Bolsonaro saddles up to join rally against Brazil's top court

Brazil’s president shook hands with supporters, wearing no face mask despite its use being mandatory in the capital.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rallied supporters protesting against the Supreme Court for investigating the right-wing leader, mingling with the crowd and riding a police horse, as one of the court’s justices compared the risks to Brazil’s democracy with Hitler’s Germany.

Sunday’s rally took place in defiance of the advisory on social distancing to help contain the spread of the coronavirus that has already killed more than 29,000 people in Brazil. 

More:

  • Bolsonaro in Washington: Brazil’s leader on first trip abroad

  • Brazil overtakes Russia to become No 2 in world for virus cases

  • Brazil: Bolsonaro snubs health advice, snaps photos with children

Deepening a political crisis during one of the world’s worst novel coronavirus outbreaks, Bolsonaro has condemned the top court for investigating his interference in police affairs and opening an inquiry into alleged libel and intimidation campaigns run by his supporters on social media.

The former army captain and defender of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military government has denounced the investigations, suggesting “absurd orders” should not be followed and warning that the court may “plunge Brazil into a political crisis”.

Bolsonaro flew in a military helicopter over the rally in Brasilia where protesters held banners calling for shutting down Brazil’s Congress and top court, known as the STF.

One said: “Military Intervention – close Congress and the STF now.”

Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello, who is responsible for investigating a former justice minister’s allegation that Bolsonaro tried to meddle with law enforcement for personal reasons, said the president’s supporters were seeking a military dictatorship.

Shaking hands with supporters

“We must resist the destruction of the democratic order to avoid what happened in the Weimar Republic when Hitler, after he was elected by popular vote … did not hesitate annulling the constitution and imposing a totalitarian system in 1933,” de Mello told other judges in a message seen by Reuters.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed the authenticity of the message, which was also reported in Brazilian newspapers. De Mello’s office said the message was “exclusively personal”.

Bolsonaro has said his aims are democratic and that his opponents are trampling the Constitution in their efforts to depose him.

After his helicopter ride, the president walked to the rally and shook hands with supporters, wearing no face mask despite its use being mandatory in the capital to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

He then mounted a police horse and trotted past the crowd.

On Saturday night, a group of masked backers of Bolsonaro marched to the court carrying torches to call for its closure.

During Sunday’s demonstrations in Sao Paulo, opponents of Bolsonaro took to a main avenue to protest against “fascism” and clashed with riot police who intervened to stop them getting close to a rally by supporters of the president.

Police used tear gas to push back a crowd of people hurling stones.

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In video, Bolsonaro says wanted cops replaced to stop family being 'screwed'

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said he was unwilling to see his family get “screwed” because of his inability to change law enforcement officials, according to a video released on Friday set to deepen the political crisis surrounding him.

Coming at the end of a challenging week in Brazil, which is now the world’s No. 2 hot spot for coronavirus cases behind the United States, the video prompted Bolsonaro’s fans and detractors to hurl abuse at each other from their apartment windows in cities across the country.

The political scandal centers on an accusation by former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, a popular anti-graft crusader, that Bolsonaro leaned on him to change senior federal police officials amid investigations into members of the president’s political clan.

Moro’s accusations have led to a federal criminal probe.

In the recording of an April 22 ministerial meeting, which was released by a Supreme Court justice on Friday, Bolsonaro said in coarse language that it was his prerogative to change security officials, their bosses or even ministers.

“I’ve tried to change our security people in Rio de Janeiro officially, and I wasn’t able to. That’s over. I won’t wait for my family or my friends to get screwed,” Bolsonaro said.

“If you can’t change (the official), change his boss. You can’t change the boss? Change the minister. End of story. We’re not kidding around,” he added.

Writing on Facebook after the release of the video, Bolsonaro said there was “no indication of interference in the federal police.” In a radio interview with Jovem Pan, he said he had been talking about his own personal security and not senior members of the federal police.

The video comes at a bad time for Bolsonaro. His political woes have led to rumblings about impeachment. He is also under pressure for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The truth was said, shown on video, messages, depositions, and proved with facts,” Moro, who quit last month, wrote on Twitter.

Before becoming president, Bolsonaro represented Rio state as a federal lawmaker for nearly 30 years. His son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, also got his start there, and is under investigation over allegations of corruption.

Right-wing Senator Major Olimpio, who was once Bolsonaro’s lieutenant in Congress, said the video still left doubts as to whether Bolsonaro really intended to interfere in the federal police and for what reason.

Brazilian political parties are also investigating the president’s conduct. In one of those probes, the parties have asked for the seizure of Bolsonaro’s cell phone.

The national security adviser, former General Augusto Heleno, said in a statement he was outraged by the “inconceivable” request for the president’s phone. It could “have unpredictable consequences for the stability of the country,” he said.

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Brazil overtakes Spain and Italy as virus cases grow

Brazil has overtaken Spain and Italy to become the country with the fourth largest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the world.

Officials on Saturday reported 14,919 new cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total to 233,142. Only the US, Russia and the UK have higher numbers.

The daily death toll in the Latin American nation rose by 816 to 15,633 – the world’s fifth highest.

Experts warn that the real figure may be far higher due to a lack of testing.

The mayor of the country’s most populous city, São Paulo, warned on Sunday that the city’s health system could collapse. Bruno Covas said the public hospitals in the city reached 90% capacity for emergency beds, with demand still growing.

Mr Covas said he was in crisis talks with the state governor over introducing a strict lockdown to try to slow contagion before hospitals ran out of space in an estimated two weeks’ time.

Health experts in Brazil have warned that the real number of confirmed infections in the country may be far higher than the official records, due to a lack of testing.

“Brazil is only testing people who end up in the hospital,” Domingo Alves from the University of São Paulo Medical School told AFP news agency last week.

“It’s hard to know what’s really happening based on the available data. We don’t have a real policy to manage the outbreak,” he said.

Mr Alves is one of the authors of a study that estimated the real number of infections was 15 times higher than the official figure.

Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has been strongly criticised both at home and abroad for his handling of the country’s escalating coronavirus crisis.

Mr Bolsonaro continues to oppose lockdown measures. He has downplayed the virus as “a little flu” and has said the spread of Covid-19 is inevitable.

In April, Mr Bolsonaro joined protesters demanding that lockdown restrictions be lifted. He says the restrictions are damaging the country’s economy, bringing unemployment and hunger.

Last week, Brazilian Health Minister Nelson Teich resigned after less than a month in the job. Mr Teich stepped down after he had publicly criticised a decree by Mr Bolsonaro allowing gyms and beauty parlours to reopen. Mr Teich’s predecessor was sacked after disagreeing with Mr Bolsonaro.

In the face of mixed messages, and with little government help at hand, not enough Brazilians are staying at home to slow the spread of the virus, the BBC’s Americas editor Candace Piette says.

What’s the latest in the wider region?

Brazil, by far the largest country in Latin America, has for several weeks been at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Latin America and the Caribbean have recorded more than 500,000 infections, with Brazil accounting for nearly 50% of the cases.

Mexico has recently seen a spike in new infections, while Ecuador saw its health system collapse in April.

The sharp rise in cases in Latin America has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to say the Americas are currently at the centre of the pandemic.

In March, the WHO had labelled Europe the “epicentre of the pandemic” but the region is now slowly beginning to ease restrictions brought in to slow the spread of the virus.

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In the Amazon, an indigenous nurse volunteers in coronavirus fight

MANAUS, Brazil (Reuters) – Vicente Piratapuia, 69, of the Piratapuia tribe had a high fever and could hardly breathe, but he refused to leave his home on the outskirts of the Amazon rainforest’s biggest city.

It took a stern word from a trained nurse in his community to convince him he would die if he refused a ride with her to the emergency room.

Vanderlecia Ortega dos Santos, or Vanda to her neighbors, has volunteered to provide the only frontline care protecting her indigenous community of 700 families from the COVID-19 outbreak ravaging the Brazilian city of Manaus.

It is an uphill battle. The ramshackle settlement of descendants from 35 different tribes, called Parque das Tribos, lacks plumbing and electricity in most homes.

Ambulances regularly refuse to pick up the seriously ill because there is no public health clinic nearby.

As the coronavirus pandemic has begun spreading across Brazil, indigenous people who live in and around cities have been caught in a dangerous limbo. The country’s indigenous health service, Sesai, focuses its resources on those living on tribal reservations.

Sesai has reported 10 indigenous deaths from the pandemic on native lands, but indigenous umbrella organization APIB estimated this week it has taken the life of at least 18 indigenous Brazilians if fatalities in urban areas are counted. The real number of cases in often remote villages across Brazil’s vast hinterland is difficult to ascertain.

“Our people are dying from this disease here and they are not being recognized as indigenous people by the state and Sesai,” said Vanda, a member of the Witoto tribe from the upper reaches of the Amazon river on the border with Colombia.

Sesai has said indigenous people living in cities should use Brazil’s public health service.

A spokeswoman for the mayor of Manaus said indigenous health was a federal issue and not the responsibility of city hall.

Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas, which is suffering Brazil’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak per capita, has seen the disease overwhelm hospitals, cemeteries, and officials’ ability to tally the dead.

Vanda, 32, was born in the river village of Amatura and moved down river 10 years ago to Manaus, where she trained as a nurse technician. She works treating skin cancer patients at a clinic in the city.

But since the outbreak started she is using her free time to make house calls in her community, tracking potential COVID-19 symptoms through a WhatsApp group she set up.

This week she has been monitoring some 40 suspected coronavirus cases. She referred five people in serious condition to emergency services, including an old woman who had to be taken by car for lack of an ambulance.

Vanda gives her patients painkillers and other basic medicines, while offering guidance on limiting contagion. She makes house calls wearing a protective apron, gloves and mask – sometimes under a traditional Witoto headdress of macaw feathers.

Hunger arrived in the community before the virus, she said. Social distancing measures imposed to slow the outbreak have hammered the local economy and wiped out incomes for both the women who make crafts or work as maids in Manaus homes, and the men who labor on building sites.

“Because we were so devoid of public assistance, I took the initiative to start a campaign on social media to receive donations of food and hygiene kits,” Vanda said.

She also started a workshop at her mother’s house where women sew cloth masks for the community, turning out 30 a day on one sewing machine.

When Brazil’s health minister visited Manaus this week, Vanda and two of her friends greeted him with a protest outside the city’s main hospital, demanding medical attention for indigenous people.

She and two other women wore masks made by her mother, emblazoned with the phrase “Indigenous Lives Matter.”

The demonstration prompted a meeting with Sesai head Robson Santos da Silva, who said a field hospital in Manaus promised by the federal government would have a wing for indigenous patients with the coronavirus.

However, a ministry spokesman said construction of the field hospital would have to wait while the government focuses first on expanding existing facilities in Manaus.

Photo essay: reut.rs/35F183o

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Bolsonaro taps family friend as Brazil top cop, Supreme Court OKs probe

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday named a family friend to head the federal police, days after his justice minister quit and accused the president of meddling in law enforcement, triggering talk of impeachment and a criminal investigation approved by the Supreme Court.

The government’s official gazette confirmed the appointment of new federal police chief Alexandre Ramagem, 48, who took charge of the president’s security after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018. The selection comes amid investigations of alleged wrongdoing by Bolsonaro’s sons.

Ramagem, who joined the federal police in 2005, has the fewest years of service of any officer tapped to lead the force. He ran the Brazilian Intelligence Agency since July.

On Friday, Justice Minister Sergio Moro alleged in a stunning televised address that Bolsonaro had repeatedly said he wanted a “personal contact” in the top police job “from whom he could get information, intelligence reports.”

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Monday gave the green light for the top public prosecutor to investigate the allegations against Bolsonaro of interfering in law enforcement. Justice Celso de Mello gave the federal police 60 days to carry out the investigation requested by Brazil’s chief public prosecutor Augusto Aras.

Based on the results of the police investigation, the public prosecutor will decide whether to press charges against the president. An indictment would have to be approved by the lower house.

On Tuesday, the opposition Democratic Labor Party asked the Supreme Court to block Ramagem’s nomination, alleging an abuse of power.

The affair has sparked talk in Congress of impeachment, just four years after such proceedings toppled former President Dilma Rousseff.

However, a poll by Datafolha published on Monday evening showed Brazilians divided on impeachment, with 45% supporting the move and 48% against.

Crucially, Bolsonaro appears to be keeping core supporters, the poll showed, with 33% of those surveyed saying they thought he was doing a good or excellent job.

POLITICAL INTERFERENCE

Still, the accusations from the popular “super minister” Moro, who locked up scores of powerful politicians and businessmen as a judge, has dented Bolsonaro’s corruption-fighting image, which was central to his 2018 campaign.

Moro said he had never seen political interference of the kind sought by Bolsonaro over Brazil’s federal police, even under previous governments whose officials and allies were convicted of participating in sweeping corruption schemes.

A New Year’s party photo on social media of Ramagem grinning beside the president’s son Carlos Bolsonaro, a Rio de Janeiro city councilman, circulated widely on Tuesday, emphasizing the close ties between the family and the new top cop.

Carlos Bolsonaro is the subject of a Supreme Court probe looking at his role in disseminating “fake news,” according to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. His brother, lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, was accused in a congressional investigation of participating in a “fake news” scheme.

Their eldest brother, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, is also being investigated by state prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro over alleged money laundering and misuse of public funds.

All three have denied any wrongdoing. They and the president have decried the probes as politically motivated attacks.

Over the weekend, Bolsonaro took to Facebook to defend Ramagem, after word of his nomination leaked to the press.

“So what? I knew Ramagem before he knew my children. Should he be vetoed for that reason? Whose friend should I pick?” the president said in a post.

($1 = 5.6526 reais)

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Brazil turns to local industry to build ventilators as China purchases fall through

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s health minister said on Wednesday that the country’s attempts to purchase thousands of ventilators from China to fight a growing coronavirus epidemic had fallen through and the government is now hoping Brazilian companies can supply the devices.

“Practically all our purchases of equipment in China are not being confirmed,” Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said at a news conference.

An attempt to buy 15,000 ventilators in China did not go through and Brazil was making a new bid, he said, but the outcome is uncertain in the intense competition for medical supplies in the global pandemic.

In one positive sign for Brazil’s supply crunch, a private company managed to buy 40 tonnes of protective masks from China, with the shipment arriving by cargo plane in Brasilia on Wednesday.

The shipment of 6 million masks worth 160 million reais ($30 million) was undertaken by pharmaceutical and hospital equipment company Nutriex, based in Goiania, 220 kilometers east of Brasilia. The firm plans to donate part of the order.

Health authorities began to sound the alarm this week over supply shortages as hospitals faced growing numbers of patients with COVID-19.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country soared to 15,927 on Wednesday, with the death toll rising by 133 in just 24 hours to 800, the ministry said.

Mandetta reported the first case of coronavirus among the Yanomami people on the country’s largest reservation and said the government plans to build a field hospital for indigenous tribes that are vulnerable to contagion.

“We are extremely concerned about the indigenous communities,” Mandetta said.

Anthropologists and health experts warn that the epidemic can have a devastating impact on Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people whose lifestyle in tribal villages rules out social distancing.

Mandetta said Brazil has hired local unlisted medical equipment maker Magnamed to make 6,000 ventilators in 90 days.

Pulp and paper companies Suzano SA and Klabin SA, planemaker Embraer SA, information technology provider Positivo Tecnologia SA and automaker Fiat Chrysler have also offered to help build ventilators, he said.

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Brazil's health minister eclipses Bolsonaro approval in coronavirus crisis: poll

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The popularity of Brazil Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has soared to 76% over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, more than double the slipping approval rating of President Jair Bolsonaro, a new poll showed on Friday.

Mandetta has insisted on reinforcing social distancing to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus that has killed 300 people in Brazil in two weeks, contradicting the president and raising fears that Bolsonaro might fire him.

According to Datafolha, 33% of those polled approve of Bolsonaro’s response to the public health crisis, down from 35% last month.

Bolsonaro has shocked health experts around the world by persistently playing down the gravity of the pandemic, calling COVID-19 “a little cold” exaggerated by the media and his opponents – even after his political idol U.S. President Donald Trump walked back his own skepticism about the outbreak. His stance has isolated him politically in Brazil.

An earlier poll released on Friday by XP Investimentos showed that Brazilians overwhelmingly favor social distancing measures taken by state governors and advocated by the minister to fight the epidemic.

The government’s approval rating has fallen to 28%, the lowest since Bolsonaro took office last year, while its negative “bad and terrible” rating has risen to 42% of the people surveyed in the Ipespe/XP Investimentos poll.

Approval of governors who took steps to shut down businesses and public events and get people to stay at home jumped to 44% from 26% last month, while 69% in that poll said Mandetta is doing a good job.

Bolsonaro said on Friday that Brazilian society will not be able to stand two or three months of economic shutdowns to fight the coronavirus, denouncing social distancing measures enforced by states and municipalities across the country.

“You know my stance. It will bring massive unemployment,” he told supporters outside the presidential residence in Brasilia.

The Ipespe poll commissioned by XP Investimentos confirmed that most Brazilians – 59% – agree with the governors, whom Bolsonaro has called “job-killers” due to the rising unemployment the economic standstill has brought.

Datafolha polled 1,511 people by phone April 1-3. Its poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points either way. Ipespe surveyed 1,000 people March 30 to April 1, with a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points up or down.

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Brazil turns to China for help in coronavirus fight, eyes U.S. cooperation

BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil faces a tense period in the coming weeks in its battle against the coronavirus, with supplies of medical and protective equipment running low and fresh shipments from China not expected to arrive in the country for another month.

Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said states are well stocked for now, but Brazil had to turn to several countries before it could find a taker for its 1.2 billion reais ($228 million) order to restock.

“The first country said no, the second said no, and we were worried. At the end of the afternoon yesterday, the fifth country agreed and will deliver in 30 days. It is a very large purchase, enough for more than 60 days,” he said.

That country is China, the Health Ministry told Reuters, adding that the order is for 200 million items.

Mandetta also said on Thursday that he met the new U.S. ambassador to Brazil to discuss cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, which could see Brazilian firms producing face masks to be used in both countries.

Brazil’s reach out to the world’s two economic superpowers comes as President Jair Bolsonaro again urged states to relax their strict quarantine policies, and said people should start going back to work next week.

Bolsonaro and Mandetta have clashed over their approach to the crisis, with the president critical of Mandetta’s advice to maintain maximum self-isolation and social distancing due to the impact it is having on jobs and the economy.

Speaking to Radio Jovem Pan, the president said that Mandetta has at times “gone overboard” and lacked “humility.”

“I don’t plan on firing him during the war,” Bolsonaro said, referring to the current crisis.

Speaking earlier to church ministers in Brasilia, he once again downplayed the epidemic, saying it was “not all it’s being made out to be.”

The Health Ministry said on Thursday the federal government’s stock of some 40 million personal protective equipment for health professionals, such as masks and gloves, had been entirely disbursed to local authorities.

China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year, has been leveraging its production of medical equipment and expertise in halting the coronavirus as a soft-power tool in regions like South America, where it is jostling for influence against the United States.

The death toll in Brazil has been rising sharply.

Health Ministry figures showed that the number of deaths jumped 23% from Wednesday to 299 and the number of confirmed cases rose 15% to 7,910.

Brazil’s congress could vote by Friday on a constitutional amendment for the so-called “war budget” to help minimize the economic damage, lower house speaker Rodrigo Maia said earlier.

Economy Ministry officials said the government’s deficit this year will balloon to a record 419 billion reais, or 5.5% of GDP.

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Coronavirus: Brazil president refuses to ramp up COVID-19 lockdown as Facebook pulls video

Brazil’s president has refused to extend the country’s coronavirus quarantine measures because of job losses and the impact on the poor.

Speaking to Rede TV, Jair Bolsonaro hit out at self-isolation and other measures imposed by local authorities to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Mr Bolsonaro said: “You can’t impose any more quarantine than there already is.”

Meanwhile he stepped up his stand-off with state governments, branding governors in the hardest-hit regions as “job-killers” and suggesting that democracy could be at risk if the coronavirus crisis leads to social chaos.

He told reporters outside the presidential palace: “When the situation is heading toward chaos, with mass unemployment and hunger, it’s fertile ground for some to exploit, seeking a way to reach power and never leave it.”

On Sunday, Mr Bolsonaro visited a market area outside the federal capital to stress the message that lockdown measures should be relaxed.

And just hours later Facebook and Twitter removed a video of him speaking to street vendors, explaining that it violated their standards on misinformation.

The president’s announcements once again put him at odds with health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who has urged Brazilians to maintain maximum social distancing to ease the strain the fragile health system.

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UPDATE 2-Brazil's Treasury to issue more short-term bills as risk aversion rises

(Recasts, adds Treasury official quotes)

By Marcela Ayres and Jamie McGeever

BRASILIA, March 25 (Reuters) – Brazil will issue more short-term bills to meet demand from increasingly risk-averse investors, and has put any plans to issue a 20-year bond this year on the back burner due to global market volatility, a senior Treasury official said on Wednesday.

The Treasury may also redraw its 2020 Annual Financing Plan due to the market and economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus outbreak, although this does not necessarily mean it will issue more debt this year.

Speaking to reporters in Brasilia after publication of February’s update of the country’s debt securities market, Luis Felipe Vital, public debt manager at the Treasury, also said the Treasury’s auction process could be changed to a single price from a multiple price system.

“In order to meet the market’s preferences for shorter-dated paper, the Treasury will start to operate from tomorrow (Thursday) with two LFT maturities. One for September 22 (this year) and the other for March 26 (next year),” Vital said.

LFT notes are floating rate bills. Amid the surge in volatility in recent weeks that has pushed rates at the long end of the interest rates futures curve close to 10%, Vital said investors are now clamoring for shorter maturities.

In a summary accompanying February’s update of the country’s debt securities market, the Treasury said “extreme” market volatility this month has hampered price discovery and normal trading activity.

The Treasury said it will continue intervening in the bond market to counter high volatility and ensure the market operates smoothly. It could also alter the date of scheduled debt auctions and announce unscheduled auctions.

“The Treasury will continue carrying out its government bonds repurchase program, acting whenever it sees dysfunctional markets, with the aim of mitigating adverse effects on this and related markets,” it said in its latest monthly report on the debt market.

“During periods of high financial market volatility, the Treasury may hold extraordinary repurchase auctions of government securities to support the smooth functioning of the market,” it added.

The Treasury canceled bond auctions this month due to adverse market conditions and announced it would intervene in the market to provide liquidity and reduce volatility in conjunction with the central bank.

Brazil’s federal public debt rose to 4.281 trillion reais ($856 billion) and the stock of domestic public debt securities rose to 4.057 trillion reais, the Treasury said on Wednesday. (Reporting by Jamie McGeever and Marcela Ayres; Editing by Sandra Maler, Alistair Bell and Diane Craft)

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