Turkey announces “full lockdown” from April 29 to curb COVID spread

ANKARA (Reuters) -Turks will be required to stay mostly at home under a nationwide “full lockdown” starting on Thursday and lasting until May 17 to curb a surge in coronavirus infections and deaths, President Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday.

Turkey logged 37,312 new COVID-19 infections and 353 deaths in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, sharply down from mid-April but still the world’s fourth highest number of cases and the worst on a per-capita basis among major nations.

Announcing the new measures after a cabinet meeting, Erdogan said all intercity travel would require official approval, all schools would shut and move lessons online, and a strict capacity limit would be imposed for users of public transport.

Turks will have to stay indoors except for essential shopping trips and urgent medical treatment. Certain groups including emergency service workers and employees in the food and manufacturing sectors will be exempt.

The new restrictions take effect from 1600 GMT on Thursday and will end at 0200 GMT on May 17.

“At a time when Europe is entering a phase of reopening, we need to rapidly cut our case numbers to below 5,000 not to be left behind. Otherwise we will inevitably face heavy costs in every area, from tourism to trade and education,” Erdogan said.

The measures will be implemented “in the strictest manner to ensure they yield the results we seek”, he said.

Two weeks ago Turkey announced a night-time curfew from 7 p.m. till 5 a.m. on weekdays, as well as full weekend lockdowns, after cases surged to record levels, but the measures proved insufficient to bring the pandemic under control.

Total daily cases in Turkey peaked above 63,000 on April 16 before dropping sharply to below 39,000 on Sunday.

The total death toll in Turkey, a nation of 84 million, stood at 38,711 on Monday, the health ministry data showed.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones)

Analysis: U.S. announcement of pullout from Afghanistan undermines chances of peace

By Hamid Shalizi, Charlotte Greenfield and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s announced pullout of troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has jeopardized Washington’s push for peace with Taliban Islamists and increased the chances of an upsurge in violence, sources say.

Biden announced the withdrawal, pushed back from a May 1 deadline agreed with the Taliban, without buy-in from the insurgents, sources involved in the discussions told Reuters.

The decision was signaled just hours after Turkey announced dates for a crucial peace summit on April 24, which the Taliban had also not yet agreed on.

The Taliban then announced they were shunning the summit while troops remained, throwing the process into disarray.

“Biden’s announcement decreases any leverage the international community has left over them, and helps the Taliban justify refusing to attend,” said Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

One official whose country is involved in the peace process said the Taliban’s negotiating position had become much stronger and chances of progress were slim.

“What do the Taliban get out of the Turkey summit? They need something tangible,” he said. “It’s difficult to bring them to a negotiation table where they know they will have to make painful compromises.”

Tribal elders and Taliban members in Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled areas described jubilation at the U.S. announcement.

“Of course we won and America lost the long…war,” said Quraishi, a Taliban commander in eastern Logar province. “There is no bigger happiness than hearing that the invaders are packing their bags.”

In recent weeks, Washington raced to get agreement on a ceasefire and an interim government, and to get the Taliban onboard with a deadline extension, officials said.

Biden’s decision on the extension and the Taliban’s reaction have sparked more frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The sources said Washington was urging Qatar and Pakistan, which have long-standing ties within the Taliban, to pressure the militants to come back to the table.

Taliban sources described intense pressure from Pakistan.

“When our leadership refused to go (to Turkey), then Pakistani authorities asked us to send Mullah Yaqoob. When he refused, they proposed Sirajuddin Haqqani but he too is unwilling,” one source said, referring to the Taliban’s military chief and their deputy leader.

Pakistan’s foreign office and Qatar’s government did not respond to requests for comment.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem denied there was any pressure.

In a statement on Thursday, Pakistan said it would “continue to work together with the international community in efforts for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “We continue to put the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement…and encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries in the region to do the same.”

But a senior Afghan official told Reuters Washington had also lost leverage with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The withdrawal announcement will certainly embolden the Taliban to increase attacks but it will also embolden President Ghani’s position not to step down,” the official said of the proposal to replace Ghani’s administration with an interim government.

READY FOR WAR

Security and diplomatic officials warned that violence would escalate if talks fell apart. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces, but they still control wide areas.

A senior Western official in Kabul said military bases were being revamped and air strikes had been conducted by the Afghan Air Force in recent days to put pressure on the Taliban.

Four Taliban military and political leaders said they too had already prepared for war, realizing that foreign forces were unlikely to leave.

Though many experts and officials warned the U.S. stance undermined the chance of a peace settlement, some concede that Washington had done all it could.

“The Biden announcement didn’t help, but the Turkey effort already looked to be falling apart,” said ODI’s Jackson.

Two diplomatic sources said a stalemate had become apparent when the Taliban refused to join an interim administration headed by Ghani, who in turn refused to step down without holding elections, a suggestion the insurgents reject.

The U.S. State Department did not comment on the interim government but said any solution must be Afghan-led and owned.

Two sources said discussions have revolved around the set-up of an Islamic jurisprudence council whose decisions by religious scholars could bind the president.

Other concessions discussed, one source added, were whether the Taliban could nominate a president, whether to remove Taliban leaders from international sanctions lists, prisoner releases, and their fighters having status equal to Afghan security forces, without joining them.

Naeem did not confirm or deny discussions over an interim government. He said the release of prisoners and removal from sanctions lists was necessary under their 2020 deal.

Officials say the challenge to get both sides in an interim government was revealed at a conference in Moscow last month.

Deep hostilities became apparent when the delegations gathered. On one occasion, a Taliban leader hissed “traitor” at a politician and former warlord who had once held him captive, people in the room said.

Since the Moscow meeting and as Washington tried to negotiate a troop withdrawal extension, one source said, the Taliban had toughened their stance.

“Their proposals (now) are more like almost a takeover,” said the official whose country is involved in the peace process.

Though the Taliban learned of Biden’s withdrawal decision through media on Tuesday, a Taliban leader said, Washington had already discussed a six-month extension with them, which they had rejected.

“We told them you should call back all your troops and then start shifting logistics later and we guaranteed them of providing protection to their belongings,” another Taliban leader said. “They damaged our trust and now we wouldn’t believe them…until they fulfil their commitment.”

But Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani diplomat, said there was hope and the Taliban did not want to lose international recognition.

“Missing the Turkey conference would be a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s the last big effort for peace and stability in Afghanistan and it must not be allowed to fail.”

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain in Panjim, India, and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)

‘How can we not be tense?’ Turkey’s coronavirus infections soar

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – The red letters scrolling across the front of Fikret Oluk’s bus say: “Stay Home Turkey.” But the Istanbul driver said passengers are ignoring rules and overcrowding, sometimes without masks, even as coronavirus infections rocket.

Turkey – which has the highest level of daily new COVID-19 cases in Europe and the Middle East – again tightened measures last week to contain the rapid spread after calls for action by doctors and opposition politicians.

Among the rules are a limit of 69 passengers on Oluk’s busy urban bus route. When 89 are aboard, he says he draws the line.

“But unfortunately people do not listen. They attack us and put us in a difficult position,” said the driver of 10 years.

“How can we not be tense? Our lives are currently dependent on these masks. But unfortunately, just like people don’t think about themselves, they don’t think about us either,” he said.

Interviews with Turks who have received a vaccine and those waiting for one show a mix of fear and frustration with record COVID-19 deaths and infections, which neared 56,000 on Thursday alone, and an uneven adherence to the rules.

The head of the Turkish Medics Association told Reuters she believed the biggest misstep of President Tayyip Erdogan’s government was broadly easing restrictions in March as daily case numbers fell below 10,000. She said this sacrificed the gains made over the winter, calling the approach “social murder.”

“We called this a ‘social murder’ because they already know what will cause these deaths, they do not have any preventative measures,” Sebnem Korucu Fincanci said, adding that intercity travel, manufacturing and public transportation should be halted.

Erdogan and his government came under fire last month for a party congress with thousands of people, many of whom were seen violating social distancing rules and not wearing or improperly wearing masks. Opposition parties and critics accused Ankara of undermining efforts to curb infections.

‘BE REALISTIC’

Nurettin Yigit, head doctor at a specially-built pandemic hospital in Istanbul, said the impact on the health system of the latest surge had been less than in previous waves and called the timing “unlucky.”

“The moment we began this controlled normalization, the entry of other mutations from other countries started,” he told Reuters as medical staff administered vaccines to patients. He attributed the rise partly to people travelling domestically.

Ankara has blamed coronavirus variants for the surge in infections, saying some 85% of total cases across the country are from the variant first identified in Britain, as well as a lack of commitment to measures such as social distancing and mask wearing.

On Friday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told the Hurriyet daily that the solution to the “serious rise” in infections was to speed up vaccinations, adding he aimed to have all citizens over 20 years old vaccinated by July.

Fincanci called Ankara’s vaccination goals unrealistic and criticized what she called the inaccurate reporting of case and death numbers. “They have to be realistic, they have to be transparent,” she said.

Turkey has administered around 18 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, roughly enough to cover about 11% of the population, according to a Reuters tally.

The government has dismissed criticisms over its handling of the pandemic and the measures it has implemented, saying public health is the priority.

It has adopted fresh stay-at-home orders for weekends and will halt dining at restaurants starting Tuesday for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

But the country has remained largely open for business since last June and many have hit the streets and cafes as the weather has warmed – worrying some who have stayed home.

“I haven’t drank tea in a café for 11 months. I don’t leave the house,” said Mehmet Tut, 62, sitting outside a hospital treatment room after receiving his first vaccine shot on Friday.

“We will still be careful as we wait for the second dose” even as others are not taking enough precautions, he said. “They expect everything from the state but it is up to us. If we are careful we won’t get sick.”

(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen, Bulent Usta and Mert Ozkan; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Turkey’s new daily COVID-19 cases exceed 40,000, highest level yet – ministry

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey recorded 40,806 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Thursday, the highest level since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cases have surged since the government eased measures to curb the pandemic in early March.

On Monday, President Tayyip Erdogan announced a tightening of measures, including the return of full nationwide weekend lockdowns for the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which starts on April 13.

The total number of cases stands at 3.358 million, the data showed. The latest daily death toll was 176, bringing the cumulative toll to 31,713.

(Reporting by Daren Butler;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

EU official urges Greece to investigate asylum-seeker pushbacks

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece “can do more” to investigate allegations that it is pushing asylum-seekers, including children, back to Turkey, the European Union’s top migration official said on Monday.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has said it has received a growing number of reports in recent months suggesting asylum-seekers may have been pushed back to Turkey at sea or immediately after reaching Greek soil, or left adrift at sea.

Greek officials have always rejected the reports.

“I am very concerned about the UNHCR report and there are some specific cases that I really think need to be looked into closer,” Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, said during a visit to the island of Lesbos.

“I think the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks.”

Greek Minister Notis Mitarachi, speaking at a news conference with Johansson, said Greece adhered to European and international law.

“We strongly deny that the Greek coast guard has ever been involved in pushbacks,” he said.

“We understand we are causing a loss of tens of millions of euros to smuggling networks, and that could have played a role in the kind of fake news we hear about the Greek coast guard,” he said.

Mitarachi said independent investigations, including by the Greek judiciary and by the EU’s border agency Frontex, had not found violations.

In 2015 Greece, and Lesbos in particular, was at the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis with nearly a million people, mostly Syrians fleeing war, arriving by boat from Turkey.

Numbers have decreased dramatically since the EU struck a deal with Ankara a year later and just over 16,000 people arrived in Greece last year, according to U.N. data.

Mitarachi said about 14,000 migrants were currently in camps on five islands, down from about 42,000 in 2019. About 58,000 were in camps across Greece, down from 92,000 in 2019.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Turkey’s reopening relieves restaurants but worries doctors

By Canan Sevgili and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish restaurants reopened and many children returned to school on Tuesday after the government announced steps to ease COVID-19 restrictions even as cases edged higher, raising concerns among the top medical association.

On Monday evening, President Tayyip Erdogan lifted weekend lockdowns in low- and medium-risk cities and limited lockdowns to Sundays in those deemed higher risk under what he called a “controlled normalization.”

Café and restaurant owners, limited to takeaway service for much of last year, have long urged a reopening of in-house dining after sector revenues dropped 65%. They also want relief from growing debt, and from social security and tax payments.

“We were serving 4,000-5,000 people a week. Now with takeaway services we are serving only 500 people,” Istanbul-based Pideban restaurant owner Yusuf Kaptanoglu said before the easing measures were announced.

“I did not benefit from any support including loan support,” he said.

Across Turkey, pre- and primary schools as well as grades 8-12 resumed partial in-person education.

Yet the moves come as new daily coronavirus cases rose to 11,837 on Tuesday, the highest since Jan. 7 and up from 9,891 a day earlier, according to official data. Cases were around 6,000 in late January.

“The number of mutant virus cases is increasingly rising. We do not see conditions to return to an old ‘normal’,” the Turkish Medical Association said on Twitter, calling for higher rates of testing and inoculation.

“Political and economic interests must not take precedence over human life and science,” it added.

Turkey, with a population of 83 million, has administered 9.18 million vaccines in a campaign that began in mid-January. More than 7.18 million people have received a first shot and 2 million have received a second.

(Reporting by Daren Butler, Canan Sevgili and Ceyda Caglayan; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Aurora Ellis and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

‘Very stressful’: COVID-19 surge slices U.S. demand for big Thanksgiving turkeys

By Tom Polansek and Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) – All summer, Greg Gunthorp slaughtered and froze 15- to 24-pound turkeys on his northeastern Indiana farm for Thanksgiving sales to retailers, restaurants and families across the Midwest.

But as surging COVID-19 cases prompted U.S. cities and states to urge Americans to stay home just weeks before the holiday, customers swapped out orders for whole birds for smaller turkey breasts.

As a last-minute shift toward small-scale celebrations upends demand for the star of Thanksgiving tables, turkey producers and retailers are scrambling to fill orders for lightweight birds and partial cuts.

“It was very stressful,” Gunthorp said. “It cut our numbers on being able to fill customer sizes that they wanted for turkeys – way too short.”

Gunthorp raised and sold nearly 7,000 pasture-raised turkeys this year, up 75% from a year ago. Restaurants and meat shops in major Midwestern cities, his primary clients, cut orders by 10% to 20%, but Gunthorp has made up the difference by partnering with online retailers, shipping turkeys as far away as Los Angeles.

Suppliers need to be nimble as about half of Americans plan to alter or skip traditional festivities due to local health advisories against big gatherings, according to market research firm Nielson. About 70% are planning a Thanksgiving with fewer than six people, compared with 48% last year.

Demand for smaller birds will trim turkey production to 1.445 billion pounds in the last quarter, down five million pounds from previous expectations, according to a Nov. 17 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have seen our supply chain adjust to market disruptions and shifting consumer needs,” said Beth Breeding, spokeswoman for the industry group National Turkey Federation. “Like the rest of the country, it has been a challenging year for turkey production.”

While best known for beef, Nebraska-based Omaha Steaks this year offered 3-pound turkey breasts for the first time to cater to smaller Thanksgiving gatherings, said Nate Rempe, president and chief operating officer. The pre-cooked product sold out online, as some consumers are avoiding grocery stores.

Omaha Steaks also sold out of 10-pound turkeys earlier than usual, Rempe said.

“The number of individual Thanksgiving meals being prepared … is going to be much higher because of the separation of gatherings,” he said.

Butterball, the largest U.S. producer of turkey products, shipped 1,900 truckloads of whole turkeys to grocers in the past two weeks, said Al Jansen, executive vice president of marketing and sales. Many major chains booked orders in the first quarter before the coronavirus outbreak, he added.

Retailers have slashed whole-turkey prices by about 7% to an average of $1.21 per pound, the lowest since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That cuts the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people by 4% to $46.90, Farm Bureau said.

The decline is welcome news for the nearly 24 million households facing empty cupboards due to COVID-19-related job losses. Food insecurity has nearly tripled since the pandemic began, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“Thanksgiving will not be a holiday that all Americans can enjoy this year,” said Joseph Llobrera, research director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Alarming levels of food hardship will last through the holidays and beyond unless policymakers immediately provide robust COVID relief.”

Some Americans who had relied on others to cook on Thanksgiving are ordering part or all of their meals from restaurants for the first time. Others simply do not want the hassle of preparing a feast for just a few guests.

“Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year, and we know there’s a lot of cooking fatigue out there right now,” said Tracy Hostetler, a vice president for Perdue Farms. The company launched turkey “ThanksNuggets” as an alternative to traditional turkey dinners.

In Houston, independent marketing consultant Anh Nguyen, 50, will dine with about 10 relatives on a smoked turkey from a local restaurant. Normally, three times as many of her family members gather to gobble up two 20-pound turkeys cooked at home.

“It’s a little weird,” said Nguyen. “Thanksgiving has been historically just one of the holidays where everybody is together.”

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper and Tom Polansek; Editing by Richard Chang)

Nagorno-Karabakh says its two largest cities under fierce attack

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – Three residents of Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city were killed during overnight shelling by Azeri forces, the enclave’s ethnic Armenian-controlled Emergency and Rescue Service said on Friday, as the battle for control of its major settlements intensified.

Azerbaijan denied the reports of shelling in Stepanakert. Two independent observers said fighting appeared to be moving deeper into the enclave, with Azeri troops stepping up attacks on its biggest two cities.

At least 1,000 people – and possibly many more – have died in nearly six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

The conflict has underlined the influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a former Soviet region long dominated by Moscow, which has a defense pact with Armenia. It also threatens the security of Azeri oil and gas pipelines.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Emergency and Rescue Service said residential buildings and public infrastructure in Stepanakert had been targeted. It said that the three people killed had been inside the same house.

Reuters was unable independently to verify these reports. Three sources working in Stepanakert said that the city – known in Azerbaijan as Khankendi – had come under heavy shelling late on Thursday.

Shushi, 15 km (9 miles) to the south and the enclave’s second-largest city, had also come under bombardment overnight and several houses were on fire, the Emergency and Rescue Service said. The city is of strategic importance to both sides.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said allegations that it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”.

It has previously accused Armenian-controlled forces of shelling cities under its control, including Terter and Barda, as well as Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan. Dozens were killed in those attacks.

Thomas de Waal, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, said the conflict appeared to be moving toward a potentially bloody battle for Shushi, known to Azeris as Shusha.

“Shusha has great importance for Azerbaijanis, as a cultural and historical center and the town where they had a majority population before the war,” de Waal told Reuters.

“That is almost certainly why their military operation was diverted from Lachin towards the city,” he said. “It has great importance for Armenians too: it sits above Stepanakert and is the site of Karabakh’s cathedral.”

BROKEN CEASEFIRES

Three ceasefires have failed to halt the bloodiest fighting in the South Caucasus for more than 25 years. Both sides accused each other of launching attacks within hours of an agreement on Oct. 30 to avoid deliberately targeting civilians.

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry said combat operations continued overnight along all major sections of the front line. It said that “multiple attempts” to attack Shushi were repelled.

Olesya Vartanyan, Crisis Group’s Tbilisi-based senior analyst for the South Caucasus, told Reuters that fighting near Shushi had “been intensifying during the last week, with more face-to-face clashes closer to the town”.

“The side that controls Shushi automatically gains control over Stepanakert,” she said. “Even if Baku decides to stop the war after taking Shushi, this will still significantly decrease the chance of ethnic Armenians returning to their homes in Stepanakert.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry says 1,177 of its troops have been killed. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, while Russia has estimated 5,000 deaths on both sides.

Around 30,000 people were killed in the 1991-94 war.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Alex Richardson)

New clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh; Pompeo says Turkey makes situation worse

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenian and Azeri forces fought new clashes on Friday, defying hopes of ending nearly three weeks of fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Turkey for inflaming the situation by arming the Azeris.

The worst outbreak of violence in the South Caucasus since Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the enclave in the 1990s, the fighting risks creating a humanitarian disaster, especially if it draws in Russia and Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

Turkey has increased military exports six fold this year to its close ally Azerbaijan. Russia, is close to both sides but has a defense pact with Armenia. News agency RIA reported the Russian navy had started planned military exercises in the Caspian Sea.

(Graphic: Ethnic tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, https://graphics.reuters.com/ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN/xklpyqoddpg/armenia-azerbaijan-2020_ethnic.jpg)

There were further signs on Friday that a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreed last Saturday to allow the sides to swap detainees and the bodies of those killed had all but broken down.

Armenia and Azerbaijan each accused the other of launching attacks, and each said it had the upper hand.

Armenian defense ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said Azerbaijan had conducted artillery bombardments of Nagorno-Karabakh from the north, “with total disregard for the humanitarian truce”. He added that Azeri forces had been repelled and had suffered significant losses.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Nagorno-Karabakh forces had been forced to retreat and Azeri forces retained the advantage along the line of contact that divides the sides.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Baku also accused Yerevan of a missile attack on Ordubad in Nakhchivan autonomous province, a region which belongs to Azerbaijan but is surrounded by Armenia and Iran. Armenia denied such an attack.

The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry reported 29 more military casualties, bringing to 633 the number of servicemen killed since fighting broke out on Sept. 27. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties. The Azeri prosecutor-general’s office said 47 civilians had been killed and 222 wounded.

U.S. CRITICISM OF TURKEY

The hostilities, close to pipelines in Azerbaijan that carry gas and oil to global markets, are stoking concern in Europe and the United States that Turkey and Russia, already at loggerheads over Syria and Libya, will be dragged in.

Pompeo said Turkey had worsened the conflict by providing resources to Azerbaijan. A diplomatic resolution was needed, rather than “third-party countries coming in to lend their firepower to what is already a powder keg of a situation,” he said in an interview with broadcaster WSB Atlanta.

Ankara accuses Armenia of illegally occupying Azeri territory. Armenia says Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan to pursue a military solution to the conflict, putting Armenian civilians in danger.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan had spoken by phone with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, asking the international community to “neutralize” Azeri actions which he said posed “an existential danger of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh”.

Meanwhile Iran tweeted that its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had offered the Azeri side Teheran’s help with the peace process.

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

The conflict between the two former Soviet republics threatens to further damage their economies, already hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and, in Azerbaijan’s case, weak oil prices.

With 43,280 COVID-19 cases, Azerbaijan said it would close secondary schools and shut the underground rail system in the capital Baku between Oct. 19 and Nov. 2.

Armenia said on Friday its caseload had risen to 61,460.

In projections drafted before fighting started, the World Bank predicted Armenia’s economy would shrink 6.3% this year, while expecting Azerbaijan to contract 4.2%.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises

By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Hopes of a humanitarian ceasefire ending fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh sank further on Thursday as the death toll mounted and Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of launching new attacks.

Armenia accused Turkey of blocking flights carrying emergency aid from using its airspace, and Azerbaijan’s president warned of “new victims and new bloodshed” from fighting over the mountain enclave that broke out on Sept. 27.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia “halt attempts to capture liberated territories back” and said his country would take all regions of Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia “acts negatively.”

Last Saturday’s ceasefire, aimed at letting the sides swap detainees and bodies of those killed in the clashes, has had little impact on the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

In the deadliest flare-up since a 1990s war killed about 30,000 people, 604 Nagorno-Karabakh defense personnel have been killed, ethnic Armenian authorities say.

On Thursday, three Azeri civilians were killed and three were wounded during a funeral in Azerbaijan’s Terter region when an artillery shell fell on a cemetery, presidential aid Hikmet Hajiyev said on Twitter.

That would add to Azeri estimates provided on Wednesday that 43 civilians had so far been killed. Baku does not disclose military casualties. The prosecutor’s office said earlier on Thursday that two civilians had been wounded in shelling of the Aghdam area.

The Armenian prosecutor-general’s office said Azeri drones had killed two soldiers in the Vardenis region of Armenia on Wednesday, raising the Armenian military death toll to five. The servicemen were not involved in military action, it said.

A tweet from Nagorno-Karabakh’s ombudsman accused Azerbaijan of using heavy rockets to target civilian infrastructure in the town of Stepanakert.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS

International organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have warned that the conflict, coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, could leave tens of thousands of people in need of aid over coming months.

Zareh Sinanyan, Armenian High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, said the delivery of 100 tonnes of aid from the United States was being delayed as Turkey had prohibited Armenia-bound humanitarian aid flights over its airspace.

Armenia’s civil aviation committee was told on Wednesday the Qatar Airways flight from Los Angeles was cancelled but gave no reasons, said the committee’s head, Tatevik Revazyan.

“We have grounds to claim that Turkey closed the air route deliberately,” Revazyan told Reuters, adding alternative routes over Russia or Georgia were being sought.

Turkey’s foreign ministry, which handles airspace issues, was not immediately available to comment.

Aside from humanitarian concerns, fears are growing of Russia and Turkey being sucked in. Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, data shows, and Armenia has a defense pact with Russia.

In a phone call on Wednesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about the participation of Middle East fighters in the conflict, though Turkey and Azerbaijan deny the presence of such fighters.

The fighting is also close to Azeri pipelines which carry natural gas and oil to international markets. Aliyev accused Armenia on Wednesday of trying to attack the pipelines, a charge that Armenia denied.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Timothy Heritage)