Riyadh: An initial US assessment has indicated that Iran was likely to be behind the attack on two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and two other vessels damaged over the weekend off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an American official said.
The assessment, while not conclusive, was the first suggestion by any nation that Iran was responsible and comes after a series of US warnings against aggression by Tehran or its allies and proxies against military or commercial vessels in the region, reports Efe news.
The US official on Monday didn’t offer details about what led to the assessment or its implications for a possible American response.
Last week, the US said that it was sending an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship, a bomber task force and an anti-missile system to the region after it alleged intelligence showed Iran posed a threat to its troops.
“If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran,” President Donald Trump said while meeting Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House earlier on Monday.
The Saudi tankers were among at least four oil-industry vessels, including ships from Norway and the UAE, attacked on Sunday in the Gulf of Oman off the UAE’s eastern coast just outside the Strait of Hormuz as they prepared to cross into the Persian Gulf.
The attacks caused “significant damage to the structures of the two (Saudi) vessels,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said on Monday, calling the incident “sabotage”.
Falih said one of the ships was headed to the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf to load oil bound for the US.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have publicly blamed Iran for the attack so far.
The attacks sent oil prices higher and heightened worries about global supplies amid petroleum-production outages because of unrest in Venezuela, a civil war in Libya and sanctions on Iran.
Saudi and American US officials have long worried about the Strait of Hormuz becoming a battleground should tensions with Iran break out into open conflict.
A third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 20 per cent of total global oil production flows through the Strait of Hormuz for export from Persian Gulf countries. Cutting off oil shipped through the strait would cause shortages and soaring prices.
Meanwhile Iran, which borders the Strait of Hormuz, called the incident “worrisome and dreadful” and called for a full investigation.
Afghanistan would be wiped off from the face of the Earth: Trump
Washington: President Donald Trump hailed Pakistan’s help in advancing peace talks in Afghanistan, a marked shift in tone as the United States seeks an accord with the Taliban to end almost 18 years of war.
Speaking from the Oval Office alongside Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump also warned he could end the conflict in a matter of days through force and “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth,” but preferred dialogue.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s chief sponsor when it took power in neighbouring Afghanistan during the 1990s.
Its influence over the group, which has waged an insurgency since it was ousted from power by US-led forces in 2001, is seen as key in facilitating a political settlement with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress,” said Trump.
“A lot of things are happening for the United States, and I think a lot of great things are going to be happening for Pakistan under your leadership,” he added as he turned to face Imran Khan, who is on his first official trip to Washington.
The warm words and smiles signalled a clear reversal for the Republican president, who has in the past accused Pakistan of being duplicitous and last year cut USD 300 million in security aid.
The United States is pressing for a political agreement with the Taliban before presidential voting in Afghanistan in late September. This would clear the way for most US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and bring an end to America’s longest war.
But Trump warned: “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”
Shamila Chaudhary, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and a former National Security Council official, told AFP that Khan’s visit amounted to “a reward for good behaviour for following through on the Taliban talks.”
Islamabad wants to shore up relations with Washington after years of discord following the discovery of 9/11 architect Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, where he was killed in a US raid in 2011.
The IMF has just approved a USD 6 billion loan to help right Pakistan’s faltering economy, and keeping the US onside is crucial in maintaining the flow of Western assistance, added Raza Rumi, a Pakistan expert at Ithaca College.
The interaction between the two leaders — both celebrities-turned-politicians — had been the subject of much speculation.
But according to Chaudhary, the Trump-Khan encounter was in some ways a “formality” because the meetings between the US and Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who also travelled to Washington, were where the “real substance… will be discussed.”
Khan is seen as much closer to the army, which controls the country’s foreign policy, than his recent predecessors, and the presence of Bajwa “gives a little more credibility to whatever message the Pakistanis are bringing,” said Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council.
A readout of the meeting by the White House said Trump hoped to “revive all aspects of the bilateral relationship,” including new trade deals and “strong military-to-military ties.”
The latter would be welcomed by Pakistan’s military, which is keen to access new US military hardware and restart security aid, said the analysts.
Air strikes kill over 40 civilians in Syria
MAARET NUMAN: Regime and Russian air strikes killed 43 people in northwest Syria , most of them in a crowded market, a war monitor said, in the latest violence to plague the opposition bastion.
In the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, men covered in blood were carried away from the market by residents and rescue workers, who used mattresses as makeshift stretchers, a photographer said.
He saw the corpse of one man sprawled on the ground near a motorcycle, rubble surrounding his lifeless body.
With his eyes closed and his face covered in dust, another man clutched the arms of two people helping him out of the bombed area, the photographer added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes on the vegetable market and surrounding areas in Maaret al-Numan killed 35 civilians and two unidentified persons.
The Britain-based monitor said Russian aircraft carried out the air raids, but Moscow denied it was responsible.
“The Russian air force was not carrying out any missions in this part of Syria,” said a defence ministry statement.
More than 100 other people were wounded, according to the monitor, which said many of those injured were in a critical condition and people trapped under rubble.
The head of the local hospital, Radwan Shardub, described his horror at seeing “burnt and carbonised bodies, and body parts”.
“It’s boundless criminality to shameful international silence,” he said.
The White Helmets rescue group said one of its volunteers was killed during the raids, raising the number of rescue workers killed since April to at least 6.
The jihadist-run Idlib region, home to some three million people, is supposed to be protected by a months-old international truce deal, but it has come under increased bombardment by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia since late April. The spike in violence has killed more than 680 civilians and damaged or knocked out of service two dozen health facilities.
More than 330,000 people have fled violence in the area over the past three months, according to the United Nations.
In the Idlib town of Saraqib, another six civilians were killed in regime airstrikes on Monday, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, retaliatory rocket fire by jihadists and allied rebels killed seven civilians in the northern countryside of Hama province, state-run SANA news agency said.
Russia and rebel backer Turkey brokered an agreement in September seeking to stave off an all-out regime assault on Idlib, but the deal was never fully implemented as jihadists refused to withdraw from a planned buffer zone.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, led by ex-members of Al Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, in January extended its control over the region, which spans most of Idlib province as well as slivers of the adjacent provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.
Monsoon rains, floods leave 650 dead in South Asia
NEW DELHI: Severe floods and lightning have claimed the lives of more than 650 people across India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, officials said as the annual monsoon took its toll on the region.
More than 10 million people in the South Asian countries have been affected by the deluge, which has also forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
In India, heavy rains since the start of July have killed at least 467 people with many districts in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam states cut off because of flooding.
In Uttar Pradesh on Sunday, lightning strikes killed 37 people in separate incidents, a disaster management official told AFP. The latest fatalities took the northern state’s toll to 228 dead.
Eight children playing in the open in Bihar’s Nawada district were also killed by lightning on Friday, taking the toll in the eastern state to more than 100 as rivers overflowed their banks and swept away people, houses and cattle.
In Assam, 67 people have perished but the situation was likely to improve with no heavy rains predicted in the coming days.
But the prospects were grim for southern India’s coastal state of Kerala where authorities on Monday warned of “extremely heavy falls” in isolated places.
India’s coastal Karnataka, West Bengal and Himalayan Sikkim states were also bracing for heavy downpours.
More than 70 people have also died in building collapses in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh states following substantial rainfalls.
In Nepal, 90 people have died and another 29 are missing, although the worst seems to be over in the Himalayan country.
“Rains have been predicted this week and we are on alert, but we don’t expect it to have a severe impact,” home ministry official Bedh Nidhi Khanal said.
Torrential rains in flood-prone Bangladesh have killed more than 97 people — most by drowning and lightning strikes — in the last two weeks, with swathes of agricultural fields lying inundated.
A third of the country has been submerged as major rivers including the Brahmaputra — which broke a 44-year water-level record last week — and the Ganges burst their banks from heavy rains and from water from India and Nepal.
At least 30 people have also lost their lives in Pakistan.
While the annual rains are crucial to replenishing water supplies in the impoverished region, they often turn deadly.
Experts blame poor planning, the lack of drainage facilities and tardy relief operations for the casualties.