US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines
Filipinos wearing masks for protection against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pass a mural dedicated to healthcare workers in this Oct. 30, 2020 photo taken in Manila. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 February 2021

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines

US reiterates commitment to enhance security ties with Philippines
  • Cites importance of ‘open dialogue’ to maintain strength of alliance

MANILA: Washington will continue to find ways to strengthen and advance security cooperation with the Philippines, its “oldest” ally in the region, the US State Department has told Arab News.

It follows the latest demand by President Rodrigo Duterte for the US to pay more if it wants to maintain the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which allows the deployment of American troops in the country.

“We value our alliance with the Philippines, which is the oldest in the Asia-Pacific region,” the State Department said.

It an unprovoked, angry tirade on Friday, during an address to Philippine troops after inspecting newly acquired air assets, Duterte said that if the US wants the VFA to be continue, it would have to pay, citing US-Chinese relations.

“It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free. Because after all, when the war breaks out, we all pay,” Duterte said. “We are nearest to the garrison there, where there are a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces.”

While the State Department’s letter did not directly address Duterte’s demands, it emphasized that it “will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that furthers shared security challenges and respects human rights.

“Open dialogue between allies is essential to maintaining the strength of an alliance which is vital to both of our countries’ security,” it said.

Duterte had unilaterally canceled the VFA last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a US visa, but retracted his decision a few months later.

He has faced widespread criticism for his latest remarks on the VFA, which several Filipinos said was “embarrassing.”

Senator Panfilo Lacson and Vice President Leni Robredo, for their part, said that Duterte’s statement gave the impression that the Philippines was a “nation of extortionists.”

Duterte responded during his public address on Monday, when he said that “foreign relations or foreign policy is vested in the president alone” and that Lacson had “nothing to do with the VFA.”

On Tuesday, however, Lacson pointed out that the constitution gives senators a say in the Philippines’ international agreements such as the VFA, “especially if they affect the country’s long-term national interest and security.”

Lacson added that “a diplomatic and civil approach is more effective in upholding the national interest in the long run.”

Another lawmaker, Senator Richard Gordon, advised Duterte to let his defense and foreign affairs secretaries negotiate for the VFA in private.

“Though the words were too harsh … the president’s demand was for the country’s interests,” he said.

During his Monday address, Duterte also accused the US of storing arms in “depots” in the Philippines and “slowly converting Subic into an American base.”

Subic is a former US naval base north of the capital city, Manila.

Denying the president’s claims, Wilma Eisma, chairperson and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) said in a statement on Wednesday that, under the VFA, US military vessels and support ships “are allowed to visit the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

“This agreement also gives the same privilege to vessels from other nations, including Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia, whose military ships have docked here under the said accord,” Esima said.

She added that the port visits by foreign military vessels last for only a few days — long enough for disembarkation and re-embarkation of troops and assets in case of military exercises under the VFA, or for ship re-supply and onshore visits by the crew in other cases.

These visits, she explained, have not, in any way, converted the “Subic Bay Freeport into a military base.”

Eisma further said that according to its mandate, the SBMA operates and manages the special economic zone to develop a self-sustaining industrial, commercial, financial and investment center to generate employment opportunities in and around the zone and to attract and promote productive foreign investments.

“The SBMA will continue with its economic mandate and defer to competent authorities in the matter of foreign policy and national security,” she said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque supported the president’s demands on Monday for Washington to pay more than “loose change” for the VFA.

“If we have very strong ties with a very strong ally then I think it also comes with a higher amount of financial assistance to be given,” he told a regular briefing.

Roque cited a study by the Washington-based Stimson Center, which showed the Philippines received $3.9 billion in US counter-terrorism support from 2002-2017 compared to the $16.4 billion for Pakistan over the same period.

“We got $3.9 billion. Is that a huge amount? That’s loose change compared to what other countries were getting,” he said.

The VFA provides a legal framework through which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Experts say that without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty, cannot be implemented.

Having notified Washington in February last year that he was canceling the deal, he subsequently extended the termination process, which US President Joe Biden’s administration will now oversee.

Representatives from both countries have been meeting to iron out differences over the deal.


Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says
Updated 21 sec ago

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says
LONDON: Future pandemics could be even more lethal than COVID-19 so the lessons learned from the pandemic must not be squandered, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine said.
“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods,” Sarah Gilbert said in the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, the BBC reported. “The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”
“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness,” she said. “The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for four years: Junta spokesman

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for four years: Junta spokesman
Updated 53 min 58 sec ago

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for four years: Junta spokesman

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi jailed for four years: Junta spokesman
  • For inciting dissent against the military and breaching COVID-19 rules
  • Former president Win Myint was also jailed for four years under the same charges

YANGON: A Myanmar court on Monday jailed ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for four years for inciting dissent against the military and breaching COVID-19 rules, a spokesman for the ruling junta SAID.
Suu Kyi “was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment under section 505(b) and two years’ imprisonment under natural disaster law,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said.
Former president Win Myint was also jailed for four years under the same charges, he said, adding that they would not yet be taken to prison.
“They will face other charges from the places where they are staying now” in the capital Naypyidaw, he added, without giving further details.
The 76-year-old Suu Kyi has been detained since the generals ousted her government in the early hours of February 1, ending Myanmar’s brief democratic interlude.
The junta has since added a slew of other indictments, including violating the official secrets act, corruption and electoral fraud. The Nobel laureate faces decades in jail if convicted on all counts.
Journalists have been barred from proceedings in the special court in the military-built capital, and Suu Kyi’s lawyers were recently banned from speaking to the media.
More than 1,300 people have been killed and over 10,000 arrested in a crackdown on dissent since the coup, according to a local monitoring group.


Norwegian Cruise ship detects one probable case of omicron variant

Norwegian Cruise ship detects one probable case of omicron variant
Updated 06 December 2021

Norwegian Cruise ship detects one probable case of omicron variant

Norwegian Cruise ship detects one probable case of omicron variant
  • The probable case was found among 10 people who tested positive for the virus on Saturday

A probable case of the omicron variant has been identified in a crew member of a Norwegian Cruise ship that reached New Orleans on Sunday after detecting COVID-19 among some crew and guests, the Louisiana Department of Health said.
The probable case was found among 10 people who tested positive for the virus on Saturday, the health agency said in a tweet on Sunday.
Another seven cases have since been reported, it added, taking the total number of cases among passengers and crew of Norwegian Breakaway, a cruise ship owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. , to 17.
“At this time, there have been no changes to scheduled future sailings on Norwegian Breakaway,” a spokesperson for Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement to Reuters.
The cruise ship departed New Orleans on a week-long cruise on Nov. 28 and had stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, the health agency said.
“NCL has been adhering to appropriate quarantine and isolation protocols,” the department said in an earlier tweet.


Gambian President Barrow wins re-election; opposition cries foul

Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 06 December 2021

Gambian President Barrow wins re-election; opposition cries foul

Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)

BANJUL: Gambian President Adama Barrow has comfortably won re-election, the electoral commission said on Sunday, though he may face a legal challenge from opposition candidates who rejected the results because of unspecified irregularities.
The vote was the first in 27 years without disgraced former President Yahya Jammeh, who was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea after refusing to accept defeat to Barrow in 2016.
Jammeh’s despotic 22-year rule over the small West African nation of 2.5 million people, which began with a 1994 coup, was characterised by killings and torture of political opponents.
Saturday’s peaceful election was seen by many as a victory for democracy that helped draw a line under that troublesome period.
Once cowed by Jammeh’s omnipresent secret police, crowds of people hit the streets of Banjul on Sunday night to celebrate, or drove around in their cars, honking horns. Hundreds gathered in a park opposite the presidential palace to listen to Barrow speak.
“Democracy has taken its course,” Barrow told the cheering crowd after the results were announced. “I have been the lucky person to be chosen by you. I’ll use all the resources to make Gambia a better place for all.”
Barrow’s first term provided a welcome change for many to Jammeh’s brutal tenure. But progress was hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, which damaged an economy that relies heavily on tourism, as well as exports of peanuts and fish.
In the run-up to the election, Jammeh had tried to persuade supporters to vote for an opposition coalition in telephoned speeches that were relayed to campaign rallies.
But he failed to dent Barrow’s following. The president received around 53 percent of Saturday’s vote, far outstripping his nearest rival, political veteran Ousainou Darboe, who won about 28 percent.
As results came in on Sunday, representatives from all opposition parties signed off on nearly all the tally sheets read to the election commission.
But later in the day, Darboe and two other candidates, Mama Kandeh and Essa Mbye Faal, said they would not accept the results because the results took longer than expected and because of problems at polling stations.
They did not provide specifics or evidence of wrongdoing.
“We are concerned that there had been an inordinate delay in the announcement of results,” their statement said. “A number of issues have been raised by our party agents and representatives at the polling stations.”
The statement did not say what they would do now, only stating that “all actions are on the table.”


Clashes erupt at Brussels protest against Covid rules

Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2021

Clashes erupt at Brussels protest against Covid rules

Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
  • The demonstrators oppose compulsory health measures — such as masks, lockdowns and vaccine passes — and some share conspiracy theories

BRUSSELS: Belgian police fired water cannon and used tear gas Sunday to disperse protesters opposed to compulsory health measures against the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 8,000 people marched through Brussels toward the headquarters of the European Union, chanting “Freedom!” and letting off fireworks.
The crowd was smaller than the 35,000 vaccine and lockdown skeptics who marched last month, and police were better prepared.
Protesters were blocked from reaching the roundabout outside the EU headquarters by a barbed wire barricade and a line of riot officers.
As two drones and a helicopter circled overhead, they threw fireworks and beer cans. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas.
As the crowd dispersed into smaller groups around the European quarter, there were more clashes and some set fire to barricades of rubbish.
Police said two of their officers and four protesters had been hospitalized, and 20 people had been arrested.
Several European countries have seen demonstrations in recent weeks as governments respond to a surge in covid cases with tighter restrictions.
In Brussels, the organizers hoped to match the November 21 demo, in which police seemed caught off guard and there were violent clashes.
The demonstrators oppose compulsory health measures — such as masks, lockdowns and vaccine passes — and some share conspiracy theories.
Banners on Sunday compared the stigmatization of the non-vaccinated to the treatment of Jews forced to wear yellow stars in Nazi Germany.
“Covid = Organized Genocide,” said one sign. “The QR code is a Swastika,” declared another, referring to the EU Covid safe digital certificate.
Parents — some of whom brought small children to the protest — chanted their belief that the vaccine would make their toddlers sick.
Off duty firefighters in uniform, marched at the head of the protest as it wound its way through the city, to demand the right to refuse vaccination.
The measures imposed to fight Covid in Belgium were decided by the country’ own national and regional governments, but the European Union has also attracted the skeptics’ anger.
On Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that in her view it was time to “think about mandatory vaccination,” a suggestion that was denounced by speakers at the protest.
On Friday, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo announced a series of measures to tighten sanitary rules, bringing school Christmas holidays forward and asking children aged six and over to wear masks.
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, has recorded an average of more than 17,800 daily infections with Covid-19 over the past seven days, as well as 44 deaths.
Around 800 people with severe forms of the disease are in intensive care in hospitals across the country, leading to overcrowding and the postponement of treatment for many other conditions.