Turkey reimposes restrictions after sharp rise in infections

People wearing masks in Ankara on Monday as Turkey reinstates weekend lockdowns in most provinces and impose restrictions during Ramadan after sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.(AP)
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Updated 30 March 2021

Turkey reimposes restrictions after sharp rise in infections

  • Health Ministry confirmed a record 37,303 new cases within 24 hours and reported 155 deaths on Tuesday
  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 58 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara, are “red” or “very high-risk” areas and would be subjected to lockdowns on weekends

ANKARA — Turkey is re-introducing weekend lockdowns in most provinces and will impose restrictions over the Muslim holy month of Ramadan following a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.
Infections in Turkey have soared less than a month after authorities divided the 81 provinces into four color-coded categories and relaxed restrictions in some provinces under a “controlled normalization” effort.
The number of infections hit a record on Tuesday, with the Health Ministry confirming 37,303 new cases in the past 24 hours. The country of nearly 84 million also reported 155 deaths on Tuesday, up from around 65 at the start of the month.
In a televised address following a Cabinet meeting late Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 58 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara, were now designated as “red” or “very high-risk” areas and would be subjected to lockdowns on both Saturdays and Sundays.
Nighttime curfews that are in place across the country would continue, he said.
Only 17 provinces were in the “red” category on March 2, when schools partially resumed face-to-face education, cafes and restaurants were allowed to operate at half-capacity and weekend curfews were eased in several cities.
“The increase in the number of cases and patients as well as the increase in the number of deaths, is forcing us to review the existing measures,” Erdogan said in an address to the nation. “The number of our provinces which are in the red category, which constitutes the very high-risk category, has reached 58 — representing 80% of the population.”
“We will have to make some sacrifices during the month of Ramadan,” he said, adding that restaurants and cafes would be allowed to serve takeout food only during the holy month, which starts on April 13 in Turkey.
Mass gatherings for Ramadan meals held before sunrise and after sunset would be barred, he also announced.
The Turkish Medical Association meanwhile, blamed the increase in infections on inadequate contact-tracing, the government’s reluctance to impose measures in a timely manner out of economic concerns as well as the premature relaxing of the restrictions.
“We, as health care professionals and society, are paying for these wrong policies,” the group said on Twitter.
Erdogan has come under intense criticism for holding his ruling party’s congresses inside packed sport complexes across the country, despite a new surge of COVID-19 cases. He has been accused of double standards for disregarding the government’s own social distancing rules. In one such event, Erdogan boasted about the size of the crowds.
Critics say the political rallies have likely contributed to the surge. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told reporters Tuesday that he saw no benefit in “keeping the issue on the agenda.”
Variants of the initial coronavirus now account for around 75% of the cases in Turkey, he said.
The minister also said Turkey has received 2.8 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and is set to receive 1.7 million more within the next 10 days.
Turkey rolled out its inoculation program in January with the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac company. More than 15 million shots have been administered so far. Around 6.7 million people have received two doses.
The total number of infections in the country since the start of the outbreak last year stands at more than 3.2 million. The COVID-19 death toll has reached more than 31,000.


Iran says it produced 6.5 kg of uranium enriched to 60%

Updated 1 min 6 sec ago

Iran says it produced 6.5 kg of uranium enriched to 60%

  • Government spokesman was quoted by media as saying the country had also produced 108 kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity
  • Tuesday's disclosure came as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna over the nuclear deal

DUBAI: Iran has made 6.5 kg (14 lb) of uranium enriched to up to 60%, the government said on Tuesday, detailing a move that rattled the country's nuclear talks with world powers by taking the fissile material a step towards nuclear weapons-grade of 90%.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei was quoted by state media as saying the country had also produced 108 kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity, indicating quicker output than the rate required by the Iranian law that created the process.
Iran said in April it would begin enriching uranium to 60% purity, a move that would take the uranium much closer to the 90% suitable for a nuclear bomb, after Tehran accused arch-foe Israel of sabotaging a key nuclear site.
Tuesday's disclosure came as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna aimed at finding ways to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Iran’s hardline parliament passed a law last year to oblige the government to harden its nuclear stance, partly in reaction to former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Trump’s withdrawal prompted Iran to steadily overstep the accord’s limits on its nuclear programme designed to make it harder to develop an atomic bomb - an ambition Tehran denies.
"Under parliament's law..., the Atomic Energy Organization was supposed to produce 120 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in a year. According to the latest report, we now have produced 108 kg of 20% uranium in the past five months," Rabiei was quoted as saying.
"In the area of 60% uranium production, in the short time that has elapsed..., about 6.5 kg has been produced," Rabiei added.
A quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities by the U.N. nuclear watchdog in May said that, as of May 22, Tehran had produced 62.8 kg of uranium enriched up to 20%, and 2.4 kg of uranium enriched up to 60%, with the next level down being enriched to between 2% and 5%.


Rights groups urge UN probe mission for Beirut port blast

Updated 15 June 2021

Rights groups urge UN probe mission for Beirut port blast

  • Human Rights Watch said the call was made in a joint letter by over a hundred Lebanese, regional, and international groups, individuals and survivors and families of the victims

BEIRUT: A group of international and regional rights groups on Tuesday urged member states of the UN Human Rights Council to establish an investigative mission into last year’s massive deadly blast at Beirut’s port.
Human Rights Watch said the call was made in a joint letter by 53 Lebanese, regional, and international groups and individuals, as well as 62 survivors and families of the victims.
HRW said it documented many flaws in the domestic investigation of the explosion — including flagrant political interference, lack of respect for fair trial standards and violations of due process.
Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate — a highly explosive material used in fertilizers — had been improperly stored in the port for years. The chemicals ignited in the catastrophic Aug. 4 blast that killed 211 people, injured more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods.
It still remains unknown what triggered an initial fire at the warehouse that then caused the explosion and who was responsible for storing the rotting fertilizer there since 2014.
“Lebanese authorities have had over 10 months to demonstrate that they are willing and capable of conducting a credible investigation,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But they have failed on all accounts,”
Six days after the blast, the Lebanese government referred the Beirut explosion to the country’s Judicial Council, a special court with no appeals process. No indictments have been issued so far.
In December, the prosecutor probing the blast filed charges against the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, and three former ministers, accusing them of negligence that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
Two months later, the judge in the probe was replaced following legal challenges by two former Cabinet ministers he had accused of negligence.


New Israel government faces early test with far-right march

Updated 15 June 2021

New Israel government faces early test with far-right march

  • Jewish ultranationalists prepared to march into annexed east Jerusalem
  • Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned it as a provocation

JERUSALEM: Israel’s fledgling new government faced an early test Tuesday as Jewish ultranationalists prepared to march into annexed east Jerusalem, stoking tensions the UN has warned threaten a fragile Gaza cease-fire.
Rallies by far-right Jewish groups in Arab neighborhoods have raised tensions in recent months, prompting a police intervention in the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound that triggered the deadliest flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence since 2014.
The so-called March of the Flags, which celebrates the anniversary of Israel’s 1967 occupation of the city’s eastern sector, was originally scheduled for last Thursday but was delayed due to Israeli police opposition to the route and warnings from Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
The former government of veteran premier Benjamin Netanyahu put off the march until Tuesday, a decision confirmed late Monday by the incoming government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“The right to demonstrate is a right in all democracies,” said Internal Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev.
“The police is ready and we will do everything in our power to preserve the delicate thread of coexistence.”
Organizers consulted police on the best route for the march that begins at 1430 GMT to avoid friction with Arab residents, the government said.
But Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned it as a provocation.
“We warn of the dangerous repercussions that may result from the occupying power’s intention to allow extremist Israeli settlers to carry out the Flag March in occupied Jerusalem tomorrow,” Shtayyeh tweeted in English.
He said it was “a provocation and aggression against our people, Jerusalem and its sanctities that must end.”
The new Israeli premier is himself a Jewish nationalist but the coalition he leads also includes centrist and left-wing parties and, for the first time in the country’s history, an Arab party.
The support of the four lawmakers of the Islamic conservative Raam party was vital to the wafer-thin majority that the government won in a historic confidence vote that unseated Netanyahu on Sunday.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland urged all sides to behave responsibly to avoid damage to a hard-won May 21 cease-fire that ended 11 days of heavy fighting in and around Gaza.
“Tensions are rising again in Jerusalem at a very fragile & sensitive security & political time, when UN & Egypt are actively engaged in solidifying the cease-fire,” Wennesland said.
“Urge all relevant parties to act responsibly & avoid any provocations that could lead to another round of confrontation.”
The US embassy called on its staff to avoid entering the walled Old City in the heart of east Jerusalem because of the march and “possible counter-demonstrations.”
Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem since the Six-Day War of 1967 is not recognized by most of the international community which says the city’s final status should be a matter of negotiation between the two sides.
The Palestinians claim the city’s eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
The iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the heart of the Old City is Islam’s third holiest site and a national symbol for all Palestinians regardless of religion.
It is also considered by Jews to be Judaism’s holiest site but by longstanding convention Jews are not allowed to pray inside the compound and visits by Israeli Jewish politicians often trigger disturbances.
When the march was originally announced for last week, senior Hamas official Khalil Hayya warned it could spark a return to violence like that of May 10-21.
“We warn the occupation (Israel) against letting the march approach east Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound,” Hayya said.
“We hope the message is clear so that Thursday doesn’t become (a new) May 10.”
Last month’s conflict started after Hamas issued a deadline for Israel to remove its security forces from flashpoint areas of east Jerusalem, and then fired a salvo of rockets at Israel when the ultimatum went unheeded.
Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip between May 10 to 21 killed 260 Palestinians including some fighters, the Gaza authorities said.
In Israel, 13 people were killed, including a soldier, by rockets fired from Gaza, the Israeli police and army said.


Palestinians warn new Israel government ‘will not differ from predecessors’

Updated 15 June 2021

Palestinians warn new Israel government ‘will not differ from predecessors’

  • The occupation is governed by a security and military system that does not stop practicing terrorism and aggression

GAZA CITY: Palestine should not expect a radical change in Israeli policy, especially toward Gaza, following the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, Palestinian political figures have warned.
However, opinions still differ on the formation of the new Israeli government headed by Natfali Bennett.
Palestinian factions agreed that the new government will not differ from its predecessors.
Osama Hamdi, 33, hailed the departure of Netanyahu as “a great achievement.”
He told Arab News: “The fall of any tyrant, no matter who comes next, should be considered positive, regardless of who will follow in power, even though all Israelis are not doing anything in our favor.”
But Hamdi warned that the new government does not have a strong base in the Knesset and within Israeli society.
Israel’s parliament narrowly approved the new Bennett-led coalition government on Sunday, ending Netanyahu’s historic 12-year rule.
The divisive former prime minister — the longest to ever hold office in Israel — will now serve as opposition leader.
Under a coalition agreement, Bennett will hold office for the first two years of the term, and then Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid, the architect of the coalition, will become prime minister.
Mohammed Sultan, 45, said that Netanyahu is a “strong figure” who can reach solutions with Palestinians, but in light of the weak new government, no real breakthrough can be achieved regarding Israel’s relationship with the Gaza Strip.
“Throughout history, strong leaders in Israel have taken bold steps — whether in war or peace — like Rabin, Sharon and Netanyahu. Now there is a government in which there is no real leader, so nothing can be achieved with it,” Sultan said.
Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control of the area in 2007. The coastal strip has witnessed four wars and a rounds of fighting since then. Hamas does not expect any change in its relationship with Israel following the inauguration of the new government, especially in light of ongoing tensions with Jerusalem, which led to a military confrontation last month.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, said on Twitter: “We do not count on any change in the occupation governments.
“They are united on the policy of killing and confiscation of Palestinian rights, but the fall of Netanyahu is one of the successive consequences of the victory of the resistance.”
Islamic Jihad spokesman Tariq Salmi said in a press statement: “The occupation is governed by a security and military system that does not stop practicing
terrorism and aggression.
“Therefore, we must always be ready to defend our people, our land and confront this entity.”
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said: “The formation of a new occupation government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid alternately will not change anything on the ground.
“The new prime minister agrees, in essence, with Netanyahu’s program and policies, which are based on aggression, settlements and Judaization.”
Mustafa Ibrahim, a writer specializing in Israeli affairs, also warned that there would be no real change in Israel’s relationship with the Gaza Strip.
“This government is not a change for the Palestinians,” he told Arab News.
“It is an extension of the Netanyahu government as a result of the contradictions in it. It cannot take fateful decisions, but it will be more concerned with internal Israeli issues.
“The new government will abide by the red lines set by the previous government, that easing the blockade imposed on Gaza is linked to the release of the Israelis in Gaza, and agreement on this requires a strong government and a strong Israeli leader, which is not present in the new government.”
However, Ibrahim said that foreign pressure, especially from the US, “may make a difference in Israel’s relationship with Gaza and could keep the flame of confrontation dormant for a period of time.”


Biden, Erdogan upbeat about ties but disclose no breakthrough

Updated 15 June 2021

Biden, Erdogan upbeat about ties but disclose no breakthrough

BRUSSELS: US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after their first face-to-face talks on Monday, although they did not announce major breakthroughs in the relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.
“We had a positive and productive meeting, much of it one-on-one,” Biden told a news conference after their meeting in Brussels.
“Our teams are going to continue our discussions and I’m confident we’ll make real progress with Turkey and the United States,” he added.
Erdogan characterised his talks with Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit as “productive and sincere.”
“We think that there are no issues between US and Turkey relationship that are unsolvable and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.
Despite their publicly optimistic tone, neither provided any details on how exactly they would mend the relationship or lay out steps that would help ease tensions between the NATO allies.
Turkey, with NATO’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a standoff with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.
As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump toward Erdogan. Biden quickly recognized the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide — a position that angers Turkey — and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.
Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after US and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but that no decision was made at the Monday summit.
At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.
Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.
Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.
“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.