Macron administration warns of ‘great violence’ in Paris from hard core ‘yellow vests’

Trash bins burn as youths and high-school students clash with police during a demonstration against the French government's reform plan in Marseille, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – French authorities warned another wave of “great violence” and rioting could be unleashed in Paris this weekend by a hardcore of ‘yellow vest’ protesters, as senior ministers sought to defuse public anger with conciliatory languages on taxes.

Despite capitulating this week over plans for higher fuel taxes that inspired the nationwide revolt, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to quell the anger that led to the worst street unrest in central Paris since 1968.

Rioters torched cars, vandalized cafes, looted shops and sprayed anti-Macron graffiti across some of Paris’s most affluent districts, even defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were hurt and hundreds arrested in battles with police.

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government's reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

An official in Macron’s office said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital this Saturday “to vandalize and to kill.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 65,000 security personnel would be deployed across the country on that day to keep the peace.

In a bid to defuse the three-week crisis, Philippe had told parliament late on Wednesday that he was scrapping the fuel-tax increases planned for 2019, having announced a six-month suspension the day before.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told a conference he was prepared to bring forward tax-cutting plans and that he wanted workers’ bonuses to be tax-free.

But he added: “In this case, it must go hand-in-hand with a decrease in spending.”

He also said France would impose a tax on big internet firms in 2019 if there was no consensus on a European Union-wide levy, seeking to appeal to the “yellow vests'” anti-business sentiment.

SOCCER MATCHES CANCELED

The threat of more violence poses a security nightmare for the authorities, who make a distinction between peaceful ‘yellow vest’ protesters and violent groups, anarchists and looters from the deprived suburbs who they say have infiltrated the movement.

On Facebook groups and across social media, the yellow vests are calling for an “Act IV”, a reference to what would be a fourth weekend of disorder.

“France is fed up!! We will be there in bigger numbers, stronger, standing up for French people. Meet in Paris on Dec. 8,” read one group’s banner.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer urged people to stay at home during the coming weekend. Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.

Several top-league soccer matches on Saturday have been canceled and the Louvre museum said it and others were awaiting word from Paris officials on whether to close their doors.

The protests, named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes. Demonstrations swiftly grew into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Macron, with no formal leader.

Their demands are diverse and include lower taxes, higher salaries and Macron’s resignation.

France’s hard-left CGT trade union on Thursday called on its energy industry workers to walk out for a 48 hours from Dec. 13, saying it wanted to join forces with the yellow vests. The movement, with no formal leader, has so far not associated itself with any political party or trade union.

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government's reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

STREET POLITICS

The fuel-tax volte-face was the first major U-turn of Macron’s 18-month presidency.

The unrest has exposed the deep-seated resentment among non-city dwellers that Macron is out-of-touch with the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar laborers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.

Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron. Teenage students on Thursday blocked access to more than 200 high schools across the country, burning garbage bins and setting alight a car in the western city of Nantes.

Meanwhile, farmers who have long complained that retailers are squeezing their margins and are furious over a delay to the planned rise in minimum food prices, and truckers are threatening to strike from Sunday.

Le Maire said France was no longer spared from the wave of populism that has swept across Europe.

“It’s only that in France, it’s not manifesting itself at the ballot box, but in the streets.”

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Michel Rose and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Toby Chopra)

En route to Florida, ‘monster’ Hurricane Michael strengthens

Hurricane Michael in a satellite image taken Tuesday. NOAA/via REUTERS

By Devika Krishna Kumar

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. authorities ordered tens of thousands of people to heed warnings of life-threatening coastal floods, wind and rain and get out of harm’s way as Hurricane Michael churned over the Gulf of Mexico toward the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday.

Residents and tourists were told to evacuate coastal areas in at least 20 counties in Florida. The Category 2 storm, which has already disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, strengthened as it headed north, carrying winds of 110 miles per hour (175 km per hour).

It was forecast to become a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before coming ashore on Wednesday over the Florida Panhandle or the Big Bend area in the northwest of the state, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. At that strength, it would rank as the most powerful storm to strike the Panhandle in more than a decade.

“Hurricane Michael is a monster storm and it keeps getting more dangerous,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference on Tuesday. “The time to prepare is now.”

The Republican governor, who is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat in the November congressional elections, warned of the potential for a deadly storm surge that could be as much as 12 feet (3.7 meters) over normal sea water levels.

People in areas that could be affected should take no chances against such a powerful surge, Scott said, adding, “No one’s going to survive,” such a wall of water.

As Michael moved over open water, energy companies halted nearly one-fifth of Gulf of Mexico oil production and evacuated personnel from 10 platforms on Monday.

The Gulf of Mexico produces 17 percent of daily U.S. crude oil output and 5 percent of daily natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The partial shutdown ahead of Michael helped push oil prices slightly higher on Tuesday.

Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 counties along the Panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend regions, mostly rural areas known for small tourist cities, beaches and wildlife reserves, as well as the state capital, Tallahassee.

A hurricane warning was in effect for a more than 300-mile (480-km) stretch of coastline from the Florida-Alabama border to the Suwannee River in Florida.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had numerous teams deployed and ready to respond, said FEMA spokesman Jeff Byard. About 1,250 National Guard soldiers were assisting and more than 4,000 troops were on standby.

President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said the country was very well prepared for the hurricane, adding it was much bigger than had been expected.

Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Alexander Charnicharo fishes at the seafront in Havana as Hurricane Michael passes by western Cuba on October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

CLOSURES AND LINES FOR GAS

State offices, schools and universities were closed through the end of the week in Panhandle counties. Lines at gasoline stations grew as people left. Those who stayed emptied grocery store shelves of water and other supplies.

Regus, an international office provider, offered temporary space for rent in Birmingham, Alabama, for businesses evacuating neighboring Florida.

“If you’re evacuating #HurricaneMichael and need a place to work, come visit a business lounge at any of our 5 locations in Birmingham! #evacuate #HurricanePrep #Michael,” the company wrote on Twitter.

The last major hurricane – Category 3 or above – to hit the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall near Pensacola in 2005, according to hurricane center data.

Torrential downpours and flash flooding caused by the storm over the weekend caused 13 deaths in Central America.

At 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) on Tuesday, Michael’s center was about 335 miles (535 km) south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida, heading north at around 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.

On its current track, it would make landfall somewhere along a coastline that includes the cities and towns of Fort Walton Beach, Panama City Beach, Port St. Joe, St. Teresa and the wildlife reserves bordering Apalachee Bay. However, forecasters always note it is not possible to predict where a hurricane will land until it is closer to the coast.

The storm was forecast to move through the southeastern United States on Wednesday and Thursday, passing through the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence last month. It would head off the Mid-Atlantic coast by Friday, the NHC said.

The Miami-based center forecast as much as 1 foot (30 cm) of rain in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Frances Kerry)

Flooding on the horizon for South Carolina, a week after Florence

A closeup of flooded homes and roads near the River Landing Country Club, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, is seen in this satellite image over the area in Wallace, North Carolina, U.S., September 20, 2018. Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

By Anna Mehler Paperny

KINSTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Residents in Georgetown County, South Carolina, where five rivers flow into the ocean, will prepare on Friday for a deluge of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which has killed more than 40 people.

Lying on Atlantic Ocean between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, the county of about 60,000 people is one of several areas across the Carolinas waiting anxiously for rivers to crest, a week after Florence dumped some three feet of rain in the region.

Flooding could begin early next week, officials said during a community meeting on Thursday. The city of Georgetown on Friday will hand out 15,000 sandbags as the county develops plans to evacuate residents.

Local residents walk along the edge of a collapsed road that ran atop Patricia Lake's dam after it collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Local residents walk along the edge of a collapsed road that ran atop Patricia Lake’s dam after it collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“Please heed the warnings,” Sheriff Lane Cribb said. “Protecting lives and property will be our goal … You better pray. I think we all need to pray that it don’t happen.”

More than three dozen flood gauges in North and South Carolina showed flooding. Some rivers had still not crested by Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Thirty-one deaths have been attributed to the storm in North Carolina, eight in South Carolina and one in Virginia.

Michael Ziolkowski, a Field Operations Supervisor for the National Disaster Response K-9 Unit and his partner, Morty, are transported to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, North Carolina, September 16, 2018. Spc. Austin T. Boucher/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Michael Ziolkowski, a Field Operations Supervisor for the National Disaster Response K-9 Unit and his partner, Morty, are transported to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, North Carolina, September 16, 2018. Spc. Austin T. Boucher/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Some 4,700 people across North Carolina have been rescued by boat or helicopter since the storm made landfall, twice as many as in Hurricane Matthew two years ago, according to state officials. About 10,000 remain in shelters.

The coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, remained cut off by floodwaters on Thursday. More than 200 roads across the state were closed or blocked as residents. Over 60,000 customers were without power in North Carolina early on Friday, according to Poweroutage.us.

As floodwaters continue to rise, concerns are growing about the environmental and health dangers lurking in the water.

The flooding has caused 21 hog “lagoons,” which store manure from pig farms, to overflow in North Carolina, creating a risk that standing water will be contaminated, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. North Carolina is one of the leading hog-producing states in the country.

Several sewer systems in the region also have released untreated or partly treated sewage and storm water into waterways over the last week, local media reported.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Kinston, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Conway, South Carolina, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Scott DiSavino in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Larry King)

Air strike warning app helps Syrians dodge death from the skies

Dave Levin, one of two co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, displays the mobile phone application of Sentry at his office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Russian military aircraft thunders into the skies at 4.47 pm from Russia’s air base at Hmeimim in western Syria, veering to the east.

An observer takes note of all three details, opens a phone app and enters the information into three designated fields.

Fourteen minutes later and 100 kilometers away, Abdel Razzaq sees the aircraft flying over his town of Maaret al-Numan. He opens his own app and types: Maaret al-Numan, Russian military aircraft, headed northeast.

The data is processed by a program, known as Sentry, that estimates the plane’s trajectory and sends a warning, triggering Facebook and Telegram messages, Tweets and, most importantly, loud sirens throughout cities in opposition-held Syria.

Air strikes have been a fact of daily life for millions of Syrians living in rebel-held areas, becoming far more intense since Russia joined the war in 2015.

Before Sentry was introduced, the main warning people had of an air strike was when they heard the planes themselves — when it was already too late, said Omayya, 50, who was displaced from Aleppo to its northwestern countryside.

“There was no use for one to do anything. Sometimes we would actually see the barrels as they fell,” she said by Skype, referring to the barrel bombs — oil drums filled with shrapnel and explosives — dropped across rebel areas. “We would watch and see the barrels fall and the children would cry.”

Omayya attended a course run by volunteers about Sentry and how best to survive air strikes. She now knows to open her window so blast pressure doesn’t shatter the glass and that her bathroom, in the middle of the house, is the best place to hide.

John Jaeger and Dave Levin, co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, work at their office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

John Jaeger and Dave Levin, co-founders of Hala System, an early warning alert system linked to sirens inside rebel-held areas in Syria that warns people ahead of an airstrike, work at their office in Turkey September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The volunteers taught Omayya’s six grandchildren, three of whose fathers have died, what to do if they are told an air strike may hit their school. Naela, one of the volunteers, said they trained children to duck under desks and curl up in the fetal position if they hear the alarm. If the warning is early enough, teachers can take the children down to basements.

Women have emerged as one of the main targets of the campaign, Naela said: “Women always carry their mobiles with them, so they get the message wherever they are, whether they are at home, in the kitchen, with their neighbor.”

The warning system was founded by two Americans, John Jaeger and his business partner Dave Levin, after Jaeger had held a job working with Syrian civilians for the U.S. State Department.

“I recognized that the biggest threat to peace inside of Syria was the indiscriminate bombing of civilians,” Jaeger explained. “We simply thought that there was more that the international community could and should do to warn civilians in advance of this indiscriminate violence.”

Their company, Hala Systems, says it has received funding from countries including Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States as well as private donors.

The White Helmet rescue workers operating in opposition-held Syria work with Sentry to operate and maintain air raid sirens.

“Before, whenever there was bombardment, we wouldn’t have knowledge of a strike until the wounded reach us,” said Yousef, a 23-year old nurse in a field hospital outside Aleppo.

“But now with Sentry, we immediately find out through our mobile that a strike happened. So we know that it’s in this area, where there are civilians. So we know there are wounded for sure.” The hospital can notify doctors, make sure materials are prepped, and wait for the wounded.

“We hugely depend on (the system) because it’s become the foundation of our work,” he said.

Around three million people live in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in northwest Syria. Half are already displaced, having fled government advances in other parts of Syria.

In preparation for an expected army offensive, civilians have been readying food and digging shelters. Some even improvised gas masks in case of chemical attacks.

PLANE SPOTTING

Last week, the Syrian government and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments, although recent days have been relatively quiet, said Abdel Razzaq, who watches for aircraft and enters the information into the Sentry app.

He clicks on the image of a plane to identify what type of aircraft he saw. He chooses the location and what the plane is doing or where it’s headed. This dispatches messages on channels like Telegram, sometimes with time-stamped warnings for specific towns and villages.

“9:37 pm: Shahshabo Mountain – transport aircraft now heading northeast. Can reach the following areas: Maaret al-Numan: two minutes from now/ Kafranbel: one minute from now.”

A former English teacher, Abdel Razzaq has been diligently watching planes since 2011, later joining Sentry as an observer.

“We’re a bunch of guys who are everywhere. Each of us holds a specific district,” he said. “We see the plane, the type of plane, with the naked eye and then send the warning.”

As well as providing warning of attacks that come out of the blue, the system has also helped indicate brief pauses during more sustained attacks, said Hala Systems co-founder Levin. During the offensive on Ghouta, near Damascus, earlier this year, civilians relied on the system to time their brief forays from basements and shelters to get food and water.

“That was a big relief for us, that we were actually having impact even when it’s raining bombs,” Levin said.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

Carolina coast battening down, boarding up as hurricane nears

Caitie Sweeney of Myrtle Beach texts her family while visiting the beach ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Beach communities in North and South Carolina emptied out on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding as the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the southeastern states in decades.

Florence had maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) and was on a trajectory that showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rains that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina, where some areas could see as much as 40 inches (1m) of rain, to Virginia.

Florence is rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invoked a former boxing champion to warn residents that it would bring “a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

“The time to prepare is almost over,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at a Wednesday morning news conference. “Disaster is at the doorstep and it’s coming in.”

More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools and factories were being shuttered.

The NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) would hit the region early on Thursday with the storm’s center reaching the coast Friday. At 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Wednesday the storm was located about 530 miles (855 km) southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

The storm surge, or wind-driven seawater, poses a huge danger, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“People do not live and survive to tell the tale about what their experience is like with storm surge,” he said. “It’s the most deadly part of the hurricane that comes in.”

FEMA FUNDS MOVED

MSNBC reported the Trump administration had diverted nearly $10 billion from FEMA to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which leads border enforcement. But that has not affected the response to Florence, Byard told a news conference.

He said there was “well over $20 billion” in FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter warned of the storm’s dangers and praised his administration’s handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.

“Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated,” Trump said. “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!”

State and federal officials have frequently urged residents in the target zone to evacuate but there was resistance along the coast.

“I’m not approaching Florence from fear or panic,” said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington. “It’s going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through.”

The last hurricane rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people.

Emergency preparations in the area included setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from shore and getting 16 nuclear reactors ready in the three-state region for the storm.

(For graphic on Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v)

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Japan PM visits flood disaster zone, promises help as new warnings issued

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets local residents staying at an evacuation center in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 11, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Issei Kato

KUMANO, Japan (Reuters) – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited flood-stricken parts of Japan on Wednesday as the death toll from the worst weather disaster in 36 years reached 176 and health concerns rose amid scorching heat and the threat of new floods.

Torrential rain caused floods and triggered landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction to neighborhoods built decades ago near steep mountain slopes.

At least 176 people were killed, the government said, with dozens missing in Japan’s worst weather disaster since 1982.

Rescue workers and Japan Self-Defense Force soldiers search for missing people at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

In Kumano, a mountainside community in Hiroshima prefecture that was hit by a landslide last week, Ken Kirioka anxiously watched rescuers toiling through mud, sand and smashed houses to find the missing, including his 76-year-old father, Katsuharu.

“He is old and has a heart condition. I prepared myself for the worst when I heard about the landslide on Friday night,” he said, pointing at a pile of mud and rubble where he said his father was buried.

“He is an old-fashioned father who is hard-headed and does not talk much,” Kirioka said, adding he would stay until his father was found. “It would be too bad for him if a family member were not around”.

Rescuers working under a scorching sun combed through heaps of wood and thickly caked mud in a search for bodies, helped by sniffer dogs. In some cases only the foundation of homes remained as they cut through debris with chain saws.

With temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher in the devastated areas in Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures, attention turned to preventing heat-stroke among rescue workers and in evacuation centers where thousands of people have sought shelter.

People sat on thin mats on a gymnasium floor in one center, plastic bags of belongings piled around them and bedding folded off to the side. Portable fans turned slowly as children cried.

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A family member of missing people watches search and rescue operations at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

ABE PLEDGES SUPPORT

Abe, who canceled an overseas trip to deal with the disaster, was criticized after a photograph posted on Twitter showed Abe and his defense minister at a party with lawmakers just as the rains intensified.

After observing the damage from a helicopter flying over Okayama, one of the hardest-hit areas, Abe visited a crowded evacuation center. He crouched down on the floor to speak with people, many of them elderly, and asked about their health. He clasped one man’s hands as they spoke.

Later he told reporters the government would do everything it could to help the survivors.

“We’ll cut through all the bureaucracy to secure the goods people need for their lives, to improve life in the evacuation centers – such as air conditioners as the hot days continue – and then secure temporary housing and the other things people need to rebuild their lives,” he said.

Abe is up for re-election as party leader in September and has seen his popularity ratings edge back up after taking a hit over a cronyism scandal earlier this year.

His government pledged an initial $4 billion toward recovery on Tuesday, and a later special budget if needed.

Officials turned to social media to warn of the additional danger of food-borne illnesses, urging people to wash their hands and take other measures against food poisoning.

Evacuation orders were issued for 25 households in the city of Fukuyama after cracks were found in a reservoir.

Water accumulating behind piles of debris blocking rivers also posed a danger after a swollen river rushed into a Fukuyama residential area on Monday, prompting more evacuation orders.

The intensifying heat was expected to trigger thunderstorms on Wednesday, with authorities warning new landslides could be set off on mountainsides saturated with water.

Japanese media on Wednesday focused on the timing of evacuation orders issued in the hard-hit Mabi district of Kurashiki city just minutes before a levee broke and water poured into the residential area.

A number of the dead in Mabi were found in their homes, suggesting they did not have enough time to flee, media reports said.

(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Rescuers tirelessly search for 200 missing near Guatemala volcano

Workers remove ashes from a road at an area affected by the eruption of the Fuego volcano at El Rodeo in Escuintla, Guatemala June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Fabricio Alonzo

By Sofia Menchu

SAN MIGUEL LOS LOTES, Guatemala (Reuters) – Rescuers scoured a lava and ash ravaged landscape in Guatemala for a third straight day on Wednesday in search of survivors and victims of Fuego volcano’s calamitous eruption, which has left an estimated 85 people dead and some 200 missing.

Volcan de Fuego, which means “Volcano of Fire,” exploded violently on Sunday, shooting thick plumes of ash miles into the sky that rained down on residents and sending superheated pyroclastic and lava flows barreling through nearby towns.

A thick layer of still smoldering ash and volcanic rock blanketed the tiny hamlet of San Miguel Los Lotes, with only the roofs of some homes sticking out.

Guatemala’s seismological, volcanic and meteorological institute Insivumeh heightened its warnings after the volcano erupted again on Tuesday, forcing evacuations and sending rescue workers scrambling for cover.

But by Wednesday morning, rescuer workers were back at it with pickaxes, metal rods and flashlights in hand, risking their own lives in search of victims or a miracle survivor. Bulldozers stood by to help.

“We can only work in places where we can stand on the roofs of houses … because the ash is very hot. There are places where you stick the pickaxe or rod in and we see a lot of smoke coming out and fire and it’s impossible to keep digging because we could die,” said 25-year-old rescuer Diego Lorenzana.

Elsewhere, rescuers plunged metal rods into the quickly hardening ash that sat atop what was previously a roadway in a desperate search for trapped vehicles, a video by local TV station Televisiete showed.

The extent of the devastation was widespread.

Cecilio Chacaj, a spokesman for the municipal firefighters department, said the bodies of another nine victims have been recovered on Wednesday.

An elderly man, who was featured in a video shortly after the eruption that showed him in a state of shock, caked from head to toe in ash and mud, died from the severe burns he suffered.

That brings to 85 the number of dead.

Guatemala’s national disaster management agency, CONRED, said 1.7 million people have been affected by the volcanic eruption, Fuego volcano’s biggest in four decades, and over 12,000 have been evacuated.

Volunteers were also distributing humanitarian aid, including clean drinking water, to victims.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said they have released more than 250,000 Swiss francs ($253,446) from its global emergency fund to support frontline emergency efforts.

These funds will help “Guatemala Red Cross support 3,000 of the most vulnerable survivors for three months,” they added.

The 3,763-meter (12,346-feet) Fuego Volcano is one of several active volcanoes among 34 in the Central American country. It lies near the colonial city of Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage site that has survived several major eruptions.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

A man photographs artifacts on display, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea agrees to talks after U.S., South Korea postpone military drills

Ribbons bearing messages wishing for unification between the two Koreas hang on a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea agreed on Friday to hold official talks with the South next week, the first in more than two years, hours after the United States and South Korea delayed a military exercise amid a standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

South Korea said the North had sent its consent for the talks to be held on Tuesday. The last time the two Koreas engaged in official talks was in December 2015.

The meeting will take place at the border truce village of Panmunjom where officials from both sides are expected to discuss the Winter Olympics, to be held in the South next month, and other inter-Korean relations, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told reporters.

North Korea asked for further negotiations about the meeting to be carried out via documented exchanges, Baik said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the way for talks with South Korea in a New Year’s Day speech in which he called for reduced tensions and flagged the North’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics.

But Kim remained steadfast on the issue of nuclear weapons, saying the North would mass produce nuclear missiles for operational deployment and again warned he would launch a nuclear strike if his country was threatened.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in announced on Thursday that annual large-scale military drills would now take place after the Olympics.

The North sees these drills as preparations for invasion and just cause for its weapons programs that it conducts in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

Trump had earlier called the proposed inter-Korean talks a “good thing” and that he would send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Olympics, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

In a tweet, Trump, who hurled fresh insults at the North Korean leader this week, took credit for any dialogue that takes place.

“Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump tweeted.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States and its two key Asia allies, Japan and South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang welcomed North and South Korea “taking positive steps to improve ties”, and said the postponement of the military exercises was “without doubt a good thing”.

China’s Commerce Ministry said it would limit exports of crude oil, refined oil products, steel and other metals to North Korea, in line with tough new sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera sounded a note of caution about the proposed talks.

“I think what is important is to maintain a firm defense posture,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

“North Korea goes through phases of apparent dialogue and provocation but either way, North Korea is continuing its nuclear and missile development. We have no intention of weakening our warning and surveillance.”

The ramped-up momentum for inter-Korean dialogue follows a year of missile and nuclear tests by North Korea as well as an exchange of bellicose comments from Trump and Kim, which raised alarm across the world.

Earlier this week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington had heard reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to fire another missile.

South Korea’s defense ministry has said it had yet to see any evidence of an imminent missile launch.

Analysts with the website 38 North, which tracks North Korea, reported Pyongyang may be preparing to test a rocket engine at a facility in Sohae, North Pyongan province, where all of the North’s satellite launches have taken place since 2012.

Commercial satellite imagery from Dec. 25 showed a rail-mounted environment shelter had been moved away from a test stand, indicating that an engine test may be in the near future, the website said, rather than a new rocket launch suspected in recent media reports.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Olivier Fabre in TOKYO and Philip Wen in BEIJING and Denis Pinchuk in MOSCOW; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

Blizzard roars into U.S. Northeast, snarling travel

A lone visitor takes a picture near the brink of the ice covered Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada.

By Gina Cherelus and Scott Malone

NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) – The first major winter storm of 2018 bore down on the U.S. Northeast on Thursday, closing schools and government offices and disrupting travel as work crews scrambled to clear roads of snow before plummeting temperatures turn it to treacherous ice.

After bringing rare snowfall to the southeast a day earlier, the storm carried rapid accumulation and high winds to New York, where subway systems appeared less crowded than usual as many commuters heeded officials’ warnings to stay home.

Blizzard warnings were in place along the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the National Weather Service forecasting winds as high as 55 miles per hour (89 kph) that may bring down tree limbs and knock out power.

More than a foot (30 cm) of snow was forecast for Boston and coastal areas in northern New England.

The storm is the product of a rapid and rare plunge in barometric pressure that some weather forecasters are referring to as bombogenesis, or the so-called “bomb cyclone.”

The term comes from the merging of two words: bomb and cyclogenisis, according to private forecaster AccuWeather.

On Wednesday, the storm dumped snow on Florida’s capital Tallahassee for the first time in 30 years, and was expected to last through the day.

About 3,000 airline flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled ahead of the storm’s arrival on Thursday, with New York’s three major airports and Boston’s Logan International seeing as many as three out of four flights called off, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

Federal government offices planned to delay opening for two hours on Thursday, while state officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts ordered non-essential workers to stay home. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage ordered state offices closed for the day.

“Travel conditions are expected to be treacherous,” LePage said in a statement. “Avoiding unnecessary travel will keep accidents to a minimum and allow state and municipal road crews to safely go about their work.”

The snow storm brought a break in extreme cold temperatures that have gripped much of the region since Christmas, frozen part of the Niagara Falls, played havoc with public works and impeded firefighting in places where temperatures barely broke 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 centigrade).

But forecasters warned temperatures would drop sharply on Friday and into the weekend. That left work crews scrambling to clear snow off roadways and sidewalks on Thursday before it freezes to ice and makes conditions more treacherous for pedestrians and drivers alike.

“These are tough conditions to move around in, so if you don’t need to be on the road … you shouldn’t,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take this weather very seriously.”

Schools were ordered to close in New York, many parts of New Jersey, Boston and other cities through the region.

A woman walks down the street during a blizzard in Long Beach, New York, U.S. January 4, 2018.

A woman walks down the street during a blizzard in Long Beach, New York, U.S. January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

SOUTHERN SNOW

Private forecaster AccuWeather said snow would fall quickly during the day, at a rate of several inches per hour, with the storm intensified by the bombogenesis effect.

The phenomenon occurs when a storm’s barometric pressure drops by 24 millibars in 24 hours. As a result, the accumulation of snow and winds intensifies, which can cause property damage and power outages.

More than 35,000 customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia early on Thursday, utilities reported online.

A part of US-13 at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was closed due to high winds early on Thursday while state transportation departments throughout the region reported dozens of delays due to deteriorating roads conditions.

Late on Wednesday, a baggage car and two sleeper cars on an Amtrak train traveling from Miami to New York, with 311 passengers aboard, derailed as it was slowly backing into a station in Savannah, Georgia. No one was injured, an Amtrak spokesman said.

The cold has been blamed for at least nine deaths over the past few days, including those of two homeless people in Houston.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Alison Williams and Bernadette Baum)