Julian Assange put lives at risk, lawyer for United States says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.

He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.

Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.

“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”

Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.

Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.

HERO OR ENEMY?

The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.

He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.

Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.

The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

Rate futures surge as coronavirus seen pushing Fed to ease

(Reuters) – U.S. interest rates futures surged to their highest levels since last fall as a global sell-off in stocks and panicked buying of government bonds fueled growing expectations that the Federal Reserve will soon be forced to respond with interest rate cuts.

The fed funds futures contract tied to the Fed’s July policy meeting reflected a probability of more than 80% that the central bank’s benchmark overnight lending rate would be at least a quarter percentage point lower after that meeting’s conclusion. It currently stands at 1.50%-1.75% after three rate cuts last year.

The moves come as Italy, South Korea and Iran all reported sharp increases in the number of coronavirus infections.

(Reporting By Dan Burns; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Some Samsung, Hyundai workers self-quarantine as Korea Inc braces for virus impact

Some Samsung, Hyundai workers self-quarantine as Korea Inc braces for virus impact
By Hyunjoo Jin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – Some South Korean workers at Samsung Electronics <005930.KS> and Hyundai Motor <005380.KS> are staying home as a precautionary measure as corporate Korea scrambles to prevent the coronavirus outbreak from causing widespread disruption in its home market.

The country’s third-largest conglomerate SK Group, which controls memory chip maker SK Hynix <000660.KS> and mobile carrier SK Telecom, advised its employees to work remotely starting from Tuesday due to the coronavirus outbreak.

About 1,500 workers of Samsung Electronics’ phone complex in the southeastern city of Gumi have self-quarantined after one of its workers was infected with the disease, a person familiar with the matter said. They include 900 workers who commute to Gumi from neighboring Daegu city, the person said.

The southeastern city of Daegu – the epicenter of the virus outbreak in South Korea- and nearby cities are an industrial hub in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, and home to factories of Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and a number of others.

South Korea on Monday reported 161 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infected patients in the country to 763, a day after the government raised its infectious disease alert to its highest level.

Samsung Electronics shares fell 4.1% and Hyundai Motor ended down 4.3%, tracking the wider market’s <.KS11> 3.9% fall, as the spike in new coronavirus cases intensified fears about the epidemic’s fallout on the economy and businesses.

Samsung said it has restarted production at its phone factory complex in Gumi on Monday, after closing it over the weekend, adding that the floor where the infected employee worked will resume production on Tuesday.

“As of 1 p.m. KT (0400 GMT) Feb. 24, the Gumi Complex has started normal operations and we expect no impact on production,” Samsung said in a statement, without elaborating further.

Samsung’s Gumi factory accounts for a small portion of its total phone production, but it produces premium phones and foldable phones, research firm Counterpoint said.

Six employees at Hyundai Motor’s factories in the southeastern city of Ulsan are also at home, with four of them linked to a church at the center of the virus outbreak, a union spokesman said in a statement.

“We are walking on ice,” one Hyundai factory worker told Reuters.

A factory run by Hyundai supplier Seojin Industrial was closed over the weekend after the death of a virus-infected worker, an official at the supplier said. He said that authorities disinfected the factory, located in the city of Gyeongju, and it is unclear when production will resume.

Seojin declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

Any disruption would be a fresh blow to Hyundai, which has restarted most of its domestic factories’ production after being hit by suspensions due to parts shortages from China.

Ulsan is home to Hyundai’s biggest car factories, and there are a number of suppliers in the city and surrounding areas, which cater not only to the automaker, but export to the United States, Japan and other markets.

A Hyundai Motor spokesman said there has been no production disruption so far as the automaker has inventory.

With virus fears spreading nationwide, Hyundai set up thermal cameras at all of its operations across the nation, including its headquarters in Seoul, to check temperatures.

(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Muralikumar Anantharaman and Kirsten Donovanh)

U.S. Supreme Court turns away religious bias claim against Walgreens

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to Walgreens, turning away an appeal by a fired former Florida employee of the pharmacy chain who asked not to work on Saturdays for religious reasons as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The justices declined to review a lower court ruling in Darrell Patterson’s religious discrimination lawsuit that concluded that his demand to never work on Saturday, observed as the Sabbath by Seventh-day Adventists, placed an undue hardship on Walgreens.

Patterson, who had trained customer service representatives at a Walgreens call center in Orlando, was fired in 2011 after failing to show up for work on a Saturday for an urgent training session.

The case tested the allowances companies must make for employees for religious reasons to comply with a federal anti-discrimination law called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Under Title VII, employers must “reasonably accommodate” workers’ religious practices unless that would cause the company “undue hardship.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Concern over coronavirus spread as cases jump in South Korea, Italy and Iran

By Jane Chung and Emily Chow

SEOUL/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – International concern about the spread of coronavirus outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The government in Seoul put the country on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. A focal point was a church in the southeastern city of Daegu, where a 61-year-old member of the congregation with no recent record of overseas travel tested positive for the virus.

In Italy, officials said a third person infected with the flu-like virus had died, while the number of cases jumped to above 150 from just three before Friday.

Authorities sealed off the worst affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases, to try to contain the biggest outbreak in Europe.

“I was surprised by this explosion of cases,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI, warning that the numbers would likely rise in the coming days. “We will do everything we can to contain the contagion.”

Italian health authorities were struggling to find out how the virus started. “If we cannot find ‘patient zero’ then it means the virus is even more ubiquitous than we thought,” said Luca Zaia, the regional governor of the wealthy Veneto region.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine.

The European Union said it had confidence in the Italian authorities. “We share concern for possible contagion (but) there is no need to panic,” the bloc’s Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters.

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths, with most of the infections in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on the Islamic Republic.

The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world’s second largest economy. It has spread to some 28 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

“Despite the continuing decline in reported cases from China, the last two days have seen extremely concerning developments elsewhere in the world,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Saturday it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.

‘SEVERE AND COMPLEX’

China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, reported 648 new infections. But only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicenter since authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.

An Iraqi medical staff member checks a passenger’s temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon his arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

“At present, the epidemic situation is still severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage,” President Xi Jinping said.

State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.

In South Korea, Catholic churches in Daegu and Gwangju have suspended services and other gatherings, while churches elsewhere saw declines in attendance on Sunday, especially among the elderly.

“If the situation gets worse, I think we’ll need to take more measures,” said Song Gi-young, 53, wearing a face mask at church.

South Korea’s president said raising the disease alert to the highest level, allowing authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.

Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The potential economic impact of the disease was prominent at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in Riyadh.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief said China’s 2020 growth would likely be lower at 5.6%, down 0.4 percentage points from its January outlook, with 0.1 percentage points shaved from global growth.

Xi highlighted the importance of fighting the epidemic in the capital Beijing, which has recently required people arriving from elsewhere in China to be quarantined at home for 14 days.

He said it would have a relatively big, but short-term impact on the economy and that Beijing would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

In Japan, where the government is facing growing questions about whether it is doing enough to counter the virus, authorities had confirmed 773 cases by early Sunday evening.

Most of them were from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo, the Diamond Princess. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

British authorities said four people evacuated from the ship had tested positive for the virus after being flown to Britain.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Shanghai and Jane Chung in Seoul; Additional reporting by Lushu Zhang in Beijing, Kevin Buckland in Tokyo, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Martin Petty, Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson; Editing by Kim Coghill and Frances Kerry)

Coronavirus cases spread outside China, fall inside, winning WHO’s praises

Coronavirus cases spread outside China, fall inside, winning WHO’s praises
By Gabriel Crossley and Hyonhee Shin

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – Italy, South Korea and Iran reported sharp rises in coronavirus infections on Monday, but China relaxed curbs on movement as the rate of new infections there eased and a visiting World Health Organization team reported steep declines in visits to clinics.

The virus has put Chinese cities into lockdown in recent weeks, disrupted air traffic to the workshop of the world and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars and car parts to smartphones.

But China’s actions, especially in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, had probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, the head of the WHO delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, said, urging the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.

“The world is in your debt,” Aylward said in Beijing, addressing the people of Wuhan. “The people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period and they’re still going through it.”

The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global share markets and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens. European share markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 4% and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August.

But U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the impact on the global economy or supply chains, saying it was simply too soon to know.

The WHO’s Aylward said multiple data sources backed the trend of declining cases but an official with China’s National Health Commission, Liang Wannian, said more than 3,000 medical staff had become infected, most of them in Hubei, and likely due to the lack of protective gear and fatigue.

Excluding Hubei, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide daily figures on Jan. 20.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei.

Overall, China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.

But there was a measure of relief for the world’s second-largest economy as more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero new infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

South Korea reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833. Many are in its fourth-largest city, Daegu, which became more isolated with Asiana Airlines  and Korean Air  suspending flights there until next month.

Iran, which announced its first two cases last Wednesday, said it now had 61 cases and 12 deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain and Iraq reported their first cases and Kuwait reported three cases involving people who had been in Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed restrictions on travel and immigration from Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case, officials said.

Europe’s biggest outbreak is in Italy, with some 150 infections – compared with just three before Friday – and a sixth death.

SHOW MUSTN’T GO ON

In northern Italy, authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area, halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.

Austria briefly suspended train services over the Alps from Italy after two travelers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever.

Both tested negative for the new coronavirus but Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a task force would meet on Monday to discuss whether to introduce border controls.

President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work, though he said the epidemic was still “severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage”.

Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term, impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

Mnuchin, speaking to Reuters in the Saudi city of Riyadh, said he did not expect the coronavirus to have a material impact on the Phase 1 U.S.-China trade deal.

“Obviously that could change as the situation develops,” he added.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases on Monday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

 

(Reporting by Gabreil Crossley and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Judy Hua, Huizhong Wu, Yawen Chen, Lusha Zhang and David Kirton in Beijing, Engen Tham in Shangai, Joyce Lee and Cynthia Kim in Seoul, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Kate Kelland in London, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Andrea Shalal in Riyadh; Writing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore and Kevin Liffey)

DSV plans Shanghai-Alabama cargo flights to ease capacity constraints amid coronavirus

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Freight-forwarder DSV Panalpina said on Friday it would start direct cargo flights between Shanghai and Huntsville, Alabama from next week to cope with capacity constraints caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The global freight industry has been hard-hit by uncertain demand and crews’ health concerns following the outbreak of the deadly virus in China, leading airlines and freight firms to scale back services, causing delivery delays and mounting backlogs.

Starting on Feb. 25, DSV plans to operate flights between Shanghai and Huntsville thrice weekly using the firm’s Boeing 747-8 freighter plane, it said in a statement.

“Due to the risk of spreading of the coronavirus (COVID-19), multiple airlines have either suspended or reduced the number of flights to and from mainland China,” it said.

Crew on DSV’s plane would rest in South Korea before flying to Shanghai and would virtually not disembark the plane while in Shanghai before returning to the United States with cargo.

“By doing it this way we can safely have this setup,” Flemming Nielsen, executive vice president, told Reuters.

Last week DSV said the coronavirus was squeezing air and sea freight capacity, but that it was still possible to ship goods on airplanes to countries neighboring China and fly them out from there.

DSV said it estimates capacity has shrunk by 5,000 tons a day due to the suspension of flights to China.

(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Russia denies backing Trump re-election, critics express alarm

By Anastasia Teterevleva and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Friday denied Russia was interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election chances following reports that American intelligence officials warned Congress about the election threat last week.

U.S. intelligence officials told members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing last week that Russia was again interfering in American politics ahead of November’s election, a person familiar with the discussion told Reuters.

Trump has since ousted the acting intelligence chief, replacing him this week with a political loyalist in an abrupt move as Democrats and former U.S. officials raised the alarm over national security concerns.

On Twitter, the Republican president accused Democrats in Congress of launching a misinformation campaign “saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates.” Trump called it a “hoax” in his Friday tweet.

U.S. officials have long warned that Russia and other countries would seek to interfere in the Nov. 3 presidential election, following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign that ended with Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin used disinformation operations, cyber attacks and other methods in its 2016 operation in an effort to boost Trump, an allegation that Russia denies. Trump, sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has also questioned that finding and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.

On Friday, the Kremlin said the latest allegations were false.

“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the (U.S.) election,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”

Russia’s alleged interference sparked a two-year-long U.S. investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to obstruct his investigation, as Democrats alleged, but left any finding of obstruction to Congress.

Trump is seeking a second term in office.

Last July, he called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate one of his potential Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, sparking his impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House.

Trump, who was later acquitted by the Republican-led U.S. Senate, has also publicly called on China to probe Biden.

Last week’s classified congressional briefing sparked a sharp response by Trump, who rebuked acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire for allowing his staff to brief the lawmakers, including Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment inquiry, the New York Times reported, quoting five people familiar with the matter.

Trump then dismissed Maguire, announcing this week that Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist, would be the acting intelligence chief, even as he continues serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany. His appointment drew sharp rebukes from Democrats and other critics who said Grenell lacked intelligence experience.

Trump tweeted on Friday that four candidates were being considered for the permanent post of intelligence head and that a decision would come in the next few weeks.

‘NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT’

“This is a crisis,” former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC in an interview on Friday, citing concerns that Trump was seeking to “squelch” critical intelligence.

Schiff, in a Thursday tweet, said if the reports are true, Trump “is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”

“Trump is not only trying to rewrite history of Russia’s intervention in 2016, he is now using the power of the presidency to conceal their 2020 scheme to re-elect him. Dangerous!” former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates tweeted on Friday.

Democrats seeking to challenge Trump also raised concerns.

Biden, in a CNN town hall event on Thursday, said he was “not surprised” at the reported Russian meddling and that he had no confidence in Grenell.

“This is a national security threat,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told MSNBC on Thursday and criticized Senate Republicans for not acting to secure an election that is less than nine months away.

Trump’s last full-time director of national intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, resigned last year after his differences with the president over Russia’s role in the 2016 election became public.

Trump has repeatedly called the U.S. Russia probe and the impeachment inquiry a “witch hunt.”

His fellow Republicans at last week’s briefing questioned the information, according to the person familiar with the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Republican members of the panel did not respond to a request for comment, but Republican Representative Doug Collins, in a television interview on Friday, echoed Trump’s allegations of politicization at U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Something needs to be done to clean up these agencies,” he told Fox Business Network.

(Reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Jonathan Landay in Washington; and Steve Holland in Las Vegas; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

As Florida, Georgia battle over water, panhandle oystermen struggle to survive

By Rich McKay

APALACHICOLA, Fla. (Reuters) – Standing in his boat in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, Michael Dasher lowered a long pair of tongs into the water, pulling up a muddy mass of oysters that his son sorted, keeping those big enough to sell and tossing the rest back into the brackish bay.

His 53-year-old calloused hands grasped not just the 12-foot-long (3.7-m-long) tool but a way of life that Florida panhandle oystermen say is dying: Last year, they hauled in 16,000 pounds (7,257 kg) of oysters worth $130,000, according to state figures, a fraction of the 2012 catch of 3 million pounds (1.4 million kg) worth $8.8 million.

“It’s like dumping sacks of rocks every day, but I don’t know how to do anything else,” said Dasher, who fretted that his 32-year-old son nicknamed “Little Mike,” a fifth-generation oysterman in the family, may also be its last.

Their future may be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this year on a seven-year-long legal battle between Florida and Georgia.

Florida accuses its northern neighbour — and particularly the fast-growing city of Atlanta — of drawing too much water from the rivers that feed the bay, causing its salinity to rise and driving down the oyster population.

Georgia rejects that claim, saying it has made great strides in water conservation. It says that what has really hurt the oyster population is a surge of over-harvesting since the 2010 BP plc Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which Florida had feared would foul the bay but ultimately did not.

The oystermen have reason to be worried: U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Kelly of Santa Fe, a state water rights expert who was named a “special master” by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, has recommended that the court side with Georgia.

But the court can ignore his recommendation, if it’s swayed by Florida’s arguments.

Florida says Georgia uses too much water.

‘EQUITABLE SHARE’

The swelling 6-million-strong population of the nine-county greater Atlanta area, as well as Georgia’s peanut and cotton farms, all draw on the same fresh water sources that flow to the Apalachicola Bay.

State officials and farmers say they are conserving more water than ever, and that they aren’t to blame for crash of the oyster beds.

Katherine Zitsch, manager of natural resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the metropolitan area now uses 10% less water than it did 20 years ago, even though the population has risen by 1.2 million people.

But the oystermen and environmentalists in both states say that same water is needed in the bay.

Federal court precedent dating back more than 100 years dictates how states must share fresh water that flows across their borders, but does not set precise standards for water allocation. Water is divided based on proven needs, populations, agriculture and other factors.

“Even though Florida is entitled to an equitable share, that’s a moving target,” said John Draper, a Santa Fe attorney and expert in this sort of litigation. “It’s not a 50-50 split.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it was hopeful the court would rule in its favour.

“The state of Florida remains committed to restoring the historic flows of the Apalachicola River,” for the families who rely on the river for their livelihood, it said in a statement.

Officials declined to comment.

‘WE NEED THAT WATER’

Upstream and down, residents who have long relied on the water to support their sources of income say they can’t make do with less.

Farmer Murray Campbell, 64, a third-generation peanut farmer in Pebble City, Georgia, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Apalachicola Bay, says he has sympathy for the oystermen.

“Lord knows I love oysters, especially those Apalachicolas,” Campbell said. “I’d love to see them successful. But truth is, we need that water. Once you put a crop in the ground, the banker wants his money.”

“We’d be a dust bowl without irrigation,” he said.

The dozen or so oystermen left working the Apalachicola Bay — a sliver of the more than 400 that once worked its waters — likewise say they can’t do without.

“We’re counting on the court seeing it our way, or we’re sunk,” said Shannon Hartsfield, the 50-year-old president of the local Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Hartsfield has been reduced to oystering part time, making the rest of his living fishing for shrimp.

Many of his former counterparts had left their boats and gone to Tallahassee or Panama City to work in construction or the hospitality industry, he said.

“But it’s not too late to reclaim it,” Hartsfield said of the oystering way of life. “If we get that water back, our men will be back. The bay can bounce back.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Chinese capital battles jump in virus cases as infections ease elsewhere

BEIJING (Reuters) – The number of people who have contracted the coronavirus in the Chinese capital has jumped sharply, including more than 30 in an outbreak at a major hospital, while many other parts of the country are reporting fewer or no new infections.

Officials on Friday reported one new case in Beijing as of Feb. 20, bringing the total in the city to 396, with four dead.

Twenty-three cases were recorded the previous day.

The new cases largely stemmed from a major hospital about 6 k, (3.7 miles) west of Tiananmen Square, and come as China’s leaders decide whether to postpone their annual gathering of parliament, the year’s most important political event, originally set for early March.

Eight health workers, nine care workers and cleaners, and 19 patients and their family members were among the 36 cases confirmed at Fuxing Hospital thus far, Pang Xinghuo, vice head of Beijing’s disease control centre, told reporters on Thursday.

The hospital only had nine cases as of Feb. 3.

“I feel deeply guilty and distressed by the cluster case incident at Fuxing Hospital,” Li Dongxia, the hospital’s director, told the same briefing.

The infections also caught the attention of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, which ran a story under the headline: “Whopping rise in infection at Beijing hospital puts capital on alert.”

The city’s total cases now rank 13th among provincial-level jurisdictions.

To control the spread of the virus, Beijing and other cities have ordered measures including reduced opening hours at shopping malls, temperature checks in public spaces, and disinfection at residential compounds.

Beijing also requires that people arriving from elsewhere in China quarantine at home for 14 days. Migrant workers are steadily returning to the city of more than 20 million after a long Lunar New Year break, which was extended to give authorities more time to try to contain the virus.

“So disappointed! I was brought up in the district and thought it’s the safest bastion because it’s the heart of the country,” one person wrote on the Twitter-like Weibo.

Nationwide, more than 75,400 people have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus and 2,236 have died, mostly in central Hubei province and its capital of Wuhan where the virus emerged in a wildlife market in December.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Lusha Zhang; Additional reporting by Yan Zhang, Yawen Chen and Cheng Leng in Beijing; Editing by Tony Munroe and Kim Coghill)