Bermuda avoids major damage from Hurricane Humberto, cleanup crews get to work

FILE PHOTO: A cargo container floats at sea during storm in Hamilton, Bermuda September 18, 2019 in this still picture obtained from social media video. ALEXANDRE DOWLING via REUTERS

By Don Burgess

HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) – Cleanup crews in Bermuda were busy at work on Thursday after Hurricane Humberto grazed the island, which escaped major harm despite winds that reached around 100 miles per hour (161 kph) snapping power poles and lifting off roofs.

Debris including power lines littered roads and dozens of homes lost parts of their roofs, a Reuters witness said.

“We have come through a really, really challenging night. Our country was resilient,” National Security Minister Wayne Caines said in a radio message.

The Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service said it attended to three structural fires and 17 hurricane-related fires and also helped with 20 damaged roofs and prevented a boat from sinking.

One fire service vehicle was rendered unusable after a tree fell on it.

As of noon local time some 25,000 of the island’s 38,000 customers remained without power, while 5,000 customers have already had their electricity restored, said Caines.

The airport was reopened and flights are resuming, and a bridge to the airport was also opened after an assessment showed there was no structural damage.

Schools will remain closed on Thursday and Friday, while government office are scheduled to reopen on Friday.

Humberto was 415 miles (665 kilometers) northeast of Bermuda and packing maximum sustained winds of 110 mph (175 kph) on Thursday, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

“Humberto is still a powerful hurricane, but the system is in the process of transitioning to an extratropical cyclone,” the NHC said.

“Large swells and dangerous surf generated by Humberto will continue along the coast of Bermuda during the next day or two, and these could continue to cause coastal flooding,” said the NHC.

The swells are forecast to continue affecting the northwestern Bahamas and the United States coast from east-central Florida to the Mid-Atlantic states during the next couple of days.

The Atlantic storm season has picked up pace in recent weeks.

The Bahamas is still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. In the United States on Thursday, all flights into Houston’s international airport were halted as Tropical Depression Imelda inundated southeastern Texas with heavy rains and triggered flash flood warnings.

(Reporting by Don Burgess in Hamilton, Bermuda; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Inside Saudi Arabia’s response to a raid on the heart of the oil kingdom

By Rania El Gamal, Stephen Kalin and Marwa Rashad

KHURAIS, Saudi Arabia(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed energy minister was in London when he learned in the middle of the night of the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a veteran oil official and senior member of the Al Saud ruling family, hurried back to the kingdom, flying by private jet to Aramco’s headquarters in Dhahran to assess the damage and manage the fallout from the attack on the world’s largest oil exporter, three sources close to the matter said. Officials at state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, meanwhile, gathered in what was referred to internally as the “emergency management room” at the company’s headquarters.

Interviews with at least a dozen Gulf and Western officials provide the most detailed account to date of the response by Saudi officials and state oil company Aramco to the most destructive strike on Saudi Arabia since it opened an offensive in Yemen more than four years ago. The attack knocked out more than half the kingdom’s oil production, or almost 6 percent of global oil output.

Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share.

Iranian officials were unavailable to comment but Iran has denied involvement.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition has claimed responsibility. But Gulf diplomats and regional officials say they are skeptical of the claim given the sophistication of the attacks.

The Saudi energy ministry declined to comment on its response to the attacks. The government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The attacks place pressure on both U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have worked closely together to contain Iran’s growing regional influence. Both nations have stressed the need for caution.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the attacks as “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia, though Trump says there are options short of war. Iran has warned that any U.S. or Saudi military strike against the country would bring “all-out war.”

(Graphics on ‘Strikes on Saudi oil disrupt global supply’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/302z0Hm)

MISSILES AND DRONES

Shortly after 3:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, 25 drones and low-flying missiles struck two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities located in the east of the kingdom, according to Saudi officials.

Amin Nasser, the chief executive of state-run Saudi Aramco, which owns the two plants, rushed to Aramco’s emergency-response room at the company’s headquarters in the oil-producing Eastern Province, where he was joined by other senior managers, according to several people briefed on the matter. There was a sense of shock at the scale of the damage, some of the people said.

By the time Aramco’s team was dealing with the fires at the first site in Khurais, where more than 200 people were at the time, strikes were still hitting the facility, according to the company. More than a hundred contractors were immediately evacuated.

A Saudi Aramco spokesman declined to comment on questions from Reuters about the company and the CEO’s response to the attacks.

Saudi officials believed Iran was responsible because the intensity of the attack was beyond the capability of the Houthi, but they wanted to gather evidence before going public with the claims, according to Gulf diplomats and regional officials.

Saudi officials also spoke to their allies, in some instances requesting assistance with experts to help with the investigation and help in strengthening air defenses. On Saturday, Prince Mohammed provided Trump an update by phone, according to a U.S. official. Trump offered “his support for Saudi Arabia’s self-defense,” according to the White House readout of the call.

U.S. officials also quickly came to believe that the attack did not come from Yemen and that Iran was responsible, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters. The Houthi had not struck that distance before or in such a “precise and coordinated fashion,” said a senior administration official.

(Graphics on ‘Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a battle for regional supremacy, fighting proxy wars’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/31rShzd)

“PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES”

By midday Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Nasser and other senior company Aramco executives were headed to the damaged plants, first to Khurais and then to Abqaiq, one of the sources briefed on the matter said.

That night, Nasser was joined at Abqaiq, the world’s biggest oil processing facility, by Prince Abdulaziz and Aramco’s new chairman Yassir al-Rumayyan, according to sources and pictures released by the state news agency.

Aramco, which runs a variety of large projects in the kingdom, deployed more than 5,000 contractors and pulled employees from other projects to work around the clock to bring production back, according to Nasser’s public comments and one of the sources briefed on the matter.

Initial assessments were that the damage was significant and that bringing full production back online could take weeks or even months, said Saudi officials and industry sources who visited the sites or were briefed on the attacks.

Saudi oil officials were scrambling to produce a report on the extent damage for the kingdom’s top leadership, including King Salman, the energy minister’s father, according two of the sources briefed on the matter. But engineers needed 48 more hours for a final assessment, the people said.

Crude markets would begin trading again in two days and Saudi Arabia was under pressure to reassure buyers that oil supplies will not be disrupted.

“Imagine if this (production) didn’t come back on time the whole global security of supply is going to be impacted,” Nasser told reporters earlier this week. “We have a lot of projects in the kingdom… so we have all of the workforce that’s needed to rebuild, reconstruct and put it back,” he said.

By Tuesday, the kingdom had managed to restore full supplies to customers by drawing oil from their massive oil inventories. The company also announced production would return sooner than expected – by the end of the month. Aramco had emerged “like a phoenix from the ashes,” said Prince Abdulaziz in remarks to news media that night in Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The news restored some confidence, prompting a fall in oil prices that had jumped on Monday.

ATTACK EVIDENCE

The Saudis continued to analyze the attack debris. That included aerial weaponry that missed their targets and was recovered just to the north, according to U.S. officials.

The United States dispatched to Saudi Arabia forensic specialists to assist in the effort; France said it was also sending investigative experts.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabian officials publicly accused Iran of involvement. At a news conference, a defense ministry official displayed drone and missile debris it said was undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression and identified the drones as Iranian Delta Wing unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” said the official, Colonel Turki al-Malki.

U.S. officials fingered southwest Iran as the staging ground, an assessment based at least in part on still-classified imagery showing Iran appearing to prepare an aerial strike, according to two U.S. officials.

On Thursday, the United States was considering sending anti-missile batteries, drones and more fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said.

“Frankly there’s just not enough defense capability in the country, if you could be hit from multiple directions,” one U.S. official told Reuters.

It is possible the attacks were launched from more than one location, a Western security source said. “The exact launch location is important as it determines the response and there does have to be a response,” the person said.

On Friday, repair work to the oil plants was ongoing. At the Khurais facility, parts of the facility were visibly burnt and pipes melted. During a tour of the site organized by the company, Fahad Abdulkarim, general manager for Aramco’s southern area oil operations, told reporters that the company is shipping equipment from the United States and Europe to help repair the damage.

(Marwa Washad reporting from Jeddah. Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart in Washington.; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)

Israel’s Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced Israeli media headlines on Friday suggesting power is slipping from his grasp after an election in which he trails his main rival with nearly all votes counted.

The right-wing leader failed on Tuesday, for the second time in five months, to secure a clear election victory and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz rebuffed his calls to join a unity government on Thursday.

Near-final results released on Friday by the Knesset’s election committee showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31 seats, three less than it had before.

GRAPHIC: Seat projections in Israel’s election – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2B21D9/ISRAEL-ELECTIONS.jpg

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone” and “Political Death Spasms”.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with the parties about choosing a leader to put together a coalition.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to see Israel’s coalition drama as an opportunity for his government in the occupied West Bank to announce election plans.

Abbas told reporters outside Norway’s parliament that he would issue a decree for elections across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem when he returns to the Palestinian Territories following the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Despite a long rift with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, Abbas said his Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would be ready to accept a Hamas victory “because Hamas is a part of our people, we cannot exclude Hamas. They have a right to vote and to nominate themselves.”

Some political analysts said Abbas was unlikely to follow through on his election pledge, pointing to difficulties holding a national vote across Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, each of which has a different ruling entity.

There have not been any national Palestinian elections for 13 years. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a 2006 parliamentary election, plunging Palestinian politics into a bitter power struggle from which it has not emerged.

PEACE PLAN

One uncertainty is the timing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan, which was expected soon after Israel’s election, but could unsettle a weakened Netanyahu if released during complex coalition negotiations.

On Friday, Netanyahu met Trump’s outgoing Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, a chief architect of the plan.

Many political analysts are waiting to see how Netanyahu tries to prolong his political survival, not least to claim a public mandate in the face of possible corruption charges that prosecutors may bring within months. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large swaths of the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war where Palestinians seek a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move drew condemnation from world leaders as detrimental to achieving a lasting peace accord.

Gantz has urged redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. He has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu and Gantz will now seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Increased turnout by Israel’s 21-percent Arab minority saw the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition grouping win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping.

The religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. The full official results will be published next Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Area 51 raid morphs into pre-dawn celebration outside secretive U.S. base

By Lisa Richwine

RACHEL, Nev. (Reuters) – A call to “storm” the secretive U.S. military base in the Nevada desert known as Area 51 attracted several dozen revelers to a heavily guarded entrance early Friday, but most did not attempt to enter the site, long rumored to house secrets about extraterrestrial life.

A festive scene emerged around 3 a.m. PT (1000 GMT) on Friday, the date and time a Facebook user had jokingly invited people to run into the base on foot to “see them aliens.” Among the UFO enthusiasts and curiosity seekers, one man wore an orange space suit and some sported tin foil hats and alien masks. A sign in the gathering read “Free E.T. from the government.”

“A bunch of random people in weird costumes standing outside of a government base, why would you want to miss that?” said a YouTube personality who goes by the name Atozy. “That’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

One young woman ducked under a protective gate and was briefly detained by authorities and released. Others stayed outside the perimeter, according to law enforcement officials keeping watch over the crowd.

“They’re just here to see what’s going on,” said Sergeant Orlando Guerra of the Nevada Department of Public Safety Investigation Division. “They’re here to have fun.”

The U.S. Air Force had issued a stern warning to the public not to trespass into Area 51, which it said is used to test aircraft and train personnel.

Jason Strand, 23, said he traveled from Utah to the rural Nevada site as part of a group of nine friends to take in the scene. He said he was not inclined to dart into Area 51.

“We’re came out here to see the dumb people make a run for it,” he said.

Area 51 had long been shrouded in mystery, stoking conspiracy theories that it housed the remnants of a flying saucer and the bodies of its alien crew from a supposed unidentified flying object crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

The U.S. government did not confirm the base existed until 2013, when it released CIA archives saying the site was used to test top-secret spy planes.

The documents, however, did not end suspicion about space aliens there.

Area 51 sits about 12 miles (19 km) from Rachel, Nevada, a tiny outpost north of Las Vegas that is hosting a music festival to entertain any UFO hunters or others heading to the region. Some residents had urged the public to stay away because they worried the town of 50 year-round residents would be overwhelmed with unruly tourists.

As of early Friday, a few hundred campsites had been set up by visitors outside the Little A’Le’Inn, an alien-themed motel and restaurant that is Rachel’s only business.

“I’m relieved it’s here,” said Connie West, co-owner of the inn, who had scrambled to set up a campground, bring in portable toilets and otherwise support the influx of visitors. “It’s happening. There was no stopping it.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Omar Younis and Jim Urquhart; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Abortion front and center as new U.S. Supreme Court term nears

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With new abortion cases on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nine justices will get an opportunity within weeks to take up legal fights over Republican-backed laws that could lead to rulings curbing a woman’s ability to obtain the procedure.

The big question is not so much whether the court, with its 5-4 conservative majority that includes two justices appointed by President Donald Trump, will take up an appeal that could permit new restrictions on abortion rights, but when it will do so, according to legal experts.

The court’s new nine-month term starts on Oct. 7.

Anti-abortion advocates are hoping the court will chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and recognized a woman’s constitutional right to the procedure – or even overturn the landmark decision.

Appeals already are pending in cases challenging the legality of Republican-backed abortion restrictions in Indiana and Louisiana, with legal fights also brewing over laws in other states including an Alabama measure that would effectively ban all abortions.

The court is scheduled to discuss the Louisiana and Indiana appeals in private on Oct. 1 and announce within days of that meeting whether it will hear the cases, which could lead to rulings by next June.

Whether the court proceeds quickly on abortion or takes a slower approach could depend upon conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who has emerged as the court’s ideological center amid its rightward shift with Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

“I have to believe they will take one sooner rather than later. It’s clear notwithstanding all the decades since Roe v. Wade that there is intense disagreement among Americans,” said John Bursch, a lawyer with conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes abortion.

“Anytime you have that much turmoil in the political process it’s going to create conflicts the court must address,” Bursch added.

Abortion opponents are hoping the 2018 retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who was pivotal in defending abortion rights, has created an opening for more restrictions to secure Supreme Court approval. Kennedy as recently as 2016 cast the decisive vote in blocking strict regulations on abortion clinics and doctors in Texas.

Trump, who vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, appointed Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy.

‘NO REASON’

“There should be no reason for the Supreme Court to revisit Roe, but we know this is exactly what some of the states are trying to do and what President Trump was looking for in his Supreme Court nominees,” said Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in litigation challenging various abortion restrictions.

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that directly seek to ban abortions during the early stages of pregnancy.

The latter laws in particular directly challenge Roe v. Wade and a subsequent 1992 ruling that upheld it. Those two rulings made clear that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion at least up until the point the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks of gestation or soon after.

The Louisiana law imposes restrictions that abortion providers have said would force them to close. It requires that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic. The legal issue is similar to the 2016 case in which the court struck down a Texas admitting privileges requirement.

In February, the court on a 5-4 vote prevented the Louisiana law from taking effect while litigation continued, with Roberts joining the court’s four liberals. Roberts dissented in the Texas case but his vote in February indicates he may have some doubts about the court reversing course on a precedent it set only three years ago.

The Indiana case involves the state’s attempt to revive a Republican-backed law that requires women to undergo an ultrasound at least 18 hours before undergoing an abortion, a requirement critics call medically unnecessary.

Legal challenges to laws recently enacted in conservative states that directly challenge the Roe precedent by banning abortion outright or in early stages of pregnancy may not reach the court in time for it to act during its coming term.

In addition to the Alabama ban, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia passed measures that would prohibit abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Missouri has a similar law that would prohibit abortion after eight weeks. Facing legal challenges, none of the laws has yet taken effect.

Other cases that could reach the court sooner include fights over abortion restrictions in Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas that are pending in appeals courts.

Since Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court last October, it has sent mixed signals on abortion. The court in June declined to hear a bid by Alabama to revive another Republican-backed law that would have effectively banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In May, it refused to consider reinstating Indiana’s ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus while upholding the state’s requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion.

Julie Rikelman, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights, said the Supreme Court is likely to take up a case on one of the restrictive laws rather than a measure that directly bans abortion, meaning it could avoid having to decide for now on overturning Roe v. Wade.

“What’s important for people to know,” Rikelman said, “is that even while Roe is the law, there is a great deal of harm that can be done.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Media tour wrecked Saudi oil plant, Iran vows to strike back if attacked

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Friday took media to inspect oil facilities hit by attacks that Washington and Riyadh blame on Iran, showing melted pipes and burned equipment, as Tehran vowed wide retaliation if heightened tensions boil over into hostilities.

The kingdom sees the Sept. 14 strikes on its Khurais and Abqaiq facilities — the worst attack on Gulf oil infrastructure since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein torched Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991 — as a test of global will to preserve international order.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday the United States was imposing sanctions on Iran’s national bank over the attack. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the bank was Tehran’s last source of funds.

Iran denies involvement in the attack, which initially halved oil output from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest petroleum exporter. Responsibility was claimed by Yemen’s Houthi movement, an Iran-aligned group fighting a Saudi-led alliance in Yemen’s four-year-old conflict.

At Abqaiq, one of the world’s largest oil processing plants, reporters saw a punctured, blackened stabilizer tower that Khalid Buraik, Saudi Aramco vice-president for southern area oil operations, said would have to be replaced.

As reporters examined a shattered separator dome draped with a red tape labeled “Danger”, Buraik said 15 towers and facilities had been hit at Abqaiq, but it would regain full output capacity by the end of September.

At Khurais oilfield to the east, which the Saudi defense ministry says was hit by four missiles, Reuters reporters were shown repair work under way, with cranes erected around two burnt-out stabilization columns, which form part of oil-gas separation units, and melted pipes.

“We are confident we are going back to the full production we were at before the attack (on Khurais) by the end of September,” Fahad Abdulkarim, Aramco’s general manager for the southern area oil operation, told reporters.

“We are working 24/7…This is a beehive.”

Workmen wearing red high visibility jackets and white helmets moved through the site, a large compound the size of several soccer stadiums containing interconnected structures of piping and towers.

A mound of blackened debris lay on the ground. An executive said the scorched mess once covered much of the surface of the facility but now only a small mound is left.

Some workers sprayed what appeared to be water on the ground. Mobile cranes and water trucks stood near the crumpled, mangled remains of a fire-damaged stabilization tower.

The attacks intensified a years-long struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are locked in a sometimes violent contest for influence in several flashpoints around the Middle East.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said on Thursday the attacks were an “extension of the Iranian regime’s hostile and outlawed behavior”.

Iran has warned U.S. President Donald Trump against being dragged into a war in the Middle East and said it would meet any offensive action with a crushing response.

Tehran amplified that message on Friday when a senior Revolutionary Guards commander said Iran would respond from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean against any U.S. plots.

COALITION

“If the Americans think of any plots, the Iranian nation will respond from the Mediterranean, to the Red Sea and to the Indian Ocean,” said General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, state news agency IRNA reported.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had called the attacks an “act of war” but on Thursday he said Trump, who has ordered more sanctions on Iran, wants a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Iran’s foreign minister on Friday questioned Pompeo’s remarks and listed repeated Iranian diplomatic initiatives.

“Coalition for Peaceful Resolution?,” Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter, and listed eight diplomatic initiatives by Iran since 1985, including a peace plan for Yemen in 2015.

He later said Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates seemed to wish to “fight Iran to the last American”.

Oil prices were on track for their biggest weekly jump since January, lifted by rising Middle East tensions after the attack. Brent crude was up more than 7% from last Friday’s close at $64.69 a barrel, U.S. West Texas Intermediate was $58.47.

Kuwait said it had raised the security alert level at all of its ports, including the oil terminals, state-run media said, citing a decision by the trade and industry minister.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Saudi King Salman in a phone call that China condemned the attack and called on all parties to avoid escalating the situation, Xinhua reported.

Despite being a relatively low-profile diplomatic player in the Middle East, China has close economic and energy relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and has long had to tread carefully in its ties with both.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said groundless accusations against Iran over the attacks were inflaming tensions, Interfax news agency reported.

The Yemeni Houthi movement on Friday accused the Saudi-led coalition of a dangerous escalation of the situation around Hodeidah, after coalition forces attacked targets north of the port city.

The actions threatened a U.N.-brokered ceasefire accord in the Red Sea port, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said.

(Additional reporting by Meg Shen and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Maher Chmaytelli and by Jon Boyle)

Torrential Imelda rains kill 2, flood homes, snarl travel around Houston

A car passes through a flooded street as storm Imelda hits Houston, Texas, U.S., September 19, 2019 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. @kingjames.daniel/via REUTERS

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Imelda dumped torrential rains over the Houston-area, killing at least two people, while rescuers in boats pulled hundreds from flooded cars, the airport temporarily halted flights and tens of thousands of people lost power.

Heavy rains had abated by Thursday evening, although flash flood watches remained in effect through Friday morning and rescuers were still working to reach stranded motorists and those trapped in homes late into the night as floodwaters were slow to drain off.

The National Hurricane Center said in a late Thursday bulletin that up to 45 inches of rain will have fallen in some areas by the time the storm blows off on Friday afternoon.

Ed Gonzalez, sheriff for Harris County, which includes Houston, confirmed the second death from the storm.

He tweeted on Thursday that he was at the scene where first-responders tried to save a man who had driven his white van headlong into deep waters.

“The water level was about 8′ (8 feet) high,” Gonzalez wrote, describing the incident. “The driver paused briefly, then accelerated into it the water, causing his van to go under.”

Gonzalez said the man driving the van was pulled from the vehicle after some 20 minutes underwater and was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The other victim of the storm was electrocuted southeast of Houston while trying to move his horse to safety, according to a statement on the Facebook page of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. No other details were provided.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport halted all flights for about two hours, and Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster covering more than a dozen counties.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded in their vehicles as some of Houston’s main roadways flooded, submerging cars. Firefighters, police and ordinary citizens were out in boats and all-terrain vehicles to pick up people trapped in their homes by the rising waters.

The storm knocked out power to around 100,000 people in Houston and southeast Texas, according to reports from energy companies, while work at oil refineries in the area was slowed or halted.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city was better prepared to rescue stranded residents and deal with flooding than when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, leading to dozens of deaths in Houston and billions of dollars in damage.

The small town of Winnie, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Houston, was also badly hit. Officials there evacuated Riceland Hospital and tried to rescue people marooned in their vehicles after roads turned into lakes.

Parts of Interstate 10, a major east-west highway, were closed near Winnie.

Imelda made landfall as a tropical storm near Freeport, Texas, on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston, Jonathan Allen in New York, Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, and Liz Hampton in Denver; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Tom Hogue)

Exelon to close Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on Friday

(Reuters) – U.S. energy company Exelon Corp said it will shut the last reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant, site of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, at noon local time on Friday.

The company announced in May that it planned to shut the 45-year old unit in September due to inaction in the Pennsylvania legislature on a bill that would have subsidized the continued operation of nuclear power in the state.

Paul Adams, a spokesman for Exelon, said the company will issue a statement later Friday on the planned closure. He noted Exelon never owned the unit that suffered the accident in 1979.

Exelon said on its website it bought the 837-megawatt (MW) Unit 1 at Three Mile Island about 20 years after accident at Unit 2. Unit 2 is owned by FirstEnergy Corp <FE.N>.

One megawatt can power about 1,000 average U.S. homes.

Nuclear services company EnergySolutions Inc said in July it was in negotiations with a unit of FirstEnergy to acquire and complete the decommissioning of Unit 2.

In recent years, electricity prices have been depressed by cheap natural gas from shale fields, including the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, and by increased use of renewable power.

This has reduced the amount of money power plants can make selling electricity and forced generators to shut several coal and nuclear plants in recent years.

Many states, including New York, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and Ohio have already adopted nuclear subsidies to keep their reactors in service to help meet carbon reduction and other goals.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania have considered legislation, but not in time for Three Mile Island. Exelon said it had to decide whether to spend the money to refuel the plant by June 1.

In addition to the states, officials in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration have also proposed programs to keep nuclear and coal plants operating longer.

Nuclear power plants generated about 39% of Pennsylvania’s electricity in 2018 and have provided over 90% of its zero-carbon power, according to federal and industry data.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Exelon operates two reactors at Peach Bottom and two at Limerick, FirstEnergy operates two reactors at Beaver Valley, and Talen Energy owns two at Susquehanna.

FirstEnergy’s bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions unit has said it would shut Beaver Valley in 2021 unless the reactors receive some financial support from federal or state programs.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Russia widens Jehovah’s Witnesses crackdown with new jailings

Adherents of the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky pose for a picture inside the building of a regional court in Saratov, Russia in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDI

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has widened a crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses, jailing six adherents of the Christian denomination for extremism in a move rights activists said was unjust and flouted religious freedom.

A regional court in Saratov jailed six Jehovah’s Witnesses on Thursday for up to three-and-a-half years, a court spokeswoman said on Friday.

“Yes they were convicted,” the spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, said. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

The court found the six men guilty of continuing the activities of an extremist organization, a reference to a 2017 ruling from Russia’s Supreme Court which found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

The latest jailings follow the conviction in February of a Danish builder in Russia for his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing an extremist group and jailed for six years.

Over 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges, according to the group, with 41 in detention and 23 under house arrest.

‘SPECULATIVE THESIS’

Under Thursday’s ruling, Konstantin Bazhenov and Alexei Budenchuk were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, Felix Makhammadiev to three years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Alexei Miretsky to two years in prison each.

The court also banned them from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their adherents’ right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.

“The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is ‘a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization’,” Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia.”

Lawyers for the men plan to appeal what they regard as absurd convictions, said Lopes.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Rachel Denber of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s ruling, saying the men had been jailed for nothing.

“They should be freed,” Denber said on social media.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Neurotoxin may have caused diplomats’ illness in Cuba: study

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fumigation against mosquitoes in Cuba and not “sonic attacks” may have caused some 40 U.S. and Canadian diplomats and family members in Havana to fall ill, according to a new study commissioned by the Canadian government.

The incidents took place from late 2016 into 2018, causing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to charge that diplomats were attacked by some sort of secret weapon. Canada has refrained from such charges.

The United States in 2017 reduced its embassy staff to a minimum and Canada followed more recently, citing the incidents and the danger posed to staff from what has become known as the “Havana Syndrome.”

Various scientific studies have yet to identify the cause of the diplomats’ cognitive ailments, ranging from dizziness and blurred vision to memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

The Canadian study by a team of researchers affiliated with the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority studied Canadian victims and even the brain of a pet dog after its demise in Canada.

The study was the first to include diplomats for whom there was baseline medical testing from before their postings in Havana, so as to better compare with the tests from afterwards. Canada started implementing the practice after diplomats first started complaining of sickness.

The researchers said they had detected different levels of brain damage in an area that causes symptoms reported by the diplomats and which is susceptible to neurotoxins. They then concluded that cholinesterase, a key enzyme required for the proper functioning of the nervous system, was being blocked there.

Some pesticides work by inhibiting cholinesterase, the report said, and during the 2016-2018 period when diplomats became ill normal fumigation in Cuba was stepped up due to the Zika epidemic in the Caribbean.

The report said the diplomats’ illnesses coincided with increased fumigation in and around residences where they lived. One of the authors of the study, Professor Alon Friedman, clarified in an email to Reuters that both Canadian and Cuban authorities were fumigating.

“We report the clinical, imaging and biochemical evidence consistent with the hypothesis of over-exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors as the cause of brain injury,” the study concluded while cautioning that other causes could not be ruled out and more study was needed.

Friedman said it was not clear whether the broader Cuban population was affected by the fumigation and if not, why, but his team was planning a further study on this together with Cuban scientists.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Leslie Adler)