Australian officials tighten Sydney lockdown as COVID-19 cases rise

A medical worker prepares to administer a test at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in the wake of new positive cases in Sydney, Australia. (REUTERS file photo)
A medical worker prepares to administer a test at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in the wake of new positive cases in Sydney, Australia. (REUTERS file photo)
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Updated 23 July 2021

Australian officials tighten Sydney lockdown as COVID-19 cases rise

A medical worker prepares to administer a test at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in the wake of new positive cases in Sydney, Australia. (REUTERS file photo)
  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday suspended for at least eight weeks the so-called “travel bubble” with Australia that allows movement between the two countries without quarantine

SYDNEY: Australia’s New South Wales state on Friday reported its biggest daily rise in new COVID-19 cases this year, prompting state officials to tighten lockdown measures in Sydney in what they called a “national emergency.”
State Premier Gladys Berejiklian also flagged the likelihood that stay-home orders for the country’s biggest city would be extended beyond the current end date of July 30.
“There is no doubt that the numbers are not going in the direction we were hoping they would at this stage,” Berejiklian said as she announced 136 new cases in New South Wales.
Total infections in Australia’s worst outbreak since the peak of the pandemic last year have jumped to just over 1,900 since the first case was detected in a Sydney limousine driver transporting international flight crews in mid-June.
The outbreak of the fast-moving Delta strain was carried across borders to the neighboring states of Victoria and South Australia, leading to measures that have put more than half the country’s population in lockdown. That has shut down down large parts of the economy, even as other parts of the world, including Britain and the United States, open up..
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday suspended for at least eight weeks the so-called “travel bubble” with Australia that allows movement between the two countries without quarantine. The arrangement had already been paused for travelers to and from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
Crucially, at least 53 of the new cases in Sydney were infectious in the community before being diagnosed. Authorities have said that figure needs to be near zero for a lockdown in the New South Wales capital to be lifted.
State chief health officer Kerry Chant said a national vaccination program needed to be refocused on the Sydney hotspots.
“I have advised the government today that this is a national emergency, and requires additional measures to reduce the case number,” Chant said.
A formalized “national emergency” would typically unlock federal government funding and other assistance.
In contrast to New South Wales, Victoria state officials reported a fall in new daily cases on Friday to 14, adding that 10 of those were in quarantine during their entire infectious period.

VACCINE ROLLOUT
With just over 32,500 COVID-19 cases and 916 deaths, Australia has fared much better than many other developed economies, but stop-and-start lockdowns and a sluggish vaccine rollout have frustrated residents.
About 15 percent of adult Australians have been fully vaccinated, a rate that is well behind many other developed nations.
Morrison on Thursday apologized for the slow vaccination rollout. His government is targeting full vaccination of the adult population by the end of the year. Just 15 percent have been vaccinated so far.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Friday said the country’s drug regulator has approved the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in children aged 12 to 15, although there were no immediate plans to add that group to the national rollout.
The Sydney lockdown is currently scheduled to run until July 30, while strict stay-home orders in Victoria and South Australia are in place until July 27.


Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties
Updated 19 September 2021

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties
  • France feels excluded from AUKUS and robbed of chance to land a lucrative submarine deal
  • Macron recalls ambassadors from the US and Australia for consultation in show of anger

LONDON: The reaction of France to the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US brings to mind a powerful cartoon published by an American newspaper during the Trump years, when the US president was ruling by executive order to evade Congress.

The cartoon, which appeared in the Buffalo News, depicted the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the US, stabbed in the back not with a dagger but with the president’s pen. Just like Lady Liberty in this cutting depiction, the French must feel as though a dagger is buried between their shoulder blades.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday likened the new Indo-Pacific security alliance, known as AUKUS, to a “stab in the back” and the sort of betrayal that “is not something allies do to each other.”

Because of “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept. 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian announced that Paris would immediately recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation.

French grievances over the deal relate both to its strategic and financial implications. Paris was not only excluded from the Indo-Pacific strategy but has also lost out on a hugely lucrative contract with Australia to build nuclear submarines. Canberra is tapping American tech instead.

The new alliance, announced during a virtual meeting of US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has ignited a firestorm of criticism from France.

While many observers in Washington applauded the pact as a clear challenge to China, others warned that the agreement marks the beginning of a new arms race in the region, or perhaps even a strategic blunder hot on the heels of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.

US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British PM Boris Johnson (R) and Australian PM Scott Morrison on Sept. 15, 2021. (AFP)

Since taking office, Biden has sought to reset America’s frigid relations with its oldest European allies, yet the AUKUS move appears to have had the opposite effect, alienating France and the wider EU.

It has also exposed a potential rift between the US and its European allies on how to handle the growing influence of China. Differing positions on whether to confront or cooperate with Beijing might, as the New York Times recently put it, “redraw the global strategic map.”

The timing of the AUKUS deal could not have been more critical, coming as it did on “the eve of the publication of the EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and as Paris has risen as the main EU strategic actor in the region,” wrote Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.

France's ambassador to the US, Philippe Etienne, has been recalled to Paris for consultations amid a US-France diplomatic row over the sale of submarines to Australia. (AFP file photo)

He predicts the new dynamic will “create a blow to transatlantic strategy in the region and create a lasting hurdle in US-French relations.”

Next week, the White House is due to host the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. “The Quad,” as it is known, is another important pillar of Biden’s China policy.

Beijing views the Quad, and the new AUKUS, as a “clique based on a Cold War ideology and detrimental to the international order.” China’s regional rival India, meanwhile, predictably welcomed the new alliance.

Although Biden, Johnson and Scott did not mention China in their AUKUS announcement, the pact was described in the US as part of the president’s policy to “refocus” American national security and to reorient its military posture toward the Chinese threat.

China's increasingly expanding navy and aggressive actions beyond its borders has spurred the US, Japan, Australia and India to form a strategic alliance. (Shutterstock image)

The administration has sought to justify its abrupt departure from Afghanistan on the grounds that it needs to pool its resources to address the threat emanating from China. Critics might have given the Biden team the benefit of the doubt had the new strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific not come at the expense of US-French relations.

France has good reason to be upset. The new deal with Australia, described as “historic” by the US media and “another step by Western allies to counter China’s strength,” torpedoed the largest military contract Australia has ever awarded — a deal for nuclear submarines worth 90 billion Australian dollars ($65.5 billion), signed in 2017 with the French defense contractor Naval Group.

The US media played down the French reaction to AUKUS and chose not to ruminate over what sort of message the deal might send to America’s allies elsewhere. Instead it focused on the historic nature of the sharing of US nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

Defense News hailed the deal as the first time the US has shared this type of technology with any ally since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, likewise drew a parallel between the new pact and the Eisenhower administration’s policy of sharing nuclear technology with the UK, a policy that caused French President Charles de Gaulle to decry “Anglo-Saxon nuclear cooperation and propelled France to develop its own nuclear capabilities.”

Indeed, much like de Gaulle, French President Emmanuel Macron might well interpret the AUKUS deal as a deliberate Anglo-Saxon snub that undermines its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

France is not a minor player in the region. It is the only European country with a big presence in the Indo-Pacific, including about 7,000 soldiers on active deployment.

Cutting France out of the new strategic architecture represents a blow both to Paris and to Macron, who had prided himself on fostering a good relationship with Biden. The perceived snub could backfire badly for the Anglo-Saxon trio by pushing the French president to seek alliances elsewhere.

Daphné class French submarine under construction in Lorient, France. (Shutterstock photo)

Many observers had expected more from the Biden administration after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the damage this caused to America’s global standing and perceptions of its commitment to its allies. Instead, AUKUS looks like more of the same.

Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, is a francophone who grew up in Paris and has long enjoyed good relations with the French. This had raised hopes of a new flourishing of ties between the two governments. Instead, relations have hit rock bottom.

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting like long-lost friends during then G-7 summit in Cornwall, UK on June 13. (GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File Photo)

The perceived betrayal seems all the more cruel when one takes into consideration how much America has gained from its French connection during the war on terror. In Africa especially, it is French forces who have led operations against Daesh affiliates. Only this week, Macron announced the assassination of Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, the leader of Daesh in the Sahara, who had been accused of killing four Americans.

In Washington, foreign policy watchers currently interpret the rift with Paris as a “tactical error and not a strategic mistake.” But the French beg to differ.

When Blinken recently posted a tweet calling France a “vital partner” in the Pacific, Gerard Araud, the outspoken French former ambassador to Washington, responded sarcastically: “We are deeply moved.”

As Washington sets about redrawing the strategic map in the Indo-Pacific, it would perhaps be wise not to take its oldest friendships for granted. Indeed, if America cannot be counted on to stand by its allies, Washington could find itself short of friends when push comes to shove.

 


Owners of Kashmir’s houseboats fret over ‘ailing heritage’

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 17 sec ago

Owners of Kashmir’s houseboats fret over ‘ailing heritage’

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
  • A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided

NEW DELHI: Manzoor Kundroo wistfully traces his fingers over the intricate woodwork that lines the interiors of the King’s Ring, his family-owned heritage houseboat and one of many stationed on the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir.
It has been the pride of his family for more than 80 years and their main source of revenue but fell into disrepair after a 2009 Kashmir High Court directive banned construction work in the area as part of an environmental policy to protect Dal.
Authorities were also asked to reduce houseboat numbers and not to renew licenses. The order proved devastating for Kundroo and hundreds like him — with owners banned from repairing them, many houseboats began to sink.
A part of King’s Ring sank a few months ago. Today, its woodwork is rotting, and the carpets stink, but Kundroo says he has no money to keep it afloat.
“The boat needs urgent repair work for it to be used, but I have a family to take care of. The money we used to earn from the houseboat was more than enough for us and the boat’s maintenance. Now, it’s not possible,” Kundroo, 39, told Arab News.
A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided.
They were first built on Dal Lake in the late 19th century as a place for Europeans — banned by the Kashmir king from owning land in the region — to reside in.
Over a century later, houseboats rose to more than 3,000 and were often featured in Bollywood films, becoming a tourism mainstay in the disputed Kashmir region.

HIGHLIGHT

With political unrest, COVID-19 curbs impacting tourism to the area, hundreds are unable to repair the houseboats due to limited finances, rigid government policies.

Before they hit rock bottom, the Kundroo family used to earn $800 a month by renting the facility to local and foreign tourists who visited the picturesque valley and its must-see attractions.
Nowadays, however, he and his extended family of 11 reside in an area adjacent to the houseboat, struggling to make ends meet.
There are over 950 houseboats in Srinagar that are part of an industry that has been an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage for over 150 years, despite decades of conflict in the hotly contested region that India and Pakistan claim in entirety but rule in part.
But the aftermath of political unrest in the past two years and loss of tourism to the valley due to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown hundreds of houseboat owners like Kundroo into the deep end.
Driven by the industry’s plight, the government in April said it would allow owners to repair houseboats if they cleared their dues, such as power and water bills, and acquired a No Objection Certificate for repair work, which often takes months to process.

 

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Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’
Updated 18 September 2021

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’
  • The driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization
  • US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a ‘tragic mistake’

KABUL, Afghanistan: Sorry is not enough for the Afghan survivors of an errant US drone strike that killed 10 members of their family, including seven children.
Emal Ahmadi, whose 3-year-old daughter Malika was killed on Aug. 29, when the US hellfire missile struck his elder brother’s car, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the family demands Washington investigate who fired the drone and punish the military personnel responsible for the strike.
“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” said Ahmadi. “The USA. should find the person who did this.”
Ahmadi said the family is also seeking financial compensation for their losses and demanded that several members of the family be relocated to a third country, without specifying which country.
The AP and other news organizations in Kabul reported after the strike that the driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization and cited an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The missile struck as the car was pulling into the family’s driveway and the children ran to greet Zemerai.
On Friday, US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a “tragic mistake,” and after weeks of denials, said that innocent civilians were indeed killed in the attack and not a Daesh extremist as was announced earlier.
The drone strike followed a devastating suicide bombing by the Daesh group — a rival of the Taliban — that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel at one of the gates to the Kabul airport. For days, desperate Afghans had swarmed the checkpoints outside the airport, trying to leave the country amid the chaotic US and NATO troops pullout, fearing for their future under the Taliban.
McKenzie apologized for the error and said the United States is considering making reparation payments to the family of the victims.
Emal Ahmadi, who said he heard of the apology from friends in America, insisted that it won’t bring back members of his family and while he expressed relief for the US apology and recognition that his family were innocent victims, he said he was frustrated that it took weeks of pleading with Washington to at least make a call to the family.
Even as evidence mounted to the contrary, Pentagon officials asserted that the strike had been conducted correctly, to protect the US troops remaining at Kabul’s airport ahead of the final pullout the following day, on Aug. 30.
Looking exhausted, sitting in front of the charred ruins of Zemarai’s car, Ahmadi said he wanted more than an apology form the United States — he wanted justice, including an investigation into who carried out the strike “and I want him punished by the USA.”
In the days before the Pentagon’s apology, accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The AP and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai’s car was struck by the missile — all sharply contradicted the accounts by the US military. Instead, they painted the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the US, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
Zemerai was the family’s breadwinner had looked after his three brothers, including Emal, and their children.
“Now I am then one who is responsible for all my family and I am jobless,” said Emal Ahmadi. The situation “is not good,” said Ahmadi of life under the Taliban. International aid groups and the United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis that could drive most Afghans below the poverty level.
McKenzie said the decision to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” — based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” — that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at the Kabul airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he said.
But Ahmadi wondered how the his family’s home could have been mistaken for a Daesh hideout.
“The USA. can see from everywhere,” he said of US drone capabilities. “They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished.”
“It isn’t right,” he added.


Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout
Updated 18 September 2021

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout
  • The East Indonesia Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several killings of police officers and minority Christians
  • Security operations in Central Sulawesi have intensified in recent months to try to capture members of the network

PALU, Indonesia: Indonesia’s most wanted militant with ties to Daesh was killed Saturday in a gunbattle with security forces, the military said, in a victory for the counterterrorism campaign against extremists in the jungles of Sulawesi island.
Ali Kalora was one of two militants killed in the shootout, said Central Sulawesi’s regional military chief Brig. Gen. Farid Makruf. He identified the other suspected extremist as Jaka Ramadan.
The two men were fatally shot during a raid late Saturday by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district, Makruf said. It borders Poso district, considered an extremist hotbed in the province.
“Ali Kalora was the most wanted terrorist and leader of MIT,” Makruf said, referring to the Indonesian acronym of the East Indonesia Mujahideen network, a militant group that claims allegiance to Daesh. He said that security forces were searching for the four remaining members of the group.
The East Indonesia Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several killings of police officers and minority Christians.
Security operations in Central Sulawesi have intensified in recent months to try to capture members of the network, particularly targeting Ali Kalora, the group’s leader. 

Kalora had eluded capture for more than a decade. He took over from Abu Wardah Santoso, who was killed by security forces in July 2016. Dozens of other leaders and members of the group have been killed or captured since then.
In May, the militants killed four Christians in a village in Poso district, including one who was beheaded. Authorities said the attack was in revenge for the killing in March of two militants, including Santoso's son.
Makruf said that rugged terrain and darkness have hampered efforts to evacuate the two bodies from the scene of the shootout in the forested village of Astina. He said the bodies of Kaloran and his follower will be taken by helicopter on Sunday morning for further investigation and identification.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has kept up a crackdown on militants since bombings on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.
Attacks on foreigners have been largely replaced by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, police and anti-terrorism forces.

 


3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings

3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings
Updated 18 September 2021

3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings

3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings

KABUL: At least three people were killed and about 20 injured in a series of five bomb blasts on Saturday targeting Taliban vehicles in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

The city is the capital of Nangarhar province, a stronghold of the Afghan branch of Daesh that has been active since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in mid-August.

The group carried out a series of bombings at Kabul airport on Aug. 26 that killed more than 180 people trying to flee the country in a Western airlift, but until Saturday there had been no major incidents since US-led NATO troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of August.

Meanwhile the US military has admitted that a drone strike targeting suspected Daesh militants in Kabul last month thatinstead killed seven children and three adult civilians was a mistake.

The strike during the final days of the US pullout was meant to target a Daesh vehicle laden with explosives that US intelligence believed with "reasonable certainty" was planning to attack Kabul airport, said US Central Command chiefGen. Frank McKenzie.

In fact, the driver of the vehicle was Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker for Nutrition and Education International, andthe vehicle was carrying only water containers. Movements that the US military thought suspicious were Ahmadi picking up and dropping off colleagues.

An investigation had concluded that “the strike was a tragic mistake,” McKenzie said, and the US government was looking into how payments for damages could be made to the families of those killed.

“I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

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