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N. Korea reports COVID cases, fires 3 ballistic missile tests

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired three ballistic missiles towards the sea off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea and Japan said, in the latest tests aimed at advancing its weapons programmes, even as it first reported a COVID-19 outbreak.

Three short-range ballistic missiles were fired at around 18:30 (0930 GMT) from the Sunan area of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, where an international airport is located and where it fired its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-17, on March 24, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

The missiles flew approximately 360 km (224 miles), reaching an altitude of 90 km and a maximum velocity of Mach 5, the JCS said. The United States and condemned the launch as a violation of U.N. bans on such tests, but the U.S. military said it did not pose an immediate threat to America or its allies.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles flew about 350 km, to the maximum altitude of around 100 km, before landing outside Japan’s territorial waters.

“A series of missile launches when the invasion of Ukraine is taking place is unacceptable,” he told reporters, adding that Tokyo had lodged a protest against North Korea through its embassy in Beijing.

North Korea’s 16th known weapons test this year came hours after it reported its first COVID-19 outbreak, declaring a “gravest national emergency” and ordering a national lockdown.

The launch was also the first since the inauguration this week of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has signalled a hard line against the North’s weapons development.

Yoon’s national security office issued a statement condemning the launch and saying it “deplored the duplicitous conduct” of firing ballistic missiles and ignoring the plight of its people in the middle of a COVID outbreak.

But Yoon’s office said it would not link humanitarian aid to political differences with North Korea and the new president’s nominee as minister responsible for inter-Korean ties, told his confirmation hearing he would prepare humanitarian assistance for Pyongyang, including COVID treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.

Some analysts have suggested that such humanitarian assistance could create an opening to restart stalled diplomacy with North Korea.

However, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the United States has no current plans to share vaccines with North Korea and that North Korea had repeatedly refused vaccine donations from the COVAX global vaccine sharing project.

The spokesperson said that while Washington continued to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, North Korea “continues to exploit its own citizens and divert resources from the country’s people to build up its unlawful nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.”

The official said Pyongyang had created significant barriers to the delivery of assistance by closing its borders and rejecting offers of international aid.

The latest launches come amid concerns that North Korea may be about to resume nuclear bomb testing suspended since 2017. U.S. and South Korean officials have said this could happen as early as this month.

U.S. President Joe Biden is due to visit South Korea and Japan next week and North Korea will be high on his agenda.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed late last month to expedite the country’s buildup of its nuclear arsenal amid stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.

In its last weapons test on Saturday, the North used a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a type it has been aggressively developing in recent years.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it was closely consulting with its allies and partners over Thursday’s launch. “The missile launch highlights the destabilising impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” it said.

The State Department also condemned the launch, while saying it remained committed to a diplomatic approach with North Korea and reiterating a call for Pyongyang to return to dialogue.

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U.S. to allow baby formula imports amid nationwide shortage

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at CVS in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal/File Photo

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will allow baby formula imports from foreign makers that do not usually sell their products here, the Food and Drug Administration said on Monday, as it tries to ease a nationwide shortage that has left parents scrambling to feed their babies.

The temporary move could help put more formula onto U.S. shelves in a few weeks, a U.S. FDA official said during a news briefing. Foreign makers will need to meet a list of safety and nutritional standards provided by the FDA.

U.S. baby formula has been in low stock after a February recall of baby powder formula and plant closure by one of the nation’s main manufacturers, Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT). The FDA was investigating after reports that four babies who had been fed formula made there became ill from Cronobacter sakazakii infections.

The FDA and Abbott agreed on Monday on the steps needed to reopen the plant, which an FDA official said could happen in the near term. The company said it would restart the plant within two weeks after the FDA confirms it has met these requirements.

In its investigation, the FDA found bacteria contamination in environmental samples taken at the site and noted problems such as standing water and improper sanitization of footwear.

Abbott said in a statement that there is no conclusive evidence to link Abbott’s formulas to these infant illnesses. It also said the investigation found no contamination in finished product.

“We have been working to address the FDA’s observations so we can restart operations,” the company said in a statement on Monday.

The shortage of Abbott formula has been compounded by supply-chain snags and historic inflation, leaving about 40% of baby formula products out of stock nationwide, data shows.

“We know many parents and caregivers are feeling frustrated by their inability to access needed or desired infant formula and critical medical foods. Please know that we at the FDA are doing everything in our power to address these challenges as quickly as possible,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said.

He encouraged formula makers to increase their supply and the FDA said some including Gerber, part of Nestle SA (SIX:NESN), and Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc (LON:RKT) had already done so.

FDA officials said during the briefing that the agency’s ability to determine a causal link between the consumption of the product from the plant and the four cases of bacterial infections was hindered by the fact that it only had genetic sequences available on two of the infections.

Abbott has shipped to the United States millions of cans of formula from its FDA-approved Ireland facility.

The White House separately said it was continuing talks with the major formula manufacturers to identify logistical hurdles and provide any transportation support that could help them and major retailers get formula to where it is needed.

“This is principally an issue of production more than goods movement,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters at a White House briefing.

A White House official earlier said the government has offered transportation and logistics support to Abbott as well as Reckitt Benckiser, Nestle and Perrigo Co (NYSE:PRGO) Plc, in addition to top retailers such as Target Corp (NYSE:TGT), Amazon.com Inc (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) Inc.

Congress this week also plans to address infant formula rules regarding the Women, Infants and Children program, a federal assistance nutrition program administered by U.S. states, as well as emergency funding to shore up supplies.

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Ukrainian troops evacuate from Mariupol, ceding control to Russia

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© Reuters. A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict upon arrival in Novoazovsk, Ukraine May 16, 2022. REUTERS

2/6

By Natalia Zinets

KYIV/NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday it was working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol, ceding control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.

The evacuation likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.

With the rest of Mariupol firmly in Russian hands, hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians had holed up beneath the city’s Azovstal steelworks. Civilians inside were evacuated in recent weeks, and more than 260 troops, some of them wounded, left the plant for Russian-controlled areas late on Monday.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement announcing evacuations.

“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel… Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” it added.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said 53 injured troops from the Azovstal steelworks were taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, some 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the east.

Another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said. All of the evacuees will be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she added.

It was not clear how many troops remained in Azovstal. Ukraine’s military said efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in Novoazovsk late on Monday. Some of the evacuated troops were wounded and carried out of the buses on stretchers. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.

“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

Arriving in Novoazovsk in a bus marked with Z, a symbol for Russia’s invasion, men could be seen stacked on stretchers on three levels. They stared out the windows without reacting. One man was wheeled out, his head tightly wrapped in thick bandages.

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s resistance and of Russia’s willingness to devastate Ukrainian cities that hold out.

The first evacuations late on Monday came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.

LVIV EXPLOSIONS, KHARKIV FIGHTING

Moscow calls its nearly three-month-old invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

Russia’s invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.

Areas around Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, have continued to come under Russian attack. A series of explosions struck Lviv early on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

On Monday, Ukraine’s defence ministry troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 km north of Kharkiv.

The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month yet achieving only small gains.

PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.

The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.

Soon before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”

Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.

“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said.

Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.

“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.

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U.S. Air force says it conducted successful hypersonic weapon test

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force said on Monday it had conducted a successful test of a hypersonic weapon, which flew at five times the speed of sound.

The test was conducted on Saturday off the coast of Southern California when a B-52 bomber released an Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, the Air Force said in a statement.

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