U.S. finds Pakistan useful only to clean up mess in Afghanistan -Khan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the United States of seeing his country as useful only in the context of the “mess” it is leaving behind in Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting.

Washington has been pressing Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban to broker an elusive peace deal as negotiations between the insurgents and Afghan government have stalled, and violence in Afghanistan has escalated sharply.

“Pakistan is just considered only to be useful in the context of somehow settling this mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was not one,” Khan told foreign journalists at his home in Islamabad.

The United States will pull out its military by Aug. 31, 20 years after toppling the Taliban government in 2001. But, as the United States leaves, the Taliban today controls more territory than at any point since then.

Kabul and several Western governments say Pakistan’s support for the insurgent group allowed it to weather the war.

The charge of supporting the Taliban despite being a U.S. ally has long been a sore point between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban.

Khan said Islamabad was not taking sides in Afghanistan.

“I think that the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now, and I think that’s why there’s a different way of treating Pakistan now,” Khan said.

Pakistan and India are archrivals and have fought three wars. The two share frosty ties and currently have minimal diplomatic relations.

A political settlement in Afghanistan was looking difficult under current conditions, Khan added.

He said he tried to persuade Taliban leaders when they were visiting Pakistan to reach a settlement.

“The condition is that as long as Ashraf Ghani is there, we (Taliban) are not going to talk to the Afghan government,” Khan said, quoting the Taliban leaders as telling him.

Peace talks between the Taliban, who view Ghani and his government as U.S. puppets, and a team of Kabul-nominated Afghan negotiators started last September but have made no substantive progress.

Representatives of a number of countries, including the United States, are currently in the Qatari capital of Doha talking to both sides in a last-ditch push for a ceasefire.

U.S. forces have continued to use air strikes to support Afghan forces against Taliban advances, but it remains unclear if such support will continue after Aug. 31.

Khan said Pakistan had “made it very clear” that it does not want any American military bases in Pakistan after U.S. forces exit Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; editing by John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)

Spanish rescuers search sea for missing toddler after girl found dead

By Borja Suarez and Emma Pinedo

TENERIFE, Spain (Reuters) -Spanish rescuers were searching waters off the coast of Tenerife for a one-year-old girl on Friday after a body which was reportedly confirmed to be her six-year-old sister was found weighed down in the ocean to an outpouring of rage and grief on the island.

Their father, Tomas G., is the main suspect in the disappearance of Olivia, 6, and Anna, 1, after failing to return them to their mother as agreed at the end of April. He is also missing.

Fingerprint checks have confirmed that the body found weighed down in the sea was that of Olivia, according to judicial sources cited by El Pais newspaper.

The family lived on Tenerife, where officials and a few local residents observed a minute of silence in memory of the sisters in front of the main city hall and outside other official buildings on the Canary Islands.

“All Spain is shocked, all our support for the families whose pain is absolutely unbearable and unimaginable, all our rejection of sexist violence, the vicarious violence that some still deny in our country,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Friday during a visit to Costa Rica.

The body of the 6-year-old, which authorities said was likely that of Olivia, was found on Thursday afternoon at a depth of 1,000 meters inside a sports bag tied to an anchor, near where her father’s boat was drifting.

Another empty sports bag was also found next to them, a court statement said.

Authorities were about to call off the maritime search earlier this week when they found personal belongings of the father at sea.

On the streets of Tenerife people mourned the girls.

“Every mother and grandmother feels the greatest sorrow, mainly for her (the girls’ mother)… It’s as if they were our own daughters or granddaughters,” said local resident Maria Victoria.

Spain’s left-wing government has put women’s rights at the top of its political agenda and sought to combat prevailing macho attitudes.

In Seville, a former boyfriend of Rocio Caiz, 17, was arrested after he allegedly confessed to killing her and cutting up her body.

Almost 1,100 women have been killed by partners or ex-partners since a register was created in 2003, shortly before a gender violence law was approved, while some 39 children have been killed during attacks on their mothers since 2013.

(Reporting by Borja Suarez in Tenerife, Emma Pinedo and Cristina Galan in Madrid; Graham Keeley writing by Emma Pinedo; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Alistair Bell)

Gaza conflict intensifies with rocket barrages and air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in Gaza and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.

The four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time”.

Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

At least 87 people have been killed in Gaza, including 18 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. Hospitals already under heavy pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic have faced further strain.

Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States is sending an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have so far offered no sign of progress.

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wants to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns, Israel’s commercial heartland, with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.

Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv.

Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building in Gaza that it said belonged to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.

Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.

Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”

In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.

“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A number of foreign carriers have cancelled flights to Israel because of the unrest.

‘DISRUPTING’ HAMAS

Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities”, but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.

“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.

He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.

Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border”, a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.

Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.

“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.

FOREIGN APPEALS

So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel”, and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.

School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.

Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.

One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness”.

Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive election in March.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Dan Williams, Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

Myanmar junta blames protesters as EU, U.S. impose sanctions

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s military accused anti-junta protesters of arson and violence as Western countries imposed more sanctions on individuals and groups linked to last month’s coup and the ensuing bloody crackdown on dissent.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said 164 protesters had been killed in the violence and expressed sadness at the deaths.

“They are also our citizens,” he told a news conference in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday, adding that the military would use the least force possible to quell violence.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 261 people have been killed in the brutal crackdown by security forces that has left the Southeast Asian nation in turmoil.

Three people including a teenage boy were killed in unrest on Monday in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, witnesses and news reports said.

The junta has tried to justify the coup by saying a Nov. 8 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was fraudulent – an accusation the electoral commission rejected. Military leaders have promised a new election but have not set a date and have declared a state of emergency.

Zaw Min Tun blamed protesters for violence and arson and said nine members of the security forces had been killed.

“Can we call these peaceful protesters?” he said, while showing a video of factories on fire. “Which country or organization would regard this violence as peaceful?”

He said strikes and hospitals not fully operating had caused deaths, including from COVID-19, calling them “undutiful and unethical”.

The spokesman also accused media of “fake news” and fanning unrest and said reporters could be prosecuted if they were in contact with the CRPH, as the remnants of Suu Kyi’s government is known locally. The military has declared the CRPH an illegal organization and said membership is punishable by death.

In the over three hour news conference, the spokesman also said the military respected the media and although reporting protests was allowed, leading them was a crime.

Zaw Min Tun gave granular details or how the NLD had created hundreds or even thousands of extra ballots in numerous townships by inventing voters, including in Suu Kyi’s own constituency. Videos of people saying they were paid by NLD representatives were shown at the news conference.

Also shown was video testimony of former Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein saying he visited Suu Kyi multiple times and gave her money “whenever needed.”

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup. Her lawyer says charges against her are trumped up.

‘UNBEARABLE EXTENT’

The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Monday against individuals involved in the coup and the repression of the demonstrators.

The EU sanctions were the bloc’s most significant response since the overthrow of Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1.

The 11 people it targeted included General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military and head of the junta that has taken power.

The EU already has an arms embargo on Myanmar and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters before the meeting that the military repression “has reached an unbearable extent”.

Washington had already sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing and the measures announced on Monday expanded the list.

There was no immediate response from the junta, which has shown no sign so far of being swayed by international condemnation of its actions.

Myanmar’s neighbors are also speaking out against the violence, which is rare for countries in the region.

“We believe violence against unarmed civilians is inexcusable,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Kuala Lumpur after talks with his Malaysian counterpart.

“We still believe there should be no external interference in the domestic affairs of a country, but to the maximum extent possible…we stand ready to do our best to support the people of Myanmar who in fact deserve so much better in the future.”

The junta said it is cooperating with five neighboring countries – Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand – and values and respects their words, plus any countries that respect the stability of Myanmar.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Security forces fire on Myanmar protests after deadliest day since coup

(Reuters) – Myanmar security forces fired on pro-democracy demonstrators on Monday, killing six people, media and witnesses said, a day after dozens of protesters were shot dead and attackers torched several Chinese-financed factories in the city of Yangon.

Supporters of detained democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi marched again, including in the second city of Mandalay and in the central towns of Myingyan and Aunglan, where police opened fire, witnesses and media reported.

“One girl got shot in the head and a boy got shot in the face,” an 18-year-old protester in Myingyan told Reuters by telephone. “I’m now hiding.”

The Myanmar Now media outlet reported three people were killed in Myingyan and two in Aunglan, while a journalist in Mandalay said one person was shot dead there after a big protest had passed off peacefully.

The protesters took to the streets in defiance of the authorities, whose escalating use of violence resulted in dozens being killed on Sunday in the bloodiest day since the Feb. 1 coup that overthrew Suu Kyi.

State broadcaster MRTV reported martial law had been imposed in several districts of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub, and Myanmar Now later reported it had also been imposed in several parts of Mandalay.

Sunday’s arson attacks prompted China’s strongest comments yet on the turmoil gripping its Southeast Asian neighbor, where many people see Beijing as supportive of the coup.

China’s Global Times newspaper said 32 Chinese-invested factories were “vandalized in vicious attacks” that caused damage worth $37 million and injuries to two Chinese employees, while its embassy urged Myanmar’s generals to stop the violence.

“We wish that Myanmar’s authorities can take further relevant and effective measures to guarantee the security of the lives and assets of Chinese companies and personnel,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing.

Japan, which has long competed for influence in Myanmar with China, said it was monitoring the situation and considering how to respond in terms of economic cooperation.

The worst of Sunday’s bloodshed took place in the Yangon suburb of Hlaingthaya, where security forces killed at least 37 protesters after the factory attacks, said a local doctor, who declined to be identified.

At least 16 people were killed in other places, rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said, as well as one policeman.

The deaths bring the toll from the protests to about 140, based on a tally by the AAPP and the latest reports.

A junta spokesman did not answer calls requesting comment.

In an apparent bid to suppress news of the turmoil, telecoms service providers were ordered to block all mobile data nationwide, two sources with knowledge of the matter said. Telecom Telenor said in a statement “mobile internet was unavailable”.

The army said it took power after its accusations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) were rejected by the electoral commission. It has promised to hold a new election, but has not set a date.

COURT SESSION POSTPONED

Suu Kyi, 75, has been detained since the coup and faces various charges, including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing coronavirus protocols. Last week, a charge related to accepting illegal payments was added to the list.

She was due to face another virtual court hearing on Monday but her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, told Reuters the session could not go ahead because the internet was down. The next hearing will be on March 24, he said.

Khin Maung Zaw also said authorities had informed him the detained Nobel laureate would only be permitted to be represented by two junior lawyers.

Western countries have called for Suu Kyi’s release and condemned the violence and Asian neighbors have offered to help resolve the crisis, but Myanmar has a long record of rejecting outside intervention.

Tom Andrews, the United Nations human rights investigator on Myanmar, appealed for U.N. member states to cut the supply of cash and weapons to the military.

The International Labor Organization said trade unionists have been arrested and harassed in door-to-door searches while others are in hiding. The International Trade Union Confederation reported widespread restrictions on workers’ rights since the coup.

Anti-China sentiment has risen since the coup, fueled by Beijing’s muted criticism of the takeover compared with Western condemnation. But protest leader Thinzar Shunlei Yi said Myanmar people did not hate their Chinese neighbors though their rulers had to understand the outrage felt over their stand.

“Chinese government must stop supporting coup council if they actually care about Sino-Myanmar relations and to protect their businesses,” she said on Twitter.

Tom Andrews, the United Nations human rights investigator on Myanmar, appealed for U.N. member states to cut the supply of cash and weapons to the military.

The International Labor Organization said trade unionists have been arrested and harassed in door-to-door searches while others are in hiding. The International Trade Union Confederation reported widespread restrictions on workers’ rights since the coup.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Rob Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)

Britain urges citizens to leave Myanmar as violence against protesters mounts

(Reuters) – Britain urged its citizens to leave Myanmar on Friday as security forces cracked down on more protests against the junta, forcing patients out of a hospital in the west of the country and arresting a Polish journalist.

After 12 people were killed on Thursday in one of the bloodiest days since the Feb. 1 coup, the British foreign office warned that “political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising”.

Friday’s protests came as South Korea said it would suspend defense exchanges and reconsider development aid to Myanmar because of the violence.

More than 70 protesters have now been killed in the Southeast Asian nation since the military seized power, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group said.

Memorials were held for some of them on Friday, including one man whose family said his body had been taken by the security forces and not returned.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

“Despite repeated demands of the international community, including South Korea, there are an increasing number of victims in Myanmar due to violent acts of the military and police authorities,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said Seoul would suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports, limit exports of other strategic items, reconsider development aid and grant humanitarian exemptions allowing Myanmar nationals to stay in South Korea until the situation improved.

Protests were held in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and several other towns on Friday, photographs posted on social media by witnesses and news organizations showed. Many were dispersed by security forces.

Poland’s foreign ministry said a Polish journalist was arrested, the second foreign reporter to be detained. A Japanese journalist was briefly held while covering a protest.

Riot police and armed soldiers entered the general hospital in Hakha, in the western Chin state, forcing all 30 patients to leave and evicting staff from on-site housing, said local activist Salai Lian.

Soldiers have been occupying hospitals and universities across Myanmar as they try to quash a civil disobedience movement that started with government employees like doctors and teachers but has expanded into a general strike that has paralyzed many sectors of the economy.

The country has been in crisis since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government last month, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party, and set up a ruling junta of generals.

Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday Suu Kyi had accepted gold and illegal payments worth $600,000 while in government. He said Phyo Min Thein, a former chief minister of Yangon, who is also in jail, had admitted making the payments.

Adding corruption charges to the accusations facing Suu Kyi, 75, could bring her a harsher penalty. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently faces four comparatively minor charges, such as illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting coronavirus curbs.

“This accusation is the most hilarious joke,” Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said on social media on Friday. “She might have other weaknesses but she doesn’t have weakness in moral principle.”

‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’

Thursday’s dead included eight people killed when security forces fired on a protest in the central town of Myaing, the AAPP said.

Chit Min Thu was killed in the North Dagon district of Yangon. His wife, Aye Myat Thu, told Reuters he had insisted on joining the protests despite her appeals that he stay at home for the sake of their son.

“He said it’s worth dying for,” she said through her tears. “He is worried about people not joining the protest. If so, democracy will not return.”

The bloodshed came hours after the U.N. Security Council had called for restraint from the army.

U.N. human rights investigator Thomas Andrews on Friday dismissed as “absurd” comments by a senior Myanmar official that authorities were exercising “utmost restraint”. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, he called for a united approach to “strip away the junta’s sense of impunity.”

The army did not respond to requests for comment on the latest deaths, but junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday the security forces were disciplined and used force only when necessary.

Rights group Amnesty International accused the army of using lethal force against protesters and said many killings it had documented amounted to extra-judicial executions.

Suu Kyi fought for decades to overturn military rule under previous juntas before tentative democratic reforms began in 2011. She had spent a total of about 15 years under house arrest.

The army has justified taking power by saying that a November election, overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s party, was marred by fraud – an assertion rejected by the electoral commission.

The junta has said a state of emergency will last for a year, but has not set a date for the election.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Catherine Evans)

Gunmen kill student, kidnap 27 in attack on Nigerian school

By Garba Muhammad

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Unidentified gunmen killed a student in an overnight attack on a boarding school in north-central Nigeria on Wednesday, witnesses said, and the regional government said 27 others including some staff and relatives were kidnapped.

The assailants stormed the Government Science secondary school in the Kagara district of Niger state at around 2 a.m., overwhelming the school’s security detail, according to local residents.

One student was killed in the attack, teacher Aliyu Isa and a pupil at the school told local TV news station Channels. Another teacher, who did not want to be named, also told Reuters that one student was killed.

“It was only one that was killed,” Isa told Channels. He said the abductors were dressed in army uniforms and shooting as they broke into the school. “They were telling the students not to run,” added Isa, who said he and others fled in the confusion while the gunmen rounded up some of the pupils.

Niger state officials did not immediately confirm the death but said that 27 students, some members of staff and relatives had been abducted by the gunmen.

The attack came two months after gunmen stormed a secondary school in northwestern Katsina state and kidnapped nearly 350 boys, who were subsequently rescued by security forces.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the latest abduction. Kidnappings for ransom by armed groups are common across many northern Nigerian states.

Militant Islamist group Boko Haram and a branch of Islamic State also carry out abductions in Nigeria’s turbulent northeast. About 100 of more than 270 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram from the town of Chibok in 2014 remain missing.

The Niger state governor ordered the immediate closure of boarding schools in the region. President Muhammadu Buhari dispatched security chiefs to coordinate rescue operations, his spokesman Garba Shehu said in a statement.

“President Buhari has (given assurance) of the support of his administration to the armed forces in their brave struggle against terrorism and banditry and urged them to do all that can be done to bring an end to this saga,” said Shehu.

The spate of attacks has raised concern about rising violence by Islamist insurgents and armed gangs and fueled widespread criticism of Buhari’s handling of national security. In January, the president appointed a new military high command.

Violence and insecurity have compounded the economic challenges faced by citizens in Africa’s most populous country, which is struggling to cope with a fall in revenues due to an oil price slump on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Reporting by Garba Muhammad; Additional reporting by Maiduguri Newsroom, Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. calls for dialogue to resolve India’s farmers’ protests

By Sanjeev Miglani and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The U.S. embassy in New Delhi urged India’s government on Thursday to resume talks with farmers whose months-long protests over agricultural reforms erupted into violence last week.

India’s Foreign Ministry said it had “taken note” of the comments and underlined ongoing efforts between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and farmers groups to resolve the situation.

“We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson said in a statement that also offered general support for the government’s efforts to “improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment.”

Modi’s government has held multiple rounds of talks with representatives of thousands of farmers who have camped, mostly peacefully, on the outskirts of New Delhi since late last year.

But no talks have been held since Jan 26., when some protesters clashed with police in the heart of the capital city following a military parade to mark Republic Day, and no indication has been given of when they might resume.

Television images of protesters occupying the ramparts of New Delhi’s historic Red Fort and later clashing with police drew international attention to the confrontation between Modi’s government and the farmers.

The farmers, who enjoy most support in northern India’s breadbasket states, argue that three new farm laws will hurt their interests while benefiting large firms.

But the government says the reforms will bring much-needed investment to a farm sector that accounts for nearly 15% of India’s $2.9 trillion economy but about half its workforce.

BARRICADES UP, INTERNET DOWN

Police remain on guard against further attempts by farmers to bring the protests into the capital, and have reinforced barricades at three main sites.

Earlier this week internet services were temporarily suspended in some areas, drawing widespread criticism, including from international activists and celebrities.

“We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” the U.S. embassy spokesperson said.

In response to social media posts on the internet shutdowns, India’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that vested interest groups were mobilizing international support against the country.

“Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said on Thursday.

Farm union leaders have been calling for a repeal of the new laws and to make the government’s crop price guarantee scheme legally binding, and for the withdrawal of legal cases against protesters.

But some farmer groups have expanded their list of demands.

At a rally in northern Haryana state on Wednesday, thousands of farmers from the politically influential Jat community backed a call to waive farm loans and increase crop prices paid by the government.

“If the government doesn’t concede to our demands, thousands more farmers will march towards Delhi,” Kek Ram Kandela, a leader among the Jat farmers, told the rally attended by more than 50,000 people.

(Additional reporting and Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Catherine Evans)

More than 200,000 flee “apocalyptic” conflict in Central African Republic

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 200,000 people have fled fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) since violence erupted over a December election result, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday, with nearly half crossing into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The CAR army, backed by U.N., Russian and Rwandan troops, has been battling rebels seeking to overturn a Dec. 27 vote in which President Faustin-Archange Touadera was declared the winner.

“Refugees have told UNHCR that they fled in panic when they heard gun shots, leaving their belongings behind,” spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told journalists in Geneva.

The nation of nearly five million people, larger than mainland France, Belgium and Luxemburg combined and rich in diamonds, timber and gold, has struggled to find stability since a 2013 rebellion ousted former president Francois Bozize.

The current fighting between a coalition of militias on the one side and the national army and its backers on the other was sparked by a Constitutional Court decision to bar Bozize’s candidacy in the Dec. 27 presidential election.

Former prime minister Martin Ziguele, who came third in the Dec. 21 election, said on Friday there was fighting across the country every day, preventing movement between towns, and pushing more people to flee.

“Everyone is focused on the main transport route between the capital and eastern Cameroon for supplies, but inside the country, there is no movement,” Ziguele told Reuters by phone from Bangui.

“I cannot leave Bangui and go 90 km (60 miles) without a heavily-armed army escort. Imagine then the population. Add the curfew and the state of emergency, it is really an apocalyptic situation,” Ziguele said.

SEX FOR FOOD

About 92,000 refugees have reached DRC and more than 13,000 have crossed into Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo. The rest are displaced inside the Central African Republic, the UNHCR said.

Ongoing attacks has hampered humanitarian access and the main road used to bring supplies has been forced shut inside the country and many are now facing “dire conditions,” UNHCR’s Cheshirkov said.

Some of the displaced are so desperate they have agreed to sex in return for food, he added. Malaria, respiratory tract infections, and diarrhea have become common.

He also voiced concern about the reported presence of armed groups in the Batangafo and Bria camps for the displaced.

“Those armed groups are trying in some cases to restrict movements and in some cases forcibly recruit. So this is a very concerning situation,” he told the briefing.

Ziguele said that while a substantial increase in peacekeepers, as requested by the U.N. envoy in Bangui, was welcomed, a dialogue between all parties was urgently needed.

“A military surge is not the only solution to tackle the security, humanitarian and economic crisis that is threatening to put one of the world’s least developed countries into a complete coma,” he said.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, additional reporting by Bate Felix in Dakar; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Philippa Fletcher)

Violence, floods in South Sudan’s Warrap state displace thousands

By Denis Dumo

WARRAP STATE, South Sudan (Reuters) – James Athian and his nine children have been living in a makeshift camp in South Sudan’s Warrap state for two months since floods destroyed their house.

Athian and his family are among the 377,300 people displaced by floods and violence in Warrap since July, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. Nationwide, more than one million people have been temporarily forced from their homes.

“I have nine children and every time they get sick of malaria. (There is) no food and no good place to sleep,” Athian told Reuters, standing near submerged houses in his village of Mangar Ajak.

Before the flooding, oil-producing South Sudan had already gone through five years of civil war, which ended in 2018 with a fragile peace deal.

The worst rains in living memory have meant that roughly half of South Sudan’s 78 counties have large swathes of land under water, the U.N. says.

Aleu Akol, 59, who has been at Mangar Ajak for one-and-a-half months, said people received aid from humanitarian organizations, but he had to find other means to supplement that.

“We fish in this water to survive because I don’t have work that can generate income. See, my legs are swelling from (being in) the water,” he said.

Attacks by bandits and ethnic militias are still common, compounding the effects of the floods.

“People are being killed randomly and insecurity is so bad that people were not able to cultivate (their crops) in May,” Moses Athian Paul, coordinator of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Warrap’s Tonj County, said.

“If people don’t get food from the government of the World Food Program by February, many will die of hunger.”

(Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Mike Collett-White)