UN office says Sri Lanka ship fire causes significant damage

UN office says Sri Lanka ship fire causes significant damage
A Sri Lankan fishing boat operates in the backdrop of the site where the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl, which is sinking after burning for almost three weeks in the sea off Colombo Harbour, in Colombo on June 18, 2021. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 June 2021

UN office says Sri Lanka ship fire causes significant damage

UN office says Sri Lanka ship fire causes significant damage
  • The Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl sank off on Thursday a month after catching fire
  • A UN team of oil spill and chemical experts— provided by the European Union— has been sent to Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: The UN representative in Sri Lanka said the sinking of a container ship that caught fire while transporting chemicals off the capital Colombo has caused “a significant damage to the planet” by releasing hazardous substances into the ecosystem.
The Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl sank off on Thursday a month after catching fire, raising concerns about a possible environmental disaster.
The UN said it was coordinating international efforts and helping Sri Lanka in assessing the damage, recovery efforts and preventing such disasters in the future.
“An environmental emergency of this nature causes significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances into the ecosystem,” UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said in a statement late Saturday. “This in turn threatens lives and livelihoods of the population in the coastal areas.”
A UN team of oil spill and chemical experts— provided by the European Union— has been sent to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has already submitted an interim claim of $40 million to X-Press Feeders to cover part of the cost of fighting the fire, which broke out on May 20 when the vessel was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometers) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port.
The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, which included 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals, most of which were destroyed in the fire. But debris including burned fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets have already polluted nearby beaches.
A ship manifest seen by The Associated Press said the ship carrying just under 1,500 containers, with 81 of those described as “dangerous” goods.
The main concern has been about 300 tons of bunker oil used as fuel for the ship. But officials have been saying it could have burned off in the fire.
Both Sri Lankan authorities and the ship’s operator, X-Press Feeders, have said so far there is no sign of an oil spill.


Sydney suffers deadliest day of pandemic as lockdown nears seventh week

Sydney suffers deadliest day of pandemic as lockdown nears seventh week
Updated 10 min 26 sec ago

Sydney suffers deadliest day of pandemic as lockdown nears seventh week

Sydney suffers deadliest day of pandemic as lockdown nears seventh week
  • Sydney struggles to contain the highly contagious Delta virus strain
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under fire for a sluggish national immunization drive

SYDNEY: Sydney recorded its deadliest day of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday as authorities launched an investigation into a beach party suspected of spreading the virus into a region outside the city, triggering a snap one-week lockdown there.
Sydney, Australia’s largest city which is nearing its seventh week of a planned nine-week lockdown, reported five deaths and a record daily rise in infections as it struggles to contain the highly contagious Delta virus strain.
Four of the five people who died were unvaccinated while one had one dose, state health officials said, as they implored residents to get inoculated as early as possible.
The nearby Hunter region, home to New South Wales state’s second-largest city of Newcastle, was locked down from Thursday evening after six new cases. The orders place an additional 615,000 people under strict stay-at-home orders, raising the total to 6 million people in the state.
Together with the northern city of Brisbane and it surrounds, about a third of Australia’s 25 million population is under stay-home orders.
Officials suspect the virus in the Hunter region spread from a beach party near Newcastle after people traveled from Sydney, an apparent violation of the city’s lockdown.
“Our strongest focus ... is getting to the bottom of how the disease was transmitted and introduced into Newcastle,” New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant told reporters in Sydney.
New South Wales reported a record 262 new cases, most of them in Sydney, exceeding the previous daily high of 239 on Sunday, with officials blaming the Delta strain for a significant number of younger people in hospitals.
“As older people become vaccinated ... COVID will predominantly affect the unvaccinated, in this case younger people,” Alexandra Martiniuk, epidemiologist at the University Of Sydney, told Reuters.
Sydney is in shock after the death of a healthy 27-year-old man from the coronavirus on Wednesday — the state’s youngest on record.
With around 35,200 COVID-19 cases and 932 deaths, Australia has avoided the high caseloads of other developed countries but its vaccination figures are among the lowest, with only 20 percent of its population over 16 fully vaccinated.
New South Wales health officials are imploring residents, especially people above 60, to get inoculated.
The five deaths in Sydney included three men in their 60s, one man in his 70s and a woman in her 80s, taking the total number of deaths in the latest outbreak in New South Wales to 21.
Health experts expect the country to endure stop-and-start lockdowns until it reaches a high vaccination coverage although New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said she might ease some restrictions in Sydney when half the state’s adult population get vaccinated.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also under fire for a sluggish national immunization drive, which critics say has forced Sydney into the months-long lockdown, shut large swathes of the economy and likely tipped Australia into its second recession in as many years.
“I’m a fortunate one to be in essential service, so I’m still working, still getting paid. For other people it’s a mixed bag. Some people are taking it really well and others not so well,” Keirom O’Donoughue, a pharmacy salesperson in one of the worst-affected suburbs of Bankstown in Sydney, told Reuters.
Neighboring Victoria and Queensland states are also on alert after new cases rose.
Victoria, which ended a lockdown only weeks ago, reported eight new cases, raising the prospect of more tight curbs.
In Brisbane, another 16 COVID-19 cases were reported, the same as the previous two days.


Malaysian PM does not have majority support, say opposition and ally

Malaysian PM does not have majority support, say opposition and ally
Updated 05 August 2021

Malaysian PM does not have majority support, say opposition and ally

Malaysian PM does not have majority support, say opposition and ally
  • The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) also challenged the premier

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 5 : Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin does not have a majority as he has asserted, the main opposition bloc and a key ally said, predicting that he could lose a confidence vote next month.
On Wednesday, Muhyiddin said he retained majority support among lawmakers and would prove it through a confidence vote when Malaysia’s parliament reconvened next month. His comments followed the withdrawal of support from some members of his coalition.
Muhyiddin’s grip on power has been shaky since coming to power in March 2020 as he leads an unstable coalition. The latest crisis comes as Malaysia sees a resurgence in COVID-19 infections and economic slowdown from lockdowns.
The main opposition bloc, Pakatan Harapan, disputed Muhyiddin’s majority claim and called for an immediate vote.
“After Pakatan Harapan leaders made careful calculations with friends from opposition parties and all who do not support Muhyiddin, it is clear that Muhyiddin did not speak the truth,” the bloc said in a statement on Thursday.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the biggest bloc in Muhyiddin’s ruling alliance, also challenged the premier.
In a statement on Wednesday, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said more than eight lawmakers from the party have withdrawn support.
UMNO has constantly challenged Muhyiddin even after agreeing to form a government with him last year. But the party is split on its support for the prime minister — a factor that has kept Muhyiddin in power despite threats from UMNO to quit.
Deputy prime minister and UMNO politician Ismail Sabri Yaakob has stood by Muhyiddin and appeared along with him in a televised address on Wednesday.
Muhyiddin said the political turmoil was triggered by “certain parties” whose demands he had refused to meet, including freeing individuals facing corruption charges.
Several UMNO lawmakers face corruption charges since the party’s defeat in 2018 elections, including former premier Najib Razak and party president Hamidi.
They have both denied wrongdoing.


US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers
Updated 05 August 2021

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers
  • Requirement would come as part of the administration’s phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens to the country
WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is taking the first steps toward requiring nearly all foreign visitors to the US to be vaccinated for the coronavirus, a White House official said.
The requirement would come as part of the administration’s phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens to the country. No timeline has yet been determined, as interagency working groups study how and when to safely move toward resuming normal travel. Eventually all foreign citizens entering the country, with some limited exceptions, are expected to need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the US.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity Wednesday to preview the policy under development.
The Biden administration has kept in place travel restrictions that have severely curtailed international trips to the US, citing the spread of the delta variant of the virus.
Under the rules, non-US residents who have been to China, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa and India in the prior 14 days are prohibited from entering the US
All travelers to the US, regardless of vaccination status, are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of air travel to the country.
The Biden administration has faced pressure to lift some restrictions from affected allies, the air travel industry and families who have been kept separated from loved ones by the rules. Many have complained that the travel restrictions don’t reflect the current virus situation — particularly as caseloads in the US are worse than in many of the prohibited nations.
Airlines for America, a trade group for major US airlines, said it was pleased by reports that the administration plans to make it easier for more foreign travelers to enter the country if they have been vaccinated.

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims
Updated 05 August 2021

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims
  • Online retailer Nadia Casar was allegedly kidnapped, held to ransom and killed by a group of police officers and civilians. Her body was burned
  • Community leaders and politicians condemned the gruesome killing and call on police chief to end discrimination against the Islamic community

MANILA: The gruesome murder of a Muslim woman in the Philippines has caused anger and outrage among the Islamic community in the country. Businesswoman Nadia Casar was allegedly kidnapped, held to ransom and killed by a group of police officers and civilians. Her body was burned.

“The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) strongly condemns the brutal slaying and corpse desecration by burning of Muslim Filipino businesswoman Nadia Casar,” said Dimapuno Datu-Ramos, a spokesman for the commission. “She was allegedly killed by members of the police.”

At least five police officers are accused of involvement in the death of Casar. They are: Benedict Matias Reyes, a staff sergeant from the Santa Rosa municipal police station in Nueva Ecija; June Malillin, a staff sergeant from Palayan City police station; Julius Alcantara, a corporal from Nueva Ecija Provincial Police Drug Enforcement; Rowen Martin, a master sergeant from the Cabanatuan City police station; and Drextemir Esmundo, a staff sergeant from the Cabiao municipal police station.

Two civilian suspects have also been named: Franklin Macapagal and Dario Robarios.

According to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), 35-year-old online retailer Casar hired a ride-share driver on July 20 to take her from Cavite province in southern Luzon to Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija, in Central Luzon, for a business meeting with Macapagal. The driver was taking her back to Cavite after the meeting when, at about 1.45 p.m. they found the road blocked by a pick-up truck and two motorcycles. Five armed men are said to have got out of the vehicle and kidnapped them.

Police said the driver was robbed of his belongings, including 4,500 pesos ($90) in cash, and released at about 3.00 a.m. on July 21. Casar’s charred remains were discovered on Aug. 1 in a shallow grave in Sitio Pinagpala, Barangay Imelda Valley, Palayan City.

The suspects came to the attention of the AKG after the ride-share driver said he recognized one of them as an officer in a group photograph hanging on the wall of a police station in Santa Rosa police station. This led them to Reyes, who was arrested on July 29. Two days later, Alcantara voluntarily surrendered himself and was taken into custody. Malillin reportedly admitted his role in the crime, and Alcantara implicated Martin and Esmundo, who are still at large.

Robarios, the caretaker of a house where Casar was allegedly held captive, was arrested in a follow-up operation. He reportedly confessed and claimed that Malillin, Martin, and Esmundo had ordered him to bury Casar’s remains. Macapagal, who has also eluded arrest, was identified from a driver’s license found inside the house.

The ride-share driver reportedly told investigators he “heard one of the suspects order Casar to tell her family that they have to pay a ransom in exchange for her release.” Investigators suspect she was killed when her relatives were unable to pay.

“We call upon PNP chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar to fulfill his commitment to cleanse his ranks of … criminals,” said NCMF spokesman Datu-Ramos. “The Muslim Filipino community has long been patient with the promises made by the PNP to protect all Filipinos, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

“This abhorrent crime is a violation of Philippine Law, a transgression of basic human rights, and a blatant disregard of the Islamic rituals in handling the dead. This must not be ignored.

“NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan also calls upon the country’s leaders … to create legislation that would ensure the safety of minorities who have been repeatedly targeted by corrupt men in uniform. A heavier sanction must be placed upon those who have sworn to protect all life, yet have been proven to abuse their power and authority.”

Mujiv Hataman, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and the representative for Basilan, also condemned the killing, and called on Eleazar to ensure an “exhaustive investigation” of the case.

“It is reprehensible to think that those who are supposed to protect and serve the people are the same ones behind this savagery,” Hataman said. “Casar’s case was not an isolated case, since there have been reports in the past about Muslims, especially traders, becoming victims of abuse, being robbed and some of them even getting killed by rogue policemen.

“I urge the PNP to investigate the occurrences of crimes perpetrated by wayward members of the police against Muslims, to put an end to these kinds of incidents,” he added, and called on the PNP to take action to “stop discrimination against their Muslim brothers.”

He highlighted as an example the case of a Muslim couple from Lanao del Sur who died in a robbery and shooting incident in Pasay City that was committed by “policemen in uniform,” according to witnesses.

In another incident last year, Hataman said, members of the Manila police were involved in an eight-hour standoff with the family and neighbors of two Muslim jewelry traders in the capital’s San Andres Bukid district. Officers allegedly searched and arrested the victims without a warrant and without identifying themselves. Hataman and other politicians filed a resolution in June last year calling for an investigation into the incident.

Eleazar assured Casar’s family that “justice will be served” in the case and he had ordered the immediate dismissal of the five accused officers. He said he has also tasked the AKG and the Integrity Monitoring and Enforcement Group to launch search operations to find the remaining suspects.

“We strongly condemn this incident,” he said. “I will make sure that the policemen involved in the kidnapping and killing of Nadia Casar will be dismissed from the service and held accountable for their crime.”

He added that he has additionally ordered an investigation to determine whether other police officers have been involved in kidnap-for-ransom activities.


Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
Updated 05 August 2021

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
  • Group aims for accord that ‘observes Islamic aspirations’ of Afghans, spokesman says

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday refuted US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s assertions that it was seeking a “lion’s share of power” in a future government, terming it as a “personal view,” as fighting worsens across Afghanistan and foreign troops inch closer to completing a withdrawal mission by month-end.

“That is his personal view. We heard Khalilzad’s comments, but our stance is that we want an accord that can observe the Islamic aspirations of the people,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News, adding that the group was “not after a monopoly of power or eyeing a key share.”

“We do not want anything for ourselves; we have given lofty sacrifices for Islam. The nation is exhausted. There will definitely be a complete Islamic government, and all sides will have to accept this … All Afghans will be given a share in it,” he added.

The comments follow Khalilzad’s remarks during a virtual conference of the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday when he said: “At this point, (the Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion’s share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it.”

He added that the Taliban and the Kabul government “are far apart” in US-backed peace negotiations, which began in Doha, Qatar, nearly a year ago.

The intra-Afghan talks were the first formal step to politically settle a decades-old conflict that began after the Taliban were toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Khalilzad was the chief architect of the controversial, behind-the-door negotiations between the US and the Taliban, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration were excluded from.

They led to the signing of a conditional agreement on Feb. 29 in Qatar between former US President Donald Trump’s administration and Taliban representatives based on which US and NATO troops were to pull out of Afghanistan as part of a 14-month process that began on May 1 and is scheduled to complete on Aug. 31.

Since then, Khalilzad has played a crucial role in facilitating the talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government in Doha and, in March, proposed the formation of an inclusive interim government to replace Ghani, whose term ends in 2024.

Both groups have failed to make headway in the Doha talks, which was the subject of a phone call on Tuesday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ghani, who agreed on the need to accelerate the peace process.

This comes a day after Ghani, during a special parliamentary session, called for a nationwide war against the Taliban, who have made significant gains in several parts of Afghanistan and after an overnight attack in Kabul on the defense minister’s home.

“Eight non-combatants, including a woman, were killed in the attack on the home of Defense Minister Gen. Besmillah Khan in Kabul,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told reporters on Wednesday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike.

“We were behind the strike,” Mujahid said. “The attack was in response to the airstrikes by the defense ministry.” 

Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security on Washington’s “abrupt” decision to withdraw its troops.

Presenting his security plan before parliament on Monday, Ghani said the situation in the war-torn nation would be “under control within six months,” adding that the US has pledged its full support.

The gap left by departing troops has emboldened the Taliban, who have intensified their insurgency since early May, targeting Afghan government forces and stepping up attacks on Herat in the west, Kandahar, and the adjacent Helmand province in the south — three major regions — since last week.

Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has taken the brunt of the fighting.

Both Taliban and government officials said fighting was “intense” on Wednesday in various parts of Lashkar Gah, where the group has made significant inroads.

A lawmaker from Helmand, Mirwais Khadem, said the Taliban were “in control of all parts of the city,” except for a series of government buildings, such as the governor’s compound, police and intelligence headquarters and the central prison.

“I can say that there is street-to-street fighting in Lashkar Gah now. The Taliban have taken shelter in people’s homes. Afghan troops fire back on them, and there are bombardments both by the government and US forces,” Khadem told Arab News.

He chided the army’s move asking residents to “flee from their homes” in Taliban-held areas.

“This decision of the government is not appropriate. We urged the government to go instead to a desert where there are no residential homes. Both the Taliban and the government can fight there and decide who will be the winner and will be defeated,” he said.

“But the government did not accept it. Asking civilians in the middle of the war to leave their homes, without arrangements for shelter, food and other necessities in this hot weather is not fair,” Khadem added.

He explained that “there were casualties among civilians both from shelling and air raids in Lashkar Gah” but could not provide the exact fatality count.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said casualties were “mounting” in Lashkar Gah.

“There has been relentless gunfire, airstrikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,” Sarah Leahy, the aid group’s coordinator for Helmand, said in a statement.

The loss of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban would be a massive blow for Kabul, which has pledged to safeguard provincial capitals “at all costs” after losing much of the countryside to the insurgent group over the summer.

US-led troops have stepped up aerial attacks on suspected Taliban positions to support Afghan forces and block Taliban advances.

Experts say the measures are too little, too late.

“American forces do not want to see the fall of any major city to the Taliban before their exit. That is why they continue providing air support for national forces,” Torek Farhadi, an analyst and former adviser to former President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News.

“But these attacks cause civilian casualties, such as the ones we saw in Helmand. This is not good for the Kabul government,” he added.

Nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in May and June amid an uptick in violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, the highest number for those two months since records started in 2009, the UN’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said in a July report.

By then, it had documented 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, of which 1,659 were deaths. The number was up 47 percent from the same period last year.