Trump says hard to believe Iranian shooting of U.S. drone was intentional

FILE PHOTO: This combination photo shows a U.S. military Global Hawk drone taking off from Sigonella NATO Airbase in the southern Italian island of Sicily March 20, 2011, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/REUTERS TV/File Photo

By Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump played down Iran’s downing of a U.S. military surveillance drone on Thursday, saying he suspected it was shot by mistake and “it would have made a big difference” to him had the remotely controlled aircraft been piloted.

While the comments appeared to suggest Trump was not eager to escalate the latest in a series of incidents with Iran, he also warned: “This country will not stand for it.”

Tehran said the unarmed Global Hawk surveillance drone was on a spy mission over its territory, but Washington said it was shot down over international airspace.

“I think probably Iran made a mistake – I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you, it would have made a big, big difference” if the aircraft had been piloted, Trump said as he met Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office.

“It’s hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” he added, saying it could have been carried out by someone who was acting “loose and stupid,” and minimizing the incident as “a new wrinkle … a new fly in the ointment.”

The United States, which called the event an “unprovoked attack” in international airspace, is using economic sanctions to pressure Iran to contain its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and to limit its role in regional wars.

It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May, including explosive strikes on six oil tankers.

It was unclear how the United States might respond and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Washington had no appetite for war with Iran and should “do everything in our power to de-escalate.”

After a White House briefing for lawmakers, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, told reporters he was worried Trump “may bumble into a war” and said he and his fellow Democrats believed congressional approval was needed to fund any conflict with Iran.

Iran has denied involvement in the tanker attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main Gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.

Tensions with Iran flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade. Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

‘SPY’ DRONE

Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.

A U.S. official said the drone was a Global Hawk that had been downed in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf.. Earlier, a U.S. official had described the drone as Triton, a similar aircraft.

Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.

“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace,” Urban said.

Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, the top U.S. Air Force commander in the Middle East, told reporters the drone was shot down at high altitude about 34 km (21 miles) from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast.

Iran’s foreign ministry said the drone had violated Iranian airspace and warned of the consequences of such “illegal and provocative” measures.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that the aircraft had taken off from the United Arab Emirates “in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace.”

Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.

A Iranian Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone’s identification transponder had been switched off “in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy” when it was downed, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported.

IRANIAN ‘RED LINE’

“Our airspace is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our airspace,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

The Global Hawk’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman Corp, says on its website that it can fly for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes higher than 10 miles (16 km).

Upping the ante in its dealings with Iran, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks.

European diplomats have said more evidence is needed to pinpoint responsibility for the tanker strikes.

U.S. sanctions have hammered Iran’s economy, scuttling its oil exports and barring it from the dollar-dominated global finance system. That undoes the promise of trade rewards from the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump has sent forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops to the Middle East over the past few weeks. Iran said last week it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on American forces to leave the Gulf.

Tehran has also said it will shortly suspend compliance with the nuclear deal’s curbs on its uranium enrichment, meant to block any pathway to nuclear weapons capability, and threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

Senior officials from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia will meet on June 28 in Vienna to discuss ways to save the 2015 nuclear accord, the European Union said on Thursday.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washinigton and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

Iranians tense and apprehensive as whispers of war spread

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the ceremony of the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran April 18, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian and U.S. leaders have reassured their nations that they do not seek war. But among ordinary Iranians who already face hardship from tightening sanctions, nerves are being strained by worry that the situation could slip out of control.

In interviews conducted from outside the country by telephone and online, Iranians described heated discussions at home, on the streets and on social media.

The prospect of war was now the main topic of conversation in workplaces, taxis and buses, Nima Abdollahzade, a legal consultant at an Iranian startup company, told Reuters.

“Apart from the deterioration in the Iranian economy, I believe the most severe effect” of confrontation with the United States “is in the mental situation of ordinary Iranians,” he said. “They are sustaining a significant amount of stress.”

The United States pulled out of an agreement between Iran and world powers a year ago that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions.

This month tensions have risen sharply, with Washington extending its sanctions to ban all countries from importing Iranian oil. A number of U.S. officials led by National Security Adviser John Bolton have made hawkish remarks, citing Iranian threats against U.S. interests. Trump himself tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

Iran has tended to dismiss the tough talk as a bluff – “psychological warfare” from a U.S. administration not ready for a fight. But some Iranians say the tension could have its own logic, raising the chance of a mistake leading to violence.

‘A DOG THAT WON’T BITE BARKS’

A labor activist who spent months in an Iranian jail for his activities and asked not to be identified, said: “War and sanctions are two sides of the same coin, designed by the (U.S.) capitalist system. The working class would bear brunt of the pressures.”

Some Iranians expect pressure to lead to negotiations, as when former President Barack Obama tightened sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy and led to the 2015 deal.

But others believe their leaders will never go back down that road following Trump’s reimposition of sanctions.

“Any politician who starts negotiations with America would make a fool of himself,” said a student who also asked not to be identified. “Even (Mohammad Javad) Zarif has given up on that,” she said, referring to Iran’s U.S.-educated foreign minister.

Zarif told CNN this week Iran had “acted in good faith” in negotiating the deal that Washington abandoned. “We are not willing to talk to people who have broken their promises.”

Trump has said Washington is not trying to set up talks but expects Tehran to call when it is ready. A U.S. official said last week Americans “were sitting by the phone”, but had received no call from Iran yet.

Foad Izadi, a political science professor at Tehran University, told Reuters that phone call is not coming.

“Iranian officials have come to this conclusion that Trump does not seek negotiations. He would like a phone call with Rouhani, even a meeting and a photo session, but that’s not a real negotiation,” Izadi said.

Despite saying talks are now off the table, Iranian leaders still say war is unlikely. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority, said the United States would not attack as “it’s not in their interests.”

The logic makes sense to Mohsen Mortazavi, a young cleric who graduated from a religious school in the city of Qom.

“There won’t be any war because a military confrontation will not resolve any of the U.S. problems, it will only add to them,” Mortazavi told Reuters. “Trump’s shouts and threats are a psychological war. A dog that cannot bite barks.”

But Izadi, the political science professor, disagrees. “A war is highly probable. There are officials in Washington who have planned for invading Iran for years,” he said.

STOCKPILING

Meanwhile, Iranians cope with the day-to-day implications of sanctions and tension. Worries over access to products have prompted some Iranians to stock up on rice, detergent and tinned food, residents and shopkeepers said.

An advertisement on state TV discourages stockpiling. A middle-aged man heading home after work is drawn to a supermarket when he sees people panic shopping. He buys anything he can put his hands on, causing shelves to be emptier.

Ali, an Iranian student in Tehran, told Reuters that unlike many, he was not against a U.S. military invasion, as he believed the fall of the Islamic Republic would be the only solution to the rising economic and political problems.

“My only hope is a war so I can take my revenge. I am telling my friends in the university that our only way is an armed struggle…. We have nothing to lose.”

Shahin Milani, a 38-year-old who tweets about Iranian politics to more than 7,000 followers on Twitter, believes military intervention could never bring democracy.

“The people should do it themselves … If someone is truly worried about the threat of war, they should work to create a democratic, secular government in Iran … As long as the Islamic Republic is in power, the shadow of war will loom over Iran.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Mortars land on Tripoli suburb as two-week battle rages on

Members of Libyan internationally recognised government forces look for cover during the fighting with Eastern forces at Al-Swani area in Tripoli, Libya April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Hani Amara and Ahmed Elumami

AL-SUANI, Libya (Reuters) – Mortars crashed down on a suburb of Tripoli on Thursday, almost hitting a clinic and adding to people’s suffering after two weeks of an offensive by eastern troops on the Libyan capital, which is held by an internationally recognized government.

The shelling came a day after seven people were killed when Grad rockets hit a densely populated district of Tripoli, which the eastern Libyan forces of commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to take, deepening the chaos that has plagued the oil-producing nation since 2011.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) of Benghazi-based Haftar has become bogged down in the southern suburbs of the capital.

In al-Suani, a southwestern suburb, Reuters reporters saw two mortars almost hitting a clinic. The fighting has killed 205 people, including 18 civilians, and wounded 913 since the start of the campaign, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Locals blamed Haftar’s forces for the shelling, saying the rockets had been fired from the direction of his positions south of the capital.

“We say to the United Nations and the Security Council: listen. Listen to the bombing… Rockets are coming down on us. For this reason, please find a solution for us,” said Youssef Salem, a displaced man from al-Suani.

The LNA has denied shelling residential areas.

The Tripoli government issued arrest warrants for Haftar and other top eastern officials, blaming them for Wednesday’s shelling.

Eastern officials have already issued arrest warrants for Tripoli premier Fayez al-Serraj and other western officials as there is no sign of a political solution or even of a ceasefire.

Foreign powers are worried but unable to present a united front over the latest flare-up in the cycle of anarchy and warfare that has gripped Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The internationally recognized interior ministry accused France of supporting Haftar and said it would halt security cooperation with Paris.

“Any dealings with the French side in bilateral security agreements” will halt, the Tripoli-based interior ministry said in a statement.

A French presidential source said in response to the accusation that France supported the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and that Emmanuel Macron’s legitimate interlocutor was Serraj, with whom he spoke on Monday and reaffirmed that.

The French government was not immediately available for comment.

France has helped train Serraj’s presidential guard and in October 2013 signed a deal between a consultancy of the French interior ministry and the Libyan interior ministry to train 1,000 police.

Most recently in February, France provided the Tripoli government with six patrol boats for its coastline.

Paris has given Haftar support in the past, however, viewing him as the best bet to end the chaos that has reigned since a NATO-backed rebellion to end Gaddafi’s murderous four-decade rule.

Italy, with considerable oil interests in the OPEC member, supports the Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and was furious with French reluctance to back a recent European Union resolution urging Haftar to halt his advance.

The conflict threatens to disrupt oil flows, foment migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and allow jihadists to exploit the chaos.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants.

His forces came under attack on Thursday by an armed group at the Tamanhint base near the main southern city of Sabha.

The LNA managed to expel the attack, which killed two of its soldiers, an eastern official said. But it exposed a vulnerability as Haftar has moved much of its forces north.

The identity of the attackers was not immediately clear.

The LNA force seized earlier this year the south and its two oilfields, although tribesmen with flexible loyalties remain strong in the sparsely populated desert region.

On the weekend, the LNA dispatched a unit to the eastern oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider to prepare for a possible attack there.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli, Ahmed Elumami, Ulf Laessing, John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)

Philippines says Chinese vessels in disputed waters illegal

FILE PHOTO - A view of Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – The presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats near an island occupied by Manila in the disputed South China Sea is illegal and a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The Philippines military has described them as a “suspected maritime militia”.

“Such actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, are deemed to have been adopted by it,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a rare rebuke of Beijing.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with China since taking office in 2016 in exchange for billions of dollars of pledged loans and investment, said he would not allow China to occupy Thitu island because it “belongs to us”.

“I assure you, unless China wants a war with us, I will not allow them to occupy Pagasa”, Duterte told reporters, using the local name for Thitu.

The presence of the trawlers near Thitu island raises questions about their intent and role “in support of coercive objectives”, the ministry said, days after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest with China.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not refer directly to Manila’s protest, but he said bilateral talks on the South China Sea held in the Philippines on Wednesday were “frank, friendly and constructive”.

Both sides reiterated that South China Sea issues should be resolved peacefully by parties directly involved, he said.

The Philippines has monitored the Chinese boats from January to March this year, according to military data.

“These are suspected maritime militia,” Captain Jason Ramon, spokesman for the military’s Western Command said this week.

“There are times when they are just there without conducting fishing. At times, they are just stationary.”

The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the busy South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.

FILE PHOTO - A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country's national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

FILE PHOTO – A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country’s national anthem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

“We call on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability,” the Philippines ministry said.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Darren Schuettler and Alison Williams)

Trump push for China trade reform draws wide support at home, abroad

FILE PHOTO: Shipping containers of China Shipping and China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) are seen on a container ship at Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in Hong Kong, China July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

By David Lawder, Philip Blenkinsop and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s blunt-force use of tariffs in pursuing his “America First” trade agenda has angered many, from company executives to allied governments and members of both parties of Congress.

But there’s one effort which has drawn broad support from those who oppose him on almost everything else – his push to force Beijing to change what are widely viewed as China’s market-distorting trade and subsidy practices.

As U.S.-China talks to end a trade war reach their endgame, politicians, executives and foreign diplomats are urging Trump and his team to hold out for meaningful structural reforms in China to address entrenched problems in the relationship that hurt U.S. and other foreign companies and workers.

Trump’s trade war “has let the genie out of the bottle” by lifting expectations that the trade war will force China to reform policies that businesses and foreign governments regard as unfair, said Steven Gardon, vice president of indirect taxes and customs at Lear Corp. Gardon’s firm is an automotive seating and electrical supplier with plants in 39 countries, including the United States and China.

“Now that all these issues have been raised, there’s a lot more domestic political support to address these issues, and I don’t think you can pull back from that,” Gardon said at a Georgetown Law School forum this month. “There’s now pressure politically that they have to be addressed for the long term.”

Gardon’s comments reflect a broad shift in U.S. and international business sentiment towards China’s economic and trade policies, one that is aligned with Trump’s goals, if not his tactics.

Trump’s trade team say they are in the final stages of negotiating what would be the biggest economic policy agreement with China in decades. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin head to Beijing this week to try to accelerate talks with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. Liu is set to travel to Washington for another round of negotiations in early April.

Eight months into the trade war that has disrupted the flow of billions of dollars of goods between the world’s two largest economies, it is unclear if a deal acceptable to both sides can be done.

China’s President Xi Jinping is seen as reluctant to make economic reforms under pressure from the United States, and Trump has said he may keep tariffs on Chinese goods in place for “a substantial period” even if a deal is struck.

Xi may find it easier to live with the tariffs Trump has imposed on trade than to change China’s model for economic development.

As part of a deal, Beijing has offered to make big-ticket purchases from the United States to help reduce a record trade gap. Trump’s team has said those purchases would be worth more than a trillion dollars over about six years.

While big Chinese purchases might be tempting for Trump’s administration, they would do nothing to address what U.S. firms competing in China or against Chinese firms say are structural problems with a system stacked against them.

The United States complains China engages in systematic intellectual property theft, forces foreign firms to give up trade secrets for market access and spends huge sums subsidizing its own industry. Redressing those complaints would require policy reform at the highest level from Xi and China’s ruling Communist Party.

A survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in China in late February showed that a majority of member U.S. companies supported increasing or maintaining tariffs on Chinese goods, and nearly twice as many as last year want the U.S. government to push Beijing harder to create a level playing field.

The U.S. tariff demands have even encouraged some reform-minded Chinese officials and private-sector business executives to call for a faster pace of reform in China as it celebrates the 40th anniversary of its first steps toward capitalism.

Lighthizer told lawmakers in late February that Chinese-American business people in particular have urged him to “hang tough” in the talks and not to “sell out for soybeans.”

STAY THE COURSE

When Trump delayed a threatened tariff increase well before a March 1 deadline for a deal, he stoked fears that he may be swayed by the big purchase order and leave longstanding structural problems unresolved.

Since then, a steady drumbeat of lobbyists, company executives, foreign diplomats and U.S. lawmakers from both parties have urged Trump to stay the course on his structural demands.

Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, one of the most pro-trade Republicans and a critic of Trump’s tariffs, recently joined that call.

“While we want China to buy more U.S. goods … it’s even more important for us to hold China accountable to meeting high international standards on intellectual property rights, subsidization, overcapacity, and the other structural ways in which China distorts the global economy,” he said at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing just days after the tariff delay was announced.

Last week, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a longtime China trade hawk, took to the Senate floor to urge Trump not to “back down” and take a deal based largely on Chinese purchases of American soybeans and other goods.

On Thursday, Schumer tweeted: “Now’s not the time to drop $200B in tariffs just because China’s close to a deal, @realDonald Trump.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he meets with former hostage Danny Burch, an oil engineer who was taken hostage in Yemen in September 2017, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he meets with former hostage Danny Burch, an oil engineer who was taken hostage in Yemen in September 2017, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

QUIETLY ROOTING FOR TRUMP

European Union members, traditional allies of the United States, are still smarting about the steel and aluminum tariffs Trump imposed on imports into the United States last year. The EU is also worried that Trump will impose duties on autos. But the bloc shares many of the same frustrations over China’s technology transfer policies and market access constraints.

“We get complaints every day from our companies,” one European official told Reuters in Beijing, noting that despite repeated pledges from the Chinese government to make life easier for foreign companies, little had changed.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom’s assessment of China’s behavior sounds almost like it was written by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, charging that China has abused global trading rules.

China has “blurred the lines between state and private sector. The state has undue influence,” she said in a Washington speech this month. “Intellectual properties of companies are stolen. State subsidies, direct or indirect, are common. And these impacts are felt at home and abroad.”

Malmstrom says that while the U.S. and EU “agree on the diagnosis,” they differ on tactics, and she argues for a more multilateral approach, citing the EU’s work with the United States and Japan to address the issues through reform of World Trade Organization rules.

Some worry that Europe could lose out if Washington and Beijing strike a deal to purchase billions of dollars more in products to try to shrink the U.S. goods trade deficit with China.

“If China is buying more from America then inevitably it will buy less from Europe,” a second European official based in Beijing said, adding that could, in particular, affect large European multinationals.

But European diplomats and officials acknowledge a begrudging support for Trump’s goals, even if they are repulsed by his blunt tactics. Many are secretly rooting for his success.

“We are against unilateral measures, but nobody is exactly sorry for China. On content we think he does have a point,” said one EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in Brussels. “Beijing has to understand that without reform, the system could just stop working.”

Trump administration officials insist that he has gotten the message and is holding out for “structural changes” to the U.S.-China relationship, along with an enforcement mechanism that holds China to its pledges.

Clete Willems, a White House trade adviser, told the Georgetown Law School forum that Trump is determined to fix problems with China’s trade relationship that he has railed against for years, long before he ever sought office.

“The notion that he’s just going to suddenly accept a bad deal is totally inaccurate. The president is going to walk away from bad deals,” said Willems, who announced on Friday that he is leaving the White House for family reasons.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Simon Webb and James Dalgleish)

Battle against Ebola being lost amid militarized response, MSF says

FILE PHOTO: A mother of a child, suspected of dying from Ebola, cries outside a hospital during the funeral in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The battle against Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is failing because ordinary people do not trust health workers and an overly militarized response is alienating patients and families, the medical charity MSF said on Thursday.

Last week Medecins Sans Frontres (Doctors Without Borders) suspended medical activities at the focal point of the epidemic after two of its facilities were torched by unidentified assailants.

MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said the outbreak, which has killed 569 people, would not be beaten unless the community trusted the authorities and were treated humanely.

“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic,” Liu told reporters in Geneva.

Ebola responders were increasingly seen as the enemy, with more than 30 attacks and incidents against the Ebola response in the past month alone, she said.

The epidemic is in a region of Congo that is prey to armed groups and violence where officials are prone to see threats through a security lens and to use force.

“There is a lot of militarization of the Ebola response,” she said. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”

Involvement of security and police forces merely deepened suspicions that Ebola was being used as a political tool, she said.

A spokeswoman for Congo’s Health Ministry said there appeared to be confusion about the security forces’ role.

“The police and the army are not involved in Ebola response activities and their role has never been to enforce sanitary measures,” Jessica Ilunga said.

The Interior Ministry has been asked to guarantee security, as it is unacceptable for health officials to be threatened and attacked, or for the threat of violence to stop families burying their loved ones in a dignified and safe manner, she said.

MSF was insisting on security before it returned to its damaged facilities, she said. Local officials, unlike international staffers, did not have the privilege of being evacuated for security reasons, she said.

Liu said there were still signs the outbreak – the second worst ever – was not being brought under control.

Forty percent of deaths were outside medical centers, meaning patients had not sought care, and 35 percent of new patients were not linked to existing cases, meaning the spread of the disease was not being tracked.

“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu said.

Villagers saw fleets of cars racing to pick up a single sick person and vast amounts of money pouring in. Some were instructed to wash their hands but had no soap to do so.

“They see their relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Kinshasa; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Factbox: So far apart – India and Pakistan engage in war of claim, counter-claim

FILE PHOTO: People hold national flags and placards as they celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An air strike by Indian warplanes inside Pakistan last week, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by the Pakistani air force, pushed the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of another war, but also triggered a fight over the truth about events.

Below is a look at claims and counter claims from both sides. They disagree on most aspects.

PULWAMA ATTACK

The escalation in tension came after a suicide car bombing killed 40 paramilitary troops in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region also claimed by Pakistan, on Feb. 14.

India blames Pakistan for the attack, which was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and says it has provided Pakistan with proof.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Feb. 27 that a dossier was handed over to Pakistan with “specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan”.

Pakistan has denied the accusation, saying it had nothing to do with the Pulwama bombing, which came right before a high-profile visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad on Feb. 17.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament on Feb. 28: “We had such an important visit of the Saudi crown prince coming up. We knew that they would invest, there were contracts. Which country would sabotage such an important event by conducting a terror attack?”

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

AIR STRIKE IMPACT

India said its warplanes struck a JeM training camp near the Pakistani town of Balakot in the early hours of Feb. 26, acting on intelligence that the militant group was planning another suicide attack.

“In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a briefing after the air strike. Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants willing to fight to the death.

Pakistan acknowledged that Indian jets had crossed into its territory, but denied they had hit anything substantial. Under forced hasty withdrawal, Indian aircraft “released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties”, the Pakistan military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said in a tweet.

In New Delhi, a senior government official told reporters that at least 300 militants had been killed, although India’s defense forces have since said they are unable to provide any detail on the number of casualties.

“We hit our target,” the chief of the Indian air force (IAF), B.S. Dhanoa, said on Monday. “The air force doesn’t calculate casualty numbers, the government does that.”

F-16 INVOLVEMENT

On Feb. 27, Pakistan said its air force had locked on to six targets in Indian-administered Kashmir in retaliation for the Indian air strikes the day before. It said it did this to show it could strike key targets but said its pilots deliberately dropped their bombs in open country without causing damage. It said its aircraft did not enter Indian airspace.

Pakistan said it had downed two Indian jets, one of which came down in Pakistani-held territory and the other on the Indian side of the border. It said it had captured two Indian air force pilots. Later, it clarified to say it had only one Indian pilot in its custody. He was later handed over to India.

India said it had detected a “large package” of Pakistan air force jets coming towards Indian territory, and sent up its own fighter aircraft to intercept them.

In the ensuing engagement, India lost a MiG-21 Bison, the IAF said, adding it also shot down a U.S.-built F-16 jet. India denies that it lost a second jet.

On Feb. 28, Indian defense officials displayed what they said were parts of an AMRAAM air-to-air missile that is carried only on the F-16s in the Pakistani air force.

India’s foreign ministry said that there was a “violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan air force and targeting of Indian military posts”.

Pakistan’s military has denied it used F-16s in the attack on India and says it has not lost any of its aircraft.

CEASEFIRE VIOLATIONS

In the past week, India and Pakistan have accused each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border between the two countries in the disputed Kashmir region.

For example, last Thursday, India said Pakistan had begun firing on at least three occasions, violating the ceasefire, killing one civilian on the Indian side.

Pakistani authorities said the ceasefire violations were by India, and four civilians had been killed in Pakistan in what they called a “deliberate” attack by Indian forces.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in ISLAMABAD; Edited by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel)

Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot as confrontation cools

People celebrate before the release of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, in a street in Ahmedabad, India, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

By Krishna N. Das and Abu Arqam Naqash

WAGAH, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan handed a captured Indian pilot back to his country on Friday as the nuclear-armed neighbors scaled back their confrontation, at least temporarily.

Television footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9.00 p.m. (1600 GMT). Indian officials confirmed he had been returned and said he would be taken for medical checks.

Abhinandan was shot down on Wednesday while flying a MiG-21 fighter jet that crashed in Pakistani territory after a dogfight with a Pakistani JF-17.

World powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said earlier on Friday the pilot would be released “as a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters”.

Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of him, looking cleaned up, thanking the Pakistani army for treating him well.

“The Pakistani army is a very professional service,” he said.

Throughout the day, crowds on the Indian side thronged the road to the crossing, shouting nationalist slogans and waving Indian flags.

“Pakistan is releasing our pilot, I thank them for that,” said Kulwant Singh, who has run a food stall at the crossing for 20 years.

“War can never be good. War is bad for business, war is bad for our soldiers.”

The disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has been at the root of two of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

There was some firing along the contested border dividing Kashmir on Friday, according to a spokesman for India’s defense ministry, but the hostilities were well short of previous days.

Pakistan reopened some airports on Friday, after easing airspace restrictions that had disrupted flights between Asia and Europe for several days during the conflict.

Relations between the two countries, however, remain strained.

Qureshi said he would not attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi this weekend, because his Indian counterpart had been invited to the event.

India also faces an ongoing battle against armed militants in its portion of Kashmir. On Friday, four security personnel and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with militants, officials said.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Abu Arqam Naqash, Fayaz Bukhari, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)