Mexico grants asylum to Bolivian leader Morales

Bolivia’s recently resigned president Evo Morales has been granted asylum by Mexico. (Reuters)
Updated 12 November 2019

Mexico grants asylum to Bolivian leader Morales

  • Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard: Several minutes ago I received a phone call from (former) president Evo Morales to verbally and formally request political asylum in our country
  • Mexico had said it was prepared to grant Morales asylum, after Bolivia’s first indigenous president stepped down amid massive protests

MEXICO CITY: Mexico said Monday it has granted asylum to Bolivia’s Evo Morales, after the leftist president’s departure left the South American nation reeling amid a power vacuum.
“Several minutes ago I received a phone call from (former) president Evo Morales to verbally and formally request political asylum in our country,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a news conference.
“Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero made the decision to grant him asylum... for humanitarian reasons.”
Morales will have asylum with immediate effect for his own protection, Ebrard added, but did not answer journalists’ questions on whether he would travel to Mexico, and if so when he would arrive.
Mexico had said Sunday it was prepared to grant Morales asylum, after Bolivia’s first indigenous president stepped down amid massive protests and growing unrest over his fraud-stained re-election on October 20.
Morales, 60, had been in power since 2006.


Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy

Updated 4 min 18 sec ago

Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy

  • Government removed protection on land, jobs in 2019

NEW DELHI: Kashmiri leaders from pro-India parties on Thursday urged the prime minister to restore the region's special autonomy and engage in dialogue with Pakistan during their first meeting with him since the region lost its autonomy and saw many of its leaders jailed in a crackdown.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming it in its entirety. 

It became a flashpoint between the neighbors at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into predominantly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.

In Aug. 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government abolished Article 370 of the constitution ending Kashmir's autonomy. It split it into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and placed its entire population under lockdown and a communication blackout. 

In a series of administrative changes that followed, India removed protections on land and jobs for the local population, which many likened to attempts at demographically altering the region. 

Leaders of 14 pro-India political parties were invited for Thursday's meeting in New Delhi. Many of them, including Kashmir's former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, had been under house arrest for months.

“People of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) feel very humiliated after what happened on Aug. 5, 2019,” Mufti told reporters. “The way Article 370 was removed from the constitution — unconstitutionally, illegally and immorally — this is not acceptable to the people of Kashmir, and we will struggle for the restoration of Article 370 because this is the question of our identity.” 

Home Minister Amit Shah, while not commenting on the restoration of Kashmir's autonomy, confirmed that the restoration of its statehood — with a state being of higher administrative importance than federal territory — was discussed.

“The future of Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in parliament,” he tweeted after the meeting. 

India’s main opposition Congress party demanded that the restoration of the territory's statehood be carried out soon. 

“Statehood should be restored at the earliest,” Congress leader and former Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told the media. “The prime minister and home minister had made a promise that the government would restore statehood.” 

The meeting took place against the backdrop of reaffirming a 2003 ceasefire accord between India and Pakistan in February. The Kashmiri leaders said India should engage in talks with Pakistan for the sake of the region’s economic condition.

“I complimented the PM on (the) ceasefire with Pakistan and told him to hold talks with Pakistan for peace in Kashmir,” Mufti added. “New Delhi should talk with Islamabad for the resumption of the stalled trade between both parts of Kashmir because many people’s lives are involved in this.” 

Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister of Kashmir and leader of the region's oldest political party the National Conference, also supported talks with Pakistan. “We can change friends but not neighbors,” he said. “Pakistan is our close neighbor and we should use the back channel to address the existing tensions between the two nations.” 

But, among observers and Kashmiris themselves, there was little hope about the meeting.

“Modi needed a photograph to convey to his international audience that he is engaged with the Kashmiri leadership, that is what (he) has got on Thursday,” Srinagar-based political analyst Prof. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches at the Central University of Kashmir, told Arab News. “It was not meant for something serious, and this is the common impression in Kashmir.”


WHO estimates COVID-19 boosters needed yearly for most vulnerable

Updated 13 min ago

WHO estimates COVID-19 boosters needed yearly for most vulnerable

  • WHO considers annual boosters for high-risk individuals as its "indicative" baseline scenario
  • Spokesperson for Gavi said COVAX was planning to take a wide range of scenarios into consideration

BRUSSELS: The World Health Organization (WHO) forecasts that people most vulnerable to COVID-19, such as the elderly, will need to get an annual vaccine booster to be protected against variants, an internal document seen by Reuters shows.
The estimate is included in a report, which is to be discussed on Thursday at a board meeting of Gavi, a vaccine alliance that co-leads the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine program COVAX. The forecast is subject to changes and is also paired with two other less likely scenarios.
Vaccine makers Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc, with its German partner BioNTech, have been vocal in their view that the world will soon need booster shots to maintain high levels of immunity, but the evidence for this is still unclear.
The document shows that the WHO considers annual boosters for high-risk individuals as its “indicative” baseline scenario, and boosters every two years for the general population.
It does not say how these conclusions were reached, but shows that under the base scenario new variants would continue to emerge and vaccines would be regularly updated to meet these threats.
The UN agency declined to comment on the content of the internal document.
A spokesperson for Gavi said COVAX was planning to take a wide range of scenarios into consideration.
The document, which is dated June 8 and is still a “work in progress,” also predicts under the base case that 12 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses will be produced globally next year.
That would be slightly higher than the forecast of 11 billion doses for this year cited by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), signalling that the UN agency does not expect a significant ramp-up of vaccine production in 2022.
The document predicts manufacturing problems, regulatory approval issues and “transition away from some technology platforms” as potential drags on supplies next year.
It does not signal which technologies could be phased out, but the European Union, which has reserved the world’s largest volume of COVID-19 vaccines, has bet heavily on shots using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, such as those by Pfizer and Moderna, and has forgone some purchases of viral vector vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson.
The scenarios will be used to define the WHO’s global vaccination strategy and the forecasts may change as new data emerges on the role of boosters and the duration of vaccine protection, Gavi says in another document, also seen by Reuters.
So far about 2.5 billion doses have been administered worldwide, mostly in rich countries where over half of the population has received at least one dose, whereas in many poorer countries less than 1 percent has been vaccinated, according to Gavi’s estimates.
See graphic: COVID-19 global vaccination tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/vaccination-rollout-and-access/
This gap could widen next year under the WHO’s most pessimistic forecast, as the need for annual boosters could once again push poorer nations to the back of the queue.
In its worst-case scenario, the UN agency says production would be 6 billion doses next year, due to stringent regulation for new shots and manufacturing issues with existing ones.
That could be compounded by the need for annual boosters for the entire world, and not just the most vulnerable, to combat variants and limited duration of protection.
In the more optimistic situation, all vaccines in the pipeline would get authorized and production capacity would ramp up to about 16 billion doses to meet demand. Vaccines would also be shared equitably across the world.
There would be no need for boosters as vaccines would show strong efficacy against variants and long protection.


Many feared dead after Florida beachfront condo collapses

Updated 55 min 50 sec ago

Many feared dead after Florida beachfront condo collapses

  • Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis said rescue crews are ‘doing everything they can to save lives — that is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest’

SURFSIDE, Florida: A wing of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed with a roar in a town outside Miami early Thursday, killing at least one person and trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Rescuers pulled out dozens of survivors and continued to look for more.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett warned that the death toll was likely to rise, saying the building manager told him the tower was quite full at the time of the collapse around 1:30 a.m., but the exact number of people present was unclear.
“The building is literally pancaked,” Burkett said. “That is heartbreaking because it doesn’t mean, to me, that we are going to be as successful as we wanted to be in finding people alive.”
Hours after the collapse, searchers were trying to reach a trapped child whose parents were believed to be dead. In another case, rescuers saved a mother and child, but the woman’s leg had to be amputated to remove her from the rubble, Frank Rollason, director of Miami-Dade Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald.
Video showed fire crews removing a boy from the wreckage, but it was not clear whether he was the same person mentioned by Rollason.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who toured the scene, said television did not capture the scale of what happened.
Rescue crews are “doing everything they can to save lives. That is ongoing, and they’re not going to rest,” he said.
Authorities did not say what may have caused the collapse. On video footage captured from nearby, the center of the building appeared to fall first, with a section nearest the ocean teetering and coming down seconds later as a huge dust cloud swallowed the neighborhood.
Work was being done on the building’s roof, but Burkett said he did not see how that could have been the cause.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she got a call from President Joe Biden, who offered federal aid. Hotels opened to some of the displaced residents, she said, and deliveries of food, medicine and more were being hastily arranged. Rescue officials tried to determine how many people might be missing and asked residents to check in with them.
About half of the building’s roughly 130 units were affected, the mayor told a news conference. Rescuers pulled at least 35 people from the wreckage by mid-morning, and heavy equipment was being brought in to help stabilize the structure to give them more access, Raide Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue said.
Fifty-one people who were thought to be in the building at the time of the collapse were unaccounted for by mid-morning — but there was a possibility that some weren’t at home, said Sally Heyman, of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.
The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, Burkett said.
Earlier, Burkett said two people were brought to the hospital, one of whom died. He added that 15 families walked out of the building on their own.
The collapse, which appeared to affect one leg of the L-shaped tower, tore away walls and left a number of homes in the still-standing part of the building exposed in what looked like a giant dollhouse. Television footage showed bunk beds, tables and chairs inside. Air conditioners hung from some parts of the building, where wires now dangled.
Piles of rubble and debris surrounded the area, and cars up to two blocks away were coated with with a light layer of dust from the debris.
Barry Cohen, 63, said he and his wife were asleep in the building when he first heard what he thought was a crack of thunder. The couple went onto their balcony, then opened the door to the building’s hallway to find “a pile of rubble and dust and smoke billowing around.”
“I couldn’t walk out past my doorway,” said Cohen, the former vice mayor of Surfside. “A gaping hole of rubble.”
He and his wife made it to the basement and found rising water there. They returned upstairs, screamed for help and were eventually brought to safety by firefighters using a cherry-picker.
Cohen said he raised concerns years ago about whether nearby construction might be causing damage to the building after seeing cracked pavers on the pool deck.
Surfside City Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Miami television station WPLG that the building’s county-mandated 40-year recertification process was ongoing. Salzhauer said the process was believed to be proceeding without difficulty. A building inspector was on-site Wednesday.
“I want to know why this happened,” Salzhauer said. “That’s really the only question. ... And can it happen again? Are any other of our buildings in town in jeopardy?”
At an evacuation site set up in a nearby community center, people who live in buildings neighboring the collapse gathered after being told to flee. Some wept. Some were still dressed in pajamas. Some children tried to sleep on mats spread on the floor.
Jennifer Carr was asleep in a neighboring building when she was awakened by a loud boom and her room shook. She thought it was a thunderstorm but checked the weather app on her phone and saw none. The building’s fire alarms went off, and she and her family went outside and saw the collapse.
“It was devastation,” Carr said. “People were running and screaming.”
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue said in a tweet that more than 80 units were at the scene with help from municipal fire departments. Teams of firefighters walked through the rubble, picking up survivors and carrying them from the wreckage.
Nicolas Fernandez waited early Thursday for word on close family friends who lived in the collapsed section of the building.
“Since it happened, I’ve been calling them nonstop, just trying to ring their cellphones as much as we can to hep the rescue to see if they can hear the cellphones,” she said.
The seaside condo development was built in 1981 in the southeast corner of Surfside. It had a few two-bedroom units currently on the market, with asking prices of $600,000 to $700,000 in an area with a neighborhood feel that provides a stark contrast to the glitz and bustle of nearby South Beach.
The area has a mix of new and old apartments, houses, condominiums and hotels, with restaurants and stores serving an international combination of residents and tourists. The main oceanside drag is lined with glass-sided, luxury condominium buildings, but more modest houses are on the inland side. Among the neighborhood’s residents are snowbirds, Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jewish families.
Patricia Avilez considered spending the night in her brother-in-law’s vacant condo on Wednesday but didn’t, only to awake to news of the collapse.
“And then I came here, and it’s gone,” she said. “Everything is disaster.”


Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

Updated 24 June 2021

Fear stalks northern Afghan city as Taliban lay siege

  • The Taliban have held Kunduz twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan
  • Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet a September 11 deadline

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: Fear stalked Kunduz Thursday as residents prepared for a lengthy siege, with government forces patrolling the streets and Taliban insurgents surrounding the northern Afghan city.
The Taliban have held the city twice in recent years — both times briefly — but have now captured the surrounding districts and the main border crossing with Tajikistan.
“The Taliban have besieged our city,” said Qudratullah, a fruit seller who has done hardly any business since fighting first erupted in Kunduz province two weeks ago.
“Even today there is sporadic fighting on the outskirts of the city,” said Qudratullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
“If the government does not launch an operation against the Taliban, their siege will continue for a long time.”
Most businesses in Kunduz remained shut and vehicles stayed off the roads, an AFP correspondent who toured the city reported.
Dozens of military vehicles patrolled the streets as new government forces were deployed in the city of around 300,000, swelled by an influx of rural residents fleeing fighting in the districts.
Troops were seen firing sporadically at Taliban positions, and the bodies of two insurgents lay on the ground on the eastern edge of Kunduz.
The city’s public health director told AFP that since the fighting erupted a week ago, 21 civilians have been killed and 225 wounded.
Residents said they were suffering from water and power cuts, and few shops were open.
Kunduz resident Hasib said he feared the Taliban would soon launch a major offensive on the city.
“We don’t feel safe... We have seen the Taliban capture the city twice before, and we do not want the city to fall again to them,” he said.
“The government forces should break the Taliban siege, if not the Taliban will continue their offensives... and their siege will continue forever.”
Fighting has raged across Kunduz province for days, with the Taliban and Afghan forces engaged in bloody battles.
On Tuesday the insurgents captured Shir Khan Bandar, Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan, in one of their most significant gains in recent months.
On Thursday, Afghan authorities attempted to put on a brave front, with Interior Minister Abdul Satar Mirzakwal flying in for a brief visit.
“Saving and protecting Kunduz is among our top priorities,” he said in a video message released to reporters.
“We are taking serious measures and will provide more weapons and technical equipment to Afghan forces in all provinces.”
Since early May, the Taliban have launched several major offensives targeting government forces across the rugged countryside and say they have seized at least 87 of the country’s more than 400 districts.
Many of their claims are disputed by the government and difficult to independently verify.
Violence surged after the US military began the withdrawal of its last remaining 2,500 troops from the country to meet the September 11 deadline announced by President Joe Biden to end America’s longest war.


Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

Updated 24 June 2021

Poland withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, says president

  • Foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11
  • First troops would return to Poland on Thursday night

WARSAW: Poland will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan at the end of June, President Andrzej Duda said on Thursday, bringing its two-decade presence in the country to an end.
NATO allies agreed in April that foreign troops under NATO command will withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with a US pull-out by Sept. 11.
“At the end of June, after 20 years, we are ending our military involvement in the largest NATO operation in history,” Duda wrote on Twitter, adding that the first troops would return to Poland on Thursday night.
After withdrawing, the United States and NATO aim to rely on Afghan military and police forces, which they have developed with billions of dollars in funding, to maintain security.