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By Lidia Kelly

(Reuters) - With promises of extra financing for small businesses and more jobs as a severe economic downturn looms, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday launched her party's campaign ahead of September general election.

Ardern's rise to become New Zealand's most popular prime minister in a century, buoyed by her response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has left the country largely unscathed, has boosted her prospects in the Sept.

19 election.

Ardern's Labour Party, governing in a coalition with the Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First party, will face the National Party in what is expected to be a pandemic-dominated campaign.

If the prime minister's high ratings are mirrored in the election results, Labour would govern on its own, without needing a coalition.

The government's early and hard coronavirus curbs that paralysed economic activity have put the country in a technical recession for the first time in a decade.

"There wasn't a playbook for COVID," Ardern said at the Labour Party congress. "There wasn't a playbook for the recovery."

She said a loan scheme for small businesses, which allows for no interest loans if paid back within a year and which was to end this month, will be extended until the year-end, and more environmental and infrastructure jobs will be created under a previously announced plan.

Small and medium-sized enterprises generate about a third of New Zealand's gross domestic product.

"I can't think of a time in our recent history when we have been collectively challenged by such a cruel combination of events – a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption, a global pandemic and now its ensuing financial crisis," Ardern said.

Her leadership, widely seen as compassionate and steely, after last year's killing of 51 Muslim worshippers in the country's worst mass shooting, and after the December eruption of a volcano that killed 21, has brought Ardern worldwide admiration.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by William Mallard)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Unarmed Minuteman 3 Missile Launched From Vandenberg AFB In Test Flight

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE (AP) — An unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from California early Tuesday on a test flight to a target in the Pacific Ocean, the Air Force Global Strike Command said.

The missile blasted off at 12:21 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base and its three reentry vehicles traveled 4,200 miles (6,759 kilometers) to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands as part of a developmental test, the command said from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

The early Tuesday morning launch. (Credit: Vandenberg AFB/USAF)

Test launches are essential to sustaining the aging Minuteman 3 nuclear weapon system, Col. Omar Colbert, the 576th Flight Test Squadron commander, said in a statement.

The Air Force said test launches are not a reaction to world events.

The launch calendars are developed three to five years in advance, and planning for individual launches takes six months to a year.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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