Exclusive: Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada’s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada’s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

“Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

Iran’s probe into downing of airliner has major flaws – Canada report

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Iran is not conducting its probe into the downing of a civilian airliner in January properly and many questions remain unanswered, an independent Canadian report into the tragedy said on Tuesday.

The 79-page document is the latest expression of frustration from Western nations into how Tehran is handling the aftermath of a disaster that claimed 176 lives.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines plane shortly after take off, mistaking it for a missile when tensions with the United States were high. Many of the victims were Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

Former Canadian cabinet minister Ralph Goodale, charged with helping the victims’ families and examining how to deal with similar disasters in future, said “many of the key details of this horrific event” remain unknown.

“Iran bears responsibility for that because … it has not conducted its investigations (safety, criminal or otherwise) in a truly independent, objective and transparent manner, and answers to critical questions” are absent, he wrote in the report.

Last month, a governing panel at the United Nations’ aviation agency urged Iran to accelerate the investigation. Later in November, Ukraine said Iran was dragging its feet.

In the hours before the disaster, Iran had fired missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. Five days earlier, Washington had killed a Revolutionary Guards commander with a drone strike in Iraq.

Goodale said Iran needed to explain how it had assessed the risks to civilian aircraft in its airspace and what it had told operators. He also said Tehran had to reveal why it had left the airspace open and also why exactly the Guards had decided to down the plane.

Canada, working with other nations who lost citizens, is pressing Iran for reparations while “seeking a full and candid accounting of what exactly happened” and a formal apology, Goodale said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. extends restrictions at Mexico, Canada borders through Jan. 21

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21 with coronavirus cases spiking to record numbers across the country, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Friday.

Canada has shown little interest in lifting the restrictions as the virus runs rampant across the United States. U.S. officials had previously sought some revisions especially for restrictions impacting residents along the Canadian border.

The United States recorded more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases per day for four straight days, according to a Reuters tally of official data. The U.S. also reported a record 3,253 deaths on Wednesday.

The United States has reported about 15.6 million cases and 292,642 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By contrast, Canada has had about 442,000 confirmed cases with just over 13,100 deaths.

Statistics Canada said in October that August visits to Canada by car by U.S. travelers were down 95.7%, and the number of U.S. travelers to Canada by plane fell by 97.9%.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been considering lifting restrictions that ban most non-U.S. travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the 26 countries in the so-called Schengen border-free area of Europe.

Reuters first reported on Nov. 25 the White House was considering rescinding the European and Brazilian entry bans.

The plan won the backing of White House coronavirus task-force members, public health and other federal agencies.

Trump may still opt not to lift the restrictions, given the high number of coronavirus infections in Europe. One potential hurdle is the fact that European countries are not likely to immediately allow most Americans to resume visits, officials said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Berkrot)

Explainer: How Canada will vaccinate its population against COVID-19

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada on Wednesday approved the first COVID-19 vaccine, jointly developed by Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE, and is now preparing to distribute early doses to the most vulnerable groups.

Managing the nationwide rollout will be one of the most complex logistical undertakings in the country’s history, officials say.

WHEN CAN CANADIANS EXPECT TO BE VACCINATED?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Canada would receive 30,000 doses next week and up to 249,000 by the end of the year.

Only a handful of provinces have so far detailed their immediate plans. Saskatchewan said it expected to receive Pfizer vaccine for 1,950 people by Tuesday, and would use it to inoculate healthcare workers caring directly for COVID-19 patients. Neighboring Manitoba said it expected enough Pfizer vaccine next week to immunize 900 healthcare workers.

General immunization for all 38 million Canadians will begin in April 2021 with a goal of 100% coverage by the end of the third quarter, Health Canada said in a document.

WHO WILL RECEIVE THE FIRST DOSES?

Officials say priority groups such as healthcare workers, employees in long-term care homes, vulnerable members of the elderly population and those living in remote Indigenous communities will receive vaccines first.

HOW WILL VACCINES BE TRANSPORTED AND TO WHERE?

Provincial orders for vaccines will be coordinated through a national operations center with help from the military.

Pfizer’s ultra-low temperature vaccine will be transported by the manufacturer directly to the 14 points of inoculation that Ottawa has set up across the country.

The federal government has contracted FedEx Corp and Innomar Strategies, a Canada-based division of AmerisourceBergen to provide logistical support on vaccine delivery.

Frozen vaccines, like Moderna’s, will be transported by federally contracted logistics service providers from where they are manufactured to set points of delivery.

Canada is now running distribution drills to ensure that critical capability gaps are filled, risks are mitigated, and contingencies are put in place.

WHICH OTHER VACCINES ARE IN THE APPROVAL PROCESS

Canadian officials say the next regulatory decision will be on Moderna Inc’s candidate vaccine. Canada also has agreements to purchase the potential vaccines of Novavax Inc, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi SA with GlaxoSmithKline Plc, AstraZeneca Plc, and Medicago.

If all were to receive regulatory approval, Canada could buy enough doses to vaccinate the country more than five times over.

Canada expects the first 6 million doses from Pfizer and Moderna Inc to arrive in the first quarter of 2021, enough for 3 million of the 38 million population.

WHO WILL BE IN CHARGE OF ADMINISTERING VACCINES TO PEOPLE?

Health authorities in the provinces and territories are responsible for determining how vaccines will be deployed and on administering them to their populations. Inoculation will be free.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has also set up a task force headed by Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon in Ottawa and Rod Nickel in Manitoba; Editing by Steve Scherer, Diane Craft and Denny Thomas)

Canada PM Trudeau indicates U.S. border restrictions to last a long time

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada will not agree to lifting a ban on non-essential travel with the United States until the coronavirus outbreak is significantly under control around the world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday.

Trudeau’s comments were a clear indication that the border restrictions will last well into 2021. The two neighbors agreed to the ban in March and have rolled it over on a monthly basis ever since.

The ban does not affect trade. The two countries have highly integrated economies and Canada sends 75% of its goods exports to the United States every month.

“Until the virus is significantly more under control everywhere around the world, we’re not going to be releasing the restrictions at the border,” Trudeau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. when asked about the issue.

“We are incredibly lucky that trade in essential goods, in agricultural products, in pharmaceuticals is flowing back and forth as it always has. It’s just not people traveling, which I think is the important thing,” he said.

The restrictions are opposed by the travel industry, which says they are suffering as tourist flows dry up.

But the premiers of Canada’s major provinces have repeatedly said they have no interest in reopening the border as long as cases of COVID-19 continue to escalate in the United States.

A second wave is also sweeping across Canada, where authorities are starting to reimpose restrictions on businesses and limiting the size of gatherings.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. travel restrictions at Canada, Mexico borders set to be extended until Dec. 21 — official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States’ land borders with Canada and Mexico are expected to remain closed to non-essential travel until Dec. 21 at the earliest amid a rising number of U.S. coronavirus cases, a Homeland Security Department official told Reuters.

The current restrictions expire on Saturday and the three countries are expected to approve another 30-day extension, the official said on Wednesday. The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The restrictions were first put in place in March to control the spread of COVID-19.

Canada’s CTV News also reported that the travel restrictions in place at the Canada-U.S. land border were expected to remain in effect for at least another month.

The DHS official told Reuters the agency was “continuing to look at appropriate public health criteria for a future re-evaluation of existing restrictions.”

The restrictions are particularly painful for U.S. and Canadian towns along the border that are tightly intertwined.

Statistics Canada said earlier that U.S. visits to Canada by automobile had plummeted by more than 95% in August from August 2019.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

‘Great day for humanity’: Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine over 90% effective

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)

Countries turn to rapid antigen tests to contain second wave of COVID-19

By John Miller, Caroline Copley and Bart H. Meijer

ZURICH/BERLIN (Reuters) – Countries straining to contain a second wave of COVID-19 are turning to faster, cheaper but less accurate tests to avoid the delays and shortages that have plagued efforts to diagnose and trace those infected quickly.

Germany, where infections jumped by 4,122 on Tuesday to 329,453 total, has secured 9 million so-called antigen tests per month that can deliver a result in minutes and cost about 5 euros ($5.90) each. That would, in theory, cover more than 10% of the population.

The United States and Canada are also buying millions of tests, as is Italy, whose recent tender for 5 million tests attracted offers from 35 companies. Switzerland, where new COVID-19 cases are at record levels, is considering adding the tests to its nationwide screening strategy.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) now recommends antigen tests to complement existing molecular PCR tests, which have become the standard for assessing active infections but which have also suffered shortages as the pandemic overwhelmed laboratories and outstripped manufacturers’ production capacity.

PCR tests detect genetic material in the virus while antigen tests detect proteins on the virus’s surface, though both are meant to pick up active infections. Another type of test, for antibodies the body produces in response to an infection, can help tell if somebody has had COVID-19 in the past.

Like PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, antigen tests require an uncomfortable nasal swab. They can also produce more “false negatives,” prompting some experts to recommend they only be used in a pinch.

Still, the alarming rise in new infections globally has health officials desperately pursuing more options as the winter influenza season looms.

The World Health Organization reported more than 2 million new cases last week, bringing the total worldwide to 37 million, with more than 1 million deaths from COVID-19.

“These point-of-care tests could make a big difference,” said Gerard Krause, epidemiology department director at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

NO TEST NO FLIGHT

Krause said low-priority patients – those without symptoms – could initially be screened with antigen tests, leaving the more accurate PCR tests for those showing signs of the disease.

Antigen tests have already gained traction in the travel industry. Italian airline Alitalia offers Rome-Milan flights exclusively for passengers with negative tests and Germany’s Lufthansa has announced similar testing plans.

But the pandemic’s vast scale has strained the ability of countries to test all of their citizens, making it difficult to track the twisting paths of infection comprehensively and prevent a resurgence.

In the United States, for example, reliance on automated PCR machinery over the summer left many patients frustrated as they waited for a week or more for results.

Testing in Europe has also suffered glitches.

France does over a million tests a week but its free-for-all testing policy has led to long queues and delays in results, prompting French researchers to come up with a test they say can produce results in 40 minutes, without using a swab.

Italy does between 800,000 and 840,000 tests a week, more than double April’s levels, according to the Ministry of Health. But a government adviser, University of Padua microbiology professor Andrea Crisanti, said the country needs 2 million tests a week to really get on top of the virus.

In the Netherlands, where infection rates are among Europe’s highest, the government has been scrambling to expand weekly testing and lab capacity to 385,000 by next week from 280,000 now. The target is nearly half a million tests a week by December and just under 600,000 by February.

But people have been waiting days for a test. The authorities blame the overwhelming demand from those without clear symptoms for clogging up the system.

In response, the authorities have restricted rapid antigen tests to health workers and teachers, while others go on a waiting list.

‘GOLD STANDARD’

The various hitches highlight a conundrum for governments: how to get people back to work while tracing the virus within the population quickly – without running out of supplies.

Siemens Healthineers, which on Wednesday announced the launch of a rapid antigen test kit in Europe that can deliver a result in 15 minutes, said the volumes of such diagnostic tests being circulated globally now are “at the limits” of what manufacturers can supply.

Rivals including Abbott Laboratories and Becton Dickinson also offer numerous COVID-19 diagnostic tests, with more and more companies jumping in.

Swiss diagnostics maker Roche, announced plans on Tuesday to launch a new antigen test by the end of the year. Its fully automated systems can provide a test result in 18 minutes and a single lab machine can process 300 tests an hour.

By early 2021, the Basel-based company said it could make some 50 million of the new tests a month, on top of the rapid point-of-care tests it already sells.

Roche said the test could be deployed in places such as nursing homes or hospitals, where speedy results could thwart a potentially lethal outbreak.

“The primary use case is the testing of symptomatic patients,” a Roche spokeswoman said. “The secondary use case is the testing of individuals suspected of infection … which could also include asymptomatic patients.”

Expert opinion, however, on just how to use antigen tests is evolving and remains the subject of debate.

Switzerland, where reported new infections spiked to 2,823 cases on Wednesday from as low as three per day in June, is only now validating the accuracy of the rapid tests.

“Deployment of the rapid tests – where it makes sense – will be integrated into our testing strategy,” a spokesman for the Swiss federal health ministry said. “We’ll update our testing recommendations in November.”

Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Clinic in Frankfurt, Germany said rapid antigen tests could be an option for asymptomatic patients planning to visit elderly patients at nursing homes.

But people should refrain from using them as a definitive substitute to judge their infection status.

“The PCR test remains the gold standard,” Ciesek said. “An antigen test should only be used as an alternative if PCR is not possible in a timely manner.”

(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Caroline Copley in Berlin, Emilio Parodi and Giselda Vagnoni in Milan, Josephine Mason in London, Bart Meijer in Amsterdam and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Editing by David Clarke)

Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 talc lawsuits: Bloomberg

Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson will pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 lawsuits that allege the company’s Baby Powder caused cancer, Bloomberg news reported on Monday, citing people with knowledge of the pacts.

J&J faces more than 19,000 lawsuits from consumers and their survivors claiming its talc products caused cancer due to contamination with asbestos, a known carcinogen. The company has maintained that its talc is safe.

The drugmaker declined to comment on the Bloomberg report but reiterated that its talc is safe, does not contain asbestos and does not cause cancer.

“In certain circumstances, we do choose to settle lawsuits, which is done without an admission of liability and in no way changes our position regarding the safety of our products,” the company said in a statement.

In May, J&J said it would stop selling its talc in the United States and Canada after demand had fallen in the wake of what it called “misinformation” about the product’s safety amid a barrage of legal challenges.

J&J has faced scrutiny over the safety of its baby powder following an investigative report by Reuters in 2018 that found the company knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its talc.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Washington hits Belarus with sanctions as Minsk retaliates against EU measures

(Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on eight Belarusian officials on Friday, accusing them of involvement in rigging President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election victory in August or the violent crackdown on protests that followed.

The move came after the European Union announced sanctions on 40 people, including the interior minister and the head of the election commission, achieving a breakthrough on the issue at summit talks in the early hours of Friday morning.

Lukashenko was spared, in line with the EU’s policy of punishing powerbrokers as a last resort. He denies electoral fraud and says the protests are backed from abroad.

Lukashenko’s government announced retaliatory sanctions against unidentified officials, recalled its ambassadors to Poland and Lithuania for consultations and nudged both countries to reduce the size of their embassy staff in Minsk.

Lukashenko is grappling to contain nearly two months of street protests that pose the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule. More than 13,000 people have been arrested, and major opposition figures jailed or exiled.

“The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The U.S. sanctions also targeted Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev and his deputy. Those under sanctions are subject to asset freezes and a ban against Americans doing business with them.

Washington had originally been expected to impose sanctions in concert with Britain and Canada, which went ahead on Tuesday with travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenko, his son Viktor and other senior officials.

Washington has had sanctions on Lukashenko since 2006 but the president was spared in the latest round of measures.

LUKASHENKO SPEAKS TO PUTIN

The crisis has pushed Belarus back towards traditional ally Russia, which has propped up Lukashenko’s government with loans and the offer of military support. Moscow sees its ex-Soviet neighbor as a strategic buffer against the EU and NATO.

Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Friday, expressing confidence that “the problems that have arisen will soon be resolved”, the Kremlin said.

Lukashenko’s government announced it had drawn up a list of people who were banned from travelling to Belarus in retaliation for the EU sanctions. It did not name the officials or the countries they were from.

“…we are imposing visa sanctions against the most biased representatives of European institutions, including the European Parliament and the states – EU members,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz was quoted by the official Belta news agency as saying.

“The list is symmetrical in many ways. We have decided not to make it public for now.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said the Belarusian sanctions would apply in Russia as well.

Lukashenko’s government also asked the Polish and Lithuanian embassies to reduce their staff. Both countries refused.

“We are not going to summon our ambassadors for consultations, and we will definitely not do anything to reduce personnel,” Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters.

“We are not interested in reducing our communications channel,” he said. “If the advice becomes a request, then we will take appropriate measures.”

The Belarusian authorities have detained journalists or stripped them of their accreditation as part of the crackdown on the unrest that followed the Aug. 9 election.

On Friday, the foreign ministry announced it was stripping journalists working for foreign media organizations of their accreditation, and asked them to reapply for their permits.

“I would like to make it clear that it is in no way some attempt to cleanse the news reporting field,” Glaz was quoted by Belta as saying.

The EU sanctions had been held up by Cyprus due to an unrelated dispute with Turkey. The delay dented the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy, diplomats said.

“That we could now agree to those sanctions is an important signal because it strengthens the hand of those who are protesting for freedom of opinion in Belarus,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists.

Merkel will meet on Tuesday with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main electoral opponent who fled into exile after the vote in the ex-Soviet republic, fearing for her family’s safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron met Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday, pledging European support for the Belarusian people.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Vladimir Soldatkin, Alexander Marrow and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Mark Potter)