As Beijing’s COVID-19 curbs tighten, hard-hit Shanghai sees signs of life

As Beijing’s COVID-19 curbs tighten, hard-hit Shanghai sees signs of life
Beijing tightened social distancing rules and launched a fresh round of mass testing in its most populous and worst-hit district. People queue for a COVID-19 swab test near the entrance of the Forbidden City on May 1, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 01 May 2022

As Beijing’s COVID-19 curbs tighten, hard-hit Shanghai sees signs of life

As Beijing’s COVID-19 curbs tighten, hard-hit Shanghai sees signs of life
  • Shanghai’s outbreak has been China’s worst since the early months of the pandemic in 2020
  • Beijing, with dozens of daily infections in an outbreak now in its 10th day, has not locked down

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: China’s capital Beijing tightened COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday as it battled an outbreak, while Shanghai let some of its 25 million residents venture out for light and air after reporting a second day of zero infections outside of quarantine areas.
Shanghai’s outbreak, which began in March, has been China’s worst since the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Hundreds of thousands have been infected and the city has forbidden residents from leaving their homes, to great public anger.
The outbreak in China’s most populous city and the risk of a spread in Beijing are testing the government’s zero COVID-19 approach in a year when Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as president.
Beijing, with dozens of daily infections in an outbreak now in its 10th day, has not locked down. More than 300 locally transmitted cases have been logged since April 22.
But on Sunday the capital tightened social distancing rules and launched a fresh round of mass testing in its most populous and worst-hit district.
In the past week the city of 22 million has conducted mass testing in most of its 16 districts, suspended all entertainment venues, and banned restaurant dining.
“The impact of all this on us is too great — 20,000 yuan ($3,000) in a day gone, just like that!” said Jia, a manager at a normally popular burger restaurant in the east of Beijing.
“Our boss is stressing out about this too,” Jia said, asking to be identified only by his surname. “We have three branches in Shanghai. They’ve all been shut and losing cash for a month. And now this.”
Beijing’s sprawling Universal Studios theme park closed on Sunday, while in the highly visited Badaling section of the Great Wall, visitors were told to show proof of negative COVID-19 test results before entering.
Chaoyang district, accounting for the biggest share of infections in Beijing’s outbreak, launched an additional round of mass testing, with public health workers knocking on doors to remind residents to get tested.
Shanghai’s citywide lockdown since early April has upended the daily lives of its residents, sparking worries about food and concern about being taken to crowded quarantine centers should they catch the virus.
Extreme measures taken to seal up residential compounds, including fencing up entrances of buildings, have prompted outrage.
Some residents have turned to social media to vent their frustration, some clanged pots and pans outside their windows, and others clashed with public health workers.
The song “Do you hear the people sing?” from the musical Les Miserables has become a popular protest anthem. On Saturday, an online video of a Chinese orchestra playing the song, with the musicians performing from their respective homes, went viral with nearly 19,000 shares before it was blocked.
While much of the city remains in lockdown, Shanghai officials, striking a confident tone, said on Sunday that curbs on some areas would be eased after the city reined in COVID-19 transmission risks at the community level, excluding cases in quarantine centers.
Six of its 16 districts attained zero-COVID-19 status, meaning three consecutive days with no new daily increases in infections, senior city government official Gu Honghui told a virtual news conference.
Public transport will be allowed to resume in five districts, but residents must remain in their districts as they visit supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals, a health official told the news conference.
Social media posts showed the streets of Fengxian, one of the six districts, filled with pedestrians and choked with scooters and bicycles. Reuters could not independently verify the videos.
But despite the fall in transmissions, Shanghai will launch a new round of citywide PCR and antigen tests from Sunday until May 7.
Excluding imported cases arriving from outside the mainland, China reported 8,256 new local cases for Saturday, down from 10,703 a day before. Beijing accounted for 59 of the infections, while Shanghai saw 7,872 new cases and all of the nation’s 38 fatalities.


Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
Updated 53 min 35 sec ago

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
  • Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country
  • The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group

KABUL: The Taliban killed one of their former leaders who was known as the first commander of the group hailing from the minority Shiite Hazara community, officials confirmed on Wednesday, adding that he had rebelled against the de facto government.
Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country, the defense ministry said in a statement.
Mahdi’s appointment as a commander some years ago was touted as an example of the Taliban’s changed on stance on minorities. He was in the spotlight after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the wake of the pullout of western forces last year.
The Taliban are hard-line followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, and were previously almost exclusively associated with the Pashtun ethnicity. More recently, the group had sought to include members of other ethnicities and some Shiites.
The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group. After the Taliban formed a government last year, Mahdi was given the post of intelligence chief in a central province.
The origins of the breach between Mahdi and the Taliban have not been made public, but as far back as June, the defense ministry had spoken of a clearance operation against rebels in northern Afghanistan.
The defense ministry on Wednesday described Mahdi as a the “leader of the rebels” in a district in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol.
A Taliban source told Reuters that Mahdi had fallen out with the Taliban and had revolted against the group’s leadership.
The statement said he was killed in Herat close to the border with Shiite majority Iran, where he was trying to flee.
Reuters was not able to contact representatives of Mahdi for comment.


US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
Updated 17 August 2022

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
  • Officials: Al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Afghanistan eroded confidence that $3.5bn would not fund terror
  • UN warns 6.6m Afghans face famine this winter without urgent humanitarian intervention

LONDON: Billions of dollars being held by the US will not be transferred to Afghanistan after Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul on July 31.

Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan meant Washington does not have “confidence” that the country’s central bank “has the safeguards and monitoring in place to manage assets responsibly,” said Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.

“Needless to say, the Taliban’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”

The US has held around $3.5 billion intended for Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country last year.

Afghanistan’s economy has struggled since the withdrawal of coalition forces in August 2021, with officials negotiating with US representatives for ways to alleviate the situation.

But West said the US does not see returning funds to the country as a “near-term option” as the Taliban cannot provide guarantees that the money will not be used to fund terrorism.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price, though, said Washington would find alternative, humanitarian uses for the funds to help ease the suffering of ordinary Afghans. 

“The idea that we have decided not to use these funds for the benefit of the Afghan people is simply wrong. It is not true,” he added.

“Right now we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.”

US President Joe Biden in February ordered that $7 billion being held by the US for Afghanistan be split between humanitarian aid for the country, and 9/11 victims and their families.

Al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, was killed last month in a drone strike while standing on the balcony of a house in which he was living in the center of Kabul.

His presence in Afghanistan was a “gross violation” of an agreement struck with Washington for the Taliban not to permit terrorist organizations to operate in the country, the US said.

A UN Security Council report earlier this year said the Taliban takeover had allowed “greater freedom” for foreign fighters to live and operate in the country.

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator and deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, said the country faces “pure catastrophe” due to its precarious economic state, with 6.6 million people threatened with famine this winter and 24 million in need of humanitarian aid.

He added that poverty is forcing Afghans to make desperate decisions such as “the selling of organs, and the selling of children,” and that despite many spending as much as 90 percent of their income on food, he was still seeing evidence of severely malnourished children nationwide.

Erin Sikorsky, director at the US-based Center for Climate and Security, told the Daily Telegraph: “Poor governance by the Taliban will make things worse. It is likely Afghanistan will see more internally displaced people going forward, as disruptions to ... agriculture intersect with other security risks.”

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Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
Updated 17 August 2022

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand
  • Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to the island nation next week after fleeing in July amid mass protests, local broadcaster Newsfirst reported on Wednesday, citing a former ambassador.
Udayanga Weeratunga, a former Sri Lankan envoy to Russia who is related to Rajapaksa, said he will arrive in Sri Lanka on Aug. 24, Newsfirst reported.
Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand, after fleeing Sri Lanka on a military plane to the Maldives and then spending weeks in Singapore.
He resigned from office soon after arriving in Singapore, facing public anger over his government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka. Reuters was not able to immediately contact him or Weeratunga.
The office of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who suggested last month that the former president refrain from returning to Sri Lanka in the near future, did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
“I don’t believe it’s the time for him to return,” Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on July 31. “I have no indication of him returning soon.”

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings
Updated 17 August 2022

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings
  • ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings
  • Junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings

Myanmar’s military leadership on Wednesday lashed out at the ASEAN grouping of Southeast Asian countries for excluding its generals from regional gatherings, accusing it of caving to “external pressure.”
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have heaped condemnation on Myanmar’s junta, which they say has failed to make concrete progress on a peace plan agreed with the 10-nation bloc last year, including engaging with opponents and a cessation of hostilities.
Myanmar’s military seized power from an elected government in a coup last year, and has since then crushed dissent with lethal force. Most recently, the junta has been criticized for executing political activists and imprisoning Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of Myanmar’s opposition and democracy movement.
ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings, and some members said last month it would be forced to rethink the way forward unless the junta demonstrates progress on the peace plan.
The junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings.
“If a seat representing a country is vacant, then it should not be labelled an ASEAN summit,” junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said at a routine news conference on Wednesday, adding that Myanmar was working on implementing the peace plan.
“What they want is for us to meet and talk with the terrorists,” he said, using the junta’s label for pro-democracy movements that have taken up arms against the military.
He said ASEAN was violating its own policy of non-interference in a country’s sovereign affairs while facing “external pressure,” but did not elaborate.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia, which is currently chairing ASEAN, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Several western countries including the United States and Britain have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s junta over the coup.


Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project
Updated 17 August 2022

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

Lesotho inaugurates Saudi Arabia-funded $11.2 million water supply project

DUBAI: Lesotho has inaugurated a $11.2 million water supply project that will supply clean water to five cities in the south African country.

Funded by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), the project aims to sustain water resources and provide clean water sources in Lesotho as well as mitigate effects of drought in the country to ensure water and food security.

The undertaking will see the laying of a 210-kilometer-long pipe network and the construction of 25 pumping stations.

Saudi Arabia, through the SFD, supports developing countries achieve their development goals by providing grants, technical aid as well soft loans and since its inception in 1975 has provided 730 development loans to finance 692 development projects and programs in 84 developing countries.