Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
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Relatives and friends gather around a bus carrying prisoners outside the Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, as the military junta released 23,184 prisoners from jails across the country on Saturday under a New Year amnesty. (REUTERS)
Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
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A man is embraced by women outside Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar on April 17, 2021. He was one of more than 23,000 prisoners released by the military junta to mark the new year holiday. (AP Photo)
Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
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Relatives wait for bus carrying prisoners to be released outside Insein Prison in Yangon on April 17, 2021, as thousands of inmates were freed nationwide to mark the country's traditional Buddhist New Year holiday. (AFP)
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Updated 18 April 2021

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
  • 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners, are covered by the pardon
  • Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.


Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas
Updated 54 min 10 sec ago

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas
  • Pope Francis prays for peace, calm and international help to open a path of dialogue

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has denounced the “unacceptable” spiral of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, saying the deaths in particular of children was a “sign that they don’t want to build the future but want to destroy it.”
Francis prayed for peace, calm and international help to open a path of dialogue during his Sunday blessing, delivered from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
The pope said: “I ask myself: this hatred and vendetta, what will it bring? Do we truly think that we can build peace by destroying the other?”
In unusually pointed comments, Francis added: “In the name of God, who created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity and are called to live as brothers, I appeal for calm” and an end to the violence.
Israeli airstrikes have been pounding Gaza City for days as heavy fighting has broken out between Israel and the territory’s militant Hamas rulers. The Gaza Health Ministry said 10 women and eight children were among the 26 people killed in Sunday’s airstrikes, with another 50 people wounded in the attack.


Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
Updated 16 May 2021

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
  • Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, violence continues unabated in Afghanistan
KABUL: A three-day cease-fire marked by violent attacks – some claimed by the Daesh group – ended Sunday in Afghanistan amid calls for renewed peace talks between the government and Taliban.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the negotiating teams of the government and the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to their ousted regime, met briefly Saturday in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar. They renewed their commitment to finding a peaceful end to the war and called for an early start to talks that have been stalled, he said.
The US has been pressing for accelerated talks as it withdraws the last of its 2,500-3,500 soldiers and NATO its remaining 7,000 allied forces.
Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, which was declared to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, violence continued unabated in Afghanistan. A bombing Friday in a mosque north of the capital killed 12 worshippers, including the prayer leader. Another 15 people were wounded. The Taliban denied involvement and blamed the government intelligence agency. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Daesh, however, claimed it blew up several electrical grid stations over the weekend. That left the capital Kabul in the dark for much of the three-day holiday that followed the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In posts on its affiliated websites, Daesh claimed additional attacks over the last two weeks that destroyed 13 electrical grid stations in several provinces. The stations bring imported power from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The attacks have left nine provinces including Kabul with disrupted power supplies, said Sanger Niazai, a government spokesman. There was also concern that local warlords, demanding protection money from the government to safeguard stations in areas they control, may have been behind some of the destruction.
At least one local warlord was arrested last year after demanding protection money.
The seemingly unstoppable violence in Afghanistan has residents and regional countries fearful the final withdrawal of US and NATO soldiers could lead to further chaos. Washington said it wants its last soldier out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest, but the withdrawal is progressing quickly and a Western official familiar with the exit said it is likely to be completed by early July. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the withdrawal are not being made public.
On Saturday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern about the rapid withdrawal of US and NATO forces in a phone call with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Wang called the withdrawal hasty and warmed it would “severely” impact the Afghan peace process and negatively affect regional stability, He called on the United Nations to play a greater role.

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
Updated 16 May 2021

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
  • India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure

BENGALURU: India reported a smaller rise in daily COVID-19 cases for the third straight day on Sunday, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was higher than 4,000, taking the country’s death toll to 270,000.
Deaths grew by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 – the smallest rise in daily cases in over three weeks, health ministry data showed on Sunday. Total infections have risen by over 2 million this week and deaths by nearly 28,000.
India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure. Cases have fallen steadily in states hit by an initial surge of infections, such as the richest state of Maharastra and the northern state of Delhi, after they imposed stringent lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Saturday that the overall rate of positive cases per tests had dipped to 19.8 percent this week from 21.9 percent last week, sparking hopes that daily infections have begun to stabilize.
But surges have been seen in states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and rural areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called on officials to strengthen health care resources in rural areas and step up surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas after ravaging the cities.
Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters said, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice.
The world’s largest vaccine-producing nation has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million, or only 2.9 percent, of its 1.35 billion population as of Sunday, according to data from the government’s Co-WIN portal.
India will have 516 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by July, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Saturday.
The South Asian nation’s tally of infections stands at 24.68 million.


Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’
Updated 16 May 2021

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’
  • The Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said this week

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia and Indonesia on Saturday called on the UN Security Council to intervene and stop Israel’s strikes on Gaza, as the conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants raged on.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that in a phone conversation with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, both leaders agreed that Israel’s “despicable actions” must be stopped immediately.

“We were of similar views that the international community, especially the United Nations Security Council, should act swiftly to cease all forms of violence committed by Israel, and save the lives of Palestinians,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address.

“To date, the UN Security Council has not issued any statement on the current situation in Palestine due to opposition from the United States of America,” he said.

Malaysia has long been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, pushing for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

The Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said this week. The 15-member council has met privately this week about the worst hostilities in the region in years, but has so far been unable to agree on a public statement, diplomats said.

Iran’s foreign minister canceled a visit with his Austrian counterpart to show displeasure that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government had flown the Israeli flag in Vienna in a show of solidarity, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was supposed to meet Alexander Schallenberg but had called off the trip, a spokeswoman for Schallenberg said, confirming a report in newspaper Die Presse.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Iranian minister cancels Austrian visit over Israeli flag.

• Morocco to send 40 tons of aid to Palestinians.

• Egypt sends ambulances to evacuate Gaza wounded.

“We regret this and take note of it, but for us it is as clear as day that when Hamas fires more than 2,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel then we will not remain silent,” the spokeswoman said.

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told the semi-official news agency ISNA: “Mr. Zarif did not consider the trip beneficial in these circumstances, and therefore the travel arrangements were not finalized.”

The dispute comes during talks in Vienna to try to revive a 2015 accord with western powers in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. 

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered 40 tons of aid for Palestinians to be shipped to the West Bank and Gaza following recent violence.

The aid includes food, medicine and blankets and will be carried by military aircraft, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Morocco also denounced “the violent acts perpetrated in occupied Palestinian territories,” and reiterated support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Morocco resumed ties with Israel in December as part of a deal brokered by the US that also includes Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Egypt opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow 10 ambulances to transport Palestinians seriously wounded in Israeli airstrikes to Egyptian hospitals, medical officials said.

Egypt “exceptionally opened the Rafah crossing to allow 10 Egyptian ambulances into the Gaza Strip to transport wounded Palestinians ... to be treated in Egypt,” a medical official said.

The grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, has launched a campaign on social media in “support the Palestinian people.” Stop the killing, he said.

“Enough with silence and double standards if we are really working toward peace.”


Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’
Updated 16 May 2021

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’
  • Tradition risks being lost as lamb stocks deplete and anger grows over ‘pelt peeling’

KABUL: For generations, the pelts of newborn karakul lambs were one of Afghanistan’s major export items, sought after at home and abroad to produce the iconic caps worn by rulers, statesmen and trend-setters — prized fashion items that sold for up to $3,000 each.

However, in recent years, there has been a drastic decline in demand for the eye-catching headwear due to the special breed of sheep that produces the pelt becoming endangered.

“In the past 10 years, the industry has gone bankrupt. There is no market for it now,” Mohammad Salim Saee, head of the agriculture department of northern Balkh, one of the key production areas of karakul sheep, told Arab News.

At its peak in the 1970s, the volume of karakul sheepskin exports to the West stood at 10 million pieces, he said, adding: “You cannot compare it in terms of the percentage now with what we used to produce and export.”

It is now difficult to find a single shop selling karakul sheepskins among the dozens of stores lining the famous avenue of Shahe-Do-Shamshera in the Afghan capital Kabul, where former president Hamid Karzai used to source his trademark hats.

The karakul cap became so synonymous with Karzai that US designer Tom Ford once named him “the chicest man on the planet” for his sartorial choice.

Besides Karzai, regional leaders such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and other rulers in Central Asia and across Russia have been seen donning the popular fashion accessory.

Mohammad Aref, head of the agency for karakul production in Balkh, said that Afghanistan exported almost 500,000 skins to the West and across the region just four years ago.

However, there has been a gradual decline in volume since then, with just 17,000 pieces exported to Uzbekistan last year.

Mirwais Ibrahimi, a karakul trader in Balkh, said: “Until a few years ago, 280 shops were selling karakul skins, but now only three or four are left.”

He traces the decline to growing opposition, both at home and abroad, to the “barbaric” practice of ripping the skin off newborn lambs to source the fur.

“In Afghanistan and abroad, the killing of the newborn lamb is regarded as a cruel act. That is why there isn’t much desire for it as there was some years ago,” he told Arab News.

Soon after the birth of a lamb, dealers peel the pelt from its skin before it is fed by the ewe, “because it affects the quality of the skin.”

Rahmat Shah, a dealer in Jowjzan, another key karakul region, said: “Some butchers in the past would even cut through the abdomen of a pregnant sheep to take its baby, but the practice was stopped as it was considered too cruel.”

Kazim Hamayoun, a senior official in Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, said that no regulation or law bans the practice, “which is a concern.”

He added: “Indeed, it is a major concern. The younger a karakul, the higher its value, and the quality of the fur will be finer, too. It is a serious threat to wildlife.

“We do not have anything preventing this — no law or directive. We have distributed leaflets informing dealers about it, but have not done a poll to determine its impact. We hope to launch a national dialogue on this.”

However, Shah lamented the loss of business and the end of an Afghan tradition.

“There is no business at all. We do not know how we and the government can save this industry and tradition from being buried in history forever.”

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