Bulgaria’s surveillance laws breach European human rights convention-ECHR

SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria violates the European Convention of Human Rights when it comes to secret surveillance and retention and accessing of communication data, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday.

In a case brought by two Bulgarian lawyers and two rights protection non-profit organisations in 2012, an ECHR chamber found that Bulgarian legislation did not meet the requirements of the Convention and was unable to keep surveillance to only that which was necessary.

The chamber also ruled that Bulgarian laws about retention and accessing communication data were incapable of limiting such operations to what was strictly needed, also a breach of the Article 8 of the Convention.

“The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life and correspondence) of the European Convention on Human Rights,” it said in a statement.

Secret surveillance has long been a hot topic in the Balkan country, which joined the European Union in 2007.

A special parliamentary commission found in August that special services have eavesdropped on over 900 Bulgarians, including politicians, journalists and activists between the start of anti-graft protests in 2020 until May 2021, when the former centre-right government was ousted from office.

The head of the commission then, Nikolai Hadzhigenov, has said classified data pointed to the biggest wire-tapping and eavesdropping on Bulgarian citizens in the recent history.

The prosecutors’ office has denied any illegal eavesdropping on politicians.

In the case brought to the ECHR, the court found that there was a lack of proper judicial oversight over decisions to issue warrants for surveillance in Bulgaria. A lack of clear regulation had led to a situation where secret surveillance data could be used for nefarious purposes, it said.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

French official says 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – From 300 to 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in central Mali, a senior French armed forces ministry official said, challenging an assertion by the West African country’s junta https://www.reuters.com/world/mali-denies-deployment-russian-mercenaries-says-only-trainers-present-2021-12-25 that only Russian military trainers are deployed there.

Other West African nations have closed their borders with Mali, severed diplomatic ties and imposed economic sanctions in response to its delay in holding elections following a 2020 military coup, the 15-state regional bloc said on Sunday.

The moves were also a response to the arrival of private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group, whose members are mostly ex-service personnel.

“I would say there are around 300-400 members of Wagner and there are also Russian trainers, who provide equipment,” the French official told reporters at a briefing late on Monday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Russian mercenaries had deployed with Malian forces to the centre of the country.

Mali’s junta, which has proposed a five-year transition rather than stepping down in February as initially planned, has said the new forces are military instructors who came with equipment they bought from Russia.

The European Union https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eu-hits-russian-mercenary-group-wagner-with-sanctions-2021-12-13 has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, accusing it of clandestine operations on the Kremlin’s behalf. President Vladimir Putin https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-military-contractors-idUSKCN1OJ1NS has said the group does not represent the Russian state, but that private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.

France has thousands of troops fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region and in December joined 15 other countries, mostly European states operating in Mali, in condemning the possible arrival of mercenaries.

Paris has said any such move would be incompatible with the French presence in Mali.

“The fact that Wagner is in a different part of Mali limits the risk of interaction which would be very difficult (for us) to accept,” the French official said. “They (the junta) made the choice to turn their backs on the Europeans, the Americans and Africans and that brings consequences.”

He said consultations were under way between France and its European partners, who have provided special forces in Mali, on how to respond. Decisions are likely at European Union level at the end of January, he said.

(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Germany needs greater immigration to avoid labour shortages – minister

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany will need increased immigration to prevent severe labour shortages from undermining productivity and endangering a successful energy transition, its economy minister said as Europe’s largest economy faces a demographic crisis.

“We have 300,000 job openings today and expect that to climb to a million and more,” Robert Habeck, a leader of the Greens party, told a news conference. “If we don’t close that gap, we will have real productivity problems.”

“Naturally, (this means) better combining qualifications, training and possibilities for families and jobs, but in Germany certainly stepped-up immigration as well, and in all areas, for engineers, crafts people, carers. We have to organise this,” said Habeck, who is also Vice Chancellor in Germany’s new three-way ruling coalition led by Social Democrat Olaf Scholz.

The employer-friendly German Economic Institute estimates that the labour force will shrink by more than 300,000 people this year as there are more older workers retiring than younger ones entering the labour market.

This gap is expected to widen to more than 650,000 in 2029, leaving an accumulated shortage of people of working age in 2030 of roughly 5 million. The number of Germans in employment grew to nearly 45 million in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic.

After decades of low birth rates and uneven immigration, a shrinking labour force poses a demographic time bomb for Germany’s public pension system, in which fewer employees are burdened with the task of financing the pensions of a growing mass of retirees who are enjoying longer life expectancy.

The governing parties agreed in their coalition negotiations

to lower the hurdles for skilled workers from abroad and make working more attractive again with various measures, including lifting the national minimum wage to 12 euros ($13.60) per hour.

($1 = 0.8822 euros)

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Michael Nienaber; Editing by Miranda Murray and Mark Heinrich)

Credit Suisse to outsource procurement services – memo

ZURICH (Reuters) – Credit Suisse is outsourcing its procurement of goods and services to specialist provider Chain IQ to help pare back costs, the bank said in an internal memo on Tuesday.

Roughly half the bank’s procurement staff will be transferred to Chain IQ under the envisioned process, the bank’s head of procurement, Daniel Helmig, said in the memo seen by Reuters, as part of an agreement aiming “to generate significant financial benefits over the coming years”.

A spokesperson confirmed the contents.

(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi, editing by Silke Koltrowitz)

Capital flows to EM up in December, China offsets weakness elsewhere – IIF

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Net capital flows to emerging markets rose last month from November and fell more than 75% year-on-year, with China the main recipient as investors fear other economies will continue to underperform due to COVID-19, a survey showed on Tuesday.

Non-resident flows to emerging markets reached $16.8 billion last month, compared with $13.7 billion in November and $70.2 billion in December 2020, data from the Institute of International Finance showed.

China kept debt inflows positive, taking in $10.1 billion last month, just enough to edge the $9.6 billion net outflow from the rest of emerging markets.

In stocks, China took in 77% of the net flows last month, with $12.5 billion of the $16.3 billion total.

“Foreign investment in emerging market stocks and bonds outside China has come to an abrupt standstill over fears that many economies will not recover quickly enough from the pandemic this year,” said Jonathan Fortun, an IIF economist, in a statement.

“We believe that the outlook is worsened by the Omicron (COVID) variant and expectations of a stronger dollar and higher U.S. interest rates.”

Last month, the U.S. Federal Reserve accelerated its taper of bond purchases and unveiled more aggressive rate hike projections.

Graphic: Foreign portfolio flows into emerging markets- https://graphics.reuters.com/GLOBAL-EMERGING/EMBARGOED/jnvweayalvw/chart.png

Preliminary IIF data for the full year showed EM portfolios attracted $380.6 billion last year from non-residents, compared with $382.9 billion in 2020.

Net flows for China were 55% of the total in 2021 and 65% in 2020, the data show. For the fourth quarter of last year, however, China took in 108% of the net total inflows with $52.8 billion compared to a $3.8 billion outflow from the rest of EMs.

“We see non-China EM in a de facto sudden stop,” Fortun wrote, confirming the trend for the last quarter.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jan Harvey)

Croatian police seize record heroin shipment concealed in lead ingots

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Croatian police have seized the largest heroin shipment detected in the country, hidden in an 80 tonne cargo of lead ingots on a ship arriving via Turkey, officers said on Tuesday.

The 220 kg stash of heroin, concealed in small packages inside the metal, was discovered in the southern Adriatic port of Ploce in the autumn, Dubrovacki Vijesnik newspaper quoted police telling a news conference.

Together with a 62 kg consignment of cocaine on a ship from Colombia, police estimated the haul was worth an estimated 17 million euros ($19 million) and said it had been destined for Western European markets.

Dubrovnik-Neretva county police said the crews had been interrogated and released after they were found to have had no previous knowledge about the hidden cargo.

The police estimated the interception of the heroin saved the lives of 110 users.

($1 = 0.8825 euros)

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. man recovering after ‘breakthrough’ pig-heart transplant

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A U.S. man with terminal heart disease was implanted with a genetically modified pig heart in a first-of-its-kind surgery, and three days later the patient is doing well, his doctors reported on Monday.

The surgery, performed by a team at the University of Maryland Medicine, is among the first to demonstrate the feasibility of a pig-to-human heart transplant, a field made possible by new gene editing tools.

If proven successful, scientists hope pig organs could help alleviate shortages of donor organs.

“This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. There are simply not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients,” Dr. Bartley Griffith, who surgically transplanted the pig heart into the patient, said in a statement.

“We are proceeding cautiously, but we are also optimistic that this first-in-the-world surgery will provide an important new option for patients in the future,” Griffith added.

For 57-year-old David Bennett of Maryland, the heart transplant was his last option.

“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” Bennett said a day before his surgery, according to a statement released by the university.

To move ahead with the experimental surgery, the university obtained an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on New Year’s Eve through its compassionate use program.

“The FDA used our data and data on the experimental pig to authorize the transplant in an end-stage heart disease patient who had no other treatment options,” said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, who heads the University’s program on xenotransplantation – transplanting animal organs into humans.

About 110,000 Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and more than 6,000 patients die each year before getting one, according to organdonor.gov.

Bennett’s genetically modified pig heart was provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, Virginia. On the morning of the surgery, the transplant team removed the pig’s heart and placed it into a special device to preserve its function until the surgery.

Pigs have long been a tantalizing source of potential transplants because their organs are so similar to humans. A hog heart at the time of slaughter, for example, is about the size of an adult human heart.

Other organs from pigs being researched for transplantation into humans include kidneys, liver and lungs.

Prior efforts at pig-to-human transplants have failed because of genetic differences that caused organ rejection or viruses that posed an infection risk.

Scientists have tackled that problem by editing away potentially harmful genes.

In the heart implanted in Bennett, three genes previously linked with organ rejection were “knocked out” of the donor pig, and six human genes linked with immune acceptance were inserted into the pig genome.

Researchers also deleted a pig gene to prevent excessive growth of the pig heart tissue.

The work was funded in part with a $15.7 million research grant to evaluate Revivicor’s genetically-modified pig hearts in baboon studies.

In addition to the genetic changes to the pig heart, Bennett received an experimental anti-rejection drug made by Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals based in Lexington, Mass.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Analysis-Venezuela opposition gains hope from win in ruling party stronghold

By Deisy Buitrago and Mayela Armas

BARINAS, Venezuela/CARACAS (Reuters) – A big win for Venezuela’s fractured opposition in a stronghold of the ruling socialist party on Sunday has given it fresh hope that electoral triumphs are within its grasp if it can both unite and mobilize voters.

Sergio Garrido, an opposition leader, scored a surprise win https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/venezuelas-barinas-state-birthplace-chavez-begins-re-run-governor-vote-2022-01-09 in a rerun of gubernatorial elections in Barinas state – the birthplace of Venezuela’s former socialist leader Hugo Chavez – with a strong 55% showing, defeating former vice president and foreign minister Jorge Arreaza, who managed a distant 41.2%.

The total number of registered voters in Barinas, a state with about a million inhabitants, surged to 311,595 on Sunday from 278,666 in November, an uptick attributed mainly to grass roots organization by the opposition.

The vote marks the first time Venezuela’s ruling Socialist party has yielded power to an opposition candidate in Barinas and is a sign of erosion in its support and rising abstention among its usual electorate, analysts said.

The opposition victory won praise from the United States, which has struggled to get much traction against President Nicolas Maduro since declaring his 2018 re-election to be fraudulent.

“Disqualifications of opposition candidates, media censorship, voter intimidation, & other authoritarian tactics could not subvert the will of Venezuelan voters,” tweeted Brian Nichols, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs.

While the result leaves the ruling party in control of most governorships, it represents a symbolic victory for the opposition, which now controls four of the country’s 23 governorships, the same number as in 2017.

To have any chance of replicating Sunday’s victory more widely, the opposition must refocus itself on winning power at the ballot box after years of boycotts, unify its leadership across the country and prepare for an upcoming presidential election in 2024, seen as a way out of Venezuela’s long political impasse, analysts said.

“When a region is upset, it finds a way to channel that discomfort,” said Jhon Magdaleno, a political scientist and director of the local consultancy Polity. “Barinas was an example of rebuilding (by the opposition). Garrido ended up being backed by multiple political parties.”

DISILLUSIONMENT

Many Venezuelans have grown disillusioned with politics amid a long economic recession and hyperinflation in the country, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). At least five million citizens have emigrated because of the crisis.

The opposition’s strategy has experienced ups and downs in recent years. It refused to participate in Venezuela’s 2018 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections, arguing that a fair vote was impossible because of interference from Maduro.

But in 2021, after U.S. sanctions made no headway in securing Maduro’s ouster, opposition parties opted to roll the dice on the ballot box.

After a weak showing in November regional elections in which the ruling socialists won 19 of 23 states in play, the opposition said it would aim to rebuild, and its leader Juan Guaido on Monday said he would prioritize unity.

“We have to do what we have done well in the past: organize, mobilize and send clear messages to citizens,” Guaido told reporters in Caracas.

The Barinas vote was repeated under Supreme Court orders after it disqualified the initial opposition candidate following an order by the country’s comptroller general saying he was under investigation and was disqualified from running.

“This situation must serve to face the upcoming challenge: to reunify and strengthen the democratic alternative,” Guaido said, adding that the opposition would aim to reach a consensus on whether to seek a recall vote against Maduro.

Speaking after his swearing-in as governor, Garrido said Venezuelans had realized that if Barinas had managed to vote out the socialists: “Why would the rest of the people of Venezuela not be able to?”

The loss of the governorship is also a sign of internal tensions in the ruling party and raises questions about the performance of regional leaders linked to the party, analysts said.

“There are areas that the ‘Chavismo’ has been losing, and the party knows it, so since 2015 it has applied the strategy of staying in power as a minority,” said Félix Seijas, director of the Delphos consultancy.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Barinas; Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas in Caracas; editing by Richard Pullin)

Twitter buys minority stake in digital advertising firm Aleph

(Reuters) – Twitter Inc has picked up a minority stake in Aleph Group Inc, the digital advertising firm said on Tuesday as it seeks to go public in the United States.

Aleph did not reveal any financial terms of the investment but said Twitter’s stake buy would help the company expand its educational tech platform.

Emerging markets-focused Aleph, which helps large digital platforms connect with advertisers and customers, counts Meta Platforms Inc Spotify Technology SA and Microsoft Corp-owned LinkedIn among its customers.

Despite wide-ranging supply chain disruptions that delayed products from reaching shelves and a user privacy clampdown by Apple Inc that many feared would disrupt mobile advertising, brands have continued to advertise online.

Founded in 2005 as IMS Internet Media Services, Aleph was valued at $2 billion last year after private equity firm CVC Capital Partners bought a stake worth $470 million.

Aleph had confidentially filed for a U.S. initial public offering in October.

Latin American fintech company MercadoLibre Inc is also among Aleph’s investors, having picked up a stake worth $25 million in August last year.

(Reporting by Manya Saini in Bengaluru; Editing by Ramakrishnan M. and Maju Samuel)

Lebanon’s currency plummets again amid financial crisis and political deadlock

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 15% of its value since the start of the year, piling further pressure on the population more than two years into a crisis that has plunged many into poverty and fuelled demonstrations.

Protesters took to the streets in several areas of the country on Monday night, burning tires and voicing anger at the dire economic situation amid political deadlock. Cars queued at fuel stations to fill up before another expected rise in prices.

“You would like to believe that you can be hopeful, but there is no hope,” said Abdel-Rahman Shaar, who runs a computer shop in central Beirut. “People are dying of hunger … , the state is in a coma and the dollar (exchange rate) is crashing.”

The Lebanese pound, which has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019, was trading at a new low of more than 33,000 to the dollar on Tuesday from 27,400 on Dec. 31. It had traded at 1,500 before the economy was crushed by a mountain of debt.

Public frustration has been fuelled by political sclerosis among Lebanon’s sectarian leaders.

A new cabinet, appointed in September as a step towards reviving talks with the International Monetary Fund, has not met for nearly three months amid a dispute over the conduct of an investigation into the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion.

President Michel Aoun held a series of meetings on Monday and Tuesday to win support for a national dialogue conference to discuss the economic crisis among other issues, but he has so far only secured backing from his close allies.

“At the best of times, the call for dialogue is normal and necessary. At a time of hardship, pressure and bickering, it is more than necessary not to stop dialogue,” Mohamed Raad, a lawmaker from Hezbollah, a powerful Shi’ite Muslim group that has an alliance with Aoun’s Christian party, said after meeting the president.

Others, including rivals from Aoun’s Christian community, have rejected the proposal. Some have said talks must wait until a parliamentary election in May, while others have said the cabinet needs to meet first.

Aoun’s six-year term as president, a post reserved for a Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian system, ends later this year adding further uncertainty to the political outlook.

(This story corrects day in second paragraph).

(Reporting by Timour Azhari, Ahmed al-Kerdi and Mohamed Azakir; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Explainer-N.Korea tests ‘hypersonic missiles’ in global race for new rockets

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea began the New Year with increasingly capable missile tests, including at least one it claims was a hypersonic missile, amid an intensifying race for the next generation of long-range weapons that are harder to detect and intercept.

South Korean military officials have cast doubts https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-casts-doubts-north-koreas-hypersonic-missile-claims-2022-01-07 on North Korea’s claim a missile fired last week was hypersonic, but on Tuesday officials in Seoul said the North appeared to have test fired https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-launches-possible-ballistic-missile-japan-says-2022-01-10 another missile that flew at relatively low altitudes at up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348 kmh/7,673 mph).

North Korea did not immediately confirm the launch. The performance and the launch location reported by South Korea, however, suggested it may be another hypersonic missile.

North Korea tested its first such missile last year, joining other countries such as China, United States and Russia, which have conducted tests of hypersonic weapons in recent months.

HOW THE MISSILES WORK

Hypersonic missiles typically launch a warhead that travels at more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph), often manoeuvring at relatively low altitudes.

Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed – which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads – but their manoeuvrability.

North Korea’s first hypersonic missile test in September featured a glider-shaped warhead, while last week’s launch involved what analysts and South Korean military officials said was actually a conical manoeuvrable reentry vehicle (MaRV), or a ballistic missile warhead capable of manoeuvring to hit a target.

Combining a glide vehicle with a missile that can launch it partially into orbit – a so-called fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) – could strip adversaries of reaction time and traditional defences mechanisms.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), by contrast, carry nuclear warheads on ballistic trajectories that travel into space but never reach orbit.

WHO LEADS THE RACE

Last year China launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through space, circling the globe before cruising down toward its target, which it missed by about two dozen miles. [L1N2RD01Y]

In July, Russia successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which President Vladimir Putin touted as part of a new generation of missile systems. Moscow also tested the weapon from a submarine for the first time. [L8N2R017O]

The United States said in late September that it had tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon – meaning it sustains flight on its own through the atmosphere like a cruise missile – marking the first successful test of that class of weapon since 2013.

Days after the U.S. announcement, North Korea fired a newly developed hypersonic missile for the first time, calling it a “strategic weapon” that boosted its defence capabilities, though some South Korean analysts described the test as a failure.

WHY IT MATTERS

The recent tests are the moves in a dangerous arms race in which smaller Asian nations are striving to develop advanced long-range missiles https://graphics.reuters.com/ASIA-MISSILES/xklpyxajkvg/asia-missiles.jpg, alongside major military powers.

Hypersonic weapons, and FOBS, could be a concern as they can potentially evade missile shields and early warning systems.

Some experts cautioned against hype surrounding missiles such as the one China tested in August.

“China already has 100 nuclear-armed ICBMs that can strike the U.S.,” Jeffrey Lewis, a missile specialist at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said on Twitter at the time. “Although the glider is a nice touch … this is an old concept that is newly relevant as a way to defeat missile defences.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

Factbox-Former Kazakh leader’s family wealth in spotlight after unrest

ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hinted on Tuesday that associates of his predecessor and former patron Nursultan Nazarbayev needed to share their wealth with the public to help alleviate discontent after a week of violent unrest.

Nazarbayev, 81, was the longest-serving leader of any former Soviet state, running Kazakhstan between 1989 and 2019, first as Communist Party boss and then as president.

Several members of his family and former associates are among Kazakhstan’s richest people, according to Forbes magazine:

– Dinara Kulibayeva, Nazarbayev’s second daughter, and her husband Timur Kulibayev are the majority shareholders of Halyk Bank, Kazakhstan’s biggest lender by assets. Their stake’s market value stands at about $2.8 billion.

– Kairat Boranbayev, the father-in-law of Nazarbayev’s late grandson Aisultan, has interests in commercial real estate, owns the McDonald’s franchise in Kazakhstan and Belarus, and has interests in many other sectors.

– Bulat Utemuratov, Nazarbayev’s former aide, has interests in property development, banking and telecommunications. He has stakes in global commodities giant Glencore and an offshoot of Britain’s Haileybury school in Kazakhstan, according to Forbes.

– Though not listed by Forbes, Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her son Nurali Aliyev own a property portfolio in Britain estimated by The Times newspaper as worth 140 million pounds, including the Baker Street address of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.

In 2020, they successfully fought an “unexplained wealth order” from Britain’s National Crime agency, which had sought to seize three homes worth an estimated $80 million. Nazarbayeva argued that her wealth was the legitimate product of her success as a businesswoman.

Her ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev, a wealthy former Kazakh government official, died in jail in Austria in 2015 while awaiting trial for murder.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Peter Graff)

Tunisia’s balance of trade deficit widens to 16.2 billion dinars in 2021

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s balance of trade deficit widened to 16.2 billion dinars ($5.65 billion) in 2021 against a deficit of 12.8 billion dinars in 2020 due to higher imports from China and Turkey, the state Institute of Statistics said.

The deficit has been one of the main problems facing Tunisia as it grapples with an economic crisis.

Imports rose by 22.2% to 62.8 billion dinars and exports rose by 20.5% to 46.6 billion dinars.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Lilian Wagdy; Writing by Lina Najem; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Embraer’s Eve, lessor Falko sign deal, potential for electric aircraft order

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA said on Tuesday its subsidiary Eve has entered a partnership with lessor Falko Regional Aircraft on electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

The deal could result in an order of 200 eVTOLs from UK-based Falko, Embraer said in a securities filing.

The companies aim to “develop a global network of eVTOL operators,” it said.

(Reporting by Gabriel Araujo; editing by Jason Neely)

Apple submits plans to allow alternative payment systems in S.Korea – regulator

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s telecommunications regulator said on Tuesday Apple Inc had submitted plans to allow third-party payment systems on its App Store to comply with a law banning major app store operators from forcing software developers to use their payments systems.

The Korea Communications Commission (KCC) had requested Apple and Alphabet’s Google to submit compliance plans after the bill was passed in August last year and went into effect in September.

Google announced its plans to allow alternative payment systems in South Korea in November to comply with the amended Telecommunication Business Act, dubbed the “anti-Google law”.

“We look forward to working with the KCC and our developer community on a solution that benefits our Korean users,” Apple said in a statement, but did not provide details such as timeline of when the new payment systems will take effect or commission fee rates.

It plans to discuss further details with the KCC, the regulator said. The KCC said Apple plans to allow alternative payment systems for a lower service fee versus the current 30% commissions.

In the United States, the iPhone maker is wading through a lawsuit brought by “Fortnite” creator Epic Games in 2020 when the game maker tried to get around Apple’s 30% fee on in-app purchases by launching an in-app payment system of its own.

A U.S. judge last year ordered Apple to change its App Store rules, which ban developers from including links in buttons to outside payment systems over using Apple’s own.

“I hope Apple’s move here (in South Korea) isn’t another fake opening of payment systems as Google recently announced,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said in a tweet.

Apple said it paid developers a total of $260 billion through its App Store since its launch in 2008, implying a $60 billion payout to developers in 2021.

(Reporting by Heekyong Yang and Joyce Lee and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Himani Sarkar and Maju Samuel)

New Bundesbank chief takes up old inflation battle at ECB

FRANKFURT (Reuters) -New German central bank chief Joachim Nagel warned about high inflation in his inaugural speech on Tuesday, in a sign he would continue his predecessor’s fight to rein in the European Central Bank’s monetary largesse.

Inflation across the 19-country euro zone rose by a record 5% last month but the ECB has downplayed that surge, blaming energy costs and insisting that inflation will settle back below its 2% target by year-end even without policy tightening.

Nagel challenged that narrative, saying the recent rise in inflation was not just temporary and warning that price growth could continue to come in higher than expected.

“It’s true that high inflation rates can be attributed to special effects that expire automatically. But not entirely,” Nagel said. “I see a danger that inflation could remain high for longer than expected.”

He stressed continuity with outgoing Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, who quit with five years of his second term left after unsuccessfully fighting the ECB’s ultra-easy policy for a decade, and warned that inflation hurts the poorest.

“The people of Germany rightly expect the Bundesbank to be a vocal advocate of the stability culture. I can assure you: it will remain so,” he said.

Speaking at the ceremony, ECB President Christine Lagarde said euro zone citizens worried about rising prices can trust the ECB to stabilise inflation.

“We understand that rising prices are a concern for many people, and we take that concern very seriously,” Lagarde said.

“But people can trust that our commitment to price stability is unwavering, which is critical for the firm anchoring of inflation expectations and for confidence in the currency.”

The ECB last month laid out plans to continue asset purchases for as long as necessary and keep interest rates at record lows for even longer, pressing on with a policy aimed at supporting inflation that was inaugurated nearly a decade ago.

OPPOSITION

Weidmann opposed that December decision but was outvoted by policy doves who hold a comfortable majority in the ECB’s 25-member Governing Council. The Bundesbank and other policymakers in Germany, the euro zone’s economic powerhouse, have traditionally taken a tough stance on inflation.

His successor, who will head the central bank for eight years, said the inflation outlook remains extraordinarily uncertain and that monetary policy may need to respond if actual outcomes beat expectations.

“For all the uncertainty one thing is clear: if price stability requires it, the ECB Governing Council must act and adapt its monetary policy,” Nagel, 55, said. While Weidmann was among just five policymakers who opposed December’s decision, sources close to the discussion said at least another five could change sides if inflation continues to beat expectations, as it has over the last year.

Earlier on Tuesday, ECB chief economist Philip Lane argued that inflation will fall sharply this year and come in below the bank’s 2% target both next year and 2024. Until last year, when the ECB predicts inflation was 2.6%, it had undershot the target for nearly a decade. It sees inflation at 3.2% this year.

Lane dismissed warnings about upside risks, arguing that wage growth, a precondition for durable inflation, remains anaemic, suggesting that companies are not adjusting their price and wage setting behaviour.

(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi and Francesco Canepa; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Power fuels aluminium’s price surge to record in Europe

By Pratima Desai

LONDON (Reuters) – Costs of aluminium for European consumers are scaling record highs due to soaring energy costs and production cuts, which have exacerbated deficits of the metal used in the power, construction and packaging industries.

Graphic: Aluminium uses breakdown- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/movanwwnkpa/aluminium%20consumption.PNG

Consumers buying aluminium on the physical market usually pay the benchmark price on the London Metal Exchange — around $2,950 a tonne on Tuesday — plus a physical market premium that typically covers transport costs and taxes.

But shortages mean traders and producers with inventory are able to command a significantly larger premium, which in Europe has shot up nearly 30% to a record $428.75 a tonne since the start of 2022.

Graphic: Aluminium costs for consumers- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/gdvzykkzzpw/Aluminium%20costs%20for%20consumers.PNG

“With around 650,000 tonnes of capacity cut so far in Europe, we believe that another 900,000 tonnes of output is at risk of closing down fully or partially,” said Michael Widmer, analyst at BoA Securities.

Widmer expects aluminium demand in Western Europe at 8.5 million tonnes this year and a deficit of five million tonnes. He expects global consumption at 72 million tonnes and a deficit of 254,000 tonnes.

Graphic: Aluminium market balances- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/gkvlgbbggpb/Aluminium%20market%20balances.PNG

Milder than usual wind speeds in Europe last year and windmills across the bloc generating less electricity worsened a crunch that sent power prices to record highs as utilities had to buy more coal and scarce, costly, natural gas.

Before the power crisis, energy accounted for up to 40% of aluminium smelting costs. Depending on hedges and sources of power that figure has risen to 50% or more for many producers.

Production cuts in Europe include those at Alcoa’s San Ciprian facility in Spain, American Industrial Partners’ Dunkirk smelter in France and Norsk Hydro’s majority-owned aluminium plant in Slovakia.

“As we enter 2022, European producers are still plagued by elevated power costs and there seems to be no sign of a quick solution to the issue,” said ING analyst Wenyu Yao

Yao expects the global aluminium market to see a deficit around 1.5 million tonnes this year.

“Stocks should have started to build in the (top producer) China onshore market following seasonal patterns,” Yao said. “But instead, these have declined to 766,000 tonnes as of Monday, far below the five-year average.”

Shortages of aluminium since early last year have seen draws on stocks, which in LME warehouses have more than halved since the middle of March last year.

Graphic: LME aluminium stocks- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/jnvwejlggvw/LME%20aluminium%20stocks.PNG

(Reporting by Pratima Desai; editing by xxxx)

Long-term hiring drives recruiter Robert Walters’ upbeat forecast

By Amna Karimi

(Reuters) – British recruitment group Robert Walters on Tuesday forecast annual profit would exceed current expectations after posting higher quarterly net fees, driven by organisations hiring for the longer term and with vacancies to fill.

“We are seeing candidate shortages across all locations and disciplines, a fierce competition for talent, and wage inflation kicking in which together create huge opportunities across the recruitment market,” Robert Walters, chief executive officer of the eponymous company, said in a statement.

Shares of the FTSE Small Cap rose as much as 4% in morning trade. The stock, which rose nearly 63% in 2021, was trading 2.2% higher at 828 pence by 1100 GMT.

Recruiters were severely hit at the start of the pandemic as companies froze new hiring. This demand returned due to higher vacancies amid hybrid working and seasonal hires ahead of the holiday season.

However, the Omicron variant has raised fresh concerns globally and high inflation rates which have pushed up the cost of living, along with labour shortages, are putting pressure on employers to increase wages to attract and retain workers.

The first lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic was the deciding stress-test, with businesses now having adapted to the uncertainties, Robert Walters’ finance chief, Alan Bannatyne, told Reuters.

“Many things were stress-tested by the original outbreak of COVID. Everything we are seeing so far (with Omicron) is less dramatic and businesses have proven to be resilient as well,” Bannatyne said.

Gross profit at the recruitment group, which specialises in the likes of accounting, legal and tech staff, rose 33% to 95.1 million pounds ($129.2 million) for the quarter ended Dec. 31, helped by a 48% growth in its biggest market, Asia Pacific.

Robert Walters also pointed to a strong performance in December, with a bounce-back in European hiring just as the Omicron coronavirus variant began spreading.

($1 = 0.7359 pounds)

(Reporting by Amna Karimi and Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V and David Evans)

Too soon to treat COVID-19 like flu as Omicron spreads – WHO

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) -The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is on track to infect more than half of Europeans, but it should not yet be seen as a flu-like endemic illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

Europe saw more than 7 million newly-reported cases in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period, WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge told a news briefing.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks,” Kluge said, referring to a research centre at the University of Washington.

Fifty out of 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have logged cases of the more infectious variant, Kluge said.

Evidence, however, is emerging that Omicron is affecting the upper respiratory tract more than the lungs, causing milder symptoms than previous variants.

But the WHO has cautioned more studies are still needed to prove this.

On Monday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it may be time to change how it tracks COVID-19’s evolution to instead use a method similar to flu, because its lethality has fallen.

That would imply treating the virus as an endemic illness, rather than a pandemic, without recording every case and without testing all people presenting symptoms.

But that is “a way off”, WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, said at the briefing, adding that endemicity requires a stable and predictable transmission.

“We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic,” Smallwood said.

“It may become endemic in due course, but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage.”

(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrew Cawthorne)

Exclusive-Belarusian skiers blame politics after being barred from competition

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Two Belarusian cross-country skiers, including one who hoped to compete at next month’s Beijing Winter Olympics, say authorities have barred them from competition after sports officials accused them of supporting the country’s political opposition.

The skiers, Sviatlana Andryiuk and Darya Dolidovich, are the latest elite athletes to be targeted since a crackdown on critics of veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko after a 2020 presidential election his opponents say was fraudulent. Lukashenko has denied rigging the vote.

The skiers said the Belarus Ski Union last month deactivated their FIS code, an individual identifying number required for athletes to take part in competitions overseen by the International Ski Federation (FIS). They are sidelined from official competitions, including qualifications for major international events.

The skiers say the head of the Belarus Cross-Country Skiing Federation, Aliaksandr Darakhovich, ordered officials in November to prohibit them from competing internationally and taking part in national training camps.

The federation did not respond to a request for comment addressed to Darakhovich, who also serves as deputy chairman of the Minsk city executive committee.

The Belarus Ski Union and the FIS did not immediately respond to Reuters email requests for comment on both cases.

Andryiuk, 22, says the decision forced her to miss a qualifying event that could have allowed her to secure a berth in the Beijing Olympics.

“They (sports officials) accused me word for word of being an opposition supporter,” Andryiuk, who also lost her state job over the accusations, told Reuters in a video call.

Andryiuk said she had never publicly voiced her political views, which she described as neutral. She said her situation was compelling her to leave Belarus.

“I don’t want to be here,” she said. “I’m planning to leave for Poland because it’s impossible to live here.”

2020 PROTESTS

Darya Dolidovich, 17, is one of Belarus’ most promising junior cross-country skiers. She is also the daughter of cross-country skier Sergei Dolidovich, a seven-time Olympian who took part in street protests and spoke out against Lukashenko.

Darya Dolidovich told Reuters, also during a video call, that she believed her father’s political views were behind the move.

“I didn’t do anything myself that would justify a disqualification and having my FIS code deactivated,” she told Reuters, adding that she shared her father’s views.

Sergei Dolidovich, who coaches his daughter, said he quit his job at a national training centre after coming under pressure for his support of the opposition.

“The state can no longer have an impact on me,” he said. “It can only do so through my daughter.”

Several prominent Belarusian sports figures joined opposition protests in 2020, an unusual move in a country where the state heavily subsidises athletes.

Some athletes were jailed. Others lost their state employment or were kicked off national teams.

At the Tokyo Olympics last year, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board a flight back home when she was removed from the Games against her will after publicly complaining about national team coaches. She defected to Poland, saying she feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Editing by Timothy Heritage)