Russia tells Washington curbs on its banks would be act of economic war

The U.S. dollar sign is seen on an electronic board next to a traffic light in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States on Friday it would regard any U.S. move to curb the activities of its banks as a declaration of economic war which it would retaliate against, stepping up a war of words with Washington over spiraling sanctions.

The warning, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, reflects Russian fears over the impact of new restrictions on its economy and assets, including the rouble which has lost nearly six percent of its value this week on sanctions jitters.

Economists expect the economy to grow by 1.8 percent this year. But if new sanctions proposed by Congress and the State Department are implemented in full, something that remains uncertain, some economists fear growth would be almost cut to zero in future.

In a sign of how seriously Russia is taking the threat, President Vladimir Putin discussed what the Kremlin called “possible new unfriendly steps by Washington” with his Security Council on Friday.

Moscow’s strategy of trying to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties by attempting to build bridges with President Donald Trump is backfiring after U.S. lawmakers launched a new sanctions drive last week because they fear Trump is too soft on Russia.

That, in turn, has piled pressure on Trump to show he is tough on Russia ahead of mid-term elections.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions that pushed the rouble to two-year lows and sparked a wider sell-off over fears Russia was locked in a spiral of never-ending sanctions.

Separate legislation introduced last week in draft form by Republican and Democratic senators, dubbed “the sanctions bill from hell” by one of its backers, proposes curbs on the operations of several state-owned Russian banks in the United States and restrictions on their use of the dollar.

Medvedev said Moscow would take economic, political or other retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington targeted Russian banks.

“I would not like to comment on talks about future sanctions, but I can say one thing: If some ban on banks’ operations or on their use of one or another currency follows, it would be possible to clearly call it a declaration of economic war,” said Medvedev.

“And it would be necessary, it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this,” he said, speaking on a trip to the Russian Far East.

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

FEW GOOD RETALIATORY OPTIONS

In practice, however, there is little Russia could do to hit back at the United States without damaging its own economy or depriving its consumers of sought-after goods, and officials in Moscow have made clear they do not want to get drawn into what they describe as a mutually-damaging tit-for-tat sanctions war.

The threat of more U.S. sanctions kept the rouble under pressure on Friday, sending it crashing past two-year lows at one point before it recouped some of its losses.

The Russian central bank said the rouble’s fall to multi-month lows on news of new U.S. sanctions was a “natural reaction” and that it had the necessary tools to prevent any threat to financial stability.

One tool it said it might use was limiting market volatility by adjusting how much foreign currency it buys. Central bank data showed on Friday it had started buying less foreign currency on Wednesday, the first day of the rouble’s slide.

The fate of the U.S. bill Medvedev was referring to is not certain.

The full U.S. Congress will not be back in Washington until September, and even then, congressional aides said they did not expect the measure would pass in its entirety.

While it was difficult to assess so far in advance, they said it was more likely that only some of its provisions would be included as amendments in another piece of legislation, such as a spending bill Congress must pass before Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Writing by Andrew Osborn Editing by William Maclean)

South Korea scraps annual government war drill as talks with North go on

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Tuesday it has decided to scrap an annual government mobilization drill this year as part of a suspended joint exercise with the United States but will carry out its own drills to maintain readiness. The ministers of safety and defense made the announcement at a media briefing on Tuesday. The drill, called the Ulchi exercises, usually takes place every August in tandem with the joint Freedom Guardian military drill with the United States.

Seoul and Washington said in June they would halt the joint exercise after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to end war games following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

Seoul’s presidential office has said the suspension of the combined exercise could facilitate ongoing nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States.

South Korea would develop a new drill model by incorporating Ulchi and the existing Taeguk command post exercises, which would be aimed at fighting militancy and large-scale natural disasters, the ministers said.

That incorporated exercise would be launched in October when the Hoguk field training drill takes place, the ministers said.

“Our military will carry out planned standalone drills this year and decide on joint exercises through close consultations with the United States,” Defence Minister Song Young-moo said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump says top North Korean official headed to New York to discuss summit

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, arrives at the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Patrick Semansky/Pool

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A senior North Korean official is headed to New York to discuss an upcoming summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, the latest indication that an on-again-off-again meeting between Trump and North Korea’s leader may go ahead next month.

“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Trump said in a Twitter post. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young (sic) Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”

Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was scheduled to fly to the United States on Wednesday after speaking to Chinese officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source.

The talks indicate that planning for the unprecedented summit on curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, initially scheduled for June 12, is moving ahead after Trump called it off last week in a letter to the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

A day later, Trump said he had reconsidered and officials from both countries were meeting to work out details.

Kim Yong Chol will be the most senior North Korean official to meet top officials for talks in the United States since Jo Myong Rok, a marshal, met then-President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

Kim Yong Chol, previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency, coordinated the North Korean president’s two meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April and May. He and Kim Jong Un’s sister were the only North Korean officials to attend the first inter-Korean summit in April.

Analysts believe the United States is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree to sufficient steps toward denuclearisation to allow a summit to take place.

North Korean leader Kim’s de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, meanwhile, flew to Singapore, the scheduled site of the meeting, via Beijing late on Monday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

At the same time, a “pre-advance” U.S. team was in Singapore to meet North Koreans.

In Singapore, a team of U.S. officials was at a hotel on the resort island of Sentosa but declined to comment.

NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS

North Korea has faced years of isolation and economic sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs since it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

But events have moved quickly since Kim Jong Un made a conciliatory New Year’s address at the end of last year, following months of sharply rising tension and war-like rhetoric between Trump and Kim.

The latest flurry of diplomacy began on Saturday, when Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting at the border village of Panmunjom, during which they agreed the North Korea-U.S. summit must be held.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said American and North Korean officials had met at Panmunjom. Sung Kim, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current ambassador to the Philippines, led the U.S. delegation, an official told Reuters.

Sung Kim will meet North Korean Foreign Ministry official Choi Sun Hee again on Wednesday on the border, Yonhap reported, citing a diplomatic source, adding that the agenda for the Trump-Kim summit would be roughly worked out.

While likely substantive, those discussions could be upstaged by any talks between Kim Yong Chol and officials in the United States, said Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat who dealt with North Korea under U.S. President George W. Bush.

The future of North Korea’s nuclear program, which has been a source of international tension for decades, U.S. security guarantees and coordination for a Trump-Kim summit are likely to be at the top of the agenda, analysts said.

“The most important agenda item would be the method of denuclearisation,” said Moon Sung-mook, a former South Korean military official who negotiated with Kim in the past. “We can expect that Kim (Yong Chol) is visiting the U.S. in order to do final coordination ahead of the June 12 summit.”

In Kim Jong Un and Moon’s first meeting on April 27, they agreed to seek the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula but did not define what that meant or how that would proceed.

Since then, North Korea has rejected U.S. demands for it to unilaterally abandon its nuclear program, which experts say could threaten the United States.

North Korea also demanded the United States stop military exercises with South Korea if it truly wished for talks with North Korea, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.

South Korea’s Defence Ministry said it did not have plans to change exercise schedules with the U.S. military.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programs as a deterrent against what it sees as U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

SENIOR VISIT

Kim Yong Chol has played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between North Korea and South Korea, as well as the United States.

The United States and South Korea blacklisted him for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively, so a visit to the United States would indicate a waiver was granted.

During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, Kim was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010. He was linked by U.S intelligence to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.

North Korea denied any involvement in the attack on the ship and on Sony Pictures.

When Kim Chang Son was asked by a reporter at Beijing airport if he was flying to Singapore for talks with the United States, he said he was “going there to play”, according to Nippon Television Network.

Choe Kang Il, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official involved with North American issues, also was spotted at Beijing airport, according to Yonhap.

China said it had no information to offer on any North Korean officials traveling to the United States via Beijing.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Jeongmin Kim in SEOUL, Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON, Michael Martina in BEIJING, Kaori Kaneko, Malcolm Foster and Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Trott)

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)

France’s Macron visits Trump as Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.

As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.

Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran?  No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.

The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.

Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.

Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.

TRADE TALKS

Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.

“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.

Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.

His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”

The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.

Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.

Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Americans reflect on Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy 50 years on

FILE PHOTO: People gather to march in the annual parade down MLK Boulevard to honor Martin Luther King, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., January 16, 2017. REUTERS/Billy Weeks

By Kia Johnson

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) – A half century after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, visitors still flock to the Memphis, Tennessee, site where the civil rights leader was assassinated and say that while there has been progress in racial equality, more strides need to be made.

“We still look like there is a shadow over us, still seems like something is holding us back,” Charles Wilson, a black man from Mississippi, said during a recent visit to the site.

On April 4, 1968, King, 39, was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes Room 306, preserved as it was when King stayed there, and vintage cars parked out front.

A Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, King worked to end legal segregation of blacks in the United States. He gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at age 35 – the youngest man to have received the award.

Despite King’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, the days immediately following his death were marked by rioting in several American cities. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed.

Wilson, the recent National Civil Rights Museum visitor, and his son Charles Jr. were among those who contemplated King’s legacy and the status of civil rights in the United States.

“I think that the changes that people fought for as far as voting and et cetera, a lot of people don’t take advantage of it, and a lot of people gave their lives for that right, they fought for it and people now don’t appreciate it,” Wilson Jr said.

Nancy Langfield, a white woman visiting from Missouri, said politicians in Washington do not reflect the racial makeup of the United States.

She deplored what she called the rhetoric coming out of Washington, calling it hateful and mean. “I look at the government and it looks very white to me, and then I think about the country and it doesn’t seem overly white to me,” Langfield said.

For Hyungu Lee, of Tennessee, who visited the museum with his family, King’s legacy is still alive.

“Even though he is not here, I feel that his spirit is with us now, and because of him, our human rights is getting better and better, so I feel really thankful,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Kia Johnson; Writing by Suzannah Gonzales; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

U.S. gun control movement pushing Congress to act: lawmakers

People take part in a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The youth-led U.S. gun control movement that flexed its public muscle with huge weekend rallies has already nudged Congress to enact minor firearms changes, but must remain active if it hopes to win more meaningful regulations, lawmakers said on Sunday.

The movement that erupted after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has generated a national conversation about gun rights and has chipped away at legislative gridlock on the issue, they said.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Stro

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“The activism of these young people is actually changing the equation,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Washington.

Tucked into a $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week were modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and an end to a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the causes of gun violence.

“These are two things we could not have done in the past,” Kaine said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “But the active engagement by young people convinced Congress we better do something.”

The spending bill, which President Donald Trump signed on Friday, also includes grants to help schools prevent gun violence.

The Trump administration also took a step on Friday to ban the sale of bump stocks – devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns – that helped gunman Stephen Paddock massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in October.

A key focus of Saturday’s march on Washington, which was duplicated in 800 cities across the country and around the world, was an effort to turn emotion into political activism by registering participants to vote.

Americans will vote in November on the entire U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

Gun control advocates have called for universal background checks on people buying guns, bans on assault-style rifles such as the one used to kill 17 students and staff in Parkland, and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Senator Mark Warner, another Virginia Democrat, declared in the wake of the student-led movement that he would now support bans on such rifles and magazines, which he had voted against in recent years.

“I think it’s time to change our positions and re-examine them,” Warner said on the CBS News “Face the Nation” program.

“I think this time it’s going different,” Warner said. “I think we can actually get it done.”

To win significant changes, lawmakers said the young gun control advocates need to maintain their drive in the face of powerful pro-gun lobbying by the National Rifle Association and those who see gun ownership as a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“If they don’t keep it up, those that want no change will just sit on their hands,” Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican who formerly served in Congress, said on CNN.

Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa, said over the weekend that while they supported gun control advocates’ right to protest, they opposed infringing on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum drew an angry response on social media for saying on CNN that, instead of agitating for change, students should “do something about maybe taking CPR classes” or take other training to respond to school shooters.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. Senate advances bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on Monday to advance legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, setting up final passage of a bill as soon as Tuesday that would chip away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation overwhelmingly last month. It is expected to be sent to and signed by President Donald Trump later this week.

The bill’s expected passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year because of an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The Senate vote to limit debate on the sex trafficking legislation came as Facebook endured withering scrutiny over its data protection practices after reports that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data on more than 50 million Facebook users through inappropriate means.

Several major internet companies, including Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, have been reluctant in the past to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that began to gain traction in the Senate last year.

The legislation is a result of years of law enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics have warned that the measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to help established internet giants, which possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden cast the only no votes.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Peter Cooney)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)

Travel snarled, power outages as storm bears down on U.S. Northeast

A woman walks during rain while the New York skyline and the One World Trade Center are seen from Exchange Place in New Jersey, U.S., March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The second winter storm within a week crept into New York and surrounding states on Wednesday, with forecasters predicting intensifying snowfall that could snarl the evening commute as thousands remained without power from the last nor’easter.

Between 4 and 12 inches (10 and 30 cm) of snow were forecast for New York City and the surrounding suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut through to Thursday morning, with wind gusts creating “near-whiteout conditions” for commuters, the National Weather Service said on Wednesday.

The storm will spread with varying degrees of intensity across the Northeast, from western Pennsylvania up into New England, and officials took precautions.

New York’s three major airlines reported a total of 1,431 canceled flights on Wednesday morning, about 40 percent of their normally scheduled flights.

All schools were closed in Philadelphia while schools across the region canceled classes or shortened the school day ahead of the storm, local news media reported. Schools stayed open in New York City.

This week’s storm was not forecast to have the hurricane-strength winds whipped up at times by the storm last week, but forecasters say strong gusts of 60 miles per hour (96.56 km per hour) and accumulated snow will still be enough to knock down more power lines.

Last week’s storm brought major coastal flooding to Massachusetts, killed at least nine people and knocked out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses in the Northeast.

Some 100,000 homes and businesses in the region remained without power on Wednesday. A nor’easter is an East Coast storm in which winds blow from the northeast.

The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared states of emergency, giving them access to support from the U.S. government if needed.

The Amtrak passenger train service canceled some Wednesday trains between Washington and Boston, as well as some services in Pennsylvania, New York state and other parts of the Northeast.

The storm got off to an uncertain start in New York City, where the air was damp, and the odd stray snowflake could be spotted, but many early commuters saw no reason to unfurl the umbrellas stashed under their arms.

“I was expecting more than this,” Michelle Boone, 50, said as she waited for a bus to get to her job at a Manhattan homeless shelter. “I’m happy it’s not doing what they said it was going do. This evening could be different, though.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)