Senate approves $1.1 billion to fight Zika virus

2016-05-20 07:13:05

WASHINGTON An election-year fight over addressing the spreading Zika virus intensified in the U.S. Congress as the Senate on Thursday approved $1.1 billion in emergency money one day after the House of Representatives voted $622.1 million financed through cuts to existing programs.The two chambers would have to reach agreement on a spending level before they can send it to President Barack Obama, who in February requested $1.9 billion. The White House has called the House measure "woefully inadequate" and has threatened to veto it.Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington State urged Congress to act quickly, saying, "This is a public health emergency and Congress should treat it like one." The Senate will enter negotiations with the House with a strong hand: a bipartisan 68-30 vote in favor of the emergency funds to battle Zika, a virus that has been spreading rapidly through the Americas, with more than 100 confirmed cases in the U.S. state of Florida. However, the conservative group Heritage Action is lobbying against any Zika funding bill that is not paid for with an equal amount of spending cuts.The Senate's funding was attached to an unrelated transportation and housing appropriations bill that also passed the chamber on Thursday.U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. The World Health Organization has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults. Conservative Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah tried unsuccessfully to kill the Senate funding, saying the Obama administration already had enough money to deal with Zika."What we should not do, however, is allow the Zika virus to be yet another excuse to run up the national debt," Lee said. But Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican, countered that U.S. debt problems were rooted in the rapid growth in the cost of huge programs such as Social Security and Medicare and not so-called "discretionary" spending like on Zika. (Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Alistair Bell, Bernard Orr)

Brazil Senate set to vote on Rousseff impeachment

2016-05-11 05:56:07

BRASILIA Brazil's Senate will vote on Wednesday on whether to put President Dilma Rousseff on trial for breaking budget rules, amid expectations she will become the country's first leader in more than two decades to be removed from office. If her opponents garner a simple majority of the 81 senators, Rousseff will be suspended for up to six months during the trial and Vice President Michel Temer will take power. With well over half of senators telling newspapers they will vote to try Rousseff, Brazil's first female leader is expected to leave the Planalto presidential palace on Thursday, following 13 years of leftist Workers Party rule in Latin America's largest economy.The political crisis has hit at a time when Brazil had planned to be shining on the world stage, as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.Senators are due to start discussion of the motion at 9 a.m. (1200 GMT) after each member of the upper house gets the chance to speak. The final vote is expected to take place around 8 p.m. (2300 GMT).Rousseff, who has said her impeachment is illegal and branded it a 'coup,' has vowed to fight the process until the last minute. Her government appealed to the Supreme Court on Tuesday. "I will not resign, that never crossed my mind," Rousseff said in a speech on Tuesday, to cheers from supporters.Brazil is struggling with its worst recession since the 1930s and the country's biggest-ever corruption scandal - a long-running probe into a vast kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras. The economic crisis and the Petrobras investigation have paralyzed Rousseff's second-term administration. There are worries the tense political situation may spark protests that could turn violent. On Wednesday, anti-impeachment protesters blocked roads with burning tires around Sao Paulo, the capital, Brasilia, and other cities, snarling morning traffic and prompting clashes with police. The Workers Party and labor unions have called for a national strike. The vote will cap a chaotic week that started with the newly installed speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Maranhao, saying he had annulled the full chamber's April 17 vote to impeach Rousseff. He argued the vote contained procedural flaws. Senate leader Renan Calheiros promptly rejected his decision and said the upper house would press forward with impeachment proceedings. Maranhao withdrew his decision on Tuesday, following complaints it was illegal. That cleared the way for the Senate vote.If the case goes to a trial in the Senate, presided over by the head of the Supreme Court, Rousseff's opponents are confident they can muster the two-thirds of the 81 senators, or 54, needed to unseat the unpopular president. Temer would then fulfill the remainder of her mandate until elections in 2018. (Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Cooney)

Aleppo fighting rages as U.S., Russia try to revive Syria truce

2016-05-10 07:34:04

BEIRUT/PARIS Syrian government forces and their allies fought insurgents near Aleppo on Monday and jets conducted raids around a nearby town seized by Islamist rebels, a monitoring group said, as Syria's military said a ceasefire in Aleppo would be extended by 48 hours starting on Tuesday.A recent surge in bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, wrecked the 10-week-old, partial truce sponsored by Washington and Moscow that had allowed U.N.-brokered peace talks to convene in Geneva.The United States and Russia, which support rival sides in the civil war, said they would work to revive the February "cessation of hostilities" agreement that reduced fighting in parts of the country for several weeks.U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said all parties had to press the sides they back to turn "words on a piece of paper" into actions to reinstate the truce.Syria's military high command was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying the Aleppo ceasefire would be extended by 48 hours in the northern city beginning at 1 a.m. local time on Tuesday (6 p.m. ET on Monday).A number of short-term local truces have been in place since April 29, first around Damascus and northern Latakia and then in Aleppo, but there has still been fighting between rebels and government forces. The cessation of hostilities and local truces do not include Islamic State or al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.Asaad al-Zoubi, the chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition at the Geneva talks, criticized the extended Aleppo truce, telling Al Jazeera television that such measures served only to allow thousands of reinforcing troops to be sent from Iran, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.Warplanes struck the town of Khan Touman, southwest of Aleppo, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Rebels also fought government forces east of Damascus, and jets hit the rebel-held towns of Maarat al-Numan and Idlib.Russia and the United States said in a joint statement they would step up efforts to persuade the warring parties to abide by the ceasefire agreement. "We have decided to reconfirm our commitment to the (ceasefire) in Syria and to intensify efforts to ensure its nation-wide implementation," they said. "We demand that parties cease any indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including civilian infrastructure and medical facilities."Visiting Paris, Kerry said a reduction of violence in line with the U.S.-Russian joint statement depended on field commanders as well as interested parties including the United States."These are words on a piece of paper. They are not actions," he said. "We have a responsibility to make certain that the opposition lives up to this, and Russia and Iran have a responsibility to make sure the Assad regime lives up to this."Basma Kodmani, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, expressed hope of a return to the Geneva peace talks if the U.S.-Russian agreement is swiftly implemented. STRATEGIC PRIZERussia's military intervention last September helped Assad reverse some rebel gains in the west of the country, including in Aleppo province.But insurgents captured the town of Khan Touman last week, inflicting a rare setback on government forces and allied Iranian troops who suffered heavy losses in the fighting. Several Iranian soldiers were captured in the clashes, a senior Iranian lawmaker said on Monday.The city of Aleppo is one of the biggest strategic prizes in a war now in its sixth year, and has been divided into government and rebel-held zones through much of the conflict.The Observatory said warplanes struck rebel-held areas of the city early on Monday, and rebels fired shells into government-held neighborhoods. Al Manar, the television channel of Damascus's Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said on Monday troops had destroyed a tank belonging to insurgents and killed some of its occupants.On the eastern edge of Damascus, government forces and their allies shelled rebel areas and clashed with insurgents, the Observatory and the rebel force Jaish al-Islam said. Three people were killed and 13 wounded in air strikes on Idlib, it said.Jaish al-Islam agreed with a rival rebel group, Failaq al Rahman, that both would vacate a town they have been fighting over for almost two weeks, the Observatory said.The groups, two of the strongest operating in the area, agreed to make no more attempts to occupy the town of Misraba in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, and return it to civilian rule. After 13 days of heavy artillery exchanges, Jaish al Islam took control of the town over the weekend, capturing around 50 rival fighters.Saudi Arabia condemned air strikes on a camp for displaced Syrians west of Aleppo last week that killed at least 28 people, saying it was part of "the genocide committed by Bashar al-Assad's forces against civilians in Syria."A Saudi cabinet statement on Monday said the strikes on the camp, alongside the prevention of humanitarian aid deliveries to Syrians, constituted war crimes. Damascus has denied targeting the camp or obstructing aid deliveries.French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, hosting a meeting in Paris of Assad's opponents, said Syrian government forces and their allies had bombarded hospitals and refugee camps. "It is not Daesh (Islamic State) that is being attacked in Aleppo, it is the moderate opposition," he said.The U.S.-Russian joint statement said Moscow would work with Syrian authorities "to minimize aviation operations over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation." (Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Sylvia Westall in Dubai and Tom Miles in Geneva; writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Cooney; editing by David Stamp and G Crosse)

North Carolina officials sue U.S. Justice Dept over challenge to bathroom law

2016-05-09 17:50:06

WASHINGTON North Carolina officials sued the U.S. Justice Department on Monday after the department challenged the state's law on public restroom access for transgender people, accusing the agency of "baseless and blatant overreach."The department's top civil rights lawyer, Vanita Gupta, last week sent three letters to North Carolina officials, saying the law was a civil rights violation. It is the newest chapter of a fast-evolving fight over rights for transgender Americans. The law, which went into effect in March, requires transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the state's secretary of public safety sued Gupta as well as U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for their "radical reinterpretation" of federal civil rights law in federal district court in North Carolina. Justice Department officials declined to comment on Monday.If the state does not pull back from implementing the first-of-its-kind statute on Monday, it could face a federal lawsuit, according to the Justice Department letters. McCrory said in a Sunday interview with Fox News that he had asked the department to extend the Monday deadline, but was told that he could only have the extension if he would admit that the law was discriminatory."I'm not going to publicly announce that something discriminates, which is agreeing with their letter," he said in the interview. The department declined to say whether it would take legal action if the state stands by the law, but the letters suggest it is willing to do so, setting the stage for a potentially costly court fight over an issue that has already sparked several boycotts against the state. McCrory will speak to the media on Monday at 1 p.m. (01:00 p.m. EDT). (Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, NC, and Julia Edwards in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Algeria's Sonatrach awards $180 mln in oil service contracts - document

2016-05-08 20:13:05

ALGIERS May 8 Algerian state energy company Sonatrach has awarded U.S. oil service firms Schlumberger and Weatherford contracts for cementing and pumping services, a Sonatrach document said.Schlumberger was awarded a $75 million contract, and Weatherford a $11 million contract, according to the document seen by Reuters. Baker Hughes has also secured a $50 million contract through its Algerian unit BJSP, in which Sonatrach owns 51 percent. The fourth contract worth $44 million has been awarded to the Emirati firm NPS. OPEC member Algeria has been trying to attract foreign oil companies to explore for oil to offset stagnant production. (Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, editing by Louise Heavens)

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