Posts Tagged ‘British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’

China Stands With Myanmar: “We Understand the Problems” (China has experience with Muslims)

September 19, 2017

The Associated Press

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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised speech to the nation at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (AP) — The Latest on the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh (all times local):11:50 a.m.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says that Beijing “understands and supports Myanmar’s efforts to maintain national stability.”

Wang’s comments, made in New York during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, came amid a surge in violence in Myanmar, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas fleeing their villages for safety in Bangladesh. Myanmar’s government conducted what it called “clearance operations” after deadly insurgent attacks last month, but the refugees have said security forces and mobs carried out indiscriminate killings and arsons that burned out Rohingya enclaves in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The comments were released Tuesday by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Wang also said that “China looks forward to the war falling silent as soon as possible, when innocents will no longer be hurt,” adding that China would be providing emergency humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh to deal with the flood of refugees from Myanmar.


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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised speech to the nation at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

11:20 a.m.

Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar are rejecting leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims that many members of their minority group are safe.

Suu Kyi said Tuesday that most Rohingya villages weren’t hit by violence. She invited foreign diplomats gathered in the capital for her speech to visit villages that were unaffected.

In the Kutupalong refugee camp in nearby Bangladesh, Abdul Hafiz says Rohingya once trusted Suu Kyi more than the military that ruled before her for half a century. Now he calls Suu Kyi a “liar” and says Rohingya are suffering more than ever.

Hafiz was angered by the implication that Rohingya who were driven from their villages were themselves responsible. He said if that’s true, Suu Kyi should give international journalists more access to their destroyed villages. If Rohingya are proven wrong, he says, “we will not mind if the world decides to kill us all by pushing us into the sea.”


10:30 a.m.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is defending her country against international criticism over an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims by saying most of their villages remain intact, and that it’s important to understand why conflict did not break out everywhere.

The Nobel Peace laureate’s global image has been damaged by violence since Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces on Aug. 25. More than 400,000 Rohingya have fled their villages, many of which have been burned. The government has blamed the Rohingya themselves, but members of the persecuted minority have said soldiers and Buddhist mobs attacked them.

Suu Kyi told foreign diplomats gathered in Naypyitaw that “more than half” of Rohingya villages were not affected by the violence. She invited the diplomats with visit those villages so they could learn along with the government “why are they not at each other’s throats in these particular areas.”


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Aung San Suu Kyi addresses nation on Rohingya violence in Myanmar

September 19, 2017

World leaders have said this speech is Aung San Suu Kyi’s last chance to avoid international action against Myanmar. A crackdown on the country’s Muslim minority has led to a mass exodus into Bangladesh.

 Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has addressed her nation in a hotly anticipated television address.
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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised speech to the nation at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

The 72-year-old Nobel laureate spoke about her country’s crackdown on the stateless Rohingya minority, which she had so far remained silent on. Her refusal to publicly urge restraint from the military had drawn international condemnation.

“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state,” Suu Kyi said in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.

Before her live broadcast address, world powers had warned Myanmar of potential action if it did not act to end the crackdown on the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.

Read more: Rohingya people in Myanmar: what you need to know

Suu Kyi said she “felt deeply” for the suffering of the civilians who were caught up in the conflict and that she wanted to end the suffering as soon as possible.

“We are concerned to hear the number of Muslims fleeing areas to Bangladesh,” she said, condemning any “human rights violations” that may have exacerbated the crisis. She asked for the international community’s help to finding a solution, adding that Myanmar did not fear international scrutiny.

UN probe ‘not helpful’

Yet one of her officials, Myanmar’s envoy to the UN Htin Lynn seemed to qualify that claim when he told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday that a UN-backed investigation into the crisis was “not a helpful course of action.”  He added “proportionate security measures, targeted only on terrorists, are being taken to safeguard our state sovereignty, and to restore law and order.”

During the meeting, the head of the probe said Suu Kyi’s government was not cooperating fully with his investigation. Marzuki Dursman said his team needed “full and unfettered access to the country” and that the inquest could not proceed “until there is a clear signal from the government of Myanmar that the fact-finding mission is in fact enabled to access into the country.”

Suu Kyi nevertheless invited diplomats to visit Rohingya Muslim villages in her speech, insisting that most had not been affected by the violence.

“The majority of Muslims have not joined the exodus,” she said. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”

Suu Kyi claims picture unclear

The de facto leader, propped up by the military that used to rule Myanmar outright and retains considerable influence, also claimed that there was no clear picture of the events in Rakhine state.

“We too are concerned. We want to find out what the real problems are. There have been allegations and counter-allegations. We have to listen to them all,” she said.

Suu Kyi promised to implement the recommendations of the Annan commission delivered in August. The commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, looked at how to solve the sectarian tensions in the country.

The report warned against using force and to end restrictions on movement and citizenship for Rohingya people.

International outrage has grown steadily in recent weeks over a military crackdown that has led to the exodus of more than 400,000 of Myanmar’s Muslim minority to neighboring Bangladesh in less than a month.

Myanmar’s government has blamed the crisis on Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts in late August. But the United Nations has described its response as “ethnic cleansing.”

Read more:UN Security Council condemns excessive violence in Myanmar

‘Last Chance’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said on Monday the speech was “a last chance” for Suu Kyi to change her country’s course, speaking to the BBC.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met on the sidelines of a UN meeting with representatives from several countries to discuss the crisis. His US counterpart, Nikki Haley, called Monday’s meeting “productive” but voiced alarm at the lack of progress on the ground.

“The United States continues to urge the Burmese government to end military operations, grant humanitarian access and commit to aiding the safe return of civilians back to their homes,” she said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for “a collective response by the international community” and “a system to try to ensure [the Rohingya’s] protection.”

amp, aw/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

Includes videos:


UN investigators demand ‘full, unfettered’ access to Myanmar


© AFP/File | A house burns in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state, northern Myanmar, on September 7, 2017
GENEVA (AFP) – UN human rights investigators on Tuesday said they needed “full and unfettered” access to Myanmar to investigate a grave and ongoing crisis, but the government renewed its rejection of the probe.”It is important for us to see with our own eyes the sites of these alleged violations”, the head of UN-backed fact-finding mission, Marzuki Darusman, told the Human Rights Council, asking for “full and unfettered access to the country.”

“There is a grave humanitarian crisis underway that requires urgent attention”, he added.

The council set up the mission in March to investigate possible violations across Myanmar, with a particular focus on alleged crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly denounced the UN probe as unhelpful and vowed that her government would not cooperate with it.

Suu Kyi earlier Tuesday delivered a nationally televised address on the Rohingya crisis, appealing for outside observers to visit Myanmar and see the situation for themselves, in a speech aimed at appeasing an international community horrified by the army-led violence in Rakhine.

But hours after that speech, Myanmar’s UN ambassador Htin Lynn re-asserted his government?s “position of disassociating herself from the resolution” that set up the fact-finding mission.

“We continue to believe that instituting such a mission is not a helpful course of action in solving the already-intricated Rakhine issue”, he told the council.

Darusman had upped the pressure on Myanmar to grant access, arguing it was “in the government?s interest and in the interests of the people of Myanmar to communicate their views and evidence directly to the (UN) mission.”

He added that the probe “had urgently dispatched a team to Bangladesh”, where more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled army operations in recent weeks.

The UN investigator, an Indonesian national and veteran of past UN investigations including a ground-breaking report on slave labour in North Korea, warned that Myanmar had the “danger signs” of a crisis that could worsen.

He noted reports that some in majority Buddhist Myanmar had spread propaganda that “compared the Rohingya to pests”.

Dublin rejects British proposal for post-Brexit Irish border

September 8, 2017

* Dublin joins Brussels in criticism of London’s border plan

* Brexit talks stuck over divorce bill, Irish border

* Violent history, trade rules make Ireland issue sensitive (Recasts with Irish minister)

By David Mardiste and Robin Emmott

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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson

TALLINN, Sept 8 (Reuters) – Ireland dismissed British proposals for the Irish border after Brexit as unconvincing on Friday, a day after the EU chief negotiator said they amounted to a demand the bloc suspend its laws for Britain.

But British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, speaking at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Tallinn, said a solution was “not beyond the wit of man”.

The border between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland is currently open to free flow of goods, being an internal EU frontier. But when Britain leaves the bloc, it will become subject to EU customs regulation.

Establishment of a physical border could revive security concerns, 20 years after a peace deal involving Dublin that ended a long civil conflict in Northern Ireland and led to the end of army and police checkpoints.

Britain has proposed an “invisible border” without border posts or immigration checks between the two after Brexit, but given no firm proposals how the customs frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be monitored.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Thursday British proposals would undermine the bloc’s single market. He said Britain in effect wanted the EU to “suspend the application of its laws” as a test case for broader EU-British customs regulations. “This will not happen.”

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Reuters on Friday: “The maintenance of an invisible border on the island of Ireland would be a lot easier if Britain were to remain in the customs union.”

That is something Prime Minister Theresa May has said would not happen, though her cabinet is split on the issue and some have floated the idea of a transition period after Brexit that would still leave Britain in the EU customs union.


“Britain is the one leaving, they have an obligation to try and design unique solutions…. We cannot have a physical border on the island of Ireland again that creates barriers between communities,” Coveney said.

“We cannot and will not support that and nor will the European Union,” he said, adding that Britons wanted to avoid a hard border too. “The problem is that the solutions to actually get us there so far haven’t been convincing.”

Negotiations to extricate Britain from the EU have seen a slow start and Brussels has repeatedly warned that time is running out to answer complex questions before Britain is due to leave in March, 2019.

The bloc, which will have 27 member states after Brexit, wants to solve key exit issues before opening talks about any future trade cooperation with Britain. London says divorce talks should run in parallel with discussions about future ties.

But, with slow progress on agreeing Britain’s divorce bill, ensuring expatriates’ rights and deciding on the Irish border, the EU now doubts it will give a green light in October for starting talks about the post-Brexit order, as had been planned.

The EU worries London may try to use the Irish border as a template for a broader trade pact with the EU after Brexit. It believes Britain’s proposals risk affecting the bloc’s single market and customs union.

The European Parliament’s chief Brexit speaker, Guy Verhofstadt, dismissed Britain’s plans for an “invisible border” as surreal.

“We are nowhere on border issues,” one senior EU official said.

But, asked if he was confident that Britain would get a deal with the EU, Johnson said in Tallinn: “Absolutely, with rock solid confidence.”

He reiterated London’s stance that the divorce talks should run together with discussion about the post-Brexit relationship.

“Article 50 makes it very clear that the discussion about the exit of a country must be taken in context with discussion of the future arrangements. And that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Ralph Boulton)

South China Sea: China Criticizes British Freedom of Navigation Mission Plans — U.S., Allies Standing By International Law

July 31, 2017

BEIJING — A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.



China’s foreign ministry criticized plans by Britain to send its new aircraft carriers on freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the strategic waterway.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth

Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Friday in response to a question on statements by British officials that “some countries” from outside the region “insist on stirring up trouble while the situation is trending toward calm in the South China Sea.”

“Regardless of what banner these countries or individuals fly under, or what excuses they may peddle, their record of the same kind of sanctimonious interference in the affairs of other regions, leaving behind chaos and humanitarian disaster, prompts countries in this region to maintain a high degree of vigilance,” Lu said.

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China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson confirmed following a high-level meeting in Sydney with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, that missions to the South China Sea would be near the top of deployment plans for the new carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

“One of the first things we will do with the two new colossal aircraft carriers that we have just built is send them on a freedom of navigation operation to this area to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade,” Johnson said.

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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, left, and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop look at each other during a press conference following their meeting in Sydney, Thursday, July 27, 2017. Johnson said that he supports a proposed free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and Australia, as his country looks to strengthen its relationships with allies ahead of Britain’s departure from the European Union. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon later said exact plans for the deployments had not yet been finalized.

“But, yes, you would expect to see these carriers in the India Pacific Ocean, this part of the world because it is in this part of the world we see increasing tension, increasing challenges,” Fallon said.

China has strongly objected to repeated freedom of navigation missions carried by the U.S. Navy along with the presence of the navies of Japan, Australia and others in the waterway, through which an estimated $5 trillion in annual trade passes each year.



An official Chinese magazine says President Xi Jinping personally directed the enlargement of China’s presence in the South China Sea through the construction of man-made islands and other measures, crediting him with constructing a “maritime Great Wall.”

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China’s President Xi Jinping addresses 12,000 troops during an unprecedented display of China’s military muscle in Inner Mongolia, Sunday, July 30, 2017. Xinhua photo

Xi “personally led and directed a series of great struggles to expand strategic advantages and safeguard national interests,” the Study Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s central training academy, said in an article published Friday.

The president’s policies, including the building of islands and administrative changes elevating the status of China’s claims in the disputed Paracel island group, have “altered the basic direction of the South China Sea strategic situation.”

They have “created a solid strategic foundation for the winning final victory in the struggle for upholding rights in the South China Sea, the equivalent of building a maritime Great Wall,” the magazine said, referencing the centuries-old defensive structure built to protect China from invasions by Mongols and tribes from the north.

Under Xi, China has constructed seven man-made islands in the highly contested Spratly group by piling sand and cement atop coral reefs, later adding runways, aircraft hangers and other infrastructure with defensive uses. Islands in the Paracel islands and elsewhere have also been expanded and similarly augmented.

China claims the construction is mainly to improve safety for shipping and fishermen, although the Study Times article again appeared to underscore its military purpose.

The article also cited Xi’s involvement in policy regarding uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that China claims.

Giving “measures for measure,” China unilaterally declared control over a large swath of airspace in the East China Sea — a move declared illegitimate and ignored by the U.S. and others — and patrols the area on a regular basis, the article said.

It said Xi’s moves have “in one fell swoop, shattered Japan’s many years of maintaining ‘actual control'” over the islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and in Japanese as Senkaku.


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North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Hui Choi in Beijing, China in June of 2016. Kyodo Photo

EU sanctions 16 more Syrians over chemical attacks

July 17, 2017


© AFP/File | US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as the UN Security Council meets in an emergency session in April about a suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions against 16 more high-ranking military Syrian officials and scientists over chemical weapons attacks on civilians, a statement said.

The move by the bloc’s foreign ministers brings to 255 people now facing a travel ban and an assets freeze over President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on civilians during a five-year civil war.

“The EU added these 16 persons for their role in the development and use of chemical weapons against the civilian population,” an EU statement said.

The EU will release the names of those hit by the sanctions on Tuesday, it said.

The UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, last month concluded that sarin was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed at least 87 people including children.

The sanctions decision “shows the resolve of the UK and the rest of our friends in Europe in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters just before the decision was announced.

Syria is already subject to an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, as well as export restrictions.

It also is under sanctoins on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression as well as on equipment and technology for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.

EU to Increase Syria Sanctions, Targeting 16 More Officials

July 17, 2017

BRUSSELS — Britain says the European Union will sanction 16 Syrians it is convinced are involved in chemical weapons attacks against civilians there, targeting military and scientific officials.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said ahead of Monday’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers that the 16 will face travel bans and asset freezes.

Johnson said “that shows the resolve of the UK and the rest of friends in Europe” in countering chemical attacks in Syria.

In May, the EU extended restrictive measures against Syria by a year because of its continued aggression against its population. The 28-nation EU already has 240 people and 67 organizations in Syria facing travel bans and asset freezes.

Trump UK State Visit to Go Ahead Despite Criticism of London Mayor: Foreign Minister

June 6, 2017

LONDON — British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday he saw no reason to cancel Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain after the U.S. president criticized Mayor Sadiq Khan’s response to the London Bridge killings.

Trump has lambasted Khan on Twitter, accusing him of making a “pathetic excuse”, for saying that Londoners should not be alarmed by the sight of additional police on the streets of the capital following the attack that killed seven people.

“He (Khan) is entirely right to say what he said to reassure the people of his city about the presence of armed officers on the streets,” Johnson said in a BBC radio interview in response to a question on whether Trump’s state visit should be canceled.

“The invitation has been issued and accepted and I see no reason to change that but as far as what Sadiq Khan has said about the reassurances he’s offered the people of London, I think he was entirely right to speak in the way he did.”

“I don’t wish to enter into a row between those two individuals who are I think are probably perfectly able to stick up for themselves,” he said of Trump and Khan.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Kate Holton, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

British FM Boris Johnson cancels Moscow visit over developments in Syria — “We deplore Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime” — Rex Tillerson expected to go to Moscow on Tuesday

April 8, 2017


© AFP/File | British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pictured during his joint press conference with his Greek counterpart on April 6, 2017 after their meeting at Athens’ Foreign Ministry


LONDON (AFP) – Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has cancelled a scheduled visit to Moscow next week, his office announced Saturday, saying “developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally”.

“My priority is now to continue contact with the US and others in the run up to the G7 meeting on 10-11 April,” said Johnson, who was due to travel to Moscow on Monday.

“We deplore Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime even after the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians,” added Johnson.

He then called on Russia to do “everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria and work with the rest of the international community to ensure that the shocking events of the last week are never repeated”.

“I discussed these plans in detail with Secretary Tillerson,” Johnson said, adding that the US foreign minister would still visit Moscow as planned following the G7 meeting to “deliver that clear and co-ordinated message to the Russians.”

Johnson expressed his support to the United States on Friday after it fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield near Homs in central Syria.

The move was in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun earlier in the week which killed at least 86 people according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russia, one of the main backers of the Assad regime alongside Iran, condemned the US strike, denouncing a “flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression”.


Tillerson’s Moscow visit takes on fresh urgency in wake of U.S. missile attack against Syria

Secretary of state’s planned visit will come just days after U.S. missile strike against Syrian airbase

CBC News Posted: Apr 06, 2017 11:43 PM ET Last Updated: Apr 07, 2017 6:23 AM ET

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after the strike that Russia has 'failed to deliver' on preventing chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after the strike that Russia has ‘failed to deliver’ on preventing chemical weapons attacks in Syria. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the U.S. missile attack against a Syrian airbase Thursday “proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.”

He said U.S. President Donald Trump considered a “wide range of options” before launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in the province of Homs around 8:45 p.m. ET.

​”I think the president made the correct choice and made the correct decision,” Tillerson said. “First, to be decisive in acting, acting against this heinous act on the part of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad but acting in a way that was clearly directed at the source of this particular attack to send that strong message.

Tillerson was speaking to the White House press pool from Palm Beach, Fla., where U.S. President Donald Trump had been meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate earlier Thursday. 

The secretary of state said the presence of the kind of weapons that were used in Tuesday’s sarin gas attack — which the U.S. and other Western nations attribute to Assad — in the “chaotic circumstances that exist on the ground in Syria” posed a threat  especially given “the presence of a battle underway to defeat ISIS, the presence of Al-Qaeda elements inside of Syria and a civil war that is underway.” 

“Clearly, one of the existential threats we see on the ground in Syria, is if there are weapons of this nature available in Syria, the ability to secure those weapons and not have them fall into the hands of those who would bring the weapons to our shores to harm American citizens,” he said.

“So, there are a number of elements that in our view that called for this action tonight, which we feel is appropriate.” 

Tillerson said the U.S. “co-ordinated very carefully” with its international partners around the world before launching the missiles.

“I would tell you that the response from our allies, as well as the region and the Middle East, has been overwhelmingly supportive of the action we taken,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Kremlin, however, said Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the airstrikes as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”

Until Thursday, the U.S. had avoided striking Assad’s forces largely out of concern about being pulled into a military conflict with Russia.

Tillerson to travel to Russia next Tuesday

Tillerson is due to to travel to Russia next Tuesday, the first visit to Russia by a Trump administration official and one scheduled before Thursday’s missile strike as a test of the administration’s hopes for closer ties to the former Cold War foe.

Tillerson, speaking just after the strikes were announced, said Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

“So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent on its ability to deliver,” Tillerson said.

The State Department said Tillerson had spoken by phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the chemical attack to get Russia’s take on what happened. Russia has maintained that Syrian airstrikes hit a depot where anti-Assad rebels were building chemical weapons, a claim the U.S. has vigorously disputed.

Tillerson is set to arrive in Moscow next Tuesday after a brief visit to Lucca, Italy, to meet with counterparts from the Group of 7 industrialized economies. While in Russia, Tillerson plans to meet with Lavrov.

Attack comes amid investigations into Russia ties

Growing disagreements about Syria are just the latest obstacle to any plans Trump had to closer align the U.S. and Russia on the world stage. Trump and his associates are embroiled in mushrooming investigations into potential collusion between his presidential campaign and Putin’s government, accused by U.S. spy agencies of interfering in the election to help elect Trump.

Despite Trump’s much-hyped campaign talk about a Russia reset, there’s no appetite for that from either political party in the U.S. Skepticism about Russia’s intentions was only compounded by its defence of Assad after the chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people.


This photo provided Tuesday, April 4, 2017 by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center, which The Associated Press authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian doctor treating a child following a chemical attack. (Edlib Media Center/Associated Press)

Even minor concessions to Russia during Tillerson’s trip would trigger immediate accusations from Trump’s opponents that the president — who has praised Putin generously and repeatedly — is beholden to Putin, a former KBG agent. Add to that Trump’s anger at Russia for violating a nuclear arms treaty and continued global outrage over Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and it’s difficult to see realistic chances for near-term rapprochement.

“I think the Russians have adjusted their expectations down as to the possibilities of a breakthrough, and what happened in Syria is going to add to that,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. Still, he said the Russians would likely treat Tillerson warmly in hopes his trip could smooth the path toward a Trump-Putin meeting.

Poster of video clip

‘Exploratory trip’

Tillerson may also meet with Putin, in what would be a reunion of sorts for two men who did business when Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, was negotiating oil deals in Russia. Tillerson’s close ties to Russia — Putin once gave him the “Order of Friendship” award — drew serious concerns during Tillerson’s confirmation hearings, but he’s since emerged as one of the Trump administration’s more sober voices about Russia’s behavior.

Senior State Department officials described Tillerson’s visit as an “exploratory trip” aimed at determining any potential for co-operation, adding that no decisions to increase cooperation had been made. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity despite Trump’s condemnations of the press for using anonymous sources.

Tillerson may or may not meet with pro-democracy activists in Russia, as members of Congress have urged, the officials said.

Relations with Russia have steadily deteriorated since 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and then began arming and assisting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration and Western countries slapped Moscow with severe economic sanctions that Trump has so far vowed to keep in place until Russia gives Crimea back.


There are investigations underway in the U.S. into potential collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. (Joshua Roberts/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

Still, Putin’s government has been optimistic about Trump’s presidency. Until Tuesday’s chemical attack in Syria, Trump and his deputies said their top focus in Syria was fighting the Islamic State group — not ousting Assad — a position that aligned with Putin’s own publicly stated goal.

For Trump, who said Thursday that “something should happen” to Assad, the attack clearly was an inflection point that focused his administration on Assad’s atrocities and the support he receives from Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally.

In an Associated Press interview, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s support for Assad is not unconditional, but also pushed back on the notion that Putin had unfettered influence over Assad.

“It is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow,” Peskov said.

James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation scholar who advised Trump’s transition team on foreign policy, said the notion that Trump would have a special relationship with Putin was always overblown.

“Nobody was talking about, ‘We’re just going to cut a deal with Russia and be done here,”‘ Carafano said.

With files from The Associated Press

Phones cut in eastern Ukraine as rebels seize firms — Pro-Russian separatists getting the upper hand?

March 1, 2017

A fifth of a million phone users in Ukraine’s rebel-controlled eastern city of Donetsk were cut off from the rest of the country on Wednesday after armed men took over the offices and equipment of the main fixed-line telecoms company, its director said.

Pro-Russian separatists had warned they would seize businesses in areas they control unless the Ukrainian government ends a rail blockade that has halted coal shipments from rebel territory.

The blockade and the rebel retaliation have highlighted the mutual economic dependence between the two sides, despite three years of simmering military conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed.

As a result of the takeover of its premises, Ukrtelecom director Mikhail Shuranov said “the company has cut off the Donetsk sector from the national network”.

He said on Facebook: “Around 200,000 of our citizens have lost a means of communication.”

Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said rebels were following through on their ultimatum because Ukraine had not lifted the blockade.

“Today since midnight companies have been being taken under external control,” separatist website DAN quoted him as saying.

Ukrtelecom is part of a financial and industrial group owned by Ukraine’s richest businessman Rinat Akhmetov, whose power-generating and steelmaking businesses on both sides of the eastern front line have already been hit by the blockade’s squeeze on coal supplies.

On an official visit to Kiev, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson joined his Ukrainian counterpart in condemning the separatists’ latest acts.

“This expropriation, like the annexation of Crimea, like other aspects of the behavior that has been encouraged by the Russians, is unacceptable, it must stop,” Johnson said.

Both the Ukrainian authorities and separatist officials have warned of economic fallout from the blockade. Separatists say local industrial firms are suffering, while Ukraine says the country could be hit by rolling blackouts and lost foreign export income of up to $2 billion.

Russia said the rebels’ move to take control of the companies on its territory was partly understandable because the blockade had put the separatists in “an even more difficult situation”.

“The steps made by the administrations of these regions, … can be understood to a degree,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

A humanitarian group funded by Akhmetov that has been a major supplier of aid to conflict-hit areas also said on Wednesday it had been forced to halt operations in rebel-held areas after distribution points were blocked by armed men.

In rebel-held Donetsk, a Reuters witness saw one police car parked near the fund’s distribution center at a football arena. Signs on the building’s doors said the center was not operating and the entrances had been sealed with papers carrying official-looking stamps, but there was no armed presence.

Ukraine’s largest private power and coal producer, DTEK, which is also part of Akhmetov’s business empire, said the management of its operations in separatist-held territory had not been taken over.

It was not immediately clear if or how other Ukraine-registered businesses operating in separatist territory had been affected.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev, Reuters reporter in Donetsk,; Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)