US officials monitoring two Iranian navy ships that may be headed to Venezuela: report

US officials monitoring two Iranian navy ships that may be headed to Venezuela: report
This photo released on Jan 12, 2021 by the Iranian Army shows the Iranian-made warship Makran before it joins the Navy, in Iran. (Iranian army via AP)
Short Url
Updated 30 May 2021

US officials monitoring two Iranian navy ships that may be headed to Venezuela: report

US officials monitoring two Iranian navy ships that may be headed to Venezuela: report

DUBAI: US national security officials are reportedly monitoring two Iranian ships which are believed to be headed to Venezuela, an American political newspaper cited three people familiar with the matter as saying. 
The Politico said “an Iranian frigate and the Makran, a former oil tanker that was converted to a floating forward staging base, have been heading south along the east coast of Africa,” quoting the people who spoke on condition of anonymity.  
The newspaper said the move could be perceived as “provocative” amid tense US-Iranian relations. 
The sources said the American officials were not sure of the destination of the Iranian naval vessels, but they believe “they may be ultimately headed for Venezuela.”
The intentions of why Iran is “sending the vessels in the Western Hemisphere remains a mystery, as does their cargo,” the sources added. 
The Politico said it contacted the spokespersons for the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry, the Iranian Mission to the UN, and White House and Pentagon spokespersons. All of them, however, have declined to comment on the matter. 
Previously, Iranian media has boasted about the 755-foot long Makran capabilities, saying it can serve as a platform for electronic warfare and special operations missions. The ship has the ability to carry “six to seven helicopters, as well as drones,” Iranian media said.


UN warns hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hotspots

UN warns hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hotspots
Updated 31 July 2021

UN warns hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hotspots

UN warns hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hotspots
  • Ethiopia is at the top of the list, with  thenumber of people facing starvation and death expected to rise to 401,000 — the highest number since the 2011 famine in Somalia — if humanitarian aid isn’t provided quickly

UNITED NATIONS: Hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hotspots in the next three months with the highest alerts for “catastrophic” situations in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, southern Madagascar, Yemen, South Sudan and northern Nigeria, two UN agencies warned Friday.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program said in a new report on “Hunger Hotspots” between August and November that “acute food insecurity is likely to further deteriorate.”
They put Ethiopia at the top of the list, saying the number of people facing starvation and death is expected to rise to 401,000 — the highest number since the 2011 famine in Somalia — if humanitarian aid isn’t provided quickly.
In southern Madagascar, which has been hit by the worst drought in the past 40 years, pests affecting staple crops, and rising food prices — 14,000 people are expected to be pushed into “catastrophic” acute food insecurity marked by starvation and death by September. And that number is expected to double by the end of the year with 28,000 people needing urgent help, the two agencies said.
In a report in May, 16 organizations including FAO and WFP said at least 155 million people faced acute hunger in 2020, including 133,000 who needed urgent food to prevent widespread death from starvation, a 20 million increase from 2019.
“Acute hunger is increasing not only in scale but also severity,” FAO and WFP said in Friday’s report. “Overall, over 41 million people worldwide are now at risk of falling into famine or famine-like conditions, unless they receive immediate life and livelihood-saving assistance.”
The two Rome-based agencies called for urgent humanitarian action to save lives in the 23 hotspots, saying help is especially critical in the five highest alert places to prevent famine and death.
“These deteriorating trends are mostly driven by conflict dynamics, as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said. “These include food price spikes, movement restrictions that limit market and pastoralists activities alike, rising inflation, decreased purchasing power, and an early and prolonged lean season” for crops.
FAO and WFP said South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria remain at the highest alert level, joined for the first time by Ethiopia because of Tigray and southern Madagascar.
In South Sudan, they said, “famine was most likely happening in parts of Pibor county between October and November 2020, and was expected to continue in the absence of sustained and timely humanitarian assistance” while two other areas remain at risk of famine.
“In Yemen, the risk of more people facing famine-like conditions may have been contained, but gains remain extremely fragile,” the UN agencies said. “In Nigeria, populations in conflict-affected areas in the northeast may be at risk of reaching catastrophic food insecurity levels.”
Nine other countries also have high numbers of people facing “critical food insecurity” coupled with worsening drivers of hunger — Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo, Haiti, Honduras, Sudan and Syria, the report said.
Six countries have been added to the hotspot list since the agencies’ March report — Chad, Colombia, North Korea, Myanmar, Kenya and Nicaragua, it said. Three other countries also facing acute food insecurity are Somalia, Guatemala and Niger, while Venezuela wasn’t included due to lack of recent data, it said.
In Afghanistan, FAO and WFP said 3.5 million people are expected to face the second-highest level of food insecurity, characterized by acute malnutrition and deaths, from June to November. They said the withdrawal of US and NATO forces as early as August could lead to escalating violence, additional displaced people and difficulties in distributing humanitarian assistance.
In reclusive North Korea, which is under tough UN sanctions, the agencies said “concerns are mounting over the food security situation ... due to strained access and the potential impact of trade limitations, which may lead to food gaps.” While data is “extremely limited,” they said recent figures from the country’s Central Bureau o Stations and an FAO analysis “highlight a worrying cereal deficit.”


Malaysia thanks Saudi Arabia for generous aid in fight against COVID-19

The equipment and vaccines were handed over to the Malaysian government by the Saudi ambassador on Friday. (Photo/Twitter)
The equipment and vaccines were handed over to the Malaysian government by the Saudi ambassador on Friday. (Photo/Twitter)
Updated 31 July 2021

Malaysia thanks Saudi Arabia for generous aid in fight against COVID-19

The equipment and vaccines were handed over to the Malaysian government by the Saudi ambassador on Friday. (Photo/Twitter)
  • Among the 4.5 million units of medical supplies delivered by KSrelief were ventilators, oxygen concentrators, defibrillators and protective gear, as well as 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

KUALA LUMPUR: Saudi Arabia has become Malaysia’s largest single contributor of pandemic assistance, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Friday, as he received medical supplies brought to the Southeast Asian country through a special humanitarian air bridge established by King Salman.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Malaysia has become one of the world’s worst.
Despite implementing multiple restrictions and a state of emergency, the country has been struggling in recent weeks to tame a surge in cases.
The Saudi aid, worth $5 million and comprising vaccine doses and medical equipment, was brought to Kuala Lumpur by the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid (KSrelief) on Thursday, just days after the king’s directive to open the air bridge following a request for help from Hussein.
The equipment and vaccines were handed over to the Malaysian government by the Saudi ambassador on Friday.
“On behalf of Malaysia, I extend our deepest appreciation and gratitude,” Hussein said in a statement. “With this most recent contribution, Saudi Arabia is the single largest contributor of COVID-19 assistance to Malaysia.
“His Majesty King Salman’s continued regard for Malaysia, as well as efforts by the government of Saudi Arabia in executing His Majesty’s royal decree proves Saudi Arabia’s sincerity and their resolve to stand with Malaysia during this challenging pandemic.”

FASTFACTS

• $5 million in Saudi aid arrives through special humanitarian air bridge opened by King Salman.

• KSrelief brought over 4.5 million units of medical equipment and 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It is not the first time Saudi Arabia has helped Malaysia with COVID-19 assistance. In May 2020, the Kingdom was one of the first countries to extend its help.
Among the 4.5 million units of medical supplies delivered by KSrelief were ventilators, oxygen concentrators, defibrillators and protective gear, as well as 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will support the immunization drive of the country that has so far vaccinated just 18 percent of its 32 million population. The aid is also widely seen as an indication of the strengthening of ties between Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur.
“It is a great honor and it reflects Saudi Arabia’s sincerity in forging a friendship with Malaysia,” Dr. Khoo Yoong Khean, healthcare administrator and managing editor of the Malaysian Medical Gazette, told Arab News.
He added the help will be of great assistance in addressing the country’s current COVID-19 response.
According to geopolitics expert Prof. Azmi Hassan of the Technology University of Malaysia, the humanitarian assistance comes amid rapidly improving Saudi-Malaysian relations, since Hussein took office as foreign minister last year.
“That is a good sign that the relationship is back on track,” he told Arab News. “This is not only good for the country but for the Muslim community across the world.”


Philippine president drops plan to scrap key military agreement with US

Philippine president drops plan to scrap key military agreement with US
Updated 31 July 2021

Philippine president drops plan to scrap key military agreement with US

Philippine president drops plan to scrap key military agreement with US
  • Decision follows Rodrigo Duterte’s meeting with US Defense Secretary Austin
  • Duterte notified the US government in February 2020 that the Philippines intended to abrogate the agreement

MANILA: A key pact allowing the presence of US forces in the Philippines for military drills and joint exercises has been restored to “full force,” American and Filipino defense chiefs revealed on Friday.

The announcement followed President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to backtrack on plans to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Signed in 1998, the VFA provides rules for the entry of US troops, ships, and aircraft into the Philippines for military exercises. Under the terms of the deal, it can be terminated through written notice by either party, taking effect within 180 days.
Duterte threatened to tear up the accord in February last year after the US Department of State canceled a visa for one of his political allies and he has suspended the termination letter on several occasions since then.
The Filipino president’s decision to keep the agreement followed his meeting on Thursday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who was in Manila on a two-day visit during his first Southeast Asia tour to fortify regional alliances.
During a joint press conference with Austin at Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said: “The VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track. The president (Duterte) decided to recall or retract the termination letter.”
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president decided to continue with the VFA for the sake of his country’s strategic interests under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin handed Austin a letter recalling the termination of the treaty. “As such, upon the instructions of President Duterte, today I handed over to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin the diplomatic note recalling the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said, adding that the Americans had addressed issues over the bilateral security relationship “with good faith.”
The VFA, and all other bilateral military agreements and activities between the US and the Philippines are supplemental to the 1951 MDT, which serves as the foundation for the security relationship between the two countries and requires each to come to the other’s aid if attacked by a third party.
A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in March last year noted that, “while the termination of the VFA would not abrogate the MDT, it would complicate the US defense department’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the treaty.”
During the press conference, Austin said: “On behalf of the US, let me thank President Duterte for his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement. A strong, resilient US-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.”
Austin was the first member of US President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to visit the Philippines, arriving in the country on Thursday wearing a face mask and full-face shield. Although ridiculed by some politicians in America, where coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions have been lifted, Austin’s precautions were welcomed in the Philippines, a nation still struggling to deal with the pandemic and recently forced to reimpose strict new rules to help stop the spread of the virus.
“It clearly shows that Secretary Austin is very much aware of and is abiding by stringent Philippine health protocols,” Department of National Defense spokesman, Arsenio Andolong, told Arab News.

 


Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe
Updated 31 July 2021

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe
  • Clothing manufacturers export nearly 40 percent of their annual output during July and August, as the West prepares for winter collections
  • Authorities in the country ordered all business activity to shut down between July 23 and Aug. 5 in an attempt to halt a surge in COVID-19 cases

DHAKA: Clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh are calling on the government to accelerate vaccination programs for factory workers to save the country’s textile sector. It is suffering because a COVID-19 lockdown has halted production during the peak season for orders from Western countries.

A recent surge in cases of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus forced the government to impose strict health precautions, including a halt to all business activity between July 23 and Aug. 5. As a result, thousands of garment factories had to close — and the timing could not be worse.

This is the time of year when the factories are working on multimillion-dollar orders from major Western clothing brands such as H&M, Inditex and Marks and Spencer for their upcoming winter collections. July and August are the peak months for the Bangladeshi garment sector, during which it exports nearly 40 percent of its annual production.

Industry representatives met Cabinet Secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam on Thursday to appeal to the government to lift the restrictions on garment factories during this crucial period. They also called on authorities speed up the vaccination of factory workers.

Last week, nearly 30,000 workers from factories that supply H&M and Marks and Spencer received a first dose of the Moderna vaccine. But they represent less than 1 percent of the total industry workforce, and the country’s vaccination effort is one of the slowest in the world; only 4.3 million of the country’s 170 million population have been fully vaccinated.

“Once the factories open, we can vaccinate the workers in bulk,” Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told Arab News on Friday. “And it’s very easy, as we noticed during a pilot program that saw the successful inoculation of about 30,000 factory workers in two days.”

Garment manufacturers fear that if they fail to deliver, big brands might turn to factories in other countries. This would deal a major blow to an industry that is the largest in Bangladesh. It employs more than 4 million people, contributes more than 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and accounts for 80 percent of its exports.

“Our industry is completely export-oriented and we produce time-bound products,” said Hassan. “Currently, our factories are working on the next winter and fall season for the Western market. If we fail to export on time our credibility and future business relations will be at stake. Already buyers have stated putting future orders on hold, but they didn’t cancel them.

“If we are allowed to open the factories from the first week of August, we still can recover the losses — otherwise things will be difficult for us.”

The lockdown in Bangladesh comes as many Western countries ease their pandemic restrictions. Apparel sales are rebounding as life begins to return to normal, people order more clothes and big brands prepare for their winter and Christmas seasons.

When Bangladesh went into its first coronavirus lockdown last year, the industry was not too concerned because Western buyers had put their orders on hold because of their own lockdowns. Now, things are different.

“This year, the Western market is fully open,” Hassan said. “People in Europe and America are now keen to buy clothing since they couldn’t do much in the past year.”

Before the pandemic, Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment manufacturer after China, earned $34 billion from exports of apparel. In the 2019-20 fiscal year the value of exports dropped to $28 billion as the pandemic took hold. They recovered to $31 billion during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended in June, raising hopes of a major rebound this year.

It was unclear on Friday whether the factories will be allowed to reopen sooner than planned. The cabinet secretary told the factory owners during Thursday’s meeting that “further decisions would be announced after consulting with the prime minister.”

Criticism of the lockdown is growing, as the strict rules do not appear to be succeeding in slowing the spread of COVID-19. The number of coronavirus-related fatalities continues to hit record highs, with more than 200 deaths since the start of this week alone. The infection rate stood at nearly 31 percent on Friday, higher that it was before the lockdown.

“Our economy has been severely disrupted due to the lockdown,” Zahid Hussain, a former lead economist at the World Bank in Dhaka, told Arab News. “If we are failing to reap the benefits of this lockdown, there is no point in closing the factory operations.”


First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
Updated 30 July 2021

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
  • US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home
  • Evacuation flights highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after U.S. combat forces leave

WASHINGTON: The first flight evacuating Afghans who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan brought more than 200 people, including scores of children and babies in arms, to new lives in the United States on Friday.
US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home.
The launch of the evacuation flights, bringing out former interpreters and others who fear retaliation from Afghanistan’s Taliban for having worked with American troops and civilians, highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after the last US combat forces leave that country in the coming weeks.
Family members are accompanying the interpreters, translators and others on the flights out. The first evacuation flight, an airliner, carried 221 Afghans under the special visa program, including 57 children and 15 infants, according to an internal US government document obtained by The Associated Press.
It touched down in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., after midnight, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
Friday’s flight was “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” Biden said. He said he wanted to honor the military veterans, diplomats and others in the US who have advocated for the Afghans.
“Most of all,” Biden said in a statement, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.’“
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lauded the Afghans for their work alongside Americans and said their arrival demonstrates the US government’s commitment to them.
Friday’s flight was all about “keeping promises,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq war veteran and an advocate on veteran’s issues.
But a refugee agency said the Biden administration appeared to be still scrambling to work out the resettlement of thousands more of the Afghans, and it urged Biden to bring them quickly to the US or a US territory, such as Guam.
“To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement agency, said of the Afghan interpreters.
“We cannot in good conscience put them at risk in third countries with unreliable human rights records, or where the Taliban may be able to reach them,” the resettlement official said.
The Biden administration calls the effort Operation Allies Refuge. The operation has broad backing from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from veterans groups. Supporters cite repeated instances of Taliban forces targeting Afghans who worked with Americans or with the Afghan government.
Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa program.
The United States has been talking with Qatar and Kuwait about temporarily hosting thousands of other Afghan interpreters who are much further behind in their visa application process than Friday’s arrivals.
But US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said Friday that no deal had been closed with those two countries. Concerns about housing Afghans who have not completed their security screenings and uncertainty on the American side about finding funding for the massive relocation effort have remained obstacles, the US officials said.
Biden announced earlier this year the US would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, honoring a withdrawal agreement struck by former President Donald Trump. He later said the US military operation would end on Aug. 31, calling it “overdue.” Some administration officials have expressed surprise at the extent and speed of Taliban gains of territory in the countryside since then.
Biden said that although US troops are leaving Afghanistan, the US will keep supporting Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces and humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.
The newly arrived Afghan people will join 70,000 others who have resettled in the United States since 2008 under the special visa program.
Subsequent flights are due to bring more of the roughly 700 applicants who are furthest along in the process of getting visas, having already won approval and cleared security screening.
The first arrivals were screened for the coronavirus and received vaccines if they wanted them, said Tracey Jacobson, the US diplomat running the effort. They were expected to stay at a hotel on a base in Fort Lee, Virginia, for about seven days, completing medical exams and other final steps, Jacobson said. Resettlement organizations will help them as they travel to communities around the United States, with some bound for family members already here, she said.