With fuel scarce, Yemen’s forests are next casualty of war

By Khaled Abdullah

KHAMIS BANISAAD, Yemen (Reuters) – Yemeni lumberjack Ali al-Emadi spends hours chopping down an acacia tree with an axe as his 12-year-old nephew helps out splitting logs.

In a country blighted by war, Emadi had to turn to logging in his northern al-Mahweet region to eke out a living. An economic collapse has wiped out the farming and building work he used to travel around the country for.

But with demand for firewood soaring due to fuel shortages, there are now concerns that the country’s humanitarian crisis, with millions facing starvation, has compounded the risk of deforestation – threatening both the environment of Yemen and any hope of a long-term livelihood for men like Emadi.

“The owners of bakeries … use wood and stone to heat their ovens. In the past, they used to use gas, but now there is only wood,” Emadi said.

“Should there be good quantity of wood available, we make a living, thank God. But nowadays trees are scarce,” the father of seven said. “If I get something, we eat. At least we live or die together.”

More than six years of war between the recognized government backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement aligned with Iran has killed tens of thousands of people and left 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on aid.

The fuel shortages due to a coalition blockade on Houthi-held areas, including limiting access to the main port of Hodeidah, have led businesses and families to swap diesel and gas for firewood. The alliance says the blockade is needed to foil arms smuggling.

TREES UPROOTED

Around 886,000 trees are felled annually to feed bakeries and restaurants in the capital Sanaa alone, said Abdullah Abul-Futuh, head of biodiversity and natural reserves at Yemen’s Environment Protection Authority in the city, which is run by Houthi authorities along with most of northern Yemen.

Some 5 million trees have been cut down over the past three years across the north, he said.

“That is the equivalent of 213 square km (82 sq miles) of forests, knowing that only 3.3% of Yemen’s total area is classified as forests,” Abul-Futuh said.

The authority could not provide comparative figures, saying this was a recent phenomenon.

After gas was discovered in the Marib region in the 1980s, wood cutting became limited to remote areas but the war has choked Yemen’s energy output, forcing a reliance first on imports and now on wood from trees more usually used to build homes.

Yemen has few woodlands but a relatively rich variety of flora in the oil-producing Arabian Peninsula desert region. In al-Mahweet, known for its thick canopies, several types of acacia, cedar and spruce are vanishing.

Lumberjacks who have the means buy an acacia tree from land owners for the equivalent of around $100 and then sell logs to traders who send them to the cities.

A 5-tonne truck loaded with logs nets the equivalent of $300-$700 in Sanaa, depending on the wood and haulage distance.

“Demand depends on the number of fuel ships that make it to Hodeidah port. These days it (demand) is very high,” said logger Sulaiman Jubran, who scratches a living selling firewood to visiting traders.

“We are scared the country will become a desert, it is already happening … you no longer see the trees that once covered the mountains,” he said.

Forests are largely privately owned and poor families were traditionally allowed to chop wood for free as long as they only cut branches and spared the trunks for regeneration.

“Now, we uproot them with mattocks (pickaxe) .. nothing is left,” Emadi said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Alison Williams)

U.N. agency says 41 million on verge of famine

By Maytaal Angel

LONDON (Reuters) – Some 41 million people worldwide are at at imminent risk of famine, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned on Tuesday, saying soaring prices for basic foods were compounding existing pressures on food security.

Another half a million are already experiencing famine-like conditions, said the WFP’s Executive Director David Beasley.

“We now have four countries where famine-like conditions are present. Meanwhile 41 million people are literally knocking on famine’s door,” he said.

The WFP, which is funded entirely by voluntary donations, said it needs to raise $6 billion immediately to reach those at risk, in 43 countries.

“We need funding and we need it now,” said Beasley.

After declining for several decades, world hunger has been on the rise since 2016, driven by conflict and climate change.

In 2019, 27 million people were on the brink of famine, according to the WFP, but since 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has been added to the mix.

World food prices rose in May to their highest levels in a decade, U.N. figures show, with basics like cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar up a combined 40% versus year ago levels.

Currency depreciation in countries like Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe is adding to these pressures and driving prices even higher, stoking food insecurity.

Famine-like conditions are present this year in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen, as well as in pockets of Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

But Beasley warned against “debating numbers to death” as happened in Somalia in 2011 when 130,000 people – half the eventual toll from starvation – had already died by the time famine was declared.

The WFP, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, says around 9 percent of the world’s population, equivalent to nearly 690 million people, go to bed hungry each night.

(Reporting by Maytaal Angel; editing by John Stonestreet)

President-elect Raisi backs nuclear talks, rules out meeting Biden

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -President-elect Ebrahim Raisi on Monday backed talks between Iran and six world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal but flatly rejected meeting U.S. President Joe Biden, even if Washington removed all sanctions.

In his first news conference since he was elected on Friday, the hardline cleric said his foreign policy priority would be improving ties with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, while calling on Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia to immediately halt its intervention in Yemen.

Raisi, 60, a strident critic of the West, will take over from pragmatist Hassan Rouhani on Aug. 3 as Iran seeks to salvage the tattered nuclear deal and be rid of punishing U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

“We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests … America should immediately return to the deal and fulfill its obligations under the deal,” he said.

Negotiations have been under way in Vienna since April to work out how Iran and the United States can both return to compliance with the nuclear pact, which Washington abandoned in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump before re-imposing sanctions on Iran.

Iran has subsequently breached the deal’s limits on enrichment of uranium, designed to minimize the risk of it developing nuclear weapons potential. Tehran has long denied having any such ambition.

Raisi said Iran’s foreign policy would not be limited to the nuclear deal, adding that “all U.S. sanctions must be lifted and verified by Tehran”.

Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating stance in talks to revive the nuclear deal – Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policy.

Asked if he would meet U.S. President Joe Biden if those sanctions were lifted, Raisi answered: “No.”

RIGHTS AND REGIONAL POLICY

Raisi is under U.S. sanctions over a past which includes what the United States and human rights groups say was his involvement in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic in 1988.

When asked about human rights groups’ allegations that he was involved in the killings, he said: “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised.”

“I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far,” he said.

Gulf Arab states have said it would be dangerous to separate the nuclear pact from Tehran’s missile program and “destabilizing” behavior in the Middle East, where Tehran and Riyadh have fought decades of proxy wars, in countries from Yemen to Iraq.

Echoing Khamenei’s stance, Raisi said Iran’s “regional activities and ballistic missile program” were non-negotiable.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 after Iran-backed Houthi forces drove its government out of the capital Sanaa. The conflict has been largely stalemated for several years.

“They (the United States) did not comply with the previous agreement, how do they want to enter into new discussions?” he said.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which severed ties in 2016, began direct talks in Iraq in April aimed at containing tensions. “The reopening of the Saudi embassy is not a problem for Iran,” said Raisi.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; writing by Raya Jalabi and Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Timothy Heritage)

Battle for Yemen’s Marib scrambles U.S. push for truce

By Jonathan Landay and Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – The battle for Yemen’s gas-rich Marib region is complicating U.S. efforts to reach a ceasefire needed to end a six-year-old war and secure a foreign policy win for President Joe Biden, two sources familiar with the talks and a diplomat said.

A U.N./U.S. peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia in March proposed a nationwide ceasefire and the reopening of air and sea links, to bolster efforts to end a devastating conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Riyadh, which leads a military coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi movement, has been under increasing pressure to end the war since Biden signaled Washington would no longer support the intervention and as the United Nations warns of looming famine.

But the initiative has been stuck since Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis made a series of counter-proposals, including for a phased truce that could allow them sufficient time to seize Marib, the Saudi-backed government’s last northern stronghold.

Potentially crippling the peace initiative, fighting has intensified in recent days as the Houthis push their offensive to take Marib, which if successful would strengthen the movement’s hand in any future political negotiations.

“Probably the Houthis, given a choice between a ceasefire and taking Marib, would choose to take Marib,” said a senior diplomat based in the region.

The peace initiative can only be saved by a “mutually hurting stalemate” in which Houthi losses reach a point where they lose tribal support, the diplomat said, adding the group has replaced seasoned fighters lost to coalition bombs with inexperienced youth.

BLOCKADE

U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking and U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths have been touring the region for discussions to try to break the deadlock and secure a ceasefire, but so far without success.

The U.N./U.S. initiative would reopen Sanaa airport, and allow fuel and food imports through Hodeidah port, both of which are controlled by the Houthis. But the movement said last month that these steps would not go far enough.

Two people involved in the talks told Reuters the main issue now is sequencing, since the Houthis insist on a full lifting of the blockade followed by a gradual ceasefire: a halt to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and coalition airstrikes on Yemen, and then a truce with Yemen’s government.

Coalition airstrikes are the only thing keeping Marib, home to major oil and gas fields, from falling, since Houthi forces, now 15 km (9 miles) west of the city, have more advanced weaponry than pro-government troops, military sources said.

Hundreds of fighters from both sides have been killed in the desert plain, but military and local sources say the Houthis have lost more in the war’s most deadly clashes since 2018.

The Houthis, who seized swathes of Yemen’s conventional military when they ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014, have sent thousands of fighters to the Kasara and Mushaja areas near Marib city whose terrain provides some cover, pro-government military and local sources said.

The fighting has displaced some 13,600 people in the region since February, according to the United Nations, which said four displacement camps were shut after being hit by shelling, injuring dozens and compounding overcrowding.

Marib hosts a quarter of Yemen’s four million refugees.

The war has killed tens of thousands of people in Yemen, and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with millions facing famine.

But Saudi Arabia has also felt the impact of the war. It has faced a barrage of Houthi drone and missile strikes, and is seeking security guaranties along its border as it tries to contain the influence of arch-rival Iran.

‘KNOCKOUT BLOW’

Saudi and Iranian officials discussed Yemen during direct talks this month aimed at easing tensions, six years after diplomatic ties were severed, sources said.

Michael Knights, an expert on Gulf military affairs with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Saudi Arabia has enough reserves of U.S.-supplied precision-guided munitions to keep defending Marib, but time remained a factor.

The Houthis, who already control most big urban centres, have a window of time to press their offensive during hazy summer weather that reduces coalition air operations.

“If the Houthis take it, they’re going to take it in the next three months,” Knights said, adding that the group is advancing in pulses to seize ground and reinforce positions.

“The Houthis view Marib as a knockout blow. It makes them into a state with resources, a coastline, and most of the population. Whereas if you’re (Saudi-allied Yemeni president) Hadi, it knocks you out of the game,” he added.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Yemen famine could threaten opportunity for peace, U.N. warns

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A massive famine could wipe out a new opportunity, created by renewed U.S. engagement, to end the war in Yemen, top U.N. officials told the Security Council on Thursday.

U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths also called for a stop to an offensive by the Houthi movement on the government-held city of Marib, warning “the quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending the conflict in Yemen a priority since taking office last month, appointing a special envoy and ending U.S. support for offensive operations by Saudi Arabia in neighboring Yemen.

“International support for ending the conflict is indispensable, and this offers us a new opportunity to reopen space for a negotiated solution,” Griffiths told the 15-member Security Council.

However, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock then warned: “There’s an important opportunity right now to help Yemen move towards lasting peace … but that opportunity will disappear, it will be wasted, if Yemen tips into a massive famine.”

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year-long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Griffiths visited Tehran this month for the first time since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago. He made no reference to his visit during his public Security Council statement.

He said the warring parties needed to immediately agree to a nationwide ceasefire, allow the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities into Hodeidah port and permit international commercial traffic to use Sanaa airport. Griffiths said these issues had been discussed regularly for the past year.

“What is needed is simply and fundamentally the political will to end this conflict. We know need a decision,” he said.

Lowcock said some $4 billion was needed in 2021 to fund humanitarian operations as “Yemen is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Switzerland and Sweden plan to convene a pledging conference on March 1 to raise funds for Yemen.

When famine loomed in 2019, Lowcock said it was averted after the United Nations received about 90 percent of the $4 billion it requested. But last year the world body only received about $1.9 billion, about half of what it needed.

Lowcock said some 16 million people in Yemen were going hungry and 5 million of those people are “just one step away from famine.”

Some 400,000 children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished, he said. “Those children are in their last weeks and months,” he warned. “They are starving to death.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

U.N. envoy, Iran’s Zarif discuss how to end war in Yemen

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – United Nations Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed on Monday how to make progress toward a nationwide ceasefire and reviving the political process in Yemen, a U.N. spokesman said.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It is Griffiths first visit to Iran since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago.

Zarif and Griffiths “exchanged views on Yemen and how to make progress towards a resumption of the political process,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“Mr. Zarif and Mr. Griffiths further discussed the urgent need to make progress towards a nationwide ceasefire, the opening of Sanaa airport and the easing of restrictions on Hodeidah ports.”

He added that Griffiths welcomed Iran’s expression of support for the U.N. efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.

While Griffiths office said the visit to Iran had been planned for some time, it comes after new U.S. President Joe Biden declared last week that the war in Yemen “has to end” and said Washington would halt support for the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign against the Houthis.

The United States also said on Friday it intends to revoke its terrorist designation of the Houthis to avoid worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need and millions on the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. exempts U.N., aid groups from effort to cut off Yemen’s Houthis

By Daphne Psaledakis and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday exempted aid groups, the United Nations, the Red Cross and the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices from its designation of Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

The carve-outs are not enough to allay U.N. fears that Washington’s move would push Yemen into a large-scale famine. The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need.

“Our concern from the beginning … is the impact on the commercial sector and that the vast majority of food and other basic supplies that come into Yemen comes in through the commercial sector,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

U.N. officials and aid groups said the designation will scare off commercial trade in Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports, creating a gap the humanitarian operation cannot fill regardless of U.S. humanitarian exemptions.

The United States has exempted the export to Yemen of agricultural commodities. Its description of that includes food for people, including raw, processed, and packaged foods, live animals, vitamins and minerals, and bottled drinking water.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move against the Iran-aligned Houthis last week and it took effect on Tuesday, one day before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden succeeds Republican President Donald Trump.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis in a war widely seen as a proxy conflict between U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as Yemen’s suffering is also worsened by an economic collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The designation freezes any U.S.-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Daphne Psaledakis; writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Yemeni boy, ravaged by hunger, weighs 7 kg

SANAA (Reuters) -Paralyzed and severely malnourished, seven-year-old Faid Samim lies curled up on a hospital bed in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, having barely survived the journey there. “He was almost gone when he arrived but thank God we were able to do what was necessary and he started improving. He is suffering from CP (cerebral palsy) and severe malnutrition,” said Rageh Mohammed, the supervising doctor of the Al-Sabeen hospital’s malnutrition ward. Faid weighs only 7 kg (just over 15 lb) and his tiny, fragile frame takes up barely a quarter of a folded hospital blanket. His family had to travel from Al-Jawf, 170 km (105 miles) north of Sanaa, through checkpoints and damaged roads, to get him there. Unable to afford Faid’s medication or treatment, the family relies on donations to get him treated. Mohammed says malnutrition cases are on the rise and impoverished parents are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers or international aid to get their children treated.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen, where a six-year war has left 80% of the population reliant on aid in what the U.N. says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

U.N. warnings in late 2018 of impending famine prompted an aid ramp-up. But coronavirus restrictions, reduced remittances, locusts, floods and significant underfunding of the 2020 aid response are exacerbating hunger.

The war in Yemen, in which a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement since 2015, has killed more than 100,000 people and left the country divided, with the Houthis holding Sanaa and most major urban centers.

(Reporting by Adel Khadr, Abdulrahman Ansi and Tarek FahmyEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Giles Elgood)

U.N. chief warns Yemen in imminent danger of famine

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Friday that war-torn Yemen “is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”

Guterres warning comes as the United States threatens to blacklist Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi group as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Aid workers have raised fears such a move would prevent life-saving aid reaching the country.

“I urge all those with influence to act urgently on these issues to stave off catastrophe, and I also request that everyone avoids taking any action that could make the already dire situation even worse,” Guterres said in a statement.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthi group. U.N. officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost,” Guterres said.

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A senior Western diplomat said a designation of the Houthis by the United States designated the Houthis “would certainly not contribute to progress on Yemen.”

“It’s likely that they want to do whatever it takes to increase the pressure on Iran,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock has said the United Nations has received less than half of what it needed this year – about $1.5 billion – for its humanitarian operations in Yemen. Last year it received $3 billion.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)