UK puts military on standby as coronavirus shuts down swathes of London

Reuters
By Guy Faulconbridge and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom put 20,000 military personnel on standby, closed dozens of underground train stations across London and Queen Elizabeth left the city for Windsor Castle as the coronavirus crisis shut down whole swathes of the economy.

As the coronavirus outbreak sweeps across the world, governments, companies and investors are grappling with the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, panicked populations and imploding financial markets.

Against a background of panic buying in supermarkets and the biggest fall in sterling for decades, the British government moved to quash rumors that travel in and out of London would be restricted.

“There is zero prospect of any restriction being placed on traveling in or out of London,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters.

He said police were responsible for maintaining law and order and there were no plans to use the military for this purpose, though the government put military reservists on formal notification.

But dozens of underground train stations across the capital were due to be closed and an industry source said supermarkets were expecting police support amid the fears that London was facing a virtual shutdown.

After ordering the closure of schools across a country that casts itself as a pillar of Western stability, Johnson on Wednesday said the government was ruling nothing out when asked whether he would bring in measures to lock down London.

Johnson has asked the government to come up with plans for a so-called lockdown which would see businesses closed, transport services reduced, gatherings limited and more stringent controls imposed on the city.

Queen Elizabeth on Thursday left the capital for her ancient castle at Windsor. The monarch has also agreed to postpone the planned state visit by Japanese Emperor Naruhito in June.

LONDON CLOSING?

London’s transport authority said it would close up to 40 underground train stations until further notice and reduce other services including buses and trains. The line between Waterloo station and the City of London financial district would be closed.

“People should not be traveling, by any means, unless they really, really have to,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Britain has so far reported 104 deaths from coronavirus and 2,626 confirmed cases, but UK scientific advisers say more than 50,000 people might have already been infected.

Britain faces a “massive shortage” of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said.

With the world’s fifth largest economy coming to a standstill, the pound on Wednesday plunged to its lowest since March 1985, barring a freak “flash crash” in October 2016. On Thursday the pound was down 0.5% at $1.1570.

British shoppers were queuing around the block early on Thursday morning to buy basic supplies such as bottled water and tinned goods ahead of an expected toughening of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Supermarkets have been forced to limit purchases after frantic shoppers stripped shelves. Outside one Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London on Thursday, a huge queue had formed ahead of opening, with people standing calmly in the rain.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Dylan Martinez, Kate Holton and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Michael Holden and Giles Elgood)

Stunned world grapples with ‘once-in-100-year’ coronavirus battle

By Swati Pandey and Ryan Woo

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were adjusting on Wednesday to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is not only killing the old and vulnerable but also threatening prolonged economic misery.

The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected about 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.

“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.

“Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world,” he added, as his government prepared for a potentially exponential rise after only six deaths so far.

There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced an unusually high death rate – 2,503 from 31,506 cases – and was drafting thousands of student doctors into service before final exams to help an overwhelmed health service.

Around the world, rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside-down as events were canceled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel at a minimum.

“Cleanliness is important – but here it’s not easy,” said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.

The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbors, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay indoors.

In the hills of southern Spain, applause rings out every evening at 8 p.m. as self-isolated neighbors thank health services for their work and greet each other.

Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to economies, aid to health services, loans to tottering businesses, and help for individuals fearful for mortgages and other routine payments.

BOUNCE BACK OR LONG RECESSION?

“We have never lived through anything like this. And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Sanchez told parliament.

The chamber was nearly empty with most lawmakers kept away.

Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled again.

Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged at the end of last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere – hoped to be within months.

Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.

Restaurants, bars and hotels have been shuttered and in the airline industry, facing the worst crisis in living memory, tens of thousands have already been laid off or put on unpaid leave.

In China, the jobless rate rose to 6.2% in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2% in December.

The majority of businesses and factories – apart from the epicenter in Hubei province – have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned. Some sectors are faring better than others, such as pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, food suppliers, and utilities.

GEOPOLITICS FLARE

Some geopolitical frictions, however, continued as normal – or were even exacerbated by the crisis. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease.

Moscow has denied such accusations in the past.

In other long-rumbling frictions, China withdrew press credentials of three American journalists in a dispute over media freedoms and coverage of the coronavirus.

The U.S. election race carried on, with Joe Biden coasting to victory in three Democratic presidential primaries. A hiatus in campaigning is now expected due to the epidemic.

The coronavirus has dampened passions in some hotspots, such as Hong Kong where anti-Beijing protests had been raging. But in others, anti-establishment demonstrators were adamant they would not be sidetracked.

“The system is trying to use coronavirus as an argument to end our revolution,” teacher Mohamed Hachimi said of a ban on protests in Algeria. “Marches will continue!”

As China’s outbreak appeared over the worst, while the West’s was spiraling, overseas Chinese students began flying home after campuses shut their gates.

“There’s lots of uncertainty and I think having more of a support structure – family and friends in China – would make this period easier,” said 20-year-old Harvard University undergraduate Roger Zhang, returning home to Shenzhen.

With most major sports events now canceled, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under increasing pressure to reconsider the summer Games in Japan.

Several athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said athletes’ health was at risk as they juggled training with coronavirus shutdowns.

“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?” Stefanidi told Reuters.

($1 = 0.9125 euros)

(Reporting by Swati Pandey and Colin Packham in Sydney, Ryan Woo and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Nathan Allen in Madrid, John Whitesides in Washington, Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer in Rome, David Kirton in Shenzhen, Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Aaron Ross in Dakar; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Graff)

Coronavirus deaths, cases leap in China; markets shiver

By Winni Zhou and Dominique Patton

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese province at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands more cases on Thursday under a new diagnostic method, raising fresh questions about the scale of the crisis.

The sharp rise in the headline number of deaths and infections unnerved world markets, as traders halted a recent rally in stocks and retreated back to the safety of government bonds and gold.

Health officials in China’s central province of Hubei said 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December.

That took total deaths in China from the newly discovered virus to 1,367, up 254 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.

For all related coverage on the outbreak, click: https://www.reuters.com/live-events/coronavirus-6-id2921484

For related Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2GVwIyw

The spike in numbers came a day after markets were cheered when China reported its lowest number of new cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by the country’s senior medical adviser that the epidemic could end by April.

Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.

But it has begun using quicker computerised tomography (CT) scans, which reveal lung infections, the Hubei health commission said, to confirm virus cases and isolate them faster.

As a result, another new 14,840 cases were reported in the central province on Thursday, from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier. But excluding cases confirmed using the new methods, the number of new cases rose by only 1,508.

About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority of them in China.

The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, said Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

“Presumably, there are deaths which occurred in people who did not have a lab diagnosis but did have a CT,” she told Reuters. “It is important that these also be counted.”

The new testing is only being used in Hubei, officials said.

TENTATIVE SLOWING?

Under the new system, suspected cases were being confirmed, and if the number of deaths did not rise as fast, that would mean the disease was less deadly than thought, said Dr Eyal Leshem of the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine.

“The real mortality rate of the disease may be lower,” Leshem said.

Consultancy Capital Economics said the surge did not necessarily point to an acceleration in the spread of the virus but rather that official figures had been understating its prevalence.

“For now, the latest figures don’t appear to undermine the recent tentative signs that the spread of the virus may be slowing,” it said.

Frank Benzimara, head of Asia Equity Strategy, at Society Generale in Hong Kong, said the new figures had not sparked panic in financial markets: “It can be seen as an exercise of transparency.”

The outbreak, which is believed to have emerged late last year from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally, is one of the biggest tests facing the Chinese government in years and blame has fallen on provincial leaders.

State media said provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang had been sacked as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang had been removed as party chief in the provincial capital Wuhan.

CRUISE TO CAMBODIA

Media did not give a reason for the dismissals, but the two are the most high-profile officials to be removed from duty since the outbreak began.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday the number of infections in China had stabilised but it was too early to say the epidemic was slowing.

Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs and preliminary clinical trial results are weeks away, but a vaccine could take 18 months to develop.

Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen other countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China – one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, where a further 44 cases were reported on Thursday. In all, 219 of about 3,700 people on board have tested positive.

There was a happy ending for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which docked in Cambodia after being denied docking rights in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears that one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew might have the virus, even though none had tested positive.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, remains under virtual lockdown, and other major Chinese cities face severe restrictions.

(Reporting by Winnie Zhou Yawen Chen and Dominique Patton in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz and David Stanway in Shanghai; Keith Zhai, d John Geddie, tom Westbrook in Singapore; James Pearson in Hanoi, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Coates and Robert Birsel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S., Iran draw back from brink but new threats show crisis not over

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ahmed Aboulenein

DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran spurned the U.S. president’s call for a new nuclear pact and its commanders threatened more attacks, after both sides backed off from intensified conflict following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Concern the Middle East was primed for a wider war eased after U.S President Donald Trump refrained from ordering more military action on Wednesday and Iran’s foreign minister diplomat said missile strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response.

But each side’s next move in their protracted shadow war was uncertain, although Iranian generals resumed their habitual barrage of warnings to Washington.

Trump’s Democratic critics have accused him of reckleness in his handling of Iran.

But analysts say that in an election year, he wants to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct confrontation with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region as U.S. sanctions bite.

Iran fired missiles on Wednesday at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone attack of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

The actions followed months of tension that has increased steadily since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s oil exports and hammered its economy.

Trump told Americans in an address on Wednesday: “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it”.

The Iranian missiles fired on military bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops, he said. Iran “appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he said.

‘ECONOMIC TERRORISM’

Trump also said it was time for world powers to replace the 2015 nuclear accord with a new deal that would allow Iran to “thrive and prosper”.

But Trump, who was impeached last month, also said he would impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, without giving details.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in response that Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards also issued new threats to Washington, with one senior commander warning of “harsher revenge soon” and another saying Wednesday’s missile strikes were only the start of a series of attacks across the region.

The new head of the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his slain predecessor Soleimani.

“We will continue in this luminous path with power,” Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani said.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well the United States and Israel.

Soleimani was a national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners. The West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

The military comments contrasted with Wednesday’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said Tehran did not want an escalation.

Despite tough talk, analysts said Iran would not seek a conventional war with Washington although it might turn to allied forces in the area.

“I’m not expecting further direct attacks from Iran. We are likely to see more indirect responses through proxies,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He said there might be a chance for a negotiated solution to the latest standoff as “the Trump administration does not appear to actively pursue a war and Iran needs sanctions relief”.

Trump has often criticized his predecessors for involving the United States in long and costly foreign wars.

PATIENCE

Washington said it had indications Tehran was telling its allies to refrain from new action against U.S. troops.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on Fox News, said: “We continue to receive word that Iran is standing down, but at the president’s direction we’re going to remain vigilant.”

In neighboring Iraq, Muslim Shi’ite groups opposed to the U.S. presence there also sought to cool emotions that have been running high for weeks.

Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi’ite cleric opposed to U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, said the crisis was over and called on “Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions”.

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the United States blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a U.S. contractor, said “passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results” of expelling U.S. forces.

Washington said Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles in Wednesday’s strikes, with at least 11 hitting Iraq’s al-Asad air base and one striking a facility in Erbil.

Satellite pictures of al-Asad base before and after the strikes showed damage, including to aircraft hangers.

The images offered limited insight into Iran’s strategy but gave some indication of missile accuracy, an analyst said.

“The impacts are not scattershot across empty fields or airstrips on the southern side of the base,” Dara Massicot, policy researcher at RANDCorporation, said, adding that they did not appear to be purely symbolic strikes.

“Early warning, maybe tip-offs, missile failures, and on-base readiness saved lives,” Massicot said.

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say
By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of Venezuelans is on track to reach 5 million people, as pressure grows on neighboring countries to provide them with long-term support, United Nations and European Union officials said on Wednesday.

Some 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to official figures, but more are using illegal crossing points because they lack identity papers, said Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the U.N. refugee and migration agencies.

The crisis has worsened since the United States imposed sanctions, including on the pivotal oil industry, in an effort to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Dozens of nations recognize Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged a 2018 election.

Roughly 5,000 people leave Venezuela daily, although the number fluctuates as more states require visas, Stein said.

“The experience of other crises in the world shows us that those who would want to go back to Venezuela if the crisis in political terms were to be solved today, it will take a good two years or maybe even more,” Stein told a news conference.

A U.N. regional humanitarian response plan of $739 million for this year is expected to nearly double for 2020, he added.

The initially welcoming attitude to Venezuelans around South America has soured amid accusations they bring crime, crowd the job market, and strain social services.

The United Nations and European Union are hosting a meeting on Oct. 28-29 in Brussels to raise awareness of needs. Donors and officials from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are due to attend, but no Venezuelan representatives.

“This is the most severe and fastest-growing refugee migrant crisis in Latin American history, at least recent history,” said Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “There are estimates also that it could further increase if the situation does not change, quickly reaching 5 million.”

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants fleeing the long-running crisis, which has caused widespread shortages of food and medicine. Some 1.4 million Venezuelans live in Colombia.

The flow is overwhelming the financial and administrative capacities of host countries to provide education and health services, Stein said.

“Nine receiving countries have agreed to accept expired (Venezuelan) passports as valid documents. And so with an expired passport you can get a temporary permit sometimes for two years,” he stated.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

UK PM Johnson makes final Brexit offer to cool EU reception

By Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kylie MacLellan

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a final Brexit offer to the European Union on Wednesday and said that unless the bloc compromised, Britain would leave without a deal at the end of this month.

In what supporters cast as a moment of truth after more than three years of crisis, Johnson stuck to his hard line on Brexit, giving some of the first, albeit vague, details of what he described as “constructive and reasonable proposals”.

With the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline moving closer, Johnson’s aides cast the proposals to be delivered to Brussels as London’s final gambit to try to break the deadlock – principally over arrangements for the Irish border – and find a path to a smooth departure from the EU.

“We are coming out of the EU on October 31, come what may,” Johnson told party members, after expressing “love” for Europe in a speech that focused mostly on domestic issues such as health, the economy and crime.

“We are tabling what I believe are constructive and reasonable proposals which provide a compromise for both sides,” Johnson said. “Let us be in no doubt that the alternative is no deal.”

Many diplomats fear the United Kingdom is heading towards a no-deal or another delay as they say the British proposals are not enough to get an agreement by Oct. 31. Johnson said further delay was “pointless and expensive”.

The initial reaction from other European capitals was cool. Berlin and Paris said they were awaiting details.

EU diplomats and officials in Brussels were less polite with one calling the reported proposals “fundamentally flawed”.

“If it’s take it or leave it, we better close the book and start talking about the modalities of an extension,” a senior EU official told Reuters.

“Essentially it is a non-runner,” said another EU diplomat.

NO DEAL?

Quitting the EU is Britain’s most significant geopolitical move since World War Two. It is, though, still uncertain if it will leave with a deal or without one – or even not leave at all.

Deutsche Bank said it saw a 50 percent chance of a no-deal Brexit by the end of the year. This would spook financial markets, send shockwaves through the global economy and divide the West. It could also bring chaos to British ports and disrupt supply lines in goods from food products to car parts.

Despite Johnson’s repeated promises to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31, parliament has passed a law stating that Britain must request a delay if it does not have a deal by Oct. 19. Johnson has repeatedly refused to say how he will get around the law.

A senior British official said: “The government is either going to be negotiating a new deal or working on no deal – nobody will work on delay.”

Ireland, whose 500 km (300 mile) land border with the United Kingdom, will become the frontier of the EU’s single market and customs union, is crucial to any Brexit solution.

The problem is how to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a back door into the EU market without erecting border controls that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in which more than 3,600 people were killed.

The Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck last November with the EU says the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.

Johnson said Britain had compromised in putting forward a proposal to try to change that so-called backstop, an insurance policy to ensure there is no return to a hard border.

Giving little detail on his proposals, Johnson said there would be no checks at or near the Irish border. He said London would respect the 1998 peace agreement. He did not explain how.

IRELAND

Britain would “protect the existing regulatory arrangements for farmers and other businesses on both sides of the border” while Northern Ireland would leave the bloc alongside the rest of the United Kingdom, he said.

“By a process of renewable democratic consent by the executive and assembly of Northern Ireland,” Johnson said. “We will go further and protect the existing regulatory arrangements for farmers and other businesses on both sides of the border.”

He said the United Kingdom “whole and entire” would withdraw from the EU, with London keeping control of its own trade policy from the start. Technology could offer a solution, he said, without giving details.

“I hope very much that our friends understand that and compromise in their turn,” said Johnson, who took office in July after May stood down.

With the EU already pouring cold water on some of the reports of his proposal, the likelihood of a no deal appears to be rising – something Johnson’s opponents say they believe is the prime minister’s overriding goal.

John McDonnell, finance policy chief for the opposition Labour Party, described Johnson’s proposals as “a cynical attempt to force through a no-deal Brexit”.

Johnson has repeatedly said he wants a deal.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Elizabeth Piper and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Angus MacSwan)

Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of businesspeople.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

“If I have a choice,” she said, speaking in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend.

Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1. And she said China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets. World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing, “to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world.”

In such a situation, she added, “the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

Three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour. A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters. The meeting was one of a number of “closed-door sessions” that Lam said she has been doing “with people from all walks of life” in Hong Kong.

Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people, and that both were effectively private. “We are therefore not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events,” the spokesman said.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a high-level agency under China’s cabinet, the State Council, did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

‘THE PRICE WOULD BE TOO HUGE’

The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with an escalating strategic rivalry with the United States and a slowing economy. Tensions have risen as the world’s two biggest economies are embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war. Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.

Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”

As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The tone of Lam’s comments in the recording is at odds with her more steely public visage. At times, she can be heard choking up as she reveals the personal impact of the three-month crisis.

“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said.

Lam told the meeting that the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong to quell the protests.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she said.

“They care about the country’s international profile,” she said. “It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda.”

But she said China was “willing to play long” to ride out the unrest, even if it meant economic pain for the city, including a drop in tourism and losing out on capital inflows such as initial public offerings.

‘BIGGEST SADNESS’

Lam also spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong and restoring stability to the city of more than seven million, as well as the need to improve efforts to get the government’s message out. At the end, applause can be heard on the recording.

While Lam said that now was not the time for “self-pity,” she spoke about her profound frustration with not being able “to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers,” or to provide a political solution to “pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular.”

Her inability “to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension,” she said, was the source of her “biggest sadness.”

Lam also spoke about the impact the crisis has had on her daily life.

“Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out,” she said. “I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media.”

If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.

After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute.

HONG KONG ‘IS NOT DEAD YET’

Lam was chosen as city leader in March 2017, vowing to “unite society” and heal divisions in Hong Kong, which remains by far the freest city under Chinese rule. Under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed with Britain, Hong Kong enjoys an array of personal freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China. One of the most cherished of those freedoms is the city’s British-style system of independent courts and rule of law. The protesters say the extradition law would erode that bulwark of liberty.

According to a biography on the Hong Kong government website, Lam, a devout Catholic, attended St Francis’ Canossian College. Her mother, who took care of seven family members on a daily basis, was her role model and inspiration, the biography said. An election manifesto said Lam came from a “grassroots” family and did her homework on a bunk-bed. After studying sociology at the University of Hong Kong, she went on to a distinguished career as a civil servant in Hong Kong. She was elected city leader in March 2017 by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

In her early days as leader, Lam pushed through a series of controversial government policies, drawing public criticism in Hong Kong but winning praise from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On July 1, 2017, the day she was sworn in, Lam donned a white hard hat as she walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which physically links Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics say the bridge could further weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy by deepening its physical links with southern China.

The effective expulsion last year of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, whose visa wasn’t renewed after he hosted an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, also drew condemnation at home and abroad. Lam and her government later came under fire for banning the party and the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers.

Xi praised Lam’s leadership during a visit to Beijing in December 2018. “The central government fully endorses the work of Chief Executive Lam” and the Hong Kong government, Xi said, according to a report in the state news agency Xinhua.

Pollster Robert Chung said Lam’s success in pushing through many controversial proposals bolstered her belief she would be able to ram through the extradition bill.

“All these things made her feel so confident, and when we had the first demonstration, she still thought, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it through in two days and things will be over,'” Chung said. “But she was totally wrong.”

At the meeting last week, Lam said the extradition bill was her doing and was meant to “plug legal loopholes in Hong Kong’s system.”

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she said.

She expressed deep regrets about her push to pass the bill. “This has proven to be very unwise given the circumstances,” she said. “And this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

She gave her audience a gloomy outlook. The police, she said, would continue to arrest those responsible for “this escalating violence,” a group that the government initially estimated numbered between one thousand and two thousand.

It would be “naïve,” she said, to “paint you a rosy picture, that things will be fine.” She did, however, express hope in the city’s ultimate “resurrection.”

“Hong Kong is not dead yet. Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet,” she said.

(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)