U.S. board urges helicopter manufacturers to add crash-data recorders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday urged six major manufacturers to equip turbine-powered helicopters with crash-resistant systems to record data, audio and images, after former NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash in January.

The NTSB asked Airbus Helicopters (AIR.PA), Bell – a unit of Textron Inc (TXT.N) Leonardo, MD Helicopters, Robinson Helicopter Co and Sikorsky, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) – to act after U.S. regulators have not backed mandating the equipment despite a series of recommendations since 2013.

Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people died when a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B helicopter slammed into a hillside outside Los Angeles in heavy fog on Jan. 26. The helicopter did not have a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder.

The safety board found that a “lack of recorded data hindered their understanding of several crashes that could have serious flight safety implications.”

The manufacturers did not immediately respond to requests for comment or declined immediate comment. The Federal Aviation Administration did not immediately comment.

Some helicopters are required by the FAA to have crash-resistant systems to record flight data and cockpit audio but none are required to have image-recording capability. Some operators have voluntarily equipped their helicopters with recording systems, including image-recording capability.

The NTSB cited seven helicopter investigations between 2011 and 2017, in which the lack of access to recorded data impeded their ability to identify and address potential safety issues.

The NTSB said 86% of 185 turbine-powered helicopter accidents it investigated between 2005 and 2017 had no recording equipment installed. The NTSB also asked manufacturers to provide a way to retrofit existing helicopters with recording systems.

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Donors promise Yemen $1.35 billion, falling short of U.N. target to save aid operations

DUBAI (Reuters) – International donors raised $1.35 billion in humanitarian aid for Yemen on Tuesday but the amount fell short of the United Nations’ target of $2.4 billion needed to save the world’s biggest aid operation from severe cutbacks.

The conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi group has left 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on aid. The country now faces the spread of the novel coronavirus among an acutely malnourished people.

Saudi Arabia, leader of the coalition fighting the Houthis since 2015 in a stalemated war, hosted a virtual U.N. conference to help counter funding shortages for aid operations in Yemen.

In total, donors pledged $1.35 billion to help aid agencies, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told the conference.

Saudi Arabia has already pledged $500 million, including $25 million to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jabir told Reuters.

Saudi has faced criticism from international rights groups for its condcut in the war, particularly a campaign of air strikes that has led to many civilian deaths and destroyed infrastructure.

Britain – which sells weapons to coalition members – and Germany announced respectively $201 million and $140 million. They called on the warring parties to immediately end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians.

The United States, which also backs the coalition, said last month it would extend $225 million in emergency aid for food.

Lowcock, asked about Saudi Arabia co-hosting the event, said Riyadh was a large donor and the United Nations would continue to call out warring parties on actions “they should not be doing”.

“Saudi Arabia keeps trying to whitewash its coalition’s role in the deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, but cohosting the funding event won’t fool anyone,” Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Lise Grande, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, told Reuters before the conference the operation would face “catastrophic cutbacks” if the donations fell short of $1.6 billion.

“We won’t be able to provide the food people need to survive, or the health care they need or the water or sanitation or the nutrition support which helps to keep 2 million malnourished children from dying,” she said.

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  • Factbox: U.N. programmes in Yemen at risk of going broke

Some $180 million of required funding is needed to combat coronavirus in a country with shattered health systems and inadequate testing capabilities.

Yemen has been mired in violence since the Houthis ousted the Saudi-backed government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the coalition to intervene a few months later.

Donors had cut funding to Houthi-held areas over concerns the group is hindering aid delivery, a charge it denies.

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Exclusive: Mexico probes Libre Abordo's oil-for-food pact with Venezuela

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Mexican government’s financial crime department is investigating Libre Abordo, a Mexico-based firm that received millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude under an oil-for-food pact, in a probe coordinated with U.S. agencies, the department’s chief, Santiago Nieto, told Reuters.

The Mexican Financial Intelligence Unit is also separately investigating several other companies, which Nieto declined to name, accused of speculating with food shipments to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government, he said. That probe is being assisted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Treasury’s Office for Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), Nieto said.

Libre Abordo and an affiliated Mexican company, Schlager Business Group, are among firms that have been under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Treasury and State departments for possible violations of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, four sources familiar with the probe told Reuters last month.

“We have an open investigation (into Libre Abordo). It has not been completed so I cannot give more information,” Nieto, whose unit reports to Mexico’s finance ministry, told Reuters in an interview last week at his Mexico City office.

The two companies have repeatedly denied any violations, saying their oil-for-food agreement with Venezuela, which was suspended by Maduro in May, was permitted under humanitarian waivers and the contract was with a government entity not included in the U.S. list of sanctioned entities.

Libre Abordo announced on Sunday it was bankrupt and said Venezuela had terminated its oil-for-food agreement under pressure from the United States.

On Monday, Nieto told Reuters the investigation would continue.

Libre Abordo told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday that it was unaware of any investigations in Mexico into its operations, but any such probe would “surely confirm the legality and transparency” of its activities.

WATER TRUCKS

The companies provided Venezuela with hundreds of water trucks in exchange for about 30 million barrels of Venezuelan crude and fuel through May, according to Venezuelan state-run oil firm PDVSA’s internal documents and information provided by the firms.

The deal threw a lifeline to Maduro, whose administration is struggling to pay for imports of everything from food to medicine amid an economic crisis.

Washington has imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s government and PDVSA in a bid to oust Maduro. U.S. authorities said in April they were investigating whether Mexican companies had violated those sanctions.

PDVSA did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

CLAP BOXES

Nieto’s unit is separately investigating a group of 25 people and companies from Mexico and Venezuela accused of speculating with food shipments under a program administered by Maduro’s government, known as CLAP, Nieto said.

The program – intended to tackle scarcity and hyperinflation – distributes subsidized food, most of it imported, to registered citizens across Venezuela.

Nieto’s unit has submitted three cases related to the probe to Mexico’s Attorney General’s office, while freezing the bank accounts of 19 companies allegedly linked to “laundering of Venezuelan money in Mexico,” he said.

He declined to name any of the individuals or companies involved.

Elliott Abrams, U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, told Reuters on Friday “there has been vast corruption involved in the (Maduro) regime’s purchase of food in Mexico.” He cited U.S. sanctions imposed in 2019 on several people, including members of Maduro’s family, for alleged fraud in the CLAP program.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Maduro’s government has repeatedly denied accusations of corruption, overpricing and poor quality of produce in the CLAP program.

An investigation into the CLAP shipments was launched in 2018 by former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration, which closed the case after imposing fines on the companies involved.

The reopened probe is being coordinated with the DEA and OFAC, which oversees the implementation of U.S. sanctions, Santiago Nieto said.

He said the scheme began with the creation of a company in Hong Kong – which he declined to name – owned by the Venezuelan government. This company then opened subsidiaries in Mexico, which bought poor-quality products to be sold at higher prices to the OPEC-member country.

“From our point of view, there was corruption at the attorney general’s office during the previous administration,” said Nieto, a 47-year old lawyer, explaining why the probe had been reopened. He did not provide further details.

Reuters was unable to reach former officials at the attorney general’s office for comment.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December 2018, has made fighting corruption one of his administration’s priorities. His predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, has rejected accusations of wrongdoing during his time in office.

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Iran fury: US sanctions could be broken AGAIN as Iran delivers more fuel to Venezuela

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It comes after five Iranian tankers stocked with fuel were sent to Venezuela in order to temporarily ease the South American nation’s fuel shortage. There had been concerns of a confrontation between Iran and the US if the US moved to interrupt the shipment.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in mid-May that there would be “consequences” if the US interrupted the shipment, according to Al Jazeera.

However, Iranian state media said that the fifth and final tanker arrived into Venezuelan waters yesterday, according to Bloomberg.

The Wall Street Journal reported in the middle of last month that the Trump administration was weighing up “legal steps” in response to the shipment, including potential new sanctions.

However, Abbas Mousavi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, told Iranian state TV on Monday this week that “Iran practices its free trade rights with Venezuela, and we are ready to send more ships if Caracas demands more supplies from Iran,” Al Jazeera reports.

And Ali Rabiei, government spokesman for Iran, said that the country’s fuel delivery to Venezuela was “not a political signal but a normal measure” based on free international trade, according to Bloomberg.

A further shipment of oil between the two nations would be likely to further worsen relations between them and the US.

The completed shipment is said to have contained around 1.5 million barrels of gasoline and other chemical components.

Caracas is the capital city of Venezuela, while Tehran is Iran’s capital.

US sanctions are in place on Venezuela which prevent it from importing certain types of fuel from abroad, Voice of America reports.

This is a big issue for Venezuela; despite the country sitting on the largest oil reserves in the world, it is currently in the midst of a fuel crisis.

However, the country is struggling to domestically produce the fuel that it needs. Critics say that this is because of government mismanagement.

But the government – headed by controversial president Nicolás Maduro – claims that US sanctions are to blame.

The BBC reports that the US sanctions occurred at a time when the country was already struggling.

Footage shows cars forming huge queues at petrol stations, while some resort to buying fuel privately on the street.

According to Voice of America, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro said in a recent speech that “Venezuela has the right to buy in the world whatever it wants to buy.”

Further confusing matters is the fact that Washington, as well as many western countries including the UK, back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.

They consider Guaido to be the legitimate leader of Venezuela after he challenged Maduro’s presidency and declared himself interim president in January 2019.

Iran is also under US sanctions, following the Trump administration’s controversial pull-out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

The deal had previously seen an easing of sanctions from the US as well as the EU and UN as long as Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities.

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U.S. Senate leader hopes for quick passage of House coronavirus small business bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday he hoped the Senate would soon pass legislation already passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives easing terms of the coronavirus small-business loan program.

“I hope and anticipate the Senate will soon take up and pass legislation that just passed the House, by an overwhelming vote of 417 to one, to further strengthen the Paycheck Protection Program so it continues working for small businesses that need our help,” McConnell, a Republican, said.

Under the House-passed bill, businesses receiving forgivable loans under this new program would have 24 weeks, instead of the current eight weeks, to utilize the loans intended to help keep businesses operating and retain employees.

The legislation also contains other changes to provide more flexibility to the program as small businesses try to reopen following months of closures or curtailed operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurants and hotels are among the largest beneficiaries of the Paycheck Protection Program created in late March.

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Wall Street closes higher as recovery signs soothe protest, pandemic worries

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. stocks posted gains on Monday as signs of U.S. economic recovery helped offset jitters over increasingly violent social unrest amid an ongoing pandemic and rising U.S.-China tensions.

All three major stock indexes began the month with gains of less than 1% on the heels of a strong May rally.

Market leaders Facebook Inc (FB.O), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Amazon.com (AMZN.O) provided the biggest lift to the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, while Boeing Co (BA.N) gave the Dow its biggest boost.

“Certainly the pace of the stock market recovery can’t continue at the pace it has been,” said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management in Chicago. “I’m stunned at how well the market’s been doing.”

The White House called for “law and order” after six nights of widespread, violent demonstrations triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, even as the country reels from the economic effects of pandemic-related lockdowns.

“Most investors are saying (the protests) aren’t going to destroy the economy,” Nolte added. “It’s a roadblock but it’s not as big as a pandemic.”

The unrest has prompted retailers such as Target Corp (TGT.N) and Walmart Inc (WMT.N) to shutter a portion of their stores, while Amazon.com (AMZN.O) has scaled back deliveries.

Further weighing on sentiment, China ordered state-owned firms to halt purchases of U.S. soybeans and pork, in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would end special treatment for Hong Kong following China’s move to tighten security measures in the territory.

But economic data boosted investor sentiment, with the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) purchasing managers’ index (PMI) showing the contraction of factory activity was slowing.

A fuller picture of the economic damage wrought by pandemic-related lockdowns is expected on Friday, when the Labor Department’s jobs report is expected to show unemployment skyrocketing to 19.7%.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI rose 91.91 points, or 0.36%, to 25,475.02, the S&P 500 .SPX gained 11.42 points, or 0.38%, to 3,055.73 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC added 62.18 points, or 0.66%, to 9,552.05.

Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, all but healthcare .SPXHC ended the session in positive territory.

Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) fell 7.1% after the drugmaker’s breast cancer treatment was deemed unlikely to meet the main goal of a late-stage study.

Gilead Sciences Inc (GILD.O) slid 3.4% following mixed results in a late-stage study of its COVID-19 drug candidate, remdesivir.

Meanwhile, rivals firms CTI Biopharma Corp (CTIC.O) and Proteostasis Therapeutics Inc (PTI.O) advanced 16.7% and 8.4%, respectively following reports that their potential COVID-19 treatments showed promise.

Shares in cosmetics company Coty Inc (COTY.N) jumped 20.9% after the appointment of Chairman Peter Harf as its new chief executive officer.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 3.26-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.58-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

The S&P 500 posted 20 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 98 new highs and 10 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 9.95 billion shares, compared with the 11.30 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

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WHO and other experts say no evidence of COVID-19 losing potency

LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) – World Health Organization experts and a range of other scientists said on Monday there was no evidence to support an assertion by a high profile Italian doctor that the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic has been losing potency.

Professor Alberto Zangrillo, head of intensive care at Italy’s San Raffaele Hospital in Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy’s COVID-19 epidemic, on Sunday told state television that the new coronavirus “clinically no longer exists”.

But WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, as well as several other experts on viruses and infectious diseases, said Zangrillo’s comments were not supported by scientific evidence.

There is no data to show the new coronavirus is changing significantly, either in its form of transmission or in the severity of the disease it causes, they said.

“In terms of transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of severity, that has not changed,” Van Kerkhove told reporters.

It is not unusual for viruses to mutate and adapt as they spread, and the debate on Monday highlights how scientists are monitoring and tracking the new virus. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed more than 370,000 people and infected more than 6 million.

Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said major studies looking at genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 did not support the idea that it was becoming less potent, or weakening in any way.

“With data from more than 35,000 whole virus genomes, there is currently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severity,” he said in an emailed comment.

Zangrillo, well known in Italy as the personal doctor of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said his comments were backed up by a study conducted by a fellow scientist, Massimo Clementi, which Zangrillo said would be published next week.

Zangrillo told Reuters: “We have never said that the virus has changed, we said that the interaction between the virus and the host has definitely changed.”

He said this could be due either to different characteristics of the virus, which he said they had not yet identified, or different characteristics in those infected.

The study by Clementi, who is director of the microbiology and virology laboratory of San Raffaele, compared virus samples from COVID-19 patients at the Milan-based hospital in March with samples from patients with the disease in May.

“The result was unambiguous: an extremely significant difference between the viral load of patients admitted in March compared to” those admitted last month, Zangrillo said.

Oscar MacLean, an expert at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, said suggestions that the virus was weakening were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds.”

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Marriott opens all hotels in China, sees steady U.S. recovery: CEO

(Reuters) – Marriott International (MAR.O) has reopened all its hotels in China and is seeing a steady recovery in the United States, its biggest market, Chief Executive Officer Arne Sorenson said on Monday.

Shares of the hotel operator, which owns the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis luxury brands, rose as much as 8.1% to $95.64 in afternoon trading after Sorenson said the occupancy rate in China was 40% currently, up from 7% to 8% in February, when COVID-19 started spreading.

“It’s not just leisure travel growing, but it is business travel. Chinese are flying again,” Sorenson said at a Goldman Sachs conference.

In the United States, Marriott’s hotels that remained open crossed the 20% occupancy threshold and continue to see an improvement, Sorenson said.

“The (U.S.) hotels that are performing strongest are those that are most dependent on drive to business.”

The company had an occupancy rate of about 12% in North America in April, with 16% of its hotels closed temporarily.

However, Sorenson warned that it could take Marriott a few years to get back to levels of occupancy seen in 2019, when its global occupancy rate was 71%.

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Russia to vote on July 1 on constitutional changes that could extend Putin's rule

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms will be held on July 1, announcing a new date for a delayed ballot that could extend his rule until 2036.

Putin postponed the original vote, which had been set for April 22, because of the coronavirus outbreak, saying the health and safety of citizens was his top priority as the global coronavirus pandemic worsened.

But he told a government meeting on Monday that the situation had broadly stabilised and the vote could go ahead.

The number of coronavirus infections in Moscow has dropped sharply, he said, allowing the capital to start easing some restrictions.

The changes that Russians will vote on, already approved by parliament and Russia’s Constitutional Court, would reset Putin’s presidential term tally to zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back six year terms until 2036 if reelected.

“I really hope the country’s citizens will take part actively in the vote on the amendments to the constitution,” Putin, whose current term ends in 2024, told a televised government meeting.

Critics have dismissed the vote as a constitutional coup which they fear will be rigged and urged voters to stay away or to reject the proposed changes.

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Spanish telecom operator MasMovil agrees $3.3 billion private equity bid

MADRID (Reuters) – KKR (KKR.N), Cinven and Providence said on Monday they had made an agreed 2.96 billion euro ($3.3 billion) bid for Spanish telecoms operator MasMovil (MASM.MC).

In the first European take-private attempt by major buyout firms since the coronavirus crisis struck, the private equity trio said holders of 29.56% of MasMovil’s stock had already agreed to sell for 22.50 euros per share.

Shares in MasMovil, which was founded in 1997 and sells fixed line, mobile and Internet services, hit 22.80 euros at 1015 GMT, around 22% higher than their Friday close and making them top gainers on Spain’s main index .IBEX..

MasMovil has built up a position in the fiercely competitive Spanish market in recent years by buying Pepephone and Yoigo and the bid for it follows Telefonica’s (TEF.MC) deal to merge its British business with Liberty Global’s (LBTYA.O) Virgin Media.

European telecoms operators have struggled to boost profit growth in a crowded market and in Spain, Euskaltel (EKTL.MC) has launched a service under the Virgin brand to take on Telefonica, France’s Orange (ORAN.PA) and Britain’s Vodafone (VOD.L).

MasMovil Chief Executive Meinrad Spenger said in a statement that it had signed an agreement with the bidders on a deal which he said would be “beneficial for the shareholders and other stakeholders in the company”.

It added that the bidders have said they would maintain continuity in MasMovil’s strategy, staff and executive team.

Although the offer price is below a five-year high of 25.52 euros hit in March 2018 and 23.68 late last year, it is well above the 12.20 euros it reached in March when Spain was reporting hundreds of coronavirus deaths each day.

The bid for MasMovil is conditional on acceptance from at least 50% of shareholders, the funds said.

Morgan Stanley, Barclays and BNP Paribas guaranteed financing for the deal, the offer document said. Morgan Stanley and Barclays also advised the private equity consortium, a source close to the deal said.

($1 = 0.8977 euros)

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