Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin
Short Url
Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.


More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
Updated 20 sec ago

More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
  • The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade

GENEVA: Some 2.9 billion people — 37 percent of the world’s population — have still never used the Internet, the United Nations said Tuesday, despite the Covid-19 pandemic driving people online.
The UN’s International Telecommunication Union estimated that 96 percent of those 2.9 billion live in developing countries.
The agency said the estimated number of people who have gone online rose from 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.9 billion this year, partially due to a “Covid connectivity boost.”
But even among those Internet users, many hundreds of millions might only go online infrequently, using shared devices or facing connection speeds that hamper their Internet use.
“ITU will work to make sure the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion. We are determined to ensure no one will be left behind,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao.
The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade.
The ITU cited measures such as lockdowns, school closures and the need to access services like remote banking.
But the growth has been uneven. Internet access is often unaffordable in poorer nations — almost three-quarters of people have never been online in the 46 least-developed countries.
Younger people, men and urbanites are more likely to use the Internet than older adults, women and those in rural areas, with the gender gap more pronounced in developing nations.
Poverty, illiteracy, limited electricity access and a lack of digital skills continue to challenge the “digitally excluded,” the ITU added.


US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
Updated 35 min 46 sec ago

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
  • Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is expected to take steps in the coming days to toughen testing requirements for international travelers to the US, including both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, amid the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The precise testing protocols were still being finalized ahead of a speech by President Joe Biden planned for Thursday on the nation's plans to control the COVID-19 pandemic during the winter season, according to a senior administration official who said some details could still change. Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight. Currently those who are fully vaccinated may present a test taken within three days of boarding.
“CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's plans before the announcement, said options under consideration also include post-arrival testing requirements or or even self-quarantines.
The expected move comes just weeks after the US largely reopened its borders to fully vaccinated foreign travelers on Nov. 8.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, which has been identified in more than 20 countries but not yet in the US, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.
As he sought to quell public concern about the new variant, Biden said that in his Thursday remarks, “I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter -- not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
Asked by reporters if he would consult with allies about any changes in travel rules, given that former President Donald Trump had caught world leaders by surprise, Biden said: “Unlike Trump I don’t shock our allies.”


WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
Updated 54 min 21 sec ago

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
  • Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28

GENEVA: Countries should apply "an evidence-informed and risk-based approach" with any travel measures related to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, including possible screening or quarantine of international passengers, but blanket bans do not prevent its spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
The WHO, in its latest guidance to authorities and travellers, said that people over 60 years of age and those with underlying health conditions should be advised to postpone travel as they are at higher risk of disease and death.
This was in line with its advice regarding over 60s since December 2020, regardless of a traveller's vaccination status, and did not represent any change in guidance, a WHO spokesperson said.
First reported in southern Africa a week ago, the variant has brought global alarm https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/hong-kong-expands-travel-curbs-omicron-fears-australia-reports-5-cases-2021-11-30, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.
National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered approach to mitigate risk so as to delay or reduce importation or exportation of the Omicron variant, the WHO said on Tuesday.
"Measures may include screening of passengers prior to travel and/or upon arrival, and use of SARS-COV-2 testing or quarantine of international travellers after thorough risk assessment," it said.
All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers' rights, it said.
"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," it said.
Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28, it added.


Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America
  • Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Brazil and Japan joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Together with the cases in Japan and Brazil, the finding illustrates the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”
Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.
Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland.
France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”
In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.
“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.
Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.
Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”
Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.
“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”
While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.
The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.
Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.
NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.
Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.
Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.
Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.
England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.
After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.


Three students killed in US high school shooting: police

Three students killed in US high school shooting: police
Updated 01 December 2021

Three students killed in US high school shooting: police

Three students killed in US high school shooting: police
  • A second-year student was taken into custody and a handgun was seized, but there was no immediate explanation for what prompted the attack in Oxford

WASHINGTON: A 15-year-old student allegedly opened fire at a high school in rural Michigan on Tuesday, killing three other students before being taken into custody, police said.
Six others, including one teacher, were wounded in the attack, which took place shortly after noon at Oxford High School, the Oakland County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.
A second-year student was taken into custody and a handgun was seized, but there was no immediate explanation for what prompted the attack in Oxford, a small town about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Detroit.
"There was no resistance during the arrest and the suspect has asked for a lawyer and has not made any statements as to a motive," the sheriff's office said.
"It's a very tragic situation," Undersheriff Michael McCabe told reporters.
"We have three deceased victims right now, who are all believed to be students," he said.
"We have lots of upset parents," he said.
Police said they received more than 100 911 emergency calls shortly after noon, and that the shooter unleashed 15-20 shots over about five minutes from a semi-automatic handgun with more than one magazine.
The suspect was taken into custody within five minutes of the first 911 call, they said.
President Joe Biden was informed of the shooting during a visit to Minnesota.
"My heart goes out to the families enduring the unimaginable grief," he said.
"You know, that whole community has to be just in a state of shock right now."
Elissa Slotkin, who represents the district north of Detroit in the US House of Representatives, said she was "horrified" by the shooting.
"I've been talking with Oxford leaders, parents and students and we are all praying for the health of those injured, and the well-being of all our young people, many of whom are in shock," she said in a statement.
It was the deadliest school shooting so far this year, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a group which keeps statistics of mass shootings and lobbies for gun control.
Before Tuesday's incident, there had been 138 shootings in schools across the United States in 2021, according to figures provided by Everytown. In those incidents, 26 resulted in fatalities, though no more than two each time.
The deadliest school shootings in US history were the April 2007 attack at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, which saw 33 killed, including the shooter, followed by the December 2012 attack on the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 28 dead, including 20 children and the shooter.
In February 2018, a former student with an AR-15 assault rifle opened fire in his former high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17, in the deadliest-ever high school shooting.