Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Russian S-400s will be fully deployed by April 2020

FILE PHOTO: First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that the Russian S-400 missile defense system, parts of which have been delivered to Turkey over the past four days, would be fully deployed in April 2020.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system has raised tensions with its NATO allies, particularly the United States, which has warned Turkey that it will respond with sanctions.

Speaking at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on the third anniversary of 2016’s attempted coup, Erdogan said eight planes had already brought parts of the Russian system and more were coming, as he had repeatedly promised.

“With God’s permission, they will have been installed in their sites by April 2020,” he told the crowd.

“The S-400s are the strongest defense system against those who want to attack our country. God willing, we are doing this as a joint investment with Russia, and will continue to do so.”

U.S. officials have said that in addition to being hit with legislation aimed at preventing countries from purchasing military equipment from Russia, known as CAATSA, Turkey could be thrown off the F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

That would mean it would no longer make F-35 parts or be able to buy the jets it has ordered.

On Sunday, Erdogan said that U.S. President Donald Trump has the authority to waive sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian air defense systems and should find a “middle ground” in the dispute.

Tensions between Turkey and Western allies have risen in recent months over the purchase of the S-400 system, with a series of other actions taken by the NATO member state compounding the situation.

German and Austrian ministers said on Monday that the European Union would endorse a symbolic punishment for Turkey over what it calls “illegal” drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus and threaten harsher sanctions unless Ankara changes tack.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had said on Sunday that Turkey will continue drilling for gas in waters off Cyprus if the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government does not accept a cooperation proposal put forward by Turkish Cypriots.

After sacking the central bank governor this month, citing differences over the timing of rate cuts, Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey would make serious cuts to interest rates and aims to reduce inflation to single digits by the end of the year.

In his first remarks since taking office nine days ago, new governor Murat Uysal was reported as hinting at rate cuts, saying there was “room for maneuver” in monetary policy.

Turkey’s benchmark interest rate was hiked to 24% last September to stem a sharp fall in the lira and has remained there to prevent renewed losses in the currency as the economy tumbled into recession.

Ratings agency Fitch downgraded Turkey’s sovereign rating to BB- on Friday, saying the central bank chief’s dismissal heightened doubt over the authorities’ tolerance for a period of slower growth.

On Monday, agency S&P Global said Turkey’s credit rating is only likely to be affected by U.S. sanctions if they specifically target the country’s banks.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S., Russia to discuss nuclear arms limits in Geneva on Wednesday: officials

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Representatives from the United States and Russia are set to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to explore the idea of a new accord limiting nuclear arms that could eventually include China, U.S. senior administration officials said on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that he would like to see a new type of arms control deal with Russia and China to cover all types of nuclear weapons, a topic that he has discussed individually with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China is not currently a party to nuclear arms pacts between the United States and Russia.

The U.S. delegation will be led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and will include Tim Morrison, a top aide at the White House National Security Council, as well as representatives from the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Agency, said the U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition on anonymity.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, will lead the Russian delegation, the U.S. officials said.

“We actually feel that – touch wood – we’ve actually got to a point where we can try to start this again,” one of the officials said, listing off a long series of incidents that have soured relations between the United States and Russia during the past year.

“I say touch wood because we’re always just one incident away from unfortunately things getting derailed,” the official said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Neo-Nazi gets second life sentence in murder of protester in Virginia

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is seen in a mugshot released by Charlottesville, Virginia police department, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. Charlottesville Police Department/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Gary Robertson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – A Virginia state judge on Monday sentenced a self-professed neo-Nazi to a second life prison term for killing a demonstrator when he drove his car into a crowd protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville two years ago.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore sentenced James Fields, 22, to life plus 419 years, as recommended by the jury that found him guilty last December of murder plus eight counts of malicious wounding and a hit-and-run offense.

“Mr. Fields, you deserve the sentence the jury gave. What you did was an act of terror,” Moore said.

Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, who appeared in court on Monday in striped prison garb, had already received a separate life sentence without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in March to federal hate-crime charges stemming from the violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

Heather Heyer, 32, one of the counter-demonstrators, was killed in the attack, which also injured many others.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said in a statement read in court on Monday that she hoped Fields finds reclamation in prison. “But I also hope he never sees the light of day outside of prison,” she said.

Statements by several victims were also read in court.

The deadly car-ramming capped a day of tension and physical clashes between hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, and groups of demonstrators opposed to them.

By the time of the car attack, police had already declared an unlawful assembly and cleared a city park of the white nationalists, who were there to protest removal of statues commemorating two Confederate generals of the U.S. Civil War.

The night before, “Unite the Right” protesters had staged a torch-lit march through the nearby University of Virginia campus chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

The events proved a turning point in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Trump was strongly criticized by fellow Republicans and by Democrats for saying after Charlottesville that “both sides” were to blame for the violence.

During the state court trial, Fields’ lawyers never disputed that Fields was behind the wheel of the Dodge Charger that sent bodies flying when the vehicle slammed into Heyer and about 30 other people. Instead, the defense suggested that Fields felt intimidated by the hostile crowds.

Prosecutors countered that Fields was motivated by hatred and had come to the rally to harm others. The defendant, who has identified himself as a neo-Nazi, was photographed hours before the car attack carrying a shield with an emblem of a far-right hate group.

Less than a month before the events in Charlottesville, he had posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”

(Reporting by Gary Robertson in Charlottesville; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Epstein’s accusers urge U.S. judge to keep him jailed until sex trafficking trial

Jeffrey Epstein (L) looks on as lawyer Martin Weinberg speaks during a a bail hearing in U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein's sex trafficking case, in this court sketch in New York, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two women who say they are victims of sexual misconduct by American financier Jeffrey Epstein on Monday urged a U.S. judge to keep him in jail while he awaits trial on charges of sex trafficking dozens of underage girls.

“He’s a scary person,” one of the women, Courtney Wild, told U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in federal court in Manhattan.

Wild and another accuser, Annie Farmer, spoke at the end of a hearing in which prosecutors argued that Epstein, 66, posed an “extraordinary risk of flight” and danger to the community and must remain in jail.

Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty, has asked to be allowed to live under house arrest with armed guard at his expense in his mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which is valued at $77 million.

The hedge fund manager had a social circle that over the years has included Donald Trump before he became U.S. president, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew.

Berman said he would probably announce his bail decision on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT), saying he needed more time to absorb the case.

Lawyers for Epstein said their client, who wore dark blue jail scrubs in court, has had an unblemished record since he pleaded guilty more than a decade ago to a state prostitution charge in Florida and agreed to register as a sex offender.

Critics have called that plea deal, which let Epstein avoid federal prosecution, too lenient.

Epstein is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a fortress-like jail that has been criticized by inmates and lawyers for harsh conditions.

He pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and conspiracy charges on July 8, two days after his arrest at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, where he had flown back on his private plane from Paris. Epstein faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted.

Epstein is accused of arranging for girls under the age of 18 to perform nude “massages” and other sex acts, and of paying some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005.

A prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller, on Monday told the judge that a search of Epstein’s home uncovered nude images of underage girls, including at least one who claimed to be among the financier’s victims.

The prosecutor also said one item seized was a passport that appeared to have been issued by a foreign country in the 1980s that containing Epstein’s photo, but someone else’s name.

Last week, prosecutors said in a court filing that Epstein made payments to potential witnesses last year in an apparent effort to influence them.

One of his lawyers, Martin Weinberg, told Berman on Monday that Epstein needed to be out of jail so he and his lawyers could prepare their defense.

In 2016, Berman rejected a similar bail proposal from Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab to let him live in an apartment under the watch of privately funded guards, saying wealthy defendants should not be allowed to “buy their way out of prison by constructing their own private jail.”

The judge expressed similar skepticism on Monday, noting that all defendants have the same right to prepare their defense as Epstein.

“If that’s the standard, then what are we going to tell all those people who can’t make the $500 or $1,000 bail?” he said.

Under the Florida agreement, Epstein served 13 months in a county jail, but was allowed to go to his office during the day.

A federal judge ruled in February that the agreement violated a federal law on crime victims’ rights.

Alex Acosta, who as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida oversaw Epstein’s earlier deal, resigned on Friday as Trump’s Secretary of Labor, saying he did not want to be a distraction for the White House.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

On the menu soon: lab-grown steak for eco-conscious diners

Employees work in a laboratory at Aleph Farms, an Israeli company producing lab-grown steak from cow cells, in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Lianne Back and Tova Cohen

REHOVOT, Israel (Reuters) – Diners in some upmarket restaurants will soon be able to tuck into laboratory-grown steak, thanks to an Israeli startup that seeks to tap into consumer concerns about health, the environment and animal welfare.

While lab-grown hamburgers and chicken are already in development around the world, Israel’s Aleph Farms claims to be the first company to have developed steak in a laboratory and is in talks with some high-end restaurants in the United States, Europe and Asia to have it on the market in 2021.

It plans initially to offer minute steak developed from a small number of cells taken from a cow, avoiding the need to slaughter the animal in the process or use antibiotics which can be harmful to meat-eaters.

Aleph Farms hopes to have its product on a limited number of restaurant menus from 2021 in a trial phase, aiming for an official launch in 2023, first in restaurants and then in stores.

Its next product will be a thick steak with “the properties that we like and we all know,” said Neta Lavon, vice president for research and development.

A dish including a piece of lab-grown steak produced from cow cells by Israeli company Aleph Farms, is seen as it is prepared by a chef during a demonstration for Reuters at the company office in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A dish including a piece of lab-grown steak produced from cow cells by Israeli company Aleph Farms, is seen as it is prepared by a chef during a demonstration for Reuters at the company office in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A serving of its minute steak – a thin slice of meat that cooks very fast – currently costs around $50 but Aleph Farms says it hopes to bring that down by 2021 to only a slight premium to current prices of steak offered in restaurants.

Eventually, it aims for mass production, bringing the price down further and making its steaks viable for sale in lower-priced steak houses.

Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, said the company has ambitions to be one of the world’s top three meat producers within 20 years, challenging market leaders like Tyson Foods, which has invested in another Israeli start-up developing cultured meat, Future Meat Technologies.

Toubia, however, did not give a revenue target for its product.

He set up the company in 2017 in partnership with Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology and foodmaker Strauss Group’s incubator The Kitchen. In May it raised $12 million from investors including Cargill [CARG.UL], and has now raised $14 million to date.

Demand for traditional meat substitutes is growing and analysts estimate the U.S. plant-based meat market, for example, could be worth $100 billion by 2035.

The number of start-ups producing laboratory-developed meat has risen from four at the end of 2016 to more than two dozen by last year, according to market researcher the Good Food Institute.

Dutch start-up Mosa Meat projects the cost of producing a hamburger will be about 9 euros ($10) once production scales up.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)

Robots to install telescopes to peer into cosmos from the moon

University of Colorado Boulder director of NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research Jack Burns points out locations on a lunar globe at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

By Joey Roulette

BOULDER, Colo. (Reuters) – As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots there to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the U.S. space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo program that we’re looking at,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it’s going to involve machines and humans working together,” Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.

Sometime in the coming decade, Burns’ team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface – featuring a mountain taller than any on earth – to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans. 

Astronauts will be able to control the rover’s single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon’s surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover “in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game,” said Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university. His project is telerobotics, or using artificial intelligence to give users better control over robotic movements from afar.

“It has a lot of potential, especially applied toward space exploration,” he says.

The rover, being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon’s regolith – the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface. Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team's findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team’s findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

ROBOT PROTOTYPE

Working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, Mellinkoff and two fellow graduate students have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong). It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers.

On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.

“It’s really going to be a platform for us to start different science studies that we couldn’t do from the surface of Earth,” said Keith Tauscher, a physics graduate student.

Tauscher is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. “The lab has dubbed this mission ‘the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder, or “DAPPER.’ ”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s.

Vice President Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary,” cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

The Americans are not alone in their latest moon quest, unlike a half-century ago. In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, with a long-term aim of building a base on the moon. India was scheduled to send a rover to the moon this month.

Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars.

“It’s a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA,” Burns said.

He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon’s south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars.

 

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Remnants of storm Barry dump more rain in the U.S. southeast

Crews clear debris from Highway 23 during Hurricane Barry in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, U.S. July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Collin Eaton

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – The remnants of the once-mighty storm Barry, the first hurricane of the 2019 season, dumped dangerous amounts of rain as it crawled north through the United States on Monday after coming ashore west of New Orleans at the weekend.

Barry, now downgraded to a tropical depression, still packed winds of up to 25 mph and could drop 5 inches or more of rain on a water-logged Louisiana, forecaster Andrew Orrison of the National Weather Service said.

That brings the risk of dangerous flash floods from already bloated rivers across much of the gulf region and Mississippi Valley, he said.

“We’ll see the winds coming down as the day progresses,” he said. “But the big story is the rain. This is still capable of very heavy rains through the next 24 hours.”

Through Monday and Tuesday, the storm will bring 3-to-5 inches of rain with spots of 10-to-15 to eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, and parts of Missouri and Mississippi, as it heads north toward Ohio, he said.

As of early Monday, about 50,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana were without electricity, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.us.

Barry, which made landfall on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity and then quickly weakened to a tropical storm, was expected to break up into a post-tropical depression by Monday afternoon, forecasters said.

Fears that Barry might devastate the low-lying city of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005 were unfounded, but rain in the forecast could still cause dangerous flooding into Monday, meteorologists said.

The additional rainfall could cause life-threatening conditions, the NWS said in a bulletin.

New Orleans saw light rain on Sunday, and churches and several businesses were open, including some on Tchoupitoulas Street along the flooded Mississippi River. Streets in the city’s Garden District were quieter than usual but some joggers and dogwalkers ventured out.

A concert by the Rolling Stones scheduled for Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which served as an emergency shelter during Katrina, was postponed until Monday because of the weather forecast, the venue said.

Barry has shut in 73%, or 1.38 million barrels per day (bpd), of crude oil production in the U.S.-regulated areas of the Gulf of Mexico, officials said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Rich McKay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Merchant ships urged to avoid using private armed teams in Mideast Gulf

FILE PHOTO: A British Royal Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria, as it sits anchored in waters of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) – Shipping companies sailing through the Middle East Gulf are being urged to avoid having private armed security guards onboard as the risk of escalation in the region rises, industry associations say.

Relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly strained after Britain seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar last week and London said its warship HMS Montrose had to fend off Iranian vessels seeking to block a British-owned tanker from passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

The most recent incidents followed a spate of attacks on tankers since May around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, which the United States has blamed on Iran and are denied by Tehran.

An advisory issued in recent days by leading shipping associations warned against using private armed guards in the critical areas.

“The use of force against threats recently encountered in the Gulf of Oman carries significant risk and has the potential to escalate security situations to the detriment of the safety of ship and crew,” the advisory said.

“The use of unarmed maritime advisors to assist with onboard security and watch-keeping is sensible,” it said, noting relevant legal guidelines.

A rise in Somali piracy, which was at its height a decade ago, prompted shipping companies to deploy private armed security teams in the Gulf of Aden.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said there were stringent restrictions on the use of armed guards in the Gulf, whereas there was approval by flag states for their deployment off Somalia.

“The message is do not use private armed guards in these waters – it is not advised,” he told Reuters on Friday.

While it is still possible for ships to sail through the Strait of Hormuz with private armed guards on board, few ports in the Gulf allow ships carrying weapons to enter.

“The legal implications for insurers and vessel owners are widespread. Breaches of rules bring about significant financial penalties, adverse reputational issues and in some cases custodial sentences,” said Jonathan Moss, head of transport and shipping with law firm DWF.

“The navies will be aware that additionally recruited armed security personnel may lead to the possible escalation of violence.”

Mark Gray, co-founder of British company MNG Maritime, which runs a UK regulated floating armoury some 26 nautical miles from the coast of the United Arab Emirates, said UK security companies that were licensed to carry and move firearms in the region were restricted to counter-piracy activity.

“Any British security company that uses those firearms … to counter the forces of a state like Iran would be in breach of that license and therefore breaking the law,” he said.

“Armed guards are not the solution – all you need are more eyes and ears looking at all sides of the ship especially the rear when passing through those waters.”

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan)