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North Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak with Omicron case, orders lockdown

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea May 15, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

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By Joori Roh and Soo-hyang Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea officially confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday and ordered a national lock down, with state media reporting a sub-variant of the highly transmissible Omicron virus had been detected in the city of Pyongyang.

“There has been the biggest emergency incident in the country, with a hole in our emergency quarantine front, that has been kept safely over the past two years and three months since February 2020,” official KCNA news agency said.

The report said people in Pyongyang had contracted the Omicron variant, without providing details on case numbers or possible sources of infection. The samples of the infected people were collected on May 8, it said.

The report was published as the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chaired a Workers’ Party meeting to discuss responses to the first outbreak of the coronavirus.

Kim ordered all cities and counties of the country to “strictly lock down” their regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said emergency reserve medical supplies would be mobilised, according to KCNA.

Although the North has never confirmed a single coronavirus infection in the country, officials in South Korea and the united States have cast doubts, especially as cases of the Omicron variant were widely reported in neighbouring South Korea and China.

North Korea has declined shipments of vaccine from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing programme and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China.

Kim told the Workers’ Party meeting the latest emergency quarantine system’s purpose is to stably control and manage the spread of the coronavirus and quickly heal infected people to eliminate the source of transmission in the shortest period, KCNA said.

A South Korea-based website that monitors activities in Pyongyang said this week that residents have been told to return home and remain indoors because of a “national problem” without offering details.

Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported North Korea has required its people to stay at home since May 11 as many of them have “suspected flu symptoms”, without referring to COVID-19.

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Democratic frontrunner in Pennsylvania Senate primary to skip rally after stroke

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Democratic Senate candidate for Pennsylvania, poses for a portrait at a meet-and-greet at the Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton, Pennsylvania, U.S., May 1, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

By Jarrett Renshaw

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in the state, will skip his election night party on Tuesday as he recovers in a hospital from a stroke suffered during the final days of the campaign.

Fetterman’s Pittsburgh rally will proceed without him “as he will remain in the hospital resting and recovering,” his campaign said in a statement on Monday. His wife, Gisele Fetterman, and other guests, will make remarks in his absence, it said.

Pennsylvania offers Democrats one of their best chances of picking up a Senate seat currently held by a Republican – the retiring Patrick Toomey – as they seek to retain their razor-thin majority in the chamber in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Fetterman’s health scare has shaken his campaign and the party.

Fetterman, who will face centrist U.S. Representative Conor Lamb and two other Democrats on Tuesday, said in a statement issued on Sunday from Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital that he suffered the stroke on Friday.

Fetterman, 52, has surged in opinion polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary, surprising political observers who had predicted a close contest with Lamb.

Fetterman said he had not been feeling well but ignored his symptoms until his wife insisted he go to a hospital. Fetterman said in his statement on Sunday that he was “feeling much better” and suffered no cognitive damage.

“I’m well on my way to a full recovery,” Fetterman said. “They’re keeping me here for now for observation, but I should be out of here sometime soon.”

The Democratic nominee will face a Republican opponent who also is set to be chosen on Tuesday. The Republican primary is a close race pitting Mehmet Oz, a television wellness celebrity backed by former President Donald Trump, against David McCormick (NYSE:MKC), a wealthy former hedge fund CEO, and Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator.

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U.S. rolls out revised Cuba policy, easing some restrictions on remittances, travel

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Emigres wave American and Cuban flags outside Versailles restaurant, in reaction to reports of protests in Cuba against its deteriorating economy, in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 18, 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Daphne Psaledakis, Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States plans to take a series of steps to revise its policy toward Cuba, including easing some Trump-era restrictions on family remittances and travel to the island and sharply increasing the processing of U.S. visas for Cubans, administration officials said on Monday.

The measures, which come after a lengthy U.S. government review, mark the most significant changes in the U.S. approach to Havana since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

But the announcement stopped short of returning U.S.-Cuba relations to the historic rapprochement engineered by former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. That included less crimped flow of remittances, fewer travel curbs and faster visa services.

The officials said that in the measures announced Monday, the United States would lift the cap on family remittances, previously set to $1,000 per quarter, and authorize donative remittances to non-family members.

But the officials made clear that the United States would not remove entities from the Cuba Restricted List, a State Department list of Cuban government- and military-aligned companies with whom U.S. firms and citizens are barred from doing business.

“We are going to ensure that remittances flow more freely to the Cuban people, while not enriching those who perpetrate human rights abuses,” the official said.

The United States will use civilian “electronic payment processors” for remittances to avoid funds going directly to the Cuban government, the officials said, adding that the United States had already engaged with the Cuban government “about establishing a civilian processor for this.”

Biden officials have been mindful that easing restrictions on Cuba could lead to political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in south Florida who mostly backed former President Donald Trump’s tough policies on Cuba.

Trump slashed visa processing, restricted remittances, scaled back flights to the island and increased hurdles for U.S. citizens seeking to travel to Cuba for anything other than family visits.

The officials gave few details on how the new policy would be implemented.

The Cuban embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FAMILY REUNIFICATION

Among the changes is a plan to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which had provided a legal way for Cuban families to be reunited in the United States, and increase capacity for consular services.

Washington will aim to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year, the official said, in line with a migration accord.

The U.S. embassy in Havana began issuing a trickle of immigrant visas to Cubans this month, making good on an earlier promise to restart visa processing on the island after a four-year hiatus.

The State Department under Trump sharply scaled back embassy staff in 2017 following a spate of “anomalous health incidents” that came to be known as “Havana syndrome.”

Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States were instead directed to apply for visas in person at the U.S. embassies first in Colombia, and later in Guyana, costly trips beyond the reach of many.

The Biden administration will also expand authorized travel to Cuba, allowing flights to and from the country to use airports other than Havana, the officials said.

Washington will also reinstate some categories of group educational travel, as well as certain travel related to professional meetings and research.

Individual “people-to-people” travel, however, will not be reinstated, the officials said. The category was eliminated by Trump officials who said it was being abused by Americans taking beach vacations.

The United States will also increase support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs, aiming to ease access to the internet and expanding access to microfinance and training, among other measures.

Biden promised during the 2020 election to re-engage with Cuba. He instead imposed fresh sanctions on Cuban officials in response to Havana’s crackdown on protesters following widespread marches on the island last July.

Hundreds were arrested during and after the demonstrations, widely considered to be the largest protests since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Washington has condemned Cuban authorities for harsh sentences that have been given to some.

The Cuban government blamed the protests on meddling by the United States.

The officials said a decision has not been made on whether to invite Cuba to the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas, despite threats from Mexico and others that they will not attend unless all countries in the Americas are invited.

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Ukrainian force begins evacuating from last Mariupol stronghold

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A local resident rides a bicycle past a charred armoured vehicle during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region, Ukraine March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

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By Natalia Zinets

KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) -The force holed up in the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol began evacuating on Monday, appearing to cede control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.

Five buses carrying troops from the Azovstal steelworks arrived in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk late on Monday, some 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the east, a Reuters witness said.

Some of the evacuated troops were wounded and carried out of the buses on stretchers. Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said 53 were taken to a hospital.

It was not immediately clear how many troops were aboard the buses. Malyar said 211 other troops were taken to another site. 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 on Monday night.

The Ukrainian regiment at the steel plant said it was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops by evacuating them.

“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” the Azov Regiment said in a social media post.

It said its troops in Mariupol, on the Azov Sea in the southeast, had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia’s assault.

But 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.

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

The evacuation came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.

“An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded,” Russia’s defence ministry said. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.”

Azovstal’s last defenders had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built deep underground to withstand nuclear war. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant, one of the largest metallurgical facilities in Europe, earlier this month.

The wife of an Azov Regiment member described conditions at the plant earlier on Monday: “They are in hell. They receive new wounds every day. They are without legs or arms, exhausted, without medicines,” Natalia Zaritskaya said.

PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO

Vladimir Putin appeared earlier on Monday to climb down from Russian 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.

Just hours 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.

Kjell Engelbrekt, professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, said Moscow now had few military options left to follow through on its previous “very assertive” rhetoric demanding the Nordics never join NATO.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had seen no indications Russia was moving troops or equipment closer to the border with Finland.

UKRAINE TROOPS REACH BORDER

Moscow calls its 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.

Nearly three months old, 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.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday 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 own main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month achieving only small gains.

In a video message, Zelenskiy hailed the achievement and thanked the troops: “I am very grateful to you from all Ukrainians, from everyone, from myself, from my family, my gratitude is unlimited.”

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