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Iran denies U.S. seizure of Iranian arms on way to Houthis in Yemen

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Thursday denied that U.S. forces had seized a boat carrying Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, saying the charge was aimed at extending a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Washington on Wednesday that U.S. and unidentified allied forces had interdicted a vessel off Yemen’s coast on June 28 that was carrying Iranian arms to the Houthis.

“Lying, accusations and spreading hatred are key elements of America’s foreign policy, especially in the current regime,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, quoted by state television. “Pompeo’s remarks stem from this approach.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a hardline with the United Nations to push it to strengthen the embargo on Iran, saying that lifting it would allow Tehran to acquire weapons that could fuel conflicts in the Middle East.

“Americans are trying to provide excuses to continue their maximum pressure on Iran, advance their malicious goals and to extend the arms embargo on Iran,” Mousavi said.

Relations between the longtime foes have worsened since 2018 when Trump abandoned an international accord under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear work in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The United States has reimposed sanctions to throttle Iran’s oil trade and pressure Tehran to renegotiate the deal, give up its ballistic missiles, and cease its involvement in regional wars.

Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have been fighting the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, since 2015. It denies charges by Saudi Arabia and the United States that it gives financial and military support to the Houthis.

“The United States and Saudi Arabia have imposed a siege on the Yemeni people,” Mousavi said. “With such baseless accusations, they are trying to evade accountability and responsibility for their crimes in Yemen.”

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Five more policemen arrested for custody death in southern India

CHENNAI, India (Reuters) – Five more policemen were arrested in a widening investigation into the deaths of a father and his son while in police custody in southern India, an officer said on Thursday, in a case that has put policing in the country under a spotlight.

J Jayaraj, 59, and Bennicks Immanuel, 31, were detained for allegedly violating coronavirus lockdown rules in the town of Sathankulam last month and subjected to a brutal thrashing that resulted in rectal bleeding and eventual death, according to a letter to government officials written by Jayaraj’s wife J Selvaran.

Police Inspector General K Shankar said the five policemen arrested on Wednesday were accused of holding the two men down in a police station in Tamil Nadu state while others beat them.

“They have been held for abetment,” Shankar said.

Five other policemen are already in custody and face charges of murder in a case that people on social media have compared with the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police in the United States.

India’s federal police will soon take over the investigation from the state police.

India’s National Human Rights Commission says there are nearly 15 cases of custodial violence and torture reported each day from the country and that “it has become almost routine.”

The father-son duo were accused of keeping their mobile phone shop open despite the lockdown, an offence that at worst would have got them three months in prison, legal experts said.

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S&P, Dow futures dip ahead of jobless claims report

(Reuters) – Futures tracking the S&P 500 and Dow indexes edged lower on Thursday ahead of the closely watched weekly jobless claims report, with investors weighing the risk of another business shutdown amid soaring U.S. COVID-19 cases.

A batch of upbeat economic data including the record pace of job additions in June has underscored that the stimulus-fueled domestic economy was on the path to recovery.

The benchmark S&P 500 has risen more than 40% from its March lows and is now about 7% below its February record high.

The Labor Department’s most timely data on the economy is expected to show 1.38 million Americans filed for state unemployment benefits in the latest week, down from 1.43 million claims in the prior week. The report is expected at 8:30 a.m. ET.

The United States reported more than 60,000 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, setting a single day global record.

While the recent surge has forced some states to roll back their reopening plans, market experts expect only a delay in U.S. economic recovery, with many seeing growth returning in 2021.

The three main indexes charged ahead in the final hour of trading on Wednesday, with Nasdaq logging its fourth record closing high this month powered by technology stocks.

At 6:10 a.m. ET, Dow e-minis 1YMcv1 were down 57 points, or 0.22% and S&P 500 e-minis EScv1 were down 2.25 points, or 0.07%. Nasdaq 100 e-minis NQcv1 were up 44 points, or 0.41%.

Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O) rose 2% in premarket trading as Morgan Stanley upgraded its rating on the network gear maker’s stock to “overweight”.

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Russia arrests governor on suspicion of ordering murders

Sergey Furgal is considered the ‘organiser of an attempted murder and the murder of a number of businesspeople’.

The governor of Russia’s far-eastern Khabarovsk region has been arrested on suspicion of orchestrating the murder of a string of entrepreneurs about 15 years ago.

Sergey Furgal is considered the “organiser of an attempted murder and the murder of a number of businesspeople” in 2004 and 2005, according to a statement published on Thursday by Russia’s top investigative agency.

Four members of the organised criminal group Furgal is allegedly linked with were previously convicted for their roles in the murders, committed in Khabarovsk and the neighbouring Amur region, said the Investigative Committee that handles investigations into serious crimes.

Furgal was taken into custody outside his home, Russian state news agency TASS reported.

Images from the scene showed him wearing a suit and tie while being pulled from a black Lexus SUV and put in a van by several armed and masked officers in camouflage.

Facing life in jail

The 50-year-old was to be brought to the capital, Moscow, for further investigative procedures.

He was to be officially charged, with a court appointed to decide whether he should remain in custody, the statement said.

If found guilty of all the charges, he could be jailed for life.

Furgal, of the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), won the 2018 election against the longtime incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport, who had represented the party most loyal to President Vladimir Putin, United Russia.

The LDPR is also supportive of Putin, but Furgal was reportedly elected upon a rise of anti-establishment sentiment in the region.

“This is a very big political case,” LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS. He emphasised that the party would defend Furgal.

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US to conduct military training with Cyprus, upsetting Turkey

Ankara criticises announcement that the State Department will fund military training for the Republic of Cyprus.

The United States has said it will conduct military training with the Republic of Cyprus for the first time, drawing criticism from its NATO ally, Turkey.

The announcement came months after the US Congress late last year ended an arms embargo on the entire island, imposed in 1987 to prevent an arms race and encourage a peaceful settlement in one of the world’s most enduring frozen conflicts.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops seized its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired Greek Cypriot coup aimed at uniting the eastern Mediterranean island with Greece. Seeds of conflict were sown earlier, prompting the dispatch of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in 1964.

Turkey still maintains tens of thousands of soldiers on the island’s north, which in 1983 declared itself to be a republic and is recognised only by Ankara.

Greek Cypriots are running the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member, while UN peacekeeping forces still patrol the so-called “Green Line” – a 180km (112 miles) buffer zone between the Turkish Cypriot north and the Greek Cypriot south.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the State Department for the first time had included Cyprus in its International Military Education and Training funding programme for 2020 as part of “our expanding security relationship”.

“This is part of our efforts to enhance relationships with key regional partners to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Pompeo told reporters.

The announcement drew criticism by Turkey and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). “Initiatives that do not observe balance between parties will not contribute to establishing a secure environment on the Island, nor will they help keep peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean,” foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.

“As we have stressed many times before, these steps will not contribute to finding a solution to the Cyprus issue but instead strengthens the uncompromising approach of the Greek side,” he added.

While the island has remained largely peaceful in recent decades, and Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders have worked to build ties, numerous attempts at reunification have failed.

Meanwhile, tensions have recently flared over Turkey’s drilling for gas off the island, with the EU calling the move illegal.

US officials, at the same time, have encouraged the warming relations with Israel of both Cyprus and Greece.

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China's Huawei says Italy should not act on 'baseless allegations'

MILAN (Reuters) – China’s Huawei Technologies defended its record as a private sector infrastructure group on Thursday following reports Italy was considering excluding it from building its planned 5G network over security concerns.

“We are firmly convinced that the security and development of digital Italy should be based on an approach grounded in facts and not baseless allegations,” the company said in a statement.

Despite pressure from Washington, which says Huawei’s equipment could be used to spy on the West, Italy has so far not ruled Huawei out of its network plans but on Wednesday daily la Repubblica reported the government was preparing a change of course.

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Shopper traffic stabilises 3 weeks into phase two of Singapore's reopening, but many spend cautiously

SINGAPORE – Three weeks into phase two of Singapore’s reopening, shoppers here have adjusted well to safety measures, said retailers.

Though some stores continue to see consistent shopper traffic, the initial rush of crowds seen during the first week of phase two has subsided, as malls and customers acclimatised to safe distancing rules.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Thursday (July 9), Ms Rose Tong, executive director of the Singapore Retailers Association, said some shoppers may also be more cautious about spending since the outlook on the economy moving forward is uncertain.

She said: “Shopper traffic overall has slowed since the first week. Initially, many headed out since they were stuck at home for so long, but now people are more likely to head to the shops only when they really need something.”

Ms Tong added that with retailers having had time to get used to the safety measures, operations have also become smoother.

She said: “It’s become a routine for everyone now.”

A check with retailers here found that the response from shoppers has varied with some stores seeing more shoppers as the weeks go by while others have found that traffic peaked in the first week of phase two.

A spokesman for shopping mall Paragon said: “Shopper traffic and patronage has been encouraging and we are seeing the steady return of our local shoppers since the resumption of business in phase two.”

She added that footfall at the mall has increased by about 10 per cent week on week.

“We anticipate that footfall will gain more traction in the weeks to come,” she said.

Similarly, a spokesman for fashion chain H&M said stores have seen good patronage in the last few weeks.

Though the company declined to disclose sales figures, the spokesman said customer basket sizes have been increasing since the start of phase two.

At electronics and furniture retailer Courts, traffic was strongest in the first week of phase two, said Mr Matthew Hoang, country chief executive of Courts Singapore.

But he said the store continues to see “strong demand” for items such as refrigerators, laptops and tablets.

Ms Tong noted that while people will still purchase necessities, the current climate due to the pandemic does not encourage spending.

She said: “At the end of the day, without having to go to the office or having social functions or wedding dinners, people will have less of a reason to buy new things. So discretionary retail purchases will be limited.”

At department store Robinsons, business has not been easy, said a spokesman for the store.

“There has not been signs of shoppers rushing to stores despite the long closures the way most had expected and traffic in stores continues to be significantly lower than last year,” he said.

Retail experts said that while there had been some shoppers splurging at the onset of phase two due to accumulated demand over the circuit breaker period, that might not continue.

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon from the National University of Singapore Business School said some might have felt the need to pamper themselves after having gone through the circuit breaker.

She said: “Also, because staying at home appears to be cost saving – no incurrence of transportation, eating out and shopping – individuals may have had a sense that they have been saving over the last two months and so now there is an ‘excuse’ to buy.”

But shoppers may take a “wait-and-watch attitude” moving forward, said Mr Samuel Tan, course chair for the diploma in retail management programme at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Business.

He said: “With the Government’s economic growth forecast and the tightening of bonuses, Singaporeans could be more careful and sensitive in spending. With less disposable income, the propensity to spend may not increase.”

Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University, said: “The real test for Singapore and for Singapore retailers will be when we are more open to tourist arrivals – and many retailers, especially in the city area, depend critically on tourists and business visitors. The longer that return is delayed, the more difficult it will be for the retailers to survive.”

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Fears at Nile's convergence in Sudan that new dam will sap river’s strength

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – At an open-air, riverbank factory where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet in Sudan, Mohamed Ahmed al Ameen and his colleagues mould thousands of bricks every day from mud deposited by summer floods.

“I consider the Nile something I have not parted with since I was born,” Ameen said, as workers around him shaped bricks with blistered hands and laid them out to dry in the sun. “I eat from it, I farm with it. And I extract these bricks from it.”

But the labourers on Tuti Island in Sudan’s capital Khartoum fear a giant dam Ethiopia is building close to the border between the two countries could endanger their livelihood.

They worry the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream could weaken the Blue Nile’s force, putting at risk an industry that locals say provided bricks for some of Khartoum’s first modern public buildings around a century ago.

Pottery makers, farmers and fishermen around the Nile’s convergence share similar concerns, though other residents displaced by flooding last summer see benefit in a dam that will regulate the powerful river’s waters.

The dam “will stabilise the Nile and we will get less flooding”, said Mutasim al-Jeiry, a 50-year-old potter in a village outside Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, where workers craft jars with clay from the river.

“But on the other hand we will get less clay and less water. Farmers, brick and pottery makers will be seriously affected,” he predicts.

The residents’ views are a snapshot of the hopes and fears thrown up along the length of the Nile by the vast hydropower project, which has triggered a high-wire diplomatic stand-off between Ethiopia and Egypt downstream.

Ethiopia, which says it is finally asserting its right to harness the Blue Nile’s waters to power its economy, promises to start filling the dam’s reservoir later this month.

Egypt, which sees a risk to its scarce water supplies, is frantically trying to secure a deal that would guarantee minimum flows from the Blue Nile, the source of about 86% of the waters of the Nile, which flows into the Mediterranean.

Sudan’s government says the dam could threaten the safety of some 20 million Sudanese living downstream and damage the country’s flood-plain agricultural system if not built and operated correctly.

But it also sees potential benefits in controlling floods during the rainy season and improving the performance of its own dams.

That ambivalence is echoed in the village of Wad Ramli, 60km (37 miles) downstream from Khartoum, where flooding was especially bad last summer. Some residents whose houses were damaged or destroyed were displaced to canvas tents pitched nearby.

“It is true the Renaissance dam will lower the Nile’s water levels and prevent flooding,” said Manal Abdelnaay, a 23-year-old living in one of the tents. “However, it will impact farming, and the Wad Ramli area is one that lives off farming.”

On Tuti Island, farmers and landowners are anxious that if the dam saps the river’s strength, there will be less water to irrigate and replenish the soil.

“I came to Tuti in 1988 because the land here is the best for agriculture and close enough to supply markets, and it makes good incomes” says Mussa Adam Bakr, who farms a plot where vegetable fields back onto citrus and mango groves, next to the brick factory.

“Through the year the Tuti earth produces all sorts of vegetables like potatoes, onions, aubergines,” says Bakr.

Sudan was long overshadowed in the dispute over the dam by its two larger neighbours, but has recently stepped up to broker new negotiations between the three countries.

Its citizens will be watching carefully for any changes in the waters they are so dependent upon.

“A fish out of water will die, it cannot survive,” says Ashraf Hassan, a 45-year-old fish trader in Omdurman. “Us too, we live as part of the water, or around it.”

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Rishi Sunak POLL: As experts warn YOU will pay the price, do you support £30bn splurge?

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The Chancellor has so far insisted despite the huge outgoings, he will still be able to return the country’s finances to a sustainable footing, at least in the medium-term. But the Treasury has warned emergency actions to fight the economic impact from the coronavirus crisis have already come at a “significant fiscal cost”. On Wednesday, Mr Sunak announced the Government’s latest financial package aimed at getting businesses back on track and protecting millions of jobs and employee salaries in the process as the UK comes out of lockdown.

The new Jobs Retention Bonus alone will cost the Government up to £9.4billion, with the cut in VAT adding a further £4.1billion.

The reduction in stamp duty for properties valued under £500,000 will cost £3.8billion, while the 50 percent eating out discount coming into force next month will add a further £500million.

This latest round of emergency measures are already in addition to the near-£160billion plan unveiled since the coronavirus outbreak in March.

The furlough scheme, which Mr Sunak has said will close in October, will cost the Treasury £60billion, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The OBR had forecast borrowing for the entire year would come close to £300billion – before Mr Sunak announced the latest multi-billion-pound package on Wednesday.

But experts have warned UK taxpayers could be faced with huge economic pain in order to help get the country’s finances back in order.

Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, warned: “All of these measures will cost money – on top of the eye-watering sums already spent – and eventually, the Treasury is going to need to start raising revenue.

“It means that as early as the Autumn Budget we could see proposals and consultations emerge that promise more pain ahead.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “The Chancellor announced a ‘plan for jobs’ but it’s tomorrow’s taxpayers who will have to work hard to pay for it all.

“While the jobs retention bonus will help ensure that the furlough scheme isn’t just an expensive pause on mass lay-offs, taxpayers will be concerned about how and when they will pay the bills for ever-more spending promises.”

Carl Emmerson, deputy director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think tank, warned Britons could be hit with some tax rises to pay for the huge financial outgoings and crippling holes in the UK’s economy.

He said: “The Chancellor also said in his speech yesterday that over the medium term we must and we will put our public finances back on a sustainable footing.

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“Now what I think that means is that once we’re through the crisis phase, once the economy has established its new normal, we are probably going to find that the economy is not as big as what it would have been had the coronavirus never hit.

“If that’s the case, and it’s very likely to be the case, revenues will still be depressed, and if we want to try then to bring the deficit back to where it would have been absent the crisis we will need to do some spending cuts, or given a decade of austerity, perhaps more likely some tax rises.”

The Treasury has acknowledged the UK faces mammoth costs from the emergency recovery plans announced so far, but has so far insisted “the costs of failing to act to support public services, businesses, and workers would have been much higher”.

But the UK economy is forecast to collapse into its deepest recession in recent history as the coronavirus crisis and enforced nationwide lockdown blows a huge hole in the country’s finances.

Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) plummeted by 25 percent during the first two months of the crisis, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned the country’s economy could shrink by more than 10 percent this year.

Mr Sunak has admitted he is “anxious” about the state of the UK’s economy which is “entering into a very significant recession” because of the coronavirus crisis, but has defended the £30billion of extra spending.

The Chancellor told Sky News on Thursday morning: “We’ve moved through the acute phase of the crisis where large swathes of the economy were closed. We’re now fortunately able to safely reopen parts of our economy, that’s the most important thing that we can do to get things going.

“But we won’t know the exact shape of that recovery for a little while – how will people respond to the new freedoms of being able to go out and about again. We have to rediscover behaviours that we’ve essentially unlearned over the last few months.

“But unless activity returns to normal, those jobs are at risk of going which is why we acted in the way that we did.”

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Know your risk: Pub, shopping and going to the gym ranked by threat

Doctors have created a coronavirus ‘risk scale’ which shows how dangerous certain everyday activities are.

The Texas Medical Association, which is made up of 53,000 physicians and medical students, put together a list which indicates how risky something is in relation to Covid-19 on a scale of one to 10, from low risk to high risk.

The list suggests going to the pub or working out at the gym poses a much higher risk of contracting Covid-19 than opening your post or getting a takeaway.

In the lowest risk category, opening the post, getting a takeaway, filling up with petrol, playing tennis and going camping are considered relatively safe.

Getting less safe – in low to moderate risk category – is supermarket shopping, playing golf, staying at a hotel, going to the doctor’s and going to a restaurant. Busier public areas are also in this category.

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Things considered moderate risk are going to the beach, having dinner with friends or a barbecue, visiting elderly relatives or working in an office.

Going to a hairdresser, attending a wedding or a funeral, and hugging a friend are in the moderate to high risk category.

But at the highest end of the scale in the high risk category are going to the cinema, working out at the gym, going to large gatherings and drinking in a pub or bar.

The medical professionals who compiled the list ranked each activity based on the ability to social distance. 

A spokesperson said: ‘The levels are based on input from the physician members of the task force and the committee, who worked from the assumption that – no matter the activity – participants were taking as many safety precautions as they can.’

It comes as the United States set a grim record on Tuesday with more than 60,000 new coronavirus cases reported in a single day, up from the previous record of 53,600 infections set last Thursday. 

The number of cases across the US has now topped 3 million, and more than 131,000 Americans have died with coronavirus since the pandemic took hold in March. 

At least 1,100 of those deaths were recorded on Tuesday, which is the highest daily increase this month. 

Deaths across the country have been trending downwards, even as the number of infections surge to levels not seen throughout the pandemic.

But the fatality rates in Texas, Arizona and Florida are now showing upward trends, according to project data that shows the seven-day average of deaths in the three hotspot states.

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