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Canadian military instructors and Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military exercise at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv
Canadian military instructors and Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military exercise at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine, July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

March 17, 2019

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada will announce as expected on Monday that is extending a 200-strong military training mission in Ukraine, a source directly familiar with the matter said on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan are scheduled to hold a news conference at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Monday.

“It is the Ukraine extension,” said the source, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.

Representatives for Sajjan and Freeland did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The troops, who first went to Ukraine in 2015, are due out at the end of March. Political and military sources had made clear the soldiers would stay longer, given continuing tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

Canada’s defense ministry said in December that the contingent had trained more than 10,000 members of the Ukrainian security forces.

The Canadian contingent is in western Ukraine, far removed from clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

Freeland, a vocal critic of Russia’s move to annex Crimea in early 2014, said in a statement on Saturday that “we continue to condemn this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the strongest terms.”

Canada, the United States and the European Union on Friday imposed new sanctions on a number of Russian officials to punish Moscow for its 2018 attack on three Ukrainian ships and the seizure of Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine.

The Canadian trainers are in Ukraine as part of a larger mission that involves the United States, Britain, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his visit to the Hydroelectric Generation System on the Caroni River, near Ciudad Guayana
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his visit to the Hydroelectric Generation System on the Caroni River, near Ciudad Guayana, Bolivar State, Venezuela March 16, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

March 17, 2019

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is planning a “deep restructuring” of his government, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said on Sunday, as the country recovers from a prolonged blackout amid a power struggle with the opposition.

“President @NicolasMaduro has asked the entire executive Cabinet to put their roles up for review in a deep restructuring of the methods and functions of the Bolivarian government, to protect the fatherland of Bolivar and Chavez from any threat,” Rodriguez wrote on Twitter, referring to independence leader Simon Bolivar and former President Hugo Chavez.

The possible reshuffling comes on the heels of a nearly weeklong blackout that paralyzed the OPEC nation, which had already been experiencing a hyperinflationary economic collapse, shortages of food and medicine and the emigration of millions of citizens.

Maduro has blamed the blackout on a cyber attack perpetrated by the United States and sabotage by the domestic opposition, but local electrical engineers told Reuters it was the result of years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance of the country’s power plants and electricity grid.

He is facing a challenge to his presidency from Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate. Most Western countries have recognized Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.

Maduro has repeatedly changed Cabinet members since taking office in 2013, with members of the military rising to posts heading the oil, interior and electricity ministries.

In a visit to electricity workers in southern Bolivar state on Saturday, Maduro pledged a restructuring of state power company Corpoelec and promised to create a unit in the armed forces focussed on protecting key infrastructure from cyber attacks.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Candles are flowers placed at a memorial site for victims of the mosque shootings are pictured at the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch
Candles are flowers placed at a memorial site for victims of the mosque shootings are pictured at the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

March 17, 2019

By Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook

CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – New Zealand police promised a high-profile presence as schools and businesses in Christchurch reopened on Monday after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in the city last week, and the prime minister said she would start work on tightening gun laws.

Families of victims were still waiting for bodies of those killed to be released after post mortems, with some of the dead to be taken overseas for burial.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police would be out in force to assure people as they returned to their weekday lives in Christchurch, with 200 extra police staff on duty.

Helicopters flew back and forth over the city on a grey, overcast Monday morning.

“You will see a highly visible police presence on the streets, around your businesses, around your schools, and even in the air, right across the country,” Bush said on Sunday.

“So you will feel safe to go about what you want to do.”

Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday. Tarrant was remanded without a plea and is due back in court on April 5 where police said he was likely to face more charges.

Friday’s attack in Christchurch, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labeled terrorism, was the worst ever mass shooting in New Zealand.

Ardern’s cabinet will meet on Monday for the first time since the attacks, with a tightening of gun laws on the agenda.

“What we have a responsibility to pursue in the aftermath of this terrorist attack will include work around gun laws…there are other areas we will discuss as well,” she told One News.

Parts of the city, including schools, were put into lockdown on Friday after the shootings as authorities assessed whether there were further threats. Ardern said trauma support would be available at centers across the community and in schools.

Police said the airport in the southern city of Dunedin, had been reopened early on Monday after a suspicious item found on the airfield turned out to be a hoax object.

The airport had been closed on late on Sunday, with some flights diverted to other airports, after the object was found.

“The NZDF (New Zealand Defence Force) Explosive Ordinance team neutralized the hoax object, and the scene where it was found has been secured,” the police said in a statement.

“Enquiries are ongoing to establish who left the object.”

(Writing by John Mair; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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Michael Ben-Ari from the Jewish Power party delivers a statement to the media together with his party's members, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir in Jerusalem
Michael Ben-Ari from the Jewish Power party delivers a statement to the media together with his party’s members, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir in Jerusalem, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

March 17, 2019

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s top court disqualified on Sunday a far-right Jewish politician from next month’s national election and approved the candidacy of a disputed Arab party, overturning March 6 decisions by the election board, a court statement said.

The Supreme Court rulings were widely expected and unlikely to shake Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to craft a rightist alliance that might secure him a record fifth term.

But they deepened the vitriol of a campaign in which his camp has cast itself as the victim of judicial over-reach and media bias, and has in turn been accused by center-left rivals of race-baiting and fear-mongering.

The court found in favor of appellants who argued that Michael Ben-Ari of the Jewish Power party had displayed anti-Arab racism. That view was backed by Israel’s attorney-general.

Other members of Jewish Power, a small faction that is part of an ultra-nationalist list which last month forged an election alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud party, remain eligible to run.

The Central Elections Committee, a monitoring body made up of delegates of parties in the current parliament, last month approved Ben-Ari’s candidacy while disqualifying Raam-Balad, a joint party list representing some of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority.

Israel has in the past prosecuted two Balad figures for contacts with Palestinian militants and accused a former party leader of helping Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The court voided the ban on Raam-Balad, a mix of Islamists and Arab nationalists which describes itself as a democratic movement.

NEWCOMER

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a fellow rightist in Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition, said in a statement that the court’s blocking of Ben-Ari “while declaring terror-backing parties kosher is a crass and misguided interference in the heart of Israeli democracy”.

Netanyahu’s bid for reelection has been challenged by a centrist newcomer, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz. Their escalating exchanges of allegations have included corruption, bigotry, forsaking national security and abetting Israel’s foes.

The premier’s partnership with Jewish Power also drew rare censure from the U.S. pro-Israel lobby and normally staunch Netanyahu backer AIPAC, which branded the party “racist and reprehensible”.

A poll aired by public broadcaster Kan on Sunday put Likud narrowly in the lead to form the next coalition government with a projected 31 of parliament’s 120 seats against 30 for Gantz’s Blue and White party.

If reelected, Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest-serving premier in July. That bid was dealt an unprecedented blow last month when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced a plan to indict Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and could forestall formal charges in a review hearing after the election.

Raam-Balad, which held eight seats in the last parliament, said the Supreme Court had upheld its “fundamental right to represent our electorate while Netanyahu and Gantz compete to see who can incite more powerfully against the Arab public”.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Ros Russell)

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A woman mourns next to coffins during the burial ceremony of the Ethiopian Airline Flight ET 302 crash victims at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Orthodox church in Addis Ababa
A woman mourns next to coffins during the burial ceremony of the Ethiopian Airline Flight ET 302 crash victims at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Orthodox church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie

March 17, 2019

By Maggie Fick

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia said on Sunday the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that killed 157 people had “clear similarities” with October’s Lion Air crash, according to analysis of the black boxes recovered from the wreckage of the March 10 disaster.

Both planes were Boeing 737 MAX 8s, and both crashed minutes after take off after pilots reported flight control problems. Concern over the plane’s safety caused aviation authorities worldwide to ground the model, wiping billions of dollars off Boeing’s market value.

Investigators are trying to determine why the aircraft plunged into a field shortly after take off from Addis Ababa, searching for possible similarities to an October Lion Air crash that killed 189 people.

“It was the same case with the Indonesian (Lion Air) one. There were clear similarities between the two crashes so far,” Ethiopian transport ministry spokesman Muse Yiheyis said.

“The data was successfully recovered. Both the American team and our (Ethiopian) team validated it. The minister thanked the French government. We will let you know more after three or four days,” he told Reuters.

In Washington, U.S. officials told Reuters that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board have not validated the data yet.

When investigators, after reviewing black box data, return to Addis Ababa and start conducting interpretive work, the NTSB and FAA will assist in verification and validation of the data, an official said.

In Paris, France’s BEA air accident investigation agency said data from the jet’s cockpit voice recorder had been successfully downloaded. The French agency said in a tweet it had not listened to the audio files and that the data had been transferred to Ethiopian investigators.

In Addis Ababa, a source who has listened to the air traffic control recording of the plane’s communications said flight 302 had an unusually high speed after take-off before the plane reported problems and asked permission to climb quickly.

Ethiopian Airlines crash: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Hn6V4k

SAFETY ANALYSIS

A preliminary report on the crash is to be released within 30 days, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing the transport minister.

The Seattle Times reported that Boeing’s safety analysis of a new flight control system on 737 MAX jets had several crucial flaws.

The analysis of the system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) understated the power of this system, the Seattle Times said, citing current and former engineers at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA also did not delve into any detailed inquiries and followed a standard certification process on the MAX, the Seattle Times reported citing an FAA spokesman.

The FAA declined to comment on the Seattle Times report but referred to previous statements about the certification process. It has said the 737-MAX certification process followed the FAA’s standard certification process.

The report also said both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX last Sunday that killed all 157 people on board. The same model flown by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia in October, killing all 189 on board.

Last Monday Boeing said it would deploy a software upgrade to the 737 MAX 8, a few hours after the FAA said it would mandate “design changes” in the aircraft by April.

A Boeing spokesman said 737 MAX was certified in accordance with the identical FAA requirements and processes that have governed certification of all previous new airplanes and derivatives. The spokesman said the FAA concluded that MCAS on 737 MAX met all certification and regulatory requirements.

In Addis Ababa, aviation staff gathered at Bole International Airport to remember the two pilots and six crew, who perished along with the 149 passengers.

Weeping women held single stems in their shaking hands. Banks of the white flowers, the traditional color of mourning, were placed in front of a row of empty coffins at the ceremony.

The grounded 737 Max fleet: https://tmsnrt.rs/2u5sZYI

(Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Gaurika Juneja, Editing by William Maclean)

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FILE PHOTO: India's Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar attends a seminar during the Vibrant Gujarat investor summit in Gandhinagar
FILE PHOTO: India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar attends a seminar during the Vibrant Gujarat investor summit in Gandhinagar, India, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo

March 17, 2019

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s former defense minister and serving chief minister of the western state of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, died on Sunday, officials said.

A technocrat turned politician, 63-year-old Parrikar was a senior member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had been suffering from cancer.

“Extremely sorry to hear of the passing of Shri Manohar Parrikar, Chief Minister of Goa, after an illness borne with fortitude and dignity,” Indian President Ramnath Kovind tweeted on Sunday.

Parrikar passed away at his residence in Goa, local news channels reported.

As defense minister, he oversaw the controversial deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation for around $8.7 billion, the country’s first major acquisition of combat planes in two decades.

The deal has been the center of allegations from India’s main opposition party, Congress, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government paid too much and that it forced Dassault to accept Indian businessman Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as its Indian partner even though the company had no such prior experience in defense contracting.

Dassault has defended the pricing and denied it was forced to pick Reliance as a partner. Ambani has previously said that the Congress party has been misled and misinformed by corporate rivals and vested interests.

“India will be eternally grateful to Shri Manohar Parrikar for his tenure as our Defence Minister … India witnessed a series of decisions that enhanced India’s security capacities, boosted indigenous defense production and bettered the lives of ex-servicemen,” Prime Minister Modi tweeted.

(Reporting by Neha Dasgupta and Anuja Jaiman; Editing by Ros Russell)

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Henna for sale is displayed at a market in Basra
Henna for sale is displayed at a market in Basra, Iraq March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

March 17, 2019

By Mohamed Atie and Aref Mohammed

FAO, Iraq (Reuters) – In southern Iraq, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet, the Fao peninsula was once known for its swathes of henna plants and palm trees. But the lush greenery of this Basra province district has now turned into a hardscrabble surface.

Walking past dead palm trees on land so dry it cracks, farmer Abbas Abdul Hassan said water shortages and ensuing use of salty water from the polluted Shatt al-Arab river for irrigation had eaten up areas that grew henna plants, whose ground leaves make the dark paste used as a dye.

“This land was packed with henna plants … the salty water tide killed the henna and killed palm trees,” he said.

Once bearing some 425 farms producing 5,000 kilograms (11,023 lb) of henna leaves annually, mainly for export, that number has now fallen to around 50 farms producing around 300 kilograms, Fao farm owner Fadhil Falih Abdulla said.

Decades of conflict in Iraq, once a major date producer before switching its economic focus from agriculture to oil, have devastated farms.

Its second city Basra has suffered destruction from wars, conflict and neglect since the 1980s. Fao, which lies on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab delta near the Gulf, was hit hard due to its location on the frontline of Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran.

Abdul Atheem Mohammed of Basra’s agriculture office said some 38,000 palm trees had died in the area since 2008.

“Shortages of water which caused the rise of salty water tides hit agriculture hard in Basra and caused the fall in henna farms in Fao,” he said.

A local government project has been trying to revive the plantations in the last two years by setting up a farm in northern Basra. During the collection season – January to April and then May – leaves are reaped every 45 days and sold at local markets.

At a Basra salon, customer Sara Ibrahim described Fao henna as “a heritage”.

“Iraq used to export the henna of Fao to the Gulf countries,” she said as she got her hands decorated with henna. “But it is difficult to get it nowadays.”

(Reporting by Mohammed Atie and Aref Mohammed; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)

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A woman holds a flag of the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Common (FARC) political party during a protest in support of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Bogota
A woman holds a flag of the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Common (FARC) political party during a protest in support of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Bogota, Colombia, March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

March 17, 2019

By Helen Murphy and Carlos Vargas

BOGOTA (Reuters) – President Ivan Duque’s call for changes to key peace legislation has prompted former rebels to warn he has put Colombia on the path to war, but with his government on a weak footing in Congress, major revisions that could reignite conflict seem unlikely.

Duque last week objected to six out of 159 articles in the law implementing a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and said he will return it to congress.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) law – which established a tribunal to investigate war crimes during Colombia’s five-decade conflict – has been criticized by Duque for being too lenient on FARC commanders accused of atrocities.

Duque, whose 2018 presidential campaign focused on changing the peace deal, said the law was not clear enough that the FARC must fully repay its victims. He also criticized the terms of extradition and rules over sentencing for war crimes.

While Duque’s Democratic Center Party is celebrating, others say he is damaging the peace process and deliberately blunting prosecutions that could reveal murky ties between conservative politicians, the military and right-wing paramilitary groups.

Duque’s powerful mentor, hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe, has repeatedly been named by opposition lawmakers as allegedly having ties to far-right paramilitary groups. Uribe denies the allegations.

While Duque’s proposed changes did not explicitly attempt to stifle the JEP tribunal, critics say they could limit its ability to investigate, prosecute and convict.

At the very least, they create uncertainty about the JEP’s jurisdiction and could slow down investigations for as long as Congress deliberates.

“It was a very long, bloody, barbaric war,” said lower house opposition deputy Ivan Marulanda, adding that he had “no doubt” Duque’s move was aimed at avoiding finger pointing for state crimes. “State crimes were committed. They’re proven.”

There have been more than 2,000 cases of so-called false positives reported – where the military allegedly killed innocent civilians and passed them off as FARC killed in combat. The JEP tribunal is investigating some of those cases and some military officials have already been convicted and jailed under the ordinary justice system.

Duque’s move will probably spook the roughly 7,000 demobilized rebels and prompt some to join dissident FARC fighters – who refused to adhere to the peace accords – as implementation of the agreement may get slowed by efforts to toughen tribunal rules.

Indeed, more than two years after the accord was signed, few government reintegration projects to help demobilized fighters are running.

Of the roughly 22 government-approved projects, only a handful have received money.

“Duque has sent a lousy message to demobilized guerrillas,” said leftist Senator Aida Avella of the Patriotic Union party. “Duque’s government is an enemy of the peace process and is working to return us to war.”

Duque has said he does not want to return to conflict and his objections aim to improve the accords and create a “peace that unites us.”

Despite tough words on both sides, Duque’s weak position in Congress – where he has a slender majority in the Senate and less than half the seats in the lower house – means he is unlikely to win substantive changes.

“It’s smoke and mirrors because it’s unlikely to be approved,” said analyst Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogota-based political risk consultancy.

“It looks like he’s done this to shore up his base and show that he is not Santos,” he said, referring to former President Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for clinching the peace deal.

Perhaps the biggest impact may be on stalled peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) which Duque canceled in January. Guzman noted the prospect of a deal with the group – which carried out a bomb attack in Bogota in January that killed 22 police cadets – appeared further away than ever now.

FARC LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

While FARC commanders say he has put peace at risk, they are not ready to leave the process that ended their part in a five-decade conflict that killed 260,000 people and displaced seven million.

“We consider that what has been done is an incitement to war,” said FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko. “But we’re here looking for solutions.”

Duque’s announcement has also been criticized by Santos’s negotiators and the procurator general. The United Nations has called for the JEP, passed in 2017, to be respected and even strengthened.

While opposition lawmakers have called for a protest march on Monday, others say the FARC has little to fear.

“Those who are complying with the corresponding regulations on the abandonment of arms, the abandonment of crime, and the respect for law have absolutely nothing to fear,” said ruling coalition Senator Jhon Milton Rodriguez.

Established in 1964 and funded by kidnapping, extortion and cocaine trafficking, the FARC grew to a fighting force of 20,000 by 1999 when it reached the mountains above the capital, Bogota, and threatened to seize power.

But a U.S.-backed offensive led by Uribe helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table.

Under the peace deal, the group formed a political party, kept its famous acronym as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, and was awarded 10 seats in congress.

The accord allows former rebels who come forward to the JEP tribunal to receive reduced sentences and avoid prison, but they must confess to any crimes and repay victims.

Duque’s right-wing coalition says former members of the rebel group continue to commit crimes, and are incensed that they will have seats in congress. They demand jail terms for FARC commanders.

“This opens the door … to put us all in jail,” said Reinaldo Cala, a FARC lower house deputy. “The goal of these reforms is to extradite us to the United States.”

The United States has sought the extradition of some FARC members for drug smuggling.

(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Phil Berlowitz)

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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

March 17, 2019

By Julie Gordon

OTTAWA (Reuters) – With a federal election looming and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government facing its worst political crisis in four years, Canada’s ruling Liberals are expected to table a goody-filled budget later this week in bid to get back on course with voters.

Trudeau’s Liberals surged to power in 2015 on a pledge to jolt the economy by boosting spending, but their popularity has dropped sharply in recent weeks amid claims that Canada’s former Justice Minister was pressured to help construction firm SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial.

Adding to the pain, economic growth slowed sharply at the end of 2018 and, despite blockbuster job gains, Canadians are feeling increasingly pessimistic about the future as record household debt runs up against higher interest rates.

To counter the negative sentiment, Finance Minister Bill Morneau is expected to make use of unexpectedly strong revenues from the first nine months of the fiscal year to table a stimulus-filled federal budget on Tuesday, the last budget ahead of an October election.

High on the list of expectations is supports for millennial home buyers, money for skills re-training, pharmacare help for those lacking prescription drug plans through their workplace, and new spending for families with children.

If Morneau wants to look fiscally prudent, the key will be to divvy up only the unexpected revenue, and not disrupt plans to reduce the net-debt-to-GDP ratio – a measure of how burdensome debt is relative to the economy, said Derek Holt, head of Capital Markets Economics at Scotiabank.

“If they want their cake and eat it too, you spend only the unanticipated revenue surprise, and you keep your powder dry on the rest,” he said.

HOUSING FOR MILLENNIALS

New mortgage rules that came into effect last year, and five interest rate hikes by the Bank of Canada since July 2017, have left would-be buyers on the sidelines.

While the central bank says the changes have improved the quality of new mortgage debt in Canada, they have also contributed to a slowdown, with home sales slumping nationwide to a six-year low in February.

“Our recommendations include restoring 30-year mortgages for first-time home buyers and making some adjustments to the current stress test now that the market has changed,” said Kevin Lee, chief executive of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.

Others options include bigger tax breaks for first-time buyers and more space to borrow from retirement savings.

But economists warn that too many perks could inadvertently reheat housing markets, putting ownership further out of reach for millennials and other first time buyers, especially in expensive cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

PHARMACARE AND MORE

The budget is also expected to propose a limited expansion to Canada’s healthcare system to cover part of the cost of prescription drugs, Reuters reported in January, citing sources.

Budget documents may go into some detail, or just make a general commitment to boost coverage, leaving specifics for the election campaign.

And while one of the bright spots in Canada’s sluggish economy has been booming employment numbers, companies say they are struggling to fill jobs requiring specialized skills, notably in the technology and healthcare fields.

“We would welcome a focus on skills, since it could address a current business challenge,” said Craig Wright, chief economist at the Royal Bank of Canada, in a research note.

Speaking at a shoe repair shop on Thursday, Morneau hinted such measures would be coming.

“In our budget this year, that’s what we’re going to be thinking about. How do we help Canadians to take time off … and how do they pay for their training?” he said.

The Liberals have faced criticism for backing away from a pledge to balance the budget by 2019, but with a vote looming the focus will likely be on setting up the campaign platform with items to come. A deficit of C$18.1 billion ($13.6 billion) is forecast for 2018/19.

“When it comes to how the deficit gets allocated, as we saw in the last election, (voters) still like to see a check in their own mailbox,” said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets, in a research note.

(Additional reporting by Allison Martell and Fergal Smith in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Nick Zieminski)

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Protest against Serbian President Vucic in Belgrade
Demonstrators clash with riot police officers at a protest against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his government outside the presidential building in Belgrade, Serbia, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

March 17, 2019

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Thousands of anti-government protesters staged a rally outside President Aleksandar Vucic’s residence on Sunday to press their demands for greater media freedom and free and fair elections, a day after they briefly broke into the state television building.

Riot police used pepper spray against a small group of the protesters after they tried to bring a truck with loudspeakers closer to the residence, a Reuters photographer said.

The protesters, who have been staging such rallies every weekend for more than three months, blew whistles and shouted “resign!” as Vucic gave a news conference inside the building.

“We shall continue the blockade of the presidency and we will not leave until our demands are met or unless we get firm guarantees that our demands will be met,” Borko Stefanovic, an opposition activist, told reporters.

“There are no independent media here in this country,” said Srdjan Vuksa, a businessman from the town of Kovin near Belgrade. “I came here to express my dissatisfaction with that.”

The protests have spread to other cities and towns, though numbers outside Belgrade have remained small.

On Saturday evening the protesters briefly occupied the state television building, angered by what they say is scant coverage of their demonstrations by state media.

Anti-government demonstrators last stormed the state TV building, known as the government mouthpiece, on October 5, 2000, bringing down the regime of strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Commenting on Saturday’s incident at the state TV building, Vucic said at his news conference: “I am not afraid.”

Vucic has previously said he would not bow to opposition demands for electoral reform and increased media freedom “even if there were five million people in the street”, but said he was willing to test his party’s popularity in a snap vote.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Additional reporting by Marko Djurica; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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