Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits

Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Aug. 6, 2022. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS)
Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits
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Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. welcomes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) at Malacanang Palace in Manila on Aug. 6, 2022. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP)
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Updated 06 August 2022

Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits

Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits
  • Philippines foreign minister says country can ill-afford escalating tension in region
  • US Secretary of State said America is committed to defense pact with Manila

MANILA: President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Saturday that Philippines-US ties are important in the face of a “volatile” geopolitical situation, as he hosted US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Manila amid rising tensions in the region.

Blinken, the highest-ranking American official to visit the Philippines since Marcos took office on June 30, was on a visit to the Southeast Asian country just days after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this week, a move that had further strained US-China relations and led to fresh tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Following Pelosi’s controversial visit to the self-ruled island, which is just north of the archipelago nation, the Philippine government had urged restraint and reiterated its adherence to the One-China policy, a diplomatic acknowledgement of China’s position that there is only one Chinese government.

As Marcos welcomed Blinken at the presidential palace in Manila, the Philippine leader touched on Pelosi’s visit and the war in Ukraine, which he said demonstrated “how volatile the international diplomatic scene” has been across the globe.

“This just points to the fact of the importance of the relationship between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines,” Marcos said.

“I hope that we will continue to evolve that relationship in the face of all the changes that we have been seeing.”

Blinken’s trip was timely, the president added, with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan conveying the intensity of the situation.

“I do not think, to be perfectly candid — I did not think it raised the intensity; it just demonstrated how the intensity of the conflict has been,” he said.

Beijing, which viewed Pelosi’s visit as “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs,” had launched military exercises just off Taiwan’s coast on Thursday, and later cut off contacts with the US on vital issues, including military and climate cooperation.

The Philippines is Taiwan’s second-closest neighbor after China.

Manila has maintained close business and cultural ties with the island over the years, though formal diplomatic relations were severed in 1975.

Marcos also said that the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty is in “constant evolution,” referring to a 70-year-old defense pact stipulating that Manila and Washington would support each other in the events that either were attacked by an external party.

The US is committed to the pact and hopes to deepen economic relations with the Philippines, Blinken said, especially considering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The alliance is strong, and I believe can grow even stronger,” he said. “We’re committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty. We’re committed to working with you on shared challenges.”

The Philippines has had a history of strained ties with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with former President Rodrigo Duterte having embraced a Beijing-friendly direction while attempting to distance the Philippines from its colonial master the US during his six-year term in office.

As both powers attempt to boost influence in the region, in July China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first top foreign official to make a working trip to Manila since Marcos took office.

A visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden might be happening in the near future for Marcos, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique A. Manalo said, as officials are in the middle of hashing out details for the potential trip.

The Philippines has looked “to the big powers to calm the waters and keep the peace,” Manalo said, as he touched on the importance of maintaining lines of communication “as a way of trying to prevent matters from escalating and reducing tensions” in the Taiwan strait.

“We can ill afford further escalation of tensions in the region,” Manalo said.


Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities
Updated 11 sec ago

Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities
  • Minister for higher education said they are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight
  • Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban are skeptical of modern education

KABUL: Afghan university students will have to attend more compulsory Islamic studies classes, education officials said Tuesday while giving little sign that secondary schools for girls would reopen.
Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban, which swept back into power a year ago, are skeptical of modern education.
“We are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight,” said Abdul Baqi Haqqani, minister for higher education, including Islamic history, politics and governance.
The number of compulsory religious classes will increase from one to three a week in government universities.
He told a news conference that the Taliban would not order any subjects to be dropped from the current curriculum.
However, some universities have altered studies on music and sculpture — highly sensitive issues under the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of sharia law — while an exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite, including professors, has seen many subjects discontinued.
Officials have for months insisted that schools will reopen for girls, swaying between technical and financial issues as reasons for the continued closures.
Abdulkhaliq Sadiq, a senior official at the education ministry, on Tuesday said families in rural areas were still not convinced of the need to send girls to secondary school.
Under the Taliban’s last regime between 1996 and 2001, both primary and secondary schools for girls never reopened.
“We are trying to come up with a sound policy in coordination with our leaders... so that those in rural areas are also convinced,” he said.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Although young women are still permitted to attend university, many have dropped out because of the cost or because their families are afraid for them to be out in public in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, without a secondary school certificate, teenage girls will not be able to sit future university entrance exams.
The international community has made the right to education a key condition for formally recognizing the Taliban government.
Despite being in power for a year, no country has so far recognized the government.


Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea

Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea
Updated 30 min 52 sec ago

Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea

Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea
  • Russia blamed the blasts at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye on an “act of sabotage”
  • Plumes of black smoke also rose over an air base in Crimea's Gvardeyskoye

KYIV, Ukraine: Massive explosions and fires hit a military depot in Russia-annexed Crimea on Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 people, the second time in recent days that the Ukraine war’s focus has turned to the peninsula.
Russia blamed the blasts at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye on an “act of sabotage” without naming the perpetrators. As with last week’s explosions, they led to speculation that Ukraine may be behind the attack on the peninsula, which Russia has controlled since 2014.
Separately, the Russian business newspaper Kommersant quoted local residents as saying that plumes of black smoke also rose over an air base in Crimea’s Gvardeyskoye.
Ukraine has stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for any of the fires or explosions, including last week’s at another air base that destroyed nine Russian planes. If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for any of the explosions, they would represent a significant escalation in the war.
Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for Russia and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s demand that Kyiv recognize the peninsula as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Videos posted on social media showed thick plumes of smoke rising over raging flames in Mayskoye, and a series of explosions could be heard in the background. The Russian Defense Ministry said the fires at the depot caused damage to a power plant, power lines, rail tracks and some apartment buildings. It said in a statement that there were no serious injuries.
Earlier, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported a fire a transformer substation after “a loud thump sound” in what appeared to be a result of the blasts at the depot.
The Dzhankoi district, where the blasts happened, is in the north of the peninsula, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian-controlled region of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Kyiv has recently mounted a series of attacks on various sites in the region, targeting supply routes for the Russian military there and ammunition depots.
Last week’s explosions at Crimea’s Saki air base sent sunbathers on nearby beaches fleeing as huge flames and pillars of smoke rose over the horizon. Ukrainian officials emphasized Tuesday that Crimea — which is a popular destination for Russian tourists — would not be spared the ravages of war experienced throughout Ukraine.
Rather than a travel destination, “Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves,” Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, though he did not claim any Ukraine responsibility for the blasts.
Crimea’s regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said that two people were injured and more than 3,000 evacuated from the villages of Mayskoye and Azovskoye near Dzhankoi following the munitions depot explosions.
Because the explosions damaged rail tracks, some trains in northern Crimea were diverted to other lines.
The Russian military blamed last week’s blasts at the Saki air base on an accidental detonation of munitions there, but it appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials at the time stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused the ammunition to catch fire. Analysts also said that explanation doesn’t make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.
A British Defense Ministry intelligence update said vessels in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet “continue to pursue an extremely defensive posture” in the waters off Crimea, with the ships barely venturing out of sight of the coastline.
Russia already lost its flagship Moskva in the Black Sea and last month the Ukrainian military retook the strategic Snake Island outpost off Ukraine’s southwestern coast. It is vital for guaranteeing sea lanes out of Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port.
The Russian fleet’s “limited effectiveness undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British statement said. “This means Ukraine can divert resources to press Russian ground forces elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, in the Donbas, which has been the focus of the fighting in recent months, one civilian was killed in Russian shelling, and two others wounded, according to the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, one civilian was killed and nine others were wounded by Russian shelling, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said. He added that the overnight attack on the city was “one of the most massive shelling of Kharkiv in recent days.”
Officials in the central region of Dniprotpetrovsk also reported shelling of the Nikopol and the Kryvyi Rih districts.
Amid the explosions and shelling, one good piece of news emerged from the region, with a United Nations-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 metric tons of Ukrainian grain setting off for the Horn of Africa.
It’s the first shipment of its kind, and the United Nations’ World Food Program called it “another important milestone” in a plan to assist countries facing famine. Ukraine and Russia reached a deal with Turkey in July to restart Black Sea grain deliveries, addressing the major export disruption that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The worst drought in four decades in the Horn of Africa has led thousands of people across the region have died from hunger or illness this year.
That deal not only protects ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea but also assures Russia that its food and fertilizer won’t face sanctions, safeguarding one of the pillars of its economy and helping ease concerns from insurers and banks.


WHO turns to public for monkeypox name change

WHO turns to public for monkeypox name change
Updated 16 August 2022

WHO turns to public for monkeypox name change

WHO turns to public for monkeypox name change
  • Experts warn the name can be stigmatising to the primates it was named after

GENEVA: The World Health Organization, which is looking to rename monkeypox, called Tuesday for help from the public in coming up with a less stigmatising designation for the fast-spreading disease.
The UN health agency has for weeks voiced concern about the name of the disease that emerged onto the global stage in May.
Experts warn the name can be stigmatising to the primates it was named after, but who play little role in its spread, and to the African continent that the animals are often associated with.
Recently in Brazil, for instance, there have been reported cases of people attacking monkeys over disease fears.
“Human monkeypox was given its name before current best practices in naming diseases,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters in Geneva.
“We want really to find a name that is not stigmatising,” she added, saying the consultation is now open to everyone through a dedicated website: https://icd.who.int/dev11.
Monkeypox received its name because the virus was originally identified in monkeys kept for research in Denmark in 1958, but the disease is found in a number of animals, and most frequently in rodents.
The disease was first discovered in humans in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the spread among humans since then mainly limited to certain West and Central African countries where it is endemic.
But in May, cases of the disease, which causes fever, muscular aches and large boil-like skin lesions, began spreading rapidly around the world, mainly among men who have sex with men.
Worldwide, over 31,000 cases have been confirmed since the start of the year, and 12 people have died, according to the WHO, which has designated the outbreak a global health emergency.
While the virus can jump from animals to humans, WHO experts insist the recent global spread is due to close-contact transmission between humans.
The UN health agency announced last week that a group of experts it had convened had already agreed on new names for monkeypox virus variants, or clades.
Until now, the two main variants have been named after the geographic regions where they were known to circulate, the Congo Basin and West Africa.
The experts agreed to rename them using Roman numerals instead, calling them Clade I and Clade II. A subvariant of Clade II, now known as Clade IIb, is seen as the main culprit behind the ongoing global outbreak.


Spain firefighters battle to control huge Valencia wildfire

Spain firefighters battle to control huge Valencia wildfire
Updated 16 August 2022

Spain firefighters battle to control huge Valencia wildfire

Spain firefighters battle to control huge Valencia wildfire
  • Firefighters elsewhere in the region were also battling two other wildfires north of Valencia city
  • So far this year, Spain has suffered 391 wildfires

MADRID: Some 300 firefighters spent a difficult night battling a huge wildfire in southeastern Spain that has burnt through nearly 10,000 hectares in an area notoriously difficult to access, officials said Tuesday.
The fire began when lightning hit the Vall de Ebo area in the province of Alicante late Saturday and it has since spread rapidly, fueled by strong winds, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people, Valencia’s regional government said.
“It’s been a very complicated night,” regional interior minister Gabriela Bravo told Antena 3 television, saying some 300 firefighters were battling the flames, backed by 24 planes and helicopters.
“At the moment we are talking about more than 9,500 hectares burnt with a perimeter of 65 kilometers (40 miles),” regional president Ximo Puig said late Monday, describing the blaze as “absolutely huge.”
“It’s a very complicated situation... The fire is creating enormous difficulties that are absolutely impossible to tackle with the speed we would like.”
Firefighters elsewhere in the region were also battling two other wildfires north of Valencia city, with hundreds of firefighters and at least 10 firefighting planes engaged in the operation, officials said.
Further north, firefighters in the Aragon region were hoping to bring under control another major blaze that broke out Saturday that has burnt more than 6,000 hectares of land, forcing at least 1,500 people from their homes.
So far this year, Spain has suffered 391 wildfires, fueled by scorching temperatures and drought conditions, which have destroyed a total of 271,020 hectares of land, according to the latest figures from the European Forest Fire Information System.
This year’s fires in Spain have been particularly devastating, destroying more than three times the area consumed by wildfires in the whole of 2021, which amounted to 84,827 hectares, the figures show.
Scientists say human-induced climate change is making extreme weather events, including heatwaves and droughts, more frequent and intense. They in turn increase the risk of fires, which emit climate-heating greenhouse gases.
Fires have blazed across Europe, particularly in France, Greece and Portugal, making 2022 a record year for wildfires on the continent.
In Portugal, a wildfire brought under control last week reignited Tuesday in the UNESCO-designated Serra da Estrela natural park, the civil protection agency said.


Gunmen kill 2 policemen escorting polio workers in Pakistan

Gunmen kill 2 policemen escorting polio workers in Pakistan
Updated 16 August 2022

Gunmen kill 2 policemen escorting polio workers in Pakistan

Gunmen kill 2 policemen escorting polio workers in Pakistan
  • The assailants fled the scene and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the town of Gomal

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Gunmen riding on motorcycles opened fire on Tuesday on police escorting a team of polio workers in northwestern Pakistan, killing two policemen, authorities said.
None of the polio workers were harmed, said Mohammad Imran, a local police official. The four polio workers and their police escort were all traveling on motorcycles.
The assailants fled the scene and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the town of Gomal, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.
The attack came on the second day of Pakistan’s latest anti-polio campaign in the province. Pakistan has registered 14 new polio cases since April, all from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The outbreak has been a blow to the Islamic nation’s efforts to eradicate the disease, which can cause severe paralysis in children.
Pakistan’s anti-polio campaigns are regularly marked by violence as Islamic militants often target polio teams and police protecting them, falsely claiming that the vaccination campaigns are a Western conspiracy to sterilize children.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. In 2021, Pakistan reported only one case, raising hopes it was close to eradicating polio.

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