Taliban team at Afghan peace talks in Qatar to include women: spokesman

FILE PHOTO: Afghan women line up at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan October 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Women will be included for the first time in the Taliban delegation to peace talks in Qatar this month, the movement’s main spokesman said on Monday, ahead of the latest round of meetings aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.

For a group notorious for its strictly conservative attitude to women’s rights, the move represents a step towards addressing demands that women be included in the talks, intended to lay the foundations for a future peace settlement.

The April 19-21 meeting in Doha will be between the Taliban and a delegation comprising prominent Afghans, including opposition politicians and civil society activists. It follows similar talks between the two sides in Moscow in February.

The non-Taliban delegation that was in Moscow could be expanded next week to include some government officials, but acting in their private capacities as the insurgents have refused to hold formal talks with Kabul.

“There will be women among Taliban delegation members in the Doha, Qatar meeting,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said by telephone.

He did not name the women, but added, “These women have no family relationship with the senior members of the Taliban, they are normal Afghans, from inside and outside the country, who have been supporters and part of the struggle of the Islamic Emirate”.

In a tweet, he specified that the women would only join the discussions with Afghan civil society and political representatives, not in the main negotiations with American officials, led by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad has not yet set dates for the next round of talks with the Taliban, a State Department spokesperson said.

“We do not have new U.S. talks with the Taliban to announce at this time. Before additional talks, we look forward to knowing the outcome of the intra-Afghan dialogue,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born U.S. diplomat, is working to secure an accord with the Taliban on a U.S. troop pullout, measures to prevent al Qaeda and other extremists from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks, a ceasefire and inter-Afghan talks that include the government on the country’s political future.

The Taliban have rejected formal talks with the government, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime controlled by the United States.

While Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, especially in rural areas, there have been major advances in women’s rights since the U.S-led campaign of 2001 that toppled the Taliban government. Many women fear that if the group regains some power, many of these gains could be erased.

The movement gained worldwide notoriety when it came to power in the 1990s by forcing women to wear full facial covering and imposing severe restrictions including banning girls from school and forbidding women from working outside the home.

However, Taliban spokesmen say the group has changed and it encourages girls’ education and other women’s rights within an Islamic Sharia system.

Civil society groups, the Western-backed government and Afghanistan’s international partners have pressed for women to take part in the talks and news of the Taliban delegation was welcomed. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of parliament who took part in the meetings in Moscow, said the presence of women in the Taliban team was a “good step”.

“Only women can feel the pain and miseries that Afghan women have suffered. The presence of women among the Taliban negotiators shows that the Taliban’s ideology has changed.”

Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been pressing for women to play a role in the peace talks said the process should be inclusive.

Future international support for Afghanistan could be affected by whether women’s rights were properly respected in any settlement, she said.

“There are certain levers that we have, that the Taliban are interested in,” she told reporters in Kabul, where she was visiting as part of a Congressional delegation. “There is going to be an interest in economic support after the conflict ends.”

“I think if the Taliban has any interest in getting international support … it would be in their interest to recognize the importance of including women and including human rights as part of any settlement that happens.”

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry, Toby Chopra and Neil Fullick)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Afghan Taliban call off peace talks with U.S. over ‘agenda differences’

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz

By Jibran Ahmad

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban said on Tuesday they had called off peace talks with U.S. officials in Qatar this week due to an “agenda disagreement”, especially over the involvement of Afghan officials as well as a possible ceasefire and prisoner exchange.

Two days of peace talks had been set to start on Wednesday, Taliban officials told Reuters earlier, but the hardline Islamic militant group had refused to allow “puppet” Afghan officials to join.

The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest overseas military intervention. It has cost Washington nearly a trillion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people.

“The U.S. officials insisted that the Taliban should meet the Afghan authorities in Qatar and both sides were in disagreement over declaring a ceasefire in 2019,” a Taliban source told Reuters.

“Both sides have agreed to not meet in Qatar.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier the two sides were still working on the technical details and were not clear on the agenda for the talks.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the cancellation.

The talks, which would have been the fourth round with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, would have involved a U.S. withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the lifting of a ban on movement of Taliban leaders, a Taliban leader had told Reuters.

Taliban sources said that they had demanded U.S. authorities release 25,000 prisoners and they would free 3,000, but that U.S. officials were not keen to discuss the exchange at this stage.

“We would never announce any ceasefire until and unless we achieve major gains on the ground. We have the feeling that Zalmay Khalilzad doesn’t have enough power to make important decisions,” a second Taliban official said.

The Taliban said Khalilzad would visit the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China to continue the discussion. Khalilzad’s office was not available for comment.

The Taliban have rejected repeated requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary in the 17-year war.

The insurgents, seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops, called off a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this week because of Riyadh’s insistence on bringing the Western-backed Afghan government to the table.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE took part in the last round of talks in December.

Western diplomats based in Kabul said Pakistan’s cooperation in the peace process will be crucial to its success. Independent security analysts and diplomats said the neighboring country’s powerful military has kept close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to Taliban militants in its border regions and using them as an arm of its foreign policy. Pakistan denies the claim.

The United States, which sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and at the peak of the deployment had more than 100,000 troops in the country, withdrew most of its forces in 2014.

It keeps around 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO-led mission aiding Afghan security forces and hunting militants.

Reports last month about U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan triggered uncertainty in Kabul which depends on the United States and other foreign powers for military support and training.

As peace talks gained momentum a draft agreement drawn up by the influential U.S. think tank RAND Corporation outlining the clauses for a potential peace deal was circulated among Afghan officials and diplomats in Kabul.

The document, reviewed by Reuters, suggests that the United States and NATO withdraw their military missions in phases over an expected period of 18 months. It adds that the United States may continue providing civilian assistance.

(Additonal reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Taliban dismiss Afghanistan’s peace talks offer

By Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have rejected Kabul’s offer of talks next month in Saudi Arabia where the militants, fighting to restore strict Islamic law in Afghanistan, will meet U.S. officials to further peace efforts, a Taliban leader said on Sunday.

Representatives from the Taliban, the United States and regional countries met this month in the United Arab Emirates for talks to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban have refused to hold formal talks with the Western-backed Afghan government.

“We will meet the U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia in January next year and we will start our talks that remained incomplete in Abu Dhabi,” a member of the Taliban’s decision-making Leadership Council told Reuters. “However, we have made it clear to all the stakeholders that we will not talk to the Afghan government.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the leaders of the group would not talk to the Afghan government.

The militants have insisted on first reaching an agreement with the United States, which the group sees as the main force in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have intensified after Taliban representatives started meeting U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this year. Officials from the warring sides have met at least three times to discuss the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.

But the United States has insisted that any final settlement must be led by the Afghans.

According to data from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission published in November, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has control or influence over 65 percent of the population but only 55.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, less than at any time since 2001. The Taliban say they control 70 percent of the country.

A close aide to Ghani said the government would keep trying to establish a direct line of diplomatic communication with the Taliban.

“Talks should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” the aide said on condition of anonymity. “It is important that the Taliban acknowledge this fact.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has announced a pullout of American troops from Syria, a decision that prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and there have been reports that he is considering a partial pullout from Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain in Kabul, Editing by Nick Macfie)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi-led coalition masses troops near Yemen’s Hodeidah as pressure mounts to end war

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold up a poster of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a protest against the deteriorating economy in Taiz, Yemen, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub/File Photo

By Mohammed Ghobari

ADEN (Reuters) – The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure Iranian-aligned Houthi insurgents to return to U.N.-sponsored peace talks.

The United States and Britain have called for an end to the 3-1/2-year war that has driven impoverished Yemen to the verge of famine, raising pressure on Saudi Arabia as it faces a global outcry over the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The military alliance of Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has deployed around 30,000 forces south of Houthi-held Hodeidah and near its eastern entrance, pro-coalition Yemeni military sources told Reuters.

“Thousands of Yemeni soldiers trained by the coalition have been sent to the outskirts of Hodeidah in addition to modern weaponry including armored vehicles and tanks…in preparation for a big operation in coming days,” said one source.

Residents told Reuters that the Houthis had also deployed forces in the center of Hodeidah city, at the port and in southern neighborhoods in anticipation of an onslaught.

The coalition and the Houthis have not commented on the military movements.

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen is trying to salvage peace talks that collapsed in September, raising the risk of a renewed assault on the Red Sea city, the country’s main port and a lifeline for millions of Yemenis reliant on humanitarian aid.

Envoy Martin Griffiths welcomed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday for a cessation of hostilities ahead of U.N.-led negotiations scheduled to begin next month.

Britain also endorsed the U.S. call to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to available U.N. figures, and triggered the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

“We remain committed to bring the Yemeni parties to the negotiations table within a month. Dialogue remains the only path to reach an inclusive agreement,” Griffiths said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

“I urge all concerned parties to seize this opportunity to engage constructively with our current efforts to swiftly resume political consultations to agree on a framework for political negotiations, and confidence-building measures,” he said, listing support for the central bank and a prisoner swap.

DIRE SITUATION

The Western-backed Arab alliance intervened in Yemen’s war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government.

But after seizing the southern port city of Aden and some towns on the western coast, the alliance has made little gains in a costly war to unseat the Houthis, who hold the most populous parts of Yemen including the capital Sanaa.

The United Nations aid chief told the Security Council earlier this month that half the population of Yemen – some 14 million people – could soon be on the brink of famine.

Aid groups warned of deteriorating conditions in the Arabian Peninsula country.

“The recent increase in military activity in…Hodeidah threatens the security of our life-saving operations,” World Food Programme spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

He said the WFP has enough cereals to assist 6.4 million of the neediest Yemenis for 2-1/2 months, with the aim to reach 8 million.

Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said that an estimated 3,200 families – some 22,000-28,000 people – were in dire need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter in Hodeidah, many having fled fighting in rural areas.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly said that taking control of Hodeidah would force the Houthi movement to the negotiating table by cutting off its main supply line.

But a previous offensive on the heavily-defended city in June failed to accomplish any gains and the coalition halted the fighting to give U.N. peace talks in Geneva a chance.

The talks were abandoned when the Houthi delegation failed to show up. The Houthis accused the coalition of blocking the group’s team from traveling, while the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of trying to sabotage the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

As talks with North near, South Korea sees familiar hurdles ahead

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – With the specter of two past summits that failed to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, South Korean officials planning talks next month now face the thorny task of overcoming familiar sticking points with the threat of war looming over any failure.

A South Korean delegation returned home on Tuesday from a first-ever meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to announce the agreement on a North-South summit next month, the first since 2007.

Seoul officials see the talks as the starting point of President Moon Jae-in’s initiative to denuclearize and build lasting peace on the peninsula, beginning with a freeze in the North’s nuclear program and ending in its complete abolishment.

“While pursuing a fundamental resolution of the standoff, we need to take some initial denuclearization steps, putting a halt to further testing and returning to dialogue,” a senior South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity.

“One could argue we would be deceived by the North as we have been for the last 20 years, but that’s the past – we have different people and different programs now,” the official said.

Moon said on Wednesday he had suggested to the North a rough roadmap progressing from a nuclear freeze to denuclearization, an opposition party chair told reporters after meeting with him.

But Moon said there won’t be “many agreements” to come out of the summit, according to a ruling party lawmaker who took part in the meeting.

Moon also called a 2005 deal of six-nation nuclear talks, under which Pyogyang agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and energy aid and an end to its diplomatic isolation, a “failed model”, the first politician said.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

Former officials in Washington and Tokyo reacted with scepticism to the North’s offer of talks on denuclearization, seeing a familiar pattern of threats followed by talks that fail to win significant concessions.

Chief among the disagreements that have scuttled past efforts to defuse the standoff is North Korea’s requests for security guarantees in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons.

During talks with Moon’s envoys this week, the North expressed its willingness to denuclearize if military threats against it are eliminated, and the security of its regime is guaranteed, without presenting precise conditions.

“(North Korea) has never said what they mean by the guarantee of regime security,” one former senior South Korean official told Reuters.

“That means it’s up to them to decide whether the security is guaranteed or not, and that means they have full control.”

Pyongyang has protested South Korea-U.S. joint military drills as a rehearsal of war.

It has also called the roughly 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea a potential invasion force that can only be countered by a robust nuclear deterrent.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday the United States is “getting frantic” with the deployment of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and their drills to get “familiar with its terrain and arms buildup there”.

Moon’s special advisor Moon Chung-in has raised the possibility for a possible pullout of U.S. forces, saying the president has the right to “let them out”.

Moon declined to comment on the summit, saying: “We will see.”

SECURITY GUARANTEE?

Any discussion of a U.S. troop withdrawal will be fraught, however, as both Seoul and Washington see them as a bulwark against North Korean provocations.

“For the North, a peace treaty and denuclearization means the removal of U.S. forces from not only the peninsula but also Japan and other bases in the Pacific theater,” said Kim Young-mok, a former South Korean diplomat who was involved in the making of a 1994 freeze-for-aid framework deal between Pyongyang and Washington.

“We responded by pledging non-aggression, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

South Korean officials expect the issue to arise again, but are hoping Pyongyang won’t make impossible demands.

Another senior official acknowledged the difficulty in making progress in any peace talks without addressing the issue of eliminating the military threat to North Korea and guaranteeing the security of its regime.

“The North bring up disarmament talks and the withdrawal of U.S. forces”, the official said.

“If they do, things could get ugly quickly despite the summit, and the South Korea-U.S. alliance would face serious problems. But if the North were to move things forward, they would hopefully present something more realistic.”

Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said there needs to be clearer mutual understanding of the definition of denuclearization to facilitate future talks.

“It’s unlikely to see any tangible outcome on the nuclear issue before the summit,” he said.

“The United States and North Korea could sit together at the negotiating table in the meantime, which would provide better optics for the summit but probably not in terms of substance.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Josh Smith and Lincoln Feast)

Rocky day for Syria talks in Russia: Lavrov heckled, opposition quits

Participants react as they attend a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018.

By Kinda Makieh and Maria Tsvetkova

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – A Syrian peace conference in Russia was marred by discord on Tuesday after the Russian foreign minister was heckled, an opposition delegation refused to leave the airport on arrival, and delegates squabbled over who should preside over the event.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was hosting what it called a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that it hoped would launch negotiations on drafting a new constitution for Syria.

But in a blow to Moscow, which has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker, the event was boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while powers such as the United States, Britain and France stayed away because of what they said was the Syrian government’s refusal to properly engage.

Western countries support a separate U.N.-mediated peace process, which has so far failed to yield progress toward ending a war that is entering its eighth year. The latest round of those talks took place in Vienna last week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov helped open the conference on Tuesday by reading out a statement from President Vladimir Putin saying the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history.

But some delegates stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with its air strikes.

The incident was broadcast on Russian state TV where two security guards were shown approaching one man in the audience indicating that he should sit down.

Other delegates shouted out their support for Russia. Lavrov told the delegates to let him finish speaking, saying they would have their say later.

Several delegates, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that organizers had later been forced to suspend a plenary session due to squabbling among delegates over who would be chosen to preside over the congress.

FLAG ROW

In a further setback, one group of delegates, which included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey, refused to leave Sochi airport until Syrian government flags and emblems which they said were offensive were removed.

Ahmed Tomah, the head of the delegation, said his group was boycotting the congress and would fly back to Turkey because of the flag row and what he called broken promises to end the bombardment of civilians.

“We were surprised that none of the promises that were given had been kept, the ferocious bombing of civilians had not stopped nor the flags and banners of the regime (been) removed,” he said in a video recorded at the airport.

Artyom Kozhin, a senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, acknowledged there had been some complications.

“Some problems have arisen with a group of the armed opposition that has come from Turkey which has made its participation dependent on additional demands,” Kozhin wrote on social media.

Lavrov had spoken by phone twice to his Turkish counterpart and been told that the problem would be resolved, said Kozhin.

Turkish and Iranian government delegations attended the congress, as did U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian expert on the Middle East employed by de Mistura as an adviser, told reporters that the problems encountered by organizers had not tarnished the event.

“Nothing awful happened,” said Naumkin. “Nobody is fighting anyone else. Nobody is killing anyone. These were standard working moments.”

Russian officials have complained of attempts to sabotage the conference, which was originally billed as a two-day event but was reduced to a one-day event at the last minute.

(Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Tom Miles in Geneva and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

Abbas wins EU backing for Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Brussels, Belgium, January 22,

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union assured President Mahmoud Abbas it supported his ambition to have East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state, in the bloc’s latest rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

At a meeting in Brussels with EU foreign ministers, Abbas repeated his call for East Jerusalem as capital as he urged EU governments to recognize a state of Palestine immediately, arguing that this would not disrupt negotiations with Israel on a peace settlement for the region.

While Abbas made no reference to Trump’s move on Jerusalem or U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the city on Monday, his presence at the EU headquarters in Brussels was seized on by European officials as a chance to restate opposition to Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Mogherini, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, called on those involved in the process to speak and act “wisely”, with a sense of responsibility.

“I want to reassure President Abbas of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states,” Mogherini said.

Before Abbas’ arrival, she was more outspoken, saying: “Clearly there is a problem with Jerusalem. That is a very diplomatic euphemism,” in reference to Trump’s position.

Deputy German Foreign Minister Michael Roth told reporters that Trump’s decision had made peace talks harder but said all sides needed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas also struck a more diplomatic tone than in his recent public remarks, including earlier this month when he said he would only accept a broad, internationally-backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel.

“We are keen on continuing the way of negotiations,” Abbas said. “We are determined to reunite our people and our land.”

But his call for the European Union to immediately and officially recognize the state of Palestine was unlikely to be answered, two senior EU diplomats said.

SLOVENIAN DECISION?

While nine EU governments including Sweden and Poland already recognize Palestine, the 28-nation bloc says such recognition must come as part of a peace settlement.

Only Slovenia has recently raised the possibility of recognizing the state of Palestine. A parliamentary committee there is due to consider the issue on Jan. 31, but it remains unclear when the parliament could recognize Palestine.

That reflects the European Union’s dual role as the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor and Israel’s biggest trade partner, even if EU governments reject Israeli settlements on land Israel has occupied since a 1967 war – including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The European Union also wants the Palestinians to remain open to a U.S.-led peace plan, expected to be presented soon by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Abbas said there was “no contradiction between recognition (of Palestine) and the resumption of (peace) negotiations.”

Instead, France wants to push the European Union to offer closer trade ties through a so-called EU association agreement, an EU treaty covering unfettered access to the bloc’s 500 million consumers, aid and closer political and cultural ties.

“We want to say to Mahmoud Abbas that we want to move … towards an association agreement and to start the process already,” said France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

But offering an EU association agreement to the Palestinians was also fraught with difficulties, diplomats said.

Under EU rules, the agreements need to be agreed with sovereign states. France argues that the EU has an association agreement with Kosovo, whose independence is not recognized by all countries, including EU member Spain.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Marja Novak in Ljubljana, Editing by William Maclean)

North Korea likely to pursue talks, South says in rosy New Year forecast

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017

By Haejin Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea predicted on Tuesday that North Korea would look to open negotiations with the United States next year in an optimistic outlook for 2018, even as Seoul set up a specialized military team to confront nuclear threats from the North.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new, tougher sanctions on reclusive North Korea on Friday for its recent intercontinental ballistic missile test, a move the North branded an economic blockade and act of war.

“North Korea will seek negotiation with United States, while continuing to pursue its effort to be recognized as a de facto nuclear-possessing country,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a report, without offering any reasons for its conclusion.

The Ministry of Defence said it would assign four units to operate under a new official overseeing North Korea policy, aimed to “deter and respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat”.

Tensions have risen over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which it pursues in defiance of years of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with bellicose rhetoric coming from both Pyongyang and the White House.

U.S. diplomats have made clear they are seeking a diplomatic solution but President Donald Trump has derided talks as useless and said Pyongyang must commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before any talks can begin.

In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, North Korea said the United States was terrified by its nuclear force and was getting “more and more frenzied in the moves to impose the harshest-ever sanctions and pressure on our country”.

China, the North’s lone major ally, and Russia both supported the latest U.N. sanctions, which seek to limit the North’s access to refined petroleum products and crude oil and its earnings from workers abroad, while on Monday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called for all countries to ease tension.

On Tuesday, Beijing released customs data indicating China exported no oil products to North Korea in November, apparently going over and beyond U.N. sanctions.

China, the main source of North Korea’s fuel, did not export any gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or fuel oil to its neighbor last month, data from the General Administration of Customs showed.

China also imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea in November.

In its 2018 forecast, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believed the North would eventually find ways to blunt the effects of the sanctions.

“Countermeasures will be orchestrated to deal with the effects, including cuts in trade volume and foreign currency inflow, lack of supplies, and reduced production in each part of the economy,” the report said.

The latest round of sanctions was prompted by the Nov. 29 test of what North Korea said was an intercontinental ballistic missile that put the U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

The Joongang Ilbo Daily newspaper, citing an unnamed South Korean government official, reported on Tuesday that North Korea could also be preparing to launch a satellite into space.

Experts have said such launches are likely aimed at further developing the North’s ballistic missile technology, and as such would be prohibited under U.N. resolutions.

The North Korean Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Monday saying that “peaceful space development is a legitimate right of a sovereign state”.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the United States and Japan, and says its weapons are necessary to counter U.S. aggression.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, and regularly carries out military exercises with the South, which the North sees as preparations for invasion.

(Additional reporting by Muyu Xu and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)