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Expect additional measures in coming days over Russia's referendums -State Dept

FILE PHOTO: U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, U.S. March 10, 2022. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 19:38

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Wednesday said to expect additional measures in coming days from Washington in response to referendums held by Russia in occupied regions of Ukraine.

"We will continue to work with allies and partners to bring even more pressure on Russia and the individuals and entities that are helping support its attempted land grab," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Writing by Daphne Psaledakis and Rami Ayyub)

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European Greens push for trade sanctions if Brazil's Bolsonaro 'subverts' democracy

Brazil's President and candidate for re-election Jair Bolsonaro attends a campaign rally in Santos, Brazil September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Carla Carniel reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 19:07

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Fifty center-left members of the European Parliament urged the European Union on Wednesday to closely monitor Sunday's election in Brazil for any attempt by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to subvert democracy, and said trade sanctions should be imposed if he did.

In an open letter to the European Commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen, and its vice-president, Josep Borrell, the Greens–European Free Alliance and some Social Democrat MEPs said Bolsonaro has systematically attacked Brazil's electoral system.

"We urge you to take additional steps to make it unequivocally clear to President Bolsonaro and his government that Brazil's Constitution must be respected and attempts to subvert the rules of democracy are unacceptable," it said.

"The EU should state that it will use different levers, including trade, to defend Brazil's democracy and human rights," the MEPs said.

Bolsonaro is trailing his leftist rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and is expected to contest the result if he does not win re-election. He has claimed electoral authorities will rig the vote against him and made unfounded allegations of fraud in Brazil’s electronic voting system.

The latest poll by IPEC shows Lula has slightly increased his lead to 17 percentage ahead of Sunday's first-round vote, with 48% of voter support to 31% for Bolsonaro. The poll showed Lula could win outright in the first round, with 52% of voter intentions excluding abstentions and null votes.

If the race goes to a runoff, Lula would win by 54% of the votes versus Bolsonaro's 35%, according to the IPEC poll published on Monday, which had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paul Simao)

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Sudanese taskforce battles snakes and scorpions during rainy season

Dr. Manal Siyam conducts research on snake at the Natural History Museum in Khartoum, Sudan. September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:52

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - In Khartoum, specialists from Sudan's Center for Poisonous Species Research are deployed at night in protective vests, gloves, and goggles to catch a snake that residents say has killed a cat, before it has a chance to strike again.

Attacks by snakes and scorpions are more frequent during Sudan's rainy season, when water levels on the river Nile can rise and send floodwaters surging into communities.

The taskforce says its work is particularly important as doctors do not have antidotes made specifically for the venom of snakes found in Sudan.

(Reporting by Eltayeb Sidding, writing by Nafisa Eltahir, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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Russian ballet dancer censured for pro-war performance in Uzbekistan

FILE PHOTO: Russian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin rehearses at the Royal Opera House for the Project Polunin show in London, Britain, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:50

ALMATY (Reuters) - A prominent Russian ballet dancer complained on Wednesday that he was censured for performing a song dedicated to fallen Russian soldiers while on tour in Uzbekistan, while Uzbek authorities said he had deviated from an agreed programme.

The incident highlighted the concern among Moscow's Central Asian partners about its military campaign in Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic.

Dancer Sergei Polunin said in an Instagram video he had performed a dance - in military uniform - for fallen Russian soldiers to a song whose lyrics include lines such "We will rise, as long as God is with us and the truth is ours".

The song, "Let Us Rise", was released on Feb. 23, Russia's Army Day - the day before Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

After the performance, Polunin said, officials of Uzbekistan's Culture and Arts Development Foundation - an Uzbek state agency overseeing arts - rudely reprimanded him for it. Polunin said he wanted Russian diplomats to stand up for him.

"We must not cave in to this, we must not allow them to do this to Russian artists and Russian culture," he said.

Uzbekistan's Gazeta.uz news website, however, quoted the foundation as saying its officials were polite and pointed out that Polunin was supposed to stick to the programme, which it said was the song "Take Me to Church" by Irish musician Hozier.

Despite having close ties with Russia, Uzbekistan and its neighbour Kazakhstan have refused to support what Moscow calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine, appealing for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Over the past week, tens of thousands of Russians have fled to Central Asia to evade a conscription campaign announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin amid setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefields.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Armenia says three soldiers killed by Azeri shelling -Tass

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 19:35

LONDON (Reuters) -Armenia said three soldiers were killed by shelling from Azerbaijan on Wednesday, Tass agency reported, as the two neighbours accused each other of violating a ceasefire that ended two days of warfare.

Tass cited an Armenian defence ministry statement but did not give details. Last Friday, both sides accused each other of breaching the truce by firing across the border.

After border clashes two weeks ago that killed almost 200 soldiers, the worst bout of fighting since a six-week war between the two ex-Soviet countries in late 2020, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia.

The fighting is linked to decades-old hostilities over control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but until 2020 largely controlled by the majority ethnic Armenian population.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry said that at about 6 p.m. (1400 GMT), Armenian units had started firing at Azerbaijani positions in the Kalbajar region, wounding one serviceman, and that Azerbaijani forces had taken "retaliatory measures".

The Armenian defence ministry gave an opposite account, tweeting that Azerbaijani forces had fired towards Armenian positions near the common border using mortars and large-calibre weapons, and that the Armenian side had retaliated.

Armenia said then that Azerbaijan had attacked its territory and seized settlements inside its borders; Azerbaijan said it was responding to "provocations" from the Armenian side.

(Writing by Kevin Liffey and David Ljunggren; Editing by David Evans and Alistair Bell)

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EU vows to protect energy network after 'sabotage' of Russian gas pipeline

Gas bubbles from the Nord Stream 2 leak reaching surface of the Baltic Sea in the area shows disturbance of well over one kilometre diameter near Bornholm, Denmark, September 27, 2022. Danish Defence Command/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:24

By Paul Carrel and Stine Jacobsen

BERLIN/COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The European Union on Wednesday promised a "robust" response to any intentional disruption of its energy infrastructure after saying it suspected sabotage was behind gas leaks discovered this week on subsea Russian pipelines to Europe.

As gas spewed out under the Baltic Sea for a third day after first being detected, it remained far from clear who might be responsible for any sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines that Russia and European partners spent billions of dollars building.

Russia, which slashed gas deliveries to Europe after the West imposed sanctions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, has also said sabotage was a possibility.

"Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response," the EU foreign policy chief Borrell said.

Echoing the views of Germany, Denmark and Sweden, he said the EU believed sabotage was probably the cause, although the EU has not named a potential perpetrator or suggested a motive.

The United Nations Security Council will convene on Friday at the request of Russia to discuss damage to the Nord Stream pipelines, the French U.N. mission, which holds the presidency of the 15-member council for September, said.

Russia's embassy in Denmark said any sabotage on Nord Stream's pipelines was an attack on both Russia's and Europe's energy security.

The Nord Stream pipelines have been flashpoints in an escalating energy war between capitals in Europe and Moscow that has damaged major Western economies and sent gas prices soaring.

SECURITY ALERT

Denmark's defence minister said after a meeting with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg there was reason to be concerned about the security situation in the region.

"Russia has a significant military presence in the Baltic Sea region and we expect them to continue their sabre-rattling," Morten Bodskov said in a statement.

Norway's prime minister said on Wednesday that its military will be deployed near oil and gas installations, while Denmark is raising its level of preparedness.

"The military will be more visible at Norwegian oil and gas installations," Norway's Jonas Gahr Stoere told a news briefing.

In the Baltic Sea, gas was still bubbling from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the Swedish Coast Guard said in an email.

The Danish Energy Agency said more than half the gas in the damaged Nord Stream pipelines had left the pipes and the remaining volume was expected to be gone by Sunday.

Jens Schumann, managing director of gas pipeline grid company Gasunie Deutschland, said he was "relatively optimistic" that the damage could be repaired.

"There are good teams in place to handle pipeline accidents, there are emergency pipe inventories and experts for onshore and offshore," Schuman said.

But German security agencies fear that Nord Stream 1 will become unusable if large volumes of salt water flow into the pipes and cause corrosion, German newspaper Tagesspiegel reported, citing government sources.

The Danish armed forces said the largest gas leak caused a surface disturbance of more than 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) in diameter, as agencies issued warnings to shipping.

Sweden's Prosecution Authority said it will review material from a police investigation and decide on further action, after Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on Tuesday that two blasts had been detected.

Although this did not represent an attack on Sweden, Stockholm was in close contact with partners such as NATO and neighbours such as Denmark and Germany, Andersson said.

Seismologists in Denmark and Sweden said they had registered two powerful blasts on Monday in the vicinity of the leaks and the explosions were in the water, not under the seabed.

GRAPHIC - Map: Leaks reported from Russian Nord Stream pipelines

https://graphics.reuters.com/UKRAINE-CRISIS/ENERGY/xmpjozoewvr/leakage-map.jpg

GAS FLOWS

Operator Nord Stream has called the damage "unprecedented", while Russian-controlled Gazprom, which has a monopoly on gas exports by pipeline, declined to comment.

While neither pipeline was delivering gas to Europe at the time, the incidents scupper any remaining expectations that Europe could receive fuel via Nord Stream 1 before winter.

"A development that could have a more immediate impact on gas supplies to Europe was a warning from Gazprom that Russia could impose sanctions on Ukraine's Naftogaz due to ongoing arbitration," analysts at ING Research said.

Naftogaz's CEO said on Wednesday the Ukrainian energy firm will continue with arbitration proceedings against Gazprom over Russian natural gas which transits the country.

Gazprom said earlier in the week that while rejecting all Naftogaz's claims in arbitration, it may introduce sanctions against the company in case it presses ahead with the case.

"The risk is that these flows come to a complete halt, which will only tighten up the European market further as we move towards the heating season," the ING analysts added.

European gas prices rose following news of the leaks. The benchmark October Dutch price was up by 11% at 204.50 euros/megawatt hour on Wednesday. Although prices are still below this year's peaks, they remain more than 200% higher than in early September 2021.

Russia reduced gas supplies to Europe via Nord Stream 1 before suspending flows altogether in August, blaming Western sanctions for causing technical difficulties. European politicians say that was a pretext to stop supplying gas.

The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline had yet to enter commercial operations. The plan to use it to supply gas was scrapped by Germany days before Russia began what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine in late February.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Louise Heavens, Elaine Hardcastle and David Evans)

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Hurricane Ian nears Florida with nearly Category 5 power

Hotel guests watch from a hallway window as gusts from Hurricane Ian approach Florida’s Gulf Coast in Sarasota, Florida, U.S. September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Steve Nesius reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:47

By Brad Brooks and Brendan O'Brien

VENICE, Fla. (Reuters) -Hurricane Ian on Wednesday began lashing Florida's Gulf Coast with powerful winds and drenching rain, prompting authorities to tell residents it was too late to evacuate as the eye of the storm inched toward shore with close to Category 5 power.

At 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT), Ian was around 50 miles (80 km) southwest of Punta Gorda, Florida, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

That was just shy of a Category 5 designation, which is the most severe storm classification with sustained winds of at least 157 mph, though Ian was expected to weaken a notch after hitting land, the center said.

The hurricane was expected to crash into Florida at about 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) in Charlotte County, about 100 miles south of Tampa and just north of Fort Myers. The region is home to miles of sandy beaches, scores of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks, a favorite with retirees and vacationers alike.

At noon, the center said the storm's eyewall, just outside of the center, was moving on shore at Sanibel and Captiva islands, which form a barrier to the west of Fort Myers. It also issued a rare "extreme wind warning" that could signal the approach of a tornado there.

In Venice, a coastal city of nearly 24,000 residents, halfway between Tampa and Fort Myers, rain and wind were already intense before noon. Many streets were flooded, and the steady gale bent palm trees at 45 degree angles and shredded billboards and road signs.

Forecasters say Ian would unleash wind-driven high surf, torrential rains that may cause storm surges of up to 18 feet (3.7 meters) along with intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes. The storm's outer bands were already bringing heavy winds and rains to much of the Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning.

"I wish this wasn't a forecast that was about to come true. This is a storm that we will talk about for many years to come, an historic event," said Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service.

More than 200,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida midday on Wednesday, Governor Ron DeSantis said, adding that number was a "drop in the bucket to what's going to happen in the next 24-48 hours."

Earlier this week, authorities told more than 2.5 million residents to evacuate. Doug Toe of Venice was one of those residents who chose to ignore warnings and stay put. As he walked through rainfall on Wednesday morning to see how a friend's home was weathering the storm, Toe admitted to never experiencing a storm of this magnitude, but he was unfazed by the prospects of it ravaging his neighborhood.

“You have to be vigilant because you never know what’s going to happen with it,” he said. “I’m staying vigilant, but trying not to worry.”

Hotels along Interstate Highway 75, which runs up and down Florida’s west coast, were jam packed with people seeking shelter. This area is dotted with mobile home parks, which most residents had abandoned, taking refuge in local schools and other facilities being used as emergency shelters. The area's numerous assisted-living facilities were mostly evacuated, too.

Heartis Venice, an assisted living home north of Venice, was an exception. Of its 107 residents, 98 decided to shelter in place and continue receiving care with help of staff and some family members, general manager Michelle Barger said. The facility, opened two years ago, was built to withstand a Category 5 storm.

The facility stocked up on enough food and water to last more than seven days, as well as all medications and supplies needed to provide services, Barger said.

"Our community is locked down. We're secure and we're prepared for this," she said. "We feel pretty confident and safe, as do the residents and families and team members here."

WARMING PLANET

Climate change is making hurricanes wetter, windier and more intense. There is also evidence that it is causing storms to travel more slowly, meaning they can dump more water in one place, scientists say.

"Hurricane Ian's rapid intensification could prove to be another example of how a warming planet is changing hurricanes," said Kait Parker, meteorologist and climate scientist at IBM's weather.com. "Research shows we are seeing this far more often than we did in decades past."

Overnight and into Wednesday morning, Hurricane Ian pounded the Florida Keys island chain to the southernmost shores of the state's Gulf Coast with heavy rains showers and winds gusts of 40 mph, the NWS reported.

On Tuesday, the storm thrashed Cuba, knocking out the electrical grid for 11 million people and ravaging the western end of the island with violent winds and flooding. By early Wednesday, the state electricity provider said it had begun to restore power across the eastern end of the island.

Read more:

Cuba slowly begins to restore power after Hurricane Ian knocks out grid

The worst hurricanes in Florida's history as Ian takes aim

How hurricanes cause dangerous, destructive storm surges

How climate change is fueling hurricanes

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sarasota and Brendan O'Brien in Washington; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Leah Douglas and Tyler Clifford in Washington; and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)

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Putin expected to proclaim annexation of Ukraine territory within days

A Russian serviceman addresses reservists at a gathering point in the course of partial mobilization of troops, aimed to support the country's military campaign in Ukraine, in the town of Volzhsky in the Volgograd region, Russia September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:48

By Jonathan Landay

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Moscow was poised on Wednesday to annex a swath of Ukraine, releasing what it called vote tallies showing support in four partially occupied provinces to join Russia, after what Kyiv and the West denounced as illegal sham referendums held at gunpoint.

On Moscow's Red Square, a tribune with giant video screens has been set up, with billboards proclaiming "Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson - Russia!"

President Vladimir Putin could proclaim the annexation in a speech within days, just over a week since he endorsed the referendums, ordered a military mobilisation at home and threatened to defend Russia with nuclear weapons if necessary.

The Russian-installed administrations of the four Ukrainian provinces on Wednesday formally asked Putin to incorporate them into Russia, which Russian officials have suggested is a formality.

"The results are clear. Welcome home, to Russia!," Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who serves as deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said on Telegram, after the release of the results.

Russian-backed authorities claim to have carried out the referendums over five days on territory that makes up around 15% of Ukraine.

Residents who escaped to Ukrainian-held territory in recent days have told of people being forced to tick ballots in the street by roving officials at gunpoint. Footage filmed during the exercise showed Russian-installed officials taking ballot boxes from house to house with armed men in tow.

Russia says voting was voluntary and in line with international law, and turnout high.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to rally international support for his country against possible Russian annexations in a series of calls with foreign leaders, including those of Britain, Canada, Germany and Turkey.

He told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the world must not bow to Russian "nuclear blackmail", adding: "The aggressor must clearly understand all the consequences of his irresponsibility".

The United States said it was working with allies and partners to quickly impose severe economic costs on Moscow over the referendums.

The European Union's executive also proposed fresh sanctions against Russia, but the bloc's 27 member countries will need to overcome their own differences to implement them.

Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader in Donetsk, said he was on his way to Moscow to complete the legal process of joining Russia.

"Now we are moving to a new stage of military action," he said, amid speculation that Putin is set to change the status of what he has so far called a "special military operation" to a counter-terrorism operation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would need to keep fighting until it had taken control of all of Donetsk. Around 40% of the province is still under Ukrainian control and scene of some of the war's heaviest fighting.

The Russian annexation plan gathered pace as leaking gas bubbled up in the Baltic Sea for a second day after suspected explosions tore through undersea Russian pipelines on Tuesday. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, once the main route for Russian gas to Germany, was already shut but cannot now be easily reopened.

NATO and the European Union warned of the need to protect critical infrastructure from what they called "sabotage", though officials stopped short of saying who they blamed. Russia's FSB security service is investigating the damage sustained to the pipelines as "international terrorism", the Interfax news agency cited the general prosecutor's office as saying.

EXODUS

The annexation is part of a huge escalation strategy announced by Putin last week, along with the swift call-up of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to fight, and a new warning on nuclear weapons, which he said was "not a bluff".

His action followed a stunning setback at the front, when Russian forces hastily abandoned territory the size of Cyprus in a matter of days.

Russian officials have said any attack on annexed territory would be an attack on Russia itself.

The annexations have been rejected globally, with even traditional allies of Moscow such as Serbia and Kazakhstan saying they will not recognise it.

In the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainians who managed to flee Russian-occupied territory through the last frontline checkpoint said they had seen no real voting.

"They can announce anything they want. Nobody voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house but nobody came out," said Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province.

Residents said many were fleeing for fear Moscow will start press-ganging men to fight in its forces once it declares the territory to be Russian. For now, Russian officials at the checkpoint were letting some people leave.

"The line of vehicles was so long you could not see the end of it," said Andriy, 37, an agricultural worker from Beryslav in Kherson province who declined to give his last name, describing the checkpoint.

Entire villages had emptied, he said, standing by the mud-spattered minibus in which he arrived with his wife, two children and parents.

"Seventy percent of people are leaving because of the referendum. There was no light, no gas, and no work, and all of a sudden you get the referendum. It’s complete nonsense."

(Reporting by Reuters Writing by Andrew Osborn and Toby Chopra; Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson)

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EU executive proposes eighth batch of sanctions against Russia

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses the media on the Ukraine crisis, in Brussels, Belgium, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:34

By Gabriela Baczynska, Sabine Siebold and Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union executive proposed on Wednesday an eighth round of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, including tighter trade restrictions, more individual blacklistings and an oil price cap for third countries.

The proposal will now go to the bloc's 27 member countries, which will need to overcome their differences to implement the new sanctions on top of seven sets of punitive measures imposed on Russia since its forces swept into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

That may take time despite the EU being spurred into action by Russia's military mobilisation last week, nuclear threats and steps to annex a swathe of Ukraine, after invading the former Soviet republic that aspires to join the EU.

"We do not accept the sham referenda (in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine) nor any kind of annexation...And we are determined to make the Kremlin pay the price for this further escalation," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

"We are proposing a new package of biting sanctions."

The Group of Seven major industrialised countries - which includes EU countries Italy, France and Germany - have already agreed to put an oil price cap in place via insurers.

Earlier on Wednesday, a senior economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on the EU to further cut money flows to Russia from fossil fuel sales.

"If you are doing nothing it means you are just prolonging this war with Ukraine. This is just ridiculous. The whole civilised world has to be united on that," said Oleg Ustenko.

While the EU already agreed to stop importing Russian oil starting later this year, Ustenko said "blood money" would keep on flowing to Moscow unless European companies were banned from insuring Russia's seaborne shipments to other countries.

UNANIMITY

The proposed sanctions fall short of harder-hitting measures, including a ban on importing Russian diamonds, sought by Russia hawks Poland and the three Baltic countries.

But EU states need unanimity to impose sanctions and the oil cap might be too much for Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who cultivates close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been a vocal critic of economic restrictions.

Ustenko hoped Hungary would eventually agree, and that EU countries with large shipping fleets - Greece, Malta and Cyprus - would also back more measures hitting Russian oil revenues.

Speaking next to von der Leyen, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was also blacklisting more individuals from Russia's defence sector, those involved in ad hoc votes organised by Moscow in occupied Ukrainian territories, those the West blames for spreading Russian propaganda and those helping to circumvent sanctions against Moscow.

Poland's EU ambassador said the proposed individual sanctions would include Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a close Kremlin ally, after previous attempts to blacklist him in the EU were blocked by Hungary.

Von der Leyen said a new imports ban would cost Russia 7 billion euros in lost revenues and that the EU would also expand the list of prohibited exports "to deprive the Kremlin's war machine of key technologies".

Under the proposal, European companies would be barred from providing more services to Russia and European citizens would not be allowed to sit on boards of Russian state companies.

This would be a nod to popular outrage over the cases of Gerhard Schroeder and Francois Fillon - former top European politicians who subsequently took jobs on Russian boards.

The Commission was due to present details of the proposal to member states at a closed-door meeting later on Wednesday and the 27 were expected to have a first discussion on Friday before national EU leaders meet in Prague on Oct. 6-7.

(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and John Chalmers, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by John Chalmers, Alex Richardson and Mark Heinrich)

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N.Korea fires two ballistic missiles ahead of Harris visit to South

FILE PHOTO: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un addresses the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's parliament, which passed a law officially enshrining its nuclear weapons policies, in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 8, 2022 in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:55

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, a day before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is set to arrive in Seoul.

The launch came two days after South Korea and U.S. forces conducted a military drill in waters off the South's east coast involving an aircraft carrier. On Sunday, North Korea fired another ballistic missile towards the sea off its east coast.

Wednesday's missiles were launched from the Sunan area of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, between 6:10 and 6:20 p.m. 0910-0920 GMT), South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

They flew about 360 km (225 miles), reaching an altitude of 30 km (19 miles) and a maximum velocity of Mach 6 (4,600 mph or 7,450 kmh), they said, adding a detailed analysis was underway.

"North Korea's provocations will further strengthen the South Korean-U.S. deterrence and response capability, and only deepen North Korea's isolation from the international community," the Joint Chiefs said in a statement.

South Korea's national security council held an emergency meeting and condemned the test, vowing to continue building "overwhelming" capacity to deter North Korea, President Yoon Suk-yeol's office said in a separate statement.

North Korean state media did not mention the reports of the latest launches, but its leader Kim Jong Un has said its development of nuclear weapons and missiles are meant to defend North Korea against U.S. threats.

Japan's coast guard also reported a suspected ballistic missile test, which its minister of state for defence, Toshiro Ino, condemned as "unacceptable". He said Pyongyang's repeated missile launches imperilled Japanese and international security.

Following a stop in Japan, Harris will land in the South Korean capital and visit the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the neighbours on Thursday.

In a speech hours earlier aboard the destroyer USS Howard in the Japanese city of Yokosuka, Harris called Sunday's missile launch part of an "illicit weapons programme which threatens regional stability and violates multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions".

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the latest launch highlights "destabilising impact" of the North's unlawful weapons programmes.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson also condemned the test as a regional threat, but said Washington remained committed to a diplomatic approach and urged Pyongyang to engage in dialogue.

North Korea has tested missiles at an unprecedented pace this year, while this week's joint drill is a show of force intended to warn against what could be Pyongyang's first nuclear test since 2017.

The isolated country has completed preparations for a nuclear test, a window for which could open between China's party congress in October and the U.S. mid-term elections in November, South Korean lawmakers said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Kantaro Komiya and Trevor Hunnicutt in Tokyo and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel, Clarence Fernandez and Mark Heinrich)

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Iran's hardline president to address nation as unrest spreads

FILE PHOTO: People attend a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 21, 2022. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:42

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Hardline President Ebrahim Raisi planned a television address to the nation on Wednesday amid a tide of anti-government unrest in Iran, with protesters chanting "death to the dictator" after the death of a young woman in police custody.

Despite a growing death toll and a fierce crackdown by security forces using tear gas, clubs, and in some cases, live ammunition, social media videos showed Iranians persisting with protests, often calling for the end of the Islamic clerical establishment's more than four decades in power.

Still, a collapse of the Islamic Republic seems remote in the near term since its leaders are determined not to show the kind of weakness they believe sealed the fate of the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979, a senior Iranian official told Reuters.

Raisi, who last week said the protests over Mahsa Amini's death were unacceptable "acts of chaos," will speak to the nation later in the evening, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

Angry demonstrations have spread to over 80 cities nationwide since the Sept. 13 death of 22-year-old Amini, after she was arrested for "unsuitable attire" by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic's strict dress code.

Amini, who was from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, died in hospital after falling into a coma, sparking the first big show of dissent on Iran's streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019.

"We will fight, we will die, we will take Iran back," chanted protesters in Tehran, a video posted on Twitter showed.

Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has yet to comment on the protests, a hardline watchdog body called on the judiciary "to deal decisively with the main perpetrators and those responsible for killing and injuring innocent people and security forces."

Khamenei appoints six senior clerics of the 12-member body, known as the Guardian Council.

GROWING SUPPORT

State media said 41 people, including members of the police and a pro-government militia, have died during the protests. Iranian human rights groups have reported a higher toll.

Dozens of Iranian celebrities, soccer players and artists - inside and outside the country - have backed the demonstrations. Iran's hardline judiciary said it will press charges against them, according to state media.

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday they fired missiles and drones at militant targets in the Kurdish region of neighbouring northern Iraq, where an official said nine people were killed.

Iranian authorities have accused armed Iranian Kurdish dissidents of igniting the unrest, particularly in the northwest which is home to most of Iran's more than 10 million Kurds.

Washington condemned the attack, calling it "an unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Videos posted on activist Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has 145,000 followers, showed students at Shiraz Medical School protesting against Amini's death and demanding the release of students arrested since the eruption of protests.

Early on Wednesday, a video showed protesters in Tehran chanting "Mullahs get lost!" "Death to the dictator!" and "Death to the leader (Khamenei) because of all these years of crime!"

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of videos on social media.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday that reports indicated "hundreds have also been arrested, including human rights defenders, lawyers, civil society activists and at least 18 journalists."

Amini's death has drawn widespread international condemnation. Iran has blamed Kurdish dissidents for the unrest as well as what it called "thugs" linked to "foreign enemies."

Tehran has accused the United States and some European countries of using the unrest to try to destabilise the Islamic Republic.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sultan in SulaimaniyaWriting by Parisa HafeziEditing by Mark Heinrich, Gareth Jones and Matthew Lewis)

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Nine reported killed as Iran Revolutionary Guards target dissident sites in Iraq

Smoke rises from the Iraqi Kurdistan headquarters of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, after Iran's Revolutionary Guards' strike on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:13

DUBAI, SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) -Iran's Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday they fired missiles and drones at militant targets in the Kurdish region of neighbouring northern Iraq, where an official said nine people were killed.

The strikes were reported after Iranian authorities accused armed Iranian Kurdish dissidents of involvement in unrest now shaking Iran, especially in the northwest where most of the country's population of over 10 million Kurds live.

Nine people were killed and 32 wounded in the attacks near Erbil and Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, its health minister, Saman Barazanchi, said in a statement.

"Some of the wounded are in critical condition and death toll could rise," Barazanchi said in a statement.

Iraqi Kurdish sources said drone strikes targeted at least 10 bases of Iranian Kurds near Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan on Wednesday morning, without elaborating about possible casualties.

A senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of their offices were struck as well.

Tariq Haidari, mayor of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Koye, told Reuters that two people including a pregnant woman were killed and 12 wounded. Some of the wounded were rushed in critical condition to hospital in Erbil, he said.

The Revolutionary Guards, Iran's elite military and security force, said after the attacks that they would continue targeting what it called terrorists in the region.

"This operation will continue with our full determination until the threat is effectively repelled, terrorist group bases are dismantled, and the authorities of the Kurdish region assume their obligations and responsibilities," the Guards said in a statement read on state television.

Iraq's foreign ministry condemned the attacks.

Iraq’s foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday that the ministry would summon the Iranian ambassador to inform him of Iraq’s objection to the attacks on Iraqi territories and that Iraq considers this action as a violation of sovereignty.

Protests erupted in Iran this month over the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody.

Amini, 22, from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, was arrested on Sept. 13 in the capital Tehran for "unsuitable attire" by the morality police, who enforce the Islamic Republic's strict dress code.

She died three days later in hospital after falling into a coma, sparking the first big show of opposition on Iran's streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019.

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom, Baghdad Newsroom; editing by Angus Macswan, Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)

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China's COVID worries to take shine off Golden Week holiday

People wearing protective face masks cross a street under the Chinese flags, ahead of the Chinese National Day, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:56

By Sophie Yu and Casey Hall

BEIJING (Reuters) - Travel during China's Golden Week holiday, which begins on Saturday, is set to hit its lowest in years, analysts say, as COVID-19 concerns spur calls for people to avoid travel and keep to their cities, while economic woes damp spending.

One of the longest stretches of public holidays, which celebrates the founding of modern China in 1949, the period is a bellwether for consumer demand in the world's second largest economy, when travel and spending traditionally peak.

While global travel has started to open up as many countries opt to live with COVID-19, China's tourism sector has crumpled under authorities' decision to double down on their zero-COVID approach with drastic curbs, such as citywide lockdowns.

"It is not realistic to hold high hopes for tourism this year," said Liu Simin, an official of the tourism arm of the China Society for Futures Studies, a research institute based in Beijing.

If trips this holiday reached half the levels of 2019 and spending over the period reached 30% to 40% of holiday spending before the pandemic, that would amount to a "pretty good" result, he added.

Liu's projection of a halving in the number of trips would make for the worst figure in a decade, according to Reuters calculations based on government data.

In the past two years, China's Golden Week travel and spending have fallen short of the levels of 2019, which racked up 782 million trips and tourism revenue of 650 billion yuan ($90 billion).

URGED TO STAY PUT

Health officials urged people this month to stay put for Golden Week and adopted new rules requiring negative COVID test results less than 48 hours old for travellers planning to take trains and planes, or cross provincial borders by bus.

And a slowing economy, battered by high youth unemployment and a faltering property market, is driving many to tighten their wallets.

About 7.8 million passenger trips are likely be made by air over the holiday, down 16% from last year, while daily passenger flights will fall at least a fifth, flight data services company VariFlight estimates.

And the transport ministry has forecast a fall of 30% in the number of road travellers.

"I don't want to give an estimate, it's going to be too gloomy," said a travel analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the southern resort city of Sanya, a long-time magnet for domestic holidaymakers with its white sand beaches and duty-free malls, the pessimism is building.

While curbs have largely been lifted after a lengthy COVID lockdown this summer in some parts of the city on the island province of Hainan, stories of desperate tourists unable to leave have made a deep impression.

Sanya "is not back", said Shirley, the manager of a luxury store in the city, where travel industry workers despair of the return of Golden Week tourists.

"Each hotel only has occupancy in the single digits."

($1=7.2287 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Sophie Yu and Casey Hall; Editing by Brenda Goh and Clarence Fernandez)

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Wider Image: In Mexico, more loved ones go missing. Their families keep searching

Manki Lugo, 68, stands in front of a portrait of her missing son Juan, in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico, December 9, 2021. Juan, then 33, disappeared in July 2015, and a month later Lugo joined a local search group 'Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte', or the Trackers of El Fuerte. REUTERS/Mahe Elipe reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:35

By Stefanie Eschenbacher and Mahe Elipe

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico (Reuters) - Manki Lugo no longer remembers how many dead bodies she has found in the seven years she has searched across northern Mexico for her son.

What she cannot forget are the moments her hopes were dashed and it was - once again - not Juan.

The engraved wedding band clinging to the finger of one skeleton. Or the moon-shaped tattoo, by then barely visible on the decomposing skin of an arm.

"When we find a body, or parts, I pray that it's him," said the 68-year-old with white hair as she sat on the patio of her wooden home. "So that I can finally find peace."

After Juan, then 33, disappeared in July 2015, Lugo joined a local search group "Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte," or the Trackers of El Fuerte - named after the town in northern Sinaloa state where the group found one of its first mass graves.

The group of mostly women spends hours under scorching sun, combing dense vegetation for the clandestine burial sites that hide the missing dead or searching riverbanks for bodies washed up with sewage.

To make identification harder, sometimes only the limbs of several different victims are buried together. Their heads and torsos are hidden elsewhere.

Sometimes, in their hunt, they chase a hopeful putrid stench into a bog or woodland, only to find a dead animal buried under trash.

In May, the number of missing people across Mexico passed 100,0000 - many of them victims of the country's relentless drug-related violence.

And the number of missing continues to rise, now reaching 105,879, with many experts and Mexican officials believing the true number is even higher.

The desperate search of groups like Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte sheds light not only on the suffering caused by the violence but also the lack of faith in the ability of authorities to combat it.

Reuters spent four years documenting the work of these groups across 10 Mexican states. In Mexico, around 180 such groups have sprung up, some composed of as few as two people or a single family.

Many family members, afraid of eroding public sympathy, were reluctant to discuss if the missing were involved with drugs or crime. Sinaloa, on Mexico's northern Pacific coast, is home to one of the world's largest drug-trafficking organizations - the Sinaloa Cartel.

Mexican officials would not comment on individual cases in this story, saying investigations were ongoing.

Most of Mexico's missing have disappeared since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon declared a "War on Drugs," sending in the armed forces to fight the increasingly powerful cartels and unleashing a wave of violence that continues to roil the country.

Since then, nearly 400,000 people have been murdered.

The women of Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte have found 423 bodies, according to their records. But only 218 of those could be identified and returned to families.

Few of the women in the group have found what they are looking for.

One who has is Mirna Medina, who founded the group in the sweltering Sinaloan town of Los Mochis after her son Roberto went missing when he was 21 in July 2014.

A 52-year-old mother with short, highlighted hair, Medina is often teased by the group for her brightly manicured nails - so out of place when digging for the lost dead.

In her living room, which doubles as a bustling meeting spot for her work, Medina recalled how after three years of searching she unearthed bits of spine and part of an arm, in a remote part of El Fuerte about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from her home. DNA tests matched them to Roberto.

Later the same year, she found part of his foot nearby. And during a third search, three years later, she found the other foot as well as part of his trousers.

Even after finding Roberto, Medina keeps searching.

"I made a promise to Roberto, back then, that I would search for him until I found him," she said. "Now we make that promise to each other (as a group), that we won't rest until we find all our children."

CARTEL HEARTLAND

Jessica Higuera, 43, joins Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte on the days she can take off work at a local gas station.

Her older son Javier, then aged 19, went missing four years ago.

Higuera had just finished ironing his favorite shirt and kissed him goodbye on the cheek, reminding him to "be a gentleman" as he left for the birthday party of a neighborhood girl.

She later learned that Javier and a friend had stolen a motorbike after the party. Then, his friends told her, they were abducted and never seen again.

"Of course, I would like to hope that he walks through this door one day... But I don't think so," she said sat at the kitchen table. Two dogs scuttled about, strays she rescued off the streets.

For some, the search does not end when a body is found.

Mayra Gonzalez, 48, had searched for her younger sister across three Mexican states with another group for more than two years.

One day while putting up search posters in a remote town far from her home, a group of women told her of a body uncovered in nearby forest.

Local authorities in Hidalgo state had been unable to identify the body, but Gonzalez believed it could be her sister Gloria who had gone missing in 2016, aged 38, while traveling across the neighboring state of Puebla, in central Mexico.

After the body was released from the morgue, Gonzalez demanded authorities do DNA tests. "I was worried they would hand me over any body, just to close the case," she said. The tests confirmed it was her sister Gloria.

But some things still did not quite add up.

After analyzing the case files, Gonzalez said she noticed bones were missing from the body. It turned out authorities had only partially removed Gloria's body from the forest where she was found, leaving some parts behind. She fought to have the rest of the remains recovered.

Gonzalez also requested an independent autopsy, which found inconsistencies with the official report that listed just one bullet impact wound. The independent autopsy found three.

"We didn't trust the authorities," Gonzalez said sitting at a roadside cafe near her home in Mexico State.

Gonzales filed a complaint to the state human rights commission about the way authorities had mishandled her sister's case. An investigation was opened and is ongoing.

A man has been arrested in connection with the disappearance and killing of her sister. The cases have not been made public because the investigations are ongoing.

In 2019, she returned to university to study for a law degree. She is now months away from graduating.

"After seeing so much injustice, I started studying law," Gonzalez said. "It's not just to get justice for Gloria but for everyone who comes after me."

(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Mahé Elipe; Additional reporting by Jesus Bustamante; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Lisa Shumaker)

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Hungarians protest change in abortion rules

A woman holds a sign as she attends a protest against a new anti-abortion rule imposed by the government, in Budapest, Hungary, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 18:44

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - More than 1,000 Hungarians protested on Wednesday against a change in abortion rules that took effect on Sept. 15, which women's rights groups say would "humiliate" and torment women while having no effect on the number of abortions.

Under the rules amended by Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, pregnant women must submit evidence from their healthcare provider of a definitive sign of life, widely interpreted as the heartbeat of a foetus, before requesting the procedure.

The government gave no reason for the change and denied it would amount to a tightening of rules. Some political analysts have said it could be aimed at winning votes for Orban's Fidesz party from the far-right Our Homeland party, which won seats in parliament for the first time in April, and had campaigned for these changes to abortion rules.

"Although the government pretends to be 'pro-life', these measures do not protect a single life: the real purpose of the sneaking restriction is the humiliation of women and to exercise control over women's lives," organisers said in a statement.

They called on Orban's government to provide safe living conditions for women expecting children and to make contraception accessible to everyone.

Protesters, some of whom carried placards saying "My body, my life, my decision" or "Free of charge contraception for everyone," gathered outside Hungary's parliament and planned to march to the Interior Ministry, which drew up the reforms.

"I think this is a very bad requirement as going for an abortion in itself is... a hugely traumatising experience," said Laura Fekete, 22, a student, referring to the change which means women must effectively have heard the foetus' heartbeat.

"I believe it is up to each and every individual to decide if they want to have a child or not... and the government should not meddle in this."

Current rules allow Hungarian women to request an abortion in cases of rape, risks to the mother's health from the pregnancy, a severe disability of the unborn child or in case of a serious personal crisis.

The number of abortions fell to about 22,000 in Hungary last year from over 90,000 in 1990 based on official statistics.

Nearby Poland, among Europe's most devoutly Catholic countries, has a near-total ban on abortion.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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Myanmar beauty queen lands in Canada after Thai airport limbo

Tara Min, 8, awaits the arrival of Myanmar's exiled beauty queen Han Lay at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Chris Helgren reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:51

By Wa Lone

TORONTO (Reuters) - A Myanmar beauty queen, who had spoken out against military rule in her country and became stranded at Thailand's airport, said she was relieved but remained defiant after landing in Toronto on Wednesday.

Han Lay captured global attention last year with her pageant speech on the army's deadly suppression of anti-junta protests. After spending the past year in Thailand, she was denied re-entry into the country after a brief exit and spent days in Bangkok airport, pleading on social media not to be sent back home.

"Since I landed here, I feel safe and my worries have gone away," she told Reuters by phone from Toronto's international airport where she was awaiting a connecting flight to eastern Canada. "I am always a supporter for Myanmar democracy; I will always support it as much as I can."

The 23-year-old, whose real name is Thaw Nandar Aung, said she was going to live in Prince Edward Island, a province off Canada's Atlantic coast, with the government's assistance but did not say how long she would be there or what her status in Canada was.

Thai immigration officials denied her entry last week following a brief visit to Vietnam, saying she was using invalid travel documents. Han Lay arrived in Toronto via Seoul, on a Korean Air flight.

    Myanmar has been plagued by violence since the military seized power early last year, with clashes between junta forces and militias allied with a shadow government and pro-democracy groups. A crackdown has targetted pro-democracy and youth groups, activists, politicians, celebrities and social media influencers.    

A Human Rights Watch director said Myanmar's military rulers were using control over passports as a weapon against citizens' right to travel internationally.

    "Such actions should be universally condemned, and governments around the world should be on guard against the junta using similar tactics against overseas dissidents traveling on Myanmar passports in the future," Phil Robertson said in a statement.

    A spokesperson for Myanmar's junta did not respond to calls seeking comment. A spokesperson for Canada's immigration minister declined to provide details on Han Lay's case without her consent.  

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Weary Bulgarians fear more political turmoil after latest election

Sabotin Kokalov, 64, arranges firewood at a barn in his house in the village of Davidkovo, Bulgaria, September 16, 2022. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:26

By Tsvetelia Tsolova

DAVIDKOVO, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Bulgarians bracing for their fourth election in less than two years face a winter of want amid soaring inflation driven by the war in Ukraine, making many yearn for good government and stability after years of political turmoil.

At stake is the next government's ability to tackle rocketing energy costs and secure gas supplies at affordable prices after Russia's cutoff in April over Bulgaria's refusal to pay in roubles following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But fractious coalition-building is expected to drag out after the Oct. 2 vote amid deep rifts within the political elite over how to root out entrenched corruption, and the failure of a smattering of new parties to build a sustainable voter base.

Like many Bulgarians, public employee Zaharinka Kokalova fears no end to the chaos that began with an inconclusive election in April 2021 and ensued through two more ballots and, later, the collapse of a reformist government in June.

"I am afraid about having no government," Kokalova, 62, said, seated on a couch in her kitchen in Davidkovo, a poor village in the Rhodope mountains of southern Bulgaria.

"I fear things will get worse. Without a government prices are going up and life becomes more stressful."

In an effort to adapt to the inflation accelerating across Europe, Kokalova and her husband plan to reduce the sizes of their food portions and use cheaper firewood this winter.

What she will not do is change who she typically votes for - the Socialist party which promises more government handouts - when she goes to vote in Sunday's snap parliamentary election.

'SENSE OF HELPLESSNESS'

Opinion polls suggest the centre-right GERB party of former prime minister Boyko Borisov, 63, who won five elections between 2009 and April last year, is likely to prevail again - but with about 24% of votes.

GERB, as well as other traditional Bulgarian parties, such as the Socialists, the ethnic Turkish MRF party and anti-corruption Democratic Bulgaria, are seeing their support largely unchanged from the last election.

There is a sense of voter stagnation with low turnout likely to be around 40%, underlining the mounting disillusion among Bulgarians over endemic graft and dysfunctional political infighting in what is the EU's poorest member country.

"Two thirds of Bulgarians say there should be a government after the vote and at the same time close to two-thirds do not believe it will happen," said Boryana Dimitrova, an analyst with independent pollster Alpha Research.

"Political parties exude a sense of helplessness on forming a government."

Failure to tame inflation and control the fiscal deficit could force Bulgaria to postpone plans to adopt the euro common currency in 2024.

Bulgaria's future relations with Russia are also in question, after Sofia jettisoned its traditionally warm approach to ties with Moscow over the devastating invasion of Ukraine.

Borisov is widely expected to struggle to form a functioning coalition if his party comes first as opinion polls suggest, with many across the political spectrum accusing him of allowing corruption to fester in Bulgaria.

Support for the PP party, led by Kiril Petkov, whose reformist government was toppled in June after just six months, has edged down to under 20%, although the centrist grouping is expected to come second on Sunday.

Both GERB and PP believe Bulgaria should deepen links with Euro-Atlantic partners, pledge support for Ukraine, promise to shield people and businesses from crippling energy costs, and want to boost Bulgarian living standards.

Petkov's cabinet increased state pensions and public salaries but his four-party coalition was fragile and many voters were disappointed by the lack of clear results in fighting high-level graft.

Hristo Gadzhalov, 78, a retired teacher from Davidkovo, said the pension hikes were too limited to offset inflation that hit a 24-year high of 17.7% on an annual basis in August.

"I do not expect anything from the election. I expect second and third rounds of elections after that," he said. "When I see the squabbling going on, I personally have no desire to vote."

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mark Heinrich)

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Ukrainian grains still using Danube as gateway to Romanian Black Sea port

FILE PHOTO: A view of the cereal terminal with grain silo in the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, May 11, 2022. REUTERS/Olimpiu Gheorghiu/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:39

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Ukraine continues to ship grain across the Danube to the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta even after some of its own ports reopened, and the new routes are likely to remain, the deputy chief of freight logistics group TTS said on Wednesday.

Ukraine's grain exports slumped after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24 and blockaded its Black Sea ports, driving up global food prices and prompting fears of shortages in Africa and the Middle East.

The country, one of the world's leading grain exporters, was forced to find alternative routes by train via its western border or through its small Danube river ports of Reni and Ismail into Romania.

Those routes are still being used even after three Ukrainian ports reopened under a U.N.-backed safe passage deal, as too few ships are arriving in Ukraine.

"Some of the traders we deal with have reduced their operations at Reni and Ismail, but the flows we have created are still going and we see them going even after the war ends," TTS deputy chief executive Ion Stanciu told Reuters in an interview.

"Our grain volumes are slightly lower but the pace is almost the same as before."

TTS Group handles agricultural products, minerals and chemicals across the Danube river and in the Black Sea port of Constanta. It operates the largest fleet of barges on the Danube, with a transport capacity of 800,000 tonnes, while its grain silo in Constanta can store up to 110,000 tonnes.

Since the war started, the group has transported nearly 1 million tonnes of cargo to and from Ukraine, with grains accounting for just under half of the total, Stanciu said.

TTS director for investor relations Gabriel Techera said the company had implemented a logistics chain based on two offshore buoy terminals in Constanta port, fast-tracking the loading of grain from barges to ships.

The company has also invested over 10 million euros this year in its fleet. It has a full-year investment target of 20.1 million euros ($19.35 million).

Ukraine has sent roughly 4.5 million tonnes of grains to Constanta since the war started, the port told Reuters.

TTS, which listed on the Bucharest Stock Exchange last year and was included on an FTSE Russell index, saw its turnover rise 46.9% on the year in the first half, and a 28.5% jump in the volume of grains it handled.

Increased demand and a jump in tariffs have helped offset higher operation costs, including steel and electricity prices, Stanciu said. An additional growth boost will come from contracts to bring coal shipments to Romania, Serbia and Ukraine ahead of winter. The company was also actively looking at potential acquisitions of ports or fleets.

($1 = 1.0385 euros)

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by David Evans)

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After Fiona, climate experts urge Canada to fix flagship adaptation strategy

FILE PHOTO: Persons head to their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Burnt Islands, Newfoundland, Canada September 27, 2022. REUTERS/John Morris reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:42

By Nia Williams

(Reuters) - Canada's first national climate adaptation strategy needs to be improved to include near-term targets and specific solutions ahead of its November release to mitigate worsening global warming impacts, experts advising the government told Reuters in the wake of devastation caused by storm Fiona.

Fiona, one of the worst storms to ever hit Canada, battered the Atlantic provinces over the weekend, sweeping homes into the sea, leaving at least three people dead. It is expected to cost between C$300 million and C$700 million in insured losses, compared with C$2.1 billion ($1.6 billion) of insurance damage for severe weather events across Canada last year, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).

The destruction comes weeks before Ottawa releases its first ever National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) in early November. The government has been developing the strategy since June 2021 to help communities weather natural disasters like storms, flooding and wildfires by building more resilient infrastructure.

But a number of climate adaptation experts who advised the federal environment ministry on creating the strategy have criticised the NAS for setting long-term objectives from 2030 onwards, rather than five-year targets as recommended by advisory committees.

"What we want out of the strategy is a clear plan and measurable short-term targets, not just a vision for 2030 and 2050," said Joanna Eyquem, managing director of Climate-Resilient Infrastructure at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation.

Climate Proof Canada, a coalition of nearly 30 organizations including insurers and the Canadian Red Cross, this month warned the NAS will be "too little, too late."

Craig Stewart, vice president of federal affairs at the Insurance Bureau of Canada said in recent weeks there have been signs the government is improving the NAS before its release and trying to "close the gap" between experts' recommendations and what Environment Canada officials are proposing by including short-term actions with clear targets.

"We hope that Fiona will help focus attention in Ottawa," Stewart said.

Environment Canada said in a Monday statement the NAS will create a framework to focus federal efforts, address gaps, establish targets and stand up a governance mechanism to continually increase resilience.

A 2020 report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated Canada needs to spend C$5.3 billion a year to adapt to climate change but the country is at least a decade behind Europe in developing a national strategy, experts said. Britain released its first national adaptation program in 2013, with five-year targets, and is currently developing a third version.

"Our first adaptation strategy needs to be a home run," said Ryan Ness, adaptation research director for the Canadian Climate Institute (CCI).

On Wednesday the CCI released a report showing by 2025 climate impacts will be slowing Canada's economic growth by C$25 billion a year, cutting projected GDP growth in half.

(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Josie Kao)

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Finland closes highway for fighter jet drill for first time in decades

An F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet lands on a motorway in Joutsa, Finland September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Janis Laizans reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:05

By Anne Kauranen

JOUTSA, Finland (Reuters) - Finland has shut down a section of one of its main highways for five days for the first time in decades to allow its fighter jets to practice landings and take-offs on a reserve road runway.

The Nordic country, which is applying for NATO membership following neighbouring Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has a dozen similar reserve runways designed for wartime use around the country.

But the reserve roadbase located in Joutsa, Central Finland, has not been used for decades due to its importance as the main highway connecting the capital Helsinki to the more northern parts of the country.

Nevertheless, it took the Air Force only a few days to clear the roadsides and prepare the site for the exercise in which some 200 staff and Finland's F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, older Hawk Mk 51 trainer planes and other military aircraft participate, the head of Finnish Air Force Academy, Colonel Vesa Mantyla said.

"Mainly I believe all the roadbases are in quite good condition so easily taken into the operations in a couple of days," Mantyla said.

In order to protect its fleet, the Finnish Air Force can rapidly disperse all its aircraft across the country and therefore it rehearses on the road bases annually.

"The threat from Russia or the actions from Russia with the cruise missiles and ballistic missiles (in Ukraine) proves that the concept of dispersed operations is right," Mantyla said.

Hundreds of locals gathered on the roadside in Joutsa on Wednesday to follow the drill where pilots practise landing on a 2-kilometre (1.24 mile) stretch of the closed highway while ground staff rehearsed "hot refueling" a fighter jet with its engines running.

Veikko Haapala, a local pensioner who had come to spot planes, said he trusted the Finnish defence forces to be capable of defending the country, especially with the help of NATO allies.

"I do feel somewhat anxious, given how the world situation has gotten, over how we defend ourselves," Haapala, 79, said.

Another local, Seija Viinikainen, 57, welcomed the exercise amid the Ukraine war turning the situation "dubious".

"Finns too need to be awake and count in even these small countryside runways so that the military is prepared to use them and the conscripts can exercise on them as well," she said.

(Reporting by Anne Kauranen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Chinese-Pakistani dual national shot dead in Karachi dentist

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 15:37

By Syed Raza Hassan

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) - An armed attacker posing as a dental patient killed a Chinese-Pakistani dual national and injured two others at a clinic in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi on Wednesday, police said.

The dental clinic was run by one of the victims, Senior Superintendent of Police Asad Raza said in a statement.

The victims, identified by police as Dr Richard Hu, Mrs Margrate Hu and Ronald, were all Chinese-Pakistani dual nationals, Raza said terming the incident a targeted attack by a man in his early thirties.

"The assailant didn’t hurt Pakistanis," the statement said, adding that the victims had run the clinic in the area for a long period and did not face any apparent threats.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Chinese nationals have been targeted by Baloch separatist militants in recent years, and their attacks have picked up pace recently - most notably an attack on Chinese teachers in Karachi University earlier this year.

The separatists have warned the government of China that its nationals would be targeted if they did not withdraw commercial activities in the southwestern province of Balochistan, which the militants want to secede from Pakistan.

(Additional reporting by Islamabad bureau; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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UK tells Ukraine it will never recognise Russian attempts to annex territory

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 17:00

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Liz Truss told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday that Britain would never recognise Russian attempts to annex its territory, a spokesperson for her office said following a call between the pair.

"The prime minister made clear that the UK would never recognise Russian attempts to annex sovereign territory. She reiterated that Ukraine could depend on the UK’s support until President Putin was defeated," the spokesperson said.

The two leaders also discussed how to work together to secure gas supplies in the long term, the spokesperson added.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by William James)

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Romania reiterates advice for citizens to avoid travel to Russia

FILE PHOTO: Law enforcement officers stand guard near a monument to Russian diplomat and poet Alexander Griboyedov, after opposition activists called for street protests against the mobilisation of reservists ordered by President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, Russia September 24, 2022. REUTERS/REUTERS PHOTOGRAPHER reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:08

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's foreign ministry reiterated a call on Wednesday for Romanian citizens to consider leaving Russia or to avoid non-essential travel to the country amid escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

The call mirrors similar recommendations by other European countries in the region including Poland and Bulgaria.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Chile authorities scour mountains for missing British astronomer

FILE PHOTO: People are seen before of the solar eclipse in La Silla European Southern Observatory (ESO) at Coquimb, Chile July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:56

By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile authorities on Wednesday were scouring an arid mountainous region of the country in a search for British astronomer Thomas Marsh who disappeared more than 10 days ago from an observatory in northern Chile where he was on a research visit.

The local prosecutor's office, police, emergency services and the military are searching for the 60-year-old University of Warwick researcher around the La Silla observatory, located in a mountainous area some 600 kilometers (373 miles) north of the Chilean capital Santiago. Marsh went missing on Sept. 16.

The search, supported by drones, aerial surveillance systems and ground teams with dogs to cover an area of more than 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres), has so far failed to find the astronomer, though local authorities held out hope that he could be found alive.

"There are no indications that he is dead," the press office of the prosecutor's office in the Coquimbo region, where the facility run by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is located, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Police reported that Marsh's keys were found on the way from the residences to the telescopes, and that his room, with all his belongings, was untouched. Marsh traveled to the observatory with a doctoral student from Warwick.

Local press said the student provided a statement to investigators but the prosecutor's office declined to confirm or deny that.

Last week in a statement reporting the disappearance and giving the astronomer's physical characteristics, ESO asked that any information be passed on to the police in Chile or the United Kingdom.

The organization has not received any new information since.

The scientist's family, who have asked for help through social media to find him, are expected to arrive in Chile in the next few hours, according to local press reports.

The La Silla observatory is located on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, about 2,400 meters (7,874 feet) above sea level. Northern Chile is a global hub for astronomical observation due to the quality of its skies.

(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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Zelenskiy works the phone to rally support against Russia

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks on the phone with European Council President Charles Michel in the Donetsk region, Ukraine February 17, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:52

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to rally international support for his country against Russia in a series of calls with foreign leaders on Wednesday as Moscow looked poised to annex a swath of Ukrainian territory.

Zelenskiy spoke to the leaders of countries including Britain, Canada, Germany and Turkey to press demands for more military aid and tougher sanctions on Moscow after what Kyiv and the West denounced as illegal sham referendums in four partially occupied provinces on Ukraine.

The United States said it was working with allies and partners to impose severe economic costs on Moscow, and the European Union's executive proposed new sanctions.

"We expect London’s leadership in reaction to Russian sham referenda as well. Defence and financial aid to Ukraine must be enhanced in response," Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter after speaking to British Prime Minister Liz Truss.

He told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau separately that the world must not bow to Russian "nuclear blackmail and added: "The aggressor must clearly understand all the consequences of his irresponsibility."

Zelenskiy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Ankara's condemnation of the so-called referendums, and added: "The world community must give the strongest possible response to Russia's actions."

In another call, Zelenskiy won a promise from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Berlin's financial, political and humanitarian support for Ukraine would not waver.

Scholz also said Germany would continue to back Ukraine in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity, including weapons deliveries, a German government spokesperson said.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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UN Security Council to meet Friday on damage to Nord Stream gas pipelines

FILE PHOTO: The United Nations headquarters building is pictured with a UN logo in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:47

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council will convene on Friday at the request of Russia to discuss damage to two Russian gas pipelines to Europe that has caused gas to spew into the Baltic Sea.

The French U.N. mission, which holds the presidency of the 15-member council for September, said the meeting would address the Nord Stream pipelines that Russia and European partners spent billions of dollars building.

Gas leaks as a result of suspected sabotage discovered on the two pipelines on Tuesday have roiled energy markets and heightened security concerns.

Suspected explosions tore through the undersea pipelines on Tuesday. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, once the main route for Russian gas to Germany, was already shut but cannot now be easily reopened. The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline had yet to enter commercial operations.

NATO and the European Union warned of the need to protect critical infrastructure from what they called "sabotage", though officials stopped short of saying who they blamed.

It remains far from clear who might be behind the attack, if one is proven, on the Nord Stream pipelines.

Russia, which slashed gas deliveries to Europe after the West imposed sanctions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, has also said sabotage was a possibility and said accusations by some that it perpetrated the damage were "stupid".

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York)

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U.S. has considered reinforcing arms embargoes against Myanmar military -State Dept official

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:40

(Corrects to make clear O'Brien said U.S. has considered reinforcing arms embargoes against Myanmar military)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has considered reinforcing arms embargoes against the military of Myanmar, James O'Brien, the U.S. State Department head of sanctions coordination, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

(This story corrects to make clear O'Brien said U.S. has considered reinforcing arms embargoes against Myanmar military)

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mark Porter)

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Iranian woman whose death led to mass protests was shy and avoided politics

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a placard during a protest following the death of Mahsa Amini in front of the United Nations headquarters in Erbil, Iraq September 24, 2022. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 15:19

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) - The young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, whose death in police custody triggered nationwide protests, was a shy, reserved resident of a small town who never challenged the country's clerical rulers or its Islamic dress code, sources close to the family said.

Amini, from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, died three days after she was arrested in hospital after falling into a coma. It sparked the first big show of opposition on Iran's streets since authorities crushed fuel price protests in 2019 in which 1,500 people were killed.

Authorities deny beating Amini and insisted in a statement that the cause of death was sudden heart failure, possibly from preexisting conditions. But the family has denied the 22-year-old had any previous health issues.

Amini minded her own business and steered clear of politics, two sources close to her family said, traits that most Iranians hope would keep them out of trouble in the Islamic Republic.

But on Sept 13, Amini would pay a heavy price for not paying attention to every detail of her clothing as she and her family visited her uncle in Tehran.

She was arrested as soon as she stepped out of a train station in the evening.

Amini was suddenly confronted by the morality police, a force tasked with detaining people who violate Iran's conservative dress code in order to "promote virtue and prevent vice".

The typical unit consists of a van with a mixed male and female crew that patrols or waits at busy public spaces to police non-proper behaviour and dress.

Her crime? Wearing tight trousers.

Amini and her brother begged for mercy, saying they were not familiar with the rules in Tehran. She was begging her brother not to let them take her.

Her brother waited in front of Vozara morality police detention centre for her. But after two hours an ambulance arrived to transfer her to a hospital. The family eventualy found Amini at the Kasra hospital

Doctors kept the family in the dark. Loved ones had no access to her CT scan. In the coroner's office her body was covered in such a way that her father could not see anything except a small part of her leg that was bruised, the sources said.

"He kept begging doctors to brief him about his daughter’s condition. But no one answered him," said another source.

Women who were arrested along with Mahsa told her father that she was beaten inside a van that was transporting them. She was crying and pleading with police to let her go, the father was told.

"The police told the father that cameras in the van did not function. So, the family does not know what happened inside the van and at the detention centre," said one of the sources close to the family.

"They do not believe in the video published by authorities that shows her suddenly falling at the police station. Her family believes that the video was edited."

In an instant, she would be robbed of her dreams of one day getting married and having children after finishing university.

"She wanted to live a normal and happy life," said one of the sources.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said he had ordered an investigation into the case of Amini.

Officials said 41 people, including members of the police and a pro-government militia, had died during the protests. But Iranian human rights groups have reported a higher toll.

Amini's death has drawn international condemnation while Iran has blamed "thugs" linked to "foreign enemies" for the unrest. Tehran has accused the United States and some European countries of using the unrest to try to destabilise the Islamic Republic.

Far removed from politics, Amini's family is still trying to make sense of her death.

Her mother insists that Mahsa's hijab was proper. During the funeral, she was repeatedly saying "Why, why? My daughter had proper Hijab and her coat was long and black, but I don't know why she was arrested."

"Where is my daughter? Where is my child?,” she repeats everyday, said the sources close to the family.

A statement on Instagram from the hospital which was later taken down said she was brain dead when she arrived there.

"Resuscitation was performed on the patient and her heartbeat returned and the patient was admitted to the intensive care unit," the hospital said.

"But unfortunately, after 48 hours on Friday, she had a cardiac arrest again, due to brain death. In spite of the medical team's efforts, the medical team could not revive her and she died."

Iranian authorities have told Amini's relatives to avoid speaking about her case, said the two sources close to the family. Her father, mother and uncle do not answer their phones.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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U.S. to continue pace of sanctions on Russia over war in Ukraine -official

Russian reservists board a bus at a gathering point in the course of partial mobilization of troops, aimed to support the country's military campaign in Ukraine, in the town of Volzhsky in the Volgograd region, Russia September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 16:14

By Daphne Psaledakis and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is working with allies and partners to quickly impose severe economic costs on Moscow over "sham" referendums held by Russia in occupied regions of Ukraine, according to prepared remarks from the U.S. State Department's head of sanctions coordination on Wednesday.

James O'Brien, in testimony prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expects that the Biden administration's pace of announcing sanctions on Russia on average every six weeks will continue, as Washington continues to focus on chokepoints in the Russian economy and its military supply chains.

"There will be more packages. We are working on more sanctions," O'Brien told the committee.

"Everything is on the table," he said, adding that Washington would look to the financial sector and high technology, especially for energy exploitation and human rights violators.

Moscow was poised on Wednesday to annex a swath of Ukraine, releasing what it called vote tallies showing support in four partially-occupied provinces to join Russia, after what Kyiv and the West denounced as illegal sham referendums held at gunpoint.

Russian-backed authorities claim to have carried out the referendums over five days on territory that makes up around 15% of Ukraine.

The United States has imposed several tranches of sanctions targeting Moscow following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, which has reduced cities to rubble and killed or wounded thousands.

"Arguably what you're doing is more important than what's happening on the battlefield. The kinds of things that you're doing are the ones that are going to bring Russia to heel," said Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the committee, of Washington's sanctions on Moscow.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Timothy Gardner, editing by Deepa Babington)

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Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinian gunmen in flashpoint West Bank town

Mourners carry the body of Palestinian gunman Abdulrahman Khazem, who was killed by Israeli forces in a raid, during his funeral in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:06

By Ali Sawafta

JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) -Israeli forces killed four Palestinian gunmen in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, pursuing a half-year-long campaign of raids triggered by a series of lethal street attacks in Israel.

Commandos, some of them undercover, were sent into the town of Jenin to capture two Palestinians suspected of carrying out gun ambushes, Israeli police said. The Palestinians opened fire and set off a bomb, and were shot, the statement added.

The raid touched off clashes elsewhere in Jenin, which, along with the neighbouring city of Nablus, has been a focus of Israeli forces. Some 40 Palestinians were wounded, medics said.

The Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades factions said four of their gunmen were killed. One of them worked for the security services of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank.

"We are in great need of members of the security services," an umbrella group of local militants said in an open statement addressed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Declare the fight, and we will be your soldiers. This enemy knows only the language of firepower."

Israel and the United States have been pressing the PA to do more to boost security. The PA accuses Israel of undermining its credibility.

"We have not hesitated to go anywhere that the Palestinian Authority has not gone to carry out arrests," Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told Ynet Radio. "Does this create friction? Yes."

Another of the slain Jenin gunmen was the brother of a Palestinian who shot dead three people in Tel Aviv in April - among attacks that killed 19 people in Israel and triggered its "Operation Breakwater" campaign. More than 70 Palestinians, including gunmen and civilians, have been killed since.

U.S.-brokered peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem collapsed in 2014, while Israel has expanded settlements in several areas. Gaza is ruled by Hamas Islamists opposed to coexistence with Israel.

Washington has sought ways of improving Palestinian conditions while addressing Israeli security concerns.

Tom Nides, U.S. ambassador to Jerusalem, said Allenby terminal, an Israeli-run border crossing for Palestinians between the West Bank and Jordan, would as of Oct. 24 expand its opening hours to a 24/7 schedule for a pilot period.

"(This) will make a real difference in people's lives!" he tweeted.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

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Analysis-India sharpens stand on Ukraine war but business as usual with Russia

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan September 16, 2022. Sputnik/Alexander Demyanchuk/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 14:05

By Krishna N. Das and Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is articulating its position against the Ukraine war more robustly to counter criticism that it is soft on Russia, but it still has not held Moscow responsible for the invasion and will not alter its policy on importing cheap Russian oil and coal.

In their first in-person meeting since the Feb. 24 invasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Vladimir Putin earlier this month that "today's era is not an era of war" - the clearest position New Delhi has taken on the conflict.

India's foreign minister followed up last week at the U.N. Security Council, describing the trajectory of the Ukraine war as "very concerning" and the risk of a nuclear escalation as of "particular anxiety".

Analysts said New Delhi's shift, even though nuanced, reflected concern about the growing economic costs of the conflict and how it would affect India. Russia's first mobilisation of troops since World War Two marks a major escalation of the conflict that has thrown markets into turmoil and threatens a global recession.

Moreover, India is worried the war is pushing Russia closer to China, which has fraught relations with New Delhi, the analysts said. India also hopes its more robust approach would help it meet criticism by Western allies that it is too close to Moscow.

P.S. Raghavan, chairman of India's National Security Advisory Board and a former ambassador to Russia, said India had always sought an end to hostilities in Ukraine but was now taking a sharper public stand.

"This is countering a narrative that India and China are both doing the same thing – that China is supporting Russia and India, by sitting on the fence, is also supporting Russia," Raghavan told Reuters.

"Our stand is very different. It is not blindly supporting Russia. We have certain cooperation lines going with Russia, which we have to keep going. Defence is the most important thing, but petroleum also. Fertiliser imports have also gone up. The point is, if we get energy cheap, we buy it."

India and Russia have had deep relations for decades: Russia accounted for $5.51 billion of the $12.4 billion that India spent between 2018 and 2021 on arms imports.

From being a marginal player, Russia has become India's third-biggest oil supplier since the war, with purchases jumping about 10-fold from a year-earlier because of cheap prices. The value of India's coal imports from Russia, meanwhile, has risen four-fold during the same period.

"We have some benefits from dealing with Russia, and we have an economic advantage," Raghavan said. "So let us do that. That is what we are doing and that does not mean that we are good with everything that Russia does."

'SIDE OF PEACE'

Analysts said India's sharper position would not hurt ties with Russia.

"India at this point of time has no intention of totally breaking with Russia," said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi.

"The bridge to Russia is not one that is going to be destroyed very soon, but what will happen is that maybe the traffic on that bridge may get reduced," he added, referring to India's drive to diversify military imports and promote domestic production.

Russia's foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on India's position.

However, after a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Saturday in New York, Russia said the ministers emphasised a "firm intention to strengthen bilateral interaction on the entire range of issues of mutual interest".

India's foreign ministry did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for the story, but Jaishankar told the U.N. General Assembly on Friday that New Delhi was committed to diplomacy and dialogue.

"As the Ukraine conflict continues to rage, we are often asked whose side are we on," he said, again without mentioning Russia. "India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there."

India's recent statements have been welcomed by the United States without drawing any negative reaction from Russia - a diplomatic balance not always easy to strike for New Delhi that has strategic ties with both countries, analysts said.

"The target audience seems to have taken the message positively - that is, Western governments as well as the public in general, including in India," said Unnikrishnan.

"The so-called ostensible target of the criticism, which is Russia, has also sort of taken it in its stride."

Analysts said the worry for New Delhi is that if Putin is cornered further as the war progresses, Russia could be drawn even more closer to China. India's ties with China have been strained since a deadly border clash in 2020 in the western Himalayas.

"I feel there is a growing realisation in India that Russia is hurting itself to the cost of Indian national security," said Avinash Paliwal, senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London.

"The Sino-Russian relationship has skewed so much in favour of Beijing that ... Russia is unlikely to play ball as far as India's concerns are concerned if there is ever a moment of serious conflict outbreak (between India and China) in the Himalayas."

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Rowing past their severed road bridge, Ukrainians return to liberated villages

Local residents take a boat across the Pechenizhske Reservoir next to a destroyed bridge, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the village of Staryi Saltiv in Kharkiv region, Ukraine September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 15:00

By Vitalii Hnidyi

STARYI SALTIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainian volunteer Vitalii Kivirenko loads a small rowing boat with tins of food and supplies by the village of Staryi Saltiv, on the Pechenizhske Reservoir, northeast of Kharkiv, ready to make a short trip that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

After Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back from the eastern banks of the reservoir, opposite Staryi Saltiv, in a counter offensive earlier this month, volunteers and relatives can finally reach those in isolated villages on the other side, and some of those who fled are returning home.

Rowing is the easiest option for crossing the water and delivering flour, sugar, oil and fuel for generators, after Staryi Saltiv's road bridge was blasted in two by Ukrainian forces just days into Russia's invasion, to try and halt the Russian troops' advance.

The bridge once connected to the town of Vovchansk, just a few kilometres from the Russian border.

Reaching the other side by road would involve a huge detour around the reservoir created on the Siverskyi Donets River by a dam further south at Pechenihy and take almost six hours.

Kivirenko and other volunteers row past the hulking remains of the bridge, its railings painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, in the driving rain.

"The shelling here was so strong; you couldn't even get close. The shelling was constant, about 80% of housing is destroyed," Kivirenko said, referring to conditions in Staryi Saltiv.

Despite the destruction of the bridge, Russian forces still took Staryi Saltiv and occupied it until May, when it was retaken by Ukrainian forces. The area remained under constant artillery fire from Russians on the east bank until their retreat in September.

"We are happy to go home. At last, it happened," said Serhii Negrovyi, returning by boat to his home on the east bank with his wife, son and baby daughter.

"My child was born in February. She was born February 11th. And then it [the Russian invasion] began. That's how we lived, under shelling."

His wife Olena, described the situation in her village.

"It was difficult. The neighbour's house got shelled, then the house next to it. There were explosions in the neighbour's yard," she said.

"Thank God the children are fine. I am going home, thank God," she said.

Russia struck the Pechenihy dam last week using short-range ballistic missiles or similar weapons, according to the British military.

Thousands have been killed and Ukrainian cities reduced to rubble since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 for what it called a "special military operation". Moscow denies targeting civilians.

(Reporting by Vitalii Hnidyi and Andrii Pryimachenko; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Fresh EU sanctions will "make Kremlin pay" for escalating in Ukraine -von der Leyen

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell address the media on the Ukraine crisis, in Brussels, Belgium, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 15:12

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proposed on Wednesday a new package of Russia sanctions, designed "to make the Kremlin pay" for escalating the conflict in Ukraine with what she called "sham" votes in occupied territory.

"We do not accept the sham referenda and any kind of annexation in Ukraine, and we are determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation," she told reporters in Brussels.

The proposed eighth sanctions package includes further import bans on Russian products, expected to deprive Moscow of an additional 7 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in revenues, and more export bans on key technology used for the military such as aviation items, electronic components and specific chemical substances, von der Leyen announced.

Beyond this, the sanctions package will lay the legal basis for an oil price cap and ban EU citizens from sitting on governing bodies of Russian state-owned companies, she said.

($1 = 1.0417 euros)

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Marine Strauss; Editing by John Chalmers and Philip Blenkinsop)

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Analysis-Truth or bluff? Why Putin's nuclear warnings have the West worried

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting via video link in Sochi, Russia September 27, 2022. Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 09:58

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin's latest warning that he is ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia amid the war in Ukraine has made a troubling question much more urgent: Is the former KGB spy bluffing?

Putin cautioned it was no bluff, and Western politicians, diplomats and nuclear weapons experts are divided. Some say he could use one or more smaller, tactical nuclear weapons to try to stave off military defeat, protect his presidency, scare off the West or intimidate Kyiv into capitulation.

Putin's warning, which was followed by a more specific threat to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine from an ally, might mean the Kremlin is considering an escalation after Russia annexes four Ukrainian regions which it only partly occupies.

Russia's parliament is expected to declare the regions part of Russia on Oct. 4. Once that happens the way would be clear, from Moscow's viewpoint, for a possible defensive strike if it felt the territory was under serious threat.

Breaking the nuclear taboo would be a sign of desperation, however, so whether or not Putin does go nuclear may ultimately depend on how cornered he feels in a conflict which has, thus far, humbled rather than defeated a former superpower.

Putin controls the world's largest nuclear arsenal, including a new generation of hypersonic weapons and ten times more tactical nuclear weapons than the West, and the United States and the NATO military alliance are taking him seriously.

"If the choice for Russia is fighting a losing war, and losing badly and Putin falling, or some kind of nuclear demonstration, I wouldn't bet that they wouldn't go for the nuclear demonstration," Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told Reuters in August, before Putin stepped up his warnings.

In his most recent comments, Putin explicitly warned the West that Russia would use all available means to defend Russian territory and accused the West of discussing a potential nuclear attack on Russia.

"This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them," he said.

Such blunt Kremlin rhetoric is very different to the much more nuanced nuclear signals preferred by late Soviet leaders after Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told U.S. TV networks on Sunday that President Joe Biden's administration was taking Putin's comments "deadly seriously" and had warned Moscow of specific "catastrophic consequences" if it used nuclear arms.

Washington has not spelled out its likely response, but using a nuclear device could trigger a nuclear escalation, which is why most experts believe a massive conventional attack on Russian military assets would be more likely.

Asked if Putin was moving towards a nuclear attack, CIA Director William Burns told CBS on Tuesday: "We have to take very seriously his kind of threats given everything that's at stake."

Burns, though, said U.S. intelligence had no practical evidence that Putin was moving towards using tactical nuclear weapons imminently.

GOING NUCLEAR

If Putin did order a nuclear strike inside Ukraine, it would be the first use of nuclear weapons in battle since the United States unleashed the atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Shorter-range lower-yield weapons launched by sea, air or land could theoretically be used against Ukrainian military targets, though their effectiveness in such a scenario is a matter of debate among military experts.

Another option, they say, would be for Putin to detonate such a weapon over a remote and unpopulated area or a body of water, like the Black Sea, as a chilling demonstration of intent.

The radioactive fallout from a small Russian tactical weapon could be limited to around a kilometre (half a mile), but the psychological and geopolitical impact would be felt across the world.

"Putin is playing a high-stakes game of chicken," said Richard K. Betts, professor of war and peace studies at Columbia University. "If I had to bet money, I would probably bet 3:2 that he would not go nuclear even if he feels desperate, but those are not good odds."

TRACKING

In a sign Washington is closely monitoring Russia's nuclear arsenal, flight tracking data on Saturday showed the United States had deployed at least two RS-135s Cobra Ball spy planes, used to track ballistic missile activity, near the Russian border.

Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London, said there was no evidence Moscow was gearing up for such a nuclear strike at the moment and that Washington would know "pretty quickly" if it was.

He said it would be a mistake to be complacent about Putin's nuclear warnings, but that he did not think it would make sense for Putin to go nuclear to defend newly-annexed territory.

"To start a nuclear war to break this taboo that has lasted since August 1945 for such small gains when the Ukrainians have said they won't stop fighting anyway, and even if the battle stopped he'd find these territories impossible to pacify, would seem like a very odd thing to do," said Freedman.

Given the irrational nature of using a nuclear weapon in the circumstances, taking the threat seriously entailed assuming it would be an emotional act of desperation from Putin in a situation where he felt threatened, he added.

Betts of Columbia University said: "You can see the pressures he is under and the rationales in his mind about how the use of a small nuclear weapon might work for his purposes to reverse the situation, frighten the West, and get him out of the bind he is in."

'EXISTENTIAL STRUGGLE'

Putin says Russia is now fighting for its existence in Ukraine after years of humiliation at the hands of an arrogant West which wants to destroy the former superpower.

"In its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed every line," Putin said in his Sept. 21 warning.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands, fuelled global inflation and triggered the worst confrontation with the West since the height of the Cold War.

Seven months on, Putin's forces are facing a fierce counteroffensive from Ukrainian forces armed and trained by Western countries. The better it goes for Ukraine on the battlefield, the higher the chance that Putin might go nuclear, said Betts.

Russia's nuclear doctrine allows for a nuclear strike after "aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened".

Kremlin hawks say the West is trying to topple Putin, who has held power in Russia since 1999.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in March that Putin "cannot remain in power" in comments the White House said were meant to prepare the world's democracies for an extended conflict over Ukraine, not back regime change in Russia.

And in May, Biden said he was trying to work out what to do about the fact that Putin did not appear to have a way out of the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had previously dismissed the Russian warnings, but told CBS on Sunday that Putin could now be serious.

"Look, maybe yesterday, it was bluff. Now it could be a reality."

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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U.S. vows 'big dollar' help to Pacific islands in China contest

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on gun crime and his "Safer America Plan" during an event in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S., August 30, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 10:03

By David Brunnstrom, Alexandra Alper and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will announce "big dollar" assistance to Pacific island nations when President Joe Biden hosts a first-of-its-kind summit with their leaders on Wednesday, a gathering Washington hopes will help counter China’s expanding influence in a new theater of geopolitical competition.

Leaders from 12 Pacific island states are expected to take part in a two-day summit in Washington, with two more sending representatives, and Australia and New Zealand attending as observers.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said last week the summit would focus on addressing issues such as climate change and health and that Washington and its allies were focused on boosting maritime security and island states' communications links with countries like Japan, Australia and India.

It will be the first time the United States has hosted so many leaders of a region it has considered it maritime backyard since World War Two, but into which China has been making steady advances. Some of the nations have complained about being caught in the middle of the superpowers' battle for influence.

The leaders will be feted all around Washington, including at the State Department, the U.S. Congress, Coast Guard headquarters, by business leaders, and at the White House. On Wednesday, Washington also will unveil a detailed new strategy specifically for the Pacific, a senior Biden administration official said.

The official acknowledged that Washington had not paid the Pacific enough attention over the years and had been working closely with allied and partner countries "to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement."

"We will have big dollar numbers," he said, adding that these would be announced on Wednesday.

"We have sought to align our strategy to meet their goals and objectives," he said referring the 2050 Blue Pacific Continent strategy Pacific leaders have announced that prioritizes action on climate change.

Wednesday's talks will include a lunch hosted by U.S. climate czar John Kerry.

Strategic competition in the Pacific intensified dramatically this year after China signed a security agreement with the Solomons, prompting warnings of a militarization of the region.

The Solomon Islands has told nations invited to the summit it will not sign the summit declaration under discussion, according to a note seen by Reuters, prompting further concern over the nation's ties to China.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare has repeatedly appeared to snub the United States, heightening Washington's concerns.

The U.S. official said his expectation was that Sogavare would participate in the summit and that the Solomons had been "actively engaged and seem pleased with the program and what we've laid out and what we'd like to accomplish."

The official said Washington planned to expand the number of its diplomatic missions in the Pacific from six to nine, to deploy additional personnel across the region, and to re-establish a USAID mission in Fiji.

He said Washington had been "working towards" a joint summit statement "about a larger vision in which that states and Pacific island nations sign up to some joint endeavors which are important."

Another U.S. official said the United States would support island states by increasing its Coast Guard and Defense Department presence and coordinating security cooperation and training with "like-minded partners." Peace Corps volunteers would also return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu this year.

A source familiar with the discussions said the White House was working with the private sector to roll out an agreement on undersea cables for the region, calling it "a reaction to China's diplomacy and military expansion."

The Pacific countries are keen for greater connectivity amongst themselves and with allies, however they have repeatedly stressed that Washington should accept their priorities, making climate change - not superpower competition - the most urgent security task.

The second U.S. official said leaders from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia would attend, with Vanuatu and Nauru sending representatives.

Micronesian President David Panuelo said on Tuesday participants had been working on a summit declaration - "a vision statement" - that would cover five themes, including human-centered development, tackling climate change, geopolitics and security of the Pacific region and more broadly, as well as commerce and industry and trade ties.

However, efforts to reach a final text ran into problems this week when during a call with Pacific islands ambassadors, the U.S. State Department demanded the removal of language agreed to by the island countries that the United States address the Marshall Islands nuclear issue, three sources, including a Pacific island diplomat, told Reuters.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Speaking at Georgetown University, Panuelo said: "In any negotiation, there are red lines and then there are things you give and take and you'll reach some common ground."

"Every country will have to do what's in their best interests, but we call on the superpowers when they come in and talk to the Pacific Islands countries that they keep with us on the terms of the issues that are most important for our region."

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Alex Alper, Michael Martina and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Mary Milliken and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Italy's Meloni praises 'heroic uprising' of Iranian women

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni speaks at the party's election night headquarters, in Rome, Italy September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 15:01

ROME (Reuters) - Giorgia Meloni, set to become Italy's first female prime minister, hailed on Wednesday "the heroic uprising of Iranian women" following the death of a young woman in police custody.

The tweet was one of Meloni's first statements since her nationalist Brothers of Italy party won a parliamentary election on Sunday, propelling her conservative alliance to power and opening the way for her to become prime minister.

"All my sympathy to the brave women who are fighting in Iran and around the world to defend their rights and freedom," Meloni wrote. "Dozens are dead and hundreds of activists, lawyers and journalists arrested."

Protests have broken out across Iran after Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody following her arrest on Sept. 13 in Tehran for "unsuitable attire" by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic's strict dress code.

Iranian officials have said 41 people, including members of the police and a pro-government militia, had been killed during the protests. Human rights groups have reported a higher toll.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Iran's hardline president to speak to nation after days of unrest

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends an extended-format meeting of heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states at a summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan September 16, 2022. Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 14:56

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's hardline President Ebrahim Raisi will speak to the nation on Wednesday, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported, following days of violent nationwide protests over the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in custody.

"The president will talk about the most important domestic and foreign issues facing the country in his live TV interview tonight," ISNA said, without elaborating.

Mahsa Amini, 22, died while in the custody of the Islamic Republic's morality police after being arrested for wearing "unsuitable attire."

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Germany does not accept "sham" referendums, Scholz tells Ukraine's Zelenskiy

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers his speech as he takes part in the 25th anniversary celebration for the IGBCE mining, chemicals and energy trade union in Hanover, Germany September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 14:31

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a call on Wednesday that Germany would never accept the results of "sham" referendums on joining Russia in occupied regions of Ukraine, a German government spokesperson said.

Scholz also said Germany's financial, political and humanitarian support for Ukraine would not waver and it would continue to back Ukraine in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity, including weapons deliveries, the spokesperson said in a statement.

(Writing by Miranda Murray; Editing by Madeline Chambers)

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Top EU officials to make statement on Russia sanctions at 1400 GMT

FILE PHOTO: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine September 15, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 14:02

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will make an announcement at 1600 CET (1400 GMT) on Wednesday on plans for a tightening of sanctions against Russia.

Ukraine has urged the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia to punish it for staging annexation votes in four occupied regions.

The bloc is looking at an oil price cap, tighter curbs on high-tech exports to Russia and more sanctions against individuals, diplomats have said.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska)

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French political rivalries spill onto soccer field ahead of lawmaker charity match

FILE PHOTO: Marine Le Pen, member of parliament and president of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party parliamentary group gives a news conference at the National Assembly in Paris, France, August 2, 2022. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:52

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) - Deep divisions running through France's National Assembly spilled out onto the soccer pitch on Wednesday, with leftwing lawmakers refusing to play alongside colleagues from the far-right at an annual charity match.

After Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National party won a record number of seats in elections in June, lawmakers from the centre-left and hard left decried what they called the "normalisation" of the far right.

Stepping onto the soccer field along side Le Pen's party lieutenants would only accelerate that process, they said.

"We cannot be teammates on a football pitch when we are doing everything we can to not let the far right become commonplace," Parti Socialiste chief Olivier Faure told reporters.

France's parliament was for decades dominated by two mainstream parties. But the kind of voter anger over globalisation and self-serving political elites that propelled Donald Trump to the White House and underpinned Britain's Brexit vote has fuelled support for parties on the left and right fringes of French politics as well.

Faure said Italy's election results neatly illustrated what was at stake at home.

"Trivialisation leads to alliances between the right and the extreme right, and this is how the extreme right can then govern," he added.

Far-right lawmakers said those boycotting the evening game were guilty of holding French voters in contempt.

Le Pen won 41.5% of the vote in a presidential runoff vote in April after a campaign fought on protecting household incomes from surging living costs, before her party won 89 seats in the lower house.

"I'm sorry that the left and hard left are not capable of rising above these political divisions and accepting the result of the ballot box. We were elected democratically," said far-right legislator Alexandre Sabatou.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough)

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Thousands of Czechs protest government's handling of energy crisis

Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest rally in reaction to the energy crisis and soaring prices in Prague, Czech Republic, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/David W Cerny reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:47

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Thousands of Czechs protested in Prague on Wednesday against the government's handling of soaring energy prices which have cut into pocketbooks as winter approaches.

The demonstration on a national holiday in Prague's main square, organised by a number of far-right and fringe parties including the Communists, followed a similar protest earlier in September that drew tens of thousands of people.

The organising group "Czech Republic First!" opposes the European Union and NATO and calls for the central European nation of 10.7 million to be militarily neutral.

The Czech Republic is a member of both the EU and NATO.

Protesters held banners like "End the comedy" and many waved Czech flags as the sun appeared after morning rain.

"The Czech nation has risen, and it is taking its country back," one of the organisers told the crowd as he opened the protest which was streamed online to squares in other cities.

"A government has two duties: to ensure our security and economic prosperity. This government does not fulfil either of these duties," he said.

High energy prices, fuelled by the war in Ukraine, have piled pressure on governments across Europe to cushion the blow of mounting energy costs for consumers and businesses.

The current centre-right government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala this month adopted a string of measures, including financial aid for companies and price caps on electricity for households.

(Reporting by Robert Muller, Editing by Michael Kahn and Nick Macfie)

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Israel-South Korea free trade deal to take effect Dec. 1

FILE PHOTO: Containers are seen through the window of a crane operator's booth at the port of the northern city of Haifa April 23, 2013. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:29

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A free trade agreement between Israel and South Korea will go into effect on Dec. 1, Israel's Economy Ministry said on Wednesday, in a move expected to lower the prices of Korean-made cars, toys, video game consoles and soy sauce.

The agreement was ratified by Korea's parliament on Tuesday.

The ministry estimated that it would also improve the competitiveness of Israeli exporters, since South Korea has 18 other free trade deals, and benefit Israel's economy by about 500 million shekels ($141 million) a year.

It expects to boost and diversify Israeli exports to South Korea, as well as encourage South Korean investments in the Israeli market.

The free trade deal, signed in May 2021, is Israel's first with an Asian country and tariff reductions will apply to imports, exports as well as to investments, the ministry said. More than 95% of Israeli exports to South Korea will be duty free.

Israel recently forged a free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates and is negotiating similar deals with China, Vietnam, Bahrain and the United Kingdom.

Bilateral trade between Israel and South Korea rose 35% in 2021 to some $3.5 billion.

($1 = 3.5430 shekels)

(Reporting by Steven Scheer, Editing by William Maclean)

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Exclusive-Vietnam preparing rules to limit news posts on social media accounts - sources

FILE PHOTO: A man uses an iPad device in a coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kham/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:11

By Fanny Potkin and Phuong Nguyen

SINGAPORE/HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam is preparing new rules to limit which social media accounts can post news-related content, three people familiar with the matter said, as authorities tighten their control over news and information sources in the country.

The rules, expected to be announced by the year-end and with details yet to be hammered out, would establish a legal basis for controlling news dissemination on platforms like Facebook and YouTube while placing a significant moderation burden on platform providers, two of the sources added.

The sources asked not to be identified, as discussions about the new rules remain confidential.

Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications and Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"The government wants to fix what it sees as the 'news-lisation' of social media," said one source familiar with the talks. "News-lisation", or báo hoá, is a term used by the authorities to describe the misleading of users into thinking that social media accounts are authorised news outlets.

Government officials have been holding confidential meetings with popular social media and internet firms to brief them on which types of accounts will be allowed to post news content under the new rules, according to the sources.

Authorities would be able to order social media companies to ban accounts that break those rules, they said.

Vietnam's ruling Communist Party already maintains tight media censorship and tolerates little dissent, with one of the world's most stringent internet regimes and national guidelines on social media behaviour.

Two sources with direct knowledge told Reuters that more rules on internet and social media platforms would be introduced around the fourth quarter of 2022 to early 2023.

As tech-savvy young Vietnamese increasingly turn to social media for information, those platforms have become a target for government efforts to restrict the flow of news from unauthorised sources.

Vietnam is a top-10 market globally for Facebook with 60 million to 70 million users, according to 2021 data, and sources familiar with the matter said it generates around $1 billion in annual revenue for the company – surpassing France.

YouTube has 60 million users in Vietnam and TikTok has 20 million, according to 2021 government estimates, although Twitter remains a relatively small player.

Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, and Twitter Inc declined to comment. Alphabet Inc's Google and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment. TikTok said in a statement that it addresses content violations based on applicable laws and with adherence to its guidelines, but did not comment on pending Vietnam regulations.

The Vietnamese government had adopted in July a set of non-binding guidelines on what qualifies as news outlets, including criteria to distinguish "real" and "fake" news outlets, warning that some social networking sites include accounts that mislead users into thinking they are newspapers.

Those guidelines are expected to be incorporated into the new rules, which will be binding. The authorities are also expected to implement new rules that would require social media platforms to immediately take down content deemed to harm national security, and to remove illegal content within 24 hours, sources familiar with the matter said.

Sources told Reuters in April that the new rules, which were originally planned for July, reflected the government's dissatisfaction with social media platforms' take-down rates.

This will be done through amendments to the country's main internet law.

Vietnam in August also issued a new regulation, due to come into effect from October, that will require technology firms to store users' data locally and to set up local offices.

(Reporting by Fanny Potkin in Singapore and Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi; Editing by Edmund Klamann)

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Harris to be latest dignitary to make 'bucket list' visit to North Korea border

FILE PHOTO: South Korean and U.S. soldiers stand guard in the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 10:14

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -When U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris makes an expected visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas on Thursday, she will be the latest in a long list of dignitaries - and tourists - coming to gaze into secretive North Korea.

The DMZ is a relic of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and despite its name, is highly fortified from coast to coast with razor wire, heavy armaments and tank traps on either side of a 4 km-wide buffer.

It's a symbol of a divided peninsula, separated families, geopolitical tension, and bloody military clashes. The area has also become a surreal tourist destination, with outlet malls, theme parks, hiking trails, and other attractions, at least on the South Korean side.

U.S. presidents and numerous top officials have visited the zone, often wearing military-style jackets and usually arriving with messages of support for the alliance that keeps nearly 30,000 American troops in South Korea.

"It's symbolic in that these guys want to show that they are interested in the DMZ and the security of the peninsula, and it’s a bucket list item as well," Steve Tharp, a retired U.S. Army officer who spent years facilitating DMZ visits by everyone from politicians and generals to the American comedian Conan O'Brien, who filmed a skit on the North Korean side of the border.

Ronald Reagan was the first U.S. president to visit the DMZ, but Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are the only sitting presidents to have visited the Joint Security Area (JSA), a cluster of buildings that hosts talks, and the only spot where troops from both sides stand face to face, he said.

When Clinton visited in 1993, he walked to the Bridge of No Return, which spans the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that forms the border, and got its name when prisoners of war marched across it.

Clinton - who once called the DMZ "the scariest place on Earth" - reportedly kept asking whether he'd gone further than any other president, Tharp said.

He had. At least until Trump became the first U.S. president to step briefly into North Korea, when he met leader Kim Jong Un on the border in 2019 for hastily arranged talks that ultimately failed to breath life into stalled denuclearisation talks.

"He tweeted from Japan on a Saturday about 8 a.m. and he arrived 24 hours later and was in the DMZ by 1:30 p.m. and walked across the MDL to meet Kim Jong Un," a former senior U.S. defence official said.

"That was sporty, but we had a great team and it went off without a hitch."

'CLEAR MESSAGE'

George W. Bush had been scheduled to visit on his first trip to South Korea as president in late 2001, but the Sept. 11 attacks derailed the plan and when he finally visited the next year, it was to an observation post set back from the border and protected with a bulletproof glass shield, Tharp said.

Harris will be the first senior official from President Joe Biden's administration to visit the DMZ, and U.S. and South Korean officials said the trip is aimed at underscoring the alliance between Seoul and Washington in the face of any threats posed by North Korea.

"It sends a clear message of support for the alliance from the White House," the former senior official said.

Biden visited the DMZ before he became president but decided not to go during his first trip to South Korea as president this year.

During the last round of heightened tensions in 2017, then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the DMZ, calling it the "frontier of freedom" and later saying he visited because he wanted the North Koreans to "see our resolve in my face".

North Korea has isolated itself more than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began and its border guards at the DMZ rarely venture out, often donning protective suits when they do.

Weeds have overgrown the North Korean side of the line between the two Koreas where Trump and Kim stood shaking hands in 2019.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Cuba slowly begins to restore power after Hurricane Ian knocks out grid

FILE PHOTO: A downed pole is seen on the street in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian's passage through Pinar del Rio, Cuba, September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:49

By Dave Sherwood

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuba had slowly begun to restore power across the eastern end of the island, the state electricity provider said early on Wednesday, after Hurricane Ian caused the country's grid to collapse, turning off the lights for more than 11 million people.

Cuba's already frail grid, largely dependent on antiquated, Soviet-era oil-fired generation plants, had been faltering for months ahead of the storm. But officials said Hurricane Ian had proven too much, knocking out power even in far eastern Cuba, which was largely unaffected by the storm.

By early morning Wednesday, officials said some power had been restored to the areas with the least storm damage.

"There has been a greater advance in the restoration of the {National Electric System} in the eastern region, since the transmission and distribution network are integrated without being affected by the passage of Ian," the power provider said in a statement on local media.

Further west in Cuba, nearer the capital Havana, the process would be slower and more "complicated," the generator said.

Havana caught the tail end of Ian as it barreled off the island and into the Gulf of Mexico towards Florida, leaving the city of more than 2 million strewn with a tangled mess of downed trees, trash and electrical and telephone wire.

Large waves and gusty winds continued to lash the city early on Wednesday as workers began to clear roadways.

"A significant part of the transmission network was damaged," the generator in a statement, particularly, it noted, in the far western end of the country, hardest hit by Ian.

Cuba's grid is divided into three main regions, west, central and east, which are served by large, centralized oil-fired plants. There are also small groups of diesel-fired generators that are used as backup systems when the larger generators fail.

Those would be key in restoring power further west, in the areas hardest hit by the storm, the generator said, until the entire grid was back online.

"Once generation is achieved in the three regions, they will all be able to be linked to the National Electric System, which will allow the largest amount of built-in load to be restored and all the service that has not been affected by Hurricane Ian will be restored," the generator said.

The state-run agency did not give an estimate for when power would be restored to Havana or points west.

Ian, which left a swath of destruction and at least two dead across western Cuba, has now strengthened into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Wednesday.

The NHC put the hurricane's location around 75 miles (125 km) west-southwest of Naples, Florida with maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (220 km per hour). The massive storm was expected to crash ashore into Florida on Wednesday evening south of Tampa Bay, somewhere between Sarasota and Naples.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood in Havana; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Sweden's Moderates ask for more time to agree coalition after election win

FILE PHOTO: Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson delivers a speach at the Moderate party election watch at the Clarion Sign Hotel, in Stockholm, Sweden, September 12, 2022.TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 13:00

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The leader of Sweden's Moderate party asked the speaker of parliament on Wednesday for two more weeks to try and form a coalition and thrash out a policy agenda, after his right-wing bloc narrowly won a parliamentary election this month.

The Moderates, Christian Democrats, Sweden Democrats and Liberals won 176 seats against 173 for the centre-left in the Sept. 11 vote, but their loose alliance has to be formalised if Kristersson is to become prime minister.

"Nothing is finalised until everything is finalised," Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson told reporters after meeting the speaker of parliament.

While the right-wing bloc has a clear majority, forming a government is complex.

Kristersson's Moderates have fewer seats than the Sweden Democrats, a populist, anti-immigrant party with roots in the far-right fringe, but Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson cannot secure enough backing to form a government himself.

The Liberals, whose support Kristersson also needs, have ruled out sitting in government with the Sweden Democrats and will not support a coalition that includes them.

The most likely outcome is a coalition of the Moderates and the Christian Democrats with support in parliament from the Liberals and Sweden Democrats, but finding a way to balance the demands of all four parties will be tough.

Kristersson said he would meet the speaker again in a week to give a progress report.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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'I have to keep fighting': Mexicans wait for years behind bars for a trial

Female prisoner Ana Georgina Jimenez Macias, who has spent 13 years awaiting trial in Mexico, takes a selfie with her sons at home in Veracruz, Mexico in 2009, in this handout picture distributed to Reuters on September 27, 2022. Ana Georgina Jimenez Macias/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:02

By Isabel Woodford

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Ana Georgina Dominguez has not seen her children in 13 years since she was thrown in jail for a crime Mexican prosecutors have still not proven she committed.

Arrested when she was just 25 years old on money laundering charges, Dominguez is one of tens of thousands of Mexican suspects stuck in so-called pre-trial detention, trapped in a judicial limbo behind bars.

She stands accused of running high-level financial accounting for a drug cartel.

"I didn't even finish high school," Dominguez, now 40, said in a phone interview from the medium-security penitentiary in Toluca city.

Forty percent of Mexican prisoners are currently awaiting trial, putting it among the top third of countries worldwide for pre-trial detention and worse than chronic-offenders Iran and Zimbabwe, according to data from London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

More than 92,000 jailed Mexican suspects are awaiting trial, the Institute estimates.

Dominguez is also among those who has spent longer in jail waiting for a trial than if any sentence had been doled out: she faced just an eight-year prison term if convicted.

Mexican human rights group Prodhu have called for her release, saying she was tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to sign key documents.

Prosecutors did not respond when asked for comment about Dominguez's case.

DETAINED WITHOUT TRIAL

Soldiers burst into Dominguez's home in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz to detain her early one morning in 2009.

The "worst part" was having her children, then aged 5 and 11, witness her arrest, she said, adding that she later heard a commander admit the wrong person had been arrested.

Dominguez said she was told that the key piece of evidence against her was testimony from an unidentified witness, though she later countered this with an alibi.

Mexico's pre-trial backlog has not been aided in recent years by its extended policy of "automatic" detention.

Since 2019, "no-bail" rules have been automatically applied to 16 offenses, including misuse of public funds and fuel theft, far beyond the "exceptional" cases permitted in international treaties.

"Many Mexicans spend more than a decade deprived of their liberty, awaiting trial without sentence," Miriam Estrada-Castillo, an official with a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, said earlier this month.

Mexico's Supreme Court this month debated the constitutionality of the pre-trial detention policy, but it made no ruling due to lack of consensus among the jurists.

Leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has not proposed any reforms to the policy, having long pointed to Mexico's high crime rate to defend mass pre-trial detention.

The policy is also used to prevent suspects from "fleeing justice, or from attacking victims or threatening witnesses,” according to an Interior Department statement.

It remains unclear how long suspects typically remain jailed awaiting trial, since the government does not release the data.

But a two-year limit for pre-trial detentions set out by law has clearly been breached in cases like Dominguez's, who counts federal public defense head Netzai Sandoval as a supporter.

"We trust that very soon we'll be able to put an end to this injustice," Sandoval wrote in a post on Twitter.

One of the two legal charges Dominguez faced was thrown out in February on procedural grounds, and a judge is now weighing up the final charge.

If that too is dismissed, a weary but determined Dominguez hopes she could be reunited with her family by Christmas.

"It's hard," she said, "but I have to keep fighting."

(Reporting by Isabel Woodford; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Stephen Coates)

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At least 22 killed after two Ugandan army helicopters crash in east Congo

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:15

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -At least 22 people were killed when two Ugandan military helicopters crashed in east Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, a Congo army spokesman who did not wish to be named told Reuters on Wednesday.

Uganda sent troops to its central African neighbour in December to help fight a violent rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

"The [Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF)] have not yet told us the circumstances of the crash," the spokesman said without providing further detail.

UPDF spokesman Felix Kulayigye confirmed one helicopter crash and said "there were fatalities, but I don't have any extra details at the moment".

The ADF is among several militias wrangling over land and resources in Congo's mineral-rich east over the past decade, a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions.

(Reporting by Fiston MahambaWriting by Sofia ChristensenEditing by James Macharia Chege)

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Kremlin says military campaign in Ukraine to continue at least until capture of all of Donetsk region

FILE PHOTO: A firefighter comforts a woman next to the destroyed bus in which her teenage child was killed by shelling near a local market during Russia-Ukraine conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine September 22, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:33

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin said on Wednesday its "special military operation" in Ukraine must continue at least until the capture of all of east Ukraine's Donetsk region.

In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) - a breakaway Russian-backed entity that has been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 - controls only part of the wider territory which it claims.

"Therefore it is necessary, as a minimum, to liberate the entire territory of the DPR,", he said.

Russia has framed its military campaign in Ukraine as necessary to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, of which Donetsk makes up half, from "genocide" by Ukraine. Both Kyiv and Western countries say this is a figleaf for an imperial-style land grab.

Though Russia already controls almost all of Luhansk region, the other half of the Donbas, it holds only around 60% of Donetsk region.

The Moscow-backed entities in Donetsk and Luhansk, alongside two other Russian-occupied regions in southern Ukraine, are seeking to become part of Russia after they completed on Tuesday what Kyiv and Western governments described as sham referendums on joining Russia.

(Reporting by Reuters)

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Man killed in shoot-out during Belgian raids targeting far right

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 12:32

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A man was killed in a shoot-out with police in Belgium on Wednesday during raids into far-right sympathisers suspected of planning an attack and illegally possessing arms.

Police carried out raids at around 10 addresses mostly in the northern port city of Antwerp, federal prosecutors said. At one, an exchange of fire resulted in the death of a man inside.

Investigators discovered a large number of firearms and ammunition, a spokesperson for federal prosecutors said, adding that the raids were linked to an investigation into preparations for a terrorist attack and illegal arms possession.

"Some of the people are suspected of being close to the extreme right," the spokesperson said, declining to say how many people had been detained or to give further details about the attack planning.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, editing by Marine Strauss and Gareth Jones)

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Russian-installed officials ask Putin to annex Ukrainian regions

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a residential building damaged in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Lysychansk, the city controlled by pro-Russian troops in the Luhansk region, Ukraine September 21, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 11:28

LONDON (Reuters) -The Russian-installed administrators of Ukraine's Luhansk and Kherson regions have formally asked President Vladimir Putin to incorporate them into Russia, following hastily organised referendums that Ukraine and the West denounced as illegitimate.

Russian-installed officials in four occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities in favour of joining Russia.

Western countries said the votes were a coercive exercise to provide a pretext for Russia to annex around 15% of Ukrainian territory, and threatened new sanctions against Moscow if annexation plans went ahead.

Vote tallies from complete results on Tuesday in the four provinces ranged from 87% to 99.2% in favour of joining Russia, according to officials.

In a letter published on his Telegram account, Vladimir Saldo - the Russian-installed head of Ukraine's Kherson region - said residents had made "a historic choice" in favour of Russia.

If Russia declares the four Ukrainian regions part of its territory, Putin could portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself, justifying a potentially harsher military response.

Russia says it intervened in Ukraine in part to protect Russian-speakers living in the eastern Donbas region, comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, from persecution.

Kyiv and the West reject this as a baseless pretext for a wider war of aggression.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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U.S. VP Harris condemns 'disturbing' Chinese actions

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris listens during a roundtable discussion at the NAACP National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S., July 18, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah Beier/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 09:14

By Trevor Hunnicutt

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris condemned on Wednesday "disturbing" actions by China in the Pacific while pledging to deepen "unofficial ties" with Taiwan, days after the U.S. administration pledged its forces would defend the island.

Harris made her remarks on the deck on the USS Howard destroyer during a visit to the largest overseas U.S. Navy installation in the world at Yokosuka, near the Japanese capital.

"China is undermining key elements of the international rules-based order," said Harris, who is on a four-day trip to Asia.

"China has flexed its military and economic might to coerce and intimidate its neighbours. And we have witnessed disturbing behaviour in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and most recently, provocations across the Taiwan Strait."

The remarks to American sailors wearing dress whites come after U.S. President Joe Biden pledged in an interview aired on Sept. 18 to defend the Chinese-claimed island of Taiwan against an "unprecedented attack".

The U.S. subscribes to a "one China" policy that formally recognises only Beijing but binds the U.S. government to provide democratically ruled Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

China says Taiwan is one of its provinces. It has long vowed to bring Taiwan under its control and has not ruled out the use of force to do so.

Taiwan's government strongly objects to China's sovereignty claims and says only the island's 23 million people can decide its future.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited to Taiwan in August, infuriating China, which then carried out its largest-ever military exercises around the island.

Harris said U.S. forces would operate in the region "undaunted and unafraid" even as the United States expects "continued aggressive" actions by China.

"We will continue to oppose any unilateral change to the status quo," she said. "And we will continue to support Taiwan's self-defence, consistent with our long-standing policy. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy that contributes to the global good - from technology to health, and beyond, and the United States will continue to deepen our unofficial ties."

Wang Wenbin, spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry, told a regular media briefing that the United States needed to return to the one China policy and "unequivocally make clear that it opposes all Taiwan separatist activities".

RISING TENSION

Harris' trip to Japan, Washington's closest regional ally, was meant to reassure allies and deter any escalation.

Aides said Harris would work on a unified approach in a region where leaders have warily watched rising tension between the United States and China.

The base where Harris spoke is home to 24,000 military and civilian workers who could be called on in a regional conflict. It's also the home of the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier now in South Korea to participate in joint drills meant to deter North Korea. Harris will visit the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Harris led Biden's bipartisan U.S. delegation to the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who nudged the country away from the pacifist doctrine it adopted after being defeated in World War Two.

Biden is expected to hold his first face-to-face meeting as president with China's Xi Jinping during November's Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia.

Before Harris spoke to the U.S. service members, she stepped below deck and was given a demonstration of the warship’s missile and anti-submarine capabilities.

A commander pointed at a digital map showing a hypothetical enemy, a “hostile country” he declined to identify.

"It’s not Guam,” he explained, referring to the Pacific territory.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Yokosuka, Japan; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Editing by Mary Milliken, Josie Kao and Gerry Doyle)

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Pope to visit Bahrain for conference in November, Vatican says

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis meets with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa during a private audience at the Vatican, February 3, 2020. Vincenzo Pinto/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 11:43

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis will visit predominantly Muslim Bahrain Nov. 3-6 to attend an international conference, the Vatican announced on Wednesday.

The Vatican said the pope would visit the Gulf island country off the Arabian peninsula to take part in the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence.

In 2019, Francis visited Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula and say a Mass there.

Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows the small Christian community - made up mostly of foreign workers - to practice their faith publicly in the two churches there.

Vatican officials first announced the trip to Bahrain on the flight back from the pope's trip to Kazakhstan earlier this month but did not give the dates.

Wednesday's announcement gave no details of the programme.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Entire villages empty out as Ukrainians flee from Russian annexation, refugees say

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Russian flag flying in the square during a five-day referendum on the secession of Zaporizhzhia region from Ukraine and its joining Russia, in the Russian-controlled city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 11:05

By Jonathan Landay

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - "It's funny. Nobody voted, yet the results are in," laughed Lyubomir Boyko, 43, from Golo Pristan, a village in Russian-occupied Kherson province as he waited on Wednesday outside a United Nations aid office with his family at a refugee reception centre.

As Russia prepares to annex a swathe of Ukrainian territory the size of Portugal after staging what it calls referendums in four occupied provinces, Ukrainians who have been able to escape describe an exercise that would be funny if it were not so menacing.

"They can announce anything they want. Nobody voted in the referendum except a few people who switched sides. They went from house to house, but nobody came out," Boyko said.

He, his wife and their two children had arrived at the aid centre in the parking lot of a home improvement store in Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia city the previous day, after waiting for two days before Russian forces abruptly allowed them out through the last checkpoint.

Those fleeing Russian-held territory say the so-called referendum has been carried out by men with guns forcing people to cast ballots in the street. The biggest fear is that, as soon as Moscow declares the territory to be Russia, it will immediately start press-ganging men to fight in its forces.

For now, Russian forces have been letting some people out of occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces through the one checkpoint. No one knows how long the route will stay open, especially for draft-aged men.

Hundreds of people arrived on Tuesday in cars and mini-vans after being suddenly allowed out. On Wednesday morning some were still at the centre, with nowhere to go, trying to arrange accommodation after spending the night in a school.

An air raid siren sounded, and a downpour drenched the parking lot of the Epicenter home improvement store that hosts the reception center in plastic shelters. A U.S.-based charity, World Central Kitchen, was providing hot meals inside a tent.

"A lot of people are just leaving everything behind. There are places that are completely deserted," said Boyko. "Everybody wants to be in Ukraine, and this is why everybody is leaving. Over there is a lawless place. Entire villages are leaving."

He said officers of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, had told him and others at the last checkpoint that if they leave for Ukraine they would never be permitted to return. He did not know if draft-age men still were being allowed out.

"The line of vehicles was so long you could not see the end of it," recounted another man, Andriy, 37, who declined to give his last name, standing by the yellow, mud-spattered minibus in which he arrived with his wife, two children and parents.

"Seventy percent of people are leaving because of the referendum. There was no light, no gas, and no work and all of a sudden, you get the referendum," said the agricultural worker from Beryslav, in Kherson province. "It’s complete nonsense. I don’t know a single person among those I know who voted."

He said he saw passers-by forced to fill out ballots on their knees at a Bereslav crossroad.

Russia says voting has been voluntary and turn-out has been high. Pro-Russian officials have published what they describe as results showing overwhelming support for annexation. Kyiv and Western countries call the exercise a complete sham, aimed at justifying the annexation of territory seized by force.

"If I came to your home and told you, ‘Now this place is mine,’ what would you do?" chimed in Andriy's 60-year-old father Viktor.

"Would you hand it over? No, you would chase them off with a pitchfork. The Russians are morally ugly. This is all awash in blood."

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay,; Editing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan)

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Opioid crisis cost U.S. nearly $1.5 trillion in 2020 -Congressional report

FILE PHOTO: Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 11:14

By Ahmed Aboulenein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic toll of the opioid addiction and overdose crisis on the United States reached nearly $1.5 trillion in 2020 alone and is likely to grow, a Congressional report seen by Reuters shows.

Opioid-related deaths soared during the pandemic, including from the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl, exacerbating an already tragic and costly nationwide crisis that accounted for 75% of the 107,000 drug overdose fatalities in 2021, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

"It's equivalent to one 737 (jet) every day going down, no survivors. It's a mind boggling number of deaths," said Representative David Trone, who sits on the Congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) that issued the report.

The committee will say in a Wednesday report that after adapting a method used by CDC scientists and adjusting for inflation, it found that the crisis cost the U.S. economy $1.47 trillion in 2020, a $487 billion increase from 2019.

The latest calculation represents a 37% increase from 2017, when the CDC last measured the cost.

"JEC is valuing all the various loss that happens with addiction. There's loss of productivity, folks in the job force, all the medical health costs, just a huge number of costs," said Trone, a Democrat who previously chaired the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.

"The rise in fatal opioid overdoses in 2021 suggests the total cost is likely to continue to increase," the report said.

The report also highlighted racial inequalities within the crisis. Although opioid use is more common among white people, Black people accounted for 17% of U.S. fatal opioid overdoses in 2020 despite making up 12.5% of the population.

Black people have a harder time getting addiction treatment because they are less likely to have access to affordable healthcare and prescribed medications that can reduce the risk of fatal opioid overdoses, it said.

President Joe Biden announced on Friday nearly $1.5 billion to fund access to medications for opioid overdoses, sanctions against traffickers, and increased funding for law enforcement.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

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Kremlin dismisses 'stupid' claims Russia attacked Nord Stream

FILE PHOTO: Pipes at the landfall facilities of the 'Nord Stream 1' gas pipeline are pictured in Lubmin, Germany, March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 11:13

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin on Wednesday said claims that Russia was somehow behind a possible attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines were stupid, adding that Moscow saw a sharp increase the profits of U.S. companies supplying gas to Europe.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a daily conference call with reporters that the incident needed to be investigated and the timings for repair of the damaged pipelines were not clear.

Europe has been investigating what Germany, Denmark and Sweden said were attacks which had caused major leaks into the Baltic Sea from two Russian gas pipelines at the centre of an energy standoff.

Asked about claims Russia might somehow be behind the possible attack, Peskov said: "That's quite predictable and also predictably stupid."

"This is a big problem for us because, firstly, both lines of Nord Stream 2 are filled with gas - the entire system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive... Now the gas is flying off into the air."

"Before making any claims, we should wait for investigation into these ruptures, whether there was an explosion or not," Peskov said. Information on the incident could be expected from Denmark and Sweden, he said.

Nord Stream AG, the operator of the network, said on Tuesday that three of four offshore lines of the Nord Stream gas pipeline system sustained "unprecedented" damage in one day. All Nord Stream's pipeline had not delivered gas by the time of the incident.

Nord Stream 1 has reported a significant pressure drop caused by the gas leak on both lines of the gas pipeline, while Nord Stream 2 said that a sharp pressure drop in line A was registered on Monday.

(Reporting by Dmitry Antonov; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

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Solomon Islands tells Pacific islands it won't sign White House summit declaration -note

FILE PHOTO: Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 05:34

By Kirsty Needham, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands has told Pacific nations invited to a White House meeting with President Joe Biden it won't sign the summit declaration, according to a note seen by Reuters, prompting concern over the islands' ties to China.

Leaders from the Pacific Island Forum bloc have been invited to the two-day White House summit starting Wednesday, at which the Biden administration seeks to compete with China for influence in the strategically important South Pacific.

The Solomon Islands, which struck a security pact with China in April, wrote to the Pacific Islands Forum and asked it to tell the other members it wouldn't sign a proposed Declaration on the U.S.-Pacific Partnership, to be discussed at the summit on Sept. 29, and needed more time for its parliament to consider the matter, according to the note dated Sunday.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said on Tuesday in Washington that countries had been working on the summit declaration - "a vision statement" - that would cover five thematic areas, including human-centered development, tackling climate change, geopolitics and security of the Pacific region, commerce, and industry and trade ties.

The Solomons note said the declaration was "yet to enjoy consensus".

"Solomons does state it won't be able to sign the declaration but it doesn't call on others to follow suit," said Anna Powles, a Pacific security expert at New Zealand's Massey University who has seen the note.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.

Solomon Islands opposition party leader Matthew Wales wrote in a tweet: "Strange inconsistency. Agreements with China are signed in secret & kept secret. Now insisting Parliament must deal with the regional agreement with the US? Insincerity writ large!"

The Solomon Islands says in the note, signed by its embassy in Washington, that the Pacific Islands Forum already has a mechanism for engaging with partners outside the region.

"Of course, China is a part of that mechanism, hence the U.S. seeking to create alternative architecture such as its own regional partnership framework," Powles said.

Speaking at an event in Washington hosted by Georgetown University, Panuelo said the Pacific island nations had come to realize the importance of "strength in numbers" and called for superpowers to talk to them about the issues most important for the region.

Efforts to reach a final text on the declaration ran into problems this week during a call between the U.S. State Department and Pacific islands ambassadors, when the U.S. side demanded removal of language agreed to by the island countries that Washington address the Marshall Islands' nuclear issue, three sources familiar with the call, including a diplomat from a Pacific island state, told Reuters.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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Italy's Meloni tells Ukraine it can count on her

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Italy's nationalist Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) party and frontrunner to become prime minister Giorgia Meloni, holds a closing rally in Naples, Italy, September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 06:41

ROME (Reuters) - Nationalist leader Giorgia Meloni, set to become Italy's next prime minister, has pledged her full support for Kyiv after receiving congratulations from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for her election victory.

In a Tweet late on Tuesday, a day after Meloni and her right-wing allies won a commanding parliamentary majority, Zelenskiy said he was looking forward to "fruitful cooperation with the new government".

Meloni replied swiftly. "Dear (Zelenskiy), you know that you can count on our loyal support for the cause of freedom of Ukrainian people. Stay strong and keep your faith steadfast!" she wrote in English on Twitter.

Meloni has been one of the few Italian political leaders to wholeheartedly endorse outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi's decision to ship weapons to Ukraine, even though she was in opposition to his government.

By contrast, Meloni's two political allies, the League and Forza Italia, which were both in Draghi's coalition, have been much more ambivalent, reflecting their historically close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Underscoring the depth of those ties, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi said last week that Putin had been "pushed" into invading Ukraine and had wanted to put "decent people" in charge of Kyiv.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Michael Perry)

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China repeats call for stability in Korean peninsula

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 08:48

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's consistent position is to maintain stability in the Korean peninsula, its foreign ministry said on Wednesday, after South Korean media reported that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test in coming months.

The relevant parties should take concrete actions to respond to the legitimate concerns of the DPRK, said Wang Wenbin, spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry at a regular media briefing, referring to North Korea's formal name - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

North Korea's first nuclear test since 2017, if it takes place, is likely to happen between Oct. 16 and Nov. 7, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday, citing lawmakers briefed by the national intelligence agency.

(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Swedish prosecutor to decide on further course of Nord Stream investigation

FILE PHOTO: Pipes at the landfall facilities of the 'Nord Stream 1' gas pipeline are pictured in Lubmin, Germany, March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 10:25

OSLO (Reuters) - Swedish prosecutors will review material from a police investigation into the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines, and decide on further actions to be taken in the case, the Sweden's Prosecution Authority said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, editing by Essi Lehto)

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Restaurant fire kills 17 in northeastern China

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 10:25

BEIJING (Reuters) - A restaurant fire killed 17 people in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun on Wednesday, state television channel CCTV reported.

Three people were also injured in the blaze that broke out in a small diner at 12:40 p.m. (0440 GMT) in the city, the capital of Jilin province, the report added.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, and all the injured had been taken to hospital, CCTV said.

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Satellite images show military build-ups in Ethiopia, Eritrea - Maxar

FILE PHOTO: A satellite image shows the mobilization of military forces in the town of Shiraro, Tigray region, Ethiopia, September 26, 2022. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS. reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 09:25

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Satellite images show the mobilisation this month of military forces in towns on either side of Ethiopia's northern border with Eritrea, a private U.S. company said on Wednesday.

Reuters could not independently verify the contents of the images showing reported military activity in the aftermath of the breakdown on Aug. 24 of a five-month ceasefire in Ethiopia's Tigray region.

Tigray forces have battled Ethiopia's federal army and its allies, including Eritrean troops and fighters from neighbouring Ethiopian regions, over the course of a nearly two-year war.

Images collected on Sept. 26 show military forces, vehicles and artillery positions in the town of Shiraro, near Tigray's northern border with Eritrea, according to Maxar Technologies Inc, which collects and publishes satellite imagery of the region.

The images from Eritrea were taken on Sept. 19 and show the deployment of heavy weaponry in the town of Serha, near the Tigray border, Maxar said.

Most communications to Tigray have been down for more than a year.

Tigray forces said on Sept. 13 that Eritrean troops, fighting alongside Ethiopian soldiers, had at one point taken control of Shiraro since fighting had resumed but suggested they had since been beaten back.

They have also accused Eritrea of shelling Tigrayan towns from its territory in recent weeks.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities have not responded to requests for comment about the recent fighting.

Eritrean troops supported the Ethiopean military in earlier phases of the war. The Eritrean government has not confirmed its participation in fighting since the ceasefire broke down, but said earlier this month that some reservists had been called up for military service.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu, military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane and the prime minister's spokesperson Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the images on Wednesday.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel and Getachew Reda, a spokesperson for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that leads Tigray's regional government, also did not immediately comment.

(Reporting by Aaron Ross and Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Iran security forces clash with protesters over Amini's death

FILE PHOTO: A newspaper with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by Iranian morality police is seen in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/ reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 22:36

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iranian riot police and security forces clashed with demonstrators in dozens of cities on Tuesday, state media and social media said, as protests raged on over the death of young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Amini, 22, from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, was arrested on Sept. 13 in Tehran for "unsuitable attire" by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic's strict dress code.

She died three days later in hospital after falling into a coma, sparking the first big show of opposition on Iran's streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019.

Despite a growing death toll and a fierce crackdown by security forces using tear gas, clubs and, in some cases, live ammunition, videos posted on social media showed protesters calling for the fall of the clerical establishment while clashing with security forces in Tehran, Tabriz, Karaj, Qom, Yazd and many other Iranian cities.

Rights group Amnesty International said on Twitter that Iran's security forces have responded to the protests with "unlawful force, including by using live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds of others".

State media branded the protesters "hypocrites, rioters, thugs and seditionists", while state television said police clashed with "rioters" in some cities.

Videos posted on social media from inside Iran showed protesters chanting, "Woman, Life, Liberty", while women waved and burnt their veils.

Videos on Twitter showed protesters chanting "Death to the dictator", a reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the Kurdish cities of Sanandaj and Sardasht, riot police fired at protesters, Twitter videos showed.

"I will kill those who killed my sister," chanted protesters in one of the videos from Tehran, while activist Twitter account 1500tasvir said: "The streets have become battlefields".

Further videos on social media showed protests continuing in dozens of cities after nightfall on Tuesday. A video widely shared on social media showed protests in Chabahar city in restive southeast Iran, with demonstrators torching government offices as gun shots could be heard.

"The crowed is upset over Mahsa Amini's death and allegations that a policeman has raped a teenage girl from the Baluch ethnic minority," a voice in video said. Reuters could not authenticate the footage.

The videos on social media could not be verified by Reuters.

State media also reported the arrest of women’s rights activist Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of a former Iranian president and founder of the Islamic Republic, for "inciting riots" in Tehran.

To make it difficult for protesters to post videos on social media, authorities have restricted internet access in several provinces, according to Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks on Twitter.

GROWING SUPPORT

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Iran's clerical rulers to "fully respect the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association".

In a statement, spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said that reports indicated "hundreds have also been arrested, including human rights defenders, lawyers, civil society activists and at least 18 journalists".

Officials said 41 people, including members of the police and a pro-government militia, had died during the protests. But Iranian human rights groups have reported a higher toll.

The Iranian human rights group Hengaw said 18 people had been killed, 898 injured and over 1,000 Kurdish protesters arrested in the last 10 days, but estimated that the real figures were higher.

"Between Monday and Friday, more than 70 women have been arrested in Iran's Kurdistan. ... At least four of them are under age 18," Hengaw said on Tuesday.

Iran's judiciary has set up special courts to try "rioters", according to state media.

Over 300 Iranian Christians issued a statement supporting the nationwide protests.

Social media posts, along with some activists, have called for a nationwide strike. Several university teachers, celebrities and prominent soccer players have backed the protests while students in several universities have refused to participate in classes.

Meanwhile, Amini's death has drawn widespread international condemnation while Iran has blamed "thugs" linked to "foreign enemies" for the unrest. Tehran has accused the United States and some European countries of using the unrest to try to destabilise the Islamic Republic.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Jonathan Oatis and Josie Kao)

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Fighter jets escort Singapore Air plane over bomb hoax

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 07:51

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Fighter jets escorted a Singapore Airlines plane to land at the city-state's international airport Changi on Wednesday after a passenger had made a bomb threat, Singapore authorities said.

A 37-year-old male passenger on board the flight from San Franciso had claimed there was a bomb in his hand luggage, a statement from the defence ministry said.

The bomb threat was subsequently found to be false, it said, adding the suspect had been arrested and police were continuing their investigations.

Singapore police said in a statement the man had been restrained by the crew after accusing him of assaulting cabin staff.

He was later arrested under anti-terrorism measures and for suspected drug consumption, police said.

A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines said all other passengers and crew had disembarked normally at 0920 a.m. (0130 GMT), declining to give further details on the incident.

(Reporting by Chen Lin in Singapore; Editing by Ed Davies)

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Factbox-Russia's annexation plan in Ukraine: what happens now?

FILE PHOTO: Head of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Denis Pushilin, Chairman of the Committee of Russia's State Duma on Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications Aleksandr Khinshtein and Secretary of the United Russia Party's General Council Andrey Turchak attend a news conference on preliminary results of a referendum on the joining of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) to Russia, in Donetsk, Ukraine September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 09:07

LONDON (Reuters) - Pro-Russian officials in four partially Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine declared that voters had chosen to join Russia, in hastily organised referendums which the West said were illegal - what happens now?

President Vladimir Putin has said he will never abandon the residents of these areas. Ukraine says Russia is a criminal state stealing its sovereign territory.

WHAT WERE THE PUBLISHED RESULTS?

- Donetsk People's Republic (DPR): 99.23% for joining Russia, 0.62% against. A total of 2.13 million people voted in total, 97.5 of voters.

- Luhansk People's Republic (LNR): 98.42% for joining Russia.

- Russian-controlled Kherson region: 87.05% for joining Russia.

- Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia: 93.11% for joining Russia.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Things will move swiftly.

The leaders of the Russian-backed separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk said they had already appealed to Putin for Russia to admit them. Russian-installed officials of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia said they will officially ask to join Russia.

Putin will speak at some point.

To annex the territories some sort of treaty will be struck and ratified by the Russian parliament, which is controlled by Putin allies. The areas will then be seen as part of Russia and Moscow's nuclear umbrella will extend to them.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly said that "pseudo-referendums" on annexation by Russia would destroy any chance of peace talks.

WHAT WILL THE WEST DO?

- The West and Ukraine say Russia is violating international law by taking 15% of Ukrainian territory, whose post-Soviet borders Moscow recognised shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The West could increase arms supplies to Kyiv, and tighten financial sanctions that are already the most severe imposed against a large economy in modern history.

- The areas that are being annexed are not all under control of Russian forces. So, from a Kremlin perspective, once they do become part of Russia, then fighting and a front line will run through Russian sovereign territory. That could prompt some sort of ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Guinea 2009 stadium massacre victims hope for justice as trial starts

FILE PHOTO: People enter the stadium before the crackdown in Conakry in this frame grab taken from September 28, 2009 footage. REUTERS/Reuters TV/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 07:06

By Saliou Samb

DAKAR (Reuters) - The trial begins on Wednesday of eleven men accused of responsibility for a 2009 stadium massacre and mass rape by Guinean security forces that survivors and family members hope will bring them justice after 13 years.

Eleven men, including former president and military ruler Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, have been indicted and will face trial for responsibility in the massacre of over 150 people and the rape of at least a dozen women in Guinea's capital, Conakry.

Camara has denied responsibility for the incident, blaming it on errant soldiers, including his former aide-de-camp Lieutenant Aboubacar Toumba Diakite, who is also among those indicted. He has also denied responsibility.

On Sept. 28, 2009, tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators held a protest in the stadium to pressure Camara not to stand for election as president of Guinea the following year.

Asmaou Diallo said she was at the protest. She told Reuters in an interview that she was assaulted and barely escaped with her life, and that her son was killed in front of her.

"The most shocking image for me that day was that of the body of my slain son. I still haven't processed what happened," said Diallo, who now heads an association of parents and victims of the massacre.

"Knowing that this trial will take place is for all the victims the beginning of hope for deliverance," she said.

After prolonged investigations and repeated delays by the previous government, the military government that seized power in September last year gave an order that the trial should start no later than Sept. 28, the anniversary of the massacre.

Camara, who was in exile in Burkina Faso following an attempted assassination and his ouster in 2009, returned to Guinea over the weekend.

He was interviewed by a prosecutor and detained on Tuesday alongside two other former senior military officers, their lawyer Pepe Antoine Lamah told journalists.

"It is in violation of the law that the prosecutor decided to incarcerate my clients," Lamah said.

At least 600 victims of the stadium incident have been identified, according to Alseny Sall, spokesperson for the Guinean Organization for Human Rights.

Sall said some 154 were killed that day by soldiers from the presidential guard, the military police, the police, and military trainees as about 50,000 people gathered at the stadium to protest.

Some relatives of those killed have said they never received their loved ones' remains.

"The hardest thing for me was not being able to mourn my husband. His body disappeared and was never returned to us. It's a situation that weighs on me," said Salimatou Bah, a rice seller.

"All we want is justice. This trial must ensure that such things never happen again in this country," she said.

(Reporting by Saliou Samb; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Nellie Peyton and Rosalba O'Brien)

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South Korea sees Oct. 16-Nov. 7 window for N.Korea nuclear test: Yonhap

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 08:28

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea's first nuclear test since 2017, if it takes place, is likely to happen between Oct. 16 and Nov. 7, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday, citing lawmakers briefed by the national intelligence agency.

Preparations for a nuclear test had been completed at North Korea's Punggye-ri test tunnel, where it conducted six underground nuclear tests from 2006 to 2017, the news agency reported, citing legislators briefed by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The timing of the test was likely to be determined by events in North Korea's main ally, China, and its biggest rival, the United States, Yonhap reported.

"The NIS said if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, it could be between China's 20th party congress on Oct. 16 and the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 7," one legislator, Yoo Sang-bum, told the news agency.

(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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Pakistan swears in Ishaq Dar as finance minister

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's likely new Finance Minister Ishaq Dar walks upon his arrival at the Nur Khan military airbase in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, Pakistan September 26, 2022. Prime Minister's Office/Handout via REUTERS. reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 07:32

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Seasoned politician and chartered accountant Ishaq Dar took the oath as Pakistan's new finance minister on Wednesday, the prime minister's office said, as the country fights an economic crisis exacerbated by devastating floods.

It is Dar's fourth stint as finance minister, and he will have to deal with a balance of payment crisis, foreign reserves falling to barely one month of imports, the rupee tumbling to historic lows and inflation crossing 27%.

Dar, who currently holds a seat in the upper house of parliament, was given the job after his predecessor Miftah Ismail quit, the fifth holder of the post to leave in less than four years amid persistent economic turbulence.

Dar is known to favour intervention in currency markets to keep the rupee stable.

The rupee has been gaining firmly ahead of his appointment and Pakistan stocks also responded positively at the opening on Wednesday before he was sworn in.

The senior politician from the ruling party of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif flew to Islamabad on Monday night after ending five years in self-exile in London.

He had left Pakistan in 2017 leaving pending corruption cases, which he says were politically motivated.

An anti-graft court last week suspended his arrest warrants enabling him to get back without being held.

Analysts say Dar's main mandate is to arrest the rising inflation that was mainly the result of unpopular decisions his predecessor took to adhere to the preconditions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), including rolling back power and fuel subsidies given by ousted prime minister Imran Khan in his last weeks in power.

The Sharif-led coalition government says it inherited a wrecked economy after Khan was ousted in a vote of no-confidence in April, a charge the former premier denies.

As the new government took over, the IMF's $6 billion bailout package agreed in 2019 was in the doldrums because of the lack of an agreed policy framework.

The IMF board last month approved the seventh and eighth reviews of the bailout programme, allowing for a release of over $1.1 billion.

The tranche, according to former finance minister Ismail, is likely to be enhanced after Pakistan's request to deal with the flood's economic losses, estimated to be around $30 billion.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Mahsa Amini's death is a 'tipping point', says U.S.-based Iranian journalist

Women carry flags and pictures during a protest over the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in Iran, in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, northeastern Syria September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Orhan Qereman reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 23:05

By Roselle Chen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Masih Alinejad, a U.S.-based Iranian journalist and women's rights activist, said the protests erupting in dozens of cities over the death of young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini in police custody is a "tipping point" for Iran.

"For the Islamic Republic, the murder of Mahsa Amini is becoming a tipping point because compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth," Alinejad told Reuters on Tuesday in New York. "It's like the Berlin Wall. And if Iranian women manage to tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic won't exist."

Amini, 22, from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez, was arrested on Sept. 13 in Tehran for "unsuitable attire" by the morality police who enforce the Islamic Republic's strict dress code. She died three days later in hospital after falling into a coma, sparking the first big show of opposition on Iran's streets since authorities crushed protests against a rise in gasoline prices in 2019.

Police say she fell ill as she waited with other detained women.

"This movement is the result of 40 years of women fighting back, pushing back the boundaries," Alinejad said. "I get goosebumps because when I launched the campaign against compulsory hijab, I never thought that this is going to happen while I'm alive."

Alinejad started a social media campaign in 2014 encouraging women in Iran to share self-portraits without the Islamic veil, which she then shares on her Facebook page, "My Stealthy Freedom."

Amini's death has drawn widespread international condemnation while Iran has blamed "thugs" linked to "foreign enemies" for the unrest. Tehran has accused the United States and some European countries of using the unrest to try to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

Read more:

Iran security forces clash with protesters over Amini's death

(Reporting by Roselle Chen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Lula widens lead over Bolsonaro less than a week ahead of Brazilian vote -poll

Brazil’s former president and current presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a meeting with sports representatives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carla Carniel reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 04:09

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has widened his lead over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to 13 percentage points less than one week ahead of presidential election, a Genial/Quaest poll released on Wednesday showed.

Recent polls indicate that Lula could beat his far-right populist rival in the first round, scheduled to happen next Sunday.

The new survey put support for Lula at 46% in the first-round vote on Oct. 2 against 33% for Bolsonaro, compared to 44% for Lula and 34% for Bolsonaro a week earlier.

In a potential Oct. 30 run-off, Lula's lead rose to a 14-point advantage, from 10 points a week ago.

The Genial/Quaest poll found that negative views of Bolsonaro's government edged up to 42% from 39% last week, while the percentage of those who see the government in a positive light remained flat at 31%.

The pollster interviewed 2,000 voters in person between Sept. 24-27. Its poll has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

(Reporting by Peter Frontini; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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Ship captains held by Indonesian navy decry bribes and betrayal

Captain Glenn Madoginog on board of a tanker vessel at Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 13, 2019. Courtesy of Glenn Madoginog/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 02:25

By Joe Brock

MANILA (Reuters) - Plagued by mosquitoes at night and marauding monkeys by day, ship captain Glenn Madoginog was held for months at an Indonesian naval base before ending up in a cramped prison cell, sleeping alongside convicted murderers and child rapists.

The Filipino father of four was one of dozens of captains held at the Batam naval base after being arrested for anchoring in Indonesian waters without a permit while waiting to enter Singapore, according to a dozen people involved in the cases, including captains, ship owners, intermediaries and insurers.

Most of the captains were freed after a few weeks once ship owners made unofficial payments to navy intermediaries of between $300,000 and $400,000, the people said.

But Madoginog, 47, says his firm declined so he and his vessel, the 20-year-old Seaways Rubymar oil tanker, remained captive at the base on Batam, an Indonesian island 20 miles (32 km) south of Singapore.

After a six-month wait, Madoginog was sentenced in March to 60 days in jail, his once-proud life as a captain shattered as he ended up in a crowded, cockroach-infested cell.

"The last few months were the worst time of my life," Madoginog told Reuters in his apartment in the capital of the Philippines, Manila, where he returned in May.

"I feel hopeless. I feel ashamed."

U.S. company International Seaways, one of the world's biggest tanker operators and owner of the Seaways Rubymar when it was detained, said it had pursued all legal avenues to get Madoginog and the vessel released.

"As a matter of policy, we do not pay bribes," it said in an emailed response to Reuters, adding that it did all it could to improve Madoginog's conditions while in custody and continued to provide financial and medical support to him and his family.

The Seaways Rubymar has since been scrapped.

Dozens of ships waiting to enter Singapore have been seized over the last year by the Indonesian navy for illegally anchoring in its waters, with most being released after ship owners made unofficial payments, Reuters has reported.

The waters just to the east of Singapore have been used for decades by ships waiting to enter the city-state but the Indonesian navy has cracked down on vessels it says are anchoring in its territory without paying port fees.

The Indonesian navy has said it never requests or receives money to release vessels. Detentions are handled through the courts, or ships are released if there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, a navy spokesman has said.

The navy did not respond to requests for additional comment for this story.

Spokesman Julius Widjojono told Reuters this month, however, that the navy chief was sending an investigation team to Batam, without giving further details or a time frame.

East Outside Port Limits anchorage is popular with ships waiting to enter Singapore https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/myvmndnalpr/EastOPL.png

'THIS IS PIRACY'

The four captains said they believed they had been held for ransom in a well-organised extortion scheme run by navy members, as previously reported by Reuters.

David Ledoux, an American who was captain of the fibre-optic cable-laying ship Reliance when it was arrested last year, said he dodged prison after the vessel's owner made an unofficial payment to free him.

"This is piracy in its simplest form: arrest the ship, arrest the captain, hold the company ransom, collect the money," Ledoux told Reuters in his home in New Bern, North Carolina, also accusing navy members of orchestrating the scheme.

Reuters was unable to determine the amount paid to free the ship, or when the payment was made.

The owner of the Reliance, SubCom, which is an undersea cable company based in the U.S. state of New Jersey, did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. embassy in Jakarta told Reuters it was aware of the ship detentions and payments being made to "parties claiming to represent the Indonesian Navy".

"Ships should exercise caution when navigating these waters," a U.S. official said, without addressing further questions.

The alternative to making a payment to intermediaries working on behalf of the navy is to wait for cases to go to court, leaving ships idle for months and potentially costing owners far more in lost revenue for vessels they can lease for tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Ledoux, 57, questioned why more wasn't being done by ship owners and governments to raise awareness of the issue.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. agency responsible for shipping security and safety, said it investigates matters raised by its members and it had yet to receive a request to look into this issue.

INTERNATIONAL WATERS

The area where ships were detained is more than 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the main Indonesian coastline, the standard distance considered to be in international waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Reliance and the Seaways Rubymar were anchored in the area, known as East OPL (outside port limits), the captains said.

However, Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands and territorial waters can be drawn around uninhabited islands or drying reefs which could mean captains believe, incorrectly, they are in international waters, ship insurers and a maritime lawyer said.

"That's why people have been caught out," said Stephen Askins, a maritime lawyer in London.

Ledoux said, however, that he had been told where to anchor by SubCom's agent in Singapore, Ben Line. Madoginog said his anchorage position had been approved by V-Ships, the London-based company managing his tanker, without providing evidence.

Ben Line denied any allegations of wrongdoing, without addressing questions about the anchorage. V-Ships did not respond to a request for comment.

Ledoux and most captains detained by the navy were released within a few weeks after ship owners made a payment, the 12 people involved in the transactions told Reuters.

When Ledoux was released on Oct. 28, he sailed the Reliance to Singapore for maintenance.

Once the repairs were complete, he was called by SubCom's director of fleet operations, Scott Winfield, saying his tone had shifted from compassionate to hostile.

"He said, 'upper management wants some ass, and it's going to be yours', so you're going to be demoted," said Ledoux, who lost his temper and resigned.

Winfield and SubCom did not respond to requests for comment.

Madoginog said he was detained on Sept. 16 last year in a dawn raid by naval officers. He said they told him to sail to Batam and come onshore to sign port clearance papers - and that it would only take a couple of hours.

When he arrived, he was put in a dark, sweltering room by the officers, with only an uncovered bed and a filthy squat toilet. One officer asked for the phone number of his ship's owners and left.

"There were no pillows, no linens, no air conditioning, no fans, nothing," said Madoginog, adding that at one point he counted 27 other captains in similar rooms.

Madoginog and Ledoux struck up a friendship, washing clothes and burning trash together in the yard outside their rooms, keeping an eye out for long-tailed macaques ready to charge at anyone with food.

Sailing route of Seaways Rubymar oil tanker after being released by Indonesian navy https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/byprjzjqqpe/SeawaysRubymar.png

'THEY LEFT ME BEHIND'

Buana Saka Samudera, the Indonesian agent for International Seaways, provided Madoginog with food, bedding and an air conditioning unit for his room on the base and eventually got him his own cell and better food in prison, he said.

Buana Saka Samudera did not respond to requests for comment.

Madoginog said he is not currently working and is receiving treatment for depression following his ordeal.

Other captains also had their rooms on the Batam base upgraded by local agents paid by shipowners, they told Reuters. After captains were released, navy personnel sometimes moved into the refurbished quarters, Madoginog and Ledoux said.

Madoginog said he remained on the base until mid-November, when navy officials sent him and the other captains back to their ships after a Reuters article about the arrests.

An Indonesian navy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Madoginog stayed on his ship by the Batam base until he was convicted in March of illegal anchorage and sentenced to two months in jail, court documents show.

He says he didn't understand what the prosecutor, judge or his interpreter were saying and wasn't able to give evidence at several court hearings.

Reuters has not seen what evidence was presented at the trial to prove the ship was in Indonesian waters.

Batam District Court spokesman Edy Sameaputty said the trial was conducted according to the relevant criminal law and that Madoginog had been given the right to a defence.

By the time he got out of jail, Madoginog's ship and crew were gone and no one from the company was there to meet him.

"They left me behind," he said.

(Reporting by Joe Brock; Additional reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in New Bern, Adrian Portugal and Eloisa Lopez in Manila and Yuddy Cahya Budiman in Jakarta; Editing by David Clarke)

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Russian defence ministry says newly mobilised reservists begin training in Kaliningrad

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 06:22

(Reuters) - Russia's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that newly mobilised reservists in the Kaliningrad region have started combat training at the base of Russia's Baltic Fleet.

"All mobilized military personnel comply with the standards for shooting from small arms. In addition, citizens called up from the reserve restore their skills in the operation and maintenance of weapons, military and special equipment," the ministry said on its Telegram channel.

Courses have been also held to increase firing skills and prepare military personnel for "confident actions on the battlefield".

President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's first military mobilisation since World War Two last week, which could see hundreds of thousands more people sent to fight in Ukraine.

Russia has a significant military presence in Kaliningrad, a Russian Baltic coast enclave located between NATO and European Union members Poland and Lithuania, including nuclear-capable missiles, its Baltic fleet and tens of thousands of soldiers.

(Reporting in Melbourne by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)

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India bans Islamic group PFI, accuses it of 'terrorism'

This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 06:16

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India declared the Popular Front of India (PFI) Islamic group and its affiliates unlawful on Wednesday, accusing them of involvement in "terrorism" and banning them for five years, after authorities detained more than 100 PFI members this month.

The group's office number listed on its website was out of service and it did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. On Tuesday, it denied accusations of violence and anti-national activities when its offices were raided and dozens of members detained in various states.

"The Popular Front of India and its associates or affiliates or fronts have been found to be involved in serious offences, including terrorism and its financing, targeted gruesome killings, disregarding the constitutional set up," the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement.

Muslims account for 13% of India's 1.4 billion people and many have complained of marginalisation under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi's party denies the accusations and points to data that all Indians irrespective of religion are benefiting from the government's focus on economic development and social welfare.

The ban is likely to stir an outcry among opponents of the government, which retains broad public support and a comfortable majority in parliament eight years after Modi first became prime minister.

The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which works with the PFI on some issues but was not included in the ban, said the government had struck a blow against democracy and human rights.

"Freedom of speech, protests and organisations have been ruthlessly suppressed by the regime against the basic principles of the Indian constitution," the SDPI said in a statement on Twitter.

"The regime is misusing the investigation agencies and laws to silence the opposition and to scare the people from expressing the voice of dissent. An undeclared emergency is clearly visible in the country."

Some SDPI office were raided and some of its members were detained this month.

'GLOBAL LINKAGES'

The PFI has supported causes like protests against a 2019 citizenship law that many Muslims deem discriminatory, as well as protests in the southern state of Karnataka this year demanding the right for Muslim women students to wear the hijab in class.

The government said in a notification it had banned the PFI and affiliates Rehab India Foundation, Campus Front of India, All India Imams Council, National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation, National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation, Kerala.

The government said it found a "number of instances of international linkages of PFI with global terrorist groups", adding that some of its members had joined Islamic State and participated in "terror activities" in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The PFI came together in late 2006 and was launched formally the next year with the merger of three organisations based in south India.

It calls itself a "social movement striving for total empowerment" on its website.

(Reporting by Akriti Sharma and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru and Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Desperation on Russia's borders as draft-eligible men flee

FILE PHOTO: Travellers from Russia cross the border to Georgia at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars station, Georgia September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:05

By Felix Light

LONDON (Reuters) - On Monday evening, Nikita, a 24-year-old from the Russian city of Voronezh, drove up to a border crossing on the arid steppeland along Russia’s remote border with Kazakhstan. Around 500 cars were already in line at the isolated checkpoint.

A Russian army reservist liable to be called up under the partial mobilisation President Vladimir Putin announced last week, Nikita had decided to flee to the relative safety of Atyrau, an oil boom town in western Kazakhstan, where his brother and a close friend had already arrived.

"The border is like death," Nikita told Reuters in an interview over the Telegram messaging app. "In five hours they only let 50 people across".

His escape was part of a vast exodus from Russia that has seen thousands of military-age men make for the borders with Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. On Monday, Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that 261,000 men had left Russia since mobilisation was declared, citing a Kremlin source.

On the Kazakhstan border, Nikita described would-be emigres pitching tents along the highway leading up to the Vishnyovka border post, while others less well-equipped slept on the tarmac, building makeshift beds out of their own clothes.

Giving up on the border crossing after four hours of waiting and getting a room for the night in the nearby city of Volgograd, Nikita and his girlfriend told Reuters they were still determined to find an alternative way out of Russia, and were looking at public transport links across the border.

He said: "Trains and buses are still going, but tickets are impossible to get hold of."

'HOPELESS SITUATION'

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry on Tuesday said that 98,000 Russians had entered the country in the last week, although 64,000 had left. The ministry said it would not repatriate Russians who entered the country in order to dodge the draft.

Russians can stay in Kazakhstan for up to 90 days without a visa.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was quoted by Russian news agencies on Tuesday as stressing the need to take care of the new arrivals.

Tokayev said: "In recent days, many people from Russia have been coming to us. Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue."

The mobilisation announcement touched off a frenzy inside Russia, with many young men seeking ways to avoid fighting in Ukraine.

On social media, closed groups sprang up offering everything from tips for crossing at specific border crossings, to organising private charter flights. One Telegram group offered seats on a flight from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport to the Kazakh capital Astana for 140,000 roubles ($2,400).

Some of the most dramatic scenes were at Russia’s only operational border crossing with Georgia, which allows Russians to stay for a year without a visa.

At the Verkhny Lars border crossing, which straddles a narrow road through a spectacular Caucasus mountain pass, local authorities said that 3,500 cars were waiting to cross into Georgia.

'COMPLETE HELL'

Veronika Karcheva, a Tbilisi-based tour operator who relocated from Russia in June, was preparing to receive a group of tourists from Russia when Putin announced partial mobilisation.

Once mobilisation was announced, Karcheva cancelled her tour group and instead put on a bus across the border from the Russian city of Vladikavkaz for those seeking to escape urgently.

Karcheva said: “At the time, I really didn’t understand the scale of the tragedy, of what was happening.”

On Tuesday, the head of the Georgian interior ministry said that about 10,000 Russians were entering Georgia every day, up from 5,000-6,000 before the mobilisation announcement.

But there were also signs that Russian authorities were clamping down on the route.

Authorities in the local region of North Ossetia, part of Russia, announced they were setting up a temporary draft office on the border, and that reservists attempting to leave Russia would be given draft papers on the spot.

Karcheva said that the situation on the Russian side of the border was deteriorating, with traffic backed up as far as Vladikavkaz, 31 km (19 miles) away and those queued up increasingly desperate to escape from Russia.

Karcheva said: "It’s complete hell. If you aren’t rude enough, if you aren’t nasty enough, you’ll be stuck there forever."

"I realised that there’s nothing that I can do anymore. I’m going to focus on helping people who are already in Tbilisi," she said.

(Reporting by Reuters, Editing by William Maclean)

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New UK trade minister visits United States in first trip overseas

FILE PHOTO: Kemi Badenoch walks outside Cabinet building, in London, Britain September 7, 2022. REUTERS/John Sibley reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 28, 2022 - 00:17

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's new trade minister Kemi Badenoch will visit New York on Wednesday in her first overseas trip, where she will stress the importance of the United States as a trading partner even as talks over a free trade deal between the countries are blocked.

Liz Truss, who became prime minister this month, has said that Britain is not prioritising a free trade deal with the United States "in the short to medium term".

Truss, herself a former trade minister, had previously highlighted such a deal with the United States as a key opportunity of leaving the European Union.

Badenoch will highlight the importance of U.S. investment in Britain even in absence of a free trade agreement.

"The US is our single most important trade, defence and security partner," Badenoch will say at the Atlantic Future Forum, a conference hosted by Britain aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in New York Harbour.

"The UK is a low-tax, high-talent, innovation nation and I will show America's biggest companies that we are ready to be their investment partner of choice."

It is now cheaper for Americans to invest in Britain than it was, with sterling down more than 7% against the dollar so far this month. Investors have baulked at Truss' plans for unfunded tax cuts, while the U.S. Federal Reserve has been more aggressive in raising rates than the Bank of England.

The trade ministry said Britain will continue to talk to U.S. states about memorandums of understanding on trade, aiming to do deals with Oklahoma and South Carolina in the coming months. The MOUs have been criticised by government opponents as having little economic impact.

During the two-day trip, Badenoch will also talk to her U.S. counterpart, Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and meet New York based investors.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Brazil's Lula says U.S. will quickly recognize election result

Brazil’s former president and current presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a meeting with sports representatives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carla Carniel reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 22:53

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazil's leading presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Tuesday he has been informed by the United States that the country plans to recognize the result of Brazil's Oct. 2 election on the first day after the vote.

"The United States is worried, they want to recognize the result on the very first day," Lula said at a campaign event, without giving further details.

Last week, sources told Reuters that U.S. diplomats had assured Lula they would swiftly recognize the winner of the vote, seeking to avert any attempt to contest a legitimate result.

Lula is polling ahead of incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has claimed that polls are skewed, the courts favor Lula and that Brazil's electronic voting is rife with fraud, without providing proof.

Critics fear Bolsonaro may follow the example of former U.S. President Donald Trump and refuse to accept an electoral defeat.

(Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Sweden's PM says Nord Stream leaks seen as deliberate acts

FILE PHOTO: Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson gives a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden September 14, 2022. Jessica Gow/TT News Agency via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 20:41

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden's prime minister said on Tuesday that two blasts had been detected in relation to the leaks of the Nord Stream pipelines with information suggesting likely sabotage, though this did not represent an act of war against Sweden.

Magdalena Andersson told a news conference the Swedish government was in close contact with partners such as NATO and neighbours such as Denmark and Germany concerning the developments.

"We have Swedish intelligence, but we have also received information in our contacts with Denmark, and based on this concluded that this is probably a deliberate act. It is probably a matter of sabotage," Andersson said.

"It is not a matter of an attack on Swedish or Danish territory. But that said, the government is taking what happened very seriously, not the least in light of the current security situation on our close proximity," she added.

Europe was investigating major leaks in two Russian pipelines that spewed gas into the Baltic Sea near Sweden and Denmark on Tuesday as Sweden launched a preliminary probe into possible sabotage.

(Reporting by Niklas Pollard and Anna Ringstrom, editing by Terje Solsvik)

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With flowers and a gun salute, Japan bids farewell to divisive Abe

A portrait of Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during the state funeral for Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe on September 27, 2022 at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan. Several current and former heads of state visited Japan for the state funeral of Abe, who was assassinated in July while campaigning on a street. Takashi Aoyama/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 12:21

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Trevor Hunnicutt

TOKYO (Reuters) -With flowers, prayers and a 19-gun salute, Japan honoured slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday at the first state funeral for a former premier in 55 years - a ceremony that has become as controversial as he was in life.

The ceremony started at 2:00 p.m. (0500 GMT), with Abe's ashes carried into the Nippon Budokan Hall in central Tokyo by his widow, Akie, to music from a military band and the booms of the honour-guard salute, which echoed inside the hall.

Thousands of mourners flooded to designated spots near the venue from early morning to pay their last respects.

Within hours, about 10,000 people had laid flowers, television showed, with more waiting in three-hour long queues.

"I know it's divisive and there are a lot of people against this, but there were so many people lined up to offer flowers," said Yoshiko Kojima, a 63-year-old Tokyo housewife.

"I felt that now the funeral is actually taking place, many people have come out to pray for him."

Abe's killing at a July 8 campaign rally set off a flood of revelations about ties between lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) he once ran and the Unification Church, which critics call a cult, sparking a backlash against current premier Fumio Kishida.

With his support ratings dragged to their lowest ever by the controversy, Kishida has apologised and vowed to cut party ties to the church.

But opposition to honouring Abe with a state funeral, the first such event since 1967, has persisted, fed by an $11.5-million price tag to be borne by the state at a time of economic pain for ordinary citizens.

In one part of downtown Tokyo, protesters waved signs and chanted "No state funeral" to the tune of a guitar.

Inside the Budokan, better known as a concert venue, a large portrait of Abe draped with black ribbon hung over a bank of green, white and yellow flowers.

Nearby, a wall of photos showed Abe strolling with G7 leaders, holding hands with children and visiting disaster areas.

A moment of silence was followed by a retrospective of Abe's political life and speeches by leading ruling party figures, including Kishida and Yoshihide Suga, Abe's successor and Kishida's predecessor as prime minister.

Suga noted that many people in their 20s and 30s had showed up to offer flowers.

"You always said you wanted to make Japan better, that you wanted young people to have hope and pride," Suga said, his voice trembling.

Abe's widow, dressed in a black kimono, wiped away tears as Suga spoke.

The ceremony ended after the last mourner placed flowers on the stage, after which Kishida and Akie Abe carried the ashes out of the hall.

DIVISIVE FIGURE

Japan's longest-serving prime minister was a divisive figure who was dogged by scandals.

An unapologetic nationalist, Abe pushed the country toward a muscular defence posture that many now see as prescient amid growing concern about China, but others criticised as too hawkish.

About 4,300 people attended the funeral ceremony itself, along with at least 48 current or former government figures, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"It was he who coined the term free and open Indo-Pacific," Harris told reporters after the funeral, referring to a concept that has become the cornerstone of Asian security.

"We cherish those principles and we stand by them. It is part of the bond that forms the alliance."

Russia's ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Galuzin, also attended.

Some 20,000 police were deployed, nearby roads were closed and even some schools shut as Japan sought to avoid the security blunders that led to Abe's shooting with a homemade gun by a suspect who, police say, accused the Unification Church of impoverishing his family.

The state funeral for Abe, who received a private funeral days after his assassination, was the first for an ex-premier since one in 1967 for former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.

Kishida has explained the decision as a way of honouring Abe's achievements, as well as standing up for democracy, but ordinary Japanese remain divided. Only 30% of respondents in a recent poll by TV Asahi agreed with hosting the funeral, against 54% opposed.

"I think Kishida’s decision on the state funeral was driven by a mix of a sense of statesmanship, personal sentiment, and political calculation," said James Brady, the lead Japan analyst at the Teneo consultancy.

"I suspect that Kishida felt Abe’s loss very personally."

Even without the recent revelations about the Unification Church, it would be hard to imagine any circumstances where a majority of Japanese would favour honouring Abe with a state funeral, said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of a biography of the former premier.

"He was someone who almost welcomed and invited controversy and saw his mission as overturning a longstanding consensus or set of consensuses" about how Japan was run, Harris said.

Many Japanese were "attached to the postwar regime that he wanted to overturn", Harris said.

(Additional reporting by Irene Wang, Issei Kato, David Dolan and Chang-Ran Kim; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Hurricane Ian barrels north from Cuba, with Florida in its crosshairs

A man carries his children next to debris caused by the Hurricane Ian after it passed in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, September 27, 2022. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 20:06

By Dave Sherwood and Nelson Gonzalez

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba (Reuters) -Hurricane Ian barreled north from Cuba on Tuesday, after forcing evacuations on the island, cutting power to more than 1 million people and flattening homes on its way to Florida, where residents prepared feverishly for the arrival of the massive storm.

The Category 3 hurricane was 265 miles (425 km) south of Sarasota, Florida, by mid-afternoon Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Mayelin Suarez, a street vendor who sells ice cream in the Cuban provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, called the night of the storm's passage the "the darkest of her life."

"We almost lost the roof off our house," Suarez told Reuters, her voice trembling. "My daughter, my husband and I tied it down with a rope to keep it from flying away."

The hurricane hits Cuba at a time of dire economic crisis. Even before the storm, hours-long blackouts had become everyday events across much of Cuba and shortages of food, medicine and fuel are likely to complicate efforts to recover from Ian.

"Ian has done away with what little we had left," said Omar Avila, a worker a butcher shop in Pinar del Rio after the eye of the storm pushed north from the city. "It's a horrible disaster."

The hurricane is expected to strengthen further on Tuesday after cutting a swath through Cuba's western farm country and emerging over the warm waters of the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, reaching Category 4 strength before it approaches the west coast of Florida, the NHC said.

Ian made landfall in Cuba's Pinar del Rio Province early on Tuesday, prompting officials to cut power to the entire province of 850,000 people as a precautionary measure and evacuate 40,000 people from low-lying coastal areas, according to local media reports.

Violent wind gusts shattered windows and ripped metal roofs off homes and buildings throughout the region, where many houses are decades old and infrastructure is antiquated. Roads into the areas directly hit by the hurricane remained impassable, blocked by downed trees and powerlines.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Ana Julia Gomez, a 56-year-old woman who lives alone in Pinar del Rio, as she surveyed the wreckage inside her storm-ravaged home. "I lost everything; nothing is left."

Pinar del Rio Province is a rural, lightly populated region but a top producer of farm crops and tobacco. State-run media said farmers had secured 33,000 tonnes of tobacco in storage from prior harvests, but many farms buildings, made with thatched palm roofs, had been flattened by the storm.

"Sometimes hurricanes pass through here, but not of this magnitude," said Abel Hernandez, a 49-year-old tobacco farmer. "It destroyed our houses, our drying huts, our farms, the fruit trees, everything."

Neighboring Artemisa Province, nearer Havana, reported that 40% of its banana plantations had been damaged by the storm.

CAPITAL CALM

Rain and strong winds ramped up in Havana by Tuesday afternoon, but the city, under a tropical storm watch and preparing for a potential storm surge along its expansive waterfront, was earlier spared the brunt of Ian's fury.

Felix Hernandez, a 51-year-old night watchman at a liquor factory in the Cuban capital, said it had been business as usual in the city. For much of the morning, street vendors were peddling avocado, and lines for chicken - an everyday phenomenon in Cuba - had formed at various points across the old city.

"We are incredibly fortunate Ian did not cross Havana because more than half of the city would have collapsed," he said.

Havana's decrepit infrastructure often suffers even in storms much smaller than Ian, as buildings collapse and drainage strains.

By late afternoon, as Ian's winds howled across the city, the power began to falter across the capital and streets emptied as most Havana residents took refuge in anticipation of potential flooding and storm surge.

North of Cuba, Hurricane Ian is expected to bring hurricane-force winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph) and as much as 2 feet (0.6 meter) of rain to the Tampa area on Florida's Gulf Coast starting early on Wednesday through Thursday evening, the National Weather Service said.

The storm surge there could cause devastating to catastrophic damage with some locations potentially uninhabitable for weeks or months, the service warned, urging residents to move to safe shelter before the storm's arrival.

Read more:

The worst hurricanes in Florida's history as Ian takes aim

How climate change is fueling hurricanes

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood in Havana and Nelson Gonzalez and Mario Fuentes in Pinar del Rio; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Brendan O'Brien in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams and Lisa Shumaker)

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Trudeau tours storm-hit Atlantic Canada as power outages persist

A search and rescue member walks around a property in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, Canada September 27, 2022. REUTERS/John Morris reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 20:08

By John Morris

PORT AUX BASQUES, Newfoundland (Reuters) -Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday started a tour of Atlantic Canada, where thousands were still without power after record-setting storm Fiona ravaged the country's east coast, tossing homes into the sea and killing at least three people.

Fiona recorded the lowest barometric pressure ever for a storm when it made landfall on Saturday as a post-tropical storm with powerful winds, rainfall and high waves, the hurricane centre said.

Farmers to fishermen in Atlantic Canada are seeking government help after the storm devastated vessels, farms and harbour infrastructure, with flooding now threatening to damage the potato crop in Prince Edward Island (PEI), which accounts for a fifth of Canada's output.

"Even as we see the devastation, we also see, in conversations I had with fishers and farmers and folks who are cleaning up their lives and trying to recover, there is a resilience to Canadians," Trudeau told reporters in Stanley Bridge, PEI.

DBRS credit rating agency said the storm could result in record insured losses for the Atlantic provinces, putting the initial estimate between C$300 million and C$700 million ($218 million and $509 million). But the industry should be able to deal with the blow as the Atlantic Canada property insurance market is relatively small, it said.

Insurance Bureau of Canada said it would take several weeks to get a clear idea of insurance claims.

By Tuesday morning more than a quarter of electricity customers in Nova Scotia were still without power.

Defense Minister Anita Anand told reporters the federal government was ready to send more troops to help with cleanup efforts.

The Canadian Independent Fish Harvester's Federation on Tuesday sought financial help to rebuild infrastructure at Small Craft Harbours facilities and to recover lost and damaged fishing vessels.

While lobster fishing is minimal at this time of year, it will be critical to repair wrecked harbours before spring, when fishing picks up, said Kent Poole, who fishes in PEI. Canada is one of the world's biggest lobster exporters.

The potato harvest was just underway when Fiona hit and the rain it left behind may rot crops in low-lying areas, said Greg Donald, general manager of the PEI Potato Board.

Farmers are also struggling to find enough diesel to run machinery, some lost warehouses, and many are still without power needed to operate conveyors and sorting equipment, Donald said.

"The big concern will be rot and storability, but time will tell," Donald said. "If we continue to get rain, it'll be a bigger problem."

($1 = 1.3750 Canadian dollars)

(Additional reporting and writing by Ismail Shakil and Rod Nickel; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)

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Group of countries push EU for gas price cap -letter

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 17, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 21:11

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A group of European Union countries are pushing Brussels to produce plans this week for a bloc-wide cap on the price of gas, according to a letter seen by Reuters late on Tuesday.

The EU proposed a package of emergency measures to tackle soaring energy prices earlier this month, but has steered clear of a gas price cap, an idea which has split the bloc's 27 member states.

Countries in favour stepped up pressure on Brussels, with a letter asking the European Commission to make proposals on a gas price cap for discussion at a meeting of EU energy ministers on Friday, followed by a legislative proposal as soon as possible.

"We acknowledge the efforts made by the Commission and the measures it has put forward to face the crisis. But we have yet to tackle the most serious problem of all: the wholesale price of natural gas," said the letter addressed to Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson and seen by Reuters.

The document was signed by ministers from 15 countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The letter that Reuters had seen a draft of earlier called for a price cap on all wholesale gas transactions.

It said capping gas prices would help countries rein in "untenable inflationary pressures" hitting households and businesses, and could be designed in a way that ensures security of supply.

Other states oppose capping gas prices, raising doubts as to whether any EU proposal would win sufficient support.

Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark say capping prices could endanger the security of supply by undermining the EU's ability to attract gas deliveries this winter.

Russia has slashed gas deliveries to Europe since the West imposed sanctions on Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving countries scrambling to secure alternative supplies.

So far, the European Commission has proposed emergency EU measures including windfall profit levies on energy firms, and cuts in electricity use.

EU countries are negotiating those proposals and aim to approve them when EU energy ministers meet on Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; writing by Sabine Siebold; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Zelenskiy denounces Russian-staged votes; says there will be good news from the front

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a meeting with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine September 27, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 22:16

(Reuters) - President Volodynyr Zelenskiy issued a fresh denunciation on Tuesday of Russian-staged votes in occupied parts of Ukraine approving proposals to become part of Russia, saying they were a "farce" and could never be described as legitimate referendums.

"This farce in the occupied territories cannot even be called an imitation of a referendum," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine would defend its people still living under occupation in the four areas where votes were held - Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions -- and in parts of Kharkiv region still under occupation.

The president also said there would soon be good news from the front, but offered no details for the moment. "We are advancing and will liberate our land," he said.

(Reporting by Ronald Popeski; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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Explosions heard, power out in Ukrainian city of Kharkiv

A destroyed civil car is seen on a road, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha, recently liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Kharkiv region, Ukraine September 24, 2022. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 19:40

KHARKIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -Three explosions were heard, then electricity cut out on Tuesday in Ukraine's second city of Kharkiv, a Reuters witness reported.

"There are no lights in some parts of the city. Information about casualties is being specified," Kharkiv's mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said in his Telegram channel. He also reported a fourth attack.

Terekhov said an infrastructure facility was hit and said authorities were working to restore power as quickly as possible.

The report followed a rocket attack on Kharkiv Sept. 9 in which at least 10 people were wounded. Ukrainian officials said that attack was revenge for its forces' successes on the battlefield against Russia. [nL1N30G0ST]

((Reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler))

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U.S. asks UN Security Council to condemn Russia for 'sham' referendums in Ukraine

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks at the U.N. media stakeout prior to the United Nations Security Council meeting, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 7, 2022. REUTERS/David 'Dee' Delgado/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 21:18

By Daphne Psaledakis and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will introduce a resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning referendums held by Russia in occupied regions of Ukraine, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. said on Tuesday.

The resolution, to be introduced jointly with Albania, will call on member states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and also obligate Russia to withdraw its troops, envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

"Russia’s sham referenda, if accepted, will open a pandora’s box that we cannot close," she said at a council meeting.

The United States is working quickly on the resolution, a U.S. official said, providing no details on when it would officially be introduced.

The Russian mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Russia has the ability to veto a resolution, but Thomas-Greenfield said: "If Russia chooses to shield itself from accountability here in the Council, we will then look to the UN General Assembly to send an unmistakable message to Moscow."

The council, which has met over 20 times on Ukraine this year, has been unable to take meaningful action because Russia is a permanent veto-wielding member along with the United States, France, Britain and China.

Russian-installed officials in four occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities on Tuesday in favor of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting.

Ukraine urged the European Union to impose new punitive sanctions on Russia in response to the voting, which it said was carried out at gunpoint in many cases.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Security Council that the results were pre-determined as he called for Russia to be excluded from all international organizations and for new sanctions against Moscow.

"Russia's recognition of these sham referendums as normal, the implementation of the so-called Crimean scenario and another attempt to annex Ukrainian territory will mean that there is nothing to talk about with the president of Russia," Zelenskiy said in virtual remarks. Russian annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

Russia complained at the start of the meeting that Zelenskiy should not be allowed to speak via video link, citing U.N. rules.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Simon LewisEditing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)

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Moscow's proxies in occupied Ukraine regions report big votes to join Russia

Members of a local electoral commission count ballots at a polling station following a referendum on the joining of Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia, in Sevastopol, Crimea September 27, 2022. Voting at the polling station was held for residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) - the Russian-controlled region of Ukraine. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 20:20

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) -Russian-installed officials in occupied regions of Ukraine reported huge majorities on Tuesday in favour of becoming part of Russia after five days of voting in so-called referendums that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.

Hastily arranged votes had taken place in four areas - the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and to the south Zaporizhzhia and Kherson - that make up about 15% of Ukrainian territory.

Luhansk authorities said 98.5% of people there had voted to join Russia, based on 69% of ballots counted. In Zaporizhzhia, a Russian-appointed official put the figure at 93.1 % with the count now completed. while in Kherson the "yes" vote was running at more than 87%, according to the head of the voting committee.

Russia's Tass news agency said 93.95% in Donetsk region had voted in favour, with nearly 32% of the ballots counted.

Within the occupied territories, Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house in what Ukraine and the West said was an illegitimate, coercive exercise to create a legal pretext for Russia to annex the four regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could then portray any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them as an attack on Russia itself. He said last week he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the "territorial integrity" of Russia.

Displaced people from the four regions were able to cast votes in Russia, where state news agency RIA said early counts showed numbers in excess of 96% in favour of coming under Moscow's rule.

Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of territories would destroy any chance of peace talks, seven months after Russia invaded its neighbour. It says Ukrainians who helped Russia organise the votes will face treason charges.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the European Union to impose further economic sanctions on Russia to punish it for staging the votes, which he said would not change Ukraine's actions on the battlefield.

The votes mirrored a referendum in Crimea after Russia's seizure of the southern peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, when Crimea's leaders declared a 97% vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Putin said on state TV on Tuesday that the votes were designed to protect people from what he has called the persecution of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers by Ukraine, something the Kyiv government has denied.

"Saving people in all the territories where this referendum is being held is at the top of our minds and the focus of attention of our entire society and country," he said.

Moscow has acted in recent months to "Russify" areas under its control, including by issuing people with Russian passports and rewriting school curriculums.

The referendums were hurriedly brought forward this month after Ukraine seized the momentum on the battlefield by routing Russian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said that if the vote results were favourable, it could consider the incorporation of the four regions on Oct. 4, three days before Putin celebrates his 70th birthday.

(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Rosalba O'Brien and Grant McCool)

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Nord Stream leaks caused by deliberate actions, Denmark's prime minister says

Danish Minster of Defense Morten Boedskov, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Climate Minister Dan Joergensen and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeppe Kofod speak to the media about the three gas leaks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, in Copenhagen, Denmark September 27, 2022. Scanpix 2022/Emil Helms via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 19:53

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -Leaks detected in the Nord Stream gas pipelines clearly were caused by deliberate actions and could not have been a result of accidents, Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Tuesday.

"It is now the clear assessment by authorities that these are deliberate actions. It was not an accident," Mette Frederiksen said at a press briefing in Copenhagen.

"There is no information yet to indicate who may be behind this action," she said, adding that authorities do not see the incidents as a direct military threat against Denmark.

Europe was investigating major leaks from two Russian pipelines that spewed gas into the Baltic Sea near Sweden and Denmark as Sweden launched a preliminary probe into possible sabotage. The leaks, first reported on Monday, were in international waters but inside Denmark's and Sweden's exclusive economic zone.

Danish authorities assess that the damage was caused by blasts, Energy Minister Dan Jorgensen said at the briefing. He added that the size of the holes in the pipelines indicate that the leaks could not have been caused by an accident such as getting hit by an anchor.

The damaged pipelines are at a depth of 70-90 meters below sea level, Jorgensen said.

(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Stine Jacobsen and Nikolaj Skydsgaard; editing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

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Blinken pledges action to address Indian concerns on U.S. visas

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar host a U.S.-India higher education dialogue at the Howard University Founders Library in Washington, D.C., U.S., April 12, 2022. Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:53

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for a backlog of visa applications from Indian nationals and said the United States had a plan to address it.

The comments came as he met with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The two discussed challenges that Indians have been facing in receiving visas to work and live in the United States.

U.S. visa services are still attempting to clear a backlog after Washington halted almost all visa processing worldwide in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Although other nationalities are also affected, Indians make up a large proportion of the recipients of H-1B and other work visas granted to skilled foreign workers, many in the tech industry.

Blinken did not give more details of the plan, but said it would play out in the coming months.

U.S. visa applicants in India have seen wait times for an appointment extending to over a year in some instances.

The U.S. Embassy in India said on Tuesday that while visa appointments were open for all categories, wait times remained "significantly" high due to high demand.

The visa backlog has led to some families being separated for extended periods of time, with some taking to social media to lament their situation.

"On mobility, specifically visas, this is particularly crucial, given its centrality to education, business, technology and family reunions," Jaishankar said in a joint press briefing with Blinken on Tuesday.

"There have been some challenges of late, and I flagged it to Secretary Blinken and his team, and I have every confidence that they will look at some of these problems seriously and positively."

Blinken said he was "extremely sensitive" to the issue.

U.S. capacity to issue visas dropped significantly during the coronavirus outbreak, Blinken said.

"When COVID hit, the demand for visas fell through the floor, visa fees went away, and the system as a whole suffered," Blinken said.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh, Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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Three people killed by lightning in Bulgarian capital

This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:48

SOFIA (Reuters) - Three people were killed by a lightning in a small park in downtown Sofia and another man was rushed to hospital in a critical condition during a heavy thunder storm late on Tuesday, the interior ministry said.

The man that was rushed to hospital was with 20% burns and is of Syrian origin, medical officials said. Local media reported that the three victims were also Syrians, but the interior ministry spokesperson said the victims are yet to be identified.

More than 800 lightning have hit Sofia in less than an hour on Tuesday evening, according to meteorologists, while heavy rain flooded underpasses in the capital's centre and cut electricity in some of Sofia's suburbs and nearby villages.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova)

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Blasts near North Stream were explosions, not earthquakes, Swedish seismologist says

This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:44

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A Swedish seismologist said on Tuesday he was certain the seismic activity detected at the site of the Nord Stream pipeline gas leaks in the Baltic Sea was caused by explosions and not earthquakes nor landslides.

Bjorn Lund, seismologist at the Swedish National Seismic Network at Uppsala University, said seismic data gathered by him and Nordic colleagues showed that the explosions took place in the water and not in the rock under the seabed.

(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, editing by Terje Solsvik)

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Ukraine will not be swayed by Russian nuclear threats, annexation votes - Kyiv

FILE PHOTO: Mykhailo Podolyak, a political adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, receives questions from a member of the media after a meeting with Russian negotiators in Istanbul, Turkey March 29, 2022. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:39

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine will not be swayed by any nuclear threats from Moscow or annexation votes held on its territory and will press ahead with its plan to wrest back all its occupied land from Russia, a Ukrainian presidential adviser said on Tuesday.

The official, Mykhailo Podolyak, said in an interview that Kyiv wanted the world's nuclear powers to warn Russia that any use of strategic or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be met with concrete action - and not just a UN Security Council resolution.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Margaryta Chornokondratenko; editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Saudi Arabia reshuffles cabinet -royal decree

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Red Sea WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight world title boxing fight, between Oleksandr Usyk Vs Anthony Joshua, in King Abdullah Sports City Arena, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:34

(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become the kingdom's prime minister, a Saudi royal decree said on Tuesday.

Saudi King Salman ordered the cabinet reshuffle, with the king's son Khalid bin Salman, the former deputy defence minister, as the new defence minister.

(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah and alaa Swilam; Editing by Chris Reese)

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Exclusive-U.S. seeks allies as split emerges over global plastics pollution treaty

FILE PHOTO: Plastic and other debris are seen on the shores of Cap Haitian beach, in Cap Haitian, Haiti October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 18:41

By John Geddie and Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON D.C. (Reuters) - The United States is seeking to form a coalition of countries to drive negotiations on a global plastic pollution treaty, weeks after a similar group involving several other G7 nations was launched, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The move underlines its desire to keep the treaty's focus on the efforts of individual countries in a model similar to the 2015 Paris climate accord, rather than provide new universal rules favoured by other major nations, according to six government and civil society sources involved in the talks.

United Nations members agreed in February to create the world's first treaty to tackle the scourge of plastic waste which extends from ocean trenches to mountain tops, with the aim of finalising it by the end of 2024.

In August, 20 countries, including Britain, Canada, France, Germany and several developing nations at the sharp end of the environmental crisis, formed a "High Ambition Coalition To End Plastic Pollution" advocating for the treaty to include global standards, bans and restrictions on plastic.

Now, the United States is seeking to form its own group with a different approach, and has invited several countries to join including Australia and Japan, the sources said.

A concept note for its coalition seen by Reuters says "the development of national action plans" should be "the primary mechanism" for countries to contribute to the treaty, an approach environmentalists say will not be robust enough to curb the runaway problem.

The U.S.-led coalition aims to launch at or before the first round of treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Uruguay from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, the draft document says.

The State Department did not directly answer questions about the proposed coalition.

In an emailed statement, Monica Medina, the U.S. official leading its treaty negotiations, said the country was committed to ending plastic pollution by 2040.

"The best way is through a Paris-like agreement that helps countries take ambitious action and holds them accountable, let's them be innovative on finding solutions, and leads to action now and not later," she said.

The United States was a key architect of the country-driven approach of the Paris agreement, a landmark international deal to limit global warming to at least 2 degrees Celsius. But that deal has faced criticism for having no enforcement mechanism as countries have missed deadlines to ratchet up their climate actions.

Japan's vice minister for global environmental affairs, Hiroshi Ono, said he knew of a proposed coalition on plastic involving the United States but declined further comment. Australia's environment department said in a statement it was aware of different coalitions forming, without elaborating.

'LIGHT TOUCH'

Environmentalists say measures taken by individual countries must be complemented by more top-down measures like coordinated curbs on virgin plastic production and universal design standards to increase the recyclability of plastics.

Plastic production is forecast to double over the next 20 years while the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean will triple. That will cause widespread environmental damage, destroying sensitive ecosystems and putting some species at risk of extinction, according to a World Wildlife Fund study.

"We don't need a treaty for countries to decide themselves what their national actions should be. We need a treaty that can actually add on top of that," said Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager at WWF, calling such an approach a "light touch."

However, Ono, the Japanese environment official, said that the treaty cannot take a "one-size-fits-all approach" as countries have different "national circumstances" and "priorities" towards upstream measures, like plastic production, or downstream measures, like waste collection.

Calls for tougher global measures such as those focused on plastic production have also met resistance from the powerful oil and petrochemical firms that make plastic. Industry groups have been lobbying governments, including the U.S., to reject any deal that would limit plastic manufacturing, Reuters reported in February.

John Hocevar, a campaign manager for Greenpeace, and two other sources who requested anonymity told Reuters that U.S. officials had privately said they are wary of agreeing to any global rules that would likely be rejected by its divided Congress.

That is why the United States is keen to pursue a Paris-like deal, the sources said, which did not have to be ratified by Congress because it largely relies on voluntary commitments based on national laws.

"If we are working from the position of we are only going to negotiate what we can get done at home, we've lost before we've even started," said Jane Patton, a U.S.-based campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

(Reporting by John Geddie and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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What is known so far about the Nord Stream gas pipeline leaks

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Nord Stream is seen at the headquarters of Nord Stream AG in Zug, Switzerland March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 14:29

By Nina Chestney

LONDON (Reuters) - Unexplained gas leaks detected in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines from Russia to Germany have prompted investigations by European countries into the cause, including possible sabotage.

Denmark's armed forces on Tuesday released video showing bubbles rushing to the surface of the Baltic Sea above the pipelines, and said the largest gas leak had caused surface disturbance of well over 1 kilometre in diameter.

Here is a breakdown of what is known so far:

WHAT HAPPENED?

The operator of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline reported a sudden drop in pressure overnight on Monday, with a spokesperson suggesting there could have been a leak.

This was followed by a Danish Energy Authority statement that a leak had likely occurred in one of the two Nord Stream 2 pipelines lying in Danish waters.

A few hours later, Nord Stream AG, operator of another undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, said it was looking into a drop in pressure in Nord Stream 1.

Sweden's Maritime Authority said on Tuesday it had warned of two leaks on Nord Stream 1 in Swedish and Danish waters.

Each line of the pipeline consists of about 100,000 24-tonne concrete-weight coated steel pipes laid on the seabed. The pipelines have a constant internal diameter of 1.153 metres, according to Nord Stream.

Sections lie at a depth of around 80-110 metres.

WHERE ARE THE LEAKS?

Two leaks were detected on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which stopped delivering gas to Europe last month, both in an area northeast of the Danish island of Bornholm.

Danish authorities have asked ships to stay clear by a five nautical mile radius off Bornholm after the leak at Nord Stream 2, which has yet to enter commercial operations. The plan to use it to supply gas was scrapped by Germany days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February.

Both pipelines still contain gas under pressure.

WHAT CAUSED THE LEAKS?

It is not yet clear. Analysts and experts say such leaks are very rare and Nord Stream AG has called leaks on three strings of the offshore gas pipelines "unprecedented".

Possible causes range from technical malfunctions, a lack of maintenance or even possibly sabotage.

The Kremlin has said it did not rule out sabotage as a reason behind the damage, adding it was an issue affecting the energy security of the "entire continent".

Poland's prime minister said the leaks were an act of sabotage, while Denmark's leader said it could not be ruled out.

The European Commission said it was premature to speculate.

German Geology Research Centre GFZ said on Tuesday that a seismograph on Bornholm showed spikes at 0003 GMT and 1700 GMT on Monday, when the pressure losses occurred.

WHO IS INVESTIGATING?

For the Nord Stream 2 leak, the head of Denmark's Energy Agency Kristoffer Bottzauw told Reuters said it was too early to say who would conduct the investigations and no-one has been to look at the pipeline yet.

The Swedish Armed Forces, the Coast Guard and the Swedish Maritime Administration and other relevant authorities are taking necessary measures, the Swedish Prime Minister said.

Germany on Monday said it was coordinating a response with police, local officials and the energy agency.

POTENTIAL IMPACT?

Gas leaking from the damaged Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea will continue for several days and perhaps even a week, the Danish Energy Authority said.

Denmark's armed forces released video showing bubbles rushing to the surface of the Baltic Sea above the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, and said the largest gas leak had caused surface disturbance of well over 1 kilometre in diameter.

Vessels could lose buoyancy if they enter the area, and there might be a risk of leaked gas igniting over the water and in the air, but there were no risks associated with the leak outside the exclusion zone, it said.

The leak would only affect the environment in the area in which the gas plume in the water column is located and escaping greenhouse gas methane would have a damaging climate impact.

Danish authorities asked that the level of preparedness in Denmark's power and gas sector be raised after the leaks, a step that would require heightened safety procedures for power installations and facilities.

(Reporting by Nina Chestney and Reuters bureaux; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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Prosecutor leading probe into missing Mexican students resigns

FILE PHOTO: Women wearing face masks hold a Mexican flag as relatives of the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College march on the 6th anniversary of their disappearance in Mexico City, Mexico September 26, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 17:38

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The prosecutor leading the investigation into the abduction and suspected murder of 43 Mexican student teachers in 2014 has resigned over disagreements about the process, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday.

Omar Gomez was appointed to the head the probe into the disappearances of the Ayotzinapa college student teachers in 2019 not long after Lopez Obrador came to power.

"He's going to leave his post ... because he disagreed with the procedures that were followed," Lopez Obrador told a news conference following media reports about Gomez's departure.

"We're receiving a lot of pressure from many parties, but we have the firm will to do justice," he added, stressing that the attorney general would name a replacement.

Monday marked the eighth anniversary of the crime in which the youths were believed to have been abducted by corrupt police in cahoots with a local drug gang in the southwestern city of Iguala.

Officials say the students were then murdered, but very few of their remains have been conclusively identified.

Mexico's top human rights official recently presented findings of an investigation into the case, calling it "a state crime," and pointing to the involvement of the armed forces.

Last week, an unredacted version of the August report was published in Mexican newspaper Reforma, naming officials allegedly involved, and saying the bodies of the kidnapped students were taken to a military base.

Earlier this week, Lopez Obrador - who has promised to clear up the case before leaving office in 2024 - confirmed that prosecutors had canceled 21 of the 83 arrest warrants recently issued against former public and military officials.

(This story fixes link in paragraph)

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Raul Cortes; Edited by Diego Oré and Alistair Bell)

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Superyacht linked to sanctioned Russian sold for $37.5m in Gibraltar - court

FILE PHOTO: The Axioma superyacht belonging to Russian oligarch Dmitrievich Pumpyansky who is on the EU's list of sanctioned Russians is seen docked at a port, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Gibraltar, March 21, 2022. REUTERS/Jon Nazca reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 17:53

MADRID (Reuters) - A superyacht linked to a sanctioned Russian businessman fetched $37.5 million at auction in Gibraltar last month after it was sold at the behest of creditor JP Morgan, a court has confirmed, in the first sale of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The 72.5-metre Axioma was impounded by the Gibraltar authorities in March after U.S. bank said its alleged owner, a company that was owned by Dmitry Pumpyansky, had reneged on the terms of a 20.5 million euro loan.

The Office of Admiralty Marshal, the branch of Gibraltar's Supreme Court mandated with conducting the sale in August, said an unidentified buyer had been selected.

The sale's proceeds - $37,500,055 - would go towards settling the ship's debts to creditors, and anyone with additional claims should come forward within the next 60 days, it said in a statement. The court would then decide what to do with any surplus funds, it added.

Pumpyansky, 58, was until March the owner and chairman of steel pipe manufacturer OAO TMK, a supplier to Russian energy company Gazprom.

He has an estimated fortune of $2 billion according to Forbes magazine and was sanctioned by Britain and the European Union shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.

According to court papers reviewed by Reuters, JP Morgan said it lent 20.5 million euros to British Virgin Islands-listed Pyrene Investments Ltd which was owned by Furdberg Holding Ltd. Furdberg's owner was Pumpyansky, who acted as guarantor for the loan.

The papers said Pyrene Investments defaulted on the loan terms after Pumpyansky on March 4 transferred his shares in Furdberg to a third party and was then sanctioned, blocking the repayment of the loan. The Axioma had been used as collateral for the loan, the papers said.

Pumpyansky is not known to have commented publicly on the ownership of the yacht and Reuters could not reach him.

The sale of the yacht - with a swimming pool, spa and 3D cinema - generated significant interest since it was the first to be auctioned of scores of yachts linked to sanctioned Russian business leaders that were seized around the world, primarily by governments and because of sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.

Sixty-three people submitted bids, the sale's broker said.

James Jaffa, lawyer for British firm Jaffa & Co that specialises in yachts and represented the Axioma before it was seized, told Reuters at the time of the auction that once it was sold the sale fees would have to be paid, then crew wages and any shipyard and maintenance costs before JP Morgan received its share.

He said any money left over could be claimed by the ship's previous owner.

He had said at the time he expected the vessel to sell for less than the value of the JP Morgan loan because of potential gaps in its maintenance and uncertainty about whether Pumpyansky might try to reclaim it eventually.

The Axioma was valued at $75m when it was listed for sale several years ago, according to the trade publication Superyacht Fan.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Quebec's incumbent Legault ahead in next week's election polls

FILE PHOTO: Quebec Premier Francois Legault makes a closing speech at the CAQ national convention in Drummondville, Quebec, Canada May 29, 2022. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 17:29

By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Francois Legault, the nationalist leader of Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), is favoured to stay in power with a bigger margin in the Canadian province's election next week, promising to cut middle class taxes and protect the province's official French language.

Legault, 65, a former airline executive, swept CAQ to power for the first time in 2018 through plans to preserve the French language in an English-dominated North America, cut immigration and balance budgets.

He has vowed this year to keep annual immigration capped at 50,000, compared with two rivals who would bring in more newcomers.

A recent analysis showed centre-right CAQ is poised to win a possible 98 seats in a 125 member house, ahead of the Liberals, Conservatives, Parti Quebecois (PQ) and left-leaning Quebec Solidaire, according to election projection site qc125.com.

The projected range of 84 to 105 seats is more than the 74 seats CAQ won in 2018.

A Leger poll this month showed CAQ would win 38% of the vote compared with 18% for the Liberals, 17% for Quebec Solidaire, 15% for the Conservatives and 11% for the PQ. CAQ won in 2018 with around 37% of the popular vote.

IMMIGRATION TOP OF MIND

While Quebecers have cited the economy and inflation as key priorities ahead of the Oct. 3 vote, the election has cast a spotlight on identity politics and the integration of non French-speaking immigrants.

Quebec, which accounts for a fifth of Canada's overall GDP, has struggled with labour shortages due to its restrictive immigration policies, an aging population and comparatively low unemployment. Quebec's unemployment rate is 4.5%, below Canada's 5.4%.

Legault has urged companies facing staff shortages to improve productivity, pointing to automation as one solution.

"It's not true that the only solution is immigration," Legault, also a former PQ cabinet minister, told a leaders' debate on Thursday.

ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY

Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS), said Quebec voters may be sticking with CAQ given current economic uncertainty.

"This may not be a time for change," he said.

Legault has faced pressure over CAQ's imposition of a curfew and vaccine mandates at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic from Quebec Conservative leader Eric Duhaime, who built up right-leaning support over "freedom of choice."

Surging inflation has prompted CAQ, the Liberals and Conservatives to propose tax cuts. Legault has pledged to hand out one-time payments of C$400 ($297) or C$600 for those earning less than C$100,000.

For details of other proposals and promises:

($1 = 1.3472 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal. Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Josie Kao)

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UK's Labour suspends lawmaker for saying Kwarteng 'superficially' Black

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Labour Party MP Rupa Huq is seen outside the Cabinet Office, as Brexit wrangles continue, in London, Britain, April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 17:35

LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - An opposition Labour lawmaker was suspended from the party on Tuesday after being accused of making racist comments about British finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng, with a party spokesperson saying it would call on her to apologise.

Rupa Huq, a lawmaker who represents an area of west London, was accused of racism by Conservatives after the Guido Fawkes website published a recording of her saying about Britain's first Black finance minister that "superficially he is a black man".

Asked about Kwarteng at an event at Labour's annual conference in the northern English city of Liverpool, Huq spoke about his education at elite schools, and added: "If you hear him ... you wouldn't know he is black."

A spokesperson for Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters: "We obviously condemn the remarks that she made that were totally inappropriate and we will call on her to apologise and withdraw those comments."

Huq later posted a tweet offering Kwarteng "my sincere and heartfelt apologies for the comments" which she said were ill-judged.

Kwarteng, appointed finance minister by Prime Minister Liz Truss earlier this month, unveiled his new fiscal programme on Friday, which sent markets into a tailspin and the pound to a record low against the dollar.

Labour has sought to capitalise on the divide opened up by the so-called mini-budget that saw the Conservatives shift to the right with a return to trickle-down economic policies, with Starmer saying Labour was now "the party of the centre-ground".

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by William Maclean)

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Zelenskiy says he discussed further military assistance with NATO chief

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine September 16, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 17:21

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had discussed further support of Ukraine's armed forces by NATO member states, in a call with the bloc's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday.

The phone call came in the wake of votes staged in four occupied regions of Ukraine on annexation by Russia. Zelenskiy thanked Stoltenberg for his condemnation of the votes, which Ukraine and its western allies call illegal shams.

"We discussed current battlefield developments and further support of the Alliance’s member states to the Ukrainian Armed Forces," Zelenskiy wrote.

(Reporting by Max Hunder; Editing by Peter Graff)

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'Very real fears' for LGBT community after far-right win in Italy

Leader of Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni speaks at the party's election night headquarters, in Rome, Italy September 26, 2022. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 14:19

By Alvise Armellini and Chiara Rodriquez

ROME (Reuters) - The LGBT community has "very real fears" after a conservative bloc dominated by the far-right won Italy's general election, a leading gay rights campaigner told Reuters.

The nationalist Brothers of Italy group, led by Giorgia Meloni, emerged as the largest party in the ballot and will lead the most right-wing government in Rome since World War Two.

"Unfortunately there are very real fears" about an erosion of civil rights under the new administration, Fabrizio Marrazzo of the Gay Party said.

Meloni is allied with the League, another far-right force led by Matteo Salvini, and the mainstream conservative Forza Italia of former premier Silvio Berlusconi.

"The League and partly Brothers of Italy have in their manifestos things that are quite negative for our community, like stressing the importance of protecting only the traditional family," Marrazzo said.

Meloni, 45, was raised by a single mother and is unmarried with one daughter. She presents herself as a defender of Christian values and an enemy of what she calls "gender ideology" and the "LGBT lobby".

Explaining her opposition to gay parenting rights, she has said that "unlucky children" who are up for adoption "deserve the best" - meaning a father and a mother.

Meloni has denied suggestions that her socially conservative outlook would stretch to undermining or abolishing existing Italian legislation on abortion rights or same-sex partnerships.

"What is there, stays there," she said last week.

'GENDER AND LGBT COLONISATION'

Marrazzo, a former leader of the Arcigay LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) association who unsuccessfully stood in the Sept. 25 election, said he was most concerned about the cultural signals coming from the right.

He said it might become harder to run anti-LGBT discrimination programmes in schools and said there had been an increase in the past in homophobic attacks in Italian cities and regions with right-wing administrations.

Pro Vita & Famiglia, a conservative Catholic lobby that is highly suspicious of sex education in schools, has called on the new government to pick an education minister opposed to "any gender and LGBT ideological colonisation in schools".

Meloni is not expected to take office before late October, so it is too early to say whether she will heed the advice. Meanwhile, her party's culture spokesman caused a stir by saying last week that gay couples "are not legal".

Federico Mollicone later clarified he was referring only to gay couples who adopt. He also said his party supports same-sex partnerships - despite having voted against their introduction in 2016 - and "is against all discrimination".

Meloni's aide also stood by a call to censor an episode of the popular children's cartoon "Peppa Pig" which featured a polar bear with two mothers, saying gay parents cannot be presented to minors "as an absolutely natural fact".

But surveys suggest most Italians are more relaxed.

In June, an Ipsos poll showed that 63% of Italians backed marriage rights for gay people, up 15 points from 2013, and 59% were in favour of gay adoptions, an increase of 17 points from nine years ago.

(Writing by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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Border-crossing asylum-seekers hit six-year high in Canada

FILE PHOTO: Asylum seekers cross into Canada from the U.S. border near a checkpoint on Roxham Road near Hemmingford, Quebec, Canada April 24, 2022. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on September 27, 2022 - 16:37

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) - The number of asylum-seekers entering Canada between formal border crossings has surged to the highest point since the government started tracking them in 2017, as dropped pandemic restrictions enable more travel and conflict and catastrophe displace people in many parts of the world.

In the first eight months of 2022, Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted 23,358 asylum-seekers crossing into the country at unofficial entry points, 13% more than all of 2017, when an influx of border-crossers at Roxham Road, near the Quebec-New York border, made international headlines.

The surge in irregular entries comes as Canada prepares to defend at the Supreme Court the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States under which it turns back asylum-seekers trying to cross at regular ports of entry.

Because of this agreement asylum-seekers cross between ports of entry and turn themselves in to police to pursue refugee claims. Canada is trying to extend the agreement so it applies across the entire land border.

The influx could be as simple as pent-up demand following pandemic border restrictions Canada lifted last fall, said University of Ottawa immigration law professor Jamie Chai-Yun Liew.

"I think it's like any travel: People are just on the move again."

But immigration experts say the rise is another sign that when countries like Canada and the U.S erect barriers to orderly entry, displaced people will turn to other modes.

If Canada does not want to deal with irregular crossers, it should scrap the agreement that bars them from crossing at regular entry points, said Janet Dench, executive director at Canadian Council for Refugees, which is taking the Canadian government to court.

"The Safe Third Country Agreement violates people's rights and needs to be torn up because of that. But also, from a very practical perspective, tearing up the Safe Third Country Agreement would mean that Roxham Road would be closed down."

Earlier this year, the federal government transported 1,922 asylum seekers to neighbouring Ontario after the Quebec government said it could not handle the volume.

Lawyer Pierre-Luc Bouchard has been run off his feet with what he says is the biggest summer-fall season he has seen. Bouchard has about 140 active refugee files, one file per family, from countries ranging from Ghana, Colombia and Chad to Venezuela, he told Reuters.

Bouchard is frustrated at the long wait for his clients to secure their work permits, leaving them on social assistance.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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