Sweden’s liberal pandemic strategy questioned as Stockholm death toll mounts

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A spike in novel coronavirus infections and deaths in Stockholm has raised questions about Sweden’s decision to fight the outbreak without resorting to the lockdowns that have left much of Europe at a standstill.

Governments across Europe have closed schools and taken draconian measures to limit exposure to possible carriers with Germany for example enforcing bans on more than two people meeting in public.

Among Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, Denmark has closed its borders and shut its schools, as has Norway, while Finland has isolated its main urban region.

Yet Swedes are able to go to restaurants, get a haircut and send their children to school even as the number of confirmed cases and deaths have mounted, above all in Stockholm which accounts for more than half the fatalities.

An analysis of smartphone location data showed that while visits to public places has fallen steeply in most European countries, Sweden is bucking the trend.

But Sweden’s liberal approach, which aims to minimise disruption to social and economic life, is coming under fire as the epidemic spreads in the capital.

“We don’t have a choice, we have to close Stockholm right now,” Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the Karolinska Institute, told Reuters.

She is one of around 2,300 academics who signed an open letter to the government at the end of last month calling for tougher measures to protect the healthcare system.

“We must establish control over the situation, we cannot head in to a situation where we get complete chaos. No one has tried this route, so why should we test it first in Sweden, without informed consent?” she said.

Sweden reported 612 new cases on Friday, bringing the total to around 6,000. The death toll has reached 333, with fatalities now running at about 25-30 a day, according to the Swedish Health Agency.

A STORM IN STOCKHOLM

There are growing signs the virus is spreading at elderly care homes, again mainly in the capital, where some staff at hospitals and nursing homes have publicly warned of a lack of protective equipment such as masks.

Facing what a local official has called “a storm” of COVID-19 cases, Stockholm has opened a field hospital at a convention complex south of the city centre and called on anyone with medical training to help care for the sick.

At a news conference this week centre-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven fielded questions over whether the rising number of cases at Sweden’s nursing homes was evidence of a failing strategy.

“I don’t think it is a sign of that. This is what things look like around Europe,” he said. “We have said all along that things will get worse before they get better.”

Sweden has focused on isolating and treating the sick rather than closing down swathes of society.

Gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, high schools and universities have moved teaching online and people have been told not to take unnecessary trips, all quite low-key measures in a European context.

The public face of Sweden’s pandemic fight, Health Agency Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, only months ago a little known civil servant but now rivalling the prime minister for publicity, has questioned how effectively lockdowns can be enforced over time.

“It is important to have a policy that can be sustained over a longer period, meaning staying home if you are sick, which is our message,” said Tegnell, who has received both threats and fan mail over the country’s handling of the crisis.

“Locking people up at home won’t work in the longer term,” he said. “Sooner or later people are going to go out anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Giles Elgood)

North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Working-level nuclear talks in Sweden between officials from Pyongyang and Washington have broken off, North Korea’s top negotiator said late on Saturday, dashing prospects for an end to months of stalemate.

The talks, at an isolated conference center on the outskirts of Stockholm, were the first such formal discussion since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.

The North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, who spent much of the day in talks with an American delegation, cast the blame on what he portrayed as U.S. inflexibility, saying the other side’s negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude.”

“The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off,” Kim told reporters outside the North Korean embassy, speaking through an interpreter.

The U.S. State Department said Kim’s comments did not reflect “the content or spirit” of more than 8-1/2 hours of talks, and Washington had accepted Sweden’s invitation to return for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.

“The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

She said the U.S. delegation had previewed a number of new initiatives that would pave the way for progress in the talks, and underscored the importance of more intensive engagement.

“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” she added.

“These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment.”

North Korea’s Kim downplayed the U.S. gestures.

“The U.S. raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who led the team, had arrived back at the U.S. embassy in central Stockholm.

The Swedish foreign office declined to give details on the invitation for new talks, or whether Pyongyang had accepted.

Since June, U.S. officials had struggled to persuade North Korea, which is under sanctions banning much of its trade, due to its nuclear program, to return to the table, but that appeared to change this week when the North abruptly announced it had agreed to talks.

On Saturday, negotiator Kim accused the United States of having no intention of solving difficulties through dialogue, but said a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was still possible.

It would only happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt,” he said, in an apparent reference to North Korea’s desire for Washington to ease economic pressure.

On Sunday, China’s President Xi Jinping and the North’s leader exchanged messages to reaffirm the neighbors’ relationship on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. China is the North’s only major ally.

Xi, who has met Kim five times in the past year, said they had “reached a series of important consensuses, leading China-North Korea relations into a new historical era”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Kim replied the two leaders would “resolutely safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the world,” Xinhua reported.

TENSIONS

The delegation from North Korea arrived in Sweden on Thursday. Analysts have said both countries’ leaders had growing incentives to reach a deal, but it was unclear if common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.

The readout from the talks did not sound very promising, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project.

“I think (North Korea’s) expectations were too high that the removal of Bolton would provide more flexibility on what the U.S. wants as initial steps,” she said, referring to Trump’s hardline former aide John Bolton, abruptly fired last month amid disagreements on how to tackle foreign policy challenges.

“While certainly it removes some pressure for an all or nothing deal, it seems the gap between what the two sides want as a baseline and are willing to reciprocate still has not narrowed,” Town added.

An official at South Korea’s presidential office said the talks in Sweden were nevertheless the beginning of negotiations, and that South Korea hoped the United States and North Korea would keep the momentum of the dialogue.

Only a day after announcing the new talks, North Korea said it had test-fired a new ballistic missile designed for submarine launch, underscoring the need for Washington to move quickly to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.

Speaking in Athens on a tour of southern Europe while the talks were still underway, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said he was hopeful of progress.

“We are mindful this will be the first time that we’ve had a chance to have a discussion in quite some time and that there remains to be a lot of work that will have to be done by the two teams,” he told a news conference.

(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Johan Ahlander, Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard and Philip O’Connor in Stockholm; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michele Kambas in Athens, Joori Roh and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Andrea Shalal and Julia Harte in Washington, Huizhong Wu and Hallie Gu in Beijing; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S., allies to condemn China for economic espionage, charge hackers: source

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and about a dozen allies are expected on Thursday to condemn China for efforts to steal other countries’ trade secrets and technologies and to compromise government computers, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden are expected to be involved in the U.S. effort, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. Justice Department also is expected later on Thursday to unveil criminal charges against hackers affiliated with China’s main intelligence service for an alleged cyber-spying campaign targeting U.S. and other countries’ networks, according to the source.

The Washington Post first reported the coming action on Thursday.

The suspected hackers are expected to be charged with spying on some of the world’s largest companies by hacking into technology firms to which they outsource email, storage and other computing tasks. The attacks began as early as 2017.

Cloudhopper is considered a major cyber threat by private-sector cybersecurity researchers and government investigators because of the scale of the intrusions.

Over the past several years, as companies around the globe have sought to cut down information technology spending, they have increasingly relied on outside contractors to store and transfer their data.

When a managed service provider is hacked, it can unintentionally provide attackers access to secondary victims who are customers of that company and have their computer systems connected to them, according to experts.

The timing of the action may further escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, in Canada at the request of the United States.

The action also comes just weeks after the United States and China agreed to talks aimed at resolving an ongoing trade dispute that threatens global economic growth.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Lisa Lambert and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

Yemen talks set to start in Sweden after wounded Houthis evacuated

A wounded Houthi fighter, on a wheelchair, holds his passport at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Mohamed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi

ADEN/DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi officials are expected to travel to Sweden shortly for talks as early as Wednesday to end the nearly four-year-old war after the Saudi-led coalition allowed the evacuation of some of their wounded for treatment.

Prospects for convening talks have risen as Western allies press Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni Muslim alliance battling the Iranian-aligned Houthis, over a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on Monday to escort the Houthi delegation, a U.N. source told Reuters. The Saudi-backed government has said it would follow the Houthis to the talks, the first since 2016.

The peace talks may start on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the matter said. Griffiths shuttled between the parties to salvage a previous round that collapsed in September after the Houthis failed to show up.

Western powers, which provide arms and intelligence to the coalition, may now have greater leverage to demand action on Yemen after outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul led to increased scrutiny of the kingdom’s activities in the region.

The U.S. Senate is due to consider this week a resolution to end support for the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-foe in the Middle East, Iran.

A Houthi official told Reuters that their delegation could travel on Monday night or Tuesday morning. In addition to the evacuation of their wounded, the group had asked to travel on a plane not inspected by the Saudi-led coalition.

A Reuters photographer saw the group of 50 wounded fighters entered Sanaa airport early on Monday as the commercial plane hired by the United Nations to take them to Oman for treatment arrived. The aircraft departed later on Monday.

A Houthi official said the group has agreed with Griffiths that 50 companions would also go with the fighters.

The coalition said in a statement it had agreed on the evacuation for “for humanitarian considerations and as part of confidence-building measures” ahead of the talks, which are also due to focus on a transitional governing body.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it backed the talks and was ready to help find a political solution, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A wounded Houthi fighter walks at Sanaa airport during his evacuation from Yemen December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

HODEIDAH CHALLENGE

Analysts said both parties showing up for the talks would be an achievement in itself, even if there are no concrete outcomes as Griffiths tries to overcome deep mistrust on all sides.

“Neither side wishes to be blamed for the dire consequences of the looming famine, which is starting to become a reality,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University.

“But it remains to be seen whether the political will is really there to make the necessary concessions for peace.”

Some 8.4 million Yemenis are facing starvation, although the United Nations has warned that will probably rise to 14 million. Three-quarters of impoverished Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, require aid.

The Arab alliance intervened in the war in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but has bogged down in a military stalemate, despite superior air power, since seizing the southern port of Aden that year.

The Houthis, who are more adept at guerrilla warfare, hold most population centers including Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions that is now the focus of the war.

Griffiths hopes to reach a deal on reopening Sanaa airport and securing a prisoner swap and a ceasefire in Hodeidah as a foundation for a wider ceasefire, which would include a halt to coalition air strikes that have killed thousands of civilians as well as Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO and Mohammed Ghobari in Aden, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Toby Chopra; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iranian intelligence service suspected of attempted attack in Denmark: security chief

FILE PHOTO: Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen attends a news conference in Beijing, China June 21, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark said on Tuesday it suspected an Iranian intelligence service had tried to carry out a plot to assassinate an Iranian Arab opposition figure on its soil.

A Norwegian citizen of Iranian background was arrested in Sweden on Oct. 21 in connection with the plot and extradited to Denmark, Swedish security police said.

The Norwegian has denied the charges and Tehran also rejected the allegations on Tuesday.

The attack was meant to target the leader of the Danish branch of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), Danish intelligence chief Finn Borch Andersen said.

ASMLA seeks a separate state for ethnic Arabs in Iran’s oil-producing southwestern province of Khuzestan.

“We are dealing with an Iranian intelligence agency planning an attack on Danish soil. Obviously, we can’t and won’t accept that,” Andersen told a news conference.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi dismissed the accusations. “This is a continuation of enemies’ plots to damage Iranian relations with Europe at this critical time,” Tasnim news agency quoted him as saying.

European countries are trying to save a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the pact and announced the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

Andersen said the arrested Norwegian citizen had denied charges in court of helping a foreign intelligence service plot an assassination in Denmark.

Arabs are a minority in Iran, and some see themselves as under Persian occupation and want independence or autonomy.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said on Twitter that the reported attack plot was “completely unacceptable”.

“The government will respond to Iran and is speaking with European partners on further measures,” Samuelsen said.

On Sept. 28, Danish police shut two major bridges to traffic and halted ferry services from Denmark to Sweden and Germany in a nationwide police operation to prevent a possible attack.

A few days earlier, the Norwegian suspect had been observed photographing and watching the Danish home of the ASMLA leader, police said.

In November 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, an Iranian exile who established ASMLA, was shot dead in the Netherlands. The Danish security service then bolstered police protection of the ASMLA leader in Denmark and two associates.

Last month, Iran summoned the envoys of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Britain over a Sept. 22 shooting attack on a military parade in Khuzestan in which 25 people were killed.

Iran accused the three countries of harboring Iranian opposition groups.

Another Arab opposition group, the Ahwaz National Resistance, and the Islamic State militant group both claimed responsibility for the parade attack, though neither has provided conclusive evidence to back up their claim.

Last week, diplomatic and security sources said France had expelled an Iranian diplomat over a failed plot to carry out a bomb attack on a rally in the Paris area by an exiled Iranian opposition group.

(Reporting by Emil Gjerding Nielson with additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen and Terje Solsvik in Copenhagen, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, John Irish in Paris; Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Mark Heinrich)

Sweden to sign $1 billion Patriot missile deal this week: report

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) model by Lockheed Martin at an international military fair in Kielce, Poland September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden will sign a contract to buy the Patriot air defense missile system from U.S. arms manufacturer Raytheon Co  this week, Swedish radio reported on Wednesday.

Although it is not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, Sweden has close ties to the alliance and has been beefing up its armed forces after decades of neglect amid increased anxiety over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

Sweden, whose existing air defense system cannot shoot down ballistic missiles, will buy four Patriot firing units and an undisclosed number of missiles, Swedish radio said.

“This system has been proven in action … there are a number of other countries that already have it and we expect the first delivery in 2021,” Swedish radio quoted Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist saying.

The Defence Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment on the Swedish radio report, which said Stockholm will formally sign the deal on Thursday.

Sweden began talks over the purchase, initially worth around 10 billion crowns ($1.14 billion), last November.

The contract includes an option to buy up to 300 missiles, which would bring the final bill to around $3 billion.

The main, center-right opposition has backed the plan, though there are differences over how to finance the deal.

So far, 15 other countries have purchased Patriot, including NATO members Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Poland, while neutral Switzerland has said it is considering Patriot among other systems.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Sweden’s far-right eyes election gains as gang violence rises

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand at the scene of an explosion after what is believed to have been a robbery attempt on an ATM, in Genarp, southern Sweden March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency/File Photo

By Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A surge in gang violence has stirred anti-immigration sentiment before an election in Sweden, putting a far-right party on course for big gains in one of Europe’s most liberal countries.

Dozens of people have been killed in the past two years in attacks in the capital Stockholm and other big cities by gangs that are mostly from run-down suburbs dominated by immigrants.

In the latest bloodshed, three men were shot dead and three were wounded outside an internet cafe in the city of Malmo on June 18. A fourth man was shot dead days later and another man survived because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest.

FILE PHOTO: Police technicians examine the car which people who were injured were traveling in, after a shooting in southern Malmo, Sweden September 25, 2016. TT News Agency/Emil Langvad via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Police technicians examine the car which people who were injured were traveling in, after a shooting in southern Malmo, Sweden September 25, 2016. TT News Agency/Emil Langvad via Reuters/File Photo

With public calls growing for tougher policies on crime and immigration, support has risen for the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots that wants to freeze immigration and to hold a referendum on Sweden’s membership of the European Union.

Their worried mainstream rivals have started moving to the right on crime and immigration to try to counter the Sweden Democrats’ threat in the Sept. 9 election. But so far, they are playing into the hands of the far-right.

“Right now they (mainstream parties) are competing over who can set out the most restrictive policies,” said Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin, whose Green Party is part of a minority government led by the Social Democratic Party.

“It clearly benefits the Sweden Democrats.”

Opinion polls put the Sweden Democrats on about 20 percent support, up from the 13 percent of votes they secured in the 2014 election and the 5.7 percent which saw them enter parliament for the first time in 2010.

The Sweden Democrats’ rise on the back of anti-immigration sentiment mirrors gains for right-wing, populist and anti-establishment parties in other European countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria.

Immigration has risen back up the political agenda since far-right parties entered coalition governments in Austria and Italy, and will be discussed at a summit in Brussels this week.

Though the Sweden Democrats are unlikely to win power, the growing popularity for a party opposed to the EU is a concern for Brussels although Swedes broadly support EU membership, polls show.

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand guard at a cordoned area after a masked man attacked people with a sword at a school in Trollhattan, western Sweden October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand guard at a cordoned area after a masked man attacked people with a sword at a school in Trollhattan, western Sweden October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency/File Photo

BACKLASH

Five years ago, Sweden saw itself as a “humanitarian superpower” that generously welcomed migrants, many of them fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

But as in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has been cracking under pressure from her coalition partners to tighten immigration curbs, Sweden’s government now faces a backlash over the scale of immigration.

About 400,000 people have sought asylum in the wealthy Scandinavian country of 10 million since 2012, and it took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone. Some voters fear schools, hospitals and welfare services cannot cope, and Sweden’s reputation for tolerance and social equality is threatened.

The Sweden Democrats still trail the Social Democratic Party but has overtaken the main opposition Moderates in many polls. All mainstream parties have ruled out working with them.

But they could emerge from the election as kingmakers, and a strong election showing could force the next government to take their views into consideration when shaping policy.

Their policies include a total freeze on asylum seekers and accepting refugees only from Sweden’s neighbors in the future. They also want tougher penalties for crime and more powers for police, and say tax cuts and higher spending on welfare could be funded by cutting the immigration budget.

Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democratic party, has described the situation as “pretty fantastic”.

“We are dominating the debate even though no one will talk to us,” he told party members.

RUTHLESS CRIMINAL UNDERCLASS

There were 129 shootings in Stockholm in 2017. Nineteen people were killed in the attacks, almost twice as many as in 2016, according to official figures.

In Malmo, where about 45 percent of the 330,000 inhabitants have an immigrant background, police say three or four gangs are operating. Swedish media say nine people have been shot dead in the city this year after 21 in the previous two year-period.

A 2017 police report into Sweden’s most deprived areas pointed to a heavily armed and ruthless criminal underclass.

All the areas identified by police are socially deprived suburbs with large immigrant populations, places where poverty and long-term youth unemployment are big problems.

Among these is the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, where two men walked into a pizzeria packed with families in January and shot a man dead in what police said was a gang killing.

When it was built in the 1970s, Rinkeby was a symbol of modernity, part of what became known as Sweden’s Million Homes project to replace run-down inner-city slums with clean, well-planned suburbs with their own schools, shops and healthcare facilities.

With ninety-one percent of its 16,000 inhabitants born abroad or to parents born outside Sweden, only half of them working, the area is now synonymous with failed integration, unemployment and social exclusion.

Police say people in Rinkeby live in fear of a group known as the Death Patrol gang.

“A few individuals have kept an entire neighborhood terrified,” said Mohamed Nuur, 26, a local Social Democrat politician. Witnesses of the pizzeria shooting were afraid to testify against the suspects, he said.

Rinkeby was one of several suburbs in northern Stockholm hit by riots in 2013 which fueled debate about how Sweden is coping with youth unemployment and the influx of immigrants, issues raised by urban violence in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011.

“RIGHT-WING PATH”

Many Swedes were horrified in early 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump linked immigration to rising crime in Sweden, but an increasing number now agree with him.

The Sweden Democrats have succeeded in linking the two in the minds of many voters, even though official statistics show no correlation between overall levels of crime and immigration.

Sweden has one of the highest levels of lethal gun violence in Europe, World Health Organisation data showed. But while the number of foreign-born citizens has risen for decades, murder rates are roughly flat.

The government denies it has lost control but Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has not ruled out sending the military into problem areas.

Moving to the right, he has tried to deal with the threat posed by the Sweden Democrats by saying immigration – down to 26,000 in 2017 – should halve from last year’s level.

The government has also proposed tougher punishments for gun crimes and sexual assaults, wants to stop financial support for undocumented foreigners, put more of those whose identity is unclear in holding centers and accelerate repatriation of failed asylum seekers.

The Moderates have also toughened their stance on crime and immigration, promising a crackdown on welfare for asylum seekers and a ban on begging. Both main parties say Sweden will not return to liberal asylum rules suspended in 2015.

“Sweden is going down a more right-wing path,” said Nick Aylott, a political scientist at Sodertorn University said. “It is almost impossible to avoid according some sort of influence to a party with around 20 percent of the vote.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Security advisers from U.S., South Korea, Japan meet on North Korean summits: Seoul

FILE PHOTO: Shotaro Yachi speaks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi (not pictured) during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – The top national security advisers of the United States, South Korea and Japan met at the weekend to discuss North Korea and the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said on Monday.

The two days of meetings could also help prepare the way for a possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

They were the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity spanning Asia, the United States and Europe ahead of North Korea’s planned summits with the South and the United States.

South Korea’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong met U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Japan’s National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi to discuss summit meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the Blue House in Seoul said.

They also discussed the possible meeting between Trump and Kim, it said.

The security advisers from the three countries discussed the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, agreed that “it was important to not repeat the mistakes of the past” and to work together closely, the Blue House said.

A senior North Korean diplomat left for Finland on Sunday for talks with former U.S. and South Korean officials, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.

That followed three days of talks between North Korean and Swedish foreign ministers on security on the Korean peninsula.

Sweden “engaged heavily” on the issue of U.S. detainees during the talks between North Korean and Swedish foreign ministers, CNN reported on Sunday, citing unidentified sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

North Korea is pursuing its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

Finland is world’s happiest country, U.S. discontent grows: U.N. report

People enjoy a sunnny day at the Esplanade in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Finland is the world’s happiest country, according to an annual survey issued on Wednesday that found Americans were getting less happy even as their country became richer.

Burundi came bottom in the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) 2018 World Happiness Report which ranked 156 countries according to things such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.

Taking the harsh, dark winters in their stride, Finns said access to nature, safety, childcare, good schools and free healthcare were among the best things about in their country.

 

FILE PHOTO: Finland's flag flutters in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Finland’s flag flutters in Helsinki, Finland, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

“I’ve joked with the other Americans that we are living the American dream here in Finland,” said Brianna Owens, who moved from the United States and is now a teacher in Espoo, Finland’s second biggest city with a population of around 280,000.

“I think everything in this society is set up for people to be successful, starting with university and transportation that works really well,” Owens told Reuters.

Finland, rose from fifth place last year to oust Norway from the top spot. The 2018 top-10, as ever dominated by the Nordics, is: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

The United States came in at 18th, down from 14th place last year. Britain was 19th and the United Arab Emirates 20th.

One chapter of the 170-page report is dedicated to emerging health problems such as obesity, depression and the opioid crisis, particularly in the United States where the prevalence of all three has grown faster than in most other countries.

While U.S. income per capita has increased markedly over the last half century, happiness has been hit by weakened social support networks, a perceived rise in corruption in government and business and declining confidence in public institutions.

“We obviously have a social crisis in the United States: more inequality, less trust, less confidence in government,” the head of the SDSN, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of New York’s Columbia University, told Reuters as the report was launched at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“It’s pretty stark right now. The signs are not good for the U.S. It is getting richer and richer but not getting happier.”

Asked how the current political situation in the United States could affect future happiness reports, Sachs said:

“Time will tell, but I would say that in general that when confidence in government is low, when perceptions of corruption are high, inequality is high and health conditions are worsening … that is not conducive to good feelings.”

For the first time since it was started in 2012, the report, which uses a variety of polling organizations, official figures and research methods, ranked the happiness of foreign-born immigrants in 117 countries.

Finland took top honors in that category too, giving the country a statistical double-gold status.

The foreign-born were least happy in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for seven years.

“The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born,” said Professor John Helliwell of Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” he said.

“Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Reuters television in Finland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)