Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iran stops snap nuclear inspections, state-run daily urges caution

DUBAI (Reuters) – An Iranian government newspaper warned on Tuesday that overly radical actions in the nuclear wrangling with the West may lead to the country’s isolation after Tehran ended snap inspections by United Nations inspectors.

Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharibabadi, said it had ended implementation of the so-called Additional Protocol at midnight (2030 GMT) on Monday. The agreement allowed the IAEA to carry out short-notice inspections.

The state-run daily newspaper Iran criticized hardline lawmakers who protested on Monday at Tehran’s decision to permit “necessary” monitoring by U.N. inspectors for up to three months, saying this broke a law passed by parliament in an apparent effort to pressure the United States to lift sanctions.

The law requires ending snap inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog from Tuesday if sanctions are not lifted.

“Those who say Iran must take swift tough action on the nuclear accord should say what guarantee there is that Iran will not be left alone as in the past… and will this end anywhere other than helping build a consensus against Iran?” the daily Iran said.

To create room for diplomacy, the U.N. watchdog IAEA on Sunday reached a deal with Iran to cushion the blow of Tehran’s reduced cooperation and refusal to permit short-notice inspections.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran might enrich uranium up to 60% purity if the country needed it, while repeating a denial of any Iranian intent to seek nuclear weapons.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers, which it has been breaching since the United States withdrew in 2018, caps the fissile purity to which Tehran can refine uranium at 3.67%, well under the 20% achieved before the agreement and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Khamenei’s comments “sounds like a threat” but reiterated U.S. willingness to engage in talks with Iran about returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Washington said last week it was ready to talk to Iran about both nations returning to the accord abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Tehran said last week it was studying a European Union proposal for an informal meeting between current members of the deal and the United States, but has yet to respond to it.

Iran, which has resumed enriching to 20% in an apparent bid to heap pressure on the United States, has been at loggerheads with Washington over which side should take the initial step to revive the accord.

Iranian leaders insist Washington must end its punitive campaign first to restore the deal, while Washington says Tehran must first return to full compliance.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Kim Coghill)

WHO reform needed in wake of pandemic, public health experts say

By Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason

LONDON (Reuters) – The role and remit of the World Health Organization (WHO) should be examined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reforms will likely be needed to free it from politics and give it more independence, public health experts said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and Chikwe Ihekweazu, the head of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control, said the United Nations health agency had faced difficulties in leading a global response to the pandemic.

“We need to reflect on how the global architecture can be improved,” Ferguson said, including a need to rethink “the governance of organizations such as the WHO”.

“One of the challenges it faces is being truly independent,” he said. “Typically, it is influenced by big states. Historically that has been western countries like the United States, and now it’s very much China as well – and that can sometimes prove challenging in situations like the last year.”

Many governments around the world, including in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The WHO has been rocked by a decision last year by the United States to halt its funding and has been accused of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow in sharing crucial information on the new coronavirus which first appeared in the city of Wuhan.

The WHO has repeatedly dismissed such accusations, and China insists it has been open and transparent.

Speaking on the same Reuters Next conference panel, Sweden’s Tegnell said that in his view, “this crisis compared to many of the crises in the last decade has become a lot more politicized.”

“That has made the WHO’s role a lot more difficult,” he said.

Nigeria’s Ihekweazu said he hoped the year ahead would see the world work together more closely to tackle the pandemic, particularly in improving equitable access to vaccines designed to prevent the disease.

‘YEAR OF VACCINES’

While vaccines against COVID-19 are starting to be rolled out in some wealthier countries in Europe and the Americas, poorer nations may have to wait some months before they have access to supplies.

“There’s no doubt this year will be the year of vaccines,”Ihekweazu said, adding that he had just seen an updated map of countries where vaccines have been given already.

“Looking at it from a global perspective, it is heartbreaking,” he said. “But it’s early days, it is January, so we’ll have to see how the year pans out.”

All three experts said they expected populations in their countries and others to face restrictions designed to slow the spread of the pandemic for at least the first half of 2021, and maybe longer if the rollout of vaccines takes more time.

But they said they hoped that by the end of the year, life might start to look a little more like a pre-pandemic normal.

“We have to remember that in the world around us, most likely, this virus will keep on transmitting,” said Tegnell. “So we need to keep a high level of preparedness in place. It’s not going to be an easy life.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason; Editing by Alex Richardson)

2020 likely world’s second hottest year, U.N. says

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – This year is on track to be the second hottest on record, behind 2016, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Wednesday.

Five data sets currently place 2020, a year characterized by heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and raging hurricanes, as the second warmest since records began in 1850.

“2020 is very likely to be one of the three warmest years on record globally,” the Geneva-based U.N. agency said in its State of the Global Climate in 2020 report.

Stoked by extreme heat, wildfires flared across Australia, Siberia and the United States this year, sending smoke plumes around the globe.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech at Columbia University in New York that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are to blame and policies have yet to rise to the challenge.

“To put it simply the state of the planet is broken,” Guterres said. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” he said.

A less visible sign of change was a surge in marine heat to record levels, with more than 80% of the global ocean experiencing a marine heatwave, the WMO said.

“2020 has, unfortunately, been yet another extraordinary year for our climate,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, urging more efforts to curb the emissions.

Greenhouse gas concentrations climbed to a new record in 2019 and have risen so far this year despite an expected drop in emissions due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the WMO said last month.

The latest WMO report said the global mean temperature was around 1.2 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 baseline between January and October this year, placing it second behind 2016 and marginally ahead of 2019.

Hot years have typically been associated with El Niño, a natural event that releases heat from the Pacific Ocean. However, this year coincides with La Niña which has the opposite effect and cools temperatures.

The WMO will confirm the data in March 2021.

A climate pact agreed in Paris five years ago compels countries to make efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above which scientists warn of catastrophic climate change.

While it is not the same as crossing that long-term warming threshold, the WMO says there is at least a one in five chance of temperatures temporarily, on an annual basis, exceeding that level by 2024.

Guterres said that last year natural disasters related to climate change cost the world $150 billion, and that air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually. He urged world leaders to align global finance behind the Paris pact, to commit to reaching net zero emissions, and to fund efforts to adapt to climate change.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Mark Potter and Lisa Shumaker)

United Nations and Ethiopia reach aid pact for war-hit Tigray

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopia and the United Nations agreed on Wednesday to channel desperately-needed humanitarian aid to a northern region where a month of war has killed, wounded and uprooted thousands.

The pact, announced by U.N. officials, gives aid workers access to government-controlled areas of Tigray, where federal troops have been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured the regional capital.

The war is believed to have killed thousands, sent 45,000 refugees into Sudan, displaced many more within Tigray and worsened suffering in a region where 600,000 people already depended on food aid even before the flare-up from Nov. 4.

As hundreds of foreign workers were forced to leave, aid agencies had appealed for urgent safe access.

Food is running out for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray.. And medics in the local capital Mekelle were short of painkillers, gloves and body bags, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at the weekend.

“The U.N. and the Federal Government of Ethiopia have signed an agreement to ensure that humanitarians will have unimpeded, sustained and secure access … to areas under the control of the Federal Government in the Tigray Region,” U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said in a statement to Reuters.

The government has not commented on the agreement.

TELECOMS PARTLY RESTORED

After phone and internet connections were largely shut down when the war began, telecoms in half a dozen towns in Tigray were partly restored, Ethio Telecom said on Wednesday.

The state-run company said it was using alternative power sources and repairing network damage. Reconnected towns included Dansha, Humera and Mai Kadra, all controlled by the military.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory after Mekelle’s fall over the weekend, as TPLF leaders fled for the hills.

On Wednesday, he shifted focus to next year’s parliamentary election, meeting with political parties and election officials about the mid-2021 vote, his office said.

His government postponed it this year due to COVID-19, but Tigray went ahead anyway and re-elected the TPLF, a guerrilla movement-turned-political party.

That defiance was one reason for the federal government’s military offensive against TPLF leaders, a conflict that may jeopardize political reforms since Abiy took office in 2018.

Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader at 44 who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for a pact with Eritrea, was pictured in battle fatigues meeting military officers in photos tweeted by his official photographer on Wednesday.

He took Ethiopia’s top job after nearly three decades of a TPLF-led national government, which had become increasingly repressive, jailing opponents and banning opposition parties.

Abiy removed Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for an ethnic group accounting for just 6% of Ethiopia’s population. The military went in when a federal army base was ambushed in Tigray.

ADDIS ABABA BLAST

The TPLF casts their former military comrade and partner in government as bent on dominating them to increase his personal grip over the vast nation of 115 million people, which is split into 10 regions run by different ethnic groups.

Abiy, who hails from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethic groups, calls the Tigrayan leaders criminals opposing national unity and plotting attacks in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Federal police blamed the TPLF, without offering proof, for a small blast in the capital on Wednesday that injured an officer lightly. There was no immediate response from the TPLF.

There has been little verifiable information from Mekelle, the highland city of 500,000 people, since it fell on Saturday.

TPLF leaders say they are continuing to fight from surrounding mountainous areas.

“Wars are not like taps that you turn on and then turn off. This is going to be a very long, drawn-out process,” Horn of Africa expert Rashid Abdi told an online forum.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tim Cocks; Editing by Maggie Fick and Alison Williams)

Afghan government, Taliban announce breakthrough deal to pursue peace talks

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government and Taliban representatives said on Wednesday they had reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United Nations and Washington.

The agreement lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.

“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, while the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces continuing unabated.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Taliban insurgents refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.

“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America’s longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.

UN envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.

Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the insurgents balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.

“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional… so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Israel, Lebanon resume talks on disputed maritime border

NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) – Israel and Lebanon resumed U.S.-mediated talks on Wednesday on a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, the Israeli energy minister and Lebanon’s state news agency said.

The longtime foes held three rounds of talks last month hosted by the United Nations at a peacekeeper base in southern Lebanon which the world body and the United States have described as “productive”.

But sources had said that gaps between the sides remain large after they each presented contrasting maps outlining proposed borders that actually increased the size of the disputed area.

The next round of talks will be held in December, a joint statement from the United States and the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon said, as did Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in a separate communique. They did not provide further details about Wednesday’s discussions.

Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

The meetings are the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, and follow a series of deals under which three Arab nations – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – agreed to establish full relations with Israel.

Lebanon has said its talks are strictly limited to their disputed boundary.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. formally exits global climate pact amid election uncertainty

By Valerie Volcovici and Kate Abnett

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States formally exited the Paris Agreement on Wednesday, fulfilling an old promise by President Donald Trump to withdraw the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter from the global pact to fight climate change.

But the outcome of the tight U.S. election contest will determine for how long. Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, has promised to rejoin the agreement if elected.

“The U.S. withdrawal will leave a gap in our regime, and the global efforts to achieve the goals and ambitions of the Paris Agreement,” Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told Reuters.

The United States still remains a party to the UNFCCC. Espinosa said the body will be “ready to assist the U.S. in any effort in order to rejoin the Paris Agreement”.

Trump first announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the pact in June 2017, arguing it would undermine the U.S. economy. The administration formally served notice to the United Nations one year ago on Nov. 4, 2019.

The departure makes the United States the only country of 197 signatories to have withdrawn from the agreement struck in 2015.

“If climate deniers keep control of the White House and Congress, delivering a climate-safe planet will be more challenging,” said Laurence Tubiana, a former French diplomat instrumental in brokering the Paris accord, who now heads the non-profit European Climate Foundation.

Calling the withdrawal a “lost opportunity”, Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, chair of the African Group of Negotiators in global climate talks, said it would also create a shortfall in global climate finances. He pointed to an Obama-era pledge to contribute $3 billion to a fund to help vulnerable countries tackle climate change, of which only $1 billion was delivered.

UNIVERSAL SUPPORT

Other major emitters have pressed on with climate action, even without guarantees the U.S. will follow suit.

A spokeswoman for the European Union’s executive Commission said the Paris accord has the “universal support” of the rest of the international community.

China, Japan and South Korea have all followed the EU in pledging to become carbon neutral. The challenge now is to translate these long-term targets for 2050 – or, in China’s case, for 2060 – into policies to slash emissions this decade.

A strong emissions-cutting pledge from the world’s largest economy “would give a big shot of momentum” to those efforts, said Pete Betts, a former climate negotiator for the EU and Britain, who is now an associate fellow at London-based think-tank Chatham House.

“The U.S. would put its diplomatic heft in efforts to persuade other major economies to raise their efforts,” he said.

Countries representing 51% of the world’s emissions have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to net zero – with some going further and committing to zero out all greenhouse gases, research coalition Climate Action Tracker said.

A net zero pledge from the United States – which Biden says he would make, if elected – would see 63% of global emissions covered by such commitments.

Despite the lack of encouragement from the current White House, many U.S. states and businesses have nonetheless moved to cut emissions, while climate change has risen up the global investor agenda, including on Wall Street.

Groups representing New York-based BlackRock Inc, the world’s largest asset manager, and other asset managers in the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, who manage trillions of dollars in assets between them, issued a joint statement urging the United States to quickly rejoin the accord.

If Biden were to win, he could rejoin the Paris accord through a process that would take 30 days.

A Trump win, however, would “seal the fate of the United States – at least at the federal level – as a country that was isolated from the rest of the world: powerless to shape the international dialogue or direction on climate,” said Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Kate Abnett; additional reporting by Matthew Green in London; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, David Gregorio, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Kirsten Donovan)

Danish filmmaker says he can share evidence on North Korea trying to skirt sanctions

COPENHAGEN/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Danish director of a new documentary that with hidden cameras shows apparent attempts to evade a U.N. ban on arms trading with North Korea said he is keen to share an “enormous” amount of material not included in the film.

“The Mole,” by maverick filmmaker Mads Bruegger, charts what he says was a 10-year undercover operation by a retired Copenhagen chef to infiltrate a network of sanctions-breakers linked to the head of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), an international group that promotes friendly ties with Pyongyang.

“The material we have is huge,” Bruegger told Reuters on Tuesday, two days after his documentary aired on Danish TV. “I would like to meet with the U.N.’s North Korea expert panel to start a dialogue about what they would be interested in.”

A spokesman at the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm declined to comment. The head of the KFA denied any involvement in attempts to violate the arms embargo against Pyongyang.

In the documentary, the former chef – who has long been fascinated with communist dictatorships – pretends to be a supporter of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and joins the Friendship Association.

After becoming a trusted member, he hires a former French Foreign Legion soldier to play an arms trader and the two travel to North Korea for meetings about possible arms deals, apparently winning the trust of North Korean officials.

They also agree a deal with the North Korean regime to build an underground factory in Uganda to produce weapons and drugs.

The documentary names certain key North Korean officials and shows entire catalogues of North Korean weapons for sale, including tanks, medium-range ballistic missiles and thermobaric explosives.

“If the film in any way can help to slow down North Korea’s tenacity in terms of breaking sanctions and spreading their weapons across in the world, then I would be very happy about that,” Bruegger said.

None of the deals mooted in the film are consummated and eventually, as partners start to demand money, Bruegger makes the ex-legionnaire playing the arms dealer disappear. The filmmakers say their evidence has been presented to the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm, but there has been no response.

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Denmark said following the airing of the film that they would raise the issue of sanctions busting at the United Nations and European Union.

North Korea has been subject since 2006 to U.N. sanctions, which have been strengthened by the Security Council over the years in efforts to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs.

The documentary, filmed over the course of a decade, is a co-production between public broadcasters in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Britain.

(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Simon Johnson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lebanon and Israel, long-time foes, to start talks on disputed waters

By Dominic Evans and Ari Rabinovitch

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon and Israel, formally still at war after decades of conflict, launch talks on Wednesday to address a long-running dispute over their maritime border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The U.S.-mediated talks follow three years of diplomacy by Washington and were announced weeks after it stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

They also come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.

Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy. Israel’s energy minister also said expectations should be realistic.

“We are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, rather an attempt to solve a technical, economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of offshore natural resources,” minister Yuval Steinitz tweeted.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the decision to go ahead with the talks as historic, and said Washington looked forward to separate talks later over disagreements on the land border.

Wednesday’s meeting will be hosted by the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.

A Lebanese security source says the two sides will meet in the same room in UNIFIL’s base in south Lebanon, but will direct their talks through a mediator.

LEBANON CRISIS

Disagreement over the sea border had discouraged oil and gas exploration near the disputed line.

That may be a minor irritation for Israel, which already pumps gas from huge offshore fields. For Lebanon, yet to find commercial reserves in its own waters, the issue is more pressing.

Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

Struggling to form a new government to tackle the multiple crises, some Lebanese politicians even argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team, with the prime minister’s office complaining it was not consulted by the presidency.

“The Lebanese negotiator will be much fiercer than you can imagine because we have nothing to lose,” caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said.

Hezbollah’s political ally, the Amal party, has also come under pressure. Last month the United States sanctioned Amal leader Nabih Berri’s top aide for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist organization.

David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who landed in Beirut on Tuesday, has said more sanctions remained in play.

For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to start the border talks is a “tactical decision to neutralize the tensions and the prospect of sanctions ahead of the U.S. elections,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Berri, a Shi’ite leader who led the border file, has denied being pushed into the talks.

In 2018 Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out long-delayed offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them contains disputed waters.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)