U.S. ready to finish any war started with Iran: Defense Secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday the United States wants to de-escalate tensions with Iran, but the country is ready to finish any war that could be started.

“We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” he said. “What we’d like to see is the situation de-escalated.”

The U.S. drone strike on Friday that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani has sharply escalated tensions with Iran, raising fears of all-out conflict. Washington says it killed Soleimani in self-defense, aiming to disrupt his plans to attack U.S. personnel and interests.

Esper defended the intelligence signaling an “imminent threat” from Soleimani that he and other senior U.S. officials have cited to justify the strike, saying it was persuasive.

“The threat was being orchestrated by Soleimani,” Esper said. “I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks” before an attack.

Esper suggested on Monday that the U.S. military would not violate the laws of armed conflict by striking Iranian cultural sites, a move threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Asked about the issue again on Tuesday, Esper said he was confident that Trump “will only give us legal orders.”

“We do not violate the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said.

Targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a U.N. Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Lisa Lambert and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. sees signs Iran or its allies may be planning attacks: Pentagon chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that there were indications Iran or the forces it backs may be planning additional attacks and said it was possible the United States might have to take preemptive action to protect American lives.

“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks, that is nothing new … we’ve seen this for two or three months now,” Esper told reporters.

“If that happens then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces to protect American lives.”

Iranian-backed demonstrators who hurled rocks at the U.S. embassy in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against bases of the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. Washington said the air strikes, which killed 25 people, were in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

“The game has changed and we are prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said.

During the same press briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said there had been a sustained campaign by Kataib Hezbollah against U.S. personnel since at least October and the missile attack in northern Iraq was designed to kill.

“Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot, that is designed to inflict damage and kill,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu and David Gregorio)

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister
By Tom Perry and Nadine Awadalla

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister said on Thursday the country was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of 1975-90 civil war.

One month after the start of nationwide protests, Lebanon is in serious political and economic trouble with no indication of its leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on Oct. 29.

Despite the magnitude of the economic crisis, the biggest since the war, leaders have not yet been able to agree a new cabinet or to tackle the grievances of demonstrators who say Lebanon has been ruined by corruption and sectarian cronyism.

Though the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a protester was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers on Tuesday. A funeral was held for the protester, a follower of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, while the soldier who opened fire has been detained.

Caretaker Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab said tensions on the street and road closures “have reminded us of the civil war, what happened in 1975. And this situation is very dangerous.”

Bou Saab, a political ally of President Michel Aoun, said demonstrators had the right to protest and to be protected. But the army and security services could not tolerate violence.

Aoun said he hoped a government could be formed in the coming days to meet the demands of the protesters.

He enraged protesters in an televised interview on Tuesday evening with a comment widely understood to mean he was telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run.

Schools, banks and many shops were closed for the third straight day. Some major routes around the capital that had been barricaded by protesters were unblocked by authorities, but the political mood remained brittle.

“WE ARE ALL IN DEEP TROUBLE”

Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of a group representing around 50 importers, said he was among businessmen who had warned of more trouble at a meeting with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh and other top bankers.

“My message to all of them is that we are all in deep trouble, but you have to give priority to the food supply. Because the food is even more important than the fuel,” he said.

Banks, which were shut for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country have been blocked and, with U.S. dollars scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.

So far there has been no sign of significant shortages.

Paul Kallassi, a board member of Kallassi Group, a major buyer and distributor of food, said suppliers have so far continued to ship based on “trust” even as arrears mount, a situation he said was not sustainable.

“They cannot finance millions of dollars just because they trust me,” said Kallassi.

Lebanon’s bank staff union called for employees to stay on strike until it received details of a security plan, especially on how to deal with customers demanding their cash.

A banker said that by remaining closed, banks were also avoiding the problem of depositor panic.

“You have a problem of liquidity, and there is no solution for it, unless you put in place a proper plan to solve the problem, there is no need to open the banks,” a banker said.

“You need to have a political solution, to offer a little bit of confidence, and this will eventually allow you to calm down the market and reopen normally.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.

An internally displaced Afghan girl stands outside her tent at a refugee camp in Herat province, Afghanistan October 14, 2018. Picture taken October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail - RC1633CE5420

Afghanistan suffers record 4,300 civilian casualties in three months: U.N.
By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A record 4,313 civilians were injured or killed in Afghanistan’s war against the Islamist Taliban between July and September, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The tally was up 42 percent from the same period last year – in a war that ebbs and flows with the seasonal weather – and included more than a thousand deaths, according to data from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

That made it the bloodiest period in the world’s longest-running war since UNAMA began collecting like-for-like figures in 2009. It brought the total of casualties for the first nine months of 2019 to over 8,000.

“Civilian casualties at record-high levels clearly show the need for all parties concerned to pay much more attention to protecting the civilian population, including through a review of conduct during combat operations,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, one of the U.N.’s top officials in Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Kabul government control more of Afghanistan than at any time since being ousted from power nearly two decades ago.

They have stepped up a campaign of suicide bombings in recent years as Washington tries to pull its forces out.

Around 62 percent of casualties were caused by what UNAMA called “anti-government elements”, though casualties caused by pro-government forces also rose 26 percent.

UNAMA said on Tuesday that 85 civilians had been killed and more than 370 wounded in violence linked to last month’s election.

The two presidential front-runners have both already claimed victory despite the count being delayed.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Trump says he does not want war after attack on Saudi oil facilities

By Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia but stressed he did not want to go to war, as the attacks sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict.

Iran has rejected U.S. charges it was behind the strikes on Saturday that damaged the world’s biggest crude-processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.

Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. Washington also wants to pressure Tehran to end its support of regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting Iran-backed Houthis for four years.

The United States was still investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, but “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment”.

Trump, who has spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the United States from wars he inherited, made clear, however, he was not going to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

“I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” Trump said.

Several U.S. Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.

A day after saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump said on Monday there was “no rush” to do so.

“We have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the strikes were carried out by “Yemeni people” retaliating for attacks by a Saudi-led military coalition in a war with the Houthi movement.

“Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defense,” Rouhani told reporters during a visit to Ankara.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the allegations “unacceptable and entirely baseless.”

The attacks cut 5% of world crude oil production.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated from their peak after Trump said he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.

Japan said it will consider coordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies in the wake of the attacks.

Crude prices were down around 1% in Asian trade on Tuesday.

“The question is how long it takes for the supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.

“However, the (geopolitical) risk premium … which has been basically ignored by markets in favor of growth worries in recent months, is likely to be priced in going forward,” she said.

SAUDI SUSPICIONS

Saudi Arabia said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and urged U.N. experts to help investigate the raid.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iranian threats were not only directed against the kingdom but against the Middle East and the world.

While the prince did not directly accuse Tehran, a Foreign Ministry statement reported him as calling on the international community to condemn whoever was behind the strike.

“The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” the statement added.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars.

Trump said he had not made commitments to protect the Saudis.

“No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from its ample storage, although some deliveries had been disrupted. At least 11 supertankers were waiting to load oil cargoes from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed on Monday.

RISING TENSIONS

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

For months, Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. But Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Trump has said the goal from his “maximum pressure” approach is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions.

U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Monday it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike but he said it had increased the chances of a regional conflict.

But the U.S. ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.

Iran’s Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights.”

U.S. officials say they believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

The attacks have raised questions about how Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top spenders on weaponry, much of it supplied by U.S. companies, was unable to protect oil plants from attack.

Sensing a commercial opening, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia by providing Russian-made air defense systems to protect Saudi infrastructure.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean, Mike Collett-White and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. lawmakers blast Iran, wary of war, after Saudi oil attack

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress blasted Iran after the attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, but expressed wariness about U.S. military action, especially before they have a clearer picture of who was behind it.

President Donald Trump said the United States was “locked and loaded” to hit back after Saturday’s attack, which knocked out more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and damaged the world’s biggest crude processing plant.

Iran denied U.S. accusations it was to blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war.”

U.S. lawmakers, especially Trump’s fellow Republicans, were quick to blame Tehran.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, called it “a brazen attack” with significant implications for the global energy market and said he welcomed Trump’s preparation to potentially release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilize markets if necessary.

“I hope our international partners will join us in imposing consequences on Iran for this reckless destabilizing attack,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate.

Many lawmakers stressed that Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war and warned against any quick military action.

Congress, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats, has passed – but Trump has vetoed – four bills seeking to push back against Trump’s strong support for the Saudi government, despite its human rights record and steep civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.

Senate aides said the administration was expected to begin providing classified briefings on Saturday’s attack for congressional staff and members as soon as Monday.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the United States has long been wary of getting involved in conflicts between nations in the Middle East. He noted that Washington does not have a defense treaty with Riyadh.

“Why should the United States get dragged into a conflict that has more to do with Saudi and Iranian power in the Middle East than American power?” Murphy, a critic of Saudi Arabia on rights issues including its role in the Yemen war, told Reuters.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the foreign relations panel, warned of U.S. retaliation in case of an attack on U.S. troops.

“Iran should not underestimate the United States’ resolve,” he said. “Any attack against U.S. forces deployed abroad must be met with an overwhelming response – no targets are off the table.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul, another foreign relations committee member, said on CNN that any attack on Iran would constitute a “needless escalation” of war.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Biggest oil price surge since 1991 as ‘locked and loaded’ U.S. points finger at Iran for attack

By Rania El Gamal and Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – An attack on Saudi Arabia that shut 5% of global crude output triggered the biggest surge in oil prices since 1991, after U.S. officials blamed Iran and President Donald Trump said Washington was “locked and loaded” to retaliate.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls Yemen’s capital claimed responsibility for the attack, which damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant. Iran denied blame and said it was ready for “full-fledged war”.

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% before coming off peaks. The intraday jump was the biggest since the 1991 Gulf War. [O/R]

Prices eased after Trump announced that he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks stored up worldwide to make up for the shortfall. But traders still spoke of a long-term price increase as markets absorb the proof that global supply can be so sharply hit.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry pinned the blame squarely on Iran for “an attack on the global economy and the global energy market”.

“The United States wholeheartedly condemns Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia and we call on other nations to do the same,” he said in a speech to an annual meeting in Vienna of the U.N. nuclear watchdog IAEA. He added that he was confident the oil market “is resilient and will respond positively”.

While Iran has denied blame for the attacks, its Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s pre-dawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights and could be hit at any moment.”

U.S. officials say they believe that the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” a U.S. official said on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting against the Houthis for four years.

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

THREATS

For months Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. However, Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the U.S. accusations of Iranian involvement in Saturday’s attacks “unacceptable and entirely baseless”.

Iran said on Monday it had seized a vessel accused of smuggling diesel fuel to the United Arab Emirates. Tehran has long fought against smuggling of its subsidized fuel.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

“Proposals on tough retaliatory actions, which appear to have been discussed in Washington, are even more unacceptable,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Britain – Washington’s close ally but wary of its hardline Iran policy – stopped short of ascribing blame but described the assault as a “wanton violation of international law”.

Washington has imposed its “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran since last year when Trump pulled out of an international deal that gave Tehran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

U.S. allies in Europe oppose Trump’s strategy, arguing that it provides no clear mechanism to defuse tensions, creating a risk that the foes could stumble into war.

Trump has said his goal is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with President Hassan Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions. Its foreign ministry said on Monday Rouhani would not meet Trump.

Officials in big energy-exporting countries were eager to assert that global markets could cope with the Saudi outage.

“We have spare capacity. There are volumes we can deal with as an instant reaction,” the energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail al-Mazrouei, told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters there was enough oil in commercial stockpiles to cover the shortfall.

The giant Saudi plant that was struck cleans crude oil of impurities, a necessary step before it can be exported and fed into refineries. The attack cut Saudi output by 5.7 million barrels a day, or around half.

Saudi Arabia is not only the world’s biggest oil exporter, it has a unique role in the market as the only country with enough spare capacity to increase or decrease its output by millions of barrels per day, keeping the market stable.

Big countries such as the United States and China have reserves designed to handle even a major outage over the short term. But a long outage would make markets subject to swings that could potentially destabilize the global economy.

(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Rania El Gamal, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Asma El Sharif, Saed Azhar Hadeel Al Sayegh and Dubai bureau, Karin Strohecker and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, Michael Martina in Beijing, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. blames Iran for Saudi oil attack, Trump says ‘locked and loaded’

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday the United States was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, after a senior U.S. administration official said Iran was to blame.

Trump also authorized the use of the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to ensure stable supplies after the attack, which shut 5% of world production and sent crude prices soaring more than 19% in early trade on Monday, before moderating to show a 10% gain.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. official told reporters that evidence from the attack, which hit the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said there was no evidence the attack came from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim rival Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the U.S. allegations that it was responsible was “pointless”. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander warned the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

“All American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Commander Amirali Hajizadeh as saying.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran were already running high because of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear program that led the United States to impose sweeping sanctions.

Oil prices surged as much as 19% in early Asian trade on Monday on worries over global supply and soaring tensions in the Middle East.

Brent crude posted its biggest intra-day percentage gain since the start of the Gulf War in 1991.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack on Saturday had cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday there were 19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen.

The official added that Saudi officials indicated they had seen signs that cruise missiles were used in the attack, which is inconsistent with the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s claim that it conducted the attack with 10 drones.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” the official told reporters.

Riyadh has accused Iran of being behind previous attacks on oil-pumping stations and the Shaybah oil field, charges that Tehran denies, but has not blamed anyone for Saturday’s strike. Riyadh also says Tehran arms the Houthis, a charge both deny.

Richard Nephew, a program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said if Iran was responsible for the attack, it may be as retribution for U.S. sanctions.

“They are making decisions about whether and how to respond to what they see as a massive attack on their interests from the U.S. via sanctions by attacking U.S. interests in turn, and those of U.S. partners they believe are responsible for U.S. policy,” he said.

Aramco gave no timeline for output resumption. A source close to the matter told Reuters the return to full oil capacity could take “weeks, not days”.

Riyadh said it would compensate for the damage at its facilities by drawing on its stocks, which stood at 188 million barrels in June, according to official data.

Trump said he had “authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said images of the Abqaiq facility after the attack showed about five of its stabilization towers appeared to have been destroyed, and would take months to rebuild – something that could curtail output for a prolonged period.

“However Saudi Aramco keeps some redundancy in the system to maintain production during maintenance,” Rapidan added, meaning operations could return to pre-attack levels sooner.

The Saudi bourse closed down 1.1% on Sunday, with banking and petrochemical shares taking the biggest hit. Saudi petrochemical firms announced a significant reduction in feedstock supplies.

“Abqaiq is the nerve center of the Saudi energy system. Even if exports resume in the next 24 to 48 hours, the image of invulnerability has been altered,” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.

Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there. Baghdad denied that on Sunday and vowed to punish anyone using Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups wield increasing power, as a launchpad for attacks.

Kuwait, which borders Iraq, said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.

The attack came after Trump said a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was possible at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month. Tehran ruled out talks until sanctions are lifted.

But Trump appeared on Sunday to play down the chances he might be willing to meet with Iranian officials, saying reports he would do so without conditions were not accurate.

As recently as last Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “is prepared to meet with no preconditions”.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was ready to deal with “terrorist aggression”. A Saudi-led coalition has responded to past Houthi attacks with airstrikes on the group’s military sites in Yemen.

The conflict has been in military stalemate for years. The Saudi alliance has air supremacy but has come under scrutiny over civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that has left millions facing starvation.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Parisa Hafezi, Saeed Azhar and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington, William James in London, John Irish in Paris, Alex Lawler, Julia Payne and Ron Bousso in London, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Devika Krishna Kumar and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Greece moves hundreds of asylum-seekers from crowded island camp

Children from Afghanistan wait to board a catamaran that will transfer them to the mainland, in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Alkis Konstantinidis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Greece began moving hundreds of asylum-seekers on Monday from a camp on the island of Lesbos that holds around four times the number of people it was built for.

Over 11,000 refugees and migrants, most of whom have fled war or poverty in the Middle East, Asia or Africa, are holed up at Moria in Europe’s biggest migrant camp.

Some 635 people, mostly families, boarded a passenger ship on Monday for facilities in northern Greece, and more were due to leave later in the day.

Moving asylum-seekers from island camps to the mainland is part of government measures announced on Aug. 31 to deal with the rising numbers. All of Greece’s five formal island camps are over capacity.

Moria, which is a disused military base, has been criticized by humanitarian organizations for its squalid living conditions.

It currently holds the highest number of people in three years and violence is not uncommon. An Afghan boy was killed in a fight there last month and women have told aid groups they often feel unsafe.

Greece is Europe’s main gateway for Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum-seekers, and accounts for more than half of the 56,000 migrants who have landed on the Mediterranean’s northern shore this year.

The numbers are small compared to the nearly 1 million people who fled to northern Europe through Greece in 2015, as a deal between the EU and Ankara in March 2016 all but cut off the flow. But they have still piled pressure on Greek facilities.

About 7,000 people landed on Greece’s shores last month, the highest number since the deal was signed. Last Thursday alone, more than a dozen boats arrived with around 600 migrants, prompting the government’s Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense to hold an emergency session.

To curb the influx, Greece also plans to tighten its border controls and speed up deportations of rejected asylum-seekers.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

China warns of war in case of move toward Taiwan independence

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during an stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, U.S., January 14, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – China warned on Wednesday that it was ready for war if there was any move toward Taiwan’s independence, accusing the United States of undermining global stability and denouncing its arms sales to the self-ruled island.

The Pentagon said this month the U.S. State Department had approved sales of weapons requested by Taiwan, including tanks and Stinger missiles estimated to be worth $2.2 billion.

China responded by saying it would impose sanctions on U.S. firms involved in any deals.

Defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian told a news briefing on a defense white paper, the first like it in several years to outline the military’s strategic concerns, that China would make its greatest effort for peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

“However, we must firmly point out that seeking Taiwan independence is a dead end,” Wu said.

“If there are people who dare to try to split Taiwan from the country, China’s military will be ready to go to war to firmly safeguard national sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity,” he said.

The United States is the main arms supplier to Taiwan, which China deems a wayward province. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

The United States has no formal ties with democratic Taiwan, but is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.

The Chinese ministry said the United States had “provoked intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure … and undermined global strategic stability.”

‘MALICIOUS ACTS’

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said later in a statement that Beijing’s “provocative behavior … seriously violated the peace principle in international laws and relations, challenging regional safety and order”.

“We urge Beijing authorities to renounce irrational, malicious acts such as the use of force, and to improve cross-strait relations and handle issues including Hong Kong rationally so that it can be a responsible regional member,” it said.

In Beijing, asked how China’s military would handle escalating protest violence in Hong Kong’s widening crisis over a controversial extradition bill, Wu referred only to the territory’s garrison law, which he said “already has a clear stipulation”.

That law states that the Hong Kong government can request the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison’s assistance to maintain public order.

But legal scholars say it is a very high threshold, and some retired security officials say any involvement by PLA units in Hong Kong security would shatter the “one country, two systems” formula under which the former British colony returned to China in 1997.

Wu also said reports of a secret pact with Cambodia granting China’s armed forces exclusive access to part of the Southeast Asian nation’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand were “not in accordance with the facts”.

“China and Cambodia have in the past carried out positive exchanges and cooperation on military drills, personnel training and logistics,” he said. “This kind of cooperation does not target any third party.”

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)