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Colombian troop surge seeks to stem drug-linked Venezuelan border violence

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November 16, 2021

By Luis Jaime Acosta

NORTE DE SANTANDER, Colombia (Reuters) – Camouflaged Colombian troops with guns and anti-COVID masks creep through dense vegetation in suffocating heat, ready for their many enemies crisscrossing the Venezuelan border.

The soldiers are part of a 14,000-strong military unit created last month to stem rising bloodshed in the northeastern province of Norte de Santander: Colombia’s new epicenter of conflict, fueled by rising cocaine production.

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“Any of the illegal armed groups in this area involved in drug trafficking could attack us,” said their sergeant, a 20-year army veteran, speaking under the shade of a tree near a river dividing Colombia and Venezuela.

Vulnerable to mines, snipers and ambushes, 16 soldiers have died this year in around 30 attacks in Norte de Santander.

Nineteen members of illegal armed groups have also died and dozens of soldiers, rebels and gang members been injured, according to Defense Ministry figures.

The military surge and sacrifice may not be the right tactic though: eradication of coca leaves, the raw ingredient for cocaine, is actually falling amid resistance from locals who say they have few other viable options to live off.

Furthermore, Colombia’s army has a checkered history, at times committing rights abuses while opposing rebels, traffickers and criminal gangs for more than half a century.

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President Ivan Duque’s government is furious with Venezuela, accusing President Nicolas Maduro’s administration of providing a safe haven for gangs over the border and conniving in drugs shipments to the United States and Europe for a cut of profits.

Venezuela’s collapsed economy and rampant crime also fan the border violence, Colombian officials say. Reuters showed in a recent investigation how the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) functions as a de facto local government and leading employer in some Venezuelan towns.

Caracas vigorously denies responsibility, saying Colombia’s right-wing “oligarchy” fails to curtail armed groups in a deliberate strategy to destabilize leftist-ruled Venezuela.

‘CONFLUENCE OF INSTABILITY’

Colombia hopes the troop buildup in Norte de Santander will provide a roadmap for pacifying other parts of a nation whose long civil war has now fractured into local battles against transnational insurgents and criminals.

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“In Norte de Santander, there’s a confluence of various factors of instability,” General Luis Fernando Navarro, head of the armed forces, told Reuters in his Bogota office.

A porous frontier and weak law enforcement in Venezuela allow guerrillas from the ELN and dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels – who reject a 2016 peace agreement – to strike and then flee across the border, he added.

About half the ELN fighters and 30% of the FARC dissidents operate from there, protected from bombing raids, Navarro said.

On the Colombian side, groups fight each other for control of rising coca production. One area, Catatumbo, now has capacity to produce 312 tonnes of cocaine per year, a quarter of Colombia’s output, according to U.N. data.

Murders in Norte de Santander rose to 576 last year, compared with 539 in 2019. Through September 2021, 436 people have been slain, according to the defense ministry.

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Twenty-two human rights activists have been assassinated since the beginning of 2020, while fighting has displaced some 6,500 people, according to activist groups.

“What’s behind this overflow of violence is this whole criminal dynamic,” said Wilfredo Canizares, director of human rights group Fundacion Progresar.

In two brazen attacks in June, former rebels bombed a military barracks in regional capital Cucuta and a sniper tried to shoot down a helicopter carrying Duque and other officials.

A FARC dissident commander took responsibility for the attacks, saying they targeted the U.S. presence.

MILITARIZING ALONE ‘A FAILURE’

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The recent capture of “Otoniel”, leader of a major gang called the “Gulf Clan”, may not stem violence by his group, which police say has alliances with criminals in more than two dozen countries. The arrest might even increase fighting, regional analysts say, as the gang retaliates against security forces or members fight for power among themselves.

Security consultant John Marulanda, a retired army colonel, said groups attack high-profile targets to draw authorities away from drug production zones and the routes to clandestine airstrips in Venezuela.

The military’s new Specific Command for Norte de Santander (CENOR) will bring together four previously separate units, which the army says will allow better, faster coordination of logistics and intelligence with more patrols, offensive operations and air support.

The military says increased troops – with on-the-ground U.S. military advisors – will go hand-in-hand with investments in roads, schools and other programs.

But there are detractors.

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Activists say boots on the ground mean little without anti-poverty measures and more support for voluntary substitution of coca crops. “It’s proven it’s a failure to insist on militarizing territory as the only answer,” said Fundacion Progresar’s Canizares.

It is indefensible that murders, mass killings, displacements and drug trafficking continue despite a large, long-term military presence in the province, he added.

Farmers outside the municipality of Tibu, home to Colombia’s largest coca plantations, recently held 180 soldiers on an eradication mission hostage for several hours in protest at removal of a crop that is one of few ways to make ends meet.

And eradication efforts overall in Norte de Santander are floundering, falling to about 30 square km so far this year, from 95 in 2020, largely due to opposition from locals.

Figures from the military and defense ministry also show the number of clandestine labs – usually deep in the jungle – destroyed in the first nine months of 2021 was 458, compared to 694 in 2020.

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Seizures of cocaine in Norte del Santander in 2021 – 24.8 tonnes – have outpaced 16.6 in 2020 and 22.4 in 2019. But the increase is partly due to more production, officials said, as well as improved U.S. satellite data.

As locals clamor for land titles, loans for crop-switching and more public works, authorities insist the security strategy will be backed by social investment.

For example, provincial governor Silvano Serrano, with help from the national government, is spending $8 million on a program to encourage cacao production. It will give farmers seeds, technical assistance and guaranteed, fixed-price sales.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Iran plays hardball as nuclear talks with world powers resume

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November 29, 2021

By Francois Murphy, Parisa Hafezi and John Irish

VIENNA (Reuters) -Iran and world powers resumed talks on Monday after a five-month hiatus to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers warning that will not work, hopes of a breakthrough appeared slim.

Diplomats say time is running out to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

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Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round formally began with a meeting of the remaining parties to the deal, without the United States, shortly after 1400 GMT.

The meeting in Vienna ended an extended break triggered by the election of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in June as Iran’s president. The talks are effectively indirect negotiations between Tehran and Washington since Iran refuses to meet face to face with U.S. envoys. Other officials shuttle between them.

Tehran’s negotiating team has set out demands that U.S. and European diplomats consider unrealistic, Western diplomats say.

“Our demands are clear. Other parties and especially Americans should decide whether they want this deal to be revived or not. They abandoned the pact, so they should return to it and lift all sanctions,” an Iranian official close to the talks told Reuters.

Iran has adopted an uncompromising position by demanding removal of all U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme, in a verifiable process.

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“The United States still fails to properly understand the fact that there is no way to return to the deal without a verifiable and effective lifting of all sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a statement shortly after the talks resumed.

“The return of the U.S. to the nuclear deal would be meaningless without guarantees to prevent the recurrence of the bitter experience of the past,” he said. “This opportunity is not a window that can remain open forever.”

TENSIONS

In parallel, Tehran’s conflicts with the U.N. atomic watchdog, which monitors its nuclear programme, have festered.

As Iran has advanced its uranium enrichment, the International Atomic Energy Agency says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to reinstall monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.

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“If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it,” U.S. envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds on Saturday.

Since Trump took the United States out of the deal, Iran has breached many of its restrictions meant to lengthen the time it would need to generate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb https://www.reuters.com/news/picture/explainer-what-remains-of-the-iran-nucle-idUSKBN2ID0E4. Iran says it wants to enrich uranium only for civil uses.

Malley warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up pressure on Tehran if the talks collapse.

Diplomats have said Washington has suggested negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved. Several Iranian officials told Reuters Iran had no intention of accepting an interim deal.

Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, which opposed the original deal as too limited in scope and duration, has said military options will be on the table if diplomacy fails.

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“They (Iranians) will play for time, earn billions from the removal of sanctions, continue to deceive the world, and covertly advance their nuclear programme,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters in London https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israels-lapid-urges-world-keep-up-pressure-iran-2021-11-29.

“The intelligence is clear. It leaves no doubt.”

(Writing by John Irish and Parisa Hafezi Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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U.N. chief concerned about southern Africa isolation over Omicron

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November 29, 2021

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries after COVID-19 travel restrictions were imposed by several countries over the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

“I appeal to all governments to consider repeated testing for travelers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures, with the objective of avoiding the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement,” Guterres said in a statement.

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The Omicron variant of coronavirus carries a very high global risk of surges https://www.reuters.com/world/spread-omicron-variant-forces-nations-rethink-plans-global-travel-2021-11-29, the World Health Organization warned on Monday, as more countries reported cases.

Omicron was first identified in southern Africa and many countries, including the United States and Britain, have announced travel curbs and other restrictions on the region. Africa has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates worldwide due to a lack of access to doses.

Guterres has long warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality around the world and that low immunization rates are “a breeding ground for variants.”

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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Belarus announces military drills with Russia near Ukraine border

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November 29, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with close ally Russia on its southern border with Ukraine and accused the NATO military alliance of building up offensive capabilities near its borders.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials say Russia has built up forces near Ukraine, sparking fears of a looming attack. Moscow denies any such plan. Belarus is itself locked in a row with the European Union over migrants camped at its western border.

Casting it as a response to new military deployments in countries to the west and south of Belarus, Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said Minsk would hold an exercise with Russia in the “medium term”. He gave no specific date.

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“We see troop formations around our state borders… We can only be concerned by the militarisation of our neighouring countries, which is why are forced to plan measures in response,” he said in comments on his ministry’s website.

NATO member Lithuania, which lies to the west of Belarus, said on Sunday the Atlantic alliance needed to adjust its stance towards Belarus, whose military, it said, was becoming more integrated with Russia’s armed forces.

On Monday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said Minsk would not sit idly on the sidelines if the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted or a war broke out with the West at Russia’s borders.

“…it is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said in a clear nod to Russia, whose financial and political backing helped him weather huge protests against his rule that broke out last autumn.

“They understand this, that’s why they’ve begun strengthening their northern Belarus-Ukraine border,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

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The comments appeared to contrast with the more neutral stance taken by Lukashenko after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing for separatist forces in Ukraine’s east.

Minsk, like most of the world, still recognises Crimea as Ukrainian territory.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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