One trapped, several hurt in Washington building collapse

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Search and rescue crews were attempting on Thursday to free a construction worker trapped inside a partially-built five-story building that collapsed during a rain storm in Washington.

Four other construction workers were removed from the debris shortly after the building in the U.S. capital came down at about 3:30 pm (1930 GMT), said John Donnelly, assistant chief of D.C. Fire and EMS.

The rescued workers were taken from the scene about 5 miles (8 km) north of the Capitol building to a local hospital. They had non-life-threatening injuries, Donnelly said.

The trapped worker was conscious and in contact with fire crews as they sought to free him from the rubble, Donnelly said, adding: “We are talking to him and I view that as a good thing.”

Images showed dozens of firefighters swarming over piles of wood left behind by the collapse, using saws and heavy equipment to move large pieces.

Last week, a condominium tower collapsed in Surfside, Florida as most residents slept. Searchers there have recovered 18 bodies and say another 145 people remain missing.

President Joe Biden traveled to the scene of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Florida on Thursday.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. adds Turkey to list of countries implicated in use of child soldiers

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday added Turkey to a list of countries that are implicated in the use of child soldiers over the past year, placing a NATO ally for the first time in such a list, in a move that is likely to further complicate the already fraught ties between Ankara and Washington.

The U.S. State Department determined in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) that Turkey was providing “tangible support” to the Sultan Murad division in Syria, a faction of Syrian opposition that Ankara has long supported and a group that Washington said recruited and used child soldiers.

In a briefing call with reporters, a senior State Department official also made a reference to the use of child soldiers in Libya, saying Washington was hoping to work with Ankara on the issue to address it.

“With respect to Turkey in particular…this is the first time a NATO member has been listed in the child soldier prevention act list,” the State Department official said. “As a respected regional leader and member of NATO, Turkey has the opportunity to address this issue, the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Syria and Libya,” he said.

Turkey has carried out three cross-border operations in Syria against the so-called Islamic State, as well as U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and has frequently used factions of armed Syrian fighters on top of its own forces.

Some of these groups have been accused by human rights groups and the United Nations of indiscriminately attacking civilians and carrying out kidnappings and lootings. The United Nations had asked Ankara to rein in these Syrian rebels while Turkey rejected the allegations, calling them ‘baseless.’

Turkey has also been involved in the Libyan conflict. Ankara’s support has helped the Tripoli-based government reverse a 14-month assault from eastern forces backed by Egypt and Russia.

Governments placed on this list are subject to restrictions, according to the State Department report, on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment, absent a presidential waiver.

It was not immediately clear whether any restrictions would automatically apply to Turkey.

It was also not immediately clear if the placing of Turkey on this list would have an impact on its ongoing negotiations with the United States to run Afghanistan’s Kabul airport once Washington withdraws its troops.

Turkey has offered to guard and run Hamid Karzai airport after NATO’s withdrawal and has been holding talks with the United States on logistic and financial support for the mission.

The mission could be a potential area of cooperation between Ankara and its allies amid strained ties, as the security of the airport is crucial for the operation of diplomatic missions out of Afghanistan after the withdrawal.

To carry out this task, Ankara has sought various financial and operational support, and President Joe Biden, in a meeting last month with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had said that U.S. support would be forthcoming, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan had said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

Putin says Russia could have sunk UK warship without starting World War Three

By Andrew Osborn and Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia could have sunk a British warship that it accused of illegally entering its territorial waters without starting World War Three and accused Washington of a role in the “provocation.”

Tensions between Moscow and London soared last week after Russia challenged the right of HMS Defender to transit waters near Russian-annexed Crimea, something Britain said it had every right to do.

Putin’s comments add menace to earlier Russian warnings that Moscow would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea in the event of further provocative actions by the British navy near heavily fortified Crimea.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and Britain and most of the world recognize the Black Sea peninsula as part of Ukraine, not Russia.

In an account of last week’s incident which London said it did not recognize, Russia said it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British warship which was en route from Ukraine to Georgia.

Putin, speaking during his annual question and answer session with voters, signaled his anger over what he called “a provocation” designed to reveal how Russian forces in Crimea reacted to such intrusions.

When asked if the world had stood on the precipice of World War Three during the standoff, Putin said: “Of course not.”

“Even if we had sunk the ship it is hard to imagine that the world would have been on the verge of World War Three because those doing it (the provocation) know that they could not emerge as victors from such a war,” he added.

Putin accused the United States and Britain of planning the episode together, saying a U.S. spy plane had taken off from Greece earlier on the same day to watch how Russia would respond to the British warship.

“It was obvious that the destroyer entered (the waters near Crimea) pursuing, first of all, military goals, trying to use the spy plane to see how our forces would stop such provocations, to see what is activated and where, how things work and where everything is located.”

Putin said Russia had realized what the aim of the exercise was and had responded in a way that would only give the other side the information Moscow deemed necessary.

Putin said he saw a political element to the incident, which took place shortly after he had met U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva.

“The meeting in Geneva had just happened, so why was this provocation needed, what was its goal? To underscore that those people (the Americans and British) do not respect Crimeans’ choice to join the Russian Federation,” he said.

The Russian leader accused London and Washington of a lack of gratitude, saying he had earlier this year given the order for Russian forces to pull back from near Ukraine’s borders after their build-up had generated concern in the West.

“We did this,” said Putin. “But instead of reacting positively to this and saying ‘OK, we’ve understood your response to our grumbling’ – instead of that, what did they do? They barged across our borders.”

(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Alex Richardson and Catherine Evans)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

Kremlin to Washington: Putin-Biden summit depends on U.S. behavior

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin said on Wednesday that a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden would be contingent on U.S. behavior after reportedly telling Washington to scrap a plan to impose new sanctions on Russia.

Biden, in a phone call on Tuesday, proposed a summit of the estranged leaders to tackle a raft of disputes and told Moscow to reduce tensions over Ukraine triggered by a Russian military build-up.

Moscow says the build-up is a three-week snap military drill in response to what it calls threatening behavior from NATO and has said the exercise is due to wrap up within two weeks.

Putin’s spokesman said on Wednesday that the proposed summit, in a yet to be chosen European country, was contingent on future U.S. behavior in what looked like a thinly veiled reference to potential U.S. sanctions.

“Of course, further work on this proposal to meet in a European country will only be possible taking into account an analysis of the actual situation and further steps from our counterparts,” Peskov was cited as saying by the RIA news agency.

Russia-U.S. ties slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer” and Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The envoy has still not returned almost a month later.

Peskov played down the prospect of a summit earlier on Wednesday, saying it was too early to talk about it in tangible terms.

“It’s a new proposal and it will be studied,” Peskov told reporters, saying no preparations for the summit were yet underway.

‘DECISIVE RESPONSE’ TO ANY SANCTIONS

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov had invited John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, to talks on Wednesday, Peskov said.

The U.S. embassy did not immediately comment on the meeting, but the RIA news agency reported that Ushakov had told Sullivan that Moscow would “act in the most decisive way possible” if the United States undertook any new “unfriendly steps” such as imposing sanctions.

Russia has been preparing to be hit by new sanctions since Biden said last month that Putin would pay a price for alleged Russian meddling in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. Moscow denies interfering.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow are strained too by the expected imminent arrival of two U.S. warships in the Black Sea, a step Moscow has called an unfriendly provocation designed to test its nerves.

The Russian navy began a military exercise in the Black Sea on Wednesday ahead of their expected arrival.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Brussels on Wednesday for talks with NATO allies about a range of subjects, including Russia and Ukraine.

In a sign that the crisis over Ukraine remains tense, Ukraine’s armed forces rehearsed repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, officials say

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the U.S. intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting “low” chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the U.S.-led coalition withdraws support.

Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump. The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.

The Democratic president will publicly announce his decision on Wednesday, the White House said. A senior Biden administration official said the pullout would begin before May 1 and could be complete well before the Sept. 11 deadline. Significantly, it will not would be subject to further conditions, including security or human rights.

“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing with reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to discuss the decision with NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday, sources said.

Biden’s decision suggests he has concluded that the U.S. military presence will no longer be decisive in achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan, a core Pentagon assumption that has long underpinned American troop deployments there.

“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the senior administration official said.

The U.S. intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated: “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

The Taliban declined comment, saying the group has not been notified of the U.S. decision.

The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly. U.S. officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland now.

‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.” It was Trump, a Republican, who had agreed to the May 1 withdrawal.

“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counter-terrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.

There currently are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.

It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact a planned 10-day summit starting April 24 about Afghanistan in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar. Taliban representatives have not yet committed to attend.

Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.

“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although successive U.S. presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States could cut off financial assistance to Afghanistan “if there is backsliding on civil society, the rights that women have achieved.” Under previous Taliban rule, the rights of women and girls were curtailed.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of Senate Armed Services, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.

“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Editing by Will Dunham)

WHO investigators to scrap interim report on probe of COVID-19 origins: WSJ

(Reuters) – A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new probe, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

In Geneva, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an email reply: “The full report is expected in coming weeks”.

No further information was immediately available about the reasons for the delay in publishing the findings of the WHO-led mission to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected in late 2019.China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a WHO-led team probing the origins of the pandemic, Dominic Dwyer, one of the team’s investigators said last month, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak began.

The probe had been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks looking into the origins of the outbreak, was limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts and prevented from contact with community members, due to health restrictions. The first two weeks were spent in hotel quarantine.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bernadette Baum)

Syria condemns ‘cowardly’ U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias

By John Davison and Maha El Dahan

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Syria condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-backed militias in the east of the country on Friday as a cowardly act and urged President Joe Biden not to follow “the law of the jungle”.

An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four, but U.S. officials said they were limited in scope to show Biden’s administration will act firmly while trying to avoid a big regional escalation.

Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

“Syria condemns in the strongest terms the U.S. cowardly attack on areas in Deir al-Zor near the Syrian-Iraqi border,” the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“It (the U.S. administration) is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as (did) the previous administration.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also criticized the strikes and called for “unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

“What has happened is very dangerous and could lead to an escalation in the whole region,” a Russian parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.

The strikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.

Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iran-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks against U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq in the last month.

ATTACKS ON U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ

The Iraqi militia official close to Iran said Friday’s air strikes had hit positions of the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.

Local sources and a medical source in eastern Syria told Reuters at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.

In recent attacks, a non-American contractor was killed at a U.S. military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Feb. 15 and, in the days that followed, rockets were fired at a base hosting U.S. forces, and near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq gives Iraq’s government breathing room as it investigates the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.

Kataib Hezbollah has denied involvement in recent attacks against U.S. interests. Iran denies involvement in attacks on U.S. sites.

Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for established Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah.

LIMITED RESPONSE

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Thursday that U.S. forces had conducted air strikes against infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups.

“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Kirby said.

He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.

The Iraqi military issued a statement saying it had not exchanged information with the United States over the targeting of locations in Syria, and that cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq was limited to fighting Islamic State.

It was not clear how, or whether, the U.S. strikes might affect efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

(Reporting by John Davison, Amina Ismail, Baghdad newsroom, Maha El Dahan in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and by Thomas Balmforth and Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber in Moscow, editing by Timothy Heritage)

Iran says U.S. move to seize oil shipment is ‘act of piracy’

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday that a U.S. move this month to seize a cargo of oil on the grounds that it came from Tehran was an act of piracy, adding that the shipment did not belong to the Iranian government.

Washington filed a lawsuit earlier this month to seize the cargo, alleging that Iran sought to mask the origin of the oil by transferring it to several vessels before it ended up aboard the Liberian-flagged Achilleas tanker destined for China.

Washington said the cargo contravened U.S. terrorism regulations.

“This shipment does not belong to the Iranian government. It belongs to the private sector,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference.

He did not elaborate on what he meant by the private sector.

The Achilleas last reported its position on Sunday as anchored within the Galveston Offshore Lightering Area, which is outside the U.S. Gulf port of Galveston, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed on Monday.

A U.S. official said last week that Washington had sold more than a million barrels of Iranian fuel seized under its sanctions program last year.

Tensions have mounted between Washington and Tehran since 2018, when former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers and reimposed sanctions on the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to revive the nuclear deal if Tehran returns to full compliance with the accord.

“It is very unfortunate that such an act of piracy is happening under the new U.S. administration … a solution should be found to stop such acts of piracy by anyone for any reason,” the spokesman Khatibzadeh added.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Trump vows to ‘be back in some form’ as tumultuous presidency ends

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump left the White House and Washington for a final time as commander-in-chief on Wednesday after a tumultuous presidency stained by two impeachments, deep political divisions, and a pandemic that caused 400,000 U.S. deaths.

The Republican president departed the White House with his wife, Melania, saying it had been a great honor to serve and giving a final wave as he boarded the Marine One helicopter for Joint Base Andrews, where he delivered farewell remarks.

“So just a goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form,” Trump told supporters before boarding Air Force One for a flight to Florida. “Have a good life. We will see you soon.”

The plane then taxied and lifted off as Frank Sinatra’s classic song “My Way” played over the loudspeakers.

Trump left a note for his successor, Democrat Joe Biden, a spokesman confirmed. Trump has declined to mention Biden’s name even as he wished the incoming administration luck on his way out of office.

Trump, 74, bade his farewell hours before Biden was to be inaugurated. That made him the first outgoing president since Andrew Johnson in 1869 to skip the Inauguration Day ceremony that marks the formal transfer of power.

Trump’s arrival at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach is being timed to get him behind the wall of the resort before Trump’s term as president expires at noon.

“I will always fight for you. I will be watching. I will be listening. And I will tell you that the future of this country has never been better,” Trump said in his final public remarks. “I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they’ll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”

Trump has a long way to go to rebuild an image left in tatters by his stormy presidency, particularly the final months. Trump now has a unique place in history – as the only president ever impeached twice.

Even after he leaves office, the Senate is still to hold a trial on the impeachment charge brought by the Democratic-led House of Representatives that Trump incited an insurrection in connection with the Jan. 6 deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. Its outcome could determine whether he will be disqualified from running again for president.

Trump maintained to his last days in office that the Nov. 3 election was stolen from him, according to sources familiar with the situation. Courts have rejected his campaign’s claims of widespread voter fraud.

The Washington that Trump leaves behind is being guarded by 25,000 National Guard troops, while the National Mall, traditionally thronged with spectators on Inauguration Day, is closed to the public because of threats of violence.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)