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Belarus

Belarus - US Consular Information Sheet
November 25, 2008
COUNTRY DESCRIPTION:
Belarus became an independent republic in 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In 1996, a constitutional referendum, not recognized by the internat
onal community, centralized power in the executive branch (president), headed by Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Economic and political reform in Belarus has stalled or is being reversed under his authoritarian government.
The Belarusian Government’s human rights record remains very poor.
President Lukashenka gained a third five-year term as president in March 2006, in an election that international observers judged to be seriously flawed.
Democratic nations, including the United States and the members of the European Union, condemned the subsequent governmental crackdown on peaceful protests in Minsk, and imposed visa restrictions and other sanctions on senior Belarusian officials. As a result of the release of political prisoners in August 2008, the EU lifted its visa restrictions, but those of the United States remain in effect.
Both Belarusian and Russian are official languages, and Russian is widely spoken throughout the country, particularly in the cities.
Tourist facilities are not highly developed, but food and lodging in the capital and some regional centers are adequate.
Read the Department of State Background Notes on Belarus for additional information.
ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS:
A passport and visa are required.
Travelers must obtain a visa in advance to visit or transit through Belarus.
Travelers who do not have a visa cannot register at hotels.
U.S. citizens visiting or residing in Belarus are required to register with the local office of the Citizenship and Migration Department of the Ministry of Interior (formerly OVIR) within three business days after arrival.
The registration fee is one National Minimum Tariff Unit (currently about $17).
Failure to register can result in fines and difficulties when departing.
U.S. citizens staying in hotels are automatically registered at check-in.
Visa validity dates are strictly enforced; travelers should request visas of sufficient length to allow for changes in arrival and departure plans, and should carefully review the beginning and ending dates of their visas before traveling.
A valid exit visa is necessary to depart Belarus.
Generally, the visa issued by a Belarusian Embassy or Consulate is valid for both entry and exit.
Photocopies of visas may be helpful in the event of loss, but note that a copy of a visa will not be sufficient for entry or departure, as Belarusian border officials always require original travel documents.

Travelers who overstay their visa’s validity -- even for one day -- will be prevented from leaving until they have been granted an extension by the Department of Citizenship and Migration.
United States citizens without valid visas face delays in leaving Belarus and may have trouble finding adequate accommodation.
By Belarusian law, travelers with an expired visa may not check in at any hotel or other lodging establishment.

U.S. citizens traveling through Belarus to other countries are strongly advised that there is a transit visa requirement for entering and leaving Belarus.
Transit visas are required even for travelers transiting on direct overnight trains with no stops or transfers on Belarusian territory. Transit visas should be obtained prior to any journey that requires travel through Belarus.
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Russian visas are no substitute for this transit visa.
Most travel agencies, including those in Russia and CIS countries, as well as train ticket sales personnel, are often not aware of this visa requirement and may not seek a transit visa for a traveler unless instructed by the traveler to do so.

U.S. citizens attempting to transit Belarus without a valid Belarusian transit visa have been denied entry into the country and forcibly removed from trains.
In some instances, local border and railway authorities have threatened passengers who did not possess a valid transit visa with jail or extorted “fines.”
American citizens are advised not to pay any border or railway officials for transit visas or “transit visa fines,” as these officials are not authorized to issue such visas.
Americans finding themselves in Belarus without transit visas, if confronted by border or train personnel, should request to be put in contact with consular officials at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.
U.S. citizens traveling to Belarus via Russia are reminded that they must possess a Russian transit visa in addition to their Belarusian visa. Russian Embassies outside of the United States, including the Russian Embassy in Belarus, generally do not issue transit or tourist visas to Americans.
Russian transit visas are not normally obtainable at Russian airports.

The Law on the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Republic of Belarus states that all foreign citizens may be granted permission for a temporary stay (up to 90 days within a chronological year), temporary residence (up to one year), or permanent residence.
Belarusian Embassies and Consulates will issue visas for temporary stays.
A temporary stay visa will allow the bearer to be present physically in Belarus for a maximum of 90 days within the 365-day period for which the visa is issued.
Once an individual has spent 90 days in Belarus, at one time or through a combination of visits, he or she will not be eligible to receive another visa until the original 365-day period has passed.

Individuals who receive visas for a temporary stay, but wish to remain in Belarus for longer than 90 days, must apply for temporary or permanent residence with the Ministry of Interior.
Individuals must make the application in Belarus within the 90 days allotted for a temporary stay.
Permission for temporary residence can be granted to students, spouses, or close relatives of Belarusian citizens, or for “work, business, or other activities.”
Travelers may contact the Consular Section at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk for information about application procedures for temporary or permanent residence.
Every foreigner entering Belarus is required to fill out a migration card.
This card should be retained for the whole period of stay and should be presented to the border authorities when exiting Belarus.

Foreign citizens without a valid Belarusian visa, migration card, or proper registration with the Department of Citizenship and Migration as a temporary visitor or resident can be subject to sanctions up to and including deportation under the provisions of the Code of Administrative Violations.
Depending on the circumstances, deportees also can be banned from returning to Belarus for a period from one to ten years.

Foreign citizens visiting and transiting Belarus also should be prepared to demonstrate sufficient financial means to support their stay.
For individuals staying in Belarus for less than one month, this amount is equal to approximately $15/day/person.
For those staying for longer than one month, the requirements call for $375/month/person.
Belarusian officials may request this proof of funds at the time of visa application, at the border, or during registration.
According to the Ministry of Interior, cash, credit cards, paid hotel reservations, or a letter from an inviting party pledging full financial support are sufficient means to demonstrate financial wherewithal.

Belarus requires all foreign nationals (other than accredited diplomats) entering the country to purchase medical insurance at the port-of-entry, regardless of any other insurance they might have.
Costs for this insurance will vary according to the length of stay.
(Subject to change, current information puts costs at approximately $1 for a one or two day stay, $15 for a stay of up to 31 days, and $85 for a stay of one year.)

Travelers entering Belarus by air with more than 35 kilograms of luggage (77 pounds) will be charged 2 Euros per kilogram in excess of that limit.
The fee must be paid in dollars or Euros.
In accordance with current customs regulations, foreigners may enter Belarus with up to $10,000 and exit the country with up to $3,000 without submitting a written declaration.
For additional information on customs rules for Belarus please see the Belarusian State Customs Committee official web site.
The Belarusian Government enforces a requirement for special permits to travel in “protected border zones.”
The Government of Belarus has not provided information defining the parameters of those zones.
Travelers should be alert for warning signs, road barriers, and/or border guard posts, and are advised not to cross into such areas without permission.

Foreign missionaries may not engage in religious activities outside the institutions that invited them unless they have a religious worker visa.
One-year validity, multiple-entry, "spiritual activities" visas, which are required of foreign missionaries, can be difficult to get, even for faiths that are registered with the government and have a long history in the country.
Approval often involves a difficult bureaucratic process.

A law enacted in 2002 required all religious groups and organizations, including recognized “traditional” religions such as Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Sunni Islam, and Lutheranism, to re-register; most organizations have done so.
Unregistered religious groups may not legally gather for religious purposes.
Many unregistered groups continue to meet, however, leaving them vulnerable to selective implementation of the law by authorities.
The law also stipulates that only Belarusian citizens can head religious organizations in Belarus.
In recent years, authorities have harassed, warned, fined, and briefly detained members of some unregistered and so-called "non-traditional" faiths for engaging in unsanctioned worship or proselytism. The U.S. Embassy strongly recommends that any U.S. citizen who chooses to attend a religious service of an unregistered religious group do so only after consulting with members of the group about the risk of harassment or possible arrest by local law enforcement authorities.
U.S. citizens are also urged to contact the U.S. Embassy should they encounter any problems with authorities due to their participation in such services or events.

Naturalized U.S. citizens originally from Belarus do not automatically lose Belarusian citizenship upon naturalization.
Such individuals retain Belarusian citizenship unless they take specific steps to renounce it.
The Belarusian authorities will allow naturalized U.S. citizens from Belarus to enter the country without a valid Belarusian passport on a “certificate of return” issued by Belarusian Embassies and Consulates, but please note that a valid Belarusian passport will be required to leave the country.
It can take two to four weeks to receive a new Belarusian passport.
For additional information please consult with the Embassy of Belarus at http://www.belarusembassy.org.
Belarusian citizens, including dual nationals, are subject to Belarusian laws requiring service in Belarus’ armed forces, as well as other laws pertaining to passports and nationality.
American-Belarusian dual nationals of military age who do not wish to serve in the Belarusian armed forces should contact the Embassy of Belarus in Washington, D.C. to learn more about an exemption or deferment from Belarusian military service before going to Belarus.
Without this exemption or deferment document, they may not be able to leave Belarus without completing military service, or may be subject to criminal penalties for failure to serve.

Children born to Belarusian parent(s) before August 15, 2002, even if born in the United States and in possession of a U.S. passport, may not be issued a Belarusian visa for travel to Belarus.
The Belarusian government considers these children to be Belarusian citizens until age 16, when they may choose to accept or reject that claim to citizenship.
Instead of a visa, a "certificate of return" is issued that will allow the child to enter Belarus.
It is imperative that parents of such children understand that, in order to leave the country, the child will be required to have a Belarusian passport if he/she does not already have one.
It can take anywhere from two to four weeks to complete the application procedures and receive a new Belarusian passport.
(Note: if the parent left Belarus on a series PP passport, given to Belarusians who reside abroad and have cancelled their local registration, then Belarus would not require the child to reject his/her claim to citizenship).
For children born to one Belarusian parent and one foreign parent after 2002, the parents must by mutual consent agree to Belarusian citizenship for the child, regardless of the place of birth.
If the parents cannot reach consensus, Belarus would only force Belarusian citizenship on a child in cases where the child would be left stateless.
Visit the Embassy of Belarus web site at http://www.belarusembassy.org/ for the most current visa information, or contact the Embassy of Belarus at 1619 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009, tel: 202-986-1606, fax: 202-986-1805, consul@belarusembassy.org.
Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our web site.
For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information sheet.
SAFETY AND SECURITY:
Both organized and spontaneous demonstrations occur in Belarus.
Localized street disturbances relating to political events occur most frequently in Minsk or larger cities.
In some instances, authorities may use force to disperse protesters; bystanders, including foreign nationals, may face the possibility of arrest, beating, or detention.
Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can sometimes become confrontational and escalate into violence.
For this reason, it is recommended that American citizens avoid all demonstrations and protest gatherings.

Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance.
Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched.
Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with authorities.
These sites are not always clearly marked and application of these restrictions is subject to interpretation.

For the latest security information, Americans living or traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ web site at http://travel.state.gov, where the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts, as well as the Worldwide Caution, can be found.
Up-to-date information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.
These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

The Department of State urges American citizens to take responsibility for their own personal security while traveling overseas.
For general information about appropriate measures travelers can take to protect themselves in an overseas environment, see the Department of State’s A Safe Trip Abroad.
CRIME:
Belarus has a moderate incidence of street crime. Though violent crime against foreigners is rare, criminals have been known to use force if met with resistance from victims.
Common street crime, such as mugging and pocket picking, occurs most frequently near public transportation venues, near hotels frequented by foreigners, and/or at night in poorly lit areas.

American citizens and other foreigners in Belarus have also been the victims of car theft, car vandalism, and hotel and residential break-ins.
Foreigners visiting nightclubs should pay particular attention to their surroundings, as criminal elements may rob unsuspecting patrons after surreptitiously drugging their drinks.
Travelers should keep a copy of their passport in a separate location from their original passport.

As in many countries around the world, counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available in Belarus. Transactions involving such products may be illegal under local law. In addition, bringing them back to the United States may result in forfeitures and/or fines. More information on this serious problem is available at http://www.cybercrime.gov/18usc2320.htm.
INFORMATION FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME:
The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting to local police, please contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance.
The Embassy/Consulate staff can, for example, assist you in finding appropriate medical care, contacting family members or friends and explaining how funds could be transferred.
Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed.
To see if you can be compensated in the U.S. as a victim of violent crime overseas, see our information on Victims of Crime.

The local equivalents to the “911” emergency line in Belarus are: 111 Fire and Rescue Squad, 102 Police, 103 Ambulance (Medical Emergency)
MEDICAL FACILITIES AND HEALTH INFORMATION:
Medical care in Belarus is limited.
There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies, including anesthetics, vaccines and antibiotics.
Elderly travelers and those with existing health problems may be at risk due to inadequate medical facilities. Travelers are encouraged to ensure that they bring an adequate supply of prescription medications in the event that there are delays in departing Belarus.
Tuberculosis is an increasingly serious health concern in Belarus.
For further information, please consult the CDC's Travel Notice on TB at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowBookCh4-TB.aspx.

The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to Belarus on a 30 day visit.
Long-term residents or students must obtain an HIV/AIDS test in Belarus and submit the results to the Department of Citizenship and Migration.
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC’s web site at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/default.aspx.
For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website at http://www.who.int/en.
Further health information for travelers is available at http://www.who.int/ith/en.
MEDICAL INSURANCE:
The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation.
Please see our information on medical insurance overseas.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS:
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
The information below concerning Belarus is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
American citizens on short-term visits to Belarus (up to 90 days) are permitted to drive with a valid U.S. state driver’s license.
U.S. citizens should, therefore, always carry their passports with them to prove date of entry into the country in the event that police stop them.
If residing in Belarus for more than 90 days, one should apply for a Belarusian driver’s license.
Drivers will be required to successfully complete a two-part test in Russian; the first part is a computer-based multiple-choice test on local driving rules, and the second part is a driving test.
To receive a local driver’s license, drivers will also need to complete a medical exam at a special medical clinic, which will include a general physical, a chest x-ray, and an eye exam.

Radar traps and road construction sites, often unlit at night, are widespread.
Except for a stretch of the main east-west highway, where the speed limit is 100 km/h (60 mph), the maximum speed limit on divided highways or main roads outside village, town or city limits is 90 km/h (55 mph).
Speed limits in cities are 60 km/h unless marked and will usually range between 40 km/h and 70 km/h, with frequent radar traps.
Visible and hidden dangers exist, including potholes, unlit or poorly lit streets, inattentive and dark-clothed pedestrians walking on unlit roads, drivers and pedestrians under the influence of alcohol, and disregard for traffic rules.
Driving in winter is especially dangerous because of ice and snow.
Driving with caution is urged at all times.

Radio-dispatched taxi services are generally reliable, arrive promptly once called and usually offer the lowest fare.
Most radio-dispatched taxis are metered, although fares can vary greatly and are considerably higher in the late evening and overnight hours.
The use of informal taxis or "gypsy cabs" is not recommended.

Minsk has a clean, safe, and efficient subway system that easily reaches most of the city center. Service is stopped briefly during the early morning hours, but otherwise runs regularly throughout the day.
Ticket prices are extremely low by western standards.
Though their routes are extensive, buses and trolleys lack heating or cooling capabilities and are usually crowded.

Travelers on all public transportation should be wary of pickpockets and other petty crime.
For travelers interested in car rental, only one major western rental agency currently operates in Minsk.
In general, rental car networks in Belarus are not well developed.

Travelers may experience significant delays (of several hours) in crossing the border by road into neighboring countries.

Please refer to our Road Safety page for more information.
Also visit the website of the country’s national tourist office and national authority responsible for road safety at: http://siteks.com/sites/touragency/.
AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT:
As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Belarus, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Belarus’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards.
For more information, travelers may visit the FAA’s web site at http://www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa.
SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES:
Traveler's checks are normally not accepted in Belarus as a means of payment, but can be freely exchanged for cash at any bank.
Most hotels, restaurants, and stores accept major credit cards.
All Belarusian banks provide cash from major credit cards.
All payments in Belarus are made in Belarusian rubles.
Authorized currency exchange centers are widely available throughout major cities.


ATMs are also available for use, and it has become easier to use credit cards and debit cards in Belarus, especially in Minsk; however, this does not mean that it is safer to do so.
There have been reports of instances in which U.S. citizens have had their card numbers “skimmed” and the money in their debit accounts stolen or their credit cards fraudulently charged.
(“Skimming” is the theft of credit card information by an employee of a legitimate merchant or bank, manually copying down numbers or using a magnetic stripe reader.)
In addition to skimming, the risk of physical theft of credit or debit cards also exists.
To prevent such theft, the Embassy recommends that travelers keep close track of their personal belongings and only carry what is needed when out.
If travelers choose to use credit cards, they should regularly check their account status to ensure its integrity.
Persons seeking to marry in Belarus should consult the information located on the Embassy web site at http://minsk.usembassy.gov/marriage.html.
Please see our Customs Information.
CRIMINAL PENALTIES:
While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law.
Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses.
Persons violating Belarusian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.
Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Belarus are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States.
Access for U.S. consular officers to U.S. citizens in detention is often limited and/or delayed.
Although U.S. citizens are able to obtain legal representation, there has been at least one case of delayed notification, hindered consular access, limited medical treatment, and trial behind closed doors. Please see our information on Criminal Penalties.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES:
For information see our Office of Children’s Issues web pages on intercountry adoption and international parental child abduction.

REGISTRATION / EMBASSY LOCATION:
Americans living or traveling in Belarus are encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration web site so that they can obtain updated information on travel and security within Belarus.
Americans without Internet access may register directly with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy or Consulate to contact them in case of emergency.
The U.S. Embassy is located in Minsk at 46 Starovilenskaya Ulitsa; telephone (375 17) 210-1283 or after hours (375 29) 676-0134, fax (375 17) 334-7853 or (375 17) 17-217-7160 (consular section).
The Consular Section may also be reached by email at ConsularMinsk@state.gov
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This replaces the Country Specific Information for Belarus dated December 7, 2007, and updates the sections on Exit/Entry Requirements, Safety and Security, Information for Victims of Crime, Medical Facilities and Health Information, and Criminal Penalties.

Travel News Headlines WORLD NEWS

Date: Thu, 2 Aug 2018 06:04:14 +0200
By Tatiana Kalinovskaya

Minsk, Aug 2, 2018 (AFP) - A massive corruption scandal has rocked the health service of ex-Soviet Belarus, leading even officials in the country dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" to call for an overhaul of the system.   Authorities have arrested dozens of medics, drug company representatives and bureaucrats on suspicion of siphoning off millions of dollars in state funding.   Valery Vakulchik, head of the powerful KGB state security service, in televised comments last month denounced what he called a vast system of procurement of drugs and medical equipment at inflated prices.   Prices were habitually hiked by up to 60 percent and in some cases even doubled, he said.   Following his announcement, 37 top health officials were arrested and criminal investigations were opened involving 60 people including local representatives of international pharmaceutical companies.

The KGB chief acknowledged that the Soviet-style bureaucracy in the country bordering the European Union, ruled by strongman Alexander Lukashenko, helped promote corruption.   "The existing system of procuring medical equipment and drugs created the conditions for corrupt practices," he said.    "Bona fide suppliers could not rely on a positive outcome," he added, while procurements were made not directly from producers but "via numerous middlemen (and) finance companies."   Those detained in the scandal include deputy health minister Igor Lositsky, doctors at reputed clinics and leading business figures involved in producing and importing medicines.   One of the arrested businessmen is Sergei Shakutin, director of Iskamed group, who is the brother of one of Lukashenko's close associates.   Belta state news agency has published photos of searches at the home of a medical centre director that uncovered $500,000 in cash.   Officers also found $620,000 in the garage of the director of a public enterprise that imported medical equipment.

The KGB chief said bribes paid to corrupt officials amounted to millions of dollars.   "There will be further arrests since the people detained so far are just the perpetrators," Sergei Satsuk, editor of news site Yezhednevnik, who is familiar with the case, told AFP.   The chief beneficiaries in such schemes were retired law enforcement officials who set up companies to enter the lucrative medical equipment market, Satsuk said.   "In 10 years they drained all the juice out of the country's medical system," he said.   He said this involved supplying equipment that was not just over-priced but also often lacked the necessary certification or came with faked documentation.    Some equipment was imported as second-hand but re-sold as new.

- Powerful temptation -
This is one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Belarus, which is wedged between Russia and Poland and has been led by Lukashenko since 1994.   "Bureaucracy has privatised the state. We need to reform the whole system of state management, otherwise corruption schemes will spring up wherever budget funds are being spent," independent economist Yaroslav Romanchuk told AFP.

Other smaller corruption scandals have in recent years hit the sports, forestry and energy ministries as well as large companies, factories and banks.   Three ministers have been sacked and senior bureaucrats and regional officials have been arrested.   "Even if you clean out the state structures of bribe-takers, corruption won't die in Belarus for a single day," said Romanchuk.   "The very next day new people in old posts in the old system will relaunch the old corruption schemes."   The system "creates the most powerful temptation to set up schemes with kickbacks, bribes, swindling and abuses of office," Romanchuk said.
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2018 18:11:12 +0200

Minsk, July 24, 2018 (AFP) - Belarus on Tuesday announced that it is extending visa-free travel for tourists from five days to 30 days in a move that could attract more visitors to the ex-Soviet state on the European Union's doorstep.

Strongman ruler Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree allowing visitors from 80 countries including 39 in Europe, as well as the United States, Australia and Japan to stay for 30 days.   The ruling will enter force when the decree is published in one or two days.   The decree says the move is aimed at "promoting further development of the Belarusian tourism sector" as well as making the country more attractive as a host for sports events and festivals and improving its connectedness to the global economy.

Belarus said it is keen to promote itself as a medical tourism venue and for people keen to recuperate and undergo spa procedures at its sanatoriums.   The visa-free rule requires visitors to fly in and out of Minsk's main airport.    As before, the visa exemption does not apply to foreigners arriving or leaving from Russia because of a lack of border controls betweeen the neighbours.

Minsk has close ties to former Soviet master Moscow, with Belarus part of an economic union with Russia.   Chinese people will also be covered by a separate visa agreement that comes into force in August.   Ties between Belarus and the European Union have improved since the 28-nation bloc began lifting most of its sanctions on the country in 2015 after Lukashenko released high-profile political prisoners.
Date: Tue, 17 May 2016 07:34:10 +0200

Belmopan, Belize, May 17, 2016 (AFP) - Belize has joined the growing number of Latin American nations grappling with the Zika virus, after the health ministry confirmed the country's first known case.    Authorities said Monday the infected person resides in Belize City, adding that efforts would be taken to prevent the virus from spreading.

"An immediate investigation was launched and several actions were simultaneously initiated to minimize and contain a potential outbreak," a health ministry statement said.   The mosquito-borne Zika virus can cause the birth defect microcephaly, which can cause babies to be born with unusually small heads and deformed brains.
Date: Fri 17 Jul 2015
Source: Rusnovosti [in Russian, trans. ProMED Mod.NP, edited]

The deceased patient was infected in Belarus
-----------------------------------------------
Rospotrebnadzor [Federal Service for Consumer Protection and Human Welfare] reported that the 1st death from tick-borne encephalitis has been registered in Moscow. The tick-borne disease was imported.

Rospotrebnadzor reports, "Infections in the capital are not registered this year [2015] and have never been registered previously. The patient was infected in Belarus."

According to Infectious clinical hospital No. 1 of the Department of Health of Moscow, 10 imported cases of viral encephalitis were identified in the 1st half of 2015; 2 cases of infection occurred in the Altai region and in the Republic of Karelia. One [imported] case was brought from the Kostroma region, the Yaroslavl region, the Volgograd region and the Republic of Udmurtia, as well as from Belarus and Mongolia.

Rospotrebnadzor also reports that the rise of the biological activity of _Ixodes_ ticks was noted. These ticks are considered the main vectors of infections such as tick-borne spring-summer encephalitis, tick-borne borreliosis (Lyme disease), granulocytic anaplasmosis, and monocytic ehrlichiosis.
=====================
[Nearly 10,000 people sought medical aid after tick bites in Moscow for the period April-June of this year (2015), among them there are more than 1900 children up to 17 years. Last year (2014) for the same period it was recorded that around 8000 people sought medical aid after tick bites. The ticks attacked people mainly in the territory of the Moscow region.

This is the season of tickborne encephalitis virus (TBEV) transmission in Russia and neighboring countries. Russia, especially western Siberia, has the largest number of reported TBE cases. For additional details on TBE, see Mod.LL's extensive comments drawn from the US CDC (<http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2014/chapter-3-infectious-diseases-related-to-travel/tickborne-encephalitis>). The CDC information notes that in Russia, 2 inactivated TBE vaccines are available: TBE-Moscow (Chumakov Institute, Russia) and EnceVir (Microgen, Russia). The European and Russian vaccines should provide cross-protection against all 3 TBEV subtypes. Vaccine failures have been reported, particularly in people aged over 50 years.

In the previous post on TBE, ProMED Corr.BA noted, "According to weekly monitoring, from 1 Apr-15 Jul [2015] in Russia, more than 412,000 cases of tick bites were registered, including 94,270 children. Compared with the same period of last year (2014), the number of people affected by the tick bites increased by 19 per cent. In 2015, 947 cases of tick-borne encephalitis have registered in Russia. The largest number of cases was reported in the Krasnoyarsk region, followed by Novosibirsk [Siberia], Irkutsk, Tyumen, Kirov, Sverdlovsk, Vologda, Leningrad, Kemerovo, Pskov, and Kostroma regions, the Republic of Khakassia, the Perm and Primorye regions, St Petersburg [city], Moscow (importations from Yaroslavl, Vologda, Karelia, Altai, and Mongolia, Belarus)." - ProMED Mod.TY]

[The locations mentioned in this posting can be seen on the map at

[A HealthMap/ProMED-mail map can be accessed at:
Date: 15 Jul 2015
Source: Evening Brest [machine translation & edited]

Belarus has 1 imported case of measles. The Ministry of Health of Belarus does not rule out the possibility of other imported cases of measles. This is especially true during the summer holidays and vacations.

According to the deputy chief doctor of the "National Center for Hygiene, Epidemiology and Public Health," Lyudmila Naroychik, other European countries often record measles. In 2014 Belarus recorded 5 imported cases of measles. So far in 2015, Belorus has already record 1 imported case. The infections have been from Russia, Israel, Spain, Turkey, according to BelTA  [unclear whether this refers just to 2014, or other years as well].

Measles is included in the national immunization schedule, and if vaccination is carried out, even in adulthood the person retains immunity. In this regard, it is important to get vaccinated before traveling abroad.
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[The HealthMap/ProMED map of Belarus can be found at:
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World Travel News Headlines

Date: Mon, 14 Oct 2019 11:08:10 +0200 (METDST)

Manila, Oct 14, 2019 (AFP) - Parents lined up from sunrise holding sleeping infants as the Philippines launched a campaign on Monday to vaccinate millions of children against polio, which has re-emerged nearly two decades after the nation's last cases.   Years of falling vaccination rates, made worse by the botched rollout of a dengue vaccine, culminated in an outbreak of the preventable disease in September.   "This is for the welfare of my child," Ruth Miranda told AFP after the vaccine was squirted into her child's mouth at the Manila slum they call home.

Miranda's child is among scores who are unprotected in the capital of about 13 million people, where vaccination rates of young children plunged from 77 percent in 2016 to a mere 24 percent in June.   The atmosphere at the event in Manila was festive -- with ice cream vendors and music -- but the stakes for the campaign are high.

Polio, which can cause paralysis and can be fatal in rare cases, has no cure and can only be prevented with several doses of oral and injectable vaccines.   Two cases were detected in September, the first polio infections in the Philippines since 2001, adding to the woes of a country already hit by deadly measles and dengue epidemic.   The risk of the disease spreading within the Philippines is high, according to World Health Organization, due to low immunisation coverage partly blamed to a dengue vaccine scandal.

The Philippines was the first nation to use Dengvaxia in a mass programme in 2016, but a botched rollout led to claims that children had died after being vaccinated.   A dramatic drop in vaccine confidence followed, with trust plunging from 93 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2018, according to a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.   The Philippines polio outbreak has been traced back to the weakened form of the virus used in vaccines, which is excreted by people for a time after they receive it.   According to the WHO, that form can mutate and spread in the surrounding community when immunisation rates get too low.
Date: Mon, 14 Oct 2019 10:25:38 +0200 (METDST)
By Shingo ITO, Sara HUSSEIN

Tokyo, Oct 14, 2019 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of rescue workers in Japan battled on Monday to find survivors of a powerful typhoon that killed at least 43 people, as fresh rain threatened to hamper efforts.   Typhoon Hagibis crashed into the country on Saturday night, unleashing high winds and torrential rain across 36 of the country's 47 prefectures, and triggering landslides and catastrophic flooding.   "Even now, many people are still unaccounted for in the disaster-hit area," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told an emergency disaster meeting on Monday.   "Units are trying their best to search for and rescue them, working day and night," Abe said.

But even as rescuers, including troops, combed through debris, the country's weather agency forecast rain in central and eastern Japan that it warned could cause further flooding and new landslides.   "I would like to ask people to stay fully vigilant and continue watching for landslides and river flooding," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.   In Nagano, one of the worst-hit regions, rain was already falling and was expect to intensify.   "We are concerned about the impact of the latest rain on rescue and recovery efforts," local official Hiroki Yamaguchi told AFP.   "We will continue operations while watching out for secondary disasters due to the current rain."

- 43 dead, 16 missing: NHK -
By late Monday afternoon, national broadcaster NHK said the toll had risen to 43 dead, with 16 others missing and over 200 people injured. The government gave lower figures but was continuing to update its information.   The dead included a municipal worker whose car was overcome by floodwaters and at least seven crew from a cargo ship that sank in Tokyo Bay on Saturday night, a coast guard spokesman said.   Four others, from China, Myanmar and Vietnam, were rescued when the boat sank and the coast guard was still searching for a last crew member.   While Hagibis, one of the most powerful storms to hit the Tokyo area in decades, packed wind gusts of up to 216 kilometres (134 miles) per hour, it was the heavy rains that caused most damage.

A total of 142 rivers flooded, mainly in eastern and northern Japan, with river banks collapsing in two dozen places, local media said.   In central Nagano, a levee breach sent water from the Chikuma river gushing into residential neighbourhoods, flooding homes up to the second floor.   As water slowly receded Monday, television footage showed patients being transferred by ambulance from a Nagano hospital where some 200 people had been cut off by flooding.   Elsewhere, rescuers used helicopters to winch survivors from roofs and balconies, or steered boats through muddy waters to reach those trapped.

- Japan dedicates rugby win to victims -
By Monday afternoon, some 75,900 households remained without power, with 120,000 experiencing water outages.   The disaster left tens of thousands of people in shelters, with many unsure when they would be able to return home.   "Everything from my house was washed away before my eyes, I wasn't sure if it was a dream or real," a woman in Nagano told NHK.   "I feel lucky I'm still alive."   The storm brought travel chaos over the holiday weekend, grounding flights and halting commuter and bullet train services.

By Monday, most subway trains had resumed service, along with many bullet train lines, and flights had also restarted.   The storm also brought havoc to the sporting world, forcing the delay of Japanese Grand Prix qualifiers and the cancellation of three Rugby World Cup matches.   But a crucial decider pitting Japan against Scotland went ahead, with the hosts dedicating their stunning 28-21 win to the victims of the disaster.   "To everyone that's suffering from the typhoon, this game was for you guys," said Japan captain Michael Leitch.
Date: Sun, 13 Oct 2019 23:31:57 +0200 (METDST)

Kinshasa, Oct 13, 2019 (AFP) - Doctors will use a second Ebola vaccine from November in three eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight the deadly virus, medical officials said Sunday.   "It's time to use the new Ad26-ZEBOV-GP vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson's Belgian subsidiary," said Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who leads the national anti-Ebola operation in the DRC.    It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month, he added.   DRC's latest Ebola epidemic, which began in August 2018, has killed 2,144 people, making it the second deadliest outbreak of the virus, after the West Africa pandemic of 2014-2016.

Muyembe said the communes of Majingo and Kahembe had been selected to receive the vaccine as they were considered the epicentres of the epidemic.   "We will extend this vaccination to our small traders who often go to Rwanda to protect our neighbours," he added.   "If it works well, we will expand vaccination in South Kivu and Ituri."   DR Congo's eastern provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu sit on the borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.   The Belgian laboratory will send a batch of 200,000 doses to neighbouring Rwanda and 500,000 doses in the DRC, Muyembe said.   More than 237,000 people living in active Ebola transmission zones have received a vaccination produced by the pharma company Merck Sharpe and Dohme since August 8, 2018. 

The J&J vaccine had been rejected by DRC's former health minister Oly Ilunga, who cited the risks of introducing a new product in communities where mistrust of Ebola responders is already high.   But Ilunga's resignation in July appears to have paved the way for approval of the second vaccine. He currently faces charges that he embezzled funds intended for the fight against Ebola.   In his letter of resignation Ilunga said "actors who have demonstrated a lack of ethics" want to introduce a second vaccine, but did not elaborate.    Muyembe, who took over the Ebola fight in the DRC in July, said "The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has the most science-based data."
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2019 20:02:59 +0200 (METDST)
By Robbie COREY-BOULET

Addis Ababa, Oct 10, 2019 (AFP) - A palace that once housed Ethiopia's emperors and also served as a torture site under the communist Derg regime is to open to the public in a controversial government tourism project.    The palace compound in Addis Ababa, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government has rebranded "Unity Park", was formally launched Thursday and will be open from Friday.    Abiy's office said on Twitter Thursday that the project "symbolises our ability to come together".

But critics have dismissed it as vanity project for Abiy that could prove divisive.   Backed by the United Arab Emirates, the project cost more than $160 million (145 million euros), Ethiopian officials told reporters at a briefing earlier this week.    Built in the late 1800s by Emperor Menelik II, who founded Addis Ababa, the palace was the residence of Ethiopia's rulers for more than a century.   Abiy himself does not live there, and it has seen little activity in recent years.    Abiy's advisers say he has taken a keen interest in transforming the palace into a tourist attraction since coming to power in April 2018 -- visiting the site every day in recent weeks to monitor progress.

The government's "Home-Grown Economic Reform" agenda, unveiled last month, describes tourism as a primary engine of potential job creation.    On Thursday, government officials and the diplomatic corps toured the expansive site before attending a banquet that was expected to draw five regional heads of state and other dignitaries.    The restored rooms feature items like Menelik's sword and a life-size wax replica of former Emperor Haile Selassie, who lived at the palace and was then etained there after the Derg overthrew him in 1974.

The site also includes a sculpture garden with installations representing Ethiopia's nine regions, and a zoo is expected to open by the end of the year.    Aklilu Fikresilassie, an Ethiopian employee of the United Nations who attended the launch Thursday, said he was "really fascinated" to set foot inside a place that had been closed to the public his entire life.    "For us it's like a government house, so now when you enter that palace it tells you that we are getting somehow closer to our leaders," he said.

But not everyone is convinced the palace will succeed in bringing Ethiopians together.   In a country grappling with ethnic divisions, some worry that the palace could alienate ethnic Oromos who contend that their ancestors were forced off their land when Addis Ababa was built.    Journalist and former political prisoner Eskinder Nega said the renovations were undertaken "without consultation from the public", which he called "a huge mistake."    "This is all about heritage, about preserving heritage. The people should have had a say in it," he said.    "Like everything else this was decided from the top and implemented only by the decision of the prime minister."
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2019 13:13:57 +0200 (METDST)

Hanoi, Oct 10, 2019 (AFP) - Selfie-snapping tourists railed against the closure of Hanoi's 'train street' on Thursday after police blocked off the Instragram-famous tracks for safety reasons.   The narrow railway corridor in central Hanoi has become a hotspot among visitors seeking the perfect holiday snap on the tracks -- often dodging trains that rumble through daily.    But Hanoi authorities said this week they would block people from the tracks to avoid accidents, and police on Thursday erected barricades to keep out disappointed visitors.    "I'm very frustrated because today I can't go in and take a picture," Malaysian tourist Mustaza bin Mustapha told AFP, vowing to come back later.

Dozens of other tourists were turned away, though some managed to get onto still-open sections of the railway, moving out of the way as an afternoon train chugged past.    Built by former colonial rulers, the railway once shipped goods and people across France's former Indochina colony and remains in use today by communist Vietnam's state-run railway company.    The stretch of the tracks was once known as a rough part of town, occupied by drug users and squatters until their recent discovery by camera-wielding holidaymakers who have splashed images of the area across social media.

Cafe owners complained that business would be hurt thanks to the new regulations, and that tourists always moved out of the way for oncoming trains.   "There has never been any regretful accidents here," said Le Tuan Anh, who runs a cafe from his home along the tracks.   "Compared to traffic density elsewhere in the city, this is much safer," he said, referring to Hanoi's chaotic, motorbike-clogged streets.   New signs were installed in the area Thursday, warning passersby not to take photos or videos in the "dangerous area", much to the chagrin of British tourist Harriet Hayes.   "People come from all over the world to Hanoi just to see the train go past," she told AFP.   "It's such a shame that we come and have been told that we have to leave."
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2019 06:51:42 +0200 (METDST)
By Holly ROBERTSON

Sydney, Oct 10, 2019 (AFP) - Large numbers of tourists are rushing to scale Uluru -- also known as Ayers Rock -- ahead of a looming ban on climbing a site sacred to indigenous Australians.   Photographs of hundreds of people clambering up the giant red monolith have provoked a social media backlash, with critics lashing as "ignorant" those going against the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, the Anangu.   "A mass of morally and ethically bankrupt people," indigenous woman Laura McBride tweeted alongside an image showing a queue of people snaking up the side of Uluru.    "One even hiking a toddler up, teaching the next generation how to be ignorant."   "Imagine rushing to climb Uluru before it closes just so you could brag about disrespecting the oldest living culture in the world," tweeted National Indigenous Television journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber, who called the scenes "embarrassing".

Officials say the ban, which comes into effect on October 26, is intended to show respect for cultural practices, protect the site from further environmental damage and to ensure visitors' safety.    More than 395,000 people visited the Uluru-Kata National Park in the 12 months to June 2019, according to Parks Australia, about 20 percent more than the previous year. Around 13 percent of those who visited during that period made the climb, park authorities said.    More recent figures are not available but Tourism Central Australia CEO Stephen Schwer said there had been a "significant jump" in the number of people visiting in recent weeks, with the period leading up to the ban coinciding in part with school holidays.   "Its been very busy, particularly down in the national park precinct itself," he told AFP.   "We've had quite an issue with accommodation availability, because there's a lot of people want to climb Uluru before it closes. It's been a busier than normal holiday period."   Japanese visitors and Australians on driving holidays were most likely to want to scale Uluru, Schwer said, though he urged them not to do so.

Australian tourist Belinda Moore, 33, drove to Uluru from her home in central Queensland state to ascend the rock, an experience she said she "absolutely loved".   "It's always been something to tick off the bucket list and when we heard it was closing, we knew it was now or never," she told AFP.   Moore said she did not think her climb was disrespectful to traditional owners as she was not Aboriginal.    "It may be for their own people, because it's their sacred site," she said.   "I'm pretty sad that they're closing it, but it's still amazing just to see it. I would still recommend it."   The climb will be permanently closed as of October 26, the anniversary of ownership being handed back to the Anangu people.

Uluru has great spiritual and cultural significance to indigenous Australians, with their connection to the site dating back tens of thousands of years.   Though visitor numbers were expected to decline once the ban was in place, Schwer said local tourism operators were "not particularly concerned" as it would return the area to normality.   "People need to remember that in central Australia we're a very interconnected community," he said. "The people who are requesting the climb closure are our friends and colleagues.   "We're just looking forward to being able to have the climb consigned to the annals of history."
Date: Wed, 9 Oct 2019 22:01:17 +0200 (METDST)

Kinshasa, Oct 9, 2019 (AFP) - Six people were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo after torrential rains hit the capital Kinshasa, flooding several neighbourhoods. a local official said.    The bodies were found between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.    Five people were killed in the capital's Selembao municipality where around 30 houses collapsed, local mayor Augustin Mankesi told Top Congo radio station.   One woman died in the Pelende district after she was electrocuted, he added.    "Our community is stricken," Mankesi added, calling on the Congolese authorities for help.   Fatal floods and rains are frequent in Kinshasa. In January last year 48 people were killed in landslides, floods and after houses collapsed, according to authorities.    Residents told AFP the road from the sea port district of Matadi to the Kinshasa turnoff has been closed due to erosion caused by the rain.    The passage is Kinshasa's main supply route for imported goods and also serves as an exit point for exports.
Date: Tue, 8 Oct 2019 04:13:25 +0200 (METDST)
By Margioni BERMÚDEZ

Caracas, Oct 8, 2019 (AFP) - The small waiting room at the home of self-styled healer "Brother Guayanes" in Caracas' rundown Petare district fills up quickly with patients -- business has never been better.   With Venezuela's chronic medicine shortages and hyperinflation, more and more people are turning to alternative medicine to treat common ailments in the crisis-wracked South American country.   "We go to the hospital and there's nothing there. They don't have medicines, or they're too expensive, what are we to do?" said Rosa Saez, 77, who has come to get treatment for a painful arm.   Carlos Rosales -- he uses the more ceremonious "Brother Guayanes" for his business -- is finishing up a "spiritual intervention" on a patient in what passes for his surgery.   The patient lies, eyes closed, on a cot as, in a series of swishes and clicks, the healer waves five pairs of scissors one after another over his prone body.    The healer says he performs 200 such interventions a week in a dim, candle-lit room that features two camp beds and an array of plaster statues that Rosales says represent "spiritual entities".   A regular visitor to the spiritual center, Saez says she has faith in Rosales' methods: "He healed my kidneys."

- Natural healing -
All across Venezuela, but particularly in poor areas like Petare, patients cannot hope to afford the price of medicines that due to the economic crisis, have become exceedingly rare.  Venezuela's pharmacists' federation say pharmacies and hospitals have on average only about 20 percent of the medicine stock needed.   Rosales' clinic is muggy with the smell of tobacco. A crucifix suspended from a chain around his neck, he practices a seeming mixture of smoke-blowing shamanism, plant-based medicine and mainstream religion.    Posters hung near the entrance remind clients to arrive with a candle and tobacco and "Don't forget that payment is in cash".   Much like a general practitioner, Rosales spends time consulting with his patients, examining them with a stethoscope, before offering a diagnosis. Often he prescribes potions based on plants and fruit, such as pineapple and a type of local squash known as chayote.   "We know medicines are necessary," he says. "I'm not against medicine, but my medicine is botany."

- Plants replace drugs -
At her stall in a downtown Caracas market, 72-year-old Lilia Reyes says she has seen her trade in medicinal plants flourish.   "I can't keep up with the demand," she said at her stall, bathed in the aroma of camomile, one of the 150 plants she sells.   Careless consumption of some herbs can be deadly, warns Grismery Morillo. A doctor at a Caracas public hospital, she says she has seen many cases of acute liver failure in people who have eaten certain roots.   According to Venezuela's opposition parties, some 300,000 chronically ill people are in danger of dying from the shortages of medicines.

But despite the risks, people like Carmen Teresa say they have no alternative.    In the kitchen of her restaurant which closed down three years ago as the economic crisis took hold, the 58-year-old Colombian prepares an infusion of fig leaves to treat "diabetic neuropathy".   The painkillers needed for the condition are "too expensive" and prices are going up due to hyperinflation, so she is cutting back on the pills and supplementing her treatment with herbal infusions.   She needs at least four tablets a day to keep her diabetes at bay. Her mother, bedridden since breaking a leg a year ago, suffers from Alzheimer's disease and needs five pills a day for hypertension.   "I'm still taking my pills, but I reduced the dose," says Teresa, who is also replacing cholesterol pills with lemon juice.
Date: Sun, 6 Oct 2019 12:04:37 +0200 (METDST)

Riyadh, Oct 6, 2019 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia announced Sunday it would allow unmarried foreign couples to rent hotel rooms together as the ultraconservative kingdom begins offering up tourist visas for the first time.   The tourism authority said in a statement published on Twitter that Saudi women travelling alone would also be able to check into a hotel by presenting valid ID.

In the past, couples wanting to stay in a hotel had to prove they were married.    "This is no longer required for tourists," the statement said.   Saudi Arabia announced on September 27 it was opening its doors to holidaymakers with the goal of diversifying its oil-dependent economy.   The kingdom had previously only issued visas to Muslim pilgrims, foreign workers, and recently to spectators at sporting or cultural events.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.   Citizens from 49 countries are now eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia and several European nations.   On September 28, Saudi authorities warned that tourists who violated "public decency", including with immodest clothing and public displays of affection, would be subject to fines.
Date: Sat, 5 Oct 2019 03:30:17 +0200 (METDST)
By Giovanna FLEITAS

Petorca, Chile, Oct 5, 2019 (AFP) - For Erick Hurtado, the worst thing about the drought that has devastated his family farm in Chile is the dead animals.   "Going out and seeing the animals dead on the ground is so horrible," Hurtado says as he gazes across the dusty paddocks of his farm in Petorca, near the coastal city of Valparaiso.

Farmers are counting the cost of one of the driest austral winters in six decades, which has destroyed crops and left tens of thousands of farm animals dead in the fields of central Chile.   Hurtado's farm, owned by his grandfather, has lost half its 60 head of cattle.   So far, 106,000 animals have died due to lack of water and fodder, mostly goats, cattle and sheep, according to the agriculture ministry.   President Sebastian Pinera, who last month announced a $5 billion plan to improve water distribution, this week set up a crisis group of government agencies to tackle the water crisis, which he said had become "more extensive and more intense."

In Colina, north of the capital Santiago, the drought has been hard on small farmers. Scrawny cattle pick at sprigs of strawy grass on pastures that have turned to dust. Cows, goats and horses roam hungry on hills have turned to a dry muddy brown.   "The drought has been disastrous for us," said Sandra Aguilar. Her family owned about a hundred head of cattle. Today, only half survive thanks to a trickle of water provided by a neighbor who still has some reserves.   "The situation is complicated," said Javier Maldonado, governor of the province of Chacabuco, where several agricultural areas have been hit particularly hard by the drought.    "We have to be realistic, climate change is here to stay," he said.

- Water shortages -
Dominga Mondaca points out the deep fissures that run through the garden behind her house in the village of La Ligua near Valparaiso. The garden used to be full of strawberries and citrus trees; now it's cracked earth.    "We have had many years with little water. But the last year, it didn't rain at all," said the 73-year-old, one of more than 600,000 people the government is supplying by tanker trucks as part of emergency measures.   She says she has had to give up raising chickens, in order to keep what little water she and her husband receive for their own consumption, washing and cleaning. Whatever is left, she uses to sprinkle on herbs in a small kitchen garden.   The agriculture ministry says 37,000 family farms need assistance in the central Chile.

- Thirsty avocados? -
In Petorca, some rivers have run dry, and the landscape has been left parched, but lush avocado and citrus plantations are nevertheless thriving.   Locals in Petorca say the real, long-term problem is the mismanagement of water resources.    "There is an excess of monoculture plantations that consume all the water," said Diego Soto of the Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (MODATIMA) told AFP.   Avocados need a lot of water to grow, said Soto.   "An avocado tree needs 600 liters of water per week, whereas humans consume 50 liters a day, or 350 liters a week," he said.   Producers refute these figures and say the real problem is a lack of infrastructure to store water, both above and below ground.    "The avocado is not a crop that needs more water," insisted Francisco Contardo, chairman of the local producers' committee.   Avocados are a key export for Chile, mostly to the US and China, but drought has reduced exports by 25 percent.

- Less snow -
For many though, the changes being wrought by climate change are overwhelmingly obvious. Snow in the highlands of central Chile was relatively scarce this year.    Scientists predict an average decrease of between five and 10 percent snowfall every 10 years in almost the entire Andes mountains, one of the country's main sources of water.   "The central zone of Chile is highly dependent on the summer melt season, its snow and glaciers, which means that if the snow cover is reduced, there is also a reduction in the availability of water resources," said Paul Cordero, climate change expert at the University of Santiago.   Weak snowfall forced the country's main ski resorts to use artificial snow machines much earlier and more often this season than in previous years.    "Chile has been living as if it were a country with an abundance of water," said Pinera.   "Climate change and global warming have changed this situation probably forever."