Afghanistan begins COVID-19 vaccine campaign amid surge in violence

Afghanistan begins COVID-19 vaccine campaign amid surge in violence
Afghanistan has started its first implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine during a ceremony at the Afghan presidential palace. (AP)
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Updated 24 February 2021

Afghanistan begins COVID-19 vaccine campaign amid surge in violence

Afghanistan begins COVID-19 vaccine campaign amid surge in violence

KABUL: Afghanistan on Tuesday launched a Covid-19 vaccination campaign aimed at inoculating hundreds of thousands, as the war-weary nation reels from near-daily attacks by insurgents.
Doctors, security personnel, and journalists were among the first volunteers to receive doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, donated earlier this month by India.
“Today, I congratulate the people of Afghanistan for the launch of the first stage of Covid-19 vaccine [drive] with 500,000 doses of vaccines. This is a big opportunity for the people of Afghanistan,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as the first jabs were administered.
“We don’t expect any miracles, but let’s help this campaign to be implemented justly,” the country’s acting health minister Waheed Majroh added.
Afghanistan is believed to have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic in the last year, but limited testing and a ramshackle health care sector have hampered its ability to track the virus.
Officially the country has recorded just 55,600 confirmed cases and about 2,430 deaths.
But a survey published by the country’s health ministry last August estimated that up to 10 million people — nearly a third of the population — might have been infected with the coronavirus.
Kabul, along with urban areas across the country, have been rocked in the recent weeks by frequent explosions on an almost daily basis amid fraught peace talks between the government and the Taliban.
Decades of conflict have slowed past vaccine drives in Afghanistan, including an anti-polio campaign, with swathes of the country under the control of insurgents making access difficult for inoculation teams.
The war-torn country kicked off its vaccine drive as controversies dogged inoculation plans across the globe, with accusations of dose hoarding, supply shortages and logistical headaches slowing the delivery of jabs.


Looking up: Tourists flock to northern Pakistan region hit by COVID-19 curbs

Looking up: Tourists flock to northern Pakistan region hit by COVID-19 curbs
Updated 4 min 40 sec ago

Looking up: Tourists flock to northern Pakistan region hit by COVID-19 curbs

Looking up: Tourists flock to northern Pakistan region hit by COVID-19 curbs
  • Bordering Afghanistan and China, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s favorite tourist destination

GILGIT-BALTISTAN: Things are looking up for the scenic, mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, with over 1 million visitors registered since May, officials say, as the tourism sector reopens across the country despite persisting coronavirus fears.

Bordering Afghanistan and China, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s favorite tourist destination and was listed by Forbes among the 10 “coolest places” to visit in 2018.

The region’s economy is largely dependent on tourism and was severely hit last year as outbreaks of COVID-19 and travel curbs deterred tourists from flocking to the region’s glacial lakes, valleys and 8,000-meter-plus peaks.

“This year, we have opened the sector from early May,” Iqbal Hussain, a director at the Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Department, told Arab News. “We recorded 1 million tourists by July 15.”

In 2020, the sector opened for less than three months, between August and October, and 600,000 people visited, Hussain said.

Despite the improved numbers this year, the specter of another lost tourism season still haunts the region, as coronavirus cases have once again started to surge and authorities are scrambling to impose health rules and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In mid-July, a coronavirus positivity rate of 16 percent was recorded in Gilgit-Baltistan. Lagging vaccination rates in the region have added to the pressure. “Due to COVID-19, we are facing a lot of challenges,” Hussain said.

“Some 60-70 percent of people are directly linked with this sector. To continue socioeconomic activities, it’s very important to open the tourism sector with the implementation of SOPs.”

Ahead of the Eid Al-Adha holidays, Pakistan’s central pandemic response body, the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), made vaccination certificates mandatory for tourists to book hotels in northern regions in the country.

“We are trying to implement SOPs at all entry points like airports,” Dr. Shah Zaman, the lead official for pandemic response in Gilgit-Baltistan, said, saying the COVID-19 positivity rate had been increasing in the region since last week.

But this has not deterred visitors from coming to this region.

But this has not deterred travel-hungry visitors such as retired Pakistan Air Force official Muhammad Saleem Khan. “This is my first visit to Gilgit-Baltistan,” the 71-year-old tourist said. “It’s such a beautiful place.”

Sidra Humayun, 29, said she had come with her family to tour the region only for a week but decided to stay longer: “Our plan was to return after one week, but after coming here we have decided to celebrate Eid Al-Adha here.”

Many who visit vow to return.

“I have visited Gilgit-Baltistan many times. And I am here again because it’s a beautiful place,” said Taimur Shahid, a 31-year-old-tourist from Karachi. “The mountains are majestic, and it’s a wonderful place to come and escape city life. And each time you get here, you feel lucky. Inshallah, I will come again.”

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Greek police clash with protesters in rally against mandatory vaccinations

Greek police clash with protesters in rally against mandatory vaccinations
Updated 24 July 2021

Greek police clash with protesters in rally against mandatory vaccinations

Greek police clash with protesters in rally against mandatory vaccinations
  • Over 4,000 people rallied outside Greek parliament to oppose mandatory inoculations for healthcare workers and nursing staff
  • A rally on Wednesday was marred by violence

ATHENS: Greek police used teargas and water cannon to disperse people who had gathered in central Athens on Saturday to protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
More than 4,000 people rallied outside the Greek parliament for a third time this month to oppose mandatory inoculations for some workers, such as health care and nursing staff.
A police official, who asked not to be named, said some protesters had thrown petrol bombs, prompting the police to respond with tear gas.
A rally on Wednesday was also marred by violence.
Recent polls showed the majority of Greeks would get the shot against the COVID-19 which has claimed 12,890 lives in Greece since the pandemic broke out last year. About 45 percent of a population of 11 million are fully vaccinated.
Greece has ordered the vaccination of health care and nursing home staff as cases have risen and urged school teachers to get the shot in time for the start of the school year in September.
Nearly 2,500 cases were reported on Saturday, bringing the total number of infected people to 474,366.


What Turkey and EU’s conflicting visions mean for Cyprus’ future

Erdogan’s appearance at a military parade on July 20 in the northern part of the capital, Nicosia, might have passed off without incident had he not reiterated his contentious position on the Cyprus dispute. (AFP)
Erdogan’s appearance at a military parade on July 20 in the northern part of the capital, Nicosia, might have passed off without incident had he not reiterated his contentious position on the Cyprus dispute. (AFP)
Updated 11 min 26 sec ago

What Turkey and EU’s conflicting visions mean for Cyprus’ future

Erdogan’s appearance at a military parade on July 20 in the northern part of the capital, Nicosia, might have passed off without incident had he not reiterated his contentious position on the Cyprus dispute. (AFP)
  • Turkish President Erdogan repeated his demand for a two-state solution during a recent visit to the northern part of Cyprus
  • UN Security Council responded by condemning “the further reopening of a part of the fenced-off area” of derelict Varosha town

ANKARA / DUBAI: Europe’s longest “frozen conflict” is once again in the spotlight following a visit to the northern part of Cyprus by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during which he repeated his demand for a two-state solution and backed moves to rebuild a ghost town that lies within the island’s military buffer zone.

Erdogan’s appearance at a military parade on July 20 in the northern part of the capital, Nicosia, might have passed off without further ado had he not reiterated his contentious position on the Cyprus dispute with remarks that were echoed and elaborated on by his ally, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar.

Attempts to resolve the conflict suffered a blow in 2004 when Greek Cypriots voted against a UN proposal to reunite the Turkish and Greek sides of the nation, while Turkish Cypriots approved it. Three out of four Greek Cypriots rejected the plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the UN chief, that would have given tens of thousands of Cypriots the right to return to homes they lost in 1974.

That was the year Turkish troops occupied the northern third of Cyprus in response to an abortive coup engineered by a military junta in Athens that aimed to unite the island with Greece. The ghost town undergoing a controversial reopening is Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta, once the Mediterranean island’s top coastal resort whose Greek Cypriot population fled with the Turkish invasion.

Budding hopes of a UN-sponsored settlement in the aftermath of the invasion had been nipped by the unilateral establishment in 1983 of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey. While Cyprus has been largely at peace since the de-facto partition of 1974, the “frozen conflict” has proved so intractable, it has come to be known as the “graveyard of diplomats.”

Now, in addition to playing the nationalist card to humor their domestic constituencies, Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriot leadership may well be signaling their loss of faith in time and negotiations to bring the breakaway north’s international isolation and decades-old economic embargo to an end.

For a start, they intend to convert part of Varosha into a resettlement site and to allow people to reclaim properties vacated during the 1974 invasion. In November 2020, Turkish Cypriot authorities reopened a small area of Varosha. Now Erdogan says “a new era will begin in Maras (the Turkish name for Varosha) which will benefit everyone.”

During his latest visit to the northern part of Nicosia, Erdogan, who as Turkey’s prime minister in 2004 had backed the Annan reunification plan, asserted that Ankara does not have “another 50 years to waste.”

On Wednesday, in a video address to members of his AK Party, he said: “We will make every possible effort to ensure recognition of the Turkish Cypriot state as soon as possible. All other offers and proposals are not valid anymore.”

Erdogan vowed to make no "concession" as he pressed for a two-state solution for Cyprus, during a visit to the divided eastern Mediterranean island. (AFP)

Tatar got down to the nitty-gritty of the regeneration plans, saying that an initial 3.5 percent of Varosha, whose abandoned hotels, residences and shops lie under Turkish control, would be removed from its military status.

An earlier version of the buffer zone where Varosha is situated was created in 1964 by a UN peacekeeping force in response to a spate of inter-communal violence. Following the 1974 Turkish invasion, this so-called Green Line became the de-facto line of partition.

While an estimated 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled south, about 45,000 Turkish Cypriots relocated to the north, where they established their own independent administration. Despite a unanimous UN Security Council resolution, Turkey refused to withdraw its troops from Cyprus.

According to the UN resolutions, Varosha should be handed over to UN administration and the town’s vacant properties should be returned to their legal owners. In a statement on Friday, the Security Council condemned “the further reopening of a part of the fenced-off area of Varosha” and expressed “deep regret regarding these unilateral actions.”

THENUMBER

* 1,281,506 - Current total population of Cyprus.

Some analysts think Erdogan’s rhetoric is designed to encourage Greek Cypriots to deal with the Turkish side on an equal footing.

Ahmet Sozen, professor of political science and international relations at Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, says the pressure tactics might push Greek Cypriots to enter into negotiations, albeit gradually.

“This is a game-changing move. It is just a beginning, because Greek Cypriots do not welcome it,” he told Arab News, “But, at the end of the day, there are 300 individual claims by Greek Cypriots to their properties in this area and it should encourage the Greek side to negotiate with Turkey over these property rights.”

Sozen believes Turkey intends to use the Varosha issue to launch future rounds of negotiation with a stronger hand with the goal of achieving a two-state solution.

“This move also aims to prevent thousands of applications to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg by those who claim their property rights in Varosha. By opening a part of the military zone to civilian use, it will give Turkish Cyprus’ Immovable Property Commission (IPC) the authority to deal with the compensation issue,” he said.

The IPC is the only Turkish Cypriot institution recognized by the ECHR, which dropped several applications lodged by displaced Greek Cypriots after it was established for redressal of such grievances. If Varosha is partially returned to civilian use, the IPC will likely be in charge of resolving property issues.

People cross the Ledras crossing point in the Cypriot capital Nicosia from the southern part towards the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), on June 4, 2021, as the country opens its crossing points following the easing of restriction in the divided island amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)

But as demonstrated by the Security Council condemnation, Turkey is facing strong pushback from NATO allies, EU members and even the UN. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, who discussed the developments with his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nikos Christodoulides, has called the Varosha move “unacceptable and inconsistent” with UN resolutions.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” and appealed to “all parties to refrain from unilateral actions that provoke tensions.”

Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, described any moves to open up Varosha as “illegal and unacceptable.” If Turkey’s real concern was returning properties to their legal owners, “they should have adopted UN resolutions and handed the city over to the UN, allowing them to return in conditions of safety,” he said.

Dimitris Tsarouhas, an expert at Bilkent University, in Ankara, describes the new approach to the Varosha issue as “strange although not unexpected,” since it is “not really a Turkish Cypriot decision but a Turkish one.”

Derelict hotels, restaurants, and residential buildings remain abandoned at the fenced-off beachfront eastern town of Varosha, in the Turkish-held north of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, on October 14, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“The enclave had been abandoned by its Greek Cypriot owners in 1974 and they have lived in hope of returning ever since, not least because Turkey did not send in settlers,” he said.

“I am guessing that this small reopening aims at enticing Greek Cypriots to move back in, or at least to claim their property through the Turkish Cypriot authorities, thus partially legitimizing the TRNC.”

Noting that the EU and the US “both have been explicit in condemning a move contradicting decades of UN work on Cyprus,” Tsarouhas said: “It seems to me that Erdogan’s goal is to consolidate the nationalist coalition at home and show to the world that he really means the two-state policy he elaborated on for the first time a few years back.”

Once famous as a playground of Hollywood celebrities, Varosha may yet rise from the ruins of war. But for now, its new lease of life is mainly as a bargaining chip in a geopolitical game.


Far-right and others march against French virus rules

Far-right and others march against French virus rules
Updated 24 July 2021

Far-right and others march against French virus rules

Far-right and others march against French virus rules
  • Legislators in France’s Senate were debating the bill Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it Friday
  • French government is trying to speed up vaccinations to protect vulnerable populations and hospitals, and avoid new lockdowns

PARIS: Far-right activists and members of France’s yellow vest movement protested Saturday against a bill requiring everyone to have a special virus pass to enter restaurants and other venues and mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers.
Legislators in France’s Senate were debating the bill Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it Friday, as virus infections are spiking and hospitalizations are rising anew. The French government is trying to speed up vaccinations to protect vulnerable populations and hospitals, and avoid new lockdowns.
Most French adults are fully vaccinated and polls indicate a majority of French people support the new measures. But not everyone.
Protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” gathered at Bastille plaza and marched through eastern Paris in one of several demonstrations Saturday around France. Thousands also joined a gathering across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower organized by a former top official in Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party.
While most protesters were calm, tensions erupted on the margins of the Bastille march. Riot police sprayed tear gas on marchers after someone threw a chair at an officer. Other projectiles could also be seen in a video of the incident.
Many marchers focused their anger on a French “health pass” that is required to enter museums, movie theaters and tourist sites. The bill under debate would expand the pass requirement to all restaurants and bars in France and some other venues. To get the pass, people need to be fully vaccinated, have a recent negative test or have proof they recently recovered from the virus.
Lawmakers have debated the measure amid divisions over how far to go in imposing health passes or mandatory vaccinations.
Last weekend, more than 100,000 people protested around France against the measures. They included far-right politicians and activists as well as others angry at President Emmanuel Macron for various reasons.
Remaining members of France’s yellow vest movement, largely from political extremes, are using the virus bill to try to rekindle its flame. The movement started in 2018 as a broad uprising against perceived economic injustice and led to months of protests marked by violence between demonstrators and police, but subsided after the French government addressed many of the protesters’ concerns.


Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance

Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance
Updated 24 July 2021

Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance

Afghan government imposes night curfew to stem Taliban advance
  • The curfew will be effective between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. local time
  • The resurgent Taliban now controls about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts

KABUL: Afghan authorities on Saturday imposed a night-time curfew across 31 of the country’s 34 provinces to curb surging violence unleashed by a sweeping Taliban offensive in recent months, the interior ministry said.
“To curb violence and limit the Taliban movements a night curfew has been imposed in 31 provinces across the country,” except in Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar, the interior ministry said in a statement.
The curfew will be effective between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. local time, Ahmad Zia Zia, deputy interior ministry spokesman said in a separate audio statement to reporters.
Since early May, the Taliban have launched a widespread offensive across the country that has seen the insurgents capture border crossings, dozens of districts and encircle several provincial capitals.
With the withdrawal of American-led foreign forces all but complete, the resurgent Taliban now controls about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.