Europe for sale and China is cashing in

Matthew 24:6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Important Takeaways:

  • China: Buying Up Europe
  • For more than a decade, China has been stealthily buying up European companies in strategic sectors, particularly in technology and energy.
  • China has been covering up its European purchases by passing them off as ostensibly commercial investments. It has been hiding the state-owned companies involved in the investments behind “layers of ownership, complex shareholding structures and deals executed via European subsidiaries,” according to Datenna, a Dutch company that monitors Chinese investments in Europe
  • A staggering 40% out of 650 Chinese investments in Europe in the years 2010-2020, had “high or moderate involvement by state-owned or state-controlled companies, including some in advanced technologies”.
  • What appears to be urgently needed in Europe now is a deeper understanding of the threat that China poses, as well as the political will to act on it. Action is urgently needed to block investments that serve up Europe’s strategic assets on a silver platter to China’s state-owned companies, which the Chinese Communist Party then use to advance its expansionist ends.

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U.S. President Biden signs $770 billion defense bill

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for fiscal year 2022, which authorizes $770 billion in defense spending, the White House said on Monday.

Earlier this month, the Senate and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the defense bill with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans for the annual legislation setting policy for the Department of Defense.

The NDAA is closely watched by a broad swath of industry and other interests because it is one of the only major pieces of legislation that becomes law every year and because it addresses a wide range of issues. The NDAA has become law every year for six decades.

Authorizing about 5% more military spending than last year, the fiscal 2022 NDAA is a compromise after intense negotiations between House and Senate Democrats and Republicans after being stalled by disputes over China and Russia policy.

It includes a 2.7% pay increase for the troops, and more aircraft and Navy ship purchases, in addition to strategies for dealing with geopolitical threats, especially Russia and China.

The NDAA includes $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides support to Ukraine’s armed forces, $4 billion for the European Defense Initiative and $150 million for Baltic security cooperation.

On China, the bill includes $7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and a statement of congressional support for the defense of Taiwan, as well as a ban on the Department of Defense procuring products produced with forced labor from China’s Xinjiang region.

It creates a 16-member commission to study the war in Afghanistan. Biden ended the conflict – by far the country’s longest war – in August.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)

Austria locks down, Merkel says new steps needed, as Europe faces COVID freeze

By Francois Murphy and Maria Sheahan

VIENNA/BERLIN (Reuters) -Austria became on Monday the first country in western Europe to reimpose lockdown since vaccines were rolled out, shutting non-essential shops, bars and cafes as surging caseloads raised the prospect of a third winter in deep freeze for the continent.

Germany will also need tighter restrictions to control a record-setting wave of infections, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying, remarks that erased gains on European stock markets and sent bond yields down.

With Europe once again the epicenter of the global pandemic, new restrictions and vaccine mandates are expected to spread nearly two years after the first COVID-19 case was identified in China.

“We are in a highly dramatic situation. What is in place now is not sufficient,” Merkel told leaders of her German CDU party in a meeting, according to two participants, confirming comments first reported by Bloomberg.

Austria told people to work from home if they can, and shut cafes, restaurants, bars, theatres and non-essential shops for 10 days. People may leave home for a limited number of reasons, such as going to workplaces, buying essentials or taking a walk.

The Austrian government has also announced it will make it compulsory to get inoculated as of Feb. 1. Many Austrians are skeptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.

“It’s like a luxury prison. It’s definitely limited freedom and for me it’s not great psychologically,” said Sascha Iamkovyi, a 43-year-old entrepreneur in the food sector, describing his return to lockdown on a chilly, overcast day in an unusually quiet Vienna.

“People were promised that if they got vaccinated they would be able to lead a normal life, but now that’s not true.”

The return of severe government restrictions in Austria had already brought about 40,000 protesters to Vienna’s streets on Saturday, and protests turned to violence in Brussels and across the Netherlands over the weekend.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia banned unvaccinated people from services including pubs from Monday.

Around a third of Austrians are unvaccinated, one of the highest rates in western Europe, and authorities mainly blame the unvaccinated for the current COVID wave, though protection from vaccines given early this year is also waning. Inoculation greatly reduces the risk of serious illness or death, and reduces but does not prevent viral transmission or re-infection.

Austria’s conservative-led government imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated last week, but daily infections kept rising far above the previous peak, requiring this week’s full lockdown.

In many parts of Germany, including its capital Berlin, Christmas markets opened for the first time in two years on Monday. But states bordering Austria and the Czech Republic that have Germany’s highest case numbers have introduced stricter rules, cancelling Christmas markets, barring the unvaccinated from restaurants and bars and imposing curfews at night.

WATER CANNON AND TEAR GAS

Eastern European countries where vaccination rates are even lower have been experiencing some of the highest death tolls per capita in the world, with hospitals becoming overrun in countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

In cities across the Netherlands, riots broke out as police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks to protest at COVID-19 restrictions. More than 100 people were arrested during three nights of violence, which saw police open fire at rioters in Rotterdam on Friday.

Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Brussels on Sunday, with officers firing water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and smoke bombs.

In France, proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required to go to restaurants and cinemas. President Emmanuel Macron said last week more lockdowns were not needed.

But violence erupted last week in the French Caribbean region of Guadeloupe amid protests over COVID-19 restrictions such as the mandatory vaccines for health workers.

Police have arrested at least 38 people and dozens of stores have been looted. Macron said on Monday the protests had created a “very explosive” situation as a general strike entered a second week on Monday and many stores remained shuttered.

(Additonal reporting by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka; Writing by Nick MacfieEditing by Alison Williams, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Austria locks down unvaccinated as COVID cases surge across Europe

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria imposed a lockdown on people unvaccinated against the coronavirus on Monday as winter approaches and infections rise across Europe, with Germany considering tighter curbs and Britain expanding its booster program to younger adults.

Europe has again become the epicenter of the pandemic, prompting some countries to consider re-introducing restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and stirring debate over whether vaccines alone are enough to tame COVID-19.

The disease spreads more easily in the winter months when people gather inside.

Europe last week accounted for more than half of the 7-day average of infections globally and about half of latest deaths, according to a Reuters tally, the highest levels since April last year when the virus was at its initial peak in Italy.

Governments and companies are worried the prolonged pandemic will derail a fragile economic recovery.

Austria’s conservative-led government said that about two million people in the country of roughly nine million were now only allowed to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons like travelling to work or shopping for essentials.

But there is widespread skepticism, including among conservatives and the police, about how the lockdown can be enforced – it will be hard to verify, for example, whether someone is on their way to work, which is allowed, or going to shop for non-essential items, which is not.

“My aim is very clear: to get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, not to lock up the unvaccinated,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told ORF radio as he explained the lockdown, which was announced on Sunday.

The aim is to counter a surge in infections to record levels fueled by a full vaccination rate of only around 65% of the population, one of the lowest in western Europe.

Pensioner Susanne Zwach said the lockdown would be “very, very difficult” to police.

“It is definitely a way of introducing a requirement to get vaccinated through the back door,” she said as she waited in line for her booster shot.

‘STORM OF INFECTION’

Germany’s federal government and leaders of Germany’s 16 states are due to discuss new pandemic measures this week.

Three German state health ministers urged parties negotiating to form a new government to prolong the states’ power to implement stricter measures such as lockdowns or school closures as the seven-day COVID incidence rate hit record highs.

Chancellor Angela Merkel urged unvaccinated people to reconsider their decision in a video message on Saturday.

“Difficult weeks lie ahead of us, and you can see that I am very worried,” Merkel said, speaking in her weekly video podcast.

France, the Netherlands and many countries in Eastern Europe are also experiencing a surge in infections.

Britain is to extend its COVID-19 booster vaccine rollout to people between 40 and 49, officials said on Monday, to boost waning immunity ahead of the colder winter months.

Currently all people 50 and over, those who are clinically vulnerable and frontline health workers are eligible for boosters.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he saw no need to move to a “Plan B” of mask mandates and vaccine passes, even though he was cautious of rising infections in Europe.

“We’re sticking with Plan A,” he said in a broadcast clip on Monday. “But what we certainly have got to recognize is there is a storm of infection out there in parts of Europe.”

Back in Austria, skepticism about vaccines is encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament, which is planning a protest against the government’s coronavirus policies on Saturday.

Party head Herbert Kickl, 53, said in a Facebook posting he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has mild symptoms and no fever but will not be able to attend Saturday’s protest because of quarantine requirements.

(Additional reporting by Lisi Niesner in Vienna, Josephine Mason and Alistair Smout in London, Emilio Parodi in Milan and Victoria Waldersee and Maria Sheahan in Berlin; Writing by Nick Macfie, Editing by William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher)

COVID cases break records across Europe as winter takes hold

By Krisztina Than and Nikolaj Skydsgaard

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Coronavirus infections are hitting record levels in many countries across Europe as winter takes hold, prompting a call for action from the World Health Organization which described the new wave as a “grave concern.”

Soaring numbers of cases, especially in Eastern Europe, have prompted debate on whether to reintroduce curbs on movement before the Christmas holiday season and on how to persuade more people to get vaccinated.

That conversation comes as some countries in Asia, with the notable exception of China, reopen their tourism sectors to the rest of the world.

“The current pace of transmission across the 53 countries of the European Region is of grave concern,” regional WHO head Hans Kluge said, adding that the spread was exacerbated by the more transmissible Delta variant.

The virus spreads faster in the winter months when people gather indoors.

Kluge warned earlier that if Europe followed its current trajectory, there could be 500,000 COVID-related deaths in the region by February.

“We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of COVID-19, to preventing them from happening in the first place,” he said.

The region saw a 6% increase in new cases last week, with nearly 1.8 million new cases, compared to the week before. The number of deaths rose 12% in the same period.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, reported 33,949 new infections, the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic last year. Cases in Russia and Ukraine are soaring.

Austria’s daily new coronavirus infections surged towards a record set a year ago, making a lockdown for the unvaccinated ever more likely.

COVID-19 prevalence in England rose to its highest level on record in October, Imperial College London said, led by a high numbers of cases in children and a surge in the southwest.

Slovakia reported 6,713 new cases, also a record, while daily new cases in Hungary more than doubled from last week to 6,268. Poland, Eastern Europe’s biggest economy, reported 15,515 daily cases on Thursday, the highest figure since April. Croatia and Slovenia on Thursday both reported record daily infections.

CHINA ON ALERT AHEAD OF OLYMPICS

China is also on high alert at ports of entry to reduce the risk of COVID-19 cases entering from abroad, and has stepped up restrictions amid a growing outbreak less than 100 days before the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Authorities have also tightened curbs in the capital ahead of a major gathering of the top members of the Communist Party next week.

Since mid-October, over 700 locally transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms have been reported in China. While the number is tiny compared with other countries, it has led to a growing wave of restrictions under Beijing’s zero-tolerance policy.

In Central Europe, Hungary has trimmed its 2021 GDP growth projection to 6.8% from 7.0-7.5% due to a rise in inflation, energy prices, and the risks stemming from COVID-19, the finance minister said, flagging the possibility of some new restrictions in a country where there are currently hardly any curbs in place.

Slovakia’s Finance Ministry cut its forecasts for 2021 and 2022 growth in September, saying a new wave of COVID-19 cases will hit consumer demand and the labor market at the end of the year although the impact will not be as strong as earlier in the pandemic. Poland’s central bank left its projections unchanged.

FRESH CURBS

The Hungarian government has urged people to take up vaccines and last week announced mandatory vaccinations at state institutions, also empowering private companies to make jabs mandatory for employees if they believe that is necessary.

Romania – where hospitals cannot cope with a surge in COVID-19 patients – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have all tightened rules on mask wearing and introduced measures to curb infections.

The Czech Republic has introduced a requirement for restaurant customers to show proof of vaccination or a test. It also has tough mask regulations and some children are again being tested in schools in areas where cases are higher.

In Poland, mask wearing is mandatory in enclosed public spaces while cinemas, theatres and hotels have a 75% capacity limit. The Hungarian government has not replied to Reuters questions on potential measures.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest and Nicolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen; Additional reporting by Jason Hovet, Alan Charlish and bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Frances Kerry)

‘Just give us our money’: Taliban push to unlock Afghan billions abroad

By John O’Donnell

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban government is pressing for the release of billions of dollars of central bank reserves as the drought-stricken nation faces a cash crunch, mass starvation and a new migration crisis.

Afghanistan parked billions of dollars in assets overseas with the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks in Europe, but that money has been frozen since the Islamist Taliban ousted the Western-backed government in August.

A spokesman for the finance ministry said the government would respect human rights, including the education of women, as he sought fresh funds on top of humanitarian aid that he said offered only “small relief”.

Under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, women were largely shut out of paid employment and education and normally had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative when they left home.

“The money belongs to the Afghan nation. Just give us our own money,” ministry spokesman Ahmad Wali Haqmal told Reuters. “Freezing this money is unethical and is against all international laws and values.”

One top central bank official called on European countries including Germany to release their share of the reserves to avoid an economic collapse that could trigger mass migration towards Europe.

“The situation is desperate and the amount of cash is dwindling,” Shah Mehrabi, a board member of the Afghan Central Bank, told Reuters. “There is enough right now … to keep Afghanistan going until the end of the year.

“Europe is going to be affected most severely, if Afghanistan does not get access to this money,” said Mehrabi.

“You will have a double whammy of not being able to find bread and not being able to afford it. People will be desperate. They are going to go to Europe,” he said.

The call for assistance comes as Afghanistan faces a collapse of its fragile economy. The departure of U.S.-led forces and many international donors left the country without grants that financed three quarters of public spending.

The finance ministry said it had a daily tax take of roughly 400 million Afghanis ($4.4 million).

Although Western powers want to avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, they have refused to officially recognize the Taliban government.

Haqmal said Afghanistan would allow women an education, although not in the same classrooms as men.

Human rights, he said, would be respected but within the framework of Islamic law, which would not include gay rights.

“LGBT… That’s against our Sharia law,” he said.

Mehrabi hopes that while the United States has recently said it will not release its lion’s share of roughly $9 billion of funds, European countries might.

He said Germany held half a billion dollars of Afghan money and that it and other European countries should release those funds.

Mehrabi said that Afghanistan needed $150 million each month to “prevent imminent crisis”, keeping the local currency and prices stable, adding that any transfer could be monitored by an auditor.

“If reserves remain frozen, Afghan importers will not be able to pay for their shipments, banks will start to collapse, food will be become scarce, grocery stores will be empty,” Mehrabi said.

He said that about $431 million of central bank reserves were held with German lender Commerzbank, as well as a further roughly $94 million with Germany’s central bank, the Bundesbank.

The Bank for International Settlements, an umbrella group for global central banks in Switzerland, holds a further approximately $660 million. All three declined to comment.

The Taliban took back power in Afghanistan in August after the United States pulled out its troops, almost 20 years after the Islamists were ousted by U.S.-led forces following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London and James MacKenzie in Islamabad; writing by John O’Donnell; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. announces international crackdown on DarkNet opioid trafficking

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An international operation targeting trafficking in opioids on a clandestine part of the internet called the DarkNet has led to about 150 arrests in the United States and Europe and the seizure of drugs, cash and guns, U.S. and European authorities said on Tuesday.

The crackdown, called Operation Dark HunTor, was announced at a U.S. Justice Department news conference where Deputy U.S Attorney General Lisa Monaco warned cyberspace drug sellers: “There is no dark internet. We can and we will shed a light.”

Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director of the international police agency Europol, hailed the results of Operation Dark HunTor as “spectacular.” He said the operation sends a message that “no one is beyond the reach of law enforcement, even on the dark web.” The DarkNet and dark web are related terms concerning a part of the internet accessible only using a specialized web browser and the assortment of internet sites residing there.

An opioid epidemic has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone in the past two decades due to overdoses from prescription painkillers and illegal substances, constituting an enduring public health crisis.

The Dark HunTor operation produced arrests of 150 people accused of being drug traffickers and others accused of engaging in sales of illicit goods and services.

There were 65 arrests in the United States, 47 in Germany, 24 in the United Kingdom, four each in the Netherlands and Italy, three in France, two in Switzerland and one in Bulgaria, the Justice Department said.

The department added that the operation resulted in seizures of more than $31.6 million in cash and virtual currencies as well as 45 firearms. It added that about 234 kilograms (515 pounds) of drugs including more than 200,000 ecstasy, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone and methamphetamine pills were seized, along with counterfeit medicines.

Kenneth Polite, head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said such trafficking presents “a global threat and it requires a global response.”

The Justice Department said the crackdown built on operations conducted in late 2020 and early 2021 to disrupt dark web trafficking. It said that in January, an international crackdown targeted DarkMarket, the world’s largest dark web international marketplace.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Will Dunham)

Floodwaters still rising in western Europe with death toll over 120

By Martin Schlicht and David Sahl

SCHULD/ERFTSTADT, Germany (Reuters) – German officials feared more deaths on Friday after “catastrophic” floods swept through western regions, demolishing streets and houses, killing more than 100 people and leaving hundreds more missing and homeless.

Communications were cut in many areas and entire communities lay in ruins after swollen rivers tore through towns and villages in the western states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

After days of heavy rain, 103 people have died in Germany alone, the largest number killed in a natural disaster in the country in almost 60 years. They included 12 residents of a home for disabled people surprised by the floods during the night.

In Belgium, which has declared a day of mourning on Tuesday, officials said there were at least 20 dead and another 20 missing.

The flooding was a “catastrophe of historic dimensions,” said Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party’s candidate to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down after an election in September.

The devastation of the floods, attributed by meteorologists to a climate-change driven shift in the jet stream that has brought inland water that once stayed at sea, could shake up an election that has until now seen little discussion of climate.

“It is a sad certainty that such extreme events will determine our day-to-day life more and more frequently in the future,” Laschet said, adding that more measures were needed to fight global warming.

Proposals by the Greens, running a distant second in polls to Merkel’s conservatives, to introduce motorway speed limits to cut carbon emissions had previously drawn outrage.

Days after the European Commission unveiled plans to make Europe the “first climate-neutral continent, Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the scale and intensity of the flooding was a clear indication of climate change and demonstrated the urgent need to act.

CONCERN OVER DAMS

Achim Hueck, a fish farmer in the town of Schuld, said he had only just managed to escape. “It was rising really fast, it started from the path back here,” he said, pointing to the wreckage of his business.

“There was a path, there were ponds, lots of them up there. Fishing hut, toilet facilities, everything is gone,” he said.

As officials assessed the damage, the devastation appeared to have exceeded that caused by disastrous flooding in eastern Germany almost 20 years ago.

Some 114,000 households in Germany were without power on Friday and mobile phone networks had collapsed in some flooded regions, making it hard for authorities to keep track of the number of missing.

Roads in many affected areas were impassable after being washed away by the floods. Rescue crews tried to reach residents by boat or helicopter and had to communicate via walkie-talkie.

“The network has completely collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a spokeswoman for the regional government of Cologne said.

Authorities worried that further dams could overflow, spilling uncontrolled floods into communities below, and were trying to ease pressure by releasing more water.

Some 4,500 people were evacuated downstream from the Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, which had been at risk of a breach overnight, and a stretch of motorway was closed.

REINFORCING DIKES

Thousands of residents in the north of Limburg province in neighboring Netherlands were ordered to leave their homes early Friday as floodwaters peaked.

Emergency services were on high alert, and authorities were also reinforcing dikes along vulnerable stretches where floodwaters continue to rise.

Waters were receding in the southern city of Maastricht, where there was no flooding and in the town of Valkenburg, where damage was widespread, but no one was hurt.

France sent 40 military personnel and a helicopter to Liege in Belgium to help with the flood situation, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Twitter.

“The waters are rising more and more. It’s scary,” Thierry Bourgeois, 52, said in the Belgian town of Liege. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the town of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, the Meuse had risen beyond a retaining wall and was spilling past sandbags placed on top.

Several towns and villages were already submerged, including Pepinster near Liege, where around 10 houses partially or fully collapsed.

The death toll in Germany is the highest of any natural catastrophe since a deadly North Sea flood in 1962 that killed around 340 people.

Floods at the Elbe river in 2002, which at the time were billed by media “once-in-a-century floods”, killed 21 people in eastern Germany and more than 100 across the wider central European region.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told magazine Spiegel the federal government aimed to provide financial support for the affected regions as quickly as possible, adding a package of measures should go to the cabinet for approval on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Kirsti Knolle, Douglas Busvine, Anneli Palmen, Matthias Inverardi, Tom Sims, Thomas Escritt, Anthony Deutsch, Phil Blenkinsop; Writing by Maria Sheahan; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson)

Spy phones ‘in gangsters’ back pockets’ betray hundreds to police

By Colin Packham and Toby Sterling

CANBERRA/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -A global sting in which organized crime gangs were sold encrypted phones that law enforcement officials could monitor has led to more than 800 arrests and the confiscation of drugs, weapons, cash and luxury cars, officials said on Tuesday.

The operation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Australian and European police ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East involved in the global narcotics trade, the officials said.

Millions of dollars in cash were seized in raids around the world, along with 30 tonnes of drugs including more than eight tonnes of cocaine.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organized crime – not just in this country, but … around the world”.

Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield, conceived by Australian police and the FBI in 2018, was one of the biggest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialized encrypted network.

It began when U.S. officials paid a convicted drug trafficker to give them access to a smartphone that he had customized, on which he was installing ANOM, also styled An0m, a secure encrypted messaging app. The phones were then sold to organized crime networks through underworld distributors.

The FBI helped to infiltrate 12,000 devices into 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division told reporters in The Hague.

COCAINE IN FRUIT

In a pattern repeated elsewhere, one Australian underworld figure began distributing phones containing the app to his associates, believing their communications were secure because the phones had been rebuilt to remove all capabilities, including voice and camera functions, apart from ANOM.

As a result, there was no attempt to conceal or code the details of the messages – which police were reading.

“It was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is who will do this’ and so on,” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.

“We have been in the back pockets of organized crime … All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”

The phones were such a hit that Italian mafiosi, Asian triads, biker gangs and transnational drug syndicates all began using them, providing the FBI and its partner forces around the world with a trove of 27 million messages.

Shivers said the FBI had been able to see photographs of “hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit”.

PRINTERS FOR GUN PARTS

Australian police said they had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, and disrupted 21 murder plots.

On Monday alone, they seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as almost A$45 million ($35 million) in cash, including A$7 million from a safe buried under a garden shed in a suburb of Sydney.

In Europe, there were 49 arrests in the Netherlands, 75 in Sweden and over 60 in Germany, where authorities seized hundreds of kilograms of drugs, more than 20 weapons and over 30 luxury cars and cash.

Finnish police not only detained almost 100 suspects and seized 500 kg of narcotics but also found a warehouse with 3-D printers used to manufacture gun parts.

The operation also revealed that gangs were being tipped off about police actions, which prompted “numerous high-level public corruption cases in several countries,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.

Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded, had “essentially set up his own colleagues” by distributing the phones, and was now a marked man.

“The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family.” ($1 = 1.2893 Australian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn, Tom Allard, Jonathan Barrett, Essi Lehto, Riham Alkousaa and Caroline Copley; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Stephen Coates and Kevin Liffey)

Why Roma migrants from Europe are taking rafts from Mexico to enter the U.S

By Adrees Latif and Radu-Sorin Marinas

ROMA, Texas (Reuters) -Among the hundreds of Central American migrants crossing the Rio Grande river daily on rafts from Mexico to Texas, dozens stood out on a recent day. They were generally taller and some wore skirts, stylish shoes and tracksuits, while many of the other migrants wore T-shirts, pants and jeans.

U.S. border patrol officers who apprehended them near the river tried to speak to them in Spanish. There was a pause as some of the border crossers explained in broken English that they were Romanians, a Reuters photographer said.

Scores of Romanians who are part of the Roma ethnic minority have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas in recent weeks to seek asylum, highlighting the far-flung origins of some of the migrants who have contributed to border arrests in recent months reaching a 20-year high.

Reuters witnessed large groups of these migrants crossing the Rio Grande on rafts on multiple occasions in May. The migrants Reuters spoke to said they were fleeing racism in Romania and wanted to seek asylum in the United States.

The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority and have a long history of social exclusion and discrimination.

Over three weeks, a Reuters photographer saw nearly 200 Romanians crossing at different points along the Texas border, many extended family groups of 10-15 people.

Border patrol agents have apprehended 2,217 Romanians so far in fiscal year 2021, more than the 266 caught in fiscal 2020 and the 289 in fiscal 2019, according to data provided by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

More than 2,000 Romanians crossed the southwest border in fiscal year 2016. Current arrivals are on pace to be the highest since 2007, the earliest year for which citizenship arrival data is available.

Margareta Matache, director of the Roma Program at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, said many Roma fled Romania to escape persecution and dire economic circumstances, partly fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Currently, U.S. policies and policy proposals offer hope for more humane and just policies, including for immigrants,” Matache said. “They (Roma) are looking for a better life in a place where they are not exposed to violence, discrimination, and disrespect.”

The Romanian government said it had not been notified by the United States of any detained citizens but said its embassy officials have contacted local authorities after reading media reports.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found in a 2016 survey of nearly 8,000 Roma people in nine European countries that about 80% of the Roma population was living below the national poverty line.

There is no official population count for Roma people, who reside in many countries and have long faced prejudice in Europe and worldwide. Most live in eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.

According to Romanian media reports, many Romanian migrants fly from Paris to Mexico City as tourists as they do not need visas to enter Mexico. Then smugglers take them by bus to the U.S. border where they cross the Rio Grande by boat or raft.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Roma, Texas, Radu-Sorin Marinas in Bucharest, and Ted Hesson in Washington; Writing by Mimi Dwyer; Editing by Ross Colvin and Lisa Shumaker)