Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday. (Reuters/File)
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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.


Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
Updated 52 sec ago

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
  • The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn

FOSSALTA DI PIAVE, Italy: Police in Italy and Albania have arrested more than 20 people accused of cashing in several hundred million euros to smuggle hundreds of refugees and migrants into the EU from Turkey on rented yachts and other leisure vessels, authorities said on Wednesday.

Two brothers who are Iraqi citizens are accused of masterminding a smuggling ring that mostly involved people fleeing Iraq and Syria. The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn.

The suspects, identified as Alaa Qasim Rahima, 38, and Omar Qasim Rahima, 30, are accused of running a ring that helped bring Syrians from Turkey to the EU using a network of associates in various countries.

They are believed to be part of a wider ring with as many as 80 members that allegedly organized at least 30 smuggling operations that transported at least 1,100 people by boat from Turkey to Europe.


Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
Updated 10 min 43 sec ago

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
  • A former seat of the royal empire in Amhara region, Gondar has long been premier spot to mark Timkat

GONDAR, Ethiopia: Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories involved the feasts his father would prepare for Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany festival Timkat — the way he would lead their family in song while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep. But those memories are now acutely painful.

Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year while battling ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war ravaging Africa’s second-most populous country.

Wary of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead cast a pall over a typically joyous occasion.

A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier spot to mark Timkat, which commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.

Donning sparkling white tunics and dresses, worshippers march in a raucous parade each year that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then leap the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water. This week, though, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals teemed with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s confronted the absence of the deceased.

“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know one house where six or seven people are dead,” Arega, also a militia fighter, said.

“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths.”

Ethiopia’s war broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

After several twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive has turned the tide yet again, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.

Foreign powers now hope the two sides can reach a deal to end fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

The US this week sent its top Africa diplomat and its regional special envoy to Addis Ababa, eyeing what it terms an “opening for peace.”

But any push by Abiy for reconciliation would encounter stiff resistance in Gondar, where combatants, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terrorist group, must now be destroyed.

The mere idea of talks is “an insult for the Amhara people,” said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official in the National Movement of Amhara, an opposition party.


Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
Updated 19 January 2022

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
  • Zulkarnaen sentenced on terrorism charges after being labeled a ‘key asset’ for radical group
  • Extremist leader with ties to Al-Qaeda arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years

JAKARTA: A former commander of a militant group linked to the 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges by an Indonesian court on Wednesday.

Arif Sunarso, known as Zulkarnaen, was a commander of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, a Southeast Asian group with ties to Al-Qaeda.

The group was blamed for bomb attacks on two nightclubs that killed 202 people on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali in 2002.

Zulkarnaen was arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years.

In its verdict on Wednesday, the East Jakarta District Court said the 58-year-old was “proven guilty of committing terrorism and is sentenced to 15 years behind bars.”

Zulkarnaen was convicted of withholding information and sheltering another militant. The sentencing did not relate directly to the 2002 attacks.

Indonesian prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Zulkarnaen, describing him as a “key asset” for JI due to his experience in training militants in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Zulkarnaen became the group’s operations chief following the arrest of his predecessor, Encep Nurjaman, known as Hambali, in Thailand in 2003.

During his trial, which began last September, Zulkarnaen said that he had led JI’s military wing but was not involved in the Bali bombings.

Asludin Hatjani, Zulkarnaen’s defense lawyer, told Arab News that he believed the sentence was disproportionately severe.

“Based on the evidence presented in the trial, the 15-year sentence is too long,” Hatjani said. “In the verdict, (Zulkarnaen) was not convicted because of the Bali bombing case, but rather his involvement as a member of JI, because JI is an illegal organization.”

However, Thiolina Marpaung, a survivor of the 2002 attack, said the verdict came as a disappointment.

“He should have been given life in prison,” Marpaung said. “He spent 18 years as a fugitive and didn’t surrender of his own accord. That means he still had bad intentions.”

Nasir Abbas, a former senior member of JI who is working with the Indonesian government on deradicalization programs, said it was important that Zulkarnaen be deradicalized as he was still a respected figure among JI militants. “It’s important to deradicalize him before he is allowed to mingle with other terrorism convicts or general prisoners,” Abbas told Arab News.
Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the militant group Darul Islam and now an expert on militancy and deradicalization, said Zulkarnaen’s case demonstrates JI’s vast network and its determination to protect key members. 

"JI threat will not go away with this verdict," he added.


Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack
Updated 19 January 2022

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack
  • On late Monday, two militants on a motorbike opened fire, killing a police officer and injuring two others in the center of Islamabad
  • Militants often target security forces in Pakistan, but the country’s capital has been largely peaceful in recent years

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government has put the federal capital Islamabad on high alert after a recent militant attack in which an officer was killed and two others injured, police said on Wednesday.

Militants often target security forces in Pakistan, but the country’s capital has been largely peaceful in recent years.

On late Monday, two militants on a motorbike opened fire on police officials who were patrolling the city. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who on Tuesday attended the funeral of the officer killed in the attack, said both militants were killed during the shootout.

The minister did not share more details about the incident, but the proscribed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan issued a statement claiming responsibility for the assault.

Inspector Naeem Iqbal, a spokesperson for the Islamabad Police, told Arab News on Wednesday that the Pakistani capital “has been put on high alert after the terrorist attack.”

“A comprehensive strategy has been devised to avoid recurrence of the attacks on police officials,” he said, adding that 55 police have been killed in the city in different militant attacks in the past seven years.

“The overall law and order in the federal capital is under control,” Iqbal said. “We are implementing snap-checking and carrying out combing operations in different areas of the city to apprehend the criminals.”

The TTP, which are a separate movement from the Afghan Taliban, have fought for years to overthrow the government in Islamabad and rule with their own brand of Islamic law. In December, the group declared an end to a month-long ceasefire, accusing the Pakistani government of breaching terms including a prisoner release agreement and the formation of negotiating committees.
Earlier this month, the head of the Pakistani army’s media wing said armed operations against the group had been relaunched since the end of the ceasefire.

Khawaja Khalid Farooq, a former chief of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, told Arab News that the militants are now trying to show their strength after talks with the government had failed.

“They have adopted a hit-and-run approach to target Islamabad police to create a scare in the federal capital,” he said, adding that different militant groups have joined their hands lately to target security forces across the country.

He expressed doubt over the possibility of any major attacks but said militants were still a challenge for the country’s security apparatus.

“Militant groups in Pakistan have weakened over the years in the wake of military operations, but we should acknowledge that their sleeper cells still exist to carry out sporadic terror activities,” Farooq said.

“Regular operations against the militants based on intelligence information can help deal with the challenge.”

Security analyst retired Gen. Ejaz Awan said the Islamabad attack was an isolated incident.

“This is neither a trend nor a fresh wave of militancy in Pakistan,” he told Arab News. “People should not panic. Our vigilant and brave security forces have already broken the backbone of the militants.”

Best known in the West for attempting to kill Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who went on to win the Nobel Prize for her work promoting girls’ education, the TTP have killed thousands of military personnel and civilians over the years in bombings and suicide attacks.

Among their attacks was a 2014 assault on a military-run school in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which killed 149 people, including 132 children.

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Spain’s COVID infection rate drops for second straight day

Spain’s COVID infection rate drops for second straight day
Updated 19 January 2022

Spain’s COVID infection rate drops for second straight day

Spain’s COVID infection rate drops for second straight day
  • The rate as measured over the preceding 14 days fell to 3,286 cases per 100,000 people from Tuesday's 3,306
  • Tuesday's drop was the first since Nov. 2, when the rate was below 50

MADRID: Spain’s COVID-19 infection rate fell for the second day in a row on Wednesday after 11 weeks of surges to record highs, raising hope among health authorities that the frenetic spread of the omicron variant may be slowing.
The rate as measured over the preceding 14 days fell to 3,286 cases per 100,000 people from Tuesday’s 3,306 and Wednesday’s record 3,397 cases, Health Minister Carolina Darias told a news conference.
Tuesday’s drop was the first since Nov. 2, when the rate was below 50.
“It’s important to see whether the decline consolidates in the coming days, which, if confirmed, would indicate that we’ve reached the peak of this wave or are at least very, very close,” Darias said.
She added that the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus accounted for between 70 percent and 90 percent of infections across Spain’s regions.
Despite the long surge in cases since November, hospital admissions and deaths remain well below those seen in earlier waves of the pandemic, thanks in large part to Spain’s high vaccination rate — 80.5 percent of its 47 million population.
Darias reiterated her call for Spaniards to take booster shots, which she said markedly improve protection against the omicron and Delta variants.
So far in the pandemic, Spain has registered more than 8.5 million infections and over 91,000 deaths.