Putin sees no threat from NATO expansion, warns against military build-up

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the U.S.-led alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.

Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 1999, has repeatedly cited the post-Soviet enlargement of the NATO alliance eastwards toward Russia's borders as a reason for the conflict of Ukraine.

But Putin, who has in recent months rattled Russia's nuclear sabre at the West over Ukraine, made an unusually calm response to Finland and Sweden's bids to join NATO, the biggest strategic consequence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine to date.

"As to enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states - none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion (of NATO) to include these countries," Putin told the leaders of a Russian-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states.

Putin, though, laced his newly found tranquillity on NATO with a warning.

"But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response," Putin said.

"What that (response) will be - we will see what threats are created for us," Putin told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The Kremlin chief's remarkably serene response to one of Russia's most sensitive geopolitical worries - the post-Soviet enlargement of NATO - contrasted to some tougher language from his foreign ministry and senior allies.

Before Putin spoke, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the West should have no illusions that Moscow would simply put up with the Nordic expansion of NATO. Those comments were still being played up on state television.

One of Putin's closest allies, former President Dmitry Medvedev, said last month that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad if Finland and Sweden joined NATO.

NO PROBLEM NATO

Speaking in the Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin read a short speech that touched on NATO and scolded the United States for creating biological laboratories in the former Soviet Union.

Putin said Russia had evidence that the United States had been trying to create components of biological weapons in Ukraine, a claim Washington and Kyiv have denied.

Besides NATO's "endless expansion policy", Putin said the alliance was reaching far beyond its Euro-Atlantic remit - a trend he said that Russia was following carefully.

Moscow says NATO threatens Russia and that Washington has repeatedly ignored the Kremlin's concerns about the security of its borders in the West, the source of two devastating European invasions in 1812 and 1941.

Putin says the "special military operation" in Ukraine is necessary because the United States was using Ukraine to threaten Russia through NATO enlargement and Moscow had to defend against the persecution of Russian-speaking people.

Putin says assurances were given as the Soviet Union collapsed that the alliance would not expand eastwards toward Russia, a promise he says was a lie.

The United States and NATO dispute that such assurances were given explicitly. Kyiv and its Western backers say the claim of persecution of Russian speakers has been exaggerated by Moscow into a pretext for an unprovoked war against a sovereign state.

The West says NATO - an alliance of 30 countries including former Warsaw Pact republics such as Poland and Hungary as well as nuclear powers such as the United States, Britain and France - is purely defensive.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Ed Osmond, Nick Macfie and Lisa Shumaker)

Some US inmates released under COVID protocols challenge orders to return to prison

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nordia Tompkins was serving a seven-year sentence for a drug charge in June 2020 when the U.S. federal Bureau of Prisons released her to home confinement under the terms of a law passed by Congress to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The 37-year-old mother of two began settling back into her life north of New York City, pursuing studies for a new career in cosmetology. That changed a year later when she stopped at a store to fix her broken cell phone, an errand the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ruled violated the terms of her confinement, though Tompkins said she told officials of her plans.

She was ordered back to prison.

"I got my daughter out of foster care back into my care. I got a job and I re-enrolled in school," she wrote to the BOP. "I have worked so hard to settle back into society the right way."

Tompkins is one of three federal inmates asking courts to release them back to home confinement under the terms of the 2020 Cares Act that authorized their release. They contend the New York halfway house run by GEO Group sent them back to prison over minor infractions without any chance to contest the allegations.

The outcome of the three cases could open the door for future legal challenges by more than 300 other inmates whose home confinement was revoked over minor infractions, lawyers involved in the cases said.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment beyond the department's court filings in the case, while a GEO Group spokesperson referred questions to the BOP.

Prosecutors fighting to keep Tompkins locked up said she and similarly situated inmates have "no protected liberty interest" and that BOP's placement decisions are "expressly insulated from judicial review."

But attorneys for Tompkins and two other women who were sent back to prison after testing positive one time each for marijuana said the BOP's disciplinary approach is at odds with the Biden's administration's goal of lowering mass incarceration and reducing sentences for low-level offenders.

"These cases could help shed light on the black box of how the BOP goes about deciding who to re-imprison, and a favorable ruling could certainly lead to additional litigation around the country," said Marisol Orihuela, a Yale University law professor who along with Sarah Russell of Quinnipiac University represents Tompkins and the two other women.

'THAT'S NOT AMERICA'

More than 10,000 inmates were released to home confinement under terms of the law, according to the BOP.

As of May 3, 406 inmates released home under the law were returned to prison, 199 due to alcohol or drug violations and another 132 for various administrative violations, the BOP said.

Virginia Lallave and Eva Cardoza, also represented by Orihuela and Russell, both reside in New York, where marijuana is legal under state law.

Lallave, who is waiting for a court ruling, was permitted by a judge to stay home while her case is reviewed. Prosecutors said in court filings that she received advanced notice of the disciplinary charges against her.

Cardoza, who has a teenage daughter and helps care for her fiance's four children, has been back behind bars since June 2021.

Her fiance, Eric Alvarez, said she had not used marijuana, and that he believes the test was inaccurate, but that she was not given a chance to contest it.

"Her due process was violated. She wasn't even given an opportunity to go to a hearing or to contest what she was being accused of," Alvarez said in a phone interview. "That's not America."

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)

Buffalo's Black community stunned after being visited by 'evil'

By Jenna Zucker

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) - The Tops Friendly Market chosen by the white gunman to launch his deadly racist attack on Saturday served as an anchor of sorts for the Black community along Buffalo's Jefferson Avenue, one of the few places where residents could buy groceries.

Now even that modest sanctuary no longer feels safe to many Black people in Buffalo, which takes pride in its nickname "the City of Good Neighbors."

Not after 18-year-old Payton Gendron, dressed in camouflage and body armor and wielding a rifle with a high-capacity magazine, drove into the supermarket parking lot in broad daylight and opened fire, killing 10 and wounding three others. Eleven of the 13 victims were Black.

"Somebody knew enough to know the one store our community has," said Denise Glenn, an activist from VOICE Buffalo, speaking to the clutch of about 100 people who gathered on Sunday morning outside Tops, which had been cordoned off by police tape and adorned with flowers and makeshift memorials.

Glenn was alluding to the chilling news that the gunman had driven for hours from his home to target the store, having selected it because of the neighborhood's high concentration of Black residents, according to authorities.

"That was an evil, racist, white supremacist," Reverend Darius Pridgen said from the pulpit at True Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday. "He literally looked for a zip code that had the highest concentration of African Americans."

The worshipers at the predominantly Black church, about a five-minute drive from Tops, included family of the victims and some of those who were at the store when the rampage unfolded.

Rev. Pridgen invited members of the congregation who were touched by the shooting to come to the front of the church and share their experiences. One by one, they came forward.

Charles Everhart Sr., 65, told his fellow worshipers that his grandson Zaire Goodman, a 20-year-old Tops employee, was shot in the neck but somehow survived. "He was pushing the carts back to the store and he was one of the first to get hit," Everhart said.

At the vigil outside the supermarket, anger and stunned disbelief mixed with feelings of helplessness and grief. The crowd sang "Amazing Grace." Many broke down into tears.

'SO MUCH TRAUMA'

Employees of the store huddled together, trying to comfort one another. Volunteers grilled food and handed out water. Dozens of police officers milled around, and the surrounding blocks remained sealed off, reinforcing a sense of dread and disruption.

Tyrell Ford, 36, lead community organizer of Voices Buffalo, a non-profit group that organized the vigil, said he was still trying to work through what had happened.

"There's so much trauma in the Black community and this is the time to start the process of grieving," he said. "This causes mental health problems and trust issues in our community. You can see how vibrant our community is."

The calculated nature of the attack, as described by law enforcement, may well have amplified the siege mentality being felt by some local residents.

A document circulating online that appeared to have been written by the killer sketched out a to-do list for the attack, including purchasing tactical equipment and testing his upload speeds for the livestream.

In addition, a 180-page manifesto outlining 'The Great Replacement Theory' - the racist conspiracy theory that white people are being replaced by minorities in the United States and other countries - also circulated online, reportedly authored by Gendron.

Julie Harwell, 33, was one of those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time on Saturday afternoon: shopping for birthday party supplies at Tops with her daughter and the girl's father. Then the gunshots started.

"I thought it was just a normal, neighborhood shooting, so we ducked," Harwell said. "Once it didn't stop, something told me to get up and start running because I heard footsteps. He was shooting people twice to make sure they were dead."

"I saw a lot of stuff I’d never seen," she said, "and that I thought my daughter would never see."

(Reporting by Jenna Zucker in Buffalo; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Grim chronology of mass shootings in the United States

(Reuters) - A white teenager dressed in camouflage and body armor opened fire on Saturday in a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people in an attack authorities are calling an act of “violent extremism” motivated by race.

Authorities say the white man drove about 200 miles (320 km)from his home outside Binghamton to the store where he staged the apparently random attack and live-streamed the carnage on the social media platform Twitch.

The rampage is the latest in a string of high-profile mass shootings in the United States this year, the second in the state of New York in as many months.

Below is a list of recent major mass shootings:

\- NEW YORK CITY, April 12, 2022 - In one of the most violent attacks in the history of New York's transit system, 23 people were wounded when a 62-year-old man activated a smoke bomb and opened fire in a subway. He was taken into custody the next day.

\- MICHIGAN, Nov. 30, 2021 - Four students were killed and seven other people were wounded after a teenager opened fire at a high school in Oxford, Michigan. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States last year.

\- INDIANAPOLIS, April 16, 2021 - A former FedEx employee who had been under psychiatric care shot eight people dead and injured several others at an Indiana facility of the shipping company before taking his own life, authorities said.

\- CALIFORNIA, March 31, 2021 - Four people were killed, one of them a child, in a shooting at an office building in suburban Los Angeles before the suspect was taken into custody.

\- COLORADO, March 22, 2021 - A mass shooting at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado left 10 people dead, including a police officer.

\- ATLANTA, March 16, 2021 - Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were shot dead in a string of attacks at day spas in and around Atlanta. A male suspect was arrested.

\- MILWAUKEE, Feb 26, 2020- A gunman opened fire at the Molson Coors Beverage Co brewing complex in Milwaukee, killing five co-workers before he committed suicide.

\- ILLINOIS, Feb. 15, 2019 - A man opened fire at an Illinois factory after being fired, killing five workers before he was slain by police.

\- EL PASO, Aug. 3, 2019 - A man fatally shot 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. A statement, believed to have been written by the suspect, called the attack "a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas." Authorities arrested the shooter.

\- DAYTON, Aug. 4, 2019 - A gunman dressed in body armor opened fire in downtown Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people including his sister. Police killed the shooter.

\- VIRGINIA BEACH, May 31, 2019 - A disgruntled public utility employee opened fire on co-workers at a municipal building in Virginia, killing 12 people before he was fatally shot by police.

\- THOUSAND OAKS, Nov. 7, 2018 - A former Marine combat veteran killed 12 people in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He then killed himself.

\- TREE OF LIFE, Oct. 27, 2018 - A gunman burst into the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh and fired on congregants gathered for a Sabbath service, killing 11.

\- SANTA FE, Texas, May 18, 2018 - A 17-year-old student opened fire at his high school outside Houston, killing nine students and a teacher, before surrendering to officers.

\- PARKLAND, Feb. 14, 2018 - A former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and educators.

\- SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Nov. 5, 2017 - A man thrown out of the U.S. Air Force for beating his wife and child shot 26 people fatally at a rural Texas church where his in-laws worshipped before killing himself.

\- LAS VEGAS, Oct. 1, 2017 - A gunman opened fire on a country music festival from a 32nd-floor hotel suite, killing 58 people before taking his own life.

\- ORLANDO, June 12, 2016 - A gunman fatally shot 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub, before he was shot dead by police.

\- SAN BERNARDINO, Dec. 2, 2015 - A husband and wife killed 14 people at a workplace holiday party in San Bernardino in Southern California before dying in a shootout with police.

\- ROSEBURG, Oct 1, 2015 - A gunman stalked onto an Oregon college campus and opened fire, killing nine people before police shot him to death.

\- CHARLESTON, June 17, 2015 - A White supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was sentenced to death.

\- WASHINGTON, D.C., Sept. 16, 2013 - A former Navy reservist working as a government contractor killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. He was shot dead by police.

\- NEWTOWN, Dec. 14, 2012 - A heavily armed gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children from five- to 10-years old, in a rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

\- AURORA, July 20, 2012 - A masked gunman killed 12 people at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. He received multiple life sentences.

\- FORT HOOD, Nov. 5, 2009 - An army major and psychiatrist opened fire at Fort Hood, a U.S. Army base in Texas, killing 13 people.

(Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

McConnell sees Wednesday US Senate vote on $40 billion Ukraine aid bill

(Reuters) -U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday he expected the Senate to vote on Wednesday to approve about $40 billion in proposed aid to help Ukraine resist Russia's invasion after holding a related procedural vote on Monday.

"We expect to invoke cloture - hopefully by a significant margin - on the motion to proceed on Monday, which would set us up to approve the supplemental on Wednesday," McConnell told reporters on a conference call from Stockholm after visiting the Ukrainian capital on Saturday. He was referring to a procedural "cloture" vote that caps further debate on a matter at 30 hours.

President Joe Biden requested $33 billion in aid for Ukraine on April 28, including over $20 billion in military assistance. The U.S. House of Representatives boosted the sum to roughly $40 billion, adding more military and humanitarian aid.

Speaking from the capital of Sweden, which along with Finland plans to seek membership in NATO, McConnell voiced strong support for both countries joining the 30-member Western military alliance created to deter Soviet aggression.

"They have very capable militaries, both of them," McConnell said. "They will be important additions to NATO if they choose to join, and I think the United States ought to be first in line to ratify the treaty for both these countries to join."

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; editing by Matthew Lewis and Jonathan Oatis)

Sweden to seek NATO membership as ruling party drops 73-year opposition

By Niklas Pollard and Simon Johnson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will seek broad support for an application to join NATO on Monday, she announced on Sunday after her party dropped its long-standing opposition to membership in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Joining NATO was a distant prospect just months ago, but Russia's attack on its neighbour has prompted both Sweden and Finland to rethink their security needs and seek safety in the military alliance they stood apart from during the Cold War.

The war in Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation but which has already killed thousands and displaced millions, shattered long-standing security policies and fuelled a wave of public support for NATO membership in both countries.

Following internal debates over the past week among the leadership of the Social Democrats, the biggest party in every election for the past century, Andersson said NATO entry was "the best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people".

"Non-alignment has served us well, but our conclusion is that it will not serve us as well in the future," she said.

Supporters of joining the alliance will now command a broad majority in Sweden's Riksdag with much of the opposition already in favour, and a formal application by Andersson's minority government will follow.

In Finland, President Sauli Niinisto confirmed the country's intentions to apply on Sunday, saying the region would benefit.

"We get security and we also extend it through the Baltic sea region and the entire alliance," he told reporters gathered in the presidential palace in Helsinki.

At peace since the days of the Napoleonic wars, Sweden has been more reluctant to cast aside its non-alignment than Finland, which fought the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Popular support for entry jumped to more than 60% in Sweden from about 40% before the war.

"I didn't think it was necessary before but now it feels better to have countries that would come to our defence," said pastry shop worker Cecilia Wikstrom, 32.

TENSE WAIT

A membership application will herald a tense wait during the months it takes to be ratified by all NATO members - Turkey has already voiced its objections, though the alliance and the White House have said they were confident any security concerns could be addressed in the interim. [nL2N2X70BZ]

Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Sunday urged NATO allies to move fast to integrate new members.

Finland's Niinisto expressed his readiness on Sunday to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan over his concerns. As a NATO member, Turkey can veto new members.

Both countries are already NATO partners, having taken part in allied exercises for years, and cast off strict neutrality on joining the European Union together in 1995. But they have until now reasoned peace was best kept by not publicly choosing sides.

Andersson cautioned on Sunday that the country would be "vulnerable" during the application process, before it is covered by the alliance's collective defence clause. She did not specify what sort of threats were a cause of concern.

Russia has warned Sweden and Finland of "serious consequences" and that it could deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the European exclave of Kaliningrad if Sweden and Finland become NATO members.

The decision to slot in under the NATO umbrella would represent a setback for Moscow, with the war in Ukraine triggering the very kind of enlargement of the alliance on Russia's borders that Moscow says it took up arms to prevent.

In the wake of Finland's leaders announcing their determination to join, the Kremlin said it represented a hostile move that threatened Russia, warning vaguely of "retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature".

Sweden has been rebuilding its military over the last decade, particularly since Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, buying U.S.-made Patriot air defence missile systems and basing troops on the Baltic island of Gotland.

A cross-party parliamentary review on Friday said joining NATO would boost Sweden's national security and help stabilise the Nordic and Baltic regions.

(Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Simon Johnson and Johan AhlanderEditing by Frank Jack Daniel, David Clarke, Peter Graff)

Pope declares 10 new saints, including Dutch priest killed by Nazis

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Sunday declared 10 people saints of the Roman Catholic Church, including an anti-Nazi Dutch priest murdered in the Dachau concentration camp and a French hermit monk assassinated in Algeria.

The 85-year-old pope, who has been using a wheel chair due to knee and leg pain, was driven to the altar at the start of the ceremony, which was attended by more than 50,000 people in St Peter's Square. It was the one of the largest gatherings there since the easing of COVID restrictions earlier this year.

Francis limped to a chair behind the altar but stood to individually greet some participants. He read his homily while seated but stood during other parts of the Mass and read his homily in a strong voice, often going off script, and walked to greet cardinals afterwards.

Francis read the canonisation proclamations while seated in front of the altar and 10 cheers went up in the crowd as he officially declared each of 10 saints.

Titus Brandsma, who was a member of the Carmelite religious order and served as president of the Catholic university at Nijmegen, began speaking out against Nazi ideology even before World War Two and the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940.

During the Nazi occupation, he spoke out against anti-Jewish laws. He urged Dutch Catholic newspapers not to print Nazi propaganda.

He was arrested in 1942 and held in Dutch jails before being taken to Dachau, near Munich, where he was subjected to biological experimentation and killed by lethal injection the same year at the age of 61. He is considered a martyr, having died because of what the Church calls "in hatred of the faith".

The other well-known new saint is Charles de Foucauld, a 19th century French nobleman, soldier, explorer, and geographer who later experienced a personal conversion and became a priest, living as a hermit among the poor Berbers in North Africa.

He published the first Tuareg-French dictionary and translated Tuareg poems into French. De Foucauld was killed during a kidnapping attempt by Bedouin tribal raiders in Algeria in 1916.

The other eight who were declared saints on Sunday included Devasahayam Pillai, who was killed for converting to Christianity in 18th century India, and Cesar de Bus, a 16th century French priest who founded a religious order.

The others were two Italian priests, three Italian nuns and a French nun, all of whom who lived between the 16th and 20th centuries.

"These saints favoured the spiritual and social growth of their nations and the whole human family, while sadly in the world today, distances are widening, tensions and wars are increasing," Francis said after the Mass.

World leaders had to be "protagonists of peace and not of war," he said in an apparent reference to Ukraine.

Miracles have been attributed to all the new saints.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that only God performs miracles, but that saints, who are believed to be with God in heaven, intercede on behalf of people who pray to them.

Several other Catholics killed in Nazi concentration camps have already been declared saints. They include Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe and Sister Edith Stein, a German nun who converted from Judaism. Both were killed in the Auschwitz camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Finnish president confirms country will apply to join NATO

By Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland's President Sauli Niinisto confirmed on Sunday that his country would apply for membership of the NATO military alliance, in a historic policy shift prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow, which shares a 1,300 km (800 mile) border with Finland, has said it would be a mistake for Helsinki to join the 30-strong transatlantic alliance and that it would harm bilateral ties.

Sweden is also expected to follow suit as public support for membership has grown amid security concerns.

Sunday's announcement comes after Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday they both favoured NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) membership, giving a green light for the country to apply.

"Today, we, the president and the government's foreign policy committee, have together decided that Finland ... will apply for NATO membership," Niinisto told reporters in the presidential palace in Helsinki.

Niinisto called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to tell him of Finland's plans to join the alliance. Putin said such a move would hurt Russian-Finnish relations.

"I, or Finland, are not known to sneak around and quietly disappear behind a corner. It is better to say it straight what already has been said, also to the concerned party and that is what I wanted to do," he said about his call on Sunday.

The Finnish president expressed readiness to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan after Ankara raised objections to the Nordic countries joining NATO.

As a NATO member, Turkey could veto their applications.

Niinisto said he was "a bit confused" about what he said was a shift in Turkey's stance. "What we need now is a very clear answer, I am prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised."

(Reporting by Essi Lehto; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by David Clarke)

Women's rights activists hold 'Ban Off Our Bodies' rallies for abortion rights

Thousands of abortion rights supporters rallied across the United States on Saturday, angered by the prospect that the Supreme Court may soon overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide a half century ago.

The protests kicked off what organizers predict will be a "summer of rage" ignited by the May 2 disclosure of a draft opinion showing the court's conservative majority ready to reverse the 1973 ruling that established a woman's constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy.

The court's final ruling, which could return the power to ban abortion to state legislatures, is expected in June. About half of the 50 states are poised to ban or severely restrict abortion almost immediately should Roe be struck down.

"If you can't choose whether you want to have a baby, if that's not a fundamental right, then I don't know what is," said Brita Van Rossum, 62, a landscape designer who traveled from suburban Philadelphia to join the abortion-rights rally in the nation's capital, her first ever.

Protesters marching under the slogan "Bans Off Our Bodies" took to the streets from New York and Atlanta to Chicago and Los Angeles in a show of outrage that Democrats hope will help galvanize support for their party and blunt projected Republican gains in the November elections.

The day's largest demonstration unfolded in Washington, where a crowd that organizers estimated at 20,000 people massed at the Washington Monument and braved a light drizzle to march along the National Mall past the U.S. Capitol to the Supreme Court itself.

The rally erupted in shouts of "Shame" and "Bans off our bodies" as the marchers neared the marbled columns of the courthouse.

Surrounded by police was a group of a few dozen counter-demonstrators holding signs that read: "End abortion violence" and "Women's rights begin in the womb."

The encounter between the two sides grew tense at times. Abortion rights protesters shouted, “Go home!,” and one man whacked a counter-demonstrator in the head with his poster after profanities were exchanged. As the-anti abortion protesters left, they waved at the crowd, and a few called out, “Bye, Roe v. Wade!”

The rally appeared to remain otherwise peaceful, though at least one counter-protester was seen being escorted away by a security guard in Washington earlier in the day.

'WOMEN AS OBJECTS'

The mood was likewise energetic, and sometimes contentious, in New York City as thousands of abortion rights supporters crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, where they were confronted by a half dozen anti-abortion activists.

Police officers arrived to maintain space between the two groups as they traded taunts and vulgarities. The crowd thinned out in early afternoon as rain fell over the city.

Elizabeth Holtzman, an 80-year-old former congresswoman who represented New York from 1973 to 1981, said that the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion "treats women as objects, as less than full human beings."

Malcolm DeCesare, a 34-year-old critical care nurse who attended a Los Angeles rally under sunny skies, said abolishing the right to a legal abortion could put lives at risk as women seek unsafe alternatives.

Celebrity women's rights attorney Gloria Allred told the crowd about her own "back alley abortion" as a young woman when she became pregnant from a rape at gunpoint before Roe. "I almost died," she recounted. "I was left in a bathtub in a pool of my own blood, hemorrhaging."

U.S. Representative Sean Casten and his 15-year-old daughter, Audrey, were among several thousand abortion rights supporters who gathered at a park in Chicago.

Casten, whose district includes Chicago's western suburbs, told Reuters it was "horrible" that the Supreme Court's conservative majority would consider taking away the right to an abortion and "condemn women to this lesser status."

At an abortion rights protest in Atlanta, more than 400 people had assembled in a small park in front of the state capitol, while about a dozen counter-protesters stood on a nearby sidewalk.

Holding a sign that read, "Stop Child Sacrifice," 23-year-old Bria Marshall, a recent public health graduate from Kennesaw State University, acknowledged her group's smaller turnout.

"Jesus had just a small group, but his message was more powerful," Marshall said.

While the Supreme Court leak thrust abortion back to the forefront of U.S. politics, it was unclear how the issue will play out in the coming elections.

Voters will be weighing a host of priorities such as inflation and may be skeptical of Democrats' ability to protect abortion access after legislation that would enshrine abortion rights in federal law failed.

Many of those marching on Saturday expressed fear that rolling back abortion rights would lead to an erosion of civil liberties generally.

"This is just an affront to everything I believe that we're supposed to be about," Los Angeles musician Joel Altshuler, 73, said. "If a woman has no control over what is going to happen to her own body, then we're back in 1850 not 1950.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Washington; Additional reporting by Eric Cox in Chicago, Maria Caspani in New York, Costas Pitas in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Ted Hesson and Steve Gorman; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Osterman, Mark Porter and Grant McCool)

Top Senate Republican meets Zelenskiy, Russia says U.S. involvement dangerous

(Reuters) -Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Saturday with other Republican senators and met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for talks.

McConnell is pressing Republican Senator Rand Paul to end his opposition to a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, which has overwhelming support from both major parties.

Zelenskiy hailed what he said was a powerful signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine and the strength of relations between the two nations.

"We discussed many areas of support for our state, including in defence and finance, as well as strengthening sanctions against Russia," he said in a video address, adding he stressed the need for Russia to be designated a terrorist state.

Moscow's ambassador to the United States warned against closer cooperation with Ukraine, saying situation in the region was "extremely dangerous", Tass news agency reported.

"The United States is getting dragged ever deeper into a conflict with the most unpredictable consequences for

relations between the two nuclear powers," Tass quoted Anatoly Antonov as telling Russian television on Saturday.

McConnell was accompanied by fellow Senators Susan Collins, John Barrasso and John Cornyn.

Dozens of foreign politicians and celebrities have visited Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February to show their support. President Joe Biden's wife, college professor Jill Biden, made an unannounced trip to Kyiv last Sunday.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

Building fire kills 27 in New Delhi, police arrest company owners

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police in New Delhi arrested two people suspected of flouting fire safety regulations on Saturday after at least 27 people died in a blaze at a building housing a manufacturing unit for surveillance cameras.

Rescue teams worked overnight to clear the burnt out four-storey building near a railway station in the western suburbs.

More than 75 people were in the building when the fire broke out on Friday evening. Some jumped from windows to save themselves, according to eyewitnesses, and firefighters broke the glass and rescued people with ropes.

Authorities said fire started in an office on the first floor and spread rapidly. Two owners of the company were arrested as part of probe to identify suspected safety violations.

Offering condolences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised 200,000 rupees ($2,580) in compensation for the victims' next-of-kin.

(Reporting by Anushree Fadnavis; Writing by Nupur Anand; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

North Korea's Kim says COVID 'great turmoil', 21 new deaths reported

By Heekyong Yang and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Saturday the spread of COVID-19 had thrust his country into "great turmoil" and called for an all-out battle to overcome the outbreak, as 21 daily deaths were reported among people with fever.

North Korea this week acknowledged for the first time a COVID outbreak, imposing a nationwide lockdown. But there was no sign of a rigorous testing or treatment campaign in the isolated country's rudimentary healthcare system.

"The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding," Kim told an emergency meeting of the ruling Workers' Party, according to state news agency KCNA.

"But if we don't lose focus in implementing epidemic policy and maintain strong organisation power and control based on single-minded unity of the party and the people and strengthen our epidemic battle, we can more than overcome the crisis."

The numbers probably represent a fraction of total cases, given North Korea's limited testing capabilities, and could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries without a vaccination campaign, experts have said.

The outbreak could also deepen a dire food crisis, with the lockdown hampering anti-drought efforts and mobilisation of labour.

The Workers' Party meeting heard reports of about 280,810 people being treated and 27 deaths since a fever of unidentified origins was reported starting in late April, KCNA said.

State media did not say whether the new deaths were due to COVID. One death had been confirmed from the Omicron variant, KCNA said on Friday.

Since late April, 524,440 people have shown signs of fever including 174,440 new cases on Friday, KCNA said. About 243,630 have been treated but KCNA has not said how many people have been tested or confirmed the total number of COVID cases.

North Korea has been testing about 1,400 people a week, according to Harvard Medical School's Kee Park, who has worked on healthcare projects in the country, not nearly enough to survey the hundreds of thousands of people with symptoms.

'LEARN FROM CHINA'S SUCCESS'

Kim told the meeting the crisis had been caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of party organisations but transmission was not uncontrollable and the country must have faith in its battle to overcome the crisis in the shortest possible period.

The meeting also heard a report from epidemic control officials that "in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods".

Kim offered to donate his family's medical supplies for families experiencing hardship "with his resolution to always share the destiny with the people", KCNA said.

"It is good to actively learn from the advanced and rich anti-epidemic successes and experience already gained by the Chinese party and people in the struggle against malicious epidemic," Kim was quoted as saying.

China and Russia are among countries offering help with vaccines, but Pyongyang has not publicly sought assistance.

Kim's comment will prompt health officials to study China's zero-COVID policy more closely and possibly reach out to Chinese health authorities, said Cheong Seong-chang, who heads Sejong Institute's North Korea studies near Seoul.

"By natural extension, we can expect the North to ask China for COVID-19 treatment and testing equipment," he wrote in an analysis.

While much of the world is seeking to live with COVID, China continues to enforce zero-COVID policy putting hundreds of millions in dozens of cities under tight movement restrictions.

North Korea said that party officials, workers and youth continued to be mobilized for work to prevent drought damage and for rice-planting in different parts of the country, KCNA said.

North Korea has not reported on the possible source of the outbreak. A Seoul-based website that reports from sources in North Korea said on Friday some students of a university in Pyongyang had tested positive after participating in an event on May 1. Kim attended the event.

The students had relatives who worked in trade with China and may have spread the virus when they subsequently visited their hometowns outside Pyongyang, the Daily NK website said, citing a source in Pyongyang.

Reuters could not independently verify the report.

North Korea's border with China was reopened for trade early this year, but in April China suspended freight service between Dandong on its side and North Korea's Sinuiju due to COVID in China.

(Reporting by Heekyong Yang and Jack Kim; Editing by Himani Sarkar and William Mallard)

UAE strongman Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed named new president

DUBAI (Reuters) -The United Arab Emirates' de facto leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was elected president of the Gulf Arab state by a federal supreme council on Saturday, solidifying his rule over the OPEC oil producer and key regional player.

The council, which groups the rulers of the seven emirates of the UAE federation, elected Sheikh Mohammed, known as MbZ, a day after the death of his half-brother, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who was also ruler of Abu Dhabi.

"We congratulate him and pledge allegiance to him as do our people...and the entire country will follow his leadership to glory," Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is also UAE vice-president and premier, said in a Twitter post.

MbZ, 61, had already been wielding power for years in a period when Sheikh Khalifa suffered bouts of illness, including a stroke in 2014.

He becomes president at a time when the UAE's long-standing ties with the United States have been visibly strained over perceived U.S. disengagement from its Gulf allies' security concerns.

MbZ led a realignment of the Middle East that created a new anti-Iran axis with Israel. He also bolstered the military might of the UAE which, coupled with its oil wealth and business hub status, extended Emirati influence in the region and beyond.

(Reporting by Enas Alashray in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Christina Fincher)

Palestinians welcome foreign support in inquiry into reporter's death

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinian Authority would welcome the involvement of international groups in the investigation into the death of an Al Jazeera journalist killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian official said on Saturday.

The death of veteran reporter Shireen Abu Akleh has sparked an outpouring of grief and Israel police charged at a crowd of Palestinian mourners carrying her coffin through Jerusalem's Old City on Friday, drawing international condemnation.

The violence, which lasted only minutes, added to Palestinian outrage over Abu Akleh's killing, which has threatened to fuel tensions that have escalated since March.

Palestinian authorities have described the death of Abu Akleh as an assassination by Israeli forces. Israel initially suggested Palestinian fire might have been to blame, but officials have since said they could not rule out it was Israeli gunfire that killed her.

The U.N. Security Council has strongly condemned the killing and called for an "immediate, thorough, transparent, and fair and impartial investigation".

Hussein al Sheikh, a senior Palestinian Authority (PA) official, said on Twitter it would welcome the participation of all international bodies in its inquiry.

The authority has rejected an offer from Israel, which has voiced regret over Abu Akleh's death, to cooperate in the investigation.

Israel police initially said some of the mourners near the coffin at Abu Akleh's funeral threw stones at police officers.

In a later statement issued overnight, police said the mourners had not kept to the original funeral arrangement and "threatened the driver of the hearse and then proceeded to carry the coffin on an unplanned procession to the cemetery by foot".

"Israeli Police intervened to disperse the mob and prevent them from taking the coffin, so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family," police said.

At a hospital in Jerusalem, a Palestinian died on Saturday of wounds inflicted during clashes with Israeli security forces three weeks ago at the al-Aqsa mosque compound.

It was the first fatality from clashes at the sensitive holy site in several years.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by David Clarke)

U.S. import prices unchanged as petroleum costs drop

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. import prices were unexpectedly flat in April as a decline in the cost of petroleum offset gains in food and other products, a further sign that inflation has probably peaked, though it will remain elevated.

The unchanged reading in import prices followed a 2.9% surge in March, the Labor Department said on Friday. In the 12 months through April, import prices rose 12.0% after accelerating 13.0% in the year through March. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices, which exclude tariffs, would climb 0.6%.

Import prices increased 6.8% over the first quarter.

Government data this week showed monthly consumer prices increased at the slowest pace in eight months, while the gain in producer prices was the smallest since last September.

With oil prices drifting higher in May, monthly import, consumer and producer prices are likely to pick up. Annual inflation rates are expected to continue edging lower, though likely to stay above the Federal Reserve's 2%.

The deceleration is mostly the result of last year's big increases dropping out of the calculation.

The Fed last week raised its policy interest rate by half a percentage point, the biggest hike in 22 years, and said it would begin trimming its bond holdings next month. The U.S. central bank started raising rates in March.

Imported fuel prices dropped 2.4% last month after soaring 17.3% in March. Petroleum prices declined 2.9%, while the cost of imported food increased 0.9%. Prices of imported capital goods rose 0.4%, matching March's gain. The cost of imported consumer goods excluding motor vehicles was unchanged. Prices of imported motor vehicles and parts climbed 0.3%.

Excluding fuel and food, import prices rose 0.4%. These so-called core import prices advanced 1.3% in March. They increased 6.9% on a year-on-year basis in April.

Some of the slowdown in the monthly core import price gains reflect the dollar's strength against the currencies of the United States' main trade partners. The greenback has gained about 2.65% on a trade-weighted basis since the Fed started raising interest rates.

The price of goods imported from China advanced 0.2% after rising 0.5% in March. They increased 4.6% on a year-on-year basis.

The report also showed export prices rose 0.6% in April after surging 4.1% in March. Prices for agricultural exports advanced 1.1%, a slowdown from the 4.3% acceleration logged in March. Higher prices in April for corn, cotton, meat and nuts more than offset lower prices for wheat and soybeans.

Nonagricultural export prices rose 0.5%. Export prices increased 18.0% on a year-on-year basis in April. That followed an 18.6% advance in March.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Mark Potter and Paul Simao)