U.S.-Cuban aviation deal possible this year, official says

September 30, 2015

By Daniel Trotta

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba and the United States advanced toward restoring scheduled airline service during two days of talks that concluded in Havana on Tuesday, with the potential to reach a deal this year, a U.S. official said.

“One more meeting might be enough to finalize an arrangement. I can’t be sure,” said the U.S. official, who was familiar with the talks and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The two sides planned to meet again, possibly before the end of this year and most likely in Washington, the official told Reuters.

Scheduled commercial airline service has been suspended for decades as a result of Cold War animosity, but both sides quickly made resumption a priority upon detente last December.

Charter flights have long connected the United States and Cuba. Then Washington initiated new rules in January that more easily permit U.S. airlines to fly to Cuba.

However, U.S. and Cuban officials first need to negotiate a new arrangement before restarting scheduled service in which customers could book travel directly with airlines.

After that informal deal is reached, the two sides have agreed to work on updating a 1953 civil aviation agreement that is still valid but obsolete.

Officials from six U.S. government agencies met with counterparts from the Cuban Foreign Ministry and the Cuban Institute of Civil Aviation on Monday and Tuesday, the official said.

Safety and security cooperation was well advanced, largely because existing charter flights already meet U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) standards, the official said.

General U.S. tourism to Cuba is banned by the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba but certain Americans are allowed to go on specially sanctioned travel.

U.S. President Barack Obama has relaxed those restrictions, leading to a boom in U.S. citizen travel to Cuba, which is up more than 60 percent this year with 106,607 Americans arriving as of Sept. 20.

The market would grow further if the U.S. Congress were to lift either the tourism ban or the embargo.

“We don’t have a deadline. We’re eager. Our carriers are eager,” the U.S. official said about reaching a deal. “Both sides see it as positive in and of itself but positive also as a signal of progress in the broader relationship.”Major U.S. airlines including JetBlue Airways Corp, American Airlines Group Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc and United Air Lines have all expressed interest in scheduled service to Cuba.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Asia share slide halts but weak commodity outlook weighs

September 30, 2015

By Shinichi Saoshiro

TOKYO (Reuters) – Most Asian stock markets steadied on Wednesday after sliding to 3-year lows but a weak outlook for commodities and persistent concerns about China’s economy discouraged most buyers.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was little changed in early trade after plumbing its lowest since June 2012 on Tuesday on fears that China’s slowdown would curb its huge appetite for commodities and resources.

The index was on track for a 19 percent loss for the quarter, its worst loss in four years.

“Global equities are closing in on their worst quarter since 2011, with a number of factors fuelling fears in an already jittery market, including weak global growth, driven by deceleration in emerging markets, particularly China,” strategists at Barclays wrote.

“We recommend overweight positions in Japanese and European equities.”

South Korea’s Kospi dropped 1 percent while Australian shares gained 0.3 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei brushed aside an unexpected drop in the country’s industrial output and gained 1.6 percent. It was still poised for a 14 percent drop over the quarter, its deepest since 2010.

Asian stocks took an early positive lead from Wall Street, which ended slightly higher overnight as the U.S. bourses took a breather, with the latest round of China fears that gripped global markets petering out for the moment.

Investors also felt relief as shares of mining and trading giant Glencore gained more than 10 percent overnight.

Hitting risk sentiment, Glencore shares fell to a record low at the start of the week on concerns over the company’s ability to withstand a prolonged decline in prices of metals.

Benchmark three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange rose 0.1 percent to $4,970 a tonne, though the rise did not do much to move the metal away from a six-year low of $4,855 hit in August.

Prices of other industrial metals like aluminum and zinc also halted their recent routs overnight.

Commodities and the global financial markets still face a major test of nerves on Thursday, when the closely-watched Chinese Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) is likely to show the country’s factory sector shrank for the second month in a row in September.

Commodity currencies languished while the U.S. dollar stood tall. The Canadian dollar stood near an 11-year low of C$1.3463 per dollar struck overnight.

South Africa’s rand managed to bounce modestly but was still in reach of a record low of 14.16 per dollar touched on Tuesday.

The greenback, meanwhile, stood little changed at 119.86 yen. The euro was steady at $1.1253.

(Editing by Kim Coghill)

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Powers struggle to agree on Syria; Russia urged to strike Islamic State

September 29, 2015

By John Irish and Denis Dyomkin

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – France challenged Russia to back its words with deeds over fighting Islamic State militants in Syria as major powers on Tuesday struggled to resolve differences between Moscow and the West over ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sent warplanes and tanks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a new anti-Islamic State coalition, diplomats pursued new ways to build a solid front against the militants.

Ideas suggested on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York included using the model of a small group of world powers that succeeded in negotiating the July 14 Iran nuclear deal, and breathing new life into a virtually moribund broader U.N. peace mechanism.

“What’s important in the fight against Islamic State is not the media strike, it’s the real strike,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in response Putin’s statements Monday at the gathering of world leaders.

Fabius said the Russians “talk a lot, but as far as I can tell they haven’t committed any planes against Islamic State.” He added: “If it (Russia) is against the terrorists, it’s not abnormal to launch strikes against them.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria for about a year with a separate coalition with some of the same countries striking the militants in neighboring Iraq.

The militants control large areas in both countries, exploiting chaos created in Syria by a civil war that began more than four years ago when Assad cracked down on protests against his government.

PUTIN’S PLANS

Western officials have questioned whether Russian objectives in Syria are more to strengthen Assad and build up Moscow’s presence as a power in the region than fighting the militants.

Putin told the General Assembly that Assad should be part of the coalition fighting Islamic State. Washington and its allies have indicated Assad might stay in power in the short term but a transition was essential and he had no long term role.

“Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?” Fabius said.

After Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday, both powers said they were committed to destroying Islamic State and they agreed their militaries would communicate to avoid any accidental clashes between forces in the area.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Kerry told MSNBC: “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”    

ASSAD’S FUTURE

Assad’s future role remained the biggest sticking point and Kerry told MSNBC differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be. He said he would have further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov here on Wednesday.

Obama told a U.N. meeting on Tuesday: “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.” 

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who met for dinner on Monday, had considered the idea of using the model of that P5+1 group to address Syria.

She said in another meeting of the 28 European Union foreign minister members explored that and other options, including using the EU’s influence in the region. “I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy,” she told reporters.

Russia’s Lavrov said he hoped a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be another chance to build a solid international legal basis for whatever action might be necessary to fight Islamic State.

Russia is president of the 15-member Security Council for September and Lavrov would chair the meeting.

Western council diplomats, however, voiced doubts that the meeting would yield any significant results.

A bid by Russia for a unanimous council statement on counter terrorism failed after Washington refused to negotiate on the text, which diplomats said strayed into divisive political issues such Syria and Yemen and the Middle East peace process.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday Putin proposed talks on a possible Security Council resolution “aimed at coordinating the actions of all forces that confront Islamic State.”

(Additional reporting Lesley Wroughton, Arshad Mojhammed, Michelle Nichols, Louis Charbonneau, Jeff Mason and members of the U.N. General Assembly reporting team; Writing by David Storey; editing by Louis Charbonneau and Grant McCool)

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Afghan forces battle insurgents to retake key northern city

September 30, 2015

By Mirwais Harooni and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – Heavy fighting raged inside the key northern Afghan city of Kunduz for a third day early on Wednesday as government forces, backed by U.S. air strikes, battled Taliban insurgents who had scored one of their boldest successes in 14 years of war.

Taliban fighters seized control of Kunduz after staging an audacious assault on the city on Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s biggest setback since taking office a year ago and the worst attack since the bulk of foreign troops left at the end of last year.

Kunduz was the last major city to fall when U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that were planned by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden while he was in hiding in Afghanistan.

It also became the first major city to be retaken by the Islamist insurgents since then.

Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the police chief in Kunduz, said foreign troops rushed to the aid of Afghan troops from the ground and from the air after midnight and that they had regained control of the police headquarters in Kunduz.

He said Taliban fighters had also been beaten back from some areas around the airport and other areas inside the city had been regained.

“Hundreds of Taliban are killed and their dead bodies are on streets … right now a heavy fight is going on inside the city,” Hussaini told Reuters by telephone.

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said in a statement issued late on Tuesday that an air strike had killed Mawlawi Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Kunduz province, and 15 others on the outskirts of the airport.

It was not possible to verify that report independently.

Afghan security forces have struggled to hold off a multi-pronged insurgency since the bulk of foreign troops withdrew. The taking of Kunduz, even if it proves only fleeting, marked the biggest success for the Islamist insurgents since the Taliban were toppled.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military carried out its first air strike on Kunduz since fighting began there on Monday.

Even if ultimately unsuccessful, the battle for Kunduz appears to have re-energised insurgents who had appeared split only months ago after it was confirmed that Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had died two years ago.

The Taliban has since said one reason for the assault on Kunduz was to prove the group was united after the appointment of a new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in July angered many key figures in the insurgency.

(Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Michael Perry)

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U.S., Russia agree Syria must be united and secular: Kerry

September 29, 2015

(Reuters) – The United States and Russia agree on “some fundamental principles” for Syria, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday, adding that he plans to meet again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” Kerry told MSNBC, adding that differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be.

Speaking in the television interview from New York amid the United Nations gathering this week, Kerry said both U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both “looking for a way forward” in Syria, suffering from a four-year civil war as well as the rise of Islamic State.

Kerry described Obama and Putin’s meeting on Monday to discuss the crisis as “genuinely constructive, very civil” with “a very candid discussion.”

“Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution,” Kerry said.

“We are looking for a way to try to get to a point where we can manage a transition and have agreement on the outcome and you could resolve it,” he added.

Asked about whether there was an opportunity to use Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria to halt Assad’s use of barrel bombs on Syrians, he said: “Absolutely.”

He added that he raised the issue in meetings with Russia and Iran.

“They are both in the position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” Kerry told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Lambert)

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Republicans and Planned Parenthood square off in Congress

September 29, 2015

By Megan Cassella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Republicans on Tuesday challenged Planned Parenthood’s U.S. taxpayer support, while the health organization’s president said defunding it would disproportionately hurt low-income women.

Allegations that Planned Parenthood improperly sells fetal tissue to researchers for profit have reignited anti-abortion voter fervor during a turbulent Republican presidential primary campaign.

At a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards appeared alone to respond to hostile questioning from Republicans, some of whom have vowed to shut down the U.S. government if federal support for the group is not cut off.

“As far as I can tell … this is an organization that doesn’t need federal subsidy,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

Republican Representative Cynthia Lummis asked Richards why Planned Parenthood needed federal funding.

“You’re making a ton of dough,” Lummis said, referring to Richards’s annual salary of more than $500,000.

Richards said, “We don’t make any profit off federal money.” She added that Planned Parenthood was one of few health centers that will take in uninsured patients.

Planned Parenthood gets about $500 million annually in federal funds. It has been under fire for months over a series of secretly filmed videos. Produced and posted online by an anti-abortion group, the videos purport to show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue.

At the hearing, Richards repeated the organization’s stance that it has done nothing wrong. “There’s been a great deal of misinformation,” she said. “The latest smear campaign is based on efforts by our opponents to trick doctors and clinicians into breaking the law … and our opponents failed.”

Democrats on the panel defended the group and questioned Republicans’ motives.

“The disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today tells us what is really going on,” said Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly. “This isn’t about some bogus video.

“This is about some constitutional philosophy that says … we believe in rugged individualism and personal liberty with one big carve-out, and that is except when it comes to women controlling their own bodies and making their own health decisions.”

(Reporting by Megan Cassella; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Von Ahn)

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Trump backs Russia, Iran efforts to fight Islamic State

September 29, 2015

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leading Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday said he supported Russian efforts to fight Islamic State militants in the Middle East, including Syria.

Asked whether he backed those like Russia who supported Syrian President Bashar al Assad or those who see him as the source of Syria’s current crisis, Trump told NBC’s “Today” program: “I side with the group that says ‘if Russia wants to go and fight ISIS, you should let them’, as opposed to saying ‘we’re jealous, we don’t want you to do that’.”

Trump, who is leading public opinion polls among those seeking the Republican Party’s bid to win the White House in the 2016 election, said the United States should support those who want to destroy the militant group that has taken over swaths of Syria as well as neighboring Iraq.

Republicans have criticized Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for four years and has seen an influx of Islamic State militants.

Asked about whether Assad was the source of the country’s ills, Trump said it was not clear and questioned who would replace him if he were ousted.

“The people that want to come in and replace Assad, nobody knows who they are and they could end up being worse,” he said. “We’re constantly going out and siding with people and they turn out to be worse than the people who were there before.”

(This version of the story was refiled to fix punctuation in quote in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Washington Newsroom)

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