Philippines deploys more patrol ships amid rift with China

Philippines deploys more patrol ships amid rift with China
Above, Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea in this satellite photo on March 23, 2021. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
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Updated 25 March 2021

Philippines deploys more patrol ships amid rift with China

Philippines deploys more patrol ships amid rift with China
  • The US said it is backing the Philippines in the new feud with Beijing
  • The Philippine government says the reef is well within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone

MANILA: The Philippine military has ordered more navy ships to be deployed for “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where a Chinese flotilla has swarmed around a disputed reef and ignored Manila’s demand to leave the area.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has asked about 200 Chinese vessels he described as militia boats to immediately leave Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory and that the vessels were sheltering from rough seas.
Military chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana ordered the deployment of additional navy ships to beef up the country’s “maritime sovereignty patrols” in the disputed waters, the military said Thursday.
It did not say how close the Philippine navy ships would maneuver from the Chinese vessels, whose presence Lorenzana has called an “incursion” and “provocative action of militarizing the area.”
“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement.
The United States said Tuesday it’s backing the Philippines in the new feud with Beijing and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.”
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest but China insisted it owns the reef, which it calls Niué Jiao, and said the Chinese vessels converged in the area to avoid rough waters. The US, however, said “Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.”
Beijing denied the vessels were maritime militias. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese Embassy said Monday.
The Philippine government says the reef is well within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone over which it “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources.”
Philippine military officials discussed the impasse with Chinese People’s Liberation Army Wednesday and conveyed Lorenzana’s demand for the Chinese vessels to leave the reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, Arevalo said.
President Rodrigo Duterte asserted Manila’s position in a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, but reported no resolution.
Greg Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US-based think tank closely monitoring the territorial conflicts, said more Chinese fishing and militia vessels had recently frequented Whitsun Reef at the northeastern edge of Union Banks, an atoll where China maintains two bases. Vietnam, which also claims the area, has four bases.
“This deployment at Whitsun Reef is not new, but the numbers are way up,” Poling told The Associated Press.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and busy South China Sea for decades.


At least two dead, 22 wounded by bomb in Pakistan’s Lahore

At least two dead, 22 wounded by bomb in Pakistan’s Lahore
Updated 15 sec ago

At least two dead, 22 wounded by bomb in Pakistan’s Lahore

At least two dead, 22 wounded by bomb in Pakistan’s Lahore
LAHORE: At least two people were killed and 22 wounded Thursday by a bomb blast in a busy shopping district of the Pakistani megacity of Lahore, police and officials said.
The attack was claimed on Twitter by a spokesman for the Baloch Nationalist Army, one of several ethnic separatist groups that have been waging an insurgency for years in southwest Pakistan.
“Initial investigations show that it was a time-controlled device on a motorbike which was the cause of the blast,” Rana Arif, spokesman for Lahore police, told AFP.
Thursday’s blast happened in old Lahore’s busy Anarkali shopping district, damaging several motorbikes and upturning market stalls.
Officials said a nine-year-old child was one of those killed.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed regret over the “loss of precious human lives,” a spokesman for his office said.
On Twitter, a spokesman for the Baloch Nationalist Army said it was responsible.
“This attack targeted bank employees. A detailed statement will be issued soon,” the tweet said.
Mineral-rich Balochistan, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, is the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, but its roughly seven million inhabitants have long complained they do not receive a fair share of its gas and mineral wealth.
China is investing in the area under a $54-billion project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), upgrading infrastructure, power and transport links between its far-western Xinjiang region and Pakistan’s Gwadar port.
Baloch separatists previously claimed several attacks on CPEC projects, and thousands of Pakistani security personnel are deployed in the region to counter the violence.
Pakistan has suffered a string of blasts and attacks against police since December, when a truce between the government and Pakistan’s Taliban lapsed.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a home-grown movement that shares common roots with the Afghan Taliban — has claimed responsibility for most recent attacks.
The TTP said earlier this week it was responsible for a deadly shootout in Islamabad on Monday night — a rare attack by the militants in the heavily guarded capital.
A police officer was killed and two others injured when two TTP gunmen opened fire from a motorbike on a police checkpoint.
Police said both attackers were killed, and Pakistan’s interior minister warned afterwards of the potential for further violence.
Pakistan’s government announced late last year it had entered a month-long truce with the TTP, facilitated by Afghanistan’s Taliban, but that expired on December 9 after peace talks failed to make progress.
The TTP has been blamed for hundreds of suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings across the country, and for a while held sway over vast tracts of the nation’s rugged tribal belt, imposing a radical version of Islamic law.
But after the 2014 massacre of nearly 150 children at a Peshawar school, the Pakistan military sent huge numbers of troops into TTP strongholds and crushed the movement, forcing its fighters to retreat to Afghanistan.

UK police arrest 2 men over Texas synagogue hostage-taking

UK police arrest 2 men over Texas synagogue hostage-taking
Updated 20 January 2022

UK police arrest 2 men over Texas synagogue hostage-taking

UK police arrest 2 men over Texas synagogue hostage-taking

LONDON: British police said Thursday they have arrested two people in connection with a hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas.
Counter Terrorism Police North West said one man was arrested Thursday in Birmingham, central England, and another in the northern English city of Manchester. They are being held for questioning and have not yet been charged.
The force said it was continuing to support US authorities with their investigation into Saturday’s hostage incident. Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue in a 10-hour standoff that ended in his death. All four hostages were unharmed.
Police did not disclose details about the two people detained Thursday. British police do not release names and details of detainees until they are charged.
On Sunday, police arrested British teenagers in Manchester as part of the investigation. They were later released without charge.
Akram was from Blackburn, an industrial city in northwest England. His family said he had been “suffering from mental health issues.”
Akram entered the United States on a tourist visa about two weeks earlier and spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the attack at Congregation Beth Israel, in the suburb of Colleyville.
The FBI has called the incident “a terrorism-related matter” targeting the Jewish community.
British media, including the Guardian and the BBC, have reported that Akram was investigated by the domestic intelligence service MI5 as a possible “terrorist threat” in 2020, but authorities concluded he posed no danger, and the investigation was closed.
The White House said Tuesday that Akram had been checked against US law enforcement databases before entering the country but raised no red flags.


Russia accuses West of plotting ‘provocations’ in Ukraine

Russia accuses West of plotting ‘provocations’ in Ukraine
Updated 20 January 2022

Russia accuses West of plotting ‘provocations’ in Ukraine

Russia accuses West of plotting ‘provocations’ in Ukraine
  • Concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fueled Western fears that Moscow is poised to attack its neighbor

MOSCOW: Russia accused the West on Thursday of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine even as it blames Moscow of planning aggressive military action in the neighboring country.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.”
“They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security,” Zakharova said.
She pointed to the delivery of weapons to Ukraine by British military transport planes in recent days, claiming that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a “carte blanche for a military operation in Donbas.”
Donbas, located in eastern Ukraine, is under control of Russia-backed separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces for nearly eight years, a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
Ukraine said earlier this week that it has taken the delivery of anti-tank missiles from the UK It has rejected Moscow’s claims that it plans an offensive to reclaim control of separatist-held areas in the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government, the US and its NATO allies have expressed intensifying concerns in recent weeks over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
The concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fueled Western fears that Moscow is poised to attack its neighbor. US President Joe Biden said Wednesday he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine and warned President Vladimir Putin that his country would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible cutoff from the global banking system if it does.
Moscow has repeatedly denied having plans to launch an offensive. But it has sought a set of security guarantees from the West that would exclude NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations and the deployment of the alliance weapons there.
Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands in security talks last weeks, but kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.
Amid the tensions, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ukraine Wednesday to reassure it of Western support. He traveled to Berlin on Thursday to meet with his British, French and German counterparts to discuss Ukraine and other security matters.
Blinken is set to deliver a speech on the Ukraine crisis later Thursday in the German capital before flying on to Geneva, Switzerland, where he will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is scheduled to arrive Thursday in Poland for two days of talks with his Polish counterpart. Poland, a European Union member state on Ukraine’s western border, has long supported Ukraine’s efforts to move closer to the democratic Western world.
Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said in a Thursday morning radio interview that Poland is offering its political and diplomatic support to Ukraine, but he would not say whether military aid would be extended amid the Russian troop buildup.
“We are aware of how serious the situation is, hence our diplomatic activity,” Przydacz said on Radio RMF FM from the southern Polish city of Wisla, where Zelenskyy will visit Poland’s President Andrzej Duda through Friday.
US President Joe Biden said Wednesday he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine, and he warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible cutoff from the global banking system if it does.
The White House said Friday that US intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had already deployed operatives to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to carry out acts of sabotage there and blame them on Ukraine in a “false-flag operation” to create a pretext for possible invasion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed the US claim as “total disinformation.”
In a move that further beefs up forces near Ukraine, Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games that run through Feb. 20. Ukrainian officials have said that Moscow could use Belarusian territory to launch a potential multi-pronged invasion.
Polish Defense Minister said that along with offering support for Ukraine, Poland is reinforcing its own military capabilities.
“A firm policy is the best argument to an aggressive Russian policy, which is not something new, and an appropriate reaction is important,” Blaszczak said.


Austria introduces lottery as COVID-19 vaccine incentive

Austria introduces lottery as COVID-19 vaccine incentive
Updated 20 January 2022

Austria introduces lottery as COVID-19 vaccine incentive

Austria introduces lottery as COVID-19 vaccine incentive
  • New daily infections surged to a new record on Wednesday as the extremely contagious omicron variant spread further

VIENNA: Austria’s conservative-led government said on Thursday it was introducing a national lottery to encourage holdouts to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, hours before parliament was due to pass a bill introducing a national vaccine mandate.
Roughly 72 percent of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe.
New daily infections surged to a new record on Wednesday as the extremely contagious omicron variant spread further, but the government wants to avoid another national lockdown, since the country emerged from its fourth one only last month.
“What is there to win in the vaccination lottery? Vouchers!” Chancellor Karl Nehammer told a news conference with the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, with whom the measure was negotiated.
Nehammer said he wanted there to be a financial reward for those who get vaccinated, adding: “We have learned from the past and we have seen that a vaccination lottery is the best possible way to set up such a system.”
Members of the public, whether already vaccinated or not, would get a ticket for each shot they have had — three tickets in total for those who have had their booster shot.
Every tenth ticket would win a 500 euro ($568) gift voucher, Nehammer said, without specifying what the vouchers were for.
The lower house of parliament is due to pass a bill later on Thursday making vaccines compulsory for all adults in Austria, with initial fines of 600 euros, rising to up to 3,600 euros if the fine is challenged unsuccessfully.
Austria will be the first European Union country to introduce a COVID vaccine mandate for all adults when the measure takes effect on Feb. 1.


Britain must learn to live with COVID-19, it could be with us forever — Javid

Britain must learn to live with COVID-19, it could be with us forever — Javid
Updated 20 January 2022

Britain must learn to live with COVID-19, it could be with us forever — Javid

Britain must learn to live with COVID-19, it could be with us forever — Javid

LONDON: Britain must learn to live with COVID-19 as it may be with us forever, health minister Sajid Javid said on Thursday, adding that Britain was moving ahead of other countries as the government lifted coronavirus measures.
“We need to learn to live with it. Sadly people die of flu as well: in a bad flu year you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives, but we don’t shut down our entire country,” Javid said.
“COVID is not going away. It’s going to be with us for many, many years, perhaps forever, and we have to learn to live with it... I think we are leading Europe in the transition from pandemic to endemic and we’re leading the way in showing the world how you can live with COVID.”