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.


Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr
Updated 14 May 2021

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr
  • Families receive food aid, new clothes as Ramadan draws to a close amid health restrictions

DHAKA: Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char island observed their first Eid Al-Fitr on Thursday, May 13, in an “isolated state” far away from their relatives.  

Most of the people relocated to the new island facility left their friends and relatives in 34 camps at Cox’s Bazar, which is home for more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.  

Bangladesh began the relocation of refugees, 18,000 to date, to Bhasan Char, some 63 km from the mainland, at the end of last year, explaining that it would ease pressure on the congested camps at Cox’s Bazar.

“We are observing a different kind of Eid this year, far away from friends and relatives. Usually we get together with relatives on Eid days,” Rohingya refugee Abdur Rahman, 37, told Arab News. 

“On this special occasion, I am not seeing any friends and relatives around me. Sometimes I feel isolated.”

Rahman said: “Mobile phones are the only way of communication for us but it’s not always affordable.”

Another refugee, Morium Begum, 29, said her children are missing the Eid festivities in Cox’s Bazar. 

“My children used to visit their friends’ houses and Eid fairs on these days at Cox’s Bazar. But here they don’t have any friends,” Begum told Arab News. 

“Probably, the ongoing coronavirus lockdown added more to our isolation. Otherwise authorities may have allowed some Eid fairs for the children,” she added. 

Mohammad Hossain, 19, said this Eid was a new experience to him. “The congregation field is prepared with makeshift tents and decorated in a befitting manner, which created much festivity on the island,” Hossain told Arab News. “I never saw this sort of arrangement in my days at Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps.”

On marking Eid Al-Fitr, authorities have provided special food aid to the refugees on the island. 

“A food package containing vermicelli, powdered milk, sugar, edible oil, rice, lentil, spices etc have been provided on the occasion of Eid,” Moazzam Hossain, Bangladesh’s additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News. 

“All the families received this aid according to their family size and need,” he said, adding that 5,000 new clothing items were also distributed to Rohingya children.

For maintaining social distancing and health and safety guidelines, authorities have organized three separate Eid congregations on the island. 

“Since the beginning of the Rohingya exodus in 2017, this is the first time the refugees on the island got the opportunity to celebrate the Eid festival in a comfortable environment, free from the threat of landslides, rough weather and the highly congested environment of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps,” Hossain added. 

Emergency health services are also open during Eid, and there are eight government health officials currently serving on the island, he said.

UN and international aid agencies are yet to begin aid operations on the island.

Currently, more than 40 local NGOs are providing humanitarian support to the relocated refugees. 

“Here the refugees are fully dependent on relief support, since there is no other source (of aid) on the island,” Saiful Islam Chowdhury, chief executive of Pulse Bangladesh Society, told Arab News. 

“We made a need assessment for each of the families, and supplied aid accordingly, so that all of them can enjoy the festival,” he added.


UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown
Updated 14 May 2021

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown
  • Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the spread of a new variant of coronavirus first detected in India could disrupt plans to move to eliminate most remaining lockdown measures in June, although it would not delay the next step in easing.
"We will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday, but I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June," Johnson told a Downing Street briefing on Friday.

Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s more important than ever therefore that people get the additional protection of a second dose,” he told a news conference.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over 50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose,” he said.


Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO
Updated 14 May 2021

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO
  • "Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough," WHO told AFP in an email
  • The comment followed US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people

GENEVA: Even after receiving Covid-19 jabs, people should wear face masks in areas where the virus is spreading, the WHO said Friday, after the US decided the vaccinated do not need masks.
“Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough,” the World Health Organization told AFP in an email.
The comment followed a decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to lift mask-wearing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Almost 60 percent of US adults now have one or both doses, while cases are falling fast, down to a seven-day-average of 38,000, or 11 per 100,000.
The WHO refrained from commenting specifically on the US situation, but experts highlighted that the decision to remove Covid restrictions, including mask recommendations, should rely on more than just the vaccination rate.
“It’s about how much virus is circulating,” WHO Covid-19 lead Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters.
“It’s about the amount of vaccines and vaccinations that are rolling out, it’s about the variants... that are circulating.”
The vaccines in use against Covid-19 have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, and there is also increasing evidence that they provide high protection against infection and transmission of the virus.
But WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stressed they are “not 100 percent effective against preventing infection.”
“You can have asymptomatic or mild illness or even moderate symptoms even after being vaccinated,” she said, warning that “vaccination alone is not a guarantee against infection or against being able to transmit that infection to others.”
It may be rare, but could still occur, she said.
“That’s why we need the other protective measures like the mask wearing, and the distancing and so on until countries get to the level at which a large number of people are protected and virus circulation and the transmission goes to very low levels.”
So far, she warned, “very few countries are at the point now where they can drop these measures by individuals and by governments.”
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed.
Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates, he said, “should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.”
“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”


UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow
Updated 14 May 2021

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow
  • Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim
  • A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters

LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended an immigration raid that inflamed tensions in Glasgow’s Muslim community at the start of Eid Al-Fitr, insisting there was no connection to the Islamic festival.
Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim.
A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters, and the pair were eventually released on bail as Glasgow police intervened in a bid to defuse tensions.
“The operation was routine and in no way connected to Eid. We are tackling illegal immigration and the harms it causes,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“We will continue to tackle illegal immigration,” he added.
The area in Scotland’s biggest city is home to a large Muslim community, and is part of the constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The Home Office needs to ask itself hard questions,” she said.
“Doing this on Eid, in the heart of our Muslim community, and in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak, was staggeringly irresponsible — but the even deeper problem is an appalling asylum and immigration policy.”
The incident came after Sturgeon’s pro-independence party and allies secured a majority in the Edinburgh parliament in elections last week, and it fueled anti-UK sentiment in sections of the Scottish media.
Friday’s front-page headline on the pro-independence National newspaper read: “Glasgow 1 ‘Team UK’ 0.”
The raid also caused trouble for Britain’s main opposition Labour party, after a prominent union official tweeted that London-born Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is of Indian descent, should herself be “deported.”
Labour leaders suspended the Unite union’s Howard Beckett, who apologized for the tweet but said he stood by his criticism of the government’s “racist” policies.


Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’
Updated 14 May 2021

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’
  • Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks”
  • Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict

BERLIN: Germany on Friday said rockets fired by Hamas at Israel amount to “terrorist attacks” and warned it would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations on its own soil as the conflict intensified in the Middle East.
“These are terrorist attacks that have only one goal: to kill people indiscriminately and arbitrarily and to spread fear,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told a government press conference.
Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks,” he added.
Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
The most intense hostilities in seven years were triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict, with protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans and burning Israeli flags.
Flags were burned outside synagogues in Muenster and Bonn, with 16 people arrested.
On Wednesday evening, around 180 people shouted anti-Jewish slogans at a march in Gelsenkirchen, also in the west.
On Thursday around 1,500 people gathered in the northern city of Bremen calling for “freedom for Palestine” in a protest which proceeded without incident, according to local police.
Seibert said Friday that Germany would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations.
“Anyone who attacks a synagogue or defiles Jewish symbols shows that for them it is not about criticizing a state or the policies of a government, but about aggression and hate toward a religion and the people who belong to it,” he said.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had on Thursday also condemned the protests.
“Those who burn Star of David flags in our streets and shout anti-Semitic slogans not only abuse the freedom to demonstrate, but are committing crimes,” he told the popular Bild daily.
“Nothing justifies threats against Jews in Germany or attacks on synagogues in German towns,” he said.