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FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court stands before decisions are released for the term in Washington
FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

March 18, 2019

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday wrestled for the second time over whether Republican legislators in Virginia drew electoral districts in the state in a way that unlawfully diluted the clout of black voters.

The high court heard arguments in an appeal by the Republican-led state House of Delegates in defense of 11 state House districts that a lower court ruled last year violated the rights of black voters to equal protection under the law under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The case involves gerrymandering, a practice involving the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to marginalize a certain set of voters and increase the influence of others.

While the Supreme Court for decades has invalidated electoral maps due to racial gerrymandering, the justices have not yet made a definitive ruling on whether drawing legislative districts for purely partisan advantage violates the Constitution. The court will hear two major cases on that issue next week, one from North Carolina and the other from Maryland.

One way the court could resolve the Virginia racial gerrymandering dispute is to say that the House of Delegates, which sought to appeal the ruling, did not have legal standing to do so. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring, has argued that the House cannot pursue the case independently and that only he could decide whether or not there would be an appeal.

Some of the nine justices appeared sympathetic to Herring’s argument, although it is unclear if there is a majority in favor of that outcome. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito suggested that the court could send the case to the Virginia Supreme Court to decide who can represent the state.

“I would be very uncomfortable trying to decide whether, as a matter of Virginia law, anybody other than the attorney general can ever represent the Commonwealth,” Alito said, referring to Virginia.

Morgan Ratner, a lawyer for President Donald Trump’s administration, argued that the House of Delegates does not have standing to appeal. But Ratner said that the House of Delegates is correct that the lower court used the wrong standard to assess the districts.

Democrats have accused Republicans in Virginia and other states of crafting such legislative maps in a way that crams black and other minority voters, who tend to favor Democratic candidates, into certain districts in order to reduce their overall sway in the state.

The voters who brought the lawsuit accused Republicans of packing black voters into certain districts to diminish their voting power and make surrounding districts more white and more likely to support Republicans.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed sympathy for the Republicans who drew the maps, noting that if they assigned fewer black voters to each district “they would get hammered from the other side, saying you are discriminating against African American voters because you’re not giving the voters a sufficient opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.”

When the litigation first reached the high court, the justices in 2017 threw out an earlier lower court ruling that had found the 11 districts, as well as one other district, to be lawful. The justices said the lower court had not sufficiently analyzed the consideration of race by the Republican legislators in the process of drawing Virginia’s electoral map.

At issue was the state legislative map drawn by Republicans after the 2010 national census. Since then, Democrats have made gains in Virginia in both state and federal elections. The current governor and attorney general are both Democrats.

Race can be considered in redrawing boundaries of voting districts only in certain instances, such as when states are seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in southern states.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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French President Emmanuel Macron holds a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
French President Emmanuel Macron holds a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France March 18, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

March 18, 2019

By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – Just when Emmanuel Macron thought he had regained the upper hand over the yellow vest protest movement with his “great debate”, the latest flare-up of violence reminded the French leader that putting his reform agenda back on track won’t be easy.

Town hall meetings across France launched two months ago to defuse the unrest helped Macron reconnect with voters, boosting his popularity and lifting the gloom in the Elysee, even if some participants felt the encounters were a pointless talk shop.

But images of burning banks and ransacked restaurants on the famed Champs-Elysees in Paris this past weekend have put Macron back on the defensive – just as he mulls new policies to appease the “yellow vest” protesters.

“Saturday’s images of the Champs-Elysees threaten the early signs of appeasement that national debate seemed to have created,” Bernard Sananes of polling institute Elabe said.

Organizers of Saturday’s protest called it an “ultimatum”, seeking to intensify pressure on the 41-year-old president as he digests hours of facetime with mayors, high school students, workers and stay-at-home mothers, as well as 1.4 million online contributions.

“His debate may be finished but we are still here on the streets,” 43-year old unemployed Agnes told Reuters TV during the yellow vest march in Paris. “And if he does not satisfy our demands, we will take back the roundabouts, we will go and block everything.”

Whether it was a protesters’ swansong, as his interior minister suggested, or sign of an “endless crisis” as newspaper Le Monde put it in its editorial, Saturday’s destruction pointed to the tense environment in which Macron must make decisions that will shape the rest of his five-year mandate.

Aware of the dangers of high expectations and the limited wiggle room French public finances allow, Macron had visibly instructed his ministers to play down the scope of the announcements he said he would make before mid-April.

“Will we be able to implement all the recommendations and meet all expectations? No, because politics is about making choices,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.

But Macron’s aides acknowledge he will have to change both his style – critics say he is too controlling while voters have been angered by his perceived loftiness and arrogance – and allow for more participatory democracy.

RISK OF DISAPPOINTMENT

The option of a referendum – which has the advantages of appealing to those nostalgic for Charles de Gaulle’s taste for plebiscites while responding to the yellow vests’ key demand for more people’s votes – remains on the table. But the policy issues that could be put to a plebiscite are yet to be decided.

“The worst thing would be to end up with a great disappointment,” one presidential adviser said. “The president was clear, he does not want the post-debate period to be like the one before the debate.”

Less than three months before European elections that anti-establishment nationalists want to use as a show of force across the continent, a lost referendum could also backfire and offer Macron’s opponents an opportunity to challenge his legitimacy.

The anti-government protests have shown the French crave less inequality, between Paris and the poorest parts of the country as much as between the poor and the rich in general.

That’s why the worst violence since November has targeted the Champs-Elysees boulevard and its boutiques, symbols of an opulent, successful, bourgeois Paris that those who struggle to make ends meet in the provinces resent.

Reducing territorial inequalities and “making work pay” for the poorest was an integral part of Macron’s 2017 manifesto, his aides say, and they are confident households will start to feel the benefits of measures put in place in the last 22 months.

He gave priority early in his presidency to pro-business tax cuts over measures to help low-income workers, and that angered left-leaning voters.

With France having one of the world’s highest tax burdens, financing costly measures to reduce the sense of isolation in small towns and the countryside by adding more hospitals or re-opening closed schools would be difficult, Macron’s aides say.

That means his response is more likely to be a mix of symbolic measures meant to give more say to people and changes to education and training systems.

“We’ve reached the limits of spreading wealth,” one adviser said. “But the potential is huge for tackling the roots of inequalities. So we may have lost sight of some of our goals initially, but we’re firmly back on track now and accelerating.”

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Oyub Titiev, the head of human rights group Memorial in Chechnya, attends his verdict hearing at a court in the town of Shali, in Chechnya
Oyub Titiev, the head of human rights group Memorial in Chechnya, attends his verdict hearing at a court in the town of Shali, in Chechnya, Russia, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Said Tsarnayev

March 18, 2019

By Maria Vasilyeva

SHALI, Russia (Reuters) – A court in Chechnya on Monday sentenced Oyub Titiev, a prominent human rights activist, to four years in a penal settlement after finding him guilty of possessing illegal drugs, a charge his supporters say was trumped up.

Titiev, who runs the office of the Memorial Human Rights Centre in the southern Russian region, was detained in January last year by police who said they had found 206.9 grams (7.3 oz) of cannabis in his car after stopping him to check his documents. Titiev said the cannabis was planted.

He and his supporters allege he was framed in order to punish him for his human rights work and to stop Memorial working in Chechnya.

“They fabricated the criminal case for five months and they fabricated the sentence for eight months,” Titiev told reporters after the verdict.

Reporters, diplomats and Titiev’s neighbors and relatives packed the courtroom to hear the verdict. Titiev watched proceedings from inside a cage, leaning on the white bars as he listened to the judge read the verdict in the trial for over nine hours.

The majority-Muslim republic of Chechnya is governed by Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov whom human rights workers accuse of widespread abuses in the region, allegations he denies.

Kadyrov’s supporters credit him with bringing relative calm and stability to a region dogged for years by a simmering insurgency following two wars between Moscow and separatists after the 1991 Soviet break-up.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

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FILE PHOTO: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum
FILE PHOTO: Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo

March 18, 2019

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters, mostly students, took to the streets in and near Sudan’s capital Khartoum on Monday, continuing a three-month wave of demonstrations that has posed the most serious challenge yet to President Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade rule.

Students, activists and other protesters frustrated with economic hardships have held almost daily demonstrations across Sudan since Dec. 19, calling for Bashir to step down.

Police used tear gas on Monday to disperse hundreds of students from Eastern Nile University protesting in Khartoum North, and hundreds of other demonstrators on Sitteen Street, which runs through several upscale neighborhoods, witnesses said.

At least four demonstrators were detained on Monday by security forces in Khartoum 2, an upscale area in the heart of the capital where dozens protested, a Reuters witness said. Security forces used batons to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom torched car tires.

Dozens more protested on a main street in Khartoum’s Riyadh neighborhood.

Police have used tear gas, batons and sometimes live ammunition to break up protests. Officials have confirmed 33 deaths in the unrest since December, but activists say the toll is significantly higher.

Opposition organizers often give the protests a theme for the day – Monday’s were for “student martyrs”. Demonstrations on Sunday, which drew thousands in and near Khartoum, were for “graduates and the unemployed”.

Bashir, who took power in a military coup in 1993, promised during a swearing-in ceremony for a new cabinet last week that he would engage in dialogue with the opposition. The opposition has rejected dialogue with Bashir and has continued to call for him and his government to step aside.

Last month Bashir declared a state of emergency, dissolved the central government, replaced state governors with security officials, expanded police powers and banned unlicensed public gatherings.

That has not stopped the protesters, who have stepped up demonstrations in recent days.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Yousef Saba; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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FILE PHOTO: Felix Tshisekedi holds up the constitution during his presidential the inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
FILE PHOTO: Felix Tshisekedi holds up the constitution during his presidential the inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

March 18, 2019

By Stanis Bujakera and Giulia Paravicini

KINSHASA (Reuters) – President Felix Tshisekedi’s Congo government on Monday blocked newly-elected senators from taking office after a disputed vote that gave allies of his predecessor an overwhelming majority in the upper house of parliament.

The decision, announced after a meeting between Tshisekedi, cabinet ministers, the electoral commission chief and others, could trigger a standoff with ex-president Joseph Kabila’s camp two months after Tshisekedi succeeded him in Democratic Republic of Congo’s first ever transfer of power via the ballot box.

Kabila’s FCC coalition won 80 out of 100 seats, which are voted on by provincial assembly members, in Friday’s election, compared to just three for Tshisekedi’s UDPS party and its allies.

UDPS supporters protested over the results at the weekend. They pointed to about 20 candidates from across the political spectrum who withdrew from their races because they said provincial assembly members were demanding bribes of tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for their votes.

At least one person was killed in the protests and some offices of Kabila’s political party were ransacked.

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s meeting, Basile Olongo, the interim interior minister, said participants had decided to suspend the installation of new senators pending investigations by prosecutors into corruption allegations.

Gubernatorial elections scheduled for next week, which are also voted on by provincial assembly members, have been suspended indefinitely, Olongo added.

Kabila’s camp immediately criticized the decision.

“The constitution does not authorize an inter-institutional meeting to make these decisions,” Jean-Pierre Kambila, who served as Kabila’s deputy chief of staff, told Reuters. He did not say if the FCC planned to challenge the decision in court.

Opposition leader Tshisekedi’s victory in the Dec. 30 presidential election was also marred by allegations of graft.

Supporters of the runner-up, Martin Fayulu, accused Tshisekedi of striking a deal with Kabila to rig the outcome when it became clear Kabila’s preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, could not win. Kabila was barred by term limits from standing again after 18 years in office.

Tshisekedi and Kabila’s camps deny the election was rigged. But some Tshisekedi supporters have voiced concern about his ability to govern independently, given the FCC’s parliamentary majorities and Kabila’s grip on the security services.

Despite losing the presidency, the FCC won about 70 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament and a clear majority of provincial assembly seats in elections also on Dec. 30.

(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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A German soldier holds NATO flag during a ceremony to welcome the German battalion being deployed to Lithuania as part of NATO deterrence measures against Russia in Rukla
FILE PHOTO – A German soldier holds NATO flag during a ceremony to welcome the German battalion being deployed to Lithuania as part of NATO deterrence measures against Russia in Rukla, Lithuania February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

March 18, 2019

By Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) – NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defence Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said. He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.

(1 euro = $1.1336)

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by Ed Osmond)

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FILE PHOTO: Flares are seen in the sky during fighting in the Islamic State's final enclave, in the village of Baghouz
FILE PHOTO: Flares are seen in the sky during fighting in the Islamic State’s final enclave, in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

March 18, 2019

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran and Syria on Monday demanded the United States withdraw its troops from Syria, and the Damascus government threatened to defeat Washington’s Kurdish allies by force if they did not submit to the return of state authority.

The Iranian and Syrian military chiefs were speaking after a meeting in Damascus that also included their Iraqi counterpart, who gave a political boost to President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran by announcing the Syrian border would soon be reopened.

Their remarks point to the risks of a new escalation in Syria after the defeat of Islamic State, with Assad seeking to retake the two major territories outside his control, and the United States working to curb Iranian influence.

Washington has vowed to contain what it calls Tehran’s “destabilising” role in the region, but the entrenched nature of Iran’s ties with both Damascus and Baghdad were on vivid display on Monday.

Standing alongside his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts on live television, Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri said the three countries were “united against terrorism” and coordinating at a high level.

The United States said last month it would keep some forces in Syria, reversing course from an earlier decision to pull them all out once Islamic State is militarily defeated.

It has deployed air power and some ground troops in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia that is close to seizing the jihadists’ last enclave in eastern Syria. It also has a military base at Tanf, near the Damascus-Baghdad highway and the Iraq and Syrian frontier.

After Washington in December announced its intention to pull out troops, the Kurdish-led authorities controlling northeast Syria unsuccessfully sought a deal with Damascus to protect their area from a potential Turkish assault.

“The only card remaining in the hands of the Americans and their allies is the SDF, and it will be dealt with through the two methods used by the Syrian state: national reconciliation or the liberation of the areas that they control through force,” Syrian Defence Minister General Ali Abdullah Ayoub said.

Large areas of Syria have been brought back under government control through “reconciliation agreements” that have typically been concluded after the military defeat of rebel forces.

‘READINESS FOR SACRIFICE’

Ayoub noted there was no doubt that U.S. military capabilities were “big and advanced” but said that the Syrian army’s sources of strength included a “readiness for sacrifices” and it was “capable of taking action and having an effect”.

Baqeri said the Damascus meeting had “studied the means that should be taken to recover” territories still outside government hands, including the areas of U.S. deployment, adding the decision in this regard was up to the Syrian state.

Syria’s border crossing with Iraq has been closed for years. The area was overrun by Islamic State in 2014, which swore to eradicate modern nation states and meld them into its self-declared caliphate.

“God willing the coming days will witness the opening of the border crossing and the continuation of visits and trade between the two countries,” Iraqi Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi said at a news conference broadcast by Syrian state television.

Baqeri said opening the border was important to Iran because of trade and for Iranian tourists traveling to Iraq and then Syria. Critics of Iran have voiced concerns over a “land bridge” for Iranian influence to the Mediterranean and the Israeli border.

For Assad, reopening the Iraqi border will accelerate Syria’s physical reintegration with neighboring economies after the opening of the frontier crossing with Jordan last year.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry, Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Editing by David Holmes, William Maclean)

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A man stand in front of a damaged shop on the Champs Elysees avenue during a demonstration by the
FILE PHOTO: A man stand in front of a damaged shop on the Champs Elysees avenue during a demonstration by the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, March 16, 2019. Picture taken March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

March 18, 2019

PARIS (Reuters) – France will shut down any anti-government “yellow vest” protest if violent groups are identified taking part with an intent to wreak havoc in Paris and other major cities, the prime minister said on Monday.

“From next Saturday, we will ban ‘yellow vest’ protests in neighborhoods that have been the worst hit as soon as we see sign of the presence of radical groups and their intent to cause damage,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a televised statement.

Rioters set fire to a bank and ransacked stores on Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue on Saturday, the latest flare-up of violence in four months of protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his pro-business reforms.

(Reporting by Richard Lough)

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FILE PHOTO: General view of the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the mausoleum holding the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, on the 43rd anniversary of his death in San Lorenzo de El Escorial
FILE PHOTO: General view of the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), the mausoleum holding the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, on the 43rd anniversary of his death in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside Madrid, Spain, November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

March 18, 2019

MADRID (Reuters) – Spanish far-right party Vox has signed up three former generals to run for parliament in next month’s general election, two of whom expressed support for the legacy of former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco by signing a petition last year.

The inclusion of openly pro-Franco candidates with senior military backgrounds underscores the ground that Vox has broken in a country that had largely shied away from far-right, militaristic politics since General Franco’s rule ended with his death in 1975.

Former generals Agustin Rosety and Alberto Asarta will run as parliamentary candidates for the provinces of Cadiz and Castellon, Vox said. Another former general, Manuel Mestre, is running in Alicante, according to the party. Vox had already enlisted another general to run for mayor in Palma de Mallorca.

Rosety and Asarta signed a manifesto last year in support of Franco’s legacy, including the military uprising that ignited the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war and resulted in his rule until 1975.

Asarta signed the manifesto last year, according to a copy of it, while Rosety has signed it subsequently, said local media.

The manifesto, which was has been signed by about 600 former members of the armed forces, was issued as a response to the Socialist government’s plans to remove Franco’s remains from a state mausoleum outside Madrid, according to the promoters. The mausoleum has long been seen by critics as a monument to fascism.

Latest opinion polls show support for Vox, which opposes gender equality laws and immigration and has a strong stance against independence for Spain’s regions, as high as 12.1 percent. That could translate into 38 seats in the national parliament at the April 28 election.

Vox grabbed attention last year when it became the first far-right party in Spain in more than four decades to score an electoral victory, winning seats in a local election in Andalusia.

The Franco mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen has long been a source of controversy. The Socialist government said last Friday the dictator’s body will be removed on June 10 and reburied in the family tomb at a state cemetery outside Madrid.

(Reporting by Belen Carreno; Writing by Jose Elias Rodriguez; Editing by Axel Bugge and Frances Kerry)

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FILE PHOTO: Racing pigeons are displayed for sale at the Pigeon Olympiad 2017 in Brussels
FILE PHOTO: Racing pigeons are displayed for sale at the Pigeon Olympiad 2017 in Brussels, Belgium January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

March 18, 2019

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A Belgian racing pigeon called Armando has sold at auction for nearly $1.5 million, more than three times the world record, the online saleroom said on Monday after a bidding war between two Chinese fanciers.

“Nobody expected this. No one,” Jorge Ferrari from the Pigeon Paradise auction site told Reuters.

Chinese enthusiasm for the long-distance racing of homing pigeons has driven prices up sharply, with birds from the traditional heartland of the sport in Belgium being particularly prized. (https://reut.rs/2Ji22LF)

However, until the furious bidding that lasted throughout Sunday evening, the record price stood at 376,000 euros ($426,422). Armando, a record-breaking long-distance racing champion owned by Joel Verschoot, was eventually sold to an anonymous buyer in China for 1,252,000 euros ($1.42 million).

In an indication of how the buyer may hope to recoup the investment, not only can race prize money in China reach seven figures but seven of Armando’s offspring were also auctioned for an average price of 21,500 euros each; the five-year-old Flemish flier may have highly profitable breeding years ahead of him.

(Reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Heavens)

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