World News

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on a vaccination update from the State Dining Room at The White House on Tuesday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: All adults across America will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines within two weeks, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday, as economic powerhouse California set a June 15 target to fully reopen businesses. The positive news from the United States-which has reported the most coronavirus deaths of any country but is now a leader in vaccine distribution-contrasted with a record daily toll in Brazil and Europe’s troubled rollout of the AstraZeneca shot.

Biden announced in a White House speech that he is moving up the deadline for all over 18s to be eligible for vaccines to April 19. The previous target had been May 1. “Our vaccine program is in overdrive. We’re making it easier to get a vaccination shot,” Biden told the nation. “We’re the first country to administer 150 million shots and the first country to fully vaccinate over 62 million people.”

Biden’s April 19 deadline means ending restrictions by age, health issues or other categories for people wanting to get vaccinated. It would not necessarily mean that anyone could get a shot immediately, as distribution remains a work in progress. Visiting a vaccination site in Virginia earlier, Biden said that while the worst of the pandemic is “not over yet,” vaccines mean it soon could be.

California to reopen
The news comes as California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state will fully reopen by June 15 if the current rate of vaccinations continues, lifting all COVID-related restrictions on businesses and gatherings. “We’ll be getting rid of the blueprint, as you know it today. That’s on June 15 if we continue the good work,” said Newsom, adding that mask-wearing requirements would remain.

Some 556,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, by far the highest toll reported in any country. On Tuesday the Johns Hopkins University tracker reported 68,643 new confirmed cases and 1,105 deaths, as concern grows that people may be letting down their guard. The International Monetary Fund meanwhile said accelerated vaccines and a flood of government stimulus spending, especially in the United States, meant it now predicts global economic growth this year of 6 percent, up from a forecast of 5.5 percent in January. This would be a swift reversal of the 3.3 percent contraction in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic-the worst peacetime downturn since the Great Depression nearly a century ago.

Focus on vaccines
The pandemic has now killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide, upended economies and lifestyles everywhere and put huge pressure on health care systems. And on a global scale it has not yet abated, despite more than 660 million shots having been administered worldwide.

In an annual report Wednesday Amnesty International said that richer countries are failing a “rudimentary” test of global solidarity by hoarding COVID vaccines, “leaving countries with the fewest resources to face the worst health and human rights outcomes.” Hard-hit Brazil registered 4,195 deaths from the virus Tuesday, in the deadliest day of the pandemic yet for a country whose total reported toll is now nearly 337,000, second only to the United States.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Argentina notched a record high new daily cases with 20,870 infections, and across the border in Chile a coronavirus surge forced President Sebastian Pinera to postpone an election to choose a commission to rewrite the country’s constitution.

Meanwhile India, a vaccine-producing powerhouse, is struggling to contain a record surge in daily infections. New Delhi on Tuesday imposed an immediate nighttime curfew, and financial hub Mumbai imposed similar measures. A rare breakthrough in reopening international travel occurred however when Australia and New Zealand-both largely free of the coronavirus-announced a two-way, quarantine-free travel corridor starting April 18.

Mixed results
Britain is among the global pace-setters for inoculations with almost half its population having received at least one jab. In stark contrast, many other countries in Europe are lagging behind and have been forced to reimpose deeply unpopular shutdowns to battle stubbornly high caseloads.

One problem in Europe has been a wave of concern over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine and its reported links to blood clots. The European Medicines Agency said Tuesday it has not yet reached a conclusion on whether there is a causal link and said it plans a press briefing later this week.

And as global regulators rush to assess the jab’s possible link to rare blood clots in adults, a British trial of the vaccine on children was put on hold Tuesday. Oxford University, which helped develop the vaccine, said in a statement that there were “no safety concerns” in the trial, but acknowledged fears over a potential link to clots. – AFP

Members of the Taliban delegation from the left: Khairullah Khairkhwa, former western Herat Governor and one of five Taliban released from the US prison on Guantanamo Bay in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, Suhail Shaheen, member of negotiation team, Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban's political office attend their joint news conference in Moscow, Russia on March 19, 2021. — AP

MOSCOW: The Taliban warned Washington on Friday against defying a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of American and Nato troops from Afghanistan.

The Taliban issued their warning at a press conference in Moscow, the day after meeting senior Afghan government negotiators and international observers to try to jumpstart a stalled peace process to end Afghanistan’s decades of war.

President Joe Biden’s administration says it is reviewing an agreement the Taliban signed with the Trump administration. Biden told ABC in an interview on Wednesday that the May 1 deadline could happen, but it is tough, adding that if the deadline is extended it won’t be by a lot longer.

“They should go,” Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters, warning that staying beyond May 1 would breach the deal. “After that, it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side... Their violation will have a reaction.”

He did not elaborate on what form the reaction would take, but in keeping with the agreement they signed in February 2020, the Taliban have not attacked US or Nato forces, even as unclaimed bombings and targeted killings have spiked in recent months.

“We hope that this will not happen, that they withdraw and we focus on the settlement, peaceful settlement of the Afghan issue, in order to bring about a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire at the end of reaching a political roadmap (for) Afghanistan,” Shaheen said.

He also reaffirmed that the Taliban were firm on their demand for an Islamic government. Shaheen didn’t elaborate on what an Islamic government would look like or whether it would mean a return to their repressive rules that denied girls’ education, barred women from working, and imposed harsh punishments.

Shaheen did not say whether the Taliban would accept elections, but he emphasised that the government of President Ashraf Ghani would not fit their definition of an Islamic government.

In previous statements, the Taliban have said their vision of an Islamic government would allow girls to attend school, and women to work or be in public life. But in every conversation, they emphasised the need to follow Islamic injunctions without specifying what that would mean.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2021

TOBRUK: Libya’s new interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah speaks after being sworn in yesterday. – AFP

TOBRUK, Libya: Libya’s new interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah pledged to unite divided Libya as he was sworn in yesterday, preparing to steer the war-torn country to December elections. The North African nation descended into conflict after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, with an array of forces battling to fill the void.

A United Nations-supervised process is working to unite the country, building on an October ceasefire between rival administrations in the country’s east and west. Dbeibah, selected at UN-sponsored talks in February alongside an interim three-member presidency council, took the oath of office in front of lawmakers in the eastern city of Tobruk. More than 1,000 km from the capital Tripoli in the west, Tobruk has been the seat of Libya’s elected parliament since 2014.

Dbeibah’s swearing-in comes after parliament last week approved his cabinet, in a move hailed by key leaders and foreign powers as “historic”. The government pledged to “preserve the unity, security and integrity” of Libya with Dbeibah insisting that his cabinet “will be the government of all Libyans”. “Libya is one and united,” he said.

Several ambassadors attended the ceremony alongside parliament speaker Aguila Saleh. “The time has come for us to shake hands,” Saleh said, calling on Libyans to “turn the page on the past” and seek national reconciliation. The EU’s envoy to Libya, Jose Sabadell, welcomed the signing-in with the Arabic word “mabrouk”: “Congratulations”. “Proud to have been part of this event in Tobruk,” he tweeted, adding that the ceremony carried “strong messages… on the need for elections” in December.

Dbeibah’s government includes two deputy prime ministers, 26 ministers and six ministers of state, with five posts including the key foreign affairs and justice portfolios handed to women, a first in Libya. The new administration is expected to replace both the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and a parallel cabinet headquartered in the east, under the de facto control of forces backing military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey has propped up the GNA, while Haftar’s administration has drawn on support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. Outgoing GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj has said he is “fully ready to hand over” power, while Haftar last month offered “the support of the armed forces for the peace process”. But the new executive faces daunting challenges to unify the country’s institutions, end a decade of fighting marked by international interference and prepare for elections on Dec 24.

Mohamed Al-Manfi, who heads the presidency council selected with Dbeibah last month also vowed to help cement unity before elections. “We must be the nucleus of reconciliation ahead of the elections,” Manfi said. Dbeibah, 61, a wealthy businessman from the western port city of Misrata, once held posts under Gaddafi but has shown no clear ideological position.

During Gaddafi’s rule, his family was one of the many beneficiaries of an industrial and economic boom in Misrata. Dbeibah is also known to be supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and close to Turkey. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Toronto in engineering, expertise which introduced him to Gaddafi’s inner circle and led him to head a company managing huge construction projects.

Dbeibah was considered an outsider compared to other candidates vying for the job, and his election process has been marred by allegations of vote-buying. But he has jumped into his role even before his inauguration. On Saturday he launched a national conference on combatting coronavirus, while in a bid to battle corruption he has ordered investment and other financial firms to freeze all their operations.

But after 42 years of dictatorship under Gaddafi and a decade of violence, the list of challenges is long. Libya’s population of seven million, sitting atop Africa’s largest proven crude oil reserves, faces a dire economic crisis with soaring unemployment, crippling inflation and endemic corruption. Another key challenge will be ensuring the departure of an estimated 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters still in the country, whose presence Dbeibah has called “a stab in our back”. The UN Security Council on Friday called for all foreign forces to leave “without further delay”. – AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during a virtual call to congratulate the NASA JPL Perseverance team on the successful Mars landing in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 4, 2021. – AFP

WASHINGTON: Joe Biden hasn’t done a press conference, maintains a vanilla Twitter presence, and, as detractors love to repeat, is the oldest man to become US president. Yet in under 50 days, the quiet veteran is racking up formidable victories. Yesterday the House of Representatives was expected to pass the American Rescue Plan, an economic stimulus package which at $1.9 trillion is the biggest in history, by far, and aims to catapult the country out of its year-long COVID slump.

Along with that massive cash injection is a coronavirus vaccine rollout that to the surprise of many is turning the United States into something of a success story, boasting a vaccination rate easily exceeding that of Canada and the European Union. And despite overwhelming hostility to the White House from Republicans in Congress, Biden’s pledge to reunite a country left dazed by the Donald Trump era is also showing the first green shoots.

The fact is, a politician who ran a muted presidential campaign and continues to maintain a low profile is now pretty popular. Biden’s average Gallup approval rating since taking office is a steady 57 percent. That might not sound dramatic but it’s a world away from the 34 percent scored by Trump in his final days and miles ahead of most other current politicians.

The stimulus bill is even more popular, consistently getting support from about three quarters of the country. The latest Pew poll found 70 percent overall approval, with 94 percent among Democrats and 41 percent among Republicans. A Morning Consult/Politico poll put Republican support at 60 percent.

“We’ve never had anything this urgent and this ambitious that was so widely embraced,” Biden said this month. “The show of unity we’re seeing is unprecedented.” Right-wing outlets like Fox News continue to push Trump’s election campaign smear that Biden, 78, is somehow out of energy or worse. But in the real world, the silver-haired former vice president, senator and twice failed presidential candidate is tearing it up. “Go big,” Biden likes to say about the stimulus plan. He could, against the expectations of many, be talking about his entire presidential project.

All this has been done in a style unrecognizable from the Trump White House. Biden now holds the record for the length of time a president in recent history has not held a formal press conference. He has also not set a date for a first address to a joint session of Congress. Unlike Trump and his non-stop rallies, Biden has also barely traveled the country. And his social media output is restricted to a stream of gentle encouragement and polite pleas for unity. No insults, no tirades, not even nerve-jangling use of block capitals and multiple exclamation marks – but not much news either.

If detractors paint Biden as hiding, supporters see the school swot who skips parties to stay in the library, working harder than everyone and getting better results. Certainly Biden came into office knowing that he’d rise and fall on ending the coronavirus nightmare and putting the economy back on its feet. And he appears to have stuck to his plan. “That’s where his time, energy, his focus has been,” Psaki said. “I think the American people would certainly understand.” With the passage of the COVID relief bill this week, the stealth president will start appearing rather more on the public’s radar.

Today will feature his first primetime television address, marking the anniversary of the start to the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, where more than half a million people have died – a world record. The press conference will take place by the end of the month, Psaki says, noting that he has taken questions from journalists in dozens of smaller, more hurried settings. The address to Congress and trips out of Washington are also being discussed, she says. Why come out from under cover?

In revealing comments, Biden recently recalled his work with Barack Obama crafting a rescue package to counter the Great Recession of 2008. They had “literally saved America from a depression,” he said, but squandered the political momentum, then took a pounding in the 2010 midterm congressional elections.

“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest, he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap,'” Biden said. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.'” With an experienced eye on his Democrats keeping their slim congressional majority in the 2022 midterms, Biden doesn’t want to make that same mistake twice. – AFP

DUBAI: This picture taken yesterday shows the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked at Mina Rashid cruise terminal. – AFP

TEHRAN: The “resistance axis” of Tehran and its regional allies may have been behind an explosion that hit an Israeli-owned “spy” vessel four days ago, an ultraconservative Iranian newspaper said yesterday. The MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was travelling from the Saudi port of Dammam to Singapore when the blast occurred on Thursday, according to the London-based Dryad Global maritime security group.

Citing unnamed “military experts”, Kayhan, Iran’s leading ultraconservative daily, wrote in a front-page report that “the targeted ship in the Gulf of Oman is a military ship belonging to the Israeli army”. It was “gathering information about the (Arabian) Gulf and the Sea of Oman” when it was targeted, the newspaper said. “This spy ship, although it was sailing secretly, may have fallen into the ambush of one of the branches of the resistance axis,” it added, without offering further details.

The term “resistance axis” usually refers to the Islamic republic and its allied forces in the region. Israel’s defense minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday that the Jewish state’s “initial assessment” is that Iran is responsible for the explosion aboard the vessel. “This… takes into account the proximity (with Iran) and the context” in which the blast occurred, he added. “This is what I believe.”

Rami Ungar, an Israeli businessman who owns the Helios Ray, told Israeli state television Kan on Friday that the explosion caused “two holes about a meter and a half in diameter”. It was “not yet clear” if the damage was caused by missiles or mines attached to the ship, Ungar added. He said that the explosion did not cause any casualties among the crew or damage to the engine.

Israel has long accused arch-foe Iran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons, a charge always denied by Tehran. Iran blamed the Nov 27 assassination outside Tehran of its top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the Jewish state. “The Zionist regime’s attacks and crimes in the region, which have been going on publicly for some time, seem to have finally made it a legitimate target,” Kayhan said.

The US and Saudi Arabia in mid-2019 alleged Iran used limpet mines to blow holes in Gulf-area ships, and then US president Donald Trump came close to ordering an attack on Iran in retaliation. Tehran strongly denied those allegations. – AFP

In this image taken from video footage run February 19, 2021, by China's CCTV, Indian and Chinese troops face off in the Galwan Valley on the disputed border between China and India, June 15, 2020. — AP

Dramatic footage released by Chinese state media purportedly shows deadly clashes between troops at the Indian border last year — a rare insight into violence at the tense, remote frontier.

China's defence ministry on Friday named four soldiers killed in the brawl, in the first confirmation of deaths by Beijing from an incident that had also claimed the lives of at least 20 Indian soldiers.

Footage later released by state broadcaster CCTV appeared to show Indian troops wading through a river towards Chinese soldiers in the barren and ice-covered Karakoram Mountains, carrying sticks and shields reading “police”.

A bilateral accord prevents the use of guns by either side, and brutal clashes between the two sides on the ill-defined border often involve sticks, rocks and fist-fights.

“They have now moved another new tent here,” one soldier says in the video, which claims the Indian side broke the consensus and crossed the line to “provoke” the Chinese soldiers.

Later footage shows a large melee of troops from both sides and clashes in the dark, before Chinese soldiers are seen treating a man on the floor whose head is covered in blood.

The high-altitude border battle in the Galwan valley in June was one of the deadliest clashes between the two sides in recent decades.

Beijing acknowledged that the clash had resulted in casualties but did not confirm if any Chinese soldiers died until this week.

The CCTV voiceover said the Chinese soldiers were “heroically sacrificed”.

Battalion commander Chen Hongjun and three other soldiers have been given posthumous awards, the defence ministry said. State media reported that the youngest soldier to die was 19.

India and China fought a border war in 1962 and have long accused each other of seeking to cross their frontier — which has never been properly agreed — in India's Ladakh region, just opposite Tibet.

Beijing and New Delhi later sent tens of thousands of extra troops to the border, but said last week they had agreed to “disengage” along the border area.

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: A soldier stands guard on a blockaded road to Myanmar’s parliament yesterday after the military detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s president in a coup. – AFP

YANGON: Myanmar’s military seized power in a bloodless coup yesterday, detaining democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and imposing a one-year state of emergency. The intervention ended a decade of transition from outright military rule in Myanmar, with the generals justifying the power grab by alleging fraud in the November elections that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in a landslide.

The coup sparked global condemnation, with the United States leading calls for democracy to be immediately restored. Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained in the capital Naypyidaw before dawn, party spokesman Myo Nyunt told AFP, just hours before parliament was meant to reconvene for the first time since the elections.

Late yesterday, Myanmar state television announced the removal of 24 of Suu Kyi’s ministers, and 11 new appointments. Former foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who served under ex-general Thein Sein, will return to that role after five years – taking over a job that Suu Kyi had held while she was de facto national leader.

Earlier the military sealed off roads around the capital with armed troops, trucks and armored personnel carriers. Military helicopters flew across the city. A putsch had been expected for days, yet when it came it left Myanmar stunned – with roads to its main international airport blocked and communications cut – a country once more isolated from a world it only rejoined a decade ago. “It’s extremely upsetting – I don’t want the coup,” said a 64-year-old Burmese man in Hlaing township, standing with a crowd outside a grocery stall.

The military declared, via its own television channel, a one-year state of emergency and announced that former general Myint Swe would be acting president for the next year. It alleged “huge irregularities” in the November polls that the election commission had failed to address. “As the situation must be resolved according to the law, a state of emergency is declared,” the announcement said.

The army later pledged to hold fresh elections after the year-long state of emergency. Suu Kyi had issued a pre-emptive statement ahead of her detention calling on people “not to accept a coup”, according to a post on the official Facebook page of her party’s chairperson. The military moved quickly to stifle dissent, severely restricting the internet and mobile phone communications across the country.

In Yangon, the former capital that remains Myanmar’s commercial hub, troops seized the city hall just ahead of the announcement, according to an AFP journalist. AFP saw several trucks in Yangon carrying army supporters, with Myanmar flags and blaring nationalist songs, and some NLD members reported that security forces had ordered them to stay at home.

People rushed to their neighborhood grocery stores to stock up on rice, oil and instant noodles. Banks were temporarily closed by the communications freeze, but some were expected to reopen today. Elsewhere, the chief minister of Karen state and several other regional ministers were also held, party sources told AFP.

Washington was swift to react to the news. “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the European Union, Britain and Australia were among others to condemn the coup. China declined to criticize anyone, instead calling for all sides to “resolve differences”. Myanmar’s November polls were only the second democratic elections the country had seen since it emerged from the 49-year grip of military rule in 2011. The NLD won more than 80 percent of the vote – increasing its support from 2015.

But the military has for weeks complained the polls were riddled with irregularities, and claimed to have uncovered more than 10 million instances of voter fraud. Myanmar has seen two previous coups since independence from Britain in 1948 – in 1962 and 1988.

Suu Kyi, 75, is an immensely popular figure in Myanmar for her opposition to the military – which earned her the Nobel peace prize – having spent the best part of two decades under house arrest during the previous dictatorship. But her international image was shredded during her time in power as she defended the military-backed crackdown in 2017 against the country’s Muslim Rohingya community.

About 750,000 Rohingya were forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh during the campaign, which UN investigators said amounted to genocide. Suu Kyi was only ever de facto leader of Myanmar as the military had inserted a clause in the constitution that barred her from being president.

The 2008 constitution also ensured the military would remain a significant force in government by retaining control of the interior, border and defense ministries. But to circumvent the clause preventing her from being president, Suu Kyi assumed leadership of the country via a new role of “state counselor”. “From (the military’s) perspective, it has lost significant control over the political process,” political analyst Soe Myint Aung said. – AFP

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