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News briefs: China sees signs of hope as new cases of virus drop

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The number of new virus cases in China dropped to its lowest level in six weeks Monday and hundreds of patients at the outbreak's epicenter were being released, while a grimmer reality set in elsewhere, with swelling infection numbers and growing dread that no area could fend off the illness.

Clusters of infections in South Korea, Italy and Iran continued to expand and COVID-19 was raising distress and reshaping routines around Europe and across the Atlantic in the United States.

Major cities including Jakarta, New York and Berlin grappled with their first recorded cases. Schools emptied across Japan, mobile hospitals were planned in Iran, and the Mona Lisa, accustomed to droves of staring tourists, hung in a vacant room of the shuttered Louvre in Paris. 

"Just about everywhere, the cases are rising quite quickly in a number of countries," said Ian Mackey, who studies viruses at the University of Queensland in Australia.

More than 60 countries around the world — including nine of the 10 biggest — have found infections, with a global count of nearly 89,000 people affected by the illness. Even as alarms grew louder in much of the world, Monday brought positive signs from China, where the outbreak started.

Virus kills member of council advising Iran's supreme leader

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died Monday after falling sick from the new coronavirus, state radio reported, becoming the first top official to succumb to the illness that is affecting members of the Islamic Republic's leadership. 

The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi came as Iran announced the virus had killed 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases in the country. 

Iran has the highest death toll in the world after China, the epicenter of the outbreak. 

Mirmohammadi died at a north Tehran hospital of the virus, state radio said. He was 71. 

The council advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as settles disputes between the top cleric and parliament.

Disgruntled ex-guard takes dozens of hostages in Manila mall

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine police on Monday surrounded a shopping mall in an upscale section of Manila after a recently dismissed security guard opened fire and took dozens of people hostage, an official said.

Mayor Francis Zamora of San Juan in the Philippine capital said the gunman, who was armed with a pistol, shot one person at the V-Mall. The victim was in stable condition at a nearby hospital.

Zamora said a police negotiator was trying to talk to the gunman — a disgruntled former security guard at the shopping complex — inside a mall administration office.

"He felt bad because he was removed as a guard," Zamora told reporters, adding that the man tried but failed to convince fellow guards to join him. Aside from a pistol, the hostage taker was yelling that he had a grenade, but authorities could not immediately confirm that, Zamora said.

"We have evacuated all the people in the shopping center and we're in a lockdown here in the entire mall," he said.

Thousands of migrants rush to cross Greek-Turkish border

KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — Thousands of migrants were trying to find a way across Turkey's western border with Greece Monday, with only dozens managing to pass through either border fences or fording the river there, after Turkey opened its side of the frontier to migrants and refugees to leave the country for Europe.

Greek police made use of tear gas against the crowds trying to push through. Holding white flags, the crowd of several hundred shouted "peace, peace," asking to be let through into Greece.

Other migrants were trying to reach Greek islands from the Turkish coast, with one dinghy capsizing, leaving one child dead, Greek authorities said.

Turkey declared its borders open to pressure the European Union into helping it handle the fallout from the war in neighboring Syria. Thousands of Turkish troops are supporting the last rebel forces holed up there in the northwestern province of Idlib against the onslaught of Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The offensive into the last Syrian rebel areas has driven almost one million civilians to flee toward the sealed border with Turkey, threatening that country which hosts already 3.5 million Syrian refugees with a new and dramatic influx of displaced people.

Israelis vote in 3rd election in a year focused on Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis were voting Monday in the country's unprecedented third election in less than a year to decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite his upcoming criminal trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu, the longest serving leader in Israeli history, has been the caretaker prime minister for more than a year as a divided Israel has weathered two inconclusive elections and a prolonged political paralysis. With opinion polls forecasting another deadlock, Netanyahu is seeking a late surge in support to score a parliamentary majority along with other nationalist parties that will deliver him a fourth consecutive term in office, and fifth overall. 

He faces a stiff challenge once again from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu's Likud on a campaign message that Israel's longtime prime minister is unfit to lead because of the serious charges against him.

Both parties appear unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government between them seemingly off the table after a particularly nasty campaign, Monday's vote may well turn into merely a preamble to another election.

"I hope that today marks the start of a healing process, where we can begin living together again," Gantz said upon voting in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, warning voters not to "get drawn in by the lies or by the violence" after the acrimonious election campaign. 

A clinic prepares for Supreme Court abortion fight

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — The Hope Medical Group for Women in northern Louisiana fields phone calls every day from anxious pregnant women who ask if abortion is still legal and if the clinic, one of only three that provides abortions in the state, is still open.

Despite the protesters who sometimes gather outside, the threats that forced the clinic to board up all the windows and the repeated restrictions put upon abortion providers in this staunchly anti-abortion state, the clinic stands. Abortion remains legal in Louisiana and elsewhere in the United States. But a Supreme Court case set for arguments Wednesday could lead to the clinic's closure and, more fundamentally, a retreat from protecting the right to abortion that the high court first announced in 1973.

The case is just one in a series of high-stakes disputes the more conservative court, now with two appointees of President Donald Trump, is expected to decide by late June as the 2020 election campaign gathers steam.

"We're fighting this as hard as we possibly can. And for now, all three clinics are still open. And for now, abortion is still legal in all 50 states," said Hope's administrator, Kathaleen Pittman.

Pittman tries to keep her focus on the women who come through the door every day — generally poor women who are forced to travel increasingly longer distances as other clinics in Louisiana and neighboring states have closed. Pittman estimates as many as 80% of the women who come in get financial assistance to help pay for the abortion.

World economy may shrink because of virus, watchdog says

PARIS (AP) — A global agency says the spreading new virus could make the world economy shrink this quarter, for the first time since the international financial crisis more than a decade ago.

In a special report on the impact of the virus, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Monday that the world economy is still expected to grow overall this year and rebound next year.

But the OECD lowered its forecasts for global growth in 2020 by half a percentage point, to 2.4 percent — and said the figure could go as low as 1.5 percent if the virus lasts long and spreads widely.

In addition to the "considerable human suffering" the virus has wrought, with more than 3,000 deaths worldwide, the OECD said ""Global economic prospects remain subdued and very uncertain." 

The last time world GDP shrank on a quarter-on-quarter basis was at the end of 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis. On a full-year basis, it last shrank in 2009.