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Florida's 'pill mills' were a gateway to the opioid crisis

Florida's 'pill mills' were a gateway to the opioid crisisFlorida survives on tourism, but a decade ago thousands of visitors made frequent trips to the state not to visit its theme parks or beaches. Instead, they came for cheap and easy prescription painkillers sold at unscrupulous walk-in clinics.



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Drug bosses joked about US opioid crisis that led to lives being needlessly lost, leaked emails show

Drug bosses joked about US opioid crisis that led to lives being needlessly lost, leaked emails showAs the opioid epidemic was raging in America, in May 2008 a representative of the nation’s largest manufacturer of opioid pain pills sent an email to a client at a wholesale drug distributor in Ohio.Victor Borelli, a national account manager for Mallinckrodt, told Steve Cochrane, the vice-president of sales for KeySource Medical, to check his inventories and “[i]f you are low, order more. If you are okay, order a little more, Capesce?”Then Borelli joked, “destroy this email. . .Is that really possible? Oh Well. . .”Previously, Borelli used the phrase “ship, ship, ship” to describe his job. Those email excerpts are quoted in a 144-page plaintiffs’ filing along with thousands of pages of documents unsealed by a judge’s order Friday in a landmark case in Cleveland against many of the largest companies in the drug industry.[gallery-0] A Drug Enforcement Administration database released earlier in the week revealed that the companies had inundated the nation with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2012.Nearly 2,000 cities, counties and towns are alleging that the companies knowingly flooded their communities with opioids, fuelling an epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 since 1996.The filing by plaintiffs depict some drug company employees as driven by profits and undeterred by the knowledge that their products were wreaking havoc across the country. The defendants’ response to the motion is due on 31 July.In January 2009, Borelli told Cochrane in another email that 1,200 bottles of oxycodone 30mg tablets had been shipped.“Keep ‘em comin’!” Cochrane responded. “Flyin’ out of there. It’s like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are. . .”Borelli responded: “Just like Doritos keep eating. We’ll make more.”Borelli and Cochrane did not return calls for comment on Friday night.In a statement Friday night, a spokesman for Mallinckrodt sought to distance the company from Borelli’s email: “This is an outrageously callous email from an individual who has not been employed by the company for many years. It is antithetical to everything that Mallinckrodt stands for and has done to combat opioid abuse and misuse.”The Controlled Substances Act requires drug companies to control against diversion, and to design and operate systems to identify “suspicious orders,” defined as “orders of unusual size, orders deviating substantially from a normal pattern, and orders of unusual frequency.”The companies are supposed to report such orders to America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and refrain from shipping them unless they can determine the drugs are unlikely to be diverted to the black market. The plaintiffs, in the filing, allege that the companies ignored red flags and failed at every level.At Cardinal Health, one of the nation’s largest drug distributors, then-CEO Kerry Clark in January 2008 wrote in an email to Cardinal senior officials that the company’s “results-oriented culture” was perhaps “leading to ill-advised or shortsighted decisions,” the filing contends.In the previous 18 months, Cardinal had been hit with nearly $ 1 billion in “fines, settlements, and lost business as a result of multiple regulatory actions,” the filing alleges, including the suspension of licenses at some of its distribution centres for failing to maintain effective controls against opioid diversion.Cardinal Health did not immediately return a request for comment on Friday night.On Aug. 31, 2011, McKesson Corp.’s then-director of regulatory affairs, David B. Gustin, told his colleagues he was concerned about the “number of accounts we have that have large gaps between the amount of Oxy or Hydro they are allowed to buy (their threshold) and the amount they really need,” according to the filing, which cites Gustin’s statements.“This increases the ‘opportunity’ for diversion by exposing more product for introduction into the pipeline than may be being used for legitimate purposes.”According to the filing, he had earlier noted to his colleagues that they “need to get out visiting more customers and away from our laptops or the company is going to end up paying the price… big time.”Another McKesson regulatory affairs director responded: “I am overwhelmed. I feel that I am going down a river without a paddle and fighting the rapids. Sooner or later, hopefully later I feel we will be burned by a customer that did not get enough due diligence,” according to the filing.McKesson is the largest drug distributor in the United States. It distributed 14.1 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2012, about 18% of the market, according to the DEA database.McKesson said that the DEA was responsible for setting the annual production quota of pills.“For decades, McKesson has consistently reported opioid transactions to the DEA,” McKesson spokeswoman Kristin Chasen said in a statement. “We have also invested heavily in further strengthening our anti-diversion program.”Until Friday, the documents had been sealed under a protective order issued by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster. The order was lifted a year after The Washington Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, filed a lawsuit for access to the documents and a DEA database tracking opioid sales, known as the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, or ARCOS.The drug companies and the DEA strenuously opposed the release of the data and the documents, and Polster agreed with them. But a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Ohio ordered that some of the information should be released with reasonable redactions and the database should be made public.By consolidating cases from around the nation, the Cleveland case, for the first time, provides specific information about how and in what quantity the drugs flowed around the country, from manufacturers and distributors to pharmacies. The case also brings to light internal documents and deliberations by the companies as they sought to promote their products and contend with enforcement efforts by the DEA.The local and state government plaintiffs in the case argue that the actions of some of America’s biggest and best-known companies – including Mallinckrodt, Cardinal Health, McKesson, Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and Purdue Pharma – amounted to a civil racketeering enterprise that had a devastating effect on the plaintiffs’ communities.The case is a civil action under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act, making use of a law originally developed to attack organised crime.In statements on Tuesday in response to the release of the DEA database, the drug companies issued broad defences of their actions during the opioid epidemic. They have said previously that they were trying to sell legal painkillers to legitimate pain patients who had prescriptions.They have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by physicians and also on corrupt doctors and pharmacists who worked in “pill mills” that handed out drugs with few questions asked. The companies also said they should not be held responsible for the actions of people who abused the drugs.The companies said that they were diligent about reporting their sales to the DEA and that the agency should have worked with them to do more to fight the epidemic, a point former DEA agents dispute. The companies also note that the DEA set the quotas for opioid production.“We report those suspicious orders to state boards of pharmacy and to the DEA but we do not know what those government entities do with those reports, if anything,” Cardinal Health said in a statement.The companies issued statements rejecting the plaintiffs’ allegations.McKesson said in its statement: “The allegations made by the plaintiffs are just that – allegations. They are unproven, untrue and greatly oversimplify the evolution of this health crisis as well as the roles and responsibilities of the many players in the pharmaceutical supply chain.”Mallinckrodt said the company “has for years been at the forefront of preventing prescription drug diversion and abuse, and has invested millions of dollars in a multipronged program to address opioid abuse.”One of the biggest points of contention in the lawsuit is whether the nation’s largest drug companies did enough to identify suspicious orders of opioids. What exactly constitutes a suspicious order is at the heart of the case.The DEA has long said there should be no confusion because the agency has given frequent guidance and briefings to the industry, and repeatedly defined what constitutes a suspicious order.The plaintiffs argue that the companies failed to “design serious suspicious order monitoring systems that would identify suspicious orders to the DEA” and shipped the drugs anyway.“Their failure to identify suspicious orders was their business model: they turned a blind eye and called themselves mere ‘deliverymen’ with no responsibility for what they delivered or to whom,” according to the plaintiffs’ filing.Between 1996 and 2018, the plaintiffs alleged in the filing, drug companies shipped hundreds of millions of opioid pills into Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio, filling orders that were suspicious and “should never have been shipped”.“They made no effort actually to identify suspicious orders, failed to flag orders that, under any reasonable algorithm, represented between one-quarter and 90% of their business, and kept the flow of drugs coming into Summit and Cuyahoga Counties,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.In 2007, the DEA told Mallinckrodt that the numeric formula it used to monitor suspicious orders was insufficient, the filing contended. It alleges the company’s suspicious order monitoring program from 2008 through 2009 consisted of solely verifying that the customer had a valid DEA registration and that the order was accurately logged into the DEA’s tracking database.From 2003 to 2011, Mallinckrodt shipped a total of 53 million orders, flagged 37,817 as suspicious but stopped only 33 orders, the plaintiffs’ filing states.A Mallinckrodt employee said in a deposition that the DEA had described the company as the “kingpin within the drug cartel” in a meeting with the agency in July 2010, according to a footnote in the filing.In 2011, the filing cites a Justice Department document in which the DEA alleged that Mallinckrodt “sold excessive amounts of the most highly abused forms of oxycodone, 30 mg and 15 mg tablets, placing them into a stream of commerce that would result in diversion.”According to the DEA, the filing states, “even though Mallinckrodt knew of the pattern of excessive sales of its oxycodone feeding massive diversion, it continued to incentivize and supply these suspicious sales,” and never notified the DEA of the suspicious orders.In a settlement with the DEA, Mallinckrodt agreed that from Jan. 1, 2008, through Jan. 1, 2012, “certain aspects of Mallinckrodt’s system to monitor and detect suspicious orders did not meet the standards” outlined in letters from the DEA deputy administrator for diversion control.Mallinckrodt was the nation’s leading manufacturer of oxycodone and hydrocodone, with 28.8 billion pills from 2006 to 2012, 37.7% of the market, according to the DEA database. It has since created a subsidiary for its generic opioids called SpecGx.In 2017 federal prosecutors said 500 million of the company’s 30 mg oxycodone pills wound up in Florida between 2008 and 2012 – 66% of all oxycodone sold in the state. Pills at that dosage are among the most widely abused.Prosecutors said the company failed to report suspicious orders, and Mallinckrodt that year settled the case by paying a $ 35m fine.“Mallinckrodt’s actions and omissions formed a link in the chain of supply that resulted in millions of oxycodone pills being sold on the street,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time.Walgreens used a formula to identify thousands of pharmacy orders as suspicious but shipped them anyway, the filing alleges. The orders were reported to the DEA after they had been shipped, according to agency documents quoted in the filing.“Suspicious orders are to be reported as discovered, not in a collection of monthly completed transactions,” the DEA wrote in an immediate suspension order issued against Walgreens in 2012. “Notwithstanding the ample guidance available, Walgreens has failed to maintain an adequate suspicious order reporting system and as a result, has ignored readily identifiable orders and ordering patterns that, based on the information available throughout the Walgreens Corporation, should have been obvious signs of diversion.”In one case, Walgreens’s suspicious order report to the DEA was 1,712 pages long and contained six months’ worth of orders, including reports on 836 pharmacies in more than a dozen states and Puerto Rico, the filing alleges.The filing also alleges that Walgreens stores could “place ad hoc ‘PDQ’ (”pretty darn quick”) orders to controlled substances outside of their normal order days and outside of the [suspicious order monitoring] analysis and limits.”Peviously, Kristine Atwell, who managed distribution of controlled substances for the company’s warehouse in Jupiter, Florida, sent an email on Jan 10, 2011, to corporate headquarters urging that some of the stores be required to justify their large quantity of orders.“I ran a query to see how many bottles we have sent to store 3836 and we have shipped them 3271 bottles between 12/1/10 and 1/10/11,” Atwell wrote. “I don’t know how they can even house this many bottle[s] to be honest. How do we go about checking the validity of these orders?”A bottle sent by a wholesaler generally contains 100 pills.Walgreens never checked, the DEA said. Between April 2010 and February 2012, the Jupiter distribution centre sent 13.7 million oxycodone doses to six Florida stores, records show, many times the norm, the DEA said.Walgreens ranked second among distributors in the nation, with 13 billion pills and 16.5% of the market for oxycodone and hydrocodone from 2006 through 2012, the DEA database shows. It stopped distributing opioids to its stores in 2014, but continues to dispense controlled substances.As part of a settlement with the DEA in June 2013, Walgreens said that its “suspicious order reporting for distribution to certain pharmacies did not meet the standards identified by DEA.” The company paid an $ 80 million fine to the government.In a statement earlier in the week, Walgreens defended its operations, saying, “Walgreens has been an industry leader in combating this crisis in the communities where our pharmacists live and work.”The Washington Post



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UPDATE 6-Britain weighs response to Iran Gulf crisis with few good options

UPDATE 6-Britain weighs response to Iran Gulf crisis with few good optionsDUBAI/LONDON, July 21 (Reuters) – Britain was weighing its next moves in the Gulf tanker crisis on Sunday, with few good options apparent as a recording emerged showing that the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized a ship three days ago. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee on Monday morning to discuss the crisis. Little clue has been given by Britain on how it plans to respond after Iranian Revolutionary Guards rappelled from helicopters and seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday in apparent retaliation for the British capture of an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier.



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Britain weighs response to Iran Gulf crisis with few good options

Britain weighs response to Iran Gulf crisis with few good optionsDUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Britain was weighing its next moves in the Gulf tanker crisis on Sunday, with few good options apparent as a recording emerged showing that the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized a ship three days ago. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee on Monday morning to discuss the crisis. Little clue has been given by Britain on how it plans to respond after Iranian Revolutionary Guards rappelled from helicopters and seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday in apparent retaliation for the British capture of an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier.



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Iran tanker crisis 'ominous' for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, husband says

Iran tanker crisis 'ominous' for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, husband saysThe husband of jailed British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has said he is worried her future has become “more uncertain and ominous” after Iran’s seizing of a UK tanker in the Gulf. Richard Ratcliffe has expressed concerned for his wife, whom he has not heard from since she was moved on Monday from Tehran’s Evin prison to a psychiatric hospital. Mr Ratcliffe said Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, who had recently ended a 15-day hunger strike, has not been allowed contact for almost a week. “We were hoping now it is the start of a new week in Iran that we might at least get access. Nazanin’s dad is going down today again to try,” Mr Ratcliffe told the Telegraph. “I told the Foreign Office yesterday that in my view we should now regard Nazanin as held incommunicado.” He said it was not known what treatment she was receiving or how long she was expected to remain in hospital. At Evin prison, she had been allowed regular phone calls to Mr Ratcliffe and her lawyer. “With the tankers, obviously everything feels rather more uncertain and ominous," he said.  "It reminds me of the very earliest days when she disappeared under IRGC control," he added. "But I have promised myself I will wait a full week before really panicking."   Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose British nationality is not recognised by Tehran, is serving a five-year sentence for espionage, charges she denies. Days before she was transferred, she told relatives: "Three and a bit years later (…) look at me now – I ended up in an asylum. It should be an embarrassment. "Prison is getting harder and harder for me. I hate being played in the middle of a political game. I just hate it." Mr Ratcliffe said he was concerned what the decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to move her to hospital meant, as when they were involved "bad stuff happens". It was the powerful Revolutionary Guard which on Friday seized the British-flagged Stena Impero after warning it would retaliate the UK’s “unlawful” impounding of an Iranian ship. Amid statements on the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, tweeted on Saturday that he was “very concerned about this week's transfer of Nazanin to an IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corp) hospital.  “We'd hoped this meant she was getting medical treatment she needs but the fact that she has been cut off from contact with her family is giving us huge cause for concern.” The Foreign Office has tried to keep separate Mrs Zaghar-Ratcliffe’s case and the military manoeuvrings in the Persian Gulf, but there are concerns they are being linked by the Islamic Republic.



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Iran crisis: How a British oil tanker was seized by Iran's balaclava-clad Revolutionary Guards

Iran crisis: How a British oil tanker was seized by Iran's balaclava-clad Revolutionary Guards“Allahu akbar”, or God is great, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard marine was heard shouting off camera as the group took control of the British-flagged Stena Impero. Scaling down ropes onto its bow, the balaclava-wearing hijackers made a daring – and seemingly well-rehearsed – raid of the oil tanker, as seen in alleged footage released by Fars news agency last night.  The wind was choppy, the skies overcast. With no navy escort, the Stena stood little chance. Minutes later, at 4.19pm on Friday afternoon, the Stena Impero would “go dark” – not something normally done by commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The first clue as it what happened was its abrupt change of course, which was picked up by marine tracking services. Its destination was a port in Saudi Arabia, but it had taken a sharp turn and was heading into Iranian waters. Minutes earlier it had been boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who had hijacked the vessel using speedboats and a helicopter and turned off its communication systems. Approximately 40 minutes later, a British-owned, Liberian-flagged ship Mesdar also went dark. The trackers picked it up following the same route as the Stena Impero. The crew onboard was questioned for an hour before the vessel was released, unlike the Stena which was escorted on to the coast of Bander Abbas in southern Iran. British authorities were alerted back home and quickly called a meeting of Cobra to figure out their response. This image grab taken from a video provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard official website via SEPAH News The capture of one of their ships was something they had been dreading,though not something that had come entirely as a surprise. Tensions have been heating up in recent weeks in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint. At the start of the month, Gibraltar authorities – aided by a detachment of Royal Marines – detained a tanker which was suspected to be carrying Iranian oil destined for a refinery in Syria in breach of European Union sanctions. "If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities' duty to seize a British oil tanker," an Iranian official tweeted on July 5, the following next day, in response to the news. Revolutionary Guards issued similarly direct threats. Fearing they would make good on them, the Navy sent Type-23 frigate HMS Montrose to shadow its tankers through the strait and dispatched another, HMS Duncan, for support. The Montrose sped to help Stena from Omani waters on Friday, but was an hour too late. Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, had tried to defuse the situation last weekend by suggesting the UK was willing to release the supertanker, but a court in Gibraltar on Friday ruled to hold it for another 30 days. The decision would have further angered Tehran, which has denied the oil was bound for Syria and accused the UK of acting in bad faith. Rising tensions between UK, US and Iran The legality of Britain’s impounding of the Grace 1 has been questioned, however sanctions lawyers say that as it had been travelling through British overseas territory it was subject to EU laws. Revolutionary Guards yesterday tried to justify their seizure of the Stena with alternating claims, including that it had “violated maritime law”, had been driving on the wrong side of the water, risking an accident, and had in fact collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored. No such distress call was picked up by any other ship in the area. Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman of Iran's Guardian Council, which rarely comments on state matters, said they did not need an excuse to take the Stena and spelled out that it had been a tit-for-tat response. "The rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law and Iran's moves to confront the illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers is an instance of this rule and is based on international rights," he said. There is now something of a Mexican stand-off in the Gulf, with both countries seemingly unwilling to hand over the other’s ship. “Iran has responded in a way that presents the UK with a problem,” Michael Stephens, Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, told the Sunday Telegraph. “The ball is now in our court. “The UK could choose to detain more Iranian ships, or look to gather a group of states around the table, such as France, Germany and the US, to see how, and in what ways, more pressure can be placed on Iran both economically and strategically,” he said. However, he believed no major decision would be agreed on until Prime Minister Theresa May’s handover to Boris Johnson later this week. The Foreign Office has stressed it is keeping separate the issues of Iranian threats in Gulf waters, EU sanctions policy on Syria, and the nuclear deal. But inevitably they have all become intertwined. The latest Iranian aggressions can be tracked back to last year, when President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions. The Islamic Republic has legitimate frustrations over the American withdrawal to the deal – which it had been adhering to – that was supposed to swap limiting its nuclear programme for an end to sanctions crippling its economy. At the same time as ratcheting up tensions, however, Mr Trump has made it clear he wants to avoid all-out war with Iran, as has the UK. Iran tensions | Read more Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, on Thursday offered an olive branch to Mr Trump – a deal which would see Tehran accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear programme in return for the permanent lifting of sanctions. Mr Trump has sent Senator Rand Paul, rather than John Bolton, his hawkish anti-Iran national security adviser, for meetings with Mr Zarif, who is in New York on United Nations business. Neither has publicly responded to Mr Zarif's proposal. However, hardliners and the Revolutionary Guard back home want out of the deal, saying the US’s pullout only proved what they always knew – that it cannot be trusted.   "I suspect Stena is a bargaining chip,” Charles Hollis, a former British diplomat in Iran, told the Telegraph. “It came only days after Zarif showed some willingness to open negotiations, which may have led some hardliners to want to disrupt things a little.  “I still don’t think any side is looking for a conflict,” said Mr Hollis, who is now managing director of risk management company Falanx Assynt. “The fact that there are some people on both sides were seeking a deescalation means there may be a deal to be found.” He warned however, that Friday’s incident showed the margins for manoeuvre are “shrinking” and “the risks of unintended consequences growing.”



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Iran crisis: British oil tanker seized in Strait of Hormuz as UK shipping warned to avoid area in Gulf

Iran crisis: British oil tanker seized in Strait of Hormuz as UK shipping warned to avoid area in GulfStena Impero seized in Strait of Hormu​z on Friday night A second tanker, Mesdar, was stopped before being released Jeremy Hunt says seizures "unacceptable", holding a COBR meeting Government warns UK shipping to avoid area Analysis: Boris Johnson could face early test as Iran 'exploits' political uncertainty US developing 'coalition' of navies to protect ships amid Iran tensions Two British oil tankers were seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday night, in a major escalation of tensions in the Gulf. The British-flagged Stena Impero had been en route to Saudi Arabia, but abruptly changed course and began sailing towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, data relayed by maritime tracking services showed. The 30,000-tonne ship “went dark”, meaning its transponder was turned off, at 4.29pm UK time and nothing has been heard from her or her 23 crew since. A second oil tanker, the British-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar, was intercepted by the Guards about 40 minutes after the course shift by Stena Impero, and was held for some time before being allowed to resume navigation.  HMS Montrose, the Type-23 frigate, was understood to have been dispatched to help the Stena, but was minutes too late.  Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz”.  British oil tanker seized in the Gulf Mr Hunt said he was attending a Cobra meeting to determine the UK’s response and what could be done to secure their release, adding that the seizures were “unacceptable”. He said it was understood there were no British citizens among the two crews. US President Donald Trump said Iran was showing its true colours and warned that it was in “big trouble".   Northern Marine, a Clyde-based subsidiary of the Stena Impero’s Swedish owner Stena AB, said a “hostile action” had preceded the vessel’s change of course on Friday afternoon. The company issued a statement saying it had been “approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said in a statement that they stopped the Stena Impero at the request of the maritime authority in the Iranian province of Hormozgan on suspicion that it had “violated international maritime law”, but did not elaborate.  Iran tensions | Read more The head of Iran’s port authority was quoted by Guards-affiliated Tasnim news agency as saying: “We received reports of the British oil tanker, Stena Impero, causing problems, and therefore asked the military to guide the tanker towards Bandar Abbas harbour.” They said the Mesdar, whose transponder was also turned off, was briefly held and cautioned about “environmental regulations” before it was let go. Stena Bulk said the ship was "in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations." "There are 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality," said Erik Hanell, president and chief executive of Stena Bulk. He said there had been no reported injuries. Tracking data showed the Stena Impero was in the same area that a United Arab Emirates-based vessel was detained on Sunday and where a British vessel, the British Heritage, was blocked by Iranian forces earlier this month. The move appeared to be in retaliation for Britain's seizure of the Iranian Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar earlier this month. Rising tensions between UK, US and Iran British authorities seized the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, on suspicion it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. The fate of the tanker has been at the centre of escalating tensions between the UK and Iran and was seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West. Mr Hunt had hinted that the UK would release the ship if Iran promised its cargo would not go to the Syrian regime. The Foreign Secretary said talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had been productive.  However, a court in Gibraltar on Friday extended for 30 days the detention of the vessel, which was carrying two million barrels of oil. Tensions have been building for weeks in the Persian Gulf. On July 10, HMS Montrose intervened to drive three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert the British Heritage.  Iran seized a Panama-flagged ship on Sunday, it alleges, for “smuggling oil to foreign countries”. Mystery surrounds the capture as no country has come forward to claim the ship or its cargo. The US claimed on Thursday to have downed an Iranian drone that had been flying too close to one of its navy ships. Iran denied the claims. Oil prices rose on Friday night after the tankers were seized.   The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s exports to put pressure on it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal it abandoned last year. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot export its oil.  6:41AM Boris Johnson could face early diplomatic test Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker couldn’t have come at a worse time for the UK – and Tehran knows it.  While Theresa May has days left as Prime Minister, her foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been in the midst of a leadership election campaign to replace her. His rival, Boris Johnson, is the favourite to win the Tory battle, but the former foreign secretary will be carrying diplomatic baggage if he enters Number 10.    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the start of their meeting in Tehran in 2017 Credit: AP “The timing from a transition viewpoint is awful,” said Dr Euan Graham, an expert in maritime security and Executive Director of La Trobe Asia.  “It could be an instant early test of Johnson’s crisis management skills, or lack thereof, if the issue is unresolved and he becomes PM next week.” Read the full analysis.  6:37AM Oil tanker was involved in 'accident', Iran claims Iranian media claims the Stena Impero was in an accident with a fishing boat before being detained on Friday. All 23 crew seized on the tanker are now at Bandar Abbas port and will remain on the vessel until the end of an investigation, Iran's Fars news agency reported on Saturday, quoting an official.  "It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat… When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it," said the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour. "The tanker is now at Iran's Bandar Abbas port and all of its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over." 5:11AM US official plays down seizure An American military official has played down the latest escalation in the region, calling it a foreseeable response to Britain's seizure of the Iranian tanker near Gibraltar.  In a discussion with journalists at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley Jr., the top military intelligence officer, said: “They look for things that are proportional in nature. They aren’t looking to go to war but at the same time they are looking to project strength.” “They’re not looking to do something that is going to spiral out of control because war is not what they’re looking for,” Ashley said. “But at the same time, their decision calculus is they’ve gotta do something in response.” My story coming soon…— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) July 19, 2019   3:54AM 'This is precisely how Iran negotiates' Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, has told AFP that the recent events involving Tehran are "the exact opposite of odd." "This is precisely how Iran negotiates: the unctuous charm of (Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif paired with a punch in the face from the (Revolutionary Guards). They are two sides of the same coin, complementary and coordinated." Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to NATO during President George W. Bush’s administration, suggested resurrecting a 1980s policy of having tankers accompanied by military escorts in the Gulf. “We should form an international coalition of democratic countries to escort every single commercial vessel through the gulf,” Burns told Bloomberg in an interview in Colorado. “The Iranians are an outlaw, they’re acting like an outlaw country, they’re trying to shut down one of the major waterways in the world and then hold us up on it and blackmail us.” 2:56AM Saudi Arabia to host US forces The US Defence Department has confirmed that Saudi Arabia will host US forces in the region, saying it would deploy troops and resources to the country to "provide an additional deterrent" in the face of "emergent, credible threats." The gesture comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran in the Gulf,  as well as the seizure of the British oil tanker in the region. The decision on hosting US forces aims "to increase joint cooperation in defence of regional security and stability and to preserve its peace", the state news agency (SPA) reported, quoting a Ministry of Defence official, without giving further details. US Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (C-L), Commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), shakes hands with Saudi military officers during his visit to a military base in al-Kharj in central Saudi Arabia on Thursday Credit: AFP   A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the deployment would include about 500 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, and is part of a boost in the number of US troops in the Middle East that the Pentagon announced last month. In June, the Pentagon said it would deploy 1,000 troops to the Middle East but did not say where they were going. Saudi Arabia has not hosted US forces since 2003 when they withdrew following the end of the war with Iraq.  2:13AM What has led to this seizure? The seizure of the Stena Impero tanker in the Strait of Hormuz is the latest episode to contribute to rising tensions between the UK, US and Iran in the region. Here is a timeline of recent incidents involving the three nations: Rising tensions between UK, US and Iran   1:28AM Government warns UK shipping to avoid Strait of Hormuz After a COBR meeting this evening, the government is urging UK shipping the avoid the Strait of Hormuz region. “We remain deeply concerned about Iran's unacceptable actions which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation.  We have advised UK shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period.  “As the Foreign Secretary has said, our response will be considered and robust and there will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved. “We remain in close contact with our international partners and there will be further meetings over the weekend." 12:57AM Oil tanker was 'in full compliance of regulations' The British operator of the Stena Impero was in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations, a spokesman has said. Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted a military source as saying the vessel had turned off its tracker, ignored warnings from the Revolutionary Guards and was sailing in the wrong direction in a shipping lane. "There are 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality," said Erik Hanell, President and Chief Executive of the operator, Stena Bulk. "There have been no reported injuries and the safety and welfare of our crew remains our primary focus." The ship "is no longer under the control of the crew and remains uncontactable", he added. British oil tanker seized in the Gulf   12:45AM Corbyn says Trump fuelled risk of conflict Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, responding to the seizure of two British tankers by Iranian forces, said: "The seizure of these vessels is unacceptable, and the tanker that remains under Iranian control must be released. Escalation risks a slide into an even deeper conflict. "President Trump's decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal fuelled the risk of full-scale conflict. "A negotiated reinstatement of the nuclear deal through the UN is essential to wind down tensions and defuse the threat of war in the Gulf." 12:12AM US sought 'coalition' of navies to protect ships amid Iran tensions Hours before the hijacking of the British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, America's special representative for Iran was explaining its position to diplomats in Washington, Josie Ensor reports.  Some 100 envoys took part in the briefing by Brian Hook, who outlined the Trump administration's initiative for maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran released footage on Friday from what it said was the "downed drone" Credit: AFP Mr Hook said tensions had risen sharply and necessitated the need for a "coalition" of navies to protect their ships through the strait. Read the full story. 11:52PM US intensifying air patrols in region US Central Command says the US has intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the Iranian seizure of a British tanker. A Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, says a small number of additional patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation. He also says Central Command's naval arm has been in contact with U.S. ships operating in the area to ensure their safety. 11:22PM Stena Impero 'surrounded by four vessels and helicopter' Mr Hunt said the Stena Impero was surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter, and is heading into Iranian waters. The second ship – the Mesdar – was surrounded by 10 speedboats, Mr Hunt told Sky, though said it was "not clear yet" whether it had changed course. He said he had spoken to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo this evening about the situation and had tried to speak to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but he is on a plane. "I will speak to him as soon as I can", Mr Hunt said. 11:21PM Hunt warns of  'serious consequences' Mr Hunt warned there would be "serious consequences" if the situation is not resolved quickly. He told Sky News: "We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences." Asked if he could rule out military intervention, Mr Hunt said: "We're not looking at military options – we're looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation – but we are very clear that it must be resolved. "Freedom of navigation in the Gulf is absolutely essential. If that freedom of navigation is restricted, Iran is the biggest loser and so it is in their interest to resolve this situation as quickly as possible and we will do everything we can to do that." 10:31PM Tanker released? Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Iran's Revolutionary Guards had not captured the Mesdar. "Despite reports, the ship has not been seized…and was allowed to continue its course after being warned about safety issues by Iranian forces," the report said. A spokesman for Norbulk Shipping UK confirmed the crew of the Mesdar are "safe and well" and the vessel has been "allowed" to continue its voyage. 9:16PM Is it rash to sail through the Strait? Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran, suggested the owners of the Stena Impero had been "rash" in sailing the tanker through the Strait of Hormuz. Speaking to Sky News, he said Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had promised retaliation following the detention of Iran's Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waving to the crowd during a ceremony attended by Iranian clerics in the Iranian capital Tehran, on July 16 Sir Richard said: "With hindsight, it's easy to say that this was a somewhat reckless act by the owners, given that there was no British naval vessel in the vicinity." He said the Iranians had "lost their cool" despite recent "constructive discussions" over the Grace 1. Sir Richard added: "I don't think the Iranians will continue to try to seize British vessels given they have got what they want, which is something to hold in a negotiation with Britain about their cargo held, they consider illegally, in Gibraltar." 9:07PM UK Chamber of Shipping calls for increased protection for vessels Bob Sanguinetti, the CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, says:  “We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero as she transited  the Strait of Hormuz earlier today.  The action by those involved is in violation of international regulations which protect ships and their crews as they go about their legitimate business in international waters. “Our priority is for the safety and welfare of the crew.  We call on the UK Government to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe and swift return. An Iranian navy boat trying to control fire from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker, said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman in June “This incident represents an escalation.  Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region.” 9:03PM Donald Trump being kept informed President Donald Trump said he would "talk to the UK" about the incident. “We heard about it,” he said. "We don’t have many tankers going in.”  Donald Trump said he is being kept abreast of developments "This only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble," he said. Trump said "Iran is showing their colors" and "in big trouble right now" because its economy has been crippled by U.S. economic sanctions. The U.S. has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in past weeks to contribute financially and militarily to a Trump administration proposal called the Sentinel Program – a coalition of nations working with the U.S. to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran. 8:54PM Foreign Secretary responds Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “I’m extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz. “I will shortly attend a COBR meeting to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels – a British-flagged vessel and a Liberian-flagged vessel. “Their crews comprise a range of nationalities, but we understand there are no British citizens on board either ship. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary “Our Ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners. “These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.” 8:50PM Crew from multiple countries Our Political Editor, Gordon Rayner, writes: A Government source said the crews on board the two ships are “a range of nationalities” but no Britons are among the crews of either ship.  A Conta meeting due to start at 10.30 tonight will be chaired by either Jeremy Hunt or David Lidington.



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Iran says maybe US accidentally downed its own drone as Gulf crisis simmers

Iran says maybe US accidentally downed its own drone as Gulf crisis simmersTehran has denied a US claim that an American warship in the Gulf shot down an Iranian aerial drone, suggesting that perhaps US forces brought down one of their own aircraft instead.US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the USS Boxer shot down what he described as an Iranian drone near the Strait of Hormuz after repeated warnings that it was approaching too close to the US Navy amphibious assault ship. But Iranian officials Friday derided the claim that the US had brought down one of its drones as “delusional,” and insisted that all of its “reconnaissance” drones had safely returned to base."Contrary to the delusional claim made by the president of the American regime, all UAVs belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, including the one mentioned by the US president, have safely returned to their bases,” Brig-Gen Abolfazl Shekarchi was quoted as saying by state media. “There have been no reports of any confrontation with the USS Boxer.” Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s quick-witted deputy foreign minister, quipped on Twitter: “We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own [UAV] by mistake!”The incident and ensuing confusion is the latest flare-up between Iran and the United States in a period of marked escalation following Washington’s move last year to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and begin punishing international companies for doing business with Tehran.Iran has responded by challenging the US and its allies. It downed an expensive US drone near or in its territory last month and is allegedly behind a number of attempts to sabotage or harass oil tankers moving in and out of the Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz that connects it to the seas. “These attacks serve Iran’s purpose by offering Tehran the benefit of ambiguity, and they have not resulted in any loss of life to date — thereby increasing the potential to further threaten Gulf shipping without necessarily provoking a major U.S. military response,” the Soufan Center, a consultancy, wrote in a note on Friday. Details of the latest confrontation remain murky. The US has yet to release surveillance video or other footage showing its targeting of the drone. Iran may be denying its drone was shot to down to avoid having to respond and further escalate, but has said it will soon release footage showing the “ridiculousness of the operation the Americans claim".Mr Trump, reading from what was apparently a carefully worded prepared statement, said on Thursday that the Iranian drone “ignored multiple calls to stand down,” describing the incident as “the latest of many provocative and hostile actions against vessels operating in international waters.”But Brig Gen Shekarji described the US accusations, which were echoed by the Pentagon as well as the White House, as “aimed at provocation and destabilisation of the Persian Gulf region and the strategic Strait of Hormuz.”The incident and the ones preceding it have spooked the shipping industry. An industry source told The Independent that insurance costs for shippers moving in and out of the Persian Gulf had tripled and quadrupled over the last few weeks as tensions between Iran and the US have spiked, an increase in expenses which will likely be passed on to consumers across the world. "Until the situation is stabilised the increased threat levels may result in delays, an increase in shipping costs, and included in that is higher insurance premiums, and potential higher energy prices," said the source. "All of that will be absorbed by consumers."At a briefing on Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov placed blame on Washington and its campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran for the rising tensions and occasional flare-ups. “The concentration of forces and equipment in the area of the Persian Gulf, belonging to different countries, is so high that any incidents are possible,” he said, according to the Tass news agency. “We regret that the US side, despite all calls … still persistently continues its policy of increasing tension and putting maximum pressure on Tehran. This policy is erroneous and is fraught with further complications and upheavals.”



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Trump Administration Implements ‘Third Country’ Rule to Alleviate Border Crisis

Trump Administration Implements ‘Third Country’ Rule to Alleviate Border CrisisThe Trump administration on Monday announced a new “safe third country” policy that will drastically reduce the number of Central American migrants eligible to receive asylum in the U.S.The new policy, which will take effect when it is published in the Federal Register Tuesday, requires that migrants first apply for refugee status in Mexico, or whatever country they enter after leaving home, before seeking asylum in the U.S. Under the policy, only those migrants who have been denied asylum in another country will be eligible to seek asylum in the U.S.“Ultimately, today's action will reduce the overwhelming burdens on our domestic system caused by asylum-seekers failing to seek urgent protection in the first available country, economic migrants lacking a legitimate fear of persecution, and the transnational criminal organizations, traffickers, and smugglers exploiting our system for profits,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said in a statement.The rule change, which is sure to be met with numerous legal challenges, is designed to discourage economic migrants from applying for asylum and includes exceptions for victims of human trafficking and other crimes.Attorney General Bill Barr said the move would stop “forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States—while ensuring that no one is removed from the United States who is more likely than not to be tortured or persecuted on account of a protected ground.”The policy shift builds on the previously implemented Migrant Protection Protocols, which required that certain asylum-seekers remain in Mexico while their cases are being adjudicated.Federal law allows anyone who enters the U.S. to apply for asylum but includes an exception for those who first travel through a "safe third country."Currently, the U.S. only has a "safe third country" agreement with Canada and administration officials have thus far been rebuffed in their efforts to secure a similar arrangement with Mexico. Central American countries, including Guatemala and El Salvador, are considering adopting a regional compact to strike a similar deal with the U.S., but there is a legal challenge pending in Guatemala that is now preventing the finalization of any such deal.



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'The crisis is real': Mike Pence sees 'tough stuff' and 'compassionate work' at Texas border facilities

'The crisis is real': Mike Pence sees 'tough stuff' and 'compassionate work' at Texas border facilitiesVice President Mike Pence and a group of Senate Republicans toured a pair of border facilities in Texas amid concerns over conditions at such centers.



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