Trump says he is withdrawing earlier North Korea-related sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he was ordering the withdrawal of recently announced North Korea-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large-scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea,” Trump said on Twitter. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

It was not immediately clear what sanctions Trump was referring to. There were no new U.S. sanctions on North Korea announced on Friday but on Thursday the United States blacklisted two Chinese shipping companies that it said helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not specify which sanctions Trump spoke of but said: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim (Jong Un) and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

The sanctions on the Chinese shippers were the first since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month. Hours after the sanctions announcement, North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with the South, a major setback for Seoul.

North Korea said it was quitting the joint liaison office set up in September in the border city of Kaesong after a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in early last year.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; writing by David Alexander; editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott)

Islamic State no longer holds territory in Syria: White House

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State no longer holds any territory in Syria, a White House spokeswoman said on Friday after Washington’s local ally in Syria reported that fighting with the jihadists continued at the site of their last enclave.

U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan briefed President Donald Trump as he was traveling to Florida on Air Force One, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has yet to announce a final territorial defeat of Islamic State in its last enclave in Baghouz and said on Friday that though it has captured most of the area, there are still pockets of jihadist fighters.

A Reuters journalist at Baghouz heard air strikes there on Friday afternoon and saw smoke rising.

The SDF has been battling for weeks to defeat Islamic State in Baghouz in southeastern Syria at the Iraqi border, all that remained of the territory the militants ruled, which once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters SDF fighters had captured most of the Baghouz area and clashed overnight with IS militants in more than two positions where they were refusing to surrender.

The jihadists were holed up in what appeared to be caves in a rocky shelf overlooking Baghouz, and in trenches by the nearby Euphrates River, he said. “Our forces are trying to force them to surrender, but so far the clashes are continuing.”

Though the defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz ends its grip overpopulated territory, the group remains a threat, with fighters operating in remote territory elsewhere and capable of mounting insurgent attacks.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Qamishli, a Reuters journalist in Baghouz and Roberta Rampton aboard Air Force One; Writing by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; Editing by Robert Birsel/Mark Heinrich)

American Airlines pilots will test 737 MAX software fix in Boeing simulator

FILE PHOTO: An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO (Reuters) – American Airlines pilots will test Boeing Co’s 737 MAX software fix on simulators this weekend, the pilots’ union told Reuters on Thursday, a key step in restoring confidence in the jet after two fatal crashes.

Boeing has been working on a software upgrade for an anti-stall system and pilot displays on its fastest-selling jetliner in the wake of the deadly Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October.

Similarities between the flight path in the Lion Air incident and a fatal Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 have raised fresh questions about the system. The two crashes killed a total of 346 people.

American is the second-largest U.S. operator of the MAX in the United States with 24 jets, behind Southwest Airlines with 34.

“This airplane can be a safe airplane, and there have been great strides on getting a fix in the works, but I’ll have a better feel after we can test it out,” said Mike Michaelis, safety committee chairman of the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots.

Michaelis said one APA pilot and one pilot from American’s management team would test the software fix in Renton, Washington, where Boeing builds the MAX and has two simulators.

“We have been engaging with all 737 MAX operators and we are continuing to schedule meetings to share information about our plans for supporting the 737 MAX fleet,” Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said.

MAX jets were grounded worldwide in the wake of the Ethiopian crash.

Boeing has indicated it would deploy the software update by April or sooner, though it was unclear how long it would take to get the jets flying again. Pilots must complete FAA-approved computer-based training on the changes, followed by a mandatory test, and some pilots have said more may be needed.

After Lion Air, American pilots met with Boeing executives in Fort Worth, Texas and demanded to know why the manufacturer had not told them about the new system, known as MCAS.

They also questioned whether a 56-minute iPad course on the MAX had been sufficient.

MAX simulator training is not required, partly because few simulators exist. Southwest and American expect to receive MAX simulators later this year.

The main simulator producer, Canada’s CAE Inc, said it has delivered nine of the simulators, which are now in high demand but take about a year to build. CAE expects to deliver 20 more in 2019.

“When it comes to safety issues, it has to be a full-course meal, nothing a la carte,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the American Airlines pilots’ union and a 737 pilot.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; editing by Darren Schuettler and Nick Zieminski)

North Korea quits liaison office in setback for South after new U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave during a car parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 18, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin and David Brunnstrom

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea on Friday pulled out of a liaison office with the South, in a major setback for Seoul, just hours after the United States imposed the first new sanctions on the North since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month.

North Korea said it was quitting the joint liaison office set up in September in the border city of Kaesong after a historic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in early last year.

“The North’s side pulled out after conveying to us that they are doing so on the instructions from a higher level, during a liaison officials’ contact this morning,” South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung told a briefing.

South Korea regrets the decision and urged a swift normalisation of the arrangement, Chun said, adding the South would continue to staff the office, set up as a regular channel of communication to ease hostility between the rivals, which technically remain at war.

The move came after the United States on Thursday blacklisted two Chinese shipping companies it says helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear program and cited 67 vessels it said engaged in illicit trade helping the North.

It was the first such step since a second meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi broke down over conflicting demands by the North for relief from sanctions and from the United States for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

The North’s withdrawal from the office was another blow to Moon, who has seen his standing as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington deteriorate and divisions grow within his government over how to break the impasse.

Moon’s administration had touted the office as a major feat resulting from his own summit with Kim last year despite U.S. concerns about possible loosening of sanctions.

The South’s Chun said he would not directly link the North’s move to the failed Hanoi summit. But experts saw a pattern in the North lashing out against the South when its crucial strategic position with Washington is in jeopardy.

“The North sees its nuclear issue and ties with the United States as a matter of greater strategic importance, so when they try to assert its position, they sacrifice the ties with the South, which is considered inferior,” said Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Moon’s office reacted by holding an urgent meeting, headed by his national security adviser, to discuss the withdrawal.

The won weakened about 0.4 percent against the dollar in non-deliverable forward (NDF) trade after the news.

NEW SANCTIONS

The U.S. Treasury Department identified two Chinese firms for new sanctions – Dalian Haibo International Freight Co Ltd and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co Ltd – which had helped the North evade U.S. and international sanctions, it said.

It also cited 67 vessels for engaging in illicit transfers of refined petroleum with North Korean tankers or facilitating the export of the North’s coal.

Reuters was unable to locate contact details for either of the Chinese companies to seek comment.

The U.S. sanctions prohibit U.S. dealings with the designated companies and freezes any assets they have in the United States.

“The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The latest sanctions showed there was some “leakage” in North Korea sanctions enforcement by China, but it was mostly abiding by U.N. resolutions, a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

While declining to say whether Washington was trying to send a post-summit message to Pyongyang, the official said Trump “has made clear that the door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea.”

LIMBO

U.S.-North Korean engagement has appeared to be in limbo since the Feb. 27-28 summit, despite U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying on March 4 he was hopeful he could send a team to North Korea “in the next couple of weeks.”

North Korea has warned it is considering suspending talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests, in place since 2017, unless Washington makes concessions.

Activity was detected at the North’s main rocket test facility around the time of the failed summit, fueling concern that Pyongyang may be about to resume weapons development to ratchet up pressure on Washington.

On Monday, two senior U.S. senators called for the Trump administration to correct a slowing pace of American sanctions designations on North Korea, saying such actions had seen a marked decline in the past year of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

They pointed to a recent U.N. report that North Korea continued to defy U.N. sanctions with an increase in smuggling of petroleum products and coal and violation of bans on arms sales.

A U.N. sanctions panel said in the report Liaoning Danxing was suspected of illicitly shipping Mercedes-Benz limousines to North Korea. Last July, the Netherlands seized a cargo of Belarusian vodka, also banned as luxury goods, en route to North Korea via the company, it said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo in Seoul and Gao Liangping and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers stand on tanks near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government vowed to take back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday for moving to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.

Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East conflict and annexed in 1981 – a move not recognized internationally.

Against this backdrop of hostility toward the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut on Friday after visiting Israel. He is expected to raise pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Trump’s declaration is the latest U.S. step to fuel anger in the region, both in states that are hostile to Israel and others that have relations with it and are allied to the United States.

It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the city’s disputed status remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilizing the region, and it voiced hope the statement was just declaratory.

Iran, Assad’s main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.

“The personal decisions of Trump…will lead to crisis in the region,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

Turkey, a U.S. ally and an adversary of Damascus, also said the move had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his gesture “at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”. It could help Netanyahu in the midst of a tough re-election battle, analysts said.

The Syrian government said the Golan was an “indivisible” part of Syrian territory and recovering it “via all means guaranteed by international law is still a priority”.

It said United States with its “stupidity and arrogance” had no right to decide the fate of the area and any move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over it was “an illegal action with no impact”.

After remaining calm for decades since a 1974 armistice monitored by U.N. peacekeepers, Golan re-emerged as a flashpoint for regional tensions during the Syrian war. Last May, Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of launching a rocket salvo into its territory from the Syrian side of the truce line.

Israel, which has mounted numerous air strikes against what it has called Iran-backed targets in Syria, has demanded Russia keep forces allied to Tehran away from the boundary.

The Syrian side was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.

U.S. OFFICIAL: ISRAEL “COULD NOT GIVE UP THE GOLAN”

Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House adviser, said “under any conceivable circumstance, Israel could not give up the Golan”. “To do so would endanger Israel’s very existence,” he wrote on Twitter.

But Fouad Mundhir, a Syrian whose village is in Israeli-occupied Golan, said Trump was “canceling the will of an entire nation”. “You say you are carrying the flag of democracy, okay, Mr. Trump, have you taken into account the will of the people of the Golan?” he told Reuters in Jaramana, near Damascus.

In the Golan itself, Druze villager Sheikh Mahmoud Nazeeh, also rejected the move.

“Trump can make his statements and say he wants to make the Golan part of Israel. But we know this will stay Syrian land,” the 70-year-old said.

The European Union said its position on the status of the Golan Heights was unchanged and it did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.

Germany said any change in borders should be “done through peaceful means between all those involved”, while France said it did not recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and any recognition was contrary to international law.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump had paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and called this “completely beyond international law”.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, said it still considers the Golan as occupied Syrian territory.

Israel says Syria’s civil war has reaffirmed the need to keep the plateau – coveted for its water resources and fertile soil – as a buffer zone between Israeli towns and the instability of its neighbor.

In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag U.S. concerns about Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three cabinet ministers and together with its allies controls more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats.

The United States is a major donor to the Lebanese army but its allies, including the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has receded.

Washington has reintroduced sanctions on Iran and imposed new financial sanctions on Hezbollah which Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned president, Michel Aoun, said on Thursday were hurting all Lebanese.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo/Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Yousef Saba in Cairo, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Robin Emmot in Brussels, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

FBI not properly assessing potential U.S. maritime terrorism threats: report

FILE PHOTO: A sign of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is seen outside of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, U.S., March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation is not taking appropriate steps to review and assess potential maritime terrorism risks facing U.S. sea ports, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog has found.

The audit, released on Thursday by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, found that while top FBI officials believe the country faces a low maritime terrorism threat, that view is actually based on “incomplete and potentially inaccurate information.”

Moreover, the audit found that the FBI had not conducted its own formal assessment of the matter.

In a letter to Horowitz dated Aug. 30 that was released as part of the final audit, FBI Acting Section Chief Thomas Seiler for the External Audit and Compliance Section of the Inspection Division said the FBI concurs with all of the report’s recommendations and will work to implement them.

In 2005, the FBI created a Maritime Security Program as part of its National Joint Terrorism Task Force in its counterterrorism division. That program is meant to “prevent, penetrate, and dismantle criminal acts of terrorism” directed at ports.

The audit said that top FBI officials believed the terrorism threat in this space was low based on a small number of maritime incidents and investigations logged into its database.

However, the inspector general’s office found that the FBI was not properly coding maritime-related events into its database, and identified at least 10 incidents in the system that were not categorized correctly.

In addition, the report was critical of the role the FBI plays in helping the federal government vet port and rail workers and truck drivers who are able to gain unescorted access to ports through the use of biometric smart transportation security cards.

Although the program for issuing such cards falls to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a part of the Department of Homeland Security, the audit uncovered “significant deficiencies” related to the FBI’s role in providing information to TSA, such as information about terrorism watch-list targets and other intelligence to help reduce the risk that someone who poses a threat may be granted unfettered access to U.S. ports.

Some of the specific findings in the report were redacted due to national security.

However, in one section of the report that was unredacted, the audit revealed that FBI memos documenting threats that certain individuals may have posed were not shared with TSA.

Those unidentified people were later removed from the FBI’s terrorism watch list and still have transportation security cards.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Susan Thomas)

With 737 MAX grounded, airlines face daily scheduling challenges

FILE PHOTO: Southwest Airlines Co. Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sit next to the maintenance area after landing at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Kraczynski

By Tracy Rucinski and Allison Lampert

CHICAGO/MONTREAL (Reuters) – Following the global grounding of Boeing Co’s 737 MAX jets, U.S. and Canadian airlines that fly the roughly 175-seat aircraft face a fresh logistical challenge every day: which flights to cancel and which to cover with other planes.

Southwest Airlines Co and American Airlines Group Inc, the two largest MAX operators in the United States, said they have bolstered their reservation and operations teams to figure out how to spread flight cancellations across their networks, not just on MAX flights.

American Airlines, for example, had most of its 24 MAX jets flying in and out of Miami, where load factors have been full during the Spring Break season.

“We can’t just cancel all of those flights, so the goal is to spread out the cancellations across our entire system to impact the least amount of customers,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

This means that an American Airlines flight from Miami to the Caribbean initially scheduled on a 737 MAX may now fly on a 737-800 with a similar seat configuration, while that 737-800 flight is canceled.

“It’s a challenge to explain to customers who weren’t previously booked on a MAX why their flight is canceled,” Feinstein said.

The 737 MAX jets were grounded last week following two fatal crashes in the past five months, the causes of which are under investigation.

Southwest, the largest MAX operator in the world with 34 jets representing about 5 percent of its total fleet, is canceling about 150 flights per day due to the grounding, but not all on MAX routes.

Steve West, Senior Director of Southwest’s Operations Control, said the company is trying to cancel flights five days in advance, while looking at issues such as weather, that could free up jets, like last week’s snowstorm in Colorado.

Southwest and American were already grappling with a larger than the normal number of out-of-service aircraft, further straining their fleets.

So far United Airlines, with 14 MAX aircraft, has not canceled any flights due to the grounding but has had to put smaller aircraft on some routes and fly the larger 777 to places like Hawaii.

It is unclear how long the grounding will last. Deliveries are also on hold, meaning an additional hit to airlines due to receive more of the jets this year.

Boeing has over 5,000 orders for the MAX, which sold fast thanks to its higher fuel-efficiency and longer range. Now airlines face a dent to 2019 profits.

Calgary-based WestJet said it took steps prior to the MAX grounding to start protecting trans-border flights to sunny destinations that were previously scheduled to fly with the carrier’s 13 MAX planes.

Meanwhile, Air Canada said on Tuesday it would remove its 24 737 MAX aircraft from its schedule until at least July 1, 2019.

“It is easier to put the aircraft back in the schedule than to pull it out,” said a source familiar with the carrier’s thinking, who is not allowed to publicly discuss its strategy.

 

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Flooding will go on in storm-ravaged U.S. Midwest; $1 billion in damage, 4 dead

FILE PHOTO: A flooded parcel of land along the Platte River is pictured in this aerial photograph at La Platte, south of Omaha, Nebraska, U.S. March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Drone Base

(Reuters) – The flooding that devastated the U.S. Midwest is likely to last into next week, as rain and melted snow flow into Kansas, Missouri and Mississippi, the National Weather Service said.

Floods driven by melting snow in the Dakotas will persist even as Nebraska and Iowa dig out from storms that have killed four people, left one missing and caused more than a billion dollars in damage to crops, livestock and roads.

“It’s already not looking good downstream for the middle and lower Mississippi and Missouri (rivers) into Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri,” Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center, said early Wednesday.

The floodwaters have inundated a swath of Iowa and Nebraska along the Missouri River, North America’s longest river. Half of Iowa’s 99 counties have declared states of emergency.

“That snowpack is still there and it’s going to keep melting, and that’s bad news,” Oravec said.

About an inch of rain is predicted for Saturday in the region, Oravec said. “It’s not a lot, but any precipitation is bad right now.”

Vice President Mike Pence toured some of Nebraska Tuesday and promised to help expedite federal help to the region.

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

FILE PHOTO: Homes sit in flood waters after leaving casualities and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with waters yet to crest in parts of the U.S. midwest, in Peru, Nebraska, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Karen Dillon

Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin and Mississippi all declared states of emergency after the floods, which stemmed from a powerful winter hurricane last week. The flooding killed livestock, destroyed grains and soybeans in storage and cut off access to farms because of road and rail damage.

Authorities said they had rescued nearly 300 people in Nebraska alone, with some rivers continuing to rise. Rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes. Some roadways crumbled to rubble and sections of others were submerged. In Hamburg, Iowa, floodwaters covered buildings.

$1 BILLION IN DAMAGE

Nebraska officials estimated flood damage for the state’s agriculture at more than $1 billion so far, according to Craig Head, vice president of issue management at the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Head said that was likely to grow as floodwaters recede.

“It’s really too early to know for sure how bad this is going to get. But one thing we do know: It’s catastrophic for farmers,” said Matt Perdue, government relations director for the National Farmers Union. “We’re hoping it’s only $1 billion, but that’s only a hope.”

Nebraska officials estimate the floods have also caused $553 million in damage to public infrastructure and other assets, and $89 million to privately owned assets, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday.

The water covered about a third of Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, whose responsibilities include defending against and responding to nuclear attacks.

The Army Corps of Engineers is distributing 400,000 sandbags to operators of 12 levees along the Missouri River in Missouri and Kansas that are threatened by flooding, the Army Corps said in a news release on Tuesday.

Roads leading to the Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville were engulfed by floodwaters from the Missouri, but the facility was still operating safely at full power on Tuesday.

The plant operator was flying staff members and supplies to the plant by helicopter, power district spokesman Mark Becker said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Karen Dillon in Brownville, Neb., Gina Cherelus in New York, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Larry King)

Exclusive: As Venezuela crisis deepens, U.S. sharpens focus on Colombia rebel threat

FILE PHOTO: A Venezuelan flag hangs from a building in Caracas March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the United States makes its biggest diplomatic push in Latin America in years to try to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. military is zeroing in on a byproduct of the crisis: a strengthening of Colombian rebels on both sides of Venezuela’s border.

U.S. Admiral Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command that oversees U.S. forces in Latin America, told Reuters the United States had sharpened its focus on the rebels and increased its sharing of intelligence with Colombian officials. 

U.S. officials see a growing threat from both Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that refuse to adhere to a 2016 peace agreement to end five decades of civil war.

The United States believes the rebels are taking advantage of Venezuela’s crisis to expand their reach in that country and the scope of long-standing illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

“Our principal role working with our Colombian partners is to assist in intelligence sharing. What we know, we share,” Faller said. Asked whether the intelligence sharing on the rebels had ramped up as Venezuela’s crisis deepened, Faller responded: “Absolutely.”

The risks from the insurgents on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border add another layer of complexity to the crisis in Venezuela, where U.S. President Donald Trump says all options are on the table to remove Maduro from office.

U.S. officials have uniformly emphasized diplomatic and economic tools to accelerate Maduro’s departure, like sanctions, but Faller acknowledged the U.S. military stood ready to provide options if needed.

At the same time, he noted that no U.S. allies in the region were seeking a military solution to the crisis in Venezuela.

“My job is to be ready, be on the balls of my feet, at all times. But we’ve been talking to our partners and no one, no one, thinks that a military option is a good idea,” Faller said.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido says the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won a second term was a sham and he invoked a constitutional provision on Jan. 23 to assume the interim presidency. Most Western nations including the United States have backed Guaido as head of state.

Maduro, a socialist who has denounced Guaido as a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, retains the support of the armed forces and control of state functions.

Jeremy McDermott, a Colombia-based expert on the insurgencies and co-founder of the Insight Crime think tank, said he believed the Colombian insurgents were operating in Venezuela with at least the blessing of Maduro.

The rebels’ aim is to exploit Venezuela’s lawlessness for safe haven and for economic gain, he said. But he noted there could be an added benefit for Maduro.

“If the Americans invade, or if Colombia promotes a military intervention, then they (Maduro’s supporters) would be able to call upon an insurgent force with more than 50 years of combat experience,” McDermott said.

Asked whether the United States had any evidence of communications between Maduro and the guerrilla groups, Faller said: “I’d rather not discuss the details of the exact connections but we’re watching it very closely.”

Venezuela’s Information Ministry and ELN contacts did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, former Vice President Francisco Santos, said ELN and FARC factions had long been present in Venezuela but had grown stronger and more integrated into the country as a result of Venezuela’s crisis.

“They have become the paramilitary groups of the Maduro administration,” Santos told Reuters.

ELN EXPANSION

A Cuba-inspired Marxist insurgency formed in 1964, the ELN claimed responsibility for a January car bomb attack against a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 cadets. It was an escalation by insurgents who have kidnapped Colombian security forces, attacked police stations and bombed oil pipelines.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the ELN is increasingly using Venezuelan territory to carry out narco-trafficking and illegal mining of minerals like gold and coltan.

The Venezuelan security forces were believed to be getting kickbacks from the guerrillas, they said.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. collection of intelligence on the guerrilla groups had increased in recent weeks, including looking at the militants’ activities on the Venezuelan side of the border with Colombia.

Several U.S. officials said they believed senior leaders of both the ELN and the so-called FARC dissidents who do not adhere to the peace agreement were now located inside of Venezuela.

“Their leadership is there,” a second U.S. official said, who also declined to be named, without providing evidence.

An International Crisis Group report cited estimates that the ELN had been active in a minimum of 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states, “absorbing new recruits and shifting from a guerrilla force that embraced armed resistance against Colombia’s ruling elites to one with many core operations in Venezuela.”

Opposition lawmakers in Venezuela also regularly denounce growing ELN activities in Venezuela, but Reuters has been unable to independently verify the extent of its presence or its operations.

Faller declined to discuss any specifics about the collection of U.S. intelligence or identify which insurgent leaders were in Venezuela.

But he acknowledged the trend and added that the flow of illegal narcotics “from Colombia into Venezuela, and then from Venezuela out in the region, has risen as the misery of the Venezuelan people has risen.”

“It’s essentially a lawless region now inside Venezuela along the border and the FARC dissidents and the ELN have taken advantage of that,” Faller said, adding: “They operate with impunity inside Venezuela.”

Santos said the big concern for Colombia was that the strengthening rebel forces would upend efforts to crack down on narcotics trafficking.

“That’s a big worry because in this situation of chaos, obviously, they are going to grow. They are growing,” he said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Oil prices hit 2019 highs on OPEC cuts and U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Pumpjacks are seen against the setting sun at the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang province, China December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringe

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to new 2019 highs on Tuesday, supported by OPEC supply cuts and falling output from Iran and Venezuela because of U.S. sanctions.

Brent crude oil futures were up 16 cents at $67.70 a barrel at 1415 GMT, having earlier risen to a 2019 peak of $68.20, their highest since November 2018.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $59.17, up 8 cents from their last settlement. They also touched their highest since November at $59.57.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Monday scrapped its planned meeting in April, effectively extending supply cuts that have been in place since January until its next regular meeting in June.

OPEC and a group of non-affiliated producers including Russia, known as OPEC+, cut supply in 2019 to halt a sharp price drop that began in the second-half of 2018 on booming U.S. production and fears of a global economic slowdown.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that OPEC and its allies could continue to restrain oil output until the end of 2019.

“The OPEC+ deal has brought stability to crude prices and signs of an extension have taken crude higher,” said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage OANDA.

Prices have been further supported by U.S. sanctions against oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, traders said.

Venezuela has suspended its oil exports to India, one of its key export destinations, the Azeri energy ministry said on Tuesday, citing Venezuela’s oil minister.

Because of the tighter supply outlook for the coming months, the Brent forward curve has gone into backwardation since the start of the year, meaning that prices for immediate delivery are more expensive than those for dispatch in the future. May Brent prices were around $1.20 a barrel more expensive than for December delivery.

(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil forward curves – https://tmsnrt.rs/2FlM7YZ)

Outside OPEC, analysts are watching U.S. crude oil production that has risen by more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since early 2018, to about 12 million bpd, making the United States the world’s biggest producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Weekly output and storage data will be published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that economic “risks are skewed to the downside” and it is forecasting global demand growth of 1.2 million bpd year on year in 2019 and 1.15 million bpd in 2020.

The bank said it expects Brent and WTI to average $70 and $59 a barrel respectively in 2019 and $65 and $60 a barrel in 2020.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing Joseph Radford and David Goodman)