U.S. embassy in Moscow dwindling to “caretaker presence,” U.S. official says

By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department is getting to the point of being able to maintain only a “caretaker presence” in Russia in the face of a deep downturn in diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow, a senior department official said on Wednesday.

Russia and the United States withdrew their ambassadors in April after the incoming Biden administration issued sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats over actions including the SolarWinds cyber attack and election interference.

Those ambassadors returned in June, but the staff at the embassy in Moscow – the last operational U.S. mission in the country after consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg were shuttered – has shrunk to 120 from about 1,200 in early 2017, the State Department official told reporters at a briefing.

Staff were struggling to issue visas, putting a drag on business ties between the two countries, and were unable to repair elevators or entrance gates, creating safety concerns, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re going to confront the situation… sometime next year where it’s just difficult for us to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy,” the official said.

Russia and the United States continue to engage in talks over nuclear threat reduction and climate change, but relations remain strained by issues like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe and President Vladimir Putin’s suppression of his domestic opponents.

The United States was forced to lay off nearly 200 locally employed staff after Russia banned the embassy from employing non-Americans, and a visa-for-visa arrangement has prevented Washington from bringing U.S. citizens into Russia.

Russia has just over 400 diplomats in the United States, including its delegation to the United Nations in New York, the State Department official said.

U.S. officials continue to negotiate with their Russian counterparts to stabilize the “downward spiral” in relations, the official added.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. State Dept IG launches probes into end of Afghanistan operations -Politico

(Reuters) -A U.S. State Department watchdog is launching a series of investigations into the chaotic end of the Biden administration’s diplomatic operations in Afghanistan, including the emergency evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Politico reported on Monday.

Politico said its report was based on State Department and congressional officials and documents.

In addition to the embassy evacuation, the agency’s acting inspector general will also look into the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa Program, the processing of Afghans for admission as refugees, and their resettlement in the United States, the news website said.

The acting inspector general, Diana Shaw, notified Congress of the move on Monday. In a letter to lawmakers, Shaw said her office was launching “several oversight projects” related to the end of the U.S. military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, Politico said.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Politico quoted an OIG spokesperson as saying the inquiries will be reviews and not investigations. The spokesperson confirmed the office had notified the relevant congressional committees of the reviews.

In mid-August, the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed as the Taliban swept through the country at lightning speed and marched into the capital, Kabul, unopposed. The United States was then left seeking the militant group’s cooperation in the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Kabul.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. envoy resigns over expulsions to Haiti from Texas camp

By Daina Beth Solomon

CIUDAD ACUNA (Reuters) -The U.S. envoy to Haiti dramatically resigned on Thursday in a letter that excoriated Washington for deporting hundreds of migrants to the crisis-engulfed Caribbean nation from a border camp in recent days.

The resignation was confirmed by a senior official at the U.S. State Department.

“I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants,” Daniel Foote said in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that circulated publicly on Thursday.

Foote, a career diplomat named in July as special envoy to Haiti, said conditions in the country were so bad that U.S. officials were confined to secure compounds. He said the “collapsed state” was unable to support the infusion of returning migrants.

His resignation follows growing pressure on the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden from the United Nations and fellow Democrats over the treatment of Haitians in a migrant camp in Texas near the Mexican border.

As many as 14,000 people gathered in the camp last week, with the population now reduced to less than half by expulsion flights and detentions. Others have left the dusty riverbank for Mexico to avoid being sent home.

Images of U.S. border guards on horseback using long reins to whip at Black asylum seekers at the weekend caused outrage within the White House and from rights groups.

The United States has returned 1,401 migrants from the camp at Del Rio, Texas, to Haiti and taken another 3,206 people into custody, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said late on Wednesday.

Wade McMullen, an attorney with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, said several hundred people, mostly pregnant women and parents with children, had been released in Del Rio, Texas, over the past several days.

The deportations came amid profound instability in the Caribbean nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, where a presidential assassination, gang violence and a major earthquake have spread chaos in recent weeks.

Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N refugee agency, warned that the U.S. expulsions to Haiti might violate international law.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Ciudad Acuna, Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Kristina Cooke, Editing by Laura Gottesdiener and Nick Zieminski)

What we know about the origins of COVID-19

By Deborah J. Nelson

(Reuters) -Scientists are revisiting a central mystery of COVID-19: Where, when and how did the virus that causes the disease originate?

The two prevailing competing theories are that the virus jumped from animals, possibly originating with bats, to humans, or that it escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China. The following is what is known about the virus’ origins.

WHY IS THE LAB IN WUHAN A FOCUS OF INTEREST?

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is a high-security research facility that studies pathogens in nature with the potential to infect humans with deadly and exotic new diseases.

The lab has done extensive work on bat-borne viruses since the 2002 SARS-CoV-1 international outbreak, which began in China, killing 774 people worldwide. The search for its origins led years later to discovery of SARS-like viruses in a southwest China bat cave.

The institute collects genetic material from wildlife for experimentation at its Wuhan lab. Researchers experiment with live viruses in animals to gauge human susceptibility. To reduce the risk of pathogens escaping accidentally, the facility is supposed to enforce rigorous safety protocols, such as protective garb and super air filtration. But even the strictest measures cannot eliminate such risks.

WHY DO SOME SCIENTISTS SUSPECT A LABORATORY ACCIDENT?

To some scientists, the release of a dangerous pathogen via a careless lab worker is a plausible hypothesis for how the pandemic started and warrants investigation. The Wuhan lab, China’s leading SARS research facility, is not far from the Huanan Seafood Market, which early in the health crisis was cited as the most likely place where animal-to-human transmission of the virus may have taken place. The market was also the site of the first known COVID-19 super spreader event. Their proximity raised immediate suspicions, fueled by the failure so far to identify any wildlife infected with the same viral lineage and compounded by the Chinese government’s refusal to allow the lab-leak scenario to be fully investigated.

Scientists and others have developed hypotheses based on general concerns about the risks involved in live virus lab research, clues in the virus’ genome, and information from studies by institute researchers. Although the Wuhan lab’s scientists have said they had no trace of SARS-CoV-2 in their inventory at the time, 24 researchers sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) urging a rigorous, independent investigation. The WHO’s first such mission to China this year failed to probe deeply enough, they wrote.

A U.S. State Department fact sheet, released before the WHO mission in the waning days of the Trump Administration, alleged, without proof, that several WIV researchers had fallen sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or common seasonal illnesses before the first publicly confirmed case in December 2019.

A May 5, story by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said lab scientists experimenting on a virus sometimes insert a sequence called a “furin cleavage site” into its genome in a manner that makes the virus more infective. David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist quoted in the article, said when he spotted the sequence in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, he felt he had found the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS FOR ANIMAL-TO-HUMAN TRANSMISSION?

Many scientists believe a natural origin is more likely and have seen no scientific evidence to support the lab leak theory. Kristian G. Andersen, a scientist at Scripps Research who has done extensive work on coronaviruses, Ebola and other pathogens transmissible from animals to humans, said similar genomic sequences occur naturally in coronaviruses and are unlikely to be manipulated in the way Baltimore described for experimentation.

Scientists who favor the natural origins hypothesis have relied largely on history. Some of the most lethal new diseases of the past century have been traced to human interactions with wildlife and domestic animals, including the first SARS epidemic (bats), MERS-CoV (camels), Ebola (bats or non-human primates) and Nipah virus (bats).

While an animal source has not been identified so far, swabs of stalls in the wildlife section of the wildlife market in Wuhan after the outbreak tested positive, suggesting an infected animal or human handler.

HAS NEW INFORMATION EMERGED TO LEND CREDENCE TO ONE THEORY OVER ANOTHER?

The scientists’ March 4 letter to the WHO refocused attention on the lab-leak scenario, but offered no new evidence. Nor has definitive proof of a natural origin surfaced.

U.S. President Joe Biden on May 26 said his national security staff does not believe there is sufficient information to assess one theory to be more likely than the other. He instructed intelligence officials to collect and analyze information that could close in on definitive conclusion and report back in 90 days.

(Reporting by Deborah J. NelsonEditing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. drone sale to Taiwan crosses key hurdle, nears approval: sources

By Mike Stone and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The sale of four sophisticated U.S.-made aerial drones to Taiwan has crossed a key hurdle in Congress and is at the last stage of approval, sources said on Monday, a deal likely to add to already strained ties with China.

The $600 million deal would be the first such sale since U.S. policy on the export of sophisticated and closely guarded drone technology was loosened by the Trump administration.

Reuters reported in recent weeks on the administration moving ahead with four other sales of sophisticated military equipment to Taiwan, with a total value of around $5 billion, as it ramps up pressure on China and concerns rise about Beijing’s intentions toward the island.

The U.S. State Department could formally notify Congress of the sale later this week, one of the people said. The formal notification gives Congress 30 days to object to any sales, but this is unlikely given broad bipartisan support for the defense of Taiwan.

The four MQ-9 SeaGuardian drones, made by General Atomics, would come with associated ground stations and training. While the drones are armable, they will be outfitted with surveillance equipment, the people said.

Reuters reported in September that sales of major weapons systems to Taiwan were making their way through the U.S. export process.

On Oct. 21, the State Department sent notifications to Congress for the first tranche of arms sales to Taiwan. They included truck-based rocket launchers made by Lockheed Martin Corp, Rocket System (HIMARS) Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles and related equipment made by Boeing Co, and external sensor pods for F-16 jets.

On Oct. 26 the United States moved ahead with the proposed sale of 100 cruise missile stations and 400 land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles made by Boeing Co.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that it has vowed to bring under control, by force if necessary. Washington considers it an important democratic outpost and is required by law to provide it with the means to defend itself.

(Reporting by Mike Stone and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Dan Grebler)

North Korea hacking threatens U.S., other countries, international financial system: U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. government officials warned on Wednesday about the threat of North Korean hackers, calling particular attention to banking and other finance.

The reason for the advisory – which was jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – was unclear. North Korean hackers have long been accused of targeting financial institutions, and the content of the warning appeared to draw on material already in the public domain.

Requests for comment sent to the U.S. agencies were not immediately returned. The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

North Korea is alleged to be behind an ambitious, years-long campaign of digital theft, including siphoning tens of millions of dollars in cash from ATMs, carrying out gigantic thefts at major banks, extorting computer users worldwide, and hijacking digital currency exchanges. The global money-grab has been a topic of increasing international concern.

Last year, for example, a U.N. report said that North Korea had generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” hacking efforts.

In Wednesday’s advisory, U.S. officials said North Korea’s online activities “threaten the United States and countries around the world and, in particular, pose a significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Tim Ahmann, and Raphael Satter in Washington. Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York. Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

California issues ‘stay home’ order; U.S. death toll hits 200

By Dan Whitcomb and David Shepardson

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – California issued an unprecedented statewide “stay at home” order on Thursday for its 40 million residents and Washington warned Americans to return home or stay abroad indefinitely, as the number of coronavirus deaths in the country hit 200.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s directive, effective immediately, marks the largest and most sweeping government clampdown yet in the worsening public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, which he predicted could infect more than half the state within eight weeks.

As authorities ramped up measures to keep the virus from spreading, Washington could announce restrictions on travel across the U.S.-Mexico border as soon as Friday, limiting crossings to essential travel, two officials briefed on the matter said. That would follow a similar measure on Wednesday closing the border with Canada.

The fast-spreading respiratory illness has shattered most patterns of American life: shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and sharply curtailing travel.

The U.S. State Department told citizens that if they travel internationally, “your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”

STIMULUS PACKAGE

With the economy swooning, Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion economic stimulus plan to provide funds directly to businesses and the American public. President Donald Trump has been eagerly calling for that package.

It would be Congress’ third emergency coronavirus bill following a $105 billion-plus plan covering free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, and an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the highly contagious pathogen and develop vaccines.

The plunging stock market and surging U.S. death toll has caused Trump to sharply change his tone on the disease this week, demanding urgent action after spending weeks downplaying the risks.

Over 13,000 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the illness called COVID-19 and 200 have died, with the largest numbers so far in Washington state, New York and California.

Newsom said his ‘stay at home’ order was essential as modelling showed 56% of California’s 40 million people would contract the virus in the next eight weeks, and require nearly 20,000 more hospital beds than the state could provide.

“We are confident the people of California will abide by it, they will meet this moment,” Newsom, a first-term Democrat told a news briefing from the state capital in Sacramento.

Los Angeles, as the nation’s second-largest city, would likely be “disproportionately impacted” in the coming weeks, he said.

Two Los Angeles Lakers players have the coronavirus, the NBA franchise said on Thursday, after four players from the Brooklyn Nets tested positive for the disease a day earlier.

The virus has taken the greatest toll in Washington state, which reported eight more deaths on Thursday, bringing the toll there to 74.

Hospitals across the country say they face shortages of medical gear, with doctors in Seattle reduced to making their own face masks out of sheets of plastic.

“We’re days away from running out of the equipment we need,” said Melissa Tizon, Associate Vice President of Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs 51 hospitals across five western states. “We’re expecting more shipments later on but until then we’ve got to improvise.”

TEST DELAYS

With the United States slow to roll out mass testing for the virus that has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, officials fear the number of known cases of the respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia lags far behind reality.

There are no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, but several options are being tested.

New York City, where many young people last weekend packed local bars and restaurants, has been eerily deserted after nightfall.

“It’s a skater’s dream,” said Dyanna Hernandez, 20, who had joined a dozen friends in Manhattan’s Union Square to enjoy the freedom of what she called a “ghost city” after three days stuck at home. “I can’t really be quarantined.”

The epidemic, which has killed over 10,000 globally so far, has drawn comparisons with traumatic periods such as World War Two, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged by the most since 2012 to a 2-1/2-year high last week, as companies in the services sector laid off workers with businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.

Katie Vetere, 32, general manager of One 53, a small restaurant near Princeton, New Jersey, applied for benefits for the first time in her life after the restaurant was forced to shut down when state authorities banned table service.

Vetere expects her benefits to be less than half her regular weekly paycheck.

“I go from ‘I’m sad’ to ‘I’m scared’ to ‘I’m angry,'” she said. “Do I consider my job lost? I don’t know.”

(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jeff Mason in Washington, Laila Kearney, Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter and Leela de Kretser in New York, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by James Oliphant and Bill Tarrant; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. urges Americans to avoid all overseas travel due to the coronavirus

By David Shepardson and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday raised its travel alert to the highest for the entire world, urging Americans not to go overseas while calling those abroad to return to the United States immediately due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

“In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period,” the U.S. State Department said in its advisory.

It also asked Americans to have a travel plan that does not rely on the U.S. government.

“If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe,” the advisory said.

Politico first reported the news ahead of the announcement.

The move comes a day after the State Department said it was suspending all routine visa services as of Wednesday in most countries worldwide due to the virus, a move that will potentially impact hundreds of thousands of people.

The coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, has now infected over 236,000 people and killed more than 9,700, an epidemic that has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with painful periods such as World War Two, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu.

Normal life has come to a standstill pretty much across the globe with schools shut down, flights and industries halted, sports and arts events postponed and people are advised or at times forced by their governments to remain indoors to prevent the spread.

Earlier U.S. President Donald Trump had declined to confirm the plan. “We haven’t had the meeting yet,” Trump told reporters at a news conference at the White House.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Humeyra Pamuk, Jeff Mason, Alexandra Alper and Ted Hesson; Writing by Susan Heavey and Humeyra Pamuk, Editing by Franklin Paul, Bill Berkrot and Marguerita Choy)

Delta, American suspend all China flights as U.S. government takes action

By David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Delta Air Lines Inc and American Airlines Group Inc decided on Friday to temporarily suspend all remaining U.S.-China flights after the U.S. State Department elevated a travel advisory over concerns about the coronavirus.

U.S. officials were due to hold a call with airlines later on Friday to discuss the Chinese flights. Some airline officials worried that if they did not voluntarily halt flights it would prompt the Trump administration to take formal action, potentially complicating any subsequent flight resumption.

The United States told citizens on Thursday not to travel to China due to the epidemic that has infected nearly 10,000 people and been declared a global emergency.

Pilots and flight attendants have been demanding airlines stop flights to the country, with American Airlines’ pilots filing a lawsuit on Thursday seeking an immediate halt.

“The decision to file a lawsuit was made out of concern for the safety of our pilots,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association which represents American’s pilots.

As of Thursday United Airlines Holdings Inc was still planning to operate some flights from San Francisco, even after its pilots union told its members they would be allowed to drop their trip without pay if they were concerned about flying to the country.

Delta and American had both announced lighter schedules to China earlier this week.

On Friday, American said operations to and from China would be halted starting on Friday through March 27. The carrier will continue to fly to Hong Kong.

Delta said its last China-bound flight departing the United States will leave on Monday, Feb. 3, with the last U.S. return flight departing China on Feb. 5.

The Delta suspension is set to last through April 30.

U.S. airline shares have posted heavy losses this week on concerns of the financial impact of the virus.

Other airlines that have stopped their flights to mainland China include Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.

Major Chinese carriers were still operating flights to and from the United States as of Friday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown)

U.S. halts sending bomb-sniffing dogs to Jordan, Egypt as seven die

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Monday it has stopped sending explosive-detecting dogs to Jordan and Egypt over concerns of deaths of deployed dogs from causes like heat stroke and poisoning.

The decision came after the State Department’s Office of Inspector General identified in September the deaths of two dogs sent to Jordan, the largest recipient of the dogs. A second report released last Friday put the total deaths at seven.

Some 135 dogs are in the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, which helps eight countries with border and aviation security. Dogs already working in Jordan and Egypt will remain there while U.S. authorities demand measures to improve the animals’ conditions and handling, a State Department official told reporters.

Prompted by a hotline complaint after the September report, the Inspector General found that two more dogs sent to Jordan had died, one of heat stroke and another of poisoning from insecticide sprayed in or near the kennel.

Three of the 10 dogs sent to Egypt under the program also died: one of lung cancer, one from a ruptured gall bladder and the other from heat stroke, the report found.

The September report said Zoe, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, had died in 2017 from heat stroke while working at the Syrian border. Mencey, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, was euthanized in the United States in 2018 after he had been returned from Jordan for treatment of a tick-borne disease.

According to the September report, a veterinarian told the Inspector General’s office that “heat injuries are cases of negligence and improper care and are not accidental” and that dogs who die of heat stroke “suffer a terrible death.”

The Inspector General found that dogs were sent to the foreign partners without signed written agreements outlining standards of care and that there were no adequate follow-up checks on dogs’ wellbeing.

“Improving health and welfare is something that’s continual and gradual. It will not happen overnight, and that’s why improving kennel conditions, improving how many times they check on the canines – those are all things we’re actively working on,” another State Department official said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)