Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in biggest post-Communist era dispute

Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
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Updated 23 April 2021

Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in biggest post-Communist era dispute

Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
  • Row over 2014 deadly blast at Czech ammunitions depot
  • Russian suspects also accused of 2018 poisoning

MOSCOW/PRAGUE: The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove most of its remaining diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades.
The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers.
It said two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two people.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.
Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to have the same number of envoys as the Czech Republic has in Moscow. That means Russia will have to withdraw 63 diplomats and other staff from Prague, although Prague gave it until the end of May to do so.
Together with the initial step, this will greatly reduce what has been by far the biggest foreign mission to Prague and much larger than the Czech representation in Moscow.
“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said.
“I do not want to needlessly escalate...but the Czech Republic is a self-confident country and will act as such. This is not aimed against Russians or the Russian nation, but a reaction to activities of Russian secret services on our territory.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in reaction demanded a reduction in the embassy’s staffing level, alluding to disparity in numbers of local employees.
“The (Czech) ambassador was told that we reserve the right to take other steps in the event the hysterical anti-Russian campaign spirals further,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
At a time of acute tension in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.
“Allies express deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.
Slovakia expelled three Russian envoys on Thursday in solidarity with the Czech Republic. The Russian response to that step was not immediately clear.
In the last week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria.”
President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines,” saying Moscow would make them regret it.

Embassy paralyzed
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy.
The Russian embassy’s size in Prague is an overhang from the pre-1989 communist era, and had been about double the US Embassy until this week.
Kulhanek said on Czech Television that Russia told the Czech envoy on Thursday there now would be “strict parity.”
He said that meant each country would have 7 diplomats and 25 others at respective embassies, which is the current level of Czech staff in Moscow.
He said the Czech side was considering how to proceed further after the Russian demand to cut the number of local employees.
The ministry said on Wednesday Russia had 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions.
The Czech counterintelligence service has repeatedly said that the mission served as a base for intelligence work and its size made it difficult to reduce these activities.
The two suspects named by Prague in connection with the 2014 ammunition depot explosion, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.


Nurse who helped saved Boris Johnson’s life quits in protest

Nurse who helped saved Boris Johnson’s life quits in protest
A file photo shows (L-R) St Thomas Hospital Director of Infection and consultant Dr Nick Price, Britain's PM Boris Johnson and Ward Sister Jenny McGee sharing a joke as the PM talks to the NHS staff in central London on July 5, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 19 May 2021

Nurse who helped saved Boris Johnson’s life quits in protest

Nurse who helped saved Boris Johnson’s life quits in protest
  • She refused to take part in a Downing Street photo opportunity last July, noting: “Lots of nurses felt that the government hadn’t led very effectively, the indecisiveness, so many mixed messages

LONDON: A nurse credited with helping to save Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s life last year has quit the UK health service in protest at the government’s lack of “respect” for frontline staff.
New Zealand-born Jenny McGee was one of two intensive-care nurses who gave Johnson round-the-clock treatment a year ago in a central London hospital when he was struck down with Covid-19.
The prime minister said later that he only pulled through thanks to their care, but his government has since faced fury from nurses for offering a pay rise of just one percent — effectively a cut, after inflation.
“We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation,” McGee says in a Channel 4 television documentary airing next Monday.
She refused to take part in a Downing Street photo opportunity last July, noting: “Lots of nurses felt that the government hadn’t led very effectively, the indecisiveness, so many mixed messages. “It was just very upsetting.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, said McGee’s resignation was a “devastating indictment of Boris Johnson’s approach to the people who put their lives on the line for him and our whole country.”
But a Downing Street spokesperson said “this government will do everything in our power to support” staff of the National Health Service (NHS), stressing they had been excluded from a pay freeze affecting other public sector workers.
In the documentary, McGee says it was “surreal” seeing the prime minister in her hospital. “All around him there was lots and lots of sick patients, some of whom were dying,” she recalled. “I remember seeing him and thinking he looked very, very unwell. He was a different color really.
“They are very complicated patients to look after and we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”
A worse wave of the pandemic hit Britain in the winter months, and McGee said the situation on her wards leading up to Christmas “was just a cesspool of Covid.”
“At that point, I don’t know how to describe the horrendousness of what we were going through,” she said.
In a statement Tuesday, McGee said she plans to take up a new nursing job in the Caribbean, but hopes to return to the NHS in the future.


US condemns Erdogan 'anti-Semitic' remarks

US condemns Erdogan 'anti-Semitic' remarks
Updated 19 May 2021

US condemns Erdogan 'anti-Semitic' remarks

US condemns Erdogan 'anti-Semitic' remarks
  • The latest episodes are likely to sour further the relationship between Turkey and the United States

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday sharply criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for what it called "anti-Semitic" remarks amid his denunciations of Israel's strikes in Gaza.
"The United States strongly condemns President Erdogan's recent anti-Semitic comments regarding the Jewish people and finds them reprehensible," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
"We urge President Erdogan and other Turkish leaders to refrain from incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence," he said.
Erdogan, whose political roots are in Islamism, has championed the Palestinian cause during his 18-year rule even though Turkey remains one of the few Muslim-majority nations with relations with Israel.
He has accused Israel of "terrorism" against the Palestinians and recently said, "It is in their nature."
"They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood," he said.
Erdogan also lashed out at US President Joe Biden for his diplomatic support to Israel, saying the US leader has "bloody hands."
The latest episodes are likely to sour further the relationship between Turkey and the United States.
Biden took office vowing a harder line on Erdogan, whom he has described as an autocrat, and last month took the landmark step of recognizing the mass killings of Armenians by the waning Ottoman Empire in 1915-17 as genocide.
Biden and Erdogan nonetheless had agreed to hold a first meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels next month.


Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan
Indonesia aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people or 70 percent of its 270 million population to develop herd immunity by the end of 2021. (AFP)
Updated 19 May 2021

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan
  • President wants to accelerate efforts to reach herd immunity by year-end

JAKARTA: Private sector companies in Indonesia on Tuesday began inoculating employees against COVID-19 with a paid-for vaccine plan aimed at boosting productivity and accelerating the government’s free, nationwide vaccination drive.

The plan was finally rolled out four months after President Joko Widodo — in a January meeting with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) — introduced the idea for the private sector to carry out and pay for its own vaccination drive, Kadin chairman Rosan Roeslani said.
“We discussed with the president on how to quickly reach herd immunity. The president came up with this idea, and the business community responded positively,” Roeslani told Arab News.
Widodo rolled out the private vaccination drive during a visit to a Unilever Indonesia plant in an industrial zone of Cikarang, West Java province.
The company began inoculating its employees along with 16 other companies and two private vaccination centers for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) from industrial zones around Jakarta.
Unilever, and 16 other labor-intensive companies began administering the jab on Tuesday.
There are also two centers for MSMEs that do not have their own premises for carrying out vaccinations.
Roeslani said 22,736 companies had registered to inoculate more than 10 million people through the private vaccination scheme, which the chamber coordinated.
The companies registered in the program have to buy the vaccine from Kimia Farma, a subsidiary of the state-owned vaccine manufacturer Bio Farma, which the government assigned to import the vaccines for private companies.
The Health Ministry has capped the price for a single dose of China’s Sinopharm vaccine at $35, but participating companies cannot charge their employees for it.
Widodo said Indonesia had secured 420,000 Sinopharm doses out of the committed 30 million for private inoculation.
Other vaccines to be used for the private companies are China’s CanSino, while negotiations are underway for Russia’s Sputnik V.

HIGHLIGHT

The plan was finally rolled out four months after President Joko Widodo introduced the idea for the private sector to carry out and pay for its own vaccination drive.

“It is really difficult to secure vaccines nowadays, with 215 countries around the world competing to get them,” Widodo said during an exchange with vaccine recipients from other companies via video conference. “You are among the lucky ones to get the jab today. We hope by August or September, we will have inoculated 70 million people and the curve will be flattened by then so that the manufacturing plants can resume normal operations.”
Iswar Deni, the corporate secretary of garment manufacturer Pan Brothers, said the company had started to inoculate 1,000 out of 3,000 people it had registered.
“We are inoculating those at the supervisor and higher up level since they are the ones with high mobility to manage production operations, as well as those at the front line such as security personnel, internal COVID-19 task force members and labor union committee members,” he told Arab News.
Indonesia aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people or 70 percent of its 270 million population to develop herd immunity by the end of 2021.
As of Tuesday, nearly 14 million people had received their first jab, while 9.2 million have had the second dose of China’s Sinovac and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines which the government used in its national drive.
Accelerating the number of people being vaccinated is timely as Indonesia is facing the prospect of increased infections after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, when people gathered in large numbers during the festivities and flocked to markets during the last days of Ramadan for Eid shopping.


Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’
A health worker inoculates a woman in Noida, Uttar Pradesh on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 19 May 2021

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’
  • Officials in Basi village, in Uttar Pradesh’s worst-affected district of Baghpat, have recorded 35 deaths out of a population of 7,000 in the last month

NEW DELHI: Virus-ravaged rural communities in India’s largest and most populated state had been left “at God’s mercy” due to the collapse of the health system.
Millions of lives in Uttar Pradesh were said to be at risk following a surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases with some villages reporting hundreds of deaths and new infections on a daily basis.
A lack of proper medical facilities has left remote parts of the state ill-equipped to deal with the crisis as the country battles another wave of COVID-19.
In a ruling on Monday, Allahabad high court described the situation in Uttar Pradesh as “grim.”
Judges had been sitting to preside over a petition demanding better care for COVID-19 patients in the Meerut district. Petitioners had slammed India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for “poor medical infrastructure and placing the lives of millions of people at the mercy of God.”
The court’s two-judge bench said: “If this is the state of affairs of treatment at a medical college in a city like Meerut, then the entire medical system of the state in the smaller cities and villages can only be taken to be at the mercy of God.”
Officials in Basi village, in Uttar Pradesh’s worst-affected district of Baghpat, have recorded 35 deaths out of a population of 7,000 in the last month.
“The situation is so grim that, in some houses, two or three deaths have taken place, wiping out the entire family,” Rajesh Nain, a social worker and village resident, told Arab News.
“In one house, both the father and son lost their lives in the space of two days, while in another, a middle-aged couple died in quick succession. It’s like the area has turned into a ghost village. No one comes out of the house; there is hardly any day when someone or other does not die,” he said.
On Tuesday, India logged more than 260,000 COVID-19 cases, a low figure compared to more than 400,000 last week, but the death rate remained high at in excess of 4,000 per day. Out of the national total, Uttar Pradesh reported 9,500 cases on Tuesday and 371 deaths.
However, experts and activists in rural areas disputed official figures, describing them as “under-reporting.”

BACKGROUND

Families reportedly ‘wiped out’ by COVID-19 as health system in parts of Uttar Pradesh collapses amid virus surge.

Basi’s former village leader, Satvir Pradhan, told Arab News: “The government is registering only those deaths which are happening in COVID-19 centers; they are ignoring villages where people are dying without oxygen, and hospital beds.
“There is no doctor, no medical centers, no testing. We asked the district administration to provide us with medical support, but despite assurances, no help has come,” he said.
The situation was reportedly similar in other parts of the state where more than 75 percent of its population of 200 million live in rural areas.
Devendra Dhammaa, a social activist and farmer from Basi’s neighboring village of Sankroub, told Arab News: “Villages in Uttar Pradesh are basically on their own as far as medical infrastructure is concerned.
“People have a fever; they take medicine supplied by local doctors who are mostly untrained, and then rest at home. If someone starts facing breathing problems, if he or she is lucky, they will find a doctor. Otherwise, they die,” he said.
Meanwhile, recent media reports said more than 2,000 bodies had been found “hastily buried or abandoned along the banks of Ganga (the Ganges)” in various districts of Uttar Pradesh.
In the Unnao district, a neighborhood of the state capital Lucknow, 900 bodies were recovered from riverbanks and similar instances were reported in districts including Ghaziabad, Kanpur, Ghazipur, Kannauj, and Ballia along the border with the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
Dr. Jagpal Singh Teotia, from Baghpat district, told Arab News: “What we are witnessing is an unprecedented horror and tragedy in the state. A huge part of the population has been left to fend for themselves with the government not providing any kind of support.
“An alertness on the part of the government and some focus on the health sector in the past one year could have saved many lives.”
Teotia, one of the few doctors in the area trained to treat COVID-19 patients, said several healthcare workers felt “helpless at the sight of tragedy” and blamed the government for “risking people’s lives.”
“When the government knew that the virus was spreading, what was the need to allow over 3 million people to gather at the Kumbh Mela (a large Hindu festival held in the northern Indian city of Haridwar)? What was the need to organize local body elections (in Uttar Pradesh last month) when the pandemic was at its peak?”
Arab News recently reported that more than 700 schoolteachers had died after participating in the local polls. A majority of the deaths took place in villages where medical facilities were non-existent.


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.