Philippines accuses China of plans to occupy more South China Sea ‘features’

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Some of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, in this March 7, 2021, picture provided by the Philippine Coast Guard. (AP)
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Delfin Lorenzana
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Updated 05 April 2021

Philippines accuses China of plans to occupy more South China Sea ‘features’

  • China claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea and has asserted its stance by building up small shoals

MANILA: Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has accused Beijing of planning to occupy more “features” in the disputed South China Sea, in an escalating war of words over Chinese vessels in the waters.

China claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea and has asserted its stance by building up small shoals and reefs into military bases with airstrips and port facilities.

Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims to the waters, which incorporate strategically crucial shipping lanes and could harbor oil and gas deposits.

A fleet of more than 200 Chinese ships that sparked a diplomatic row last month after parking at Whitsun Reef off the Philippines is now scattered across the contested Spratly Islands.

Manila has called on Beijing to withdraw the “maritime militia” vessels from the area, saying their presence is unlawful.

China has refused, insisting they are fishing boats and are allowed to operate there.

But the defense secretary said the vessels were there for other reasons.

“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Lorenzana pointed to China’s seizure of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef as previous examples of them “brazenly violating” his country’s sovereignty.

On Saturday, the outspoken Lorenzana rejected China’s claims that the boats parked at Whitsun Reef — and where dozens remained last week — had been seeking shelter from bad weather.

“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there,” he said.

“Get out of there.”

The Chinese Embassy in Manila called Lorenzana’s statement “perplexing” and urged authorities to avoid “unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”

Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of the South China Sea, and it has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion as without basis.


Myanmar teen describes junta’s brutal treatment of detained women

Updated 14 May 2021

Myanmar teen describes junta’s brutal treatment of detained women

BANGKOK, Thailand: Beaten, kicked in the groin and threatened with sexual violence — a young Myanmar teenager detained by the junta’s security forces has described the treatment suffered by some women and girls behind bars.
Shwe Yamin Htet, 17, and her mother were arrested on April 14 in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, which has been blanketed with heavy security since the military seized power in a coup.
As they were walking to a friend’s house from a morning protest, she said, they were stopped by two security trucks.
“They forced us to crouch face-down on the ground,” Shwe Yamin Htet told AFP.
The high school student then faced six days of fear and anxiety, held with women who alleged torture and abuse by police behind closed doors.
Shwe Yamin Htet said she herself had to endure a police officer molesting her during an interrogation session.
The teenager was released on April 20, but her mother was not as fortunate — Sandar Win was instead taken to Yangon’s Insein prison.
“My mother is my only family,” she said. “I’m very worried for her safety and life.”
To secure her release, she said, she had to sign documents saying she suffered “no torture” behind bars.
“It’s the opposite of what they have done,” Shwe Yamin Htet said. “It is totally unacceptable and unfair.”

Political prisoners
Her mother is among more than 3,800 civilians arrested and still languishing behind bars since the February 1 coup, according to local monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Little is known about the conditions of detainees across Myanmar, as those released rarely speak out about it.
Shwe Yamin Htet said she and her mother were taken first to a local police station where they were questioned separately.
“I was touched by a police officer, who told me he could kill me and make me disappear,” she said.
“If I didn’t push his hand away, I’m sure he would have continued.”
She added that her mother was slapped twice during her interrogation.
The following day, they were taken to a detention center on Yangon’s northern outskirts where they met other women, some of whom had bruises all over their bodies.
One of them — a woman who had been in a relationship with a foreigner — was beaten so badly she could barely talk or eat, Shwe Yamin Htet said.
“We had to feed her fried egg and rice,” she said. “She told us she couldn’t urinate because her women parts had been kicked during the interrogation.”
The National Unity Government — an underground group of ousted lawmakers opposing the junta — has announced it is investigating the “allegations of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in unlawful detention.”
“These cases are indicative of the wider pattern of sexual and gender-based violence committed by Myanmar’s military that has persisted for years with impunity, particularly against ethnic minority women and girls in armed conflict areas,” it said in a statement.

Rights and dignity violated
Another woman held in the same detention center as Shwe Yamin Htet recalled similar experiences.
Ngwe Thanzin — a pseudonym to protect her identity — told AFP she and four others were protesting in Yangon’s South Okkalapa township when they were arrested.
“I was kicked in my face for having a black mask in my bag,” she said, adding that security forces also yelled misogynistic abuse at them.
The women were then taken to the same detention center as Shwe Yamin Htet, where Ngwe Thanzin said she was handcuffed so tightly it left marks on her wrists.
“They also threatened us saying they could kill us and make us disappear without anyone knowing it,” she told AFP.
During her three-night detention, she said she saw a 19-year-old girl bruised so badly she could barely stand.
“They don’t beat or torture in front of other people. But when people were individually interrogated, they came out with bruises.”
AFP was unable to independently verify the allegations made by Shwe Yamin Htet and Ngwe Thanzin.
Repeated attempts to contact the junta spokesman for a response went unanswered.
And junta-appointed Minister of Social Welfare Thet Thet Khine — who chairs a National Committee on Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence in Conflict — could not be reached for comment.
Ngwe Thanzin said the least the junta could do was have female security personnel available to interrogate them, instead of men.
“All our rights and dignity were violated and abused,” she said.
“Since we have no rights, I felt we were like water in their hands.”

US tells citizens to ‘reconsider’ travel to Israel due to conflict

Updated 14 May 2021

US tells citizens to ‘reconsider’ travel to Israel due to conflict

  • The travel advisory level was stepped up to Level 3, out of a maximum of four

WASHINGTON: The US State Department on Thursday urged citizens to “reconsider travel to Israel” due to the recent surge in violence between the Jewish state and Palestinians.
The travel advisory level, which had been lowered in recent weeks due to improvement in the country’s Covid-19 situation, was stepped up to Level 3, out of a maximum of four.
“Reconsider travel to Israel due to armed conflict and civil unrest,” the department said in a statement.
“Rockets continue to impact the Gaza periphery and areas across Southern and Central Israel, including Jerusalem,” it said.
“There has been a marked increase in protests and violence throughout Israel.”
Washington was also advising that Americans “do not travel” to Gaza due to “Covid-19, terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict,” as well as avoiding the West Bank due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
The travel advisory came as Israel pounded Gaza and deployed extra troops to the border Thursday as Palestinians fired barrages of rockets back, with the death toll in the enclave on the fourth day of conflict climbing to over 100.
 

 


Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

Updated 13 May 2021

Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

  • “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it," Johnson said
  • Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he was “anxious” about a rise in the UK of the coronavirus variant first identified in India.
His worries surfaced after a closely-monitored study of infections in England found the variant is becoming more prevalent just ahead of the next big easing of lockdown restrictions.
“It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do. There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
In its latest assessment published Thursday, Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August following a strict lockdown and a successful rollout of vaccines. However, it warned that the Indian variant should be closely monitored.
The so-called REACT study found that the Indian variant, designated “of concern” because it could be more transmissible, was identified in 7.7 percent of the 127,000 cases tested between Apr.15 and May 3.
Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College said it’s unclear whether the Indian variant is more transmissible but warned that “this is a risk.”
Though the British government and scientists have said new cases may start to go up in coming weeks, it’s unclear whether that will lead to a big increase in hospitalizations and deaths given that most of those people deemed vulnerable have been vaccinated.
Over the past few weeks as India has suffered a catastrophic resurgence of the virus, concerns have grown around the world about potential new variants bypassing the protections offered by vaccines.
Across the UK, lockdown restrictions are being lifted. The next easing in England is set to take place on Monday when two households will be able to mix indoors and pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers inside, among other changes. The other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have also laid out similar plans for the coming weeks.
The government hopes to lift most remaining restrictions on social contact in June.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” Johnson said.
The government’s scientific advisory committee, known as SAGE, will be making recommendations about the pandemic’s path. It is due to meet later.
Currently there are few signs the previous easing has led to an increase in new infections, which are averaging around 2,300 a day across the UK, compared with nearly 70,000 recorded in January at the peak of the second wave.
The fall in infections has led to a sharp decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths, with 11 reported on Thursday. Still, the UK has recorded Europe’s highest virus-related death toll, at more than 127,600.
The successful rollout of vaccines has also helped keep a lid on infections alongside the lockdown. Around 54 percent of the British population has had at least one dose of vaccine with about a quarter having received two doses. The rollout is being expanded further, with vaccines now being made available to people aged 38 and 39.


Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Updated 13 May 2021

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

  • German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days
  • Two synagogues were attacked and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

BERLIN: Germany’s leading Jewish group on Thursday sharply condemned protests in front of a synagogue in the western city of Gelsenkirchen as “pure antisemitism.”
Several other German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days.
At least two synagogues were attacked, and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since the latest eruption of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted a video of dozens of protesters in Gelsenkirchen waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and yelling expletives about Jews.
“Jew hatred in the middle of Gelsenkirchen in front of the synagogue. The times in which Jews were cursed in the middle of the street should have long been over. This is pure antisemitism, nothing else!” the group tweeted.
The German government repeatedly condemned anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks earlier this week and said that “the perpetrators must be found and held responsible and Jewish institutions must be protected thoroughly.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group that “there must be zero tolerance for attacks on synagogues in our country.”
“All of us are called on to make it very clear that we do not accept if Jews in Germany are made responsible for the events in the Middle East — neither in the streets nor on social media,” Maas added.
The protests in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday were dispersed by police, German news agency DPA reported, but authorities reported further incidents in other parts of the country.
Some cities which had hoisted Israeli flags in front of their city halls on Wednesday in remembrance of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965, reported that the flags were torn down and sometimes burned.
An Israeli flag in front of a city hall in the western town of Solingen was torn and burnt and two Israeli flags in Berlin were also torn down late Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, police stopped 13 suspects in the western city of Muenster near a synagogue after an Israeli flag was burned there. In the western city of Bonn, police said several people damaged the entrance of a synagogue with stones and investigators found a burned flag as well. In nearby Duesseldorf, somebody burned garbage on top of a memorial for a former synagogue.
Several cities and states in Germany have since upped their security and raised police presence in front of Jewish institutions, dpa reported.
In Berlin, some 100 people also assembled for a pro-Israel rally on Wednesday night in front of the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving Israeli flags and holding a banner saying “We stand with Israel — Now and Forever.”


Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

Updated 13 May 2021

Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

  • Hundreds of locals protested a Home Office removal of asylum seekers, preventing immigration enforcers from carrying out the action
  • Politicians and charities slammed the Home Office’s attempt to deport asylum seekers believed to be Muslims on Eid

LONDON: Immigration authorities in Scotland have agreed to release two asylum seekers they had detained ahead of deportation after members of their local community protested and blocked their vehicle from leaving.

Early on Thursday people surrounded a Home Office vehicle in Glasgow, Scotland, believed to contain two immigrants who had been removed from a flat.

Hundreds of people gathered in the area, chanting slogans and preventing the van from moving safely. One man laid under the vehicle to prevent it from moving. Shouts of “Leave our neighbors, let them go” and “Cops go home” could be heard. 

Following an hours-long standoff, a senior Scottish police officer intervened to ensure the men were released and the standoff ended.

In a statement, Police Scotland Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland announced the men had been released.

It said: “In order to protect the safety, public health and well-being of all people involved in the detention and subsequent protest in Kenmure Street, Pollokshields, Ch Supt Mark Sutherland has, following a suitable risk assessment, taken the operational decision to release the men detained by UK Immigration Enforcement back into their community meantime.”

The police had earlier stressed that it does not provide assistance with the removal of asylum seekers but aims to keep peace on the streets.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denounced the attempted deportation, branding it “dangerous” and “unacceptable.”

“I disagree fundamentally with Home Office immigration policy but even putting that aside, this action was unacceptable,” she wrote on Facebook. “To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid, and in an area experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak was a health and safety risk.

“Both as MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) and as FM (First Minister), I will be demanding assurances from the UK government that they will never again create, through their actions, such a dangerous situation. No assurances were given — and frankly, no empathy shown — when I managed to speak to a junior minister earlier.”

She added: “I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees.”

Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, was among the hundreds of neighbors protesting against the action.

“We are here against the hostile environment created by the Tories and the British state,” Asif said. “The same people who ran from British and American bombs are in the back of the van right now and are about to be deported.

“It is on Eid, you know. The guys are not even allowed to pray. How do you do that in a democratic society? It is a sad day.”