Austria delays reopening restaurants as COVID-19 cases rise

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria has postponed the reopening of cafĂ©, restaurant and bar terraces planned for March 27 due to rising coronavirus cases and is preparing for regions to adapt restrictions locally, the government said on Monday.

Infections have been increasing steadily since Austria loosened its third lockdown on Feb. 8 by letting non-essential shops reopen despite stubbornly high COVID-19 cases. A night-time curfew replaced all-day restrictions on movement.

The number of new infections reported rose above 3,500 on Friday, the highest level since early December, when cases were falling during the second national lockdown.

The government met with the governors of its nine provinces on Monday to review its plan to let terraces reopen next weekend in all but one of them, after the small Alpine province of Vorarlberg got a head start earlier this month.

“The experts have advised us not to carry out any more loosening of restrictions here, unfortunately,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said of most provinces, adding three hard-hit eastern ones including Vienna would work on extra measures.

A government source said loosening of restrictions could happen in some regions after Easter if intensive-care figures are stable.

Last week the hardest-hit provinces were Vienna and the province surrounding it, Lower Austria, as well as Burgenland, which borders Hungary. The latest government data shows them in the top five in terms of infection rates and intensive care bed use, with Salzburg and Upper Austria.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Janet Lawrence)

Denmark, Norway temporarily suspend AstraZeneca COVID shots after blood clot reports

By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Health authorities in Denmark and Norway said on Thursday they had temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine shots after reports of the formation of blood clots in some who have been vaccinated.

The move comes after Austria stopped using a batch of AstraZeneca shots while investigating a death from coagulation disorders and an illness from a pulmonary embolism.

Danish health authorities said the country’s decision to suspend the shots for two weeks came after a 60-year old woman in Denmark, who was given an AstraZeneca shot from the same batch that was used in Austria, formed a blood clot and died.

Danish authorities said they had responded “to reports of possible serious side effects, both from Denmark and other European countries.”

“It is currently not possible to conclude whether there is a link. We are acting early, it needs to be thoroughly investigated,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said on Twitter.

The vaccine would be suspended for 14 days in Denmark.

“This is a cautionary decision,” Geir Bukholm, director of infection prevention and control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI), told a news conference.

FHI did not say how long the suspension would last.

“We … await information to see if there is a link between the vaccination and this case with a blood clot,” Bukholm said.

Also on Thursday, Italy said it would suspend use of an AstraZeneca batch that was different to the one used in Austria.

Some health experts said there was little evidence to suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be administered and that the cases of blood clots corresponded with the rate of such cases in the general population.

“This is a super-cautious approach based on some isolated reports in Europe,” Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Reuters.

“The problem with spontaneous reports of suspected adverse reactions to a vaccine are the enormous difficulty of distinguishing a causal effect from a coincidence,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 disease was very strongly associated with blood clotting.

AstraZeneca on Thursday told Reuters in a written statement the safety of its vaccine had been extensively studied in human trials and peer-reviewed data had confirmed the vaccine was generally well tolerated.

The drugmaker said earlier this week its shots were subject to strict and rigorous quality controls and that there had been “no confirmed serious adverse events associated with the vaccine.” It said it was in contact with Austrian authorities and would fully support their investigation.

The European Union’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said on Wednesday there was no evidence so far linking AstraZeneca to the two cases in Austria.

It said the number of thromboembolic events – marked by the formation of blood clots – in people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine is no higher than that seen in the general population, with 22 cases of such events being reported among the 3 million people who have received it as of March 9.

EMA was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.

Four other countries – Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Latvia – have stopped inoculations from the batch while investigations continue, the EMA said.

The batch of 1 million doses went to 17 EU countries.

Swedish authorities said they did not find sufficient evidence to stop vaccination with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Sweden has found two cases of “thromboembolic events” in connection with AstraZeneca’s vaccine and about ten for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“We see no reason to revise our recommendation,” Veronica Arthurson, head of drug safety at the Swedish Medical Products Agency, told a news conference. “There is nothing to indicate that the vaccine causes this type of blood clots.”

Spain on Thursday said it had not registered any cases of blood clots related to AstraZeneca’s vaccine so far and would continue administering the shots.

(Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm, Victoria Klesty in Oslo and Kate Kelland in London. Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie and Bernadette Baum)

Switzerland plans cautious easing of pandemic lockdown from March

By John Revill and John Miller

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland plans to make its first “cautious steps” towards ending its coronavirus lockdown next month, the government said on Wednesday, contrasting with neighbors that are sticking with many restrictions.

In the first step, shops, museums and libraries are due to reopen from March 1. Zoos, gardens and sports facilities will also be reopened, with a final decision to come on Feb. 24.

Ministers have been caught being caught between health experts supporting stricter limits and struggling businesses calling for a reopening, but an easing in the number of infections has allowed the government to change course.

“The efforts of the last few months are now paying off, the population has been very disciplined,” said Health Minister Alain Berset.

“New infections have halved within a month, so the situation is not so bad. We would all like to do more activities again, such as sports.”

With the initial reopening, private events with up to 15 people would also be allowed, said the government, up from the current limit of five.

Switzerland’s reopening contrasts with neighboring Austria which will decide on March 1 on a potential loosening of pandemic restrictions that happen around Easter, at the earliest.

“We’re taking a risk, but we think that’s acceptable as long as everybody plays along,” Berset told a press conference in Bern.

Additional easing from April 1 could follow if infections remain low, he added.

Measures to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic will push Switzerland into a 15.8 billion Swiss franc ($17.59 billion) deficit for 2020, due mainly to higher spending and lower tax receipts.

Still, the government said it would expand its spending to deal with the pandemic, which has so far claimed 9,128 lives.

It has decided to expand support package for large companies hit hard by the crisis, ramping up a compensation scheme to 10 billion francs, from 5 billion francs previously.

($1 = 0.8981 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by John Revill and John Miller, editing by Mihcael Shields)

Austria to isolate province in EU’s worst outbreak of South African coronavirus variant

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is stepping up its response to the European Union’s biggest outbreak of the so-called South African coronavirus variant in its Alpine province of Tyrol, by requiring those leaving Tyrol to show a negative test result as of Friday.

A year ago Tyrol, a winter sports hotspot bordering Germany, Italy and Switzerland, was the scene of one of Europe’s worst instances of virus spreading at the ski resort of Ischgl. Thousands of tourists from across Europe were infected.

Despite that damaging episode, the provincial government has resisted pressure from Vienna to do more to curb the new variant that threatens Austria’s vaccination plans. After days of fraught negotiation, the national government said on Tuesday it would screen those leaving Tyrol, starting in three days.

“We have a responsibility throughout Austria to fight mutations against which vaccinations are less or maybe barely effective,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, a day after his government asked the public not to travel to Tyrol unless they have to.

Police will require anyone leaving the province to show a negative coronavirus test result no more than 48 hours old, and the measure will last 10 days. It will not apply to East Tyrol, which is separated from the rest of the province, or to children.

So far 293 cases of the variant have been confirmed in Tyrol, and 129 of them are currently active, the government said. The authorities have been unable to explain how it arrived in the province where lockdown measures have kept hotels closed to tourists, though ski lifts are open.

As in much of the EU, Austria’s national vaccination plan relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine and a recent study has shaken confidence in its effectiveness against the South African variant, showing it had little effect against mild disease caused by that variant.

“Almost 50% of Europeans will be vaccinated with AstraZeneca in the coming months. If this drug is less effective then we must be aware that these mutations, that these variants, are extremely dangerous for us,” Kurz said.

On Monday, his government had loosened Austria’s third coronavirus lockdown, letting non-essential shops reopen, including in Tyrol, despite stubbornly high infections nationally.

The opposition Social Democrats criticized the bickering between the provincial and national governments, both of which are led by Kurz’s conservatives, saying in a statement they had “learned nothing from Ischgl”.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Alex Richardson and Grant McCool)

Vienna gunman rampaged alone, intelligence was fumbled: Austrian minister

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Large quantities of mobile phone footage have confirmed that the jihadist who killed four people in a rampage in Vienna on Monday was the only gunman, but Austria fumbled intelligence on him, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday.

Austria arrested 14 people aged 18 to 28 on Tuesday in connection with the attack and is investigating them on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization, he said. But it would also have to investigate its own actions, he added.

“Before the terror attack began, according to the information currently available, some things also went wrong,” Nehammer told a news conference.

In July, neighboring Slovakia’s intelligence service had handed over information suggesting the attacker had tried and failed to buy ammunition there, Nehammer and a top ministry official, Director General for Public Security Franz Ruf, said.

“In the next steps evidently something went wrong here with communications,” said Nehammer, who called for the formation of an independent commission to examine the errors made.

After receiving the tip-off from Slovakia, Austria’s domestic intelligence agencies at the federal and provincial level made the necessary checks and sent questions back to Bratislava, Ruf said.

“It’s up to the commission to clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law,” he said when pressed on what had gone wrong.

The gunman, who was shot dead by police within minutes of opening fire on crowded bars on Monday evening, was a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. Born and raised in Vienna, he had already been convicted of trying to reach Syria to join Islamic State and had spent time in jail.

All of those arrested in Austria have a “migration background”, Nehammer said. Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl added that some were dual citizens of Bangladesh, North Macedonia, Turkey or Russia.

Neutral Austria, part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS formed in 2014, has for years seen jihadist attacks as its biggest security threat and warned of the danger posed by foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria or their admirers.

At the end of 2018, the authorities knew of 320 people from Austria who were actively involved or had wanted to participate in jihad in Syria and Iraq. Of these, around 58 people were thought to have died in the region and 93 to have returned to Austria. Another 62 were prevented from leaving the country.

Nehammer repeated criticism of a deradicalization program, saying the gunman had “perfectly” fooled the program to reintegrate jihadists into society.

LONE GUNMAN

Members of the public had handed in more than 20,000 mobile phone videos that the authorities analyzed before coming to the conclusion that there was only one gunman, Nehammer said, putting an end to lingering confusion on that point.

Switzerland has also arrested two men in connection with the attack. Its justice minister said the two were “obviously friends” with the gunman.

Ruf said Austria was in contact with Switzerland and another country that he declined to identify over the investigation.

North Macedonia said on Tuesday three people were somehow involved in the attack and all had dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. It identified them only by initials.

Monday’s attack drew international expressions of support for Austria, which had been spared the deadly militant attacks that have hit other European countries in the past decade.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has suffered two deadly attacks recently amid Islamist anger over the publication of satirical caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, will visit Vienna next Monday, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Severe COVID-19 riskier than heart attack for young adults; antibiotic shows no benefit

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

More young adults survive heart attacks than severe COVID-19

Among COVID-19 patients treated at 419 U.S. hospitals from April through June, only about 5% were ages 18 to 34. But that group had “substantial rates of adverse outcomes,” according to a report on Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine. Roughly one in five needed intensive care, one in 10 needed mechanical ventilation, and nearly 3% died. While the mortality rate is lower than in older adults, it is roughly double the death rate of young adults from heart attacks, the authors say. Obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes were tied to higher risk for adverse events. For young adults with more than one of these conditions, the risk of a bad outcome was similar to middle-aged adults without the risk factors. More than half of hospitalized young adults were Black or Hispanic, “consistent with prior findings of disproportionate illness severity in these demographic groups,” the authors said. “Given the sharply rising rates of COVID-19 infection in young adults, these findings underscore the importance of infection prevention measures in this age group,” the concluded.

Antibiotic fails to help hospitalized COVID-19 patients

The antibiotic azithromycin did not appear to provide any benefit to hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were having trouble breathing, according to a study in Brazil. At 57 hospitals, 243 COVID-19 patients who needed oxygen or mechanical ventilation were randomly assigned to receive azithromycin, while 183 similar patients did not get the antibiotic. All received other standard treatment, which in Brazil included hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that other studies have shown provides little or no benefit. While azithromycin did not appear to do any harm, after 15 days it was not associated with any patient improvement nor did it reduce their risk of death. In an April survey of more than 6,000 physicians in 30 countries, azithromycin was the second most commonly prescribed treatment for COVID-19, the study investigators wrote in The Lancet medical journal. The absence of any benefit in this new study “suggests that the routine use of this strategy should be avoided,” they said.

Risk of catching COVID-19 while hospitalized can be low

Among nearly 8,500 patients admitted to a large Boston hospital between early March and the end of May, only two became sick with coronavirus infections that may have been acquired while they were hospitalized, doctors report. One likely was infected by a spouse who initially appeared well during daily visits but who developed symptoms while the patient was still hospitalized. That was before visitor restrictions and universal masking rules had been implemented. The other patient developed symptoms four days after leaving the hospital. The source of the infection is not known. According to a paper published on Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, infection control efforts at the hospital included dedicated COVID-19 units with airborne infection isolation rooms, personal protective equipment for staff and monitoring to make sure those were used correctly, universal masking, visitor restriction, and liberal COVID-19 testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. These “robust and rigorous infection control practices may be associated with minimized risk” of COVID-19 spreading through hospitals, the authors conclude. Their findings, if replicated at other U.S. hospitals, “should provide reassurance to patients,” they said.

Longer-term COVID-19 lung damage can improve over time

COVID-19 lung damage persists long term but tends to improve, researchers reported on Monday at the European Respiratory Society International Virtual Congress. Researchers studied 86 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 48% of whom had a smoking history and 21% of whom required intensive care. At 6 weeks after discharge, 47% of patients still reported feeling short of breath. By 12 weeks, that dropped to 39%. CT scans still showed lung damage in 88% of patients at six weeks, dropping to 56% at 12 weeks. “Overall, this study shows that COVID-19 survivors have persisting pulmonary impairment weeks after recovery. Yet, overtime, a moderate improvement is detectable,” lead researcher Dr. Sabina Sahanic, from University Clinic of Internal Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, said during a press briefing. A related study featured at the meeting stressed the importance of early pulmonary rehabilitation after COVID-19 patients come off a ventilator. This should include balance and walking, muscle strengthening, respiratory exercises and endurance training. “The sooner rehabilitation started and the longer it lasted, the faster and better was the improvement in patients’ walking and breathing capacities and muscle gain,” coauthor Yara Al Chikhanie, from Grenoble Alps University in France, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

UK conducts random coronavirus testing as part of early warning plan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has started random tests for coronavirus on flu patients to have an early warning system in place in case the outbreak becomes more widespread, a senior health official said.

Britain has so far had 13 cases of coronavirus. An outbreak in northern Italy worsened on Wednesday, and the illness has spread to Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France via visitors who were recently in northern Italy.

“We’re heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside mainland China,” Public Health England’s medical director, Paul Cosford, told BBC radio on Wednesday.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

British health minister Matt Hancock said the government had plans in place in case the virus becomes a pandemic.

In Britain, random tests for the virus will be carried out at 11 hospitals and 100 general medical offices on people who have flu symptoms including a cough, plus shortness of breath and a fever.

“This testing will tell us whether there’s evidence of infection more widespread than we think there is. We don’t think there is at the moment,” PHE’s Cosford said.

“The other thing it will do is, if we do get to the position of more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that that’s happening,” he added.

Hancock told parliament the government expected more cases in Britain and was planning to introduce home testing.

“We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public,” he said. “The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate this virus.”

Media have reported several schools have closed or sent pupils home after returning from trips to northern Italy during last week’s school holiday. Hancock said there was no need for schools to close or other students or staff to be sent home.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by William Schomberg and Stephen Addison)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Turkey trawled four continents for data on Erdogan foes: Austrian lawmaker

The Turkish flag is seen outside their embassy in Vienna, Austria, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Shadia Nasralla and Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Turkish embassies on four continents submitted reports on alleged foreign-based opponents of President Tayyip Erdogan within a week of receiving a request from Ankara last September, according to documents released by an Austrian lawmaker.

The papers made public by opposition Greens politician Peter Pilz suggested a wider intelligence network than has so far been revealed by authorities investigating alleged spying by Turkey on its expatriates in three European countries.

“There is clearly a global network of informants. We cannot say exactly how long it took to build up this network. I assume that it happened in a matter of years,” Pilz told reporters.

A senior Turkish government official said: “These claims are completely false.”

Tensions are running high between Turkey and the European Union as Ankara tries to drum up support among expatriate Turks to vote ‘yes’ in a referendum on April 16 on whether to grant Erdogan sweeping new powers.

German, Austrian and Swiss authorities have all launched investigations into whether Turkey is conducting illegal espionage on their soil.

German prosecutors are investigating Halife Keskin, who leads the foreign affairs department of the Turkish state religious authority, the Diyanet, newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and two German broadcasters reported late on Friday.

Investigators have a document in which Keskin personally ordered the global surveillance effort and asked for any reports to be sent to him, according to the German media.

The German federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment.

An official at the Diyanet said Keskin was currently in Turkey and that while the Diyanet was aware of the German media reports, it had received no official notification from the German authorities that Keskin was being investigated.

Countries routinely post intelligence officers in their embassies, and the European authorities have not said in what ways the alleged Turkish activity went beyond acceptable levels of information-gathering by a foreign power.

Among the documents released by Pilz was a written call on Sept. 20, using the letterheads of the prime minister’s office and the Diyanet, for information on supporters of Erdogan’s arch-enemy Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey has accused Gulen of masterminding a failed coup attempt last July and has purged state institutions, schools, universities and the media of tens of thousands of suspected Gulen supporters. The cleric denies any involvement.

The documents, which Pilz said he had received from a Turkish source, showed embassies in over 30 countries across Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia sent reports to Diyanet on alleged Gulenists. Most were filed by religious attaches in Turkish embassies or consulates.

NAMES AND ADDRESSES

They typically listed the names and addresses of alleged Gulenists, as well as of publishing houses, media groups, educational centers and schools deemed to support the exiled cleric. Some reports include information on family members and the educational background of targeted people.

Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the documents, but a source close to Austria’s government said it was safe to assume the ones on Austria were genuine.

Some reports, such as the one from Nigeria, include the names of middlemen responsible for building up ties between Gulenists and local power centers.

In the Austrian report, a Turkish official in Salzburg says an Austrian mosque umbrella group and other organizations have destroyed books, audio material, videos and newspapers deemed to be Gulenist.

The official says some gaps left by disappearing Gulenist organizations have been successfully filled with Erdogan-friendly replacements, such as after-school clubs.

A report from Azerbaijan names a journalist and some parliamentarians as sources of information on Gulenists. It names the director of a Turkish high school in Baku who will be reminded about the need to remove Gulenist teachers at his school.

An Australian report refers to “people who have lived in Australia for a long time and who know (the Gulenist) structure very well”. An entry from Mongolia describes activity by alleged Gulenists on Facebook and Twitter.

Turkey has rejected previous accusations that it was using religious bodies in Europe to spy on Erdogan critics.

In March, the religious attache of Turkey’s embassy in Austria told a local newspaper that mosque groups had a duty to check whether people of Turkish origin in Austria had been “radicalized” by Gulen. He said it was legitimate to deliver reports on such people.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Austria says wants exemption from EU migrant relocation system

Migrants wait to cross the border from Slovenia into Spielfeld in Austria, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria will seek an exemption from having to accept more asylum-seekers under an EU relocation system, it said on Tuesday, arguing that it has already taken in its fair share during Europe’s migration crisis.

The move is a new blow to the system that would cover only a fraction of migrant arrivals to the European Union and that has barely been implemented because of opposition led by Eastern European countries including Poland and Hungary.

It also coincides with a tightening of security and immigration rules by the centrist coalition government in Austria, where a wave of arrivals that began in 2015 helped fuel a rise in support for the far-right Freedom Party, which still leads in opinion polls.

“We believe an exception is necessary for Austria for having already fulfilled its obligation. We will discuss that with the European Commission,” Chancellor Christian Kern told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting. “We will send a letter as quickly as possible and then begin discussions.”

Fewer than 14,500 asylum-seekers have been relocated from Greece and Italy, the first EU countries that many refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa set foot in, under the two-year EU plan that was supposed to cover 160,000 people and which expires in September.

“We are of the opinion … that the people in question here already sought an asylum application or arrived in Italy or Greece,” Kern said. “We must check whether we have already fulfilled our quota and discharged our obligation.”

Austria took in roughly 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015, more than 1 percent of its population. More than a million migrants arrived in Germany that year, most of them having passed through Austria after crossing the Balkans from Greece.

Austria has repeatedly called on other EU countries to take their fair share, and has even backed the idea of financial penalties for those that do not.

The Commission granted Austria a temporary exception because of the large number of people it had taken in, but that has since expired.

“Austria is now expected to fulfill its legal obligation … to start relocating,” Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said.

The government has been seeking to erode support for the Freedom Party with a series of law-and-order measures and stricter immigration rules.

An “integration bill” agreed in cabinet on Tuesday would ban face-veils in public places and oblige unemployed refugees to perform jobs “of public utility” for no pay beyond their normal benefit payments.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; additional reporting by Waverly Colville in Brussels; Editing by Catherine Evans and Robin Pomeroy)