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EU deploys assistance for Cyprus as huge forest fire rages


NICOSIA, July 3 (Reuters) – The European Union on Saturday deployed aerial assistance to help Cyprus contain a huge forest fire raging north of the cities of Limassol and Larnaca, a blaze one official called the worst on record.

The blaze, fanned by strong winds, affected at least six communities in the foothills of the Troodos mountain range, an area of pine forest and densely vegetated shrubland.

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, said fire-fighting planes had departed from Greece to battle the fire and Italy was also planning to deploy aerial fire-fighters.

The EU’s emergency Copernicus satellite was also activated to provide damage assessment maps of the affected areas, the Commission said in a statement.

“It is the worst forest fire in the history of Cyprus,” Forestries Department Director Charalambos Alexandrou told Cyprus’s Omega TV.

Attempts were being made to prevent the blaze from crossing the mountains and stop it before reaching Machairas, a pine forestland and one of the highest peaks in Cyprus.

Alexandrou said the perimeter of the fire was “at least 40 kilometres”.

Dozens of properties were damaged, but no injuries were reported. There were widespread power cuts in the area. Plumes of smoke were visible in the capital Nicosia, some 75 km (45 miles) away.

Officials said that in addition to Greece’s assistance with two aircraft, help was also expected from Israel.

“This is a very difficult day for Cyprus. All of the state’s mechanisms are in gear, and the priority is for no loss of life,” Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades tweeted.

Israel accepted Nicosia’s plea for help, a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, and will send firefighting aircraft to Cyprus on Sunday.

The cause of the fire, which started around midday, was unclear. Cyprus has experienced a heatwave this week, with temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Police said they were questioning a 67 year old person in connection with the blaze.

“It passed through like a whirlwind, it destroyed everything,” said Vassos Vassiliou, the community leader of Arakapas, one of the communities affected.

Reporting by Michele Kambas, additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and by John Chalmers in Brussels
Editing by Ros Russell, David Gregorio and Diane Craft

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U.S. opens $3 billion aviation manufacturing wage subsidy program


A United Airlines passenger jet takes off with New York City as a backdrop, at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, U.S. December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

WASHINGTON, June 15 (Reuters) – The U.S. Transportation Department said Tuesday it had launched a $3 billion aviation manufacturing payroll subsidy program that will cover up to half of eligible companies’ compensation costs for as long as six months.

The program, funded by Congress, requires companies to commit to not conducting furloughs without employee consent or laying off employees covered by subsidies during the six-month period. Applications must be filed by July 13.

Companies eligible include aircraft, engine, propeller or component manufacturers and companies that repair or overhaul airplanes and parts.

The subsidy program cannot cover more than 25% of an employer’s total U.S. workforce as of April 2020 and can only cover employees with total annual compensation of $200,000 or less.

To qualify, a company must have involuntarily furloughed or laid off at least 10% of its total workforce, or have experienced at least a 15% decline in 2020 total operating revenues.

More than 100,000 jobs have been lost in the aerospace industry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Transportation Department. Before then, the U.S. aerospace industry was estimated to employ approximately 2.2 million workers, including 1.2 million who worked in various parts of the supply chain nationwide.

Boeing Co (BA.N), which has had extensive job cuts, Raytheon Technologies (RTX.N) and Spirit Aerosystems (SPR.N) did not immediately respond to questions about whether they are considering applying. General Electric’s (GE.N) aviation unit said it would not seek assistance from the program.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had strongly urged Congress to fund the program.

Congress has provided assistance to other aviation industry firms, including giving U.S. airlines $54 billion for payroll since March 2020 and that funding will continue to pay much of airline workers’ salaries through Sept. 30.

Reporting by David Shepardson
Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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Google loosens its search engine grip on Android devices in Europe


Google (GOOGL.O) has bowed to pressure from rivals and will let them compete for free to be the default search engines on Android devices in Europe, widening a pledge to EU antitrust regulators two years ago.

The move by the world’s most popular internet search engine comes as the 27-country bloc considers rules that could be introduced next year to force Google, Amazon (AMZN.O), Apple (AAPL.O) and Facebook (FB.O) to ensure a level playing field for competitors.

Google’s Android mobile operating system runs on about four-fifths of the world’s smartphones. The U.S. tech giant said in 2019 that rivals would have to pay via an auction for appearing on a choice screen on new Android devices in Europe from which users select their preferred search engine.

Google’s change of heart followed a 4.24 billion euro ($5.16 billion) fine handed out by the European Commission, the EU antitrust authority, in 2018 for unfairly using Android to cement the dominance of its search engine.

“We are now making some final changes to the Choice Screen including making participation free for eligible search providers. We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen,” Google director Oliver Bethell wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

The changes will come into effect in September, the blog added.

The Commission said it had discussed possible changes with Google following concerns raised by a number of its rivals, adding that those announced were positive developments.

Google said the five most popular eligible search engines in each EU country according to StatCounter, including Google, would be displayed in random order at the top of the screen while up to seven will be shown at the bottom.

The logo of Google is seen on a building at La Defense business and financial district in Courbevoie near Paris, France, September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

It had previously only allowed four competitors, chosen in separate auctions for each EU country, to be displayed on Android screens.

However DuckDuckGo, a rival search engine that has long complained about the auction process, said Google should go further.

“Google is now doing what it should have done three years ago: a free search preference menu on Android in the EU,” CEO Gabriel Weinberg tweeted.

“However, it should be on all platforms, eg also desktop Chrome, accessible at all times, ie not just on factory reset, and in all countries.”

Search engine Ecosia, which together with four other rivals complained about Google’s initial proposal to the Commission last year, welcomed the changes.

“With this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market,” its CEO Christian Kroll said in a statement.

“Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

($1 = 0.8211 euros)

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Future

Philippines’ Duterte to let God decide his political future


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the arrival ceremony for the first COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in the country, at Villamor Air Base in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines, February 28, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will “leave it to God” whether or not he will run for vice president in next year’s elections, his spokesman said on Thursday, responding to speculation that he might try to stay in power longer.

Duterte cannot seek re-election in 2022 under a constitution that limits presidents to a single six-year term, but he can hold another elected post, including that of vice president.

It is not uncommon in the Philippines for former presidents to run for lower office.

“He’s leaving it to God, that’s his answer,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told a regular media briefing when asked about a Duterte vice-presidential bid.

Salvador Panelo, the president’s chief legal counsel, told One News channel on Tuesday that Duterte may run for vice president if there is public clamour.

Opinion polls show Duterte remains hugely popular in the Philippines, despite his controversial pro-China stance, a war on drugs that has killed thousands of people and public criticism over his government’s handling of the country’s coronavirus epidemic.

Rumours have swirled that Duterte might try to stay in power by endorsing a presidential bid by his top aide and incumbent senator, Christopher “Bong” Go, while contesting the separate vice-presidential election.

A survey of preferred president/vice president combinations for next year’s election by pollster Pulse Asia in February showed the Go-Duterte ticket would come top.

Duterte’s daughter, Sara, has topped a different opinion poll on preferred presidential candidates, even though she has repeatedly said she does not want the job. read more

Political analysts are sceptical about Sara’s lack of interest in running and say that as president, she could protect her father from legal challenges and political vendettas once he loses his immunity of office.

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U.S. downgrades Mexico air safety rating, offers assistance


Screens show flight information at the almost empty Benito Juarez international airport, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Mexico City, Mexico, June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The United States on Tuesday downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating, an action that bars Mexican carriers from adding new U.S. flights and limits the ability of airlines to carry out marketing agreements with one another.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, in announcing the action, said it is “fully committed to helping the Mexican aviation authority improve its safety oversight system to a level that meets” international standards. The agency also said it is “ready to provide expertise and resources” to resolve issues raised in the safety assessment process.

The FAA downgraded Mexico – the most common destination for U.S. air travelers last month – from a level called Category 1, which signifies compliance with international standards, to Category 2, the lowest level.

That rating, according to the FAA, means Mexico lacks “necessary requirements to oversee the country’s air carriers in accordance with minimum international safety standards, or the civil aviation authority is lacking in one or more areas such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record keeping, inspection procedures or resolution of safety concerns.”

The FAA action sent shares in Mexican airlines down.

A similar FAA downgrade of Mexico in 2010 over suspected shortcomings within its civil aviation authority lasted about four months. Only a few countries currently are rated Category 2 by the FAA, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia.

Plans for the FAA downgrade were first reported on Friday by Reuters. read more

The FAA said its reassessment of the Agencia Federal de Aviacion Civil from October 2020 through February identified several areas of non-compliance with minimum international safety standards.

The Mexican government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday had urged U.S. authorities not to downgrade Mexico, arguing that his country was complying with all relevant norms.

The downgrade means current U.S. service by Mexican carriers is unaffected, but they cannot begin new flights. U.S. airlines also will no longer be able to market and sell tickets with their names and designator codes on Mexican-operated flights and the FAA will increase scrutiny of Mexican airline flights to the United States.

Mexico has been a top vacation spot for U.S. travelers during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring U.S. airlines to redirect capacity they had previously flown to Europe before transatlantic travel restrictions were imposed last year.

Mexico was the by far the busiest foreign air destination in April – with nearly 2.3 million passengers on U.S.-Mexico flights – more than three times that of the Dominican Republic, the next most-popular country destination, according to industry data.

Delta Air Lines said on Tuesday an FAA downgrade was not about (DAL.N) its partner Aeromexico (AEROMEX.MX) and that the action will have little impact on customers. read more

Delta said it will need to reissue reservations for some Aeromexico operated flights that were booked through Delta.

“This is not about Aeromexico. This is about the Mexican version of the FAA not having some of the right protocols in place,” Delta president Glen Hauenstein said at a Wolfe Research conference.

Delta has a codeshare arrangement with Aeromexico enabling the two air carriers to sell seats on each other’s flights. Delta will be forced to remove its codes on Aeromexico flights following the downgrade, though Aeromexico could continue to code on Delta flights and members of Delta’s loyalty program could still receive SkyMiles on Aeromexico flights that would normally carry the code, Hauenstein added.

Pablo Casas, general director of the National Institute of Legal-Aeronautical Research think tank, said the downgrade could impact the Mexican economy and carriers trying to recover from the business effects of the pandemic.

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U.S. imposes restrictions on Ethiopia assistance over Tigray


Ethiopians fleeing from the Tigray region walk towards a river to cross from Ethiopia to Sudan, near the Hamdeyat refugee transit camp, which houses refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the border in Sudan, December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

The U.S. government said it was imposing wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia over the atrocities in Tigray, as well as barring current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials it deems responsible for the crisis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Sunday the new actions by the United States are to press for a resolution of the crisis: “The time for action from the international community is now.”

Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands more forced from their homes in the Tigray region since November after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched attacks on Ethiopian forces. Ethiopian troops and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea have been accused of massacres and killings in their fight against the rebel group.

The Ethiopian government’s efforts to crush the TPLF rebellion have unleashed an ethnic witch hunt across the country, according to a Reuters investigation this month, which found Tigrayans have been arrested, harassed, sacked or suspended from their jobs, or had their bank accounts temporarily frozen.

Blinken said the United States would continue humanitarian assistance and certain other critical aid to Ethiopia and would continue its existing broad restrictions on assistance to Eritrea.

Blinken said the United States may withhold visas as well for “members of the security forces, or other individuals—to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members” of the TPLF it deems “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray.”

He also warned that should those responsible for undermining a resolution of the crisis in Tigray fail to reverse course, they should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community.

Blinken said the parties “have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”

The U.S. called on the Ethiopian government to meet public commitments to hold accountable all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, to protect civilians, and to ensure unhindered humanitarian access, Blinken said. He also urged the “Eritrean government to live up to its public commitment and immediately return its troops to internationally recognized Eritrean territory.”

Ethiopia’s government has come under increasing pressure from the international community to demonstrate accountability as reports of atrocities in Tigray mount. The European Union has suspended budget support payments amid reports of brutal gang rapes, mass killings of civilians and widespread looting in the northern region. read more

Ethiopia says it is committed to investigating human rights violations and both Ethiopia and Eritrea have promised a withdrawal of Eritrean troops.

The United Nations has said that war crimes may have been committed by all parties involved in the conflict.

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Judge allows self-described anti-fraud group to review Georgia ballots


A Georgia judge on Friday ordered Atlanta’s Fulton County to unseal more than 145,000 absentee ballots cast during the November 2020 election, allowing self-described election integrity activists to evaluate the legitimacy of the ballots.

Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian Amero, who is overseeing the case, ruled that Fulton County must unseal the ballots so the petitioners could inspect and scan them, not merely look at copies, according to his order filed in the Fulton County Superior Court.

The order paves the way for a second review of ballots in the United States by private groups who claim without evidence that widespread voting fraud in populous cities helped Joe Biden, a Democrat, unfairly defeat then-President Donald Trump, a Republican.

Trump and his allies spent two months denying his election defeat. State and federal officials and multiple courts rejected the Trump campaign’s claims that the election was stolen from him. Trump followers attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 while Congress was certifying the results, leading to five deaths.

Since then, Trump supporters have sought revisions of voting outcomes in several states. Arizona’s Republican-controlled state Senate ordered an audit of roughly 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, where nearly two thirds of the state’s population resides.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something similar in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, because this is a way for these actors to fundraise for elections going into 2022 and 2024,” said Aunna Dennis, Executive Director of good government group Common Cause Georgia.

The nine petitioners seeking to inspect and scan Fulton County’s absentee ballots are led by Garland Favorito, a Fulton County voter who said, in the petition last December that launched the case, that he saw an “abnormal” increase in votes for Biden while observing the ballot tabulation in his county.

Favorito is the co-founder of a self-described election watchdog group called Voters Organized for Trusted Election Results in Georgia, according to his Twitter profile.

“This conspiracy theory about counterfeit ballots has been trotted out by proponents of the ‘Big Lie’ across the country and shot down every time,” said Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts in a statement on Friday after Amero ordered the county to unseal the absentee ballots.

Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, had previously asked the court to let the petitioners only view copies of the ballots, not inspect and scan the original ballots, according to an amicus brief he filed in April.

In an apparent about-face on Friday, however, Raffensperger seemed to support Amero’s decision, writing in a Twitter post, without detailing evidence, that Fulton County had long mismanaged its elections, and that “allowing this audit provides another layer of transparency and citizen engagement.”

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India’s opposition sees hope for the future in Modi’s state election defeat


Supporters of Chief Minister of West Bengal state and the Chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC) Mamata Banerjee celebrate after the initial poll results, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India, May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Indian opposition parties and political commentators cheered the election victory of a regional leader over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party in a big battleground state as a sign his populist sway could be checked.

Sunday’s defeat came as Modi is being slammed publicly for failing to tackle India’s explosive spike in coronavirus infections that has left the country in deep crisis, with hospital and crematoriums swamped and people dying for lack of oxygen.

Modi addressed dozens of political rallies in the state of West Bengal hoping to widen the appeal of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the east of the country from its traditional northern and western strongholds.

But West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who ran the campaign for her regional party from a wheelchair because of a fall at a rally, won a two-thirds victory, raising opposition hopes Modi could be challenged across the country.

“What Bengal does today, India does tomorrow,” columnist Shobhaa De wrote in The Print, paraphrasing a quotation by 19th century liberal Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

“What happened in West Bengal is just the beginning.”

Prashant Kishor, a political strategist for Banerjee, said: “The election result has given voice and hope to those who want to fight this danger called BJP.”

The Shiv Sena, another regional group that controls the western state of Maharashtra that includes Mumbai, said that the election result was a personal defeat for Modi because he put everything on the line and ignored the health crisis.

“Instead of tackling the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the entire central government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was in the poll arena of West Bengal to defeat (Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee,” it said.

IRON GRIP

Modi has held an iron grip on Indian politics since sweeping to power in 2014 and winning a bigger victory in the 2019 national election on the back of a strong Hindu ideology.

Until now there has been no challenger and with the main opposition Congress party unable to get its act together, Modi has been expected to win the 2024 national poll.

But images of people dying from COVID-19 in hospital parking lots and corridors because of lack of beds, hospitals themselves begging for life saving oxygen supplies and overflowing crematoriums have shaken the public mood, opinion polls show.

Confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis has plummeted since February when the second wave of infections started, according to a survey among urban Indians by polling agency YouGov.

From 89% saying the government has handled the Covid issue ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ well in April 2020, this number has declined to 59% at the end of April 2021, the latest data from YouGov’s Covid-19 Public Monitor showed.

Covid is fanning a growing anger against the federal government, said political commentator Neerja Chowdhury.

“People are not likely to forget the shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines in a hurry. They are also unlikely to forget in a hurry that the BJP’s central leadership made winning Bengal its life and death battle, when there is a real life and death struggle on in the country.”

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