Asia on alert ahead of Christmas

Indonesian police officers take their positions during a drill ahead of Christmas celebration in Medan, Indonesia. (AP)
Updated 24 December 2016

Asia on alert ahead of Christmas

JAKARTA/BANGKOK: Security forces across Asia were on alert on Friday ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays, as police in Australia and Indonesia said they had foiled bomb plots and Malaysian security forces arrested suspected militants.
Australian police said they had prevented attacks on prominent sites in Melbourne on Christmas Day that authorities described as “an imminent terrorist event” inspired by Daesh.
The announcement came after an attack in Berlin in which a truck smashed through a Christmas market on Monday, killing 12 people. The suspect was killed in a pre-dawn shoot-out with police in Milan on Friday, Italy’s interior minister said.
In Indonesia, where Daesh’s first attack in Southeast Asia killed four people in Jakarta in January, at least 14 people were being interrogated over suspected suicide bomb plots targeting the presidential palace in Jakarta and another undisclosed location, police said.
Anti-terrorism police killed three suspects in a gunfight on Wednesday on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, would deploy 85,000 police and 15,000 military staff for the Christmas and New Year period, police said.
Indonesian groups were helping authorities secure Christmas celebrations amid heightened religious tension after the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, went on trial on a charge of blasphemy, which he denies.
Religious group Islamic Defenders Front swept into shopping centers in the city of Surabaya, in East Java, last week to make sure Muslim staff were not forced by employers to wear Santa hats or other Christmas gear.
In West Java, a group stopped a Christmas event as it was being held in a public building rather than in a church.
In Jakarta, about 300 volunteers from Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest moderate Muslim group, will join police in overseeing security.
“The focus is against terrorism, especially in Jakarta and Bali, because these are the traditional targets,” Indonesia police chief Tito Karnavian told reporters.
The largely Hindu island of Bali, famed for its temples and beaches, suffered Indonesia’s most serious militant attack, in 2002, when 202 people were killed, most of them foreigners, by bombs at a bar.
In the Pakistani city of Lahore, where 72 people were killed in an Easter Day bombing targeting Christians this year, police said 2,000 Muslim volunteers had been trained to help with security.
“A three-layer security will be arranged around every church in Lahore,” said Haider Ashraf, the city’s deputy inspector general of police.
He said CCTV cameras were monitoring churches and other gathering places for Christians, who make up about 1 percent of Muslim-majority Pakistan’s 190 million people.
Police in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Daesh claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on a bar on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in June, said this week they had arrested seven people for suspected links to the militant group.
Police will monitor transport hubs, entertainment centers and tourist spots.
“We try not to have too much physical presence in public and focus more on prevention,” Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed said. “People should feel free to enjoy their holidays.”
The US Embassy in India warned this week of an increased threat to places frequented by foreigners.
In mostly Muslim Bangladesh, where a militant group killed 22 people, most of them foreigners, at a Dhaka cafe in July, police would be patrolling near churches, an officer said.


Samoa shuts schools, declares emergency as measles kills 6

Updated 18 min 14 sec ago

Samoa shuts schools, declares emergency as measles kills 6

  • Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday
  • The National University of Samoa told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Samoa has closed all its schools, banned children from public gatherings and mandated that everybody get vaccinated after declaring an emergency due to a measles outbreak that has so far killed six people.

For the past three weeks, the Pacific island nation of 200,000 people has been in the grip of a measles epidemic that has been exacerbated by low immunization rates.

Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday. The National University of Samoa also told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed.

Health authorities said most of those who died were under the age of 2. They counted 716 measles cases reported, with nearly 100 people still hospitalized including 15 in intensive care.

Samoa’s Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri said in a news conference last week that he expects the epidemic will get worse. He said that only about two-thirds of Samoans had been vaccinated, leaving the others vulnerable to the virus.

But figures from the World Health Organization and UNICEF indicate that measles immunization rates among Samoan infants have fallen steeply from over 70 percent in 2013 to under 30 percent last year.

Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, said the Samoan government halted its immunization program for several months last year after two infants died from a medical mishap involving a vaccine.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday it was sending 3,000 vaccines to Samoa as well as nurses and medical supplies.
Ardern said Samoan authorities believe the outbreak was started by a traveler from New Zealand.

“We, of course, have an open flow of people,” Ardern said. “But we see our responsibility as supporting Samoa as they deal with the outbreak, and we are doing that actively.”

Petousis-Harris said it was disappointing that people in New Zealand who were carrying the virus had traveled to Samoa. She said New Zealand has for years known it has immunity gaps.

“But we didn’t deal with the problem,” she said.

Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand have also reported outbreaks of measles but on a smaller scale than in Samoa.