Iraq’s Kurds beef up, move back defence line around oil-rich Kirkuk

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Kurdish authorities said on Friday they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront “threats” of Iraqi military attack, but also pulled back defence lines around the disputed oil-producing area slightly to ease tensions.

The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in a Sept. 25 referendum, including banning international flights from going there.

Baghdad’s tough line, ruling out talks sought by the Kurds unless they renounce the breakaway move, is backed by neighbours Turkey and Iran given their own sizable Kurdish minorities – and a long-running Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s case.

Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000 have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said on Friday.

The KRG Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk, “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars”.

“These forces are approximately 3 km (1.9 miles) from Peshmerga forces. Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oil fields, airport and military base,” it said in a statement.

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defence lines by 3 km (1.9 miles) to 10 km south of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions without incident.

The area from which the Peshmerga withdrew is populated mainly by Shi‘ite Muslim Turkmen, many of whom are loyal to the Shi‘ite led-government in Baghdad and affiliated with Iranian-backed political parties and paramilitary groups.

Kurdish policemen look on towards banners supporting the referendum for independence of Kurdistan in Erbil, Iraq September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

An Iraqi military spokesman said military movements near Kirkuk aimed only to “inspect and secure” the nearby region of Hawija recaptured from Islamic State militants a week ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to go further and actually attack the territory.

Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, lies just outside KRG territory but Peshmerga forces deployed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oil fields from falling into jihadist hands.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani urged traditional Kurdish ally the United States, the European Union and the U.N. Security Council “to rapidly intervene to prevent a new war”.

Germany, which has traditionally good relations with both Baghdad and the KRG, called for measures to defuse tensions.

“We would like to ask them to meet those responsibilities and not to escalate the conflict,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said on Thursday Ankara would gradually close border crossings with northern Iraq in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is expected in Baghdad on Sunday for talks with Abadi.

Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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EU summit site to re-open Monday after noxious fume scare

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s new summit venue will re-open on Monday after noxious fumes put kitchen staff in hospital and forced the evacuation of the whole building on Friday.

The incident occurred at the Europa Building, which opened in January amid some controversy over its cost, just across from the European Commission headquarters.

The Council of the EU said later in the day that all systems had been cleaned and a crunch summit next Thursday and Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May would go ahead as planned.

“We expect to re-open the Europa building on Monday. Meetings will resume as scheduled and our plans for next week’s European Council meeting remain unchanged,” it said in a statement.

Some 20 kitchen staff were treated in hospital after breathing in fumes produced by a chemical reaction between two industrial cleaning products. Almost all of them were back home after a medical check-up.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Larry King

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Trump expected to make U.S. move against Iran nuclear deal

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to strike a blow against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on Friday in defiance of other world powers, choosing not to certify that Tehran is complying with the deal in a major reversal of U.S. policy.

While Trump is unlikely to pull the United States out of the agreement, aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, he is expected to give the U.S. Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the pact.

That would increase tension with Iran as well as put Washington at odds with other signatories of the accord such as include Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union.

Trump is set to present a tough new strategy against Iran in a 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT) speech at the White House, the product of weeks of internal discussions between him and his national security team and which will also include a more aggressive approach to the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

“It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction,” Trump said in a White House statement that flagged key elements of the strategy.

U.S. officials said Trump was expected to announce that he will not certify to Congress that Iran is complying with the accord, one he has called the “worst deal ever” as it was not, in his view, in the U.S. national interest.

Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, told Reuters he thinks Trump “is likely to not completely pull out of the deal, but decertify compliance.”

If Washington quits the deal, that will be the end of it and global chaos could ensue, Iran’s influential parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, was quoted by the Russian news agency TASS as saying during a visit to St Petersburg on Friday.

“FOOTPRINTS ON THE GROUND”

U.N. nuclear inspectors say Iran is in compliance with the accord, which limited the scope of Iran’s nuclear programme to help ensure it could not be put to developing bombs in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions on Tehran.

Trump says Tehran is in violation of the spirit of the agreement and has done nothing to rein in its ballistic missile programme or its financial and military support for the Lebanese Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah and other militant groups.

Trump found himself under immense pressure as he considered de-certifying the deal, a move that would ignore warnings from inside and outside his administration that to do so would risk undermining U.S. credibility abroad.

He had formally reaffirmed it twice before but aides said he was reluctant to do so a third time. The deal was negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said on Thursday the U.S. approach towards Iran is to work with allies in the Middle East to contain Tehran’s activities.

FILE PHOTO: Women hold anti-U.S. banners during a demonstration outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA/File Photo

“We have footprints on the ground, naval and Air Force is there to just demonstrate our resolve, our friendship, and try to deter anything that any country out there may do,” Kelly told reporters.

European allies warn of a split with the United States over the nuclear agreement, in part because they benefit economically from a relaxation of sanctions.

The leaders of Britain and France have personally appealed to Trump to re-certify the nuclear accord for the sake of allied unity.

Germany’s government pledged on Friday to work for continued unity if Trump de-certified the deal as Berlin remain convinced the agreement was an important tool to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel underlined German views in a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson late on Thursday, his spokeswoman Maria Adebahr told reporters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that if the United States ditched the nuclear pact, “this will damage the atmosphere of predictability, security, stability and non-proliferation in the entire world”.

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS

McCaul said he expected Trump also to announce some kind of action against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC), the country’s most powerful security entity. Trump is under a legal mandate to impose U.S. economic sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards as a whole by Oct. 31 or waive them.

U.S. sanctions could seriously hurt the IRGC as it controls large swaths of Iran’s economy. The Guards’ foreign paramilitary and espionage wing, the Quds Force, is under U.S. sanctions, as is the Quds Force commander, other officials and associated individuals and entities.

The deputy Quds commander, Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani, was quoted by Iran’ Tasnim news agency on Friday as saying Trump’s threats would “damage” the United States.

“We are not a war-mongering country. But any military action against Iran will be regretted…We have buried many…like Trump and know how to fight against America,” Ghaani said.

Israel, Iran’s arch-adversary in the Middle East, welcomed Trump’s anticipated announcement on Friday but voiced doubt that the tougher tack by Washington could turn around the Islamic Republic.

The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran secretly researched a nuclear warhead until 2009, which Tehran denies. Iran has always insisted its uranium enrichment activity is for civilian energy purposes, not for atomic bombs.

The threat of new U.S. action has prompted a public display of unity from rival factions among Iran’s rulers.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Steve Holland and Jonathan Landay in Washington; additional reporting by Warren Strobel in Washington, Andrea Shalal in Berlin, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell

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Kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple, three children freed in Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple and their three children born in captivity have been freed in Pakistan, nearly five years after the couple was abducted in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials said on Thursday.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which the United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of Islamabad, praised Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. government over the freeing of the hostages, saying it represented “a positive moment” for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honouring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said in a statement.

Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, drove home the dire conditions that the family had been subjected to during its long captivity.

“They’ve been essentially living in a hole for five years,” Kelly said. “That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with over there.”

It was unclear how precisely the Pakistani military secured the family’s release, which came after the United States shared intelligence about the hostages’ location. It was also unclear when the family would return home.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the U.S. military had been ready to fly the family out of the country but said Boyle, who is Canadian, had refused to board the aircraft.

Boyle had once been married to the sister of an inmate at the U.S. military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. The marriage ended and the inmate was later released to Canada.

As of Thursday evening, there was no indication the family had left Pakistan. Boyle’s parents said he told them by phone he would see them in a couple of days.

“So we’re waiting for that,” his mother, Linda Boyle, said in a video posted on the Toronto Star newspaper’s website.

U.S. officials expressed hope that the hostages’ freedom could represent a turning point in relations between Pakistan and the United States, uneasy allies in fighting Taliban and other Islamist extremists in the region.

In recent days, senior U.S. officials have been more pointed about Islamabad’s alleged ties to militant groups, who are battling against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in a stalemated 16-year-old war in neighbouring Afghanistan. Some U.S. officials say Pakistani safe havens have helped prolong the conflict.

Pakistan fiercely denies such ties, and it touted the operation as proof of the strength of the alliance.

“The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy,” a Pakistani army statement said.

SHRAPNEL WOUNDS

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (L) speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons. Taliban/Social media via Reuters

Boyle’s father, in the video message, offered his thanks to Pakistani forces “who risked their lives and got all five of ours out safely and rescued.”

The Toronto Star reported that Boyle told his parents that he was in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car with his wife and children when they were rescued by Pakistani forces. Boyle said he sustained minor shrapnel wounds during the shootout, which left his kidnappers dead.

“The last words Boyle said he heard from the kidnappers were, ‘kill the hostages,’” the Star reported.

The Pakistani army said its forces were able to recover the hostages after acting on U.S. intelligence about their passage into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

The White House, Pentagon and State Department did not offer details about the Pakistani effort, even as it praised cooperation from Islamabad.

But one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no indication that the hostages had been in Afghanistan in the days before they were freed, contrary to the Pakistani account.

The United States believed the hostages were probably held by the Haqqani group in or near its headquarters in northwestern Pakistan the entire time, two other U.S. officials said.

Declining to discuss U.S. intelligence in detail that was shared with Pakistan, they said the United States had been tracking cars capable of holding six or more people moving from place to place, which analysts had concluded were suggestive of moving hostages.

“It was a matter of interdicting vehicles,” another U.S. official told Reuters, saying the United States never dictated to Pakistan how precisely to secure the hostages’ release.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked for respect for the family’s privacy.

“Joshua, Caitlan, their children and the Boyle and Coleman families have endured a horrible ordeal over the past five years. We stand ready to support them as they begin their healing journey,” Freeland said.

Coleman was pregnant at the time she was kidnapped, and a video released by the Taliban in December showed two sons born while she and her husband were hostages. Thursday’s statements from Islamabad and Washington were the first mention of a third child.

Some officials said Pakistanis’ motive for freeing the hostages may have been political rather than humanitarian, intended to reduce the tensions ahead of upcoming visits by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Tillerson in a statement said Trump’s strategy in the region recognised “the important role Pakistan needs to play to bring stability and ultimately peace to the region.”

Mattis, who last week said the United States would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan, was upbeat on Thursday.

“This is a very positive moment and the Pakistan army performed well,” Mattis told reporters during a trip to Florida.

Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Idrees Ali in Tampa, Florida; Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker

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First Turkish military convoy enters Syria’s Idlib

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – A first convoy of the military operation that Turkey is carrying out in Syria’s Idlib province crossed into the area late on Thursday, two rebels and a witness said.

The convoy included about 30 military vehicles, said Abu Khairo, a commander in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group based in the area, and it entered Syria near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, according to a civilian witness.

It was heading to Sheikh Barakat, a hilltop that overlooks large areas of rebel-held northwestern Syria, but also the Afrin area held by the Kurdish YPG militia.

The convoy was escorted by fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist groups including the former al Qaeda affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front, Abu Khairo said.

“The Turkish army convoy is entering under the protection of Tahrir al-Sham to take positions on the front line with the YPG,” another FSA official in the area said.

Turkey said on Saturday it was carrying out a military operation in Idlib and surrounding areas as part of a deal it reached with Russia and Iran last month to enforce a “de-escalation” zone in northwest Syria.

The zone is one of several set up around Syria to reduce warfare between rebels, including groups backed by Turkey, and the government, which is supported by both Russia and Iran.

A Turkish military convoy drives by a village on the Turkish-Syrian border line in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Tahrir al-Sham opposes the de-escalation deal with the government, but its role in escorting the Turkish reconnaissance team on Sunday indicated there might not be any direct military confrontation between its fighters and Turkey.

The Turkish military operation in Idlib will also include Syrian rebel groups involved in the Euphrates Shield operation that Ankara launched in Syria last year further to the east, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.

Tahrir al-Sham and Euphrates Shield rebels have fought previously and the jihadist alliance has this year battled other insurgents in Idlib and surrounding areas in an effort to consolidate its control.

Turkey’s decision to launch the Euphrates Shield campaign a year ago was aimed partly at pushing Islamic State from its border, but also at stopping the Kurdish YPG from gaining more sway.

Backed by the United States in its battle against Islamic State, the YPG has seized much of northeastern Syria and was trying to link that territory up with its canton in Afrin.

Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that it is fighting at home, and by gaining a presence in Sheikh Barakat, its forces would surround Afrin on three sides.

Several Turkish military vehicles, ambulances and tankers were visible in photographs published by Turkey’s Anadolu news agency late on Thursday stationed at a village near Turkey’s Reyhanli border gate opposite Bab al-Hawa.

Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; editing by Toby Chopra and Jonathan Oatis

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U.S. hikes tensions in NAFTA talks with call for ‘sunset clause’

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ARLINGTON, Va. (Reuters) – Washington has dramatically increased tensions in talks to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement by proposing that the lifespan of any new deal be limited to five years, people familiar with the negotiations said on Thursday.

The proposal for a so-called sunset clause – just one of a series of U.S. initiatives that are opposed by NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico – only served to increase uncertainty about the future of the deal.

Two sources with direct knowledge of the talks described the atmosphere as “horrible” and highly charged.

The U.S. side proposed the sunset clause late on Wednesday during the fourth of seven scheduled rounds to update the rules governing one of the world’s biggest trade blocs, said two officials, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The Trump administration says the clause, causing NAFTA to expire every five years unless all three countries agree it should continue, is to ensure the pact stays up to date.

But Mexico and Canada insist there is no point updating the pact with such a threat hanging over it, arguing the clause would stunt investment by sowing too much uncertainty about the future of the agreement.

“It’s a source of total uncertainty,” said one of the NAFTA government officials.

Speaking in Mexico City, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade said the government was working on plans to alter tariffs and identify substitute markets in case the NAFTA talks failed.

His remarks and the tension around NAFTA helped push the peso down 1 percent against the U.S. dollar to a five-month low.

U.S. President Donald Trump says NAFTA, originally signed in 1994, has been a disaster for the United States and has frequently threatened to scrap it unless major changes are made.

Business and farm groups say abandoning the 23-year-old pact would wreak economic havoc, disrupting cross-border manufacturing supply chains and slapping high tariffs on agricultural products. Trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico has quadrupled under NAFTA, now topping $1.2 trillion a year.

In addition to the sunset clause, the United States wants to boost how much North American content autos must contain to qualify for tax-free status and eliminate a dispute settlement mechanisms that Canada insists must stay.

Some trade observers said it is difficult to see how negotiators could reach an agreement given U.S. demands that many see as non-starters.

The head of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector labour union, said it was clear the United States did not want a deal.

“NAFTA is not going anywhere. This thing is going into the toilet,” Jerry Dias told reporters on Thursday.

Despite clear signs of impatience from Canada in particular, U.S. negotiators have yet to submit their proposal on rules of origin for the auto sector. That looked unlikely to come before Friday, another official familiar with the talks said.

Trump on Wednesday repeated his warnings that he might terminate the pact and said he was open to doing a bilateral deal with either Canada or Mexico..

He was speaking alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who later said Canada was “braced” for Trump’s unpredictability.

Negotiators were also set to cover the difficult issue of government procurement on Thursday.

Canada and Mexico want their companies to be able to bid on more U.S. federal and state government contracts, but this is at odds with Trump’s “Buy American” agenda. U.S. negotiators have countered with a proposal that would effectively grant the other countries less access, people familiar with the talks say.

On automotive rules of origin, NAFTA negotiators face tough new U.S. demands to increase regional vehicle content to 85 percent from 62.5 percent, with 50 percent required from the United States, according to people briefed on the plan.

The rules of origin demands are among several conditions that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has labelled “poison pill proposals” that threaten to torpedo the talks.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Anthony Esposito, Ana Isabel Martinez and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tom Brown

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Frustrated by Congress, Trump signs order to weaken Obamacare

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an order to make it easier for Americans to buy bare-bones health insurance plans, using his presidential powers to undermine Obamacare after fellow Republicans in Congress failed to repeal the 2010 law.

Trump issued the executive order aimed at letting small businesses band together across state lines to buy cheaper, less regulated health plans for their employees with fewer benefits. Such new insurance options, however, may not be available until 2019, and the order could face legal challenges from Democratic state attorneys general.

It was Trump’s most concrete step to undo Obamacare since he took office in January promising to dismantle Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of “using a wrecking ball to single-handedly rip apart our healthcare system.”

Later on Thursday, Politico reported that Trump plans to cut off subsidy payments to insurers selling Obamacare coverage, citing two people familiar with the matter.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to stop the payments, which are made directly to insurance companies to help cover out-of-pocket medical expenses for low-income Americans enrolled in individual healthcare plans under Obamacare.

The payments are estimated at $7 billion (£5.2 billion) in 2017.

If Trump does eliminate the subsidy payments, premiums for many customers on the Obamacare individual insurance markets would be 20 percent higher in 2018, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Republicans call Obamacare, which extended health insurance to 20 million people, a government intrusion into Americans’ healthcare, and have been promising for seven years to scrap it.

Trump’s order aims to give people more access to cheaper plans, which do not cover essential health benefits such as maternity and newborn care, prescription drugs, and mental health and addiction treatment.

Obamacare, known formally as the Affordable Care Act, requires most small business and individual health plans to cover those benefits.

“DESTROYING EVERYTHING”

“The cost of the Obamacare has been so outrageous, it is absolutely destroying everything in its wake,” Trump said at a White House signing ceremony.

Trump’s order was aimed at making it easier for small businesses to join together as associations across state lines.

Unlike large employers that can create their own health plans because their work forces are big enough to spread risk – mitigating the effect of individuals with serious illnesses – small employers have few options to offer reasonably priced health coverage.

President Trump smiles after signing an Executive Order to make it easier for Americans to buy bare-bone health insurance plans and circumvent Obamacare rules. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Allowing small employers to band together in associations is meant to give them options similar to larger companies. The White House also said the associations would give employers more leverage to negotiate with insurance companies in purchasing health insurance plans for employees.

Some of the business groups that the order is aimed at, including franchise organizations and retailers – which generally have a large number of hourly employees – said they are interested and want to be part of the rule-making process at the Department of Labor, but cautioned that there are many details to tackle.

“It’s not something we’ll be able to open a suitcase tomorrow and be in business with. There are a lot of issues to be worked out and to consider,” said Neil Trautwein, vice president of health care policy at the National Retail Federation.

A spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the largest small-business association in the country, said it would be watching to see “how the regulatory architecture develops” and make a determination in the future.

Small businesses have been among the biggest critics of Obamacare.

The order also sought to change an Obama-era limit on the time span that people can use short-term health insurance plans, which are cheaper but cover few medical benefits. Those plans are currently limited to three months.

Joseph Antos, a healthcare expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, said he did not believe the order would have much of an impact because employers from regions with lower healthcare costs, like Iowa, would not want to join up with those from regions with higher costs.

Experts also questioned whether Trump has the legal authority to expand association health plans.

Democratic state attorneys general have said they will sue if Trump tries to destroy Obamacare. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Trump’s executive order is just another step toward imploding the Affordable Care Act.

“It should come as no surprise that California is prepared to fight in court to protect affordable healthcare for its people,” Becerra said.

The association health plans could attract young, healthy people and leave a sicker, more expensive patient pool in the individual insurance markets created under Obamacare, driving up premiums.

The American Hospital Association said Trump’s order “could destabilise the individual and small group markets, leaving millions of Americans who need comprehensive coverage to manage chronic and other pre-existing conditions, as well as protection against unforeseen illness and injury, without affordable options.”

Small health insurers and state insurance regulators also criticized Trump’s move.

Hospital stocks edged lower in Thursday trading, with HCA Healthcare Inc down 1.7 percent and Tenet Healthcare Corp down 4.4 percent. Medicaid insurers also fell with Centene Corp off 2.5 percent.

Trump has taken a number of other steps to weaken or undermine Obamacare. He has not committed to making billions of dollars of payments to insurers guaranteed under Obamacare, prompting many to exit the individual market or hike premiums for 2018.

The administration also halved the open enrolment period, which begins Nov. 1, slashed the Obamacare advertising and outreach budget, and allowed broad religious and moral exemptions to the law’s mandate that employers provide coverage for women’s birth control.

Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer, Michael Erman, Jilian Mincer and Lewis Krauskopf in New York, Jeff Mason and Eric Beech in Washington and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker

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Death toll rises to 31 in California wildfires, hundreds missing

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SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters gained ground on Thursday against wildfires that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing in the chaos of mass evacuations in the heart of the state’s wine country.

The death toll, revised upward by eight on Thursday, marked the greatest loss of life from a single California wildfire event in recorded state history, two more than the 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With 3,500 homes and businesses incinerated, the so-called North Bay fires also rank among the most destructive.

The flames have scorched more than 190,000 acres (77,000 hectares), an area nearly the size of New York City, reducing whole neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa to ash and smouldering ruins dotted with charred trees and burned-out cars.

The official cause of the disaster was under investigation, but officials said power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday night may have sparked the conflagration.

A resurgence of extreme wind conditions that had been forecast for Wednesday night and early Thursday failed to materialise, giving fire crews a chance to start carving containment lines.

But fierce winds were expected to return as early as Friday night, and a force of 8,000 firefighters was racing to reinforce and extend buffer lines across Northern California before then.

Despite progress, fire crews remained “a long way from being out of the woods,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters in Sacramento, the state capital.

Mark Ghilarducci, state director of emergency services, added: “We are not even close to being out of this emergency.”

DEATH TOLL COULD RISE

Authorities have warned that the death toll from the spate of more than 20 fires raging across eight counties for a fourth day could climb higher, with more than 400 people in Sonoma County alone still listed as missing.

One of the greatest immediate threats was to the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, whose 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as winds picked up and fire crept closer.

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said anyone refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation would be left to fend for themselves if fire approached, warning on Thursday: “You are on your own.”

Melissa Rodriguez, her husband, baby and dog camped in the parking lot of a local college after smoke forced them to flee their Calistoga apartment.

A sign left by an evacuated resident, fleeing wildfires in the heart of the California’s wine country, rests against a fire hydrant in the evacuated town of Calistoga, California, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Noel Randewich

“We have high hopes it will still be there when we go back. … It feels sad, helpless, there’s nothing we can do.”

The Tubbs fire on Thursday was within 2 miles (3 km) of Calistoga, which was spared on the first night of the fires.

Whether the town burns “is going to depend on the wind,” Calistoga Fire Chief Steve Campbell told Reuters. “High winds are predicted, but we have not received them yet.”

Fire officials have said some people killed in the fires were asleep when flames engulfed their homes. Others had only minutes to escape as winds of over 60 mph (97 kph) fanned fast-moving blazes. Ghilarducci said the loss of cell towers likely contributed to difficulties in warning residents.

“We have found bodies that were completely intact, and we have found bodies that were no more than ash and bone,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters. He added that recovery teams would begin searching ruins with cadaver dogs.

NEARLY 500 MISSING

As many as 900 missing-person reports had been filed in Sonoma County, although 437 had since turned up safe, Giordano said.

It remained unclear how many of the 463 still listed as unaccounted for were actual fire victims rather than evacuees who failed to alert authorities after fleeing their homes, he said.

“The best we can pray for is that they haven’t checked in,” emergency operations spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque told Reuters.

Sonoma County accounted for 17 of the North Bay fatalities, all from the Tubbs fire, which now ranks as the deadliest single California wildfire since 2003.

About 25,000 people remained displaced on Wednesday as the fires belched smoke that drifted over the San Francisco Bay area, about 50 miles (80 km) to the south, where visibility was shrouded in haze and automobiles were coated with ash.

The fires struck the heart of the state’s world-renowned wine-producing region, wreaking havoc on its tourist industry, while damaging or demolishing at least 13 Napa Valley wineries.

The full economic impact of the fires on the wine industry was not immediately clear. But 90 percent of grapes in Napa Valley were picked before the fires broke out on Sunday, according to Napa Valley Vintners.

California’s newly legalized marijuana industry also was hit hard, with at least 20 pot farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties ravaged, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.

All the farms were seeking permits to eventually serve California’s nascent market for state-sanctioned recreational marijuana, Allen said.

Additional reporting by Stephen Lam, Dan Whitcomb, Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Jonathan Allen in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Writing by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Hay and Peter Cooney

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Myanmar army chief says Rohingya Muslims not natives, numbers fleeing exaggerated

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YANGON (Reuters) – Rohingya Muslims are not native to Myanmar, the army chief told the U.S. ambassador in a meeting in which he apparently did not address accusations of abuses by his men and said media was complicit in exaggerating the number of refugees fleeing.

The U.N. human rights office said on Wednesday Myanmar forces had brutally driven out half a million Rohingya from northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh in recent weeks, torching homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning.

Thousands of Rohingya were leaving the state on Thursday, aiming to reach Bangladesh by boat, citing a shortage of food and fear of repression, residents said. A Myanmar official said people were leaving but he dismissed the suggestion hunger and intimidation were factors.

The army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, gave his most extensive account of the Rohingya refugee crisis aimed at an international audience in the meeting with Ambassador Scot Marciel, according to a report posted on his Facebook page.

The general is the most powerful person in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and his apparently uncompromising stance would indicate little sensitivity about the military’s image over a crisis that has drawn international condemnation and raised questions about a transition to democracy under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military campaign is popular in Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the mostly stateless Rohingya, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.

Min Aung Hlaing, referring to Rohingya by the term “Bengali”, which they regard as derogatory, said British colonialists were responsible for the problem.

“The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists,” he told Marciel, according to the account of the meeting posted on Thursday.

“They are not the natives.”

Coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on some 30 security posts on Aug. 25 sparked a ferocious military response.

The U.N. rights office said in its report, based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who had arrived in Bangladesh, that abuses had begun before the Aug. 25 attacks and included killings, torture and rape of children.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last month denounced a “brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority” and called on countries to suspend providing weapons to Myanmar until its military put sufficient accountability measures in place.

The European Union and the United States are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders, officials familiar with the discussions said this week.

Suu Kyi was swept into office last year after winning an election, but the military holds immense power, including exclusive say over security.

‘FEEL INSECURE’

A Rohingya refugee man washes in a refugee camp in Palong Khali district, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein has described the government operations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said the action appeared to be “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return”.

Min Aung Hlaing did not refer to such accusations, according to the published account, but said the insurgents had killed 90 Hindus and 30 Rohingya linked to the government.

Insurgent opposition to a citizenship verification campaign, which used the term Bengali, was behind the Aug. 25 attacks that sparked the violence, he said.

“Local Bengalis were involved in the attacks under the leadership of ARSA. That is why they might have fled as they feel insecure,” he said, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents.

“The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal,” he said.

He said it was an exaggeration to say a “very large” number were fleeing to Bangladesh and there had been “instigation and propaganda by using the media from behind the scene”.

He did not elaborate but said the “real situation” had to be relayed to the international community. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman is due to visit on Friday.

Rohingya residents of Rakhine said up to 10,000 people had left on Wednesday and Thursday.

One resident, a teacher, said there had been no military offensive recently but people were going.

“There’s no work, nowhere to get food and the government isn’t helping,” said the teacher, who, like the first resident, declined to be identified.

Rakhine state’s secretary, Tin Maung Swe, said people were leaving “every day” to join relatives already in Bangladesh.

”Nobody is starving in death in Myanmar. The government is trying to support those in need,“ he said. ”They can fish or catch shrimps in the creeks near their villages.

“No one’s killing them or intimidating them.”

Suu Kyi, in a televised address, spoke about the importance of humanitarian assistance for all people in Rakhine and said the government would accept refugees back.

She said aid groups, international organisations and Myanmar expatriates would help with the long-term development of the state. She did not refer to accusations of rights abuses by the army.

Additonal reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Nick Macfie

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As tricky coalition talks loom, Merkel hopes for regional poll boost

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BERLIN (Reuters) – Chastened by their worst result since 1949 in September’s national election, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are hoping for victory in a regional vote on Sunday to strengthen their hand in thorny three-way coalition talks in Berlin.

While victory in the Lower Saxony region might strengthen Merkel’s position within her party, a conservative failure to emerge as the strongest party could prompt talk of weakening authority and possible eventual succession, said Berlin-based political expert Gero Neugebauer.

Lower Saxony, an agricultural heartland and Germany’s second biggest region, offers Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) the prospect of a morale boost as they seek to cobble together an unprecedented “Jamaica” national coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens.

The road to such an alliance, named after the Caribbean nation as the parties’ colours match those of its flag, is littered with disputes on everything from migrants to tax and the environment. It would be the clunky coalition’s federal debut if talks, due to start next week, prove a success.

Carsten Nickel, deputy research director at Teneo Intelligence, said Sunday’s election – which polls show is set to be a neck-and-neck contest between the CDU and the rival Social Democrats (SPD) – would determine momentum going into national coalition negotiations.

The election in the northern state, home to carmaker Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), was called after a lawmaker in the Greens party – junior coalition partner to the SPD there – defected to the CDU, robbing the ruling alliance of its one-seat majority.

“If Merkel managed to steal that state from the SPD, it would probably be a little bit of a boost,” he said. “It would probably be slightly easier for her to argue internally for the required compromise and for striking the deals and so on that will be required over the next couple of weeks.”

Election posters of Social Democratic (SPD) top candidate Stephan Weil and Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) top candidate Bernd Althusmann are seen prior to the Lower Saxony state elections in Hannover, Germany, October 12 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

SPD EDGES AHEAD

However, a new poll for broadcaster ZDP released late on Thursday showed the SPD with 34.5 percent, closely followed by the CDU with 33 percent. The Greens and FDP both had 9 percent while the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) was on track to get 7 percent and move into Lower Saxony’s state assembly for the first time. The Left party got 5 percent.

About 29 percent of voters were still undecided about which party to support or whether to vote at all, it showed.

The CDU has dropped far below the 12-point lead it had over the SPD in August at the start of a campaign that has centred on regional issues such as education, as well as an influx of migrants to Germany over the last two years.

The latest poll means the SPD and Greens would not have enough support to govern again, even if they joined forces with the Left party. That leaves a coalition of the SPD and conservatives, a coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP, or the Jamaica coalition being pursued on a national level.

Merkel’s CDU and their Bavarian sister party (CSU) removed a major stumbling block to those coalition talks on Sunday by ending a dispute over migrant policy with an agreement to limit the number of migrants coming to Germany.

Merkel’s conservative bloc won 33 percent in September’s national election, losing 8.5 points compared with 2013, as voters upset with Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to more than a million migrants abandoned the party. The result effectively brought an end to the existing national coalition with the SPD, who also performed badly.

Reporting by Michelle Martin; editing by Ralph Boulton and Toby Chopra

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