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After intel firing, top U.S. watchdog vows to maintain oversight of Trump administration

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. federal watchdog vowed on Saturday to continue to conduct “aggressive” independent oversight of government agencies, after President Donald Trump fired the inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community late Friday night.

Michael Horowitz, chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an independent agency in the executive branch and the inspector general at the Department of Justice, said in a statement that Michael Atkinson was known for his “integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.”

Trump wrote in a letter to Congress Friday night that Atkinson, who was involved in triggering an impeachment probe of the president last year, will be removed from his position in 30 days.

The firing comes as U.S. inspectors general, who are charged with independent oversight of federal agencies, were recently tasked with broad surveillance of the government’s response to the coronavirus, including the historic $2.3 trillion fiscal package to mitigate its economic impact.

“The inspector general community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee,” said Horowitz.

“This includes CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and its efforts on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers to ensure that over $2 trillion dollars in emergency federal spending is being used consistently with the law’s mandate.”

Democrats have expressed concerns about how the fiscal package will be doled out through the U.S. Treasury, headed by Steven Mnuchin. “We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family, or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends,” said U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The watchdogs’ role in the coronavirus oversight is to examine the decision-making process, and provide the public information about where the taxpayer dollars and other resources go.

Atkinson, a Trump appointee, had determined that a whistleblower’s report was credible in alleging Trump abused his office in attempting to solicit Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election for his political benefit.

Trump said Friday Atkinson no longer had his “fullest confidence.”

Atkinson expressed concerns that Trump potentially exposed himself to “serious national security and counter-intelligence risks” when he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son during a July 25 phone call, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Atkinson, while noting Trump has the authority to fire him.

“Like any political appointee, the Inspector General serves at the behest of the Executive,” Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a statement. “However, in order to be effective, the IG must be allowed to conduct his or her work independent of internal or external pressure.”

But U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, demanded a better explanation for Atkinson’s firing.

“Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence,” he said. “More details are needed from the administration.”

Trump is trying to scare the watchdog community, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee told MSNBC Saturday morning.

“He’s decapitating the leadership of the intelligence community in the middle of a national crisis,” he said. “It’s unconscionable, and of course it sends a message throughout the federal government and particular to other inspectors general.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN that Trump was undermining the intelligence agencies, adding that there were no laws to protect people against retaliatory firings.

“When you speak truth to power you should be a hero, but in this administration when you speak truth to power all too often you get fired,” said Schumer.

Republican House Representative Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump supporter, mocked Schiff’s concern about Atkinson’s firing.

“He was Schiff’s key impeachment enabler,” Jordan wrote on Twitter.

After contentious, partisan hearings, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump but the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of the charges in early February.

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World News

Number of coronavirus intensive care patients in Italy drops for first time

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy reported its lowest daily rise in COVID-19 deaths for nearly two weeks on Saturday and said the number of patients in intensive care had fallen for the first time.

Officials urged the country not to flout strict lockdown measures they said were starting to show results, although new cases rose by 4,805 on Saturday which was slightly higher than recent daily increases.

The Civil Protection department reported 681 deaths, bringing the total to 15,632 since the outbreak of the new coronavirus epidemic in northern Italy on Feb. 21. It was the lowest daily rise in deaths since March 23.

The total number of confirmed cases rose to 124,632 from 119,827 reported on Friday but for the first time, the number of patients in badly stretched intensive care units fell, with 3,994 patients being treated, down 74 from 4,068 on Friday.

“This is an important piece of news because it allows our hospitals to breathe,” Civil Protection head Angelo Borelli told a regular daily briefing where he has announced the grim daily tally of the world’s most deadly outbreak of the disease.

For days, Italian officials have said that broadly stable rises in the number of cases suggested that the outbreak had reached a plateau and that the numbers would begin to go down – if strict lockdown measures were respected.

But with Easter approaching and video footage circulating on social media of groups walking outside in cities including Naples, Rome and Milan, there were fears that the signs of progress were leading more people to flout the rules.

“Some images spread on social media, which show a relaxation in the behaviour of some people – fortunately only a few – , should not be taken as an example, they should be deplored,” said Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the coronavirus emergency.

“We can’t have the idea that we’ve already reached the moment to return to normal,” he said.

The government of Lombardy, the northern region at the epicentre of the crisis where more than 49,000 cases have been recorded, made a similar plea and issued a directive ordering people to cover their mouth and nose whenever they go outside.

Italy is still one of the countries worst affected by the new coronavirus, accounting for almost a quarter of worldwide deaths from COVID-19, the highly infectious disease associated with the virus.

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  • Ukrainian doctors fly to Italy to help combat coronavirus

But as more countries in Europe have reported severe outbreaks of their own, it has become less of an outlier.

As the case numbers have flattened in Italy, there has been increasing discussion about eventually rolling back a lockdown that has closed most businesses and slammed the brakes on an already fragile economy.

With the government looking at ways to protect the economy, a senior official said it planned to extend its powers to protect key companies from foreign takeover.

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World News

Mexican tequila makers, unlike brewers, plan to keep up production, exports

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican tequila makers have sought to dispel concerns that their exports to the United States will dry up, after two large brewers in the country suspended production to comply with government rules put in place due to the new coronavirus.

“Neither in the United States nor in Canada are there restrictions on manufacturing and selling alcoholic beverages,” the president of the Mexican tequila chamber, Rodolfo Gonzalez, said in an interview.

This week, Heineken and Grupo Modelo both said they would halt production in Mexico after the government declared a health emergency and ordered suspension of non-essential economic activity.

It caused a storm on social media and large lines in some local supermarkets as Mexicans sought to stock up on beer.

Mexican tequila makers, however, interpret the newly imposed rules differently.

Gonzalez said the sector was still expecting growth rates of between 4% and 5% for this year – even as the new coronavirus is denting sales to bars, restaurants and hotels worldwide.

The United States and Canada are the largest export markets for the emblematic Mexican alcoholic beverage, with the chamber reporting about $2 billion in sales revenues across 118 countries every year.

Gonzalez said the labor-intensive harvest of the prized agave plant would continue because agricultural production is considered an essential economic activity, even if the production of alcoholic beverages is not.

Gonzalez said stopping crop production would have severe consequences for tequila makers.

“We have to finish planting all the agave for the 2020 cycle by next month,” Gonzalez added. “If we were to suspend our activities it would cause irreversible damage.”

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World News

Britain secures 300 new ventilators from China

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain took delivery of 300 ventilators from China on Saturday and more will start being produced soon by a consortium of aerospace, engineering and Formula One teams, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said.

“We’ve been buying invasive ventilators from partners abroad, including Germany and Switzerland, and today 300 new ventilators arrived from China, I’d like to thank the Chinese government,” he told a news conference.

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World News

Ukrainian doctors fly to Italy to help combat coronavirus

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine, which expects a sharp rise of coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, sent doctors to disease-hit Italy on Saturday to assist their Italian colleagues and to gain field experience.

A team of 20 doctors, including surgeons, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses, will be deployed to the region of Marche in central Italy for two weeks, Italian ambassador to Ukraine, Davide La Cecilia told Reuters.

“The national health service in our country is very stressed. So we badly need medical personnel and are very happy that Ukraine is sending this humanitarian aid,” said La Cecilia at Kiev’s airport, before the medical mission’s departure.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who accompanied the ambassador, said Kiev would send more medical aid and disinfectant to Italy in the coming days.

“It is an honour for us to help Italy during such tough times. We know that many Ukrainians live and work in Italy. By helping Italy, we are helping our citizens,” said Avakov.

Ukraine’s health ministry has reported 1,096 cases, including 28 deaths since March 3, when the first case was recorded. But as thousands of Ukrainians have recently returned home from abroad, the ministry expects a much bigger outbreak ahead. The daily tally of new cases increased to 154 on Saturday from 138 on Friday, up from 62 last Monday.

The head of the Ukrainian medical mission, neurosurgeon Andriy Miroshnichenko, said that all the team members volunteered to work in Italy.

“After they come back home, they will be able to treat patients and work having practical experience and knowledge about the disease,” said Miroshnichenko.

Asked whether the Ukrainian doctors were not afraid to catch the virus themselves Glib Bidyukov, a nurse, said it was “a consciously made choice”.

“When you choose healthcare, you understand that you put yourself in some danger… Each of us made a choice a long time ago,” Bidyukov said.

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World News

Iran escaped prisoners back in jail amid coronavirus epidemic

DUBAI (Reuters) – Most of the 70 inmates who escaped from a prison in western Iran last month are now back in jail, Iranian authorities said on Saturday, even though about 100,000 prisoners have been granted temporary release due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Iranian media have reported unrest in several prisons in the country, including the March 27 mass escape from the facility in Kurdistan province.

The judiciary’s Mizanoline website said some of the inmates had been captured by security forces, while others returned on their own to the prison in the city of Saqqez.

United Nations human rights spokesman Rupert Colville on Friday voiced concern over a possible coronavirus outbreak in prisons in Iran and other countries.

Iran – the Middle East country worst-hit by the epidemic – has already granted temporary release to about 100,000 inmates to curb prison overcrowding and ease fears of the virus’ spread.

The Health Ministry said on Saturday 158 more coronavirus patients had died in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 3,452. The total number of cases reached 55,743.

In a rare comment in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi said U.S. sanctions were crippling Iran’s fight against the coronavirus.

“As a result (of sanctions), the ability of my colleagues and I to provide the health, logistical and other essential infrastructure necessary to combat the disease has been drastically reduced. We experience this loss every day, and it can be counted in people that would not have died,” Hanachi said.

Separately, the foreign ministry accused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “medical-terrorism” through the sanctions, which have hit vital sectors such as oil and banking.

“Undisputed fact: US ‘diplomats’ have long been in the business of coups, arming terrorists,” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter on Saturday. “But @SecPompeo … and his masters have taken the ‘job’ to a whole new level: #Medical_terrorism.”

Pompeo and other U.S. officials have stressed that humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s 2015 multilateral deal to limit its nuclear program.

However, broader U.S. sanctions deter many U.S. and global firms from humanitarian trade with Iran.

Meanwhile state media quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying that state support for businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak would be restricted to enterprises that give assurances not to lay off workers.

Rouhani has said 75% of a total budget allocation of about 1,000 trillion rials to address the pandemic would include grants and low-interest loans to enterprises affected by COVID-19.

The total allocated amount is worth some $6 billion at the rial’s free market exchange rate of about 166,000 rials per dollar. But the government may decide to allocate some of the funds at the official rate of 42,000 which is used to subsidize food and medicine.

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World News

Confirmed coronavirus deaths in Netherlands rise by 164 to 1,651

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The confirmed death toll from the coronavirus in the Netherlands has risen by 164 to 1,651, health authorities said on Saturday.

The National Institute for Health (RIVM) said the total number of infections had increased by 6% to 16,627 over the past 24 hours.

The actual number of deaths and infections is higher than the official figure due to a lack of widespread testing for the coronavirus, the RIVM has said.

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World News

Polish president says postal voting possible for May election: media

WARSAW (Reuters) – Postal voting could allow Poland’s presidential elections to be held in May despite the coronavirus, President Andrzej Duda said in an interview published on Saturday, amid signs the governing coalition could split over the issue.

The nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party wants to hold elections on May 10 despite the pandemic, and has proposed legislation to introduce postal ballots to replace physical voting.

A more liberal junior coalition partner, Accord, said it was unrealistic for the election to proceed and proposed a postponement of two years.

“This solution (postal voting) was used a few days ago in Bavaria,” Duda told the Catholic daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

“We can also introduce this idea here … Postal voting would be something new in Poland, but the situation is unusual.”

Asked when elections should take place if not on May 10, Duda said the vote should be held when it is safe to do so.

In a sign of the party’s determination to implement postal voting, PiS on Friday replaced the head of the post office with Tomasz Zdzikot, who will leave his post as a Deputy Defense Minister.

Polish daily Rzeczpospolita quoted a source with knowledge of the matter as saying PiS wanted a trusted official as head of the post office at such a critical time.

Poland has imposed sweeping restrictions on public life to stop the spread of the virus, including closing schools, parks, forests and hotels and banning gatherings outside of more than two people, excluding families.

As of Saturday, it had reported 3,503 cases of the coronavirus and 73 deaths.

Duda criticized the European Commission in the interview for a lack of support over the pandemic.

“As a country we have not received any extra financial help from Brussels,” he said.

“You can’t see any great engagement from European institutions…concerning the activity of the European Commission, I must say it looks pretty poor,” he said.

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World News

Chile's president sparks outrage with visit to quarantined protest square

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Embattled Chilean President Sebastian Pinera sparked outrage on Friday by posing for photographs at the plaza that was the center of anti-government protests before it was put under quarantine to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Photographs of Pinera in the now empty Plaza Italia on Friday afternoon, sitting in shirtsleeves on the steps of a monument plastered with graffiti calling for his resignation, went viral on social media.

At least 31 people died, 3,000 were injured, and 30,000 were detained in the protests, which started in October over a hike in public transport rates and broadened to include grievances over pensions, healthcare, education and elitism.

The area around Plaza Italia is covered by a strict quarantine covering large parts of Santiago that prevents people from leaving their homes without specific permission from the authorities. Chile has 3,737 confirmed cases of the coronavirus so far, and 22 people have died.

The center-right president’s actions were “divisive at a time when the country needs unity,” said Heraldo Munoz, the president of the opposition center-left Party for Democracy (PPD).

“President Pinera goes walking in Plaza Italia while the government is asking people to stay at home – this is a provocation, improper for a head of state in the midst of a pandemic,” he wrote on Twitter.

Pinera said the visit had been a spontaneous decision on his way home from work.

“I took a photo and continued on my way. I regret if this could have been misinterpreted,” he said on Twitter.

Illapu, one of Chile’s best-loved bands, said Pinera’s actions risked sparking further protests once the coronavirus crisis is over.

“The square belongs to the people. We will come back with more force and we will be millions,” the band tweeted.

(The story corrects paragraph 5 to show that Heraldo Munoz is president of the Party for Democracy, not the Christian Democrats)

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China mourns thousands who died in country's coronavirus epidemic

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Saturday mourned the thousands of “martyrs” who have died in the new coronavirus outbreak, flying the national flag at half mast throughout the country and suspending all forms of entertainment.

The day of mourning coincided with the start of the annual Qingming tomb-sweeping festival, when millions of Chinese families pay respects to their ancestors.

At 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) Beijing time, the country observed three minutes of silence to mourn those who died, including frontline medical workers and doctors. Cars, trains and ships sounded their horns and air raid sirens wailed.

In Zhongnanhai, the seat of political power in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders paid silent tribute in front of the national flag, with white flowers pinned to their chest as a mark of mourning, state media reported.

More than 3,300 people in mainland China have died in the epidemic, which first surfaced in the central province of Hubei late last year, according to statistics published by the National Health Commission.

In Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicentre of the outbreak, all traffic lights in urban areas turned red at 10 a.m. and all road traffic ceased for three minutes.

Some 2,567 people have died in the city of 11 million people, accounting for more than 75% of the country’s coronavirus fatalities.

Among those who perished was Li Wenliang, a young doctor reprimanded by police in Wuhan for “spreading rumours” when he tried to raise the alarm about the disease.

Since then, the virus has spread to all corners of the globe, sickening more than a million, killing over 55,000 people and paralysing the world economy.

The overall number of confirmed cases reported in the United States now exceeds China’s official tally by threefold.

“Li Wenliang was a hero, he found out about it early…now it’s too late, but now our country is stronger than others,” said Gan Weineng, 78, a Wuhan resident.

Wuhan also banned all tomb-sweeping activities in its cemeteries until at least April 30, curtailing one of the most important dates in the traditional Chinese lunar new year calendar which usually sees millions of families travel to tend to their ancestral graves, offer flowers and burn incense.

They have also told residents, most stuck at home due to lockdown restrictions, to use online streaming services which will allow them to watch cemetery staff carrying out those tasks live.

Some resident burned joss paper, a tradition which they believe sends money and wealth to deceased relatives, on sidewalks and within the confines of their barricaded housing compounds.

ASYMPTOMATIC CASES

Online, celebrities including “X-Men: Days of Future Past” star Fan Bingbing swapped their glamorous social media profile pictures for sombre photos in grey or black, garnering millions of “likes” from fans.

Chinese gaming and social media giant Tencent suspended all online games on Saturday.

As of Friday, the total number of confirmed cases across the country stood at 81,639, including 19 new infections, the National Health Commission said.

Eighteen of the new cases involved travellers arriving from abroad. The remaining one new infection was a local case in Wuhan, a patient who was previously asymptomatic.

Asymptomatic people exhibit few signs of infection such as fevers or coughs, and are not included in the tally of confirmed cases by Chinese authorities until they do.

However, they are still infectious, and the government has warned of possible local transmissions if such asymptomatic cases are not properly monitored.

China reported 64 new asymptomatic cases as of Friday, including 26 travellers arriving in the country from overseas. That takes the total number of asymptomatic people currently under medical observation to 1,030, including 729 in Hubei.

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