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Moscow theatres to reopen in August as Russia's coronavirus cases pass 700,000

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Residents of Moscow will be permitted to visit the theatre again from Aug. 1 for the first time in more than four months, authorities said on Wednesday as coronavirus infections in Russia edged past the 700,000 mark.

Theatre audiences at 50% capacity will be allowed, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for international cultural cooperation Mikhail Shvydkoy was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency. Shvydkoy added that he hoped this percentage could be increased by September.

Russia’s nationwide case tally stood at 700,792 as of Wednesday, the fourth highest in the world after India, Brazil and the United States, while 10,667 people have died from the virus, according to official data.

However, since measures meant to slow the spread of the virus began to be eased in May, the number of new cases recorded each day has been on a downward trend. Russia says 472,511 people have recovered from the virus.

Some businesses returned to work in May, following a nationwide non-working period in April, while in Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, the phased reopening of shops, restaurants and gyms came in June.  

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the country’s coronavirus situation was leaning towards improving and that there was cause for more optimistic forecasts.

Russia’s healthcare regulator, meanwhile, said it had found no direct link connecting domestically-produced ventilators with two hospital fires that killed six people in May.

Russia suspended the use of all Aventa-M ventilators produced at a factory near the Ural mountains while an investigation by the regulator, Roszdravnadzor, into the cause of the two fires at hospitals treating patients for the novel coronavirus was ongoing.

Roszdravnadzor said it had discovered some small violations, as well as discrepancies between the product and its operational and technical documentation.

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France calls for release of Mali opposition leader Cisse

PARIS (Reuters) – French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Wednesday called for the release of Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who has been held hostage by suspected Islamist militants since March.

“France expresses its outrage over Mr Soumaila Cisse’s situation. He is the opposition leader, he was candidate in the presidential election and he was taken hostage three months ago and we are strongly calling for his release,” Le Drian told the National Assembly when asked about Cisse.

Cisse and several members of his delegation were ambushed by unidentified gunmen in March on the campaign trail in the northern region of Timbuktu. His bodyguard was killed and two others wounded, Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) said at the time.

Militants with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State stage frequent attacks on civilian and military targets in the area, but there was no claim of responsibility and no request for ransom has been received.

France, the former colonial ruler, has troops in Mali to counter the jihadist threat.

Cisse, 70, is Mali’s leading opposition figure and was finance minister from 1993 to 2000. He lost the 2013 and 2018 elections to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Mali’s government has said the military is trying to find the hostages. Mali has been in political turmoil since the disputed election in March.

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Britain set to use new powers to impose sanctions over rights

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will list on Monday the first foreign nationals to face asset freezes and visa bans for alleged human rights abuses under a new post-Brexit sanctions scheme that follows the 2012 U.S. Magnitsky Act.

Foreign minister Dominic Raab has pressed for a tough sanctions regime, and the first names to be set out in parliament will be followed by further sanctions in the coming months under a “UK-only regime” after Britain left the European Union in January.

“From today, the UK will have new powers to stop those involved in serious human rights abuses and violations from entering the UK, channelling money through our banks and profiting from our economy,” Raab said in a statement.

“This is a clear example of how the UK will help to lead the world in standing up for human rights. We will not let those who seek to inflict pain and destroy the lives of innocent victims benefit from what the UK has to offer.”

The United States passed a law known as the Magnitsky Act in 2012 under which it has imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials linked to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer arrested in 2008 after alleging that Russian officials were involved in large-scale tax fraud.

Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after complaining of mistreatment.

Described as the Magnitsky amendment, the British sanctions framework is not specifically aimed at Russians, but comes at a time of crisis in relations between London and Moscow following a nerve agent attack in England on a Russian ex-spy.

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Jets hit Libya's al-Watiya airbase where Turkey may build base, sources say

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Warplanes struck overnight at an airbase that was recently recaptured by Libya’s internationally recognised government from eastern forces with help from Turkey, a military source with the eastern forces and a resident nearby said.

The strikes were carried out by “unknown aircraft”, the military source with the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said.

A resident at the nearby town of Zintan said explosions were heard from the direction of the base.

Watiya’s recapture in May by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli marked the start of a sudden collapse of the LNA’s 14-month assault to seize the capital and its retreat along the coast to the new frontlines.

Turkish support was vital to the GNA in turning back the LNA offensive with advanced air defences and drone strikes that targeted Khalifa’s supply lines and troop build-ups.

A Turkish source said last month that Turkey was in talks with the GNA to establish two bases in Libya, one of them at Watiya, the most important airbase in western Libya.

Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was in Tripoli for meetings with the GNA on Friday and Saturday and Akar swore to do all that was necessary to help it, a Turkish defence ministry statement said.

The LNA is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt. During its advance towards Tripoli last year, the LNA was assisted by Egyptian and UAE airstrikes.

Last month, the United States said Russia had sent at least 14 MiG29 and Su-24 warplanes to an LNA base via Syria, where their Russian airforce markings were removed.

Turkish involvement in Libya has also angered France and Greece and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned of new sanctions on Ankara.

The GNA and LNA are now mobilising forces at the new frontlines between the cities of Misrata and Sirte. Egypt has warned that any Turkish-backed effort to take Sirte, which the LNA captured in January, could lead its army to directly intervene.

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Russians grant Putin right to extend his rule until 2036 in landslide vote, initial results show

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russians appeared to have paved the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for a package of constitutional changes which will also boost pensions, initial results of a nationwide vote showed on Wednesday.

Partial results, announced five hours before polls closed, indicate the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister will win the right to run for two more terms. That means he could remain president for 16 more years.

The Central Election Commission said just over 70% of votes counted across the world’s largest country had supported changing the constitution. Almost 29% had voted no of the 2.68% of ballots counted. Fuller results are due at 1900 GMT.

Russians have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as the pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.

One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin’s order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“I voted for the amendments to the constitution,” Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”

Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.

“I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest,” another voter, Lyudmila, said. “What’s the point of voting if they’ve already decided for you. It’s like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted.”

Turnout had reached nearly 60% by midday, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.

Putin, 67, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday. They would allow him to run for another two six-year, consecutive stints after his current term expires in 2024.

Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.

At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.

With Russia reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.

SMALL PROTESTS

A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday using their prostrate bodies to form the date – 2036 – before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.

The “No! Campaign,” called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square while respecting social distancing rules.

“We need to remind the authorities that we exist and that there are tens of millions of us who do not want Putin to rule until 2036,” Andrei Pivovarov, an activist, said in an online video.

Mass gatherings are banned in Moscow due to the virus and Pivovarov’s suggestion of a public discussion was carefully worded. He avoided calling on people to gather, saying only that he wanted to discuss the vote’s outcome “with other free people” and would be in the square on Wednesday evening.

More than a dozen police vehicles were parked in the square beforehand, where a lone masked protester stood with a sign saying “I/We are the constitution”.

The opposition Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote “no”, has complained of irregularities.

Gennady Zyuganov, its leader, said that Putin and voters needed to weigh the consequences of sticking to the Russian leader’s policies, which he said had failed the economy.

“Putin needs to choose,” said Zyuganov. “For him the moment of truth is coming.”

Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, has said it will not be able to confirm the outcome of the vote as legitimate.

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Russians given money as vote that could extend Putin's rule draws to a close

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia gave families financial windfalls on Wednesday on the final day of a vote on constitutional changes that could allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, a prospect that prompted a small protest by Kremlin critics on Red Square.

State exit polls have suggested more than two thirds of voters will back the changes. They have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other amendments with popular appeal.

One amendment guarantees inflation-linked pensions; another proposes a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.

One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin’s order as people headed to polling stations on the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

“I voted for the amendments to the constitution,” Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”

Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.

“I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest,” another voter, Lyudmila, said. “What’s the point of voting if they’ve already decided for you. It’s like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted.”

Related Coverage

  • Nearly 73% of Russian voters have backed changes that could extend Putin's rule – Initial results

Turnout had reached nearly 60% by midday, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.

Putin, a 67-year-old former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday.

First results are expected at 1900 GMT.

TWO MORE TERMS?

The amendments would allow him to run for another two six-year, back-to-back stints if he wishes after his current term expires in 2024.

Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.

At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.

With Russia reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.

A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday using their prostrate bodies to form the date – 2036 – before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.

The “No! Campaign,” called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square while respecting social distancing rules.

“We need to remind the authorities that we exist and that there are tens of millions of us who do not want Putin to rule until 2036,” Andrei Pivovarov, an activist, said in an online video.

Mass gatherings are banned in Moscow due to the virus and Pivovarov’s suggestion of a public discussion was carefully worded. He avoided calling on people to gather, saying only that he wanted to discuss the vote’s outcome “with other free people” and would be in the square on Wednesday evening.

The opposition Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote “no”, has complained of irregularities.

Gennady Zyuganov, its leader, said that Putin and voters needed to weigh the consequences of sticking to the Russian leader’s policies, which he said had failed the economy.

“Putin needs to choose,” said Zyuganov. “For him the moment of truth is coming. Today’s vote is very significant, the people should express their will,” said Zyuganov.

Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, has said it will not be able to confirm the outcome of the vote as legitimate.

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Pompeo pushes Iran arms embargo at U.N., Russia says U.S. knee on Iran's neck

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to extend an arms embargo on Iran before it expires in October, prompting Russia to slam Washington’s policy toward Tehran as like “putting a knee” to the country’s neck.

The United States has circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member council that would indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Tehran, but council veto-powers Russia and China have already signaled their opposition to the move.

“Don’t just take it from the United States, listen to countries in the region. From Israel to the Gulf, countries in the Middle East – who are most exposed to Iran’s predations – are speaking with one voice: Extend the arms embargo,” Pompeo told a virtual Security Council meeting.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has long argued that the arms embargo on Iran should not be lifted. The arms embargo is set to end in mid-October under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with Britain, Germany, France, China, Russia and the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Since Trump took office in 2017, his administration has quit the nuclear deal and steadily ramped up sanctions on Iran in what Washington describes as a maximum-pressure approach.

Addressing the council, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described the policy as “a maximum suffocation policy.”

“The task is to achieve regime change or create a situation where Iran literally wouldn’t be able to breath. This is like putting a knee to one’s neck,” he said in a veiled reference to the death of a Black man in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck. The death of George Floyd sparked protests across the United States and around the world.

‘LAW OF THE JUNGLE’

The Security Council was meeting on Tuesday to discuss a report by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that determined that cruise missiles used in several attacks on oil facilities and an international airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of “Iranian origin.”

If Washington is unsuccessful in extending the arms embargo, it has threatened to trigger at the Security Council a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran under the nuclear deal, even though it left the accord in 2018. Diplomats say Washington would face a tough, messy battle.

Iran has breached parts of the nuclear deal in response to the U.S. withdrawal and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions.

U.N. political affairs and peacebuilding chief Rosemary DiCarlo said the nuclear deal was crucial to regional and international security, adding: “It is therefore regrettable that the future of this agreement is in doubt.”

Britain, France and Germany all expressed concern to the council that lifting the arms embargo on Iran would have major implications for regional security and stability. However, they also said they would not back U.S. efforts to unilaterally trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “The international community in general — and the U.N. Security Council in particular — are facing an important decision: Do we maintain respect for the rule of law, or do we return to the law of the jungle by surrendering to the whims of an outlaw bully?”

(This story has been refiled to delete extraneous “a” in 7th paragraph).

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Russia hiring of Syrians to fight in Libya surges in May: Reuters

Private military contractor Wagner Group is conducting the hiring with Russian army supervision, opposition sources say.

A Russian drive to recruit Syrians to fight in Libya for renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar accelerated in May when hundreds of mercenaries were signed up, five Syrian opposition sources and a regional source familiar with the matter said.

Private military contractor the Wagner Group is conducting the hiring with Russian army supervision, according to two senior Syrian opposition sources and the regional source. A former Wagner Group member said it first sent Syrians to Libya in 2019.

More:

  • Has Khalifa Haftar’s campaign in Libya failed?

  • Libyan government forces seize Haftar stronghold Tarhuna

  • Libya: The battle for Tripoli explained in 600 words

The Russian Defence Ministry and the Wagner group did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Turkey, meanwhile, says it is providing military support to the other side of the conflict, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in February that fighters from the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army were in Libya, as well as Turkey’s own military.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping him crush the rebellion at home. Moscow’s involvement in Libya is an extension of its ambition to project influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, some experts say.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have also lent support to Haftar because they suspect the GNA of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group they strongly oppose.

Turkey, on the other hand, has made deals with the GNA over maritime borders and wants to protect its interests in the region.

Echoes of Syria

The involvement of Russia and Turkey on opposite sides of the Libyan conflict has echoes of the war in Syria, where they have also backed warring parties. It also risks exacerbating the conflict, experts have warned.

“Russia and Turkey are both escalating their firepower and force numbers in Libya, where Europe has been caught on its heels,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Russia has tried to match Turkey’s effort to send Syrian mercenaries, but with mixed results.”

Wagner has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya, according to a confidential UN report seen by Reuters in May. The Russian state has denied having forces in Libya.

When asked in January if the Wagner Group was fighting in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if there were Russians in Libya, they were not representing the Russian state, nor were they paid by the state.

A spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army denied it had recruited Syrian fighters. It has repeatedly highlighted the presence of Syrians fighting alongside its enemy.

US officials said on May 7 they believed Russia was working with al-Assad to transfer fighters and equipment to Libya.

The Syrian government’s information ministry did not respond to questions sent via email.

Haftar’s adversary, the GNA, has been supplied with drones, air defences and advisers from Turkey.

GNA deputy defence minister Saleh Namroush said its request for military support was in response to what he called “international meddling in Libya”.

“Turkey is the only country that was willing to help us end the widescale civilian killing and destruction by the UAE, Russia and others,” he said.

Pace of hiring increases

New recruits to the Russian effort in support of Haftar included 300 from the Homs area, among them former Free Syrian Army fighters, according to one of the two senior opposition sources, and some 320 from the southwest, a third source said.

The pace of hiring increased as Libya’s fighting intensified and the war in Syria died down, the regional source said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the Syrian conflict using a network of sources on the ground, more than 900 Syrians were recruited by Russia to fight in Libya in May.

The fighters are trained at a base in Homs before going to Libya, according to the sources, who cited salaries ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 a month.

The movement of fighters into Libya violates a UN arms embargo and the UN’s acting Libya envoy on May 19 urged the Security Council to stop “a massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries”.

Many former Syrian rebels stayed behind in areas recovered by Damascus and its Russian allies, signing agreements that required them to pledge loyalty to the state. But their lives remain tightly restricted and monitored by the authorities.

Since 2014, Libya has been split between areas controlled by the Tripoli government and territory held by Haftar’s eastern-based forces in Benghazi.

Haftar is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, according to UN experts and some security sources. The countries deny direct involvement in the conflict.

Despite this backing, forces loyal to the GNA captured Haftar’s last major stronghold near Tripoli on Friday, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.

On Thursday, Erdogan vowed to ramp up Turkey’s support for its ally in Libya to lock in the gains. On Saturday, Haftar was in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a new peace plan.

The retreat, reversing many of Haftar’s gains from last year, extends the GNA’s control of most of northwest Libya.

Haftar and allied groups still control the east and much of the south, as well as most of Libya’s oil fields, however.

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Putin, promising stability, tells Russians to vote for changes that could extend his rule

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin on Tuesday urged Russians to vote for constitutional changes that would allow him to run again for president twice, calling the reforms a guarantor of stability, security and prosperity.

Putin made his appeal at the scene of a bloody World War Two battle between the Red Army and the Nazis on the eve of the main and last day of a seven-day nationwide vote that will change the constitution for the first time since 1993.

Under the proposed changes, which state exit polls suggest will be backed by over two thirds of voters, Putin would be allowed to run for another two six-year back-to-back terms after his current term expires in 2024.

That could see the former KGB officer, now 67, stay in office until 2036, though Putin has said he has yet to take a final decision on what he wants to do.

Critics and staunch supporters are convinced he will run again, while some analysts believe he has not yet made his mind up but wants to keep his options open until the last minute so as not to become a lame duck.

“We are not just voting for amendments. We are voting for the country in which we want to live, with a modern education and health system …for a country for whose sake we are working and want to pass onto out children and grandchildren,” said Putin.

“We can only guarantee stability, security, prosperity and a worthy life for people through development. Our sovereignty depends on our own responsibility, our own sincere feelings of patriotism and concern for the Motherland.”

Putin made no mention during his speech of how the constitutional changes could affect his own political career, a constant feature of the official campaign to encourage people to vote which has stressed other amendments rather than the one that would allow him to stay in power until 2036 if re-elected.

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Russia accuses U.S. of 'destructive' stance on nuclear-test ban treaty

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s foreign ministry accused the United States on Tuesday of taking a “destructive” stance over the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and of preparing for a possible resumption of nuclear testing.

Moscow, which ratified the CTBT 20 years ago on Tuesday, said the non-proliferation and arms control regime was facing serious challenges and urged Washington to reconsider its position. It said the situation around the CTBT was “seriously deteriorating”.

“Russia is calling on … above all the United States to reconsider its position and ‘give the green light’ to transform this most important agreement from the point of view of global security into a fully functioning international legal instrument,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The United States has denied Russian accusations in the past that it intended to quit the CTBT on the pretext that Moscow was violating it first.

Washington, which formally withdrew from the landmark Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019, has signed but not ratified the CTBT, along with seven other countries.

It complies with the treaty’s prohibition on nuclear explosions by observing a unilateral moratorium on testing, which U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said will continue.

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