Beyond Harvey: Deadly Floods Cause Havoc in Africa, Asia

Harvey has gathered headlines as the most powerful storm to hit Texas in half a century, but floods have killed many more people in Africa and Asia this year amid extreme weather worldwide.

Here are some of them:

South Asia

Floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have killed more than 1,200 people and affected 40 million, and are likely to intensify as monsoon rains continue, aid agencies say.

All three countries suffer frequent flooding during the June-September monsoon season, but aid agencies say things are worse this year, with thousands of villages cut off and people deprived of food and clean water for days.

Tens of thousands of houses, schools and hospitals have been destroyed as humanitarians prepare for more deaths, hunger and waterborne diseases.

“These are some of the worst floods we’ve seen in South Asia in decades, and the impact is likely only going to get worse,” Madara Hettiarachchi, Christian Aid’s humanitarian head in Asia, said in a statement. “Farms and livestock have been washed away, so food security is going to be a huge problem.”

The worst floods in a decade struck Nepal, killing 150 people and destroying 90,000 homes.

Monsoon floods submerged more than a third of low-lying, densely populated Bangladesh, causing more than 130 deaths and widespread crop damage.

The latest disaster zone is Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where overnight floods killed at least a dozen people, officials said  Thursday.

West Africa

Widespread flooding has killed at least 40 people in Niger since the rainy season began in June, leaving thousands homeless, without cattle or crops.

Aid agencies are increasingly worried about waterborne diseases like cholera as the waters are not expected to subside until rains end in September.

A mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on August 14 killed about 500 people after heavy rains, with hundreds still missing.

Sporadic downpours continue, flooding parts of the coastal city and washing away more mud containing human remains.

Heavy rainfall also sparked a landslide at a rubbish dump in Conakry, the capital of neighboring Guinea, last week, killing 10 people, while at least 200 people are thought to have died in another slide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


At least 18 people were killed in Yemen in flooding caused by heavy rains, the government-run news agency Saba reported Wednesday.

Aid organizations say the rains could exacerbate Yemen’s cholera epidemic, which has infected more than half a million people and killed nearly 2,000 since April.

Sources: Oxfam, International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters

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Mozambique Opposition Leader Vows to Sign Peace Deal by November

Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of Renamo, the Mozambican opposition, says he will sign a peace deal with the government by early November, in a bid to end almost three years of sporadic violence.

Renamo and the ruling Frelimo party fought on opposing sides of a civil war from 1976 to 1992 in which a million people died before a peace accord ended the fighting.

Violence has flared up again since Renamo challenged results of the southern African nation’s 2014 elections.

“It will be in October or November, no later than the beginning of November,” Dhlakama told the weekly independent newspaper Canal de Moz. His remarks were quoted by Noticas, the pro-government daily paper, on Thursday.

Dhlakama said his party was negotiating cautiously with the government to avoid a deadlock, which has seen previous talks collapse.

Issues still being discussed include the decentralization of powers, constitutional reforms to allow provincial governors to be elected, and the reintegration of Renamo’s staff into the police and army.

Renamo wants governors to be elected in 2019, seeing it as a chance to rule areas where it has popular backing.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and Dhlakama met in early August for the first time since 2015 to discuss the next steps in the peace process, which they hoped would be completed by the end of the year.

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UN Committee: Britain ‘Going Backwards’ on Rights of Disabled

The U.N. Committee on the rights of disabled people said on Thursday it had more concerns about Britain – due to funding cuts, restricted rights and an uncertain post-Brexit future — than any other country in its 10-year history.

The committee, which reviews states’ compliance with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published a 17-page report with recommendations about how Britain could do better.

“The UK is at the moment going backwards in accordance to the information that we have received,” committee member Stig Langvad told a news conference in Geneva.

Britain said it was disappointed by the report. It said it did not reflect the evidence it had provided to the committee, nor did it recognize progress that had been made.

The U.N. committee’s chairwoman Theresia Degener has described the situation in Britain as a “human catastrophe.”

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognized as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” she said.

The most acute concern was the limitations on independent living.

“Persons with disabilities are in our view not able to choose where to live, with whom to live, and how to live,” Langvad said.

Britain was also not fulfilling its commitment to allow inclusive education, and there was a high incidence of bullying at schools. A growing number of disabled people were living in poverty.

Budgets for local authorities had not only been slashed, but they were no longer ear-marked for disabled people, another committee member, Damjan Tatic, said.

Langvad said people with disabilities should be involved in preparations for Britain’s Brexit talks with the European Union, to avoid losing protections that historically came from the EU.

“Persons with disabilities are afraid of the future since they do not know what is happening and since they do not feel that they are involved in the discussions on how to secure the rights of people with disabilities afterwards,” he said.

Britain’s government said it was a recognized world leader in disability rights, and almost 600,000 disabled people had moved into work in the last four years.

“We spend over 50 billion pounds a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions — more than ever before, and the second highest in the G7,” a government spokesperson said.

Debbie Abrahams, the opposition Labour party’s spokeswoman for Work and Pensions, said the “damning” report was a vindication of Labour’s criticism of the government’s policies.

“This confirms what Labour has been saying all along, that the lack of progress on all convention articles, including cruel changes to social security and the punitive sanctions regime, are causing real misery for sick and disabled people.”

A Labour government would incorporate the convention fully into British law, she said in a statement.

Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Richard Balmforth

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Huge WWII Bomb to Be Defused Close to German Gold Reserves

Frankfurt’s city center, an area including police headquarters, two hospitals, transport systems and Germany’s central bank storing $70 billion in gold reserves, will be evacuated on Sunday to allow the defusing of a 1.8-metric ton World War II bomb.

A spokesman for the German Bundesbank said, however, that “the usual security arrangements” would remain in place while experts worked to disarm the bomb, which was dropped by the British air force and was uncovered during excavation of a building site.

The Bundesbank headquarters, less than 600 meters (650 yards) from the location of the bomb, stores 1,710 metric tons of gold underground, around half the country’s reserves.

“We have never defused a bomb of this size,” bomb disposal expert Rene Bennert told Reuters, adding that it had been damaged on impact when it was dropped between 1943 and 1945. Airspace for 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) around the bomb site will also be closed.

Frankfurt city officials said more than 60,000 residents would be evacuated for at least 12 hours. The evacuation area will also include 20 retirement homes, the city’s opera house and the diplomatic quarter.

Bomb disposal experts will use a wrench to try to unscrew the fuses attached to the bomb. If that fails, a water jet will be used to cut the fuses away, Bennert told Reuters.

The most dangerous part of the exercise will be applying the wrench, Bennert said.

Roads and transport systems, including the underground, will be closed during the work and for at least two hours after the bomb is defused, to allow patients to be transported back to hospitals without traffic.

It is not unusual for unexploded bombs from World War II air raids to be found in German cities, but rarely are they so large and in such a sensitive position.

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US Orders Russian Consulate in San Francisco to Close

U.S. officials have ordered Russia to close three diplomatic buildings in the United States, part of the ongoing quarrel between the two countries over U.S. sanctions.

The action follows Russia’s demand earlier this month that the U.S. reduce the number of personnel at its diplomatic missions in the country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to tell him that the United States has fully implemented the decision by the Russian government to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in the country.  

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian decision “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”  

Nauert continued, “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C. and consular annex in New York City.”

She said the closures would need to be completed by September 2.

Nauert stressed that the U.S. “has chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” A senior administration official stressed that Tillerson and Lavrov both still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and described their phone call as professional.

Russia Today reported that Lavrov responded to the closures by “expressing regret” over the escalation of tensions.  He said that Moscow would study the new measures carefully and inform Washington of its reaction.

The diplomatic retaliations stem from U.S. sanctions of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing President Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. After Trump signed the bill, Russian authorities denounced it as “trade war.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco is the oldest Russian consulate in the United States.  She said the two annexes ordered closed in Washington and New York were primarily trade missions.  She said no Russian diplomats are being expelled – the diplomats in those three building may be reassigned  to other Russian consulates in the U.S.

The senior official said the U.S. has complied with the Russian order to reduce its presence in Russia down to 455 staff members.  The official stressed that with this new U.S. order to close three buildings, the Russian would still have more consulates and annexes in the United States than the U.S. has in Russia.

The U.S. president’s response to the tensions has also sparked controversy.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the U.S. diplomats were being expelled, Trump responded by saying,  “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down the payroll.”

White House officials later told reporters the president was being sarcastic.

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US Pressure or Not, UN Nuclear Watchdog Sees No Need to Check Iran Military Sites

The United States is pushing U.N.nuclear inspectors to check military sites in Iran to verify it is not breaching its nuclear deal with world powers. But for this to happen, inspectors must believe such checks are necessary and so far they do not, officials say.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is scrutinizing compliance with the 2015 agreement, as part of a review of the pact by the administration of President Donald Trump. He has called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

After her talks with officials of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Haley said: “There are… numerous undeclared sites that have not been inspected. That is a problem.” Iran dismissed her demands as “merely a dream.”

The IAEA has the authority to request access to facilities in Iran, including military ones, if there are new and credible indications of banned nuclear activities there, according to officials from the agency and signatories to the deal.

But they said Washington has not provided such indications to back up its pressure on the IAEA to make such a request.

“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” an IAEA official said, mentioning a military base often cited by opponents of the deal including Iran’s arch-adversary Israel and Trump’s Republican Party. The deal was hatched under his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano frequently describes his Vienna-based agency as a technical rather than a political one, underscoring the need for its work to be based on facts alone.

The accord restricts Iran’s atomic activities with a view to keeping the Islamic Republic a year’s work away from having enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, should it pull out of the accord and sprint towards making a weapon.

The deal also allows the IAEA to request access to facilities other than the nuclear installations Iran has already declared if it has concerns about banned materials or activities there. But it must present a basis for those concerns.

Those terms are widely understood by officials from the IAEA and member states to mean there must be credible information that arouses suspicion, and IAEA officials have made clear they will not take it at face value.

“We have to be able to vet this information,” a second IAEA official said, asking not to be identified because inspections are sensitive and the agency rarely discusses them publicly.

No new intelligence

Despite Haley’s public comments, she neither asked the IAEA to visit specific sites nor offered new intelligence on any site, officials who attended her meetings said. A U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed this.

“She conveyed that the IAEA will need to continue to robustly exercise its authorities to verify Iran’s declaration and monitor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the spokesman added, using the deal’s official name.

Under U.S. law, the State Department must notify Congress every 90 days of Iran’s compliance with the deal. The next deadline is October. Trump has said he thinks by then Washington will declare Iran to be non-compliant — a stance at odds with that of other five world powers including U.S. allies in Europe.

An IAEA report published in 2015 as part of the deal formally drew a line under whether Iran pursued nuclear weapons in the past, which is why new information is needed to trigger a request for access.

The IAEA has not visited an Iranian military facility since the agreement was implemented because it has had “no reason to ask” for access, the second agency official said.

The deal’s “Access” section lays out a process that begins with an IAEA request and, if the U.N. watchdog’s concerns are not resolved, can lead to a vote by the eight members of the deal’s decision-making body – the United States, Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union.

Five votes are needed for a majority, which could comprise the United States and its Western allies. Such a majority decision “would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns” and Iran “would implement the necessary means,” the deal’s Access section says.

That process and wording have yet to be put to the test.

But Iran has already made clear that its military sites are off limits, raising the risk of a stand-off if a request for access were put to a vote. That adds to the pressure to be clear on the grounds for an initial request.

“If they want to bring down the deal, they will,” the first IAEA official said, referring to the Trump administration. “We just don’t want to give them an excuse to.”

During its decade-long impasse with world powers over its nuclear program, Iran repeatedly refused IAEA visits to military sites, saying they had nothing to do with nuclear activity and so were beyond the IAEA’s purview.

Shortly after the 2015 deal, Iran allowed inspectors to check its Parchin military complex, where Western security services believe Tehran carried out tests relevant to nuclear bomb detonations more than a decade ago. Iran has denied this.

Iran has placed its military bases off limits also because of what it calls the risk that IAEA findings could find their way to U.S. and Israeli intelligence services.

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Britain’s May to Appeal to European Leaders as Brexit Talks Deadlock

British Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to appeal to her counterparts in the European Union to try to break an impasse in Brexit talks.

After four days of negotiations, the third round of formal exit discussions between London and Brussels, the two sides are as wide apart on the key issues as they were before, acknowledge British and EU officials.

Officials said the talks were at a “standstill” and “deadlocked.”  Each side is blaming the other for the impasse.  Europeans say the British remain unclear about what they want, while the British argue the EU negotiators’ insistence on agreeing on the terms of departure before negotiating a free trade deal is artificial and unhelpful.

Remaining stumbling blocks include a reported $89 billion “divorce bill” Brussels is demanding for the British departure to cover budget payments, and project and structural loans Britain committed to in 2013, long before last year’s Brexit referendum.  The British say the EU sums don’t add up, but EU officials dismissed a British demand for flexibility in the negotiations.

Basis for compromise?

An exasperated Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator told reporters, “To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point.  We need to know their position and then I can be flexible.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, seconded Barnier’s remarks, arguing, “If only one party around the table is putting [out] a position and the other party is not responding, then it is difficult to start a negotiation.”

Verhofstadt says it is highly unlikely the negotiation timetable will be met.  The two sides are to have made substantial progress towards a departure agreement by October or trade talks can’t begin, as far the European Union is concerned.

Analysts say the British don’t want to agree to a settlement bill until they’re convinced they can secure a preferential free trade deal shaped to their liking.  The Europeans see the divorce costs and a future trade agreement as two separate things.

But there are no signs Britain is prepared to change its negotiating strategy.  Speaking Thursday during a visit to Japan, May said, “I think a good trade deal is not just about the UK, it is about what is good for businesses in what will be the 27 remaining states of the EU as well.”

While acknowledging Britain has financial obligations on departure, she added, “I think it is in all our interest to move on to those trade talks and to get a good deal.”

Border concerns

The Brexit talks have been laced with distrust and suspicion, acknowledge officials, with British and EU negotiators ready to identify even apparently trivial oversights as ways to gain an edge in the discussions.  Former European Commission president Roman Prodi warned earlier this month the talks headed by Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis and Barnier had got off to a very bad start with “blood on the floor.”

The two sides have also made little progress on the long-term rights of more than two million European citizens and their families living in Britain and the estimated 1.3 million Britons residing in EU countries.

Nor is there any agreement yet on what will happen with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Britain’s only land frontier with the European Union.  Dublin and politicians in Northern Ireland, which along with Scotland voted against Brexit, oppose the return of a hard border between the north and south of the island.  And there are fears that anything short of an open border risks triggering a revival of violent Irish republicanism.

Ireland has threatened to veto any moves towards trade negotiations until they are satisfied about cross-border arrangements.

Internal disagreements

Some former British officials have criticized the British government’s strategy.  They say it is a reflection of the sharp rifts within Theresa May’s Cabinet, as well as the wider Conservative Party and Britain’s Parliament, over whether the country should remain a member of the EU single market and customs union after Brexit, despite having to accept rules and regulations from Brussels that London will have no influence on shaping.

The influential chancellor of the exchequer, (finance minister) Phil Hammond, backed by many of the country’s top business people, is trying to maneuver the ruling Conservatives away from a so-called “hard Brexit” and a definitive break with Europe.

Opinion polls suggest British voters are becoming skittish over Brexit, possibly in reaction to increasingly bad news about the British economy, which is now the world’s worst performing major economy.

Rising concerns about post-Brexit economic prospects and their future status in Britain is likely to prompt an exodus of up to half the Europeans residing in Britain.   A million EU citizens, many highly educated and qualified, are planning to leave the country because of Brexit, a study by KPMG, the professional services firm, has found.

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Explosions Rock Flooded Houston-Area Chemical Plant

A Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in extensive floods was rocked by two explosions early Thursday, the plant’s operator said.

Arkema Inc. said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant at about 2 a.m.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that a deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution.

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said there had been “a series of chemical reactions” at the plant and advised people to stay away from the area.

A spokeswoman for the plant in Crosby, Texas, said late Wednesday that the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators due to the flooding, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. The plant is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Houston.

“The fire will happen. It will resemble a gasoline fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature,” spokeswoman Janet Smith told The Associated Press late Wednesday.

There was “no way to prevent” the explosion, chief executive Rich Rowe said earlier Wednesday.

Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making a variety of products including pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

“As the temperature rises, the natural state of these materials will decompose. A white smoke will result, and that will catch fire,” Smith said. “So the fire is imminent. The question is when.”

Harvey struck Southeast Texas last week, slamming into the coast as a Category 4 hurricane, then weakening to a tropical storm that dumped record amounts of rain on the state, in particular the Houston area. The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday.

The company shut down the Crosby site before Harvey made landfall last week, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind. That group was removed and residents living within a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) radius were told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.

Harris County Fire Marshal spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said late Wednesday that the 1.5-mile radius was developed in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other subject-matter experts.

“The facility is surrounded by water right now so we don’t anticipate the fire going anywhere,” Moreno said.

The plant falls along a stretch near Houston that features one of the largest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in the country.

Arkema was required to develop and submit a risk management plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas. The plans are supposed to detail the effects of a potential release, evaluate worst-case scenarios and explain a company’s response.

In its most recently available submission from 2014, Arkema said potentially 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a distance of 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case, according to information compiled by a nonprofit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle.

But, Arkema added, it was using “multiple layers of preventative and mitigation measures” at the plant, including steps to reduce the amount of substances released, and that made the worst case “very unlikely.”

Daryl Roberts, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, did not dispute that worst-case scenario but said that assumed all the controls in place failed and strong winds blew directly toward Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“We have not modeled this exact scenario but we are very comfortable with this 1.5-mile radius,” Roberts told the AP. He added that it mostly resembled less serious scenarios that would affect a half-mile radius and a few dozen people.

Roberts said the vessels containing the organic peroxide are equipped with controls to slow the release of chemicals. He said the chemicals will quickly vaporize because of the water, reducing the size and scope of the fire.

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Iraq Declares Victory Over IS in Tal Afar

Iraq’s prime minister has declared victory over Islamic State in the city of Tal Afar and the entire province of Nineveh

“Our happiness is complete, victory has arrived and the province of Nineveh is now entirely in the hands of our forces,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement.

In a statement, the U.S.-led coaltion congratulated Iraqi forces but warned that “dangerous work remains” to remove explosive devices and find any IS fighters in hiding.

“Following their historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar, the ISF have shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country’s borders,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. and Coalition forces, using an acronym for IS.  “This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi Security Forces and the government and people of Iraq.”

The offensive on Tal Afar, which lies between Syria and 80 kilometers west of the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, began on August 20.

Tal Afar was one of the last Iraqi areas held by IS, following the July liberation of Mosul.



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French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing.

The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy.

For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests.

The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.

Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said.

However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported.

The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12.

France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described the reform as a missed opportunity to improve labor relations.

“CFDT disappointed,” the union’s leader Laurent Berger told reporters after a meeting with the government, but he added: “Taking to the streets is not the only mode of action for unions.”

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Mourners Mark 20 Years Since Princess Diana’s Death

People gathered Thursday at Britain’s Kensington Palace and a site in Paris to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.

Those paying their respects left flowers and lit candles outside the palace where Diana once lived with her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

On Wednesday, William, Harry and William’s wife, Kate, toured a garden at the palace dedicated to Diana. They also met with representatives from some charities Diana supported, as well as some of the well-wishers who had come to remember the late princess.

William and Harry were expected to spend Thursday in private.

In Paris, the remembrance was focused at the Flame of Liberty statue, which is a replica of the torch on the Statue of Liberty in New York, but has become a de facto memorial for Diana. It sits atop the tunnel where she died in a car crash in 1997.

Diana died along with her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul, when the car speeding away from paparazzi crashed into a pillar in the Alma Tunnel.

She became internationally known after marrying Britain’s Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in 1981, and was referred to as the “the people’s princess.” But their relationship soured and the couple divorced in 1996.

David Flint, the national convener of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, told VOA the reaction to Diana’s death was extraordinary.

“The grief which was so public, not only in the United Kingdom but in a number of other countries, including Australia and the United States and Canada, quite remarkable reaction to her passing,” Flint said.

Diana was 36 year old at the time of her death, while her sons were ages 15 and 12.

“Her beauty will be particularly remembered because she was an extraordinary beautiful woman, but also that sense of tragedy, that sense of dying still young and beautiful, which impacted on all of us,” Flint said. “And that she might have been queen but never was going to be and the fact that she was in many ways seen as wronged by a large number of people, I think all of that will be her legacy. But her greatest legacy will be her two sons.”

Victor Beattie in Washington contributed to this report.

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US, South Korea Give North Korea a Show of Air Power

The United States flew some of its most advanced warplanes in bombing drills Thursday with ally South Korea, a clear warning after North Korea launched a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear bombs over Japan earlier this week, South Korea’s military said. North Korea hates such displays of U.S. military might at close range and will likely respond with fury.


Two U.S. B-1B supersonic bombers and four F-35 stealth fighter jets joined four South Korean F-15 fighters in live-fire exercises at a military field in eastern South Korea that simulated precision strikes against the North’s “core facilities,” an official from Seoul’s Defense Ministry said. The B-1Bs were flown in from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam while the F-35s came from a U.S. base in Iwakuni, Japan, the official said. He didn’t want to be named, citing office rules. 


The North, which claims Washington has long threatened Pyongyang by flaunting the powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal, describes the long-range B-1Bs as “nuclear strategic bombers” although the United States no longer arms them with nuclear weapons. A strong North Korean reaction to the drills is almost certain.

Annual military drills wrap up


The bombing exercise came as the United States and South Korea wrapped up their annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills that involved tens of thousands of soldiers. North Korea condemns the annual U.S.-South Korea war games as rehearsals for an invasion and described Tuesday’s launch over Japan as a countermeasure against the drills. Washington and Seoul faced calls to postpone or downsize this year’s drills. 


The United States often sends its warplanes to South Korea, mostly for patrols, when animosity rises on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. 

North Korea missiles


North Korea on Tuesday flew a potentially nuclear capable Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile over northern Japan and later called it a “meaningful prelude” to containing the U.S. territory of Guam. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the launch was a “curtain-raiser of its resolute countermeasures” against the U.S.-South Korea war games and called for his military to conduct more ballistic missile launches targeting the Pacific Ocean. 


North Korea has been maintaining a torrid pace in weapons tests this year as it openly pursues an arsenal of nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching deep into the U.S. mainland. Experts say Kim wants a real nuclear deterrent against the United States to ensure the survival of his government and likely believes that it will strengthen his negotiating position when North Korea returns to talks. 

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After Tense Talks, UN Agrees to Renew Peacekeepers in Lebanon

The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to renew the mandate for a

peacekeeping mission in Lebanon on Wednesday, following tense negotiations amid U.S. and Israeli criticism that U.N. troops should do more to stop Hezbollah gaining arms.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) — established in 1978 – patrols Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. Washington regards Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government and has a strong presence in south Lebanon, as a terrorist organization.

US supports resolution

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington wanted the French-drafted resolution to renew UNIFIL’s mandate to “ensure UNIFIL is doing its job to the fullest extent possible.”

After a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the UNIFIL mandate was expanded to task peacekeepers with making sure southern Lebanon was “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons” other than those belonging to the Lebanese government.

“For too long UNIFIL’s leadership has failed to make sure this goal is realized,” Haley told the council after the vote.

Mandate is the same

The mission mandate has not changed, but the resolution adopted on Wednesday spells out that peacekeeping operation is authorized to “take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces … to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities.”

The resolution also asks U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to look at ways the peacekeeping mission can increase its visible presence, including through patrols and inspections.

“At the direction of its patron, Iran, the terrorist organization Hezbollah is stockpiling an offensive arsenal in southern Lebanon,” Haley told the 15-member council after the vote. “It is preparing for war.”

“They have thousands of missiles and thousands of trained fighters all beyond the control of the Lebanese government. It is apparent to everyone who cares to see it,” she said.

Hezbollah defends its possession of weapons as necessary to defend Lebanon, but does not say where they are.

Israel says force is too soft

Deputy French U.N. Ambassador Anne Gueguen described the negotiations on the resolution as “difficult.”

“UNIFIL, of course, can do better and can do more, but no-one in this council can imagine for one second the environment existing there without UNIFIL,” she told the council.

Israel has regularly complained that UNIFIL has too soft an approach toward enforcing the 2006 ceasefire and would like to see stronger action against Hezbollah military deployment that Israel alleges is taking place in violation of the ceasefire.

Lebanon also accuses Israel of violating the ceasefire by sending warplanes into its airspace.


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China Accuses Exiled Tycoon Guo Wengui of Rape

Escalating efforts to repatriate one of the ruling Communist Party’s most wanted exiles, Chinese police have opened an investigation on a new allegation, rape, against New York-based billionaire Guo Wengui, who has been releasing what he calls official secrets ahead of a pivotal party leadership conference. 

Two Chinese officials with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press that police are requesting a second Interpol arrest notice for Guo, 50, for the alleged sexual assault of a 28-year-old former personal assistant. 

Guo and his representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sprawling case against Guo

The rape allegation represents a new element in the sprawling case that Chinese prosecutors are building against the real estate tycoon, who is being investigated for at least 19 major criminal cases. Allegations against him include bribing a top Chinese intelligence official, kidnapping, fraud and money laundering.


The Associated Press reviewed documents related to the rape investigation and confirmed their contents with Chinese official sources in Beijing, who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. The Chinese officials’ disclosures to the AP — an unusual move given the political sensitivity of Guo’s case in China — underscores Beijing’s urgent effort to not only bring a fugitive to heel on criminal charges but also silence a potent irritant in the run-up to a key Communist Party congress during which political stability and the stifling of any challenges to the party head, President Xi Jinping, are paramount.


Although the United States does not have an extradition agreement with China, Beijing hopes that a mounting body of evidence could sway the U.S. government against extending the exiled businessman’s visa, which is believed to expire in October, the Chinese officials said.


Senior U.S. and Chinese officials have discussed the allegations against Guo, according to a third person with direct knowledge of the talks. The Chinese officials are asking the U.S. to cancel Guo’s visa, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

It’s unclear what steps Washington plans to take, if any. The White House would not comment on the matter.

Repatriating elite Chinese

The Guo saga highlights how China’s efforts to repatriate elite Chinese seeking refuge on American soil have become increasingly contentious in the bilateral relationship. The U.S. government has often refused Beijing’s demands to extradite corruption suspects, citing flimsy evidence and China’s opaque justice system. But the U.S. has sent back two Chinese fugitives in the past three months, including one suspected of rape.

Pressure on Guo has been building since April when Interpol issued a “red notice” seeking his arrest on corruption-related charges. Chinese authorities later sentenced several of his employees for fraud in June. 


Police in central China opened the rape investigation July 5 after a former employee came forward, the officials said.

In interviews with police, the woman described how she was plucked from her human resources position at Guo’s real estate company in Hong Kong in 2015 and sent overseas to become his personal assistant. The woman, whose identity is being withheld by the AP, said that over the next two years, she was raped several times in New York, London and the Bahamas by Guo, who she said demanded sex from female employees as a test of their loyalty. 


At times, she said, she languished in virtual detention after Guo’s staff confiscated her smartphone, computer, passport and keys and forbade her from leaving her room in his luxury apartment in the high-end London neighborhood of Belgravia. To prove her case, the woman surreptitiously met a lawyer friend in London earlier this year to give a written statement about her ordeal and kept her underwear, pregnancy tests and abortion pills as evidence, according to police documents.


In a brief phone interview with the AP arranged by Chinese officials, the woman confirmed the account and described fleeing Guo’s apartment to the Chinese Embassy in London in April to apply for a new passport before returning to China. She said she was speaking of her own volition and that police had assured her she could bring charges against Guo without facing repercussions for having worked for a highly sought-after fugitive.

Calls to Guo’s mobile phone since Tuesday evening in New York rang unanswered. Guo also did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent by an AP reporter to his WhatsApp mobile messaging account since Tuesday. Lawyers representing him at the New York firm Boies Schiller Flexner did not respond to requests for comment. 


Interpol declined to comment about the latest warrant China is seeking for Guo’s arrest, referring questions to national authorities as is the policy in ongoing investigations.

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Trump Takes His Tax Reform Plan to American Workers in Missouri

U.S. President Donald Trump has chosen the Midwestern U.S. state of Missouri to push for a major tax overhaul that he said would spur economic growth and help ordinary Americans. He appealed to lawmakers to shun partisanship and to act swiftly for the benefit of the country. Trump proposed to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent and slash individual taxes, but offered few other details. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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US-funded Ethiopian Abattoir Hopes to Help Herders During Drought

An abattoir located among herding communities in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, known more for droughts and famine than business opportunities, is an unusual stop for a U.S. aid administrator.

But USAID chief Mark Green stopped at the Jijiga Export Slaughter House (JESH) during a visit to the town of Jijiga on Wednesday to see the effects of a crippling drought that has pushed some areas to the south to the brink of famine.

The abattoir buys goats, sheep, cows and camels for slaughter from herders for export to the Middle East, giving families cash to buy food during the drought.

A $1.5-million loan from Feed the Future, a $1 billion-a-year agricultural program launched during U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2010, helped purchase refrigerators and trucks for the facility, which employs 100 people from local villages.

To Green, the slaughterhouse represents what USAID can do to help attract private-sector money into investments that boost the productivity of small farmers in developing countries.

While at the abattoir, Green announced 12 countries that will benefit from Feed The Future investments in 2017, signaling that the program will survive proposed deep cuts to USAID’s budget this year.

The 12 countries are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Green said investments like the Jijinga slaughterhouse not only created markets for American businesses but helped communities out of poverty. Herders can earn as much as $80 per goat when they sell to the slaughterhouse.

“I’m under no illusions; the development journey in many places in the world is a long one, but I want us to always be thinking what we can do that nudges something towards a day when people get to take care of themselves,” he said.

“This is a place where we see some of the benefits and the potential for Feed the Future,” Green added.

JESH Chief Executive Faisal Guhad said the abattoir had been open for a year but was forced to close for three months last year because of the drought.

The facility currently processes about 10,000 animals a month. Guhad said he hoped to quadruple that in the second year of operation.

Demand for Ethiopian goat meat was currently high because of the annual haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, said Guhad.

“We opened at the wrong time. El Nino happened to us and we started again after it rained,” said Guhad. “We’re now in the second month of starting again.”

The facility employs about 108 people from the community and plans to increase hiring to 200, said Guhad.

In the Jijinga area, planting for the March to May rains, known as the belg, is already delayed, and aid workers say they have seen a growing number of women and children at food distribution centers. The hunger crisis is predicted to worsen until the harvest begins in September.

Many parts of the Ethiopian highlands are still recovering from the 2016 drought, which was attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.

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Turkey Protests US Indictment Charging Erdogan’s Security

Turkey’s foreign ministry says the country protests “in the harshest way” a U.S. court decision to indict 19 people, including 15 Turkish security officials.

The statement published late Wednesday follows Tuesday’s grand jury decision in Washington to charge the defendants with attacking peaceful demonstrators during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16.

Turkey has repeatedly told U.S. officials that security outside the ambassador’s home was negligent and didn’t ensure the safety of Erdogan’s entourage amid sympathizers of an outlawed Kurdish militant group, according to the statement.

The ministry called the indictment “biased” and “regretful,” claiming it also accused people who had never been to the U.S.

It announced Turkey would follow legal paths to fight the decision.

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New Russian Ambassador to US Calls for Resumed Military Contacts

Moscow and Washington should re-establish direct contacts between their military and foreign policy chiefs, Russia’s new ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said Wednesday.

“The time has come to resume joint meetings of Russia’s and the United States’ foreign and defense ministers in a ‘two plus two’ format,” Antonov said in an interview published on the Kommersant business daily’s website.

Military contacts between Moscow and Washington were frozen in 2014 due to the Ukraine crisis.

Antonov also called for meetings between the heads of Russia’s Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency.

A “working cooperation” between Russia’s Security Council and the U.S. National Security Council could also help fight terrorism and cyberthreats and help strategic stability, he said.

Antonov, a former deputy foreign minister, is subject to European sanctions over his role in the conflict in Ukraine.

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Cameroon Arrests Cable TV Distributors Over ‘Separatist’ Broadcasts

Cameroon’s government continues to draw a hard line on separatist groups advocating independence for the country’s two English-speaking zones. Authorities this week arrested several local cable TV distributors, often sole proprietorship enterprises in Cameroon, after they broadcast programming from a pro-secession media outlet.

A Yaounde-based cable TV distributor spent four days in police detention this week for airing images from the Southern Cameroon Broadcasting Corporation.

The promoters of SCBC say the station is headquartered in South Africa. On Tuesday, SCBC released a message from some Cameroonians who identified themselves as being in Washington.

The speakers advocated for independence for the country’s two English-speaking zones. The station also has been calling on schools to remain sealed until detained anglophone leaders are released.   

In July, the government banned sharing messages from secessionist groups.

The Yaounde distributor said he was released this week after a warning from Cameroon’s communication minister Issa Tchiroma. Several other detained distributors of SCBC also have been released.

Tchiroma told VOA, if the distributors have been warned that if they continue to relay messages from secessionist groups, all their equipment will be seized and they will answer charges in court.

“This is not a joke,” said Tchiroma. “This is the common future of our nation. What is at stake here [is] for us to be Cameroonian here. We cannot joke with this.”

English speakers allege marginalization

The crisis began in November when English-speaking lawyers and teachers went on strike demanding reforms. But the movement was quickly overtaken by separatist groups calling for total independence for Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions. Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, but English speakers are a minority. Anglophone activists say English speakers have been marginalized.

Following violent unrest in December, authorities cut all internet access to the affected zones for three months.

At least 30 media organizations either have had their licenses suspended or their offices sealed over their coverage of the strike, and eight journalists are behind bars at the Kondegui prison in the capital. They are accused of broadcasting information that can incite social unrest.

Dennis Nkwemo, president of the National Trade Union of Cameroon Journalists, said the arrests infringe on press freedom.

“We have reminded our colleagues that they should abide by the ethics of our profession. We have engaged our members to act in solidarity. We have asked for the release of our colleagues who were arrested in the southwest and in the northwest and are currently detained,” Nkwemo said.

But Peter Essoka, president of the National Communication Council, said the government stands firm.  

“A journalist is the watchdog of society and if the watchdog gives wrong signals, I tell you, it will run the country into chaos,” Essoka said.

This year, two rights groups, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, each downgraded Cameroon’s rating in their annual global press freedom indexes. Freedom House has assigned Cameroon the status of “not free,” while Reporters Without Borders ranks it 130 out of 170 in its country listing.

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Dueling Demonstrations in Zimbabwe Over First Lady

There were dueling demonstrations in Zimbabwe’s capital Wednesday, for and against first lady Grace Mugabe.

Members of the ruling ZANU-PF marched in Harare chanting songs to show support for first lady Grace Mugabe. They held placards written “Gabriella Engels is not an angel.”

Engels is the South African model who accused Mugabe of assaulting her with an electrical cord two weeks ago at a Johannesburg hotel.


The first lady was expected at the march, but senior ZANU-PF official Manditawepi Chimene said she had other commitments.

Chimene said, “We can not afford her to sleep outside her home. We have come here for our father and our mother,” referring to longtime president Robert Mugabe and his wife.

“There is no way we are going to respect our father and ignore our mother,” she added

That statement is an apparent reference to ongoing rivalry within the ZANU-PF.

One faction supports Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa to succeed Robert Mugabe, while another is backing Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.

The first lady has not spoken publicly since she returned from South Africa.

Controversial immunity

Meanwhile in South Africa, Engels has filed a court challenge to Grace Mugabe’s diplomatic immunity, saying she had traveled to South Africa for medical treatment, not official business.

On Wednesday, as the ruling party marched, a coalition of Zimbabwean opposition parties rallied outside the South African Embassy in Harare to protest Pretoria’s handling of the alleged assault case.

“Granting her immunity is saying political leaders can go anywhere in the world and assault people and get away with it because they have diplomatic immunity,” said opposition activist Linda Masarira. “It [gives] a negative image on all Zimbabweans.”

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, last week filed papers with the nation’s Constitutional Court asking the court to reject the decision to grant diplomatic immunity to Mugabe.


In a statement, the party said the move was “wholly without legal merit and should thus be declared unconstitutional and invalid.”


No hearing date has been set for the case, but it could further strain Harare-Pretoria relations.

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US Sends Extra Fighters to Police Baltic Skies During Russian Exercise

The United States has sent a reinforced detachment of fighter planes to police the skies over NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during a major Russian military exercise in the Baltic region next month.

The Zapad war games, set for September 14-20 in Belarus, western Russia and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, have caused unease in the region, though Russia has said the large-scale exercise will rehearse a purely defensive scenario and will not be a springboard for invasion.

Seven U.S. F-15C fighters landed at Siauliai airfield this week to patrol skies over the Baltic countries, three more than normally used since the NATO policing mission was upgraded after the Crimean crisis in 2014.

The three Baltic states do not operate their own fighter aircraft and rely on their NATO allies for patrols.

“We are reinforcing the air police mission for the period [of Zapad]. And we are glad to also have additional land troops here,” Lithuanian Deputy Defense Minister Vytautas Umbrasas told reporters at Siauliai, referring to 600 extra U.S. airborne troops being deployed during Zapad in the Baltic states.

“This is very helpful in a situation like this,” he said.

Chance for training

Tod Wolters, the top U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, said fighter numbers had been increased because of “training opportunities” in Lithuania, without mentioning Russia during the news conference in Siauliai.

“The air policing mission will remain as it has been. And the purpose of the air policing mission is to protect the sovereign skies of the three Baltic nations,” said Wolters.

Moscow says almost 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen will take part in Zapad, as well as around 70 planes and helicopters and 700 pieces of military hardware, including tanks, artillery and rocket systems.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in Eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.

A Russian deputy defense minister said Tuesday that there was no truth in allegations Russia would use the exercise as a cover to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine.

Suggestions that Russia posed a threat were “myths,” the deputy minister, Alexander Fomin, said.

Three U.S. exercises will be underway at the same time as Zapad, in Sweden, Poland and Ukraine, and a U.S. armored brigade has already deployed in Europe.

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US-led Airstrike Blocks IS Fighters Headed for Iraqi Border

A U.S.-led airstrike has been carried out in order to prevent Islamic State jihadists fleeing Lebanon from entering eastern Syria, coalition officials said.

Monday, hundreds of IS fighters fled the border region between Lebanon and Syria as part of a cease-fire deal and were making their way to an IS-held town near the Iraqi border when they were confronted by U.S. air power.

A coalition statement said the airstrike blocked the IS convoy’s route by cratering a road and destroying a small bridge, but did not specify a location of the engagement.

“ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with is not a lasting solution,” the statement said, using an alternate acronym for IS.

U.S. presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk wrote on Twitter the “terrorists should be killed on the battlefield” and not transported across Syria to be relocated to Iraq.

“Our coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling ‘caliphate’,” he wrote.

The coalition said it is monitoring the convoy in real-time and it would not rule out direct strikes on IS jihadists.  Its statement added it is “not party to any agreements that were made by the Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS or the [Syrian] regime,” noting that any strikes carried out against the IS convoy would be in accordance with “the law of armed conflict.”

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Venezuela to Donate $5M in Harvey Aid, Despite Cash Crunch

Venezuela has offered $5 million to victims of Hurricane Harvey in the United States despite a major economic crisis in the South American country that has left millions short of food and medicine.

Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil subsidiary Citgo, a unit of state oil company PDVSA, will cooperate with local authorities in Houston to distribute the funds, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on state television.

Venezuela’s socialist government has in the past given subsidized heating oil to poor Americans and sent aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Venezuela’s already strained relations with the United States took a nosedive this year with Washington imposing various sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro’s cash-strapped government.

President Donald Trump went as far as to say a military intervention may be on the cards, though U.S. officials quickly rolled that idea back.

Venezuela is suffering a fourth year of brutal recession, and has been rocked by political turmoil and mass street protests against Maduro.

Harvey, now downgraded to a tropical storm, bore down on eastern Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday, bringing the kind of catastrophic downpours that paralyzed the oil hub of Houston with record rainfall and drove tens of thousands of people from their homes.


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Syrian Conflict Endgame Presents Dizzying Picture of Temporary Deals

The latest phase in the long-running Syrian conflict is presenting a dizzying picture of strange bedfellows and temporary battlefield deals as sectarian groups, President Bashar al-Assad and overseas powers, including the United States, Russia and Iran, maneuver to gain an edge or to steer the war to a resolution.

U.S. officials said this week that Turkish-backed Syrian rebels fired on American troops who were working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria. The Turks view America’s ground ally against Islamic State, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as much a menace to them as the jihadists, and anti-Assad rebels have long seen the YPG as serving Assad’s interests.

Adding to the confusion of opportunistic maneuvers, Assad and his foreign Shi’ite backers, Iranian-directed militias and Hezbollah, granted more than 600 IS fighters and their families safe passage this week from the west to the east of Syria after the jihadists suffered a defeat in the Qalamoun mountains, on the border with Lebanon.

The transfer deal for the militants, which included a Syrian government escort from near Damascus to Deir ez-Zor, prompted angry condemnations from the Syrian Coalition, the umbrella political organization of anti-Assad rebels, but scant public comment from Western powers in the anti-IS coalition.

Although U.S. envoy to the anti-IS international coalition Brett McGurk tweeted a rebuke Thursday (Aug. 24), “Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent.”

After the Iraqi government issued a furious condemnation of the transit of IS militants, the Pentagon issued a statement saying, “the Coalition was not a party to any agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS.”

A Syrian rebel statement said the safe-passage deal “exposed the close links between ISIS, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Assad regime.” But for analysts, the deal smacked more of expediency, a move by Assad and Hezbollah to solve a problem on the border with Lebanon. But it earned the Syrian government no favors from IS militants in Raqqa province, who launched an offensive on Syrian government forces, seizing tanks and rockets.

Creating a negotiating base

The war, which has left up to a half-million dead and millions of Syrians displaced, has been notorious for double-dealing.

At the beginning of the rebellion against Assad, the beleaguered Syrian leader freed hundreds of jailed jihadists. Syrian rebels argue the mass release was part of an Assad plan aimed at infiltrating insurgent ranks with extremists so the Syrian dictator could later claim he was battling an uprising by terrorists, not an insurgency of moderates wanting democracy.

In this latest phase the dangers of miscalculation by all sides as they jostle for advantage may be mounting.

Charles Lister, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, a Washington policy research organization, argues the current maneuvering reflects “the shifting priorities of external states” who are “driving the creation of an interim set of pre-settlement conditions,” to split the wrecked country into territorial zones of control.

The map is becoming increasingly clear with Assad and his Iran-commanded Shi’ite allies controlling the west and central desert area, the U.S.-backed Kurds the northeast of the country, with IS boxed in in the east and anti-Assad rebels bottled up in northern Idlib province and a small part of the south.

US, Russia

In recent weeks cooperation between the United States and Assad’s other foreign backer, Russia, has deepened, according to U.S. officials, as both Washington and Moscow strive to avoid conflict between their own militaries and between their proxies.

The two powers have established a “co-operation center” in neighboring Jordan, have worked to get the Syrian military and rebel factions in the southwestern city of Dara’a to observe a cease-fire and have collaborated in northern Syria to try to prevent clashes between SDF forces and Turkish-backed rebels. And Washington and Moscow have been co-operating to ensure that de-escalation zones, agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran, remain free of fighting.

Trump administration officials have made it clear their priority in Syria is the defeat of IS and not the ouster of Assad. But critics claim that has meant ceding Syria to Iran, which controls tens of thousands of troops in the war-torn country, and argue it diminishes U.S. influence in the region. “Hezbollah is immeasurably more powerful than before the Arab Spring,” argues Lister.

The situation also worries Israel, which fears Iran and Hezbollah will use Syria to launch a future Shi’ite conflict with Israel. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the Israeli leader condemned Iran’s strength in Syria, saying it is “endangering us [Israel], and in my opinion, endangering the region,” according to his officials.

“It still isn’t clear how (U.S. President Donald) Trump intends to counter Iranian influence,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington research organization. “One of the problems for U.S. policy has been that weakening Iran in Syria will likely strengthen the hand of jihadist groups,” he added.



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