Secretary Blinken faces new round of hard Afghanistan questions in Congress

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on September 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on September 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2021

Secretary Blinken faces new round of hard Afghanistan questions in Congress

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on September 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (AFP)
  • Secretary of State sought to parry a new wave of bipartisan lawmaker anger over the operation that resulted in the complete takeover by the Taliban
  • Blinken tried to deflect the criticism and maintained the administration had done the best it could

WASHINGTON D.C.: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is facing a second day of tough congressional questions about the Biden administration’s much-criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Blinken sought to parry a new wave of bipartisan lawmaker anger over the operation that resulted in the complete takeover by the Taliban, and has left many American citizens, green card holders and at-risk Afghans stranded in the country.

The top two members of the committee, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez and Idaho Republican James Risch, both assailed the withdrawal as a debacle in their opening remarks.

The withdrawal “was clearly and fatally flawed,” said committee chairman Menendez, who has been generally supportive of President Joe Biden's foreign policy but has taken issue with several of its aspects, including Afghanistan.

“The withdrawal was a dismal failure,” said Risch, the ranking GOP member of the panel, accusing the administration of “ineptitude” that has cost the United States international credibility, led to a deadly attack on US troops and Afghan civilians at the Kabul airport and left many in the lurch.

Much as he did on Monday in an often contentious hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken tried to deflect the criticism and maintained the administration had done the best it could under extremely trying and chaotic circumstances.

Blinken again blamed the Trump administration for its Feb. 2020 peace deal with the Taliban that he said had tied Biden's hands, as well as the quick and unexpected collapse of the Afghan government and security forces that led to the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15.

“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while US forces remained," he said. “They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew, from September onward.”

The State Department has come under heavy criticism from both sides for not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to get people out of the country after the Taliban took control of Kabul, cementing its hold on the country before the completion of the US withdrawal on Aug. 30.

Blinken defended the withdrawal and the end of America's longest-running war as “the right thing to do" after 20 years. And, he noted that despite severe difficulties the US and its allies had managed to evacuate some 124,000 people.

“The evacuation was an extraordinary effort — under the most difficult conditions imaginable — by our diplomats, military, and intelligence professionals,” he said.


Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
Updated 5 sec ago

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
BRUSSELS: The EU’s main Covid vaccine provider, BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success
Updated 54 min 17 sec ago

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success

Portugal tightens restrictions despite coronavirus vaccine success
  • Under the new rules, most arriving passengers must show negative test results at Portugal’s airports, seaports and land borders
  • Authorities in Portugal have confirmed an outbreak of the new coronavirus variant, omicron, among members of a professional soccer club and a medical worker

LISBON: Portugal tightened passenger entry requirements and mandated masks indoors to curb an upward trend in coronavirus infections as the country with one of the strongest vaccination records in Europe entered a “state of calamity” Wednesday.
The crisis declaration, Portugal’s second this year, is one step below a state of emergency and gives the government the legal authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
Masks now are required in enclosed public spaces, and individuals must show proof of vaccination, having recovered from COVID-19 or a negative virus tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels. Nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes and sports venues also must require negative virus tests from visitors and patrons, including vaccinated ones.
“With the test, we feel more comfortable. We don’t leave the club thinking, ‘Do I have COVID or not?’” Sara Lopes, a 21-year-old shop worker, said as she lined up at a central Lisbon nightclub as the new requirements took effect at midnight.
“It’s a bit of a hassle to have to make appointment after appointment at the pharmacy, but it’s fine,” Lopes said.
Under the new rules, most arriving passengers must show negative test results at Portugal’s airports, seaports and land borders.
Experts believe that Portugal’s vaccination rate, which at 87 percent of over 10 million residents is one of the highest globally, has shielded the country from the infection spikes recently experienced by some other European countries.
Still, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been rising since September. Portuguese authorities on Tuesday recorded 2,907 new cases and 15 deaths.
Authorities in Portugal have confirmed an outbreak of the new coronavirus variant, omicron, among members of a professional soccer club and a medical worker who had contact with them.


Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks

Countries launch WHO pandemic accord talks
  • A new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response will come into force in 2024

GENEVA: World Health Organization member states agreed Wednesday to start work on building a new international accord setting out how to handle the next global pandemic.
Countries adopted a resolution at a special meeting in Geneva, launching the process that should result in a new agreement on pandemic preparedness and response coming into force in 2024.


China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
Updated 01 December 2021

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks

China calls on citizens to leave eastern Congo after attacks
  • A number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri

BEIJING: China on Wednesday urged its citizens to leave three provinces in eastern Congo as violence intensifies in the mineral-rich region.
A posting from the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa on the WeChat online messaging said a number of Chinese citizens had been attacked and kidnapped over the past month in the provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, where several anti-government rebel groups have a presence.
It said Chinese residing in the three provinces should provide their personal details by Dec. 10 and make plans to leave for safer parts of Congo. Those in the districts of Bunia, Djugu, Beni, Rutshuru, Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga should leave immediately, it said, adding that any who do not do so “will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“We ask that all Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested businesses in Congo please pay close attention to local conditions, increase their safety awareness and emergency preparedness, and avoid unnecessary outside travel,” the embassy said.
No details of the incidents were given, although the embassy last month reported five Chinese citizens were abducted from a mining operation in South Kivu, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
It warned a the time that the security situation in the area was “extremely complex and grim” and that there was little possibility of sending help in the event of an attack or kidnapping.
No details were given about those kidnapped, who they worked for or who was suspected of taking them.
Several armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, the Mai-Mai and the M23 regularly vie for control of eastern Congo’s natural resources.
Despite the danger, Chinese businesses have moved into Congo and other unstable African states in a quest for cobalt and other rare minerals and resources. Chinese workers have also been subject to kidnappings and attacks in Pakistan and other countries with active insurgencies.
Security was a key topic at a meeting Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on Monday, between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Congolese counterpart Christophe Lutundula, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China’s government and ruling Communist Party “attach great importance to the safety and security of Chinese enterprises and Chinese nationals overseas and the Chinese side has been extremely concerned with the recent serious crimes of kidnappings and killings of its citizens in the DRC,” Wang said, using the acronym for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Wang urged Congo to secure the release of those kidnapped and create a “safe, secure and stable environment for bilateral cooperation.”
Xinhua quoted Lutundula as saying Congo would take “forceful measures” to investigate the crimes, free the hostages, punish the culprits severely and safeguard national security and restore stability to the country’s east.
Earlier this week, Uganda said it launched joint air and artillery strikes with Congolese forces against camps of the extremist Allied Democratic Forces rebel group in eastern Congo.
The ADF was established in the early 1990s in Uganda and later driven out by the Ugandan military into eastern Congo, where many rebel groups are able to operate because the central government has limited control there.
At least four civilians were killed less than two weeks ago in Uganda’s capital when suicide bombers detonated their explosives at two locations.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were carried out by Ugandans. Ugandan authorities blamed the ADF, which has been allied with the Daesh group since 2019.


Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 01 December 2021

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
  • Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people
  • The reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant

CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, said.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.