World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Update Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
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Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
Update A jittery world is fearing the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe. (AP photos)
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A jittery world is fearing the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe. (AP photos)
Update World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
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Singapore swiftly joined Britain in imposing a travel ban, with the country’s health ministry saying it would restrict arrivals from South Africa and countries nearby as a precaution. (AFP)
Update World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
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South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organization working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant. (AP)
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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.


Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief
Updated 12 sec ago

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief
  • Lord Dannatt: ‘We went there to help the Afghan people and now we’re just watching them suffer’
  • Withdrawal of aid followed Taliban takeover of country last year

LONDON: International aid to Afghanistan should resume amid a growing humanitarian crisis in the country, a former chief of the British Army has told Sky News.

The withdrawal of aid in the wake of the Taliban takeover last year has “led to babies dying and people going hungry,” Lord Dannatt said, adding that a rollback of women’s rights by the Taliban should not deter Western governments from donating to Afghanistan.

Aid is still transferred to the country, but through NGOs and charities rather than national governments.

“We quite unnecessarily withdrew in precipitate haste a year ago, but then I think absolutely outrageously have cut aid to Afghanistan,” Lord Dannatt said.

“People are starving. We went there to help the Afghan people and now we’re just actually watching them suffer — I think it’s outrageous.

“And I think (UK Home Secretary) Priti Patel and other members of the government should take no pride in what is happening. They should be starting again — as should the Americans who are principally responsible for what happened.

“(They) should be significantly increasing their aid packages again to allow the people to have food and to thrive in Afghanistan,” he added.

“Having cut off aid to Afghanistan — that is why babies are dying in hospitals, that is why people are starving up and down the country.

“Now, is that right? As I said before, when we spent 20 years building up Afghanistan … why should we suddenly stop helping the people now because we don’t like the Taliban?

“Yes, their human rights record is not good, they have stopped girls going to secondary school. But is that the right price to pay for the majority of Afghan people to be starving and babies to be dying? I don’t think so.”


US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report
Updated 27 min 11 sec ago

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report
  • Almost 1,500 Afghan children evacuated without their parents in ‘tragic outcome’
  • ‘Very little was done to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country’

LONDON: The US-led evacuation from Afghanistan in August last year was unplanned and hampered by “chaos and confusion,” a new report has claimed.

A year after the airlift, which led to “tragic yet avoidable outcomes,” a 121-page report by Republicans in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs has highlighted organizational failures that “led to 13 dead service members.”

The report claims that choices made by the Biden administration mean that “American lives are still at great risk, there are increased threats to our homeland security, tarnished standing abroad for years to come and emboldened enemies across the globe.”

Some of the most damaging findings in the report include data showing that almost 1,500 Afghan children were evacuated without their parents, and that only 36 US consular officers were in Kabul to process the more than 100,000 people seeking to escape the country.

A key failure was made in the run-up to the withdrawal, with the Biden administration lacking preparation, the report claims, arguing that officials waited until Taliban forces were outside Kabul before taking action. “Very little was done to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country,” it said.

The Biden administration also “failed to make any effort to prioritize the evacuation of US-trained Afghan commandos and other elite units who possess sensitive knowledge about US military operations.”

At the time, US President Joe Biden hailed the evacuation as an “extraordinary success” that transported more than 124,000 Americans and Afghans to safety.

“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history ... more than double what most experts thought were possible,” he said.

“No nation — no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the US had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it.”

But the report claims that officials within the government privately criticized the airlift as a “strategic failure” and an “ugly final phase” of the war.

The report also claimed that Biden acted against the advice of top-level military figures, who favored continued deployment in Afghanistan.


Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges

Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges
Updated 15 August 2022

Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges

Myanmar court convicts Suu Kyi on more corruption charges

BANGKOK: A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted the country’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on more corruption charges on Monday and sentenced her to an additional six years in prison, a legal official said.

The trial was held behind closed doors, with no access for media or the public, and her lawyers were forbidden by a gag order from revealing information about the proceedings.

In the four corruption cases decided Monday, Suu Kyi was alleged to have abused her position to rent public land at below market prices and to have built a residence with donations meant for charitable purposes. She received sentences of three years for each of the four counts, but the sentences for three of them will be served concurrently, giving her a total of six more years in prison.

She denied all the charges, and her lawyers are expected to appeal.

She already had been sentenced to 11 years in prison on sedition, corruption and other charges at earlier trials after the military ousted her elected government and detained her in February 2021.

Analysts say the numerous charges against her and her allies are an attempt to legitimize the military’s seizure of power while eliminating her from politics before the military holds an election it has promised for next year.


‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power

‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power
Updated 15 August 2022

‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power

‘Day of conquest’ as Taliban mark first year in power
  • Taliban fighters expressed happiness that their movement was now in power
  • For many ordinary Afghans, however, the return of the Taliban has only increased hardships

KABUL: Taliban fighters chanted victory slogans next to the US embassy in Kabul on Monday as they marked the first anniversary of their return to power in Afghanistan following a turbulent year that saw women’s rights crushed and a humanitarian crisis worsen.
Exactly a year ago, the hard-line Islamists captured Kabul after a nationwide lightning offensive against government forces just as US-led troops were ending two decades of intervention in a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives.
“We fulfilled the obligation of jihad and liberated our country,” said Niamatullah Hekmat, a fighter who entered the capital on August 15 last year just hours after then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
“It’s the day of victory and happiness for the Afghan Muslims and people. It is the day of conquest and victory of the white flag,” government spokesman Bilal Karimi said on Twitter.
The chaotic withdrawal of foreign forces continued until August 31, with tens of thousands of people rushing to Kabul’s airport hoping to be evacuated on any flight out of Afghanistan.
Images of crowds storming the airport, climbing atop aircraft — and some clinging to a departing US military cargo plane as it rolled down the runway — aired on news bulletins around the world.
Authorities have so far not announced any official celebration to mark the anniversary, but state television said it would have a special program later on Monday to mark the event.
Many Taliban fighters gathered in Kabul’s central Massoud Square, where they displayed the regime’s white banners and performed a traditional dance, some holding weapons and others taking pictures on their mobile phones.
“We all are happy that we are celebrating our independence in front of the US embassy,” Aminullah Sufi Omar said.
Taliban fighters expressed happiness that their movement was now in power — even as aid agencies say that half the country’s 38 million people face extreme poverty.
“The time when we entered Kabul, and when the Americans left, those were moments of joy,” said Hekmat, now a member of the special forces guarding the presidential palace.
For many ordinary Afghans, however, the return of the Taliban has only increased hardships — especially for women.
Initially, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have been imposed on women to comply with the movement’s austere vision of Islam.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
And in May, they were ordered to fully cover up in public, including their faces, ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
“From the day they have come, life has lost its meaning,” said Ogai Amail, a resident of Kabul.
“Everything has been snatched from us, they have even entered our personal space,” she added.
Taliban fighters on Saturday dispersed a rare women’s rights rally by firing gun shots into the air and beating some protesters.
“Our call for justice was silenced with gunfire, but today we are pleading from inside our home,” Munisa Mubariz said on Monday.
She was among about 30 women who gathered at an undisclosed location to stage an indoor protest.
The women, who mostly had their faces uncovered, posted photographs online of themselves holding banners, including one that read: “Afghanistan’s history is tarnished with the closure of girls’ schools.”
While Afghans acknowledge a decline in violence since the Taliban seized power, the humanitarian crisis has left many helpless.
“People coming to our shops are complaining so much of high prices that we shopkeepers have started hating ourselves,” said Noor Mohammad, a shopkeeper from Kandahar, the de facto power center of the Taliban.
The country is in economic crisis, with its overseas assets frozen by Washington and aid curtailed in order to keep funds out of the Taliban’s hands.
No country has officially recognized the new government.
“All those powers who came here have lost here, but today we want good relations with everybody,” said fighter Hazi Mubariz.
For Taliban fighters the joy of victory overshadows the current economic crisis.
“We might be poor, we might be facing hardships, but the white flag of Islam will now fly high forever in Afghanistan,” said a fighter guarding a public park in Kabul.


French academic back in Iran prison after 5-day leave: supporters

French academic back in Iran prison after 5-day leave: supporters
Updated 15 August 2022

French academic back in Iran prison after 5-day leave: supporters

French academic back in Iran prison after 5-day leave: supporters
  • Fariba Adelkhah was earlier allowed to leave Tehran’s Evin prison for five days
  • Her temporary release comes at crucial time of nuclear program talks

PARIS: A French-Iranian academic held in Iran for the past three years in a case that has raised tensions between Tehran and Paris has returned to prison after a brief furlough, her supporters said.
Fariba Adelkhah was last week allowed to leave Tehran’s Evin prison for five days.
Hopes that the measure may be extended were not fulfilled, her support group said in a statement published late Sunday.
“Unfortunately, Fariba’s five-day leave was not extended, or transformed into house arrest,” it said. “It gave her a break, but it’s still bad news.”
Activists say that at least 20 foreign and dual nationals are being held by Tehran on baseless charges, in a deliberate policy of hostage diplomacy aimed at extracting concessions from the West.
Adelkhah’s temporary release comes at a crucial time in the negotiations between world powers and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program, with Tehran studying a final proposal from the EU aimed at salvaging a 2015 deal.
It is relatively common for prisoners in Iran to be allowed brief leave for time at home with families before returning to jail.
A specialist in Shiite Islam and a research director at Sciences Po university in Paris, Adelkhah was arrested in June 2019 along with her French colleague and partner Roland Marchal.
Adelkhah was sentenced in May 2020 to five years in prison for conspiring against national security, accusations her supporters say are absurd.
Marchal was released in March 2020 and Adelkhah was allowed home in Tehran in October 2020 with an electronic bracelet. But she was then sent back to prison in January 2022.
Iran last month allowed German-Iranian woman Nahid Taghavi, who was arrested in October 2020, a medical furlough to get treatment for back and neck problems.
Three other French nationals are also being held by Iran.
Benjamin Briere, who according to his family is simply a tourist, was arrested in May 2020 after taking pictures in a national park with a recreational drone and sentenced to eight years in prison on spying charges.
Meanwhile, French teachers’ union official Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris were arrested in early May on security-related charges, Tehran has said.
Iran insists the foreigners are given fair trials but their families claim they are being held as pawns in a political game.