China tightens restrictions as rise in COVID-19 cases reported

China tightens restrictions as rise in COVID-19 cases reported
A sign reads ‘Pandemic checkpoint, 24-hours negative COVID-19 test required’ at a residential community in Guangzhou of southern China’s Guangdong province. (AP)
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Updated 12 November 2022

China tightens restrictions as rise in COVID-19 cases reported

China tightens restrictions as rise in COVID-19 cases reported
  • Nationwide, a total of 11,773 infections were found over the past 24 hours
  • A total of 3,775 infections were found in Guangzhou, a city of 13 million

BEIJING: Everyone in a district of 1.8 million people in China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou was ordered to stay home Saturday to undergo virus testing and a major city in the southwest closed schools as another rise in infections was reported.
Nationwide, a total of 11,773 infections were found over the past 24 hours, including 10,351 in people with no symptoms, the National Health Commission announced. China’s numbers are low, but the increase over the past week is a challenge to a “zero-COVID” strategy that aims to isolate every infected person.
The quarantine for travelers arriving in China was shortened to five days from seven as part of changes in anti-virus controls announced Friday to reduce their cost and disruption. But the ruling Communist Party said it would stick to “zero COVID” even as other countries ease travel and other restrictions and try to shift to a long-term strategy of living with the virus.
A total of 3,775 infections were found in Guangzhou, a city of 13 million, including 2,996 in people who showed no symptoms, according to the NHC. That was an increase from Friday’s total of 3,030, including 2,461 people without symptoms.
People in the Guangzhou’s Haizhu district were ordered to stay home Saturday while testing was carried out, the district government announced on its social media account. One member of each household was allowed out to buy food.
Guangzhou has shut down schools and bus and subway service across much of the city as case numbers rise.
Flights from Guangzhou to the Chinese capital, Beijing, and other major cities have been canceled.
Nationwide, people who want to enter supermarkets, office buildings and other public buildings are required to show negative results of a virus test taken as often as once a day. That allows authorities to spot infections in people with no symptoms.
In the southwest, the industrial city of Chongqing closed schools in its Beibei district, which has 840,000 people. Residents were barred from leaving a series of apartment compounds in its Yubei district but the city gave no indication how many were affected.
The ruling party earlier this year shifted to isolating buildings or neighborhoods where infections are found instead of its previous approach of suspending access to cities following complaints that was too costly. But in outbreaks, such restrictions still can extend to areas with millions of inhabitants.
Public frustration and complaints that residents sometimes are left without access to food or medicine have boiled over into protests and clashes with local officials in some areas.
Elsewhere, mass testing also was being carried out Saturday in eight districts with a total of 6.6 million people in the central city of Zhengzhou.
Access to an industrial zone of Zhengzhou that is home to the world’s biggest iPhone factory was suspended last week following outbreaks. Apple Inc. warned deliveries of its new iPhone 14 model would be delayed.
Despite efforts to ease damage to the world’s second-largest economy, forecasters say business and consumer activity is weakening after growth rebounded to 3.9 percent over a year earlier in the three months ending in September from the first half’s 2.2 percent.
Economists have cut their forecast of China’s annual economic growth to as low as 3 percent, which would be among the lowest in decades.
President Xi Jinping’s government has refused to import foreign vaccines and defied requests to release more information about the source of the virus, which was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Economists and public health experts say “zero COVID” might stay in place for as much as another year. They say millions of elderly people have to be vaccinated before the ruling party can consider lifting controls that keep most foreign visitors out of China.


Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection
Updated 08 December 2022

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection
  • Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroscepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone
  • At Giurgiu, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometres begins forming from dawn

GIURGIU, Romania: After more than 10 years waiting to be admitted into the Schengen zone, Bulgaria and Romania were once more turned away after two EU countries vetoed their admission.
Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroskepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone through which passport checks are not normally required.
Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca spoke of his “profound disappointment” after Austria blocked their admission.
In Bulgaria, President Rumen Radev regretted what he described as the “internal borders” he said were being put up with the European Union bloc.
Their failure to win admission to the Schengen’s vast zone of free movement means that the long lines at various border crossings will continue.
At Giurgiu, for example, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometers begins forming from dawn.
Jaded long-haul drivers speaking to AFP in early December in Giurgiu, on the Romanian side, told of long hours waiting for the customs checks before they could enter Bulgaria.
Alexandru Birnea, 36, a long-haul driver for 13 years, said joining the Schengen zone would improve the lives of thousands of truckers.
“We would like to avoid losing all this time and therefore money in endless queues so that we can get back to our families more quickly,” he said.
But his pessimism about the outcome of the vote turned out to be well founded.
The European Commission has long expressed its wish for a widened Schengen zone.
But while tourist hotspot Croatia received the green light on Thursday, Romania and Bulgaria were left out in the cold.
Both countries joined the European Union back in 2007, before Croatia. Both countries met the technical criteria set out by Brussels.
But both countries were asked to make progress on judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts and were monitored for improvements.
When that process ended, both countries were hopeful that they had cleared the final hurdle. improvements.
But Austria hardened its stance, denouncing an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded.
“The migratory flows do not pass through Romania,” but mainly through Serbia, Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode argued.
He pointing to the nearly 140,000 migrants on the western Balkan route recorded by the European agency Frontex since January.
Prime Minister Ciuca said Austria’s refusal was based on “incorrect” figures.
But for political analyst Sergiu Miscoiu, Austria’s veto was more a reflection of internal political pressures, given the rise in polls of the far right there.
The Netherlands finally changed its position and gave Romania the green-light after long being opposed. But it maintained its concerns about “corruption and human rights” in Bulgaria.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that he wanted to be assured that no-one could “cross the border with a 50-euro note.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev rejected what he described as “insulting” remarks, especially given the “exceptional efforts” they had made to meet Brussels’ demands.
Bulgarian weekly magazine Capital commented: “We expect the impossible from the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU: don’t let migrants pass through (the country), but give asylum to every migrant who enters,” it remarked.
And analyst Miscoiu warned that a negative vote could “strengthen the euroskeptics, especially in Bulgaria, which has already had four elections in the past two years.”
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis also warned that rejection “might compromise European unity and cohesion, which we so need, especially in the current geopolitical context.”

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Indonesia hosts first conference to garner support for Afghan women’s education

Indonesia hosts first conference to garner support for Afghan women’s education
Updated 08 December 2022

Indonesia hosts first conference to garner support for Afghan women’s education

Indonesia hosts first conference to garner support for Afghan women’s education
  • Meeting in Bali co-organized by the governments of Indonesia and Qatar
  • Indonesia has made Afghanistan one of its priority foreign aid commitments

JAKARTA: Indonesia hosted on Thursday the first international conference to garner support for Afghan women’s education.

Afghan girls and women have been facing growing uncertainty since the Taliban took control of the country last year, with an estimated 3 million secondary school girls kept out of school for more than a year.

The International Conference on Afghan Women’s Education was held in Bali, co-organized by the governments of Indonesia and Qatar — the first such meeting to take place since the Taliban takeover, gathering representatives of 38 countries, international organizations, NGOs and academics.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has made Afghanistan one of its priority foreign aid commitments, with assistance directed mostly to support women’s empowerment and education.

“We cannot choose to remain idle, we must do something,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a press conference.

“I firmly believe investing in women means investing in a brighter future, given the opportunity women can make a critical contribution to society.”

Marsudi said that creating conducive conditions for women’s participation in Afghan society was of critical importance, and urged participants to “encourage progress to establish an inclusive government that respects women’s rights” and “guarantee education for all.”

Under its new rulers, Afghanistan has been struggling to achieve growth and stability, as foreign governments have refused to recognize the Taliban and the aid-dependent Afghan economy has been in freefall following the suspension of billions of dollars in foreign aid.

As human rights violations against women and girls mounted steadily in the last year, restriction on women’s employment, in particular, was estimated to cost Afghanistan’s gross domestic product up to $1 billion, or about 5 percent, according to UN data.

The conference was a “good stepping stone,” Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater, told participants at the Bali meeting.

Indonesia and Qatar are working together on a scholarship program dedicated to Afghan people and planning to create economic opportunities through microloans. The two governments are also keen on facilitating policies that would connect the Afghan private sector to their international counterparts.

“One message for the international community: Education is a basic right for all ... and it’s important for myself and my colleagues as well — me as a Muslim woman — to confirm that this is not part of a faith; preventing women from their basic rights is not part of the faith,” Al-Khater said.

“It is our obligation as Muslim-majority countries to confront that and to say to any actors that this does not represent us, this does not represent the faith of Islam.”


First group of Rohingya leaves Bangladesh for resettlement in US

First group of Rohingya leaves Bangladesh for resettlement in US
Updated 08 December 2022

First group of Rohingya leaves Bangladesh for resettlement in US

First group of Rohingya leaves Bangladesh for resettlement in US
  • Only individual, exceptional cases previously accepted
  • Hosting refugees costs Asian nation about $1.2bn a year

DHAKA: The first group of Rohingya refugees left Bangladesh for the US on Thursday, in a move seen as paving the way for further resettlement of members of the persecuted community to third countries.

Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it has been hosting and providing humanitarian support to 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims, most of whom fled Rakhine State in neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.

A majority live in squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar district, a coastal region in the country’s southeast and the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Despite multiple attempts from Bangladesh, a UN-backed repatriation and resettlement process was failing to take off for the past few years, and only individual relocations have taken place in extraordinary cases.

At the same time, pressure on the South Asian nation has been increasing, as hosting the Rohingya refugees costs Bangladesh an estimated $1.2 billion a year, multiplying the challenges the developing country battered by the COVID-19 pandemic is already facing.

While the security situation in the military junta-led Myanmar does not allow for the repatriation to begin, a deal to start the relocation process was recently reached by Bangladeshi and US authorities.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen told reporters earlier this week that he had requested the US to receive 100,000 Rohingya, while similar petitions have been made with the government of the UK and Japan.

“In the first batch, 62 Rohingyas will be taken by the USA government,” he said. “It’s expected that every year 300 to 800 Rohingyas will be relocated to the USA.”

So far, 24 refugees have boarded a flight to their new home.

“As a part of the relocation to the USA, the first batch of 24 Rohingyas left Bangladesh on Thursday,” Mainul Kabir, director general of the Myanmar wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed to Arab News.

“The date of the next batch is yet to be determined as it involves the other parties also — the US embassy and International Organization for Migration.”

While the number of resettled refugees is not significant, it is seen as the first step to formalize their transfer from Bangladesh to places where they would be granted not only permanent residence, but also the right to employment and access to formal education.

“Although the number of relocated Rohingyas is very low, it has a token value. If these Rohingyas can be resettled in any third country, it’s good. The big thing is that the process began,” Mohammad Nur Khan, renowned Bangladeshi rights activist and migration expert, told Arab News.

“We have been talking quite long about the resettlement of the Rohingyas to third countries. In reality, the situation in Myanmar doesn’t seem to allow these Rohingyas to be repatriated with dignity any time soon. In this context, relocation to any third country can be a good solution, whatever the number is.”


Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap
Updated 08 December 2022

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap
  • The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad
  • “Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted

WASHINGTON: Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the US releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American and Russian officials said.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her partner, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that US officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government has said are baseless.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.
In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.
Besides the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.
Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.
Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.


Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan

Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan
Updated 08 December 2022

Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan

Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan
  • The men and women were convicted by three courts in each case and were each lashed between 25 to 39 times

ISLAMABAD: Twenty-seven people were lashed in public on Thursday in a northern Afghan province as punishment for alleged adultery, theft, drug offenses and other crimes, according to an official with the Supreme Court in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The punishments underscored the intentions by Afghanistan’s new rulers to continue hard-line policies implemented since they took over the country in August 2021 and to stick to their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
A statement from the court said the lashings took place in Parwan province, with 18 men and nine women punished in all.
Abdul Rahim Rashid, an official with the court, said the men and women were convicted by three courts in each case and were each lashed between 25 to 39 times. An unspecified number of those punished also received two-year prison terms in Charakar, the provincial capital, he added.
“There were different cases with different types of punishment, which all were approved by the courts and implemented in a public gathering of locals and officials” said Rashid.
Provincial officials and local residents attended the public lashings, during which officials spoke about the importance of implementing Sharia law in society, added the court statement.
Thursday’s lashings come a day after the Taliban authorities executed an Afghan convicted of killing another man, the first public execution since the former insurgents took over Afghanistan last year.
The execution, carried out with an assault rifle by the victim’s father, took place in western Farah province before hundreds of spectators and many top Taliban officials, according to Zabihullah Mujahid, the top Taliban government spokesman. Some officials came from the capital Kabul.
A separate court statement said that earlier this week, three men convicted of theft were lashed in public in eastern Paktika province.
During the previous Taliban rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group carried out public executions, floggings and stoning of those convicted of crimes in Taliban courts.
After they overran Afghanistan in 2021, in the final weeks of the US and NATO forces’ pullout from the country after 20 years of war, the Taliban had initially promised to allow for women’s and minority rights. Instead, they have restricted rights and freedoms, including imposing a ban on girl’s education beyond the sixth grade.
The former insurgents have struggled in their transition from warfare to governing amid an economic downturn and the international community’s withholding of official recognition.