Hostage standoff ends after Ukrainian president endorses animal rights documentary

July 22, 2020

By Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk

KYIV (Reuters) – All 13 people taken hostage on a bus in western Ukraine were freed unharmed on Tuesday after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke by phone with the hostage-taker and agreed to his demand to endorse a 2005 animal rights documentary.

Police arrested the suspect, whom the state security service (SBU) identified as 44-year-old Maksym Kryvosh, who seized the bus in the city of Lutsk, saying he was armed with guns and explosives.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Kryvosh had served time in prison and the SBU said he had propagated “extremist views”. Police said Kryvosh threatened to blow up the bus and detonate another explosive in a crowded area in the city.

In a move to secure the hostages’ release, Zelenskiy said he spoke to Kryvosh for seven to 10 minutes and agreed to one of his demands, to promote the documentary “Earthlings,” narrated by Hollywood actor Joaquin Phoenix.

Zelenskiy did so in a six-second clip posted on the presidential Facebook page, which was subsequently deleted.

The president said he had persuaded Kryvosh to first release three of the hostages, including a pregnant woman.

“We agreed that he would release three people and after that I will record a video,” Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy had been given the option of launching an assault on the bus, but did not want to risk hostages dying during the attack. “We have the result – everyone is alive,” he said.

The SBU published a picture of Kryvosh sprawled on the ground with security personnel standing over him after his arrest. Avakov said an accomplice of Kryvosh was detained in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Police had blocked off the city centre with armed officers, cars and an armoured personnel carrier while they tried to persuade Kryvosh to free the hostages in a day-long standoff.

Photos and footage showed a small bus parked in the middle of an empty street, with at least two windows smashed and others covered with curtains. Police said Kryvosh threw a grenade out of the bus. Avakov said Kryvosh had fired shots out of the bus at police.

In posts on social media, Kryvosh had also demanded that senior Ukrainian officials publish statements saying that they were terrorists.

“The film this man is talking about is good. And you don’t have to … create such a nightmare for people all over the country. The film can be watched without it,” Avakov said.

(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

Defensives drag down European shares from four-month highs

July 22, 2020

(Reuters) – European shares slipped on Wednesday as investors turned their focus back to earnings reports and a surge in coronavirus cases, after an EU-wide debt deal sent the region’s markets to four-month highs in the previous session.

The pan-European STOXX 600 <.STOXX> was down 0.3% by 0722 GMT, easing from its strongest close since March 5.

Defensive sectors led Europe lower, with healthcare <.SXDP>, utilities <.SX6P> and consumer companies <.SX3P> among the biggest drags, with media <.SXMP>, down 1.0%, falling the most.

Investors took cheer from European Union members reaching a deal on Tuesday over a 750-billion-euro ($864.68 billion) coronavirus recovery fund, while hopes are also high that Washington will deliver a new round of stimulus.

Swiss engineering firm ABB Ltd <ABBN.S> rose 2.4% after saying its order situation could improve in the coming months.

French car parts maker Valeo SA <VLOF.PA> fell about 5% after it swung to a 1.2 billion euro loss in the first half of 2020, after production was hit due to the pandemic.

(Reporting by Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)

Kanye West deletes tweet says he is trying to divorce Kim Kardashian

July 22, 2020

(Reuters) – Kanye West said on Twitter early on Wednesday he has been trying to divorce his wife, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, and then deleted the message minutes later.

“I been trying to get divorced since Kim met with Meek at the Warldolf for prison reform,” the message from West read.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat and Rebekah Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Spain says hopes no need to close French border over coronavirus

July 22, 2020

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said on Wednesday that a resurgence in coronavirus cases in Catalonia was coming under control, adding that she hoped this meant there would be no need for neighbouring France to close the border.

“With the latest data we have in Aragon and Catalonia we are a bit more optimistic. Catalonia has already reduced the number of infections over the last three days,” Maroto told an event organised by Europa Press news agency.

“Let’s hope that with these better data we don’t have to close a border that for us is very important for mobility with our European partners.”

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo; Writing by Ingrid Melander)

Silver and euro gleaming as investor bets on economic recovery hurt dollar

July 22, 2020

By Tom Westbrook

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The euro stood at an 18-month high, silver soared and commodities rose on Wednesday, benefiting from hopes that key parts of the global economy are heading in the right direction which also hurt the U.S. dollar.

But stock markets, which have surged this month, moved mostly sideways in Asia, except in Australia where a jump in coronavirus infections pushed the main index <.AXJO> 1.3% lower.

S&P 500 futures <ESc1> were flat following a mixed session on Wall Street, with economic optimism running into concern about rising coronavirus cases. The focus has also turned to political disagreement over the next U.S. rescue package.

German DAX futures <FDXc1>, Euro STOXX 50 futures <STXEc1> and FTSE futures <FFIc1> were down about 0.3%, pointing to a steady open after gains on Tuesday in the wake of European Union leaders striking a deal for a region-wide rescue plan.

The euro’s <EUR=EBS> rally gathered steam on that agreement, a huge step toward both recovery and a stronger union, busting through resistance at $1.15 as the dollar faltered.

The common currency hit $1.1547 on Wednesday, its best since January 2019, and the greenback capitulated against the Australian dollar <AUD=D3> too, which held at a year-high $0.7144 and was bolstered by positive retail sales data.

In sum, bets against the dollar are nearing a two-year peak touched a month ago and investors are net long on all of the G10 currencies against the dollar, save the pound and the Canadian dollar, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data shows.

“Overall, sentiments are improving,” said Vishnu Varathan, head of economics at Mizuho Bank in Singapore. “It’s given the euro that afterburner, and it’s true for the Aussie as well.”

Bellwether copper prices rose in London <CMCU3> and Shanghai <SCFcv1>, and Dalian iron ore futures <DCIOcv1> rose for a second straight session on expectations of strong Chinese demand. [MET/L][IRONORE/]

Precious metals soared as real bond yields have added to their lustre of precious metals at the same time as industrial demand has put a rocket under prices. [GOL/]

Spot silver <XAG=> rose 5% to a six-year high on Wednesday and is up more than 15% for the week. Gold <XAU=> marked a fresh nine-year high of $1,865.35.

STOCKS CAUTIOUS

News headlines kept optimism about a rebound for the global economy in check.

The United States reported more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the first time the grim milestone has been passed since June, and President Donald Trump warned that things will probably get worse before they get better.

Republicans and Democrats are also at loggerheads over the size of the next fiscal relief package as a month-end deadline for extending unemployment insurance looms.

“It remains to be seen if Republicans and Democrats have the same resolve demonstrated by EU leaders to find middle ground by next week,” DBS analysts in Singapore said in a note.

The spread of the coronavirus also gathered pace in India, Latin America, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Melbourne.

Japanese factory activity contracted for a 15th straight month in July and geopolitical tensions are simmering.

Japan’s Nikkei <.N225> dipped 0.6%. MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> fell 0.1% to retreat from a five-month top made on Tuesday.

Oil prices remain rangebound, hurt by inventory concerns. Brent futures <LCOc1> slipped 0.4% to $44.14 per barrel and U.S. crude fell 0.5% to $41.70 a barrel. [O/R]

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in Singapore. Additional reporting by Elizabeth Dilts Marshall in New York; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Edwina Gibbs)

UK minister: No evidence of Russian meddling in Brexit vote

July 22, 2020

LONDON (Reuters) – There is no evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 Brexit referendum and Britain’s spies did not take their eyes off the ball on Russia, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Wednesday.

“There needs to be some evidence that there’s an issue there – which there isn’t,” Shapps told Sky when asked if there should be a further investigation of possible Russian meddling in the European Union referendum.

The British parliament’s intelligence and security committee said in a report published on Tuesday that there were open source indications that Russia had sought to influence the Brexit campaign but no hard evidence had been produced.

“I don’t think its the case that the intelligence services took their eye off the ball,” Shapps told Sky.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Sarah Young)

Oil prices slip as U.S. inventories, virus fears grow

July 22, 2020

By Jessica Jaganathan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Oil prices fell on Wednesday as industry data showed a bigger-than-expected inventory build in the United States, where climbing coronavirus cases may further dent fuel demand in the world’s biggest oil consumer.

In his first press briefing in months on the pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump said the outbreak would probably get worse before it gets better, one of his first recent acknowledgements of the spread of the problem.

Industry group American Petroleum Institute (API) reported U.S. crude inventories rose last week by 7.5 million barrels, against expectations for a draw of 2.1 million barrels. [API/S]

Brent crude fell 35 cents, or 0.8%, to $43.97 a barrel by 0541 GMT, and U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude dropped 39 cents, or 0.9%, to $41.53.

Oil prices climbed about $1 the previous day, reaching their highest since March 6.

“Crude’s rally hit a brick wall after the API report showed a sharp rise in stockpiles and on President Trump’s warning that the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. is likely to worsen,” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA in New York.

“The crude demand outlook just got a double whammy with what could be the biggest rise in stockpiles since late May if confirmed by the EIA report tomorrow and on Trump’s downbeat virus briefing,” Moya said. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) will release official oil data later on Wednesday. [EIA/S]

The United States reported more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, marking the first time since June 10 the nation has surpassed that grim milestone.

Economic data from Japan, the world’s fourth-largest oil consumer, also weighed on prices. Factory activity contracted for a 15th straight month in July, indicating lower economic activity because the pandemic is extending into the third quarter.

Oil prices rose on Tuesday on optimism for a COVID-19 vaccine and after European Union lenders agreed on a 750 billion euro ($859 billion) fund to prop up coronavirus-hit economies.

Still, the effect of those funds on prompt oil prices will be muted as it may take months to start flowing and the impact may take years to show, Stephen Innes, chief global markets strategist at AxiCorp said in a note on Wednesday.

There are also signs that Iraq, the second-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), is still not meeting its target under an OPEC-led supply cut deal.

Russia, meanwhile, plans to cut its oil loadings from Baltic ports and Black Sea’s Novorossiisk in Aug. 1-10 by nearly a quarter compared with July 1-10, according to a preliminary loading schedule and Reuters calculations, which could support prices.

(Reporting by Jessica Jaganathan; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Tom Hogue)

Bolivians try chlorine dioxide for COVID-19, despite health ministry warnings

July 22, 2020

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians desperate to avoid or cure COVID-19 are ingesting chlorine dioxide, which the senate has approved as a treatment even as the country’s health ministry says people should stay away from it.

Chlorine dioxide is a bleach-like substance that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers can jeopardize health and should not be purchased or drunk as a medical treatment.

But in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba – where the provincial government has approved its use – some shoppers said they believed the substance could help.

“I heard on the news that they were selling chlorine dioxide at the pharmacy. Acquaintances of mine took it, one for prevention and one for healing. It is doing them good,” said Eric Ocanha, outside of a pharmacy.

Others said they were confused about the advice they had been given.

“As always, the authorities say: ‘Consult your doctor.’ Which doctor? The poor do not have a doctor,” said Dionisio Flores.

Bolivia has confirmed 60,991 cases of the coronavirus nationwide, 2,218 of which have been fatal.

Dr. Rene Sahonero, an adviser to the health ministry, said the ministry strongly warned against the use of chlorine dioxide for COVID-19.

“We have already drawn up a resolution that says this substance is not approved, that it is not suitable for human consumption and that it can have serious consequences,” Sahonero said, adding that cases of chlorine dioxide poisoning had been reported.

Despite the ministry warning, the country’s senate passed a bill last week approving the use of chlorine dioxide to prevent and treat the coronavirus. That must pass the lower chamber and survive a veto challenge before it becomes law.

(Reporting by Monica Machicao, Writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Middleman in Malta journalist’s murder suffers serious knife injuries

July 22, 2020

VALLETTA (Reuters) – The self-confessed middleman in the murder of Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was in critical condition on Wednesday with knife injuries to his throat and torso, authorities and local media said.

Melvin Theuma, a former taxi driver, was granted a presidential pardon in November to reveal all about the car bomb murder which shocked in the Mediterranean island in October 2017.

His evidence so far has implicated top businessman Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind who was arrested in late November and accused of complicity in the murder. He is awaiting trial and denies the charge.

“First indications are that Melvin Theuma self-harmed but investigations are continuing,” police said in a statement, suggesting attempted suicide.

The statement said Theuma was found late Tuesday in a pool of blood at his residence by officers who were mounting a round-the-clock guard outside. They were alerted by a lawyer who said he could not reach Theuma by phone.

Media reported Theuma’s wounds included serious injuries to his vocal cords and abdomen.

The incident happened hours before Theuma was due to continue to give evidence in a Valletta court.

In evidence so far, Theuma has alleged he was paid by Fenech to contract three men – currently under arrest – who carried out the car-bombing.

He also described how he has since lived in fear of his life and how he had gone to a seminary for confession.

“My life ended at 3 p.m. on October 16, 2017,” he told a magistrate, referring to the time and date of the murder.

(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Tom Brown)

Ohio House speaker, 4 others charged in $60 million nuclear bailout bribery case

July 21, 2020

By Brendan O’Brien and Timothy Gardner

(Reuters) – Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and four other men tied to state politics were arrested on Tuesday in a $60 million federal bribery case stemming from a bill passed last year to bail out the state’s nuclear power plants, a U.S. prosecutor said.

Shares of FirstEnergy Corp <FE.N> fell 17% after U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio David DeVillers revealed what he called the largest bribery and money-laundering scheme in state history. He said the five men were charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.

While DeVillers did not identify the company involved, Akron-based FirstEnergy operates the state’s two nuclear plants. The company, he said, gave $60 million to Generation Now, a political nonprofit operated by the five men, funds used for lobbying that secured passage of a controversial $1.5 billion bill that bailed out the plants, he said.

“These allegations were bribery pure and simple,” DeVillers said.

FirstEnergy said in a release it had received subpoenas in connection with the investigation, was reviewing details and intends to fully cooperate with the probe.

Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called for Householder to resign immediately.

In recent years, FirstEnergy was among several companies that have lobbied state and federal officials to get subsidies to keep reactors in service. Aging nuclear plants have suffered from higher security costs and competition from power plants that burn cheaper natural gas.

FirstEnergy in early 2018 asked the U.S. Department of Energy to intervene in markets by using emergency powers to direct grid operators to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants. U.S. President Donald Trump directed then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry to use an independent office of the department’s authority in a way that would help plants like those operated by FirstEnergy.

Federal energy regulators rejected those overtures, instead taking up a study of how to make the electrical grid more resilient.

The companies claimed the plants were needed to support state clean energy programs and without those reactors several states would have had a hard time meeting their clean energy goals.

This month, Exelon Corp’s <EXC.O> unit ComEd agreed to pay $200 million to resolve a U.S. Department of Justice probe over lobbying practices in Illinois.

Former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges and longtime Householder adviser Jeff Longstreth along with lobbyists Juan Cespedes and Neil Clark were also charged on Tuesday.

Householder’s office was not available for comment.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Timothy Gardner in Washington and Scott DiSavino in New York; editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

When the U.S. sneezes, the world catches a cold. What happens when it has severe COVID-19?

July 20, 2020

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – During a blue-sky moment in 2018 near the end of a decade-long economic expansion, it was the United States that helped pull the world along as the extra cash from tax cuts and government spending flowed through domestic and global markets.

But if it was U.S. policy that pushed the world higher then, it is U.S. policy that threatens to pull the world under now as the country’s troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic emerges as a chief risk to any sustained global recovery.

Officials from Mexico to Japan are already on edge. Exports have taken a hit in Germany, and Canada looks south warily knowing that any further hit to U.S. growth will undoubtedly spill over.

“Globally there will be difficult months and years ahead and it is of particular concern that the number of COVID-19 cases is still rising,” the International Monetary Fund said in a review of the U.S. economy that cited “social unrest” due to rising poverty as one of the risks to economic growth.

“The risk ahead is that a large share of the U.S. population will have to contend with an important deterioration of living standards and significant economic hardship for several years. This, in turn, can further weaken demand and exacerbate longer-term headwinds to growth.”

It was a clinical description of a grim set of facts: After the U.S. government committed roughly $3 trillion to support the economy through a round of restrictions on activity imposed to curb the virus in April and May, the disease is surging in the United States to record levels just as those support programs are due to expire. More than 3.6 million people have been infected and 140,000 killed. Daily growth in cases has tripled to more than 70,000 since mid-May, and the 7-day moving average of deaths, after falling steadily from April to July, has turned higher.

Meanwhile the country has fractured over issues like mask-wearing that in other parts of the world were adopted readily as a matter of common courtesy. With some key states like Texas and California now reimposing restrictions, analysts have already noted a possible plateau to the U.S. recovery with the country still 13.3 million jobs shy of the number in February.

A GLOBAL DISAPPOINTMENT

For other major economic powers, that is a weight added to their own struggles with the virus and the economic fallout.

The U.S. economy accounts for about a quarter of world gross domestic product. Though much of that is service-related, and much of the direct impact of the virus is tied up in industries like restaurants with weak links to the global economy, the connections are still there. A lost job leads to lower consumer spending leads to fewer imports; weak business conditions lead to less investment in the equipment or supplies that are often produced elsewhere.

Year-to-date U.S. imports through May are down more than 13%, or roughly $176 billion.

In Germany, whose measures to contain the pandemic are considered to have been among the most effective, exports to the United States plunged 36% year-over-year in May. Analysts see little prospect for improvement, with year-to-date U.S. auto sales through June down nearly 24% from a year earlier.

“That is really a disappointment,” said Gabriel Felbermayr, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, in a recent interview with radio network Deutschlandfunk. The spike in U.S. infections, he said, could not have been expected.

In Japan, the speed of the recovery is seen tied directly to U.S. success in stemming the virus.

“Japan’s recovery will be really delayed if the spreading of the coronavirus in the United States isn’t stopped and U.S.-bound exports from various Asian countries don’t grow,” said Hideo Kumano, a former Bank of Japan official who is now chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

PESSIMISM AT BOTH BORDERS

The IMF projected U.S. GDP will shrink this year by 6.6%, in line with many analysts’ projections.

The Bank of Canada is more pessimistic, forecasting U.S. GDP to fall 8.1% on the year. That has already been lowered once as the health situation decayed.

A further leg down would hit Canada directly, with perhaps three-fourths of the country’s exports headed over the U.S. border.

“We did take down our U.S. projection … I would underline that there’s a lot of uncertainty, and the principle source of the uncertainty is the evolution of the coronavirus itself,” said BOC governor Tiff Macklem.

At the southern border, Mexico is also posting record daily numbers of new cases, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has at times deflected criticism of his government’s efforts by pointing to the U.S. numbers.

Lopez Obrador undertook a risky visit with President Donald Trump earlier in July, couching his journey to Washington as a matter of economic necessity as Mexico attempts to revive an economy that could shrink by 10% or more this year, according to forecasts.

The Mexican president hopes the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal, which took effect on July 1, will spur business and investment, but pessimism about the outlook has been growing.

“To the point that people in the U.S. are losing jobs or incomes it is a downward weight … and it will have ramifications on the ability to consume globally,” said Elizabeth Crofoot, senior economist at the Conference Board, which documented a record drop in global consumer confidence in a recent survey.

“We take one step forward and two steps back.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider in Washington; Additional reporting by Reinhard Becker and Christian Kraemer in Berlin, Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Dan Burns and Matthew Lewis)