Kremlin denies Russian assault on Azovstal steelworks in Ukraine

Kremlin denies Russian assault on Azovstal steelworks in Ukraine
Some 100 civilians were evacuated from the tunnels beneath the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 May 2022

Kremlin denies Russian assault on Azovstal steelworks in Ukraine

Kremlin denies Russian assault on Azovstal steelworks in Ukraine
  • ‘The order was publicly given by the supreme commander-in-chief to call off the assault’

MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Wednesday denied that Russia was storming the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, after Ukraine accused Moscow of launching a “powerful” assault on the industrial zone where Kyiv’s forces are holed up.
“The order was publicly given by the supreme commander-in-chief to call off the assault,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, referring to an order given by President Vladimir Putin last month not to pursue an attack on the area.
“There is no storming,” Peskov said.
He said that there are instances of “exacerbation” at the site when Ukrainian “militants take up firing positions.”
“These attempts are suppressed very quickly,” Peskov said.
The Ukrainian military said Tuesday that Russian forces had launched an offensive on the besieged Azovstal steel plant after some 100 civilians were evacuated from the tunnels beneath the steelworks.
The Russian army said its forces were using artillery and planes to target Azovstal, while the defense ministry accused Ukrainian troops of using a pause in fighting to once again take up their combat positions at the plant.
The strategic port of Mariupol is among the most battered cities in Ukraine, after Russian forces besieged the city for several weeks.


Australia offers fourth COVID-19 shot to over 30s

Australia offers fourth COVID-19 shot to over 30s
Updated 5 sec ago

Australia offers fourth COVID-19 shot to over 30s

Australia offers fourth COVID-19 shot to over 30s
  • Australia had previously recommended a fourth COVID-19 shot only to people over 65 as well as to vulnerable groups
SYDNEY: Australia will offer a fourth COVID-19 vaccine to everyone over 30, health authorities said Thursday, as hospitals bulge with patients in a winter wave of infections.
The government said it is recommending a fourth jab for over 50s — but also offering it to everyone over 30 despite benefits to the younger age group being unclear.
It followed a recommendation by the top immunization advisory body, which said it recognized younger people might want a winter booster dose, even though its impact for them “is uncertain but likely to be limited.”
Australia had previously recommended a fourth COVID-19 shot only to people over 65 as well as to vulnerable groups, including those with weakened immune systems.
As new, more infectious omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 race through the population, the number of Australian hospital patients with COVID-19 has jumped by more than 1,000 in a month to about 3,900, with 140 people now in intensive care.
“This is placing real pressure on our health and hospital systems,” Health Minister Mark Butler told a news conference as he announced the decision.
More than 95 percent of people over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated in Australia, where few people now wear a mask or take measures to socially distance.
As restrictions are gradually dismantled in a country that previously shut its international borders for nearly 20 months to exclude the virus, Australia this week dropped all vaccine certificate requirements for foreign visitors.

Hong Kong suspends flight bans as it eases COVID-19 rules

Hong Kong suspends flight bans as it eases COVID-19 rules
Updated 15 min 24 sec ago

Hong Kong suspends flight bans as it eases COVID-19 rules

Hong Kong suspends flight bans as it eases COVID-19 rules
  • Hong Kong has banned more than 100 flights this year
  • Previously, airlines would be banned for five days if they brought in more than five people infected with the coronavirus

HONG KONG: Hong Kong has suspended a rule that banned individual flights for bringing in passengers infected with the COVID-19 virus, as it caused “unnecessary trouble” and inconvenience to residents of the global financial hub, the government said on Thursday.
The city has banned more than 100 flights this year. The bans were a major frustration for businesses and residents used to easy and efficient travel from the former British colony. Its removal paves the way for many residents to return home, with scores stranded overseas due to the flight bans. “The social cost caused by the ‘circuit breaker mechanism’ is quite large, and it also brings unnecessary trouble to these international students and their families,” the government said in a statement.
Previously, airlines would be banned for five days if they brought in more than five people infected with the coronavirus. Earlier this year flights were banned for up to two weeks, making it difficult for airlines to operate.
All arrivals are still required to quarantine for at least one week in a hotel.
The government said it was looking to “improve” quarantine arrangements, “to facilitate the movement of people necessary for social and economic recovery.”
Measures such as the flight bans and mandatory hotel quarantine have hammered Hong Kong’s competitiveness, said business executives who are hoping the city’s new leader, John Lee, will scrap the quarantine rules.
Lee needs to reboot the city, eight business leaders said, because Hong Kong’s border has effectively been sealed since 2020 and international arrivals are subject to stringent quarantine and testing protocols.


Singapore hangs drug traffickers despite opposition

Singapore hangs drug traffickers despite opposition
Updated 35 min 46 sec ago

Singapore hangs drug traffickers despite opposition

Singapore hangs drug traffickers despite opposition
  • Singapore is one of just four countries known to have executed people for drug-related offenses in recent years

KUALA LUMPUR: Two drug traffickers were hanged in Singapore on Thursday, bringing the number of executions this year in the city-state to four despite growing calls to abolish its death penalty.
Activists said the prison department handed the belongings and death certificates for Malaysian national Kalwant Singh and Singaporean Norasharee Gous to their families after their execution Thursday morning.
Amnesty International said Singapore is one of just four countries known to have executed people for drug-related offenses in recent years, going against a global trend toward abolishing the death penalty.
“Singapore has once again executed people convicted of drug-related offenses in violation of international law, callously disregarding public outcry,” said Emerlynne Gill, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research.
“The death penalty is never the solution and we oppose it unconditionally. There is no evidence that it acts as a unique deterrent to crime,” Gill said in a statement.
Kalwant, who was convicted in 2016 of bringing heroin into Singapore, was the second Malaysian to be executed in less than three months. In late April, the hanging of another Malaysian sparked an international outcry because he was believed to be mentally disabled.
Kalwant filed a last-minute appeal on the eve of his execution on grounds that he was a mere courier and that he had cooperated with police, but it was rejected by Singapore’s top court, activists said.
Critics say that Singapore’s death penalty has mostly snared low-level mules and done little to stop drug traffickers and organized syndicates. But Singapore’s government defends it as necessary to protect its citizens.
“We urge the Singaporean authorities to immediately stop this latest wave of hangings and impose a moratorium on executions as a step toward ending this shameful and inhuman punishment,” Amnesty said.
Four others drug traffickers, including two more Malaysians, were scheduled to be hanged earlier but their executions were delayed pending legal challenges.


Shanghai chases karaoke COVID-19 cluster as China looks to curb outbreaks

Shanghai chases karaoke COVID-19 cluster as China looks to curb outbreaks
Updated 36 min 27 sec ago

Shanghai chases karaoke COVID-19 cluster as China looks to curb outbreaks

Shanghai chases karaoke COVID-19 cluster as China looks to curb outbreaks
  • Shanghai wants to prevent a repeat of the two-month lockdown that caused great economic loss and mental stress to its 25 million residents

SHANGHAI/BEIJING: Millions in Shanghai queued up for a third day of mass COVID-19 testing on Thursday as authorities in several Chinese cities scrambled to stamp out new outbreaks that have rekindled worries about growth in the world’s second-largest economy.
Local government officials across China were under pressure to prevent the disease from spreading to such degree that, under the country’s “dynamic zero COVID” strategy, would require major restrictions for a prolonged period of time.
Shanghai in particular wanted to prevent a repeat of the two-month lockdown that caused great economic loss and mental stress to its 25 million residents and disrupted global supply chains and international trade in April and May.
“A resurgence of omicron is not an issue in most other countries, but it remains a predominant issue for the Chinese economy,” Nomura analysts wrote in a note, referring to the highly transmissible COVID variant.
As China is “by far the largest manufacturing center in the world, any new waves of omicron are likely to have a non-negligible impact,” they added.
The latest outbreaks in China have weighed on global asset prices this week.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city, is racing to track and isolate infections linked to a building in which a karaoke lounge had re-opened illegally and a food-serving venue offered karaoke services without a license.
Authorities have revoked the licenses of the two businesses and fined them, the city government said on Wednesday. Two local officials were under investigation for failing to conduct proper supervision, it said.
Residents in many of Shanghai’s 16 districts had to comply with two compulsory tests between Tuesday and Thursday. But people need to take frequent tests on their own anyway if they want to enter shopping malls or use public transport.
Shanghai reported 54 new locally transmitted COVID cases for Wednesday, versus 24 the previous day.
Another 50 compounds and venues were locked down on Thursday in the commercial hub, taking the total to 81.
Overall, mainland China reported 338 new local COVID cases for Wednesday, down from 353, with no new deaths, numbers which most countries would now consider insignificant.
Most cases, 167 of them, were in the eastern Anhui province where more than 1 million people in small towns are locked down.
Beijing reported four new infections, down from six.
The capital for the first time on Wednesday mandated COVID vaccinations for most people to enter crowded venues such as libraries, cinemas and gyms, starting from July 11.
The town of Xinjiang in the northern Shanxi province, after finding one case arriving from Shanghai, has tested almost its entire 280,000 population, suspended taxis, ride hailing and bus services, and closed various entertainment venues.
In a different province, Shaanxi, which reported 4 new cases, the cultural and tourism authority requested travel agencies to cancel any group tours into parts of its capital Xian, famed for its Terracota Army.
The eastern Jiangsu province, which has canceled a major sporting event scheduled for November, reported 61 infections.
China has said its uncompromising COVID-19 policy, as opposed to a global trend of co-existing with the virus, was saving lives and the “temporary” economic costs were worth bearing.
Officials have pointed to the millions of COVID-linked deaths around the world, versus the 5,226 reported in China.
Analysts warn, however, that some costs may become permanent if China’s debt burden increases and if curbs lead to investors and talent reconsidering their presence in the country.
China is planning to set up a 500 billion yuan ($75 billion)state infrastructure fund to revive the economy, two people with knowledge of the matter said.


Inspired by Ukraine, civilians study urban warfare in Taiwan

Inspired by Ukraine, civilians study urban warfare in Taiwan
Updated 07 July 2022

Inspired by Ukraine, civilians study urban warfare in Taiwan

Inspired by Ukraine, civilians study urban warfare in Taiwan
  • Disquiet over China had been brewing in Taiwan long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine

NEW TAIPEI CITY: Dressed in military camouflage with an assault rifle at the ready, “Prof” Yeh peers from behind a vehicle in a parking lot outside Taipei, scanning his surroundings and waiting for a signal to advance.
Yeh actually works in marketing, and his weapon is a replica — but he is spending the weekend attending an urban warfare workshop to prepare for what he sees as the very real threat of a Chinese invasion.
“The Russia-Ukraine war is a big reason why I came to this workshop,” 47-year-old Yeh, whose call sign during training is “Prof,” tells AFP during a break between sessions.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine at the end of February, he gave shape to the darkest fears of many Taiwanese.
The self-governed democracy lives under constant threat from authoritarian China, which views the island as part of its territory and has pledged to take it one day.
But the war in Ukraine has also inspired Yeh.
The resilience of Ukrainian forces has given him hope that with the right tactics, Taiwan too might have a chance defending itself against its much mightier neighbor.
He is not alone — the organizers of the urban combat course say their students have nearly quadrupled since February. Firearms and first aid courses have also seen increased enrolment.

Disquiet over China was brewing in Taiwan long before the Russian invasion.
Max Chiang, CEO of the company that organizes the workshops, says there has been “a heightened sense of crisis” among Taiwanese people since 2020, when Chinese warplanes began making regular incursions into the island’s air identification zone.
Roughly 380 sorties were recorded that year — a number that more than doubled in 2021, and is on track to do so again this year, according to an AFP database.
China comprehensively outnumbers Taiwan militarily, with over one million ground force personnel to Taiwan’s 88,000, 6,300 tanks compared with 800, and 1,600 fighter jets to 400, according to the US Department of Defense.
But Ukraine has provided a practical blueprint for how to make that disparity matter less.
It has vividly demonstrated how fighting for control of cities can be difficult and costly for attacking forces — and most of Taiwan’s 23 million people live in urban areas.
As Yeh and his 15 teammates run in staggered column formation across the parking lot, stooping behind dilapidated buildings and vehicles to simulate attacks on enemy positions, they are trying to put some of the lessons learned in Ukraine’s devastated cities into practice.
“The best defense is offense,” Yeh emphasises, as instructors in bright reflective vests stand nearby taking notes.
“To put it bluntly, annihilate the enemy and stop any enemy advances.”

In a warehouse beside the parking lot, 34-year-old Ruth Lam is learning to fire a handgun for the first time.
Lam, who works at an emergency vehicle lights manufacturer, said that most of her European clients had told her there would not be a war in Ukraine.
“But it happened,” she says.
She is hoping that knowing how to handle a gun might protect her and her family if there is war, and is planning to continue target practice with friends.
“Prepare your umbrella before it rains,” she says. “We don’t know when things are going to happen.”
In a survey conducted in May, 61.4 percent of respondents said they were willing to take up arms in the event of an invasion.
“The will of the Ukrainian people to fight against aggressors has increased the resolve of Taiwanese to safeguard their homeland,” Chen Kuan-ting, CEO of Taiwan think-tank NextGen Foundation, tells AFP.
Lin Ping-yu, a former paratrooper who came to the urban warfare class “to brush up on his combat skills,” concurs.
“Only when a country’s citizens have the strong will and determination to protect their land can they convince the international community to come help them,” the 38-year-old says.
Yeh believes it is a question of when, not if, they will be called to put their new skills into action.
Citing the example of Hong Kong, where Beijing has moved to consolidate its grip in the last few years, he says simply: “Taiwan is next.”