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Sweden’s ruling party poised to back NATO bid

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Banners displaying the NATO logo are placed at the entrance of new NATO headquarters during the move to the new building, in Brussels, Belgium April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

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By Niklas Pollard and Simon Johnson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats were poised on Sunday to come out in favour of the country joining NATO, paving the way for an application soon after and abandoning decades of military non-alignment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A distant prospect only months ago, Russia’s attack on its smaller neighbour has seen both Sweden and Finland rethink their security needs and move to seek out safety in the alliance they stood apart from throughout the long years of the Cold War.

The war in Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation but which has already killed thousands and displaced millions, shattered long-standing security policies and fuelled a wave of public support for NATO membership in both countries.

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats, the biggest party in every election for the past century, has held internal debates over the past week over dropping a long-standing opposition to NATO membership.

With party leadership having said it will decide on Sunday, and widely expected to drop its opposition, support for joining the alliance would command a broad majority in Sweden’s Riksdag with much of the opposition already in favour. A formal application by Andersson’s minority government would be sure to follow.

At peace since the days of the Napoleonic wars, Sweden has been more reluctant to cast aside its non-alignment than Finland, which fought a bloody conflict with the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Finland’s president and prime minister on Thursday set their country firmly on course to join the Western alliance “without delay,” adding to the momentum behind Sweden doing the same.

A membership application will herald a tense wait during the months it takes to be ratified by all NATO members – Turkey has already voiced its objections – though the alliance and the White House have said they were confident any security concerns could be addressed in the interim.

Both countries are already NATO partners, having taken part in allied exercises for years, and cast off strict neutrality on joining the European Union together in 1995. But they have until now reasoned peace was best kept by not publicly choosing sides.

Russia has warned Sweden and Finland of “serious consequences” and that it could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the European exclave of Kaliningrad if Sweden and Finland become NATO members.

The decision to slot in under the NATO umbrella would represent a setback for Moscow, with the war in Ukraine triggering the very kind of enlargement of the alliance on Russia’s borders that Moscow says it took up arms to prevent.

In the wake of Finland’s leaders announcing their determination to join, the Kremlin said it represented a hostile move that threatened Russia, warning vaguely of “retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature.”

Sweden has been rebuilding its military over the last decade, particularly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, buying U.S.-made Patriot air defence missile systems and basing troops on the Baltic island of Gotland.

A cross-party parliamentary review on Friday said joining NATO would boost Sweden’s national security and help stabilise the Nordic and Baltic regions.

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Biden presses companies on infant formula, FDA eyes more imports

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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

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By Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden met on Thursday with executives from infant formula manufacturers and retailers including Target , Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Nestle’s Gerber, pressing them to do everything possible to get families access amid a nationwide shortage.

The White House also outlined measures the administration is taking to address the issue and said it was considering invoking the Defense Production Act.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) will announce new steps in the coming days regarding importing certain infant formula products from abroad, the White House said, and Biden has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to probe reports of predatory conduct such as price gouging.

Formula shortages because of a factory being taken offline have been compounded by supply chain snags and historic inflation, leaving about 40% of baby formula products out of stock nationwide, according to data firm Datasembly.

Families depend on formula. Less than half of babies born in the United States were exclusively breastfed through their first three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2020 Breastfeeding Report Card showed.

During his meeting with the executives, Biden discussed efforts to increase production and urged companies to “do more to help families purchase infant formula,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

“What we are seeing, which is an enormous problem, is hoarding,” Psaki said. “That is also something we’re focused on.”

Biden later said on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), “I’m announcing new actions and working with the private sector to get infant formula into stores as quickly as possible without compromising safety.”

Tight supplies of formula dwindled further after Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) in February recalled Similac and other baby formula made at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant following consumer complaints of bacterial contamination. The FDA later cited five bacterial infections reported in babies given the company’s formula, including two deaths.

Abbott, the biggest U.S. supplier of milk formula, said tests showed one bacteria strain found in the facility was not linked to any known infant illnesses, although it was updating its cleaning and related protocols.

Other major formula producers include Reckitt Benckiser and Nestle SA (SIX:NESN).

Several retailers, including Target Corp (NYSE:TGT), CVS Health Corp (NYSE:CVS) and Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ:WBA), have limited formula purchases until supplies improve to prevent hoarding. New York Attorney General Letitia James also has warned against price gouging.

U.S. House lawmakers plan a hearing on the matter on May 25. [L2N2X322B]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters lawmakers want to ensure it does not happen again, “but right now the baby’s crying, the baby’s hungry and we need to address the situation right now.”

Last month, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro sought a Department of Health and Human Services probe, citing a whistleblower report from October 2021.

On Thursday, House Republicans criticized the Biden administration, saying a plan should have been in place to address the shortages sooner.

Abbott said it could restart production at Sturgis within two weeks of FDA approval, adding it is prioritizing production at its Columbus, Ohio, facility and air-shipping formula from its Ireland plant.

The company announced the recall on Feb. 17.

On Feb. 28, the FDA warned of Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella Newport infections in babies fed with formula produced at the Michigan plant. The FDA finished inspecting that facility on March 18, and the company responded on April 8, Abbott said.

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More Ukraine fighters surrendering in Mariupol, Russia says

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© Reuters. Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Mariupol, Ukraine May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Al

By Max Hunder

KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – Moscow said nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Russian-held Mariupol as it shored up a key gain in the south, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.

Ukraine has ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, but the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remains unresolved.

Top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city are still inside the plant, according to the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, quoted by local news agency DNA on Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.

“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

Ukraine confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but did not say how many more were inside.

Russia said on Wednesday an additional 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total number to 959. Its defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said, but gave no details.

Mariupol is the biggest city Russia has captured so far and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the invasion it began on Feb. 24.

Moscow has focussed on the south-east in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalization, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.

“The Ukrainian people… have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A small number of diplomats would return initially to staff the mission but consular operations will not resume immediately, said embassy spokesperson Daniel Langenkamp.

Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.

Ukrainian resistance continues in Russian-occupied territory. In the southern city of Melitopol, Ukraine said its fighters, using an explosive device, blew up an armoured train carrying Russian troops.

Reuters could not independently verify the details. Russia’s Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext for invasion.

NATO APPLICATION

Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, a decision made in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and the very kind of expansion that Putin cited as a reason for attacking Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith called for an expedited accession process that could be “done in a couple of months”, but NATO member Turkey said its approval depended on the return of “terrorists”, namely Kurdish militants and Fethullah Gulen followers.

Finland and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War.

Although Russia had threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin said on Monday their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

Russia could, however, cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, Finland’s state-owned energy provider Gasum said.

The European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027.

Meanwhile, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) became the latest big Western company to pull out of Russia, saying its local unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized.

DONBAS ATTACKS

On the battle front, Russian forces continued to press on with their main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the eastern Donbas region which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

The capture of Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, has given Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swathe of territory across Ukraine’s east and south.

The governor of the Luhansk region, part of the Donbas, said there had been a number of attacks there.

“Most of the shelling today was conducted in Severodonetsk and villages nearby… The Russians are still trying to cut the “road of life” through the centre of Luhansk region linking Lysychansk and Bakhmut,” Serhity Gaidai wrote on Telegram.

($1 = 0.9550 euros)

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Massachusetts identifies first 2022 U.S. case of monkeypox infection

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© Reuters. An electron microscopic (EM) image shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virus particles as well as crescents and spherical particles of immature virions, obtained from a clinical human skin sample associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak in this undated image obtained by Reuters on May 18, 2022. Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regnery/CDC/Handout via REUTERS

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By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – The Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Wednesday said it had confirmed a single case of monkeypox virus infection in a man who had recently traveled to Canada.

The state agency said it was working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and relevant local boards of health to carry out contact tracing, adding that “the case poses no risk to the public, and the individual is hospitalized and in good condition.”

Monkeypox, which mostly occurs in west and central Africa, is a rare viral infection similar to human smallpox, though milder. It was first recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s. The number of cases in West Africa has increased in the last decade.

Symptoms include fever, headaches and skin rashes starting on the face and spreading to the rest of the body.

The Massachusetts agency said the virus does not spread easily between people, but transmission can occur through contact with body fluids, monkeypox sores, items such as bedding or clothing that have been contaminated with fluids or sores, or through respiratory droplets following prolonged face-to-face contact.

It said no monkeypox cases had previously been identified in the United States this year. Texas and Maryland each reported a case in 2021 in people with recent travel to Nigeria.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A handful of cases of monkeypox have recently been reported or are suspected in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain.

Earlier on Wednesday, Portuguese authorities said they had identified five cases of the infection and Spain’s health services said they were testing 23 potential cases after Britain put Europe on alert for the virus.

European Health authorities are monitoring any outbreak of the disease since Britain reported its first case on May 7 and has found six more in the country since then.

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