Germany tightens border checks to keep out virus variants

Germany tightens border checks to keep out virus variants
A car with a German number plate crosses the Czech-German border in Cinovec near Teplice, Czech Republic, on Feb. 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 February 2021

Germany tightens border checks to keep out virus variants

Germany tightens border checks to keep out virus variants
  • The new restrictions limit entry from Czech Republic to specific groups of people
  • Infection rates in Germany have been declining steadily in recent weeks

BERLIN: Germany on Sunday implemented tighter border controls on its frontiers with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province in an effort to stem the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants.
The new restrictions that took effect at midnight limit entry from those areas to German citizens and residents, truck drivers, transport and health service staff and a few others, who have to register online and show a negative coronavirus test.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the new checks may cause some delays at the border and German police “will not just wave traffic through.”
Infection rates in Germany have been declining steadily in recent weeks but officials are concerned about the possible impact of variants first discovered in Britain and South Africa. Both variants have been reported in Germany but so far appear to account for just a small proportion of cases.
Significant numbers of cases of the latter have been discovered in Tyrol, whose residents have needed to show a recent negative coronavirus test to travel to the rest of Austria since Friday. The spread of the British variant has prompted a complete lockdown of some Czech districts on the border with Germany and Poland.
To prevent a pile-up of trucks inside Austria, regional officials in Tyrol planned to check trucks headed for Germany at the Brenner pass crossing with Italy to ensure that drivers have the necessary paperwork to enter Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed on Wednesday to extend most of the country’s lockdown restrictions until March 7, though schools and hairdressers can open sooner.
They set a new target of 35 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants per week before letting small stores, museums and other businesses reopen. That figure stood at 57.4 on Sunday, down from a peak of nearly 200 just before Christmas.
The eastern state of Saxony’s governor cautioned Germans against expecting too much too soon.
“Unfortunately, there can’t be Easter vacations in Germany this year,” Michael Kretschmer was quoted as telling Bild am Sonntag. “Too much mobility as a result of travel and tourism already in April would be poison. We would destroy everything we have achieved since mid-December.”
Hotels and restaurants in Saxony, which was hard hit in the fall and winter, will have to remain shut over Easter, and the reopening of theaters and operas will have to wait until after Easter, he said.


Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11
Updated 13 April 2021

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11
  • Biden reached the conclusion that the US will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11
  • There are rising fears Taliban could make major gains against Kabul’s internationally-backed government

WASHINGOTN: President Joe Biden will remove all US troops from Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, said a US official.
The move ends America’s longest war around five months later than planned.
Biden has “reached the conclusion that the United States will complete its drawdown — will remove its forces from Afghanistan — before September 11,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Biden will make an announcement Wednesday that all US forces, in coordination with those of Western allies, will leave other than limited personnel to guard US diplomatic installations, the official said.
Biden will not link the departure to conditions on the ground, where there are rising fears that the Taliban could make major gains against the internationally-backed government in Kabul.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official said, calling for a shifting of US priorities.
For Afghans the fighting will likely grind on. The official spoke shortly after US intelligence released a threat assessment report warning that the embattled Afghan government “will struggle” to hold off the “confident” Taliban if the US-led coalition withdraws.
Former president Donald Trump also favored a withdrawal and reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 under which all US troops would leave by May 2021 in return for the insurgents’ promise not to back Al-Qaeda and other extremists — the original reason for the 2001 invasion.
The Biden official said that the withdrawal would begin in May and that the delay was largely logistic, with troops possibly out of Afghanistan well before September 11.
The official warned the Taliban of a “forceful response” if they strike US troops on the way out.
“We have communicated to the Taliban in no uncertain terms that is they do conduct attacks against US or allied forces as we carry out this drawdown,” he said, “that we will hit back hard.”
The threat assessment report published Tuesday by the director of national intelligence said the Taliban “is confident it can achieve military victory.”
“Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” it said.
Afghan civilians, wary of the Taliban’s return to power, have long paid a disproportionate price in the decades of bloody fighting.


Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
Updated 13 April 2021

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
  • The suspects planned to spark ‘a civil-war-like situation’ by carrying out ‘attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith’
  • Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the ‘biggest security threat’ facing Europe’s largest economy

STUTTGART, Germany: Twelve alleged far-right conspirators went on trial in Germany on Tuesday, suspected of planning attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims as part of a plot to overthrow the country’s democracy.
Eleven of the men, arrested in February last year, stand accused of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations. The 12th has been charged with supporting a terrorist group.
The suspects, known as Gruppe S (Group S) after one of the founders, planned to spark “a civil-war-like situation” by carrying out “attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith,” according to federal prosecutors.
The group’s eight founding members had the goal of “destabilising and ultimately overthrowing” Germany’s democratic order, they said.
Those on trial, aged 33 to 62 and all German citizens, had an “openly National Socialist attitude,” referring to the Nazi party, and made no secret of their hatred of foreigners, Muslims and Jews, according to prosecutors.
One of them is accused of using an offensive slur against black people and calling them “subhumans, so up for a massacre” in a Telegram chat group.
When talking on the phone, they are said to have used code words for weapons such as “battery” and “bicycle.”
Investigators say the two main ringleaders of the group, named only as Werner S. and Tony E., organized three meetings where members took part in discussions and shooting exercises.
The group is said to have arranged to buy weapons worth 50,000 euros ($60,000) through a handler known to one of the members, and several other weapons were found during raids when the arrests were made.
The group had links to several right-wing extremist networks and are accused of using their connections to recruit members “whom they considered to be fast, clever and brutal fighters.”
They were also planning attacks against politicians including Robert Habeck, one of the co-leaders of Germany’s Green party, according to prosecutors.
The trial in Stuttgart comes as concern grows in Germany over the rise of violent right-wing extremism.
The number of crimes committed by far-right suspects in Germany jumped to its highest level for at least four years in 2020, according to provisional police figures released in February.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat” facing Europe’s largest economy.
A series of high-profile attacks have also rattled the country.
In January, German neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst was sentenced to life in prison for murdering pro-migration politician Walter Luebcke.
In February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 people and wounded five others in the central German city of Hanau.
And in 2019, two people were killed after a neo-Nazi tried to storm a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The Gruppe S trial is taking place under high security at Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart and is due to wrap up in August.


Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
Updated 13 April 2021

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
  • Sahayb Abu, dubbed the ‘rapping jihadi,’ sentenced to 19 years
  • Abu had expressed support for Daesh

LONDON: A British-Muslim extremist has been jailed for 19 years after being found guilty of plotting a solo knife attack during the pandemic lockdown.

Sahayb Abu, who was unemployed, was arrested last summer after he bought an 18-inch knife, a sword, balaclavas and body armor online. 

Abu denied the plot, arguing in court that he wanted to use his purchases to be a rapper like Stormzy, who wore body armor on stage at Glastonbury.

But he was found guilty last month, with his defense failing to stand up to evidence produced by the prosecution that he had discussed his terror plans with an undercover police officer on the Telegram app.

It will not be his first stint in prison, having spent two years behind bars for a commercial robbery where he was known to associate with extremists.

Dubbed the “rapping jihadi,” Abu described London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, as a “sell-out,” and talked about murdered soldier Lee Rigby.

Abu said: “I’m trying to see many Lee Rigby’s heads rolling on the ground. Man I shoot up a crowd cos I’m a night stalker. Got my shank, got my guns. Straight ISIS (Daesh) supporter. Reject democracy.”

Many of Abu’s relatives had previous links to violent extremism. His brother, sister and brother-in-law were jailed for collecting and disseminating terrorist documents online.

His half-brothers Wail and Suleyman Aweys traveled to Syria to join Daesh in 2015. They were believed to have been killed while fighting for the terror group.

In his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Judge Mark Dennis QC told Abu: “You of all people, having seen what befell your two younger brothers when they signed up to join the ISIS cause in 2015, and having seen the course other members of your family have taken … resulting in prison sentences, should have made you, at the mature age of 27, turn your back on the violent extremist cause and promote instead peace and community that underlies the Islamic faith.”

The judge added: “Instead, within weeks of your own release, you joined others committed to joining that same cause. Within no time, you were getting ready to carry out your own act of violence on the streets of this city (London).”

He said he was sure that Abu was prepared for a solo knife attack, and would have carried it out had the police not intervened.

The judge added: “All that remained for him (Abu) to decide was the time and place for him to carry out the act of violence in furtherance of the cause he supported.”


Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe
Updated 13 April 2021

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe
  • Company decided to proactively delay the rollout of vaccine in Europe
  • Hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses were due to be shipped to Europe in coming weeks

BERLIN: Johnson & Johnson says it is delaying the rollout of its coronavirus vaccine in Europe amid a US probe into rare blood clots.
The company announced the decision Tuesday after regulators in the United States said they were recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose shot to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.
“We have been reviewing these cases with European health authorities,” the company said. “We have made the decision to proactively delay the rollout of our vaccine in Europe.”
Hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine were due to be shipped to Europe in the coming weeks.


No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies
Updated 13 April 2021

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies
  • Scientists found that 36 percent of UK-variant patients became severely ill or died, compared with 38 percent of those with other strains
  • Dr. Claire Steves: We confirmed the increased transmissibility, but also showed that the UK variant clearly responded to lockdown measures

LONDON: New studies suggest that the UK variant of COVID-19 does not increase the chances of death, serious illness or “long COVID.”

Research in The Lancet Infectious Diseases and The Lancet Public Health used data from symptom reports made by 37,000 people to a virus-tracking mobile app and information from patients in hospital.

The first study assessed COVID-19 patients admitted to University College London Hospital and North Middlesex University Hospital between Nov. 9 and Dec. 20.

Scientists compared 198 patients with the UK variant and 143 with other COVID-19 strains. They found that 36 percent of UK-variant patients became severely ill or died, compared with 38 percent of those with other strains. 

The second study used data from people who accessed the COVID-19 app and tested positive between Sept. 28 and Dec. 27.

Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) found that the UK variant did not appear to affect the type or length of symptoms that patients endured.

Dr. Claire Steves, a physician at KCL and the study’s co-leader, said: “We confirmed the increased transmissibility, but also showed that the UK variant clearly responded to lockdown measures and does not appear to escape immunity gained by exposure to the original virus.”