Malaysia, Philippines capture 8 Abu Sayyaf militants in Sabah

Malaysia, Philippines capture 8 Abu Sayyaf militants in Sabah
The Philippine military on Monday said that close cooperation with Malaysia’s security forces led to the arrest of two notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-leaders involved in high-profile crimes. (AFP)
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Updated 10 May 2021

Malaysia, Philippines capture 8 Abu Sayyaf militants in Sabah

Malaysia, Philippines capture 8 Abu Sayyaf militants in Sabah
  • Arrests a result of ‘intensified intelligence operations’ and close cooperation with Malaysia’s security forces

MANILA: The Philippine military on Monday said that close cooperation with Malaysia’s security forces led to the arrest of two notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-leaders involved in high-profile crimes.

The Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) identified the two arrested ASG sub-leaders as Sansibar Bensio and Mabar Binda, who led the kidnapping of several local and foreign nationals, including two European birdwatchers.

Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, Jr., Wesmincom commander, said that the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) responded to information provided by the Philippine military’s Joint Task — Force Sulu (JTF-Sulu) about the presence of the ASG militants in the area, after which a special police operation was launched.

At 3 a.m. on May 8, Bensio and Binda were arrested in Jalan Taman Sri Arjuna, Beaufort, Sabah, while six of their followers were also nabbed in the operation.

JTF-Sulu commander, Maj. Gen. William Gonzales, said that the arrest of the suspects was a result of intensive intelligence build-up conducted by the 4th Marine Brigade under the command of Col. Hernanie Songano.

Gonzales said that Bensio was involved in the 2012 kidnapping of birdwatchers Lorenzo Vinciguerra, a Swiss national, and Ewold Horn, a Dutch national.

Vinciguerra was rescued after he managed to escape from his captors when government troops attacked the jungle camp where they were being held in 2014.

Horn, on the other hand, was kept hostage by the bandit group for seven years and was killed by one of his guards when he tried to escape during a clash between the group and soldiers in March 2019.

Meanwhile, Bensio and Binda were both part of the group that snatched three Indonesian fishermen in Lahad Datu, Sabah, on Sept. 23, 2019.

All three were rescued in separate operations conducted by the military a few months later.

Besides the foreign nationals, at least 10 Filipinos were kidnapped by the suspects.

Gonzales said that Bensio and Binda’s group were also involved in armed clashes with the military in Sulu, including the encounter in July 2011 at Sitio Tubig Magtuh, Barangay Panglayahan, Patikul town where a young Marine officer, 2Lt. Michael Baladad was beheaded.

Songano said: “These ASG personalities moved to Sabah around March this year.”

“We have been closely monitoring the activities of this Eastern Sulu kidnap-for-ransom group as it is highly possible that they intend to make Sabah their staging point for their kidnapping activities,” he said in a statement.

“They know that it will be very difficult for them to launch atrocities in Sulu due to the persistent military operations in the area,” he said.

Vinluas agreed, adding that intensified intelligence operations and the community’s support, along with the constant coordination between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the ESSCOM, contributed to the “successful neutralization” of the ASG sub-leaders and their cohorts.

“The arrest of suspects is a big blow to the ASG,” he said, commending JTF-Sulu and ESSCOM for the “aggressive measures taken to ensure that these terrorists will not be able to conduct horrendous activities anymore, particularly off the waters of Sabah.”

Gonzales warned the group against hampering peace in Sulu.

“Whether they seek refuge in nearby provinces or outside our area of operations, if they have caused atrocities or continue to spoil our peace initiatives here in Sulu — they will surely be made accountable and face the rule of law,” he said.


Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
Updated 23 min 25 sec ago

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
  • Single Pfizer dose offers 94% protection against hospitalization
  • England’s chief medical officer hails study as ‘very encouraging indeed’

LONDON: Coronavirus vaccines are about as effective at preventing hospitalization in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 as they are for the earlier Alpha strain, a UK study has found.

The Public Health England (PHE) report found that a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine results in 94 percent protection against people being admitted to hospital after becoming infected with the Delta variant.

It compares with the 85 percent protection that the same jab offers against the Alpha variant — results that bode well for worldwide vaccination efforts aimed at ending the pandemic. 

Other vaccines delivered similar results. A single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides 71 percent protection against the Delta variant, compared to 76 percent against the Alpha strain, according to the 14,000-case analysis conducted by PHE. 

Following the delivery of a second dose, protection against the Delta variant offered by the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs climbs to 96 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

PHE concluded in its report that vaccination efforts could result in a sharp drop in hospitalization rates, including both Alpha and Delta variant cases.

Prof. Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, hailed the study as “very encouraging indeed.”

An earlier Scottish study found that people who had caught the Delta variant, which is thought to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha strain, were about 85 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who become infected with the earlier variant.


Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
Updated 15 June 2021

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
  • Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines

KARACHI, Pakistan: Pakistan has lifted a rule barring the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for people below 40 years old, in a bid to help inoculate people who need to travel for education or jobs abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, a health official said.
Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines — Sinopharm, CanSinoBio and Sinovac — in its inoculation drive and, till now, only used AstraZeneca for those above 40.
The Saudi authorities have not approved the Chinese shots, so people with only those vaccinations still need to quarantine, which is unaffordable for many, Faisal Sultan, a health adviser to the prime minister, said.
“From today, we have lifted the restriction for use of AstraZeneca for below 40 years,” Sultan told private news channel Geo television on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia has approved four COVID-19 vaccines for arrivals wanting to avoid quarantine, namely AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.
Pakistan has received 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca under the COVAX facility.
Sultan said the government was using diplomatic channels to see if Saudi Arabia would approve Chinese vaccines in future.
As of June 11, 1.3 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people had been fully vaccinated and 3.8 percent had received at least one dose, mostly Sinopharm or Sinovac, official figures show.
Saudi Arabia is the largest source of foreign remittances to Pakistan, which depends on these funds to support its current account given the country’s yawning trade deficit.
In the current financial year, Pakistan received $7 billion in remittances from Saudi Arabia, making up more than a quarter of overall remittances.


Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
Updated 15 June 2021

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
  • After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50% seating
  • Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened

NEW DELHI: Having barely got over a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, India was gripped with alarm on Tuesday over risks of a resurgence as crowds thronged railway stations and shopping malls a day after major cities relaxed curbs on movement. The capital New Delhi, in the north, and tech hub Bengaluru, in the south, were among the cities that have begun lifting strict lockdowns as the nationwide tally of new infections dropped to its lowest level in more than two months.
After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50 percent seating. Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened.
“Delhi’s top #mall saw a footfall of 19,000 people last weekend- as soon as it reopened. Have we gone totally mad?” Ambrish Mithal, a doctor with a Max HealthCare hospital in New Delhi said on Twitter. “Wait for #COVID19 to explode again- and blame the government, hospitals, country.”
Disease experts have cautioned that a race toward resuming business as usual would compromise vaccination efforts as only about 5 percent of all 950 million eligible adults have been inoculated.
Doctors say Delhi’s near-complete re-opening is concerning. The city’s authorities have said they would reimpose strict curbs if needed.
Thousands died in the capital in May, as oxygen supplies all but vanished and families pleaded on social media over scarce hospital beds. Many died in parking lots, and morgues ran out of space.
Yet, the city government said inoculation centers for people aged between 18 and 44 would start shutting down on Tuesday, as doses were scarce.
Challenge of inoculations, testing
India has been administering an average of 2.4 million shots a day. Health officials say vaccinations need to be at least four times higher to avoid a third wave of infections.
At the height of the second wave in April and May as many as 170,000 people died.
The Delta variant, first identified in India, has accelerated infections. And worryingly, the virus has spread to India’s vast hinterland where two-thirds of the population lives and vaccinations have been even slower.
As restrictions are lifted in big cities, migrant workers have begun returning from the countryside.
In the southern state of Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, media reported large crowds of workers at railway stations.
“Unfortunately, citizens equate the government’s response to reopening, as a victory,” Dr. Vishal Rao, a member of the expert committee on Karnataka’s COVID task force, told Reuters.
Nationwide, India reported 60,471 new COVID-19 infections over the past 24 hours, the lowest since March 31, data from the health ministry showed.
India added 2,726 deaths overnight, taking the overall tally to 377,031.
Both the death toll and the case-load of infections, at 29.57 million, were the second highest after the United States, but experts say the official numbers are a gross underestimate. Only people who have tested positive are counted, and in India testing has been woefully inadequate.
The Times of India on Tuesday reported a staggering 100,000 people were issued fake ‘negative’ reports for COVID-19 infections in the northern city of Haridwar when tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered on the banks of the Ganges river for the ‘Kumbh Mela’, or pitcher festival, in April.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely criticized for failing to call off the Kumbh — he only belatedly urged religious leaders to celebrate symbolically — and for addressing large rallies during state elections also in April.
“One in every 4 tests during Kumbh was found fake. That is from just 1 sample collection agency. 8 more to go.” Rijo M John, a professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in the southern city of Kochi, said on Twitter.
“Basically, just the tip of the iceberg.”


Ex-Daesh wife Shamima Begum pleads to return to UK

Ex-Daesh wife Shamima Begum pleads to return to UK
Updated 15 June 2021

Ex-Daesh wife Shamima Begum pleads to return to UK

Ex-Daesh wife Shamima Begum pleads to return to UK
  • Shamima Begum: ‘I don’t think I was a terrorist. I think I was just a dumb kid who made one mistake’
  • Intelligence expert tells Arab News: ‘She says she has changed, but she would, wouldn’t she?’

LONDON: Shamima Begum, the London teenager who traveled to Syria to join Daesh, has told a documentary about her hopes of returning to Britain, saying she would “love” to help rehabilitate extremists.

Begum, 21, said she was “just a dumb kid” and not a terrorist when she left London to join the terror outfit when she was 15.

She has been at the Al-Roj prison camp in Syria since being stripped of her British citizenship.

“I don’t think I was a terrorist. I think I was just a dumb kid who made one mistake,” Begum said. “I personally don’t think that I need to be rehabilitated, but I would want to help other people be rehabilitated. I would love to help.”

The former Daesh wife gave her comments to a British filmmaker for a documentary called “Danger Zone.”

She said: “Anything in this camp that makes me happy is like a lifesaver.” Dressed in Western clothes — having shed her traditional Islamic dress for interviews with British media outlets — Begum added that she listens to rapper Kanye West’s music.

Portraying herself as an ordinary Briton, she said she was following updates on West’s divorce from reality TV star Kim Kardashian, and watched reruns of US sitcom “Friends.”

Asked what she would say to those in Britain who think she should not be permitted to return, Begum said: “Can I come home please, pretty please?”

But her chances look slim, especially after the Supreme Court in February refused her permission to return to Britain to fight the government’s decision to remove her citizenship.

Andrew Drury, the filmmaker, said he had changed his mind about Begum after interviewing her, arguing that she should be permitted to return to the UK and be punished for her crimes.

Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer, told Arab News: “There will be no evidence that could hope to meet the standards of beyond reasonable doubt in a British court, so it’s unlikely she could ever be brought to trial. She says she has changed, but she would, wouldn’t she?”

He added: “If she were allowed to return to Britain, she’d have to be monitored 24/7, costing millions and taking vital resources. She made her bed and should lie in it, and that’s the only way to continue to send a deterrent message to others who in the future may consider following in her footsteps.”


Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported

Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported
Updated 15 June 2021

Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported

Hong Kong watching Chinese nuclear plant after leak reported
  • Experts say that gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside a reactor in Taishan, 135 kilometers west of Hong Kong
  • In Hong Kong, radiation levels Tuesday were normal, according to the Hong Kong Observatory

HONG KONG: China’s government said Tuesday no abnormal radiation was detected outside a nuclear power plant near Hong Kong following a news report of a leak, while Hong Kong’s leader said her administration was closely watching the facility.
The operators released few details, but nuclear experts say based on their brief statement, gas might be leaking from fuel rods inside a reactor in Taishan, 135 kilometers (85 miles) west of Hong Kong.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, gave no confirmation of a leak or other details. He responded to reporters’ questions by saying, “there is nothing abnormal detected in the radiation level surrounding the plant.”
In Hong Kong, radiation levels Tuesday were normal, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.
Framatome, a French company that helps manage the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province, said Monday it was dealing with a “performance issue.” It said the facility was operating within safe limits.
That followed a report by CNN that Framatome told US authorities about a possible leak.
“With regards to foreign media reports about a nuclear plant in Taishan, Guangzhou, the Hong Kong government attaches a high degree of importance to this,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lam said her government would ask authorities in Guangdong for information and tell the public about any developments.
China is one of the biggest users of nuclear power and is building more reactors at a time when few other governments have plans for new facilities because the cost of solar, wind and other alternatives is plunging.
Chinese leaders see nuclear as a way to reduce air pollution and demand for imports of oil and gas, which they deem a security risk. Government plans call for Hong Kong to use more mainland nuclear power to allow the closure of coal-fired power plants.
The Taishan plant, which began commercial operation in December 2018, is owned by China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group and Electricite de France, the majority owner of Framatome. A second reactor began operating in September 2019.
They are the first of a new type called European Pressurized Reactors. Two more are being built in Finland and France.
CNN reported Framatome wrote to the US Department of Energy warning of an “imminent radiological threat” and accusing Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid having to shut it down.
US officials believed there was no severe safety threat, CNN said.
The Department of Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN body, told The Associated Press it was aware of the issue and awaiting information from China.
Electricite de France said Monday it was informed of the increase in concentration of “certain rare gases” in Taishan reactor No. 1.
That suggests fuel rods are leaking noble gases, a byproduct of nuclear fission, according to Luk Bing-lam, an expert on nuclear engineering at the City University of Hong Kong.
“If the leakage is more severe, then you will start seeing more radioactive material like cesium, rather than gas,” said Luk, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Nuclear Society.
Such leaks “happen every so often” in China and plants “usually can handle it themselves,” Luk said. But he said this incident might be complicated if the Taishan plant uses US technology that is covered by export restrictions.
China’s state-owned nuclear power companies are on Washington’s “entity list” that bars them from obtaining US technology without government approval.
The French partner might ask for permission because Framatome previously licensed technology from Westinghouse, Luk said.
“With the situation now, that becomes difficult,” he said. “For even a small problem, they need US government approval.”
China has 50 operable reactors and is building 18 more, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. It is largely self-sufficient in reactor design and construction but is “making full use of Western technology while adapting and improving it,” the association says on its website.
China has constructed reactors based on French, US, Russian and Canadian technology and has developed its own Hualong One reactor, based on Westinghouse technology, marketing it abroad since 2015.
Hong Kong gets as much as one-third of its power from the Daya Bay nuclear power plant east of the territory in Guangdong.
Luk, who has worked with Chinese nuclear power plant operators, said he asked the company for information about the leak but managers won’t talk about it.
“I suspect the leakage is far more widespread than just a single assembly,” he said. “Because of that, they probably need some special technology to resolve this leakage problem.”
Previously, the Taishan facility leaked a “small amount” of radioactive gas on April 9, the National Nuclear Safety Administration said on its website. It said the event was “Level 0,” or “without safety significance.”
Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, defended China’s nuclear safety record and said the nuclear agency works with regulators in other countries and the IAEA.
“China’s nuclear power plants have maintained a good record in operation and no incidents affecting the environment or public health have occurred,” Zhao said.