Surge in Malaysia, Brunei coronavirus cases linked to religious event

Surge in Malaysia, Brunei coronavirus cases linked to religious event
Muslims gather at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Getty Images)
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Updated 16 March 2020

Surge in Malaysia, Brunei coronavirus cases linked to religious event

Surge in Malaysia, Brunei coronavirus cases linked to religious event
  • Malaysia has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia 
  • Singapore bars entry for people with recent travel history to France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Iran, South Korea and China

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s Health Ministry announced that 190 people had tested positive for coronavirus on Sunday, the highest number of infections reported in a day in the country. Most of the cases are linked to a mass religious gathering held at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur last month.
The new infections bring Malaysia’s total to 428, the highest number of reported coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia. 
“Based on early investigation, most of the new cases are linked to the Tabligh gathering at Sri Petaling Mosque,” Health Minister Dr. Adham Baba said in a statement on Sunday.
It is estimated that 16,000 people arrived in Kuala Lumpur for the four-day religious event in late February, some of them from neighboring Singapore and Brunei.
Malaysian health authorities are trying to track down 14,500 nationals who attended the event.
The ministry has called on them and their close contacts to undergo virus testing and self-quarantine for 14 days.
On Thursday, the minister said that all mass gatherings should be avoided due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Gatherings of more than 50 people are considered a mass gathering, so the public should avoid them,” he said.
A day later, however, more than 30,000 people participated in a Hindu event, the Floating Chariot Festival in Penang state.
Stricter measures have been imposed by Malaysia’s neighbors.
Brunei announced on Sunday that it is barring its citizens from traveling out of the country as the number of persons infected with the coronavirus has reached 50.
Most of the cases are related to the Kuala Lumpur Tabligh event. Authorities have also requested mass gatherings be avoided and events such as weddings be held at home with a limited number of guests.
Singapore has suspended Friday prayers and closed all mosques for disinfection. It has also tightened its border control measures.
All new visitors who had visited France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Iran, South Korea or mainland China within the last 14 days will not be allowed transit and entry into Singapore.


Pakistan to ban religious party after deadly protests nationwide

Pakistan to ban religious party after deadly protests nationwide
Updated 15 April 2021

Pakistan to ban religious party after deadly protests nationwide

Pakistan to ban religious party after deadly protests nationwide
  • Arrest of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan head sparks nationwide demonstrations

ISLAMABAD, KARACHI: The Pakistan government on Wednesday said it had sent a proposal to the federal Cabinet to impose a ban on the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) religious party for killing two policemen, attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life through nationwide protests.

Demonstrations erupted in major Pakistani cities and quickly turned violent after Saad Rizvi, the head of the TLP, was arrested on Monday.

Addressing a press conference, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that protesters had killed two policemen and injured another 340 during violent attacks on law enforcement forces.

“We have decided to slap a ban on the TLP,” he said. “A file (for the purpose) is being dispatched to the federal Cabinet for formal approval.”

“The police personnel who were kidnapped (by the protesters) have also reached back to their respective police stations,” he said, adding that demonstrators had blocked ambulances and obstructed oxygen supply to the hospitals as a third wave of the coronavirus swept through the country.

The minister also ruled out negotiations with the protesters and said their demands would not be met.

On Sunday, a day before his arrest, TLP chief Rizvi had threatened the government with protests if it did not expel France’s envoy to Islamabad over blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Rizvi had called on the government to honor what he said was a commitment made to his party in February to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of the Prophet, which enraged Muslims around the world.

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan said that it had only committed to debating the matter in parliament.

The interior minister congratulated law enforcement officials for clearing all blocked roads, including motorways, in eight to 10 hours.

“They (the protesters) were well prepared and wanted to reach Islamabad at any cost,” Ahmed said, adding that the government had tried its best to resolve the issue through negotiations, but failed to convince TLP leaders.

“We are banning them not for any political reason, but due to their character,” he said, adding that if the government met the TLP’s demands, it would send the world a signal that Pakistan was an “extremist state.”

Earlier in the day, the interior minister had said while chairing a meeting to review the violence: “The writ of the state must be ensured at any cost.”

Law minister and spokesperson for the Sindh government, Murtaza Waha, said that 254 people had been arrested and detained in the province since Monday.

He told Arab News: “254 have been arrested and detained whereas 15 FIRs (police reports) have been registered.”

Pakistani Taliban come out in support of TLP 

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban came out in support of the TLP protesters, congratulating them for putting up resistance against security forces.

“(We) pay them (the TLP) tribute for their courage and showing the military organizations their place,” the Taliban said in a statement. “We assure them that we will make them (the government) accountable for every drop of the martyrs’ blood,” they added, referring to TLP claims that its supporters had been killed in clashes with authorities.

The Pakistani Taliban, a different entity from the Afghan Taliban and fighting to overthrow the Pakistan government, are an umbrella of the militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has broken into many divisions.

Designated a terrorist group by the US, the TTP has been in disarray in recent years, especially after several of its top leaders were killed by US drone strikes on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, forcing its members into shelter in Afghanistan or flee to urban Pakistan.

“We want to remind them (the TLP) that this government and security institutions are always untrustworthy, breachers of promise and liars so they should not be trusted and military effort is the only solution to this problem,” the Taliban statement said.

In a press conference on Tuesday evening, science and technology minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said: “No group or party must even think of dictating to the government or the state . . . If a state allows this, then it will disintegrate and there will be chaos.”

In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, TLP told the government: “You will have to expel the French ambassador under all costs . . . The country will remain jammed until the French ambassador is expelled.”

In a separate statement, the TLP said that its protests would continue until Rizvi was released. 

 

ARMED PROTESTERS

On Tuesday, the government of Punjab said that troops of Pakistan Rangers (Punjab) were “required with immediate effect till the request of de-requisition.”

Rangers were deployed in the cities of Rahim Yar Khan, Sheikhupura, Chakwal and Gujranwala, the circular said.

Lahore police spokesperson, Rana Arif, told the daily Dawn newspaper that protesters had beaten a police constable to death in Lahore’s Shahdara area on Tuesday, as a result of which a police case had been registered against TLP leaders and supporters. Police had also registered a case against Rizvi on terrorism and other charges, Arif said.

“Over 300 policemen in Punjab, including 97 in Lahore, had sustained injuries, many of them serious, after violent protesters attacked them with clubs, bricks and firearms,” Dawn reported. “The Gujrat district police officer and Kharian deputy superintendent of police were among the injured.”

“Hundreds of protesters and policemen were injured and thousands of TLP activists and supporters were arrested and booked for attacking law enforcement personnel and blocking main roads and highways,” Dawn added, saying four people, including a policeman, had been killed.

Police said that four policemen had been shot by armed TLP protesters, and the use of firearms by demonstrators had taken law enforcement agencies by surprise.

“In Lahore alone, four policemen were shot at and injured by the armed men of the TLP in the Shahpur Kanjran area. Similarly, two police constables were shot at and injured in Faisalabad,” Dawn reported. It added: “Two video clips from Lahore in this regard showed policemen, Imran and Aslam, being rushed to a hospital with bullet wounds. In another video clip, an on-duty policeman was seen calling for help to dispatch more forces, saying they had come under armed attack by the protesters in Shahpur Kanjran.”

“The TLP armed men opened fire on the police and our four constables were injured,” Lahore DIG (operations) Sajid Kiani told reporters on Tuesday evening.

Under a standing order, he said, unarmed police had been deployed and allowed only to use anti-riot gear against protesters. “But it shocked us that the TLP men used guns against the anti-riot force,” Kiani said.

Giving one example, Kiani said that when police reached Shahpur Kanjran to clear the national highway, announcements were made in nearby mosques urging TLP followers to take on police.

“Within 10 minutes, some 200 people joined those already present and attacked police,” he said, adding that Lahore police had lodged 19 cases against protesters and cleared the areas of Shahdara, Imamia Colony, Thokar Niaz Baig, Babu Sabu and some parts of Ring Road by Tuesday evening.

Police also conducted an operation in the Chungi Amar Sidhu area to rescue Model Town SP (operations) Dost Mohammad Khosa and five other policemen from protesters holding them hostage at a power grid station.

The Shahdara and Thokar areas of Lahore also turned into battlefields after hundreds of TLP supporters took several policemen hostage.

In Shahdara, a constable died from head and chest injuries after protesters tortured him with clubs, police said.

Police said that TLP activists had occupied and blocked 22 main roads, intersections and areas of Lahore, while reports of violence had also come from Faisalabad, Sheikhupura, Rahim Yar Khan, Sahiwal and Gujrat.

Reports from other parts of Punjab suggested TLP supporters had occupied more than 100 points, roads and major intersections of various cities of the province.

More than 1,400 activists of the TLP have been arrested across Punjab, a Punjab police spokesperson told Dawn, saying police had launched major operations, cleared nearly 60 roads and areas, and registered multiple police cases against supporters, representatives and leaders of the TLP.

Speaking to Arab News, Muhammad Ali, a TLP spokesperson in Karachi, said that at least six workers of the party had died and a large number were wounded after being fired on by law enforcement agencies. Hospital and rescue sources only confirmed two deaths.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the TLP said seven of its supporters had been killed by police, but the figures could not be independently verified.

HISTORY OF PROTESTS 

Saad Rizvi became the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November last year after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi.

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other religious parties have denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as freedom of expression.

Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe the depictions are blasphemous.

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands.

In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad was removed from the text of a government form.


Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan
Updated 15 April 2021

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan
  • Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday said they would no longer participate in peace talks for Afghanistan until all US-led troops withdrew from the country, amid reports that President Joe Biden was expected to delay the May 1 deadline by four months. 

“This is our stance: until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s government) will not participate in any conference that shall make a decision on Afghanistan,” Dr. Mohammad Naeem, the group’s Qatar-based spokesman, told Arab News on Wednesday. 

According to a plan disclosed by US officials on Tuesday, Biden is expected to withdraw remaining troops by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked Washington’s longest conflict in history — instead of May 1, as agreed upon by the Trump administration and the Taliban in a controversial deal more than a year ago. 

Since assuming office, Biden has said he would review the Qatar accord, saying in recent weeks that it would be “a tough move” to abide by the May 1 deadline. 

As per the agreement, the Taliban halted attacks on US-led troops but increased strikes on Afghan government forces who rely on the US for air and intelligence support, and financial and logistical resources. 

The Taliban had also warned Washington of consequences if it decided to extend the deadline for withdrawal.

In recent months, President Ashraf Ghani’s government urged Biden to withdraw troops on a condition-based agreement but not before the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire. 

Ghani’s spokesmen were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Wednesday. 

However, Waheed Omar, an adviser for Ghani, tweeted on Wednesday that Biden is expected to talk to the Afghan president “in the near future to officially share details of the new withdrawal plan.” 

He added: “Until then, we will not comment on the details.”

In another tweet, he said: “We will respect any decision taken by the US government with regards to their troops. ANSDF (Afghan National Security Defense Forces) has been defending our people with high morale the past two years and have recently conducted close to 98 percent of operations independently.”

He added: “They are fully capable of doing that in the future.”

However, during an open session on Wednesday, the head of the Afghan parliament raised alarm about the country’s future after the departure of American troops. 

“With the current situation, the conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops are not fair,” Mir Rahman Rahmani said. 

“The withdrawal of foreign forces in the current situation would worsen the situation and will lead to a civil war,” he added. 

On Wednesday, NATO officials meeting in Brussels said the alliance was also likely to withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan, according to media reports. 

Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24, which several observers said could be one of the final international efforts to broker peace between the insurgent group and the Afghan government. 

Proposed by Washington, Turkey was expected to host the intra-Afghan talks to prevent a total collapse of the US-sponsored negotiations which began in Doha in September last year, but this plan failed to materialize. 

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan government-appointed negotiator for the intra-Afghan talks in Qatar last year, said that Washington “needs to work with the Taliban to attend Turkey’s conference. 

She told Arab News that: “The Taliban need to get engaged in the negotiations to pave the way for the withdrawal; meaningful negotiations will pave the way for the withdrawal.”

Ahmad Samin, a former adviser for the World Bank, agreed and said that Afghanistan is “heading to a crisis in the face of a total collapse of talks as the Taliban will endeavor to seize power again.”

He told Arab News: “The Biden administration is frustrated with the Afghan government, which is too corrupt, and the majority of American people want to end the endless Afghan war.”

Samin added: “The Taliban are taking advantage of the situation. I believe the Taliban are not interested in power sharing, and they will try to go for full victory, which will result in catastrophic internal conflict. Everything regarding Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, and no one knows what will happen.”


Biden announces end of US troop deployment to Afghanistan

Biden announces end of US troop deployment to Afghanistan
Updated 14 April 2021

Biden announces end of US troop deployment to Afghanistan

Biden announces end of US troop deployment to Afghanistan
  • “It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” Biden said
  • Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday and discussed the peace process

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden declared on Wednesday he plans to end the longest US war and that it is “time for American troops to come home” from Afghanistan, as he looks to close out 20 years of US military involvement there even as critics warn that peace is not assured.
In a White House speech, Biden set a goal of withdrawing all 2,500 US troops remaining in Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, with the final withdrawal beginning on May 1. By pulling out without a clear victory, the United States opens itself to criticism that a withdrawal represents a de facto admission of failure.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” he said.
Sept. 11 is a highly symbolic date, coming 20 years to the day of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States that prompted then-President George W. Bush to launch the conflict. The war has cost the lives of 2,400 American service members and consumed an estimated $2 trillion. US troop numbers in Afghanistan peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011.
Meeting NATO officials in Brussels earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said foreign troops under NATO command in Afghanistan will leave the country in coordination with the US withdrawal by Sept. 11, after Germany said it would match American plans.
Blinken also spoke by phone with Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday and discussed the peace process, according to a statement from the media wing of Pakistan’s military.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter that he has spoken with Biden and he respects the US decision. Ghani added that “we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition” and “we will continue to work with our US/NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts.”
The Democratic president had faced a May 1 withdrawal deadline, set by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who tried but failed to pull the troops out before he left office. Biden’s decision will keep troops in Afghanistan past that deadline, but officials suggested troops could fully depart before Sept. 11.
There is a summit planned about Afghanistan starting on April 24 in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led forces, said it would not take part in any meetings that would make decisions about Afghanistan until all foreign forces had left the country. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday called on the United States to adhere to the deal the group reached with Trump’s administration.
“If the agreement is committed to, the remaining problems will also be solved,” Mujahid wrote on Twitter. “If the agreement is not committed to ... the problems will certainly increase.”


Arab doctor leads team developing vaccine against all types of coronavirus

Arab doctor leads team developing vaccine against all types of coronavirus
Updated 14 April 2021

Arab doctor leads team developing vaccine against all types of coronavirus

Arab doctor leads team developing vaccine against all types of coronavirus
  • Dr. Lbachir BenMohamed heads a team of scientists at University of California Irvine
  • Vaccine targets the proteins shared by all coronaviruses

LOS ANGELES: An Arab-led team of scientists at University of California Irvine (UCI) is developing an injection that by the end of the year could address all forms of coronavirus. 

“It’s a vaccine that is directed not only against SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19,” said Dr. Lbachir BenMohamed, director of cellular and molecular immunology at UCI. “But it is a vaccine that is targeting the previous outbreaks as well as the outbreaks that are going to come in the years to come.”

Where existing vaccines target spike proteins that are specific to a particular strain, BenMohamed’s team is targeting the proteins shared by all coronaviruses, including those that have not yet reached humans.

“Being Arabic from Maghreb, from Morocco, I am of course very proud that I represent the Arab world in this field of pan-coronavirus vaccine,” he said. “To my knowledge, I’m probably the only Arab who is developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine.”

Their work is being funded by Dr. Anthony Fauci’s branch of the National Institute of Health, and has so far prevented COVID-19 from replicating in and killing lab mice. Once completed, he hopes the vaccine would be administered like a flu shot. 

“I am hoping once we vaccinate people with this pan-coronavirus, the immunity would stay two years, three years, or four years or maybe more so that people will just get a shot every five years and they get protected from the next pandemic.”

After facing multiple outbreaks, including 2012’s MERS and the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. BenMohamed encourages the Arab world to stop importing vaccines and begin developing their own. 

“They have the resources to do it and they have people who are competent both inside and outside the Arab World,” Dr BenMohamed told us. “If they get together and get this institute of vaccinology and immunotherapy, they can be independent when it comes to developing vaccines and immunotherapy. And that is the message, and as an Arab I am here to help if they need my help on this area.”


Bangladesh rings in Ramadan, new year festivities with stricter COVID-19 measures

Bangladesh rings in Ramadan, new year festivities with stricter COVID-19 measures
Updated 14 April 2021

Bangladesh rings in Ramadan, new year festivities with stricter COVID-19 measures

Bangladesh rings in Ramadan, new year festivities with stricter COVID-19 measures
  • Health officials say make or break lockdown restrictions were necessary to limit the second wave of deadly infections
  • As part of its measures to help the public, the government has initiated a special aid program targeting nearly 13 million ultra-poor people

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Wednesday began observing an eight-day lockdown, ordering the closure of all offices and international and domestic transport to push back a second wave of coronavirus infections and ease pressure on overwhelmed hospitals and health workers.

As of Wednesday, which also marked the start of the Bengali New Year and the first day of Ramadan for Muslims in the South Asian nation of 160 million people, health authorities had recorded 703,170 cases and 9,987 deaths since March last year.

With nearly “6,000 to 7,000 infections recorded every day,” intensive care units in the country’s hardest-hit areas are at breaking point.

At the same time, authorities said that the rapid surge in COVID-19 infections had taken a serious toll on the country’s health system in the past couple of weeks.

“Every day, 6,000 to 7,000 people are getting infected with the virus. If we can strictly maintain the lockdown for a week, the number of new infections will reduce,” Dr. A.S.M.  Alamgir, principal scientific officer of the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told Arab News on Wednesday.

“We have no other option. It’s a question of saving people’s lives,” he said.

Dr. Alamgir added that authorities were working round the clock to add more ICU beds at health facilities.

“Preparations are underway to launch a field hospital in Dhaka with 250 ICU beds and 1,200 beds. We are expecting to add 200 ICU beds in all government-run hospitals in the next three weeks as well,” he said.

According to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), there are nearly 2,600 general and 130 ICU beds in government hospitals in Dhaka, the capital, in addition to 800 general and 200 ICU beds in private facilities.

Professor Dr. Benazir Ahmed, a renowned public health expert, said that the “current state of the outbreak had become a cause for great concern” with persistent cases and deaths in recent weeks.

“Bangladesh should go all out with its preventive measures to control and manage the cases,” he told Arab News on Wednesday.

“There should be national, district and sub-district level COVID-19 patient management committees with adequate financial and human resources . . . and a national contingency plan for coordinated management from grassroots to national level utilising all existing health resources in the country,” Dr. Ahmed, former director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), said.

Under the week-long lockdown, which ends on April 21, all government, non-government offices and shopping malls will remain shut while public transport services, international and domestic flights will remain suspended.

All stores, except those supplying food, will remain closed as well.

The stricter restrictions have also marred the new year celebrations in the country, which saw the “Pohela Boishakh” — or the first day of Bengali New Year — celebrated with much enthusiasm.

“We have to remember that the lives of the people come first. If (we) survive, we’ll be able to rearrange everything,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said during a televised address to the nation on the eve of the Bengali New Year on Tuesday.

“There’s no need to be worried; the government is always beside you. I have taken steps for the poor and lower-income people after the second wave hit the country,” she said.

As part of its measures to help the public, the government has initiated a special aid program targeting nearly 13 million ultra-poor people.

“We have already allotted around $70 million to distribute as relief aid to the poor people. Some of them will receive cash, and others will have food support,” Mohammad Mohsin, senior secretary of the Disaster and Relief Management ministry, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“The district administration, in coordination with local public representatives, will disburse the relief. If the government extends the lockdown period, we are ready to increase the aid amount and take necessary steps reviewing the situation,” he said.