South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day. (AP)
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Updated 26 January 2022

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
  • Highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week
  • Omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday

SEOUL: South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases exceeded 13,000 for the first time on Wednesday, driven by the spread of the omicron variant, as the government launched a new pilot testing scheme to meet skyrocketing demand.
The record 13,012 cases for the previous 24-hour period came just a day after the tally first topped 8,000 despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.
The highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week, and the daily numbers could more than double or surge to even higher levels in the coming weeks, health officials warned.
“Going forward, our top priority is to reduce critically ill patients and deaths,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told an inter-ministry meeting on Wednesday.
The government introduced a new testing policy in four designated cities on a pilot basis, under which only priority groups take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test while others can get a rapid antigen test at a local clinic for faster initial diagnosis.
The program will be scaled up starting Saturday to enable 256 state-run testing stations nationwide to distribute the rapid antigen self-test kits, Kim said. Another 430 local clinics will be added next week.
As part of efforts to free up resources for serious patients, the government has also cut mandatory isolation for people who have been vaccinated but tested positive to seven days from 10, and expanded self-treatment at home for asymptomatic and mild cases.
Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said more than 80 percent of intensive care unit beds are available nationwide, compared with some 20 percent in early December when record-breaking infections threatened to saturate the country’s medical system.
South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day, but has capacity for 800,000, Son added.
The omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families.
President Moon Jae-in also met with aides on Wednesday to oversee the government’s efforts, calling for moves to prevent any potential shortages of test kits and ensure sufficient consultations with doctors at local clinics.
On Tuesday, some 46 South Korean athletes and coaches who will compete in the Beijing Olympics had to receive a COVID-19 test after attending a ceremony for the delegation where an official at the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee later tested positive.
South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has largely been successful in mitigating COVID-19, with 762,983 total infections and 6,620 deaths.
More than 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated with some 58 percent having received a booster dose, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.


Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
Updated 42 min 1 sec ago

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
Updated 21 May 2022

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
  • Travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the US

LONDON: Russia said on Saturday it was banning entry to 963 Americans including US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA chief William Burns
The travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.


Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
Updated 21 May 2022

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
  • The legislation was passed by Congress with bipartisan support
  • The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance

SEOUL: President Joe Biden on Saturday signed legislation to support Ukraine with another $40 billion in US assistance as the Russian invasion approaches its fourth month.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens the US commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion.
The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion in general economic support, $5 billion to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion to help refugees.
Biden signed the measure under unusual circumstances. Because he’s in the middle of a trip to Asia, a US official brought a copy of the bill on a commercial flight so the president could sign it, according to a White House official.
The logistics reflect a sense of urgency around continuing US support for Ukraine, but also the overlapping international challenges facing Biden. Even as he tries to reorient American foreign policy to confront China, he’s continuing to direct resources to the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.

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Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
  • Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf
  • Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan’s leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group’s austere brand of Islam.
Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.
Earlier this month Afghanistan’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.
Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.
But broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters’ faces visible.
“Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working,” said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.
“This is the reason they have not observed the order so far,” he told AFP, adding the channel had requested further discussions with the Taliban on the issue.
Taliban orders such as this have caused many female journalists to leave Afghanistan since the hard-line Islamists stormed back to power, a woman presenter said.
“Their latest order has broken the hearts of women presenters and many now think they have no future in this country,” she said, requesting not to be named.
“I’m thinking of leaving the country. Decrees like this will force many professionals to leave.”
Mohammad Sadeq Akif MoHajjir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women presenters were violating the Taliban directive.
“If they don’t comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters,” he told AFP.
“Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order,” he said.
The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.
Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.
MoHajjir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.
During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.
Soon after they took over, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Since the takeover, however, women have been banned from traveling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office in 2001, many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.
But most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.
Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.


Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
Updated 21 May 2022

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
  • War ‘will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy’

KYIV: The Ukraine war can only be resolved through “diplomacy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday amid a deadlock in negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.
“The end will be through diplomacy,” he told a Ukrainian television channel. The war “will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
“Discussions between Ukraine and Russia will decidedly take place. Under what format I don’t know — with intermediaries, without them, in a broader group, at presidential level,” he said.
“There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” he said.” We want everything to return (to as it was before)” but “Russia does not want that,” he said, without elaborating.
The results of negotiations, which could have a variety of subjects “according to the timing of the meeting,” would have to be “fair” for Ukraine, Zelensky stressed.
The president spoke of a document about security guarantees for his nation, saying it would be signed by “friends and partners of Ukraine, without Moscow.” A bilateral discussion would be held with Russia at the same time, he added.
He also recalled Kyiv’s absolute precondition for continuing talks that Russia does not kill Ukrainian troops who defended the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Zelensky noted Russian troops “offered the possibility, found a way for these people to come out alive,” from Azovstal.
“The most important thing for me is to save the maximum number of people and soldiers.”
According to Moscow 2,439 Ukrainians have surrendered at the plant since May 16, the final 500 on Friday.
On Tuesday, Kyiv’s lead negotiator Mykhaylo Podolyak said talks with Russia were “on hold” after taking place regularly in the earlier stages of the conflict but without substantial results.
The following day Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Kyiv authorities of not wanting to continue talks to end hostilities.
“Talks are indeed not moving forward and we note the complete lack of will of Ukrainian negotiators to continue this process,” he said.
The last talks took place on April 22, according to Russian news agencies.
After failing to take Kyiv following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops are now concentrating on the east of the country, where fierce clashes are ongoing.