U.S. regains Hellfire air-to-ground missile from Cuba

WASHINGTON The U.S. State Department said on Saturday that the United States has regained an inert but errant Hellfire air-to-ground missile that had mistakenly ended up in Cuba."We can say, without speaking to specifics, that the inert training missile has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.A team from Lockheed Martin Corp, which makes the missile, traveled to Cuba to retrieve it, a congressional source said.Lockheed Martin Corp spokesman Bill Phelps declined comment. The missile had been sent to Europe for a training exercise in 2014 but somehow ended up in Cuba, an embarrassing loss of military technology, the Wall Street Journal reported last month."The department is restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters, so we cannot provide further details," Toner said. But he said reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries have helped the U.S. "engage with the Cuban government on issues of mutual interest."The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton, Andrea Shalal, Daniel Trotta; Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by W Simon) Read more

Russia casts doubt on Syria ceasefire deal as army gains ground

MUNICH/BEIRUT Russia said on Saturday a ceasefire deal for Syria agreed by major powers was more likely to fail than succeed, as Syrian government forces backed by further Russian air strikes gained more ground against rebels near Aleppo.International divisions over Syria surfaced anew at a Munich conference where Russia rejected French charges that it was bombing civilians, just a day after world powers agreed on the "cessation of hostilities" due to begin in a week's time.U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated accusations that Russia was hitting "legitimate opposition groups" and civilians with its bombing campaign in Syria and said Moscow must change its targets to respect the ceasefire deal.The conflict, reshaped by Russia's intervention last September, has gone into an even higher gear since the United Nations sought to revive peace talks. These were suspended earlier this month in Geneva before they got off the ground.The Syrian army looked poised on Saturday to advance into the Islamic State-held province of Raqqa for the first time since 2014, apparently to pre-empt any move by Saudi Arabia to send ground forces into Syria to fight the jihadist insurgents.The cessation of hostilities deal falls short of a formal ceasefire, since it was not signed by the warring parties - the government and rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad in a five-year-old war that has killed 250,000 people.If its forces retake Aleppo and seal the Turkish border, Damascus would deal a crushing blow to the insurgents who were on the march until Russia intervened, shoring up Assad's rule and paving the way to the current reversal of rebel fortunes.Russia has said it will keep bombing Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which in many areas of western Syria fights government forces in close proximity to insurgents deemed moderates by Western states.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked at a security conference in Munich on Saturday to assess the chances of the cessation of hostilities deal succeeding, replied: "49 percent."Asked the same question, his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier put the odds at 51 percent.The complex, multi-sided civil war in Syria, raging since 2011, has drawn in most regional and global powers, caused the world's worst humanitarian emergency and attracted recruits to Islamist militancy from around the world. Assad, backed on the ground by Iranian combatants and Lebanon's Hezbollah in addition to big power ally Russia, is showing no appetite for a negotiated ceasefire. He declared this week that the government's goal was to recapture all of Syria, though he said this could take time. The U.S. government said Assad was "deluded" if he thought there was a military solution to the conflict.Syrian state television announced the army and allied militia had on Saturday captured the village of al-Tamura overlooking rebel terrain northwest of Aleppo.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported advances in the same area, adding that Russian jets had hit three rebel-held towns near the Turkish border.Government offensives around Aleppo have sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the Turkish border.ADVANCE ON ISLAMIC STATE'S RAQQA BASTION The Observatory said government troops had also edged to within a few kilometers (miles) of the provincial boundary of Raqqa after making a rapid advance eastwards along a desert highway from Ithriya in the last few days. The Syrian government has had no serious foothold in Raqqa province since Islamic State captured Tabqa air base in 2014. "They are on the provincial borders of Raqqa," Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.Islamic State, driven by the goal of expanding its "caliphate" rather than reforming Syria - the original goal of the opposition when the conflict began as an unarmed street uprising in 2011 - is being targeted in separate campaigns by a U.S.-led alliance and Assad's government with Russian air support. Regional Kurdish forces supported by Washington are also fighting Islamic State in Raqqa province.Gulf states that want Assad gone from power have said they would be willing to send in troops as part of any U.S.-led ground attack against Islamic State. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday he expected Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send commandos to help recapture Raqqa.In what may have been a response to those remarks, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday in Munich there was no need to scare anyone with a ground operation in Syria.RUSSIAN, FRENCH PMs CLASH Speaking at the same conference, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called on Russia to stop bombing civilians in Syria, saying this was crucial to achieving peace there."France respects Russia and its interests ... But we know that to find the path to peace again, the Russian bombing of civilians has to stop," Valls said.Medvedev said that was simply not true."There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this," he said. "Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests," he said, adding that Moscow wanted to prevent Islamist militants getting to Russia.Russia also has a major air base and large naval installation on Syria's Mediterranean coast.Kerry, however, accused Russia of dropping so-called "dumb bombs" in Syria that do not have a precise target, saying this has led to the killing of civilians."To date, the vast majority of Russia's attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups. To adhere to the (ceasefire) agreement it made, Russia's targeting must change," Kerry told the Munich conference. Two Syrian rebel commanders told Reuters on Friday insurgents had been sent "excellent quantities" of Grad rockets with a range of 20 km (12 miles) by foreign backers in recent days to help confront the Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo.Foreign opponents of Assad including Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been supplying vetted rebel groups with weapons via a Turkey-based operations center.Some of these groups have received military training overseen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The vetted groups have been a regular target of the Russian air strikes. (Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich) Read more

Flint police and fire chiefs resign amid drinking water crisis

The fire and police chiefs of Flint resigned on Friday in what the Michigan city's mayor, Karen Weaver, called a first step in restructuring operations as it struggles to cope with dangerous levels of lead in its drinking water."Mayor Weaver has determined the city needs fresh faces in place with new ideas to help move Flint forward," said a statement from her office.Chief of Police James Tolbert and the fire department chief, David Cox Jr., submitted their resignations to Weaver, the statement said. Flint, a predominantly black city of some 100,000 people, was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager in 2014 when it switched its source of water from Detroit's municipal system to the Flint River to save money. Flint switched back to Detroit water in October after tests found high levels of lead in samples of children's blood. The more corrosive water from the river leached more lead from the city pipes than Detroit water did. Lead can damage the nervous system. Several lawsuits have been filed by parents who say their children are showing dangerously high blood levels of lead.The mayor's statement on Friday did not mention the water crisis. It said the departments will be headed police Captain Colin Bernie and Fire District Commander Stephen Cobb while a search is conducted for permanent replacements. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Tom Brown) Read more

Back to its roots: how Zika may threaten Africa

PRAIA/LONDON Florzinha Amado is eight months pregnant and trying to stay calm about whether the Zika virus infection she contracted at 21 weeks could have harmed her unborn child. But Amado isn't Brazilian. She lives on the volcanic archipelago of Cape Verde, 570 km (350 miles) west of Senegal, and is one of 100 pregnant women in the capital of Praia who have contracted Zika there.Their fears, and those of West African authorities seeking to prepare the region's defenses, are shared by global health experts who say it could have unknown consequences in countries ill-equipped for another public health emergency following the Ebola epidemic.Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, was first identified by two Scots, virologist George Dick and entomologist Alexander Haddow, in a forest near Entebbe in Uganda in 1947. The disease itself is mild and 80 percent of those infected do not feel ill, but it has shot to the top of the global health agenda after an outbreak in Brazil was suspected of causing a spike in birth defects. And now, nearly 70 years after its discovery in mainland Africa, it is threatening to return to its roots - this time apparently in a changed form causing large-scale outbreaks."Cape Verde has historical links with Brazil and it seems very likely it has got there from Brazil," said Nick Beeching of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, a Zika expert for the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.According to new data from Cape Verde's health ministry, more than 7,000 cases of Zika have been recorded in the country since the beginning of the epidemic in October 2015, with heavier than normal rains last summer boosting mosquito numbers.Beeching believes it is highly probable Zika will soon be back on the African mainland, thanks to regular flight connections from the Atlantic islands, potentially triggering a new chain of transmission. Regional health officials told Reuters they were most worried about Zika being exported to Senegal or Guinea Bissau, which shares the same Portuguese heritage as Cape Verde. A regional meeting on Zika took place in Dakar on Feb. 9, with African and Western partners discussing preparations for possible imported cases, according to officials.Abdoulaye Bousso, the coordinator of the health emergency operations center in Senegal, said his country had an active surveillance program with several "sentinel sites" being established as early warning points for an outbreak."We do not have cases in the country currently but the risk is there," he said.MANY MOSQUITOES Africa is fertile ground for Zika. Researchers have found more than 20 different mosquito species carrying the virus there, although whether they all transmit the disease effectively to humans is unclear.Ultimately, how much damage Zika may cause on this vast continent will depend on the level of immunity among African populations - and that hinges, crucially, on the extent to which Zika's genetic make-up has mutated on its round-the-world trip.A warning from World Health Organization experts in a paper published online on Feb. 9 that the virus "appears to have changed in character" is heightening concerns.The exact nature of the shift has yet to be unraveled but Mary Kay Kindhauser and colleagues said Zika had altered as it moved through Asia - from an infection causing limited cases of mild illness to one leading to large outbreaks and, from 2013 onwards, linked to babies born with neurological disorders and abnormally small heads.Jimmy Whitworth, a British-based researcher now at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who studied Zika in Uganda back when it was still a "virological curiosity", said the ground was shifting and the risks increasing. "There are a few genetic differences between the African and Asian lineages, and it looks like the Asian lineages may be better able to transmit and flourish in a human population," he told Reuters.What this means on the ground is uncertain. In theory, there may be some cross-protection between different Zika strains, which could protect Africans from the latest version.But Beeching noted that dengue fever, a closely related mosquito-borne virus, had four recognized strains and there was only limited and temporary cross-protection between them. "We just don't know how Zika will spread if it gets to Africa," he said.Another big question is why there is no apparent link in Africa between Zika and birth defects, since the continent has been home to sporadic cases of Zika for decades, if not centuries or millennia.It may be that any past cases of small heads in newborns, known as microcephaly, or of the neurological condition Guillain-Barre syndrome may have been missed in Africa given its limited healthcare infrastructure.But Whitworth hopes to go back and take a retrospective look, since countries including Malawi, Kenya and Uganda have good population records, head measurement data and serum banks that should make checks possible.Back in Cape Verde's Central Hospital in Praia, clinical director Maria do Ceu says there is so far no evidence from scans of any microcephaly among the country's infected mothers-to-be, who are due to deliver their first babies this month.Amado is optimistic. "The doctor encouraged me to do morphological ultrasound and told me that I am okay," she said. "It happened suddenly. I started having blotchy skin and then I went to the maternity ward. I was followed up and thank God everything is fine." (Writing and additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, with Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char) Read more

COLUMN-Australia's tough miners want government help; shouldn't get it: Russell

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)By Clyde RussellLAUNCESTON, Australia Feb 10 - When the going gets tough, the tough ask for tax relief. If you are looking for a sign that the end game of the commodity downturn is getting closer, witness the clamour for more support from Australia's embattled resources sector.Asking for government help is one of the last steps a mining company can take to stay alive, assuming it's already exhausted every conceivable cost saving, emptied the pockets of its owners and reached the limits of what its bankers will lend.The latest call came this week from the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), which said the coal mining industry needs support to keep the remaining 60,000 workers employed, following the loss of 21,000 jobs in the past two years."We are not looking for bailouts or subsidies but our entire sector needs certainty and support in the shape of commitments to reduce red tape and unjustified government-imposed and government-sanctioned costs," QRC Chief Executive Michael Roche said in a Feb. 8 statement."At the top of our list are royalties, local government rates and the charges from government and private sector providers of rail, port, power and water services," he said.The preceding two paragraphs from the statement illustrate the problem facing the resources sector, insofar as they don't want to be seen to be asking for government handouts, although in effect that's exactly what they want.Asking for relief from royalty payments, other government charges and for lower costs at government-owned facilities is a de facto request to receive what could broadly be termed as a handout.It may well be the case, especially for smaller and higher-cost coal mines, that more jobs will be lost and pits closed if such relief isn't forthcoming, as Roche warns.But governments also find themselves in a bind, facing ever-rising demands for more spending on health and other services while seeing the revenue they expected from the resources boom evaporate in the face of low commodity prices.The Queensland state government wrote down the expected revenue from coal-mining royalties over the next four years by almost A$3 billion ($2.11 billion) in its budget last year. This means it's extremely unlikely to want to lower royalty payments, or the amount state-controlled corporations charge for using railways and ports.Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is willing to discuss the issues with the QRC, but won't hand out cash to mining companies, the Brisbane-based Courier Mail reported on Wednesday."As I said very clearly, my Government is not in the business of giving money to private enterprise," the newspaper quoted her as saying.This is a consistent message from Palaszczuk, who earlier this year refused to provide financial guarantees to Queensland Nickel, the refining operation owned by flamboyant miner turned politician Clive Palmer that was placed in voluntary administration last month.It is sensible policy for the Queensland state government to decline to subsidise struggling resource companies, even if this will come at the cost of mine closures and job losses.For politicians in democracies it's a brave decision to risk job losses and subsequent voter displeasure, even in pursuit of sustainable longer-term industries. For the QRC, there is nothing wrong with lobbying hard in the interests of your members, even if the wider interest of all of them would actually be better served by the collapse of the weakest.It still seems that many in the resources industry haven't yet grasped that the inevitable consequence of massively overbuilding supply is the failure of the shakiest companies.LNG, IRON ORE ALSO SEEK RELIEFQueensland, which produces the vast majority of Australia's coking coal and is also home to three new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, will be better served in the longer term by the closure of unprofitable operations, rather than seeing them cling on through royalty and other government relief.Just like coal, the LNG plants are also facing the reality of huge oversupply, and have started the process of seeking relief, albeit in a somewhat different manner. APLNG, the facility owned by Origin Energy Energy and ConocoPhillips, is asking the state Supreme Court to set aside the Queensland government's royalty calculations, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review on Feb. 8.Even if the legal challenge fails, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to expect the LNG industry to also seek other forms of relief, especially if prices and demand in Asia remain soft.But the problems of government support can be seen across the country in Western Australia, home to the world's biggest iron ore mining industry.There the state government decided last year to waive 50 percent of royalty payments to smaller mines that were actively trying to restructure their operations.This provided a lifeline to minnows such as BC Iron , but at the same time kept supply in the market that should have been closed down.Iron ore is probably one of the most over-supplied commodities currently, and with the softening outlook for Chinese steel demand is likely to remain that way.The question for governments is whether assistance in any form is actually a help or a hindrance to efforts to re-balance commodity markets.The faster markets can re-balance, the faster the relief of higher prices can be felt by the survivors.Ultimately, a smaller but more sustainable resources sector is better than weak companies struggling along, propped up by the public purse.($1 = 1.4190 Australian dollars) (Editing by Christian Schmollinger) Read more

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