Oil prices hit 2019 highs on OPEC cuts and U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Pumpjacks are seen against the setting sun at the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang province, China December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stringe

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to new 2019 highs on Tuesday, supported by OPEC supply cuts and falling output from Iran and Venezuela because of U.S. sanctions.

Brent crude oil futures were up 16 cents at $67.70 a barrel at 1415 GMT, having earlier risen to a 2019 peak of $68.20, their highest since November 2018.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were at $59.17, up 8 cents from their last settlement. They also touched their highest since November at $59.57.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Monday scrapped its planned meeting in April, effectively extending supply cuts that have been in place since January until its next regular meeting in June.

OPEC and a group of non-affiliated producers including Russia, known as OPEC+, cut supply in 2019 to halt a sharp price drop that began in the second-half of 2018 on booming U.S. production and fears of a global economic slowdown.

Saudi Arabia has signaled that OPEC and its allies could continue to restrain oil output until the end of 2019.

“The OPEC+ deal has brought stability to crude prices and signs of an extension have taken crude higher,” said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage OANDA.

Prices have been further supported by U.S. sanctions against oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, traders said.

Venezuela has suspended its oil exports to India, one of its key export destinations, the Azeri energy ministry said on Tuesday, citing Venezuela’s oil minister.

Because of the tighter supply outlook for the coming months, the Brent forward curve has gone into backwardation since the start of the year, meaning that prices for immediate delivery are more expensive than those for dispatch in the future. May Brent prices were around $1.20 a barrel more expensive than for December delivery.

(GRAPHIC: Brent crude oil forward curves – https://tmsnrt.rs/2FlM7YZ)

Outside OPEC, analysts are watching U.S. crude oil production that has risen by more than 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since early 2018, to about 12 million bpd, making the United States the world’s biggest producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Weekly output and storage data will be published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that economic “risks are skewed to the downside” and it is forecasting global demand growth of 1.2 million bpd year on year in 2019 and 1.15 million bpd in 2020.

The bank said it expects Brent and WTI to average $70 and $59 a barrel respectively in 2019 and $65 and $60 a barrel in 2020.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; Editing Joseph Radford and David Goodman)

Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attend a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 19, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.

India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.

The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.

Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times”.

“I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.”This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.

“I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians. There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.

Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.

“China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”

The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.

At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over”, said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the South Asian neighbors.

In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.

“As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.

“Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.

China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore)

Hackers hit aluminum maker Hydro, knock some plants offline

A note warning visitors about a cyber attack is seen at the headquarters of aluminum producer Norsk Hydro in Oslo, Norway March 19, 2019. NTB Scanpix/Terje Pedersen via REUTERS

By Gwladys Fouche and Terje Solsvik

OSLO (Reuters) – Norsk Hydro, one of the world’s largest producers of aluminum, battled on Tuesday to contain a cyber attack which hit parts of its production, sending its shares lower and aluminum prices higher.

The company shut several metal extrusion plants, which transform aluminum ingots into components for car makers, builders and other industries, while its giant smelters in countries including Norway, Qatar and Brazil were being operated manually.

The attack began on Monday evening and escalated overnight, hitting Hydro’s IT systems for most of its activities and forcing staff to issue updates via social media.

FILE PHOTO: An aluminium coil is seen during opening of a production line for the car industry at a branch of Norway's Hydro aluminum company in Grevenbroich, Germany May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An aluminum coil is seen during the opening of a production line for the car industry at a branch of Norway’s Hydro aluminum company in Grevenbroich, Germany May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

The Norwegian National Security Authority (NNSA), the state agency in charge of cybersecurity, said the attack used a virus known as LockerGoga, a relatively new strain of so-called ransomware which encrypts computer files and demands payment to unlock them.

Citing a message sent by the NNSA, public broadcaster NRK said on its website hackers had demanded ransom money from Hydro to stop the attack, but the company has not confirmed this.

The malware is not widely used by cybercrime groups, researchers said, but has been linked to an attack on French engineering consultancy Altran Technologies in January.

“Hydro is working to contain and neutralize the attack, but does not yet know the full extent of the situation,” the company said in a statement.

It added that the attack had not affected the safety of its staff and it was too early to assess the impact on customers.

News of the attack pushed aluminum prices up 1.2 percent to a three-month high of $1,944 a tonne in early trade on the London Metal Exchange, before giving up some gains to trade at $1,938 by 1253 GMT.

The event was a rare case of an attack on industrial operations in Norway. The last publicly acknowledged cyber attack in the Nordic country was on software firm Visma, when hackers allegedly working on behalf of Chinese intelligence breached its network to steal secrets from its clients.

PLANT CLOSURES

Companies and governments have become increasingly concerned about the damage hackers can cause to industrial systems and critical national infrastructure following a number of high-profile cyber attacks.

In 2017, hackers later accused by the United States of working for the North Korean government unleashed billions of dollars worth of damage with the Wannacry ransomware virus, which crippled hospital, banks and other companies worldwide.

Pyongyang has denied the allegations.

Other cyber attacks have downed electricity grids and transport systems in recent years, and an attack on Italian oil services firm Saipem late last year destroyed more than 300 of the company’s computers.

Hydro makes products across the aluminum value chain, from the refinement of alumina raw material via metal ingots to bespoke components used in cars and construction.

“Some extrusion plants that are easy to stop and start have chosen to temporarily shut production,” said a Hydro spokesman.

The company’s hydroelectric power plants were running as normal on isolated IT systems unaffected by the outage.

Norsk Hydro’s main website page was unavailable on Tuesday, although some of the web pages belonging to subsidiaries could still be accessed. The company was giving updates on the situation on its Facebook page.

“Hydro’s main priority now is to limit the effects of the attack and to ensure continued people safety,” it wrote in a Facebook post.

Hydro shares fell 3.4 percent in early trade before a partial recovery to trade down 0.4 percent by 1253 GMT. They were still lagging the Oslo benchmark index, which was up 0.7 percent.

Hydro, which has 36,000 employees in 40 countries, made a net profit of 4.3 billion Norwegian crowns ($505 million) last year on sales of 159.4 billion.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, with Jack Stubbs and Barbara Lewis in London; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and David Holmes)

First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

Ethiopian crash crew’s voices could unlock high-stakes Boeing inquiry

FILE PHOTO: A man watches debris at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Tim Hepher

ADDIS ABABA/PARIS (Reuters) – The investigation into the final minutes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 turned on Tuesday to the secrets in the cockpit voice recorder as Boeing and a shaken global aviation industry hung on the outcome.

The voices of Captain Yared Getachew and First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed could reveal what led to the March 10 crash of the Boeing 737 MAX that has worrying parallels with another disaster involving the same model off Indonesia in October.

The twin disasters killed 346 people.

Black box data was downloaded in France but only Ethiopian experts leading the probe have heard the dialogue between Getachew, 29, and Mohammed, 25. The data was back in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, sources familiar with the probe told Reuters.

Experts believe a new automated system in Boeing’s flagship MAX fleet – intended to stop stalling by dipping the plane’s nose – may have played a role in both crashes, with pilots unable to override it as their jets plunged downwards.

Both came down just minutes after take-off after erratic flight patterns and loss of control reported by the pilots. However, every accident is a unique chain of human and technical factors, experts say.

The prestige of Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s most successful companies, and Boeing, the world’s biggest planemaker and a massive U.S. exporter, is at stake in the inquiry.

AWKWARD QUESTIONS FOR INDUSTRY

Lawmakers and safety experts are questioning how thoroughly regulators vetted the MAX model and how well pilots were trained on new features. For now, regulators have grounded the existing fleet of more than 300 MAX aircraft and deliveries of nearly 5,000 more – worth well over $500 billion – are on hold.

Pressure on the Chicago-headquartered company has grown with news that federal prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Transportation are scrutinizing how carefully the MAX model was developed, two people briefed on the matter said.

The U.S. Justice Department was looking at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of Boeing, one of the people said. And a federal grand jury last week issued at least one subpoena to an entity involved in the plane’s development.

In the hope of getting its MAX line back into the air soon, Boeing said it will roll out a software update and revise pilot training. In the case of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it has raised questions about whether crew used the correct procedures.

“Lives depend on the work we do,” acknowledged Boeing boss Dennis Muilenburg, facing the biggest crisis of his tenure.

The MAX, which offers cost savings of about 15 percent on fuel, was developed for service from 2017 after the successful launch by its main rival of the Airbus A320neo.

After Ethiopia, France and the United States all noted parallels with the Indonesia crash, one person familiar with the probe said black box data showed the Ethiopian Airlines jet’s “angle of attack” was “very similar” to the Lion Air plane.

The angle of attack is a fundamental parameter of flight, measuring the degrees between the air flow and the wing. If it is too high, it can throw the plane into an aerodynamic stall.

GLOBAL RAMIFICATIONS

In the hot seat over its certification of the MAX without demanding additional training and its closeness to Boeing, the FAA has said it is “absolutely” confident in its vetting.

But given the U.S. probe, Canada said it would re-examine its acceptance of the FAA validation and do its own independent certification.

The crisis has put the airline world in a spin.

One company, Norwegian Airlines, has already said it will seek compensation after grounding its MAX aircraft.

Various firms are reconsidering Boeing orders, and some airlines are revising profit forecasts given they now cannot count on maintenance and fuel savings factored in from the MAX.

Beyond the corporate ramifications, anguished relatives are still waiting to find out what happened.

Many have been visiting the crash site in a charred field to seek some closure, but there is anger at the slow pace of information and all they have been given for funerals is earth.

Abdulmajid Shariff, a Yemeni who lost his brother-in-law, was heading home on Tuesday. “I’m just so terribly sad. I had to leave here without the body of my dead brother. But I have to praise almighty God, there is nothing more to do.”

(Reporting by Maggie Fick and Jason Neely in Addis Ababa, Tim Hepher in Paris, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Jamie Freed in Singapore; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Georgina Prodhan)

Students tied to U.S. college admissions scandal could face expulsion

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured on the grounds of University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The University of Southern California said it may expel students linked to the largest college-admissions cheating scandal in U.S. history after it completes a review of their records.

The school said on Monday night that it has already “placed holds on the accounts of students who may be associated with the alleged admissions scheme,” preventing them from registering for classes or acquiring transcripts.

“Following the review, we will take the proper action related to their status, up to revoking admission or expulsion,” the college said in a tweet on Monday night.

The move would affect the daughters of “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. The parents were among 50 people charged last week with participation in what federal prosecutors called a $25 million bribery and fraud scam.

The mastermind of the scheme last week pleaded guilty to racketeering charges for bribing coaches, cheating on standardized tests and fabricating athletic profiles to help children of wealthy families gain admission to top universities including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.

A spokesman for Georgetown on Tuesday said the school would not comment on disciplinary action against individual students linked to the scandal but added that it is “reviewing the details of the indictment, examining our records, and will be taking appropriate action.”

Yale, UCLA, and the University of Texas said last week that any students found to have misrepresented any part of their applications may have their admission rescinded. Stanford said it is “working to better understand the circumstances around” one of its students linked to the scheme.

Wake Forest’s president said in a statement last week, “We have no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction.”

Prosecutors said some students involved in the scandal were not aware that their parents had made the alleged arrangements, although in other cases they knowingly took part. None of the children were charged.

Several celebrities and corporate executives charged in the scandal have already felt career consequences.

The Hallmark cable channel last week cut ties with Loughlin for her alleged role in the fraud.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Steve Orlofsky)

Mike Pence to visit Nebraska amid deadly floods

Lanni Bailey and a team from Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue enter a flooded house to pull out several cats during the flooding of the Missouri River near Glenwood, Iowa, U.S. March 18, 2019. Passport Aerial Photography/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the devastation left by floods in the Midwest which have killed at least four people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

The floods, the result of last week’s ‘bomb cyclone,’ a term used by meteorologists to describe the powerful winter hurricane, inundated stretches of Nebraska and Iowa along the Missouri River. It swamped homes, covering about a third of the U.S. Air Force Base that is home to the United States Strategic Command, and cut off road access to a nuclear power plant.

FILE PHOTO: One of many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base affected by flood waters is seen in Nebraska, U.S., March 16, 2019. Courtesy Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: One of many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base affected by flood waters is seen in Nebraska, U.S., March 16, 2019. Courtesy Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

Farms were deluged and rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes.

About 74 Nebraska cites had declared states of emergency by Monday evening, according to Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). More than 600 residents were evacuated and taken to American Red Cross-operated shelters.

“Heading to Nebraska today to survey the devastating flood damage. To the people of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, all regions impacted: we are with you,!” Pence said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday. He will tour the zone with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

The flood waters are the result of snowmelt following heavy rains last week and warm temperatures, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“Most of the snowpack in Nebraska is now gone, but upriver in North and South Dakota, there’s significant snowpack of up to 20 plus inches (51 cm) and it’s melting,” he said.

Flooded Platte River seen in this DigitalGlobe Satellite image over Nebraska, U.S., March 18, 2019. Picture taken on March 18, 2019. ©2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

Flooded Platte River seen in this DigitalGlobe Satellite image over Nebraska, U.S., March 18, 2019. Picture taken on March 18, 2019. ©2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

The Missouri River, the longest in North America, has flooded much of Nebraska between Omaha and Kansas City.

The river was expected to crest at more than 47 feet (14.5 meters) on Tuesday, breaking the previous record, set in 2011, by more than a foot (30 cm), NEMA said.

At least one person was missing on Monday. The four reported deaths included one person in Iowa who was rescued from flood waters but later succumbed to injuries, according to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is clearly the most widespread disaster we have had in our state’s history,” in terms of size, Governor Ricketts told reporters Monday.

Damage to the state’s livestock sector was estimated at about $400 million, said Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

The state’s highway system suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the state Department of Transportation.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Texas petrochemical fire spreads to more storage tanks after firefighting snag

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A raging fire at a petrochemical storage terminal in Houston has engulfed two more massive tanks after firefighting water pumps stopped working for six hours, the company said on Tuesday.

The blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) in Deer Park, Texas, has been burning since Sunday when a leaking tank containing volatile naphtha ignited and quickly spread to other tanks within close proximity, the company said.

The tanks hold tens of thousands of barrels of products used to boost gasoline octane, make solvents and plastics.

The storage terminal on the Houston Ship Channel, the nation’s busiest petrochemical port, is home to nine refineries and petrochemical storage and loading facilities.

Pumps on two boats feeding water to firefighters malfunctioned for about six hours, ITC spokesman Dale Samuelsen said. That allowed the fire to spread late Monday to the two tanks, one empty and the other containing toluene, a volatile liquid used to make nail polish remover and paint thinner.

ITC, which is owned by Japan’s Mitsui & Co, said it will bring in high-pressure pumps Tuesday morning to help firefighters trying to contain the inferno within the area of 15 closely spaced tanks.

The company said on Monday the fire, which has spewed thick, acrid smoke that is visible dozens of miles away, could burn until Wednesday. Samuelsen said he had no new timetable for when the blaze will be extinguished.

“We are still in defensive mode,” said Samuelsen. “We will be bringing in additional pumps to increase the water and foam applied to the fire.”

He said the burning tanks are within an earthen berm that is collecting water and chemicals leaking from the tanks.

Ships continued to move through the 50-mile-long channel, which is part of the Port of Houston linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Cyclone hit millions across Africa in record disaster: U.N.

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

MAPUTO/HARARE (Reuters) – Cyclone winds and floods that swept across southeastern Africa affected more than 2.6 million people and could rank as one of the worst weather-related disaster recorded in the southern hemisphere, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

Rescue crews are still struggling to reach victims five days after Cyclone Idai raced in at speeds of up to 170 kph (105 mph) from the Indian Ocean into Mozambique, then its inland neighbors Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Aid groups said many survivors were trapped in remote areas, surrounded by wrecked roads, flattened buildings and submerged villages.

“There’s a sense from people on the ground that the world still really hasn’t caught on to how severe this disaster is,” Matthew Cochrane, spokesman for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“The full horror, the full impact is only going to emerge over coming days,” he added.

The official death count in Mozambique stands at 84 – but its president Filipe Nyusi said on Monday he had flown over some of the worst-hit zones, seen bodies floating in rivers and now estimated more than 1,000 people may have died there.

The cyclone hit land near Mozambique’s port of Beira on Thursday and moved inland throughout the weekend, leaving heavy rains in its wake on Tuesday.

Studies of satellite images suggested 1.7 million people were in the path of the cyclone in Mozambique and another 920,000 affected in Malawi, Herve Verhoosel, senior spokesman at the U.N World Food Programme said. It gave no figures for Zimbabwe.

WORST FEARS

Several rivers had broken their banks, or were about to, leaving a huge area covered by the waters, and only accessible by air and water, Lola Castro, WFP regional director for Southern Africa, told the U.N. briefing by phone from Johannesburg.

Heavy rains preceded the cyclone, compounding the problems, said Clare Nullis of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said .

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

“It the worst fears are realized … then we can say that it is one of the worst weather-related disasters, tropical-cyclone-related disasters in the southern hemisphere.” Droughts are classed as climate-related not weather-related.

In Beira, a low-lying coastal city of 500,000 people, Nullis said the water had nowhere to drain. “This is not going to go away quickly,” she said.

Beira is also home to Mozambique’s second largest port, which serves as a gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

The control room of a pipeline that runs from Beira to Zimbabwe and supplies the majority of that country’s fuel had been damaged, Zimbabwe’s Energy Minister Jorum Gumbo told state-owned Herald newspaper on Tuesday.

“We, however, have enough stocks in the country and I am told the repairs at Beira may take a week,” he was quoted as saying.

(Reporting Manuel Mucari in Maputo and Macdonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Mfuneko Toyana and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by Catherine Evans and Andrew Heavens)

U.S.-backed force says it has taken positions in Islamic State Syria camp

FILE PHOTO: Injured Islamic state militants are seen in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah/File Photo

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters said they had taken positions in Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria and air strikes pounded the tiny patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, a Reuters journalist said.

Smoke rose over the tiny enclave as warplanes and artillery bombarded it. Another witness said the jihadists had earlier mounted a counter attack.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia said in an update on Monday that tens of militants had been killed during what it called fierce clashes, and one SDF fighter had been injured. It said Islamic State had sent four suicide bombers to points close to SDF fighters.

Late on Sunday, an SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, said on Twitter that several enemy positions had been captured and an ammunition storage area had been blown up.

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

Backed by air power and special forces from a U.S.-led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz last year.

Late on Sunday, the Kurdish Ronahi TV station aired footage showing a renewed assault on the enclave, with fires seen to be raging inside and tracer fire and rockets zooming into the tiny area.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow mostly women and children who are families of suspected fighters to pour out.

Women and children leaving have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with food supplies so scarce some resorted to eating grass.

Former residents also say hundreds of civilians have been killed in months of heavy aerial bombing by the coalition that have razed many of the hamlets in the area along the Iraqi border.

The coalition says it takes great care to avoid killing civilians and investigates reports that it has done so.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured. Former residents say those buried were victims of coalition air strikes.

The SDF and the coalition say the Islamic State fighters inside Baghouz are among the group’s most hardened foreign fighters, although Western countries believe its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left the area. The group issued a propaganda film from inside the enclave last week calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

While Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz will end its control of inhabited land in the third of Syria and Iraq that it captured in 2014, the group will remain a threat, regional and Western officials say.

(Reporting by a Reuters journalist in Baghouz; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Robert Birsel, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)