Virus-hit cruise ships cleared to dock in Florida

The Zaandam, left, and Rotterdam cruise ships prepare to come into Port Everglades on April 02, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2020

Virus-hit cruise ships cleared to dock in Florida

  • A total of 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members are stranded at sea on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam
  • Some 45 people with mild symptoms will remain onboard in isolation until they recover and the estimated less than 10 people requiring critical care will be taken ashore

FORT LAUDERDALE, United States: Two virus-hit cruise ships with dozens of ill passengers and crew received clearance to dock in Florida on Thursday after being barred from several South American countries, concluding a harrowing time at sea for those stranded onboard.
The Zaandam, operated by Holland America Line, and its sister ship the Rotterdam approached Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, according to ship tracker, after days of protracted negotiations over their fate.
“The Coast Guard, Homeland Security, health officials, and Broward County have reached a decision to allow the #Zaandam and #Rotterdam cruise ships to dock,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said on Twitter.
Four people have died on the Zaandam, for reasons not yet disclosed.
Rick De Pinho, a Zaandam passenger who was transferred to the Rotterdam at sea, sent AFP a recording of a message from the ship’s captain confirming port clearance had been granted.
“We’re going to miss the ship,” a jubilant De Pinho told AFP.

A total of 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members are stranded at sea on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, which came to its sister ship’s aid last week, loaded with supplies.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, initially said he did not want the ships to dock, for fear the ill passengers would tax the state’s already strained health care system.
With more than 8,000 coronavirus cases and at least 128 deaths, the Sunshine State — home to many retirees — has the fifth-most cases in the United States.
But late Wednesday, DeSantis changed his tune, telling Fox News that he had not realized there were US citizens involved.
“We actually have Floridians” aboard the Zaandam, he said.
President Donald Trump had said the ships needed to be evacuated, saying: “We have to help the people. They’re in big trouble.”
Trump said he was working with British and Canadian authorities to repatriate their nationals who are on the cruise liners.
Trantalis said Holland America, which is owned by Carnival, had agreed to a “strict set of protocols” governing how the passengers would disembark.
“It’s all going to be done in ways that are not going to expose the people of Florida to any of the illnesses that may be on there,” DeSantis told Fox News on Thursday.
The top US expert on infectious disease, Anthony Fauci, told CBS News: “You have to take care of the people who are ill. You just have an obligation to do that, and as quickly as possible.”
About 1,200 passengers who are not ill are expected to be sent home on charter planes.
They will be “transported in coaches that will be sanitized, with limited person-to-person contact and while wearing masks,” Holland America said Wednesday.
Some 45 people with mild symptoms will remain onboard in isolation until they recover and the estimated less than 10 people requiring critical care will be taken ashore for treatment locally, the company said.
“We have one hospital that is able to take some of the critically ill. They have the capacity to do that,” DeSantis said.
The desperate situation onboard the Zaandam attracted worldwide publicity, but it is just one of several cruise liners seeking permission to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on March 7, was originally meant to finish the trip in Chile on March 21 but changed course due to the virus outbreak.
After negotiations while the ships waited in waters off Panama City, it and the Rotterdam were allowed to transit the Panama Canal in order to head to Florida.
De Pinho, a 53-year-old attorney, and his wife were transferred to the Rotterdam because so far, they are healthy.
“You can’t have these ships floating around. People want to go home,” he told AFP from the ship before clearance was granted.

Kabul begins freeing Taliban

Newly freed Taliban prisoners walk at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 13, 2020. Picture taken August 13, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 August 2020

Kabul begins freeing Taliban

  • Release of final 400 inmates was approved by traditional Afghan grand assembly

KABUL: After months of delay, Afghanistan’s government has started releasing the last 400 Taliban inmates in its custody, clearing the way for long-awaited peace talks, officials confirmed on Friday.

Eighty of the 400 were set free on Thursday and, according to the government, more will be freed in the coming days. The release was a condition to begin intra-Afghan negotiations to end 19 years of conflict in the war-torn country. The talks, already delayed twice, are expected to take place in Qatar once the release process is complete.
“The release was to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide cease-fire,” the Afghan National Security Council said in a statement accompanied by video footage showing former Taliban inmates calling on insurgent leaders and the government to engage in peace talks.
The prisoner release follows an agreement signed by the US and the Taliban in Qatar in February that stipulated the exchange of prisoners between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the militants, who have gained ground in recent years.
The process, involving 5,000 Taliban detainees held by Kabul and 1,000 security forces imprisoned by the militants, was slated to begin in early March and should have been followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue.
Ghani, initially resistant to the idea of freeing the Taliban inmates, began to release them under US pressure. Some 4,600 Taliban inmates were freed over the few past months, but Ghani refused to free the remaining 400, arguing they were behind major deadly attacks and that setting them free was outside his authority.
Faced by mounting pressure, after Eid Al-Adha holidays two weeks ago, the president vowed to summon a traditional grand assembly, the Loya Jirga, to help him decide if the remaining Taliban inmates should be freed or not.


Footage showing men in uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban members went viral on social media this week, raising concerns that violence between security forces and the militants may impede the peace process despite the prisoner release.

Last week, the assembly approved the release, which is now underway and expected to be followed by the peace talks, in accordance with the US-Taliban deal.
The process, however, coincides with a spike in violence in the country and mutual accusations of an increase in assaults by the Taliban and Afghan government forces.
On Thursday, the Defense Ministry said it was probing a video circulating on social media showing men in army uniforms mutilating the bodies of purported Taliban fighters.
The UN requested that the incident be investigated. It remains unclear when and where it took place.
The Taliban, in a statement, said the bodies of their fighters were mutilated in the Arghandab district of the Zabul province.
Concerns are rising that similar acts of violence will further delay the peace process.
“Let us hope that this video does not become part of revenge-taking between the two sides and affect the process of peace. It is really unfortunate,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal told Arab News.
“As the violence continues, we see more brutal and shocking tactics from the sides and examples of revenge-taking, and that is very worrying and impacts any trust in a peace process,” Shaharzad Akbar, the chief of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said in a Twitter post on Thursday.
“It is on the leadership of the two sides to have clear messages to their fighters to avoid war crimes and actions that further the instinct for revenge that will make the reconciliation that should come out of a peace process difficult,” she added.