Russia cashes in as European oil refiners pay for U.S. sanctions

MOSCOW (Reuters) – European refiners are paying the price for U.S. oil sanctions on Venezuela and Iran as they scramble to replace the sour crude Washington has blocked from the global market with increasingly expensive Russian oil, trading sources said and data showed. FILE PHOTO: A worker collects a crude oil sample at an oil…

MOSCOW (Reuters) – European refiners are paying the price for U.S. oil sanctions on Venezuela and Iran as they scramble to replace the sour crude Washington has blocked from the global market with increasingly expensive Russian oil, trading sources said and data showed.

FILE PHOTO: A worker collects a crude oil sample at an oil well operated by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA in Morichal, Venezuela, July 28, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

Compounding the impact of sanctions, OPEC members have mainly cut sour crude output as part of their deal with allied producers to boost oil prices while a large, new refinery, designed to run on sour oil, has just started up in Turkey.

U.S. output is soaring and exports are set to jump later this year as new infrastructure comes online but it is not an alternative, being mainly light and sweet.

As a result, European refiners have been left competing to secure as much medium, sour Russian Urals as they can, pushing the differential of that oil to levels not seen since 2013.

“Urals is anchored in a positive zone versus dated Brent and there is no indication it will fall to a discount any time soon,” a trading source at a European oil major said.

In the Mediterranean, the differential for Urals typically trades at a discount of at least a dollar to benchmark dated Brent but since early November, the level has spiked and now stands at a premium of 70 cents a barrel.

For a 600,000-barrel cargo of Urals, that rise translates to an extra $1.35 million cost.

Thanks to the higher premiums, Russia made an additional $140 million in March from seaborne and pipeline deliveries versus October prior to the sanctions coming into effect.

(GRAPHIC: Russian Urals price differential to Dated Brent – tmsnrt.rs/2VGbESk)

Initially, Europeans gravitated to heavy, sour Venezuelan oil when sanctions on Iran hit in early November but then Washington also placed sanctions on the Latin American country in late January in a bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Even though sanctions on Venezuelan crude will not come into effect until the end of April, the oil is effectively already untouchable as the U.S. State Department has exerted direct pressure on foreign companies to stop all dealings.

The two sets of sanctions combined have taken at least 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) out of the market, which is as much as what the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to cut.

The United States granted waivers on Iranian oil to six jurisdictions including three countries in the region – Italy, Greece and Turkey – but only Turkey was able to continue purchases. It remains unclear whether the current waivers will be extended in May.

THE SOUR RUSH

The situation is set to worsen as European refiners emerge from their springtime maintenance just as Middle Eastern Gulf sour crude producers increasingly favor Asia, where refining capacity in the near term is set to jump.

Saudi Arabia, a major sour crude producer, is shouldering the bulk of the OPEC and non-OPEC cuts. Between October 2018 and March this year, the kingdom slashed its exports to Europe by nearly half, Refinitiv Eikon data shows.

Iraq reduced its contracted volumes for European refiners in 2019 and increasingly sells its oil to the highest bidder via tender.

Iraqi supplies to Europe fell by over 40 percent to 355,000 bpd in March compared with 615,000 bpd in October 2018, Refinitiv Eikon data showed.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s 200,000-bpd STAR refinery in Turkey is slowly ramping up and will be a new competitor for dwindling sour oil.

Designed to run on sour grades such as Russian Urals and Iraqi Basra and Kirkuk, the refinery took 184,000 bpd of Urals in March, Refinitiv Eikon data showed.

“One expected STAR’s launch to be a serious jolt for the market, but little did we know it would make the sour shortage this bad … refiners are rushing for sours,” a European trader said.

As the supply-side structure has changed, the spread between sour and the historically far more expensive light, sweet crude has thinned and even flipped in some instances.

In the Mediterranean, the light grade Kazakh CPC Blend trades at a discount to Urals and Kurdish crude, which used to be one of the region’s cheapest oils.

The Urals price out of the Black Sea has also increasingly traded at a premium to Urals out of Baltic ports – previously a rare occurrence. The trend has prompted commodity price-reporting agency S&P Global Platts to start an industry consultation on changing how the Urals market is assessed.

“All refiners are looking for Urals or a Urals replacement,” said a third trader in an international trading firm.

“And we see that it won’t be enough for everyone.”

Reporting by Olga Yagova and Gleb Gorodyankin, additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar, Editing by Julia Payne and Dale Hudson

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North Korea convenes top-level meeting over ‘tense situation’: KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called a full meeting Wednesday of a top committee of the ruling Workers’ Party to address what he described as the “prevailing tense situation”, state media reported.The gathering of the Central Committee comes after Kim’s Hanoi summit with US President Donald Trump broke up without agreement in…


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called a full meeting Wednesday of a top committee of the ruling Workers’ Party to address what he described as the “prevailing tense situation”, state media reported.

The gathering of the Central Committee comes after Kim’s Hanoi summit with US President Donald Trump broke up without agreement in February, and as South Korean President Moon Jae-in flies to Washington for talks with the US leader.

But the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) appeared to indicate that Kim may be focussing on Pyongyang’s continued push to develop its economy.

In a meeting with senior officials Tuesday, Kim ordered them to display “an attitude befitting the masters of the revolution and construction under the prevailing tense situation and thus follow through on the new strategic line of the Party”, KCNA reported.

Last April Kim declared that the ruling party’s “new strategic line” would be “socialist economic construction” and its quest for nuclear development was complete.

Kim made “a deep analysis of the matters pending urgent solution in the party and state”, KCNA said, adding that at Wednesday’s meeting the central committee will “decide the new orientation and ways of struggle in line with the need of the prevailing revolutionary situation”.

It comes ahead of the opening of the country’s rubber stamp legislature on Thursday.

Trump and Kim held their first landmark summit in Singapore last June, where the North Korean leader signed a vaguely-worded deal on the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

But the failure by the pair to reach agreement at their second summit in Hanoi on walking back Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in exchange for relaxation of the measures against it has raised questions over the future of the wider process.

In Vietnam both sides expressed willingness to talk further and Trump has repeatedly said he maintains good relations with his North Korean counterpart.

But shortly after the Hanoi summit, a series of satellite images emerged suggesting increased activity at the North’s Sohae rocket site, triggering international alarm that the nuclear-armed state might be preparing a long-range or space launch.

A senior Pyongyang diplomat told reporters last month that the North was considering suspending nuclear talks with the US.




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Elon Musk’s SpaceX sends world’s most powerful rocket on first commercial flight

(Reuters) – The most powerful operational rocket in the world, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, launched its first commercial mission on Thursday from Florida in a key demonstration for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company in the race to grasp lucrative military launch contracts. The 23-story-tall Heavy, which previously launched Musk’s cherry red Tesla roadster to space…

(Reuters) – The most powerful operational rocket in the world, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, launched its first commercial mission on Thursday from Florida in a key demonstration for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company in the race to grasp lucrative military launch contracts.

The 23-story-tall Heavy, which previously launched Musk’s cherry red Tesla roadster to space in a 2018 debut test flight, blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center carrying its first customer payload.

“T plus 33 seconds into flight, under the power of 5.1 million pounds of thrust, Falcon Heavy is headed to space,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said on a livestream.

Roughly three minutes after clearing the pad, Heavy’s two side boosters separated from the core rocket for a synchronized landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sparking boisterous cheers from SpaceX engineers in the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters.

The middle booster, after pushing the payload into space, returned nearly 10 minutes later for a successful landing on SpaceX’s seafaring drone ship 400 miles (645 km) off the Florida coast. In the 2018 test mission, Heavy’s core booster missed the vessel and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Falcons have landed” Musk wrote on Twitter, inaugurating the first successful recovery of all three rocket boosters, which will be refurbished and re-fly in another Falcon Heavy mission this summer to carry a swarm of military and science satellites for the Air Force.

Liftoff with Heavy’s new military-certified Falcon 9 engines was crucial in the race with Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin as Musk’s SpaceX, working to flight-prove its rocket fleet one mission at a time, aims to clinch a third of all U.S. National Security Space missions – coveted military contracts worth billions.

The U.S. Air Force tapped SpaceX in 2018 to launch for $130 million a classified military satellite and in February added three more missions in a $297 million contract.

Slideshow (8 Images)

SpaceX and Boeing Co are vying to send humans to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, cleared its first unmanned test flight in March ahead of its crewed mission planned for July, while the first unmanned test for Boeing’s Starliner capsule is slated for August on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

Falcon Heavy carried a communications satellite for Saudi-based telecom firm Arabsat, which will beam internet and television services over Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Privately owned SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp, was founded in 2002 by Musk, who is also a co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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Mike Pompeo agrees Kim Jong Un is a ‘tyrant’

US President Donald Trump has said he’s in love with Kim Jong Un, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed that the North Korean leader is a “tyrant.” Pompeo, who flew to Pyongyang four times last year as the Trump administration sought an opening with North Korea, was taken to task as he…


US President Donald Trump has said he’s in love with Kim Jong Un, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed that the North Korean leader is a “tyrant.” Pompeo, who flew to Pyongyang four times last year as the Trump administration sought an opening with North Korea, was taken to task as he testified before a Senate subcommittee.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, pointed to Pompeo’s denunciations of Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as a “tyrant” and asked if he would use similar language for Kim.

“Sure. I’m sure I’ve said that,” Pompeo replied.

The comment may irk North Korea, which has signalled it is open to a third summit with Trump after a February meeting in Hanoi ended in stalemate.

Seeking a potentially landmark denuclearisation accord, Trump has repeatedly praised Kim and last month said he had blocked major new sanctions planned for North Korea out of affection for its young authoritarian leader.

North Korea has also been careful not to criticize Trump, while accusing his aides of “gangster-like” behaviour.

Pompeo, however, was unwilling to label as a tyrant Egypt’s military ruler turned president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was hailed by Trump earlier Tuesday in a White House meeting.

“There’s no doubt that it’s a mean, nasty world out there. But not every one of these leaders is the same,” Pompeo said.

“Some of them are trying to wipe entire nations off the face of the Earth and other are actually partnering with us to help keep Americans safe,” he said.

“You might call them tyrant, you might call them authoritarian, but there a fundamental difference, and therefore a fundamental difference in the way the US should respond,” he said.

Pompeo hailed Sisi’s offensive against fighters of the Islamic State extremist movement in the Sinai peninsula.

Sisi took power in a 2013 coup against elected president Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist, with authorities shortly afterward killing 700 protesters who had assembled in two Cairo squares.

Human rights group say that North Korea has one of the world’s most egregious records, with Kim’s regime forbidding all dissent and running a massive system of political prisons in which between 80,000 and 130,000 people are detained along with their family members for suspected dissent.




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Ostrich, rodent on the menu as Cuba seeks food miracle

HAVANA (Reuters) – From breeding miniature cows to importing water buffalo, Cuban leaders have long gotten creative in their effort to remedy food shortages. Now, they are proposing ostrich and rodent farms as an answer, prompting ridicule from a weary population. A flock of ostriches is seen at a farm on the outskirts of Havana,…

HAVANA (Reuters) – From breeding miniature cows to importing water buffalo, Cuban leaders have long gotten creative in their effort to remedy food shortages. Now, they are proposing ostrich and rodent farms as an answer, prompting ridicule from a weary population.

A flock of ostriches is seen at a farm on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Fernando Medina

Meat and eggs have become hard to find in the Communist-run country in recent months due to a declining economy. Meanwhile officials are touting the potential of the flightless African bird and the hutia, a rodent native to Cuba that can weigh up to 8.5 kg (19 pounds).

“An ostrich lays 60 eggs, and of those you get around 40 chicks, and from these 40 chicks per year you get four tonnes of meat – whereas a cow just gives birth to one calf and after a year it’s only a yearling,” said Guillermo Garcia Frias.

Garcia Frias, 91, holds the honorary title of commander of the revolution as a former guerrilla in Cuba’s 1959 revolution and heads state company Flora and Fauna that is developing seven ostrich farms. He spoke at a roundtable discussion broadcast on state TV last week.

He lavished praise on hutias for their “level of protein higher than any other meat” and “high quality pelt,” noting his company was also breeding crocodiles.

His comments have prompted sarcastic memes and jokes that have gone viral on social media since Cuba’s food schemes have often failed to fulfil expectations.

In one meme, a Cuban arrives home with a live ostrich he got via the state ration card. In another a flock of the birds from Cuba arrives at the Mexican-U.S. border seeking asylum.

Cubans also joked the state might give them an ostrich per household, as it did with chickens during the deep economic depression of the 1990s following the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union.

“They should be focusing on chicken, a basic foodstuff that has disappeared, rather than something so unusual,” said Elizabeth Perez, 22, a law student who said she hadn’t been able to find chicken in the supermarket for a month.

Ostriches are already farmed around the world, particularly in South Africa. In the United States, the bird is often served more as a novelty than a staple. The red meat is said to resemble lean beef, with a gamey flavour.

For some, Garcia Frias’ comments recalled late leader Fidel Castro’s genetic engineering project to produce high-yield dairy cows.

His cow Ubre Blanca or White Udder is in the Guinness Book of Records for the highest milk yield by a cow in one day: 110 litres (29 gallons). Her offspring were not as productive so the experiment petered out.

Cuba imports 60 to 70 percent of its food because of inefficient central planning of the state-run economy and the effect of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

But the country has also had to cut back on imports over the past three years due to cash shortfalls resulting from problems with its deals with former and current leftist allies, in particular declining aid from crisis-stricken Venezuela.

Whenever chicken arrives at supermarkets in Havana these days, long queues quickly form and do not peter out until the stock is exhausted.

Communist Party leader Raul Castro on Wednesday warned the economic situation could worsen in coming months as the United States further tightens its sanctions on the island although it would not become as dire as in the 1990s.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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Social media a popular, yet not trusted, news source: Poll

Last Updated : Apr 10, 2019 08:31 AM IST | Source: PTI According to the Maru/Matchbox poll, 52 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Canadians said they find out what’s happening in the world through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. …

According to the Maru/Matchbox poll, 52 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Canadians said they find out what’s happening in the world through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Last Updated : Apr 10, 2019 08:31 AM IST | Source: PTI

About half of Americans and Canadians get their news primarily from social media, yet most don’t trust this source of information, according to a survey released.

According to the Maru/Matchbox poll, 52 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Canadians said they find out what’s happening in the world through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Only television (64 percent) and news websites (49 percent) in the United States ranked higher as sources of news.

But while trust in traditional news services including radio and newspapers rated above 80 percent in both countries, trust in social media was lowest among all sources at 43 percent in the United States and 32 percent in Canada.

Political news is the most likely to contain misinformation, according to respondents.

That was a significant concern for Americans (84 percent) worried about “fake news” in the upcoming 2020 US presidential election. But half were confident they could easily spot false or inaccurate information.

“Social media is changing our relationship with the news,” said Sara Cappe of Maru/Matchbox.

“While it has become a common source of news and news-related information, people are less trusting of what they find there. The upside is that many feel more engaged with the news than ever before.”

The pollster interviewed 1,516 Canadians and 1,523 Americans for the survey commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, with a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

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U.S. suspends talks with Sudan after military ousts Bashir

The building of Embassy of the Republic of the Sudan is seen in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah MoonWASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday suspended discussions with Sudan on normalizing relations between the two countries after the military ousted President Omar al-Bashir and said it would run the country for two years.…

The building of Embassy of the Republic of the Sudan is seen in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday suspended discussions with Sudan on normalizing relations between the two countries after the military ousted President Omar al-Bashir and said it would run the country for two years.

The State Department, while declining to declare the takeover a coup, said it supported a peaceful and democratic Sudan and believed the Sudanese people should be allowed a peaceful transition sooner than only in two years.

“The Sudanese people should determine who leads them in their future,” spokesman Robert Palladino said at a news briefing. “The Sudanese people have been clear that they have been demanding a civilian-led transition. They should be allowed to do so sooner than two years from now.”

Military leaders in Sudan said presidential elections would take place after a two-year period of military rule following the ouster of Bashir.

The so-called “Phase II” talks between the United States and Sudan were initiated after the Obama administration moved to lift a 20-year-old trade embargo against Khartoum in recognition of the country’s help in fighting Islamic State and progress in improving its human rights record.

The United States first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997, including a trade embargo and blocking the government’s assets, for human rights violations and terrorism concerns. It laid on more sanctions in 2006 for what it said was complicity in the violence in Darfur.

Asked whether the United States supported Bashir being put on trial before the International Criminal Court for Darfur atrocities, Palladino said: “We believe that the victims of Darfur deserve justice, that accountability is essential for achieving lasting piece in Darfur.”

He declined to say whether the United States supported that justice being meted out by the ICC, which sits in The Hague. The Trump administration has said it will withdraw or deny visas of any ICC judges or prosecutors if the court investigated possible war crimes against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Doina Chiacu; Editing by David Alexander and Dan Grebler

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China, US could win big on no-deal Brexit: UN

If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, the bloc and Britain’s smaller trading partners stand to lose big, but Beijing and Washington could reap huge benefits, the UN said.In a fresh report, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) examined what repercussions it would have for Britain’s trading partners if the…


If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, the bloc and Britain’s smaller trading partners stand to lose big, but Beijing and Washington could reap huge benefits, the UN said.

In a fresh report, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) examined what repercussions it would have for Britain’s trading partners if the country crashes out of the European Union without a deal.

The report, titled “No-deal Brexit: the trade winners and losers”, came out as British Prime Minister Theresa May pleaded with EU leaders to provide an extension to the deadline for Brexit to avoid leaving with no deal on April 12.

The UNCTAD report warned that if Britain did exit the bloc without a proper divorce deal, it “would significantly alter market access conditions in the United Kingdom both for developing and developed countries.”

The British market currently accounts for about 3.5 per cent of world trade, and last year the country imported goods worth almost USD 680 billion (604 billion euros) from the rest of the world, UNCTAD said.

More than half of that came from EU countries, who stand to lose out on nearly USD 35 billion in exports to Britain in the case of a no-deal Brexit, the report found.

But it stressed that Britain is also an important trading partner for many developing countries, whose exports until now have enjoyed very favourable market access conditions, largely thanks to preferential EU schemes.

If there is a proper exit deal with a lengthy transition period, trading partners would have time to negotiate new bilateral agreements to replace the EU deals that will no longer apply to trade with the UK, UNCTAD said.

But without such a deal, countries that currently benefit from favourable market access will feel the pain, while countries that until now have faced significant tariffs will benefit, it said.

“Brexit is not only a regional affair,” UNCTAD head of international trade and commodities Pamela Coke-Hamilton said in a statement.

“Once the UK has left its 27 European Union partners behind, it will alter the ability of non-EU countries to export to the UK market,” she added.

In the case of a no-deal Brexit, Turkey would be the second-biggest loser after the EU, taking an estimated USD 2.4-billion hit to its exports to Britain, the report said. South Korea, Norway, Iceland, Cambodia and Switzerland also stand to lose big, it added.

At the same time, the report found that China could gain an additional USD 10.2 billion in exports to Britain, while the United States could add USD 5.3 billion in exports to the country.

Japan could also expect to see its exports to Britain swell by USD 4.9 billion, while Thailand, South Africa, India, Brazil, Russia, Vietnam and New Zealand would also rake in gains, it said.

According to World Trade Organisation rules, a country is not permitted to give preferential treatment to a trading partner, and must apply the same tariffs to all, unless there is an exception set out in a trade agreement.

If Britain leaves the EU with no such deals in place to protect its current preferential trading partners, it “would increase relative competitiveness of major exporting countries, such as China or the United States, thereby eroding market-share,” Coke-Hamilton said.




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Cufflinks and the Caribbean: How Virgin Galactic kept space tourists’ interest and money

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) – Virgin Galactic’s goal to fly tourists into space as early as this summer is about 12 years later than initially promised by its founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. But many of its customers, including Gisli Gislason, aren’t sweating it. Right up there with a few minutes in space on…

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) – Virgin Galactic’s goal to fly tourists into space as early as this summer is about 12 years later than initially promised by its founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson.

But many of its customers, including Gisli Gislason, aren’t sweating it.

Right up there with a few minutes in space on Gislason’s bucket list is his time on earth with other space enthusiasts and Branson, a fellow adrenaline junkie known as much for his globe-trotting stunts as for starting his own airline.

“It’s more than just a trip to space, it’s a huge, ongoing event,” said Icelandic ticket holder Gislason, who has a Virgin Galactic logo tattooed on his arm and bought his ticket to space in 2010. “I’ve already got what I paid for, so I’m just in for a bonus,” he added.

Gislason’s experience is no accident.

Since its early days, Virgin Galactic specifically set out to win customer loyalty, knowing its attempt to become the world’s first commercial spaceline would likely see its share of setbacks. So featuring its top salesman Branson, the company prioritized exclusive experiences for its “future astronauts,” building a community that has stayed loyal through years of pushed deadlines and a fatal 2014 crash.

While waiting for their trip, some since 2004, Virgin ticket holders have been busied with treats on earth: from a custom-created solar eclipse festival in Idaho and test-flight viewings in California’s Mojave Desert to spaceship-shaped cufflinks at Christmas and group excursions to Branson’s private island in the Caribbean, where they can play tennis with the famous entrepreneur and swap design ideas for the spaceflight around a campfire.

“One of our astronauts once said to me, ‘Don’t fly to space, we’re thoroughly enjoying spending all this time going to the game reserve in Africa or Necker Island,’” Branson told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

“That long, drawn out foreplay can be pretty good, the orgasm is quite quick,” he said, laughing.

Ticket holders pay for some of these particularly high-end events, but just cover the travel for others.

“That was a compelling part of the package,” said Mark Rocket, a New Zealander who changed his name nearly 20 years ago and signed up with Virgin Galactic in 2006. “It’s not just about those few minutes in space.”

More than 600 people from 58 countries have put down a deposit for a 90-minute flight priced at $250,000, up from $200,000 in 2013. The first 100 “founders” will partake in a lottery to determine who gets to fly sooner rather than later. The company expects to increase the frequency of the flights as they build up their space fleet over time.

It has collected about $80 million in ticket holder deposits, money which CEO George Whitesides said the company does not use for spaceship development. That funding instead comes largely from the Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Group.

Other than stating Branson himself will be on the first scheduled flight, the company has not disclosed which ticketholders will go first – though Branson is considering the possibility of some customers jumping the line for the right price to help pay the bills.

“There is a market out there we believe who would be willing to pay a million dollars to go on an earlier flight, and we’ve got a few slots at that sort of price,” Branson told Reuters.

Signed-up “future astronauts” vary from billionaires to people who remortgaged their homes to pay for the ride, from pop star Justin Bieber to Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, 80, one of the so-called ‘Mercury 13’ women who in the 1960s passed the same punishing tests as male astronauts before the program’s funding was pulled.

Virgin’s decision to sign up customers long before it developed and tested a commercial spaceship contrasts with Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, which will only sell tickets for its suborbital flights after it completes its crewed flight tests.

“It would not have been a Virgin company had we squirreled away in secret and built a spaceship without any customers and rolled it out once it was all ready and tested,” said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director and first full-time employee.

FILE PHOTO: Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, with SpaceShipTwo passenger craft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, U.S., February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins/File Photo

Now, after a crewed SpaceShipTwo test flight to space in December 2018 and another carrying a test passenger in February, Virgin Galactic is inching closer to commercial flight. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket has reached space but its first human spaceflight is still targeted for this year, and it has not determined a ticket price or when it will begin taking reservations.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also in the race: last year it named Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa as its first customer on a voyage around the moon, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

“FUTURE ASTRONAUT” STRATEGY

Virgin Galactic knew that the price tag for its flights, sold in advance to prove that there was a healthy market when there was a product to deliver, would require providing customer service during the wait.

“Right from the start it was obvious to me that if we were going to have customers and we were accepting fairly large deposits, we were going to need to communicate regularly with those people,” said Attenborough.

It was not clear how long the wait for tourist spaceflights might be, with Branson’s timelines shifting: In 2004, Virgin was saying it would offer commercial spaceflights by 2007. By 2012, the plan was 2013.

As deadlines whizzed by, the future astronaut program evolved, organizing group trips from the Farnborough Air Show to the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ fossil site in South Africa.

“That is something that they tapped into and wised up to really early,” said Trevor Beattie, a ticketholder and UK advertising executive working on Virgin Galactic’s marketing campaign. “They created, quite deliberately, a sense of community.”

For some, access to Branson himself upped the experience.

“Isn’t it funny how the wine tastes better when you know the winemaker?” said Matthew Upchurch, a ticket holder and the CEO of Virtuoso, a travel agency network with exclusive rights to sell Virgin Galactic flights in North America.

CRASH TESTS LOYALTY

The biggest test of this carefully built customer community came in 2014, when a test flight crash killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot.

“I remember very well waking up very early on Saturday morning after the Friday accident and wondering what would happen to this customer base,” Attenborough said.

The company reached out to customers by email on the day of the crash, both before and after the co-pilot’s death was known. There was a blog post from Branson on that day, and later, a video message. A subsequent email from the astronaut relations team said that they planned to call every customer individually.

“That was obviously a horrendous day for everybody,” said Branson, adding that his experience of a fatal 2007 Virgin Trains crash in which an elderly woman was killed meant he knew it was important to get to the scene of the test flight accident and “take these things head on.”

In the end, Attenborough said only a “handful” of customers asked for refunds.

An email seen by Reuters from the astronaut relations team three weeks after the crash said it would soon share a program of upcoming activities and trips. It advertised some “gold-dust-like spots” for a “star Galactic team” at the London Marathon – some of the sponsorship money would now go to a memorial fund for the co-pilot who was killed.

After consulting with customers, the company went ahead with one of its planned annual Virgin Galactic trips to Necker Island just a few weeks after the crash.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Now, after years of huge setbacks and surreal highs, Virgin Galactic’s ticketholders are edging closer to their flights. For some, space is still the final frontier.

“I’ve driven a Bugatti at 253 miles an hour, I’ve skied to the South Pole, swam at the North Pole. I’ve done a lot of stuff and the thing I really want to do is fly in space,” said Jim Clash, an adventure journalist and passenger 610.

Editing by Greg Mitchell and Edward Tobin

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Dalai Lama hospitalised in Delhi due to chest infection

The 83-year-old leader came down here from Dharamshala for the check-up at the Max hospital in Delhi.

Last Updated : Apr 10, 2019 08:45 AM IST | Source: PTI

– TFMNews

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on April 9 underwent a check-up at a hospital in Delhi after some health complications, hospital sources said.

It was later reported that he had been hospitalised due to a chest infection.

The 83-year-old leader came down here from Dharamshala for the check-up at the Max hospital in Saket, they said.

“Yes, he underwent a check-up at the hospital. He generally visits Max facility for his check-ups,” a source said.

The Dalai Lama was here for the past few days for attending a global learning conference that ended on April 6. He returned to Dharamshala from New Delhi on April 8.

The 14th Dalai Lama had fled to India in early 1959 to escape from the Chinese occupation and lives in exile in the hill town of Dharamshala.

At the event, he had also spoken about his ageing body and reincarnation.

To a question on China’s stand on the next Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader had said, “If I live for another 10-15 years, political situation in China will change. But if I die in the next few years, the Chinese government will show the reincarnation must happen in China.”

China has said the successor to the Dalai Lama must be chosen according to the religious rituals and historical conventions as well as the backing from the ruling Communist Party. The Dalai Lama has been keeping China on tenterhooks about his successor.

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Kim Jong Un consolidates power as North Korea shuffles leadership

SEOUL (Reuters) – In one of the biggest leadership shake-ups in years, North Korea named a new nominal head of state and a new premier, and gave leader Kim Jong Un a new title, state media reported on Friday, moves analysts said solidify Kim’s grip on power.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is elected as Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the first session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in Pyongyang April 11, 2019 photo released on April 12, 2019 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS

In an expected move, Kim Jong Un was re-elected as chairman of the State Affairs Commission at a session of North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature that took place on Thursday, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

For the first time, however, state media referred to Kim as “supreme representative of all the Korean people.” That title was approved by special decree in February, according to the Associated Press, but has not been used publicly until Friday.

It’s unclear whether the changes will be codified in the constitution, but analysts said the shake-up shows Kim has fully come into his own, eight years after he inherited rule from his father, Kim Jong Il.

“The transition and power consolidation of the Kim Jong Un regime is complete,” said Michael Madden, a nonresident North Korea leadership expert with the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

“This is probably the largest party-government shake-up in many years,” he said.

Since early 2018 Kim has embarked on a push for economic development and international engagement, including historic summits with the leaders of the United States, China and South Korea.

In a message congratulating Kim on his re-election as chairman, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China highly values its friendship with North Korea and is willing to push forward the bilateral relations, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.

Choe Ryong Hae was named President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, replacing Kim Yong Nam.

The person holding that position is constitutionally considered North Korea’s head of state and usually represents the country at diplomatic events, though experts say real power remains concentrated in Kim Jong Un’s hands.

Kim Yong Nam, who was born in 1928, has been one of the longest serving senior officials, having held the position since it was created for him in 1998, Madden said.

His replacement, Choe, was subjected to political “re-education” in the past, but in recent years appeared to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October 2017 to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, South Korean intelligence officials previously said.

Choe was one of the three officials sanctioned by the United States in December over allegations of rights abuses.

On Thursday U.S. President Donald Trump, who has had two summits with Kim to discuss North Korean denuclearisation and has expressed his willingness for a third, said Washington would leave sanctions in place.

Several officials who have played leading roles in negotiations with the United States, including Choe Son Hui and Kim Yong Chol, were also promoted.

ECONOMIC REFORMS

North Korea also replaced the premier of its cabinet, an official at the centre of efforts to jumpstart the economy.

Leader Kim Jong Un has made economic development the centrepiece of his strategy and told officials this week that building a self-supporting economy would be a blow to the “hostile forces” that have imposed sanctions on the North Korea.

Pak Pong Ju had served his current post as premier since 2013.

According to analysts at NK News, a website that monitors North Korea, Pak helped oversee a process of “radical reform” in the economy that enabled it to survive sanctions.

Among those reforms were loosing control of state-run enterprises, allowing them to operate more freely in the market and to seek private investment, according to a 2017 profile of Pak in NK News.

Some of those reforms earned the ire of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, who led North Korea at the time. But the younger Kim has more openly embraced many of those market changes, and North Korea has sought to ease sanctions and attract more private investment.

Pak will now serve as a vice chairman of the ruling party, meaning that those economic reforms are still being embraced, said Hong Min, senior researcher of Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“It means Pak Pong Ju-nomics, or Pak Pong Ju-style economic reform is continuing,” he said.

There is little known about Pak’s replacement, Kim Jae Ryong, who has been serving as a party leader in Jagang Province, a mountainous area home to some munitions factories.

The province is known within North Korea, however, for having a spirit of overcoming hardship, which may fit with Kim Jong Un’s message of persevering under sanctions, Hong said.

Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by James Dalgleish, Grant McCool and Michael Perry

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First photo of black hole released; Breakthrough in astrophysics

An international scientific team on April 10 announced a milestone in astrophysics – the first-ever photo of a black hole – using a global network of telescopes to gain insight into celestial objects with gravitational fields so strong no matter or light can escape.

The team’s observations of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, lend strong support to the theory of general relativity put forward in 1915 by physicist Albert Einstein to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.

The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole using a global network of Earth-based telescopes. The announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo.

“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” said astrophysicist Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian.

This black hole resides about 54 million light-years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

Black holes, phenomenally dense celestial entities, are extraordinarily difficult to observe despite their great mass. A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion.

“This is a huge day in astrophysics,” said US National Science Foundation Director France Cordova. “We’re seeing the unseeable.”

The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult. The scientists look for a ring of light – disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.

Astrophysicist Dimitrios Psaltis of the University of Arizona, the EHT project scientist, said, “The size and shape of the shadow matches the precise predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, increasing our confidence in this century-old theory.”

“Imaging a black hole is just the beginning of our effort to develop new tools that will enable us to interpret the massively complex data that nature gives us,” Psaltis added.

The project’s researchers obtained the first data in April 2017 using telescopes in the US states of Arizona and Hawaii as well as in Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica. Since then, telescopes in France and Greenland have been added to the global network. The global network of telescopes has essentially created a planet-sized observational dish.

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EU to agree Brexit delay but France pushes for conditions

PARIS/BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Brexit but they could demand she accepts a much longer extension as France pushed for conditions to limit Britain’s ability to undermine the bloc.

A “flextension” until the end of the year or until March 2020, under which Britain could leave much sooner if its warring political tribes can find a majority, was shaping up to be the most likely, EU diplomats said, after envoys met in Brussels late on Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday evening’s summit with May.

In a sign of just how far the three-year Brexit crisis has sapped British power, May dashed to Berlin and Paris to ask Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to allow the world’s fifth-largest economy to put off its divorce from April 12.

While it was not immediately clear what Merkel and Macron, Europe’s two most powerful leaders, agreed with May, an advance draft of conclusions for Wednesday’s emergency EU summit said Britain would be granted another delay on certain conditions.

“The United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives,” read the draft seen by Reuters. As a full member state of the EU, Britain could in theory exercise a veto on any major policy decision.

May has asked the EU for a Brexit delay to June 30 but the draft left the end-date blank pending a decision by the other 27 national leaders on Wednesday evening in Brussels.

More than a week after Britain was originally supposed to leave the EU, May, the weakest British prime minister in a generation, has said she fears Brexit might never happen as she battles to get a divorce deal ratified by a divided parliament.

After her pledge to resign failed to get her deal over the line, she launched crisis talks with the opposition Labour Party in the hope of breaking the domestic deadlock.

“People are tired and fed up (with Britain’s indecision) – but what to do?” one EU diplomat said. “We won’t be the ones pushing the UK off the cliff edge.”

HOW LONG?

Another EU official involved with Brexit said no European power wanted the chaos that they fear a “no-deal” exit would sow through financial markets and the EU 27’s $16 trillion economy.

“Nobody wants to pull the plug by 13th April,” said the official. “But for how long – I don’t know. And France will ask a lot of questions in Brussels.”

But as May arrived at the Elysee Palace in Paris to a guard of honour, she was unable to trumpet any breakthrough with Labour.

Shortly before she landed in Paris, an official in Macron’s office said that “in the scenario of an extended delay, one year would seem too long for us”.

He added that if Britain did delay its exit, it should not take part in EU budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU’s executive commission – and that the other 27 member states should be able to review its “sincere cooperation”.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Macron would not veto May’s extension but wanted conditions attached.

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she arrives for a meeting to discuss Brexit with French President Emmanuel Macron (not seen) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

“He (Macron) certainly wants to know about conditionality, particularly the issue of the United Kingdom being involved in future (EU) decision-making,” Varadkar said.

“STOP BREXIT”

Earlier in the day, May met Merkel at her riverside Chancellery, a short walk from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and departed with a warm exchange of kisses.

While they discussed Brexit, Germany’s opposition liberal FDP party drove an advertising van past the Chancellery with a slogan reading: “Dear Theresa May. Just do it. Stop Brexit. Make the most of Europe’s opportunities.”

Several EU diplomats said the 12-month extension proposed by European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair the Wednesday summit, was unlikely to fly and several capitals had agreed with France that this would be too long, fearing a protracted distraction from other pressing EU business.

In London, British Solicitor General Robert Buckland said May would “listen carefully” to any constructive suggestions made by the EU on the length of the extension. He conceded that the government might not have managed to ratify an exit deal in parliament before European elections are held on May 23-26.

According to the draft conclusions, if Britain did not take part in EU parliamentary elections properly, it would have to leave on June 1, 2019.

The pound, which has seesawed so much on Brexit news that some investors have stepped away from the sterling market, rose and then dipped on speculation Merkel could offer May a better deal. Germany denied that. [GBP/]

DIVIDED KINGDOM

The 2016 referendum revealed a United Kingdom split over much more than EU membership, and has sparked impassioned debate about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and what it means to be British.

Yet nothing is yet resolved.

Unable to convince enough of her own Conservatives of the merits of her deal to get it passed, May is courting socialist Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party wants to keep Britain more closely tied to the bloc after Brexit.

Labour’s demands include keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU, something that is hard to reconcile with May’s desire for Britain to have an independent trade policy, and potentially a second referendum on any deal.

After Tuesday’s round of talks, Labour said it had not yet seen a clear shift in May’s stance.

“We had further detailed and wide-ranging talks with cabinet ministers and officials today,” a Labour representative said. “We have yet to see the clear shift in the government’s position that is needed to secure a compromise agreement.”

A customs union with the EU, seen as the most likely area for compromise but so far resisted by May’s government, was the first item on the agenda for the talks, which were to include finance minister Philip Hammond. Talks resume on Thursday.

Slideshow (7 Images)

The idea of a softer Brexit is anathema to eurosceptics in May’s Conservative party who have helped to defeat her divorce deal three times this year.

Meanwhile, British lawmakers on Tuesday approved by a 420-110 margin May’s plan to seek to delay Brexit to June 30 while she tries to strike a compromise with Labour.

The government was forced to hold the vote after parliament passed a law on Monday giving themselves power to scrutinise and make changes to May’s request to extend the Article 50 negotiating period a second time.

Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, William James, Elizabeth Piper and Costas Pitas in London, Gabriela Baczynska in Luxembourg, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, and Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker

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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un says must deliver ‘serious blow’ to those imposing sanctions: KCNA


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country needs to deliver a “serious blow” to those imposing sanctions by ensuring its economy is more self-reliant, state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Thursday.

It was the first time Kim stated North Korea’s position on the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi that collapsed in February, and signalled a continued focus on economic development, a strategic direction officially declared a priority last April.

On North Korea’s position on the summit, Kim said “We must deal a serious blow to the hostile forces who are mistakenly determined to bring us down with sanctions by advancing the socialist construction to a high level of self-reliance that fits our circumstances and state, based on our own power, technology and resources,” according to KCNA.

U.S.-North Korean engagement has appeared to be in limbo since the Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, which collapsed over differences about how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease economic sanctions.

Kim has continued to highlight his economic push in recent weeks despite the lack of sanctions relief.

State media have published images and reports of Kim’s visits to at least four economic projects in five days over the past week, including a remodelled department store, tourist resorts, and an economic hub near the border with China.

Despite no direct mention of the United States, by linking sanctions with “hostile forces” that impose them Kim is showing a slightly stronger stance toward Washington than was recently in state media, analysts said.

The comments were also reported hours ahead of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington on Thursday to discuss North Korea and other alliance issues.

“It did not directly mention the U.S., but linked sanctions with hostile forces,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “He’s saying North Korea would take an independent course unless the U.S. offered to lift sanctions. You maintain sanctions, you’re a hostile force; if you ease sanctions, you’re not.”

North Korea is expected to convene a session of its rubber-stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, on Thursday.




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UK parliament approves Brexit law forcing May to consult on delay

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s parliament approved legislation on Monday that gives lawmakers the power to scrutinise and even change Prime Minister Theresa May’s request that the European Union agree to delay Brexit until June 30.

FILE PHOTO: Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

May has already asked Brussels to extend Britain’s EU membership to allow talks with the opposition Labour Party in search of different exit plan – a last-ditch attempt to keep control after parliament rejected her Brexit deal three times.

But lawmakers want additional legal guarantees against a “no-deal” exit happening on April 12 – the current exit day – and have crafted a law forcing ministers to consult with parliament on Tuesday before May goes to Brussels.

“Both houses of parliament have tonight strongly made clear their view that a no deal would be deeply damaging to jobs, manufacturing and security of our country,” said lawmaker Yvette Cooper, one of those responsible for proposing the legislation.

The bill gives lawmakers the chance to make legally binding changes to May’s requested departure date during a debate scheduled to last 90 minutes on Tuesday. The prime minister would retain some freedom to agree a different date with the EU.

May is due to travel to Paris and Berlin on Tuesday to press her request for a short delay, before it is formally discussed by EU leaders at a special summit on Wednesday.

The bill passed through the Commons by a single vote last week and was then approved with minor changes in the House of Lords, an unelected body whose role is to refine and scrutinise legislation, which the Commons then had to sign off on.

The passage of the bill represents a significant blow to May’s authority, overturning the long-standing convention that the government has sole control of the agenda in parliament, allowing it to control what laws are passed.

It also creates another flashpoint in a deeply divided body of lawmakers that could undermine May’s attempts to persuade Brussels she can get parliament to back a Brexit deal if the EU gives her more time.

The government had warned that the legislation was poorly drafted, rushed through parliament and set a dangerous constitutional precedent. Pro-Brexit lawmakers also fiercely opposed the bill.

“(It) is like tossing a hand grenade into our constitutional arrangements,” said eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash.

Reporting by William James; Editing by Giles Elgood, Frances Kerry and Sonya Hepinstall

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