South Sudan facing ‘new wave of repression’, Amnesty warns

South Sudan facing ‘new wave of repression’, Amnesty warns
South Sudan National Police Service officers sit in a pickup truck while they gather ahead of patrolling the streets of Juba, South Sudan, that is witnessing a "new wave of repression", global rights group Amnesty International warned Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 03 September 2021

South Sudan facing ‘new wave of repression’, Amnesty warns

South Sudan facing ‘new wave of repression’, Amnesty warns
  • The world's newest nation has suffered from chronic instability since independence in 2011
  • The clampdown followed a declaration last month by the People's Coalition for Civil Action calling for a peaceful public uprising

NAIROBI: South Sudan is witnessing a “new wave of repression,” global rights group Amnesty International warned Friday, with many activists now in hiding after a string of arrests in the conflict-wracked country.
The world’s newest nation has suffered from chronic instability since independence in 2011, with a coalition of civil society groups urging the government to step down, saying they have “had enough.”
The authorities have taken a tough line against such demands in recent weeks, arresting eight activists as well as detaining three journalists and two employees of a pro-democracy non-profit, according to rights groups.
“We are witnessing a new wave of repression emerging in South Sudan targeting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa.
The clampdown followed a declaration last month by the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA) calling for a peaceful public uprising.
The PCCA had urged the public to join its protest on Monday in the capital Juba but the city fell silent as the authorities branded the demonstration “illegal” and deployed heavily-armed security forces to monitor the streets for any sign of opposition.
“Peaceful protests must be facilitated rather than cracked down upon or prevented with arrests, harassment, heavy security deployment or any other punitive measures,” Muchena said in a statement.
The rights group noted that many activists had faced harassment since the aborted demonstration, “with some suspecting they were being surveilled by security forces.”
The authorities have also shut down a radio station and a think tank in connection with the protests.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, on Friday condemned the closure of the radio station and called for “an immediate end to the harassment of South Sudanese reporters.”
“The undisguised hostility of the authorities toward the media highlights how difficult it is for journalists to cover politics in South Sudan, where at least ten have been killed since 2014,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.
South Sudan is ranked 139th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
In a statement released on Friday, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Norway urged the South Sudan government to protect “the rights of citizens... to express their views in a peaceful manner, without fear of arrest.”
Since achieving independence from Sudan in 2011, the young nation has been in the throes of a chronic economic and political crisis, and is struggling to recover from the aftermath of a five-year civil war that left nearly 400,000 people dead.
Although a 2018 cease-fire and power-sharing deal between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar still largely holds, it is being sorely tested, with little progress made in fulfilling the terms of the peace process.
The PCCA — a broad-based coalition of activists, academics, lawyers and former government officials — has described the current regime as “a bankrupt political system that has become so dangerous and has subjected our people to immense suffering.”


Australia detects first COVID Omicron infections

Australia detects first COVID Omicron infections
Updated 57 min 52 sec ago

Australia detects first COVID Omicron infections

Australia detects first COVID Omicron infections
  • Both passengers came from southern Africa and arrived in Australia
  • Another 12 passengers from southern Africa in the same flight did not test positive for COVID-19 but have been placed in quarantine

SYDNEY: Health officials in Australia said Sunday they had detected the COVID-19 Omicron strain for the first time after testing two passengers from southern Africa who flew into Sydney.
The eastern state of New South Wales’ health authority said it had conducted urgent genomic testing and confirmed the new strain was present in two passengers who landed in Sydney on Saturday.
Both passengers came from southern Africa and arrived in Australia on a Qatar Airways flight via Doha, NSW Health said in a statement.
They tested positive for Covid shortly after arriving, leading to an urgent analysis for possible infection by the heavily mutated Omicron strain.
“The two positive cases, who were asymptomatic, are in isolation in the special health accommodation. Both people are fully vaccinated,” NSW Health said.
Another 12 passengers from southern Africa in the same flight did not test positive for COVID-19 but have been placed in quarantine, it said.
About 260 passengers and crew on the plane have also been told to isolate, the health authority said.


Pakistan says militants kill 2 soldiers near Afghan border

Pakistan says militants kill 2 soldiers near Afghan border
Updated 28 November 2021

Pakistan says militants kill 2 soldiers near Afghan border

Pakistan says militants kill 2 soldiers near Afghan border
  • No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Militants targeted a Pakistani military post in the northwestern tribal belt near the Afghan border, killing two soldiers in a firefight, the army said in a statement.
The Pakistani army’s media wing said late Saturday that militants attacked a post in the Datta Khel area of the district of North Waziristan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The area is a former militant stronghold.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
During an intense exchange of gunfire two soldiers were killed, the military said, adding that a search of the area was being carried out to find the militants. It gave no indication of the identity of the attackers.
North Waziristan for years served as a safe haven for militants until the military carried out massive operations to try to clear the area. That forced the militants either to escape across the border into Afghanistan or hide in other mountainous areas near the border. Still, militants often strike against security forces.
Pakistan is holding talks with Islamic militants known as the Pakistani Taliban with the help of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. There is a temporary cease-fire in place.


China study warns of ‘colossal’ COVID outbreak if it opens up like US, France

China study warns of ‘colossal’ COVID outbreak if it opens up like US, France
Updated 28 November 2021

China study warns of ‘colossal’ COVID outbreak if it opens up like US, France

China study warns of ‘colossal’ COVID outbreak if it opens up like US, France
  • China’s daily new cases would reach at least 637,155 if it adopted the United States’ pandemic strategy, the report said

BEIJING: China could face more than 630,000 COVID-19 infections a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance policies by lifting travel curbs, according to a study by Peking University mathematicians.
In the report published in China CDC Weekly by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the mathematicians said China could not afford to lift travel restrictions without more efficient vaccinations or specific treatments.
Using data for August from the United States, Britain, Spain, France and Israel, the mathematicians assessed the potential results if China adopted the same pandemic control tactics as those countries.
China’s daily new cases would reach at least 637,155 if it adopted the United States’ pandemic strategy, the report said.
And daily cases would hit 275,793 if China took the same approach as Britain and 454,198 if it imitated France, it said.
“The estimates revealed the real possibility of a colossal outbreak which would almost certainly induce an unaffordable burden on the medical system,” the report said.
“Our findings have raised a clear warning that, for the time being, we are not ready to embrace ‘open-up’ strategies resting solely on the hypothesis of herd immunity induced by vaccination advocated by certain western countries.”
The mathematicians cautioned that their estimates were based on basic arithmetic calculations and that more sophisticated models were needed to study the evolution of the pandemic if travel restrictions were lifted.
China has maintained a zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19, saying the importance of containing local cases when they are found outweighs the disruptions caused by efforts to trace, isolate and treat the infected. China reported 23 new confirmed coronavirus cases for Nov. 27, down from 25 a day earlier, its health authority said on Sunday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday designated a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa with a large number of mutations as being “of concern,” prompting some countries to impose travel curbs.


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.