Huge fire in overcrowded Burundi prison kills 38 inmates

Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 08 December 2021

Huge fire in overcrowded Burundi prison kills 38 inmates

Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
  • The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and grim pictures posted on social media showed huge flames engulfing the prison, and bodies of men lying on the floor

NAIROBI: A massive fire tore through an overcrowded prison in Burundi before dawn on Tuesday, killing dozens of inmates and seriously injuring many more, the country’s vice president said.
Many prisoners were still asleep when the blaze took hold in a penitentiary in Burundi’s political capital Gitega, witnesses said/
Some survived only by clambering out — completely naked — to safety through the roof.
Much of the facility was destroyed, with images showing piles of charred and smoldering rubble in burnt-out rooms as plumes of grey smoke rose into the sky.
Vice President Prosper Bazombanza, who visited the scene of the tragedy with several ministers, told reporters that 38 people were killed and 69 seriously hurt.
Of the dead, 26 suffered burns and 12 were asphyxiated, he said.
The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and grim pictures posted on social media showed huge flames engulfing the prison, and bodies of men lying on the floor.
“We started shouting that we were going to be burned alive when we saw the flames rising very high, but the police refused to open the doors of our quarters, saying ‘these are the orders we have received’,” one inmate reached by phone told AFP.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely,” he said.
Several sources said the inmates were trapped because the wardens did not have the keys to certain parts of the prison overnight as they were held by an official who was not on the premises.

The interior ministry said on Twitter that the disaster was caused by an electrical short-circuit at the nearly century-old prison.
A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with the first fire truck arriving two hours after the start of the blaze before others joined.
Victims with the most serious burns were taken to hospital, some ferried in police pick-up trucks, while others with milder cases were treated at the scene, witnesses said.
“Some prisoners escaped completely naked. Others were only in the clothes they had on at the time,” said one witness who was inside the prison.
The fire was later brought under control, but many parts of the site were left in charred ruins behind a stone wall showing the date of construction in 1926, when Burundi was a Belgian colony.
It was the second fire at the penitentiary in just a matter of months, after another incident in August also blamed on an electrical problem.
Bazombanza spoke of DIY “tinkering” by inmates who wanted to charge their phones or power a small light.

Chronic overcrowding is a problem in prisons in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world, and inmates often complain about their cramped living conditions and lack of food.
Gitega prison, the third largest in Burundi, was home to more than 1,500 inmates as of the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its designed capacity of 400.
One witness said the fire broke out in the most populated part of the prison holding common criminals. There are three other wings, for women, for minors and a high security area for political prisoners.
Across the country there were a total of 12,878 inmates living in accommodation designed for 4,294, according to November figures, despite a presidential amnesty in March which saw 5,200 released.
“Sometimes we have gone for up to three days without being given supplies by the prison, and our families cannot help us because since June 2020 we have not been allowed visits under the pretext of protecting us from Covid-19,” one prisoner told AFP.

New year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears

New year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears
Updated 6 sec ago

New year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears

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

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.”

Texas Muslims express support for hostages in synagogue assault

Texas Muslims express support for hostages in synagogue assault
Updated 13 min 32 sec ago

Texas Muslims express support for hostages in synagogue assault

Texas Muslims express support for hostages in synagogue assault
  • The FBI on Sunday identified the gunman killed as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram
  • Imams at nearby mosques condemned the violence and prayed for the safety of the synagogue's congregation

CHICAGO: Leaders of the Muslim community in Texas and activists around the US expressed support for members of a synagogue in Colleyville which came under attack on Saturday, sparking a 10-hour hostage crisis.

A SWAT team breached the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue at around 9:30 p.m. in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, freeing all the hostages.

No members of the synagogue’s congregation were injured, but the gunman was killed, police said without releasing details. The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, was reported to be among the four held hostage.

The FBI on Sunday identified the gunman who was killed as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram.

Imams at nearby mosques quickly responded with statements of support and prayers for the safety of the synagogue's congregation and condemnations of the violence.

“We are shocked and horrified at what is transpiring in the Colleyville synagogue,” said Imam Jawaid Alam, from the Islamic Center of Southlake, as word spread of the hostage crisis. “They are going through an appalling ordeal and we stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and we condemn these atrocious actions. We will provide our support and hope that this situation comes to a safe resolution as soon as possible. Ameen.”

The Secretary-General of the US Council of Muslim Organizations Oussama Jammal said that Muslims across the US stand in solidarity with “the Colleyville and broader American Jewish community,” and are “relieved” at their safe release.

“This heinous attack on a synagogue, a sacred and inviolable place of worship – and its congregants in the act of prayer – is utterly unacceptable. Whoever the attacker is and whatever his claimed motivations, there can be no excuse for this horrific crime. We praise God for their return to their loved ones,” Jammal said.

Police issued updates on Twitter as the hostage situation continued throughout Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Colleyville Police Spokesperson Sgt. Dara Nelson said a 911 call came in just before 11 a.m.

“Officers arrived on scene and observed an emergency situation that warranted evacuation of the surrounding areas and an external perimeter was established,” Nelson said. “The Colleyville Police Department is on scene along with the FBI's Dallas Field Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the North Tarrant Regional SWAT Team and other neighboring agencies.”

Nelson said a gunman was holding several hostages inside the synagogue and reported that at 5 p.m. the suspect released one male hostage uninjured. FBI crisis negotiators were in communication with the suspect, Nelson added.

The SWAT team entered the synagogue and freed all of the hostages and the suspect was killed.

US President Joe Biden issued a statement immediately after the hostages were released late Saturday night.

“Thanks to the courageous work of state, local and federal law enforcement, four Americans who were held hostage at a Texas synagogue will soon be home with their families. I am grateful to the tireless work of law enforcement at all levels who acted cooperatively and fearlessly to rescue the hostages. We are sending love and strength to the members of Congregation Beth Israel, Colleyville, and the Jewish community,” he said.

“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate—we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country. That is who we are, and tonight, the men and women of law enforcement made us all proud.”

On Sunday, Biden said that the hostage taker had got his weapons off the street.

The hostage incident in Colleyville, Texas, “was an act of terror; it was an act of terror,” said Biden, who was in Philadelphia with first lady Jill Biden.

Pro-Palestinian activists also issued statements against the violence, including Jewish Voices for Peace. It said: “We are grateful to G-d that Rabbi Cytron-Walker and the congregants at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas are free and safe. We send love to our fellow Jews everywhere who are breathing slightly easier, and recommit to the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Britain's foreign office confirmed the death of a British man in Texas, when asked to respond to a Sky News report that the gunman was a British national. The foreign office did not explicitly say the dead Briton was the gunman.

British foreign minister Liz Truss on Sunday condemned the actions of the gunman, calling it an act of terrorism and anti-Semitism.

“My thoughts are with the Jewish community and all those affected by the appalling act in Texas. We condemn this act of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” she wrote on Twitter.

“We stand with US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.”

The attack came as the US prepared to commemorate racial and religious tolerance on Monday, what would have been the 93rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis by James Earl Ray, a white segregationist and escaped felon.

Iraq says almost 4,000 repatriated from Belarus borders

Iraq says almost 4,000 repatriated from Belarus borders
Updated 16 January 2022

Iraq says almost 4,000 repatriated from Belarus borders

Iraq says almost 4,000 repatriated from Belarus borders
  • Since last summer, thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East and Iraq in particular, had been camped on the Belarus-EU border
  • The West has accused Belarus of luring the migrants to the border as revenge for sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime

BAGHDAD: Baghdad has repatriated almost 4,000 of its citizens stuck on the Belarus borders with European Union members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in recent weeks, Iraq’s foreign minister said Sunday.
Since November 18, the Iraqi government has organized “10 flights from Baghdad to Belarus” to repatriate its citizens, Fuad Hussein told a press conference in Baghdad with his Lithuanian counterpart.
“We have been able to repatriate around 4,000 Iraqis who were stuck on the Belarus borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia,” he said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahaf later told AFP that “3,817 Iraqi migrants have been repatriated from Belarus and 112 from Lithuania.”
The flights have generally arrived in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, where many of the would-be migrants are from, before continuing to Baghdad.
Sahaf said some Iraqis were still stuck in Belarus, but that “the difficult weather and complex environment do not allow rescuers to determine their numbers.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who also met with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi, said he wanted “to bring in new cooperation ideas” with Iraq.
Since last summer, thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East and Iraq in particular, had been camped on the Belarus-EU border, often in bitter conditions, trying to enter the bloc.
The West has accused Belarus of luring the migrants to the border as revenge for sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.

Briton stripped of citizenship set to return to UK after decision overturned

Briton stripped of citizenship set to return to UK after decision overturned
Updated 16 January 2022

Briton stripped of citizenship set to return to UK after decision overturned

Briton stripped of citizenship set to return to UK after decision overturned
  • Man known as E3 accused of being Islamist extremist in 2017 without Home Office presenting evidence
  • Move comes as politicians mull granting the government fresh powers to strip people of their citizenship

LONDON: A British man stripped of his UK citizenship in 2017 has spoken of the turmoil the decision caused ahead of his return to the country after the move was overturned, claiming allegations made against him by the government were too secretive to make defending himself possible. 

The 40-year-old man, known as E3, was born in London to Bangladeshi parents but was given a deprivation of citizenship order after he flew to Bangladesh, where he married his wife in 2013, for the birth of his second daughter.

The move left him stateless, as he did not take up the option of applying for Bangladeshi citizenship before turning 21, and meant he was unable to support his family; his wife did not qualify for British residency because, though employed in the UK, E3 did not earn enough to sponsor her.

The decision also meant that a third daughter, born in 2019 after E3’s citizenship was removed, was no longer eligible for British citizenship. His eldest two daughters are British citizens but remained in Bangladesh with their parents.

E3’s period of statelessness also made it difficult to visit and support his frail mother in London — to whose address his deprivation of citizenship order was delivered on June 3, 2017, the day before he was due to return to the UK.

The UK Home Office described E3 in the order as “an Islamist extremist who had previously sought to travel abroad to participate in terrorism-related activity,” claiming he posed a threat to national security.

His legal team, though, denies any evidence to support these claims was ever presented, adding he has never been charged with a criminal offense, either in the UK or abroad.

“The allegation against me is so vague that it even suggests that I only tried to travel to some unknown destination to take part in an unspecified activity related to terrorism,” E3 told the Observer newspaper. “How on Earth do you defend yourself against an allegation like that, especially when the government relies on secret evidence? The disclosure my solicitors received was almost entirely redacted so I have no idea what the government is referring to.

“Why was I not arrested and questioned? Why have I been punished in this way without ever being shown a single piece of evidence against me? The government should admit that they have made a mistake and own up to it,” he added.

E3’s return to the UK coincides with the proposal of controversial new legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, that could let the Home Office remove people’s citizenship without informing them.

“Being left stateless and not knowing why I was suddenly stripped of my citizenship had an extremely adverse impact on my mental health. It was the most depressing period of my life,” said E3.

“Being British is a fundamental part of my identity, but it really feels like you need more than just being born and raised in the UK to really be considered one. Having an ethnic background relegates you to being a second-class citizen.”

E3’s UK citizenship was restored after he successfully argued the decision had left him stateless — a move that could have ramifications for other British people stripped of or denied citizenship, including children born to British members of the extremist group Daesh currently living in refugee camps in Syria.

Anas Mustapha, communications manager of advocacy group Cage, said: “E3’s case brings into sharp focus the devastating impact of citizenship deprivation and its often forgotten victims, the children of those deprived.

“E3 has been successful in overturning the decision but many others must reckon with the state-imposed exile as it is impossible to meaningfully challenge it due to the use of secret evidence.”

E3 and his daughter’s cases, meanwhile, will be subject to judicial review later this year.

His lawyer, Fahad Ansari, said: “My client lost five years of his life because of the unlawful decision of the home secretary that lacked any prior judicial oversight.”

Omicron exposes inflexibility of Europe’s public hospitals

Omicron exposes inflexibility of Europe’s public hospitals
Updated 16 January 2022

Omicron exposes inflexibility of Europe’s public hospitals

Omicron exposes inflexibility of Europe’s public hospitals
  • That includes doctors, nurses and technicians at public hospitals

STRASBOURG, France: A World Health Organization official warned last week of a “closing window of opportunity” for European countries to prevent their health care systems from being overwhelmed as the omicron variant produces near-vertical growth in coronavirus infections.
In France, Britain and Spain, nations with comparatively strong national health programs, that window may already be closed.
The director of an intensive care unit at a hospital in Strasbourg is turning patients away. A surgeon at a London hospital describes a critical delay in a man’s cancer diagnosis. Spain is seeing its determination to prevent a system collapse tested as omicron keeps medical personnel off work.
“There are a lot of patients we can’t admit, and it’s the non-COVID patients who are the collateral victims of all this,” said Dr. Julie Helms, who runs the ICU at Strasbourg University Hospital in far eastern France.
Two years into the pandemic, with the exceptionally contagious omicron impacting public services of various kinds, the variant’s effect on medical facilities has many reevaluating the resilience of public health systems that are considered essential to providing equal care.
The problem, experts say, is that few health systems built up enough flexibility to handle a crisis like the coronavirus before it emerged, while repeated infection spikes have kept the rest too preoccupied to implement changes during the long emergency.
Hospital admissions per capita right now are as high in France, Italy and Spain as they were last spring, when the three countries had lockdowns or other restrictive measures in place. England’s hospitalization rate of people with COVID-19 for the week ending Jan. 9 was slightly higher than it was in early February 2021, before most residents were vaccinated.
This time, there are no lockdowns. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a population health research organization based at the University of Washington, predicts that more than half of the people in WHO Europe’s 53-country region will be infected with omicron within two months.
That includes doctors, nurses and technicians at public hospitals.
About 15 percent of the Strasbourg hospital system’s staff of 13,000 was out this week. In some hospitals, the employee absentee rate is 20 percent. Schedules are made and reset to plug gaps; patients whose needs aren’t critical must wait.
The French public hospital’s 26 ICU beds are almost all occupied by unvaccinated patients, people ”who refuse care, who refuse the medicine or who demand medicines that have no effectiveness,” Helms said.
She denied 12 requests for admission Tuesday, and 10 on Wednesday night.
“When you have three patients for a single bed, we try to take the one who has the best odds of benefiting from it,” Helms said.
In Britain, like France, omicron is causing cracks in the health system even though the variant appears to cause milder illness than its predecessors. The British government this month assigned military personnel, including medics, to fill in at London hospitals, adding to the ranks of service members already helping administer vaccines and operate ambulances.
At the Royal Free Hospital in London, Dr. Leye Ajayi described a patient who faced delays in his initial cancer diagnosis.
“Unfortunately, when we eventually got round to seeing the patient, his cancer had already spread,” Ajayi told Sky News. “So we’re now dealing with a young patient in his mid-50s who, perhaps if we’d seen him a year ago, could have offered curative surgery. We’re now dealing with palliative care.”
Nearly 13,000 patients in England were forced to wait on stretchers more than 12 hours before a hospital bed opened, according to figures released last week from the National Health Service.
Britain has a backlog of around 5.9 million people awaiting cancer screenings, scheduled surgeries and other planned care. Some experts estimate that figure could double in the next three years.
“We need to focus on why performance has continued to fall and struggle for years and build the solutions to drive improvement in both the short and long term,” said Dr. Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine.
Having the capacity to accommodate a surge is crucial, and it’s just this surge capacity that many in Europe were surprised to learn their countries lacked. The people in a position to turn that around were the same ones dealing with the crisis daily.
In the midst of the first wave, in April 2020, WHO’s Europe office put out a how-to guide for health systems to build slack into their systems for new outbreaks, including identifying a temporary health workforce.
“Despite the fact that countries thought they were prepared for a pandemic that might come along, they were not. So it’s building the ship as it sails,” said Dr. David Heymann, who previously led the World Health Organization’s infectious diseases department.
But France had been cutting back hospital beds — and doctors and nurses — for years before the pandemic. Building it back up in a matter of months proved too much when the current wave infected hospital staff by the hundreds each day. Even allowing symptomatic COVID-19-positive health workers to report for work hasn’t been enough.
Britain’s NHS Confederation, a membership organization for sponsors and providers, says the public health service went into the pandemic with a shortage of 100,000 health workers that has only worsened.
The first wave of the pandemic pushed Spain’s health system to its limit. Hospitals improvised ways to treat more patients by setting up ICUs in operating rooms, gymnasiums and libraries. The public witnessed, appalled, retirees dying in nursing homes without ever being taken to state hospitals that were already well over capacity.
After that, the Spanish government vowed not to let such a collapse happen again. Working with regional health departments, it designed what officials call “elasticity plans” to deal with sudden variations in service demands, especially in ICUs.
The idea is that hospitals have the equipment and, in theory, the personnel, to increase capacity depending on the need. But critics of government health policy say they’ve warned for years of inadequate hospital staffing, a key driver of the difficulty delivering care in the current wave.
“The key thing is flexibility, having flexible buildings that can expand, having staff that are flexible in terms of accepting task shifting, having flexibility in terms of sharing loads more of a regional structure,” said Dr. Martin McKee, a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Ultimately, though, McLee said: “A bed is an item of furniture. What counts is the staff around it,” McKee said.
Helms, the Strasbourg intensive care doctor, knows that all too well. Her unit has space for 30 beds. But it has only enough staff to care for the patients in the 26 beds currently occupied, a situation unlikely to change quickly after omicron burns through the region.
In the same hospital’s infectious diseases unit, frantic schedulers are borrowing staff from elsewhere in the facility, even if it means non-COVID-19 patients get less care.
“We’re still in the middle of a complex epidemic that is changing every day. It’s hard to imagine what we need to build for the future for other epidemics, but we’re going to have to reflect on the system of how we organize care,” said Dr. Nicolas Lefebvre, who runs the infectious diseases unit at the Strasbourg hospital.
He said Europe is prepared to handle isolated outbreaks as it has in the past, but the pandemic has exposed weakened foundations across entire health systems, even those considered among the world’s best.
Frédéric Valletoux, the head of the French Hospital Federation, said policymakers at the national level are acutely aware of the problem now. For 2022, the federation has requested more resources from nursing staff on up.
“The difficulty in our system is to shake things up, especially when we’re in the heart of the crisis,” Valletoux said.