Taliban attacks peak as US eyes total exit, Afghan spy chief says

Taliban attacks peak as US eyes total exit, Afghan spy chief says
Afghan security police stand guard at a checkpoint in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 28 April 2021

Taliban attacks peak as US eyes total exit, Afghan spy chief says

Taliban attacks peak as US eyes total exit, Afghan spy chief says
  • He accuses insurgent group of maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda, breaching key condition of Qatar accord, which Taliban deny

KABUL: The Afghan Taliban have ramped up attacks in the country, with violence rising after US President Joe Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal of all American troops by Sept. 11, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said on Tuesday.

“The Taliban have increased their activities by 24 percent following the deal with the United States of America, and their attacks are at their peak since the announcement of the troop withdrawal by Mr. Joe Biden,” Ahmad Zia Saraj said during a press conference in Kabul.

He accused the Taliban of maintaining close ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which breached a key part of the controversial deal they signed with the US in Doha, Qatar, more than a year ago.

“Despite the commitment they made in the deal … we see no sign showing the Taliban have distanced themselves from Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, we have sufficient proof that they are aiding Al-Qaeda to bring together again in Afghanistan those of its members who are in hiding in the region,” Saraj said.

The Qatar accord paved the way for the total exit of all US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan after months of intensive talks between the Taliban and the Trump administration, which excluded President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Earlier this month, President Biden said that all US combat troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, instead of May 1, ending America’s longest war.

The removal of approximately 3,000 American troops coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, which led to the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion the same year.

President Ghani said he respected the US decision to withdraw its forces, adding that Afghanistan’s military was “fully capable of defending its people and country.”

Saraj said that Kabul had no plans to free thousands of Taliban prisoners – as demanded by the insurgent group for the signing of the Qatar accord – as “many” of the 5,000 prisoners already released by the Afghan government “had returned to the battlefield.”

“Therefore, there isn’t any reason to release more Taliban prisoners. As a future strategy amid the departure of foreign troops, the government will concentrate on securing highways,” he said.

He said that with the arrests of more than 500 Daesh affiliates in recent months, which included dozens of children and women, the Afghan government had decimated the threat posed by the network in the region.

“They are now confined to small groups in cities and are trying to re-emerge and gain control of a geography which they can use, but we have reduced their ability for operating,” Saraj said.

“They are no longer the threat they used to be for the region … if, God forbid, we cannot manage [to crush them entirely] and other countries do not cooperate with us, then there is a possibility that they can turn themselves into a regional threat,” he said, adding that the Taliban had close “operational ties with Daesh,” too.

In comments to Arab News on Tuesday, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied Saraj’s allegations, saying that Kabul was merely “creating anxiety in the world, so it can persuade the occupying forces to keep its troops there further.”

“The Taliban have not increased their attacks, but were only responding to offensives” by President Ghani, whom Mujahid accused of trying to “sabotage international efforts on Afghan peace so he can stay in power longer.”

Experts said it was hard to tell how much of the claims by the two sides was “war propaganda.”

Commenting on the claim that former Taliban inmates had returned to the war front, Canada-based Afghan analyst Said Azam said: “Common sense would suggest that the released prisoners would naturally return to the battlefield. If not for any other reason, simply to feed their families because the government has failed to reintegrate or help them otherwise.”

Toreq Farhadi, a former government adviser, confirmed some of Saraj’s comments, but he noted that “the departure of the foreign troops would deprive Kabul of financial assets and resources earned while fighting the Taliban for so long.”

“Statistics are always a matter of interpretation, especially coming from the head of the Afghan agency, thirsty for more funding,” Farhadi told Arab News.

“The point he [Saraj] wants to prove is understood. Taliban are violent. Afghans and the world have unfortunately known this for the past two and a half decades. What we need to know now is what is he doing with the vast means already at his disposal to better protect Afghan civilians?” he said.

“This is important because, in the face of violence from both sides of the conflict, Afghans are leaving the country, creating a regional refugee crisis soon.”

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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.”


Spain vows to restore order after thousands swim into Ceuta 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

Spain vows to restore order after thousands swim into Ceuta 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
  • The Spanish enclave in Morocco a magnet for migrants

CUETA: A sudden influx of migrants swimming into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Africa is a serious crisis for Europe, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Tuesday, vowing to re-establish order promptly amid heightened diplomatic tensions with Morocco.

Spain deployed troops to Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after around 8,000 migrants, many from Sub-Saharan Africa and including 1,500 minors, entered the enclave on Monday and Tuesday by swimming in or climbing over the fence.

Armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta's beach on Tuesday, and soldiers and police used batons to clear migrants from the beach and threw smoke bombs to discourage others from crossing.

A Reuters reporter on the ground said the number of arrivals by sea had slowed, and some migrants were voluntarily returning to Morocco. A few others could be seen being carried away by soldiers. Footage of the beach at around 8 p.m. local time showed nearly all migrants had been cleared.

Spain said approximately 4,000 migrants had already been sent back to Morocco, under a readmission deal.

The regional leader of Ceuta criticised what he described as Morocco's passivity in the face of Monday's surge.

Sanchez called the north African nation a friend of Spain and the interior ministry cited cooperation over the readmissions, although Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Morocco's ambassador Spain rejected and disapproved of the mass arrivals.

Rabat recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations, said a diplomatic source who declined to be named, adding that relations with Spain needed a moment of "contemplation". Moroccan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Moroccan TV footage showed authorities setting up barriers on Tuesday afternoon to prevent people from crossing into Ceuta, but footage filmed from the Spanish side earlier showed a Moroccan soldier or policeman waving dozens of running migrants through a gate to no-man's land without any checks.

“This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe,” Sanchez said in a televised address before his arrival in Ceuta.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave's frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain.”

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with another Spanish enclave, Melilla, it has long been a magnet for African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Morocco has a claim on both.


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.