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)

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)