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   UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Aid workers must be given access if parts of Syria come under a cease-fire to allow chemical weapons experts to try to bring the country's stockpile under international control, the head of the U.N.'s World Food Program said.

   Ertharin Cousin told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that an agreement under discussion now envisions a cessation of hostilities so chemical experts can travel across the country, including to many conflict areas where WFP and other humanitarian workers have been unable to bring in desperately needed aid.

   "So this is an opportunity for us to hopefully overcome the hurdle that today we've been unable to achieve," Cousin said.

   The United States and Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons but U.N. diplomats say they are at odds on details of a U.N. Security Council resolution spelling out how it should be done and the possible consequences if Syria doesn't comply.

   Cousin urged the international community to demand that the Security Council make any cease-fire a broad one.

   "When you talk about a cessation of hostilities to allow access for the chemical (weapons) workers, that cessation in hostilities should also allow access for humanitarian workers," she said.

   WFP is currently feeding 3 million people inside Syria and 1.2 million in neighboring countries. Cousin said the goal is to step up supplies so that 4 million internally displaced people and 1.5 million refugees are getting food by the end of October.

   While the agency is working in all 14 Syrian governorates, Cousin said there are pockets in many of them that humanitarian workers can't reach because of fighting.

   The opposition Syrian National Coalition accused government forces Monday of tightening their siege during the past month in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where U.N. inspectors reported that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack.

   "Assad's forces are starving people to death in those areas," the coalition claimed. "The specter of famine looms in the horizon as more than 2 million people remain under siege."

   Cousin said WFP hasn't had access to an opposition-controlled area in Ghouta called Muhammadiyah, which is besieged by government forces. She also pointed to an area in the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka region in the northeast controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and an opposition-controlled area on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo where the agency has had trouble operating.

   Cousin said the bullets that have been fired at WFP trucks trying to get into Ghouta and other conflict areas "don't say 'I came from the regime' or 'I came from the opposition.'"

   "The reality of it is there's enough complicity to go around," she said.

   WFP has tried to identify third party monitors who can access these difficult areas, Cousin said.

   "The challenge is the same — getting third party monitors and food into these areas," she said. "So it's an awful Catch-22. You need to get the monitors in so you can justify the access that is necessary to get food in."

   As Syrians prepare to face their third winter in conflict, thousands including women, children and seniors, need food, medicine, blankets and other humanitarian aid, she said.

   "So we must demand that all the parties ... provide access to humanitarians," Cousin stressed, adding that she has been talking to prime ministers, foreign ministers and anyone else with influence on the five permanent Security Council members who hold the key to the contents of the chemical weapons resolution.

   She said WFP's traditional donors — the U.S., U.K., European Union, Germany and Canada — have been generous with money to support the massive feeding program in Syria, which is costing $30 million a week. But more help is needed.

   "We need the entire global community, which means we need Saudi Arabia, we need China" and others, Cousin said.

   She said donor fatigue is a concern.

   "What worries me more than the fact that there's not a bottomless pit is the escalating cost and ... the impact that that will have on other crises around the world," Cousin said. "The problems in Somalia, the Sahel, Yemen, didn't disappear because the problems in Syria are increasing. What we can't afford is to prioritize one hungry child over another."

Published in National News

   BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin says that Syria's move to join an international convention banning chemical weapons has proven its good faith.

   Speaking at a summit of an international security grouping dominated by Russia and China, Putin said Friday the move showed that Syria has "serious intentions to embark on that path."

   Syria made a formal bid Thursday to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.N. welcomed the move, but said that it could take 30 days for Syria to become a member.

   Russia proposed on Monday that Syria surrenders control over its chemical weapons to the international community for its eventual dismantling to avoid a U.S. military strike, and Damascus quickly jumped at the offer. Top U.S. and Russian diplomats are holding talks in Geneva to discuss the plan's specifics.

Published in National News

   GENEVA -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Thursday morning to test the seriousness of a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

   Kerry and a team of U.S. experts will have at least two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts on Thursday and Friday. They hope to emerge with an outline of how some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials as well as potential delivery systems can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.

   Officials with Kerry said they would be looking for a rapid agreement on principles for the process with Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles.

   One official said the task is "doable but difficult and complicated."

   The official said the U.S. is looking for signs of Russian seriousness and thinks it will know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another official described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as "an opening position" that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts. The U.S. team includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War.

   The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publically on the sensitive negotiations.

   The hastily arranged meeting in Geneva comes as the White House tries to pin success or failure of the diplomatic track on Russia's willingness to take a tough line with its ally Syria. Syrian rebels, however, are disappointed at best in President Barack Obama's decision to forgo a military strike in favor of an agreement to take access to chemical weapons away from President Bashar Assad.

   At the same time, the CIA has begun delivering light weapons and other munitions to the rebels over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear, The Washington Post reported late Wednesday. The deliveries have lagged, the newspaper said, because of logistical challenges and U.S. fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of extremists. Some U.S. lawmakers have chided the administration, which said months ago it would send lethal aid, for not moving more quickly to help the rebels.

   Obama also found opposition in Congress to putting on hold his request for authorization to punish Assad militarily for his government's alleged role in a chemical attack on Damascus suburbs last month. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, asserted in an opinion piece in The New York Times that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria and unleash a new wave of terrorism.

   In meetings planned for later Thursday and again Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry will prod Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to inventory, quarantine and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, according to U.S. officials.

   Kerry is accompanied by American chemical weapons experts to look at and possibly expand on Russian ideas for the complex task of safely dealing with the vast stockpiles in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict. Russian technical experts will join Lavrov in the meetings.

   "Our goal here is to test the seriousness of this proposal, to talk about the specifics of how this would get done, what are the mechanics of identifying, verifying, securing and ultimately destroying the chemical weapons," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said shortly before Kerry left Washington.

   The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new U.N. Security Council resolution being negotiated that would hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. Russia, however, has long opposed U.N. action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.

   A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because contacts have been private, said Thursday's meeting will be an exploratory session to gauge whether they can embark on "the herculean task" of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons while the country is at war.

   In his column posted Wednesday on the Times website, Putin asserted that it is "alarming" that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries "has become commonplace for the United States."

   "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it," Putin wrote. "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan `you're either with us or against us."'

   Putin said he favored taking advantage of Syria's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control and welcomed Obama's interest in continuing to discuss Syria with Russia.

   "If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust," he wrote. "It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues."

   American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remained ready to strike Syria if ordered, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. Syrian rebels appeared skeptical that U.S. forces would be put to use, saying the Americans have repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion. They pointed to Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.

   Meanwhile, Assad's forces have gained the advantage.

   "We're on our own," Mohammad Joud, an opposition fighter in the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo, said via Skype. "I always knew that, but thanks to Obama's shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well."

   Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London, said the Syrian opposition will struggle with morale and sense of purpose.

   "Assad's regime is going to be stronger because while they've agreed to give up their chemical weapons, they get to keep everything else to fight the opposition that has lost territory in the past year and has now suffered a big blow," Kamel said.

   White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to put a deadline on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff but said bringing Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control "obviously will take some time."

   "Russia is now putting its prestige on the line," Carney said Wednesday. Asked if U.S. prestige also was on the line, Carney responded: "The United States leads in these situations. And it's not always popular and it's not always comfortable."

   On Capitol Hill, action on any congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia's diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.

   "The whole terrain has changed," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We want to make sure we do nothing that's going to derail what's going on."

   That didn't stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama's initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., accused the president of engaging in "pinball diplomacy."

Published in National News

   ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — China is warning other world powers of global economic risks of a potential U.S.-led military intervention in Syria'a civil war.

   Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao says such "military action would definitely have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price."

   He spoke in St. Petersburg on Thursday ahead of a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 leading world economies.

   He cited estimates that a $10 rise in oil prices could push down global growth by 0.25 percent.

   He urged a negotiated U.N. solution to the standoff over allegations that Syria's government used chemical weapons against its own people, expressing hope that "the world economic balance will become more stable rather than more complex and more challenging."

Published in National News

United Nations experts are investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria as the United States and allies prepare for the possibility of a punitive strike against President Bashar Assad's regime, blamed by the Syrian opposition for the attack. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 355 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack.

 

Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Thursday and Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:

 

SYRIA:

 

Assad said his country "will defend itself against any aggression," signaling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day.

 

BRITAIN:

 

The British Parliament voted down endorsing military action against Syria, despite a strong push by Prime Minister David Cameron to support potential U.S. strikes against Assad. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond confirmed that the country's forces would not be involved in any strike.

 

FRANCE:

 

The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande approves it, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. Hollande, who met with the head of the Syrian opposition, stopped short of announcing a military intervention.

 

UNITED NATIONS:

 

A meeting of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members ended quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria's crisis. U.N. experts in Syria are expected to leave the country Saturday.

 

ISRAEL:

 

Thousands of Israelis crowded gas-mask distribution facilities to get free masks, fearing Israel could be targeted in retaliation by Syria if it is attacked. A mob forcibly took gas masks from a distribution center in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Officers were deployed to maintain order Thursday in Haifa, where more than 5,000 people waited for protective kits.

 

TURKEY:

 

Officials placed Turkey on alert against possible chemical attacks from Syria and stocked food and gas masks along their shared border. Bunkers were designated in seven border areas to protect people in the area.

 

IRAN:

 

President Hassan Rouhani said his country will press forward with efforts to ward off military action by the U.S. and its allies against the Tehran-backed Syrian regime.

 

UNITED STATES:

 

White House officials said President Barack Obama was preparing for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days, after the British Parliament rejected sending that country's forces to support a military strike. Obama also spoke by phone with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has asked the president to make a sharper case on the legal justification for any military strike in Syria and its objective. The administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them Syria's government used chemical weapons in last week's attack.

 

RUSSIA:

 

Russia's foreign ministry asked the U.N. to continue its inspection of places where chemical weapons might have been used in Syria. A foreign minister spokesman said the team should inspect three other locations, including a suburb of Aleppo, where the government in Damascus alleges the rebels have used poisoned gas.

 

GERMANY:

 

A poll by ZDF television found that a majority of Germans oppose Western military intervention in Syria and don't want their country to provide backing for any U.S.-led strike.

 

LEBANON:

 

Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said any international military action against Syria would pose a "serious threat" to the security and stability of the region, particularly Lebanon.

 

EGYPT:

 

Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said his country strongly opposes military action against Syria and would not support possible punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies.

 

ROMANIA:

 

Romania's foreign ministry told its citizens in Syria to leave the country "as soon as possible." They were told to get out via Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Published in National News

   MOSCOW (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his troops did not use chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held suburb in a Damascus last week where hundreds of people died.

   The United States have said that there is little doubt that Assad's regime was responsible for the attack on Aug. 21 in the capital's eastern suburbs. Anti-government activists and Doctors Without Borders say that more than 300 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas.

   Assad told Russia's Izvestia daily that the accusations that his troops were responsible were "politically motivated."

   "This is nonsense," Assad was quoted as saying in an interview published Monday. "First they level the accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence."

   Assad said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear front line between regime and rebel forces.

   "How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?" he said. "This is not logical. That's why these accusations are politically motivated, and a recent string of victories of the government forces is the reason for it."

   Syria said Sunday that a U.N. team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as "too late to be credible."

   With France, Britain, Israel and some U.S. congressmen urging swift military action against Assad's regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the U.N. team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.

   French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no decision had been made on a military intervention but that any response would be "proportionate."

   "It will be negotiated in coming days," Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. He said that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic, but that all options remain on the table.

   "The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing," Fabius said.

   Russia, who has been a staunch ally of Syria, said last week that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.

Published in National News

   BEIJING (AP) — Rising global food demand will push up prices 10 to 40 percent over the coming decade and governments need to boost investment to increase farm production, a forecast by two international agencies said Thursday.

   Growth in food production has slowed over the past decade even as rising incomes in developing countries boosted consumption, said the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

   "We're observing slower growth in production and productivity, and that is a concern," said Merritt Cluff, an FAO economist, at a news conference.

   Governments need to find ways to give farmers access to technology to increase output and get more of their crops to market, the agencies said in a report, "Agricultural Outlook 2013-2022."

   Prices are expected to rise 10 to 40 percent over the coming decade, with the cost of meat rising faster and that of grains more slowly, according to Ken Ash, director general of the OECD's trade and agriculture division.

   "We would urge governments around the world to begin to shift and to shift quickly from old-style policies to a greater focus on productivity and innovation," said Ash. "If we carry on blissfully as if nothing has changed in the world, there could be a problem."

   Higher prices will have their biggest impact in developing countries where some families spend up to 60 percent of their incomes on food, Cluff said.

   Investment in farming has fallen in recent decades due to a long-term decline in commodity prices and has yet to rebound despite price spikes since 2008, the agencies said. As a result, they said, annual production growth is forecast to slow to 1.5 percent compared with the past decade's 2.1 percent.

   "It's about a third less. That's a big difference," said Angel Gurria, the OECD secretary-general.

   The agencies urged governments to avoid interfering with market forces that can encourage farmers to produce more by raising prices for their goods.

   Food consumption in developing countries has grown by up to 30 percent a year over the past decade as incomes rose, while consumption in developed countries changed little, the agencies said.

   China's imports of meat and oilseeds are forecast to grow as its increasingly prosperous consumers spend more on food, the agencies said.

   Beijing has pursued self-sufficiency in production of rice, wheat and other grain but for soybeans and other oilseeds relies on imports from the United States, Brazil and other countries.

   Imports of oilseeds are expected to rise by 40 percent over the next 10 years, accounting for 59 percent of global trade in oilseeds, while dairy imports would rise 20 percent, the OECD and FAO said.

   China should remain self-sufficient in its main crops but for other products its sheer size "will keep markets on edge over the next decade," said Cluff.

Published in National News

GENEVA (AP) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he fears North Korea is on a collision course with other nations that could lead to war.

Ban says "the current crisis has already gone too far" because of escalating tensions raised by North Korea's almost daily threats of war against the United States and South Korea.

North Korea also vowed today to escalate production of nuclear weapons material, including restarting a plutonium reactor shut down in 2007.

 
Published in National News
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea is vowing a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States. The harsh rhetoric Thursday comes hours ahead of a vote by U.N. diplomats on whether to level new sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test.

An unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said the North will exercise its right for "pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors" because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against the North.

Such inflammatory rhetoric is common from North Korea. But it has been coming regularly in recent days. North Korea is angry over the possible sanctions and over upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Published in National News

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