Iran releases crew of South Korean tanker

Iran releases crew of South Korean tanker
The South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi, which was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Gulf waters, January 4, 2021. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 03 February 2021

Iran releases crew of South Korean tanker

Iran releases crew of South Korean tanker
  • The captain and the vessel, the MT Hankuk Chemi, will remain under detention as the Iranian judiciary investigates the tanker’s alleged marine pollution
  • The ship with 20 crew members on board was sailing from Saudi Arabia to the UAE when it was intercepted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Jan. 4

SEOUL: The Foreign Ministry here confirmed on Wednesday that Iran had released all sailors on a South Korean-flagged oil tanker seized by Iranian forces in the Arabian Gulf, capping a month-long negotiation with Tehran.

However, the captain and the vessel, the MT Hankuk Chemi, will remain under detention as the Iranian judiciary investigates the tanker’s alleged marine pollution.

“Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has informed us that the Iranian government decided to first release all sailors except for the captain,” the ministry said in a press release.

The ship with 20 crew members on board was sailing from Saudi Arabia to the UAE when it was intercepted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Jan. 4.

The Iranian authorities have claimed the ship violated environmental protocols, which the vessel’s operator denies.

The seizure of the oil tanker followed Iran’s complaint about the difficulty of transferring money from Seoul to purchase coronavirus vaccines, as the country’s $7 billion worth of assets in Korean bank accounts were frozen in the wake of a broken nuclear deal between Teheran and Washington in 2018.

First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun had telephone talks with Araghchi a day earlier to discuss the release of sailors, according to a ministry spokesman.

Choi visited Tehran last month to secure the early release of the sailors.

During the 30-minute talks, both sides agreed to restore friendly ties by resolving issues surrounding the frozen money, the spokesman said, asking not to be identified.

“Deputy Minister Araghchi pledged to ensure the humanitarian treatment of the captain and guarantee sufficient consular assistance for him pending a judicial process,” he said.

In return, Choi pledged efforts to address the issue of frozen assets speedily, while continuing consultations with the Biden administration in the US, he said.

“We promised to do what we can unilaterally and seek support from the US government in a transparent manner,” the spokesman said.

In a bid to appease Iran, South Korea is expected to pay Iran’s overdue UN membership fees using its frozen assets at two South Korean banks.

A senior diplomat here confirmed on Monday that his ministry had received Teheran’s request over the UN membership fees.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, also revealed the proposal, urging the UN to guarantee the safe transfer of payments.

The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangements (SHTA) is also seen as a method for sending locked Iranian funds in Korean banks to Switzerland to purchase humanitarian items for Iran.

Iran made a request in February last year that Seoul transfer $1 billion from the frozen assets using the SHTA method, and the Seoul government submitted a proposal to the US State Department and requested the exemption of sanctions in May.

The State Department has yet to respond to the request, according to the foreign ministry.

Seoul and Tehran established strong economic ties, with South Korea the third-largest importer of Iranian oil, in 2017.

South Korea was the biggest buyer of Iranian condensate, which its petrochemical industry processed in refineries designed to handle the commodity.

After the Trump administration reimposed sanctions against Iran, however, South Korea’s oil imports from Iran had plummeted from $7.8 billion to $2.1 billion by 2019.


Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
Updated 1 min 50 sec ago

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike

Indonesia reports three cases of ‘delta plus’ variant as COVID-19 infections spike
  • July has been the ‘deadliest month’ so far with more than 31,000 fatalities, compared to 7,913 deaths in June, official says

JAKARTA: Indonesia has detected three cases of the new ‘delta plus’ COVID-19 variant on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

The surge in infections has spread to provinces on the two islands and the Kalimantan region, or the Indonesian part of Borneo, from Bali and its most populous island of Java.

The Health Ministry’s director for prevention and control of direct communicable diseases, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, told Arab News on Saturday that the delta plus variant, or AY.1, was identified earlier this week as a result of local transmission in two patients in the Jambi province on Sumatra and Mamuju, a district of West Sulawesi province.

The delta plus variant B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1 is a sublineage of the highly contagious delta variant.

It has a renewed mutation in the virus’ spike protein and therefore, according to Tarmizi, is “just as infectious as the original delta variant.”

The findings in Jambi and Mamuju add Indonesia to a list of 10 countries — Japan, Nepal, Poland, the US, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, China, Russia and India — where the delta plus variant has been detected. It was first identified in India in April.

Scientists said that Indonesia needed to step up its outbreak mitigation in response to the delta variant and “to detect the emergence of other new variants.”

“We need to increase our whole genome sequencing testing so that we are well aware of the variants that we have here and to mitigate them better,” public health professor Tjandra Yoga Aditama said in a statement on Saturday.

Indonesia’s government had predicted a spike in infections after the Eid break, despite the travel ban, citing a pattern seen during the holiday season.

However, authorities were caught off-guard with rising infections made worse by the delta variant.

There had been a rise in cases since early June, peaking on July 15, with 56,757 daily cases reported from less than 10,000 in mid-June.

Indonesia registered 37,284 new cases on Saturday, taking the total tally to 3,409,658 out of its population of 270,000 million, while its positivity rate has been consistent at about 25 percent in recent weeks.

The national caseload, mainly from infections in Java’s provinces, showed a decreasing trend after restrictions to movement were imposed on Java and Bali, which have now been added to other islands, since early June. Restrictions are expected to end on Monday.

“I see that the numbers in regions on Java Island are slowly decreasing, but now it is the other way around (on islands) outside of Java,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Friday.

The daily number of infections is still far from the 10,000 figure the government aims to achieve by imposing restrictions in Java and Bali, while the daily testing and vaccinations rate is far below the target as well.

The official death toll from COVID-19 increased to 94,119 after 1,808 new deaths were recorded on Saturday. The number of fatalities has risen consistently to more than 500 a day since early July, while the highest fatality count was recorded on July 27, with 2,067 deaths in a day.

Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman for the national COVID-19 task force, said: “July is the deadliest month during the pandemic in Indonesia,” with more than 31,000 deaths recorded throughout the month compared to 7,913 deaths in June.

Aditama, the former director of the World Health Organization’s Southeast Asia regional office, traced the high fatality count to the spike in cases.

“If infections in the community remain rampant, cases will continue to increase, and in proportion, deaths and cases with severe symptoms would also rise,” he said.


UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID
Updated 31 July 2021

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID

UK research: Double vaccine dose halves risk of long COVID
  • Long COVID includes lingering symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain and problems with concentration
  • COVID-19 levels differ between men and women, according to other UK research

LONDON: People who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine are 50 percent less likely to suffer from long COVID, a UK scientific advisory body has said.
Long COVID includes lingering symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain and problems with concentration.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said UK government statistics found that “in all age groups the odds of experiencing symptoms for more than 28 days after post-vaccination infection was approximately halved by two vaccinations.”
But women, older people and those who are overweight or obese are more likely to have lingering symptoms, with fatigue the most frequently reported, the group said.
SAGE added that the proportion of people suffering from symptoms 12 weeks after COVID-19 infection varied between 2.3 percent and 37 percent depending on studies, leading to uncertainty among scientists.
But the group said it has high confidence in research showing that just 1.2 percent of young adults and 4.8 percent of middle-aged people reported symptoms limiting their daily lives.
COVID-19 levels differ between men and women, according to other UK research. Men are more likely to have shortness of breath, exhaustion, chills and fever, while women are more likely to experience loss of scent, chest pain and a persistent cough.


600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days
Updated 31 July 2021

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days

600 migrants reach Italian island from Tunisia in 2 days
  • Increase in departures recalls 2011, when 25,000 Tunisians arrived in Italy during Arab Spring
  • Number of Tunisians trying to reach Italy has risen since early 2021 due to economic crisis, COVID-19 spike

ROME: Nearly 600 migrants reached the Italian island of Lampedusa from Tunisia in only two days. 
Countless departures of people fleeing the crisis-wracked North African country and attempting to reach Europe on dinghies and small boats are reported every hour by NGOs and Italian Coast Guard vessels patrolling the Channel of Sicily.
Only on Saturday, by midday, 99 migrants landed in Lampedusa on six different small boats. Before their arrival, 1,137 people were already present at the center in Contrada Imbriacola, well above the facility’s maximum capacity of 250.
“They arrive every hour, like a news bulletin,” Vincenzo Pandolfo, who owns a shop in the port of Lampedusa, told Arab News
“It seems that there is not much control on the Tunisian shores lately. We have not seen so many dinghies coming toward Lampedusa, and now even trying to reach the south of Sardinia, which is a much further and more dangerous trip, as we have since July 26, when the political crisis broke out in Tunisia,” Adm. Roberto Isidori, commander of the Coast Guard in Sicily, told Arab News.
“Our vessels are all out to make sure that no accident happens, but this situation is getting worse and worse”, Isidori added.
Italian security services had estimated at the beginning of the crisis that the ongoing political turmoil and instability in Tunisia may result in a drastic increase in migrants, with numbers potentially reaching up to 15,000 in a very short time.
But Isidori said that “if numbers continue to stay as they have been in the last week, that could be an optimistic forecast.”  
As a rule, Tunisians are not eligible for asylum in Italy, and up to 80 could be flown home each week under a deal reached between Rome and Tunisia last year.
The remainder are often given expulsion orders and released from migrant centers. Many then try to reach France or Germany.
The increase in departures has prompted fears of a repeat of 2011, when 25,000 Tunisians arrived in Italy during the Arab Spring uprising.
The number of Tunisians trying to reach Italy has been on the rise since the beginning of 2021 due to the worsening economic crisis at home, which was exacerbated by a dramatic spike of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and a lack of vaccines.
Good weather conditions have also encouraged migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing.
Nearly 1,000 have died on route between the shores of North Africa and Sicily this year, up from 267 in the same period last year, including around 57 migrants who drowned this week when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast.
The Interior Ministry’s records show that out of a total of 28,515 illegal migrants who arrived in Italy so far this year, a big part came from Tunisia, which far outstrips those from any other country, including Libya. From January to June, 2,962 crossed to Italy, with another 3,796 sailing this month.


UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates
Updated 31 July 2021

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates
  • Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE): “Realistic possibility” future strains could be as fatal as MERS
  • SAGE also warned that COVID-19 can infect common animal species including minks

LONDON: Future COVID-19 variants could have fatality rates of up to 35 percent, top UK government scientists have warned in a new report.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said it is a “realistic possibility” that future variants could prove as fatal as MERS, which has a death rate of 35 percent.
The chance of deadly COVID-19 mutations increases depending on the prevalence of the virus, the report said, adding that rapid vaccine rollouts worldwide will increase immunity levels, thereby forcing variants to mutate at a faster and more deadly pace.
The advisory body warned that future strains could become resistant to vaccines if they originate from the beta variant and combine with the alpha or delta variants, in a process called recombination.
And even with vaccines being expected to neutralize serious disease among COVID-19 patients, the report said a higher death rate is to be expected in the case of new deadly variants given that vaccines “do not provide total sterilizing immunity.”
SAGE also warned that COVID-19 can infect common animal species including minks, which some countries have taken to culling.
In response to the potential threat from animals — including dogs, cats, mice, rats and ferrets — becoming a host for future deadly variants, the group suggested that mass culling or animal vaccination programs should be considered by governments.


Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city
Updated 31 July 2021

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city
  • Violence has surged across Afghanistan since early May, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive
  • The militants have seized scores of districts across Afghanistan, including in Herat province

HERAT, Afghanistan: Afghan and Taliban forces clashed again on the outskirts of Herat Saturday, a day after a police guard was killed when a United Nations compound in the western city came under attack.
Violence has surged across the country since early May, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as US-led foreign forces began a final withdrawal that is now almost complete.
The militants have seized scores of districts across Afghanistan, including in Herat province, where the group has also captured two border crossings adjoining Iran and Turkmenistan.
Officials and residents reported renewed fighting on the outskirts of Herat Saturday, with hundreds fleeing their homes to seek shelter closer to the heart of the city.
Herat governor Abdul Saboor Qani said most of the fighting was in Injil and Guzara district — where the airport is located.
“At the moment the fighting is ongoing in the south and southeast. We are moving cautiously and to avoid civilian casualties,” Qani said.
During fighting Friday, the main Herat compound of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan came under attack from rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire that the UN blamed on anti-government elements.
The militants say they will not target foreign diplomats, but have blatantly violated international protocol before.
Afghan forces and militiamen of veteran warlord and anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan have been deployed around the city of 600,000 in recent days.
Khan, who previously fought the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s and then the Taliban during their hard-line regime in the 1990s, has vowed to fight the insurgents again to counter their staggering advances in recent months.