Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 17 January 2022

Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet but communications are still limited and outlying costal areas remain cut off

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.
A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane later Monday.
Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater communications cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.
The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.
Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and coastal shops.
No casualties have been reported on Tonga, although there were still concerns about people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano. The tsunami waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.
Scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.
Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.
Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.
A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.
A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
He said Tonga had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second outside communications cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any solution difficult.
Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 63,000 feet (19,000 meters) high.
One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.
Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”
The US Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.
Tonga gets its Internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji. All Internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.
On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings. A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.
“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
“The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45 percent due to ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.
It’s too early to tell how much ash was produced by the eruption because the volcanic cloud included vapor resulting from sea water interacting with the hot magma, experts said.
The eruption in shallow water may be similar to a series of eruptions between 2016 and 2017 that shaped Bogoslof Island north of the Aleutian Islands, said Michelle Coombs, a scientist at the US Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory.
“When it erupts in shallow sea water, that interaction between hot magma and sea water adds extra energy to the explosion and creates taller and bigger ash clouds,” Coombs said.
The ash cloud was drifting westward and aircrafts will be likely diverted around its periphery as a precaution, said Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows
Updated 10 sec ago

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: President Joe Biden left Thursday for South Korea and Japan to cement US leadership in Asia at a time when the White House’s attention has been pulled back to Russia and Europe — and amid fears of a North Korean nuclear test during his trip.
Biden wants the trip to build on recent moves accelerating a years-long US pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting Washington’s dominance.
But highlighting competing demands from Europe, Biden met right before his departure with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to celebrate their applications for joining NATO — a seismic development sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In another sign of growing US involvement in the conflict, the White House said Biden would put his signature while in Asia on a massive, $40 billion Ukraine weapons and aid package passed Thursday by Congress.
Signing the bill “expeditiously” will ensure no gap in the funding flow, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Seoul.
A separate crisis awaits Biden on arrival, however — jitters that North Korea’s unpredictable leadership will choose his trip as the moment to test a nuclear capable missile or even a test nuclear explosion.
Despite a spiraling Covid outbreak, Pyongyang’s “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
Sullivan said there was “real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or Japan.”
“We know what we will do to respond to them. We have communicated with not just our allies, but also with China,” he said.
Biden heads to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will hold talks with the leaders of both countries, as well as joining a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — while in Tokyo.
During the first leg, he will visit US and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified frontier known as the DMZ between South and North Korea, the White House said.
Hours ahead of Biden arriving, South Korea’s newly elected, strongly pro-US President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a warm welcome, tweeting: “A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it. I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future.”

'Wind at our back'

Sullivan said ahead of the trip that Biden is bound for Asia with “the wind at our back” after successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s now almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to gain control over democratic-ruled Taiwan, even if that means going to war.
Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing is watching “carefully.”
“I think they’ve been struck by the way in which particularly the transatlantic alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression,” he said.
Sullivan said the administration wants not so much to confront China on the trip as to use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.
He pointed to cooperation from South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the United States. He also referred to Britain’s role in the recently created security partnership AUKUS.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it’s not a negative message and it’s not targeted at any one country.”

Sullivan said the United States is braced for North Korea to again defy UN sanctions by conducting a nuclear test.
If that happens, the US response will be coordinated with South Korea and Japan, Sullivan said, adding that Washington had been in touch with Beijing as well.
This could include trigger “adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region,” Sullivan said.
But he denied that a North Korean nuclear test would be seen as a setback for Biden’s diplomacy.
“It would underscore one of the main messages that we are sending on this trip, which is that the United States is here for our allies and partners.”

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka runs out of fuel

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka runs out of fuel
Updated 19 May 2022

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka runs out of fuel

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka runs out of fuel
  • Island nation defaults on foreign debt after missing Wednesday repayment deadline
  • Budget deficit soars to $6.8bn, or 13 percent of national GDP, as financial woes worsen

COLOMBO: Most Colombo residents stayed home on Thursday, unable to reach work or drive their children to school, as crisis-hit Sri Lanka ran out of fuel.  

The island nation of 22 million people has defaulted on its debt as it struggles with its worst financial crisis in more than 70 years. The country’s grace period to repay $78 million of unpaid interest payments expired on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office last week, said on Monday that Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves had fallen to almost nothing and the country urgently needed $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.

With no money coming, fuel ships remained anchored offshore, their cargoes out of reach.

Gas pumps have since gone dry, leaving many queuing in the hope of refueling their vehicles.

“When you have no choice, what to do?” said Chamin Tilakkumara, whose three-wheeler has been parked in a queue on Flower Road in an affluent part of Colombo for two days.  

“I have six mouths to feed back at home, so if I don’t do this how will we manage?”

Milani Perera, another Colombo resident, told Arab News that she struggled to return home after much of the city’s public transport came to a halt.

“I stood for over an hour in the rain with two small children and no way to go home,” she said. “I was weeping when a complete stranger decided to give us a ride near my home. I was so thankful, but I don’t want to go out again.”

Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told Parliament on Thursday that fuel will not be available for at least another few days.

The Education Ministry has since suspended schools.

Sri Lanka is facing a shortage not only of fuel, but also food and medicines, as its budget deficit climbs to $6.8 billion, or 13 percent of gross domestic product.

The crisis has triggered widespread demonstrations across the country since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, quit as prime minister last week, after clashes between government supporters and protesters left nine people dead and almost 300 injured.

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade
Updated 19 May 2022

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade
  • India has stringent laws to protect wildlife, but no rules covering exotic species
  • Lawmakers currently drafting legislation to close loopholes in legal protection

NEW DELHI: Villagers in West Bengal have since March reported seeing large animals with big feet leaping through forests. The locals say they have never spotted the creatures before.

The sightings drew national attention when wildlife officials in the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of the northeastern Indian state last month rescued three of the animals — that turned out to be kangaroos.

“We have initiated further investigation for ascertaining the whereabouts of these kangaroos — by whom and how they were brought into the forest along with finding the cause behind bringing them,” Belakoba forest range officer Sanjay Dutta told reporters at the time.

While the sightings are being probed, Wasim Akram, executive director of Wildlife SOS, a non-governmental organization rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in India, said it was most likely the animals had been smuggled into the country. The marsupials are indigenous to Australia and New Guinea and have never lived in South Asia, except for zoos.

“We still don’t have conditions to be breeding this kind of species in India. The higher chances would be of trafficking because that is how we have been seeing it happening in the past,” he told Arab News.

But it is unclear if the kangaroos came from Oceania, as wildlife smuggling networks may span several continents.

“Earlier, we used to see a lot of cases of reptiles being trafficked into India but that would never be from the port of exit to the port of entry, there would be multiple entry points, so it would be very difficult to track the source of origin,” Akram added.

“It happens that a species may be native of Africa. They end up trafficking it first to a place like Indonesia, and from there they send it to India.”

Indian law provides little accountability for those who own exotic pets or are involved in their trade.

Although the South Asian nation has some of the world’s most stringent legislations to protect wildlife and habitats, it does not have any rules or penalties for trading and owning of non-native species, endangered or not.

“Indian law does not have provision for domestic transfer or breeding of exotic animals,” Debadityo Sinha from the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, told Arab News. “There is a legal vacuum.”

An amnesty announced by the Ministry of Environment in 2020 showed how common such pets were in the country, when tens of thousands of Indians came forward to confess ownership of species from tortoises and pythons to lemurs and gibbons.

“As of May 26, 2021, a total of 43,693 applications for amnesty had been made under this advisory,” Sinha said.

Abhijit Sarkhel, a wildlife activist from New Delhi, said the sighting of exotic species was nothing new, adding that kangaroos only drew attention because they were big and very visible.

“Lots of people keep smaller mammals as pets and it’s an unregulated area,” he said. “If a person cannot handle the pet and release them in the forest then it’s the responsibility of forest departments.”

The lack of responsibility for exotic pets and their sighting in places where they do not belong is just the tip of the iceberg of conservation problems. “It’s certainly an extreme form of cruelty,” Akram said, adding that non-native species may struggle to survive in a different climate.

One of the kangaroos intercepted by wildlife officials in Bengal last month died from dehydration and malnutrition the day after it was rescued.

“When you introduce a species which is not native to that area, it can be a threat to the native species,” Akram added. “You can end up introducing a new virus, new infection.”

Despite being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora agreement since 1976, India is still to extend legal protection to many species listed in its appendices.

But works are in progress as last year Indian lawmakers began to draft legislation to amend the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act and close its loopholes.

“They are trying to regularize and regulate this particular field,” Akram said. “I won’t be surprised if a formal declaration is made very soon.”

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan
Updated 19 May 2022

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan
  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gun battle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, says Counterterrorism Department
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday that a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) for Sindh said special investigation teams formed in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Police used intelligence gathered from the investigation teams to trace three suspects from the Saddar attack on Wednesday as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah.

In a gun battle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused (Allah Dino) had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group (of the SRA) from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighbouring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.


Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks
Updated 19 May 2022

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks
  • "Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger," Biden said
  • Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries' ascension

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust US support for their applications to join NATO.
Meanwhile Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Biden, who has rallied the West to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, joined Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with their countries’ flags in a show of unity and support.
“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”
Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” the president said. “Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries’ ascension, pressing Sweden to halt support for Kurdish militants it considers part of a terrorist group and both to lift their bans on some arms sales to Turkey.
All 30 NATO members need to approve any new entrant. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turkey had told allies it will reject Sweden and Finland’s membership.
The Finnish president said at the White House that his country was open to discussing all Turkey’s concerns, and pledged to “commit to Turkey’s security just as Turkey will commit to our security” as a NATO ally.
“We take terrorism seriously,” Niinistö said.
Sweden and Finland have for decades stood outside the Cold War era military alliance designed to deter threats from the Soviet Union, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened security concerns.
The situation in Ukraine “reminds us of the darkest days of European history,” Andersson said. “During dark times it is great to be among close friends.”
Conversations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey have taken place to address Ankara’s concerns, with the United States involved in the effort. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that US officials were confident Turkey’s concerns can be addressed, and Biden told reporters “I think we’re going to be okay” on the issue.
Biden’s unabashed support put a firm, deliberate US stamp of approval on Finland and Sweden’s applications. He squeezed in the meeting just before departing to Asia and gave both leaders speaking time in the Rose Garden, underscoring that support.
Biden’s remarks also sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday Putin said there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
Biden said on Thursday that new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. “It never has been,” he said.