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International News (5215)

07
December

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China announced on Wednesday the most sweeping changes to its tough anti-COVID regime since the pandemic began three years ago, loosening rules that curbed the spread of the virus but had hobbled the world's second largest economy and sparked protests.

The relaxation of rules, which include allowing infected people with mild or no symptoms to quarantine at home and dropping testing for people travelling within the country, are the strongest sign yet that Beijing is preparing its people to live with the disease.

Many of the changes announced by the National Health Commission (NHC) reflected steps already taken in various cities and regions in recent days, following protests against COVID controls that were the biggest demonstration of public discontent since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Even still, citizens cheered the prospect of a shift that could see China slowly emerging back into a world three years after the virus erupted in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Wednesday's announcement quickly soared to the top most viewed topic on China's Weibo platform, with many people hoping for a return to normality after a series of weeks-long lockdowns that have brought mental suffering to tens of millions.

"It's time for our lives to return to normal, and for China to return to the world," wrote one Weibo user.

Some investors also welcomed the shift that could reinvigorate China's sagging economy and currency and bolster global growth.

"This change of policy is a big step forward," said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management. "I expect China will fully reopen its border no later than mid 2023."

Foreign businesses in China also hope the changes could mark a shift to broader opening up and an easing of travel restrictions.

"We need the business environment here to return to a level of predictability whereby companies can return to normal operations," Colm Rafferty, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said in a statement.

But NHC spokesperson Mi Feng told a news conference that any changes to measures regarding travel would be "gradual".

PROTESTS AND FEAR

The policy change came after President Xi Jinping, who regards China's relentless fight against COVID as one of his main achievements, chaired a meeting of the Communist Party's Politburo on Tuesday.

Some analysts seized on a report on the meeting by official news agency Xinhua that lacked any mention of the "dynamic zero-COVID" policy, though it was unclear whether this was a signal of a fundamental change in stance.

Major cities across China, including Beijing and Shanghai, were gripped by protests last month, which started to peter out amid a heavy police presence and various restrictions being lifted in different parts of the country.

Officials have not linked any of the changes, made on Wednesday or earlier, to the protests.

But they have been softening their tone on the health risks of the virus - bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year as they dropped restrictions, and shifted towards living with the virus.

The looser approach has set off a rush for cough and fever medicines as some residents, particularly the unvaccinated elderly, feel more vulnerable to a virus that has largely been kept in check by Beijing's strict policy.

China's current tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards.

"Please buy rationally, buy on demand, and do not blindly stock up," the Beijing Municipal Food and Drug Administration was quoted as saying in the state-owned Beijing Evening News.

In Beijing's upmarket Chaoyang district, home to most foreign embassies as well entertainment venues and corporate headquarters, shops were fast running out of some those drugs, residents said.

The surge in demand drove up share prices in medicine manufacturers including cough syrup producer Guizhou Bailing (002424.SZ), and Xinhua Pharmaceutical (000756.SZ), which makes 40% of all Ibuprofen sold in China.

China's yuan has seen a recent resurgence against the dollar, buoyed by the prospects that government would relax its "zero-COVID" policy.

But the currency remains set for its worst year since China unified official and market exchange rates in 1994, as its economy has been battered by COVID curbs.

In further evidence of that, China's exports and imports shrank at a much steeper-than-expected pace in November, data on Wednesday showed. (Reuters)

07
December

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Pakistan's Supreme Court set up a panel of five judges on Tuesday to supervise an investigation into the death of a prominent journalist who was shot and killed in Kenya, the court said.

Journalist Arshad Sharif, 50, was killed on Oct. 23 while travelling in a vehicle on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Kenyan police said it was a case of mistaken identity.

Sharif had earlier fled from Pakistan citing threats to his life after the government registered a treason case against him.

The Supreme Court said it had taken up the case voluntarily and was seeking responses from Pakistan's foreign and interior ministries, the Federal Investigation Agency and Intelligence Bureau.

"The journalist community and the public at large are deeply distressed and concerned about the death of the senior journalist and are seeking the court's scrutiny of the matter," the court said in a statement.

The panel ordered the government to register a fresh case in Pakistan in relation to the killing, and submit by Wednesday the findings of an investigation team that had visited Kenya to gather facts and evidence last month, a court official said.

The registration of a new case means that a new criminal investigation will begin in Pakistan, which could lend weight to Pakistani efforts to learn more about the Kenyan investigation, Pakistani officials say.

The fresh case will also help Pakistani police to investigate any suspects in Pakistan if they think they had anything to do with the killing.

Sharif worked for many years as a prime-time television news show host for ARY News in Pakistan.

Kenyan police said Sharif was shot dead when police hunting car thieves opened fire on the vehicle he was travelling in as it drove through their roadblock late at night without stopping.

Police had formed a roadblock using small stones but the car in which Sharif was a passenger failed to stop, even after officers opened fire, police said in a report. Nine bullets hit the car and one hit Sharif in the head.

`TARGET KILLING`

Despite the Kenyan police findings, Pakistan's interior minister said there was evidence to suggest it was a targeted killing based on initial findings of a team of Pakistani investigators who visited Kenya last month.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said Sharif's body had bruises and torture marks.

The treason case filed against Sharif stemmed from reporting he did that led to an accusation he had spread a call from an official in a previous government, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, for members of the armed forces to mutiny.

Both Sharif and the official in the previous government denied inciting mutiny.

Former prime minister Khan said Sharif had been murdered for his journalistic work. He and his successor PM Shehbaz Sharif, not related to the journalist Sharif, had called for a judicial investigation.

PM Sharif welcomed the court's move. "The government will extend full support to the court," he said in a statement. (Reuters)

07
December

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The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of $428 million in aircraft parts for Taiwan to help its air force, which is strained from repeatedly intercepting Chinese jets operating close to the island.

Taiwan's air force is well-equipped but ageing, and is dwarfed by that of China's. Beijing views the democratically governed island as its territory and during the past three years or so has been flying daily sorties near Taiwan.

Since early August, when China staged war games around Taiwan after the visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China's air force has also regularly crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which had served as an unofficial boundary.

The Pentagon, in two statements late Tuesday, said the parts would support Taiwan's F-16s, Indigenous Defence Fighter jets and all other aircraft and systems or subsystems of U.S. origin.

"The proposed sale will contribute to the sustainment of the recipient's aerial fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future threats while providing defensive and transport capabilities critical to regional security," it said.

Taiwan's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday the sale was expected to "take effect" within one month, and offered its thanks.

With China trying to "normalise" its military activities near Taiwan and put pressure on its airspace and seas as well as ability to train and reaction, the sale will be of great assistance, the ministry added.

It will "help maintain the proper equipment and replenishment of our air force's fighter jets, meet the needs of defence operations and combat readiness training, and ensure that our traditional combat power will not fall", the statement said.

The United States is Taiwan's most important international arms supplier, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties.

Taiwan's presidential office, noting this was the seventh arms sale approved by the Biden administration, said the latest approval would enhance Taiwan's combat power.

"Taiwan will continue to firmly demonstrate its determination and ability to defend itself and to firmly defend its sovereignty and protect national security," it said.

China has repeatedly demanded the United States stop selling weapons to Taiwan and has put sanctions on U.S. arms manufacturers. (Reuters)

07
December

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The ruling Nepali Congress party has emerged as Nepal's single largest party after winning 89 seats in the 275-member parliament in a general election last month, and its leader, Sher Bahadur Deuba, looks set to stay on as prime minister.

A five-party alliance led by the Nepali Congress, which has been in power since July last year, won 136 seats, just two short for the 138 required for a majority, a tally of results from the Election Commission showed on Wednesday.

Party officials said leaders of the five-party alliance had sought the support of some new legislators and parties to reach the necessary majority.

Prakaksh Sharan Mahat, a spokesman for the Nepali Congress, said C.K. Raut, head of the newly formed Janamat Party, which won six seats, had met Deuba and pledged support for a new government.

Raut was not immediately available for comments.

"I have no doubt he will be the prime minister of the new government," Mahat said, referring to Deuba.

Deuba, 76, who is considered close to India, is in a better position to muster support for a majority, analysts said. The alliance led by his main rival, K.P. Sharma Oli of the Nepal Communist Unified Marxist Leninist Party (UML), won 92 seats.

Asian giants China and India jostle for influence in the Himalayan nation wedged between them. The Nepali Congress is seen as pro-India while the UML is considered closer to China.

Deuba could take the charge of a government for the sixth time in the next few days given how difficult it would be for any other alliance to cobble together a majority in parliament, analysts said.

"The present ruling alliance is most likely to form a new government because it needs the support of only a few members which could be easily won," said Krishna Khanal, a retired professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

NEW FACES

Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, has had 10 different governments since the abolition of a 239-year-old monarchy in 2008.

Its three major parties - the Nepali Congress, UML and the Maoist Centre - have all led different coalitions in the past but none has served a full five-year term due to power struggles and infighting.

Analysts said many younger candidates from newly formed smaller parties, or independents, had won seats in the Nov. 20 election, a sign of voter frustration with the old parties.

Younger politicians are also seeking to make their mark within the established parties.

Gagan Thapa, a young lawmaker from Deuba's party has vowed to challenge Deuba when the party deputies elect the prime minister.

Election results for the seven provincial assemblies, which were held along with parliamentary elections, showed that no party had got a clear majority.

Party officials said leaders will work out alliances in all provinces. (Reuters)

07
December

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The World Bank and partners including Singapore on Wednesday launched a global tracking system to clean up the opaque market for carbon credits and help developing countries raise much-needed climate finance quickly and more cheaply.

Carbon credits - generated through activities such as planting forests or pulling climate-damaging carbon dioxide from the air - are sold to polluters to offset their emissions as a way of helping them reach net-zero emissions to limit global warming.

While governments wrangle over the rules for trading so-called compliance credits, projects are being launched to generate new credits and countries are setting up registers to track them.

Private-sector efforts also have sprung up offering credits for "voluntary" carbon markets, while a range of registries such as Verra and Gold Standard is accrediting and tracking them.

The $2 billion voluntary market has remained small. Critics cite concerns including poor market transparency, a limited supply of credits and questions over the quality of projects.

The new database - called the Climate Action Data Trust (CAD Trust) - aims to address these issues by collating all the project and carbon credit data in one place and making it free to the public.

"The goal for us was to create this global, public data layer which allows people to get a better sense of what's happening across the world, across different jurisdictions, across different programmes," Chandra Shekhar Sinha, an adviser of the Climate Change Group at the World Bank, told Reuters.

"We're able to track it, avoid double-counting (and) figure out what are the innovations that are taking place," and hopefully create a "race to the top" at the same time as lowering the barriers to entry for market participants.

The CAD Trust, co-founded with the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), will provide a platform listing various existing carbon offset registries to make it easier for companies and countries to share data.

Sonam Tashi, chief planning office at Bhutan's Ministry of Economic Affairs, told Reuters the new CAD Trust portal would allow the country to save around $1 million in initial costs for accessing the market, compared with the costs of setting up its own systems.

"It really helps us ... leapfrog the entire learning process. It brings us up to speed with what is required within the carbon markets," he said.

He said Bhutan is in discussions with possible buyers who want details about how carbon credits from its forests are being registered, verified and monitored.

"This is where the World Bank facility will help us," Tashi said. "The CAD Trust meets all the technical requirements of host countries and buyers."

Using the CAD Trust means Bhutan would likely be able to start selling credits in 2023 - a year earlier than if the country had not been able to access the facility, he said. (Reuters)

07
December

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The European Commission said on Wednesday it had requested the formation of adjudicating panels at the World Trade Organization, the next step in two trade disputes with China after failing to resolve them bilaterally.

The disputes, both brought to the WTO at the beginning of the year, concern alleged Chinese restrictions on EU companies' rights to use foreign courts to protect their high-tech patents and on trade with EU member Lithuania.

The EU executive, which oversees trade policy for the 27-member European Union, said both sets of measures were highly damaging to European businesses, with those against Lithuania disrupting intra-EU trade and supply chains.

The Commission formally requested consultations with China at the WTO, the first step in a WTO challenge. Such consultations rarely resolve disputes.

The EU executive said the WTO panels would likely be formed early in 2023, noting that panel proceedings can last up to one and a half years.

China said it will handle the EU's trade disputes request in accordance with the WTO's dispute settlement procedure, according to a statement by the commerce ministry.

The panel requests come as the European Union reviews its stance towards China, seeing it increasingly as a competitor and system rival than a partner. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also led EU leaders to express concern about economic reliance on China, which has taken a more neutral stance on the conflict.

The United States and the EU held the third ministerial-level meeting on Monday of their Trade and Technology Council (TTC), designed to enhance regulatory cooperation and present a united front against China.

An EU official said the timing of the requests was not linked to the TTC, but reflected the work required to build both cases. In the Lithuania case, many of China's actions were not published measures, which are typically the focus for WTO litigation.

One of the disputes concerns China's downgrading of diplomatic ties with Lithuania from December 2021 and pressure on multinationals to sever links with the Baltic nation of 2.8 million people after it allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius.

The Commission said China had also placed import bans on alcohol, beef, dairy, logs and peat shipped from Lithuania on the basis of plant and food safety rules without proving the bans were justified.

In the other case, the Commission said Chinese courts had since August 2020 issued "anti-suit injunctions" that prevent European companies from seeking redress over standard-essential patents in non-Chinese courts, such as EU courts.

The Commission said Chinese manufacturers used the injunctions to pressure patent rights holders to grant them cheaper access to European technology. (Reuters)

07
December

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The South Korean government was moving on Wednesday towards ordering more truckers to return to work as their national strike entered its 14th day.

But the administration has so far failed to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations with the truckers, whose strike to extend an income-guarantee programme has widely obstructed shipments from the country, the world's sixth-biggest exporter.

Cabinet would meet on Thursday to discuss ordering drivers who serve the petrochemical and steel industries to get back to work, the Finance Ministry said.

Last month, the government ordered drivers serving the cement industry to return to work.

The strike has disrupted supply chains and, according to the government, in its first 12 days delayed delivery of goods worth 3.5 trillion won ($2.65 billion).

Despatches of petrochemicals for domestic delivery were down to 65% of normal levels, the transport ministry said on Wednesday, while steel shipments for all customers were running at 47%.

Petrochemical companies are considering cutting production as early as next weekend due to shortages of raw material or space for storing inventory that cannot be despatched.

Despatches of cement have bounced back to 93% of normal levels from 10% earlier in the strike, thanks to the government telling drivers to return to work, according to the Korea Cement Association lobby group.

Although they are getting limited road freight service, ports are operating.

Suffering from soaring fuel costs, as many as 25,000 striking truckers are calling for a temporary minimum-pay scheme for their industry to be made permanent.

On Wednesday, some said loss of income in the strike was becoming difficult for drivers to bear.

"Every one of us made enormous efforts to stop our trucks," Lee Sung-chul, a striking cement trailer driver, told a meeting organised by a member of parliament on Wednesday.

"But the strike has gone on for more than 10 days. Given family finances and car instalments, some non-union drivers have started work again," said Lee, himself getting calls from his nervous wife to return to work.

Another striking trucker, Lee Geum-sang, who drives a fuel tanker, said he felt time was not on the truckers' side.

"It is very frustrating. I am afraid many drivers on the strike won't make it until next week," he said. (Reuters)

07
December

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India's central bank raised its key policy rate by 35 basis points to 6.25% on Wednesday, the highest in over three years and its fifth straight increase, and vowed there will be no let up in its fight to tame high inflation.

While there have been signs recently that price pressures may be moderating, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Shaktikanta Das said the main risk was that inflation could remain pervasive and elevated, reinforcing market views the central bank could hike rates again in coming months.

The monetary policy committee (MPC), comprising three members from the RBI and three external members, raised the key lending rate or the repo rate (INREPO=ECI) to 6.25% -- the highest since April 2019. Five of the six members voted in favour of the increase.

A strong two-thirds majority in a Reuters analysts poll had predicted a 35 basis point (bps) increase, smaller than its last three hikes of 50 bps each, and said it was still too soon for the central bank to take its eye off inflation, which has stayed above the upper end of the RBI's 2-6% tolerance band all year.

 

India's annual retail inflation eased to a three-month low of 6.77% in October, helped by a slower rise in food prices and a higher base effect, strengthening bets on smaller rate increases by the RBI going ahead.

 

Das said the worst of this year's inflationary spike "is behind us" but warned there was no room for complacency.

 

"The MPC was of the view that further calibrated monetary policy action was warranted to keep inflation expectations anchored, break core inflation persistence and contain second round effects," Das said as he announced the monetary policy committee's decision.

"The focus on inflation control continues. There will be no let up in our efforts to bring inflation to more manageable levels," he added.

Michael Patra, RBI deputy governor in-charge of monetary policy, underlined the importance of the smaller rate hike than at previous meetings, but said the central bank was closely watching for second round effects of inflation.

"After continuous 50 bps increases, it has now moderated. That tells you of a shift," Patra told reporters.

"The worst of inflation is over but the moderation of inflation will be very grudging, very uneven. So we must shepherd inflation first firmly into the tolerance band and then to the target."

'SLIGHTLY MORE HAWKISH'

Investors expect at least one more rate hike in the current cycle at the next meeting.

"The statement was slightly more hawkish than perhaps expected by markets, with no indication that the central bank is coming to the end of its rate hiking cycle for now," Sakshi Gupta, principal economist at HDFC Bank said.

Other market watchers agreed.

"We continue to expect the focus of MPC to remain in a watchful mode as uncertainties on inflation settle down. We see a possibility of another 25 bps rate hike before a prolonged pause," Upasna Bhardwaj, chief economist at Kotak Mahindra Bank said.

The MPC also maintained its stance on "withdrawal of accommodation", with four out of six members voting in favour as the committee continues to focus on pulling out high levels of cash from the banking system without stunting growth.

The MPC lowered its GDP growth projection for financial year 2022/23 to 6.8% from 7% earlier, while keeping its retail inflation forecast steady at 6.7%.

"Growth in India remains resilient in the international environment. A 6.8% growth (rate) is robust," Das said.

India posted annual economic growth of 6.3% in its July-September quarter, slightly better than expected but less than half the 13.5% growth in the previous three months as distortions caused by COVID-19 lockdowns faded in Asia's third-largest economy.

The Indian rupee stayed higher against the dollar after the policy decision, while government bond yields also remained elevated.

The rupee was at 82.50, up from 82.53 before the decision and 82.62 at previous close, while the benchmark bond yield was at 7.2824%, after rising to its highest in last two weeks and up from 7.2113% earlier. It had ended at 7.2486% on Tuesday.

The Nifty 50 index (.NSEI) was down 0.27% at 18,592.10, as of 01:45 p.m IST, and the S&P BSE Sensex (.BSESN) declined 0.2% to 62,503.73. (Reuters)

 

07
December

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Three of New Zealand's nine naval ships are sitting idle in port as higher civilian salaries lure personnel out of the military, the country's Defence Force said on Wednesday, even as tensions in the Pacific rise between China and the U.S. and its allies.

The HMNZS Wellington, an offshore patrol vessel, headed back to New Zealand early from what was meant to be a three-month deployment in the Pacific and was taken out of operation in November because of shortages, the New Zealand Defence Force said.

The Wellington is the third ship to be put into "care and custody", with two other vessels - another offshore patrol vessel and a smaller patrol vessel for operating close to shore - pulled off the line and their crews reassigned last year. The vessels have crews of 24 to 42.

The bottom line is "workforce issues are impacting ship availability to deliver naval outputs," an August note from the Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short to the Minister of Defence said. "Risks remain to Naval output delivery if attrition and hollowness cannot be addressed in a timely manner."

NZDF has just over 15,000 personnel, including civilian staff, and about 2,800 are in the Navy. The Defence Force said in May that it would spend 90 million New Zealand dollars ($57 million) over four years to raise the salaries of the lowest-paid workers. Officials hope personnel figures will significantly improve by 2026-2027.

Having so few ships available makes it harder for the navy to handle multiple challenges at once, a New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) spokesperson said.

The problem is especially acute as the U.S., Japan, Australia and other countries in the region square off against China and strive for influence. New defence spending plans, driven by lessons learned from Russia's invasion of Japan, are also taking shape.

New Zealand, which spends roughly 1.5% its of GDP on defence, this year announced it would review its own defence policy in light of regional geopolitics and climate change. The review is not expected to be completed until 2024.

In July, after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Pacific region could manage security issues on its own.

The number of people leaving the defence force is at its highest level - the Navy attrition rate was about 16.5% in the year to November - in decades as staff have quit for jobs in the private sector, where salaries have risen due to a tight labour market.

New Zealand's Defence Force is also dealing with ageing equipment and a large number of personnel being assigned to border quarantine facilities.

Minister of Defence Peeni Henare acknowledged in an email that staff losses were hurting the Defence Force, but said the government was committed to rebuilding it.

"There is more still to do," he said.

The country is replacing its fleet of C-130 cargo planes and P-3 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and the first of four Boeing P-8A Poseidon MPA is due to arrive this month. Plans for a new military vessel built for Southern Ocean and Antarctic conditions were shelved this year. (Reuters)

07
December

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Key regional airlines said on Wednesday they expected to continue scheduled flights with New Zealand, which is beginning to ration jet fuel after a recent shipment failed government tests.

Airlines are being told that jet fuel supplies at the country's largest airport in Auckland will be throttled to 75% of planned allocations, said Cath O'Brien, an official of a national panel of airline representatives.

But national carrier Air New Zealand (AIR.NZ) and Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) ruled out immediate schedule changes, as did an official of another major regional airline, who sought anonymity in the absence of authorisation to speak with media.

"We know how important it is to get our customers around our network in the lead-up to Christmas and our team are working hard to ensure we will continue," said David Morgan, chief safety officer for the national carrier.

No schedule changes were currently being considered, he added.

A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines said it was working closely with authorities to understand if operations would be affected, adding, "There are currently no changes to our scheduled operations."

Routine tests on Monday uncovered conductivity levels above regulatory thresholds, said Z Energy, the importer supplying about 40% of New Zealand's transport fuels, although no concerns had been flagged by previous tests en route and on arrival.

Z Energy is weighing options, such as ordering a replacement shipment, a company spokesperson told Reuters.

Most of the suspect fuel will be sent to an overseas refinery for reprocessing. New Zealand's only refinery at Marsden Point, north of Auckland, was converted into an import-only terminal in April.

The next scheduled shipment, due to arrive on Dec. 12, will be ready for use by Dec. 18.

O'Brien said regional airlines would mitigate the impact of reduced supplies by loading extra fuel at destinations such as Australia, though longer-haul airlines would need to consider refuelling stops or trading off cargo for more fuel.

"So while it's possible, it's not simple and it's not cheap," added O'Brien, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of New Zealand. (Reuters)

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