Forest fire closes in on Turkish power station

By Mert Ozkan and Tuvan Gumrukcu

MILAS, Turkey (Reuters) -A forest fire moved closer to a coal-fired power station in southwestern Turkey on Tuesday evening and wildfires raged near southern resorts for a seventh day as firefighting planes from Spain and Croatia joined the battle to quell them.

Eleven fires were still blazing, fanned by strong winds, temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F), and low humidity, officials said. Plumes of black smoke rose from hillsides and forests near the coastal resorts of Bodrum and Marmaris.

“The situation is very serious. The flames have come to the edge of the thermal power plant,” Muhammet Tokat, mayor of Milas to the east of the major resort Bodrum, said on Twitter.

He shared a video taken from a vessel at sea showing a fire blazing on a hillside under a night sky, a few hundred meters from the illuminated Kemerkoy power station and called for a plane or helicopter with night vision to be sent to the area.

Two firefighting planes from Spain and one from Croatia joined teams from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to battle blazes on Tuesday, after Turkey requested European support.

The mayors of the southern resort cities of Bodrum and Antalya have pleaded for more planes this week as the fires raged near Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.

A village near Milas was evacuated with flames engulfing houses and buildings, Reuters TV footage showed.

Opposition parties criticized President Tayyip Erdogan and his government for depleting firefighting resources over the years. Thousands also took to social media calling for Erdogan to step down, while others criticized the lack of resources and what they called inadequate preparations.

“To say it frankly, Turkey is not being managed,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “The government of the (presidential) palace has rendered our state incapable.”

Responding to criticism that the government had rejected some offers of international help, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had assessed many proposals, prioritizing offers of planes and helicopters.

He said some countries, including France and Greece, rescinded their offers because of their own needs and fires. Israel’s foreign ministry said it discussed the situation with Turkish officials but was told Turkey did not need assistance.

Turkey’s radio and television watchdog RTUK told broadcasters on Tuesday that negative coverage of the fires could encourage “an atmosphere of chaos”, harming the public’s and firefighters’ morale. It warned the media of the “harshest punishments” if they did not adhere to RTUK’s principles.

The heatwave that has fueled the fires came after months of exceptionally dry weather in Turkey’s southwest, according to maps issued by meteorological authorities.

Data from the European Forest Fire Information Service showed there have been three times as many fires as usual this year, while the more than 136,000 hectares burnt in Turkey were three times the area burnt on average in an entire year.

Eight people have been killed in a total of 156 wildfires which have erupted in the last week. There were no reports of further casualties on Tuesday.

The government is investigating the cause of the fires, including possible arson. Authorities caught one person who tried to light a fire outside a military compound in the southwestern province of Denizli, the Defense Ministry said.

Since Wednesday, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes and some tourists fled their hotels by boat or by road, although Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy said holidaymakers had returned within hours.

(Reporting by Mert Ozkan, Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Marmaris and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Dominic Evans/Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)

Spain surpasses 4 million coronavirus cases since pandemic began

MADRID (Reuters) -Spain surpassed 4 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began on Tuesday after adding 43,960 new cases, as the more contagious Delta variant drives a surge of infections among unvaccinated young people.

The nationwide 14-day infection rate reached nearly 437 cases per 100,000 people on Tuesday, up from 368 cases a day earlier, health ministry data showed. Among 20 to 29-year-olds, that figure was 1,421 per 100,000.

“With the end of the school year, increased mobility, greater social interaction and super-spreader events, the cumulative incidence curve has risen again,” Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias said on Tuesday.

Cases began to surge again in the middle of June after a long decline, propelled by the Delta variant and more socializing among younger groups.

Although infection numbers have been rising steadily, daily deaths remain low, with the new cases primarily reported among younger, unvaccinated people who are less likely to fall seriously ill.

The country reported 13 new fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll total to 81,033. Darias said the current pressure on the country’s health system was nothing like it was in previous waves of the pandemic.

Some hard-hit Spanish regions have introduced new rules such as night-time curfews to tackle the surge.

The Catalan regional government said all activities would have to shut at 12:30 a.m. and eating or drinking in public areas would be banned. The measures are pending court approval.

“The most important thing at the moment is to contain the spread of the virus, which will require regional measures,” Darias said.

Spain’s tourism continues to be in a tight spot, with many businesses struggling to make ends meet. The same is happening across the border in Portugal, where the variant is responsible for all cases in the popular Algarve region.

(Reporting by Andrei Khalip and Catarina Demony; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Spanish rescuers search sea for missing toddler after girl found dead

By Borja Suarez and Emma Pinedo

TENERIFE, Spain (Reuters) -Spanish rescuers were searching waters off the coast of Tenerife for a one-year-old girl on Friday after a body which was reportedly confirmed to be her six-year-old sister was found weighed down in the ocean to an outpouring of rage and grief on the island.

Their father, Tomas G., is the main suspect in the disappearance of Olivia, 6, and Anna, 1, after failing to return them to their mother as agreed at the end of April. He is also missing.

Fingerprint checks have confirmed that the body found weighed down in the sea was that of Olivia, according to judicial sources cited by El Pais newspaper.

The family lived on Tenerife, where officials and a few local residents observed a minute of silence in memory of the sisters in front of the main city hall and outside other official buildings on the Canary Islands.

“All Spain is shocked, all our support for the families whose pain is absolutely unbearable and unimaginable, all our rejection of sexist violence, the vicarious violence that some still deny in our country,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Friday during a visit to Costa Rica.

The body of the 6-year-old, which authorities said was likely that of Olivia, was found on Thursday afternoon at a depth of 1,000 meters inside a sports bag tied to an anchor, near where her father’s boat was drifting.

Another empty sports bag was also found next to them, a court statement said.

Authorities were about to call off the maritime search earlier this week when they found personal belongings of the father at sea.

On the streets of Tenerife people mourned the girls.

“Every mother and grandmother feels the greatest sorrow, mainly for her (the girls’ mother)… It’s as if they were our own daughters or granddaughters,” said local resident Maria Victoria.

Spain’s left-wing government has put women’s rights at the top of its political agenda and sought to combat prevailing macho attitudes.

In Seville, a former boyfriend of Rocio Caiz, 17, was arrested after he allegedly confessed to killing her and cutting up her body.

Almost 1,100 women have been killed by partners or ex-partners since a register was created in 2003, shortly before a gender violence law was approved, while some 39 children have been killed during attacks on their mothers since 2013.

(Reporting by Borja Suarez in Tenerife, Emma Pinedo and Cristina Galan in Madrid; Graham Keeley writing by Emma Pinedo; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Alistair Bell)

Spain vows to restore order after thousands swim into Ceuta from Morocco

By Jon Nazca and Mariano Valladolid

CEUTA, Spain (Reuters) -A sudden influx of migrants swimming into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Africa is a serious crisis for Europe, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday, vowing to re-establish order promptly amid heightened diplomatic tensions with Morocco.

Spain deployed troops to Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after around 8,000 migrants, many from Sub-Saharan Africa and including some 1,500 minors, entered the enclave on Monday and Tuesday by swimming in or climbing over the fence.

Armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta’s beach on Tuesday, and soldiers and police used batons to clear migrants from the beach and threw smoke bombs to discourage others from crossing.

A Reuters reporter on the ground said the number of arrivals by sea had slowed, and some migrants were voluntarily returning to Morocco. A few others could be seen being carried away by soldiers, but dozens still waded in the water towards Ceuta.

Spain said approximately 4,000 migrants had already been sent back to Morocco, under a readmission deal.

The regional leader of Ceuta criticized what he described as Morocco’s passivity in the face of Monday’s surge, and some independent experts said Rabat had initially allowed it as a means of pressuring Madrid over its decision to admit a rebel leader from the Western Sahara to a Spanish hospital.

Moroccan authorities did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The Spanish government did not make that connection, with Sanchez calling the north African nation a friend of Spain and the interior ministry citing cooperation over the readmissions, although Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Morocco’s ambassador Spain rejected and disapproved of the mass arrivals.

Moroccan TV footage showed the authorities setting up barriers on Tuesday to prevent people from crossing into Ceuta.

“This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe,” Sanchez said in a televised address before his arrival in Ceuta.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave’s frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain”.

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with another Spanish enclave, Melilla, it has long been a magnet for African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Morocco has a claim on both.

WESTERN SAHARA DISPUTE

The spike in arrivals took place after Rabat expressed its anger last month when Spain discreetly admitted Brahim Ghali, the leader of Western Sahara’s rebel Polisario Front to hospital. Madrid said it acted on purely humanitarian grounds.

Morocco’s Foreign Ministry criticized what it said was Spain’s decision to admit Ghali under a false identity without informing Morocco, warning of repercussions.

The Polisario Front wants the Western Sahara to be an independent state rather than part of Morocco. Algeria, Morocco’s regional rival, backs the Polisario Front.

The United States in December recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory.

(Reporting by Belen Carreno, Joan Faus, Cristina Galan and Inti Landauro, Writing by Andrei Khalip and Ingrid Melander, Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Alexandra Hudson)

Europe dares to reopen as 200 millionth vaccine dose delivered

By Michael Gore and Estelle Shirbon

MADRID/LONDON (Reuters) – As its vaccination drive reaches a third of adults and COVID-19 infections ease, Europe is starting to reopen cities and beaches, raising hopes that this summer’s holiday season can be saved before it is too late.

Exhilarated Spaniards chanting “freedom” danced in the streets as a COVID-19 curfew ended in most of the country at the weekend, while Greece reopened public beaches – with deckchairs safely spaced.

With 200 million vaccine doses delivered, the European Union is on track to achieve its goal of inoculating 70% of its adult population by summer, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday.

And, in Germany, a first weekend of summer sun lifted spirits after Health Minister Jens Spahn declared the third wave of the pandemic finally broken.

Yet, Spahn warned: “The mood is better than the reality.”

The national seven-day incidence of COVID-19 cases remains high at 119 per 100,000 people, he said. “That makes it all the more important to keep up the speed of the vaccination campaign.”

Across the EU, the seven-day incidence of COVID-19 is 185, according to Our World in Data. That is far higher than in countries such as Israel with 6, Britain (31), or the United States (123), all of which made quicker early progress in their vaccination drives.

HEAD START

In Britain, early orders and approval of vaccines and a decision to give first doses to as many people as possible have driven down infections and fatalities far more quickly.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to set out the next phase of lockdown easing in England, giving the green light to “cautious hugging” and allowing pubs to serve customers pints inside after months of strict measures.

“The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us,” Johnson said ahead of an official announcement later on Monday.

Vaccine deliveries were slower initially in the EU under its centralized procurement strategy.

Now, with shots from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna relatively plentiful, vaccinations as a share of the population in Europe are growing while countries that made early advances see slowdowns as they encounter hesitancy among the unvaccinated.

Some 31.6% of adults in 30 European countries have received a first dose and 12% a full two-shot regime, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker showed.

France expects to give 20 million first injections by mid-May, and hit 30 million by mid-June.

With infection rates falling and occupancy in hospital intensive care units declining, France plans to start relaxing its curfew and allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer outdoor service from May 19.

PICKING AND CHOOSING

Improving supply has given countries greater freedom to adapt their strategies following reports of very rare, but sometimes fatal, blood clotting in people who received shots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Germany has decided to make the two vaccines available to anyone who wants them, as long as they have been advised by a doctor – an offer aimed at younger adults who would have to wait their turn otherwise.

Norway’s vaccine commission made a similar call on Monday, saying the AstraZeneca and J&J shots should be made available to volunteers. Some Italian regions are also offering both shots to people under 60.

With some governments shortening the gaps between doses, and plans for an EU digital “green pass” scheme in June for travelers to provide proof of vaccination or immunity, people cooped up for months are finally daring to make holiday plans.

“We’re pinning our hopes on tourism,” said Nikos Venieris, who manages a beach in Alimos, an Athens suburb.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece’s economy and jobs, and the country can ill afford another lost summer. Greece is lifting restrictions on vaccinated foreigners from May 15.

(Writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Jordi Rubio, Terje Solsvik, Gwladys Fouche, Matthias Blamont, Emilio Parodi, John Miller, Alan Charlish and Phoebe Fronista; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Five EU countries say focus should be on vaccine production, not patents

By John Chalmers and Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Five European Union countries distanced themselves on Friday from the idea of waiving patent rights on coronavirus vaccines, saying the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic was making more vaccines quickly.

Leaders of the 27-nation bloc were to discuss the suggestion, backed by U.S. President Joe Biden, at a two-day summit that opened in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday, but are divided about its usefulness.

Experts say waivers could take years to negotiate, and would not address the immediate need to manufacture more doses fast.

“What is the current issue? It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow?” French President Emmanuel Macron said on entering the talks.

“The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses,” he said, adding that France was working hand in hand with Germany on the issue. Berlin expressed its opposition to the idea on Thursday.

Biden on Wednesday backed a call from India and South Africa to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, responding to pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.

Some EU officials argue that it could take two years to agree on the waivers in the World Trade Organization (WTO), most likely making it irrelevant to the current pandemic.

DIFFICULT PROCESS

The EU leaders are likely to hear advice from the bloc’s executive, the European Commission, that a waiver would not help to boost production, especially in poorer countries, as the manufacturing process requires advanced technologies and facilities, officials said.

The U.S. firm Moderna waived patent rights in October on its vaccine, which uses using the latest mRNA technology, but no other firm has yet announced that it will try to copy the shot.

Germany, home to BioNTech, which owns a patent on another mRNA vaccine developed jointly with Pfizer of the United States, opposes waivers, while Italy supports them, EU officials said.

While the pandemic rages, the chances are high that even more dangerous new variants of the coronavirus will emerge.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that the most expedient approach is to overcome existing production bottlenecks, and sell or donate vaccines to countries around the world.

“No one we will be safe until we all are. If vaccination takes place only in developed countries, our victory over COVID-19 will only be short-lived. We are seeing how quickly the virus is mutating, creating new variants that entail new challenges,” the leaders of Belgium, Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain said in a joint letter to the Commission.

“Vaccines have become security policy and the EU cannot afford to lag behind; to this end, an increased European production capacity will be a key priority,” they said.

The EU, which is among the biggest producers of vaccines in the world, is also the main exporter, with 200 million doses already shipped outside the bloc. The United States and Britain have not exported any of the vaccines they have made.

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Phil Blenkinsop, Francesco Guarasio and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Spain’s rising COVID-19 rate gathers pace

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s coronavirus infection rate rose by more than 10 since Friday, with 15,500 cases added to the tally, Health Ministry data showed on Monday, as a gradual uptick in contagion from mid-March lows gathered pace.

The rate, which is measured over the preceding 14 days, rose to 149 cases per 100,000 people from 138 cases on Friday, the data showed.

It had been inching higher since dropping below 130 cases per 100,000 people in mid-March and remains well below the peak of nearly 900 cases recorded in late January.

Monday’s infection numbers brought the total since the start of the pandemic to 3.27 million cases. The death toll climbed by 189 since Friday to 75,199.

“At a national level we are in a phase of expansion” of new cases, Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon told a news conference, adding that the trend was likely to continue in the coming days.

Though bars and restaurants remain open in much of the country, Spain has banned travel between different regions and limited social events to four people during Holy Week to prevent Easter celebrations triggering a fresh resurgence in contagion.

“If we manage to follow the Easter restrictions, we may not be talking about a fourth wave,” Simon said.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Spain close to vaccinating all nursing-home residents, on track for summer goals

By Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain has given a full two-shot course of coronavirus vaccines to almost all its elderly nursing-home residents, the FED care-home association said on Friday, restoring some sense of security to the most vulnerable section of the population.

Separately, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the country, which has administered 2.8 million doses and fully inoculated 1.14 million people, was on track to vaccinate 20 million people in the first half of 2021 out of a population of 47 million.

Nearly 43,000 care-home residents died of COVID-19 or suspected infection in the devastating March-May first wave of contagion, and prosecutors are investigating more than 200 cases of potential criminal negligence at such homes.

But more than 97% of residents have now been vaccinated across Spain’s 17 regions, according to the FED, putting nursing homes among the country’s safest places.

“They are very positive data that allow us to be optimistic about the future,” said FED’s president Ignacio Fernandez Cid. “Immunity will allow us to gradually return to the longed-for lost normality.”

Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon said earlier this week that for the first time since the start of the pandemic, people over 65 who live in care homes have a lower rate of infection than those who live outside, supporting the thesis, if indirectly, that the vaccines are having an effect.

Frontline medics and care workers are the only people under 65 to receive a vaccine so far.

Spain will now give shots made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to people over 80, while AstraZeneca’s drug will go to key workers under 55.

With a third wave quickly receding, Spain’s two-week infection rate hit 321 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday, from almost 900 cases at the end of January, prompting several regions to relax measures.

Madrid on Thursday pushed its curfew back an hour to 11 p.m. and on Friday lifted travel restrictions on 31 neighborhoods.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, editing by Andrei Khalip)

Spain opens 200 criminal probes into care home pandemic failings

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s public prosecutor is investigating more than 200 cases of potential criminal mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic at nursing homes, where the virus spread almost unchecked during the devastating first wave.

Nearly 43,000 care home residents died of COVID-19 or suspected infection during the March-May first wave of contagion, according to official data.

At the time, staff reported shortages of basic protective equipment and army units deployed on disinfection missions discovered unattended bodies at several facilities.

The prosecutor’s office said nearly half of its investigations related to homicide through a neglect of duty of care, while it was looking into 21 cases of deficiencies in medical treatment.

With Spain reporting record infection numbers on an almost daily basis, it warned that risks still remained across the care home network, despite improvements made in recent months.

“The increase in general contagion is still a risk for residential environments,” it said in a statement on Thursday, adding that it would continue to closely monitor the situation.

Pre-existing weaknesses, including governance, funding, working conditions, a lack of coordination with primary health care, and a lack of isolation spaces, are still widespread, the report said.

Prosecutors shelved other cases, most of the time after charges were rolled into other cases or passed to courts, rather than because investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Spain has about 5,500 nursing homes, housing some 400,000 people, according to the European Ageing Network, which represents both individual carers and businesses.

The heads of both Spain’s main care home associations said they needed more information on the investigations before commenting. In the past, the associations have blamed the government for failing to provide adequate supplies and the health service for refusing to admit residents with a positive diagnosis to hospitals.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Belén Carreño, Emma Pinedoñ; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Andrew Cawthorne)

Spain’s COVID-19 incidence hits new high as third wave of infection rages

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s incidence of the coronavirus as measured over the past 14 days reached a new high of 714 cases per 100,000 people on Tuesday after 689 cases the previous day, Health Ministry data showed, as a rampant third wave of infection grips the country.

The ministry reported 34,291 new infections, retreating from Friday’s record rise of more than 40,000, and bringing the cumulative tally to 2,370,742.

Spain’s overall death toll from the virus rose by 404 to 54,173, the data showed. Although daily increases in the death toll have been on the rise, it is still far below the nearly 900 deaths registered per day in late March and early April.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, editing by Andrei Khalip)