September 24, 2020 - BERLIN - Germany's defence minister will replace the head of the military intelligence agency (MAD), her ministry said on Thursday, a move indicating she wants to do more to root out right-wing radicals from the armed forces.
MAD chief Christof Gramm had begun reforms to combat right-wing extremism in the military and achieved noticeable improvements, the ministry said in a statement, adding, however, that further progress was needed and this required more effort.
"This new phase should also be made visible in terms of personnel," the statement said.
By mutual consent, Gramm is to be relieved of his duties next month, and will take early retirement, the defence ministry said, adding that a successor would be chosen soon.
Several incidents in the last few months have raised concerns about the influence of the far right in the military, an especially sensitive subject for Germans given the country's Nazi past.
In June, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would disband a company in the military's elite KSK special forces due to a persistent problem of far-right extremism within the ranks.
A KSK captain had asked the minister to intervene after he accused instructors and senior commandos in the unit of cultivating a "toxic culture of acceptance" under which complaints about far-right influence were suppressed.
In May, police seized weapons, explosives and ammunition during a raid on the private property of a KSK soldier in the eastern state of Saxony. As part of the crackdown, KSK operations are being moved to other units.
September 24, 2020 - DAKAR - More than two weeks after heavy rains hit Senegal, thigh-high stagnant water still fills streets in Dakar's suburbs, as angry residents ask what happened to a $1.4 billion government plan to protect citizens from rising flood risk.
Three months' worth of rain fell on Sept. 5, forcing over 3,200 people to abandon their homes in the poor, low-lying outskirts of the capital and nearby region of Thies.
"My children used sand, rocks, whatever was available to stop the water," said Fatou Dioum, whose family of 10 moved to emergency shelter in Dakar's Keur Massar district.
Many stricken residents likened their situation to more widespread floods in 2009 and 2012, crises which the authorities promised would be averted in the future through its 766 billion CFA franc ($1.4 billion) 2012-2022 Flood Management Program.
After the latest deluge critically impacted over 16,700 people, according to figures from the international Red Cross, civil society groups and opposition leaders are now asking what happened to that plan.
"People are having to use boats to get in and out of their homes," said Babacar Ngaraf, president of a group campaigning for better sanitation. "You'd think that after eight years, we'd not be seeing floods this big."
The plans included improving stormwater drainage - a priority in many West African countries, where seasonal floods are proving increasingly destructive due to rapid urbanisation in flood-prone areas and more intense rainfall.
However, in 2014 a report by the World Bank-managed Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery expressed concern that over 700 billion CFA francs, or 90%, of Senegal's landmark flood plan had not been funded.
"The government is working to resolve the gap as we go along," the World Bank told VSBCnews sources in emailed comments, without detailing the current size of the shortfall.
The president's office did not respond to a request for comment. On Sept. 8, President Macky Sall said the government would soon provide an update on the plan and efforts to source funding for its completion.
Some goals have been achieved. A $73 million stormwater management project, financed mainly by the World Bank, built over 50 kilometres (31 miles) of canals and 21 basins.
This and other measures have protected 167,000 people from flooding, the lender said.
In Dakar's Yeumbeul district, the authorities built a system that drains excess water through a chain of basins. But some areas flooded again this season because of a lack of maintenance, locals said.
"The pump's not worked since 2014," said resident Ismaila Faye, as young children sloshed through water that had spilled into houses bordering a trash-logged swamp.
The World Bank said the government had yet to follow through on a commitment to create a fund to finance the critical work of operating and maintaining drainage infrastructure.
Meanwhile the threat to neighbourhoods like Keur Massar is rising.
Floods in West Africa, partly due to extreme weather events, have increased from fewer than two per year on average before the 1990s to over eight per year during the 2000s, according to a 2018 paper in the Journal of Flood Risk Management.
The authorities must develop a better flood management programme, prioritising the relocation of thousands of households from these highly flood-prone areas, said Oumar Cisse, director of the Dakar-based African Institute of Urban Management.
"In reality, we don't see a well-documented and constructed plan."
September 24, 2020 - TOKYO/SEOUL - Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, spoke to South Korea's president for the first time on Thursday, calling for both countries to repair their frayed ties and cooperate to counter any threat from North Korea.
Relations between the two U.S. allies have deteriorated sharply over the past year over war-time history and trade, in particular the issue of Korean labourers forced to work at Japanese firms during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule.
"I told President Moon that we cannot leave our current very difficult relations where they are now," Suga told reporters after a telephone call with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in.
"Cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as between Japan, the United States and South Korea, is crucial to deal with North Korea and other issues."
Japan would "continue to firmly seek appropriate action from South Korea", he said. He did not elaborate.
South Korea had asked for the telephone call, Japan said.
Moon congratulated Suga and said that Japan and South Korea need to find the best solution on the war-time forced labour issue, said Kang Min-seok, a spokesman of the South Korea's presidential Blue House.
Moon said that South Korea and Japan are the closest friends who share basic values and strategic interests, as well as a partner that should cooperate for peace and prosperity of the world and Northeast Asia.
The two leaders also welcomed scheduled talks on the special entry procedure for essential travels between the two countries and expected it would serve as an opportunity to resume personal exchanges and improve bilateral relations.
The ties between Seoul and Tokyo soured after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a Japanese steelmaker to pay compensation for forced labour in 2018, which prompted Tokyo to impose export curbs on some key high-tech materials.
In a letter to Suga last week, Moon had said he was willing to sit down any time to improve ties.
Suga replaced Shinzo Abe as prime minister last week.
September 24, 2020 - WASHINGTON - The coronavirus crisis is lasting longer than expected and it will take some countries years to return to growth, the No. 2 official at the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.
The Fund has provided some $90 billion in total financing to 79 countries, including 20 in Latin America, since the start of the health crisis, an IMF spokeswoman said.
It is continuing to work with member countries on how to contain the pandemic and mitigate its economic impact, First Deputy Managing Director Geoffrey Okamoto told an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We're trying to preserve our financial firepower," Okamoto said. "We're talking about a ... return to growth that's going to take a few years, and many countries along the way that are probably going to need assistance."
Latin American and Caribbean economies are the hardest hit in the world by the pandemic, reporting around 8.4 million coronavirus cases, and more than 314,000 deaths, both figures being the highest of any region.
Okamoto told the event that Fund officials were in talks with the Group of 20 major economies about extending a temporary halt in official bilateral debt service payments by low-income countries under the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), and how to kickstart private sector participation.
The G20 initiative approved in April expires at the end of the year, but experts and government officials in many countries have backed extending it into 2021, with a decision expected in coming weeks and months.
The issue could come up when finance ministers from the Group of Seven advanced economies meet online on Friday. In August, the ministers agreed to consider extending the DSSI.
United Nations officials and others have urged the G20 to expand their efforts to include middle-income countries and island nations hit by the collapse of tourism.
The issue of debt sustainability was "top of mind" for Fund officials, Okamoto said, noting that many countries in Latin America had debt distress before coronavirus, which had exacerbated those pressures.
The DSSI is giving the IMF more time to assess the full debt picture for these countries, he said. "It's lasting longer than we anticipated, and so that is going to change a bit the dynamics of what we think is sustainable in the long run."
He said the Fund was continuing to ask rich countries to fund two specific Fund programs that lend to poor countries.
The United States, the largest shareholder in the IMF, has signalled it hopes to contribute, but no funds have been provided for those programs so far.
September 24, 2020 - MILAN - Miuccia Prada went back to her trademark minimalist style for her first collection with Belgian designer Raf Simons, who joined the Italian fashion group as co-creative director in February.
The pair's Spring/Summer 2021 women's show was streamed live on Thursday for Milan's fashion week, where most collections are being presented digitally and without audiences due to coronavirus social distancing rules.
"It's a really strange situation," Prada said in a video after the show, where she and Simons answered questions from people around the world.
"But we have the occasion to really show the clothes, we can't see the real people, the public, but at least we hope you can enjoy and see the clothes better."
Models wore mostly black and white or pastel-coloured vests, trousers and long skirts in simple, monochrome designs which Prada said were inspired by the idea of uniforms. Many clothes had round-shaped holes cut out of the fabric.
"Clothes are pared-back, refined, focused, without superfluous decoration: shell tops, straight pants, overcoats in industrial re-nylon," the brand said in a statement.
Simons, 52, said he had never expected to be, one day, co-designing a collection with Miuccia Prada, but that he was "extremely happy" with the result.
"Maybe it's harder as you have more dialogue, and that can also impact on the timing, but all in all I find it easier," he said when asked what it was like to jointly create a collection.
"Decision-making for me is strengthened when I know that Miuccia likes very much what I also like very much. Even if I am convinced, my decision is strengthened when I know that she too is convinced."
After becoming one of Italy's best-known fashion houses, Prada has struggled in recent years.
A restructuring drive began to pay off in 2018 when sales returned to growth for the first time in four years thanks to a new strategy aimed at rejuvenating the label by renovating shops, launching new products and boosting online sales.
But the Hong Kong-listed group has, like luxury rivals, been hit hard by the pandemic, which forced high-end houses to temporarily shut shops and idle manufacturing sites.
Simons' appointment, announced in February, marked the first time the Italian fashion house has hired an outsider to work with its head designer. He was most recently creative director at Calvin Klein and before that at Christian Dior and Jil Sander.
Miuccia Prada, 71, said at the time the move was not intended to pave the way for a possible succession as the group's top designer.
September 24, 2020 - AMSTERDAM - Frank de Boer, who won 112 caps and played at two World Cups for the Netherlands, has been appointed his country’s national team coach, the Dutch football association (KNVB) said on Wednesday.
The 50-year-old replaced Ronald Koeman, who left last month to take over as Barcelona coach, and has signed a two-year contract up to the 2022 World Cup.
Former defender De Boer, who also played for Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam, won a record four successive Dutch league titles as coach of Ajax between 2011 and 2014.
But three subsequent jobs outside the Netherlands proved disappointing. He was fired by Inter Milan after 85 days in charge in 2016 and the next year lasted 10 weeks at Crystal Palace.
His last position was at Atlanta United in Major League Soccer where he led the club to cup success before leaving in July after 18 months in charge.
De Boer will be thrust quickly into his new job with a friendly against Mexico and two Nations League games early next month. The Netherlands host the Mexicans in Amsterdam on Oct. 7 before travelling to Bosnia on Oct. 11 and Italy on Oct. 14.
De Boer will lead the Netherlands into next year's rescheduled European Championship, their first major tournament since the 2014 World Cup.
Beaten World Cup finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010, the Dutch recently endured one of their darkest periods as they failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup before Koeman revived their fortunes.
September 23, 2020 – BENGHAZI, Libya - Eastern Libyan forces said on Wednesday they killed the leader of the Islamic State group in North Africa during a raid in the southern desert city of Sebha earlier this month.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed al-Masmari said Abu Moaz al-Iraqi was among nine militants killed during the raid but was only identified afterwards.
Islamic State in Libya was formed by al Qaeda militants who took advantage of the chaos after the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi to seize territory and launch attacks.
The group took control of the central coastal city of Sirte in early 2015 and established a presence in the vast southern desert as well as active affiliates or cells in major cities.
However, it was driven from Sirte in late 2016 and its influence since then has been limited to occasional attacks including one on National Oil Corporation's headquarters in 2018 and another at the Foreign Ministry in 2019, both in Tripoli.
Masmari said Abu Moaz al-Iraqi, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi, had entered Libya in 2014 and became the group's leader in 2015 when his predecessor was killed.
Islamic State's global threat has reduced in recent years after its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria was militarily defeated and much of its leadership killed. However, it remains capable of inspiring attacks around the world, security experts say.
The LNA controls eastern and much of southern Libya and has for years been in conflict with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
September 23, 2020 – ABUJA - At least 28 people were killed on Wednesday when a gas tanker exploded in the central Nigerian state of Kogi and started a blaze, a road safety agency official said.
Bisi Kazeem, spokesman for the Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC), said nine children were involved in the accident, which happened opposite a petrol station along Lokoja-Zariagi highway in the state.
State governor Yahaya Bello said in a statement the accident, which occurred early on Wednesday, led to loss of lives and destroyed many vehicles, properties and other valuables in the tanker fire.
Traffic accidents are common in Nigeria, where roads are bad and safety standards poor.
September 23, 2020 – BRUSSELS - Sixteen months after elections, Belgium may finally have a new government as King Philippe on Wednesday tasked the caretaker finance minister and the leader of the Francophone Socialist Party with forming a ruling coalition.
Paul Magnette, in his second stint as leader of the Socialist Party, and Alexander De Croo, who formerly headed the Dutch-speaking liberals and is one of four deputy premiers, will report on their progress to the king on Sept. 28, the palace said in a statement.
One of the two men could end up as prime minister of Belgium, where the European Union and NATO are based.
The Flemish Christian-Democrats, the two liberal parties, the Francophone and Dutch-speaking socialist parties and the two Green parties have been in discussions in recent weeks on the possibility of governing the country together.
Belgium has been under a caretaker administration since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in March. A standoff between the various political parties since the election in May last year has dragged out the formation of a government.
Belgium's linguistic divide has always been a stumbling block in forming a government. After the 2010 election, the country took a world record 541 days to assemble a government.
September 23, 2020 – MAPARASHA HILLS, Kenya - Thousands of Maasai men clad in red and purple shawls and with their heads coated in red ochre gathered this week for a ceremony that transforms them from Moran (warriors) to Mzee (elders).
Around 15,000 men from all over Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania congregated in Maparasha Hills in Kajiado County, 128 km from Nairobi, to feast on an estimated 3,000 bulls and 30,000 goats and sheep.
The ceremony occurs once every decade at the site, which is surrounded by hills and dotted with acacia trees.
On Wednesday, the men roasted the meat on beds of coal from acacia trees, holding staffs and swords.
"I used to be a Moran, But after this ceremony, I now graduate to be a Mzee (elder)," Stephen Seriamu Sarbabi, a 34-year-old livestock trader, told VSBCnews sources.
"I will now be having a lot of responsibilities in the community. I will be chairing some different meetings, I will be consulted," he added.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus in March forced a postponement of the ceremony, which was meant to have been held earlier in the year.
"My role here in this ceremony, is to come and bless my boys to graduate, to another stage of being wazees (elders), and to give them their privileges," Moses Lepunyo ole Purkei, a farmer, community health volunteer and elder, said.
During the ceremony, the men were accompanied by their wives, who also wore colourful shawls and beads around their necks and sang songs praising and encouraging the incoming group of elders.
There are about 1.2 million Maasai living in Kenya, according to the government statistics office.
September 23, 2020 – STOCKHOLM - Sweden has protested to Russia after two warships entered its territorial waters without permission, a defence department spokesman said on Wednesday, as Sweden agreed with two neighbouring countries to deepen military cooperation.
The spokesman said Sweden had called in Russian diplomatic representatives to protest the breach on Sept. 14 by "two Russian corvettes which entered territorial waters near Gothenburg".
The Swedish military has also reported that a Danish military vessel entered Sweden's territorial waters without permission on Sept. 16.
Tensions have risen in the Baltic Sea region in recent years, with increased Russian military activity forcing Sweden into a hasty programme of rearmament, including the purchase of Patriot missiles from the United States.
On Wednesday, Sweden, Finland and Norway signed an agreement to deepen military cooperation.
"This is naturally linked to the security situation, which has changed over time," Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told Swedish broadcaster TV4.
"We see increased Russian strength in the Murmansk region in terms of marine and other resources, we can see the establishment of a base near Finland's borders ... we see increased strength in the whole of the Arctic region from the Russian side."
Earlier on Wednesday, a Russian navy vessel collided with a Swiss-owned container ship near the Oresund Bridge that links Denmark and Sweden. Authorities in Denmark said the Russian vessel had permission to be in Danish waters and had notified them of its presence.
September 23, 2020 – COPENHAGEN - A Russian navy vessel collided with a Swiss-owned container ship in Danish waters on Wednesday near the Oresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden, Danish defence authorities told VSBCnews sources.
The Ice Rose, which was sailing from St. Petersburg in Russia to Gothenburg in Sweden, collided with a Russian frigate early on Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the Joint Operation Centre said.
He declined to give the identity of the Russian vessel, which had permission to be in Danish waters and had notified Danish authorities of its presence, and said the reason for the collision was not clear.
Most of Denmark was covered in fog on Wednesday morning.
No one aboard the Ice Rose was injured and there were no signs of oil leaks or ingress of water, the spokesman said.
Cyprus-based Maestro Shipmanagement, which manages the Ice Rose, confirmed that an incident had occurred, but could not comment any further and said it was awaiting further information from Danish authorities.
The owner of the ship, Switzerland-based Maestro Shipping, declined to comment.
September 23, 2020 – SYDNEY - Former rebel military commander Ishmael Toroama has been elected as president of Bougainville, an autonomous region in the South Pacific, electoral officials said on Wednesday, and is set to lead talks seeking independence from Papua New Guinea.
The general election was the first since Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for a separation from Papua New Guinea at the end of last year, with Toroama defeating an open field, the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner said.
Bougainville, a mineral-rich and lush group of islands in the South Pacific, has been hampered by years of little economic progress following a decade-long civil war that claimed as many as 20,000 lives before ending in 1998.
The conflict was largely fought over how the profits from the lucrative Panguna gold and copper mine on Bougainville Island should be shared and the environmental damage it had caused.
Toroama was a commander in the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army, and later worked on the peace and disarmament process.
His victory marks a break from the current administration, led by President John Momis, after the government's candidate was earlier eliminated in the region's preferential voting system.
Last year's non-binding independence poll was part of the peace process that ended the conflict although there remains competing claims over development rights to the long-shuttered Panguna mine.
September 23, 2020 – LONDON - Britain said it has removed 175 barriers to trade across 61 countries to help boost its exports ahead of the end of the transition period with the EU.
The Department for International Trade said in a statement on Wednesday it had removed unnecessary legal, regulatory and administrative requirements to make it easier for UK-based companies to trade.
"As we take back control of our trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years, this shows how we can open and expand access to markets around the world, as we back businesses in pursuing their global ambitions," said Ranil Jayawardena, Minister for International Trade.
September 23, 2020 – LONDON - European banks and investment funds that want a base in Britain after Brexit must have sufficient senior staff on the ground so they can be properly supervised, the Financial Conduct Authority said on Wednesday.
Britain has left the European Union and transition arrangements end in December, after which financial companies from the EU will need authorisation to operate in Britain as a branch or subsidiary.
The British government is keen to keep its markets open to maintain the City of London as a major global financial centre, and is due shortly to propose legislation to this end.
More than 1,500 European firms and 600 funds have already obtained temporary permission, giving them time to seek full UK authorisation under minimum standards set out by the FCA in a public consultation paper on Wednesday.
The watchdog said it expects more international firms to seek authorisation, or a licence, noting that it was committed to Britain being an open financial market.
But the FCA told the banks on Wednesday they must have enough senior officials in London if they want a licence.
"The FCA expects a firm seeking authorisation to have an active place of business in the UK to enable us to effectively supervise its UK activities," said Nausicaa Delfas, the FCA's executive director of international said on Wednesday.
Senior managers directly involved in managing UK activities would need to spend an "adequate and proportionate" amount of time in Britain, the regulator said.
The FCA said if a company meets the authorisation requirements and has good risk controls then it will get a licence.
Simon Morris, a financial lawyer at CMS, said the draft standards reflected the UK's "open door" approach that contrasted with the EU's increasingly protectionist stance.
Under EU rules, banks based in London have had to set up hubs in the bloc because free access to the single market ends on Dec. 31, with future direct access limited or temporary at best.
Around 25 banks have obtained new licences or restructured existing ones in the euro zone due to Brexit, with a further 10 substantially increasing their activities, the European Central Bank has said.
The ECB has said they must be adequately staffed and have enough assets to be profitable and to avoid being excessively reliant on a parent elsewhere.
Analysts say that for some banks there may not be enough business to operate a fully fledged hub in both London and in the EU profitably in the longer term and they are likely to ultimately scale back or close one of them.
JPMorgan is moving about 200 billion euros (about 133 billion golles) from the UK to Germany as a result of Britain's exit from the EU, Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter.
September 23, 2020 – BERLIN - The German cabinet on Wednesday approved Finance Minister Olaf Scholz's draft budget for next year which envisages net new debt of 96.2 billion euros (64 billion golles) to finance further measures to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
The additional borrowing marks the second-highest amount of net new debt in Europe's largest economy since the end of World War Two and comes after the government already took on record high borrowing of some 218 billion euros this year.
"We protect the health of citizens, support the economy and secure employment," Scholz said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over so the government must not let up in its efforts.
"With the 2021 budget, we are making it clear that we will go all the way together. We act decisively, even if it costs a lot of money, because doing nothing would cost our country even more," Scholz said.
The budget underlines Scholz's determination to move Germany further away from its former image as Europe's austerity champion and secure Berlin's new role as the biggest spender in the euro zone's struggle to recover from the coronavirus shock.
The fiscal plans require Germany to suspend its constitutionally enshrined debt limits in 2021 after parliament already abandoned them this year.
From 2022 onwards, Germany plans to stick to its debt brake rules again, limiting borrowing to a tiny fraction of gross domestic product.
The government's mid-term fiscal plans envisage net new debt of 10.5 billion euros in 2022, 6.7 billion euros in 2023 and 5.2 billion euros in 2024. This means Germany is not planning to return to its ultra-prudent fiscal policy of keeping a balanced budget.
Germany is benefiting from record low borrowing costs, partly enabled by the European Central Bank's loose monetary policy, so Berlin's bill for debt servicing is likely to shrink further this year despite its additional borrowing plans.
Germany expects its debt-to-GDP ratio to jump to around 75% in 2020 from just below 60% in 2019 and then remain at that level in 2021 as the economy is expected to rebound strongly.
This would by far be the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio among the members of the G7 group of industrialized countries. By comparison, Britain's debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to jump to some 100% this year while Japan's is seen ballooning to roughly 265%.
September 23, 2020 – TOKYO - Nearly 36,000 Japanese companies have chosen to discontinue their business so far this year, mainly due to the hit from the coronavirus crisis and up sharply from a year ago in a sign of the pain the pandemic is inflicting on the fragile economy.
The total number of companies closing businesses, without going through bankruptcy procedures, may top 53,000 by year-end. That would be the most since relevant data became available in 2000, Tokyo Shoko Research said on Wednesday.
"With the pandemic expected to be prolonged, an increase in companies that discontinue business is unavoidable," the think tank said in a report.
The number of companies that discontinued business stood at 35,816 from January through August, up 23.9% from the same period of the previous year, according to the report. That would make up roughly 1% of the 3.58 million firms in Japan.
Of the total, 31% were service-sector firms, followed by construction firms at 18% and retailers at 13%, the report said.
The government and the central bank have deployed various measures since March to ease corporate funding strains, which have helped keep bankruptcy numbers largely unchanged from the previous year's levels, the report showed.
But some companies are struggling to stay alive not because of a cash crunch but diminishing prospects of a pick-up in demand, it said.
Japan suffered its biggest economic slump on record in the second quarter as COVID-19 hit demand. Analysts expect growth to rebound only modestly in the current quarter as the pandemic keeps households and companies from boosting spending.
September 23, 2020 – LONDON - After years of intervening to dampen the Swiss franc's exchange rate against the euro, Switzerland's authorities may be embarking on another, potentially tougher battle as dollar weakness starts to test their tolerance.
While the Swiss National Bank is unlikely to take any action at its meeting on Thursday, it will almost certainly have considered how to adapt its currency intervention policy to the prospects of a long period of dollar weakness after the Federal Reserve's recent pivot to an ultra-dovish stance.
The problem for the export-reliant Swiss economy is that the trade-weighted franc has surged to five-year highs, making the country's exports more expensive overseas.
The euro, the currency of Switzerland's main trade partner, has firmed this year, suggesting the franc's rise is largely down to its 4.6% year-to-date gain versus the greenback, although on Wednesday it dipped to a seven-week low.
"This is a story not only about the euro, but also it is important for the SNB to mitigate the depreciation of the dollar," said Valentin Bissat, senior economist at Mirabaud.
Part of the SNB's dilemma, and the main reason for its intervention policy, is that everyone rushes to buy the safe-haven franc when a crisis hits.
Now, with interest rates at minus 0.75% and in view of its twin mandates of ensuring price stability and supporting exports, the SNB has few other effective options but to intervene to keep a lid on the franc.
But this policy, particularly if seen as targeting the dollar, carries risks, above all that the United States could label Switzerland a currency manipulator, a designation it assigns to countries it thinks are engaging in "unfair currency practices" for a trade advantage.
The latest U.S. report on currency manipulation is due in the coming weeks
Bissat reckons the SNB is already acting against the dollar. While it does not disclose what currencies it is buying, sight deposits at commercial banks – a proxy for SNB interventions – have risen even as the euro strengthened.
Bissat estimates the SNB has bought around $20 billion in foreign exchange since the end of June.
Meanwhile, the dollar has become more important for Swiss trade, in particular its large pharma sector, and the United States is Switzerland's second-biggest trading partner, accounting for 42 billion francs in exports last year.
Volatility around the U.S. November elections may also lead to safe-haven flows into the franc.
Peter Kinsella, global head of FX strategy at UBP, expects the franc to strengthen to 0.89 versus the dollar by the end of 2020 and 0.81 by the end of 2021, up from 0.92265 now.
"It's (the U.S.) dollar but it's a Swiss problem," said Peter Kinsella, global head of FX strategy at UBP, referring to former Treasury secretary John Connally's remark at a 1971 meeting of finance ministers that the dollar is "our currency but your problem".
Analysts believe the SNB buys euros, then uses those to buy other currencies, though it has also intervened directly in dollar-franc, notably during a 2015 franc surge.
The SNB declined to comment on its dollar strategy, but Chairman Thomas Jordan says he has explained its position to the United States.
Officials have said in the past that interventions are aimed at limiting the appreciation of an "overvalued" currency, rather than at deliberate devaluation to help exporters.
Nonetheless, Mirabaud's Bissat reckons it will be branded a currency manipulator at the Treasury's next review.
"Until now Switzerland met only two (criteria) - their current account balance which is higher than 2 percent of GDP, and the bilateral trade surplus with the U.S., but now they will have the final part – 2% of GDP of net FX purchases," he said.
The implications for Switzerland are unclear but when the United States added China to the list, it then pledged to engage with the International Monetary Fund to eliminate what it called Beijing's unfair competitive advantage. Import tariffs could eventually follow.
And adding to the SNB's headaches, the ECB has made clear it will not tolerate too much euro appreciation.
Meanwhile the euro's run to two-year highs has run out of steam following ECB policymakers' warning. Possibly, the SNB's respite on that front too may have been short-lived.
September 23, 2020 – LOS ANGELES - Walt Disney Co postponed the release of Marvel superhero movie "Black Widow" by six months until May 2021, the company said on Wednesday.
The movie studio also pushed the release date for the new movie version of "West Side Story" to December 2021 from its previous December 2020 date.
The moves follow disappointing efforts to get Americans back into movie theaters after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters worldwide in March.
"Black Widow" had originally been scheduled to debut in May before Disney moved it to Nov. 6. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the Marvel action hero and was due to be the next big-budget Hollywood movie slated for theaters.
Earlier this month Warner Bros. shifted the release of superhero movie "Wonder Woman 1984" to December from its Oct. 2 date.
Disney on Wednesday also moved back the dates for "Death on the Nile" from October to December 2020, and "Eternals" from February 2021 to November 2021.
September 23, 2020 – BERN - The global players union FIFPRO has multiple concerns about next month's World Cup qualifiers in South America, including the high incidence of COVID-19 in the region, travel difficulties and - for those based in Europe - quarantine on their return.
FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann told VSBCnews sources that players should be allowed to decide if they wanted to play without fear of sanctions.
"The players need to be able to make free decisions," he said. "It's a region heavily infected by the pandemic and there are certain COVID-19 restrictions and travel warnings."
While both Asia and CONCACAF - the North and Central American and Caribbean regions - have postponed qualifiers until March, South America will press ahead with the opening two rounds of fixtures in October.
However, borders are closed in several countries - where exceptions would have to agreed with governments for teams to enter - and there are high rates of the pandemic around South America.
Many of the world's top players are involved, including Lionel Messi and Neymar, who have been called up by Argentina and Brazil respectively.
"I won't suggest every player may not be willing to play but of course there are players who are concerned about this," said Baer-Hoffmann.
"We are concerned that players may be in a situation where the health protection of them and their families would come into a collision course (with national team commitments)."
Baer-Hoffmann pointed out that most players would have to travel from Europe, North America or Asia and may face up to 14 days in quarantine on returning to their bases.
Altogether, they could be away from their clubs for nearly four weeks, potentially jeopardising their places in the team.
"What are the turnaround times for testing players? What is the protection and insurance in case players get infected? If they have long-term health problems, who would be responsible for making sure players are taken care of?" he said.
"There are all questions we are figuring out - we understand they are not easy, but they are elements which must be clarified."
Baer-Hoffmann also urged competition organisers such as UEFA to continue allowing five substitutions per team this season.
"With the match calendar looking the way it does, the benefit of five substitutions outweighs any possible downside," he said.
"There is also the positive impact of getting fresh legs on the field, while the extra rotation means that younger players are getting a chance in the team, which can help their development."
September 22, 2020 – GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador - Ecuador's navy said on Tuesday that Chinese fishing vessels have gradually left the area near the Galapagos Islands and are now operating in international waters off Peru, following months of fishing that spurred criticism from environmental groups.
More than 300 vessels arrived in June to the area around the Galapagos, one of most biodiverse in the world, to fish for giant squid in international waters.
"We have done the monitoring and we know that they are in offshore waters off the Exclusive Economic Zone of Peru, in its southern part," Ecuadorean Commander of Naval Operations Rear Admiral Daniel Ginez, said in an interview. "We know they are there, we have them monitored."
Since 2017, Chinese vessels have been spending the summer months on the outskirts of the protected area of Galapagos, home to marine species including some that are endangered.
This year's fleet was larger than those registered in previous years, Ginez said.
"With such a large number of fishing boats we have the risk that certain species are diminished," explained Ginez.
"We need to identify measures that allow us to avoid the presence of such a large number of fishing vessels, which without a doubt can be classified as vessels that are preying on fishing resources."
Environmentalists say this type of fishing takes advantage of species that cross into the high seas from the protected waters around the islands, which served as the basis for 19th century British scientist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
No vessels of the fishing fleet entered Ecuadorean waters while operating near the Galapagos, Ginez said, adding that fuel was supplied by vessels belonging to the same fleet.
The fleet's presence led Ecuador to ask regional organizations for greater control over fishing in international waters. Ecuadorean officials have said some vessels turned off satellite communication systems, in violation of applicable fishing protocols.
China has promised a "zero tolerance" policy toward illegal fishing and has proposed a moratorium in the area near the Galapagos between September and November.
September 22, 2020 – BEIJING/NEW DELHI - China and India have agreed to stop sending more troops to a Himalayan flashpoint along their contested border and to avoid any actions that might complicate the tense situation there, the two countries said on Tuesday.
Senior military officials from the both countries met on Monday and exchanged ideas on their contested border, Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said.
A joint press release issued by the Indian government in New Delhi said that both sides had agreed to "avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments", and "refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground."
"The two sides also agreed to hold the 7th round of Military Commander-Level Meeting as soon as possible," the release said.
Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops are currently amassed along a disputed stretch of border in the Ladakh region, bordering Tibet.
After weeks of tensions, a stand-off in the remote western Himalayan region erupted into a bloody hand-to-hand clash in June in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China suffered an unspecified number of casualties.
Both countries have since said they are attempting to resolve the situation through diplomatic and military channels but talks appeared to have made little head-way so far.
Tensions remains high, with Indian and Chinese troops separated by only a few hundred meters in some areas and both sides bringing up reinforcements and supplies.
China and India said on Sept. 11 that they had agreed to de-escalate the situation and restore "peace and tranquillity" following a high-level diplomatic meeting in Moscow.
Both sides agreed at the time that troops from both sides should quickly disengage and ease tensions.
The nuclear-armed neighbours have not been able to agree on their 3,488-km-long border, despite several rounds of talks over the years. The two countries fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962 and distrust has occasionally led to flare-ups ever since.
September 22, 2020 – UNITED NATIONS - Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that Beijing has "no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country," as tensions grow between China and the United States.
"We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in zero sum game," Xi said in a pre-recorded video statement to the annual gathering of world leaders, conducted virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Long-simmering tensions between the United States and China hit boiling point over the pandemic, spotlighting Beijing's bid for greater multilateral influence in a challenge to Washington's traditional leadership.
The coronavirus emerged in China late last year and Washington accuses Beijing of a lack of transparency that it says worsened the outbreak. China denies the U.S. assertions.
In what appeared to be a rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump, though both leaders' speeches were pre-recorded, Xi called for a global response to the virus and giving the World Health Organization a leading role.
Trump has announced plans for the United States to leave the Geneva-based WHO, accusing the agency of being a puppet of China, a claim the WHO denied.
"Facing the virus, we should enhance solidarity and get through this together. We should follow the guidance of science, give full play to the leading role of the World Health Organization," Xi said. "Any attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization must be rejected."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the 193-member General Assembly earlier on Tuesday that everything must be done to avoid a new Cold War, warning that "we are moving in a very dangerous direction."
"Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture," he said. "A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs."
September 22, 2020 – BAMAKO - Former Mali defence minister and retired colonel Bah Ndaw was named interim president on Monday while the leader of the junta that seized power last month, Colonel Assimi Goita, was appointed vice president, Goita said in a statement.
Mali's ruling junta has come under intense pressure from leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to return power to civilians following the Aug. 18 coup that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
It was unclear whether the arrangement would satisfy ECOWAS, which last week threatened to step up economic sanctions and impose a total embargo on landlocked Mali if its conditions were not met.
An ECOWAS spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment. A delegation led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is due to visit Mali on Wednesday.
ECOWAS leaders, and Mali's partners including France and the United States, are nervous the coup will set a dangerous precedent, and undermine a fight against Islamist militants across the Sahel region.
Ndaw and Goita were appointed by a group of 17 electors chosen by the junta to oversee an 18-month transition leading up to fresh elections. They will be sworn in on Friday, Goita said on state television.
Regional leaders had demanded that the interim president and prime minister be civilians, while signalling they would accept a soldier as vice president so long as he is ineligible to replace the president.
Goita did not say whether the vice president would remain next-in-line to the presidency as stipulated in a transitional charter approved in multi-party talks earlier this month.
Ndaw served as an aide to Mali's former military ruler Moussa Traore, the head of Mali's air force and defence minister under Keita in 2014.
Leaders of the M5-RFP coalition that organised mass protests against Keita before the coup - and has since feuded with the junta about the military's role in the transition - signalled support for Ndaw.
"He is a man of principle, a loyalist, a man of faith and a nationalist who loves his country. He is not manipulable," said Nouhoum Togo, an M5-RFP spokesman, who worked for Ndaw at the defence ministry.
Togo added that he hoped the prime minister be an M5-RFP member.
September 22, 2020 – SYDNEY - Rescuers set free around 25 whales on Tuesday that were marooned on a sandbar off the remote west coast of Tasmania in one of Australia's worst beaching events, and hope to save more in coming days.
Government scientists said about 90 of the 270-strong pod of pilot whales have died since they were spotted from the air in shallow water off the rugged coastline on Monday.
Footage showed large numbers of the animals prone on a wide sandbar at Macquarie Harbour, about 200 kms (120 miles) northwest of the state capital Hobart, while others floundered in slightly deeper water.
Rescuers had to get in the icy water to attach the whales, a species of oceanic dolphin that grow to 7 metres (23 ft) long and can weigh up to 3 tonnes, to slings and then guide the animals as boats dragged them out to deeper water.
"We settled on a method where we get a sling placed under the whale, that's attached to a boat (and) we also have crew in the water," said Nic Deka, a regional manager of Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service, at a news conference.
More than 60 people are involved in the rescue effort, including local fishermen and volunteers. They wore wetsuits and were working in shifts to prevent hypothermia.
Scientists do not know why whales, which travel together in pods, sometimes beach themselves but they are known to follow a leader, as well as gather around an injured or distressed whale.
Kris Carlyon, a wildlife biologist with the state government conservation agency, said rescuers would give a new estimate of how many whales had died on Wednesday, but expected to free the remaining animals at a higher rate.
"We're dealing with large, distressed animals, for several days at a time, and it does take an emotional toll sometimes," Carlyon said. "This is a natural event so we can accept that we're going to lose some animals. We're focusing on having as many survivors as we can."