Turkey’s reopening relieves restaurants but worries doctors

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A banner to protest against the government-ordered closure of cafes, bars and restaurants reading "We can't make ends meet" hangs over a street where restaurants and bars are closed in Istanbul, Turkey March 1, 2021. (Reuters)
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A demonstrator holds a placard reading "Hunger or coronavirus? Which one is worse?" as she attends a protest against the government-ordered closure of cafes, bars and restaurants in Istanbul, Turkey March 1, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 02 March 2021

Turkey’s reopening relieves restaurants but worries doctors

  • Cafe and restaurant owners have long urged a reopening of in-house dining after sector revenues dropped 65%

ISTANBUL: Turkish restaurants reopened and many children returned to school on Tuesday after the government announced steps to ease COVID-19 curbs even as cases edged higher, raising concerns in the top medical association.
On Monday evening, President Tayyip Erdogan lifted weekend lockdowns in low- and medium-risk cities and limited lockdowns to Sundays in those deemed higher risk under what he called a “controlled normalization.”
Cafe and restaurant owners, limited to takeaway service for much of last year, have long urged a reopening of in-house dining after sector revenues dropped 65%. They also want relief from growing debt, and from social security and tax payments.
“We were serving 4,000-5,000 people a week. Now with takeaway services we are serving only 500 people,” Istanbul-based Pideban restaurant owner Yusuf Kaptanoglu said before the easing measures were announced.
“I did not benefit from any support including loan support,” he said.
Across Turkey, pre- and primary schools as well as grades 8-12 resumed partial in-person education.
Yet the moves come as new daily coronavirus cases rose to 9,891 on Monday, the highest since Jan. 11 and up from 8,424 a day earlier, according to official data. Cases were around 6,000 in late January.
“The number of mutant virus cases is increasingly rising. We do not see conditions to return to an old ‘normal’,” the Turkish Medics’ Association said on Twitter, calling for higher rates of testing and inoculation.
“Political and economic interests must not take precedence over human life and science,” it added.
Turkey, with a population of 83 million, has administered 8.96 million vaccines in a campaign that began in mid-January. More than 7 million people have received a first shot and 1.89 million have received a second.


Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Updated 18 April 2021

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

  • 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners, are covered by the pardon
  • Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.


US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

Updated 18 April 2021

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

  • The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy, are the top carbon polluters
  • They pump out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere

SEOUL, South Korea: The United States and China, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, have agreed to cooperate with other countries to curb climate change, just days before President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit of world leaders to discuss the issue.
The agreement was reached by US special envoy for climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhu during two days of talks in Shanghai last week, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the joint statement said.
The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy are thetop carbon polluters. Their cooperation is key to a success of global efforts to curb climate change, but frayed ties over human rights, trade and China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea have been threatening to undermine such efforts.
Kerry’s Shanghai trip marked the highest-level travel to China by a US official since Biden took office in January. From Shaghai, the former secretary of state flew to South Korea for talks.
Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the April 22-23 summit. The US and other countries are expected to announce more ambitious national targets for cutting carbon emissions ahead of or at the meeting, along with pledging financial help for climate efforts by less wealthy nations.
It’s unclear how much Kerry’s China visit would promote US-China cooperation on climate issues.
When Kerry was still in Shanghai, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng signaled Friday that China is unlikely to make any new pledges at next week’s summit.
“For a big country with 1.4 billion people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Le said during an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”
On whether Xi would join the summit, Le said “the Chinese side is actively studying the matter.”
During a video meeting with German and French leaders Friday, Xi also said that climate change “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” though he called for closer cooperation on the issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Biden, who has said that fighting global warming is among his highest priorities, had the United States rejoin the Paris climate accord in the first hours of his presidency, undoing the US withdrawal ordered by predecessor Donald Trump.
Major emitters of greenhouse gases are preparing for the next UN climate summit taking place in Glasgow, UK, in November. The summit aims to relaunch global efforts to keep rising global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the Paris accord.
According to the US-China statement, the two countries would enhance “their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.”
It said both countries “are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.”


Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Updated 18 April 2021

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

  • Witness testimonies confirm that racism underlies Houthis’ abuse of Africans trapped in Yemen
  • Lawyer says 10 women taken to hospital after the March 7 fire are now nowhere to be found

NEW YORK CITY: When Abdel Karim Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, fled the recent violence consuming Ethiopia’s Oromia region, he never imagined he would fall into the hands of Yemen’s Houthis.

In fact, like many of his compatriots desperate to escape conflict-ridden Ethiopia, he had not even heard of the Iran-backed militia, which seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2015.

When he first set out on his dangerous voyage across the Red Sea, Abdel Karim had envisioned an arduous overland crossing to one of the Arab Gulf states where opportunity and prosperity awaited him.

Events had taken a frightening turn in his native Ethiopia, where the security situation has continued to deteriorate amid growing unrest and political tensions. Human rights abuses, attacks by armed groups and communal and ethnic violence have forced thousands to seek refuge abroad.

Abdel Karim’s first encounter with the Houthis came just two days after his arrival in Sanaa, when two militiamen approached him in a marketplace. They singled him out in the crowd and demanded to see his ID.

Without so much as glancing at his papers, he was placed under arrest and taken to the city’s Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Holding Facility, where he found hundreds of African migrants languishing.

Among them was Issa Abdul Rahman Hassan, 20, who had been working a shift at a Sanaa restaurant to save for his journey when Houthi militiamen stormed in and carried him off to the detention center.

 

There he was placed inside a hangar with dozens of others. In a video recorded three months after his arrival, Issa gestures around him. “Look, we are living on top of each other. We have no food. No water. Some people are exhausted, as you can see. They just sleep night and day.

“We don’t even have medicine here. And organizations like UNHCR do not care about us. All of us here are Oromo,” he said, referring to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Human Rights Watch has corroborated several accounts like Issa’s, describing conditions in the detention center as “cramped and unsanitary, with up to 550 migrants in a hangar in the facility compound.”

On March 7, unable to tolerate these conditions any longer, the migrants went on hunger strike.

Conditions in the hangar before the fire were bad enough. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

According to witness testimonies, the camp’s Houthi guards told the migrants to say their “final prayers” before firing tear gas and what may have been a flash grenade into the hangar. A fire quickly broke out.

Amid the smoke and chaos, migrants trampled one another in their desperation to escape. According to Houthi accounts, 40 migrants succumbed to the smoke and flames. Human rights groups put the figure closer to 450 — not to mention the scores of burn victims and amputees.

Abdel Karim was in the bathroom when the fire broke out. He survived, but suffered severe burns to his arms. He was taken to a government hospital, where he could see from the window a heavy security presence deployed around the medical facility, blocking relatives and aid agencies from reaching the injured.

Afraid he would be rearrested, Abdel Karim discharged himself and escaped.

A fire victim is treated at a hospital in Aden. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

Despite his injuries, he joined survivors and relatives of the dead outside the UNHCR building in Sanaa to demand international action to hold the perpetrators to account.

They also demanded the names of all those killed, dignified funerals and closure for the families of those still missing.

“UNHCR did not respond to us,” Abdel Karim said in a video, shared with Arab News by the Oromia Human Rights Organization (OHRO).

“Only two days after the protests began, a UNHCR guy came out and told us that they (the agency’s staff) are also refugees like us here, guests who are incapable of doing anything. He told us that since 2016, the refugee file has been in the hands of the Houthis.”

INNUMBERS

550 Migrants in the IPNA hangar before March 7 fire.

6,000 Migrants in detention in mainly Houthi-controlled Yemen.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Undeterred, the crowd refused to leave, camping outside the UNHCR building for several weeks. Then, in the early hours of April 2, Houthi militiamen cordoned off the area, and dispersed the protesters with tear gas and live rounds.

“They hit us, dragged us by force, took our fingerprints and photographed us, before loading some of us into cars and shuttling us to the city of Dhamar, where they abandoned us in the rugged mountainous areas,” said Abdel Karim.

“We knew nothing and no one there. We just kept walking. We had no food, no water and hardly any money. When we stopped at one of the small villages, one of us got a bottle of water, and we passed it on to one another. There was only enough water to wet the tips of our tongues.”

The group eventually made it to Aden two days later. From the UNHCR’s headquarters in the port city, Abdel Karim asked to be taken to hospital to have his burns treated.

According to Arafat Jibril, head of OHRO, only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown.

Arafat Jibril, head of Oromia Human Rights Organization. (Supplied photo)

“African migrants just keep disappearing,” Jibril told Arab News. “The numbers of the forcibly disappeared are on the rise. But we have no means of knowing the exact numbers. This would be the job of international organizations, provided they are given access to secret detention centers, many of which are in Sanaa.”

As a lawyer and activist, Jibril collects eyewitness testimonies from inside Houthi-occupied territories in the form of secret WhatsApp recordings made by determined volunteers compelled to expose the horrors they see committed against African migrants.

Piecing together what happened to the disappeared is proving a challenge. “We know, for example, that 10 women who were taken to hospital are now nowhere to be found,” she said.

Only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

“We know that detentions of African migrants are continuing on a large scale, and that there is a long ‘wanted’ list, including the names of protest ringleaders and those migrants who talked to the press.

“And we know that the Houthis sort the migrants out. They send the young and healthy to war, and position them at the forefront of the trenches so ‘the blacks’ — as the Houthis call the African migrants — would die first. We have heard many accounts like that from those who survived the battles and returned to their families.

“They send African women to the battlefield, too, referring to them as Zaynabiyat (the Houthis’ all-female militia), to do the cooking and other services. At least 180 women and 30 children who had been detained were kidnapped two days before the fire. We also know nothing about them.”

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen on April 23, 2019. (AFP)

Few doubt that racism lies at the core of this maltreatment.

“Shortly after the tragic fire, Houthis were bullying the African migrants, hurling racial slurs at them, calling them ‘the grandchildren of Bilal’ — the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam — and threatening ‘to burn you one by one like we burned your friends’,” Jibril said.

She fears these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in a largely overlooked tragedy that, despite its increasing severity, has failed to capture the interest of the international community.

The Houthis are well aware that African migrants have no one looking out for their interests.

“No organization to protect them,” said Jibril. “No one. So, the Houthis say, ‘let’s use them’. The only ‘sin’ these migrants committed was that they were born black.”

_____________________

Twitter: @EphremKossaify


COVID-19 death toll passes 3 million as India cases surge

Updated 17 April 2021

COVID-19 death toll passes 3 million as India cases surge

  • India’s capital New Delhi went into a weekend lockdown Saturday as the world’s second-most populous nation recorded 234,000 new cases and 1,341 deaths

PARIS: The global COVID-19 death toll passed 3 million on Saturday as the pandemic continues to speed up despite vaccination campaigns, leading countries like India to impose new lockdowns to fight spiraling infection numbers.

It is the latest grim milestone after the novel coronavirus surfaced in central China in December 2019 and went on to infect more than 139 million people, leaving billions more under crippling lockdowns and ravaging the global economy.

An average of more than 12,000 deaths were recorded globally every day in the past week, shooting the overall toll past 3 million at around 0830 GMT on Saturday, according to an AFP tally.

For comparison, 3 million people is more than the population of Jamaica or Armenia, and three times the death toll of the Iran-Iraq war which raged from 1980-1988.

And the pandemic is showing no sign of slowing down: The 829,596 new infections reported worldwide on Friday is the highest number yet, according to AFP’s tally.

The daily average of 731,000 cases registered over the last week is also close to being a record.

India’s capital New Delhi went into a weekend lockdown Saturday as the world’s second-most populous nation recorded 234,000 new cases and 1,341 deaths.

India now has three times the daily cases of the US, the world’s worst-hit nation, and families are clamoring for drugs and hospital beds.

Hopes that South Asian countries might have seen the worst of the pandemic have been dashed, with India recording over 2 million new cases this month alone and Bangladesh and Pakistan imposing new shutdowns.

Udaya Regmi of the international Red Cross said the “truly frightening” South Asian surge was a “wake-up call to the world.”

“Vaccines must be available to everyone, everywhere, rich and poor to overcome this terrible pandemic,” Regmi added.

Richer countries that have waged mass inoculation efforts have seen their virus numbers plummet. Britain, which has given 60 percent of the population at least one vaccination dose, now records around 30 deaths a day — down from 1,200 in late January.

The virus continues to impact events elsewhere in the world.

In Brazil, the country with the third-highest death toll in the world, night shifts have been added to several cemeteries as diggers work around the clock to bury the dead.

One of these is Vila Formosa, the largest cemetery in Latin America and a showcase for the lethal cost of the pandemic in Brazil, where more than 365,000 people have died from COVID-19.

“We try not to get upset in our work, but it is sad, it is a lot of people,” one of the gravediggers there said after a long shift.

Despite the high infection rate, the government of Brazil’s most populous state Sao Paulo announced it will allow businesses and places of worship to reopen from Sunday.

But there was better news in Europe, where some countries are easing their lockdowns in response to not only fatigue, but falling infection numbers and progress with vaccinations.

Italy announced Friday it will ease coronavirus restrictions for schools and restaurants from April 26.

Expressing “cautious optimism,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi said his government was taking a “calculated risk.”

Italy will also allow up to a thousand spectators at outdoor events from May 1, when it eases its stadium fan ban in regions less affected by the coronavirus.

In more good news for Britons after the partial reopening of society this week, Germany on Friday removed the UK from the list of risk zones for coronavirus infections, meaning that travelers will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival.

Spain meanwhile extended the mandatory quarantine of passengers arriving from 12 countries in South America and Africa, including Brazil and South Africa, over concerns about more transmissible variants.


Egyptian among militants killed in Philippines firefight

Updated 17 April 2021

Egyptian among militants killed in Philippines firefight

  • “One less suicide bomber,” says Philippines army chief after troops kill 3 fighters
  • The bodies of the dead militants, along with their assault rifles, a grenade launcher and bandoliers of ammunition, were recovered

MANILA: An Egyptian national was among three militants killed in a clash with government forces late on Friday in the southern Philippines province of Sulu, officials said.
Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, Jr. said the firefight took place around 10:45 p.m. in the Igasan village of Patikul town.
Troops carrying out operations in the area clashed with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) — a terror unit led by Mudzrimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan and with links to Daesh — in an exchange that lasted about 10 minutes.
The bodies of the dead militants, along with their assault rifles, a grenade launcher and bandoliers of ammunition, were recovered.
Officials told Arab News that information provided by villagers helped troops trace the militants.
Wesmincom spokesperson Lt. Col. Alaric Delos Santos said the Egyptian, identified as Yusof, was the son of two foreign militants who died in separate suicide attacks in Basilan and Sulu provinces in 2018 and 2019.
Yusof was one of the five remaining foreign terrorists being monitored in the southern Philippines.
His father, a Moroccan identified as Abu Khatir Al-Maghribi, staged the first reported suicide bombing in the Philippines, which took place at a military roadblock in Lamitan, Basilan, in July, 2018.
Eleven people were killed in the incident, including Al-Maghribi, who drove the bomb-laden van used in the attack.
Yusof’s mother, Reda Mohammed Mahmud, was identified as the Egyptian national involved in a foiled suicide bombing at an army base in Indanan town in Sulu province in September, 2019.
Mahmud, who died when she detonated the bomb, was the lone fatality.
According to Delos Santos, Yusof’s family arrived in Mindanao in 2018 and subsequently joined the late Hatib Hadjan Sawadjaan, the ASG leader designated as Daesh emir in the Philippines.
“He was still young when his parents brought him to Sulu about four years ago,” Delos Santos told Arab News.
The family also had been seen in videos of encounters between the ASG and government forces obtained by the military.
Following her husband’s death, Yusof’s mother married another Egyptian suicide bomber identified only as Abduramil, who was killed in a clash at an army checkpoint in November, 2019.
The military said then that the killing of Abduramil and his two companions helped thwart an “imminent suicide attack.”
Lt. Jerrica Manongdo, a spokesperson for the Joint Task Force Sulu, told Arab News that Yusof had been “tagging along” with Mundi Sawadjaan, a notorious ASG leader and bomb-maker, and was reportedly “volunteering to be a suicide bomber.”
Sawadjaan helped plan the bloody 2019 Sulu Cathedral attack, which left dozens dead, and other suicide bombings in the island province.
“This is one less suicide bomber,” Joint Task Force Sulu and 11th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. William Gonzales said of Yusof’s death.
“I commend our ground forces for this monumental accomplishment. These neutralized terrorists are the cohorts of Mundi in executing atrocities. Without them, the possibility of another attack is slimmer,” he said in a statement.
“Moreover, financial support sent to ASG in Sulu from their foreign terrorist affiliates are cut off. We are optimistic that Mundi will soon meet his end.”
Gonzales said that air, naval and ground forces are being used in all-out offensive against the remaining foreign terrorists and ASG members in the province.
“We are coordinating with local leaders to ensure the safety of the people,” he added.
Besides Yusof, Abu Khattab Jundullah, known as “Saddam,” a trained bomb-maker, and another ASG member yet to be identified were also killed in Friday’s military operation.
Since January, the Joint Task Force Sulu has accounted for 70 ASG members, seven of whom were captured, while 60 surrendered and three were killed.
Delos Santos said that “the remaining number of ASG militants is between 50 to 70.”
But he voiced optimism that the military “can soon bring an end to this small but violent militant group.”