Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
Officials in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation. (Press Office of President of Afghanistan/AFP)
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Updated 14 March 2021

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
  • Both conferences will see participation from Washington, China and Pakistan

KABUL: Kabul government delegates will participate in a US-proposed and UN-led conference in Turkey, and a separate meeting in Russia, to expedite the stalled Afghan peace process, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

“Representatives of the government of Afghanistan will take part in both meetings. Consultations are going on as to who will attend them,” Gran Hewad, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told Arab News.

Last week on Tuesday, Kabul said that it was “considering” Russia’s offer to host the talks two days after the leak of a letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani over the impasse.

Blinken’s letter had included an urgent proposal to help restart discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which began in Doha, Qatar, in September last year but failed to make any headway.

Besides Afghan government emissaries, the March 18 meeting in Russia and the Turkey conference slotted for April will also host delegates from the Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), factional and influential leaders, and representatives from the US, China and Pakistan.

While officials in Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation, the Taliban said that it was “mulling over participation in both conferences.”

“So far, politically responsible people have not come up with a new stance. Our position is the same that we have received an invitation for both, and it is under deliberation,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News on Sunday.

Russia’s offer to host the conference comes a week after US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shared a proposal with key Afghan leaders, including Ghani, for the formation of a participatory government — which would include Taliban members — as part of efforts to end Washington’s engagement in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.

Khalilzad’s proposal was circulated ahead of a May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, based on a controversial accord signed between former American President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

Moscow, similarly to Iran and Pakistan, has been pressing for the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan for years. Russia recently hosted two rounds of talks between the Taliban and influential national leaders, besides being a vocal supporter for forming a new government to replace Ghani, whose second term ends after four years.

Ghani has repeatedly said that he is against the idea and vowed to oppose the set-up “at the cost of my life.”

His resistance prompted Blinken’s letter to Ghani — a copy of which was published by several media houses last Sunday — asking the Afghan president to “develop constructive positions” on Khalilzad’s proposals to “jumpstart the flailing peace process.”

The letter pressed upon the urgency for a new government in Afghanistan to break a stalemate in the Doha talks between the Taliban and Kabul government representatives, which have been riddled with disputes.

The US secretary of state has been pushing for a UN-facilitated conference with international stakeholders, including proposals to arrange a discussion between the Taliban and Kabul to form a negotiated settlement and enforce a cease-fire.

The letter also made it clear to Ghani that US President Joe Biden’s administration continued to consider a “full withdrawal” of the 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline, as negotiated by the Trump administration during a controversial deal signed with the Taliban in February last year.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the US has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options,” Blinken said in the letter.

Some of the letter’s proposals included the formation of a participatory government that would eventually transfer power to a permanent government “following the adoption of a new constitution and national elections.”

In a recent speech, however, Ghani said that the “transfer of power after the election is a principal for us that will not be compromised,” arguing that the formation of an interim government would “descend the country into a chaos like the 1990s” when the former communist regime collapsed after the departure of ex-Soviet troops.

Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reiterated Ghani’s stance last week when he said: “The West and America have the right to decide about their troops in Afghanistan, but it is also our right not to make a deal and compromise on the destiny of 35 million Afghans based on others’ timetable.”

Shortly after Saleh’s statement, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar adopted a softer tone and told the BBC that the letter was “not a matter of concern for Kabul. We allowed for this in our diplomacy — that such contacts are made — therefore, I don’t see it as a type of offense or indifference.”

The minister added that government leaders would “debate on the letter and proposal, discuss it with national leaders and offer a response later.”

Experts, however, believe that Kabul was “avoiding a confrontation in the global arena” by agreeing to participate in both conferences.

“The Afghan government has avoided a first collision with the international community. It will get somewhat tricky now. Merely accepting to attend is one thing, but who will do so is more important,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government, told Arab News.

He added that Ghani “could be reluctant to attend the meetings” as officials from his administration had refused to divulge more details about the key participants.

Afghan political leaders, however, welcomed the move, with former president Hamid Karzai saying in an interview with the Associated Press that the US draft for a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban was the “best chance to accelerate stalled peace talks between the country’s warring sides.”

“Afghans themselves are in a hurry for peace,” he said.

Ahmad Samin, an Afghan analyst and former adviser for the World Bank, agreed, telling Arab News: “The United States has made it clear that there is only one political solution to the Afghan war, in which international support is required for peace negotiations.”

He added that there was “growing frustration and hesitation” to continue a partnership with the current Afghan government, “which is riddled with corruption, human rights abuses and a dependency on foreign aid without any economic or political development.”

“These are factors that don’t make for a reliable partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. This translates as additional pressure by the United States for regional involvement in future peace negotiations,” Samin said.


London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
Updated 18 May 2021

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
  • She was filmed accepting a white rose and hugging a protester amid a cheering crowd
  • It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people

LONDON: London’s Metropolitan Police is investigating an on-duty officer who shouted “free Palestine” at a march condemning Israel’s bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The uniformed female officer was captured on video at the demonstration in the capital. In the footage, she is seen accepting a white rose and hugging a protester.

She was heard shouting “free, free Palestine” to a cheering audience. The footage went viral on several social media sites.

It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people.


‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
Updated 18 May 2021

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
  • Study suggests mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna particularly beneficial
  • Analysis author: ‘Data very encouraging but we don’t know how long benefits last’

LONDON: COVID-19 vaccines tend to alleviate the symptoms of the medical phenomenon known as “long Covid,” according to a survey involving 800 people.

The study suggests that mRNA vaccines are particularly beneficial in battling long Covid symptoms.

The virus was initially understood to be a largely respiratory illness that most people would recover from within a month, but people started to report symptoms that continued for many months. 

Medical experts are still hunting for a consensus definition for the phenomenon, with people suffering from chronic fatigue to organ damage.

There are also mysteries surrounding appropriate and effective treatment plans that can be standardized across the population.

But anecdotal reports have so far suggested that vaccines can help some people who are still struggling with COVID-19 symptoms long after their original infection.

The analysis has yet to be peer reviewed, but the results of the survey by advocacy group LongCovidSOS could offer medical practitioners a pathway to restoring normalcy to many.

The survey consisted of 812 mostly white, female participants with long Covid in Britain and internationally, who were contacted via social media. 

The participants were asked to wait at least a week after their first dose of the jab to prevent their responses being affected by vaccine side effects.

Changes across 14 common long Covid symptoms were compared before and after the first inoculation. 

LongCovidSOS data found that 56.7 percent of respondents experienced an overall improvement in symptoms, with 24.6 percent reporting no changes and 18.7 percent finding that their symptoms worsened after the jab.

In general, participants who received mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna jabs) reported more improvements in symptoms than those who got an adenovirus vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca). 

The Moderna vaccine was found to have the most promising results, with participants seeing the greatest improvements in symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle pain.

The analysis found that Moderna recipients were also less likely to endure a deterioration in their ailments.

“This survey will reassure people that they would have to be quite unlucky to really have an overall worsening of symptoms,” said LongCovidSOS analysis author Ondine Sherwood. “The data is very encouraging, but we don’t know how long the benefits last.”

Dr. David Strain, an analysis author and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said: “There isn’t a blood pressure tablet that fixes everybody … and similarly, there’s not one long Covid treatment that’s going to fix everyone — but the fact that one treatment does fix something means that there’s bound to be other treatments out there that will fix others.”

As the assessment was via survey, there can be no definitive proof to show that the vaccine caused the improvement in symptoms.

After suffering from long Covid symptoms for so long, the improvement could have come from natural regeneration. 

However, Strain said of the 130 people in the survey who received both vaccine doses, some improved after their first jab — before finding their situation worsening again — and then improved further after their second inoculation.

But Nisreen Alwan, an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton, warned that as the improvement in symptoms had abated in about half the participants by the time they completed the survey, the analysis could show that the vaccine-inspired improvement was fleeting.

Mystery remains about the cause of long Covid, with some experts theorizing that it could involve the persistence of the virus remaining within the body — such as fragments of the virus lingering after infection — and the immune system overreacting to the remaining virus and damaging healthy tissues.

Strain said the LongCovidSOS analysis suggested that COVID-19 vaccines help to reset the immune system, telling it to target the virus and spare itself.

But he cautioned that this explanation is speculation and will need further investigation to be supported.

Prof. Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said: “How could a vaccine make a subset of long-term sufferers feel better? It’s tempting to hypothesise that this was the subset who had symptoms due to a reservoir of virus that was never properly cleared, and the enormous boost of a potent vaccine equipped them with the immune response to do this. This needs mechanistic investigation of the actual immune responses.”


Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
Updated 18 May 2021

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
  • Lead author: ‘It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century’
  • ‘How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed’

LONDON: More than 96 percent of people develop coronavirus antibodies after receiving only a single dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, new research has revealed. 

The England- and Wales-based study, which monitored more than 8,000 participants, also discovered that almost 100 percent of people develop immune cells to successfully fight off coronavirus after two vaccine doses.

Researchers found that 96.42 percent of people who received the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine developed antibodies 28-34 days after a first dose. 

The figure grew to 99.08 percent within seven to 14 days of receiving a second jab, The Guardian newspaper reported.

“This is one of the earliest real-world vaccine studies in the UK and it is fantastic news,” said Dr. Maddie Shrotri, lead author of the research paper.

“More than nine out of 10 adults in the UK who had either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine produced antibodies against the virus within a month of their first shot,” she added.

“How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed. It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century.”

The study, conducted by University College London (UCL) scientists, could have positive implications on the worldwide fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It will be placed through a peer review process before submission to a medical journal.

UCL scientists found that both vaccines were equally capable of triggering the antibody response that can ward off severe coronavirus infections.

However, antibody levels after a single jab were discovered to be lower in older people and those with underlying health conditions, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. That discrepancy was later resolved after participants received a second vaccine dose.

The study is a “timely reminder” about the importance of receiving a second dose, said Prof. Rob Aldridge, chief investigator of the UCL study. “But it is also reassuring — vaccines are our way out of the pandemic.”


Spanish troops deploy in Ceuta after thousands of migrants break in from Morocco

Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
Updated 18 May 2021

Spanish troops deploy in Ceuta after thousands of migrants break in from Morocco

Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
  • Videos shared online showed migrants entering Ceuta earlier, by swimming and by climbing over the fence, unimpeded by Moroccan authorities

CUETA: Spain has deployed troops to Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after thousands of migrants swam into the northern African enclave, in what Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called a serious crisis for Spain and Europe.

Soldiers in armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta's beach on Tuesday. Dozens of migrants swimming and wading close to the beach appeared to be moving away from where troops stood. Hundreds of other potential migrants stood on the Moroccan side of the fence that separates the Spanish enclave from Morocco.

Videos shared online showed migrants entering Ceuta earlier, by swimming and by climbing over the fence, unimpeded by Moroccan authorities.

According to some experts, Morocco uses the tactic of alowing migrants into Ceuta as an instrument of pressure on Madrid, which angered Rabat last month by admitting the leader of Western Sahara's rebel Polisario Front to a Spanish hospital.

Morocco said it has recalled its ambassador from Spain for consultations after an influx of migrants into Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave on the North African coast, angered Madrid.

“The ambassador has been recalled for consultations and will return to Morocco shortly,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told AFP, after Spain's own foreign ministry summoned the diplomat earlier in the day.

“This is happening because of the absolute passivity of the Moroccan authorities,” Ceuta regional leader Juan Jose Vivas told 24H TV channel, adding that the situation was chaotic and it was now impossible to say how many migrants had entered.

“This transcends migration, we are talking about (Spain's) territorial integrity, sovereignty and borders.”

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said as many as 6,000 migrants, including about 1,500 minors, swam into Ceuta on Monday and Tuesday. He said about 2,700 had already been sent back to Morocco.

His ministry said Morocco was accepting all the migrants being sent back under a readmission deal.

In Ceuta, adult arrivals were being transferred to a local stadium before deportation, while minors were being sent to an industrial building.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave's frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain” and calling for a European pact on migration and “strong protection of our borders.”

Morocco has a claim on Ceuta and another Spanish enclave, Melilla.

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is located on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with Melilla, it has long been a magnet for African migrants trying to reach Europe in search of a better life.

The Melilla government delegation spokesman said 86 migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa broke into the enclave, located about 300km east of Ceuta, early on Tuesday, but a larger group had been blocked by Moroccan police.

* With AFP and Reuters


Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
Updated 18 May 2021

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
  • More than 40% of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine
  • The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday

STOCKHOLM: Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, has seen the number of cases and intensive care patients drop fast in the recent weeks.
So far more than 40 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday, a decline compared to the 13,812 cases reported during the corresponding period last week.
Sweden has experienced a powerful third wave of the virus with the number of people testing positive per capita among the highest in Europe for months, in stark contrast to its Nordic neighbors where infections have remained relatively subdued throughout the pandemic.
However, with over 40 percent percent of the adult population having received at least one shot of vaccine and around 12 percent fully vaccinated, the number of people in intensive care has still fallen more than 30 percent from a peak three weeks ago.
The vaccine roll-out is also credited for deaths being relatively low this year compared to previous waves of the disease with data suggesting no excess mortality so far in 2021.
The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 26 new deaths, taking the total to 14,301. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.
Sweden’s death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbors’ but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.