Demonstrations, defiance as Myanmar marks 4 months since coup

(Reuters) -Pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in towns around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce the country’s military, marking four months since it ousted an elected government and unleashed a wave of nationwide anger.

Despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, Myanmar’s military is still struggling to impose order amid protests and strikes, and fighting on multiple fronts in border regions as civilians take up arms against the junta.

Protests took place in the south in Luang Lone, several areas of the Sagaing division including Kale and Monywa, and the commercial hub Yangon, according to images carried by mainstream and social media.

“This is not over yet. We still have our turn,” read a sign carried by one protester.

Schools officially reopened across Myanmar for the first time since the Feb. 1 coup, but turnout was low due to security concerns and a boycott over the junta’s suspension of tens of thousands of teachers opposed to its rule.

Some students held demonstrations with blood-splattered white uniforms.

Security forces have killed 840 people since the coup, according to figures from activists cited by the United Nations. The junta says about 300 people have died.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, says it seized power because of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper carried a quote from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing on Tuesday saying the current crisis was caused by “dishonesty of democracy” in the election, under a large headline that said “Tatmadaw values democracy”.

The military’s use of lethal force against its own people has caused outrage among western countries, and concern among its neighbors. In April, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced a five-point consensus towards resolving the crisis, though no timeframe was agreed.

But four diplomatic sources have told Reuters that the chair and secretary-general of ASEAN are planning to visit Myanmar this week, to meet junta leaders, among other stakeholders.

It was not clear if they would meet detainees or members of a shadow unity government formed to challenge the junta and undercut its efforts to gain international recognition.

HEAVY TOLL

The unrest has taken a heavy toll in the countryside, where clashes between Myanmar’s well-equipped military and ethnic minority armies or newly formed People’s Defense Forces have displaced tens of thousands of people.

On Tuesday, a local aid group said 8,000 people were in camps having fled the town of Mindat in Chin State, which the army took control of last month after days of clashes with militias armed mostly with hunting rifles.

The people’s militias have stepped up ambushes in recent weeks on troops in Kayah state bordering Thailand, where witnesses said fierce fighting and retaliatory shelling and air strikes had taken place late on Monday in the town of Demoso.

A resident shared video and images with Reuters of soldiers he said were killed in Demoso late on Monday. He said he saw six bodies and residents had counted 20.

The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force said on its Facebook page that 80 army soldiers had been killed on Monday, while one of its fighters and a civilian were also casualties.

Reuters could not verify the information and a spokesman for the junta did not answer calls seeking comment.

Myanmar state television made no mention of the Demoso unrest in its nightly news bulletin.

Fighting in Kayah has displaced about 37,000 people in recent weeks, according to the United Nations. Many have fled into jungles and are in need of food and medicine.

The Elders, a group of former national leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela, on Tuesday called on the international community, including ASEAN, to turn up pressure on the junta.

“Myanmar is currently on a dangerous path towards state failure,” its chair, Mary Robinson, said in a statement.

“Allowing the coup to succeed through inaction and disregard would further undermine the international rules-based order upon which global stability depends.”

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Exodus to jungles, villages as Myanmar troops retake town

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents of a hill town in northwest Myanmar were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys on Monday after fleeing an assault by state troops, witnesses said, as the army advanced into the town after days battling local militias.

Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, has seen some of the most intense fighting since a Feb. 1 coup that has led to the emergence of ragtag local armies that are stifling the junta’s bid to consolidate power.

Martial law was declared in Mindat on Thursday before the army launched its assault, using artillery and helicopters against a newly formed Chinland Defense Force, a militia armed mainly with hunting rifles, which said it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.

Several residents reached by Reuters said food was in short supply and estimated as many as 5,000 to 8,000 people had fled the town, with roads blocked and the presence of troops in the streets preventing their return.

“Almost everyone left the city,” said a volunteer fighter who said she was in a jungle. “Most of them are in hiding.”

A representative of the local people’s administrative group of Mindat said he was among some 200 people, including women and children, who had trekked across rocky roads and hills carrying blankets, rice and cooking pots.

He said the group was attacked with heavy weapons when troops spotted smoke from their cooking fires.

“We have to move from one place to another. We cannot settle in a place in the jungle,” he told Reuters by phone.

“Some men were arrested as they went into town to get more food for us. We cannot get into town currently. We are going to starve in few days.”

The Chinland Defense Forces in a statement on Monday said it had killed five government troops in Hakha, another town in Chin State.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF in a tweet urged security forces to ensure safety of children in Mindat, the latest international call for restraint after human rights groups, the United States and Britain condemned the use of war weapons against civilians.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced more sanctions against businesses and individuals tied to the junta. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged more countries to follow suit.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the military battling armed and peaceful resistance on multiple fronts, adding to concerns about economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis from old conflicts reigniting in border regions.

The fighters in Chin State say they are part of the People’s Defense Forces of the shadow government, which has called on the international community for help.

In an effort to coordinate the anti-junta forces, the shadow government on Monday issued a list of instructions to all the civilian armies, which it said must operate under its command and control.

Aid groups in direct contact with residents of Mindat made urgent calls on social media on Monday for donations or food, clothing and medicine.

Salai, 24, who has been organizing an emergency response, said she had spoken to people hiding in a valley and on farmland who had fled the advance of soldiers.

“They looted people’s property. They burned down people’s houses. It is really upsetting,” said Salai.

“Some in the town were injured by gunshots, including a young girl. She cannot get medical treatment.”

A military spokesman did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said security forces returned fire after coming under attack from insurgents in Mindat, who fled, and that government troops had been attacked elsewhere in Chin State.

So far, 790 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military disputes that figure. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

The military says it intervened after its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were ignored.

An international monitoring group on Monday said the results of that election “were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar”.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Rescuers hunt for survivors after cyclone kills 119 in Indonesia

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rescuers searched for dozens missing in the remote islands of southeast Indonesia on Tuesday, as reinforcements arrived to help in the aftermath of a tropical cyclone that killed at least 119 people.

Helicopters were deployed to aid the search, and ships carrying food, water, blankets and medicine reached ports previously blocked by high waves whipped up by tropical cyclone Seroja, which brought heavy rain and triggered deadly floods and landslides on Sunday.

Indonesia’s disaster agency BNPB revised upwards the death toll from the cyclone in the East Nusa Tenggara islands, after earlier saying 86 had died. Seventy-six people were still missing.

“The rescue team is moving on the ground. The weather is good,” BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati told a news briefing.

Search and rescue personnel, however, had trouble transporting heavy equipment for use in the search.

“Search for victims is constrained, the existing heavy equipment cannot be sent to their destination, especially in Adonara and Alor,” the head of BNPB, Doni Monardo, said.

The Adonara and Alor islands were among the islands worst hit by the cyclone, with 62 and 21 people dead respectively.

Aerial images from Adonara on Tuesday showed brown mud and flood water covering a vast area, burying houses, roads and trees.

The military and volunteers arrived on the islands on Tuesday and were setting up public kitchens, while medical workers were brought in.

Video taken by a local official in Tanjung Batu village on Lembata, home to the Ile Lewotolok volcano, showed felled trees and large rocks of cold lava that had crushed homes after being dislodged by the cyclone.

Thousands of people have been displaced, nearly 2,000 buildings including a hospital were impacted, and more than 100 homes heavily damaged by the cyclone.

Two people died in nearby West Nusa Tenggara province.

There were also concerns about possible COVID-19 infections in crowded evacuation centers.

In neighboring East Timor, at least 33 were killed in floods and landslides and by falling trees. Civil defense authorities were using heavy equipment to search for survivors.

“The number of victims could still increase because many victims have not been found,” the main director of civil protection, Ismael da Costa Babo, told Reuters.

“They were buried by landslides and carried away by floods.”

Some residents of Lembata island may have also been washed away by mud into the sea.

A volcano that erupted on Lembata last month wiped out vegetation atop the mountain, which allowed hardened lava to slide towards 300 houses when the cyclone struck, a senior district official said, hoping help was on the way.

“We were only able to search on the seashore, not in the deeper area, because of lack of equipment yesterday,” Thomas Ola Langoday told Reuters by phone.

He feared many bodies were still buried under large rocks.

President Joko Widodo urged his cabinet to speed up evacuation and relief efforts and to restore power.

Weather agency head Dwikorita Karnawati said once-rare tropical cyclones were happening more often in Indonesia and climate change could be to blame.

“Seroja is the first time we’re seeing tremendous impact because it hit the land. It’s not common,” she said.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Stanley Widianto and Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta and Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo and Fathin Ungku; Editing by Martin Petty, Tom Hogue and Bernadette Baum)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Brawls in shops as Lebanon’s financial meltdown hits supply of food

By Maha El Dahan and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The collapse of Lebanon’s currency has forced many grocery shops to temporarily shut within the last 24 hours, raising fears that a country reliant on imports could soon face shortages of food.

Food shops around the country were locking their doors, halting online deliveries or restricting customers’ orders. Others stayed open, but could not say for how long.

“There’s a big possibility we will close if it stays like this. I don’t know where will we get supplies, and no one is helping us,” said Beirut grocer Mohieldin Fayed, who has kept his shop open.

The pound tumbled to 15,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, losing a third of its value in the last two weeks. It has now sunk by 90% since late 2019.

“If this persists, things will start to disappear, traders will prioritize what to get,” said Hani Bohsali, head of the foodstuffs importers syndicate. “We’ll have to buy less, in variety and quantity, because we can’t find the money.”

He estimated the country has roughly two months of supplies, while it was getting more and more difficult for importers to obtain the dollars they need to keep buying.

The economy’s collapse has pushed much of the population into poverty and poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Social media users have been sharing videos of supermarket brawls, such as a fight between a man and a woman trying to buy powdered milk. Prices of many consumer goods such as diapers or cereals have nearly tripled during the crisis.

Nabil Fahed, head of the syndicate of supermarket owners, said some of the shops that had shut on Tuesday reopened on Wednesday after replenishing stocks. But he said permanent closures would happen if no exchange stability was reached.

“What we’re afraid of is that these eventually turn from temporary closures … that it becomes final because it is a dire situation, their capital is being eroded and they don’t have money to pay for goods.”

The vice president of Lebanon’s bakeries’ syndicate said bakeries were supplying the country with bread for now, but could not do so indefinitely without a solution. Lebanon imports almost all of its wheat.

“If we continue at this pace, in the end we will reach a forced closure until the exchange rate stabilizes,” Ali Ibrahim, who tried to resign from his position two weeks ago because of the dire situation, said in a statement.

LOOMING SUBSIDY REMOVAL

Many shops in Lebanon were already shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, and streets have also been closed by roadblocks during anti-government demonstrations. But until this week, groceries had mostly stayed open. Many have been offering deliveries online.

On Tuesday, a number of online grocery shops disappeared from apps. Others refused to accept orders.

Lebanon’s central bank has drawn on already critical foreign reserves to subsidize three key commodities – wheat, fuel and medicine – and a basket of other basic goods, as dollars inflows dried up. It has provided hard currency to importers at the old peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

But the state, fast running out of cash, has signaled multiple times that the subsidies would soon be lifted, although it has yet to give a timeline or announce a plan.

Supermarket syndicate head Fahed said the central bank was often slow to release dollars to food importers, causing shortages which in turn provoke consumers to hoard goods. In one example, he said a supermarket had sold a typical month’s stock of 5,000 gallons of subsidized cooking oil in only five hours.

The looming removal of subsidies has triggered fears of shortages, said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former cabinet minister.

“As soon as you announce that subsidies might be lifted or reduced…automatically consumers hoard goods,” he said.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Ellen Francis, Imad Creidi and Alaa Kanaan; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Peter Graff)

China says 10 workers trapped in gold mine are searching for others

By Emily Chow

QIXIA, China (Reuters) – The 10 known survivors trapped since a deadly Jan. 10 gold mine explosion in northern China have been using laser pointers and loudspeakers to try to find their missing colleagues, state media reported on Friday.

The rescue operation, which has been able to get food and medicines to the miners, was expected to take at least another two weeks, authorities have said.

White bottles of food and water sent down to the trapped workers had a note stuck on them saying, “We are all waiting for you, keep going!”, photos shared by propaganda department officials with Reuters on Friday showed.

The food items sent to the workers include millet porridge, quail eggs, pickles and sausages and medical supplies included disinfectant, masks and cotton socks.

“The physical condition, psychological condition and living environment of 10 miners in the middle section of the mine are good,” the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, reported on Friday.

“The miners continued to search for other trapped persons through laser pointer projection and loudspeaker shouting,” it said.

A total of 22 workers were trapped in the Hushan mine by the Jan 10 blast in Qixia, a major gold-producing region under the administration of Yantai in coastal Shandong province.

One has died and 11 were not in contact with the rescue teams, according to a Xinhua radio report on Thursday.

At least 15 days may be needed to clear the “severe blockages” as rescuers continued to drill shafts to reach the 10 men, officials said on Thursday.

At the site, security was tight on Friday and Reuters journalists were not permitted to get close to the rescue operation.

Workers in orange high visibility clothing could be seen operating heavy machinery. At the entrance to the site, a medical tent had been set up to administer COVID tests for rescue workers.

About 570 people are involved in the rescue, the newspaper said.

China’s mines are among the world’s deadliest. It has recorded 573 mine-related deaths in 2020, according to the National Mine Safety Administration.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Qixia and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Shivani Singh; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philippa Fletcher)

South Korea acts to stop defectors sending aid, messages to North Korea

By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A day after North Korea suspended communication hotlines with South Korea over defectors who send propaganda and contraband into the North, South Korea said it would take legal action against two organizations that conduct such operations.

North Korea gets enraged when the defectors in the South send material such as anti-North leaflets and rice – usually by balloon over the heavily fortified border or in bottles by sea – and its media has in recent days denounced the “mongrel dogs” who do it.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, recently called defectors “human scum little short of wild animals” and said North Korea would cut communication with South Korea because of its failure to stop them.

South Korea, which is trying to improve ties with the North, said on Wednesday two defector-run groups, Kuensaem Education Center and Fighters for a Free North Korea, had violated the Inter-Korean Exchange and Co-operation Act by sending the leaflets, as well as aid like rice and medicine.

The two defector groups “have created tension between the two Koreas and caused danger to the border-area residents’ lives and safety”, said the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key.

One defector, Park Sang-hak, who left North Korea in 2000 and heads the Fighters For Free North Korea, has been sending leaflets about once a month for the last 15 years.

“You can never buy peace with flattery and begging,” he said of the South Korean government’s response to the North Korean criticism.

About 33,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea.

As part of the effort to improve ties with the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has sought to discourage the leaflet and rice campaigns, and defectors complained of pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.

On Monday, activists were stopped by residents when they tried to send plastic bottles stuffed with rice by releasing them at sea.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith)

Cold, disease threaten more than half a million Syrians fleeing Idlib fighting

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Cold weather, disease and a lack of shelter and medicine threaten hundreds of thousands of civilians as they flee fighting in Idlib province, in one of the biggest upheavals of Syria’s nine-year civil war, aid groups and doctors said.

The migrants, their numbers swelling by the day, are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces, keen to crush the last significant opposition stronghold, and Turkey’s closed border.

Some are having to flee by foot, while many others are having to sleep in their cars, as Syrian and Russian warplanes bombard the highways leading north toward Turkey.

A U.N. official appealed for emergency financial assistance to help an estimated 800,000 people in northwest Syria to survive the coming months.

“People are facing a tragedy. For the last two weeks it’s been very, very cold. There is rain and mud, and influenza is spreading,” said Wassim Zakaria, a doctor who works in a clinic in Idlib city that closed on Monday due to heavy bombardment.

The numbers on the move have increased in recent days as the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advanced to within 8 km (5 miles) of Idlib city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

“If the cold weather continues…there is a risk of epidemics as a large migrant flow is coming,” he said.

Since November, 692,000 people have abandoned towns south of Idlib city, Tosun said. The number “is rising every hour” and could reach 1 million, he added.

Zakaria said people had also started to flee from Idlib city but their options for shelter were limited, with people forced to sleep in cars or tents, many near the walled-off border which prevents Syrians taking refuge in Turkey.

“It’s like people are imprisoned here. Last week women and children demonstrated at the border, asking to be allowed across,” he said.

Turkey’s IHH is distributing urgent aid and blankets to those traveling on the highway from Idlib city and has set up 2,000 tents, with plans to put up another 1,500, Tosun said.

Some 700 breeze-block dwellings have also been built out of a total 10,000 which Turkey is planning to erect in the region south of its border, he said.

He added that many people were now seeking shelter beyond Idlib province, already home to waves of civilians displaced earlier in Syria’s civil war, and were heading toward Afrin and Azaz, areas just to the northeast under the control of Turkish-led Syrian rebel forces.

AID APPEAL

David Swanson, U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis, said $336 million was urgently needed to help those being displaced, with shelter a critical problem.

“This crisis continues to deteriorate by the minute. This is easily one of the largest waves of displacements since the (Syrian civil war) began in March 2011,” Swanson said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are in now in urgent need of critical, life-saving assistance,” he said.

The United Nations has put the number of displaced from the Idlib fighting since Dec. 1 at 520,000, with a further 280,000 seen at “imminent risk of displacement”.

Many of the displaced are staying with host communities who themselves are struggling to cope, while others have sought shelter in schools or mosques, or are sleeping in their vehicles or in the open air, said Swanson.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria is more catastrophic than ever before. Who would have imagined that entire cities would be displaced in a single month?” said Atef Nanou, manager of Molham Volunteering Team, a relief group in northern Syria.

He said he had encountered families unable to get away from the bombing because they couldn’t afford fuel for their car or transportation costs.

“So they either stayed despite the bombing or went out on foot on the international road that the Syrian regime and Russian warplanes are bombing around the clock,” Nanou added.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

UK faces food, fuel and drug shortages, says contested leaked document

FILE PHOTO: A line of trucks is seen during a trial between disused Manston Airport and the Port of Dover of how road will cope in case of a "no-deal" Brexit, Kent Britain January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

By Kate Holton and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will face shortages of fuel, food and medicine if it leaves the European Union without a transition deal, according to leaked official documents reported by the Sunday Times whose interpretation was immediately contested by ministers.

Setting out a vision of jammed ports, public protests and widespread disruption, the paper said the forecasts compiled by the Cabinet Office set out the most likely aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit rather than the worst-case scenarios.

But Michael Gove, the minister in charge of coordinating “no-deal” preparations, challenged that interpretation, saying the documents did set out a worst-case scenario and that planning had been accelerated in the last three weeks.

The Times said up to 85% of lorries using the main Channel crossings may not be ready for French customs, meaning disruption at ports would potentially last up to three months before the flow of traffic improved.

The government also believes a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, will be likely as plans to avoid widespread checks will prove unsustainable, the Times said.

“Compiled this month by the Cabinet Office under the codename Operation Yellowhammer, the dossier offers a rare glimpse into the covert planning being carried out by the government to avert a catastrophic collapse in the nation’s infrastructure,” the Times reported.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it did not comment on leaked documents. But Gove said it was an old document that did not reflect current preparedness.

“It is the case, as everyone knows, that if we do have a no-deal exit there will inevitably be some disruption, some bumps in the road. That’s why we want a deal,” Gove told reporters.

“But it is also the case that the UK government is far more prepared now than it was in the past, and it’s also important for people to recognize that what’s being described in these documents… is emphatically a worst-case scenario,” Gove added.

A government source blamed the leak on an unnamed former minister who wanted to influence negotiations with the EU.

“This document is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available,” said the source, who declined to be named. “It has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders.”

NO TURNING BACK

The United Kingdom is heading toward a constitutional crisis and a showdown with the EU as Johnson has repeatedly vowed to leave the bloc on Oct. 31 without a deal unless it agrees to renegotiate the Brexit divorce.

Yet after more than three years of Brexit dominating EU affairs, the bloc has repeatedly refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said on Twitter he had signed a piece of legislation which set in stone the repeal of the 1972 European Communities act – the laws which made Britain a member of the organization now known as the EU.

Though his move was largely procedural, in line with previously approved laws, Barclay said in a statement: “This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back (from Brexit).”

A group of more than 100 lawmakers wrote to Johnson calling for an emergency recall of parliament to discuss the situation.

“We face a national emergency, and parliament must now be recalled in August and sit permanently until October 31 so that the voices of the people can be heard, and that there can be proper scrutiny of your government,” the letter said.

Johnson will this week tell French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Westminster parliament cannot stop Brexit and a new deal must be agreed if Britain is to avoid leaving the EU without one.

Merkel said during a panel discussion at the Chancellery: “We are prepared for any outcome, we can say that, even if we do not get an agreement. But at all events, I will make an effort to find solutions – up until the last day of negotiations.”

Johnson is coming under pressure from politicians across the political spectrum to prevent a disorderly departure, with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn vowing to bring down Johnson’s government to delay Brexit.

It is, however, unclear if lawmakers have the unity or power to use the British parliament to prevent a no-deal departure, likely to be the UK’s most significant foreign policy move since World War Two.

(Editing by Gareth Jones and David Holmes)

U.S. Veterinarians steel themselves for online pharmacy challenge

Destiny Brown, Dr. Katie Buss, and Kingsley family pose with puppies at the Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, U.S., on April 26, 2019. Picture taken on April 26, 2019. Courtesy Jennifer Blodgett/Kings Veterinary Hospital/Handout via REUTERS

By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the business of selling prescription medicines for pets, pitching veterinarians against online giants moving into this lucrative corner of the growing market for animal supplies.

Americans spent $72.56 billion last year on their pets, according to American Pet Products Association. Prescription drugs were expected to account for over $10 billion, according to an estimate.

With deep discounts and online convenience, Walmart Inc, soon-to-be listed Chewy.com and Amazon.com Inc’s Wag brand have effectively conquered the market for pet food, care products and other supplies, but until now veterinary practices, which both prescribe and sell drugs, have been a major source of prescription medication.

While Amazon so far has shown no interest in that market, Chewy’s and Walmart’s forays into the online pet pharmacy business threaten to change that, prompting veterinary clinics to seek help in defending their turf. Enter Covetrus Inc, Vet Source, which partners with Patterson Companies Inc, and others that offer tools to help vets manage their practices and give customers the convenience they have come to expect from online shopping.

“We started to realize this is what our clients want,” said Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio. “They want to be able to order things at 11 o’ clock at night. They’re used to the Amazon mentality.”

Foster says she began using Covetrus to order drugs and supplies for the practice after it began losing sales of pet food and other products to online retailers. Now, her hospital has a website run by Covetrus under the practice’s name that effectively acts as its online pharmacy.

With that comes software that helps the clinic manage its inventory and track prescriptions, so Foster knows when clients need a refill and for those in Covetrus collects a service fee that is a percentage of sales.

Foster said partnering with Covetrus has helped boost overall sales by half over the past three years because it gives clients online convenience, timely reminders and, despite the fees, competitive prices.

“Covetrus now has more leverage with the manufacturers than I will ever have as a small business,” she said. “They’re able to get the manufacturers to agree to instant rebates and they can do flash sales on products and things that we just can’t compete with.” 

The company, formed by the combination of medical supply firm Henry Schein’s animal health unit and Vet’s First Choice and listed in February, represents some 100,000 veterinary practices globally. In the United States, 27,000 use some form of its services with over 8,000 – about a quarter of the market – signed up for prescription management, Covetrus says.

HOME TURF ADVANTAGE

PetSmart Inc-backed Chewy.com, whose sales soared from $26 million to $3.5 billion between 2012 and 2018, said in a filing ahead of its New York Stock Exchange debut this month it planned to expand its online pharmacy business launched last year.

The company has yet to update on the pharmacy’s performance and it would not comment for this article, citing the silent period ahead of its stock exchange debut.

Walmart joined the fray last month when it launched its online pet pharmacy WalmartPetRx.com and said it aimed to operate 100 in-store animal clinics by the end of the year.

Analysts say, however, the prescription pet medicine business could prove more challenging than other pet products.

Those who want to buy medication online still need a prescription from a vet and must either email or upload a copy or have the online retailer contact the practice first.

That, analysts say, offers the practices a chance to sell the first batch on site and then direct customers to their own online service.

Kristen Cook, a practice manager at the Belton Veterinary Clinic in Belton, Texas, says their doctors have no obligation to write a prescription for those shopping elsewhere and the clinic’s policy is to handle prescriptions internally.

“It’s not something like I am handing them a piece of paper to take it wherever they want to take it,” Cook said.

The stakes are high.

Cook said that at least half of the clinic’s revenue comes from prescription drug sales.

Nationally, pharmacy sales on average make up about a third of a practice’s revenue, according to Gary Glassman, partner at accounting and financial services firm Burzenski & Company, which serves veterinary practices across the country.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, however, that 40 states have already adopted laws, regulations or guidelines that specifically or implicitly require veterinarians to provide a written prescription upon request in some circumstances.

To see the summary report from AVMA, please click here

This means pet owners could fill those prescriptions with Chewy or other online providers, and the market is just too attractive to e-commerce players for the vets and their partners to get complacent, analysts say.

According to a 2018 TD Ameritrade online survey of U.S. millennial pet owners, they were willing to spend up to $2,000 on average if their pet got sick, with dog owners prepared to spend more on their pets than what they expected to spend on their own healthcare.

“People are treating their pets more like people,” William Blair analyst John Kreger said. “Historically … you’d frankly euthanize the pet when they started to have some of these chronic conditions. That’s just not happening now.”

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)