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Hamas hits deep in Israel, which pummels Gaza as Biden predicts conflict's end

Smoke and flames rise from a tower building as it is destroyed by Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 00:31

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hamas launched rockets at Tel Aviv and toward Jerusalem early on Thursday and Israel vowed to keep pummelling the Islamist faction in Gaza despite a prediction by U.S. President Joe Biden that their fiercest hostilities in years might end soon.

There was no immediate word of casualties from the pre-dawn salvo, which set off sirens as far as northern Nahalal, 100 km (62 miles) from Gaza, sending thousands of Israelis to shelters.

At least 67 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave's health ministry. Seven people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.

With world powers demanding de-escalation of a conflict beginning to recall the Gaza war of 2014, Washington planned to send an envoy, Hady Amr, for talks with Israel and Palestinians.

"My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself," Biden said on Wednesday after speaking to Netanyahu.

Biden did not explain the reasons behind his optimism. Netanyahu's office said he told the U.S. president that Israel would "continue acting to strike at the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist groups active in the Gaza Strip".

On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a senior Hamas commander and bombed several buildings, including high-rises and a bank, which Israel said was linked to the faction's activities.

Hamas signalled defiance, with its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, saying: "The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended."

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the fasting month of Ramadan.

These escalated ahead of a court hearing - now postponed - that could lead to the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

For Israel, the targeting of the two major cities posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas, regarded as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress to end the violence.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and said Washington "was exerting efforts with all relevant parties to reach calm," the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said. Abbas is a Hamas rival whose authority is limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

STRIFE WITHIN ISRAEL

The fighting has touched off strife within Israel, where some in the Arab minority mounted violent pro-Palestinian protests. Media reported spreading street attacks by Jews on Arab passersby in ethnically mixed areas on Wednesday.

In Gaza, two multi-storey residential buildings and a tower housing media outlets, including one linked to Hamas, collapsed after Israel urged occupants to evacuate in advance of its air strikes, and another structure was heavily damaged.

"Israel has gone crazy," said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked buildings.

Many in Israel also holed up in shelters as waves of rockets hit its heartland, some blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.

"All of Israel is under attack. It's a very scary situation to be in," said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

The fatalities in Israel include a soldier killed while patrolling the Gaza border and five six civilians, including two children and an Indian worker, medical authorities said.

U.S. energy corporation Chevron said it had shut down the Tamar natural gas platform off the Israeli coast as a precaution. Israel said its energy needs would continue to be met.

At least two U.S. airlines cancelled flights from the United States to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Thursday.

Israel, whose Ben Gurion Airport briefly suspended operations on Monday after a rocket barrage on Tel Aviv, said national airline El Al stood ready to provide supplemental flights.

Thursday's barrage on Tel Aviv prompted Israel to reroute an El Al flight from Brussels away from Ben Gurion, its intended destination, to Ramon Airport in the south. It appeared to be the first time Israel had used Ramon as a wartime alternative to Ben Gurion. A flight was previously diverted there due to bad weather, according to aviation tracker Avi Scharf.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu's opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after Israel's inconclusive March 23 election.

Gaza's health ministry said 17 of the people killed in the enclave were children and six were women. The Israeli military said on Thursday that some 350 of 1,500 rockets fired by Gaza factions had fallen short, potentially causing some Palestinian civilian casualties.

Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians have been frustrated as their aspirations for an independent state have suffered setbacks in recent years.

These include Washington's recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a U.S. plan to end the conflict that they saw as favourable to Israel, and continued settlement building.

(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)

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Uganda army to join Congo in offensive against Islamist rebels -Kinshasa gov't

This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:48

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Ugandan and Congo armies are setting up an operations centre in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo for a joint offensive against Islamist rebels who have killed hundreds of people in the last year, Congo's government said.

On Sunday a delegation from the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force (UPDF) including the commander of Uganda's ground forces arrived in Beni in Congo's North Kivu province to establish a coordination centre for the two armies, Kinshasa's communications ministry said on Wednesday.

A Congo army spokesman was not immediately available for comment. A Ugandan army spokesman said he could not confirm the information given by Congo's government.

On May 3 Congo introduced martial law in North Kivu and Ituri provinces in the hope of addressing worsening bloodshed in a swathe of territory along its border with Uganda.

The countries were enemies during Congo's civil wars, which officially ended in 2003. Relations between the two have at times been strained since then.

A militia with roots in Uganda, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is believed to be responsible for much of the recent violence, killing around 850 people last year, according to U.N. figures.

"The (Congolese army) and the UPDF are determined to fight the ADF," Congo's ministry of information said in a statement, without giving further details.

The ADF has carried out a spate of reprisal attacks on civilians since Congo's army began operations against it in late 2019.

In March the United States labelled the group a foreign terrorist organisation because of alleged links to the Islamic State group, although the United Nations has consistently played down the strength and nature of IS influence in Congo.

In April, Congo said it was seeking over $4 billion in reparations from Uganda for its role in the conflicts between 1998-2003 that included supporting rebel groups.

(Reporting by Stanis Bujakera with additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema and Djaffar Al Katanty; writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Removal of Salvadoran judges, prosecutor unconstitutional, U.S. special envoy says

Ricardo Zuniga, U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for the Northern Triangle, speaks with the media after a TV interview in San Salvador, El Salvador May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:47

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy for Central America met El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, during a visit to reiterate that Washington considers the recent removal of top judges and the attorney general to be unconstitutional.

Ricardo Zuniga, the special envoy for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, said he had a "cordial meeting" with Bukele on Tuesday after seeing senior congressional lawmakers.

"Our point of view is that the decision of May 1 was not in accordance with the law, nor with the constitution, nor with the legal procedure of the constitution," Zuniga said in a news conference in San Salvador, the capital.

He warned that a lack of judicial independence would affect the investment climate in the country and said he would discuss "next steps" with the White House, State Department and U.S. Congress on his return to Washington.

During a previous visit to El Salvador, Bukele declined to meet Zuniga.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has identified corruption, lack of judicial independence and weak rule of law as important root causes of migration from Central America.

El Salvador's Congress, which is now dominated by lawmakers aligned with Bukele, on May 1 voted to remove all five supreme court judges from office.

Early the next day, Congress voted to remove El Salvador's attorney general.

"The right thing to do, the best thing, would be to return to a situation aligned with the constitution ... it will send messages of legal security both for citizens and people who want to make investments in El Salvador," Zuniga added.

On the trip Zuniga also met with opposition politicians, civil society officials and the private sector.

El Salvador's government released a statement on Tuesday saying Bukele and Zuniga discussed migration from Central America, but it was later taken down from its social media platforms.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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Cuban tanker en route to Venezuela reports missing sailor at sea -document

FILE PHOTO: Cuban tanker Petion is seen at a shipyard in Veracruz, Mexico April 9, 2021. Picture taken April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Yahir Ceballos/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:44

(Reuters) - A crew member aboard a Cuba-flagged oil tanker on its way from a Mexican shipyard to Venezuela was reported missing this week, according to a shipping report seen by Reuters, marking the second incident aboard the same vessel in about a year.

Sailor Rafael Desiderio Martinez Alonso was not found last Sunday by the doctor onboard oil tanker Petion, which set sail on May 6 from Mexico's port of Veracruz bound for the Cardon terminal in Venezuela's western coast.

The report by the tanker's shipping agency to Venezuelan port authorities about the incident said Martinez Alonso, who was one the tanker's fitters, is believed to have fallen into open waters because his shoes were found near the ship's gas plant. He has not officially been reported dead.

The tanker's general alarm was activated the same day to start search and rescue operations, but after 24 hours the sailor was not found, said the report, which is dated May 11.

The report did not identify Martinez Alonso's nationality. Cuba-flagged vessels frequently use all-Cuban crews.

Venezuela's oil ministry and Cuba's foreign ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

The Petion made a stop on Monday for about 18 hours near the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, changing its status from "underway using engine" to "not under command."

It continued its voyage to Venezuela on Tuesday, according to Refinitiv Eikon tanker monitoring data.

The same ship last year reported the death of a Cuban sailor while anchored near Venezuela's Amuay port, after the helmsman fell overboard, according to people familiar with the accident.

Both the Petion and its managing firm, Cyprus-registered Caroil Transport Marine Ltd, were hit with U.S. sanctions in 2019 for transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba. The vessel was serviced in Mexico between March and May.

Caroil could not be reached for comment.

A separate tanker, the Cameroon-flagged Domani, arrived in Venezuelan waters in March with a dead crew member onboard, according to two sources with knowledge of the incident. The death was reported as a suicide before Venezuelan authorities.

(Reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Venezuela, and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City. Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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U.S. sends envoy as Israel-Gaza barrages spiral, Hamas commander killed

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 20:41

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel killed a Hamas commander and vowed no let-up in its Gaza barrages on Wednesday as Palestinian militants rained rockets far across the border and Washington dispatched an envoy to try to calm their most intense hostilities in years.

At least 65 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave's health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Gaza City brigade commander and 15 other members of the Islamist militant group were killed in air strikes.

"This is just the beginning. We'll hit them like they've never dreamed possible," he said.

After the announcement, more rocket salvoes were fired at the Tel Aviv area and the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Sderot.

Hamas confirmed the death of the commander and of "other leaders and holy warriors" in a statement. Its chief Ismail Haniyeh added: "The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended."

Israel launched its military action after Hamas fired rockets in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including at a holy site during the fasting month of Ramadan. A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress to end the violence.

The cross-border fighting has touched off strife within Israel, where some in the Arab minority mounted violent pro-Palestinian protests. Media reported spreading street attacks by Jews on Arab passersby in ethnically mixed areas on Wednesday.

Describing the scenes of destruction as "harrowing", U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a senior aide, Hady Amr, would be sent to urge Israelis and Palestinians to seek calm.

Israel pledged to keep pummelling Hamas.

"A 'truce' is not part of the jargon on our lips, certainly not in the coming day or two," military spokesman Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman told public broadcaster Kan.

The military said its strikes were targeting rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.

"Israel has gone crazy," said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked buildings.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reaffirmed "ironclad support for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself".

The fighting is the heaviest since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave, and concern is growing that the situation could spiral out of control.

In Gaza, two multi-storey residential buildings and a tower housing media outlets, including one linked to Hamas, collapsed after Israel warned occupants in advance to evacuate, and another structure was heavily damaged in the air strikes.

Twenty-four people were killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Wednesday, Gaza's health ministry said. Many in Israel also spent a sleepless night as waves of rockets hit its heartland, some blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.

"The children have escaped the coronavirus, and now a new trauma," an Israeli woman in the coastal city of Ashkelon told Channel 11 TV.

Israelis ran to shelters or lay on pavements in some communities far from Gaza.

"All of Israel is under attack. It's a very scary situation to be in," said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

Along the Gaza border, an Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile, the military said. Two people were killed by a rocket in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town near Tel Aviv.

RABBI URGES CALM AS RIOTS SPREAD

After a synagogue was torched in Lod, police deployed paramilitary reinforcements and announced a curfew. In northern Acre, a Jewish motorist was beaten by Arab residents, and in Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb, Jewish youths ransacked stores and beat an Arab, Israeli media reported.

"We must not be dragged into provocations and inflicting harm on people or property," Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said in a rare public appeal. "The Torah of Israel grants no license for taking the law into one's hands and acting violently."

For Israel, the targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas, regarded as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

U.S. energy corporation Chevron said it had shut down the Tamar natural gas platform off the Israeli coast on the instruction of the Energy Ministry. Israel said its energy needs would continue to be met.

At least two U.S. airlines cancelled flights from the United States to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Thursday. Israel, whose Ben Gurion Airport briefly suspended operations on Monday after a rocket barrage on Tel Aviv, said national airline El Al stood ready to provide supplemental flights.

The violence followed weeks of tension during Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

These escalated ahead of a court hearing - now postponed - that could lead to the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu's opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after Israel's inconclusive March 23 election.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank. Medical sources said a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli forces on Wednesday.

Gaza's health ministry said 16 of the people killed in the enclave were children. The Israeli military said 200 of more than 1,000 rockets fired by Gaza factions had fallen short, potentially causing some Palestinian civilian casualties.

Five of the fatalities in Israel were civilians, including a child and an Indian worker, medical officials said.

Israel has dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of its last ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.

Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians have been frustrated as their aspirations for an independent state have suffered setbacks in recent years.

These include Washington's recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a U.S. plan to end the conflict that they saw as favourable to Israel, and continued settlement building.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch and Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood, Peter Graff)

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Blinken, Austin urged to do more to protect Afghans who worked for U.S.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens during a joint news conference after the Foreign and Defense Ministerial meeting between South Korea and U.S. at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2021. Lee Jin-man/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 02:11

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former senior U.S. officials have urged the U.S. secretaries of state and defense to do more to provide visas to Afghans who worked for the United States in Afghanistan before U.S. forces withdraw, according to letters seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, raising concerns of a full-scale civil war, the Taliban's return to power and continued reprisals against Afghans associated with the U.S. presence.

"U.S. history is replete with instances where we failed to understand or prepare to mitigate the terrible consequences that might confront those ... who stood beside us and believed in us when the going was tough," said the letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

"We have a moral obligation to do better this time," they added.

The letters were signed by nearly 100 former officials, including many who worked on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the 20 years since the U.S. military helped topple the Taliban government that harbored al Qaeda leaders blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The officials - who included four former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan and retired General Joseph Votel, who oversaw U.S. troops in the Middle East - called on the Biden administration speed up the processing of so-called Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Afghans who worked for the United States.

The letter said more than 18,000 Afghans, including former interpreters, are awaiting visa adjudication and said the U.S. should aim to clear the backlog before U.S. troops withdraw.

They also proposed increasing quotas when U.S. troops pull out and asking Congress to create a pathway to admit "additional Afghans who will be especially vulnerable in the post-withdrawal period."

The State and Defense Departments did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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Global concern grows as COVID-19 variant ravages rural India

A woman mourns after seeing the body of her son who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside a mortuary of a COVID-19 hospital in New Delhi, India, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 20:00

By Danish Siddiqui and Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began, as the disease rampaged through the countryside, leaving families to weep over the dead in rural hospitals or camp in wards to tend the sick.

The second wave erupted in February, inundating hospitals and medical staff, as well as crematoriums and mortuaries.

Experts still cannot say for sure when numbers will peak and concern is growing about the transmissibility of the variant that is driving infections in India and spreading worldwide.

Indian state leaders clamoured for vaccines to stop the second wave and the devastation it has wrought, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop exporting doses, ramp up production and help them procure urgent supplies from overseas.

"People will die in the same way in the third and fourth waves as they have this time" without more vaccines, Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters.

Deaths grew by a record 4,205 while infections rose by 348,421 in the 24 hours to Wednesday, taking the tally past 23 million, health ministry data showed. Experts believe the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

Funeral pyres have blazed in city parking lots, and bodies have washed up on the banks of the holy river Ganges, immersed by relatives whose villages were stripped bare of the wood needed for cremations.

Lacking beds, drugs and oxygen, many hospitals in the world's second-most populous country have been forced to turn away droves of sufferers.

"We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day," the Indian Express newspaper quoted virologist Shahid Jameel as saying. "It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak."

GLOBAL SPREAD

The country accounts for half of COVID-19 cases and 30% of deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization said. It has designated the B.1.617 variant found there of global concern but said its full impact is not yet clear.

The variant has been detected in six countries in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organisation said, adding that it was worried it was highly transmissible.

Britain, which has also detected the variant, said it is looking at all possible solutions to tackle local surges in cases, while the European Union urged all of its 27 member countries to halt non-essential travel from India to limit its spread.

Daily infections are shooting up in the Indian countryside in comparison to big towns, where they have slowed after last month's surge, experts say.

More than half the cases this week in the western state of Maharashtra were in rural areas, up from a third a month ago. That share is nearly two-thirds in the most populous, and mainly rural, state of Uttar Pradesh, government data showed.

A pregnant woman was taking care of her husband who had breathing difficulties in a hospital in Bhagalpur in the eastern state of Bihar, which is seeing a case surge its health system could barely have handled at the best of times.

"There is no doctor here, she sleeps the whole night here, taking care of her husband," the woman's brother told India Today television.

In a corridor outside, two sons were wailing over the body of their father, saying repeatedly that he could have been saved if only he had been given a bed in an intensive care unit.

At the general hospital in Bijnor, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, a woman lay in a cot next to a garbage can and medical waste.

"How can someone get treated if the situation is like this?" asked her son, Sudesh Tyagi. "It is a hell out here."

(Reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Aishwarya Nair in Mumbai, Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi, Subrata Nagchoudhary in Kolkata and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Clarence Fernandez, Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood and Jonathan Oatis)

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'We are fed up': Thousands pray at Portugal's Fatima shrine for world without COVID-19

A member of the clergy walks during the 104th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children at the Catholic shrine of Fatima, Portugal, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 00:32

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

FATIMA, Portugal (Reuters) - Suffering from an autoimmune disease, 71-year-old Maria Emilia travels - often by foot - to one of Catholicism's most famous sanctuaries in Portugal every year. But the coronavirus pandemic made her trip more important than ever.

Standing in circles marked to maintain social distancing, Emilia joined about 7,500 other faithful at a massive outdoor venue on Wednesday evening at the Fatima Sanctuary to mark the first of three reported visions of the Virgin Mary, also known as Our Lady, more than 100 years ago.

Like many others, Emilia came to Fatima with her sister and daughter with one main purpose: to pray for an end to the pandemic still ravaging the world and a return to normality.

"More than ever we must ask Our Lady to help us, to free us from this great pandemic we are experiencing and from the diseases we have," she told Reuters as she waited patiently for the candlelight procession to start, the highlight of the evening.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in Fatima, which was then an impoverished farming village. It believes she gave the children three messages, the so-called secrets of Fatima.

    Pope Francis made two of the shepherd children saints in 2017.

Pedro Barbosa, a 44-year-old from the Portuguese city of Santarem, was in Fatima when former pope John Paul II visited the shrine, describing it as one of the most important moments of his life.

But for Barbosa, the pandemic situation in Portugal, which in January imposed a lockdown to tackle what was then the world's worst surge of COVID-19, was one of the reasons why he came back to Fatima this year.

"We are fed up with this and it changed our lives a lot," Barbosa said. "I'm tired of the mask. It's horrible. I hope Our Lady will help us get rid of this (pandemic) as soon as possible."

(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira in Fatima; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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Taiwanese cities tighten restrictions after COVID-19 cases rise

People wear protective face masks while crossing the street amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Taoyuan, Taiwan, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 02:09

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwanese cities are tightening restrictions on access to public venues like gyms and libraries after a rare rise in domestic COVID-19 infections that has spooked the stock market and unnerved the island.

Early and effective prevention steps, including largely closing its borders, succeeded in shielding Taiwan from the worst of the pandemic. It has reported just 1,231 infections so far.

But markets and the government have been on edge since renewed domestic outbreaks began late last month, with 16 new domestic cases announced on Wednesday setting a record daily high.

The benchmark index fell around 3% on Thursday morning, though also tracking losses in the United States overnight.

New Taipei City, which surrounds the capital Taipei and where some of the new cases have been reported, has ordered libraries and internet cafes closed, while Taipei has ordered a limit of 100 people at a time in gyms.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, writing on his Facebook page late on Wednesday, said he knew people were starting to worry, but that there was no need.

"Please don't panic, don't get into an upheaval, Taiwan has abundant medical capabilities, and the number of severely ill patients has not increased rapidly," wrote Ko, who is a medical doctor himself.

The government, which has a robust contact tracing and quarantine system, is racing to locate the source of some of the local infections, concentrated in densely populated northern Taiwan.

Chen Chi-mai, the mayor of the southern metropolis of Kaohsiung, home to a major port, said authorities were disinfecting locations where one of the cases had visited to make offerings at a temple and were quarantining and testing 56 contacts.

The central government has already suspended mass gatherings of more than 100 people inside and 500 people outside until next month, and warned it may take further steps that could close non-essential businesses.

Taiwan has never gone into a complete lockdown.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Nicaraguan opposition fails to strike deal to unite ahead of elections

This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 03:21

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaragua's opposition Citizen Alliance grouping on Wednesday registered to contest November's presidential elections on its own, reducing the likelihood the wider opposition would join forces to topple leftist leader Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua's fractured opposition has spent more than two years trying to come to an agreement over how to form a single coalition to battle Ortega, a strongman who has been in power since 2007.

Analaysts say Ortega is likely to be re-elected if the opposition is divided.

The Supreme Electoral Council had given the opposition a hard deadline of May 12 to register as a single alliance.

The opposition's attempts at unity stem from the nationwide upheaval that followed protests against Ortega, which flared in April 2018. Some 326 people died during months of protests that were put down by Ortega's security forces with an iron first.

The right-wing Citizen Alliance had been locked in intense talks for the past week with the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), part of a National Coalition umbrella grouping that represents anti-Ortega leftists, evangelical Christians, students and other groups.

"We sought unity until the last moment. We were waiting for them until the end and they did not arrive (to an agreement)," said Kitty Monterrey, president of the Citizens for Freedom party through which Citizen Alliance will contest the elections.

Ortega has faced growing criticism in recent years over rights abuses and election fraud, which he denies.

His government last week installed a host of allies to the country's electoral council, prompting the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) to say Nicaragua is heading for the "worst possible elections".

Though Ortega is deeply unpopular across vast sections of Nicaragua society in the wake of the rights abuses in 2018, the socialist leader has steadfast support of his Sandinista party base.

Ortega's first stint as president ended in 1990 when the opposition united against him but in every election since 2006, when he was re-elected as president, the anti-Ortega vote has been divided between multiple opposition parties.

"This divided, it's impossible they will defeat Ortega," said Eduardo Enríquez, editor-in-chief of La Prensa, the biggest national newspaper. "The numbers won't permit it."

(Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; editing by Richard Pullin)

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France to hold up EU-UK financial services deal over fisheries - source

FILE PHOTO: A fisherman looks the fish tank aboard the Boulogne-sur-Mer based trawler "Nicolas Jeremy" in the North Sea, off the coast of northern France, December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:34

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) -Paris has said it will delay a European Union financial services deal with Britain until Prime Minister Boris Johnson grants European fishermen fair access to UK waters, a source familiar with the French move said on Wednesday.

"We've made a link between the two," the source said.

The post-Brexit dispute over access to the UK's rich fishing grounds last week saw France and Britain send patrol vessels to the Channel island of Jersey as French trawlers protested there.

Brexit issues were all related and not looked at in isolation, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told a news briefing when asked if Paris was holding up the financial services deal as a lever in the fishing dispute.

A second source, an EU diplomat, said Britain was failing to adhere to the terms of a deal governing its post-Brexit trade ties with the EU. There can be no progress in other areas if these are not resolved, the person added.

"It's not just France and it's not just fishing," said the European diplomat. "Britain must fully apply the agreements it signed up to, which is not the case right now."

FINANCIAL SERVICES

Britain's huge financial services sector was largely cut off from the EU, its biggest export customer, on Dec.31 when the UK completed its departure from the bloc.

A new UK-EU trade deal does not cover financial services and direct access to the single European market for financial firms in the City of London has yet to be decided by the bloc under a process known as equivalence.

Britain and the EU have agreed in principle on a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between financial regulators, but it has yet to be formally ratified by the bloc's 27 member countries, including France.

"We will resume our equivalence assessments once the regulatory cooperation framework is in place and do so on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the UK's regulatory intention," the EU's financial services chief Mairead McGuinness said on Tuesday.

Banks in Britain say they don't expect the EU to grant meaningful direct access anytime soon and that the time is better spent on making the City more globally attractive.

French fishermen say Jersey, a self-governing British Crown Dependency, unilaterally imposed restrictions on the waters they could fish in when it issued licenses it late April.

Jersey has since proposed delaying new post-Brexit restrictions on French fishermen until the end of July, French Seas Minister Annick Girardin told parliament on Tuesday.

"New proposal by Jersey: We're not there yet," the minister later tweeted.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, John Chalmers in Brussels and Huw Jones in London; Writing by Richard Lough; editing by Gareth Jones, Gabriela Baczynska)

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Biden spoke to Netanyahu, believes conflict will conclude soon

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and vaccination program at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 01:57

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he was hopeful that a cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would end soon, after a phone conversation he had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself," Biden told reporters at the White House.

Biden did not explain the reasons behind his optimism. He said his national security team had been in frequent contact with counterparts in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to try to bring about a resolution of the conflict.

Violence erupted last Friday at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque amid growing anger over the potential eviction of Palestinians from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers. The clashes escalated on Monday.

A White House statement about the Biden-Netanyahu talks said Biden condemned rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups against targets in Israel and "conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."

"He also conveyed the United States’ encouragement of a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm. He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace," the statement said.

The two leaders agreed to stay in touch personally in the days ahead and to maintain close consultation between their teams, the statement said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a phone call on Wednesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned "the rocket attacks and emphasized the need to de-escalate tensions and bring the current violence to an end," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

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Minnesota judge finds aggravating factors in George Floyd murder

FILE PHOTO: Children hold signs while people react after the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, found guilty of the death of George Floyd, at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., April 20, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:13

(Reuters) -A Minnesota judge has ruled that aggravating factors were involved in the killing of George Floyd, opening the possibility of a longer sentence for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis policeman convicted of his murder last month.

A jury found Chauvin, 45, guilty of second and third-degree murder and manslaughter after hearing three weeks of testimony in a highly publicized trial. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 25.

In a six-page ruling dated Tuesday, District Court Judge Peter Cahill found that prosecutors had shown there were four aggravating factors in the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man.

The judge said Chauvin, who is white, abused his position of trust and authority and treated Floyd with particular cruelty. He committed the crime as part of a group with three other officers and did so with children present, Cahill ruled.

"The slow death of George Floyd occurring over approximately six minutes of his positional asphyxia was particularly cruel in that Mr. Floyd was begging for his life and obviously terrified by the knowledge that he was likely to die but during which the defendant objectively remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd's pleas," Cahill wrote.

Floyd's death after he was handcuffed on a Minneapolis street with Chauvin's knee on his neck for more than nine minutes prompted massive protests against racism and police brutality in many U.S. cities and other countries.

Attorneys for Floyd's family applauded Cahill's ruling.

"The application of justice in this case offers hope that we will see real change in the relationship between police and people of color by holding officers properly accountable for egregious behavior and for failing to honor the sanctity of all lives,” the attorneys said in a statement.

Chauvin's attorney, Eric Nelson, had no comment when asked for a response.

The other former officers who were at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd's death and are set to go on trial on Aug. 23.

Cahill, who presided over the trial, will also sentence Chauvin. He faces a combined maximum 75 years in prison if the sentences run consecutively. State guidelines give judges leeway to impose sentences that are far less harsh.

Prosecutors on April 30 asked Cahill to consider several aggravating circumstances in Floyd's death so that he could make "an upward sentencing departure" in the case.

While Cahill accepted most of the prosecution's arguments that aggravating circumstances were present, he rejected one of them, finding that lawyers for the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Floyd was "particularly vulnerable."

A ruling by Cahill is pending on a May 4 request by the defense for a new trial. Nelson, Chauvin's lawyer, argued that his client was deprived of a fair trial because of prosecutorial and jury misconduct and errors of law at the trial. He also argued that the verdict was contrary to the law.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey, Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)

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Days after bombing, Afghans despair at three-day limit to ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Afghan men prepare victims' coffins for a mass funeral ceremony a day after explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan May 9, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:53

KABUL (Reuters) -An announcement by the Taliban that they would cease fire for three days for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has been met by many Afghans with little but despair, just days after a bombing that killed at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

The insurgents said late on Sunday they were offering the pause in fighting so Afghans could celebrate Eid in peace. The truce is meant to come into force on Thursday morning, at a critical moment with U.S. forces in the process of withdrawing after 20 years.

But many Afghans described the short holiday pause in fighting as a fruitless gesture. The Taliban observed a similar truce last year.

"If a ceasefire had been declared some days ago, perhaps these schoolgirls would have been alive and celebrating Eid with their families," said Shah Wali, a Kabul shopkeeper, referring to Saturday's bomb attack on a girls school mainly attended by Shi'ite Muslim members of the Hazara ethnic minority.

"It is a good and appropriate action, but not only on the three days of Eid... we want a permanent ceasefire," he told Reuters.

The Taliban have condemned Saturday's bombing, which U.S. officials suspect may have been the work of a rival militant group, such as Islamic State.

University student Shugufa Azaryoon, 22, said she did not welcome the ceasefire at all. Previous ceasefires had been used by Taliban fighters only to regroup and launch attacks after Eid, she said.

PERMANENT CEASEFIRE HASHTAG

The Afghan government wants the Taliban to agree to a more comprehensive ceasefire to promote political talks. The Taliban say they want to lay down their arms, but cannot do so permanently until a political settlement is reached.

Meanwhile, the hashtag "AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire" trended in Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter in the lead up to Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan holy fasting month.

Facebook user Sadaf Jamali wrote: "I kill people in Ramadan, I don’t kill people in Eid, but after Eid I will (kill) them again...This is Taliban’s logic #AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire".

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters that the social media trend was an "emotional thing" and that the group "respected" these emotions.

"But a ceasefire is something bigger than emotion, it is related to the larger issue of our country," he said, adding that there would be no permanent ceasefire until the insurgent group's goal of restoring an Islamic government is achieved.

A day before the ceasefire was to begin, Taliban insurgents launched an offensive and took control of a key district located an hour's drive from the capital Kabul.

Washington, which is pulling its remaining troops out of Afghanistan over the next four months, had long said its withdrawal was conditional on the Taliban reducing violence, but now says it is leaving no matter what.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement of the three-day ceasefire, but said on Twitter that "Afghans deserve much more: a political settlement & a permanent ceasefire."

Government employee Saifullah Khan said the three-day ceasefire did not leave enough time to travel to spend the holiday with his family, who live in a village two-days' journey away.

"I wish they had announced a longer ceasefire," he said. "Like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans I have to wait for a real and permanent ceasefire...only a miracle can make this possible."

(Reporting by Kabul newsroomEditing by Peter Graff and Alistair Bell)

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Myanmar protesters decry arrests, beatings as junta fights for control

FILE PHOTO: An anti-coup protester walks past burning tires after activists launched a "garbage strike" against the military rule, in Yangon, Myanmar March 30, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 18:01

(Reuters) -Myanmar security forces fired shots and arrested about 30 people at an anti-coup rally in the country's second-biggest city on Wednesday, witnesses said, as protesters kept defying a months-long crackdown by a junta struggling to impose order.

Chaos erupted in Mandalay, a hotbed of anti-military sentiment, when plainclothes police emerged from vehicles minutes into a protest, firing guns and beating demonstrators who fell as hundreds fled, according to four witnesses. They said they saw about 30 people arrested.

"There are no words to describe their cruelty," Aung Pyae Sone Phyo, 21, a protest leader, told Reuters. "They used enormous force to crack down on us. More than 10 military vehicles filled the little ward, they blocked every road in the area," he said.

"We will keep doing what we are doing until our revolution prevails."

Myanmar has been gripped by protests and deadly violence since the military seized power from an elected government on Feb. 1, unleashing an outpouring of public anger and international condemnation of the junta's lethal response.

Many demonstrators back a National Unity Government (NUG), an anti-junta coalition that has declared itself Myanmar's legitimate authority and pushed hard for international recognition and support.

The State Department said on Wednesday U.S. officials had held conversations with the NUG where it outlined its inclusive vision for a diverse, unified, federal democracy.

"The U.S. will continue to support all those working peacefully to restore Burma to the path of democracy and urges the military to cease its violent actions and release all those unjustly detained," a State Department spokesperson said.

GROWING UNREST

Hnin, a frontline protester in Mandalay, said security forces held demonstrators to the ground, beating some and confiscating many motorcycles.

"They pushed their faces to the wall. Some were beaten by the soldiers and plainclothes security members," she said.

A junta spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment.

Myanmar has seen a succession of small explosions in recent weeks, some at government offices and military facilities, while several junta-appointed administrators have been fatally stabbed.

A group calling itself the People's Defence Force in Tamu in the central Sagaing region said it had killed 15 security personnel in separate clashes on Tuesday night and early on Wednesday. State MRTV in its nightly news said one member of the security forces was wounded in an attack by "terrorists".

It followed an ambush that killed three soldiers on Monday, claimed by another militia in Sagaing, just days after the NUG announced the formation of a People's Defence Force to fight the military.

Military-controlled media said 39 people had been arrested across the country on suspicion of orchestrating explosions and arson attacks, as well as seeking military training with an ethnic minority rebel group.

It said 48 "handmade mines", 20 sticks of TNT, gunpowder, detonators, fuses and other material had been seized in a raid.

With 783 people killed in the suppression of protests, according to an advocacy group, some supporters of the ousted government have sought military training with insurgents that have battled the military for decades in remote border regions.

The United Nations cites the same death toll. Reuters is unable to independently verify casualties and the military has imposed restrictions on the media, internet services and satellite broadcasts.

The military ruled Myanmar, once known as Burma, from 1962 to 2011 before launching a phased transition to democracy that led to unprecedented economic and political reforms and modernisation under a quasi-civilian government.

But its intervention after only a decade has rekindled memories of oppressive rule and economic mismanagement that pro-democracy groups say people will not tolerate again.

The military said it seized power because its complaints of fraud in a November election won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi's party were not addressed by an election commission that deemed the vote fair.

The United States, European Union and Britain have imposed targeted sanctions on the generals and the military's businesses, while activists have urged the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; writing by Ed Davies and Martin Petty; editing by Philippa Fletcher/Mark Heinrich)

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U.N. Yemen envoy to stay in job until successor announced

FILE PHOTO: United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during a news conference following talks at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany April 12, 2021. John MacDougall/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:31

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed veteran British diplomat Martin Griffiths as the world body's new aid chief on Wednesday, and said Griffiths would continue as the U.N. Yemen mediator "until a transition has been announced."

Several sources told Reuters on Tuesday that Griffiths had been tapped to replace Mark Lowcock as the U.N. under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator.

He will be the fifth British person in a row to be the U.N. aid chief. Britain last year reduced its foreign aid spending commitment to 0.5% of gross domestic product from 0.7%.

Griffiths has been trying to mediate an end to the conflict in Yemen for the past three years. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the country’s government from the capital Sanaa. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system.

A replacement for Griffiths has to be approved by the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

Griffiths told the council earlier on Wednesday that despite redoubled international efforts, the warring parties had been unable to agree a ceasefire and the Houthis had declined to meet him on several occasions.

"To say this sends the wrong signal is an understatement," he said. "Stalling negotiations serves no one." He described the cooperation with the Yemen government as "excellent."

Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden has made Yemen a priority and appointed special envoy Tim Lenderking to help revive U.N. efforts to end the war.

U.N. aid chief Lowcock told the Security Council on Wednesday: "The humanitarian crisis in Yemen – complementing what Martin has just said on the political situation – is trapped also in a relentless downward spiral."

He said 5 million people were just a step away from starving and that COVID-19 is pushing the health system to collapse.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

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Pro-Russian lawmaker leaves Ukraine prosecutors after reading charges

Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of Opposition Platform - For Life political party, speaks with journalists outside the office of the Prosecutor General in Kyiv, Ukraine May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 20:49

KYIV (Reuters) - Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin's most prominent ally in Ukraine, left the office of the Prosecutor General on Wednesday after reading the charges against him without being detained, Interfax news agency reported.

Ukrainian authorities on Tuesday put Medvedchuk under formal suspicion for high treason as part of a crackdown on his circle that has fuelled tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.

Prosecutors have said they are seeking to detain the opposition party leader and businessman on suspicion of treason and the attempted plundering of national resources in Crimea, the territory that was annexed by Russia in 2014.

"I read (the suspicion) and took a copy," Interfax quoted Medvedchuk as saying after leaving the prosecutors' office.

"The accusations are unfounded, unsubstantiated and, in general, they can be called political," he added.

Medvedchuk's party has said the treason investigation and raids on his home were revenge for the politician's exposure of the government's failings. In a separate statement, Medvedchuk said the treason case was "fabricated."

"Today Medvedchuk is the most annoying element for the authorities," Medvedchuk's party co-chair, Vadym Rabinovich, said in a statement. "The accusations that were brought against him are erroneous and criminal."

Tuesday's move was part of a widening crackdown against Medvedchuk that began in February when he and associates were put under sanctions by Ukraine's president and three television channels owned by an ally were forced off air.

It comes after months of tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over a build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine's eastern border and rising clashes in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has sharply criticised the crackdown on Medvedchuk.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday Moscow would not interfere in Medvedchuk's case, but that it is "watching this in the most careful way and would like to make sure that there are no political motives behind this case."

Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian citizen but has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has said the Russian leader is godfather to his daughter.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov in Moscow; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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EU countries urged to halt non-essential travel from India

People wearing protective face masks wait to receive their second dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, outside a vaccination centre in Kolkata, India, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 20:52

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive on Wednesday called on countries of the bloc to temporarily halt non-essential travel from India, to limit the spread of a COVID-19 variant.

The European Commission said its proposal followed the World Health Organisation's proposal on Monday to reclassify the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 found in India as a "variant of concern", raising the alert from a "variant of interest".

EU countries should apply an "emergency brake" on non-essential travel from India, it said in a statement.

"It is important to limit to the strict minimum the categories of travellers that can travel from India for essential reasons and to subject those who may still travel from India to strict testing and quarantine arrangements," it added.

Last week the Commission proposed that the EU's 27 member states ease COVID-19 travel restrictions from June to allow foreign travellers from more countries to enter the bloc, while keeping the option to quickly restrict travel from countries where the health situation deteriorates sharply.

The member states have not yet adopted this recommendation but could individually opt to ban non-essential travel from India before it is adopted.

India's coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began and experts around the world have expressed concern the variant first identified there may be highly transmissible.

The European Commission said limited exemptions should apply to its proposed halt to travel from India, including to those travelling for "imperative family reasons" or EU citizens and long-term residents.

Those travellers should face additional health measures on arrival in the EU, such as strict testing or quarantine requirements, it said.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; editing by John Chalmers and Philippa Fletcher)

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U.S. lifts sanctions on senior figure in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel

FILE PHOTO: Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 21:29

(Reuters) -The United States lifted financial sanctions on a top lieutenant of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel on Wednesday, saying Jesus "El Rey" Zambada, who gave testimony against kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, had shown behavioral change.

Information published by the U.S. Treasury Department said that Zambada was removed from the sanctions list of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

A department spokesman said Zambada was no longer engaged in sanctionable activities.

El Rey, or The King, was arrested in 2008 after a gunbattle in Mexico City, where he was suspected of controlling smuggling through the capital's international airport. He was extradited to the United States four years later.

El Rey demonstrated a change in behavior and circumstances, the spokesman said, adding that the primary goal of sanctions is behavioral change. A person could be re-designated should new evidence or circumstances merit, he said.

A U.S. law enforcement official declined to discuss Zambada's whereabouts or legal status, saying such information is not public.

Brother to the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, El Rey was a witness at the trial in the United States of former cartel boss Guzman in 2019. El Mayo's son, Vicente Zambada, also testified.

The two witnesses had pleaded guilty to U.S. charges and agreed to testify against Guzman, accused of trafficking tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States.

Guzman was convicted by a jury and is imprisoned in the United States.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has previously said El Rey is not in its custody, leading to speculation he may be in a witness protection program.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Mark Hosenball in Washington; writing by Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City; editing by Grant McCool)

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U.S. calls Xinjiang an 'open-air prison,' decries religious persecution by China

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter outside a company building in Shanghai, China April 14, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 18:34

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Chinese government has turned its western Xinjiang province into essentially an "open-air prison," a U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday as the department published a report that criticized China's persecution of religious minorities.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January said that China's actions in Xinjiang constitute crimes against humanity and genocide, a verdict his successor, Antony Blinken, has said he agrees with.

China rejects the claim and says it is countering extremism in Xinjiang.

Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the State Department's Office of International Freedom, said the situation has shifted from the use of what China calls "vocational education and training centers" to detain ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims, to the use of surveillance "to essentially turn the entire region into an open-air prison".

"People's movements are closely tracked. You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uyghurs to keep tabs on them. You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall," he said at a press briefing.

The oppression of Muslims was "the culmination of decades of repression of religious adherents" in China, Nadel added.

The State Department report, an annual update on religious freedom around the world, also detailed China's persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group.

Blinken announced that he was also imposing a visa ban on Chinese official Yu Hui and his family for Yu Hui's involvement in arbitrary detentions of Falun Gong followers.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Humeyra Pamuk and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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State Department says Blinken to meet Russia's Lavrov in Iceland next week

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a joint news conference with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov following their meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan May 11, 2021. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 18:39

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone call on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and discussed their upcoming meeting on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial in Iceland next week, the State Department said.

Blinken repeated his call on Russia to release detained Americans in the country and he provided Lavrov with an overview of U.S. policy toward North Korea, the Department said in a statement.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Explainer: How Jerusalem tensions sparked heaviest Israel-Gaza fighting in years

Palestinians gather at the scene where a house was hit by an Israeli air strike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in the southern Gaza Strip May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:48

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Weeks of violent clashes in East Jerusalem have ignited the heaviest fighting in years between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

At the core of the violence that has left dozens dead are tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem, which contains sites sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

As both sides appear to be digging in for more prolonged fighting, here are some of the factors that triggered the escalation.

RAMADAN PROTESTS, JERUSALEM EVICTIONS

Since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April, Palestinians have faced off nightly with Israeli police in East Jerusalem, who put up barriers to stop evening gatherings at the walled Old City's Damascus Gate.

Palestinians saw the barriers as a restriction on their freedom to assemble. Police said they were there to maintain order.

Tensions have also been high over a long-running legal case that could see multiple Palestinian families evicted from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers who, backed by an Israeli court ruling, want to move in.

The violence quickly spread to the Old City compound containing Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam and the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured in fighting with police in the compound and around the Old City in recent days.

'RED LINE'

Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and other militant groups in the enclave repeatedly warned Israel that the fighting in Jerusalem was a "red line", and vowed to fire rockets if Israeli police did not stop their raids on the Aqsa compound.

As Israel commemorated its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war with a march on Monday, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group fired rocket barrages towards Jerusalem and its surrounding suburbs.

Israel had "ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences", Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said.

Within hours, Israeli warplanes began bombing militant targets in Gaza, with the military saying that civilian casualties "cannot be ruled out" in the densely populated coastal territory.

The fighting has since escalated dramatically with militants firing hundreds of rockets towards Tel Aviv and Israel carrying out hundreds of air strikes in Gaza.

Violence has also broken out in mixed Arab-Jewish cities across Israel, with members of Israel's 21% Arab minority angry over the Jerusalem evictions and Gaza violence.

HAMAS INTERESTS, ISRAELI POLITICS

The most intensive aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza have prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

But Hamas also appeared to see the escalation as an opportunity to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and present itself as the guardian of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Hamas has amassed some 7,000 rockets, as well as 300 anti-tank and 100 anti-aircraft missiles, since the 2014 war, an Israeli military commander said during a briefing in February. Islamic Jihad has amassed 6,000 rockets, the commander said. The groups have neither confirmed nor denied the Israeli estimates.

Some Israeli commentators said Hamas could also see the timing as opportune with Israel in political flux as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opponents try to form a government that would unseat him after an inconclusive March 23 election.

Other commentators have said that Netanyahu appeared to be distracted by his trial on corruption charges he denies, allowing tensions to surge in Jerusalem and spill over into Gaza.

Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt, who both cite security concerns over Hamas for the restrictions.

JERUSALEM AT CORE OF CONFLICT

Politics, history and religion all place Jerusalem at the centre of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the heart of Jerusalem's Old City is the hill known to Jews across the world as Temple Mount - the holiest site in Judaism - and to Muslims internationally as The Noble Sanctuary. It was home to the Jewish temples of antiquity. Two Muslim holy places now stand there, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Christians also revere the city as the place where they believe that Jesus preached, died and was resurrected.

Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern section as a capital of a future state. Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem is unrecognised internationally.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Russia jails former opposition mayor for calling for Navalny protests

FILE PHOTO: Mayor of Yekaterinburg Yevgeny Roizman attends opening ceremony of the City Day celebrations in Yekaterinburg, Russia, August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 16:03

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg jailed its former mayor for nine days on Wednesday after finding him guilty of using social media to urge people to protest for the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Yevgeny Roizman, who served as mayor of Russia's fourth largest city from 2013 to 2018, was charged with organising an illegal rally after he urged his nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter to take to the streets.

"Organising (a protest) means one tweet and a retweet," Roizman wrote on Twitter, mocking the ruling. "This is what constitutes a call (to take to the streets)."

Roizman, who was also ordered to complete 30 hours of community service, is an outspoken critic of the authorities and sometimes denounces them on Twitter using expletives.

Authorities have stepped up their crackdown on opposition activists in the wake of protests calling for the release of Navalny, who was jailed in February on charges he said had been trumped up.

Police detained thousands at rallies across Russia in support of Navalny earlier this year after saying that the demonstrations were illegal and that those taking part could face charges.

Roizman, who has described himself as a friend of Navalny, resigned from his post in 2018 after authorities moved to scrap mayoral elections in the city of 1.5 million in the industrial belt of the Ural Mountains.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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UK PM Johnson apologises 'unreservedly' for 1971 Belfast killings

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament in London, Britain, May 12, 2021, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 18:30

LONDON (Reuters) -Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday apologised "unreservedly" on behalf of the British government for the deaths of 10 innocent people killed in a 1971 incident in Belfast during a British Army operation.

A judge-led inquiry on Tuesday found that British soldiers unjustifiably shot or used disproportionate force in the deaths of nine of the 10 people killed in the incident, which sparked an upsurge of sectarian violence during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, a British province.

"The Prime Minister apologised unreservedly on behalf of the UK Government for the events that took place in Ballymurphy and the huge anguish that the lengthy pursuit of truth has caused the families of those killed," a spokesman for Johnson said following a call between the prime minister and Northern Ireland's First and Deputy First Ministers.

The deaths over a three-day period of disorder in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast - a sprawling housing estate of Catholics who opposed British rule - occurred in the days after the introduction of internment without trial for suspected militants triggered disorder on the streets.

Father Hugh Mullan, an 38-year-old priest who was among the 10 who died, was helping an injured man and waving a white object before he was shot twice in the back, the inquiry found.

There was insufficient evidence to say whether the army was responsible for the death of one of the victims, John James McKerr.

However Judge Siobhan Keegan, who oversaw the inquiry, said it was "shocking" that the state did not carry out a proper investigation into the deaths.

No one has been charged or convicted in connection with any of the deaths. The inquest was a fact-finding exercise and not a criminal trial.

The government plans to "deliver a way forward in Northern Ireland that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims of the Troubles and ends the cycle of reinvestigations," Johnson was quoted by the spokesman as saying.

Johnson had said on Tuesday his government would introduce legislation to give greater legal protection to former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, plans that the Irish Republic and many in Belfast fiercely oppose.

Some 3,600 people were killed in the sectarian conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants, pro-British Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries and the British military that largely ended after a 1998 peace agreement.

(Reporting by Conor HumphriesEditing by Andrew MacAskill and Mark Heinrich)

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

FILE PHOTO: New U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield holds a news conference to mark the start of the U.S. presidency of the U.N. Security Council for March, at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., March 1, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 17:37

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) -The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

"We will keep standing up and speaking out until China's government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

"In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized," Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China's U.N. mission rejected the accusations as "lies and false allegations" and accused the organizers of being "obsessed with provoking confrontation with China."

While China urged countries "NOT to participate in this anti-China event," a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

"China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open," said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. "We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt."

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany's U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced "massive Chinese threats," but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as "one of the worst human rights crises of our time," adding: "The evidence ... points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups."

She called for China to allow "immediate, meaningful and unfettered access" to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

"I'm sure she's busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn't think of anything more important to do than to join you here today," Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet - who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access - was unable to participate.

"The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit," she said, adding that Bachelet's office "continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely."

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Philippines flags 'incursions' by nearly 300 Chinese militia boats

FILE PHOTO: Philippine Coast Guard personnel survey several ships believed to be Chinese militia vessels in Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard on May 5 and taken according to source on April 27, 2021. Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 13:24

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines on Wednesday reported what it said were incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 287 maritime militia vessels from China, in a further sign of cracks reappearing in a relationship after a period of rapprochement.

"This incident along with continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to relevant agencies for the possible diplomatic actions," the task force on the South China Sea said in a statement.

The Philippine foreign ministry has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a "swarming and threatening presence" of Chinese vessels in its EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.

The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through "sovereignty patrols", in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under its pro-China president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Experts say China's fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.

Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats.

Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines' favour in a dispute with China was just a "piece of paper" that he could throw in the trash.

The tribunal also ruled that China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, had no legal basis.

Defence and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte's comments "cancels-out" the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defence chiefs.

"We don't have unity in messaging," Custodio said. "That is encouraging China's actions."

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

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Swiss spy chief exits after reports of row over CIA-linked firm

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Crypto AG is seen at its headquarters in Steinhausen, Switzerland February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 17:01

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's spy chief will leave his post, the government said on Wednesday, after a newspaper reported he had fallen out with the defence minister over his handling of a scandal involving a cryptography firm linked to the CIA.

Jean-Philippe Gaudin, elevated in 2018 to head Switzerland's NDB intelligence service under then-Defence Minister Guy Parmelin, will be replaced by Juerg Buehler on an interim basis, the government said in a statement.

The Tages-Anzeiger paper reported that tensions developed between Gaudin and current Defence Minister Viola Amherd in part because he waited too long to inform her about the affair involving Crypto AG.

For decades, the Swiss company sold encryption devices while being secretly owned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Germany's intelligence service, which could freely read what it encrypted. (https://reut.rs/3eEZwNh)

The NDB gave no reason for Gaudin's departure, saying only that he would take up a "new challenge" in the private sector.

A spokesman for the intelligence service did not immediately comment on the newspaper report. Gaudin could not be reached for comment.

Reports about CIA involvement in Crypto have circulated in Switzerland for years, in particular after the arrest in the 1990s of one of the company's salesmen in Iran, which accused him of leaking encryption codes to its Western rivals.

But new details emerged in early 2020 when Swiss authorities said they were investigating reports that the CIA and the German BND spy service had used Crypto's encryption technology to crack other nations’ top-secret messages, stirring an outcry in officially neutral Switzerland.

(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Congresswoman says Trump administration botched Capitol riot preparations

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) presides during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions,” regarding the on January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U..S., May 12, 2021 REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:53

By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) - A Democratic lawmaker on Wednesday plans to interrogate former security officials from Donald Trump's administration on failures to avert the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, saying signs of looming danger had been in "plain sight."

"The federal government was unprepared for this insurrection, even though it was planned in plain sight on social media for the world to see," said Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, at the start of a hearing examining the security failures.

Maloney's committee will hear testimony from two men in high-ranking positions during the closing weeks of the Trump administration, former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.

Maloney said she would demand answers from Miller on why National Guard troops did not arrive until hours after the building was overrun.

According to a copy of Miller's prepared remarks seen by Reuters, he plans to say the military was deliberately restrained that day when Trump's rally turned into an assault by hundreds of his followers that left five dead including a police officer.

"My concerns regarding the appropriate and limited use of the military in domestic matters were heightened by commentary in the media about the possibility of a military coup or that advisers to the president were advocating the declaration of martial law," his prepared testimony for the House Oversight Committee states.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Howard Goller)

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Portugal investigates mass gathering of football fans amid pandemic

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Primeira Liga - Sporting CP v Boavista - Lisbon, Portugal - May 11, 2021 Sporting CP team bus drives past fans celebrating after winning the Primeira Liga near by Estadio Jose Alvalade REUTERS/Pedro Nunes/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 16:55

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's government on Wednesday requested the opening of an investigation after a mass gathering of thousands of Sporting fans celebrating their club being crowned Portuguese champions got out of hand.

On Tuesday evening, thousands of elated soccer fans spread across Lisbon, including in the city's main square, Marques do Pombal, to celebrate their club winning the title for first time in nearly two decades.

Many of the supporters ditched face masks and maintaining social-distancing became close to impossible as more people showed up. Other became aggressive, breaking down metal barriers and throwing glass bottles and smoke bombs towards police and journalists.

Lawmakers have criticised the government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa, and health authorities for not putting together an adequate plan to reduce the risk of contagion during the celebrations.

"I will not point the finger at anyone, neither at Sporting, nor at the club's supporters or the police," Costa told parliament on Wednesday. "I will do what any responsible politician must do, which is to wait for information to find out who is responsible."

Costa did not say who would carry out the investigation. The interior ministry has requested clarifications from the police, the health authority and Lisbon's local government. It has requested an inquiry into how the police handled the situation.

Portugal, which has suffered 840,493 cases and 16,998 deaths, imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-January to tackle what was then the world's worst coronavirus surge. Infections have dropped sharply since then and rules have been lifted.

"It was a night that went well for those who were happy and not so well in terms of public health," said the country's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, adding that authorities failed to implement the necessary measures.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Olympics-IOC confident of successful Tokyo Games despite public opposition

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach opens the Executive Board virtual meeting at the Olympic house in Lausanne, Switzerland, May 12, 2021. Greg Martin/IOC/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 16:45

By Karolos Grohmann

(Reuters) -The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Wednesday said it supported Japanese measures to counter COVID-19 and was confident the Tokyo Olympics would be a "historic" event, despite wide public opposition.

With less than three months to go before the Games begin on July 23, Japan is battling a surge in coronavirus infections.

A majority of its population wants the Olympics cancelled or postponed for a second time, according to several polls, with about 70% of the 10,500 athletes -- about 7,800 -- already qualified for the Games.

"We are now very much in an implementation phase with 78 days to go and fully concentrated on delivering the Games," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told an online news conference.

"When the Games happen and the Japanese people are proud hosts of an event that will be an historic moment, I think I am very confident we will see public opinion hugely in favour of the Games."

His online news conference, however, ended with a protester, who had signed up as a journalist to ask a question, unfurling a banner reading "No to Olympics" and shouting profanities and "No Olympics anywhere" before being cut off.

Japan has extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas until the end of May as the number of cases rises daily, forcing IOC President Thomas Bach to postpone a visit to Japan in May.

An opinion survey conducted from May 7-9 by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily showed 59% of respondents wanted the Games cancelled as opposed to 39% who said they should be held. "Postponement" was not offered as an option.

Another poll conducted at the weekend by TBS News found 65% wanted the Games cancelled or postponed again. More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the Games since it was launched about five days ago.

"In terms of Japan and Tokyo we understand the caution," Adams said. "We are fully in solidarity with them. People are very cautious. We have to fully trust Japanese authorities."

"There will be ups and downs (in public opinion).We have to take account of public opinion on a longer term. As thing stand now we are moving full ahead. We continue to plan for full Games. That's the way it has to be for us."

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; editing by John Stonestreet and Ed Osmond)

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Chernobyl staff record rise in nuclear activity within safe limits

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view from a plane shows a New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant during a tour to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine April 3, 2021. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:59

KYIV (Reuters) - Scientists have recorded a rise in nuclear activity in the destroyed nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine since it was covered over in 2017, but the rise has levelled off and does not exceed safety standards, staff said on Wednesday.

Staff at the plant said the rise in "neutron flux density", which if significant could indicate an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, did not pose a threat of such an event based on their mathematical models.

High levels of radiation and damage mean it is not possible to determine precisely the situation under the destroyed block.

"After the establishment of a new safe confinement which has been in the designed position for more than four years, an increase in the neutron flux density is actually observed," scientists at Ukraine's Institute For Safety Problems Of Nuclear Power Plants said in a statement.

"At present, the readings of the sensors in all rooms have stable values without an upward trend. The current levels do not pose a threat of a self-sustaining chain reaction," the Chernobyl plant said in a separate statement.

The fourth rector at Chernobyl, 108 km (67 miles) north of the capital Kyiv, exploded in April 1986 during a botched safety test, in the world's worst nuclear accident. Clouds of radiation were sent out across much of Europe, and tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate.

Scientists say the increase in neutron flux was recorded in a unit that nuclear fuel from the destroyed reactor had got into, possibly during the installation of a new shelter over the reactor.

Scientists at Ukraine's Institute For Safety Problems Of Nuclear Power Plants said that before work on installing the new shelter began in late 2016, fuel was cooled by rainwater, which had since disappeared.

"Based on predictive estimates, it is expected that in the future there will be an increase in the neutron flux density, which will be determined by the process of moisture loss," they said in a statement.

"Current experimental data has confirmed this scientific hypothesis," they said, adding that they were carefully studying and monitoring the damaged unit.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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U.S. trade chief says WTO vaccine talks should remove obstacles to production

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee during a hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2021. Sarah Silbiger/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 16:00

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Wednesday that her objective in World Trade Organization talks over a COVID-19 vaccines waiver is to remove intellectual property as an obstacle to increasing vaccine production.

She told the Senate Finance Committee that she views the talks to be less about preventing other countries from "stealing" U.S. technology and more about finding a way to have a positive impact on people's lives by ending the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's important for us to be able to show that the WTO can produce that are effective and relevant to people's lives," Tai said.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Daniel Burns; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Colombia protests enter third week with national strike

FILE PHOTO: A laser pointer is used as demonstrators attend a protest demanding government action to tackle poverty, police violence and inequalities in healthcare and education systems, in Bogota, Colombia, May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:16

By Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA/CALI (Reuters) - Anti-government protests in Colombia entered their third week on Wednesday as unions, student groups and other organizations convened a national strike after fruitless talks with the government.

Demonstrations fueled by outrage at a now-canceled tax plan began in the Andean country on April 28. Protesters' demands have expanded to include a basic income, an end to police violence and the withdrawal of a long-debated health reform.

President Ivan Duque has offered dialogue, but smaller demonstrations and road blockades have continued daily around the country amid skepticism from protest leaders that government promises will lead to concrete change.

Violence has plagued protests, with as many as 40 civilian deaths being investigated by Colombia's human rights ombudsmen. Local and international human rights groups allege the toll may be even higher and have blamed police for the killings.

Many Latin American countries - already deeply unequal - have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rolled back some recent strides against poverty.

Similar protests over inequality and the impact of COVID-19 may occur in other countries like Brazil, said Gimena Sanchez, Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, but inequality is not the only issue stoking discontent in Colombia.

"The Colombia protests are not just about COVID, they are about anger towards Duque for police repression from 2019 onwards, not advancing the 2016 peace accord, rising massacres and killings of social leaders and the perception by middle and working class Colombians that the government is only interested in advancing the economic and political elites' agendas at their expense," she said.

The protests come amid falls in the value of Colombia's public debt, stock market and peso currency. Investors and analysts believe the country is likely to lose its investment-grade credit rating.

The United States and United Kingdom have condemned protest violence, while the United Nations and the European Union have warned against excessive force by police.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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Far-flung U.S. citizens clamor for vaccines from embassies

Peter Fischbach, a U.S. citizen member of Democrats Abroad, poses during an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Jiraporn Kuhakan reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:20

By Kay Johnson and Jiraporn Kuhakan

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Americans living abroad are asking Washington to send surplus coronavirus shots to overseas embassies so they can get a vaccine in countries where the pace of inoculations is slow and travelling home is difficult.

Many of the estimated 8 million Americans living abroad argue they should have the same right to a vaccine as U.S. citizens back home. The U.S. vaccination drive covers all of the population and surplus doses are earmarked for donation to India and other nations.

"Vaccines could be provided to U.S. citizens through U.S. embassies and consulates, in particular as many are now re-opening for U.S. citizen services," said Marylouise Serrato, executive director of the advocacy group American Citizens Abroad.

The group last month wrote to the U.S. Congress and the State Department saying overseas Americans who file taxes and vote should have the same access to vaccines as U.S. residents.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week the U.S. government is focused on the safety of Americans around the world but is not now prepared to provide vaccines.

"We have not historically provided private healthcare for Americans living overseas, so that remains our policy," Psaki told reporters. "But I don't have anything to predict in terms of what may be ahead."

Many Americans overseas are travelling home if they can to be vaccinated or waiting for the inoculation campaign in their countries of residence. But those living in places where vaccine rollouts are slower or where travel is difficult say they feel stuck.

In Thailand, four U.S. citizens' groups on May 6 wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for the Southeast Asian country to be made a pilot project for global vaccination of Americans abroad.

Thailand is in the midst of a deadly third wave of coronavirus, after a year of successfully containment, and its mass vaccination drive doesn't begin until next month.

"JUST FORGOTTEN"

The U.S. State Department last month said it had already shipped doses to embassies and consulates in 220 locations worldwide to vaccinate its own diplomats and other employees.

The diplomatic distribution shows that the U.S. government has the capacity to do the same for citizens, said local chapters of the Democrats Abroad, Republicans Overseas, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Women's Club in Thailand.

"We are tax-paying, voting U.S. citizens and we were promised that we would be eligible to be vaccinated by our government, and here we are being just forgotten," said business owner Peter Fischbach, in Thailand for nearly 30 years.

He worries it may be weeks or months before he can get a shot in Thailand. His business obligations - plus Thailand's strict two-week quarantine for people entering the country - make it unfeasible to return to the United States.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to comment. There are no official figures on Americans living in Thailand, but Democrats Abroad estimates it as tens of thousands.

Financial tech worker Aaron Kruse, 32, was working in China along with his South African fiancee when the pandemic struck. The couple travelled to Cape Town, South Africa, where travel restrictions and then the South African variant of the virus have now derailed their plans.

"So now we're very much stuck," said Kruse, who is from Des Moines, Iowa.

South African's American expatriate community has not made a formal request, as in Thailand, but even without such a request Kruse says he thinks U.S. embassies should provide vaccines to Americans in need.

But he also supports donating shots to needy countries and is keenly aware that should the U.S. bring in vaccines for its own citizens - this would be criticised.

"I do kind of see it as special treatment," he said.

"But at the same time, if the United States is looking out for U.S. citizens, and we have a surplus of vaccines, then the next place to look for U.S. citizens must be where they live and reside overseas."

(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Johannesburg. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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Afghan forces fight to recapture Taliban-held district outside Kabul

This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:32

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security forces mounted an operation to recapture a Taliban-held district outside the capital Kabul on Wednesday just before the start of a three-day ceasefire at midnight, a local official said.

Taliban insurgents had killed or captured some government soldiers and forced others to retreat after storming the district centre, which lies in Wardak province less than an hour's drive from Kabul.

Government forces have been struggling against stepped-up attacks by the insurgents as U.S. troops withdraw after two decades of fighting in the country.

Wardak mayor Zarifa Ghafari said that if the district was not taken soon, fighting would reach the gates of Kabul in a few days.

The defence ministry said on Wednesday special forces have been deployed in the area to retake the district after troops made a "tactical retreat" on Tuesday.

A senior government official said they aimed to regain control before a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban for the Muslim religious holiday of Eid, which starts on Thursday.

"We will have to do it today because after the ceasefire, it will give the Taliban enough time to dig in and will complicate the operations and increase our casualties," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The government carried out air strikes at the start of the operation, the defence ministry said.

The insurgents have maintained a strong presence in Wardak and nearby Logar province to the south over the years. Afghan officials say the Taliban have used the provinces as launchpads for hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings on Kabul.

The Taliban has staged a months-long campaign to expand its influence across the country as the United States has begun withdrawing troops from May 1 and closed some bases in keeping with a peace deal it signed with the Taliban last year.

Afghan officials say since Washington announced plans last month to pull out all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, the Taliban have stepped up attacks.

Critics of the decision to withdraw say the Islamist militants will try to sweep back into power.

U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001 for sheltering the al-Qaeda militants involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Russians pay tribute to victims of mass shooting at Kazan school

A mourner throws soil into the grave of Elvira Ignatieva, an English language teacher killed in the massacre at School Number 175, during a funeral at a cemetery in Kazan, Russia May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Alexey Nasyrov reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:23

KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - Mourners left toys and flowers on Wednesday in tribute at a Russian school where nine people, including seven children, were killed after a teenage gunman opened fire at a school.

The attack on Tuesday in the city around 450 miles (725 km) east of Moscow was the deadliest school shooting since 2018 when a student at a college in Russian-annexed Crimea killed 20 people.

"(I came here) because this is such a disaster ... It's impossible to just remain indifferent," a woman who gave her name only as Albina said after coming to pay her respects at School Number 175.

The head of Russia's Muslim-majority region of Tatarstan, where Kazan is the main city, has called it a national tragedy and the Kremlin has called for tighter gun controls.

Russia has strict restrictions on civilian firearm ownership, but some categories of gun are available for purchase for hunting, self-defence or sport, once would-be owners have passed tests and met other requirements.

Around 100 people, some of them wearing face masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, gathered at a traditional Muslim funeral for Elvira Ignatieva, an English teacher who was among the victims.

"She was protecting her children ... She was protecting (them) and didn't hide away," said Talgat Gumerov, a Kazan resident.

Twenty-three people were still in hospital on Wednesday, including 12 children with gunshot wounds, the TASS news agency reported. Five children were in a serious condition and one of them was critical, it said.

The Investigative Committee, which investigates major crimes, said that it planned to charge a suspect named Ilnaz Galyaviev later on Wednesday. A court was expected to rule later on the terms of custody for the 19-year-old.

(Reporting by Dmitry Madorsky; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Timothy Heritage)

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Italy's Draghi calls for U.S. and UK to lift block on COVID vaccine exports

FILE PHOTO: Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrives for an informal dinner event during an EU summit at the Crystal Palace in Porto, Portugal, May 7, 2021. Luis Vieira/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:21

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Wednesday that the United States and Britain should lift their block on the export of COVID-19 vaccines.

Draghi told the lower house of parliament he shared the aim behind U.S. President Joe Biden's call for a waiver of patents on coronavirus vaccines, adding that a temporary suspension would probably not discourage pharmaceutical research.

However, Draghi said the situation was complex and there were more simple steps that could be taken to ensure wider vaccine distribution to poorer countries, before any patent waiver could be agreed.

"First of all we should remove the substantial block on exports that countries like the United States and Britain continue to maintain," he said.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones, editing by Crispian Balmer)

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Britain says ex-Bosnian Serb wartime leader Karadzic to serve jail term in UK

FILE PHOTO: Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic appears before the Appeals Chamber of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals ("Mechanism") ruling on a appeal of his 40 year sentence for war crimes in The Hague, Netherlands, March 20, 2019. Peter Dejong/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 15:16

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain said on Wednesday it had agreed former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, convicted of war crimes during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, should be transferred to a British prison to serve the rest of his sentence.

Karadzic, 75, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2016 after being convicted of genocide for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces. In 2019, U.N. judges at The Hague extended the jail term to a life sentence.

"Radovan Karadzic is one of the few people to have been found guilty of genocide. He was responsible for the massacre of men, women and children at the Srebrenica genocide and helped prosecute the siege of Sarajevo with its remorseless attacks on civilians," said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

"We should take pride in the fact that, from UK support to secure his arrest, to the prison cell he now faces, Britain has supported the 30 year pursuit of justice for these heinous crimes," he said in a statement.

As well as genocide, Karadzic was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the 44-month Serb siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and for overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove Croats and Muslims out of Serb-claimed areas of Bosnia.

In hiding for over a decade after the war, he was arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in July 2008. After his conviction he was held at court's detention centre in The Hague.

(Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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Hong Kong legislators pass 'patriotic' oath law

FILE PHOTO: Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai speaks during a news conference to announce changes to election and oath taking rules, in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:54

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A new law that tightens patriotic loyalty tests for Hong Kong politicians will take effect later this month after being passed by the city's legislature on Wednesday, local media reported.

The law is widely expected to further stifle democratic opposition in the global financial hub, extending oath-taking requirements to community level district councils that are dominated by pro-democracy politicians following a landslide win in November 2019.

Publicly-funded broadcaster RTHK reported that more than 20 district councillors have resigned in recent months, some because they were not willing to take the oath and others after being detained under a sweeping national security law imposed on the city by China's parliament last June.

The new law allows the city's Secretary for Justice to launch action against a politician or official who is deemed to have violated an oath under a "negative list" that proscribes a broad range of unpatriotic acts, from insulting the flag to endangering national security.

Those accused would be immediately suspended from office and, upon a court conviction, ousted and then barred from standing for an election for five years.

Lawyers, academics and diplomats have told Reuters they fear the city's independent judges could also find themselves ensnared by the vague terms of the law.

The Hong Kong government launched the bill in February, a day after a senior official in China's cabinet said provisions should be made to ensure only "patriots" ran the city.

Hong Kong's Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang said at the time that officials and politicians "cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it - this does not make sense."

"Patriotism is holistic love," he added.

(Reporting By Greg Torode and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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Russian jet escorts three French airforce planes over Black Sea - Ifx

This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:39

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Wednesday scrambled a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet to escort three French airforce planes over the Black Sea, Russia's Defence Ministry was cited by Interfax news agency as saying.

The French planes included two fighter jets and a refuelling aircraft, it said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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World Bank signs $500 million infrastructure project for Congo's capital

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese man carries his shoes as he wades through floodwaters along a street after the Congo River burst its banks due to heavy rainfall in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:59

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The World Bank on Wednesday signed a $500 million infrastructure project with Democratic Republic of Congo to improve roads, mitigate flood risks, fight erosion and develop public spaces across the capital Kinshasa.

Kinshasa is the largest French-speaking city in the world with a population of just over 17 million.

Funding for the "Kin Elenda" project will include a credit and grant of $250 million each, the World Bank said.

"Kin Elenda will help change the daily lives of the people of Kinshasa through the investments it will make throughout the city," said Jean-Christophe Carret, the World Bank's country director.

(Reporting by Hereward Holland and Fiston Mahamba; Editing by Cooper Inveen, William Maclean)

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Greek tourism minister hopeful of joining Britain's 'green list'

FILE PHOTO: People visit the Parthenon temple atop the Acropolis hill archaeological site, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Athens, Greece, April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:52

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis said on Wednesday he was hopeful Britain would include Greece on its "green list" of quarantine-free holiday destinations when the list is reviewed at the end of the month.

Greece was kept off an initial list of just 12 countries and territories that Britain said travellers could visit from May 17 without having to quarantine on their return home.

"I am moderately optimistic that in the next review, if not our whole country, at least our islands should be on the green list," Theocharis said on Greek state TV.

Theoharis is currently on a visit to Britain, one of the three largest markets for its vital tourism sector, meeting government officials, tour operators and airlines ahead of the official start of the tourism season on May 15.

The Greek government allowed organised beaches, museums, bars and restaurants to reopen from last week and wants to vaccinate the entire population of its islands by the end of June.

Greece came out of the first wave of the pandemic last year in better shape than many European countries but it has suffered heavily in recent months as a surge in cases forced it back into lockdown and put health services under severe strain.

However the government says the rollout of vaccines and rapid testing as well as warmer weather allowing more outdoor activities mean that visitors can now travel safely.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of the Greek economy and employs one in five workers. A collapse in arrivals last year because of the pandemic slashed revenues to 4 billion euros from 18 billion in 2019.

Holiday company TUI Group said earlier on Wednesday that it expects countries such as Spain and Greece to be included in Britain's "green list" of low-risk destinations at the end of the month.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Child's burial site tells of early man's emotional life - Kenyan archaeologist

Remains of a child buried around 78,000 years ago in Panga ya Saidi cave near Kenya's coast are seen at the National Museum of Kenya, in Nairobi, Kenya, May 12, 2021. Picture taken May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:17

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The discovery of the oldest known human burial site, a child's grave in a Kenyan cave, sheds new light on the emotional life of early Homo sapiens, the head of archaeology for the east African country's museums said on Wednesday.

Scientists announced last week that they had found the site, dating to around 78,000 years ago, where a youngster they have nicknamed 'Mtoto' or 'child' in Swahili was buried in a cave called Panga ya Saidi near the Kenyan coast.

"It's significant ... because it's for the first time that we're beginning to get a feel of the cognitive and also the emotional abilities at this point in time," Emmanuel Ndiema told Reuters in an interview.

Previous archaeological discoveries helped researchers understand other aspects of how early humans lived, such as their technological advances, how they sustained themselves and how they related to their environment, he said.

"We are beginning to understand people having some emotional attachment to the dead that they can be able to intentionally bury them. We are also seeing cognitive abilities, abstract thinking," said Ndiema.

Mtoto was placed in a shallow grave under the sheltered overhang of the cave, head resting on a pillow and the upper part of the body carefully wrapped in a shroud.

The child, whose gender remains unclear, is thought to have died aged about 2-1/2 to 3 years old.

The body was placed in a flexed position, lying on the right side, with knees drawn toward the chest, according to the researchers who published their findings last week.

Mtoto was part of a hunter-gatherer culture, with remains of various antelope species and other prey found at the site, an upland setting in a tropical forest. Also found were stone tools for scraping and boring holes, and stone points that could be used as part of a spear.

Ndiema said the discovery also shows early Homo sapiens lived in different parts of what is now Kenya, contradicting a long-standing narrative that suggested early humans only settled in the Great Rift Valley, further west from the coastal area.

(Writing by Elias Biryabarema, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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In Moroccan backwater, surfers give kids a taste of waves and freedom

Students surf during a free surfing lesson in front of La Casa del Mar, in Tarfaya, Morocco, April 14, 2021. REUTERS/Imane Djamil reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:12

By Imane Djamil

TARFAYA, Morocco (Reuters) - In a small fishing town in Morocco's south, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara, a group of idealistic young surfers are teaching local children to brave the crashing waves.

A day's drive from the cities of northern Morocco, and on the fringe of the world's greatest desert, the group has set up a beachfront cafe where young people can gather, learn and have fun in the sleepy port of Tarfaya.

"We have a deal here. Everyone who leaves Tarfaya has to come back and do something for the town," said Salim Maatoug, a wiry 26-year-old who worked as a tour guide in Marrakesh.

More than a hundred local children - boys and girls - have attended the free surfing classes they give at their wooden shack, watching as instructors demonstrate moves before charging into the sea to try for themselves.

The surfers also teach the children English and Spanish, hoping to open their horizons beyond scant local job offerings or the lure of joining migrants heading to Europe via illegal and perilous boat journeys to the Canary Islands 100 km away.

Thousands of migrants have drowned at sea, and the surfers had to win over parents fearful of the ocean's swells.

Families also did not let girls join the club until they saw the young sister of one of the surfers taking part alongside the boys and realised it was safe.

"Now we have a big number of girls surfing, girls who are the future of this club," said Maatoug, adding that he hoped one of the girls would eventually lead it.

Tarfaya, with its small harbour, offers few work opportunities for its 9,000 inhabitants. One of the group of surfers, Hossin Ofan, is a fisherman, while his twin brother Lahcen works at the local petrol station.

In the desert beyond the town is a $500 million wind farm, one of Africa's largest, while in a depression nearby a U.S. company mines salt.

BETWEEN DESERT AND OCEAN

At their "Nuevas Olas" (New Waves) coffee shop, the surfers meet and play music. They borrowed money from the bank to buy the surfboards and wetsuits for their club and to equip the cafe.

Perched between desert and ocean, Tarfaya is little more than a way station on the narrow ribbon of asphalt running hundreds of miles down the northwest African coast.

Its most distinctive building, a fort jutting into the sea, was set up as a British trading post in the 19th century and then garrisoned under Spanish colonial rule.

Morocco drove the Spanish from Tarfaya in the small Ifni war of 1958 and about two decades later, as Spain quit nearby Western Sahara, it marched into the territory where an Algeria-backed independence movement seeks a sovereign state.

Last year the United States recognised Moroccan claims to Western Sahara - though most countries still seek a U.N.-backed solution - increasing talk of new investment in a region where most money comes from phosphate mining or fishing.

The surfers at one point used another ruined Spanish fort as their clubhouse, meeting there to talk, eat and sing before the town council gave them the beachfront cafe.

Tarfaya once had a sandy landing strip for French biplanes to carry mail into West Africa, and the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery may have been inspired by his time there when writing the famous children's story "The Little Prince".

Nearly a century later, Maatoug stood leaning on the railing of the sea wall, watching a group of locals playing football on the beach.

He showed a photograph of himself as a boy, standing proudly in front of the Armas Essalama, a ferry bought to connect Tarfaya to the Canary Islands as part of a plan to bring tourists.

But it struck rocks just outside the town four months after it arrived and was never replaced. The rusting wreck is still marooned offshore, part of Tarfaya's sunset seascape.

(Reporting by Imane Djamil, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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Exclusive: China planning new crackdown on private tutoring sector - sources

FILE PHOTO: Children leave a school in Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China April 20, 2021. REUTERS/David Kirton/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 13:07

By Julie Zhu and Yingzhi Yang

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - China is framing tough new rules to clamp down on a booming private tutoring industry, aiming both to ease pressure on school children and boost the country's birth rate by lowering family living costs, sources told Reuters.

The clampdown will also have the effect of cooling China's cutthroat tutoring market for kindergarten through to the 12th grade, or K-12 pupils, that has grown exponentially in recent years to around $120 billion.

At least one major company providing tutoring services has put a billion-dollar private fundraising round on ice amid increasing scrutiny from Beijing and looming industry uncertainty, according to three separate sources.

The changes being drafted by the Ministry of Education and other authorities target before- and after-school K-12 tutoring, three people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

One source said the draft rules could be unveiled as early as by end-June. All three sources requested anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Under the planned rules, on-campus academic tutoring classes will be banned, as will both on and off-campus tutoring during weekends, two of the people said. Regulators will also clamp down on off-campus tutoring, in particular for English and math, they added, restricting class times on weekdays.

More than 75% of K-12 students attended after-school tutoring classes in 2016, according to the most recent figures from the Chinese Society of Education, and anecdotal evidence suggests that percentage has risen.

As well as protecting sleep-deprived students, Beijing sees the changes as a financial incentive for couples to have more children as it seeks to shore up a rapidly declining birth rate, the sources said.

"It's rather urgent to lessen students' workloads, and reduce the financial burden on their parents who are becoming reluctant to have more kids," one source said.

China's population grew over the 10 years to 2020 at the slowest pace in decades, the country's latest census showed on Tuesday, raising fears its dwindling workforce will be unable to support an increasingly elderly population.

Living costs in big cities, with education accounting for a big chunk of that, have deterred couples from having children.

The new rules would seek to limit fees charged by companies for tutoring, one of the sources told Reuters.

The ministry didn't immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.

INDUSTRY ON NOTICE

The K-12 tutoring industry would grow to nearly 1 trillion yuan ($155 billion) in 2025, up from around $120 billion in 2019, according to market researcher Qianzhan.

However, Beijing's increasing oversight is already hitting company stocks and fundraising plans.

The planned rules would add to restrictions imposed in March, including a ban on live-streamed classes for minors after 9 p.m., a crackdown on advertising, and a ban on academic tutoring course offerings for pre-school kids.

Online education startup Yuanfudao, backed by tech behemoth Tencent, has suspended preliminary talks to raise around $1 billion which would have valued the company at $22 billion, said the three separate sources.

Yuanfudao, which was valued at $15.5 billion in a funding round last October, started informal talks with investors in December, one of the sources said, adding plans were put on hold in March in response to increasing regulatory oversight of the sector.

Yuanfudao, which along with main rival Zuoyebang had raised billions of dollars during China's COVID-19 lockdowns as students were pushed online, did not respond to a comment request.

Yuanfudao and Zuoyebang were fined a maximum penalty of 2.5 million yuan ($389,420) each by regulators on Monday over false advertising.

A source told Reuters that a large state broadcaster was told by regulators last month to remove TV commercials from two players, New Oriental Education & Technology Group and TAL Education Group that they had placed earlier.

Shares in New York-listed New Oriental and peer TAL have fallen 23% and 26%, respectively, this year, compared to a 13% gain in the benchmark NYSE composite index.

The stocks were 0.4% and 1.37% lower, respectively, in premarket trading on Wednesday.

New Oriental said it had not placed any TV advertisements in the past two months and declined to comment on the potential tightening regulations. TAL didn't respond to a quest for comment.

(Reporting by Julie Zhu and Yingzhi Yang; Additional reporting by Kane Wu; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Jane Wardell)

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Swiss plan further easing of COVID-19 limits as cases, deaths fall

FILE PHOTO: People enjoy their drinks on a terrace of a restaurant in the city centre, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown restrictions ease, in Lausanne, Switzerland April 19, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:21

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland aims to further ease its restrictions on public life on May 31, the government said on Wednesday, by allowing indoor restaurant dining and lifting work-from-home requirements for companies that test for coronavirus.

Larger cultural and sporting gatherings will also be allowed as the country edges back towards normality as COVID-19 death rates and infections decline.

A final decision, which will allow events with up to 300 spectators outdoors, up from 100, will be made on May 26 after consultation with the country's 26 cantons, the government said.

The proposals come as Switzerland recorded 1,539 new infections on Wednesday, more than a day earlier but well under the seven-day average, with four confirmed deaths.

More than 2 million people have by now received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, nearly a quarter of the population.

The proposed relaxation of restrictions, which followed moves in April to re-open long-closed restaurant terraces, reflect the government's confidence that people are sticking to social-distancing rules, wearing masks and getting COVID-19 vaccines many see as critical to ending the pandemic.

"The epidemiological situation is growing less tense, as measured by case numbers, hospitalizations and the use of intensive care units," the government said. "The government sees a good chance that the situation in the hospitals in coming weeks will ease further, making a further opening step possible at the end of May."

If the easing proceeds as expected, up to 100 people will also be allowed to attend public indoor events, up from the limit of 50 at present.

With work-from-home requirements due to be lifted in favour of a recommendation for businesses to test regularly, Bern said it would assume more of the testing costs in order to reduce hurdles.

Discos would remain closed, however, and private events would still be limited to 10 people indoors and 15 people outdoors, due to higher infection risks, the government said.

These latest proposals come as Switzerland prepares to allow 3,000-person events for vaccinated attendees from July, if infections continue their downward trajectory.

(Reporting by John Miller, editing by John Revill)

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More data needed before COVID-19 vaccine booster decisions: EU regulators

FILE PHOTO: A nurse administers the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to a member of the medical staff at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination center in La Baule, France, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:04

(Reuters) - More clinical and real-world data is needed on how well and for how long COVID-19 vaccines are protective before any decisions should be made on offering third or booster doses, Europe's drug regulators said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the first of planned regular fortnightly media briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, the European Medicines Agency's head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy Marco Cavaleri cautioned against making "premature" moves to deploy booster COVID-19 shots.

"We need to look into real-world evidence ... to give us the data we need to know when would be the right time to give a third dose," he said.

"We need to have data that show in the field, either real-world evidence or clinical trials, that show what is the level of protection that is retained by the vaccines that we currently have."

(Reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Editing by Catherine Evans)

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Greece presents contentious labour reform bill

Members of the communist-affiliated trade union PAME demonstrate outside the Labour Ministry against a planned labour bill in Athens, Greece, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:08

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's conservative government on Wednesday outlined plans to overhaul "antiquated" labour laws by liberalising working hours, a move criticised by the left-wing opposition and unions who fear the changes will undermine worker rights.

Labour Minister Kostis Hatzidakis said the measures would bring overdue changes to laws that date back decades, offering more freedom to decide working hours as well as tackling exploitation, unpaid overtime and undeclared work, which have fuelled a large, untaxed grey economy.

"The labour law is antiquated," Hatzidakis told a news conference. "The core of the bill goes back to 1982. In 1982 the Internet, let alone teleworking, was a distant dream."

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the bill was intended to protect workers. "It strengthens their rights..., corrects injustices of the past. In short, it gives power to the employee," he tweeted.

The most contentious part of the bill introduces flexibility to the eight-hour workday by allowing employees to work up to 10 hours on one day and fewer on another, or take time off.

It will also give workers the right to disconnect outside of office hours - for example, refuse any work on off-days, or to check emails - as in France and Italy.

Further, it would introduce a "digital work card" to monitor employees working hours in real time, as well as increase legal overtime to 150 hours a year.

However, Greece's main civil servants union ADEDY, which staged a 24-hour strike against the bill last week, says the government seeks to raise the eight-hour working day to 10 hours and scrap the five-day working week and collective bargaining agreements.

As Hatzidakis spoke, dozens of members of the communist-affiliated trade union PAME protested outside the labour ministry and painted "Hands Off the 8-Hour Day" in red on one of its walls.

PAME also called a demonstration against the bill in central Athens on Thursday.

The left-wing Syriza opposition has criticized the bill, saying it restricts employee rights at a time when workers risk more job losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Syriza leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras accused the government of moving against a worldwide trend to improve workers' rights.

"(It) is trying to use the pandemic as an opportunity to impose the most anti-popular (measure) a Greek government has ever brought against the world of work: the abolition of the eight-hour working day."

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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EU's Balkan strategy losing local support, internal paper warns

FILE PHOTO: A large European Union flag lies at the centre of Schuman square, outside the European Commission headquarters, on the eve of Europe Day, commemorating the declaration made by Robert Schuman in 1950, in Brussels, Belgium, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:26

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union must recognise that Balkan countries seeking membership are losing faith in Brussels' long accession strategy, worsened by its initial failure to provide COVID-19 vaccines, according to an internal EU document seen by Reuters.

Europe and the United States say that Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia will one day become members of the club of 27 states, following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

But China and Russia, whose trade and investment levels in the Balkans are far less than the EU's, are gaining influence, outsmarting the bloc by offering COVID-19 vaccines quickly during the pandemic.

"We need to acknowledge that despite the steadfast commitment to EU integration ... the people in the region are experiencing a sense of deep disappointment in the enlargement process," said the May 5 paper by EU officials and sent to EU's 27 foreign ministries.

"A perception of tardy EU delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines has further fed a narrative of disillusionment," said the paper, which was prepared for Monday's meeting of foreign ministers, who discussed the Balkans but did not take formal decisions.

After years of EU neglect of the region, Croatia organised an EU summit in May 2020 to give new impetus to Balkan integration. North Macedonia and Albania were meant to launch membership talks at the end of the last year.

But Bulgaria refuses to allow North Macedonia to move ahead, citing language and cultural disputes.

France held up proceedings in 2019 with scepticism over Albanian and North Macedonian efforts on democracy and fighting corruption.

The European Commission, the EU executive, insists Albania and North Macedonia must move forward together. However, a suggestion by EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi this month - later withdrawn - that only Albania should start entry talks, added to a sense of disarray, EU diplomats said.

EU ministers were unable to break the deadlock at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

Membership talks with Serbia and Montenegro, the pair seen as furthest ahead in the accession process, have also slowed, while Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to be formally designated as EU membership candidates.

"The widespread perception in the Western Balkans is that the prospect of accession is receding and that European inspirations are lost under a complex set of conditions and procedures," the internal report said.

The bloc is now sending 650,000 doses of Western-made vaccines to the six Balkan countries, but only after China and Russia distributed millions of their doses in the region.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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African Union mission urges return to 'constitutional order' in Chad

FILE PHOTO: Street vendor waits for a customer in N'djamena, Chad April 26, 2021. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 14:01

By Mahamat Ramadane

N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - An African Union mission recommended on Wednesday that Chad's military share power with a civilian president, as one of three options towards restoring constitutional order following last month's killing of president Idriss Deby.

A military council led by Deby's son Mahamat Idriss Deby seized power in April after his father was killed while visiting troops opposing a rebel insurgency.

The African Union, which could suspend Chad over the military takeover, sent a fact-finding mission to develop strategies for a return to constitutional order and democratic governance.

In a report, the mission recommended the AU's security council could support the military transition as it stands, while appointing a special envoy to ensure the military keep their promise to organise elections with 18 months.

Another option would be to support the current military-led transition, while pressuring the junta to share power equally with a civilian government due to the security threats Chad faces from rebels and jihadi insurgents.

A final option would be to pressure the military to hand over power to a civilian president alongside a military vice president, the report said.

It said a transitional charter drafted by the military was "wholly inadequate" and encouraged the drafting of a new, more inclusive national constitution, and a swift plan for fresh elections.

It also recommended that rebel forces be demobilized and invited to participate in dialogue on forming any new government.

The military council, which has promised to hold elections within 18 months, has rejected talks with the rebels.

Former colonial ruler France, which maintains a military presence in Chad, initially supported the council but has since called for a civilian-led unity government.

Opposition politicians and civil society have denounced the military takeover as a coup. Several protests have turned violent in recent weeks, with at least 6 people killed and scores more arrested in clashes with security forces.

Hundreds of protesters marched peacefully through N'Djamena on Wednesday carrying placards calling for calm during the transition process. Demonstrators were flanked by soldiers and police, who had authorized the event.

(Reporting by Mahamat Ramadane; Writing by Cooper Inveen; Editing by Bate Felix and Giles Elgood)

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From friend to foe: EU prepares sanctions on Lebanon for first time

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, in Beirut, Lebanon March 12, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:21

By John Irish and Robin Emmott

PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is drawing up sanctions on politicians in Lebanon seen as blocking the formation of a government, readying the bloc's first penalties on its Middle Eastern ally in frustration at the ruling elite's mismanagement, diplomats said.

Led by former colonial power France, the bloc is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon's squabbling politicians, after 10 months of crisis that has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, electricity blackouts, and fuel and food shortages.

No names have been discussed and Hungary has publicly denounced EU efforts to pressure Lebanese politicians, but six diplomats and officials told Reuters that technical work has now begun on preparing sanctions – so-called designation criteria - after EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to take action.   

As many senior Lebanese politicians have homes, bank accounts and investments in the EU, and send their children to universities there, a withdrawal of that access could be a lever to focus minds.

Paris says it has already taken measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese officials, for blocking efforts to tackle the unprecedented crisis, which is rooted in decades of state corruption and debt.

"The level of impatience with the ruling class is growing. They don't seem to have their peoples' interest at heart. Expect to see a decision in the next three to four weeks," said a senior EU diplomat.

The EU first needs to set up a sanctions regime that could then see individuals hit by travel bans and asset freezes.

There are divisions among the 27 EU states over the wisdom of EU sanctions, but the bloc's two main powers, France and Germany are in favour, which is likely to prove pivotal. A larger group of nations has yet to specify their approach.

However, officials say it is usual at the technical, preparatory stage that countries remain circumspect and that once a political agreement among EU governments is in place, they will rally around France.

"It's just a question of time. We have what we wanted," said a senior French diplomat following Monday's meeting. 

Given Hungary's opposition, the working hypothesis is now to go for the approach of each of the remaining 26 EU countries to individually place sanctions, as well as offering aid.

CARROTS AND STICKS

"The people are suffering but the political leaders are not taking responsibility while the country is literally falling apart," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters.

"We are working on an approach that combines carrots and sticks," he said.

An EU options paper lays out how Lebanon could benefit financially from a variety of aid, but diplomats said there was nothing to suggest these carrots would entice Lebanese politicians and that it was now all about the "sticks".

France has not made public what steps it has taken alone, or against whom, and the potential impact is unclear as some Lebanese politicians hold dual nationality. French officials say a list of names is in place and it has not been divulged in order to "shake-up" and keep guessing Lebanese politicians.

Diplomats have also said the EU would also have to decide whether and how to target the political arm of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed movement that wields enormous power in Lebanon and is also held responsible for part of the political status quo.

The group is less likely to have interests in the EU.

In a possible signal to the EU, the United States for the first time under President Joe Biden on Tuesday sanctioned seven Lebanese nationals it said were connected to Hezbollah's financial firm and called on governments worldwide to take action against it.

(Reporting by John Irish and Robin Emmott, Editing by William Maclean)

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As tobacco declines, Malawi must switch to cannabis - president

FILE PHOTO: Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera is sworn in in Lilongwe, Malawi, July 6, 2020. REUTERS/Eldson Chagara reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 13:41

BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera warned on Wednesday that his country's leading foreign exchange earner, tobacco, was in terminal decline and he urged a switch to high-growth crops like cannabis, which was legalised locally for some uses last year.

Chakwera made the comments during a state of the nation address in which he said tobacco was expected to earn less than $200 million in 2021, a figure roughly similar to the past two years but well below previous annual earnings that used to top $350 million.

"The inconvenient truth ... is that while Malawi has come a long way by relying on tobacco as our ... largest single crop contributor to our GDP, this reliance is now seriously threatened by declining demand worldwide," Chakwera said.

"Clearly we need to diversify and grow other crops like cannabis, which was legalized last year for industrial and medicinal use," he added.

Tobacco was a stain on an otherwise booming agricultural sector, which the president said would enable economic growth to recover to 3.8% this year, according to the latest forecasts, and would push it to 5.4% next year.

That compared with last year's lacklustre 1.9% growth owing to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Decades of public health education have gradually convinced people worldwide of the dangers of tobacco, leading to a sustained drop in sales. At the same time, cannabis has started to be accepted as a medicine.

Malawi's parliament passed a bill in February last year that makes it legal to cultivate and process cannabis for medicines and hemp fibre used in industry, but stops short of decriminalising recreational use.

"I have directed (the) Ministry of Agriculture to begin a radical search for a basket of alternative crops so that by 2030, Malawi can do away with its reliance on tobacco, except in limited cases where there are pre-agreed quotas," Chakwera said.

Countries around the world are either legalising or relaxing laws on cannabis, including several in southern Africa such as Zambia, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

(Reporting by Frank Phiri; Writing by Tim Cock; Editing by Catherine Evans and Giles Elgood)

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Lebanese fear fruit and vegetables going to waste with Saudi market shut

A farmer holds lettuce as he stands in a lettuce field in Rayak, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, May 10, 2021. Picture taken May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 13:04

By Alaa Kanaan

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (Reuters) - Fruit is ripening and vegetables are shooting up in Lebanon's lush Bekaa Valley, but the head of the region's farmers' syndicate, Ibrahim Tarshishy, is still a worried man.

Saudi Arabia's ban on imports of Lebanese agricultural produce, imposed in April over drug smuggling, has shut a major market for Lebanese farmers who grow everything from lettuce and onions to cherries and peaches. There is no sign yet of an end.

"The Saudi decision was a shock to farmers and exporters," said Tarshishy, who heads the Bekaa Farmers Association.

"To be honest, I don't expect the days ahead to be good. I see before us more depression, sadness and poverty," he said.

The harvest is already underway for fruit, an export money spinner that is vital with Lebanon's economy in crisis. A collapse in the Lebanese pound means farmers have greater need than ever for export dollars to buy fertiliser and other inputs.

Yet the trucks that would normally transport produce south to the Arab world's biggest economy are standing idle.

Saudi Arabia said fruit shipments coming from Lebanon had been used to hide drugs, citing the example of a batch of pomegranates that had been hollowed out and filled with Captagon pills, a type of amphetamine.

Tarshishy said Lebanon's total fruit and vegetable exports were usually about 400,000 tonnes a year, with about a quarter heading to Saudi Arabia or going via the kingdom to Gulf states.

That Saudi market for exports and transit, worth $24 million a year, has been shut down for now, leaving farmers and exporters racing to find alternative buyers abroad.

"Everything is loss on top of loss," said Hussein Madbouh, a farmer, speaking in a field of lettuce, much of which he would normally export to earn foreign exchange. "The fertilisers and chemicals are all priced in dollars. We can't make it work."

BASKET OF FRUIT

The price of lettuce, with its short shelf life, has halved, and some farmers have resorted to selling the produce for animal feed. Farmers now fear prices for other vegetables will plunge too.

The Saudi ban was imposed on April 24 and there is no clarity on when it might end. Farmers' attention is now turning to peaches, cherries and other fruit ripening on the trees that would usually find a ready market in the desert kingdom.

"Lebanon at this time of year is a basket of fruit," said Tarshishy, adding that the main season ran from mid-May until October.

Lebanon's government, already barely able to keep the economy afloat, has promised to work with Saudi Arabia and step up security. It has also asked Riyadh to review its ban.

"There were gaps that smugglers made use of," said Tarshishy, adding that the Lebanese authorities had now improved scanning and other security measures.

But every day that passes with the Saudi ban still in place means more financial pain for farmers. "Who will compensate our loss for all of this?" said Madbouh.

(Reporting by Alaa Kanaan; Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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Poland brings forward reopening of cinemas, to vaccinate 16-year-olds

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective mask walks in front of the Zlote Tarasy shopping mall in the centre of the city as the government eased coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Warsaw, Poland May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 13:13

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland will bring forward the reopening of cinemas and start vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds, the prime minister said on Wednesday, as COVID-19 cases decline.

The country reported 4,255 new cases on Wednesday, part of a marked decrease since the peak of the third wave in May, when there were as many as 35,253 daily cases. This has given authorities the confidence to ease restrictions faster than originally planned.

"We are accelerating the opening of cinemas, theatres, concert halls and cultural institutions by 1 week, or exactly 8 days, to May 21, so that ... these sections of social and socio-economic life can start earlier," Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference.

He also said gyms and fitness centres would open one day earlier than planned on May 28.

Morawiecki said Poland would start vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds.

"We want to make vaccination available for this younger part of society soon," he said.

On Thursday, France said it would extend its vaccine rollout to people aged 16-17 who could be at high risk of major illness from the virus.

Poland, a country of 38 million, has reported 2,842,339 cases of the coronavirus and 70,679 deaths. It has fully vaccinated over 3.8 million people.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Koper, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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UK's PM Johnson announces COVID-19 public inquiry

FILE PHOTO: People shop at market stalls, with skyscrapers of the CIty of London financial district seen behind, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain, January 15, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:41

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will hold a public inquiry into the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic next year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.

"This process will place the state's actions under the microscope," he told parliament.

The inquiry will have the backing of legislation giving it far-reaching powers, Johnson said.

Johnson had previously agreed to hold an inquiry but resisted pressure from opposition parties to begin it while the government was still handling the crisis, saying it was more important to focus on that and the subsequent recovery plan.

But speaking in parliament, he said the inquiry would begin in spring 2022 once some of the worst pressures had subsided to avoid diverting resources from the crisis response. He warned of the risk of a resurgence of the virus.

He did not set out the terms of reference for the inquiry, or who would lead it, saying it was necessary to consult with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on those issues.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Michael Holden, writing by William James; Editing by William Schomberg/Guy Faulconbridge)

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San Marino to offer tourists Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine

FILE PHOTO: The Russian Sputnik V coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine is displayed in the Republic of San Marino, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:53

MOSCOW/MILAN (Reuters) - The tiny Republic of San Marino, landlocked inside Italy, on Wednesday announced the launch of a vaccine tourism programme, offering the Russian-made Sputnik V COVID-19 shot to visitors from May 17.

The 24-square-mile (61-square-kilometre) enclave, with a population of 34,000, first received a batch of Sputnik in February and has so far immunized 25,000 people, officials said on a briefing on Wednesday, mostly with the Russian vaccine.

With no coronavirus patients currently in hospital, San Marino decided it was capable of launching a campaign inviting tourists to get vaccinated with Sputnik V, tourism minister Federico Pedini Amati said on the briefing.

"The vaccination tourism campaign will start on 17 May and will concern foreign, non-Italian citizens," the minister said.

Tourists wishing to come for vaccination would have to reserve hotel rooms at least one week before arrival, he said. They would also be required to have plans in place for a second trip, 21 to 28 days later, to receive their booster dose.

Two doses would cost tourists 15 euros, San Marino officials said. They also said they hoped the country would soon be able to generate vaccination certificates for residents and tourists.

San Marino is not a European Union member and Sputnik V has not yet been approved for use in the EU. The vaccine is currently under review by the bloc's regulator, the European Medicines Agency.

In a press release on Monday the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), the sovereign wealth fund responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad, said it was ready to provide additional batches of Sputnik V to San Marino.

"RDIF is ready to provide additional supplies of the vaccine to arrange vaccination tourism," RDIF chief executive Kirill Dmitriev was cited as saying.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow and Emilio Parodi in Milan; Editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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Another Thai protest leader says has COVID-19 after jail stint

FILE PHOTO: Protest leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, who has spent eight weeks in detention on charges of insulting the country's king, shows a three-finger salut as she leaves after she was granted bail at the Central Women's Correctional Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, May 6, 2021. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:50

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Another leader from Thailand's anti-government protest movement has been infected with the coronavirus after spending eight weeks in jail pending trial on charges of insulting the country's powerful king.

Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, who was released on bail last week from pre-trial detention, said on her Twitter account on Wednesday that she was being treated in a hospital after testing positive for the virus following her release.

Two others detainees from the protest movement, including human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and Chukiat "Justin" Saengowng, have also tested positive for COVID-19. They are also charged with insulting the monarchy.

The corrections department said on Wednesday that it found 2,835 COVID-19 infections at two detention facilities where the protest leaders were held, after conducting a total of 17,000 tests, which included all inmates and staff.

Thailand reported a new daily record of 34 coronavirus deaths on Wednesday, caused by a third wave of infections since the start of April that has seen its overall case number triple, and deaths more than quadruple.

The prisons cases are not included in the country's daily tally, which cited 1,983 new infections on Wednesday. Thailand has reported 88,907 cases and 468 fatalities overall.

Panusaya said she had no symptoms and had tested negative while in prison on April 22. After her release, she stayed home for three days before getting tested.

Thailand is seeking to shore up supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and has yet to start its mass immunisation drive, with only 1.9 million doses administered so far, mostly to health workers and at-risk groups.

It is currently accepting bookings for vaccinations via a mobile application but will allow walk-ins from June, when the main inoculation programme gets underway, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Ed Davies, Martin Petty)

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Spain expects as many as 45 million foreign tourists this year, minister says

FILE PHOTO: People gather at a lookout point, with a view of the city of Barcelona in the background, in Barcelona, Spain, May 6, 2021. REUTERS/Nacho Doce reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:03

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain expects foreign tourist arrivals to reach as many as 45 million this year, Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said on Wednesday at a presentation of Spain's promotional campaign to entice visitors back this summer.

Foreign tourism to Spain plunged 80% last year from 83.5 million visitors in 2019 as pandemic restrictions brought leisure travel to a virtual standstill.

The government has previously said it expects tourism to reach half its pre-pandemic levels this year.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Editing by Nathan Allen)

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Pope face-to-face with the faithful again as COVID declines in Italy

Pope Francis receives a drawing from a child as he arrives for the weekly general audience while coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions are eased at the Vatican, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Remo Casilli reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:53

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis expressed his delight on Wednesday as he resumed his weekly general audience in public for the first time in six months, reflecting a decline in coronavirus cases in Italy.

During the winter and early spring, the pope had delivered his weekly address via a video link from the Vatican's Apostolic Library. On Wednesday morning, he stepped out into the San Damaso Courtyard, where a few hundred faithful had gathered.

"I am happy to restart this face-to-face meeting again, because let me tell you something, it’s not nice to talk in front of nothing, just at the camera, it is not nice," he said.

The 84-year-old pope, who has been vaccinated against the virus, went up and greeted some of those present, signing a book and wearing a red hat that a priest gave him.

The public sat in seats arranged to ensure social distancing and everyone had their temperatures checked as they arrived. Many places were left empty.

"It was wonderful to hear him and to see how close he was to us. It was a very special moment indeed," said visitor Adriano Chang.

During the worst of the coronavirus crisis last November, Italy was recording more than 40,000 new cases a day. On Tuesday, that number had fallen to just under 7,000.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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UK PM Johnson has unpaid 535 pound debt - court document

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the debate on the Queen's Speech, in London, Britain May 11, 2021. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 12:23

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose personal finances have come under the spotlight over the renovation of his Downing Street apartment, has an unpaid debt of 535 pounds ($756.12) court records showed on Wednesday.

The court judgement seen by Reuters did not name the other party in the case, but listed Boris Johnson and the address of his 10 Downing Street office.

The record was dated Oct. 26 2020, and listed as 'Unsatisfied' meaning it was wholly or partly unpaid. It was first reported in the "Private Eye" magazine.

Johnson's office did not immediately have a comment when contacted by Reuters.

Johnson's finances have been the subject of extensive scrutiny in recent weeks, with electoral authorities investigating the funding of refurbishments to his flat, and parliament investigating the declaration he made relating to a donor-funded foreign trip.

A county court judgement is issued when someone submits a claim and judges decide the money needs to be paid. The register of these judgements is used by banks and other financial institutions to determine an individual's credit rating.

($1 = 0.7076 pounds)

(Reporting by William James; editing by Michael Holden)

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Bulgaria's caretaker prime minister says priority is rule of law

Newly appointed caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev delivers his speech during an official ceremony in Sofia, Bulgaria, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 10:07

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's new caretaker prime minister said on Wednesday his government's priority would be upholding the rule of law in the European Union's poorest member state.

President Rumen Radev appointed Stefan Yanev, a former defence minister, to lead the government until a snap election in July after an inconclusive election last month resulted in a deadlocked parliament that failed to produce a government.

The previous government, led by Boyko Borissov, kept Bulgaria's economy afloat and put the country on the path to joining the euro zone but its failure to tackle widespread corruption frustrated voters.

"Honest and responsible work by the government can at least partially restore the lost trust in state institutions," Yanev, who was Radev's defence and security secretary before his appointment, said during a televised inauguration ceremony.

"I will insist that the government works in full transparency and in accountability to citizens... I place the most important emphasis on upholding the rule of law."

Yanev, 61, who served as a deputy prime minister and defence chief in an earlier caretaker government appointed in 2017 and has held posts in the NATO military alliance, said the government would do its best to ensure fair elections.

It will be "absolutely uncompromising" against any attempted election violations, he said.

Bulgaria ranks as the EU's most corrupt member state, according to watchdog Transparency International. It has been criticised by Brussels for failing to overhaul its judiciary or jail any high-ranking officials on corruption charges.

Radev supported anti-government protests last year in which Borissov, who had held power with only small breaks since 2009, was criticised for weakening state institutions for the benefit of local oligarchs and businesses close to his centre-right GERB party.

The July election is widely expected to produce another splintered parliament that may struggle to produce a government.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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UK to help vulnerable countries against Russia, China cyber threat

FILE PHOTO: A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:33

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday it would invest 22 million pounds ($31 million) to help vulnerable countries in Africa and the Indo-Pacific build up their cyber defences to prevent China, Russia and others from filling a cyberspace vacuum.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said Britain and its partners needed to take action to ensure there was a cyberspace that was free, open and peaceful in the face of hostile states seeking to undermine democratic elections and turn the internet into a lawless space.

"We've got to win the hearts and minds across the world in a much broader space for our positive vision of a cyberspace ... there for the benefit of the whole world," Raab said at an online security conference.

"Frankly, we've also got to prevent China, Russia and others from filling the multilateral vacuum. That means doing a lot more to support the poorest and most vulnerable countries who are most at risk."

Last month, Britain joined the United States in saying Russia's foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, was responsible for the SolarWinds hack which led to the compromise of nine federal agencies and hundreds of private sector companies.

Britain's top cyber spy also warned in April that the West needed to act urgently to ensure China does not dominate important emerging technologies and gain control of the "global operating system".

Raab said Britain's investment would be used to support national cyber response teams, advise on mass online safety awareness campaigns and to collaborate with global police coordination agency Interpol to set up a new cyber operations hub in Africa.

This hub would operate across Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda to help fight cybercrime in the fast-growing economies, the foreign office said.

($1 = 0.7075 pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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Germany's Greens clash with finance minister over return to debt brake

FILE PHOTO: Annalena Baerbock, Germany's Green party co-leader and a top candidate for the upcoming national election in September, speaks at a news conference after a party's leaders meeting in Berlin, Germany, April 26, 2021. Markus Schreiber/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 10:02

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German Greens' candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday criticised Finance Minister Olaf Scholz's plan to return to strict borrowing limits from 2023, saying Berlin had to invest more in climate protection, health care and education.

The Greens are currently riding high in the polls ahead of Germany's Sept. 26 election, with a very good chance of joining the next coalition government or even taking over the chancellery.

"We're all facing the same reality, it's not a Greens reality, that we have a giant hole in the budget due to this coronavirus year," Baerbock told ARD public broadcaster.

"That's why I have a different point of view here than the finance minister who has said we'll return to the debt brake as soon as possible. We can't do that," Baerbock said.

The Greens want to reform the constitutionally enshrined debt brake rule, which limits federal borrowing to 0.35% of economic output per year, by adding an investment rule to secure enough public money for climate protection, infrastructure, health care and education, Baerbock said.

"And since we have low interest rates at the moment, this plan is working out," Baerbock added.

In their election manifesto, the Greens promise additional 50 billion euros a year in extra public investment over 10 years which would be about 1.5% of 2019 output.

However, this would require a reform of the debt brake rule in the constitution - a tricky political task for which two-thirds majorities are needed in both chambers of parliament.

Scholz, the candidate for chancellor of the centre-left Social Democrats, on Wednesday presents updated tax revenue estimates for Europe's biggest economy which may be helped by a raising of the government's growth forecast for this year to 3.5%.

Germany has temporarily suspended its borrowing limits due to the pandemic, enabling record new debt of 130 billion euros in 2020 and 240 billion euros in 2021 to cushion the impact of the coronavirus on workers and companies.

Scholz has suggested to suspend the debt brake for a third year in a row in 2022 to allow net new borrowing of 80 billion euros, but he insists that Germany should return to the strict fiscal rules from 2023 onwards.

Still, the impact of the pandemic on public finances is so huge that Germany won't be able to meet the European Union's debt ceiling of 60% of GDP before 2030, Scholz told Rheinische Post newspaper.

Germany's debt-financed fiscal splurge has pushed its overall debt to more than 70% last year from below 60% in 2019.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Napoleon's shirt worn in exile and English letter go on display

A Madras and the shirt worn by Napoleon on St Helena are displayed at Waterloo Battlefield Museum in Braine-L'Alleud, before being put on auction by Bonhams for the bicentenary of Napoleon's death, Belgium, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:30

By Bart Biesemans

WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - A shirt worn by Napoleon during his exile on the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic and a letter he wrote there to practise his English have gone on display at a museum in Belgium ahead of an auction later this year in Britain.

A silk scarf he wore around his head on the windswept British outpost is also on show, along with a walking stick made from a narwhal tooth, a rare and precious object from the exiled former French emperor's daily life on Saint Helena.

The exhibition at the Battle of Waterloo memorial museum, near Brussels, is part of commemorations of the bicentenary of Napoleon's death aged 51 on May 5, 1821.

The letter is one of only a few texts written by Napoleon in English that have survived. It does not have an address and is believed to have been dictated to him by his secretary as part of exercises to improve his English.

"Napoleon, before arriving on the island of Saint Helena, could not write or speak in the language of Shakespeare," said Antoine Charpagne, co-curator of the Waterloo exhibition.

"His secretary, Emmanuel de Las Cases, knew how to speak English, as he had already lived in England for a few years, and so he taught him," he told Reuters.

The letter is expected to fetch the highest price out of all the items that will be sold at auction at Bonhams in London on Oct. 27.

"When you hear that in the past, several million pounds have been paid for at least one significant item of Napoleonic memorabilia, it puts it into perspective," said Simon Cottle of Bonhams.

The Waterloo curators and auctioneers in London say the objects shed light on Napoleon's latter days in exile, a time when he was writing his memoirs to try and enshrine a legacy as a military genius and visionary leader.

Today, Napoleon is the subject of heated debate in France and beyond.

Some say his achievements, especially the laying out of legal and institutional foundations that still underpin parts of the modern French state, make him worthy of commemoration. Others answer that his record of military aggression, his despotic instincts and his decision to reinstate slavery after it had been abolished mean that he should not be honoured.

(Writing by Robin Emmott, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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Hungary's opposition plans joint primary in bid to unseat PM Orban in 2022

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 10:32

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's opposition will hold the country's first ever primary elections this year to pick joint candidates to contest the 2022 national election, six parties said on Wednesday, a move that could threaten Prime Minister Viktor Orban's grip on power.

Hardline nationalist Orban and his Fidesz party have scored three successive landslides since 2010 largely due to an election system that favours large parties as the opposition has been fragmented and unable to cooperate until now.

But a patchwork of parties that includes the former far-right Jobbik, which has redefined itself as a centre-right grouping, as well as the Socialists, liberals and greens, upset Fidesz in municipal elections in 2019.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony, who as the candidate of a small green liberal party unseated the Fidesz incumbent in the biggest upset of those local polls, said the opposition cooperation may serve as a blueprint to unseat Orban.

A first primary round on September 18-26 will select a single opposition candidate in each of Hungary's 106 electoral districts. Each district will also pick its preferred candidate for prime minister from a small selection of joint candidates.

There will be a runoff in the vote for the prime ministerial candidate on Oct. 4-10.

Opinion polls put Fidesz and the opposition coalition neck-and-neck and show Orban's party losing ground especially in large cities, foreshadowing the tightest election race since 2006.

Orban put the economy back on track after the 2008 financial crisis but has also curbed the judiciary, media and cultural freedoms, drawing criticism from the European Union. He has also built cordial relations with Russia and China.

The election campaign is likely to be centred around the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Hungary has suffered the highest COVID-19 death toll per capita in the world, Worldometer data shows, but it now also boasts one of the EU's fastest vaccination campaigns that has allowed it to reopen the economy quickly.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai @mdunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Rising cement costs hamper Nigeria's building developers

A man drops a bag of Dangote cement while offloading a truck in Abuja, Nigeria May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 11:15

By Angela Ukomadu and Seun Sanni

LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigerian property developer Olawale Ayilara is building housing estates in the affluent Lekki district of mega city Lagos, the country's commercial engine. But the cost of the project is expanding rapidly due to the increased price of cement.

The price of a 50 kg (110 lb) bag of cement rose by a third, from 2,500 naira ($6.57) to 3,600 naira ($9.46) around November last year, he said.

"It has a large effect in what the price of building development will be," said Ayilara, CEO of LandWey Investments, which is building 12,000 homes spread across 14 sites in Lekki.

"There is nothing the developers can do," he said, as he gazed at rows of partially constructed apartments surrounded by wooden scaffolding.

Lawmakers last month said the dominance of three large firms was keeping prices high and impeding construction needed to aid the recovery of Africa's largest economy. Nigeria, where a third of the labour force is unemployed, emerged from its second recession in four years in late 2020.

Dangote Cement, founded by Africa's richest man, Aliko Dangote, has 60.6% market share. Lafarge Africa accounts for 21.8%, while BUA Cement has 17.6%.

Their dominance stems from a cement import ban that has been in place for most of the last 20 years to develop self sufficiency in cement production.

Cement firms raised prices during Nigeria's 2016 recession to counter low sales volumes, and price have continued to rise.

Abdulrahman Ojo, an engineer, is building a mosque in Lagos and, like Ayilara, is struggling to reduce costs.

He said he had seen cement costs double in price, from 2,000 naira a bag to 4,000 in recent years. "There should be a price control," he said, stating that his team uses up to 20 bags a day.

Nigeria's high prices are part of a continent-wide trend. Final cement prices in Africa are 183% higher, on average, than world cement prices, the World Bank said in a 2016 report.

But Nigeria's prices are high, even compared to other African countries, according to Joachim MacEbong, a senior analyst at Lagos-based consultancy SBM Intelligence.

He said the government could help by providing incentives to cement companies to enter the Nigerian market, echoing similar calls made by lawmakers last month.

The ministry of industry, trade and investment, which oversees the issuance of manufacturing licences, did not respond to a request for comment on calls for the government to ease licensing restrictions.

At a building site where a group of men pieced together walls made of concrete blocks held in place by mortar, Ayilara urged the government to intervene.

"They have to come to the table and make sure that they do what is fair by everybody so that we can have a system that is balanced," he said.

($1 = 380.5900 naira)

(Reporting by Angela Ukomadu and Seun Sanni in Lagos; Additional reporting by Abraham Achirga and Camillus Eboh in Abuja and Libby George in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Chijioke Ohuocha and Dan Grebler)

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Iran's former hardline president Ahmadinejad to run again

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to a question during a joint news conference with Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurufi in Najaf, Iraq, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Karim Kadim/Pool reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 09:04

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday registered to run again in an election in June which is being seen as a test of the legitimacy of the country's clerical rulers.

Vilified in the West for his questioning of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad had to step down in 2013 because of term limit rules, when incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, won in a landslide.

"People should be involved in Iran's decision-making process... We must all prepare ourselves for fundamental reform," state TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying after submitting his registration.

Candidates began signing up for the polls on Tuesday with the clerical rulers hoping for a high turnout which may be hit by rising discontent over an economy crippled by U.S. sanctions reimposed after Washington exited the nuclear deal three years ago.

Registration will end on Saturday, after which entrants will be screened for their political and Islamic qualifications by a 12-member vetting body, the Guardian Council. Six members of the hardline body are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad after his 2009 re-election triggered protests in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds arrested, rattling the ruling theocracy, before security forces led by the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stamped out the unrest.

But a rift developed between the two after then-president Ahmadinejad explicitly advocated checks on Khamenei's ultimate authority. Ahmadinejad was disqualified by the Guardian Council in the 2017 presidential election.

In an open letter to Khamenei in 2018, Ahmadinejad called for “fundamental reforms” in the three branches of government - executive, parliament and judiciary - as well as the office of the Supreme Leader.

A former officer of the Guards, who has tried to re-brand himself as a moderate politician by criticising the clerical establishment, Ahmadinejad relies on Iran’s devout poor and working class who have grown impatient with the mounting economic pressure.

However, his popularity remains in question and hardline political groups are expected to back prominent cleric and judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi if he decides to run.

Rouhani cannot seek re-election under Iran's constitution.

Several hardline candidates, including some IRGC commanders, have said they would withdraw if Raisi enters the race to avoid splitting the vote.

Appointed by the supreme leader as head of the judiciary, Raisi has emerged as one of Iran’s most powerful figures and a contender to succeed Khamenei.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Norway will not use AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, says daily VG

FILE PHOTO: Vials of the AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine are seen in a general practice of a doctor, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Vienna, Austria April 30, 2021. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 10:51

OSLO (Reuters) -Norway will not resume its use of the COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca due to a risk of rare but harmful side-effects, newspaper VG reported on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg is expected to announce at 1600 GMT whether Norway will resume the use of the AstraZeneca shot, as well as the government's decision on Johnson & Johnson's inoculation.

The prime minister's office and the health ministry were not immediately available for comment.

Authorities on March 11 suspended the AstraZeneca rollout after a small number of younger inoculated people were hospitalised for a combination of blood clots, bleeding and a low count of platelets, some of whom later died.

A study in Denmark and Norway found slightly increased rates of vein blood clots among people who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca's vaccine, including clots in the brain, compared with expected rates in the general population.

On May 10, a public panel of medical, legal and other experts said the two vaccines should not be offered as part of the national inoculation scheme, although volunteers should be allowed to take them.

(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, editing by Gwladys Fouche)

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Lab supplier Merck KGaA says U.S. Defense Production Act poses challenge

FILE PHOTO: A logo of drugs and chemicals group Merck KGaA is pictured in Darmstadt, Germany January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 10:50

By Ludwig Burger

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Merck KGaA on Wednesday said that U.S. regulations that give priority to U.S. government contracts to purchase COVID-19 vaccines are a challenge as it seeks to meet soaring demand for its lab equipment and supplies across the globe.

"We are actively expanding our capacity to be able to supply this unprecedented and ever increasing demand. Is this being a challenge? Obviously it is being a challenge," Chief Executive Belen Garijo said in a media briefing when asked what impact the U.S. Defense Production Act is having on its ability to serve vaccine makers elsewhere in the world.

She said U.S. law required that a preference be given to so-called rated state orders for COVID-19 programmes over any other orders.

"For us, all our customers and all the other COVID-19 programmes are very crucial and we are making capacity expansion a top priority of our agenda," she said, pointing to investment projects both in the United States and Europe.

Under the U.S. priority access programme, the government has laid claim not only to finished COVID-19 vaccines but also to vaccine components and equipment.

Germany's CureVac, which is gearing up to publish results of a COVID-19 vaccine trial, said last week that U.S. export restrictions on already tight supplies of materials were making it impossible to predict its short-term production ramp-up in Europe.

Merck in March unveiled plans to invest 25 million euros ($29.9 million) to make disposable plastic materials for bioreactors in France, an essential input for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing.

The new site, Merck's first such facility in Europe, will likely come on stream at the end of this year, Garijo reiterated on Wednesday.

Merck in December announced a combined $47 million investment at U.S. production facilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, also to produce supplies for makers of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.

Merck, which competes in lab equipment with Thermo Fisher and Sartorius, has another site for single-use plastic bags for bioreactors in Wuxi, China.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger, editing by Kirsti Knolle, Robert Birsel)

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Council of Europe accuses Greece of migrant pushbacks, says they must stop

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants stand next to tents in the Mavrovouni camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 09:31

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - Europe's top human rights watchdog has urged Greece to end pushbacks of asylum-seekers on its borders, a practice that Athens denies carrying out.

In a letter to Greek ministers dated May 3 and published on Wednesday, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner said there had been "numerous credible allegations" since at least 2017 of asylum-seekers illegally returned to Turkey or left adrift at sea but that Athens had simply dismissed them.

UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, has also gathered information pointing to several dozen pushbacks since January 2020, said the letter from Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic.

"I urge you (Greece) to put an end to these practices and to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into all allegations of pushbacks and of ill-treatment by members of security forces," Mijatovic said.

The Council of Europe is guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights and creator of the European Court of Human Rights.

In a response also published by Mijatovic's office, Greece said it had investigated the allegations and found them "largely unsubstantiated".

"The actions taken by the Greek authorities, at our sea borders, are being carried out in full compliance with the country's international obligations," Greek ministers were quoted as saying in their response to the Council.

They said Greece had rescued thousands of people since the start of Europe's migrant crisis in 2015 and officers had to do their job "against the backdrop of an unfavourable environment of intended misleading information emanating in most cases from the smugglers' networks".

Mijatovic also said that living conditions in Greece's overcrowded island camps remained "substandard".

Speaking to Reuters, she cited the case of a 28-year-old Somali man on the island of Chios last week who had died of a pulmonary condition and whose body was marked by suspected rat bites.

"This is a tragic illustration of the horrific conditions in which thousands of people have been living for years on the Greek Aegean islands," Mijatovic said.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Indian health agency chief says most of country should remain locked down for 6-8 weeks

FILE PHOTO: A man rides his bicycle during a lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 09:08

By Krishna N. Das, Devjyot Ghoshal and Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The head of the main Indian health agency responding to the coronavirus has said districts reporting a high number of infections should remain locked down for another six to eight weeks to control the spread of the rampaging disease.

Dr. Balram Bhargava, head of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said in an interview that lockdown restrictions should remain in place in all districts where the rate of infection is above 10% of those tested.

Currently, three-fourths of India's 718 districts have what is known as a test-positivity rate above 10%, including major cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and the tech hub of Bengaluru.

Bhargava's comments are the first time a senior government official has outlined how long lockdowns, which already encompass large parts of country, need to continue to rein in the crisis in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has shied away from imposing a nationwide lockdown because of the economic impact and has left it to state governments.

Several states have introduced varying levels of curbs on economic activity and public movement to stop the spread of the virus, which are mostly being reviewed and extended on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

"The high positivity districts should remain (shut). If they come to 5% from 10% (positivity rate) we can open them, but that has to happen. That won't happen in six-eight weeks, clearly," Bhargava said in an interview at the New Delhi headquarters of the ICMR, the country's top medical research body.

Referring to the capital, one of India's hardest hit cities where the positivity rate reached around 35% but has now fallen to about 17%, Bhargava said: "If Delhi is opened tomorrow, it will be a disaster."

India is in deep crisis in the current wave of COVID-19 infections with around 350,000 cases and 4,000 deaths being reported daily. Hospitals and morgues are overflowing, medical staff is exhausted and oxygen and drugs are running short.

Many experts say the actual case tallies and deaths could be five to 10 times higher.

Modi and other top political leaders have faced a public backlash for addressing mass election rallies where no major COVID-19 safety protocols were followed. The federal government also didn't intervene to stop a religious festival in a northern state in March that was attended by millions of devout Hindus.

'SLIGHT DELAY'

Bhargava did not criticise the Modi government but conceded there had been a delay in responding to the crisis.

"I think the only discontent we have was there was a slight delay accepting the 10% (recommendation), but that did happen," he said.

He said an April 15 meeting of the National Task Force on COVID-19 had made the recommendation to the government to lock down areas with a 10% positivity rate or higher.

Yet, in a televised speech on April 20, Modi dissuaded states and said a lockdown should be used as "last resort" and the focus should remain on "micro containment zones".

On April 26 - more than 10 days after the task force meeting - India's home (interior) ministry wrote to states, asking them to implement strict measures for "large containment areas" in hard-hit districts, but only for 14 days.

India's home and health ministries, as well as Modi's office, did not respond to requests for comment.

Reuters reported earlier this month the head of the National Centre for Disease Control had privately told an online gathering that strict lockdown measures were required in early April.

Two senior ICMR officials told Reuters the organization was frustrated about political leaders addressing large rallies and allowing religious gatherings, saying the actions publicly flouted required safety measures. Modi himself addressed several of the political meetings, maskless.

"Our messaging has been completely incorrect, not in sync with the situation," said one of the officials, referring to the government. "We have miserably failed."

Bhargava denied there was any discontent within the ICMR and added the agency was on the same page with policymakers. Without commenting directly on political leaders, he said mass gatherings during COVID-19 should not be acceptable in India or anywhere else.

"It's common sense," he said.

(Reporting by Krishna Das, Devjyot Ghoshal and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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China's population to hit 'turning point' in 2026-2030 - think tank

FILE PHOTO: People walk at a subway station, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Shanghai, China May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 09:02

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is expected to reach a "turning point" between 2026 and 2030 with its population plateauing or even shrinking as fewer babies mean a slow down and then a reversal in the momentum of growth, a state think tank said on Wednesday.

The world's most populous country saw 5.38% more people in the last decade, to 1.41 billion, according to the results of a nationwide census released on Tuesday.

That is the slowest rate of population growth since the 1950s.

Fertility has declined because of a decades-long one-child policy, rising living costs and changing social mores.

Negative population growth is expected to emerge due to a fall in the number of young and working-age people, bringing with it problems for an economy that has long relied on so-called demographic dividends to underpin growth.

China missed a goal to increase its population to about 1.42 billion by 2020, by a small margin. Its fertility rate has slipped to 1.3 children per woman, missing a target of about 1.8.

In 2020, just 12 million babies were born, the lowest since 1961.

"The era of zero or even negative population growth is gradually approaching," said Zhai Zhenwu, a professor at the China Population and Development Research Center.

The government's economic and development blueprint for 2021 to 2025, its so-called 14th five-year plan, is expected to be the last planning period to see population growth this century, Zhai wrote in a commentary in state-backed Economic Daily.

"During the 15th five-year plan period, we will usher in the 'turning point' of China's population," he said.

Entering the era of zero or even negative population growth is a "major change unseen in a century" for China, hitting its supply of high-quality labour and consumer demand, Zhai said.

The population is likely to peak before 2025 as fertility falls, said Ernan Cui, analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.

The proportion of elderly people will also keep growing.

"An older population will increase the fiscal burden of old-age pensions and health care provision, and also push down the household savings rate - both factors that will constrain the government's ability to continue the investment-driven growth model of recent decades," Cui said.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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War crimes court concerned over violence in West Bank - prosecutor

A Palestinian man walks past the remains of a tower building which was destroyed in Israeli air strikes, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 08:58

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) is concerned about escalating violence in the West Bank and the possibility that war crimes are being committed there, its prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said on Wednesday.

"I note with great concern the escalation of violence in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in and around Gaza, and the possible commission of crimes under the Rome Statute", Bensouda wrote on Twitter.

Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Wednesday, with at least 35 killed in Gaza and five in Israel so far in the most intensive aerial exchanges for years.

The ICC prosecutor in March announced an official investigation into possible war crimes committed in the Palestinian Territories.

Bensouda, who will be replaced by British prosecutor Karim Khan on June 16, said in December 2019 that war crimes had been or were being committed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She named both the Israel Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

"My Office will continue to monitor developments on the ground and will factor any matter that falls within its jurisdiction", Bensouda said on Wednesday.

Established by the Rome Statute in 2002, the ICC is a court of last resort to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when a country is unable or unwilling to do so.

Its investigation of possible war crimes in the Palestinian Territories is strongly opposed by both Israel and the United States.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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German vaccine seekers getting aggressive, doctors say

A man receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in the Central Mosque in Ehrenfeld suburb, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Cologne, Germany, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 08:46

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans desperate to be vaccinated against the coronavirus are becoming increasingly aggressive, doctors said on Wednesday, as frustration mounts after six months of lockdowns even though infection rates are now falling.

"The pressure on vaccination centres and doctors' practices is growing. People pushing for vaccination are becoming more demanding," Anke Richter-Scheer, the deputy head of the German association of family doctors, told the Funke media group.

As Germany extends priority for vaccines to more groups, it is becoming less comprehensible to many people why they should have to wait behind others, Richter-Scheer said.

People are showing up at doctors' practices and trying to get vaccines even though it is not their turn, with the mood getting more aggressive, she said.

Some people are also demanding their second shot early so they can go on holiday or profit from advantages such as shopping without needing a COVID-19 test.

​ Older patients who have been assigned AstraZeneca are also demanding a different vaccine.

After a sluggish start, Germany has been ramping up its vaccination campaign and has now given a first dose to a third of the population, with about 10% fully vaccinated.

It started by vaccinating its oldest citizens and has been gradually expanding shots to younger groups and other priority professions such as teachers, journalists and those working in critical infrastructure.

Several German states, including the capital city Berlin, announced plans on Tuesday planning to loosen coronavirus restrictions in coming days as the number of new infections keeps dropping nationwide.

On Wednesday, another 14,909 new cases were reported, bringing the total to 3,548,285, while the death toll rose by 268 to 85,380. However the seven-day incidence per 100,000 people dropped to 108 from 115 on Tuesday.

The government should give citizens clear guidelines on whether and where they can go on holiday by the end of May, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Holidays should be possible within Germany and in some other countries due to rising vaccinations and falling infections, he said. The northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, popular with holidaymakers, will open up its tourism sector from June 14.

However, Germany's vaccine committee, known as STIKO, dampened expectations for a speedy approval for vaccination of children and adolescents.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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French lawmakers approve COVID 'health pass' at second attempt

FILE PHOTO: A man uses a ladder during preparations for the reopenning of restaurants and beaches in Nice as part of an easing of the country's lockdown restrictions amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, May 3, 2021. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 08:36

PARIS (Reuters) - France's National Assembly approved on Wednesday the creation of a COVID-19 "health pass" that people can use to attend sports events, festivals and theme parks with large crowds, a hotly contested government measure to help safely re-open the economy.

The health pass, which will come into effect from June 9, will provide proof that a person has either been vaccinated against the coronavirus, holds a recent negative PCR test, or is recovering from COVID-19 and therefore has natural antibodies.

The proposal was initially shot down in the lower house on Tuesday evening over fears it would impinge on civil freedoms, a rare defeat for President Emmanuel Macron's ruling party, after centrist MoDem allies rebelled.

MoDem lawmakers accused the government of being deaf to the party's red lines.

The health pass was approved on a second vote in the early hours of Wednesday after the government shortened the transition period during which it will be able to re-impose restrictions such as a curfew without the permission of parliament once France's state of emergency is lifted on June 2.

France has begun slowly unwinding a third national lockdown despite registering nearly 20,000 new cases every day and with intensive care wards still saturated.

On May 19, restaurants, cafes and bars will be allowed to reopen for outdoor service and shops, museums and cinemas will reopen. Three weeks later, places of worship and sports stadiums will be allowed to admit up to 5,000 people and foreign tourists will be allowed to visit the country.

Macron has said the health pass, which can be digital or paper-based, will curb the spread of the virus at events with crowds of more than 1,000 people. It will not be used for every day venues such as restaurants and cinemas or for access to public transport.

The legislation now passes to the Senate.

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Japan's coronavirus vaccine booking system crashes

A full-page ad by magazine publisher Takarajimasha, with message reading 'No vaccine, no medication. Are we supposed to fight with bamboo spears? If things continue as they are, politics are going to kill us,' is seen on a newspaper in Tokyo, Japan May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 07:52

By Rocky Swift

TOKYO (Reuters) - Technical problems derailed Japan's coronavirus vaccination booking system on Wednesday, compounding frustration over the government's handling of new outbreaks of infections and an inoculation drive that critics say has been woefully slow.

The online system to book a vaccine crashed in many places including parts of Tokyo and the western city of Minoh because of a global problem with U.S. cloud computing vendor Salesforce.com Inc, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Salesforce chief technology officer Parker Harris said on Twitter that the company was experiencing a "major disruption", later updating to say services had been mostly restored.

"Making an appointment for a vaccination seems to be a tall order for the elderly,” wrote Twitter user @obachan66972352.

"Please consider making it possible to get the vaccine without an appointment.”

A representative of the health ministry's vaccine office was not immediately available when contacted by Reuters.

The ministry has faced numerous technical problems throughout the pandemic, from a contact tracing application that failed to pass on vital information to a cumbersome database that health workers were reluctant to use.

Japan has only inoculated 2.8% of its population, the lowest rate among wealthy countries despite an ambitious government target of giving shots to its 36 million elderly people by July, when the Olympics Games are due to open in Tokyo.

The campaign was initially slow because of tight supplies of imported doses of Pfizer Inc's vaccine but has since been plagued by a shortage of manpower and other logistical snags.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccines, has urged the public to be patient and to take steps to streamline the booking process.

Christophe Weber, chief executive of Japan's biggest drugmaker Takeda Pharmaceutical Co, acknowledged on Tuesday that the country was behind on its inoculation push and needed to accelerate.

(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Venezuela's Guaido backs easing U.S. sanctions as incentive for elections

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido gestures while wearing a face mask with the writing "Vaccines, now!" during a protest to demand that all people get vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Caracas, Venezuela April 17, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 08:10

By Vivian Sequera and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido proposed on Tuesday a progressive lifting of U.S. sanctions as an incentive for President Nicolas Maduro to schedule "free and fair" elections with parties opposed to his government.

Guaido, in a video on his Twitter account, proposed a "national agreement" including a timetable for general elections in the South American country involving an opposition coalition, as well as Maduro's ruling Socialist Party.

The proposal suggests the opposition may be willing to reverse its strategy of electoral abstention and resume negotiations with the government, after talks collapsed in 2019. In December, most of the opposition boycotted legislative elections, saying voting conditions were not fair.

The OPEC nation is preparing for gubernatorial elections this year.

"Venezuela is experiencing the worst crisis in its entire history," said Guaido, adding "we must reach an agreement to save Venezuela."

Guaido said any agreement must include a schedule for "free and fair" presidential, parliamentary, regional and municipal elections with international observers, democratic guarantees and entry of humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines. The progressive lifting of sanctions would be contingent on Maduro's government adhering to those conditions, among others.

Maduro responded on Tuesday night during a live broadcast on state television, saying the opposition was looking to participate in elections this year.

"If he [Guaido] wants to join the dialogues that are already underway, developing on all issues, he is welcome to join," Maduro said.

"[Guaido] was left out of everything, he was isolated and defeated," added the Venezuelan president. He made no reference to an agreement.

Earlier this month Maduro named a new elections council with two members linked to the opposition, but Guaido referenced the move as an "alleged concession" that sought to divide the opposition.

Guaido declared an interim presidency in January 2019, labeling Maduro's re-election the previous year a fraud. Western democracies, led by the United States, recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader, while Maduro remains in office with the backing of Cuba, Russia, China and the military.

In 2019, opposition efforts to seek a new presidential election via negotiations with Maduro allies fell apart after the government's representatives walked away in protest at then-U.S. President Donald Trump's tightening of sanctions on the vital oil sector.

Critics within Venezuela's opposition coalition had argued Maduro was negotiating in bad faith and using the talks to buy time.

WILLINGNESS TO NEGOTIATE

In recent weeks, Maduro has released jailed former executives of U.S.-based oil refining company Citgo to house arrest, named a new elections council and allowed the World Food Programme to distribute aid.

One State Department official said these actions looked like gestures toward Washington, but insisted the Biden administration not in a hurry to ease sanctions. [L1N2MK2Y0]

A senior White House official told Reuters Maduro was "sending signals", but added that such moves were insufficient without tangible progress toward elections.

Guaido, in the address, dismissed the two opposition-linked members to Venezuela's election board as part of a government effort to divide the opposition.

Maduro has not shown any willingness to bring forward presidential elections due in 2024.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Guaido's statement. Washington's ambassador to Venezuela, James Story, said on Twitter the United States supported Guaido's push for fair elections and that minimum conditions included release of political prisoners, greater freedom of the press and rehabilitation of political parties.

"The solution to the crisis lies in a comprehensive agreement," Story said.

Maduro has said Washington's sanctions are causing an economic crisis in Venezuela, which has some of the world's largest oil reserves. His critics blame Venezuela's economic troubles on long-term corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Alexander Smith, David Gregorio and Toby Chopra)

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Analysis-S.Korea's COVID-19 vaccine shortages overshadow Moon-Biden summit

FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks on the occasion of the third anniversary of his inauguration at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2020. Kim Min-Hee/Pool via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 06:19

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's struggle to boost coronavirus vaccine supplies is threatening to overshadow President Moon Jae-in's first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, with pressure mounting on Moon to secure more and faster deliveries of U.S.-made shots.

Moon had hoped to use the Washington meeting next week as a chance to highlight South Korea's relatively successful response to the pandemic, a key legacy in his final year in office.

But uncertainties in the country's vaccine rollout amid global shortages and shipment delays are deepening public scepticism over Seoul's goal of reaching herd immunity by November.

That has sparked calls for a deal to get faster access to vaccines from the United States and potentially sidelined other important issues for Moon and Biden such as North Korea policy or relations with China and Japan.

"Any first South Korea-U.S. summit would typically be an occasion to reaffirm the alliance, coordinate North Korea policy and build personal rapport, but this time, its success might be judged by what we get to ramp up vaccine supplies, and that's not as simple a deal as others say," a South Korean official involved in preparations for Moon's trip told Reuters.

VACCINE DEAL

South Korea has quickly and effectively administered the vaccines it has received so far, but it got off to a slower start than the United States and elsewhere.

Just over 7% of its 52 million population have received at least one dose as of Tuesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

A Reuters tally of global vaccination rates shows that's a percentage similar to countries such as Nepal and Colombia.

On paper, South Korea has bought enough doses to vaccinate all 52 million residents twice over.

But supply issues have raised fears those doses may not arrive fast enough, prompting Seoul to ask Washington to provide some doses as part of a "swap" for faster access to U.S.-made shots in return for domestically producing more doses later.

Lee Ho-seung, Moon's chief policy secretary, told a local radio station on Wednesday that securing a "vaccine partnership" with Washington would be a top priority for the summit.

He said the United States has original technology and raw materials, while South Korea has the world's No.2 biotech production capacity and the two combined could turn South Korea into a "global vaccine production hub".

So far the United States hasn't been keen to play ball, South Korea's foreign minister said last month, with officials in Washington citing a still difficult situation at home and a lack of doses to spare.

Samsung BioLogics Co Ltd said on Wednesday a report it was in talks with Pfizer Inc to begin production of the U.S. drugmaker's COVID-19 vaccine in South Korea as early as in August was "not factual."

Opposition lawmakers have proposed a range of options for persuading the United States to make a deal, including joining the "Quad" partnership of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, which is working collectively to boost vaccine production.

Others have raised the idea of pardoning Samsung leader Jay Y. Lee, who is in jail after being indicted on fraud and stock manipulation, and using his leverage in investment in U.S. semiconductor plants amid global chip shortages.

Moon had initially dismissed that idea as premature, but said on Monday he would decide after reviewing public opinions.

PRESSURE BUILDING

Vaccine shortages have not been the biggest political problem for Moon, already under fire over skyrocketing home prices, an insider trading scandal and jobs crisis.

But the crunch means Moon is no longer benefiting from earlier boosts to his popularity from his handling of the pandemic.

A Gallup Korea poll in late April showed for the first time that negative views outweighing positive views over the government's anti-virus efforts and vaccinations - 43% had positive views versus 85% last May.

A survey released on Monday by pollster Realmeter showed nearly 30% Koreans picked securing vaccines as a top priority Moon should pursue during his remaining term. Another poll on Sunday found less than 10% expected the country to attain its goal of herd immunity by November.

Moon said on Monday the immunisation drive was going better than initially planned, having exceeded its goal of vaccinating 3 million people by April, and the November herd immunity target was still achievable.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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Maduro says Venezuela will soon receive Russia's single-dose Sputnik Light vaccine

FILE PHOTO: A view shows samples of Sputnik Light vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, in this still image taken from video released May 6, 2021 by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 07:52

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday the single-dose Russian Sputnik Light vaccine will soon arrive in Venezuela as the country struggles with rising cases of coronavirus.

Russia has authorized the use of the Sputnik Light version of its COVID-19 vaccine, a move that could help vaccine supplies go further in countries with high infection rates.

"In May vaccination will accelerate and have widespread growth and June, July and August will be the months of a vaccination offensive," Maduro said in a live broadcast on state television.

Venezuela is aiming for 70% of its population to be vaccinated by August, he added.

The country, with a population of about 30 million, has received 1.4 million vaccines from Russia and China, according to the health ministry.

The Maduro government made a first payment of $64 million dollars to enter the World Health Organization's (WHO) Global Access Fund for COVID-19 Vaccines or COVAX which provides vaccines to poorer nations. It has rejected doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine, citing side effects.

The Pan American Health Organization said it had indications that the second payment for COVAX was in process.

The president of Venezuela's Congress and former minister Jorge Rodriguez recently told Reuters that Venezuela is interested in acquiring the Johnson & Johnson vaccine under the COVAX scheme, but they were waiting for more information about its side effects.

During the broadcast Maduro mentioned and described the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as "quite good," and it is also a single dose, but did not specify whether the country would receive it.

The South American nation has registered 209,162 cases of the coronavirus and 2,304 deaths in the pandemic, although critics argue the real figures are likely higher due to lack of testing and transparency.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Taiwan says China seeking political gain with Honduras vaccine move

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Joanne Ou speaks at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 07:30

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan condemned China on Wednesday for seeking to use vaccines for political gain after Taipei's diplomatic ally Honduras said it was considering opening an office in China in a bid to acquire much needed COVID-19 shots.

Honduras does not have formal relations with China and is one of a group of Latin American nations that have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said that to buy Chinese vaccines, he would do as the Chinese had suggested and look for a "diplomatic bridge".

Several Latin American nations are receiving Chinese vaccines, but countries that have built ties with Taipei rather than Beijing, such as Honduras and Guatemala, are not.

Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said China was trying to use the same methods it did with Paraguay, another Taiwanese ally that Taipei has complained of Beijing trying to push into a vaccines-for-recognition deal.

"This clearly proves that following the vaccine crisis in Paraguay, the Chinese government is once again using vaccines to exchange political and diplomatic benefits for countries that are in urgent need, a shameful act of disregarding humanitarian needs," Ou said.

Honduras has reaffirmed its ties with Taiwan, and Taiwan promises to help to the best of its ability to alleviate the health crisis, including working with "like-minded" countries, she added, a reference to democracies such as the United States, the European Union and India.

In Beijing, Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said China was committed to helping provide vaccines to the developing world as a public good.

China hopes that "relevant countries can appropriately handle Taiwan-related issues according to the one China principle" she added, which states that Taiwan is part of China.

Beijing has been gradually whittling away at Taiwan's diplomatic allies - now down to just 15 countries - which has alarmed Washington, nervous about an increased Chinese presence in Latin America and the Pacific where those allies are concentrated.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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Taiwan warns on rising COVID-19 risk, share market tumbles

People wearing protective face masks wait for the metro, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 07:05

By Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan may raise its COVID-19 alert level in the "coming days", Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said on Wednesday, warning of an extremely serious situation that sent the island's stock market tanking.

On Tuesday, Taiwan announced plans to restrict public gatherings as a result of a cluster of six new cases with no clear infection source, an unusual outbreak for the island that had kept a tight lid on community outbreaks.

Describing the situation as "very serious", Chen told parliament the level could be lifted a notch to three, limiting gatherings to five people indoors and 10 outdoors, as well as closing of non-essential businesses.

"If there is the slightest failure in containment, then we will soon enter level three," Chen said.

President Tsai Ing-wen called on people not to panic, and said there were plenty of medical supplies.

"At this moment the challenge is still severe. Please be alert and follow the guidelines. I believe we will be able to overcome this challenge together," she said at the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Taiwan has done a great job in curbing the virus and people should guard the country so its booming economy can continue, Tsai added.

'PANIC SELLING PRESSURES'

The benchmark stock index, which at one point fell more than 8%, closed down 4.1%, its biggest percentage fall since March 2020.

"If (the COVID-19 alert status) is raised to level three, a lot of businesses won't be able to operate, and at level four classes and offices will be closed," said Yeason Jung, an analyst at Capital Futures in Taiwan. "There are short-term panic selling pressures emerging."

Investors should have confidence that economic fundamentals and the stock market are sound, Taiwan Deputy Finance Minister Frank Juan told Reuters.

But if the situation worsens, Juan said he did not rule out calling a meeting of the National Stabilisation Fund, which the government can use to intervene in the stock market in case of large fluctuations.

The spectre of restrictions affecting semiconductor production was enough to spook investors already nervous about selling pressure on tech shares, said Khoon Goh, head of Asia research at ANZ Bank.

"Cases are pretty low, but you can see we're in an environment now where investors are cautious," he said.

"Even though I doubt very much the restrictions will have an impact on export-orientated sectors, investors are playing it safe and that's contributed to the selloff."

Taiwan largely closed its borders early in the pandemic and has a robust contact tracing and quarantine system, keeping infections to 1,210, including 12 deaths, and allowing life to stay close to normal.

The government this week asked hospitals across Taiwan to allocate enough wards for potential new infections, Chen said, adding they are capable of providing 3,000 beds to treat patients.

(Global vaccination tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access)

(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Jeanny Kao and Liang-sa Loh, and Tom Westbrook in Singapore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Lincoln Feast.)

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Violence grips mixed Arab-Jewish towns in Israel as tensions flare

Smoke rises from a building after it was destroyed by Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 03:12

By Rami Ayyub

JAFFA, Israel (Reuters) - Violence in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel flared early on Wednesday amid growing anger within the country's Arab minority over Israeli air strikes on Gaza and police raids on Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in Lod, near Tel Aviv, after reports emerged on Tuesday of Arabs setting fire to a synagogue and Jews stoning a car that was being driven by an Arab resident.

"We have lost control of the city and the streets," Lod Mayor Yair Revivo lamented to Israel's Channel 12 News. Garbage bins, knocked over and set ablaze, could be seen nearby.

Security officials said they had reassigned 16 border police companies to Lod from the occupied West Bank to deal with the violence.

Israel's Arab minority - Palestinian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship - is mostly descended from the Palestinians who lived under Ottoman and then British colonial rule before staying in Israel after the country’s 1948 creation.

Most are bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew, and feel a sense of kinship with their fellow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

And they often complain of systemic discrimination, as well as unfair access to housing, healthcare, and education services.

Police arrested dozens of people overnight in Lod as well as in majority-Arab towns in central and northern Israel, including Umm al-Fahm along the West Bank border and Jisr al-Zarqa along the Mediterranean coast.

"We condemn that our people's solidarity and cohesion with our brethren in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip is being channelled through acts of sabotage to public and private property, as is now happening at Umm al-Fahm's entrance," said the town's mayor, Samir Mahamid.

Israeli media reported that Uri Buri, a popular Jewish-owned fish restaurant in the mixed coastal city of Acre, had been set ablaze. Footage aired by Channel 12 showed the restaurant's exterior blacked and burned, and its windows smashed.

In Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Arab protesters clashed with police firing stun grenades to disperse them.

Clashes at Al-Aqsa on Monday morning were the immediate backdrop to the tension in Arab towns and surge in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which has left dozens in Gaza and at least three in Israel dead.

Israel launched dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Tuesday and overnight into Wednesday, and Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Neighbourhoods with Arab residents, including Lod and Jaffa, were among those in which sirens were triggered by rockets fired from Gaza. Two Lod residents were killed on Wednesday after a vehicle in the area was hit by a rocket, Israeli police said.

In Haifa and Jaffa, and in the Arab city of Nazareth, Arab protesters have flown Palestinian flags and chanted slogans in support of Palestinians facing eviction from an East Jerusalem neighbourhood under a long-running legal case.

Arab citizens of Israel were among the thousands of Palestinians who have clashed in recent days with Israeli police around Jerusalem's Old City, the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A spokesman for Gaza's Hamas militants, Abu Ubaida, encouraged Arab citizens to "rise up" against Israel.

"The Qassam Brigades is close to you, as it draws the map of the homeland with its rockets, and with its resistance, against our enemy and yours," he said in a speech on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Bodies float down Ganges as nearly 4,000 more die of COVID in India

A municipal worker sprays disinfectant on the bodies of victims who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 14:13

By Saurabh Sharma

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) -Scores of bodies are washing up on the banks of the Ganges as Indians fail to keep pace with the deaths and cremations of around 4,000 people a day from the novel coronavirus.

India currently accounts for one in three of the reported deaths from coronavirus around the world, according to a Reuters tally, and its health system is overwhelmed, despite donations of oxygen cylinders and other medical equipment from around the world.

Rural parts of India not only have more rudimentary healthcare, but are now also running short of wood for traditional Hindu cremations.

Authorities said on Tuesday they were investigating the discovery of scores of bodies found floating down the Ganges in two separate states.

"As of now it is very difficult for us to say where these dead bodies have come from," said M P Singh, the top government official in Ghazipur district, in Uttar Pradesh.

Akhand Pratap, a local resident, said that "people are immersing bodies in the holy Ganges river instead of cremation because of shortage of cremation wood".

Even in the capital, New Delhi, many COVID victims are abandoned by their relatives after cremation, leaving volunteers to wash the ashes, pray over them, and then take them to scatter into the river in the holy city of Haridwar, 180 km (110 miles) away.

"Our organisation collects these remains from all the crematoriums and performs the last rituals in Haridwar so that they can achieve salvation," said Ashish Kashyap, a volunteer from the charity Shri Deodhan Sewa Samiti.

QUARTER OF A MILLION DEAD

The seven-day average of daily infections hit a record 390,995 on Tuesday, with 3,876 deaths, according to the health ministry.

Official COVID-19 deaths, which experts say are almost certainly under-reported, stand at just under a quarter of a million.

The World Health Organization said on Monday that it regarded the coronavirus variant first identified in India last year as a variant of global concern, with some preliminary studies showing that it spreads more easily.

Late that day, 11 people died in the government SVR Ruia hospital in the southern city of Tirupati because a tanker carrying oxygen arrived late.

"There were issues with oxygen pressure due to low availability. It all happened within a span of five minutes," said M Harinarayan, the district's senior civil servant.

Vaccines are also running short, especially in Maharashtra state around the financial centre of Mumbai, and in the capital, Delhi, two of India's hardest-hit regions.

"We are ready to buy doses, but they are not available right now," Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope told reporters.

India's second wave of the pandemic has increased calls for a nationwide lockdown and prompted more and more states to impose tougher restrictions that have hurt businesses and the wider economy.

Production of the Apple iPhone 12 at a Foxconn factory in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has slumped by more than half because workers have been infected with COVID-19, two sources told Reuters.

(Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee, Anuron Kumar Mitra, Kannaki Deka, Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai, Rajendra Jadhav in Satara, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow and Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Alasdair Pal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kevin Liffey)

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China professor calls for million-yuan reward to boost birth rates

FILE PHOTO: A woman and a child ride away from a school in Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China April 20, 2021. REUTERS/David Kirton/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 01:55

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A Chinese professor has urged the government to offer parents 1 million yuan ($156,000) for each newborn child in a bid to shore up the country's declining birth rate, sparking a debate on social media about the soaring costs of raising children.

China's population rose by its slowest rate in decades from 2010-2020, the country's latest census showed, raising fears that the country's dwindling workforce will be unable to support an increasingly elderly population.

Liang Jianzhang, professor at Peking University's School of Economics and also founder of travel service provider Ctrip, said in a video posted on his Weibo social media channel that it would cost 10% of China's GDP to raise birth rates from the current 1.3 to the replacement level of 2.1.

That amounts to 1 million yuan per child, and could be allocated in the form of cash, tax relief or housing subsidies, he said.

"I've spoken to a lot of young people ... if it's just a few tens of thousands of yuan it basically wouldn't encourage people to have another child," he said.

The costs would be offset by future contributions made to the economy, said Liang.

"If a family gives birth to another child, that child's future contributions to social security, to tax revenues, will exceed 1 million yuan," he said.

The comments were trending on Weibo on Tuesday night, with users debating whether it was a reasonable use of China's tax revenues, and whether 1 million yuan was even enough to cover educational costs.

"Having a child and not making the most of their talents is considered a crime in today's society," said a user posting under the name Not Old and Confused.

"It should be done as early as possible - if you wait a couple of years no one will want to give birth even for 2 million yuan," said another user named Rainy Wind.

($1 = 6.4285 yuan)

(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Australia tracing source of COVID-19 case in Victoria state

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare professional prepares a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as high-risk workers receive the first vaccines in the state of Victoria's rollout of the program, in Melbourne, Australia, February 22, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 03:54

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Authorities in Australia's second most populous state warned on Wednesday the next few days would be critical to preventing a coronavirus outbreak after a man in his 30s tested positive a day earlier for COVID-19.

The unidentified man was the first locally transmitted case in Victoria state in more than two months. Health officials said it was most likely he contracted the virus while serving his 14-day hotel quarantine in neighbouring South Australia state.

"So far, we have just had the one positive case but the next day or two would be critical," Victoria state Health Minister Martin Foley told reporters in Melbourne as he confirmed there were no new cases in the state over the past 24 hours.

More than 100 passengers on a Jetstar flight from Adelaide to Melbourne with the man on May 4 have been asked to undergo COVID-19 tests and self-isolate. Around 35 people who were in hotel quarantine with the man, many of whom have since travelled interstate, were also urged to get tested and isolate.

Close contacts of the infected man have tested negative so far. Officials listed several potential virus-exposed sites in Victoria including supermarkets, an Indian restaurant and two train routes in state capital Melbourne.

Neighbouring New South Wales state, the country's most populous, reported no local cases for a sixth straight day on Wednesday, further allaying fears of an outbreak there after a couple were diagnosed with the virus last week.

Officials have so far been unsuccessful in tracking the direct links between the couple and a returned traveller from the United States after genomic testing showed their cases were linked.

Australia has successfully contained fresh COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic through swift contract tracing, snap lockdowns and strict social distancing measures. It has reported zero locally transmitted infections for most days this year and has recorded just over 29,900 cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Jane Wardell)

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Two killed as protesters mark anniversary of massacre in Sudan

This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 03:56

KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Two men were killed on Tuesday after Sudanese security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at demonstrators marking the anniversary of a deadly raid on a protest site during the country's 2019 uprising, said medics, protest groups and eyewitnesses.

In response, late night demonstrations sprung up across the capital Khartoum and photos of protesters blocking roads with bricks and burning tires appeared on social media.

In a statement early Wednesday morning, Sudan's military said two people died in what it called "unfortunate events" as protesters were leaving a protest site. It said it would investigate and cooperate fully with judicial authorities, including handing over anyone shown to be involved.

In a separate statement Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok described the use of gunfire against peaceful protesters as a crime demanding immediate justice.

Crowds had gathered in central Khartoum to commemorate the second anniversary, according to the Islamic calendar, of the raid on a sit-in protest in 2019.

Despite roads leading to the sit-in site in front of military headquarters being blocked, eyewitnesses said crowds rallied, demanding justice for the 2019 raid.

Two men died from gunshot wounds, said a medical source, protest group the Sudanese Professionals Association and eyewitnesses, and more than 20 people were injured.

A spokesman for the police could not be reached for comment.

At the time of the 2019 raid, Sudan's opposition said 127 people were killed, while authorities put the death toll at 87. No one has been held accountable, as a long-running investigation has not yet concluded.

In response to Tuesday's killings, the alliance of families of those killed during the uprising said on their official Facebook page that they would begin organising nationwide non-violent resistance.

"The slowness of the justice system in uncovering crimes and bringing the criminals to trial has became a constant cause for concern," Hamdok said in the statement.

Hamdok called for meetings between Sudan's military and civilian leadership to "review and correct our path". Sudan is ruled by a partnership between the military and civilian political parties who appointed Hamdok and most of the cabinet.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Nadine Awadalla and Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Dan Grebler and Michael Perry)

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AmCham survey flags potential expatriate exodus from Hong Kong

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the central financial district during sunset, in Hong Kong, China March 11, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 01:04

HONG KONG (Reuters) - More than 40% of the members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong plan to or are considering leaving the financial hub, with most citing discomfort with a sweeping national security law as one reason, a survey showed on Wednesday.

The legislation imposed by Beijing in 2020, which punishes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, has further strained relations between the United States and China.

The AmCham survey, to which 325, or 24% of the business organisation's members responded between May 5 and May 9, showed 42% of them had considered leaving or planned to leave Hong Kong. Of those planning to move out, 3% said they intended to do so immediately, 10% said before the end of the summer and 15% before year-end, while 48% eyed a move within three to five years.

About 62% of those looking to leave ticked "the national security law makes me uncomfortable" as one of the reasons. Some 36% cited concerns that the law would impact the quality of their children's education in the city.

"Previously, I never had a worry about what I said or wrote when I was in Hong Kong," AmCham quoted one of the anonymous respondents as saying.

"That has changed. The red lines are vague and seem to be arbitrary. I don't want to continue to fear saying or writing something that could unknowingly cause me to be arrested."

Hong Kong authorities deny rights and freedoms have been eroded and maintain that the city is committed to remaining an open, diverse, international finance centre, but say China's national security is a red line.

About 49% of those considering leaving blamed coronavirus-related travel restrictions, some 42% cited pessimism over Hong Kong's competitiveness and almost 24% said the city was expensive.

Among those who intended to stay, about 77% cited a good quality of life, some 55% an "excellent" business environment and 48% the proximity to the mainland China market.

One respondent was quoted as saying they believed Hong Kong was much safer than the United States.

"Hong Kong is still a conduit of the east and west and it has so much more to offer to businesses," the respondent said.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Hospitals in tourist-haven Costa Rica in 'serious' phase as Covid-19 cases surge

FILE PHOTO: Health workers receive a man with sympthoms of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), outside a hospital in Heredia, Costa Rica May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Mayela Lopez reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 02:33

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Hospitals in the Central American nation of Costa Rica are running out of space for COVID-19 patients amid a new wave of infections, the president of the national doctors' union said on Tuesday.

The sharp rise in coronavirus infections has led to calls for a fresh lockdown by doctors, potentially dealing another blow to businesses, especially in the tourism sector, which were hoping for an influx of American and European tourists.

Costa Rica on Tuesday reported 26 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the largest reported daily toll since the pandemic started.

Edwin Solano, president of the national doctors' union, urged the country's leaders to pay heed to the dire situation on the ground as hospitals run out of space in intensive care units.

"The pandemic has surpassed the capacity of our health system," he said. "There are no beds for COVID patients, there are no ICU beds for COVID. (The situation) is delicate and serious."

Costa Rica has so far recorded 273,714 confirmed coronavirus cases and 3,456 deaths, although both figures are believed to underestimate the actual toll.

The government has been reluctant to impose more restrictions, saying it will further dent an economy badly hit by the pandemic.

"Simply declaring a red alert in the country today will not resolve the situation we are going through," said Alexander Solis, president of the National Emergency Commission.

"On the contrary, it would oblige us to paralyze the country in an instant, with no work, no movement. Sorry, but our country can't do this."

(Reporting by Hector Guzman; Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Honduran president, in diplomatic shift, says he may open China office

FILE PHOTO: Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks during a joint message with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting Secretary Chad Wolf (not pictured), at the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 01:34

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said on Tuesday the Central American nation, a long-standing diplomatic ally of Taiwan, could open a trade office in China in a bid to acquire coronavirus vaccines.

Honduras does not have formal relations with China and is one of a group of Latin American nations with strong diplomatic ties to Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

Hernandez, frustrated rich countries have "hoarded" global vaccine supplies, said poorer countries desperately need vaccines and his government was willing to do whatever was necessary to help its people during a global pandemic.

If necessary, his government would open a trade office in China "because it is in the best interest of the Honduran people," he said in a televised speech.

In order to buy Chinese vaccines, Hernandez said he would do as the Chinese had suggested and look for a "diplomatic bridge."

He suggested Mexico, Chile, Argentina or El Salvador could help his nation acquire Chinese vaccines, and had also asked Taiwan to press the United States to help.

"As we have a relationship with Taiwan, we have asked Taiwan to help us talk with people in Washington because we have been very close allies with the United States. And they have a huge number of vaccines that are going to expire," Hernandez said.

A host of Latin American nations are receiving Chinese vaccines, although several countries that have built ties with Taipei rather than Beijing, such as Honduras and Guatemala, are not in line to receive them.

Both China and Russia, as well as the United States, have sought to deepen ties through providing vaccines in Latin America, part of "vaccine diplomacy" efforts to further their countries' geopolitical clout in the region.

Beijing has been gradually whittling away at Taiwan's diplomatic allies - now down to just 15 countries - which has alarmed Washington, nervous about an increased Chinese presence in Latin America and the Pacific where those allies are concentrated.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Peter Cooney and Lincoln Feast.)

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British Army killed innocent civilians in Belfast in 1971 -inquiry

Rita Bonner, sister of a victim John Laverty, arrives to listen to the findings of the report into the fatal shootings of 10 people in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in 1971 that involved the British Army, at an inquest held at the International Conference Centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 21:59

By Clodagh Kilcoyne

BELFAST (Reuters) -British soldiers unjustifiably shot or used disproportionate force in the deaths of nine of the 10 innocent people killed in a 1971 incident in Belfast that sparked an upsurge of violence during Northern Ireland's "Troubles," a judge-led inquiry found.

A Catholic priest and a mother of eight who served soldiers tea were among the victims in an event Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney described on Tuesday as "one of the most tragic days" of Northern Ireland's three decades of bloodshed.

Judge Siobhan Keegan delivered her findings to applause from families of the victims shortly after the British government announced it would introduce legislation to give greater protection to former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, plans Dublin and many in Belfast fiercely oppose.

"All of the deceased were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question," Keegan, the coroner for the case, concluded.

The British government's minister for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said he would carefully consider the findings, but it was clear that those who died were "entirely innocent of wrongdoing."

The victims' grief has been "compounded by the long and difficult process of waiting for answers for so many years," Lewis said in a statement.

The deaths over a three-day period of disorder in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast - a sprawling housing estate of Catholics who opposed British rule - occurred in the days after the introduction of internment without trial for suspected militants triggered disorder on the streets.

Father Hugh Mullan, the 38-year-old priest who died, was helping an injured man and waving a white object before he was shot twice in the back, the inquiry found.

"Our brother was killed by the British Army and then they lied about it to cover up their injustice," Mullan's brother Patsy told a news conference. "After 50 years the truth we always knew has finally been told."

There was not enough evidence to say whether the army were responsible for the death of one the victims, John James McKerr, who was indiscriminately shot going to and from work. However Judge Keegan said it was "shocking" that the state did not carry out a proper investigation into the killing.

Questions also remain unanswered about the identity of the soldiers who shot many of the victims, the judge added.

No one has been charged or convicted in connection with any of the killings. The inquest was a fact-finding exercise and not a criminal trial.

"The police have never to this day investigated the deaths of our loved ones," said John Teggart, the son of one of those killed. "No one should be above the law."

Some 3,600 people were killed in the sectarian confrontation between Irish nationalist militants, pro-British "loyalist" paramilitaries and British military that largely came to an end after a 1998 peace agreement.

(Writing by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin, Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

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Woman fights on for damages over Vietnam War use of 'Agent Orange'

Tran To Nga, a French-Vietnamese woman, who claims she was a victim of Agent Orange, attends a news conference in Paris, France, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 21:26

By Yiming Woo and Sarah Meysonnier

PARIS (Reuters) - An elderly French-Vietnamese woman vowed on Tuesday to pursue her legal fight to obtain compensation for health problems which she says were caused by exposure to the toxic herbicide "Agent Orange" during the Vietnam War.

Earlier this week, a French court rejected a lawsuit filed by 79-year old Tran To Nga against 14 chemical companies, but she told reporters she would appeal.

"I am disappointed, I am angry, but I am not sad," said Tran To Nga, whose news conference was broadcast on Reuters TV.

"We are going to carry on because our cause is just. Truth is on our side," she added.

U.S. warplanes dropped about 18 million gallons (68 million litres) of Agent Orange - so-called because it was stored in drums with orange bands - between the early 1960s and early 1970s to defoliate jungles and destroy Viet Cong crops.

Tran, who worked as a journalist and activist in Vietnam in her 20s, has said she suffers from effects including Type 2 diabetes and a rare insulin allergy.

Her lawsuit, first filed in 2014, sought compensation from chemical firms including U.S. companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by Germany's Bayer.

Those multinational companies had argued they could not be held legally responsible for how the U.S. military had decided to use their product.

So far, only military veterans from the United States and other countries involved in the war have won compensation over Agent Orange. In 2008, a U.S. federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a civil lawsuit against major U.S. chemical companies brought by Vietnamese plaintiffs.

The United States has said there is no scientifically proven link to support the claims of dioxin poisoning of many Vietnamese plaintiffs.

(Reporting by Yiming woo and Sarah Meysonnier; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Estelle Shirbon)

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U.N. Yemen envoy Griffiths tapped to be U.N. aid chief - sources

FILE PHOTO: United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during a news conference following talks at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany April 12, 2021. John MacDougall/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 22:11

By Michelle Nichols and Jonathan Landay

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - United Nations Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths has been tapped to become the world body's new aid chief, several sources told Reuters on Tuesday, as the U.N. tries to avert several famines and help vaccinate the globe against the novel coronavirus.

Griffiths will replace Mark Lowcock as the under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator. Lowcock, a former senior British aid official, took up the post in 2017.

A U.N. spokesman declined to comment.

Griffiths, a former British diplomat, will be the fifth British person in a row to hold the position. However, diplomats said he was not the first choice by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to replace Lowcock and that another candidate was in line to take the job until last-minute issues last month arose.

Griffiths has been trying to mediate an end to the conflict in Yemen for the past three years. Before taking up that post he was the executive director of the European Institute of Peace.

The six-year-long Yemen conflict has caused the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending it one of his top foreign policy priorities.

But the latest round of talks failed to persuade opposing forces - backed by regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran - to back down, according to three sources familiar with the negotiations, including a U.S. official.

The United Nations has been trying to avert looming famines in Yemen, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria and deliver aid in other conflict zones, including Syria, Libya, Somalia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Mali and Ethiopia's Tigray.

The United Nations is also working to look after many of the world's 79.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally-displaced people with Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans, South Sudanese, and stateless Rohingya from Myanmar leading that list.

Most U.N. aid appeals are well underfunded.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Jonathan Landay, Marwa Rashad and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

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Magnitude 5.8 earthquake strikes Mindoro, Philippines - EMSC

This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 02:38

(Reuters) - An earthquake of magnitude 5.8 struck Mindoro, Philippines, early on Wednesday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre said.

The earthquake had a depth of 112 km (69.6 miles), according to EMSC.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru)

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Turkey says dialogue on disputes with Saudi Arabia to continue

Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu meets with Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 11, 2021. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 20:55

CAIRO/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey and Saudi Arabia will maintain dialogue to address their disagreements, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, after discussing bilateral ties and Israeli actions in Jerusalem and Gaza with his Saudi counterpart in Mecca.

Cavusoglu and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met for talks aimed at overcoming a rift over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul that led to bitter recriminations and a Saudi boycott of Turkish goods.

"I want to thank my brother Prince Faisal for his invitation and hospitality. We held a very open and frank meeting and addressed some problematic areas in our relationship," Cavusoglu told Turkish state news agency Anadolu, in televised comments.

"We also discussed how to increase our cooperation in bilateral ties and in regional issues. We decided to continue our dialogue and I invited him to Turkey," Cavusoglu said.

The two ministers also discussed the "aggression" of Israel, Cavusoglu said, after the Arab League condemned deadly Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip and called on the international community to move urgently to stop escalating violence that it blamed on Israeli actions against Palestinians in Jerusalem.

"With the Saudi foreign minister, we didn't just discuss our bilateral ties, but we also discussed the steps we can take within the OIC, Arab League and beyond," he said, using the acronym for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. "We also evaluated other regional issues."

(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah and Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Iran has enriched uranium to up to 63% purity, IAEA says

FILE PHOTO: An Iranian flag flutters in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 19:28

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) -"Fluctuations" at Iran's Natanz plant pushed the purity to which it enriched uranium to 63%, higher than the announced 60% that complicated talks to revive its nuclear deal with world powers, a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Tuesday.

Iran made the shift to 60%, a big step towards nuclear weapons-grade from the 20% previously achieved, last month in response to an explosion and power cut at Natanz that Tehran has blamed on Israel and appears to have damaged its enrichment output at a larger, underground facility there.

Iran's move rattled the current indirect talks with the United States to agree conditions for both sides to return fully to the 2015 nuclear deal, which was undermined when Washington abandoned it in 2018, prompting Tehran to violate its terms.

The deal says Iran cannot enrich beyond 3.67% fissile purity, far from the 90% of weapons-grade. Iran has long denied any intention to develop nuclear weapons.

"According to Iran, fluctuations of the enrichment levels... were experienced," the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in the confidential report to its member states, seen by Reuters.

"The agency's analysis of the ES (environmental samples) taken on 22 April 2021 shows an enrichment level of up to 63% U-235, which is consistent with the fluctuations of the enrichment levels (described by Iran)," it added, without saying why the fluctuations had occurred.

A previous IAEA report last month said Iran was using one cascade, or cluster, of advanced IR-6 centrifuge machines to enrich to up to 60% and feeding the tails, or depleted uranium, from that process into a cascade of IR-4 machines to enrich to up to 20%.

Tuesday's report said the Islamic Republic was now feeding the tails from the IR-4 cascade into a cascade of 27 IR-5 and 30 IR-6s centrifuges to refine uranium to up to 5%.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Myanmar marks 100 days of junta rule with protests, strikes

Demonstrators walk, displaying the three-finger salute, during a protest against Myanmar's junta in Yangon May 11, 2021 in this still image taken from video obtained by REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 17:03

(Reuters) - Protesters rallied in towns and cities around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce its military rulers, 100 days after the generals' overthrow of an elected government pitched the country into its biggest crisis in decades.

Demonstrators took part in marches, motorcycle convoys and flash protests to evade security forces, some making three-finger gestures of defiance as anti-coup groups renewed calls for the toppling of a junta that has been condemned around the world for killing hundreds of civilians.

The junta has struggled to govern Myanmar since seizing power on Feb. 1. Protests, strikes and a civil disobedience campaign have crippled businesses and the bureaucracy in an overwhelming public rejection of the return of military rule.

Protesters in the biggest city Yangon carried a banner saying "Yangon strikes for complete removal of the enemy", while demonstrators in Hpakant in Kachin State marched chanting "the revolution must prevail".

Demonstrators in Hpakant, the Saigang region and elsewhere held signs in support of a National Unity Government (NUG), an anti-junta coalition that has declared itself Myanmar's legitimate authority. Last week the NUG announced the formation of a "People's Defence Force".

The NUG's spokesman Dr. Sasa, said in a tweet he and other ministers of the parallel government would meet with a U.S. assistant secretary of state on Tuesday to discuss how the United States and its allies "can work together to end this reign of terror". He did not elaborate on the meeting.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the meeting.

The military arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi hours before the coup. It said its takeover was to protect Myanmar's fledgling democracy after a November election that it said was marred by fraud. Suu Kyi's party says its landslide win was legitimate.

INTERNATIONAL CRIMES

In a statement on Tuesday, the NUG said rank-and-file members of the military should recognise that they were responsible for committing international crimes.

"It is time to answer the question clearly whether you will stand on the side of human rights and fairness, or you will continue to violate human rights by committing violence and then face the international court," it said.

Despite the imposition of limited economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union and others, the junta has shown no sign of compromise. It has the tacit support of neighbouring China, a major investor and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Tuesday's protests took place amid sporadic violence in the country that has included deadly attacks on military-appointed administrators and weeks of small explosions involving homemade bombs, which the junta says is the work of the ousted government.

The NUG has said the military has orchestrated such attacks as a pretext for its crackdown.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said two members of the security forces were killed and three others wounded on Monday evening in an attack by "terrorists" in the Sagaing region.

A group calling itself the Sagaing People Defence Force, in a statement earlier on Tuesday, claimed responsibility for an attack on security personnel around the same time in the same area, which it said killed three people.

News reporting and information flow inside Myanmar has been severely impacted since the coup, with restrictions on internet access, a ban on foreign broadcasts and some news organisations ordered to close, accused by authorities of inciting rebellion.

Security forces have killed 781 people since the coup, including 52 children, and 3,843 people are in detention, according to the Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group, whose figures are being used by the United Nations.

The U.N. human rights body said on Tuesday the military was showing no let-up in its efforts to consolidate power and its human rights violations went far beyond killings.

"It is clear that there needs to be greater international involvement to prevent the human rights situation in Myanmar from deteriorating further," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; writing by Martin Petty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Nine killed, many wounded in Russian school shooting

A view shows School Number 175 following a recent shooting in Kazan, Russia May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Alexey Nasyrov reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 15:41

By Andrew Osborn, Tom Balmforth and Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Nine people, including seven children, were killed on Tuesday and many more badly wounded after a lone teenage gunman opened fire in a school in the Russian city of Kazan, local authorities said, prompting a Kremlin call for tighter gun controls.

Two children could be seen leaping from the third floor of the four-storey School Number 175 to escape as gunshots rang out, in a video filmed by an onlooker that was circulated by Russia's RIA news agency.

"We heard the sounds of explosions at the beginning of the second lesson. All the teachers locked the children in the classrooms. The shooting was on the third floor," said one teacher, quoted by Tatar Inform, a local media outlet.

Calling the attack a tragedy for the country, Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of the wider Tatarstan region, said there was no evidence that anyone else had been involved.

"We have lost seven children - four boys and three girls. We also lost a teacher. And we lost one more female staff worker," he said in a video address.

"The terrorist has been arrested. He's a 19-year-old who was officially registered as a gun owner," he said. He said the victims were in the eighth year of school, which in Russia would make them around 14 or 15 years old.

Russia's Investigative Committee, which investigates major crimes, said in a statement it had opened a criminal case into the shooting and that the identity of the detained attacker had been established.

Reuters could not immediately contact a lawyer for the suspect, who was named in Russian media but whose identity was not officially disclosed, standard practice in Russia until a suspect has been formally charged.

Footage posted on social media showed a young man being pinned to the ground outside the school by police officers.

State TV later broadcast a separate video showing what it said was the suspect, a young man stripped to the waist and under restraint, being questioned by investigators. He could be heard saying that "a monster" had awoken in him, that he had realised that he was a god, and had begun to hate everyone.

The incident was Russia's deadliest school shooting since 2018 when a student at a college in Russian-annexed Crimea killed 20 people before turning his gun on himself.

PUTIN ORDERS REVIEW OF GUN LAWS

A social media account called "God", which Russian media said belonged to the suspect, was blocked by the Telegram messaging service citing its rules prohibiting what it described as "calls to violence".

The account, created before the shooting, contained posts in which a young masked and bespectacled man described himself as a god and said he planned to kill a "huge number" of people and himself. Reuters could not independently confirm whether the account belonged to the detained suspect.

Minnikhanov, the regional leader, said 18 children were in hospital with a range of injuries, including gunshot wounds and broken and fractured bones. Three adults with gunshot wounds were also in hospital, he said, saying doctors were doing all they could to save the lives of those wounded.

Footage showed a corridor inside the school strewn with debris, including smashed glass and broken doors. Another still image showed a body on the floor of a blood-stained classroom.

Russia has strict restrictions on civilian firearm ownership, but some categories of guns are available for purchase for hunting, self-defence or sport, once would-be owners have passed tests and met other requirements.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the head of the national guard to draw up tighter gun regulations, the Kremlin said. The guards would urgently look into the status of weapons that can be registered for hunting in Russia but are considered assault weapons elsewhere.

The suspect had been issued a permit for a Hatsan Escort PS shotgun on April 28, Alexander Khinshtein, a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, wrote on social media. He gave no further details and Reuters was not able to confirm this independently.

Kazan is the capital of the Muslim-majority region of Tatarstan and located around 450 miles (725 km) east of Moscow.

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Dmitry Antonov, Polina Devitt and Maria VasilyevaWriting by Andrew Osborn and Tom BalmforthEditing by John Stonestreet and Peter Graff)

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Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

Smoke rises from a building after it was destroyed by Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 23:49

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential building in Gaza collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds that Israel said it had carried out against Hamas targets.

They were the most intensive aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: "Stop the fire immediately. We're escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation.

"The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now," he wrote.

Into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them.

Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. For Israel, the militants' targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed - court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

'A VERY HEAVY PRICE'

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

"We are at the height of a weighty campaign," Netanyahu said in televised remarks.

"Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid ... and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence."

Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.

The militant group's leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences."

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: "If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready."

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.

The United States was delaying U.N. Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the U.S. strategy.State Department spokesman Ned Price urged calm and "restraint on both sides", saying: "The loss of life, the loss of Israeli life, the loss of Palestinian life, It's something that we deeply regret."

He added: "We are urging this message of de-escalation to see this loss of life come to an end."

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks, in 2014.

More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed by Israeli forces.

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the 13-story Gaza block as it toppled over. Nobody was reported killed in the building.

The Israeli military said the demolished multi-story building, in Gaza City's Rimal neighbourhood, housed "multiple" Hamas offices, including ones for military research and development and military intelligence.

The existence of one Hamas office in the building, used by political leaders and officials dealing with the news media, was widely known locally.

Civilian residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the air strike, according to witnesses and the Israeli military. The air strike completely destroyed the building.

People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.

Israeli political leaders and the military said they had killed "dozens" of militants, and hit buildings used by Hamas.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had carried out "hundreds" or strikes, and that "buildings will continue to crumble."

Gaza's health ministry said that of the 30 reported dead, 10 were children and one was a woman.

Israel's Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on Ashkelon.

JERUSALEM TENSIONS

Clashes at Al-Aqsa on Monday morning were the immediate backdrop to the escalation. More than 300 Palestinians were injured in confrontations with Israeli police, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said. Police said 21 officers were hurt.

Jerusalem's Old City, with places sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, a status not generally recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem - captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - as the capital of a future state.

The tensions there have led to an increase in pro-Palestinian protests among Israel’s 21% Arab minority, who are Israeli by citizenship but Palestinian by heritage and culture.

In the ethnically mixed Israeli town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, witnesses quoted by Israeli media said one or two armed Jews shot at rioting Arabs, killing one and wounding two. The dead man's father told the Walla news site he had been ambushed while on a family visit.

The accounts could not be confirmed. Israeli police said they had arrested two suspects in the incident.

Netanyahu's office agreed to a "declaration of a special state of emergency in Lod." Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana said on Twitter that 16 border police companies would be reassigned to Lod immediately from the occupied West Bank.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Israeli Channel 12 News: "We have lost control of the city and the streets."In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller)

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Prosecutors shelve case over Cairo hotel gang rape allegation for 'insufficent evidence'

This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 23:19

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's public prosecutors have shelved a case over a woman's allegation that she was gang raped at a luxury hotel in Cairo in 2014 because of "insufficient evidence" against the defendants, they said in a statement on Tuesday.

Anger at inaction following the incident at the Fairmont Hotel helped fuel a campaign against harassment and assault in which hundreds of women have shared testimonies online and grew more vocal about exposing sexual abuse in Egypt.

The four defendants were released from custody because evidence amassed during nearly nine months of investigation was insufficient to bring a criminal case, the prosecutors said.

They added that 39 people were interviewed but the testimonies were contradictory.

Several witnesses in the case were arrested and held for months in what some human rights activists said was part of a tendency by authorities to prioritise traditional social morality at the expense of women's rights.

Encouraged by the #MeToo movement, the woman who said she was drugged and gang raped at the hotel posted an anonymous account online before filing a formal complaint in July.

(Reporting by Haitham Ahmed; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Grant McCool)

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Cameroonian transgender women convicted of 'attempted homosexuality'

Mildred Loic, a local social media celebrity called Shakiro, is seen in this picture obtained from social media on March 24, 2021. Shakiro237/Facebook/via REUTERS reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 11, 2021 - 22:14

DOUALA (Reuters) - A court in Cameroon sentenced two transgender women on Tuesday to five years in prison for "attempted homosexuality" and other offences after they were arrested for the clothes they wore in a restaurant, their lawyers said.

A local social media celebrity known as Shakiro, who also is identified as Loic Njeukam, and Patricia, also identified as Roland Mouthe, were arrested on Feb. 8. Human rights activists say their detention is part of the growing criminalization of sexual minorities and transgender people in Cameroon.

The two received the maximum sentence of five years in prison and fines of 200,000 CFA francs ($372.44), their lawyers told Reuters. Besides "attempted homosexuality," they were convicted of public indecency and failing to carry identification.

"This is a political decision," said one of the lawyers, Alice Nkom, who vowed to appeal the verdict. "It's Yaounde (the central government) that said these people must not bring homosexuality to Cameroon."

A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cameroon is one of more than 30 African countries where same-sex relations are illegal. Its courts have previously sentenced people to multi-year prison sentences for their alleged homosexuality.

Human Rights Watch said last month that Shakiro and Patricia's arrests seemed to be part of "an overall uptick in police action" against sexual minorities.

Fifty-three people have been arrested in raids on HIV and AIDS organisations since May 2020, with some reporting having been beaten and subjected to forced "anal examinations" to confirm accusations of homosexuality, the rights group said.

($1 = 537.0000 CFA francs)

(Reporting by Josiane Kouagheu; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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