New Year’s revelries from Asia to Middle East muted by coronavirus

Fireworks explode from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year's Eve celebrations in Dubai, UAE, on Dec. 31, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 01 January 2021
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New Year’s revelries from Asia to Middle East muted by coronavirus

  • Pandemic restrictions on open air gatherings saw people turning to made-for-TV fireworks displays
  • In many European countries, authorities warned they were ready to clamp down on revelers breaching public health rules

This New Year’s Eve was celebrated like no other in most of the world, with many bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.
From the South Pacific to New York City, pandemic restrictions on open air gatherings saw people turning to made-for-TV fireworks displays or packing it in early since they could not toast the end of 2020 in the presence of friends or carousing strangers.
As midnight rolled from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas, the New Year’s experience mirrored national responses to the virus itself. Some countries and cities canceled or scaled back their festivities, while others without active outbreaks carried on like any other year.
Australia was among the first to ring in 2021. In past years, 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks. This time, most watched on television as authorities urged residents to stay home to see the seven minutes of pyrotechnics that lit up the Sydney Harbor Bridge and its surroundings.




Singer Machine Gun Kelly performs in Times Square during New Year's Eve celebrations on Dec. 31, 2020 in New York City. (AFP / POOL / Gary Hershorn)

In New York’s Times Square, the ball was set to drop like always, but police fenced off the site synonymous with New Year’s Eve to prevent crowds of any size from gathering.
Another of the world’s most popular places to be on December 31, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, pressed ahead with its revelry despite a surge of infections. Images of masked health care workers briefly lit up Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, before fireworks exploded in the sky over the building. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets and squares marked out for social distancing were largely ignored.
Still, the pandemic robbed the night of its freewheeling spirit. Authorities implemented a raft of anti-virus measures to control rowdy crowds in downtown Dubai. At luxury bars and restaurants, music blared and people drank, but dancing was strictly prohibited.
South Africans were urged to cancel parties and light candles to honor health workers and people who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many European countries, authorities warned they were ready to clamp down on revelers breaching public health rules, including nightly curfews in France, Italy, Turkey, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Greece.
“No one will be on the streets after 10 p.m. (Athens) will be a dead city to make sure no more restrictions are imposed,” said Greece’s public order minister, Michalis Chrisohoidis.
France’s government flooded the streets with 100,000 law enforcement officers to enforce the nationwide curfew.
A few families gathered in Madrid’s sunny central Puerta de Sol square to listen to the rehearsal of the traditional ringing of the bells that is held at midnight. They followed the Spanish custom of eating 12 grapes with each stroke of the bells before police cleared the area that normally hosts thousands of revelers.




Lights are seen over the River Nile in the Egyptian capital Cairo during New Year's Eve celebrations on December 31, 2020. (AFP / Khaled Desouki)

“That’s it, life goes on. Despite what happened we have to celebrate,” said Cesar Pulido, 32, who celebrated in Madrid. “We have to eat the 12 grapes in order to ask 12 wishes like health, love, money, everything and good vibes.”
As the clock struck midnight, fireworks erupted over Moscow’s Red Square and the Acropolis in Athens, but the explosions echoed across largely empty streets as people obeyed orders to stay home.
From Berlin to Brussels, normally raucous celebrations were muted by the pandemic.
Even the British government, keen to celebrate the UK’s definitive split from the EU, ran ads imploring the public to “see in the New Year safely at home” amid a record number of newly confirmed cases. London’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display was canceled, but an unannounced display was broadcast before midnight, with tributes to health care workers, a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and even a voice saying “you’re on mute” in reference to a bugbear of virtual work meetings.
In Scotland, residents normally mark the new year with parties and “first footing,” where a home’s first visitor of the year comes bearing gifts. The tradition is among the list of activities the government warned against.
“No gatherings, no house parties, no first-footing. Instead, we should bring in 2021 in our own homes with just our own households,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
Many around the world looked toward 2021 with hope, partly due to the arrival of vaccines that offer a chance of beating the pandemic.
“Although this was a very difficult year, a year of many losses, I’m grateful to be safe, to follow the rules, to do my part,” said Marilia Rafael, 33, who celebrated in Portugal, “and would like to ask that the next year may be better for all of us, may it be a year of hope, peace and love.”




Police officers stop a car in Piazza Venezia, usually a popular spot for New Year's Eve celebrations, in Rome,on Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

More than 1.8 million deaths worldwide have been linked to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
Some leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, used their New Year’s address to thank citizens for enduring hardship during the lockdown and criticize those who defied the rules. Others, like Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella, flew the flag for science, urging citizens to discard their fears about getting immunized against COVID-19.
“Faced with an illness so highly contagious, which causes so many deaths, it’s necessary to protect one’s own health and it’s dutiful to protect those of the others – family members, friends, colleagues,’’’ said Mattarella, 79.
In Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, where official fireworks and celebrations also were canceled to limit the rapid spread of the virus, police officers braced for what promised to be a long night.
Rio officials decided to seal off Copacabana, where millions of people dressed in white usually gather on the beach to marvel at fireworks and attend large concerts. This year, between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, only local residents will be able to access the city’s iconic shore, authorities said.
In South Korea, Seoul’s city government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.
New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors that also have no active COVID-19 cases held their usual New Year’s activities.
In Chinese societies, the virus ensured more muted celebrations of the solar New Year, which is less widely observed than the Lunar New Year that in 2021 will fall in February. Initial reports about a mystery respiratory illness sickening people in the Chinese city of Wuhan emerged exactly a year ago.
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UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement

Updated 21 May 2024
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UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement

  • Michael Gove: University encampments represent ‘antisemitism repurposed for Instagram age’
  • Palestine Solidarity Campaign: Britain ‘complicit’ in ‘genocide in Gaza’

LONDON: The UK’s secretary of state for leveling up, housing and communities has been accused of conducting a “witch hunt” after accusing pro-Palestinian demonstrators of antisemitism.
Political parties and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign condemned Michael Gove, with the Revolutionary Communist Party calling his accusations an attempt to distract from the Conservatives’ “support for genocide” in Gaza.
The Socialist Workers Party said he is conducting a “witch hunt (against) the Palestine solidarity movement.”
Gove announced plans to make protest organizers foot the cost of policing at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, saying they are not doing enough to stop some attendees spreading anti-Jewish messages.
“Many of those on these marches are thoughtful, gentle, compassionate people — driven by a desire for peace and an end to suffering. But they are side by side with those who are promoting hate,” he added.
“The organizers of these marches could do everything in their power to stop that. They don’t.”
Gove also said pro-Palestinian university encampments across the UK represent “antisemitism repurposed for the Instagram age,” and their presence has facilitated hostility against Jewish students on campuses.
Ben Jamal, PSC director, said in a statement: “Apologists for Israel’s genocidal violence and system of apartheid have lost the democratic and legal arguments, but continue to attempt to delegitimize Palestinian solidarity. They will not succeed.
“At a moment when Israel is on trial in the world’s highest court for the crime of genocide and the day after its Prime Minister has been threatened with ICC (International Criminal Court) arrest warrants for war crimes, it is grotesque that these smears continue.
“The real issues are that the UK government continues to arm Israel, refuses to resume funding to UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), and is attempting to protect Israel from legal accountability.
“Far from stopping the genocide in Gaza as required under international law, the UK is complicit.”


NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

Updated 21 May 2024
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NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

  • The complaint was filed at Paris judicial court days before TotalEnergies holds annual shareholders meeting
  • The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as $163,000

PARIS: NGOs filed a criminal complaint against French oil giant TotalEnergies and its top shareholders in Paris on Tuesday, seeking a trial for involuntary manslaughter and other consequences of climate change “chaos.”
The case targets the company’s board, including chief executive Patrick Pouyanne, and major shareholders that backed its climate strategy, including US investment firm BlackRock and Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank.
In a statement, the three NGOs and eight individuals said they accused the group of “deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity.”
The complaint was filed at the Paris judicial court, which has environmental and health departments, three days before TotalEnergies holds its annual shareholders meeting.
The prosecutor now has three months to decide whether to open a judicial investigation, the NGOs said. If it does not go ahead, the plaintiffs can take their case directly before an investigative judge.
The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as 150,000 euros ($163,000).
“This legal action could set a precedent in the history of climate litigation as it opens the way to holding fossil fuel producers and shareholders responsible before criminal courts for the chaos caused by climate change,” the NGOs said.
The plaintiffs include “victims or survivors of climate-related disasters” in Australia, Belgium, France, Greece, Pakistan, the Philippines and Zimbabwe.
TotalEnergies did not immediately return a request for comment.
Oil and gas companies, other corporations and governments are facing a growing number of legal cases related to the climate crisis worldwide.
TotalEnergies is facing other legal cases in France related to climate change.
Outside the Paris judicial court, the NGOs held a banner reading “climate change kills” and “let’s put shareholders behind bars” — with the “share” in shareholders crossed out and replaced by the “death.”
The latest complaint aims to “recognize the deadly consequences of their decisions, their stubbornness in voting for fossil projects which threaten the stability of the climate and therefore of all living things,” Claire Nouvian, founding director of conservation group Bloom, said at a news conference.
Fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — are the biggest contributors to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the plaintiffs in the Paris case is Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts, a 17-year-old Belgian whose friend Rosa died in flash floods in Belgium at the age of 15 in 2021.
In Paris to file the complaint, he said he had come to “demand justice” against those “who choose profit over human lives and climate.”
In their statement, the plaintiffs said “TotalEnergies has known the direct link between its activities and climate change” since at least 1971.
“TotalEnergies followed a climate skeptic line in order to waste time, delay decision-making and protect its increasing investments in fossil fuels,” they added.
They said they hope to set a legal precedent “whereby opening new fossil fuel projects would be considered criminal.”
While the case was filed on Tuesday, TotalEnergies announced a deepwater project off the coast of Angola, with production set to start in 2028 to extract 70,000 barrels per day.


Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official

Updated 21 May 2024
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Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official

  • Armed men invaded Zurak community, shooting sporadically and torching houses
  • Local youth leader Shafi’i Sambo also said at least 42 people had been killed in the raid

LAGOS: Gunmen riding motorbikes killed around 40 people in a raid on a mining community in northcentral Nigeria, opening fire on residents and torching homes, the local government said on Tuesday.
The attack late on Monday on Wase district in Plateau state was the latest violence in an area which has long been a flashpoint for disputes over resources and for outbreaks of intercommunal clashes.
Armed men invaded Zurak community, shooting sporadically and torching houses, Plateau state commissioner for information Musa Ibrahim Ashoms told AFP by telephone.
“As we speak, about 40 people have been confirmed dead. Zurak is a popular mining community,” he said.
Local youth leader Shafi’i Sambo also said at least 42 people had been killed in the raid.
Wase has deposits of zinc and lead, while Plateau as a whole is known for its tin mining industry.
Sitting on the dividing line between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, Plateau often sees outbreaks of violence sparked by disputes between nomadic herders and pastoral farmers.
Climate change has also helped escalate tensions over grazing land, water access and other resources such as the state’s metal reserves.
Parts of northwest and northcentral Nigeria have also been terrorized by heavily armed criminal gangs, who raid villages to loot and carry out mass kidnappings for ransom.
In January, intercommunal clashes erupted in Plateau’s Mangu town that left churches and mosques burned, more than 50 people dead and thousands displaced.


Over 3,000 Ukrainian inmates seek to join military

Updated 21 May 2024
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Over 3,000 Ukrainian inmates seek to join military

  • Ukraine is suffering critical ammunition and manpower shortages on the battlefield
  • “We predicted this before the adoption of this law,” Deputy Minister of Justice Olena Vysotska said

KYIV: Thousands of Ukrainian inmates are seeking to join the military, Kyiv said Tuesday, following a decision by lawmakers enabling some categories of prisoners to join the armed forces.
The move echoes a policy in Russia, where tens of thousands of prisoners have been sent to Ukraine with the promise of amnesty and were killed in gruelling battles that produced few gains.
Ukraine is suffering critical ammunition and manpower shortages on the battlefield that have allowed Russian forces to advance on the eastern and northern front lines.
“This is more than 3,000 people. We predicted this before the adoption of this law,” Deputy Minister of Justice Olena Vysotska said, referring to the number of prisoners who have submitted applications to join the military.
She said authorities had identified 20,000 eligible prisoners and that of them, 4,500 had “expressed interest” in joining. She added that the figure was likely to fluctuate.
Only prisoners with fewer than three years left on their sentence can apply. Mobilized prisoners are granted parole rather than a pardon.
Among those not eligible to serve include those found guilty of sexual violence, killing two or more people, serious corruption and former high-ranking officials.
Russia has recruited prisoners to serve on the front lines since the first days of its invasion, initially offering presidential pardons for six months’ service.


EU states push for June start to Ukraine membership talks

Updated 21 May 2024
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EU states push for June start to Ukraine membership talks

  • To actually begin the negotiations the bloc’s member states still have to sign off on a formal framework for the process
  • At a meeting in Brussels, France’s EU affairs minister Jean-Noel Barrot called for “the effective opening of negotiations“

BRUSSELS: Several EU countries on Tuesday called for the bloc to start membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova in June, but Hungary threatened to throw a spanner in the works.
The 27-nation EU took the landmark step in December of agreeing to open talks on its war-torn neighbor — and fellow ex-Soviet state Moldova — joining the club.
But to actually begin the negotiations the bloc’s member states still have to sign off on a formal framework for the process, proposed in March by Brussels.
At a meeting in Brussels, France’s EU affairs minister Jean-Noel Barrot called for “the effective opening of negotiations” before Belgium’s rotating presidency concludes at the end of June.
That statement was echoed by other ministers — including from Ireland and Sweden.
The push to move Ukraine onto the next step in its quest for EU membership comes amid fears that Hungary, the friendliest country with Moscow in the bloc, could stall progress when it takes over the presidency after Belgium.
Budapest has been hostile to Kyiv’s bid to join, arguing that Ukraine is getting pushed ahead in the queue without meeting the required criteria.
“There can be no exception on the basis of political or ideological considerations,” Hungarian minister Zoltan Kovacs said.
“There is very little, if any, progress. Again, I can repeat to you that membership, approval should be a merit based process. No exceptions.”
Another possible hurdle could come from a new right-wing government being formed in The Netherlands opposed to any new enlargement of the bloc.
Ukraine applied to join the EU shortly after Russia launched all-out invasion in February 2022.
Starting the negotiations would put Ukraine still only at the start of what is likely to be a years-long process of reforms before it can finally become a member.