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Thailand, Australia ease international border curbs spurred by pandemic

By Jiraporn Kuhakan and Jonathan Barrett

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Thailand, Australia ease international border curbs spurred by pandemic
© Reuters. Travellers arriving on the first quarantine free international flights are embraced by family at Sydney International Airport, November 1, 2021. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi via REUTERS

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By Jiraporn Kuhakan and Jonathan Barrett

BANGKOK/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia and Thailand eased international border curbs significantly on Monday for the first time in 18 months, offering an early litmus test of the demand for tourism and travel in Asia following the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in the Thai capital for quarantine-free travel after the southeast Asian nation gave the green light for such visitors from more than 60 countries, including China and the United States.

Several European nations are also on the list as Thailand, one of the region’s most popular destinations, looks to capitalise on northern hemisphere visitors aiming to escape the winter blues.

Those hopes appeared to pay off early, with German tourist Simon Raithel and a group of friends among the first to arrive in Bangkok.

“Right now, in Europe, it’s quite cold,” said Raithel, 41, who planned to head to islands in the Thai south. “We just picked this flight and it is quite surprising that we are the first flight to arrive.”

In Sydney, hundreds of citizens were greeted by family and friends, receiving gifts of Australian chocolate biscuits and wildflowers as they became the first to arrive without a permit or the need to quarantine since April 2020.

“(It’s a) little bit scary and exciting,” said Ethan Carter, who flew in on a Qantas Airways flight from Los Angeles. “I’ve come home to see my mum ’cause she’s not well.”

While travel is limited at first to just a few states and to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand nationals, it heralds a plan to re-open to international tourists and workers, both much needed to reinvigorate a fatigued nation.

Australia’s announcement of quarantine-free travel for Singapore citizens from Nov. 21 was a step forward to “a new normal”, said Philip Goh, the Asia-Pacific vice president of airline trade body IATA.

“We are excited by this positive development and we look forward to further easing of border restrictions by Australia and other countries in the region,” Goh said.

“It will provide the needed boost for the recovery of the aviation industry and air travel sector.”

Despite the eased curbs, travel in full swing is a long way off. IATA estimates losses of a towering $200 billion from the pandemic for the global aviation industry over the period from 2020 to 2022.

Losses in Asia alone were close to $50 billion in 2020, while in both August and September, international travel in Asia-Pacific stood at about 4% of 2019 levels.

“LONG WAY TO GO”

Thailand has been hit hard by the pandemic, losing about 3 million jobs dependent on tourism, and revenue of an estimated $50 billion a year.

Thai officials tested the waters by re-opening the resort island of Phuket in July, letting fully-vaccinated tourists skip the then-mandatory two weeks in quarantine, provided they kept to the island, where tourism accounts for 90% of the economy.

However, the “Phuket Sandbox was less popular than hoped, with arrivals in July at just 1% of pre-pandemic levels.

The finance ministry forecasts just 180,000 foreign arrivals this year and 7 million next year, down from about 40 million in 2019.

Thailand’s new programme requires visitors to spend their first night in a pre-approved hotel and get a negative COVID-19 test before they can travel elsewhere.

Australia’s changes allow free travel by millions in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. Other locations, however, are closed or restricted.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of the recovery of our sector,” said Geoff Cuthbert, the chief executive of Sydney Airport.

“But allowing fully vaccinated Australians to travel without quarantine will provide the template for bringing back students, business travellers, and tourists from all over the world.”

Western Australia, one of the world’s biggest producers of iron ore, will stay largely closed to the rest of the country and the world, however, as the state tries to stay virus-free.

Thailand and Australia had adopted some of the world’s toughest curbs to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

While a Delta outbreak kept Sydney and Melbourne in lockdowns for months until recently, Australia’s infections are far lower than many countries, with just over 170,500 cases and 1,735 deaths.

Most of Thailand’s 1.9 million infections and more than 19,000 related deaths have come since April, with about 42% of its 72 million people vaccinated.

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U.S. Capitol riot panel promises new evidence at surprise Tuesday hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A video of former U.S President Donald Trump speaking is shown on a screen during the fifth public hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.

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By Richard Cowan and Moira Warburton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. congressional committee plans to reveal new evidence about the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters at a public hearing on Tuesday it hastily announced a mere 24 hours earlier.

The House of Representatives committee, investigating the first attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in U.S. history, declined to answer questions about who might testify or what evidence would be presented.

Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to then-President Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, is expected to testify, several media outlets reported. Representatives of the panel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the reports.

The meeting, announced on Monday, is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET (1700 GMT) on Tuesday.

Testimony at five prior hearings has shown how Trump, a Republican, riled thousands of supporters with false claims that he lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden because of massive voter fraud.

British filmmaker Alex Holder, who spent time filming Trump and his family in the weeks after the election, has in recent days testified before the committee behind closed doors and shared video of his interviews with Trump and his family, according to media reports.

The committee has said it intends to interview Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, following reports she may have been involved in efforts to stop Biden’s victory certification at the Capitol on Jan. 6. She has said she intended to speak to the panel.

U.S. law enforcement last week raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s false fraud claims.

This month’s hearings featured videotaped testimony from figures including Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his former attorney general, Bill Barr. They and other witnesses testified that they did not believe Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud and tried to dissuade him of them.

Dozens of courts, state election officials and reviews by Trump’s own administration rejected his claims of fraud, some of which included outlandish stories about an Italian security firm or the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tampering with U.S. ballots.

Trump, who is publicly flirting with another White House run in 2024, has denied wrongdoing and accused the committee of engaging in a political witch hunt. He has leveled harsh criticism particularly at Representative Liz Cheney, one of just two Republicans on the nine-member committee.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll early this month found that about two-thirds of U.S. Republicans believe Trump’s false election fraud claims.

The committee, sometime next month, is expected to hold one or two hearings on possible coordination of the Jan. 6 attack by right-wing extremist groups.

During the assault on the Capitol, thousands of Trump supporters smashed windows, fought with police and sent lawmakers, including Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, fleeing for their lives.

Four people died the day of the attack, one fatally shot by police and the others of natural causes. More than 100 police officers were injured, and one died the next day. Four officers later died by suicide.

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Rescuers dig for survivors after Russian missiles demolish Ukrainian shopping mall

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© Reuters. Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kremenchuk, in Poltava region, Ukraine June 27, 2022. Picture taken June 27, 2022. REUTERS/Anna Voitenko

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By Simon Lewis

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (Reuters) -Firefighters and soldiers searched on Tuesday for survivors in the rubble of a shopping mall in central Ukraine after a Russian missile strike killed at least 18 people in an attack condemned by the United Nations and the West.

More than 1,000 people were inside when two Russian missiles slammed into the mall in Kremenchuk, about 300 km (200 miles) southeast of the capital Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

At least 18 people were killed and 25 hospitalised, while about 36 were missing, Poltava region governor Dmytro Lunin said.

Zelenskiy, in an overnight video address, called the attack deliberate, saying it was “a calculated Russian strike exactly onto this shopping centre”.

Russia said the incident was caused by a strike on a legitimate military target. Its defence ministry, quoted by the RIA state news agency, said it had fired missiles at a storage depot for Western weapons in Kremenchuk, and the detonation of stored ammunition there had caused the fire at the nearby mall.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova told Reuters a missile had also struck a nearby factory, but it was closed and not a military target.

“It’s a question about crimes against humanity,” she said. “I think it’s like systematical shelling of civilian infrastructure – with what aim? To scare people, to kill people to make terror in our cities and villages.”

Relatives of the missing lined up at a hotel across the street where rescue workers set up a base after Monday’s strike.

A survivor receiving treatment at Kremenchuk’s public hospital, Ludmyla Mykhailets, 43, said she was shopping with her husband when the blast threw her into the air.

“I flew head first and splinters hit my body. The whole place was collapsing,” she said.

“It was hell,” said her husband, Mykola, 45, blood seeping through a bandage around his head.

At the scene of the blaze on Tuesday morning, exhausted-looking firefighters sat on a kerb. Oleksandr, wetting his face from a water bottle on a bench, said his team had worked all night picking through the rubble.

“We pulled out five bodies. We didn’t find anybody alive,” he said.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies, at a summit in Germany, said the attack was “abominable”.

“Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account,” they said in a joint statement.

BATTLE FOR LYSYCHANSK

Russia denies intentionally targetting civilians in its “special military operation” which has destroyed cities, killed thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

The U.N. Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, will meet on Tuesday at Ukraine’s request following the attack. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the missile strike was deplorable.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Ukraine endured another difficult day following the loss of the now-ruined city of Sievierodonetsk.

Russian artillery pounded Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk’s twin city across the Siverskyi Donets River. Ukraine said the Russians attempted to storm it.

Lysychansk is the last big city held by Ukraine in eastern Luhansk province, a main target for the Kremlin after Russian troops failed to take Kyiv early in the war.

Eight residents including a child were killed and 21 wounded by shelling when they gathered to get drinking water in Lysychansk on Monday, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Ukrainian forces controlled the city but its loss was possible as Russia poured resources into the fight, he added.

“They really want this and a lot of reserves are being thrown just for this…We do not need to lose an army for the sake of one city,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Rodion Miroshnik, the ambassador to Moscow of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, said Russian troops and their Luhansk Republic allies were advancing westward into Lysychansk and street battles had erupted around the city stadium.

Fighting was going on in several surrounding villages, and Russian and allied troops had entered the Lysychansk oil refinery where Ukrainian troops were concentrated, Miroshnik said on Telegram.

Russia also shelled the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine on Monday, hitting apartment buildings and a primary school, the regional governor said.

The shelling killed five people and wounded 22. There were children among the wounded, the governor said.

During their summit in Germany, G7 leaders vowed to stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and tighten the squeeze on Russia’s finances with new sanctions that include a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil.

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Russia expands U.S. sanctions list to include Biden’s wife and daughter

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden disembark from Marine One as they return from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 5, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Tuesday expanded its U.S. ‘stop-list’, including in it the wife and daughter of President Joe Biden as well as other prominent figures.

The step was taken “as a response to the ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian political and public figures,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

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