Romanian Black Sea refinery blast kills one, injures five

By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – A blast and fire on Friday at Romania’s biggest crude oil refinery killed one person and injured five others, authorities and the company which runs the Petromidia plant on the Black Sea said.

Video footage from a nearby beach in the coastal resort of Mamaia showed black smoke rising from the area next to the refinery and some tourists reported hearing a loud bang.

Rompetrol Rafinare, part of KMG International Group, said the explosion was inside the diesel hydrotreating unit, and that processes had been halted safely.

At 1615 GMT it said the fire had been completely put out, the incident “was neutralized successfully” and Rompetrol would continue to provide fuels for its stations in Romania and the Black Sea region.

“Five of our colleagues are in medical care at Constanta County Hospital, and we are sorry to inform you that a person has been identified as deceased,” its statement added.

The company declined to comment on the likely financial damage but said an assessment of the impact on technological processes will be performed to provide a clear picture and predictability in terms of restarting the refinery facilities.

Petromidia is based on the shores of the Black Sea in Navodari, 20 km (12.5 miles) north of the country’s biggest port, Constanta.

It said it processed a total of 1.26 million tonnes of raw materials in the first quarter of this year, a similar level to a year before, and had been running at 84% capacity.

Rompetrol closed 1.96% down at 0.05 lei.

(Editing by Jane Merriman, Jan Harvey, Alexander Smith and Philippa Fletcher)

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)

Putin: U.S. in position to deploy new cruise missile in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

HELSINKI (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that the United States was in a position to deploy a new land-based cruise missile in Romania and Poland and that Russia considered that a threat which it would have to respond to.

The Pentagon said on Monday it had tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, its first such test since the demise of a landmark nuclear pact this month.

Putin, who was speaking during a visit to Helsinki, said that Washington could potentially use its launch systems in Romania and Poland to fire the missile and that Russia would have to respond in an appropriate and reciprocal manner.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova; Writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

WHO issues warning as measles infects 34,000 in Europe this year

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – More than 34,000 people across Europe caught measles in the first two months of 2019, with the vast majority of cases in Ukraine, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday as it urged authorities to ensure vulnerable people get vaccinated.

The death toll among 34,300 cases reported across 42 countries in the WHO’s European region reached 13, with the virus killing people in Ukraine – which is suffering a measles epidemic – as well as in Romania and Albania. The risk is that outbreaks may continue to spread, the WHO warned.

“If outbreak response is not timely and comprehensive, the virus will find its way into more pockets of vulnerable individuals and potentially spread to additional countries within and beyond the region,” it said in a statement.

“Every opportunity should be used to vaccinate susceptible children, adolescents and adults.”

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can kill and cause blindness, deafness or brain damage. It can be prevented with two doses of an effective vaccine, but – in part due to pockets of unvaccinated people – it is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world including in the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Europe, the majority of measles cases so far in 2019 are in Ukraine, which saw more than 25,000 people infected in the first two months of the year.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and vaccination is the only way to prevent it, the WHO said. Most cases are in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people.

It added that even though the region had its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination in 2017 – at around 90 percent – some countries have had problems, including declining or stagnating immunization coverage in some cases, low coverage in some marginalized groups, and immunity gaps in older populations.

The WHO called on national health authorities across the region to focus efforts on ensuring all population groups have access to vaccines.

“The impact on public health will persist until the ongoing outbreaks are controlled,” it said, adding that health authorities should “identify who has been missed in the past and reach them with the vaccines they need.”

A report by the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF last month found that more than 20 million children a year missed out on measles vaccines across the world in the past eight years, laying the ground for dangerous outbreaks.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Britain, U.S. sending planes, troops to deter Russia in the east

NATO defence ministers attend a meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,

By Robin Emmott and Phil Stewart

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain said on Wednesday it will send fighter jets to Romania next year and the United States promised troops, tanks and artillery to Poland in NATO’s biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.

Germany, Canada and other NATO allies also pledged forces at a defense ministers meeting in Brussels on the same day two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles entered the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Denmark, underscoring East-West tensions.

In Madrid, the foreign ministry said Russia had withdrawn a request to refuel three warships in Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta after NATO allies said they could be used to target civilians in Syria.

The ships were part of an eight-ship carrier battle group – including Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – that is expected to join around 10 other Russian vessels already off the Syrian coast, diplomats said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow.

“This month alone, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the United States,” Stoltenberg said, also accusing Russia of continued support for rebels in Ukraine.

Those ballistic missiles can hit targets across Poland and the Baltics, although NATO officials declined to say if Russia had moved nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad.

NATO’s aim is to make good on a July promise by NATO leaders to deter Russia in Europe’s ex-Soviet states, after Moscow orchestrated the annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014.

NATO’s plan is to set up four battle groups with a total of some 4,000 troops from early next year, backed by a 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force, and if need be, follow-on forces.

As part of that, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced a “battle-ready battalion task force” of about 900 soldiers would be sent to eastern Poland, as well as another, separate force equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment to move across eastern Europe.

“It’s a major sign of the U.S. commitment to strengthening deterrence here,” Carter said.

Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Britain would send an 800-strong battalion to Estonia, supported by French and Danish troops, starting from May. The United States wants its troops in position by June.

London is also sending Typhoon fighter aircraft to Romania to patrol around the Black Sea, partly in support of Turkey.

“Although we are leaving the European Union, we will be doing more to help secure the eastern and southern flanks of NATO,” Fallon said.

SYRIAN SHADOW

Others NATO allies joined the four battle groups led by the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada to go to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Canada said it was sending 450 troops to Latvia, joined by 140 military personnel from Italy.

Germany said it was sending between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, with additional forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg.

Stoltenberg said allies’ commitments would be “a clear demonstration of our transatlantic bond.” Diplomats said it would also send a message to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has complained that European allies do not pay their way in the alliance.

For the Kremlin, the U.S.-led alliance’s plans are already too much given Russia’s grievances at NATO’s expansion eastwards, although Stoltenberg denied going too far.

But NATO’s troop announcements in the Baltic states and Poland were partly overshadowed by the dispute about whether Spain should refuel the Russian warships, which was later resolved by Moscow’s decision to withdraw its request.

NATO’s tensions with Russia have been building since Crimea and the West’s decision to impose retaliatory sanctions.

But the breakdown of a U.S-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria on Oct. 3, followed by U.S. accusations that Russia has used cyber attacks to disrupt the presidential election, have signaled a worsening of ties.

Even before the break down of the Syrian ceasefire, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended a treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium, signaling he was willing to use nuclear disarmament as a new bargaining chip in disputes with the United States over Ukraine and Syria.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

U.S. activates Romanian missile defense site, angering Russia

NATO and Romanian Prime Minister

By Robin Emmott

DEVESELU, Romania (Reuters) – The United States switched on an $800 million missile shield in Romania on Thursday that it sees as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal.

To the music of military bands at the remote Deveselu air base, senior U.S. and NATO officials declared operational the ballistic missile defense site, which is capable of shooting down rockets from countries such as Iran that Washington says could one day reach major European cities.

“As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend NATO,” said U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, standing in front of the shield’s massive gray concrete housing that was adorned with a U.S. flag.

Despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, Work said the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat. “There are no plans at all to do that,” he told a news conference.

Before the ceremony, Frank Rose, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, warned that Iran’s ballistic missiles can hit parts of Europe, including Romania.

When complete, the defensive umbrella will stretch from Greenland to the Azores. On Friday, the United States will break ground on a final site in Poland due to be ready by late 2018, completing the defense line first proposed almost a decade ago.

The full shield also includes ships and radars across Europe. It will be handed over to NATO in July, with command and control run from a U.S. air base in Germany.

Russia is incensed at such of show of force by its Cold War rival in formerly communist-ruled eastern Europe. Moscow says the U.S.-led alliance is trying to encircle it close to the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet and where NATO is also considering increasing patrols.

“It is part of the military and political containment of Russia,” Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, said on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.

“These decisions by NATO can only exacerbate an already difficult situation,” he added, saying the move would hinder efforts to repair ties between Russia and the alliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office said Moscow also doubted NATO’s stated aim of protecting the alliance against Iranian rockets following the historic nuclear deal with Tehran and world powers last year that Russia helped to negotiate.

“The situation with Iran has changed dramatically,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

RETALIATION

The readying of the shield also comes as NATO prepares a new deterrent in Poland and the Baltics, following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In response, Russia is reinforcing its western and southern flanks with three new divisions.

Poland is concerned Russia may retaliate further by announcing the deployment of nuclear weapons to its enclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania. Russia has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles there, able to cover huge areas and complicate NATO’s ability to move around.

The Kremlin says the shield’s aim is to neutralize Moscow’s nuclear arsenal long enough for the United States to strike Russia in the event of war. Washington and NATO deny that.

“Missile defense … does not undermine or weaken Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the Deveselu base.

However, Douglas Lute, the United States’ envoy to NATO, said NATO would press ahead with NATO’s biggest modernization since the Cold War. “We are deploying at sea, on the ground and in the air across the eastern flanks of the alliance … to deter any aggressor,” Lute said.

At a cost of billions of dollars, the missile defense umbrella relies on radars to detect a ballistic missile launch into space. Sensors then measure the rocket’s trajectory and destroy it in space before it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. The interceptors can be fired from ships or ground sites.

The Romanian shield, which is modeled on the United States’ so-called Aegis ships, was first assembled in New Jersey and then transferred to the Deveselu base in containers.

While U.S. and NATO officials are adamant that the shield is designed to counter threats from the Middle East and not Russia, they remained vague on whether the radars and interceptors could be reconfigured to defend against Russia in a conflict.

The United States says Russia has ballistic missiles, in breach of a treaty that agreed the two powers must not develop and deploy missiles with a range of 500 km (310.69 miles) to 5,500 km. The United States declared Russia in non-compliance of the treaty in July 2014.

The issue remains sensitive because the United States does not want to give the impression it would be able to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles that were carrying nuclear warheads, which is what Russia fears.

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs, Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Romania Focus Of Data Breach Investigation

Investigators looking into the massive data breach at Target and Neiman Marcus stores originated in Romania.

The total of customers whose personal data was stolen in a hacking attack on retail card machines continues to climb.  The latest reports now put the total over 110,000 potential victims of the hacking attack.

The FBI and U.S. Secret Service officials say that over the last year they have been involved with numerous arrests in Romania connected to hacking attacks on U.S. computers.  The rise of cybercrime has been so significant that the Council of Europe has opened an office in Romania’s capital focused on cybercrime.

The U.S. Embassy in Romania said that 80% of cyber attacks from Romania focus on American citizens.  They estimate $1 billion a year is stolen by Romanian hackers.