Mysterious ‘Havana’ syndrome imperils US diplomats, delays trip of VP Harris

Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (R) meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris at the government office in Hanoi on August 25, 2021. (AFP/Pool)
Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (R) meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris at the government office in Hanoi on August 25, 2021. (AFP/Pool)
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Updated 26 August 2021

Mysterious ‘Havana’ syndrome imperils US diplomats, delays trip of VP Harris

Mysterious ‘Havana’ syndrome imperils US diplomats, delays trip of VP Harris
  • US embassy in Hanoi reported a possible case involving “acoustic incidents” there, forcing VP Harris to delay Vietnam trip for several hours

WASHINGTON: A mysterious affliction dubbed “Havana Syndrome” that has brought severe headaches, nausea and possible brain damage to US diplomats has many officials convinced they are under sustained attack using electronic weapons.
On Tuesday, US Vice President Kamala Harris delayed for several hours a trip to Vietnam after the US embassy in Hanoi reported a possible case involving “acoustic incidents” there, raising concern she could be a target.
Ultimately Harris did go to Hanoi, and the State Department said it was investigating a case of what the US government officially dubs an “anomalous health incident” or AHI.
It was the most recent of dozens of such cases reported by US diplomats and intelligence officers since 2016, first in Cuba, then in China, Germany, Australia, Taiwan and in Washington itself.
In July, the New Yorker magazine reported there have been dozens of cases among US officials in Vienna, Austria since the beginning of 2021.
Amid concerns a powerful rival, possibly Russia, is mounting the attacks, the State Department has warned its thousands of diplomats of the threat while also carrying out extensive medical checks on those heading abroad so as to better measure any effects of future attacks.
“We take each report we receive extremely seriously and are working to ensure that affected employees get the care and support they need,” a department spokesperson said.
The number of reported incidents among US officials has been kept under wraps.
After the Hanoi incident, former CIA operative Marc Polymeropoulos, himself a victim in Moscow in 2017, said the volume of attacks appeared to be mounting.
“It would seem to me that our adversaries are sending a clear message that they are not only able to get at our intelligence officers, diplomats and US military officers,” Polymeropoulos told the Cipher Brief Open Source Report on Wednesday.
“This is a message that they can get at our senior VIPs.”


The syndrome has almost uniformly affected US officials.
However, in 2017, Canadian diplomats and their families in Havana reported several of their own cases, months after the first among Americans.
In some cases, people have reported hearing focused, high-pitched or sharp sounds that left them nauseated.
Sometimes the afflicted had bloody noses, headaches and other symptoms that resembled concussions.
The incidents were little understood and sparked theories they were caused by a weapon that used focused microwaves, ultrasound, poison or even were a reaction to crickets.
But for several years, senior government officials dismissed the complaints, judging them to be the symptoms of people under stress or reacting with hysteria to unknown stimuli.
Still, the administration of former president Donald Trump pulled US staff out of Havana and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, hinting that either the Cuban or Russian government was behind the attacks.
At the end of 2020, the National Academy of Sciences studied the available cases and concluded they appeared to represent a distinctive set of symptoms unlike any other known disorder.
Their report noted there was wide variance among the known cases, not all tied to a perceived sharp, directed sound.
But it said the best explanation would be pulsed, directed microwaves.
In March, the CIA created a task force to study the problem.
But on August 9, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said after a meeting of senior cabinet officials that they remained stumped.
The officials unanimously agreed “it is a top priority to identify the cause of AHI, provide the highest level of care to those affected and prevent such incidents from continuing,” Haines said.
pmh/sw


British far-right groups target hotels housing Afghans

British far-right groups target hotels housing Afghans
Updated 36 sec ago

British far-right groups target hotels housing Afghans

British far-right groups target hotels housing Afghans
  • Islamophobic campaigns include filming refugees, making baseless accusations, lobbying MPs
  • Extremism monitor: Far right ‘reviving and refining similar attacks used during Syria crisis’

LONDON: Thousands of Afghans housed temporarily in British hotels have faced increasing harassment by far-right groups, according to organizations monitoring the activities of extremists.

Campaigners said the groups are drawing on Islamophobic narratives to whip up hate against the refugees.

Britain First is one of the most notorious and prominent groups involved in the campaign, and according to its own website, it has made more than a dozen unsolicited visits to hotels housing refugees across England in recent weeks.

Right-wing extremism monitor Hope Not Hate said the resettlement schemesfor Afghans have become a focal point for many far-right groups.

It said the arrival of the refugees has led to the far right “reviving, and refining, similar attacks used during the Syria crisis.”

The far right, it added, is using ideas rooted in Islamophobia such as the “Muslim takeover of Europe,” or framing refugees as potential terrorists or sex offenders, to incite hatred against them.

In the videos, far-right activists are seen filming themselves showing up at hotels and trying to find and film refugees, who they incorrectly describe as illegal immigrants.

They usually say they are filming for social media instead of identifying their organization, and are often escorted from the premises by staff.

Banned from traditional social media, some of Britain First’s videos on Telegram of the hotel harassment have accrued views of up to 40,000.

Many of the Afghans who have been evacuated to the UK were taken out of their country because they worked closely with British forces during the two-decade war. Around 8,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan to Britain in total.

Far-right groups cite the alleged financial burden on the British taxpayer of resettling Afghans, and claim that they will also hurt British wallets because of the increased unemployment costs of new migration.

They have also made baseless accusations in the past that male refugees were harassing local schoolgirls — a claim discredited by police.

One group, Patriotic Alternative — a white nationalist political group — is promoting a “write to your MP” action to its followers to protest the resettlement of Afghans in Britain. They have also unfurled banners with the words “we will not be replaced” to protest the resettlement of Afghans in Britain, including one in Home Secretary Priti Patel’s constituency.

A spokesperson for Hope Not Hate told The Guardian: “It’s grimly predictable to see the far-right harassing Afghan refugees where they are living. Immigration has long been a focus of the far-right, but they have capitalized on the Afghan resettlement scheme to bring together Islamophobic tropes with anti-migrant hate.

“They are using Islamophobic narratives of a ‘Muslim takeover of Europe,’ framing refugees as potential terrorists or sexual predators, and underpinning these with a rejection of the political system to offer a hateful alternative.”


Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone
Updated 16 min 30 sec ago

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone

Virus outlier Sweden passes grim COVID-19 milestone
  • An official said it was difficult to say whether Sweden has an unusually high excess mortality due to the virus
  • Denmark has recorded 2,703 deaths, Norway 895 and Finland nearly 1,150

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Sweden which has stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic, has passed the threshold of 15,000 deaths with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to official figures released Tuesday.
Thomas Linden of the National Board of Health and Welfare, told Swedish public radio that it was difficult to say whether Sweden has an unusually high excess mortality due to the virus.
“Internationally, Sweden has not had a higher mortality rate. But if you compare with the other Nordic countries, we are significantly higher,” Linden told SR.
In comparison, Denmark has recorded 2,703 deaths, Norway 895 and Finland nearly 1,150. Each of those countries has slightly over half as many people as Sweden.
According to the Public Health Agency of Sweden, 15,002 people — 6,793 women and 8,209 men — have died with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Sweden had opted for keeping large sections of society open. It has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control infections.


Iran says cyberattack behind widespread disruption at gas stations

Iran says cyberattack behind widespread disruption at gas stations
Updated 26 October 2021

Iran says cyberattack behind widespread disruption at gas stations

Iran says cyberattack behind widespread disruption at gas stations
  • "The disruption at the refuelling system of gas stations... in the past few hours, was caused by a cyberattack," state broadcaster IRIB said
  • The disruptions came ahead of the second anniversary of a November 19 increase in fuel prices

DUBAI: A cyberattack disrupted the sale of heavily subsidised gasoline in Iran on Tuesday, state media reported, causing long lines at gas stations across the country.
“The disruption at the refueling system of gas stations... in the past few hours, was caused by a cyberattack,” state broadcaster IRIB said. “Technical experts are fixing the problem and soon the refueling process...will return to normal.”
The disruptions came ahead of the second anniversary of a November 19 increase in fuel prices which led to widespread street protests in which hundreds were reported to have been killed by security forces.
The oil ministry said only sales with smart cards used for cheaper rationed gasoline were disrupted and clients could still buy fuel at higher rates, the ministry’s news agency SHANA reported.
Videos posted on social media showed apparently-hacked street signs carrying messages such as “Khamenei, where is our gasoline?,” in a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reuters could not independently authenticate the videos.
In the past, Iran has been targeted by a series of cyberattacks such as one in July when the website of the transport ministry was taken down by what state media said was a “cyber disruption.”
Iran says it is on high alert for online assaults, which it has blamed in the past on the United States and Israel.
The United States and other Western powers meanwhile have accused Iran of trying to disrupt and break into their networks.


Japan offers Libya an ‘Electoral Assistance Grant Aid Plan’

Japan offers Libya an ‘Electoral Assistance Grant Aid Plan’
Updated 26 October 2021

Japan offers Libya an ‘Electoral Assistance Grant Aid Plan’

Japan offers Libya an ‘Electoral Assistance Grant Aid Plan’

TOKYO: Japan signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to provide Libya with 198 million yen ($1.8 million) grant aid for supporting local election programs.

The agreement was reached on Oct. 24 at the Japanese embassy in Tripoli and signed by Yuki Tenji, the Japanese temporary deputy ambassador, the special coordinator of Libya Mark Andre Franche, and the UNDP Libya Office.

According to the foreign ministry in Tokyo, this aid will help conduct smooth, free, and fair national elections scheduled throughout Libya for December and will be the first step in establishing a legitimate unified government representing the Libyan people.   

The aid will provide the National Electoral Commission with ballot boxes and other election-related equipment, thus contributing to the realization of a peaceful and safe society.

Libya covers an area of ​​1.76 million square kilometers, has a population of about 6.78 million and has a per capita gross national income of US $7,640, the ministry said.

This story was originally published in Japanese on Arab News Japan


China locks down city of four million over COVID-19 cases

China locks down city of four million over COVID-19 cases
Updated 26 October 2021

China locks down city of four million over COVID-19 cases

China locks down city of four million over COVID-19 cases
  • Beijing imposed strict border controls after the coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019
  • The latest outbreak has been linked to the highly contagious Delta variant

BEIJING: China placed a city of four million people under lockdown on Tuesday, ordering them not to leave home except in emergencies, in a bid to eradicate a COVID-19 cluster of just a few dozen confirmed cases.
Beijing imposed strict border controls after the coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019, slowing the number of cases to a trickle and allowing the economy to bounce back.
But as the rest of the world opens up and tries to find ways to live with the virus, China has maintained a zero COVID-19 approach that has seen harsh local lockdowns imposed over handfuls of cases.
Tuesday’s fresh restrictions came as China reported 29 new domestic infections — including six in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province in the country’s northwest.
The latest outbreak has been linked to the highly contagious Delta variant, with the tally hitting 198 cases since October 17.
Thirty-nine have been in Lanzhou.
Residents of the city will now be required to stay at home, authorities said in a statement, with the “entry and exit of residents” strictly controlled and limited to essential supplies or medical treatment.
Bus and taxi services had already been stopped in the city, and state media said Tuesday that Lanzhou station had suspended more than 70 trains, including on key routes to Beijing and Xi’an.
A Southern Airlines representative said that all its flights from Beijing’s Daxing airport to Lanzhou were canceled due to public safety, with no resumption date given.
Health officials have warned that more infections may emerge as testing is ramped up in the coming days to fight the outbreak, which has been linked to a group of domestic tourists who traveled from Shanghai to several other provinces.
Strict stay-at-home orders have already been imposed on tens of thousands of people in northern China.
In Beijing — which reported three new cases Tuesday — access to tourist sites has been limited and the prominent Lama Temple was shuttered, while residents were advised not to leave the capital unless necessary.
About 23,000 residents in one housing compound in Changping district have been ordered to stay indoors after nine cases were found there in recent days, local outlet Beijing News reported.
Community mahjong and chess rooms have been closed, and residents have been told to reduce large gatherings.
Organizers on Sunday indefinitely postponed a marathon at which 30,000 runners were expected.
Mass testing is under way in 11 provinces and authorities have suspended many inter-provincial tour groups.
While the country’s case numbers are extremely low compared with elsewhere in the world, authorities are determined to stamp out the latest outbreak with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing just over 100 days away.
As part of China’s strict enforcement of the zero COVID-19 policy, those deemed to have failed in controlling COVID-19 are often dismissed from their posts or punished.
On Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the party secretary of Ejin Banner in the northern Inner Mongolia region had been sacked, “due to poor performance and implementation in epidemic prevention and control.”
Hit by the latest wave, the city locked down about 35,000 residents from Monday.
Around 10,000 tourists were also placed under lockdown in Ejin, according to local media reports.
Six other officials were punished for their “slack response” to the latest flare-up, state media reported, and a local police bureau deputy director was removed from their position.
Beijing police have launched three criminal investigations into alleged COVID-19 safety breaches, deputy director of the city’s public security bureau said Sunday.