HONG KONG: Australian officials were racing Sunday to conduct further tests on passengers arriving from southern Africa who tested positive for COVID-19 to determine if they were carrying the omicron variant as nations around the world tightened controls against the worrying new strain.
Neighboring New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries because of the threat posed by the variant, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region. Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travelers from certain countries, announced a ban of its own on visitors from eight African counties. Similar restrictions took effect in the business hub of Singapore, which is barring entry and transit to anyone with a recent history of travel to seven southern African nations.
The tighter restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region echoed steps rapidly taken by countries around the world to limit the spread of the omicron variant just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The act first, ask questions later approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.
Morocco announced on Sunday that it is suspending all incoming air travel from around the world starting Monday for two weeks because of the rapid spread of the new omicron variant.
The ministry tweeted that the decision was taken to “preserve the achievements realized by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens.”
While much remains to be learned about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines and could mean that the pandemic lasts for longer than anticipated.
Cases involving the omicron variant have already been confirmed on multiple continents, with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong all reporting cases in recent days.
The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the US, too.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC television.
In Australia, the New South Wales health department said Sunday that urgent genomic testing was being done on samples taken from two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa the day before and tested positive on arrival.
The department said the travelers were from one of nine African countries that are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival in Sydney. The countries are South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles.
New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the island nation was taking a precautionary approach. From late Sunday, only New Zealand citizens from nine African countries will be allowed entry to New Zealand, and they will be required to spend two weeks in a quarantine hotel run by the military.
Hipkins said officials were confident the variant hadn’t entered New Zealand and they were well placed to keep it out.
Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the US, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.
DHAKA: Bangladeshi police said on Sunday they had resorted to using drones to monitor Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar after a spike in criminal activity.
Bangladesh hosts over 1.1 million Rohingya who fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017. Most of them live in dozens of cramped settlements in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal region in the country’s east.
According to data from Cox’s Bazar police, at least 104 murders were recorded in Rohingya camps in the past four years, and more than 1,000 cases had been filed against their inhabitants on charges of abduction, extortion, drug dealing, human trafficking and sexual assault.
“Incidents in which Rohingya are abducted for ransom are on the rise,” Naimul Haque, superintendent of the Armed Police Battalion that oversees the camp area, told Arab News.
“Some of the areas in the camp are inaccessible to law enforcers. We can’t go there by vehicle because of the hilly areas. So, we introduced drones last Thursday to monitor the movement of suspects,” he said.
Since late last week, he added, two police operations have already taken place following footage retrieved from drones, including the arrest of the brother of the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group active in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State.
Bangladeshi rights organization SHUJAN has also observed an increase in criminal activity at refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. “The rate of crime and number of cases against the Rohingya are on the rise,” Mahbubur Rahman, SHUJAN’s secretary in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News.
“The Rohingya are getting involved in extortion, abduction, drug dealing and human trafficking, which has become a concern for the host communities,” he said. “Some of the Rohingya are being used as drug carriers also since they know the routes between Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
Law enforcers have limited access to many areas in Cox’s Bazar camps due to congestion and hilly terrain.
Security analyst retired Air Commodore Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury said the deployment of drones would help law enforcers expand the scale of surveillance.
“Now law enforcers will have better access to the hard-to-reach areas. Improved surveillance will definitely reduce the crime rate in the camp areas,” he said.
“Border Security Force in India is already using drones at many parts of the border as a surveillance tool. Our Border Guard Bangladesh can also use drones to curb drug traffickers, arms dealers and human traffickers in the border areas.”
KARACHI: The family of a Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in the US denied on Sunday “rumors” over their relation to a standoff at a synagogue in Texas after American media reports linked them to the hostage-taker.
Four people were held hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, after a gunman entered the synagogue during a Saturday morning service. The suspect was killed and hostages freed in the evening following a tense standoff with police.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation identified the hostage taker as a British citizen. US media reported he was motivated by a desire to free Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence on charges of attempting to kill US service members in Afghanistan. Some news outlets said the gunman was Siddiqui’s brother.
The jailed scientist’s family denied the claims.
“False and baseless rumors of my and Aafia’s brother being involved in a hostage situation is another example of how American media and social media trolls jump to blame someone without any proof, especially if that someone is black, brown or Muslim,” Siddiqui’s sister, Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui, told Arab News.
She said the rumors came as her mother has been admitted to an intensive care unit.
“Both my brother and I were already preoccupied with her critical condition, and this irresponsible reporting adds to our anguish,” she said.
“We are grateful for all the prayers, wishes and trust that our supporters have shown during this trying time.”
The suspect was killed and hostages freed in the evening following a tense standoff with police on Saturday.
The family’s legal counsel in the US, John Floyd, called on the reporters who claimed the synagogue assailant was a member of Siddiqui’s family to correct their reports and issue an apology.
“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia,” Floyd said in a statement. “Dr. Aafia’s family has always stood firm in advocating for the release of their sister from incarceration by legal and nonviolent means only.”
Siddiqui, a 49-year-old mother of three with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, is serving her sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, after a New York court in 2010 convicted her of attempting to shoot and kill in Afghanistan a group of US soldiers and FBI agents who wanted to interrogate her for alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
Siddiqui’s sentencing has riled many in Pakistan, including the government that had campaigned for her release and paid for her legal defense.
Mali ex-president Keita dies two years after coup ouster
Looming over most of Keita’s presidency was the extremist insurgency that has rocked the poor Sahel country since 2012
His toppling marked the rise of the military junta now under regional sanctions for failing to restore civilian rule
Updated 52 min 20 sec ago
BAMAKO: Mali’s former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who led the West African country from 2013 until he was ousted in a coup in 2020, died aged 76 in the capital Bamako on Sunday, his family said.
Mali’s interim government issued a statement hailing “the memory of the illustrious” Keita, adding that the former president died “after a long illness.”
Looming over most of Keita’s presidency was the extremist insurgency that has rocked the poor Sahel country since 2012. His toppling marked the rise of the military junta now under regional sanctions for failing to restore civilian rule.
Keita was forced out of office on August 18, 2020, by young military officers who staged an uprising at a base near Bamako before heading into the city, where they seized Keita and other leaders.
In an interview broadcast on state television Saturday evening, the Prime Minister of the interim administration Choguel Kokalla Maiga denounced the corruption and impunity he said marked the end of Keita’s rule.
But on Sunday Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said he was “saddened to learn of the death of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita,” adding that “it is with great emotion that I bow before his memory.”
Macky Sall, president of neighboring Senegal, said in a Tweet he was “saddened” by the news, while Niger’s ex-president Mahamadou Issoufou, a former comrade of Keita’s in the Socialist International, hailed him as “a cultured man, a great patriot and a pan-Africanist.”
Politicians and other public figures went to Keita’s home southwest of Bamako to pay their respects, with police guarding the entrances, according to AFP journalists at the scene.
“He was a father to me,” said Amadou Koita, who was government spokesman under Keita, sitting in the courtyard dotted with mango trees.
Moussa Timbine, a former parliament speaker close to the late president, described him as a man “of peace and dialogue.”
The government statement said funeral plans would be announced at a later date.
In the weeks before the 2020 coup, Keita had been struggling with protests fueled by his handling of the extremist insurgency and failure to turn around Mali’s floundering economy.
Snail-paced political reforms, decrepit public services and schools, and a widely shared perception of government corruption also fed anti-Keita sentiment, driving tens of thousands of protesters into the streets.
Seized by the putschists, the junta that emerged from the rebellion — under pressure from the West African bloc ECOWAS — released Keita weeks later and returned him to his residence in Bamako, under surveillance.
He suffered a mini-stroke the following month, and was sent to United Arab Emirates for treatment. He had been based at his Bamako home since, staying out of public life.
The ruling junta would stage another coup in May 2021, toppling a civilian transitional government.
The junta had vowed to hold elections next month to transition the country back to civilian rule. But at the end of the last year, the junta revised its timetable, saying it could stay in power for up to five years.
In response, ECOWAS agreed to sanction Mali earlier this month, imposing a trade embargo and shutting borders, in a decision backed by the United States, the European Union and former colonial power France.
Landlocked Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, is already feeling the effects of the sanctions, prompting thousands to protest in Bamako on Friday.
The son of a civil servant, Keita was born in the southern industrial city of Koutiala, the declining heartland of cotton production.
After studying literature in Mali, Senegal and France, Keita became an adviser for the EU’s overseas development fund before heading a development project in northern Mali.
He then rose through the ranks under Alpha Oumar Konare, the country’s first democratically elected president.
As a socialist prime minister between 1994 and 2000, he quelled a series of crippling strikes, earning a reputation as a firm leader and helping to set up his landslide election in 2013.
Keita was re-elected in 2018.
Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, warns of a growing split in US political circles. ‘It’s not the same Washington,’ she says. ‘The parties have become so much more divided in terms of basic common human decency.’
Frankly Speaking: ‘I was attacked during the 2016 campaign simply because I was Muslim,’ says former Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin
Abedin has just published a book about her experiences in US politics, her time growing up in Saudi Arabia and her ill-starred marriage
She believes the prejudice she experienced were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US
Updated 16 January 2022
DUBAI: Muslims were made the “bogeyman” by some politicians in the US at the time of the 2016 election won by former President Donald Trump, a leading American Muslim has told Arab News.
Huma Abedin, chief of staff of the defeated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, said she endured calls for her investigation by a Republican congressman in 2012 on the flimsy evidence that she and her family were practicing Muslims, with the prejudice intensifying during the 2016 campaign.
“I just want to take a step back and remind people this was 2012 and I believe the experience those of us had was really an appetizer for what was to come — this idea that you could label somebody ‘the other’ and make them the bogeyman. I believe my faith was made a bogeyman in that 2016 election,” she said.
Abedin, who recently published a book about her experiences in US politics and her time growing up in Saudi Arabia, shared her forthright views on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video interviews with leading global policymakers.
In a wide-ranging conversation, she also spoke of the growing divisions within US politics and society, the empowerment of women in the American system, and her ill-starred marriage to former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, which ended in scandal and divorce.
Accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice in the US political system are a striking part of her memoir, “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” published last year.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to share with Americans and with people what it is to be a Muslim American in this country, and it is why I wrote in detail about the accusations that my family faced in 2012, when I was working at the State Department,” Abedin said.
“I was attacked simply because I was Muslim and had two Muslim parents.”
The accusations were quickly discredited by a State Department review, but Abedin believes they were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US.
“Do I see a divide in this country? Absolutely, we all do. And unless we are willing to step forward to continue to engage in public service, we have a choice in the kind of country we’re going to live in,” she said.
“It is very scary to see some of the language that’s out there in the world. Very scary.”
Abedin, who began her political career as a White House intern in 1996, said that while there were always differences between Republican and Democratic politicians, before 2016 these could be debated and resolved.
“The way I was raised in politics and public service was forcing differing opinions to the table, being able to leave the office and go down the street and have dinner together and hash out your differences. That has changed,” she said.
“It’s not the same Washington. It’s not. The parties have become so much more divided in terms of basic human common decency. That seems to have been really allowed to just disappear, and I’m very sad about that.”
Abedin was vice chair of the campaign to elect Clinton in 2016, when the candidate endured baseless calls from Trump for her prosecution and imprisonment on unspecified charges. A late-breaking investigation into Clinton’s emails by the FBI — subsequently discredited — hit her campaign hard, by some accounts costing her the election.
“I would argue that my boss actually did quite well (considering) the external forces. I write about this in detail in my book, everything from the misogyny (to) the attacks — when you have somebody every single day suggesting that you might go to jail without explaining why, as had been the case for her,” she said.
“The attacks (Clinton) had to endure multiple times a day, those things had an effect. (Plus) the FBI investigation — which had a late-breaking role in changing, altering the course of the election, in an election so tight that every little thing mattered — that was a big thing,” Abedin said.
“The forces against our party and our candidate really were quite overwhelming at that moment. So, I still get up every single day and I think about how our country would have been different today if (Clinton) had been elected in 2016.”
Another reason for Clinton’s defeat, she said, was “because she is a powerful, smart, ambitious woman and we are, in this country in my opinion, still afraid of powerful women.”
Born in the US, Abedin’s family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a child, and she grew up in the Kingdom before she left for higher education in America. She returns frequently to Saudi Arabia with her son Jordan, and is impressed by the changes that have taken place since she lived there.
“First of all, you didn’t see women in stores (in the 1980s), you didn’t see the cultural events on the beach. When I was there a couple of years ago with my son, we went for face painting and on the beach and Ferris wheels. A lot of young Saudi men and women are working in small businesses, entrepreneurships.”
She added: “I will always have a very tender place in my heart for the place that was home for me for so long, that I associated with my father. My father is buried there, in Makkah. So, for me to see the progress is amazing, it’s really amazing.”
Before she embarked on her career in Washington political circles, Abedin was briefly a journalist for Arab News.
“I had applied for a White House internship and then left to go home for the summer, and it was Khaled Al-Maeena, who was then the editor-in-chief, who offered me a position with a summer job.”
She said: “Arab News is what we read in our home every single day. It was our New York Times. So, if you had asked me in 1995 would I be doing an interview like this in 25 years, I would say absolutely no way, no how. But it’s a thrill.”
In her memoir Abedin talks candidly about her marriage, and the misgivings she had when she first met Weiner, a New York congressman of Jewish background and then a rising star in Democrat circles in the city.
“I think any Muslim who’s watching will understand our faith, our belief. Men, Muslim men, are allowed to marry outside the religion, (but) it’s much more difficult for Muslim women to marry outside the faith. That really in the end has to do with paternity: If there are children born of that marriage, generally the child takes the father’s religion and so it was a huge crisis of conscience for me,” she said.
The marriage ended when Weiner was jailed for sexual crimes propagated via social media, but in the process affected the 2016 election campaign. “I felt an entire responsibility for that defeat,” Abedin said.
She was a victim of intense media scrutiny during the Weiner scandal, but eventually accepted that the press was just doing its job in covering a major news story. “I understood. It wasn’t easy, but I understood,” she said.
Abedin said that the Democrats under President Joe Biden face an uphill struggle in the upcoming mid-term elections, which traditionally go badly for the incumbent’s party.
“I think the COVID-19 pandemic has presented all kinds of unanticipated challenges, and I think our party has its work cut out for it in November. We have a lot of work to do and we’ve got to keep the enthusiasm, get people out (to vote). It’s going to be hard,” she said.
Abedin, who combines insider knowledge of the US political system with an understanding of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, does not rule out an ambassadorial role in the future.
“I am open to all kinds of opportunities and exploring different things. What that is I don’t know yet, but ambassador sounds really good. I just have to figure out — ambassador to what and for what and how? But I like that actually,” she said.
New year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears
Close to 30,000 visitors have arrived in Sri Lanka in first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Europe, India
Tourism Development Authority dismisses fears that omicron variant could force new lockdown
Updated 16 January 2022
COLOMBO: In a makeshift kiosk, just off the Kadawatha Interchange in Sri Lanka’s western province, golden-orange king coconuts, bright green and yellow mangoes, and small, round wild oranges are stacked in neat piles. A fruit seller slices open a coconut deftly with a knife and hands it to a customer, before turning to serve the next.
Around him, waiting patiently, are a mix of people. Vehicles have pulled up to the side of the road, with drivers waiting for refreshing drinks before resuming their journeys.
Sri Lanka, once deserted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is bustling again.
And across the island is a most welcome sight: Foreign tourists, who contribute significantly to the country’s economy. A tourism hotspot offering surf, sun, sand, cool hinterlands, and UNESCO-protected sites of cultural and architectural significance, Sri Lanka relies heavily on visitors, who before the pandemic accounted for about $5 billion of foreign exchange earnings, or almost 5 percent of gross domestic product.
Successive COVID-19 lockdowns since March 2020 resulted in the tourism sector grinding to a complete halt, depriving thousands of people of their livelihoods. Crushed by an economic crisis due to dwindling foreign reserves and mounting foreign debt, Sri Lanka is desperate to revive the tourism industry, with a target of making 2022 the “Visit Sri Lanka Year” and generating $10 billion from the sector by 2025.
January has proven that Sri Lanka may be on course to meet the target. Close to 30,000 people have arrived in the country in the first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Russia, India, Ukraine, the UK and Germany, despite global fears of over the spread of the new, highly contagious omicron variant.
“In Europe, there is a thought process of relaxing and dealing with the virus,” Kimarli Fernando, chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, told Arab News.
“EU countries treat COVID-19 like the flu, suggest people get used to living with it, and treat the virus as an endemic disease. So, this will not pose a problem.”
She said that the tourism authority expects to see about 1 million tourists visiting the country this year — half the number of visitors in 2018, which was Sri Lanka’s best year on record in terms of tourism arrivals.
“I am absolutely confident we will reach these numbers,” Fernando said, dismissing fears that the emergence of omicron could force the island nation back into lockdown. “We don’t see a potential for a lockdown at all.”
Almost 63 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have already been fully vaccinated, with tourism workers receiving jabs on priority basis to facilitate the swift reopening of the travel industry and revival of the economy.
Fernando added that besides vaccinations, tourism staff have also been properly trained to deal with the outbreak. “We’ve actually physically audited every single hotel. The staff are all trained,” she said.
“Tour guides, drivers — they are all trained. In public, everyone is wearing their masks. Everyone is diligent, in terms of sanitizing and adhering to health precautions,” she added. “We’ve never relaxed those rules, so we do not see an issue arising.”
But omicron is not the only factor that could pose a challenge to local hospitality businesses.
To shore up its currency reserves, the government last year imposed a broad import ban to shore up foreign reserves, triggering shortages of fuel and price hikes for food and other essential goods.
Harpo Gooneratne, president of the Colombo City Restaurant Collective, told Arab News that he believed the industry, which has already withstood many challenges, will “manage.”
He added: “We will have to look at this as a temporary setback that will last a few months, and in the meanwhile manage by keeping costs down, managing inventories and pushing an aggressive marketing plan that will look at new markets.”