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Asia Today: Duterte threatens martial law; more ship cases

BANGKOK (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte angrily threatened to declare martial law after accusing communist rebels of killing two soldiers who were escorting food and cash deliveries during a coronavirus quarantine.

Duterte also approved during a meeting with his Cabinet extending the lockdown in metropolitan Manila and several provinces and cities up to May 15, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Friday. A lockdown in the main northern Luzon region of more than 50 million people was set to expire on April 30.

“I’m warning everybody and putting the armed forces and the police on notice that I might declare martial law. There will be no turning back,” Duterte said in a televised speech beamed nationwide. “I have two more years. I will try to finish all of you, including you the legal (fronts), you should go and hide.”

Duterte renewed his accusations against the New People’s Army guerrillas, who he said have extorted money from big companies and stolen firearms of slain soldiers in an insurgency that has lasted more than a half century. The rebels have denied his accusations and said they were helping villagers cope with the pandemic.

Roque specified cities and provinces where lockdowns, which the government calls “community quarantines,” can be eased and allow the regulated reopening of some essential businesses and public areas. Officials have warned of a severe impact on the economy if massive lockdowns last for months and financial aid depletes government revenues.

The Philippines has reported nearly 7,000 cases and 462 deaths from COVID-19. It’s among the highest in Southeast Asia but many believe the toll is higher given limited coronavirus testing, especially in provincial and rural regions.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— MORE CRUISE SHIP CASES: An Italian cruise ship docked in Nagasaki, Japan, now has 91 crew infected after 43 more cases were confirmed, officials said Friday. The outbreak on the Costa Atlantica surfaced Tuesday with one sick crew member and all 623 are being tested. The ship has been docked since January for repairs and maintenance by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry. Officials suspect the sick crew members contracted the virus while in town or when the ship switched crew. Japan's health minister says the central government and Italy were to discuss repatriating healthy crew members, as well as an earliest possible departure of two other Italian cruise ships also docked in Nagasaki.

— AUSTRALIA WANTS TO REFORM WHO: Australia’s prime minister says his government will cooperate with like-minded countries to change the World Health Organization. Australian agrees with the United States that the U.N. agency needs to be reviewed, but it continues to support WHO’s valuable work in the Pacific. President Donald Trump has directed his administration to freeze WHO funding, claiming it didn’t deliver adequate early reports on the coronavirus. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Friday: “What happens at the upper echelons of these organizations, and how they operate, I think is in need of change." He says Australia wants to see “an improved set of arrangements at the WHO.”

— CHINA REPORTS NO DEATHS: China reported no new COVID-19 deaths for the ninth-straight day, and just six new cases of the virus. Two of those were brought from overseas, with three domestic cases in Heilongjiang on the Russian border and one in the southern business hub of Guangdong. Hospitals are still treating 915 cases, 57 listed as serious. The country’s death toll from the pandemic first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year remains at 4,632 among 82,804 cases.

— HONG KONG STUDENTS TAKE UNIVERSITY EXAMS: More than 52,000 students have begun taking university entrance exams with social distancing measures in place, after a monthlong delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exams are stretched over a month and candidates and staff are required to wear surgical masks and sanitize their hands. Students will have their body temperature checked at the exam centers, and must sign health declaration forms. Any student found to have a body temperature of above 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) will be refused entry. Desks are spaced just over 3 feet (a meter) apart, with the recommended distance being nearly 6 feet (2 meters) between candidates. As of Thursday, Hong Kong’s total cases stood at 1,036, with four deaths.

— MASKS FOR VETERANS: South Korea says it will send 1 million masks to foreign veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War while its own virus caseload slows. South Korea since early March banned mask exports and rationed the national supply. But Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said supply has stabilized enough for rationing to be eased and the country can send masks overseas without disrupting domestic supply. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported six more cases but no new deaths, bringing national totals to 10,703 and 240 fatalities.

— SHARP MASKS HUGELY POPULAR IN JAPAN: Masks from Japanese electronics maker Sharp Corp. have proved so popular there is going to be a lottery. Sharp said Friday that online orders spiked so much that not a single sale was completed. As a fix, Sharp announced a lottery for 30,000 boxes, each with 50 masks. A person is entitled to one 2,980 yen ($28) box. Applications are accepted all day Monday next week, with lottery winners announced Tuesday. Some Japanese hospitals have complained about a mask shortage and they're sometimes hard to find in stores.

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