After pounding Central America, Tropical Storm Nate set to hit US

After pounding Central America, Tropical Storm Nate set to hit US

A tropical storm that killed at least 22 people in Central America is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane over the weekend before roaring ashore in New Orleans.

Hurricane watches and warnings were already in effect for coastal areas of four southeastern U.S. states. The region includes metropolitan New Orleans, where a hurricane watch has been issued, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Thursday as his state braces for a direct hit. He mobilized 1,300 National Guard troops, with 15 going to New Orleans to monitor the troubled pump and drainage system there.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared a state of emergency for the city ahead of the storm’s approach. Landrieu warned that the areas outside of the levee protection system could see a 3 to 6 foot storm surge.

Landrieu said officials are working “around the clock” to repair all power and pumps for the city’s drainage system, which is grappling with flooding from recent rains. As of Thursday afternoon, 108 of the city’s 120 pumps were working, the mayor said.

St. Bernard Parish, just 5 miles southeast of downtown New Orleans, also declared a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation for residents outside of the levee system.

St. John the Baptist Parish, located 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, issued a voluntary evacuation for areas north of the Interstate 55 exit ramp, specifically Peavine, Frenier and Manchac.

So far, the Atlantic has seen five major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) during the 2017 season, two short of the record set in 2005, when seven major hurricanes hit.

The new weather system, dubbed Nate, strengthened into a tropical storm in the western Caribbean Sea near Nicaragua on Thursday morning. It pounded Central America with rain heavy, causing deadly flash floods and mudslides. Some areas could see up to 15 inches of rain through the weekend, according to the National Hurricane Center.

According to The Associated Press, 22 people were killed, including 15 in Nicaragua and seven in Costa Rica. Costa Rican officials said 15 people were missing as well.

Tropical Storm Nate will traverse the northwestern Caribbean Sea today and reach the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula early this evening. The storm’s center was churning about 175 miles south-southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, and racing toward the north-northwest at 21 mph as of 11 a.m. ET. Maximum sustained winds were 50 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“Strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days, and Nate is expected to become a hurricane by the time it reaches the northern Gulf of Mexico,” the National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory.

Nate is forecast to approach southeastern Louisiana early Sunday, making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

In preparation for the storm, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide state of emergency that went into effect at 7 a.m. ET Friday. Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday declared a state of emergency in 29 countries.

Oil and gas companies began evacuating six production platforms on Thursday, according to the Bureau of Safety Environmental Enforcement. While one movable rig was taken out of the storm’s path, no drilling rigs have been evacuated.

Nate could drop 3 to 6 inches of rain in states along the central U.S. Gulf Coast, with some areas getting as much as 12 inches. Tropical storm conditions and hurricane conditions are possible within the designated watch areas Saturday night.

Meanwhile, a storm surge is expected to raise water levels by as much as 4 to 7 feet from Louisiana to the Alabama-Florida border, according to the National Hurricane Center.

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3 soldiers killed in Niger ambush are identified

3 soldiers killed in Niger ambush are identified

The Pentagon has identified the three U.S. Army Special Forces members who died in Africa earlier this week in an ambush believed to have been carried out by an Islamic extremist group.

All three soldiers, commonly known as Green Berets, belonged to the 3rd Special Forces group based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, died from wounds sustained during the ambush that occurred near Niger‘s border with Mali about 125 miles north of Niamey, Niger’s capital.

They were among a squad of 10 to 12 U.S. soldiers on a joint patrol with Nigerien soldiers who came under attack by a force of 50 enemy fighters. It’s unclear which group ambushed the joint U.S.-Nigerien patrol because various extremist groups operate along the Niger-Mali border area, including Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-affiliated extremist group, and ISIS-West Africa.

Two other soldiers were wounded in the incident and are receiving medical treatment at a U.S. Army hospital in Germany.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Black of Puyallup, Washington, who enlisted in the Army in October 2009, was a Green Beret serving as a Special Forces medical sergeant. His awards and decorations includes the Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Special Forces Tab, Ranger Tab, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, and Marksmanship Qualification Badge – Sharpshooter with Rifle.

Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, enlisted in the Army in July 2012 and was a Green Beret serving as a Special Forces engineer sergeant. His awards and decorations included the Joint Service Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Special Forces Tab, and Parachutist Badge.

Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson of Springboro, Ohio, enlisted in the Army in October 2007 and served as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist attached to the Green Beret unit.

His awards includes the Army Commendation Medal (2nd Award), Army Achievement Medal (5th Award), Army Good Conduct Medal (3rd Award), National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Service Ribbon, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, Driver and Mechanic Badge, and Marksmanship Qualification Badge – Expert with Pistol and Rifle.

There are about 800 U.S. military personnel in Niger helping that country’s counterterrorism efforts against extremist groups. Some of the U.S. forces are part of a drone surveillance mission over Mali that operates out of two bases in Niger.

Others are involved in a training-and-advising mission with Niger’s military to improve its counterterrorism capabilities.

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Questions arise on China’s plans as N. Korea war talk rises

Questions arise on China’s plans as N. Korea war talk rises

Securing North Korea’s missile launchers and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons sites would likely be a chief priority for China in the event of a major crisis involving its communist neighbor, analysts say, although Beijing so far is keeping mum on any plans.

Despite China’s official silence, its People’s Liberation Army likely has a “vast array” of contingency plans involving military options, said Dean Cheng, an Asia security expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. The PLA and paramilitary People’s Armed Police could also be deployed to deal with refugees and possible civil unrest, he said.

What’s less clear is whether and under what conditions China would commit troops as an occupying force should North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime fall apart, Cheng said.

“We can hypothesize that they might, but, as the observation goes, those who know don’t say and those who say probably don’t know,” he said.

With tensions between the U.S. and North Korea running high and relations between Beijing and Pyongyang at a historic low, questions are being raised about how China might respond in the event of a regime collapse.

The scene along the China-North Korea border in the wild mountains of northeast Asia provides some clues.

Despite a dearth of traffic and trade, construction crews are at work on a six-lane highway to the border outside the small Chinese city of Ji’an along the Tumen River, a corridor that could facilitate the rapid movement of tanks and troops.

Guard posts, barbed wire-topped fences and checkpoints manned by armed paramilitary troops mark the frontier along the border — signs of concern about potentially violent border crossers or even more serious security threats.

China’s unwillingness to discuss its plans is likely a strategic choice by the notoriously secretive PLA, but potentially threatens unintended consequences were a major crisis to emerge, experts say.

“Each party has its own plans for action in the event of an emergency, but if they act individually without communicating with others, it raises the possibility of misjudgment and unnecessary military conflicts,” said Jia Qingguo, dean of the school of International Studies at elite Peking University.

“There has long been a danger in this respect. Someone must take control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” Jia said.

Coordination is also needed on the handling of civilians, particularly with those international agencies experienced in dealing with such crises, Jia said. Among the refugees may be tens of thousands released from North Korean labor camps who may need medical treatment for communicable diseases and malnutrition.

“Refugees are a huge issue that could involve a tremendously large number of people and potentially become a humanitarian crisis,” Jia said.

Asked about Chinese preparations for a North Korean crisis, defense ministry spokesman Col. Wu Qian offered assurance but no details at a monthly news briefing on Thursday.

“Dialogue and consultation is the only effective way to solve the problem concerning the Korean Peninsula, and the military option cannot be an option,” Wu said. “The Chinese military has made all necessary preparations to safeguard national sovereignty and security and regional peace and stability.”

U.S. officials say the Chinese have been reluctant to discuss planning for a major crisis, possibly to avoid offending Kim’s notoriously tetchy regime. Partly in hopes of facilitating such discussions, the two sides signed an agreement during a visit to Beijing in August by the top U.S. military officer to establish a dialogue mechanism between their militaries.

Tellingly, the visit by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also included the rare opportunity to observe a Chinese army drill near the Chinese city of Shenyang, roughly 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the border with North Korea. Although Dunford said China didn’t appear ready to have conversations about responding to a North Korean crisis, senior administration officials say the sides recognize the need for communication on the matter and the topic has been broached in semiofficial talks between experts.

While Chinese officials have routinely said Beijing would not allow “chaos and war” to break out?on its doorstep, official media have hinted that it might not respond if the North made an unprovoked strike on the U.S. or its allies and suffered a retaliation. That ambiguity serves to keep the U.S. and South Korea guessing, possibly tempering their own responses, said Cheng, the Asia security expert.

Beijing also doesn’t want to publicize any plans to avoid provoking Pyongyang, either by revealing doubts about the stability of Kim’s regime or by exposing its deepest worries that Kim could then leverage for his own benefit, Cheng said.

“Positing that they have so little confidence that they are planning for (Pyongyang’s) demise might create the very problem that they fear,” he said. “Better the devil that you know.”

With 85 percent of North Korea’s nuclear facilities located within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the border with China, special forces from the People’s Liberation Army could easily secure those sites without coming into conflict with occupying forces from South Korea and the U.S., said Georgetown University security studies professor Oriana Skylar Mastro.

PLA forces might also cross the border to carry out missions to stabilize refugees, Mastro said. The Chinese military’s ability to deal with such a contingency has been honed over recent years through its participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa and elsewhere, as well as its leading role in responding to earthquakes, floods and other disasters within China.

In the long term, Beijing would want to see a friendly government in Pyongyang to ease security concerns about a unified Korea under the protection of U.S. and South Korean troops, against whom China fought in the 1950-53 Korean War. China has long criticized American military alliances in Asia, seeing them as part of a campaign to stifle its rise as Asia’s leading power.

Underlying questions about a Chinese crisis response is the dismal state of China-North Korea relations, illustrated by the lack of regular high-level exchanges. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader to visit South Korea before traveling to the North, which he has yet to do as president. Xi and Kim, who has not traveled to China as leader,?are not known to be in direct contact, and no senior Chinese official has visited North Korea in almost two years.

Also rarely seen until recently are complaints about China in the North Korean official media, prompted by Beijing’s support for U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.

A recent commentary by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said China’s ruling Communist Party’s mouthpieces were “going under the armpit of the U.S.” by criticizing Pyongyang’s weapons program. It accused party news outlets of “kowtowing to the ignorant acts of the Trump administration.”


Associated Press writer Tim Sullivan in Ji’an, China, contributed to this report.

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International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons wins the Nobel Peace Prize

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons wins the Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored the Geneva-based group “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

The statement, read by committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen, said that “through its inspiring and innovative support for the U.N. negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons, ICAN has played a major part in bringing about what in our day and age is equivalent to an international peace congress.”

Asked by journalists whether the prize was essentially symbolic, given that no international measures against nuclear weapons have been reached, Reiss-Andersen said that “what will not have an impact is being passive.”

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Turkey, Venezuela deepen cooperation, seeking ‘new era’

Turkey, Venezuela deepen cooperation, seeking ‘new era’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that his country does not support any external interventions in South America, speaking after meeting with Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro and Erdogan oversaw the signing of five agreements for cooperation on air travel, tourism, culture, agriculture, and international crime. They discussed ways to deepen economic and energy ties and explored opportunities for military industry cooperation, the Turkish leader said.

Maduro’s visit to Turkey, the first by a Venezuelan head of state, comes amid stringent U.S. sanctions on the South American nation and a deepening political crisis in Venezuela as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages.

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t rule out military action against Venezuela in response to the country’s descent into political chaos.

“I believe there is no force above that of the will of the people and we think that most of the time, foreign interventions deepen the problems,” Erdogan said, with Maduro standing by his side.

He added that he hoped to see Venezuela’s “difficult period” end as soon as possible, with “ease, dialogue and compromise.”

Maduro said he hoped to open a “new era” in relations with Turkey, and welcomed plans for the expansion of direct flights between Istanbul and Caracas.

At the request of Maduro, Turkey will also construct a mosque in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, as well as a cultural center, Erdogan said.

Maduro’s visit follows a tour to Russia and to Belarus, where he discussed expanding military ties with the ex-Soviet nation.

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Trump ‘might abandon Iran nuclear deal’

Trump ‘might abandon Iran nuclear deal’

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US President Donald Trump is planning to abandon the Iran nuclear deal shortly, according to US media reports.

If he fails to certify the accord, Congress will decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions on Iran. Mr Trump has until 15 October to decide.

Opposition to the deal was a major part of his campaign last year.

Posing for photographers with military leaders on Thursday, he said this was “the calm before the storm” but refused to give further details.

There was speculation his comments might refer to heightened tensions with North Korea, but the New York Times says “people who have been briefed on the matter” believe he means Iran.

Mr Trump was seen at the White House with his wife Melania, as well as military leaders, after Thursday’s meetings but before dinner together. Gesturing at the people around him, he asked the waiting press if they knew “what this represents”.

“Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” he said.

When reporters pressed him on what storm he was referring to, he would only say: “You’ll find out.”

He had earlier told his top defence officials he expected them to provide “a broad range of military options… at a much faster pace” in future.

What happens next?

US media say the president will announce next Thursday that he will not be certifying the deal on the grounds it does not serve US security interests.

But some of his top advisers, such as Defence Secretary James Mattis, appear to back the deal.

The presidency must certify the deal every 90 days; Mr Trump has already done so twice.

If he rejected it this time, Congress would have 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran. US media reports suggest they are likely to leave the deal in place.

Speaking in the White House’s Cabinet Room, President Trump said: “The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence and chaos across the Middle East.

“That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions. You will be hearing about Iran very shortly.”

In reaction, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said the deal was not renegotiable, reported Iran’s Press TV.

But he suggested it might be salvageable if the other partners – France, Germany, China, Russia and the UK – remained on board. If not, he said, the deal will “definitely fall apart”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped “the final decision reached by the US president will be balanced and will be based on the present-day realities”, reported Interfax news agency.

Will Congress let it stand?

Analysis by the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher

Once again the president appears poised to hand a tough issue over to Congress to deal with.

In July Mr Trump ended an Obama-era programme offering normalised immigration status to undocumented immigrants who entered the US as children – and gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution.

They’re still working on that one, sort of, and now Congress has another tricky situation to resolve while the clock is ticking.

There’s plenty of sentiment among Republicans to impose stringent new sanctions on the Iranian regime. The risks, however, of tearing up a multinational deal that international relations experts say has helped keep Iranian nuclear ambitions in check is great.

As with healthcare, another issue the White House has given Congress little guidance on, legislators will have to decide between their at-times overheated campaign promises and more practical concerns.

Given that inertia is on the side of inaction, the Iranian nuclear deal – though weakened by the president’s sabre-rattling – may hold together.

One thing is certain, however. The president’s decision would inject new levels of acrimony into US-Iranian relations and again put a blazing spotlight on congressional politicians who are already anxiously eying their re-election campaigns in 2018.

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was designed to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon, with the president’s administration having to certify to Congress that Iran is upholding its part of the deal every 90 days.

It lifted some sanctions that stopped Iran from trading on international markets and selling oil.

The lifting of sanctions is dependent on Iran restricting its nuclear programme. It must restrict its uranium stockpile, build no more heavy-water reactors for 15 years, and allow inspectors in to the country.

Mr Trump has repeatedly said Iran has broken the “spirit” of the deal.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly, Mr Trump called the deal, which was brokered while his predecessor Barack Obama was in power, “an embarrassment to the United States”.

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Thousands attend Talabani funeral in Iraq

Thousands attend Talabani funeral in Iraq

Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi president and a leading veteran of the struggle for Kurdish rights, is being laid to rest in northern Iraq.

His body was flown to his stronghold, the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, three days after he died in Germany.

His coffin was draped with the Kurdish flag, prompting one private Iraqi TV station to cut its coverage in protest.

Thousands of mourners crowded the streets as the coffin was taken from the airport to the city’s great mosque.

The death of the 83-year-old comes at a sensitive time in relations between Kurdish leaders and Baghdad.

Last week, people living in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence for the Kurdistan Region in a referendum, despite outrage in Baghdad, Iran and Turkey.

Talabani had not been well enough to give his views on the referendum, but it had been only half-heartedly backed by his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. He had historically opposed full Kurdish independence, arguing for semi-autonomy within a democratic Iraq.

Talabani said that Iraq, with its many different communities, was a “bouquet made up of several flowers”.

The flight carrying Talabani’s body was given special dispensation to land amid an Iraqi-government-imposed ban on international flights to the Kurdistan Region following the plebiscite.

The coffin was received by a guard of honour and given a 21-gun salute, followed by the Iraqi national anthem, on the tarmac of Sulaimaniya airport.

It was then taken to the city’s grand mosque.

Talabani’s long-time rival, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani, sat between Talabani’s widow Hero and Iraqi President Fuad Masum. Despite their long history of chequered relations, Mr Barzani this week described Mr Talabani as a “friend and a brother”.

Other senior Baghdad officials also attended but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – who had urged Kurds to cancel the referendum and said he would refuse to engage in dialogue about the result – was absent.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the most senior foreign official there.

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Iraq forces retake town of Hawija from IS

Iraq forces retake town of Hawija from IS

Iraq’s prime minister says its military has retaken Hawija, the main town in one of the last two enclaves of so-called Islamic State in the country.

Haider al-Abadi told reporters that Hawija had been “liberated” as part of an operation launched two weeks ago.

A few villages east of the town are believed to still be under IS control.

Once they fall, IS will be left with only a stretch of the Euphrates river valley around al-Qaim, in the western desert near the border with Syria.

The jihadist group still controls large parts of the valley in the neighbouring Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, but it is under pressure there from Syrian pro-government forces and a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

Hawija, which lies 215km (135 miles) north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, has been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgents since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The town fell to IS in June 2014, when the jihadist group seized control of much of northern and western Iraq and proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”.

But it was surrounded and cut off from other IS-held territory more than a year ago, when government forces advanced north towards the second city of Mosul.

The offensive on Hawija began on 21 September and has involved army, police and special forces units, as well as the Shia-led paramilitary Popular Mobilisation.

With the help of US-led coalition air strikes and military advisers, they recaptured the town of Shirqat on the second day and then moved steadily south-eastwards.

On Wednesday, the operation’s commander announced that troops had begun a major operation to “liberate” Hawija itself. They quickly breached jihadist defences in the north-western outskirts and stormed the town centre as night fell.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris on Thursday morning after holding talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr Abadi called the recapture of Hawija a “victory not just of Iraq, but of the whole world”.

But he said the victory had been achieved “despite the crises that some people have tried to drag us into” – an apparent reference to the referendum on independence held by the autonomous Kurdistan Region last week despite opposition from the government in Baghdad and the international community.

Mr Abadi wants the Kurdistan Regional Government to annul the result – more than 90% voted in favour of secession – or face punitive sanctions, international isolation and possible military intervention.

He banned direct international flights to the region last week and on Tuesday called for a “joint administration” in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas that have been controlled by the Kurds since 2014 but claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

“We do not want an armed confrontation, we don’t want clashes, but the federal authority must prevail and nobody can infringe on the federal authority,” Mr Abadi said on Thursday.

“I call on the Peshmerga to remain an integral part of the Iraqi forces under the authority of the federal authorities, to guarantee the security of citizens so that we can rebuild these zones.”

Mr Macron said France wanted “stability in Iraq” and called for Kurdish rights to be recognised “in the framework of the constitution”.

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Syria fighting ‘worst since Aleppo battle’

Syria fighting ‘worst since Aleppo battle’

Several regions of Syria are witnessing the worse fighting since the battle for Aleppo least year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says.

The humanitarian organisation expressed alarm at recent reports of hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of hospitals and schools.

Much of the fighting is in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and rural areas west of Aleppo.

But it is also occurring in three so-called “de-escalation zones” – Idlib, rural Hama, and the Eastern Ghouta.

Russia and Iran, which support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, agreed to set up the zones along with Turkey, which backs rebel forces, in May.

“While recent months had provided some reasons to be hopeful, the return to violence is once again bringing intolerable levels of suffering to wide areas of the country,” said the ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser.

She added: “My colleagues report harrowing stories, like a family of 13 who fled Deir al-Zour only to lose 10 of its members to air strikes and explosive devices along the way.”

As many as 10 hospitals have reportedly been damaged during the last 10 days, cutting hundreds of thousands of people off from access to basic healthcare.

The ICRC said the fighting around the eastern city of Deir al-Zour – where Syrian pro-government forces, helped by the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias, and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance are battling the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) – is endangering water supplies there.

With swelling numbers of civilians fleeing military operations, humanitarian organisations were struggling to provide water, food and basic hygiene, it added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said at least 3,000 people, including 955 civilians, were killed during September, making it the deadliest month of the conflict so far this year. More than 70% of the civilians were killed in air strikes, according to the UK-based monitoring group.

In a separate development, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the nerve agent Sarin was used in an “incident” in a rebel-held village on 30 March, five days before a deadly chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

Traces of Sarin were found in soil samples, clothing and metal parts taken from Latamina, OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu told AFP news agency.

Fifty people were reportedly injured in the event, but there were no deaths.

Human Rights Watch said in May that it was told by witnesses that a Syrian government or Russian warplane dropped bombs on Latamina that day, and that photos and videos of the injured indicated they were exposed to a nerve agent.

UN human rights investigators said last month that they had concluded the Syrian Air Force carried out the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Damascus insists the incident was faked and denies ever having used chemical weapons.

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Saudi king in landmark visit to Russia

Saudi king in landmark visit to Russia

Russia and Saudi Arabia have clinched a number of lucrative deals as King Salman paid the first official visit to Russia by a Saudi monarch.

Reports say the deals range from an arms deal worth $3bn (£2.3bn) to a $1bn energy investment fund.

The king said the world’s two top oil exporters would continue to collaborate to stabilise oil markets.

However, the agenda also included issues on which the two sides deeply differ, including the war in Syria.

Both sides are involved in the conflict, but on opposing sides.

Nonetheless, Moscow is keen to present this visit as a symbol of the success of its intervention in Syria in terms of reviving Russian influence in the Middle East, says the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford.

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The visit by the Saudi king – and his 1,000-strong delegation – is seen as an expression of that revived power, she says.

President Vladimir Putin hailed the visit by the 81-year-old king as a “momentous” event, reported Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Mr Putin expressed hope that it would boost ties between the two countries.

“We aim to strengthen our relations in the interests of peace and security, in the interests of developing the world economy,” the Saudi king responded, according to AFP news agency.

The two sides have an interest in co-operating on a number of fronts.

On Wednesday, Mr Putin said a global deal to cut oil production in order to raise prices could be extended to the end of next year.

The Saudi energy minister has said his country is open to all options.

Russia is not a member of the oil cartel Opec, but it has collaborated with Opec members on suppressing production to drive up oil prices.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $1bn in Russian energy projects, while Russian petrochemicals giant Sibur will build a plant in Saudi Arabia in a separate $1.1bn agreement.

And a deal has also been reached for Russia to supply Saudi with S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

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