NATO says Greece and Turkey cancel military exercises

Turkey and Greece have agreed to cancel rival military exercises that were to have been held next week on their respective national days. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 October 2020

NATO says Greece and Turkey cancel military exercises

  • “This is a very welcome step,” Stoltenberg said after a videoconference of NATO defense ministers
  • Turkey has deployed a gas exploration vessel under military escort into Greek waters

BRUSSELS: Turkey and Greece have agreed to cancel rival military exercises that were to have been held next week on their respective national days, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday.
The neighbors, while NATO members, are at loggerheads over energy drilling and maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean and the alliance has set up a hotline to head off accidental clashes.
“This is a very welcome step,” Stoltenberg said after a videoconference of NATO defense ministers, including Greece’s Nikos Panagiotopoulos and Turkey’s Hulusi Akar.
“These are steps in the right direction, and it helps to reduce the risks for instance and accidents.”
Greece had been expected to conduct exercises on Wednesday October 28, its Oxi Day holiday, and Turkey on Thursday, celebrated there as Republic Day.
Turkey has deployed the Oruc Reis, a gas exploration vessel under military escort into Greek waters off the island of Kastellorizo, and Greek vessels are nearby.
Addressing a news conference after two days of talks on a variety of topics, Stoltenberg confirmed he had raised the situation with the Greek and Turkish ministers.
“I will say that we had a good and constructive talks and allies expressed a strong support for the NATO de-confliction mechanism,” Stoltenberg said.
“I welcome now the fact that we have been able to see some concrete steps in that direction with the cancelation of the two exercises.”
French Defense Minister Florence Parly also hailed the decisions to cancel the military exercises, stressing the need to “respect international law and restore stability in the region.”
Stoltenberg also welcomed Germany’s diplomatic mediation in the underlying dispute.
On Thursday, he had warned that — while NATO could help keep the rival militaries apart — it would be down to Ankara and Athens to open a dialogue to resolve their long-standing differences.


Helicopters, firefighters battle 2 forest fires in Japan

Updated 58 min 1 sec ago

Helicopters, firefighters battle 2 forest fires in Japan

  • News footage showed smoke billowing upward from the hills
  • An evacuation order for Ashikaga was first issued Tuesday for about 50 households

TOKYO: A forest fire broke out in a rural area north of Tokyo on Thursday, near another blaze burning for a fourth day.
One man suffered burns and was hospitalized, and firefighters have been deployed, said Hitomi Hirokami, an official at Kiryu in Gunma prefecture, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Tokyo.
News footage showed smoke billowing upward from the hills.
Another fire has been raging in nearby Ashikaga in Tochigi prefecture, where 207 households have been asked to evacuate, said spokesman Minoru Takayama.
Firefighters were working on the ground, while military helicopters were dousing the area. No one has been injured.
The two fires are not directly related, but the area has not had much rain lately, causing flames to spread, officials said.
An evacuation order for Ashikaga was first issued Tuesday for about 50 households, underlining how the stricken area was growing.
The cause of the fire was unclear, but there’s a rest stop for hikers in an area where it’s believed to have started.
Three evacuation centers were set up with social distancing measures and disinfectants and everyone is wearing masks, Takayama said.

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Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases rise by 11,869

Updated 25 February 2021

Germany’s confirmed coronavirus cases rise by 11,869

  • The reported death toll rose by 385 to 69,125

BERLIN: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany increased by 11,869 to 2,414,687, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed on Thursday. The reported death toll rose by 385 to 69,125, the tally showed.


‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

Updated 25 February 2021

‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

  • Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade

KABUL: When Fateh Shah and his two brothers sought to escape a debt trap a couple of years ago, he says they were left with two options: To either commit a crime to pay off their lenders or to sell their kidneys.

“We were fed up with their repeated harassment,” Shah, 35, told Arab News.

They fled to neighbouring Iran “with the help of a smuggler,” hoping to find a job there and send part of their earnings back home to pay off their debts in stages.

“But we got into more debt as we were deported soon after arriving in Iran ... The smuggler became our new lender, demanding money for the trip. It was a nightmare,” Shah said.

The three brothers finally decided to go under the knife, each earning 320,000 Afghans ($4,000) for selling one kidney.

“We had no other option … we could not take the humiliation, shouting and complaints of the lenders anymore. We either had to commit a crime to pay our hefty debts or sell our kidneys, and we decided to live with one kidney rather than stealing,” Shah said.

The Shah brothers are not alone. According to recent media reports, “confirmed figures” show that more than 1,000 kidneys have been traded in the past five years in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest provinces, which shares its border with Iran.

“Hundreds of people who have sold their kidneys live in Se Shanba Bazar village in Injil district in Herat,” the private TV channel Tolo News said in a report.

Shah says he learned about the illegal kidney trade in western Herat, where he, like many others, had settled after fleeing prolonged periods of drought, poverty and joblessness in the province of Badghis, in the northwest of the country.

So lucrative is the illegal kidney trade that two hospitals in Herat “offer transplantation services with the help of Iranian doctors,” according to the report, which added that children as young as seven and several women “were among those forced to sell their vital organs.”

The numbers shared by the Afghan authorities, who launched a probe into the trade soon after the report, are equally jarring.

“When the team visited the hospitals, it found that in one hospital 182 transplants had occurred … and 18 in another hospital,” said Dastagir Nazari, Health Ministry spokesperson.

He added that initial findings showed that the “transplantations had been going on in the two hospitals in Herat for at least two years.”

“But … we came to know that the number is much higher, especially in the Injil district, than in these hospitals,” Nazari said.

The alarming figures prompted authorities in Herat to conduct a more detailed investigation.

However, officials “found no document showing that trade has happened inside the hospitals” between donors and patients. Public health laws dictate that the “transplantation of a kidney can only happen when the donor is a relative of the patient, in need of the kidney,” with the illegal trading of organs punishable by law, Nazari said.

Experts blame the “health mafia” in Herat for the province’s dire straits.

“It is a reality that economic compulsions have put much pressure on our people, but the health mafia should not misuse the poverty of the people this way,” Waheed Qatali, the governor of Herat, posted on Facebook recently.

However, Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade.

“The government here is good in giving hollow slogans to people. It cannot stop this process because people have no alternative,” said Rafiq Shahir, a prominent figure in Herat.

He added that poverty was prevalent in many parts of Afghanistan despite the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid since the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001 because “authorities live a luxurious life.”

Dr. Nawrooz Haqmal, an Afghan health expert based in the UK, agreed, saying that “people had no choice but to break the law”, which prohibits the illegal sale of kidneys.

“The sad reality has been reported for years wherein the private health sector has been involved in illegal businesses,” he told Arab News.

“Also, the silence of the leadership of the public ministry about the details of this illegal business has created confusion about the law enforcement in the capital of one the major cities,” he added.

Ordinary Afghans were still able to joke about the issue, with a satirical TV program featuring Herat’s illegal kidney trade as its main topic last week.

Impersonating President Ashraf Ghani, who has repeatedly vowed to improve the livelihood of the Afghans since assuming office more than six years ago, one artist said: “The people of Herat are wise to sell their kidneys to boost their economy. Afghans were very rich, and each possesses a treasure in their bodies for selling.”

“Hope to see you, the nation of Afghanistan, soon with one kidney,” he added.


UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.