23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19
Australian officials said 23 crew members were infected on the HMAS Adelaide, above, which left Brisbane on Friday. (Australia Defense Force via AP)
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Updated 25 January 2022

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19
  • Australian government working with Tongan authorities to keep the ship at sea
  • Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks

WELLINGTON: Nearly two dozen sailors on an Australian military ship going to deliver aid to Tonga have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday, raising fears they could bring COVID-19 to a Pacific nation that has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government was working with Tongan authorities to keep the ship at sea and make sure there is no threat to Tonga’s 105,000 residents.
Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption of an undersea volcano 10 days ago. The eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed dozens of homes, and volcanic ash has tainted drinking water.
Since the pandemic began, Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks. It’s one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus free. About 61 percent of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.
Australian officials said 23 crew members were infected on the HMAS Adelaide, which left Brisbane on Friday.
“They need the aid desperately, but they don’t want the risk of COVID,” Dutton told Sky News. “We will work through all of that as quickly as we can.”
It’s the second aid shipment from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around midflight after somebody was diagnosed.
Meanwhile, a cable company official said Tonga’s main island could have its Internet service restored within two weeks, although it may take much longer to repair the connection to the smaller islands.
The single undersea fiber-optic cable which connects the Pacific nation to the outside world was severed after the eruption and tsunami.
That left most people unable to connect with loved ones abroad. For days, people couldn’t get through on their phones, by email, or through social media.
Since then, Tonga’s Digicel has been able to restore international call services to some areas by using satellite connections. Some people have been able to send emails or get limited Internet connectivity.
Samieula Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company which owns the fiber-optic cable, said a repair ship had left from Papua New Guinea and was due to stop over in Samoa by Monday to pick up supplies. It should then arrive in Tonga by Feb. 1.
Fonua said the CS Reliance had a crew of about 60 aboard, including engineers, divers and medical staff. He said its equipment included a robot which could assess the cable on the seabed.
Fonua said preliminary estimates indicated the break in the cable was located about 37 kilometers offshore from the main island of Tongatapu. He said that all going well, the crew should be able to repair the cable by Feb. 8, restoring the Internet to about 80 percent of Tonga’s customers.
The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji, a distance of about 800 kilometers, and was first commissioned in 2013 at a cost of about $16 million. It was financed through grants from the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank, and increased Tonga’s Internet capacity fivefold.
But like many small Pacific countries, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little in the way of a back-up plan. Three years ago, a cable break believed to have been caused by a ship dragging its anchor also led to weeks of disruptions.
A second, domestic fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga’s smaller islands to the main island could prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said that cable runs near the undersea volcano which erupted and may have been severely damaged. It might need extensive repairs or even a replacement, he said.
Fonua said the focus was on fixing the main international cable, and they could deal with the domestic connections “at a later time.”
He said Tongans had been somewhat understanding of the communication disruptions caused by the disaster, which killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and tainted water supplies with volcanic ash.
“People are calm. Coming out of a total blackout, just being able to call outside and send an email has settled them a bit,” Fonua said. “By the time they start getting more frustrated, I’m hoping we’ll have the cable connected by then.”


Belarus introduces death penalty for ‘attempted’ terrorism

Belarus introduces death penalty for ‘attempted’ terrorism
Updated 8 sec ago

Belarus introduces death penalty for ‘attempted’ terrorism

Belarus introduces death penalty for ‘attempted’ terrorism
MOSCOW: Belarus has introduced the death penalty for attempts to carry out acts of terrorism — charges faced by exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who on Wednesday joined the United States in denouncing the decision.
Belarus — a close ally of Russia that has supported its military offensive in Ukraine — is the only country in Europe that continues to carry out executions despite calls for a moratorium.
“Lukashenko signed a law on the possibility of the death penalty for an attempted terrorist act,” Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday, citing an online government portal for legal information in Belarus.
It said the law would come into force 10 days after its publication.
Two years ago, Belarus faced historic protests against the re-election of strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron fist for more than two decades.
Thousands of activists were arrested in the crackdown and the key leaders of the opposition movement are now either jailed or in exile.
Among them is Tikhanovskaya, a political novice who ran against Lukashenko in the August 2020 polls in place of her jailed husband.
She now leads the Belarusian opposition from exile in Lithuania, while her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky is serving 18 years in prison on what supporters say are politically motivated charges.
Last March, Belarusian prosecutors charged Tikhanovskaya in absentia with “preparing acts of terrorism as part of an organized group,” according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.
Tikhanovskaya on Wednesday denounced the decision of the “lawless regime” to expand the use of the death penalty, saying it targeted anti-government activists.
“This is a direct threat to activists opposing the dictator and the war,” Tikhanovskaya tweeted.
“I urge the international community to react: sanction lawmakers and consider any tools to prevent the political killings,” she added.
The United States condemned the legislation, calling it a desperate move by Lukashenko to retain power.
“These actions are those of an authoritarian leader desperate to cling to power through fear and intimidation,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Belarus and its leadership are already under a litany of Western sanctions over its handling of the opposition protests and over its support for Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine.
But many opposition activists remain behind bars in Belarus awaiting trial.
On Wednesday, a Belarusian court in the north-western city of Grodno started a closed-door hearing in the case against 12 activists accused of “preparing acts of terrorism,” according to Belarusian rights group Vyasna.
Among them is veteran activist Nikolai Avtukhovich, who has already served more than seven years in prison. The 59-year-old faces other charges, including treason.
The activists are accused of setting a policeman’s home and car on fire, and burning another policeman’s car in the autumn of 2020.
Capital punishment in Belarus — carried out by shooting — is highly secret and there are no official statistics.
The country’s last known death sentence was carried out against Victor Pavlov, who was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of murder and larceny, according to the UN Human Rights Committee.
The committee had called for his execution to be halted while it examined his allegations of torture in detention but said in March that his family had been informed it had taken place, without any information about when he was executed.
Pavlov was the 15th person executed in Belarus since 2010 while their case was still pending before the committee, it said.

Kabul mediates between Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad, cease-fire agreed until May 30

Kabul mediates between Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad, cease-fire agreed until May 30
Updated 16 min 51 sec ago

Kabul mediates between Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad, cease-fire agreed until May 30

Kabul mediates between Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad, cease-fire agreed until May 30
  • Last truce between militants and government ended in December 2021
  • Pakistani Taliban have fought for years to overthrow government in Islamabad

PESHAWAR: Pakistan’s local Taliban outfit, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, on Wednesday announced a cease-fire agreement with the government until May 30 after Kabul mediated talks, the Afghan Taliban government said.

The TTP,  a separate movement from the Afghan Taliban, have fought for years to overthrow the government in Islamabad and rule with their own brand of Islamic law. In December 2021, the group declared an end to a month-long cease-fire, accusing the government of breaching terms, including a prisoner release agreement and the formation of negotiating committees.

Following the breakdown of talks between the two sides, the Pakistan army resumed operations against the banned outfit early this year, after which the TTP announced the launch of its Al-Badar operation on March 30 to target law enforcement agencies.

There has since been a surge in militant attacks in tribal districts and southern regions of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.

“Talks were held in Kabul between the government of Pakistan and the Taliban Movement of Pakistan with the mediation of the Islamic Emirate (Afghan Taliban government),” Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that “in addition to making significant progress on related issues during the talks, a temporary cease-fire was also agreed upon.”

In a separate post, Mujahid said the Kabul government “strives for the goodwill of the negotiating process, and wishes both sides tolerance and flexibility.”

Separately, the TTP said in a statement that a 32-member committee of Mehsud tribesmen and another 16-member committee of elders from the Malakand division had held meetings with the TTP’s peace committee on the directives of the Pakistan government.

“Facilitated by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, talks are being held between the committees of the government of Pakistan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban,” the statement read.

The two committees recommended in the meetings that both sides declare a cease-fire as long as peace talks were taking place.

“Keeping in view their demand, both sides agreed to a cease-fire till May 30,” the banned outfit said.

Hassan Khan, a senior journalist and analyst, told Arab News the modus operandi of latest peace talks was “totally different” from past negotiations due to the involvement of tribal elders and the government’s committee.

“This time there is a lot of pressure on the TTP, both from the Afghan government and the involvement of the tribal jirgas. I think peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP will yield some results this time around if both sides keep following up on their negotiations,” Khan said.

On Tuesday, security forces killed two TTP commanders in a shootout in North Waziristan, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed
Updated 18 May 2022

Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed
  • Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in 1991
  • His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of A.G. Perarivalan, who was convicted of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in May 1991. His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987.
Perarivalan was convicted in 1991 of purchasing the batteries used to detonate the bomb that killed Gandhi.
In May 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government allowed Perarivalan to leave on parole, using a provision in the Tamil Nadu Prison manual.
The Supreme Court took a lenient view of Perarivalan, saying he was 19 years old at the time of arrest and had been jailed for over 30 years, including 16 years on death row and 29 years in solitary confinement.
Speaking to the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday, Perarivalan recalled years spent in a cramped 6 feet (1.8 m) by 9 feet (2.7 m) cell during his time in solitary confinement.
“A room in which I had nothing but empty walls to look at,” he said, describing obsessively counting bricks on the wall, measuring the door and bolts and imagining smells he craved.
Six others people, including a woman, are still in jail and are awaiting a verdict in the case.
The court said Perarivalan was released after considering his “satisfactory conduct in jail and during parole” and “chronic ailments.”
Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, is head of India’s main opposition Congress party while their son, Rahul, has been leading its campaign for elections. A Congress party spokesman said on Wednesday the party was deeply saddened by the court’s decision.
Many in the state of Tamil Nadu celebrated the verdict as a victory for human rights.
“My best wishes and warm welcome to Perarivalan who is set to fully breathe the air of liberation after more than 30 years of imprisonment,” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin tweeted.


Sri Lankan police arrest ruling party MPs over deadly attacks on protesters

Sri Lankan police arrest ruling party MPs over deadly attacks on protesters
Updated 18 May 2022

Sri Lankan police arrest ruling party MPs over deadly attacks on protesters

Sri Lankan police arrest ruling party MPs over deadly attacks on protesters
  • Detectives detained SLPP MPs Milan Jayathilake, Sanath Nishantha and four other high-ranking officials on Tuesday
  • Suspects allegedly involved in deaths of demonstrators from the ‘Gota go gama’ and ‘Myna go gama’ movement who seek change in crisis-hit nation

COLOMBO: Two Sri Lankan ruling party lawmakers have been arrested on charges of involvement in attacks on anti-government protesters, a top police official said on Wednesday.

For over a month, citizens have been protesting across Sri Lanka, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom they blame for the country’s worst economic crisis.

The prime minister resigned last week, after supporters of the Rajapaksas attacked demonstrators in Colombo. The violence left nine people dead and wounded nearly 300, leading to days of unrest.

The two lawmakers from President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party were arrested, after a criminal investigation, on Tuesday evening and have been remanded by the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s court until May 25.

“As a result of the investigations, the detectives arrested SLPP MPs Milan Jayathilake and Sanath Nishantha on Tuesday,” Senior Superintendent of Police Nihal Thalduwa told Arab News.

He added that another four high-ranking officials were also detained “over their involvement in the attacks on the ‘Gota go gama’ and ‘Myna go gama’ peaceful protest sites.”

“Gota go gama” and “Myna go gama” are popular slogans among protesters. “Gota” is a reference to President Rajapaksa, while “Myna” to his ex-PM brother. The “go gama,” literally “go village,” is a call on them to leave and go home.

Thalduwa said 883 people have been arrested over the violence that shook the island nation between May 9 and May 11, leading to the deployment of troops in many parts of the country to impose a curfew that was only lifted on Wednesday morning.

Protesters continued to demonstrate outside the president’s office in Colombo, demanding he resign, as the country is struggling with its worst financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Acute shortages of food, fuel, and essential medicines have been accompanied by record inflation and long power cuts for the past few months.

The new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed last week, said in a televised speech on Monday evening that the country urgently needed about $75 billion to help provide the nation with essential items, but its treasury was struggling to find even $1 billion.


Deadly floods trap 400,000 people in northeast India

Deadly floods trap 400,000 people in northeast India
Updated 18 May 2022

Deadly floods trap 400,000 people in northeast India

Deadly floods trap 400,000 people in northeast India
  • At least 8 people have been killed in the deluge
  • More heavy rain is expected in the region this week

NEW DELHI: More than 400,000 people in northeastern India have been hit by deadly floods triggered by pre-monsoon downpours, authorities said on Wednesday, as they brace for more heavy rain.

Rescue and evacuation efforts were ongoing as incessant rains and landslides affected communication lines, as well as road and railway networks in most of Assam state in the last few days.

At least eight people have been killed by the floods, according to local media reports.

“The total number of people impacted is around 4 lakh (400,000),” Gyanendra Dev Tripathi, chief executive at the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, told Arab News.

“Hopefully, we will be able to tackle this situation,” he added. “We are ready for the worst possible scenario.”

The flooding has been worst in the districts of Cachar and Hojai.

“In Hojai district alone, at least 100 villages are submerged, which means more than 50 percent of villages are under water. At least 40,000 to 50,000 people in this area are impacted,” Ashraful Amin, a social worker in the region, told Arab News.

He estimated that around 70 percent of the people were still trapped in the flood zone. The military has already joined the rescue operation.

“Since yesterday, we have been trying to reach out to the affected people on wooden boats,” he said. “The army has started rescuing people today.”

Landslides have cut off the southern part of the state from rail connectivity.

“We have 50 bridge points where landslides have damaged the tracks,” Sabyasachi De, spokesperson for North Eastern Frontier Railway, said. “These are unprecedented landslides, cloudbursts and flash floods. We have not seen anything like this so far.”

India’s weather agency has issued a red alert notice for Assam, as heavy rain is expected in the region for the next three days.

More rainfall is expected as monsoon downpours are yet to hit the region, R. K. Jenamani, a senior scientist at the India Meteorological Department, told Arab News.

“The havoc has been caused by flash floods. It’s not the normal monsoon,” he said. “The monsoon has yet to hit India.”