First death in Tonga volcano blast as nation remains cut off

A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 18 January 2022

First death in Tonga volcano blast as nation remains cut off

A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami

SYDNEY: The first death from a massive underwater volcanic blast near the Pacific island nation of Tonga has been confirmed, as the extent of the damage remained unknown Monday.
Tonga remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world, after the eruption crippled communications and stalled emergency relief efforts.
It is two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded, cloaking Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami and releasing shock waves that wrapped around the entire Earth.
But with phone lines still down and an undersea Internet cable cut — and not expected to be repaired for weeks — the true toll of the dual eruption-tsunami disaster is not yet known.
The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami. She was identified as Angela Glover, 50, who lived in the Tonga capital with her husband James, Glover’s brother Nick Eleini told British media.
Two women also drowned Saturday in northern Peru in big waves recorded after the volcanic blast, authorities there said.
Only fragments of information have filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, home to just over 100,000 people.
In one of the few communications with the outside world, two stranded Mexican marine biologists made a plea for help from their government, using a satellite phone provided by the British embassy to call their family.
“They said they were sheltering in a hotel near the airport and they asked us for help to leave the island,” Amelia Nava, the sister of 34-year-old Leslie Nava, told AFP in Mexico.
Tonga’s worried neighbors are still scrambling to grasp the scale of the damage, which New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said was believed to be “significant.”
Both Wellington and Canberra scrambled reconnaissance planes Monday in an attempt to get a sense of the damage from the air.
And both have put C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land if runways are deemed operational and ash clouds allow.
There are initial reports that areas of Tonga’s west coast may have been badly hit.
Australia’s international development minister, Zed Seselja, said a small contingent of Australian police stationed in Tonga had delivered a “pretty concerning” initial evaluation.
They were “able to do an assessment of some of the Western beaches area and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said.
“One of the good pieces of news is that I understand the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added.
“That will be very, very important as the ash cloud clears and we are able to have flights coming into Tonga for humanitarian purposes.”
Major aid agencies, who would usually rush in to provide emergency humanitarian relief, said they were stuck in a holding pattern, unable to contact local staff.
“From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense — especially for outlying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation.
Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be complicated by Covid-19 entry restrictions. Tonga only recently reported its first-ever coronavirus case.

France, which has territories in the South Pacific, pledged to help the people of Tonga.
“France is willing to respond to the population’s most urgent needs,” the foreign ministry said. This assistance would be provided through a humanitarian aid mechanism with Australia and New Zealand that is known as FRANZ, the ministry added.
What is known is that Saturday’s volcanic blast was one the largest recorded in decades, erupting 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) into the air and depositing ash, gas and acid rain across a swathe of the Pacific.
The eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States.
The Tongan capital Nuku’alofa was estimated to be cloaked in 1-2 centimeters of ash, potentially poisoning water supplies and causing breathing difficulties.
“We know water is an immediate need,” Ardern told reporters.
After speaking to the New Zealand embassy in Tonga, she described how boats and “large boulders” washed ashore.
Wellington’s defense minister said he understood the island nation had managed to restore power in “large parts” of the city.
But communications were still cut. The eruption severed an undersea communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take weeks to repair.
“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Southern Cross Cable Network’s networks director Dean Veverka told AFP.
“It could take up to two weeks to get it repaired. The nearest cable-laying vessel is in Port Moresby,” he added, referring to the Papua New Guinea capital more than 4,000 kilometers from Tonga.
Tonga was isolated for two weeks in 2019 when a ship’s anchor cut the cable. A small, locally operated satellite service was set up to allow minimal contact with the outside world until the cable could be repaired.


Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace
Updated 10 sec ago

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace
  • The Chinese capital on Monday reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day
BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Beijing authorities extended work-from-home guidance for many of its 22 million residents to stem a persistent COVID-19 outbreak, while Shanghai deployed more testing and curbs to hold on to its hard-won ‘zero COVID’ status after two months of lockdown.
On Monday, the Chinese capital reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day — the largest daily tally so far during a month-old outbreak that has consistently seen dozens of new infections every day.
In Shanghai fewer than 600 daily cases were reported for May 22, with none outside quarantined areas, as there has been the case for much of the past week.
Analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics estimated last week that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese cities were reporting infections, down from a quarter in late March, in a COVID-19 outbreak that has cast a pall over growth in the world’s no. 2 economy. But vigilance, and concern, remains acute in Shanghai and the capital.
While there were no new announcements of areas being closed in Beijing, five of the city’s 16 districts advised residents to work from home and avoid gatherings. Those who have to go to work should have a negative result on a PCR test taken within 48 hours, and must not deviate from their home-to-work commute.
“The city’s epidemic prevention and control is at a critical moment,” Beijing’s Tongzhou district posted on its WeChat account late on Sunday, asking residents who work in five other districts to do their jobs from home this week.
“One step forward and victory is in sight. One step back, and previous efforts would be wasted.”
Beijing had already curtailed public transport, asked some shopping malls and other stores and venues to close and sealed buildings where new cases were detected.
In one large residential compound not under isolation orders, shelves have been set up for deliveries at the entrance, according to residents, fueling concern that preparation was in place for tougher controls on movement.
The curbs in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in China are leaving behind significant economic damage and disruption to global supply chains and international trade.
The highly-transmissible omicron variant of the virus first discovered in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 has proven hard to defeat even with strict measures that starkly contrast the resumption of normal life elsewhere in the world.
“We’ve been massively hit,” said a convenience store owner surnamed Sun, whose shop in Beijing has only been allowed to operate during daytime rather than its usual 24/7 hours.
“Even during the Wuhan outbreak we could stay open the whole time.”
In Shanghai, which reopened more than 250 bus routes and a small part of its sprawling subway system on Sunday, many towns and districts announced more mass testing for the coming days and asked residents not to leave their compounds.
The commercial hub of 25 million has allowed more people to leave their homes for brief periods over the past week, but it generally plans to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a lifting its two-month-old lockdown from June 1.
However, while more people are being allowed outside, several residents in various areas of Shanghai said they had been told of new infections in their vicinity that required new curbs on movement.
One resident in Hongkou district, which has not reported any new community-level cases since May 7, said he was told last week not to leave his flat, having been allowed to move within his compound previously.
Hongkou was among six districts which have announced some tightening of curbs in recent days to “consolidate” the results of their efforts so far.
But such moves made some people fear the virus was making a comeback.
The top comment on a post by state agency Xinhua on China’s Twitter-like Weibo post on Shanghai’s latest numbers read: “This can’t be accurate, zero COVID cases at community level? Our compound had one new case yesterday.”
Asked to comment, the Shanghai government said that all cases found in recent days were in “sealed” high-risk areas or quarantine centers, and that any community transmission cases would be announced on official channels.

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry
Updated 23 May 2022

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry

Seven killed after fire engulfs Philippine ferry
  • 12 rescued so far and seven remained missing, says Philippine Coast Guard
  • The ferry was on its way to Real in Quezon province from Polillo island

MANILA: At least seven people were killed and scores plucked to safety in the Philippines Monday after a fire ripped through a ferry and forced passengers to jump overboard, coast guard and witnesses said.
The blaze broke out on the Mercraft 2 at around 6:30 am (2230 GMT Sunday) as it carried 134 passengers and crew from Polillo Island to Real in Quezon province on the main island of Luzon.
Seven people died and 120 have been rescued so far, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armando Balilo said.
Another seven were missing and a search operation was ongoing.
The boat had a 186-person capacity.
Thick black smoke billowed from the boat as flames engulfed the entire vessel, photos shared by the coast guard showed.
People with life rings and life vests were in the water. Some were rescued by other ferries or clambered into inflatable boats.
The fire appears to have started in the engine room, Balilo said.
“We were able to rescue 40 survivors. We have two fatalities,” said Captain Brunette Azagra, whose passenger vessel was 500 meters from the Mercraft when the fire broke out.
“They were lucky because we also came from Polillo. They overtook us, but we were just nearby,” Azagra told a local radio station, describing sea conditions as “quite good.”
At least 23 people were injured, according to the coast guard.
The ship was around seven kilometers away (four miles) from port, Real town disaster officer Ricky Poblete said.
Speaking from the hospital where the injured were being treated, Poblete said the seven dead had drowned.
Photos posted on the coast guard’s Facebook page showed a survivor laying on a stretcher being carried off a ferry.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is plagued by poor sea transport, with its badly regulated boats and ships prone to overcrowding and accidents.
The Mercraft has been towed to shore, Balilo said.


Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv
Updated 23 May 2022

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv

Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv
  • Zelensky says from 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east
  • Urges the 27-member EU to expedite his country’s request to join the bloc

KYIV, Ukraine: Russia pressed its offensive in eastern Ukraine on Sunday as Poland’s president traveled to Kyiv to support the country’s European Union aspirations, becoming the first foreign leader to address the Ukrainian parliament since the start of the war.
Lawmakers gave a standing ovation to President Andrzej Duda, who thanked them for the honor of speaking where “the heart of a free, independent and democratic Ukraine beats.” Duda said that to end the conflict, Ukraine did not need to submit to conditions given by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Unfortunately, in Europe there have also been disturbing voices in recent times demanding that Ukraine yield to Putin’s demands,” he said. “I want to say clearly: Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future. Only Ukraine has the right to decide for itself.”
Duda’s visit, his second to Kyiv since April, came as Russian and Ukrainian forces battled along a 551-kilometer (342-mile) wedge of the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
After declaring full control of a sprawling seaside steel plant that was the last defensive holdout in the port city of Mariupol, Russia launched artillery and missile attacks to expand the territory that Moscow-backed separatists have held since 2014 in the region known as the Donbas.

Ukrainian soldiers load bodies of killed Russian soldiers into a refrigerated rail car in Kharkiv on Sunday. (Reuters)

To bolster its defenses, Ukraine’s parliament voted Sunday to extend martial law and the mobilization of armed forces for a third time, until Aug. 23.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stressed that the 27-member EU should expedite his country’s request to join the bloc. Ukraine’s potential candidacy is set to be discussed at a Brussels summit in late June.
France’s European Affairs minister Clement Beaune on Sunday told Radio J it would be a “long time” before Ukraine gains EU membership, perhaps up to two decades.
“We have to be honest,” he said. “If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you’re lying.”
But Poland is ramping up efforts to win over EU members who are more hesitant about accepting Ukraine into the bloc. Zelensky said Duda’s visit represented a “historic union” between Ukraine, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Poland, which ended communist rule two years earlier.
“This is really a historic opportunity not to lose such strong relations, built through blood, through Russian aggression,” Zelensky said. “All this not to lose our state, not to lose our people.”
Poland has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees and become a gateway for Western humanitarian aid and weapons into Ukraine. It is also a transit point for some foreign fighters who have volunteered to fight the Russian forces.
Duda credited the US and President Joe Biden for unifying the West in supporting Ukraine and imposing sanctions against Moscow.
“Kyiv is the place from which one clearly sees that we need more America in Europe, both in the military and in this economic dimension,” said Duda, a right-wing populist leader who clearly preferred former President Donald Trump over Biden in the 2020 election.
On the battlefield, Russia appeared to have made slow, grinding moves forward in the Donbas in recent days. It intensified efforts to capture Sievierodonetsk, the main city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which together with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas. The Ukrainian military said Sunday that Russian forces had mounted an unsuccessful attack on Oleksandrivka, a village outside of Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk came under heavy shelling, and Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai said the Russians were “simply intentionally trying to destroy the city... engaging in a scorched-earth approach.”
Haidai said Moscow was concentrating forces and weaponry there to try to win control of Luhansk, bringing in forces from Kharkiv to the northwest, Mariupol to the south, and from inside Russia.
The sole working hospital in the city has only three doctors and supplies for 10 days, he said.
Ukrainian officials have said little since the war began about the extent of their country’s casualties, but Zelensky said at a news conference Sunday that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.
In a general staff morning report, Russia said it was also preparing to resume its offensive on Slovyansk, a city in Donetsk province that saw fierce fighting last month after Moscow’s troops backed away from Kyiv.
In Enerhodar, a Russian-held city 281 kilometers (174 miles) northwest of Mariupol, an explosion Sunday injured the Moscow-appointed mayor at his residence, Ukrainian and Russian news agencies reported. Ukraine’s Unian news agency said a bomb planted by “local partisans” wounded 48-year-old Andrei Shevchuk, whose lives near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest.
With Russia claiming to have taken prisoner nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters from the Mariupol steel plant, concerns grew about their fate and that of the remaining residents of the city, now in ruins with more than 20,000 feared dead.

Ukrainian soldiers assist their comrades not far from the frontline in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on May 21, 2022. (AFP)

Relatives of the fighters have pleaded for them to be given rights as prisoners of war and eventually returned to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine “will fight for the return” of every one of them.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, vowed that the Ukrainian fighters from the plant would face tribunals.
The complete seizure of the Azovstal steel plant, a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity, gave Putin a badly wanted victory in the war he began nearly three months ago, on Feb. 24. Ukraine’s military had told the fighters their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko warned that the city faces a health and sanitation “catastrophe” from mass burials in shallow pits and the breakdown of sewage systems. An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who lived in Mariupol before the war remain.
Ukrainian authorities have alleged Russian atrocities there, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians had taken cover.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian court was expected to reach a verdict Monday for a Russian soldier who was the first to go on trial for an alleged war crime. The 21-year-old sergeant, who has admitted to shooting a Ukrainian man in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region on Feb. 28, could get life in prison if convicted.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has said her office was prosecuting war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses that included bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.
In other developments, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, gave a rare interview to national broadcaster ICTV alongside her husband and said she has hardly seen him since the war began.
“Our family, like all Ukrainian families, is now separated,” she said, adding that she speaks to him mostly by phone.
“Unfortunately, we cannot sit together, have dinner with the whole family, talk about everything,” she said.
Zelensky called the interview itself “a date on air,” and the couple, who have two children, joked in front of the journalists.
“We are joking, but we are really waiting, like everyone else, to be reunited, like all families in Ukraine who are separated now, waiting for their relatives and friends who want to be together again,” he said.

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More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN
Updated 23 May 2022

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN

More than 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UN
  • The “alarming” figure must shake the world into ending the conflicts forcing record numbers to flee their own homes, the UNHCR said in a statement

GENEVA: Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said Monday.
“The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts,” said UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The “alarming” figure must shake the world into ending the conflicts forcing record numbers to flee their own homes, the UNHCR said in a statement.
UNHCR said the numbers of forcibly displaced people rose toward 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and since then, more than eight million people have been displaced within the country, while more than six million refugees have fled across the borders.
“One hundred million is a stark figure — sobering and alarming in equal measure. It’s a record that should never have been set,” said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
“This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes.”
The 100 million figure amounts to more than one percent of the global population, while only 13 countries have a bigger population than the number of forcibly displaced people in the world.
The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.
“The international response to people fleeing war in Ukraine has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Grandi.
“Compassion is alive and we need a similar mobilization for all crises around the world. But ultimately, humanitarian aid is a palliative, not a cure.
“To reverse this trend, the only answer is peace and stability so that innocent people are not forced to gamble between acute danger at home or precarious flight and exile.”
UNHCR will outline the full data on forced displacement in 2021 in its annual Global Trends Report, due for release on June 16.
More than two years on since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least 20 countries still deny access to asylum for people fleeing conflict, violence, and persecution based on measures to clamp down on the virus.
Grandi called Friday for those countries to lift any remaining pandemic-related asylum restrictions, saying they contravene a fundamental human right.
“I am worried that measures enacted on the pretext of responding to Covid-19 are being used as cover to exclude and deny asylum to people fleeing violence and persecution,” he said.
A joint report last week by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said around 38 million new internal displacements were reported in 2021. Some of those were by people forced to flee multiple times during the year.
The figure marks the second-highest annual number of new internal displacements in a decade after 2020, which saw record-breaking movement due to a string of natural disasters.
Last year, new internal displacements specifically from conflict surged to 14.4 million — marking a 50-percent jump from 2020, the report showed.
“It has never been as bad as this,” NRC chief Jan Egeland told reporters.
“The world is falling apart.”
Natural disasters continued to account for most new internal displacement, spurring 23.7 million such movements in 2021.


Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting
Updated 23 May 2022

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

Australia swears in new Labor PM ahead of Quad meeting

SYDNEY: Australia’s Labour Party leader Anthony Albanese was sworn in as the country’s 31st prime minister on Monday, promising a “journey of change” as he vowed to tackle climate change, rising living costs and inequality.
Labor returns to power after nine years in opposition as a wave of unprecedented support for the Greens and climate-focussed independents, mostly women, helped end nearly a decade of rule by the conservative coalition in Saturday’s general election.
While votes are still being counted and the makeup of government has yet to be finalized, Albanese was sworn in so he could attend a key meeting of the “Quad” security grouping in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Albanese, raised in public housing by a single mother on a disability pension, was sworn in by Governor-General David Hurley at a ceremony in the national capital, Canberra.
“It’s a big day in my life but a big day for the country, when we change the government,” Albanese told reporters outside his Sydney suburban home ahead of the ceremony.
“I want to channel the opportunity that we have to shape change so that we bring people with us on the journey of change. I want to bring the country together.”
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles and three key ministers — Penny Wong in foreign affairs, Jim Chalmers as treasurer and Katy Gallagher in finance — were also sworn in, with Wong to join Albanese on the Quad trip.
Albanese said he spoke to US President Joe Biden on Sunday night and was looking forward to meeting him alongside the prime ministers of Japan and India on Tuesday. He will return to Australia on Wednesday.
“This visit aligns with what the Albanese Government sees as the three pillars of Australia’s foreign policy: our alliance with the United States, our engagement with the region, and our support for multilateral forums,” Albanese said in a statement.
Labor’s campaign heavily spotlighted Albanese’s working-class credentials and his image as a pragmatic unifier.
Center-left Labor still remains four seats short of a majority of 76 in the 151 seat lower house with about a dozen races too close to call, according to television channels. Some predicted Labor might get enough seats to govern on their own.
Official results could be several days away, with the counting of a record 2.7 million postal votes underway on Sunday.