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)

UK prosecutors to charge U.S. diplomat’s wife over fatal car crash

By Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – British prosecutors said on Friday they had decided to charge the wife of a U.S. diplomat over a fatal car crash in England and to seek her extradition, a decision that “disappointed” Washington.

Harry Dunn, 19, died after his motorcycle was in a collision with a car driven by Anne Sacoolas near RAF Croughton, an air force base in the English county of Northamptonshire that is used by the U.S. military.

Sacoolas, 42, was given diplomatic immunity and left Britain shortly after the accident, setting off a dispute between London and Washington over whether she should return to face investigation.

She said she would not return voluntarily to face a potential jail sentence.

Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said on Friday it would charge Sacoolas with causing death by dangerous driving and had started legal proceedings.

But it said it was up to the Home Office (interior ministry) to decide whether to seek Sacoolas’ extradition formally through diplomatic channels.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab welcomed the charging decision, adding in a statement: “I hope that Anne Sacoolas will now realize the right thing to do is to come back to the UK and cooperate with the criminal justice process.”

The U.S. State department expressed disappointment.

“We are disappointed by today’s announcement and fear that it will not bring a resolution closer,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“The United States has been clear that, at the time the accident occurred, and for the duration of her stay in the UK, the driver in this case had status that conferred diplomatic immunities.”

Sacoolas’ lawyer Amy Jeffress said her would not be going back to Britain to face trial.

“Anne will not return voluntarily to the United Kingdom to face a potential jail sentence for what was a terrible but unintentional accident,” Jeffress said in a statement.

‘BEAUTIFUL’ BUT ‘SAD’

Dunn’s case gained international prominence when his parents met U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in October, an occasion he described as “beautiful” but “sad”.

Trump hoped to persuade them meet Sacoolas, who was in the building at the same time, but they declined.

Sacoolas initially cooperated with local police after the crash, but later said she had diplomatic immunity.

The White House and the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The maximum jail sentence in Britain for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years.

Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles, broke down in tears after finding out charges had been brought, saying it meant she had kept a promise to her son to get him justice.

“We had no idea it was going to be this hard and it would take this long, but we really do feel it is a huge step towards that promise to Harry,” she told reporters.

Edward Grange, a partner at the criminal law firm Corker Binning, said Sacoolas could voluntarily attend a hearing in Britain and that if she failed to appear, it could lead to an extradition request.

“The prospect of an extradition request succeeding remains to be seen, particularly in light of comment from the Trump Administration that it is very reluctant to allow its citizens to be tried abroad,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Sarah Young; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Russia protests after catching U.S. diplomats near military test site

Russia protests after catching U.S. diplomats near military test site
By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday it would issue a formal note of protest to the United States after police caught three U.S. diplomats in what it said was a restricted area near a closed military testing site.

The diplomats were stopped by police after they arrived by train on Monday and were sent back, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Though protected by diplomatic immunity, they are accused of breaking the law as they did not have the special permits foreigners needed to visit the area.

The area where they were intercepted is of heightened interest to Western intelligence agencies after a mysterious military accident took place there in August. The incident saw radiation levels briefly spike and killed at least five employees of Russia’s Rosatom state nuclear corporation.

Thomas DiNanno, a senior U.S. State Department official, said last week that Washington had determined that the explosion was the result of a nuclear reaction that had occurred during the recovery of a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile after a failed test.

The diplomatic incident adds a new irritant to already fraught U.S.-Russia ties, which remain strained over everything from tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions to nuclear arms control tensions.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said the diplomats had been on official travel and had properly notified Russian authorities of their travel.

But Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the diplomats, whom it described as military attaches, had been found in a restricted area far from the city of Arkhangelsk which they had said they planned to visit.

“Evidently they got lost. We’re ready to give the American embassy a map of Russia,” the foreign ministry said late on Wednesday, according to Russia’s REN TV channel.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova complained on Thursday that U.S. military diplomats regularly ignored Russia notification requirements and tried to get into restricted military areas.

She called on Washington to observe diplomatic norms, while the Kremlin said there were strict rules governing sensitive military objects that people had to follow.

Russian media reports said the diplomats’ offence was usually punishable by deportation. But the foreign ministry was quoted as saying that Moscow was unlikely to escalate the incident in that way.

“…They have immunity so I think there will just be further proceedings to establish how this was possible,” Yevgeny Ivanov, a deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.

(Additional reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. opens Venezuelan diplomatic office in Colombian capital

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Charge d'Affaires for Venezuela James Story, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia April 12, 2019. Picture taken April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Julia Symmes Cobb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday opened a representative office for Venezuela in Bogota, Colombia, and said it will continue its opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and support for opposition leader Juan Guaido from there.

The Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) will be headed by James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, who was among the last American diplomats withdrawn from the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March as conditions deteriorated in the country.

“The VAU will continue to work for the restoration of democracy and the constitutional order in that country, and the security and well-being of the Venezuelan people,” the department said in a statement.

Washington has been trying to cut off money to Maduro’s government in an economic and diplomatic campaign aimed at pressuring the socialist leader to step down.

The United States and most Western nations support Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president. Maduro has accused Guaido of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt earlier this year.

In Caracas on Wednesday, Guaido announced the appointment of four new ministers for foreign relations, economic affairs, asset protection and human rights. The majority of them are out of the country due to legal measures from Maduro’s government.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

Leopoldo López, founder and leader of Guaido’s Volutad Popular political party, will be coordinating the new ministers. López has been in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas since May after ending his house arrest.

The new team is intended “to address the complex humanitarian emergency … and, of course, to prepare for the transition of government,” Guaido said.

More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia in recent years, fleeing the deep political and economic crisis that has caused long-running shortages of food and medicines.

Colombia has borne the brunt of mass migration from its neighbor.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

U.S. State Department recalls furloughed employees amid shutdown

People enter the State Department Building in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was calling its furloughed employees back to work next week as it takes steps to pay salaries despite a partial shutdown of the government.

“As a national security agency, it is imperative that the Department of State carries out its mission,” Deputy Under Secretary of State Bill Todd said in a statement posted on the department’s website. “We are best positioned to do so with fully staffed embassies, consulates and domestic offices.”

Todd said the department’s employees would be paid on Feb. 14 for work performed beginning on or after this coming Sunday. The department would review its available funds and “legal authorities” beyond the upcoming pay period to try to cover future payments, he said.

“Although most personnel operations can resume, bureaus and posts are expected to adhere to strict budget constraints with regard to new spending for contracts, travel, and other needs” given a lapse in congressionally appropriated funds, Todd added.

About one-quarter of federal agencies have been shuttered since Dec. 22, with Democratic lawmakers refusing to accede to President Donald Trump’s demands to pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump is holding out for $5.7 billion for a border wall. Democrats, who took over the U.S. House Representatives this month, have rejected his demands, saying there are cheaper, more effective ways of enhancing border security.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; editing by David Alexander and James Dalgleish)

Trump says nuclear talks with North Korea ‘going well’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walk together before their working lunch during their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that talks with North Korea were “going well” as U.S. officials seek to reach an agreement with Pyongyang over a denuclearization plan following last month’s summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The White House has characterized ongoing meetings as positive but not commented on recent news reports of U.S. intelligence assessments saying North Korea has been expanding its weapons capabilities.

In a Twitter post, Trump said that North Korea has conducted “no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months.”

On Monday, the White House said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would travel to North Korea this week to continue talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

A U.S. delegation met over the weekend with North Korean counterparts at the border between North and South Korea to discuss the next steps to implementing the June 12 summit’s declaration, according to the U.S. State Department.

“Many good conversations with North Korea-it is going well!” Trump said in his Twitter post, echoing his sentiments following the historic meeting with Kim in Singapore.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jeffrey Benkoe)