In COVID-19 clampdown, China bars travelers from Britain, France, India

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has barred non-Chinese travelers from Britain, France, Belgium, the Philippines and India, imposing some of the most stringent entry curbs of any country as coronavirus cases surge around the world.

The restrictions, which cover those with valid visas and residence permits and take effect in conjunction with a more restrictive testing regime for arrivals from several other countries, drew a frosty response from Britain.

“We are concerned by the abruptness of the announcement and the blanket ban on entry, and await further clarification on when it will be lifted,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in China as the blanket bans were announced by the five countries’ Chinese embassies.

England started a month-long lockdown on Thursday. Britain’s virus death toll is the highest in Europe, and it is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day.

Belgium has Europe’s highest per capita number of new confirmed cases, while France and India are among the top five countries in the world with the most infections.

The suspensions were a partial reversal of an easing on Sept. 28, when China allowed all foreigners with valid residence permits to enter. In March, China had banned entry of foreigners in response to the epidemic.

‘SOLD OUT IN SECONDS’

Meanwhile, many people planning November visits to China scrambled to book earlier flights to circumvent potentially disruptive restrictions due to come into force for other countries from Friday.

Linyi Li, a Chinese national, had planned to fly from Seattle to China in mid-November but switched her flight to Nov. 6 even though fares had tripled.

“The tickets were sold out in seconds, as people were all scrambling to beat the deadline,” said Li, 30. “I’ve been rushing to sell many of my family belongings in the past days in case I can’t get back to the States.”

From Friday, all passengers from the United States, France, Germany and Thailand bound for mainland China must take a nucleic acid test and a blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus no more than 48 hours before boarding.

Flights scheduled for Friday are not covered by the new rule, since passengers would have done their tests before that day under previous requirements.

China also plans to impose dual-test requirements on travelers from Australia, Singapore and Japan from Nov. 8.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the antibody test was not widely available in many countries.

“(So) unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China,” said the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

On Tuesday, China Southern Airlines, the country’s biggest carrier by passenger load, said it would suspend transit services for passengers embarking from 21 countries, mostly African and Asian countries and including India and the Philippines.

The number of weekly international passenger flights serving mainland China from late October through March is set to slump 96.8% from a year earlier to 592, the latest schedules show.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Dominique Patton, Stella Qiu, Gabriel Crossley, Martin Pollard and Shivani Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and John Stonestreet)

Europeans, UK tell U.N. Navalny poisoning a ‘threat to international peace, security’

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny “constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” Britain, France, Germany, Estonia and Belgium wrote in a letter to the United Nations Security Council, seen by Reuters on Thursday.

“We call on the Russian Federation to disclose, urgently, fully and in a transparent manner, the circumstances of this attack and to inform the Security Council in this regard,” they said in the letter sent to the 15-member body late on Wednesday.

Navalny was flown to Berlin in August after falling ill on a Russian domestic flight. He received treatment for what Germany said was poisoning by a potentially deadly nerve agent, Novichok, before being discharged in September.

The letter to the Security Council said that on Sept. 2 the German government confirmed that tests had shown “unequivocal proof that Mr Navalny had been poisoned by a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group, which was developed by the Soviet Union and subsequently held by its successor state” Russia.

Russia has denied any involvement in the incident and said it has yet to see evidence of a crime. The Russian mission to the United Nations did not have an immediate comment on the letter.

The European members of the Security Council and Britain noted that last November the Security Council adopted a statement reaffirming that any use of chemical weapons “anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstance is unacceptable and a threat to international peace and security.”

“As such, we consider that the use of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group in the abhorrent poisoning of Mr Alexey Navalny constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” they wrote.

The letter was sent as Russia takes the monthly presidency of the Security Council for October.

The United States did not sign the letter, but on Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The Russian Government must provide a full accounting for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and hold those involved responsible.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Peru, with world’s deadliest outbreak, readies to start vaccine tests

By Marco Aquino

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru will start testing coronavirus vaccines from China’s Sinopharm and U.S. drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in September, researchers said, which should help the country gain faster access to inoculations once the vaccines are approved.

Sinopharm began this week to recruit up to 6,000 volunteers in Peru, which Reuters data indicates has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in relation to its population size. A team of Chinese scientists is expected to arrive in the Andean nation next week to work with local researchers, said Germán Málaga, a doctor and lead vaccine investigator at Lima’s Cayetano Heredia University.

“This is going to happen around Sept. 3, to begin vaccinations on Sept. 8,” he said. Sinopharm’s clinical trials in Peru are being done with Cayetano Heredia and the state-run Universidad Mayor de San Marcos.

Peru has recorded around 622,000 cases of the coronavirus, the fifth highest case load in the world, and 28,277 deaths. It now has the world’s deadliest fatality rate per capita, with 86.67 deaths per 100,000 people, a Reuters tally shows, just ahead of Belgium.

Sinopharm will also do clinical coronavirus vaccine trials elsewhere in Latin America, including in Argentina.

Other Chinese laboratories that will be conducting trials in the region include Sinovac Biotech, which will work in Brazil and Chile, and Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd and CanSino Biologics Inc, which will test in Mexico, authorities have said.

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will start tests with some 4,000 volunteers in Peru around Sept. 24, Prime Minister Walter Martos told reporters on Thursday.

“We are contacting other companies, laboratories, from Britain and other countries that are going to help us immunize at least 70% of the local population,” Martos said.

J&J said earlier this week that it would conduct Phase III trials for its vaccine in Chile, Argentina and Peru.

Peru, a country of nearly 33 million people and the world’s no. 2 copper producer, has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, both in terms of infections and economic impact. The economy crumbled over 30% in the second quarter of the year.

The death toll could also be higher than official figures suggest. A national registry shows that between April and August there were 68,192 more deaths compared to the same period in 2019. Excess deaths often give a better indication of the true number of fatalities.

Researcher Málaga and Carlos Castillo, the chief adviser for immunizations and vaccines at Peru’s health ministry, said that carrying out clinical trials would help Peru get faster access to vaccines when they were ready.

“There is an unwritten agreement, in the sense that in the country where a clinical trial is being carried out, it has priority access to vaccine availability,” Castillo said.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Reuters TV; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)

J&J to start mid-stage coronavirus vaccine trials in three European countries

By Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will begin mid-stage trials for its coronavirus vaccine in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany next week, Spain’s health minister said on Friday, as the U.S. drugmaker expands testing for its experimental shot.

The Phase II trial will last two months and include 550 participants across the three countries, including 190 people in Spain, Salvador Illa told a news conference in Madrid.

“It’s a vote of confidence in our health system,” Illa said, adding it was the first human trial for a coronavirus vaccine to be approved in Spain.

The study will focus on healthy people between the ages of 18 and 55 as well as people over 65.

Johnson & Johnson said the study will evaluate the safety and the ability to induce an immune response from single dose and two-dose regimens of the vaccine candidate, the company said in a statement.

Spain, which has western Europe’s highest tally of coronavirus cases, is also working with AstraZeneca via the European Union’s vaccine procurement program to secure sufficient doses.

J&J’s website says if the latest trials are successful, it will begin final Phase III studies, in which even more volunteers will receive the experimental vaccine.

More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, with 30 in human trials.

There is so far no approved vaccine, except one authorized in Russia before large-scale trials.

J&J is carrying out tests in the United States and Belgium, and this week added Chile, Argentina and Peru to the list of Latin American nations where it plans to conduct Phase III trials on 60,000 volunteers, in a study that will also cover Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The company’s potential vaccine uses “viral vectors” to generate immune responses, similar to the approach taken by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca in their experimental vaccine, as well as China’s CanSino.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Jose Elías Rodríguez; editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Restrictions reimposed across Asia-Pacific region

From Melbourne to Manila, Hong Kong and India’s tech capital Bengaluru, lockdowns and strict social distancing restrictions are being reimposed across the Asia-Pacific after a surge in new coronavirus cases fanned fears of a second wave of infections.

Many parts of Asia, the region first hit by the coronavirus that emerged in central China late last year, are finding cause to pause the reopening of their economies, some after winning praise for their initial responses to the outbreak.

The number of coronavirus infections around the world hit 13 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, climbing by a million in just five days. Reuters’ global tally, which is based on government reports, shows COVID-19 accelerating fastest in Latin America, the number of deaths there exceeding the figure for North America for the first time on Monday.

Shutdown in California

California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen.

‘Worst-case’ winter toll

Britain faces a potentially more deadly second wave of COVID-19 in the coming winter that could kill up to 120,000 people over nine months in a worst-case scenario, health experts said on Tuesday.

With COVID-19 more likely to spread in winter as people spend more time together in enclosed spaces, a second wave of the pandemic “could be more serious than the one we’ve just been through,” said Stephen Holgate, a professor and co-lead author of a report by Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences.

“This is not a prediction, but it is a possibility,” Holgate told an online briefing. “Deaths could be higher with a new wave of COVID-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.”

The United Kingdom’s current death toll from confirmed cases of COVID-19 is around 45,000, the highest in Europe.

Good news from hard-hit Belgium

Belgium, which has reined in the coronavirus after becoming the worst-hit mid-sized country in the world, reported zero new coronavirus-related deaths in 24 hours on Tuesday for the first time since March 10.

As in many European countries that were hard-hit by the pandemic in March and April, Belgium sharply reduced infections by imposing a lockdown, which is now being lifted.

The total number of deaths reported by the national public health institute Sciensano remained at 9,787. In the country of 11.5 million people, that works out to around 850 deaths per million, the worst in the world apart from the tiny city state of San Marino. The peak daily death toll was 343 on April 12.

Bastille Day with a difference

France held a scaled-down annual Bastille Day celebration on Tuesday, with none of the usual tanks and troops parading down Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue, in a concession to the COVID-19 epidemic still stalking Europe.

Instead, President Emmanuel Macron, standing in the back of a military jeep, reviewed ranks of socially-distanced troops on the Place de la Concorde square after a flypast by military aircraft.

“I wish, with all the French, with the armies themselves, to pay a vibrant tribute to health workers and those who, in all sectors, have enabled public, social and economic life to continue,” Macron said in message released ahead of the parade.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Protests roll on against ‘worldwide’ racism

(Reuters) – Demonstrators in Rome held their fists in the air and chanted “No Justice! No Peace!” on Sunday, while in London people defying official warnings not to gather lay down outside the U.S. Embassy as part of a rolling, global anti-racism movement.

In Belgium, police fired tear gas and used a water cannon to disperse about a hundred protesters in a central part of Brussels with many African shops and restaurants. Some protesters were subsequently arrested.

They were part of a crowd of about 10,000 who had gathered at the Palace of Justice, many wearing face masks and carrying banners with the phrase “Black Lives Matter – Belgium to Minneapolis”, “I can’t breathe” and “Stop killing black people”.

“Black Lives Matter is not only about police violence. Here, we experience discrimination that other races do not experience. For example, if we start looking for a flat to rent, we have difficulties. Regarding employment, we are disadvantaged. So it’s not only about police violence,” said 25-year-old insurance broker Randy Kayembe.

The second weekend of demonstrations showed the depth of feeling worldwide over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white officer detaining him knelt on his neck. More protests were also planned across the United States.

In London, where tens of thousands gathered, one banner read: “UK guilty too.”

Footage posted on social media showed demonstrators in Bristol in western England cheering as they tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, and pushed it into a river.

Chaniya La Rose, a 17-year-old student at the London protest with her family, said an end to inequality was long overdue. “It just needs to stop now,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be this hard to be equal.”

Health minister Matt Hancock had earlier said that joining the Black Lives Matter protests risked contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.

London police chief Cressida Dick said 27 officers had been injured in assaults during protests this week in the city, including 14 on Saturday at the end of a peaceful demonstration.

‘INSTITUTIONAL RACISM’

In Italy, where several thousand people gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, speakers called out racism at home, in the United States and elsewhere.

U.S. embassies were the focus of protests elsewhere in Europe, with more than 10,000 gathering in the Danish capital Copenhagen, hundreds in Budapest and thousands in Madrid, where they lined the street guarded by police in riot gear.

“I really think we need to finish with the institutional racism that is actually international,” said Gloria Envivas, 24, an English teacher in the Spanish capital.

“It’s not something that is only going on in the USA or in Europe, it’s also worldwide.”

In Thailand, people held an online demonstration on the video platform Zoom, due to restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Everyone has hopes, everyone has dreams, everyone bleeds red, you know,” said Natalie Bin Narkprasert, an organiser of the Thai protest.

Like many people around the world, the group observed a silence in memory of Floyd, in this case, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the period he was pinned under the officer’s knee – to know “how it feels”.

Other gatherings were due later, including in the United States, where tens of thousands of demonstrators amassed in Washington and other U.S. cities on Saturday.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux around the world; Writing by Philippa Fletcher and Catherine Evans; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Deadly attack in New York City branded ‘terrorism’ by authorities

Police investigate a pickup truck used in an attack on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, New York, U.S.,

By Gina Cherelus and Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight people in New York City by driving a rental truck down a riverfront bike path on Tuesday appeared to have acted alone in an attack that bore all the hallmarks of terrorism, authorities said.

The suspect, who was shot by police and arrested moments after the rampage in Lower Manhattan, left a note saying he carried out the attack in the name of the militant Islamic State group, the New York Times and CNN said.

The death toll was lower than from similar assaults in Spain in August and in France and Germany last year. However, it was still the bloodiest single attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, when suicide hijackers crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,600 people.

The suspect allegedly swerved the pickup onto a path filled with pedestrians and bicyclists on a sunny, crisp autumn afternoon, mowing down everyone in his path before slamming into the side of a school bus.

The man then exited the vehicle brandishing what turned out to be a paint-ball gun and a pellet gun before a police officer shot him in the abdomen.

Multiple bikes are crushed along a bike path in lower Manhattan in New York, NY, U.S., October 31, 2017.

Multiple bikes are crushed along a bike path in lower Manhattan in New York, NY, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The attack, which left crumpled bicycles scattered along the path and victims writhing on the ground, was over in seconds.

In addition to the eight fatalities at least 11 people were hospitalized for injuries described as serious but not life-threatening. That excluded the suspect, who underwent surgery for gunshot wounds.

Police declined to publicly identify the man, but a source familiar with the investigation said his name was Sayfullo Saipov, 29. He reportedly lived in Paterson, New Jersey, a one-time industrial hub about 25 miles (40 km) northwest of lower Manhattan.

He had rented the pickup from a Home Depot hardware store which, according to media accounts, was located in Passaic, just south of Paterson.

First responders tend to a victim after a shooting incident in New York City

First responders tend to a victim after a shooting incident in New York City October 31, 2017.

ARGENTINE FRIENDS AMONG DEAD

Six victims were pronounced dead at the scene and two more at a nearby hospital, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

Five of the dead were Argentine tourists, visiting New York as part of a group of friends celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation, the government there said. Belgium’s foreign minister said a Belgian citizen was also among those killed.

Despite the attack, thousands of costumed Halloween revelers turned out hours later for New York City’s main Halloween parade, which went on as scheduled on Tuesday night with a heightened police presence just a few blocks away.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said police will be out in force to protect the city’s marathon, which is scheduled for Sunday. “You’ll see a lot of officers with long guns. Other things you won’t see that are protecting us,” he told MSNBC.

A U.S. law enforcement official described the suspect as a U.S. immigrant born in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia that was once part of the former Soviet Union. CNN and NBC News said he entered the United States in 2010.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said his government would do all it could to help investigate the “extremely brutal” attack.

Authorities late on Tuesday surrounded a house in Paterson where, according to the New York Times, Saipov was believed to have lived. Paterson, known for its large immigrant population, is home to about 150,000 people, including 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims.

ABC News reported that Saipov had lived in Tampa, Florida. A check of court records related to a traffic citation that Saipov received in eastern Pennsylvania in 2015 showed he listed addresses then in Paterson and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

CNN and other media outlets, citing police officials, reported that the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is greatest” – when he jumped out of his truck.

Although authorities from the mayor’s office to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security all swiftly branded the attack an act of terrorism, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stressed that the suspect was believed to have acted alone.

The New York Times said investigators quickly recognized Saipov had come to the attention of law enforcement in the past. It cited three officials as saying federal authorities knew of Saipov from an unrelated probe, although it was unclear whether that was because he had ties to someone who was under scrutiny or because he was the target of an investigation.

A damaged school bus is seen at the scene of a pickup truck attack in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 31, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media.

A damaged school bus is seen at the scene of a pickup truck attack in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 31, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Sebastian Sobczak via REUTERS

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, told MSNBC in an interview that authorities were not aware of any other suspects, but that finding any such links would be a priority.

“It’s still I think far too early to say” whether the suspect was radicalized before he came to the United States years ago or shifted once he was already here, or acted on his own rather than at the behest of an organized group, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has pressed for a ban on travelers entering the United States from some predominantly Muslim countries, said on Twitter that he had ordered Homeland Security officials to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

He also criticized the U.S. visa system, blaming Democrats and saying that he wanted a ‘merit based’ program for immigrants to the United States.

 

 

(Reporting by Dan Trotta and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Anna Driver and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait and Chizu Nomiyama)

 

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

By Raquel Castillo and Angus MacSwan

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s foreign minister said on Tuesday he would be surprised if Belgium granted political asylum to Catalan secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont, who turned up there after Madrid’s dismissal and takeover of Catalonia’s regional government.

By Tuesday, the Madrid government had gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia’s independence drive.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on the autonomous region failed to materialize at the start of the week on Monday. The secessionist leadership is in disarray, and attention is now turning to a regional election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for Dec. 21 as a way out of the crisis.

But Puigdemont, whose parliament declared an independent Catalan republic on Friday before being removed by Rajoy, remains a thorn in Madrid’s side. He was due to make a statement later on Tuesday in Brussels, where he was seen by journalists on Tuesday after having dropped out of sight for 24 hours.

Spain’s prosecutor called for charges of rebellion and other crimes to be laid against him, which carry combined sentences of more than 30 years in prison. Spain’s Supreme Court also began proceedings for rebellion against the Catalan parliament speaker and other senior lawmakers, a court spokesman said on Tuesday.

Any request for asylum in Belgium could lead to a diplomatic dispute between the two European Union nations. But Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis appeared to play down that prospect for now.

“We have no certainty of what he is doing,” he told Cadena Ser radio. “We would be a bit surprised, given the situation regarding the right of asylum in Europe, but the actions of ex-president Puigdemont are not easy to foresee.”

Any decision would be up to Belgian courts, not the government, Dastis said. “If Belgium grants asylum to Puigdemont, it will not be a normal situation. Let’s leave it there for now.”

In Belgium, Puigdemont’s lawyer Paul Bekaert, a veteran human rights advocate, told Reuters his client was considering seeking asylum but it was not certain.

“We have not yet decided. We have a lot of time to decide,” Bekaert said. “We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”

While Belgium has an unusual track record in refusing to extradite Europeans wanted by other EU states, the main reason Puigdemont had come was to address a wider audience for Catalonia’s grievances against Madrid, Bekaert said.

European nations including Britain, Germany and France have backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

The Spanish government has also said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the Dec. 21 election.

UNCERTAINTY TO BUILD

The political crisis, Spain’s gravest in the four decades since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

Some prominent ousted Catalan leaders, including Puigdemont and Vice President Oriol Junqueras, had said they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the Dec. 21 election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

Two opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane. A Sigma Dos survey published in El Mundo showed 33.5 percent of Catalans were in favor of independence, while a Metroscopia poll published by El Pais put that number at 29 percent. That compared with 41.1 percent in July, according to an official survey carried out by the Catalan government.

Opponents of secession say a majority of Catalans want to remain part of Spain and did not take part in the referendum.

But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.

“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.

“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”

The government’s move to impose direct rule received the backing of several influential Catalan business lobbies, which called on firms to stay in the region. The chaos has prompted an exodus of businesses from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy.

Credit rating agency Fitch late on Monday said the escalation of tensions in Catalonia significantly worsened the outlook for Spain’s economic growth and could prompt negative action on the country’s rating.

In Barcelona, some people displayed exasperation.

“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Lucasta Bath and Clement Rossignol in Belgium; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Belgium launches twin investigations into knife attack

People walk next to the scene where a man attacked two soldiers with a knife in Brussels, Belgium August 25, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken August 25, 2017. Thomas Da Silva Rosa /via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian authorities on Saturday launched twin investigations into a knife attack they consider to be an act of terrorism and released more details of the suspect shot dead by soldiers in central Brussels.

Federal prosecutors said that they had requested an investigating judge look into the incident on Friday that they said constituted attempted murder.

A second investigation would look at the soldiers’ response.

The man shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as he stabbed the soldiers, one of whom shot him twice.

The assailant died shortly afterwards in hospital. Investigators then found a fake firearm and two copies of the Koran among his possessions.

They said the man, aged 30 and of Somali origin, had come to Belgium in 2004. Migration Minister Theo Francken said the man had been granted asylum in 2009 and gained Belgian citizenship in 2015.

Investigators also searched the man’s home in the northern city of Bruges, prosecutors said, without giving any details of what they had found.

They added the man was not known to have any links to Islamist militancy, but had committed an act of assault and battery in February this year.

Brussels prosecutors said they had started an investigation into whether the soldier who killed the man had acted correctly.

“It appears that the soldier twice shot the suspect who had attacked them with a knife. These shots were fired in the context of self-defense and according to the rules of engagement,” the prosecution service said in a statement.

It added that an autopsy would be carried out on Saturday. Prosecutors would take a final decision based on this and a report by a ballistics expert.

Soldiers routinely patrol the streets of the Belgian capital due to a heightened security alert level after Islamist shooting and bomb attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.

In June, troops shot dead a suspected suicide bomber at Brussels’ central train station. There were no other casualties. Authorities treated the incident as an attempted terrorist attack.

 

 

(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)