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The Star Online: World Updates

Obama, Merkel vow broader Russian sanctions if Ukraine election derailed

Posted: 02 May 2014 04:35 PM PDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russia on Friday it will face additional sanctions against key sectors of its economy if Moscow disrupts Ukraine's plan to hold elections on May 25.

The two leaders linked the threat to the election when they addressed a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden after Oval Office talks dominated by the situation in Ukraine.

Obama and Merkel said they were united in vowing to move to the tougher sanctions but made clear there were still negotiations to determine how to structure the sanctions should they be necessary.

The election is to choose a successor to President Viktor Yanukovitch, the pro-Russian leader who resigned in the face of unrelenting protests and whose ouster has provoked the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

In recent weeks pro-Russian separatists have stirred turmoil in eastern Ukraine in what the West sees as an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to invite Russian intervention, much as occurred in Moscow's seizure of Crimea in March.

U.S. officials said a next round of sanctions could affect vital parts of the Russian economy such as energy, defence, financial services and engineering.

"If, in fact, we see the disruptions and the destabilisation continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25th, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions," Obama said.

"The next step is going to be a broader-based sectoral sanctions regime," he said.

The United States and European allies have been carefully watching the movements of 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border and the takeover of buildings in cities in eastern Ukraine by armed pro-Russian militants.

They have warned that an outright invasion would trigger broad, damaging economic sanctions.


Obama and Merkel said they were determined the elections would go off peacefully and as scheduled so Ukraine could begin rebuilding its economy.

    "The 25th of May is not all that far away," said Merkel. "Should it not be possible to stabilise the situation further, further sanctions will be unavoidable."

The United States and the European Union have already imposed several rounds of sanctions on specific Russians, including some on members of Putin's inner circle, and several companies.

Moscow thus far has largely shrugged off the penalties, although Obama said they were a factor in a decline in the Russian stock market and value of the ruble. The aim was not to punish Russia but to change its behaviour, Obama said.

Energy and banking sectors are two of the most likely areas to be targeted if sanctions are widened. Europeans are concerned that going after Russia's energy market could hurt European economies that are dependent on its natural gas.

After her White House visit, Merkel said in remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that European policymakers would want to ensure a mix of sanctions that would spread the burden across member states.

"We have to make sure that the impact is spread fairly," she said.

Obama and Merkel were vague on how far the new round of sanctions might go if they were imposed.

"The idea that you're going to turn off the tap on all Russian oil or natural gas exports, I think, is unrealistic," said Obama. "But there are a range of approaches that can be taken not only in the energy sector but in the arms sector, the finance sector, in terms of lines of credit for trade - all (sectors) that have a significant impact on Russia."

Merkel said it could take time to wean Europeans off Russian natural gas. It was important to "look ahead in the medium term to what we can do in order to promote an energy union in the European Union," particularly assessing dependencies in the next 10 to 15 years, she said.

Obama's Republican opponents made clear they feel he needs to be more forceful with Russia.

"I am deeply concerned that the administration continues to be so tepid and hesitant in using impactful sanctions even though they are fully aware of the aggressive destabilisation Russia is causing in Ukraine," said Republican Senator Bob Corker.

Obama called on Russia to persuade pro-Russian military groups in Ukraine to stand down and said it was disgraceful that the militias were holding international observers.

He said the Russian assertion of a spontaneous uprising by pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine was belied by the use on Friday of surface-to-air missiles that brought down two of Ukraine's military helicopters.

"It is obvious to the world that these Russian-backed groups are not peaceful protesters," Obama said. "They are heavily armed militants."

(Editing by Prudence Crowther and Lisa Shumaker)

First U.S. case of deadly MERS virus confirmed - CDC

Posted: 02 May 2014 04:30 PM PDT

(Reuters) - A healthcare worker who had travelled to Saudi Arabia was confirmed as the first U.S. case of Middle East Respiratory Virus (MERS), an often fatal illness, raising new concerns about the rapid spread of such diseases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

The male patient travelled via a British Airways flight on April 24 from Riyadh to London, where he changed flights at Heathrow airport to fly to the United States. He landed in Chicago and took a bus to an undisclosed city in Indiana.

On April 27, he experienced respiratory symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. According to the Indiana State Department of Health, the man visited the emergency department at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana, on April 28 and was admitted that same day.

Because of his travel history, Indiana health officials tested him for MERS, and sent the samples to the CDC, which confirmed the presence of the virus on Friday.

The virus is similar to the one that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in China in 2002-2003 and killed some 800 people. It was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a conference call the first U.S. case of MERS was "of great concern because of its virulence," proving fatal in about a third of infections.

She said the case represents "a very low risk to the broader general public," but MERS has been shown to spread to healthcare workers and there are no known treatments for the virus.

Schuchat said the patient was now in stable condition and there are no other suspected cases of MERS at the current time.

The CDC declined to identify the patient by name or say where he was being treated. It also declined to say on which airlines or bus line the patient travelled. Schuchat said the CDC was working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to contact individuals who may have been exposed to the patient during his travels.

In Britain, public health officials said they were contacting any passengers who had been sitting near the patient.

Greg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation, said that the department "has been advised that there is no reason to suspect any risk at O'Hare," Chicago's main international airport. "There has only been one incident confirmed to have MERS, and he is hospitalized in Indiana," he said.

Officials at Community Hospital in Munster confirmed that the man was in good condition, and said the hospital is "maintaining appropriate isolation protocols for the protection of health care staff."

The hospital, located in northwest Indiana about 30 miles (48 km) from Chicago, said it has been working with the CDC and the state health department, and will be tracking the health of the patient's family members and exposed health care workers daily during the next two weeks to check for MERS symptoms.

"This patient was not out in the local community and, therefore, any public exposure was minimal," the hospital said in the statement.

The hospital stressed that transmission of MERS requires close contact, and said the patient's activities in the United States have been very limited, reducing the risk of widespread transmission of the virus.


Although the vast majority of MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, the discovery of sporadic cases in Britain, Greece, France, Italy, Malaysia and elsewhere have raised concerns about the potential global spread of the disease by infected airline passengers.

With the addition of the U.S. patient, 262 people in 12 countries have been confirmed to have MERS infections and have been reported to the World Health Organisation. Of those, 93 have died, Schuchat said. Infectious disease specialists in the United States said that the fact the newest patient was identified quickly showed that disease surveillance was working.

"It was only a matter of time before the United States had a case," said virologist Dr. W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University in New York. "Most of us thought it was not a question of if, but when. Am I more concerned as a result of this case? No."

"One case does not represent a reason for panic," agreed Dr. Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease specialist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

"But the very fact that we have a virus with documented person-to-person transmission at a fairly efficient rate and a high mortality rate suggests we have a potentially serious pathogen. There are no therapies out there that I'm aware of, but I don't think we have a very big risk in the United States."

Marasco suggests that immigration agents should nevertheless be on heightened alert for passengers arriving in the United States after trips to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

"They should ask, where did you travel? Have you had contact with animals, with anyone who was sick, and do you have a fever or cough?" he said.

Marasco does not believe that thermal scanners such as those China and other countries deployed during the 2003 SARS epidemic would make much of a difference. That's because the incubation period for MERS is two to 14 days, "so an asymptomatic traveller could make it through a thermal scanner," Marasco said.


The greatest reason for concern is that so little is known about this coronavirus. It has been found in bats and camels, and many experts say camels are the most likely animal reservoir from which humans become infected. [ID:nL6N0JV2DI]

In part, that ignorance is a result of the lack of cooperation between Middle Eastern countries, where MERS has been spreading, and scientists elsewhere. "One of the biggest problems is that we haven't had any access to samples from Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Qatar despite my efforts," Marasco said

Now that the United States has a case of MERS, there might be political pressure for that to change, suggested Lipkin, who pointed out that during the SARS epidemic, China was similarly reluctant to cooperate with western scientists.

"Now the U.S. is going to be more interested. I think it will have an impact on the number of scientists here who will be encouraged to work on MERS and congressmen will stand up and rail about the importance of this," Lipkin said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Sharon Begley in New York; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Susan Guyett in Indianapolis; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

New EU force in Central African Republic sets stability as top priority

Posted: 02 May 2014 03:55 PM PDT

BANGUI (Reuters) - The top priority of a new European Union peacekeeping force in Central African Republic is to restore stability in the capital, the force commander, French Major-General Philippe Ponties, told a news conference on Friday.

Thousands of people have been killed in intercommunal violence in the former French colony in recent months and close to a million have been displaced from their homes.

"The objective that we are looking for, and which I think we share with most of the international community, is to make it so each citizen of Central African Republic, whatever their communal background, can see a positive future," Ponties said.

"There will be 850 soldiers (by June) who will be deployed to contribute to the security of the airport in Bangui and the establishment of a stable and secure environment in the third and fifth districts of the capital," he said.

Mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the land-locked country last year, saying they had been excluded by southern tribes from its oil, gold and diamond wealth. But their 10 months in power, marked by murder, looting and extortion, sparked a sectarian backlash in which Christian militias are driving Muslims from the south.

The news conference was held in the VIP lounge of Bangui's main airport. EU peacekeepers took charge of security at the airport on Wednesday in their first major operation to try to end the bloodshed.

Their presence has not stopped violence in the city, including the killing of a Muslim man on Wednesday whose body was decapitated and mutilated.

Thousands of civilians have taken refuge beside the airport and almost all the capital's Muslims have fled the city.

The EU launched its force at the start of April after weeks of delays caused by shortages of soldiers and equipment.

Only about 150 EU troops have arrived so far but the strength of the force is expected to continue building until it reaches its target of 800 to 1,000 soldiers in June, the EU said.

Countries including France, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Spain have pledged soldiers or logistics. The United Nations has approved a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission that will take over from an African force in the country from mid-September.

Persistent violence has raised costs for a parallel political transition period to 713 billion CFA francs (889 million pounds) from an initial estimate of 490 billion CFA francs, Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke said on Friday.

Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza in January named Nzapayeke, a former official of the African Development Bank, as prime minister, in a move towards restoring order.

(Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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