Philippines Catholics brave COVID-19 threat to celebrate Palm Sunday

The Philippines is banning religious gatherings from Monday until Easter to comply with stricter quarantine restrictions. (AP)
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Updated 28 March 2021

Philippines Catholics brave COVID-19 threat to celebrate Palm Sunday

  • Faithful wear face masks and observe physical distancing to protect themselves from COVID-19
  • The Philippines is battling a renewed surge in coronavirus infections

MANILA: Dozens of Catholics in the Philippines braved the threat of coronavirus on Sunday to attend a mass outside the Baclaran Church in Manila to celebrate Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of the Holy Week.
Wearing face masks and observing physical distancing to protect themselves from COVID-19, they waved their palm fronds as the priest sprinkled holy water on them.
“I hope and pray this pandemic will end. I hope our (living) conditions will get better, especially since there are a growing number of people going hungry,” Stephane Silva said after attending mass.
Religious gatherings will be banned from Monday until Easter to comply with stricter quarantine restrictions the Philippine government reimposed in the capital and nearby provinces to slow the sharp rise in COVID-19 infections.
About 80 percent of people in the Philippines are Catholic.
At the St. Peter Parish in Quezon City, candles were attached to empty pews to represent parishioners taking part in Palm Sunday celebrations outside the church or online.
The Philippines is battling a renewed surge in infections, including those of the new and more transmissible variants, prompting the government to tighten existing curbs in the capital and nearby provinces.
Coronavirus cases and deaths in the Philippines totaled 721,892 and 13,170, the second highest in Southeast Asia, with infections reported in the past nine days accounting for a tenth of the total.


Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 48 min 41 sec ago

Africa CDC says continent not winning against ‘brutal’ COVID-19 pandemic

  • About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Africa is not winning its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as a third virus wave sweeps the continent and countries struggle to access enough vaccines for their populations, Africa CDC director John Nkenkasong said on Thursday.
The COVAX program co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) for fair distribution of vaccines is now planning a shake-up as it has been shunned by rich countries and failing to meet the needs of the poorest, internal documents seen by Reuters show.
Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director Nkenkasong said he was more worried about getting vaccines in time regardless of where the doses came from.
“The third wave has come with severity that most countries were not prepared for. So the third wave is extremely brutal,” Nenkasong said during a weekly online briefing.
“Let me put it bluntly, we are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus so it does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from COVAX or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines.”
Nkenkasong said at least 20 countries were in the middle of the third wave, with Zambia, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo among those whose health facilities were being overwhelmed.
The COVAX program’s initial lofty ambitions to act as a clearing house for the world’s vaccines, collecting from the manufacturers in the most developed countries and quickly distributing to those in the most urgent need, have fallen flat.
About 1.12 percent people have been fully vaccinated on a continent that has recorded 5.2 million infections, Nkenkasong said.
More than half of poorer countries receiving doses via COVAX do not have enough supplies to continue, an official from the WHO said on Monday.


Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

Updated 24 June 2021

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

  • The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating
  • Several hundred marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Thailand’s capital on Thursday, marking the anniversary of the overthrow of the country’s absolute monarchy by renewing their demands that the government step down, the constitution be amended and the monarchy become more accountable.
The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating. It was their first large protest after a hiatus of about three months caused by the pandemic and the jailing of protest leaders, who have since been released on bail.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing widespread criticism that it botched pandemic recovery plans by failing to secure adequate vaccine supplies.
On June 24, 1932, a group of progressive army officers and civil servants proclaimed constitutional rule and the transition to parliamentary democracy, ending Thailand’s absolute monarchy. The anniversary in recent years has become an occasion for pro-democracy rallies.
Protesters gathered early Thursday by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional demonstration venue, to light candles and read out the 1932 proclamation of the end of the absolute monarchy.
Several hundred then marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution. The proposed changes, however, fall far short of those sought by the protesters, which include restoring more power to political parties and elected office holders.
“We come out today to insist on the principle that the constitution must come from the people,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a protest leader also known as Pai Dao Din.
The student-led pro-democracy movement sprung up last year, largely in reaction to the continuing influence of the military in government and hyper-royalist sentiment. The army in 2014 overthrew an elected government, and Prayuth, the coup leader, was named prime minister after a 2019 general election put in power a military-backed political party. Critics say the constitution enacted during military rule skewed election rules to favor the army’s proxy party.
The movement was able to attract crowds of as many as 20,000-30,000 people in Bangkok in 2020 and had followings in major cities and universities. However, a coronavirus surge late last year caused it to temporarily suspend activities and lose momentum.
The movement became controversial as its leaders focused on the monarchy in their speeches and activities. They charged that the king holds power and influence beyond that allowed under the constitution.
Since becoming king in 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn has gained more direct control over the vast fortune of the royal palace — estimated to exceed $30 billion — as well as command of some key military units in the capital.
During the same time, memorials, statues and other symbols associated with the 1932 revolution have been removed.
The monarchy is widely considered to be an untouchable bedrock element of Thai nationalism. Defaming key royals is punishable under a lese majeste law by up to 15 years in prison per count. Many people still revere the monarchy, and the military, a major power in Thai society, considers its defense a key priority.
The government responded to the protesters’ criticism of the monarchy by charging leaders under the lese majeste law.
Parit Chiwarak, among those jailed, said Thursday the protesters are standing by their original demands but perhaps shifting their focus.
“We still demand the monarchy’s reform. But this year Prayuth must be ousted,” said Parit, who is better known by the nickname Penguin.


Ethiopian military says only combatants hit in Tigray air strike

Updated 24 June 2021

Ethiopian military says only combatants hit in Tigray air strike

  • An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters

ADDIS ABABA: Only combatants, not civilians, were struck in an air strike this week in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the country’s military spokesman said on Thursday.
Col. Getnet Adane told Reuters in an interview in Addis Ababa that the combatants in the town of Togoga were dressed in civilian clothes.
An air strike killed at least 43 people in the town on Tuesday, a medical official told Reuters. The strike took place after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of the regional capital Mekelle.
A resident of the town told Reuters on Wednesday that the air strike a day earlier had hit a market in the town west of Mekelle at around 1 p.m. That resident also said that her 2-year-old daughter had been injured in the attack.
The military spokesman said the combatants were not inside the market, but had gathered in the town to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing of another town in Tigray, Hawzen, in 1988. That attack, by Ethiopia’s then-ruling Communist leaders, killed hundreds of people and is widely commemorated in Tigray.
The spokesman said he did not have the death toll from the strike but that it would come soon.
The military has been battling forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, since November. Fighting has displaced 2 million people, and the United Nations has warned of a possible famine.
Asked about children injured in Tuesday’s attack, the spokesman said the TPLF uses propaganda and is known for faking injuries. He also said that doctors quoted by the media are not “real doctors.”
The remarks were the first acknowledgement by the military of the air strike, which came after residents said new fighting had flared in recent days north of Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle.
Previously, Getnet, the military spokesman, had declined to confirm or deny the incident, saying air strikes were a common military tactic and that government forces do not target civilians.
The air strike took place as Ethiopian officials counted ballots from national and regional parliamentary elections held this week in seven of the nation’s 10 regions.
No voting was held in Tigray, and security concerns and problems with ballot papers also delayed voting in two other regions.

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EU must seek ‘direct contact’ with Putin: Merkel

Updated 24 June 2021

EU must seek ‘direct contact’ with Putin: Merkel

  • A series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions have led to tensions

BERLIN: The European Union should seek direct talks with President Vladimir Putin even as it stands together against “provocations” from Russia, said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday.
“In my opinion, we as the European Union must also seek direct contact with Russia and the Russian president,” she told parliament.
“It is not enough for the American president to talk to the Russian president,” she said, stressing that the European Union too “must also create different formats for talks.”
Putin and US President Joe Biden held face-to-face talks last week, in a meeting that both said could lead to a more predictable, albeit still tense, relationship.
Merkel said recent events had shown that it was not enough “if we react to the multitude of Russian provocations in an uncoordinated manner.”
Rather, the 27-member bloc should put up “a united front against the provocations.”
Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.
In a latest case adding to tensions, Germany arrested a Russian scientist working at a German university, accusing him of spying for Moscow.
The ongoing detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who received treatment in Berlin after a near-fatal poisoning, has also sparked outrage in the EU.


Where things stand for Afghanistan as Ghani visits Washington

Updated 24 June 2021

Where things stand for Afghanistan as Ghani visits Washington

  • The Taliban now claim control of over 80 of the country’s 421 districts

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani begins a visit to Washington Thursday at a time the Taliban are making huge advances across the country.
There are fears that already-demoralized Afghan security forces will be swiftly overrun when the remaining American troops withdraw. And peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain stalled.
Here are some questions and answers about the situation on the ground, and the implications for Afghanistan:
The Taliban have capitalized on the final stages of the US troop withdrawal and have made huge advances across the country, claiming control of over 80 of the country’s 421 districts.
Just this week, the insurgents seized Shir Khan Bandar, the main northern border gateway to Tajikistan.
The Taliban say Afghan forces regularly lay down their arms or abandon posts without a fight, although an admitted government tactic is to relinquish isolated positions at night to better defend more strategic, centralized locations.
In turn, the Taliban forces melt away during daylight.
But when the two sides have fought, Afghan forces have suffered horrific losses.
Ghani has rung the changes — appointing a new armed forces chief and defense minister in recent days — but analysts suggest he is running out of cards to play.
Still, the end game is not certain.
“The Taliban are strengthening their chokeholds around major cities. They’re not necessarily in the near-term future going to try and take those cities,” said Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group.
“The fall of Kabul is not imminent. The Taliban is not an unstoppable military juggernaut.”
Insiders and officials paint a portrait of Ghani as increasingly friendless, out of touch, and isolated in the presidential palace in the heart of the heavily bunkered green zone.
“He only listens to three or four people, including his chief of staff and his national security adviser — and of course his wife,” said one Western diplomat.
“There is the traditional court phenomenon, but there is also the personal factor about Ghani, who is suspicious of everyone.”
Ghani is pressing the Taliban to accept a role in some sort of interim unity government until elections can be held.
But the insurgents, emboldened by their battlefield gains, appear to have little interest in further negotiation and are intent on taking full control and restoring Afghanistan to an emirate ruled by religious elders on Islamic principles.
They have recently issued several statements about how they would govern — broadly outlined, but light on detail.
Rights for women and girls would be in accordance with Qur'anic teachings, they say, but their interpretation of Islam is much more conservative than elsewhere.
“There are reasonable accounts to believe they may have even grown more radicalized over the years, fighting non-Muslim foreign forces,” said Kabul-based political analyst Sayed Naser Mosawi.
“The Taliban’s efforts to portray themselves as (an) effective force capable of governing Afghanistan and giving women and minorities their rights is mere deception.”
Anyone with means is formulating an escape plan and many officials have already moved their families out of the country — with Turkey being the most favored immediate destination.
The United States and other NATO nations are scrambling to provide visas for Afghans who have worked for foreign forces over the past two decades as fears mount that the Taliban will punish them as traitors.
The Taliban insists there will be no retribution if they “show remorse,” and say they will guarantee the safety of diplomats and aid workers.
They are widely mistrusted, however. Few have forgotten how they killed 11 people — mostly diplomats — after storming an Iranian consulate in 1998, and also murdered former president Mohamad Najibullah after snatching him from United Nations custody two years earlier.
Many Afghans just want an end to fighting after decades of war. The last sustained period of peace was in the 1960s, a time many call the “the golden age.”
“Everyone wants peace,” said Mary Akrami, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network.
“Most of the Afghan people never had a chance to live at peace.”