India tallies third-highest coronavirus cases but death rate low

By Alasdair Pal and Abhirup Roy

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – India on Monday overtook Russia to record the world’s third-highest number of coronavirus infections at nearly 700,000, even as its hardest-hit state said it will allow hotels to reopen this week.

Health ministry data from the world’s second-most populous country showed more than 23,000 new cases on Monday, down slightly from Sunday’s record increase of almost 25,000. There have been almost 20,000 deaths in India since the first case was detected there in January.

India now trails only the United States and Brazil in the number of COVID-19 cases and it has recorded eight times as many cases as China, where the virus was first identified in late 2019.

But its death rate per 10,000 people is still a low 0.15, compared with 3.97 in the United States and 6.65 in the United Kingdom, according to a Reuters tally. Mainland China stands at 0.03.

Officials said they had reversed a decision to reopen the Taj Mahal, India’s most famous tourist attraction, in the city of Agra, on Monday, following a rise in new cases in the area.

Some other monuments in and around the capital New Delhi opened on Monday, albeit with very few visitors. India is pushing ahead with relaxations to its more than two-month lockdown amid grim economic forecasts.

New Delhi, along with Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital Mumbai, and the southern state of Tamil Nadu account for about 60% of the total coronavirus cases in the country.

Maharashtra – the worst-hit state with nearly 210,000 cases – said it would let hotels outside containment zones reopen at 33% capacity from Wednesday and issued guidelines for staff and guests.

India is also seeing an uptake in cases in states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Assam, which until recently had been relatively unscathed.

“This is showing up as an urban health challenge,” said Dr Rajib Dasgupta, a professor of community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, noting it is exposing weaknesses in the public health system.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Abhirup Roy; Additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav and Sunil Kataria; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Russia jails ex-U.S. marine for 16 years on spying charges

By Andrew Osborn and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian court convicted former U.S. marine Paul Whelan of spying for the United States on Monday and sentenced him to 16 years in jail, a ruling that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said outraged Washington.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28, 2018 as he prepared to attend a wedding.

Russia says Whelan, 50, was caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan, who pleaded not guilty, said he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

“This is all political theatre,” said Whelan, who watched proceedings from a glass box inside the Moscow city courtroom.

He told the judge he had not understood the verdict as proceedings were conducted in Russian without translation.

Whelan had held up a piece of paper on which he denounced the proceedings as a “sham trial” and asked for U.S. President Donald Trump and the leaders of Britain, Canada and Ireland to take “decisive action”.

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said an appeal would be made against the verdict. Questioning the court’s independence, Whelan’s family said in a statement “Russian judges are political not legal entities”.

Pompeo said Washington was furious and wanted Moscow to immediately free Whelan.

“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” said Pompeo.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling. Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends.”

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, told reporters that no evidence had been produced to prove Whelan’s guilt during what he called a mockery of justice. The ruling would not have “a good impact” on ties between Moscow and Washington – already strained by a range of issues – but that dialogue would continue, he said.

PRISONER SWAP?

Zherebenkov said Whelan was told when he was detained that he would be part of a prisoner swap with the United States and that he believed this was what Moscow now wanted to do.

The Russian Foreign Ministry told the Russian news agency RIA it had proposed detailed prisoner swaps to Washington many times but gave no further details.

Moscow has called for the release of two Russians jailed in the United States – arms dealer Viktor Bout, who agreed to sell weapons to U.S. undercover agents posing as Colombian guerrillas planning to attack American soldiers, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.

Zherebenkov said he believed Moscow wanted to do a deal involving Bout and Yaroshenko. Whelan did not oppose the idea of formally asking Russia to pardon him, Zherebenkov said, but wanted to appeal against the verdict first.

Bout’s wife, Alla, told the RIA news agency on Monday she was ready to pen an appeal to U.S. authorities asking them to swap her husband for Whelan.

A New York court in 2012 sentenced Bout, subject of a book called “Merchant of Death” and inspiration for the film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage, to 25 years in jail.

Whelan will serve his sentence in a maximum security prison, the court said. State prosecutors had sought an 18-year term.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

Senate opens controversial probe of Trump-Russia investigation

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican allies of President Donald Trump attacked the FBI’s probe of his 2016 presidential campaign on Wednesday, but failed to get a key witness to agree that former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was unfounded.

At the opening hearing in a Republican-led Senate probe that Democrats called politically motivated, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his 2017 decision to appoint Mueller to investigate Russian election interference and numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I still believe it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“All the charges that were filed were legitimate,” he said when asked about cases filed against a half-dozen campaign officials and Trump associates.

The committee is examining the surveillance of Trump campaign officials during the FBI investigation code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to Mueller’s appointment.

Trump and his Republican allies say the president’s campaign was treated unfairly by officials involved, including former FBI Director James Comey.

“This investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, was one of the most corrupt, biased, criminal investigations in the history of the FBI,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, warned that Senate Republicans were trying to help Trump attack both the Russia probe that overshadowed his presidency and Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee who was vice president at the time of Trump’s campaign.

“Congress should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate,” she said.

The Justice Department inspector general found numerous errors in the Crossfire Hurricane probe, including mistakes in seeking surveillance approval, but no political bias.

Rosenstein said he was unaware of problems with warrants allowing surveillance, saying he would not have given his approval had he known at the time.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; editing by Grant McCool, Alistair Bell and Tom Brown)

Kremlin says Putin ‘supports dialogue’ after Trump’s proposed G7 invite

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Monday it needed more details before responding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal to invite Russia to attend a Group of Seven nations summit, but that President Vladimir Putin supported dialogue on the issue.

Trump said on Saturday he would postpone a G7 summit he had hoped to hold next month until September or later and expand the list of invitees to include Australia, Russia, South Korea and India.

“President Putin is a supporter of dialogue in all directions, but in this case, in order to respond to such initiatives, we need to receive more information, which we unfortunately do not have,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“We don’t know the details of this proposal yet, we don’t know if it is official,” he said, adding that Moscow needed to know what might be on the agenda of the proposed meeting and its format, before responding.

Russia was expelled from what was then the G8 in 2014 when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was U.S. president, after Moscow annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine. Russia still holds the territory, and various G7 governments have rebuffed previous calls from Trump to readmit Moscow.

Peskov said other formats such as the G20 gave Russia a platform to discuss international issues with other countries.

“There are very comfortable and effective mechanisms for all participants for international dialogue, such as the G20, which allows the world’s leading economies to discuss the most pressing problems,” he said.

Some Russian analysts believe Moscow should regard Trump’s potential invitation with skepticism.

“Trump’s intention to invite Putin as a guest of the #G7 makes no sense for Russia. All blame, no gain is what it’ll get. This chapter should remain closed,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

(Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Maxim Rodionov and Andrey Kuzmin; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

NSA warns of ongoing Russian hacking campaign against U.S. systems

By Christopher Bing

(Reuters) – The U.S. National Security Agency on Thursday warned government partners and private companies about a Russian hacking operation that uses a special intrusion technique to target operating systems often used by industrial firms to manage computer infrastructure.

“This is a vulnerability that is being actively exploited, that’s why we’re bringing this notification out,” said Doug Cress, chief of the cybersecurity collaboration center and directorate at NSA. “We really want… the broader cybersecurity community to take this seriously.”

The notice is part of a series of public reports by the spy agency, which is responsible for both collecting foreign intelligence and protecting Defense Department systems at home, to share actionable cyber defense information.

Cress declined to discuss which business sectors had been most affected, how many organizations were compromised using the Russian technique, or whether the cyber espionage operation targeted a specific geographic region.

The NSA said the hacking activity was tied directly to a specific unit within Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, also known as the GRU, named the Main Center for Special Technologies. The cybersecurity research community refers to this same hacking group as “Sandworm,” and has previously connected it to disruptive cyberattacks against Ukrainian electric production facilities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also called out the same GRU unit in February for conducting a cyberattack against the country of Georgia.

A security alert published by the NSA on Thursday explains how hackers with GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, are leveraging a software vulnerability in Exim, a mail transfer agent common on Unix-based operating systems, such as Linux. The vulnerability was patched last year, but some users have not updated their systems to close the security gap.

“Being able to gain root access to a bridge point into a network gives you so much ability and capability to read email, to navigate across and maneuver through the network,” said Cress, “so it’s more about the danger we’re trying to help people understand.”

(Reporting by Christopher Bing; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. military says Russia deployed fighter jets to Libya

TUNIS (Reuters) – The U.S. military said on Tuesday that Russia has deployed fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian mercenaries fighting for eastern forces, adding to concerns of a new escalation in the conflict.

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the United States Africa command said in a statement it posted on its website and on Twitter.

Libya’s civil war has drawn in regional and global powers with what the United Nations has called a huge influx of weapons and fighters in violation of an arms embargo.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which launched an offensive last year to seize the capital Tripoli.

However, in recent weeks the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has with extensive Turkish backing pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and from some other parts of the northwest.

The United States has played a less prominent role in the Libyan war than it did at an earlier stage when NATO helped rebels overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The statement said the aircraft had arrived from an airbase in Russia after transiting via Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian origin. There was no immediate response from the Russian Defence Ministry to a request for comment.

On Saturday, Russian fighters in Libya were flown out of a town south of Tripoli by their Libyan allies after retreating from frontlines in Tripoli, the town’s mayor said.

The LNA has denied any foreigners are fighting with it, but the United Nations said this month that Russian private military contractor Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people in Libya.

“Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions,” the U.S. statement said.

It quoted U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian as warning that if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast, it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank”.

The statement said neither the LNA nor mercenaries would be able to “arm, operate and sustain these fighters” — meaning fighter aircraft — without the support they had from Russia. Last week the LNA announced it would be launching a major new air campaign against the GNA and said it had refurbished four war jets.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborne in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Russia seeks 18-year jail term for ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

(Reuters) – Russian prosecutors asked a court on Monday to sentence former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is on trial accused of spying for the United States, to 18 years in a maximum-security prison, his lawyer said.

Whelan, a U.S. national who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in December 2018. He says he was set up in a sting and has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

His trial, which began on March 23, has been closed to the public as its content broaches classified information.

The court will announce its verdict on June 15, Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said after Monday’s hearing.

U.S. authorities have called the charges against Whelan spurious have called on Russia to release him, describing the case as a “significant obstacle” to improving bilateral ties.

Whelan, who turned 50 in custody this year, has used his appearances at hearings to allege he has been ill-treated by prison guards and been denied medical attention.

Russian authorities have accused him of faking health problems to draw attention to his case.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Writing by Alexander Marrow and Tom Balmforth; editing by John Stonestreet)

North Korea’s Kim, in first appearance in weeks, vows to bolster nuclear ‘deterrence’

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a meeting to discuss the country’s nuclear capabilities, state media said on Sunday, marking his first appearance in three weeks after a previous absence sparked global speculation about his health.

Ruling Workers’ Party officials wore face masks to greet Kim as he entered the meeting of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, state television showed, but no one including Kim was seen wearing a mask during the meeting.

Amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States, the meeting discussed measures to bolster North Korea’s armed forces and “reliably contain the persistent big or small military threats from the hostile forces,” state news agency KCNA said.

The meeting discussed “increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation,” adopting “crucial measures for considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the artillery pieces,” it said.

Kim has made an unusually small number of outings in the past two months, with his absence from a key anniversary prompting speculation about his condition, as Pyongyang has stepped up measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but South Korea’s intelligence agency has said it cannot rule out that the North has had an outbreak. [L4N2CO0OL]

U.S.-led negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have made little progress since late last year, especially after a global battle on the virus began.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, expressed hope on Sunday that the United States and North Korea could resume meaningful dialogue as soon as possible, “and not squander away the hard-earned results of (previous) engagement.”

North Korea’s pledge to boost its nuclear capabilities coincides with news reports that the United States might conduct its first full-fledged nuclear test since 1992, noted Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.

“The intention in Washington for pondering such a move may be to pressure Russia and China to improve arms-control commitments and enforcement,” Easley said. “But not only might this tack encourage more nuclear risk-taking by those countries, but it could also provide Pyongyang an excuse for its next provocation.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and William Mallard)

Russia examines ventilator type sent to U.S. after fires kill six

By Andrew Osborn and Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow has begun investigating the safety of a Russian-made medical ventilator, some of which have been sent to the United States, after six people died in hospital fires reported to involve two such machines.

Five people died at Saint George’s Hospital in St Petersburg on Tuesday – including four in a coronavirus intensive care unit, according to a local lawyer. A source told the TASS news agency that the blaze erupted after a ventilator – used to help severely ill COVID-19 patients breathe – burst into flames in the ward.

A similar fire – caused by the same model of ventilator, according to a law enforcement source speaking to TASS – killed one person in a hospital in Moscow on Saturday.

Roszdravnadzor, Russia’s healthcare watchdog, said it would check the quality and safety of the ventilators in the two hospitals, and the St Petersburg hospital said it would stop using the model in question for now. The manufacturer urged people to avoid rushing to conclusions.

The model in question, the Aventa-M, was among those sent to the United States from Russia at the start of April to help it cope with the coronavirus pandemic, and is made by a firm that is under U.S. sanctions.

The Ural Instrument Engineering Plant (UPZ) in Chelyabinsk, 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Moscow, confirmed that the Aventa-M is one of its products and had been supplied to Saint George’s Hospital.

“We have no official data about which devices were installed in the zone of the (St Petersburg) fire,” a spokeswoman added.

Russia is relatively well stocked with ventilators, and has increased domestic production since the coronavirus outbreak.

Data experts and some medics say many machines in use outside Russia’s big cities are old – but TASS said the ventilator in St Petersburg was new and had been installed this month.

Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern (KRET), which controls UPZ, said its ventilators had passed all the necessary tests and had been used by medical facilities in Russia since 2012 without any safety concerns.

“We’re looking at different scenarios: the state of the (electricity) network, the medical institutions’ engineering infrastructure, the medical equipment, and compliance with fire safety rules,” it said in a statement.

“We call on the media and other interested parties not to rush to conclusions and wait for the results of official checks.”

U.S. firms and nationals have been barred from doing business with KRET since July 2014.

Russia has reported 232,243 cases of the novel coronavirus and 2,116 deaths.

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Trump reaffirms desire for arms control with Russia, China in Putin call

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump spoke about the new coronavirus, arms control and other issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, reaffirming the U.S. desire for arms control that includes both Russia and China, the White House said.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” the White House said in a statement

(Reporting By Jeff Mason and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)