China’s Xinjiang eases some COVID-19 measures after protests

Update China’s Xinjiang eases some COVID-19 measures after protests
Chinese police officers block off access to a site where protesters had gathered in Shanghai on Nov. 27, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 28 November 2022

China’s Xinjiang eases some COVID-19 measures after protests

China’s Xinjiang eases some COVID-19 measures after protests
  • Demonstrators gathered over the weekend to protest China’s COVID-19 lockdowns

BEIJING: China’s western Xinjiang region eased some COVID-19 restrictions in its capital Urumqi on Monday, after a deadly fire in the city blamed on virus controls sparked protests across the country.

People in the city of four million, some of whom have been confined to their homes for weeks on end, can travel around on buses to run errands within their home districts starting Tuesday, officials said at a press conference Monday.

Certain essential businesses in “low-risk” areas could also apply to restart operations — at 50 percent capacity — while public transport and flights will start “resuming in an orderly manner,” officials said a day earlier.

Ten people were killed when a blaze ripped through a residential building in Urumqi on Thursday night, spurring crowds to take to the streets in multiple Chinese cities this weekend to protest against the country’s strict zero COVID-19 policy.

Many social media users blamed COVID-19 lockdowns in Urumqi for hampering rescue efforts, but officials have instead said private cars obstructed firefighters.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday lashed out at “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire with COVID-19.

But in the wake of the protests, officials on Saturday said the city “had basically reduced social transmissions to zero” and they would “restore the normal order of life for residents in low-risk areas in a staged and orderly manner.”

Officials at the press conference on Monday said Urumqi would also resume parcel delivery services — but logistics workers would have to stay in a “closed loop” at company dormitories.

China’s unrelenting zero COVID-19 push has sparked protests and hit productivity in the world’s second-largest economy, as the public grows weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A series of new rules announced by Beijing earlier this month appeared to signal a shift away from the strategy, easing quarantine requirements for entering the country and simplifying a system for designating high-risk areas.

But officials have instead dug in their heels, even shutting down large parts of China’s capital as national case numbers shot past the 30,000 mark in recent days to record highs.

Public anger boiled over on the weekend when hundreds gathered on university campuses and cities around the country demanding an end to the zero COVID-19 policy.

In Beijing, the city government said on Sunday afternoon it will not allow snap lockdowns of residential areas to be in place for more than 24 hours.


Blasts near Ukraine nuclear plant, says UN watchdog; Russia calls it provocation

Blasts near Ukraine nuclear plant, says UN watchdog; Russia calls it provocation
Updated 27 January 2023

Blasts near Ukraine nuclear plant, says UN watchdog; Russia calls it provocation

Blasts near Ukraine nuclear plant, says UN watchdog; Russia calls it provocation
  • IAEA chief Rafael Grossi says the explosions suggest Moscow could not uphold nuclear safety
  • Russian forces seized the plant in early March, soon after invading neighboring Ukraine

The UN’s nuclear watchdog on Thursday reported powerful explosions near Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and renewed calls for a security zone around the plant.
A Russian official dismissed the comments by Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), saying they suggested Moscow could not uphold nuclear safety.
Russian forces seized the plant in early March, soon after invading neighboring Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of firing around it near the front lines, prompting the IAEA to place experts at all of Ukraine’s five nuclear stations.
Grossi, who visited Ukraine last week, said IAEA monitors routinely reported explosions near the plant.
“Yesterday, eight strong detonations were heard at around 10 a.m. local time, causing office windows at the plant to vibrate, and more were audible today,” he said in a statement.
But Renat Karchaa, an adviser to the head of Rosenergoatom, the company operating Russia’s nuclear plants, said Grossi’s comments were unfounded.
“I can only describe this as a provocation. Before you provide such information you need to check it and establish that it is not based on rumor,” Tass quoted him as saying.
“On the one hand, they want to show that they are doing something useful. On the other, they are again sowing doubt in Western public opinion that somehow Russia cannot cope with upholding nuclear safety.”
Karchaa’s acerbic tone was somewhat unusual. Russian officials have sought to ensure Western countries that they are maintaining safety standards and continue to work with the IAEA.
In his statement, Grossi said he had discussed the proposed zone with the European Union in Brussels this week and would have new talks with Moscow. 

 


US infiltrates big ransomware gang: ‘We hacked the hackers’

US infiltrates big ransomware gang: ‘We hacked the hackers’
Updated 27 January 2023

US infiltrates big ransomware gang: ‘We hacked the hackers’

US infiltrates big ransomware gang: ‘We hacked the hackers’
  • Gang identified as Hive among the world’s top five ransomware networks and has heavily targeted health care
  • Hive, working with German and other partners, was estimated to have victimized some 1,300 companies globally

WASHINGTON: The FBI and international partners have at least temporarily disrupted the network of a prolific ransomware gang they infiltrated last year, saving victims including hospitals and school districts a potential $130 million in ransom payments, Attorney General Merrick Garland and other US officials announced Thursday.
“Simply put, using lawful means we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at a news conference.
Officials said the targeted syndicate, known as Hive, is among the world’s top five ransomware networks and has heavily targeted health care. The FBI quietly accessed its control panel in July and was able to obtain software keys it used with German and other partners to decrypt networks of some 1,300 victims globally, said FBI Director Christopher Wray.
How the takedown will affect Hive’s long-term operations is unclear. Officials announced no arrests but said, to pursue prosecutions, they were building a map of the administrators who manage the software and the affiliates who infect targets and negotiate with victims.
“I think anyone involved with Hive should be concerned because this investigation is ongoing,” Wray said.
On Wednesday night, FBI agents seized computer servers in Los Angeles used to support the network. Two Hive dark web sites were seized: one used for leaking data of non-paying victims, the other for negotiating extortion payments.
“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat, but as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to bring to justice anyone anywhere that targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Garland said.

 

He said the infiltration, led by the FBI’s Tampa office, allowed agents in one instance to disrupt a Hive attack against a Texas school district, stopping it from making a $5 million payment.
It’s a big win for the Justice Department. Ransomware is the world’s biggest cybercrime headache with everything from Britain’s postal service and Ireland’s national health network to Costa Rica’s government crippled by Russian-speaking syndicates that enjoy Kremlin protection.
The criminals lock up, or encrypt, victims’ networks, steal sensitive data and demand large sums. Their extortion has evolve to where data is pilfered before ransomware is activated, then effectively held hostage. Pay up in cryptocurrency or it is released publicly.
As an example of a Hive sting, Garland said it kept one Midwestern hospital in 2021 from accepting new patients at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The online takedown notice, alternating in English and Russian, mentions Europol and German law enforcement partners. The German news agency dpa quoted prosecutors in Stuttgart as saying cyber specialists in the southwestern town of Esslingen were decisive in penetrating Hive’s criminal IT infrastructure after a local company was victimized.
In a statement, Europol said companies in more than 80 countries, including oil multinationals, have been compromised by Hive and that law enforcement from 13 countries was in on the infiltration.
A US government advisory last year said Hive ransomware actors victimized over 1,300 companies worldwide from June 2021 through November 2022, netting about $100 million in payments. Criminals using Hive’s ransomware-as-a-service tools targeted a wide range of businesses and critical infrastructure, including government, manufacturing and especially health care.
Though the FBI offered decryption keys to some 1,300 victims globally, Wray said only about 20 percent reported potential issues to law enforcement.
“Here, fortunately, we were still able to identify and help many victims who didn’t report. But that is not always the case,” Wray said. “When victims report attacks to us, we can help them and others, too.”
Victims sometimes quietly pay ransoms without notifying authorities — even if they’ve quickly restored networks — because the data stolen from them could be extremely damaging to them if leaked online. Identity theft is among the risks.
John Hultquist, the head of threat intelligence at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said the Hive disruption won’t cause a major drop in overall ransomware activity but is nonetheless “a blow to a dangerous group.”
“Unfortunately, the criminal marketplace at the heart of the ransomware problem ensures a Hive competitor will be standing by to offer a similar service in their absence, but they may think twice before allowing their ransomware to be used to target hospitals,” Hultquist said.
But analyst Brett Callow with the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft said the operation is apt to lessen ransomware crooks’ confidence in what has been a very high reward-low risk business. “The information collected may point to affiliates, launderers and others involved in the ransomware supply chain.”
Allan Liska, an analyst with Recorded Future, another cybersecurity outfit, predicted indictments, if not actual arrests, in the next few months.
There are few positive indicators in the global fight against ransomware, but here’s one: An analysis of cryptocurrency transactions by the firm Chainalysis found ransomware extortion payments were down last year. It tracked payments of at least $456.8 million, down from $765.6 million in 2021. While Chainalysis said the true totals are certainly much higher, payments were clearly down. That suggests more victims are refusing to pay.
The Biden administration got serious about ransomware at its highest levels two years ago after a series of high-profile attacks threatened critical infrastructure and global industry. In May 2021, for instance, hackers targeted the nation’s largest fuel pipeline, causing the operators to briefly shut it down and make a multimillion-dollar ransom payment, which the US government later largely recovered.
A global task force involving 37 nations began work this week. It is led by Australia, which has been particularly hard-hit by ransomware, including a major medical insurer and telecom. Conventional law enforcement measures such as arrests and prosecutions have done little to frustrate the criminals. Australia’s interior minister, Clare O’Neil, said in November that her government was going on the offense, using cyber-intelligence and police agents to ” find these people, hunt them down and debilitate them before they can attack our country.”
The FBI has obtained access to decryption keys before. It did so in the case of a major 2021 ransomware attack on Kaseya, a company whose software runs hundreds of websites. It took some heat, however, for waiting several weeks to help victims unlock afflicted networks.


Shamima Begum talks to BBC about her family’s reaction after she joined Daesh

Shamima Begum talks to BBC about her family’s reaction after she joined Daesh
Updated 27 January 2023

Shamima Begum talks to BBC about her family’s reaction after she joined Daesh

Shamima Begum talks to BBC about her family’s reaction after she joined Daesh
  • Begum suggested her family was partly to blame for the media storm that erupted when her actions were revealed
  • BBC says its podcast is ‘not a platform for Shamima Begum to give her unchallenged story’ but a ‘robust, public-interest investigation’

LONDON: Shamima Begum has spoken of the first time she talked to her mother after leaving the UK in 2015, at the age of 15, to join Daesh in Syria.

“The first time I called my mum she was just crying. I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty,” she told journalist Joshua Baker during an interview for the second series of the BBC podcast “I’m Not A Monster,” which began this month.

“I don’t know, maybe it was just emotions but I just didn’t say anything to her, I let her cry. I just kept telling her I was OK.”

Baker asked her what she had said when her mother pleaded with her to come home, to which she replied she “just said no.”

Begum, now 23, added that although she had not yet fully committed to her decision to join the extremist group at that point, she did not want to give her mother false hope because she did not know whether she would be able to leave.

Baker then asked Begum how she felt when she heard her sister publicly beg her to leave Daesh.

“I couldn't believe it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that my sister would travel all the way to Turkey thinking that she could save me.”

Begum even suggested her family were “responsible” for the media storm that erupted around her when her journey to Syria was revealed, because of their emotional pleas for her return.

“But I don’t think they knew how far it would go and how big it would become,” she added. “I blame the media for obsessing over my friends and I so much.”

The podcast series, new episodes of which are released each Wednesday, also revealed information about people smuggler Mohammed Al-Rasheed, who helped Begum travel to Syria while he was also working as an agent for Canadian intelligence services.

The BBC has faced a public outcry this month over the podcast series, which focuses on Begum’s case and in which she defends her actions. The UK’s public service broadcaster responded by saying the series is “not a platform for Shamima Begum to give her unchallenged story” but rather a “robust, public-interest investigation” into her case.

Begum was born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi origin and citizenship. She was living with her family in the Bethnal Green area of London when she left for Syria. Shortly after arriving in the war-torn country she married Dutch-born Yago Riedijk. In the years that followed, she gave birth to three children, all of whom died young. In 2019, she was discovered living in a refugee camp in northern Syria. The UK government revoked her British citizenship and said she would not be allowed to return to the country.


US raid in Somalia kills senior Daesh figure, 10 others: US officials

US raid in Somalia kills senior Daesh figure, 10 others: US officials
Updated 27 January 2023

US raid in Somalia kills senior Daesh figure, 10 others: US officials

US raid in Somalia kills senior Daesh figure, 10 others: US officials
  • Al-Sudani and 10 other Daesh fighters were killed during a gunfight after US troops descended on a mountainous cave complex

WASHINGTON: A US military raid in Somalia ordered by President Joe Biden killed a key regional leader of the Daesh group, Bilal Al-Sudani, US officials said Thursday.
Sudani was killed during a gunfight after US troops descended on a mountainous cave complex in northern Somalia hoping to capture him, according to US officials.
Around 10 of Sudani’s Daesh associates at the scene were killed, but there were no American casualties, the officials said.
“On January 25, on orders from the president, the US military conducted an assault operation in northern Somalia that resulted in the death of a number of Daesh members, including Bilal Al-Sudani,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
“Al-Sudani was responsible for fostering the growing presence of Daesh in Africa and for funding the group’s operations worldwide, including in Afghanistan,” Austin said.
From his mountain base in northern Somalia, he provided and coordinated funding for Daesh branches, not only in Africa but also Daesh Khorasan, the arm operating in Afghanistan, a US official said on condition of anonymity.
Ten years ago, before he joined the Daesh, Sudani was involved in recruiting and training fighters for the extremist Al-Shabab movement in Somalia.
“Sudani had a key operational and financial role with specialized skills which made him an important target for US counterterrorism action,” the official said.

The operation had been prepared over a period of months, with US forces rehearsing at a site built to replicate the terrain where Sudani was hiding.
Biden authorized the strike earlier this week after consulting with top defense, intelligence and security officials, the official said.
“An intended capture operation was ultimately determined to be the best option to maximize the intelligence value of the operation and increase its precision in challenging terrain,” another administration official said.
However, “the hostile forces’ response to the operation resulted in his death,” the official said.
The only injury to an American in the raid was that one serviceperson was bitten by a US military service dog, the official added.
“This operation and all others, President Biden has made it very clear that we are committed to finding and eliminating terrorist threats to the United States and to the American people, wherever they are hiding, no matter how remote,” the official said.
US forces have long operated in Somalia in coordination with and on behalf of the government, mostly conducting regular aerial strikes to support official forces fighting Shabab rebels.
Some of those are believed to be conducted out of a US base in Djibouti north of Somalia.
US aerial strikes in Somalia surged to dozens a year during 2017-2020, but also included two to four ground operations in each year.
Since Biden became president in 2021, the aerial strikes have fallen off, to just 16 in 2022, and no ground strikes have been recorded, according to data compiled by New America, a national security think tank.
 


EU dangles visa threat over nations refusing to take back migrants

EU dangles visa threat over nations refusing to take back migrants
Updated 27 January 2023

EU dangles visa threat over nations refusing to take back migrants

EU dangles visa threat over nations refusing to take back migrants
  • EU has applied the visa-restriction tool against only Gambia so far

STOCKHOLM: EU interior ministers reached “consensus” Thursday to warn outside countries refusing to take back irregular migrants they risked tighter visa restrictions to Europe, Sweden’s migration minister said.
Ministers agreed that the tool, in place since 2020, “should be fully used” to boost the number of migrants returning to their home countries after their asylum applications failed, Maria Malmer Stenergard told journalists.
Sweden chaired the Stockholm meeting as it currently holds the EU presidency.
“Should intensified political and diplomatic efforts not produce the desired results, member states call on the (European) Commission to come back to the (European) Council with proposals on visa restrictions,” Malmer Stenergard said.
That tougher line was reflected in a letter Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen sent to leaders of EU countries on Thursday, ahead of a February 9-10 summit that will discuss the issue.
Von der Leyen said EU member states could sign up to a pilot scheme over the first half of this year to speed up screening and asylum procedures for eligible migrants — and “immediate return” for those not deemed to qualify.
She also said she wanted the EU to draw up a list of “safe countries of origin,” and for the bloc to strengthen border monitoring on the Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes migrants use to get to Europe.


The EU planned to put in place migration deals with countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria “to improve returns... and to prevent departures,” said Von der Leyen.
In Stockholm, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson stressed that many European Union countries were under “huge pressure,” receiving nearly one million asylum applications last year.
Capacity was further stretched by the EU hosting nearly four million Ukrainian refugees who had fled Russia’s war in their country, she said.
European Commission statistics show a low rate of effective returns.
In 2021, out of 340,500 orders for migrants to be returned to their countries of origin, only 21 percent were carried out.
The EU funds various reintegration programs in countries that readmit their citizens who have been denied asylum in Europe.
These are separate from deportations or forced returns based on a court or administrative order, which are often carried out under escort and typically do not include in-country assistance.
Sweden — whose government relies on a far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, to stay in power — wants EU countries to leverage visas, foreign policy and development aid to press outside countries on the returns issue.


So far, the EU has applied the visa-restriction tool against only one country: The Gambia, for whose citizens getting a Schengen visa is more difficult and costly.
The commission in 2021 proposed the mechanism be extended to Bangladesh and Iraq, but that has not happened.
Johansson said after a November visit to Bangladesh that the threat of the visa sanctions had prompted Dhaka to become more “politically open” to accepting irregular migrants back from Europe.
The overall tone on migration has hardened in Europe since 2015-2016, when it took in over a million asylum-seekers, most of them Syrians fleeing the war in their country.
The bloc in 2016 struck a deal with Turkiye to prevent much of the onward passage of irregular migrants into Europe.
Austria backs the strengthening of a fence built along the border of EU member Bulgaria with Turkiye to further reduce the flow of asylum-seekers.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said on Monday, during a visit to that border region, that the fence would cost around two billion euros, and called on the European Commission to fund it.
The commission has been reluctant to do that, emphasising instead the role of Frontex, the bloc’s border patrol agency, which EU member states can call on.
“It’s about strengthening the fence that is there,” Nehammer told reporters in Vienna on Thursday.
“The commission categorically says, ‘No, there is no money for fences’. That can’t be the final word” on this issue, he added.
The current system to manage asylum and the visa-free Schengen zone had failed, he insisted.
Johansson said she objected to the fence proposal on financial grounds, pointing out that the European Council representing member states had cut her department’s budget for the 2021-2027 cycle.