what North Korean state media called a “new-type large-caliber multiple-launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday.

North Korean television showed rockets launching from a vehicle that had been blurred in photos to obscure its features.

U.S. officials said North Korea appeared to have carried out a new projectile launch early on Friday Korea time, adding that initial information indicated the activity was similar to the other recent tests. The officials said it was unclear how many projectiles had been launched in the latest test.

The launches came days after North Korea tested two short-range ballistic missiles on July 25 and despite a meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30 at which the agreed to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

The tests appeared intended to put pressure on South Korea and the United States to stop planned military exercises and offer other concessions and came as diplomats criss-crossed the region this week in the hope of restarting the talks.

“The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong Un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

“But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin,” he said.

“We’ve been waiting to hear since June the 30th,” Bolton told the network in a subsequent interview. “We’re ready for working-level negotiations. The president’s ready, when the time is right, for another summit. Let’s hear from North Korea.”

South Korea and Japan were concerned by the launches, “because they’re within range, we think, of this particular missile,” Bolton added without mentioning the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both countries.

NUCLEAR ARSENAL

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vipin Narang said the missile tests were part of the North Korean leader’s approach to diplomacy: “He’s saying it will take more than a photo op to get things moving.”

While Trump and his administration have sought to play down the tests, Narang said they were a stark reminder that every day Washington and its allies fail to secure an agreement North Korea continues to improve and expand its nuclear and missile arsenals.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped talks would start soon, though he “regretted” that a highly anticipated meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would not take place in Thailand this week.

Ri has canceled a trip to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in Bangkok that Pompeo is attending.

“We stand ready to continue our diplomatic conversation,” Pompeo told a news conference in Bangkok, adding that he was optimistic Kim would deploy his team for working-level talks “before too long”.

At the United Nations on Thursday, Britain, France and Germany called on North Korea to engage in “meaningful” talks with the United States and said international sanctions needed to be fully enforced until Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Their statement came after a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the latest launches.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the launches were a reminder of the need to restart denuclearization talks.

China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, welcomed the U.S. readiness to restart working-level talks, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said in Bangkok, following talks with Pompeo.

While China has signed up for U.N. sanctions on North Korea, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Trump in a meeting in Japan last month “to show flexibility and meet the North Koreans half way, including easing sanctions in due course.”

The United States and North Korea have yet to narrow key differences and a summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed over U.S. demands for North Korea’s complete denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

North Korea has accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning to go ahead with military drills with South Korea this month and has said they could derail dialogue.

It has also warned of a possible end to its freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests in place since 2017, which Trump has repeatedly held up as evidence of the success of his engagement with Kim.

A senior U.S. defense official said on Wednesday that the United States did not plan to make changes to the drills.

‘FAT TARGET’

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea had fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday that flew about 250 km (155 miles).

Such launches are banned under U.N. resolutions designed to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean images of the launches appeared to show a type of multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). Such systems form a major part of North Korea’s conventional arsenal, according to a 2018 assessment by South Korea’s defense ministry.

North Korean media said the tests verified the combat effectiveness of the overall rocket system and Kim predicted: “it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon.”

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, along with 8,600 field guns, 4,300 tanks, and 2,500 armored vehicles, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith in SEOUL and David Brunnstromin WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Cate Cadell, Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK, David Alexanderand Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

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

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

By Michelle Nichols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia and Russia among 37 states backing China’s Xinjiang policy

FILE PHOTO: People hold signs protesting China's treatment of the Uighur people, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, Russia and 35 other states have written to the United Nations supporting China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters on Friday, in contrast to strong Western criticism.

China has been accused of detaining a million Muslims and persecuting ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, and 22 ambassadors signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council this week criticizing its policies.

But the letter supporting China commended what it called China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.

“Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” the letter said.

The letter said security had returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there had been safeguarded. It added there had been no terrorist attack there for three years and people enjoyed a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security.

As well as Saudi Arabia and Russia, the letter was signed by ambassadors from many African countries, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, the Philippines, Syria, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Beijing has denied any human rights violations in the region and Chinese Ambassador Xu Chen, speaking at the close of the Council’s three-week session on Friday, said China highly appreciated the support it had received from the signatories.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)

Iran says it has breached 2015 nuclear deal’s stockpile limit

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York, New York, U.S. April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi and Francois Murphy

DUBAI/VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has breached the limit of its enriched uranium stockpile set in a 2015 deal with major powers, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday, according to the ISNA news agency, defying a warning by European co-signatories to stick to the deal despite U.S. sanctions.

Zarif confirmed that Iran had exceeded the relevant limit of 300 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), but Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran’s steps to decrease its commitments to the nuclear deal were “reversible”.

The International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA) said that its inspectors were verifying whether Iran had accumulated more enriched uranium than allowed.

“Our inspectors are on the ground and they will report to headquarters as soon as the LEU (low-enriched uranium) stockpile has been verified, a spokesman for the U.N. agency said.

Enriching uranium to a low level of 3.6% fissile material is the first step in a process that could eventually allow Iran to amass enough highly-enriched uranium to build a nuclear warhead.

Last Wednesday, the IAEA verified that Iran had roughly 200 kg of low-enriched uranium, just below the deal’s 202.8 kg limit, three diplomats who follow the agency’s work told Reuters. A quantity of 300 kg of UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) corresponds to 202.8 kg of LEU.

After talks on Friday in Vienna, Iran said European countries had offered too little in the way of trade assistance to persuade it to back off from its plan to breach the limit, a riposte to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to quit the deal and reimpose economic sanctions.

Mousavi urged them on Monday to step up their efforts. “Time is running out for them to save the deal,” state TV quoted him as saying.

The deal between Iran and six world powers lifted most international sanctions against Iran in return for restrictions on its nuclear work aimed at extending the time Iran would need to produce a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, from roughly 2-3 months to a year.

ISRAEL WORRIED

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, including generating power. Its regional adversary Israel, which Iran does not recognize, says the program presents it with an existential threat.

Joseph Cohen, head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, urged the international community to stop Iran from “stepping up enrichment”.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb,” he told the Herzliya security conference before Zarif’s announcement.

“The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

In May, Washington piled pressure on Tehran by ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil, and tensions have been growing in the Gulf ever since.

Washington has dispatched extra forces to the Middle East, and U.S. fighter jets came within minutes of conducting air strikes on Iran last month after Tehran downed an unmanned American drone.

In a speech on Monday broadcast on state TV, Iranian Zarif said: “Iran will never yield to pressure from the United States … If they want to talk to Iran, they should show respect …

“Never threaten an Iranian … Iran has always resisted pressure, and has responded with respect when respected.”

Trump has called for negotiations with Iran with “no preconditions”, but Tehran has ruled out talks until the United States returns to the nuclear pact and drops its sanctions.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Francois Murphy in Vienna, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

U.N. official urges China not to deport North Korean escapees, who could face torture

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – China should not repatriate the increasing number of North Korean escapees it has arrested in recent months, because severe punishment faces those sent home, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Friday.

At least 30, if not more, North Korean escapees have been rounded up in raids across China since mid-April, families and activist groups told Reuters this month, in what activists have called a “severe” crackdown.

At the time, the Chinese foreign ministry told Reuters it was not aware of any arrests. Activists and lawyers say there is no sign yet that the North Koreans have been deported.

“Information suggests China may have recently strengthened the search for North Korean escapees in collaboration with the government of North Korea,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.

“Repatriated North Koreans are at great risk of serious human rights violations, including torture,” Quintana told reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“The government of North Korea criminalizes those who cross the border irregularly.”

Quintana said he had raised concerns over the fate of North Korean escapees detained in China, and discussed the issue with South Korean officials during his trip to Seoul.

Escapees may face particularly severe punishment, including being sent to political prison camps, if they intended to defect to South Korea or if they were helped by Christian groups, he said.

Quintana displayed an old lock that he had been given by a boy who escaped from North Korea.

“He gave me this lock as a symbol of the need to open up the country,” Quintana said.

The United Nations has previously raised concern over North Korea’s continued use of political prison camps, and Quintana said people “live in fear of being sent to them”.

The North Korean government plays a role in exacerbating the country’s food shortages, he added.

North Korean officials have adopted “failing economic and agricultural policies”, including central rationing systems plagued by shortcomings and discriminatory allocation, he said.

Climate conditions, infertile land, and the negative impact of sanctions had contributed to food insecurity, Quintana said.

“At the same time the government is not developing conditions where people can securely access food through markets without being criminalized.”

He said he supported the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, which was a joint economic project with South Korea that has been shut down for several years.

The jobs provided to North Koreans at the factories there improved employees’ lives and as a human rights matter, the project should be reopened, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Four million Venezuelans have fled crisis: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail into Brazil, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Four million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled an economic and political crisis in their homeland, all but 700,000 of them since the end of 2015, U.N. aid agencies said on Friday.

The “alarming” figure highlights the urgent need to support host countries, mainly in Latin America – led by Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina – the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement issued in Geneva.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)