China facing global isolation as virus toll rises

By David Stanway and Winni Zhou

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China faced mounting isolation in the face of increasing international travel curbs and flight suspensions on Saturday, as the death toll from a spreading coronavirus outbreak rose to 259.

The epidemic has led to mass evacuations of foreign citizens as world airlines halt flights, and risks exacerbating a slowdown in growth in the world’s second-largest economy.

China’s National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China as of Friday, bringing the total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported more than 130 cases.

All of the reported deaths from the virus have been in China.

The Russian military was to start evacuating Russian citizens from China on Monday and Tuesday, Interfax and TASS news agencies reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying the evacuations would be from regions that had been most affected by the outbreak.

Russia, which has already restricted direct flights with its biggest trading partner, also said it was suspending visa-free travel for Chinese visitors and halting work visas.

Most international cases have been in people who had recently traveled to or were visiting from Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Hubei has been under a virtual quarantine for the last week, with roads sealed off and public transport shut down. Elsewhere, Chinese authorities placed growing restrictions on travel and business.

In Beijing, counters were set up at the entrances of housing estates, where volunteers wearing red arm bands and masks noted details of residents coming back from their hometowns after the Lunar New Year holiday.

“As long as I am properly protected and don’t go to crowded places, I don’t feel scared at all about my hometown or Beijing,” said a 58-year-old migrant worker surnamed Sun.

Others were more worried.

“There will be a huge number of people returning to the city. I think it will put Beijing at risk of more infections,” said Zhang Chunlei, 45, another returning migrant worker.

In Hubei, the provincial government extended the holiday break to Feb. 13 in a bid to contain the outbreak, the Hubei Daily reported.

The World Health Organization, which this week declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, has said global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.

But Singapore and the United States announced measures on Friday to ban foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering their territories. Australia followed suit on Saturday.

“We’re in fact operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances so Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

The Chinese data would suggest the flu-like virus is less deadly than the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people of the some 8,000 it infected, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

EVACUATIONS

The list of international airlines suspending all or some flights to China is growing.

The latest were Qantas Airways Ltd and Air New Zealand, who said travel bans forced them to suspend their direct flights to China from Feb. 9. All three major U.S. airlines said on Friday they would cancel flights to mainland China.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific banned travel to China for all service members and civilian personnel under his authority and ordered those now in China to leave immediately, officials said.

U.S. health officials on Saturday confirmed an eighth case of the virus, a person in Massachusetts who recently returned from Hubei province.

Many nations have sent charter flights to repatriate citizens from China and then place them in isolation for around two weeks, believed to be the incubation period of the virus.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn called for calm and warned against hysteria as more than 100 Germans and family members landed in Frankfurt, none showing any symptoms of the virus. As of Saturday evening Germany had eight confirmed cases.

Britain, which has had two confirmed cases, said it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.

Many of the private clinics catering to foreigners in China have started to turn away people with fevers.

“I don’t want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else,” said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin.

DISRUPTIONS

Infections have jumped in two cities flanking Wuhan, where the new virus is believed to have originated, raising concerns that new hot spots are emerging despite strict transport restrictions.

In Huanggang, authorities asked households to designate one individual who can leave the home, a local newspaper said. The mayor of the city of about 7.5 million people said there could be a significant rise in cases this weekend.

The northern city of Tianjin, home to some 15 million, suspended all schools and businesses until further notice.

Efforts to contain the virus risk slowing economic growth in China. The virus impact prompted Goldman Sachs to cut its estimate for first-quarter growth to 4% from 5.6%.

China’s central bank said the impact was temporary and economic fundamentals remained sound, but that it would increase credit support, lowering lending costs for affected companies.

Apple Inc said on Saturday it would close all of its official stores and corporate offices in China until Feb. 9, the latest of dozens of major companies, including IKEA and Walmart Inc, to restrict travel and operations due to the outbreak.

For a graphic comparing this with previous coronavirus outbreaks, see https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS-COMPARISON/0100B5BY3CY/index.html

(Reporting by Winni Zhou, Brenda Goh and David Stanway in Shanghai, Judy Hua, Se Young Lee, Yilei Sun and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong, Joori Roh in Seoul, Nick Mulveney in Melbourne, Chris Helgren in Toronto, and Vera Eckert in Frankfurt; Writing by Nick Macfie and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Frances Kerry and Bill Berkrot)

U.N. says around 350,0000 people have fled Syria’s Idlib since Dec. 1

AMMAN (Reuters) – Around 350,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have been displaced by a renewed Russian-backed offensive in the opposition-held Idlib province since early December, and have sought shelter in border areas near Turkey, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result of the “escalating” hostilities.

Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages in recent weeks in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias that aimed at clearing the opposition.

“This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Idlib,” David Swanson, Amman-based U.N. regional spokesman for Syria, told Reuters.

Russian and Syrian jets resumed bombing of civilian areas in the opposition enclave two days after a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia formally took effect on Sunday.

U.N. officials said earlier this month the humanitarian crisis had worsened with thousands of civilians on the run in Idlib province on top of close to 400,000 people who fled earlier bouts of fighting to the safety of camps near the Turkish border.

The latest offensive has brought the Russian-steered military campaign closer to heavily populated parts of Idlib province, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Saudi visit shows Putin’s deepening Middle East influence

By Olesya Astakhova and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin signaled Moscow’s growing Middle East clout on Monday by visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in over a decade, buoyed by Russian military gains in Syria, strong ties with Riyadh’s regional rivals and energy cooperation.

Moscow accrued power in the Middle East in 2015 by sending troops to Syria, where it and Iran have been key backers of President Bashar al-Assad amid civil war, while the United States pulled back. Saudi Arabia sided with Syrian rebels.

On the eve of Putin’s trip, U.S. troops were abruptly retreating from northern Syria as Russian-backed government forces deployed deep inside Kurdish-held territory under a deal to help fend off a Turkish cross-border offensive.

Russia has also strengthened ties with both Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which are locked in a decades-old contest for influence that veered towards open conflict after a recent spate of attacks on oil assets in the Gulf that Riyadh and Washington blame on Tehran. Iran denies the charges.

Tensions with Iran, which is locked in several proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, have risen to new highs after Washington last year quit a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran and re-imposed sanctions.

The Russian president, accompanied by his energy minister and head of Russia’s wealth fund, met King Salman at his palace along with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Putin says he has friendly relations.

Deepening ties have seen non-OPEC Russia, once regarded as a rival in oil markets, join OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia in forming an alliance known as OPEC+ to support crude prices by restraining output.

At a morning forum convening 300 Saudi and Russian CEOs, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said OPEC+ countries were showing high commitments to the deal, and his Russian counterpart said there were no talks underway to change it.

Ahead of the visit, Putin, who offered to provide Russian defense systems to the kingdom after Sept. 14 attacks on its oil facilities, said he could also play a positive role in easing tensions with Tehran given good ties with both sides.

Any progress on long-mulled Saudi plans to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would cause disquiet in Washington, which is sending 3,000 troops and additional air defense systems to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump has resisted pressure to sanction Riyadh over human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calling that a “foolish” move that would only benefit competitors Russia and China.

OIL AND INVESTMENTS

Asked about concerns Riyadh was cozying up to Moscow, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said he saw no contradiction.

“We don’t believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States,” he told reporters on Sunday. “We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia.”

Russian and Saudi flags lined Riyadh streets ahead of Putin’s one-day visit, which includes an evening performance by Russia’s Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Putin then travels to the United Arab Emirates.

In meetings with Saudi leaders, the Russian president will discuss the OPEC+ pact, which has seen production cut by 1.2 million barrels per day since January.

The two sides are expected to sign more than $2 billion of deals, including a joint investment by state oil giant Saudi Aramco and Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund.

RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said a number of Russian investors were interested in a planned initial public offering of Aramco. The oil major could sell 1-2% through a local listing its chairman said would be announced “very, very soon”, ahead of a potential international offering.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia’s Gazprom is interested in cooperating with Saudi firms on natural gas.

Moscow, the world’s largest wheat exporter, made some progress in accessing the Saudi and Middle Eastern markets when the kingdom agreed in August to relax specifications for wheat imports, opening the door to Black Sea imports.

RDIF and Saudi Arabia’s SALIC plan to sign an agreement to jointly search for investment projects in Russia’s agricultural sector, a source told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Dahlia Nehme in Dubai and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, William Maclean)

Former U.S. Marine held for spying had Russian contacts with military backgrounds

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the pre-trial detention centre Lefortovo, where former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is reportedly held in custody in Moscow, Russia January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

By Gabrielle T’trault-Farber and Maxim Rodionov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held in Moscow on spying charges, had online contact with more than 20 Russians with military backgrounds, an analysis of social media shows.

Russian men with military education or a history of military service make up nearly half of Whelan’s more than 50 friends on VK, a popular Russian social network that resembles Facebook, the analysis by Reuters shows.

At least 12 of his friends received military education in Russia, according to open source information, and at least another 11 appear to have completed national service.

In addition, about a fifth of those on Whelan’s list have backgrounds in IT, engineering or civil aviation, a quarter are not connected to the military or technical sectors, and there is no information about the rest.

Whelan’s family says he is innocent and was in Moscow for a wedding when he was arrested last month. The “Free Paul Whelan” Twitter page managed by the family has used the hashtag #JustATourist in one of its posts.

Russian authorities have not given details of his alleged spying, and the FSB security service did not respond immediately to questions on whether Whelan’s online activity was linked to his detention.

Analysis of Whelan’s online activity – including exchanges with Russian friends and content on their own accounts – provides a fuller picture of his contacts than has so far been revealed.

Reuters contacted 38 people on Whelan’s VK friend list, almost all men in their 20s.

Whelan, 48, contacted them years ago through pen-pal websites or VK, corresponding occasionally online over the years, five of his contacts told Reuters.

Whelan’s military contacts in Russia are low-level, come from various regions and have served in the army, airborne forces and navy, according to information and pictures posted online.

In Russia, men aged between 18 and 27 are conscripted into the military for a year. Enrolment at military academies, which is not mandatory, can lead to a career in the services.

Asked if he was aware of Whelan’s Russian military contacts online, his brother David said: “I didn’t know he had a VK account before last week. But I’m not surprised that he had friends on social media, both Facebook and VK, that had military backgrounds just as he had a military background.”

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, was not available for comment.

The arrest of Whelan, who also holds British citizenship, further strains relations between Moscow and Washington, which have soured over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, economic sanctions and accusations of election meddling.

ONLINE ACTIVITY

The “Free Paul Whelan” Twitter page shows postcards Whelan sent to his sister from Russia in 2015 and 2018.

Whelan first posted on his VK page in November 2010 and has since published congratulations on Russian public holidays, military celebrations and other events.

In February 2015, he posted: “In Moscow …” along with a Russian mobile phone number. Calls to it this week went unanswered.

One of Whelan’s friends lists his employer as the Russian Defence Ministry and writes that he studied at the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School, a military academy.

A picture posted in 2012 shows the friend in a Russian serviceman’s striped vest under a green camouflage jacket.

Another 26-year-old Russian posted pictures of himself and classmates at the Naval Cadet Corps, which trains naval officers in St Petersburg.

A man apparently in his 20s posted pictures of himself in a paratrooper’s blue beret and army fatigues bearing the inscription: “Nizhegorodsky Cadet Corps”.

Vadim Izotov said he first interacted with Whelan in 2008 while at the defense ministry’s Military University. He was surprised Whelan had been charged with espionage.

“I understood he had a positive attitude towards Russia, towards our culture. That’s why he traveled here,” he said.

“He communicated with Russian military here because he himself had been a serviceman.”

Lenar Azmukhanov, a 30-year-old from Kazan who attended the Ulyanovsk Higher Military Technical College, said he and Whelan congratulated each other on holidays but their interaction did not go beyond that.

Another friend of Whelan’s, who did not want to be named, said he first had contact with him in 2005 or 2006 on a pen-pal website. They met once in person in 2008.

“As far as I know his trips to Russia were for tourism,” he said. “He had friends in the military, but I, for example, am not one of them.”

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Giles Elgood)