Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

People watch from a beach as the Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China's space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on April 29, 2021. (China Daily via REUTERS)
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Updated 09 May 2021

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

But the US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.

The US military’s Space Command said the rocket “re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8 (0215 GMT Sunday).”

“It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, said that the location in Saudi Arabia was where American systems last recorded it.

“Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” it tweeted.

The segment’s descent matched expert predictions that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

Because it was an uncontrolled descent, there was widespread public interest and speculation about where the debris would land.

American and European space authorities were among those tracking the rocket and trying to predict its re-entry.

Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March-5B may not be destroyed entirely.

Their wreckage can land on the surface of the planet and may cause damage and casualties, though that risk is low.

Last year, debris from another Chinese Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

That, and the one that came down Sunday, are tied for the fourth-biggest objects in history to undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, according to data from Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

The uncertainty and risks of such a re-entry sparked accusations that Beijing had behaved irresponsibly.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a statement.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket – which is not equipped for a controlled descent.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” McDowell tweeted.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

Chinese authorities had downplayed the risk, however.

“The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or (on people and activities) on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars into space exploration to boost its global stature and technological might.

The launch of the first module of its space station – by the Long March rocket that came down Sunday – was a milestone in its ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

Updated 31 min 11 sec ago

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

  • The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, including a record 9,120 in Moscow, pushing the national infection tally up to 5,299,215 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 128,911.
The state statistics agency, which keeps separate figures, has said Russia recorded around 270,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021.

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

Updated 19 June 2021

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

  • Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines
  • Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route

SINGAPORE: Offering Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccines to the public in Singapore for the first time since Friday, several private clinics reported overwhelming demand for the Chinese-made shot, despite already available rival vaccines having far higher efficacy.
Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both have shown efficacy rates of well over 90 percent against symptomatic disease in clinical trials, compared with Sinovac’s 51 percent.
Earlier this week, officials in neighboring Indonesia warned that more than 350 medical workers have caught COVID-19 despite being vaccinated with Sinovac and dozens have been hospitalized, raising concerns about its efficacy against more infectious variants.
Evidence from other countries showed people who had taken the Sinovac vaccine were still getting infected, Kenneth Mak, Singapore’s director of medical services, said on Friday. “There is a significant risk of vaccine breakthrough,” he said, referring to the report on Indonesian health care workers.
A number of the people rushing for the Sinovac shot on the first day of its availability in Singapore were Chinese nationals, who felt it would make it easier to travel home without going through quarantine.
Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route, following an emergency use approval by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this month. Singapore said it is awaiting critical data from Sinovac before including it in the national vaccination program.
Meantime, authorities have selected 24 private clinics to administer its current stock of 200,000 doses. The clinics are charging between S$10-25 ($7.5-$18.6) per dose.
“We have about 2,400 bookings, so that stretches from right now until end of July,” Louis Tan, CEO at StarMed Specialist Center, said on Saturday. He said many of those who made the Sinovac bookings tend to be in their 40s and above.
Wee Healthfirst, another approved clinic, put a notice at its entrance on Friday, saying it had stopped reservations for the vaccine until next Thursday, citing “overwhelming demand.” A receptionist said about 1,000 people had registered there.
Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases doctor at Rophi Clinic, also said he had been “overwhelmed” by people wanting the Sinovac shot.
Tang Guang Yu, a 49-year-old engineer, was among the Chinese nationals resident in Singapore who waited for the Sinovac shot rather than take a foreign-made vaccine that he thought might not be recognized by authorities back home.
“No one wants to be quarantined for a month, I don’t have so many days of leave,” Tang told Reuters as he queued outside a clinic.
Travelers to China may have to be quarantined at a facility and at home for up to a month depending on their destination city, regardless of vaccination status, according to the Chinese government website.
Other people said they have more confidence in the Sinovac vaccine since it is based on conventional technology, while those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna use a newly developed messenger RNA platform.
“The mRNA technology has been around for 30 years, but it has never been injected into human until recently due to COVID-19 emergency, how safe it is?” asked Singaporean Chua Kwang Hwee, 62, as he lined up outside a clinic to enquire about getting the Sinovac shot.
Singapore’s health ministry says persons with a history of allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or its components as well as severely immunocompromised individuals should not receive the mRNA-based vaccines.
Sinovac vaccine uses an inactivated or killed virus that cannot replicate in human cells to trigger an immune response.
In recent weeks, several social media messages have popped up saying inactivated virus COVID-19 vaccines, like Sinovac’s, provide superior protection against variants than mRNA vaccines. Other messages on platforms have said the mRNA vaccines are less safe.
Authorities have rejected these claims, saying they are safe and highly effective.

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

Updated 19 June 2021

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

KAMPALA: Ethiopians will vote on Monday in a landmark election overshadowed by reports of famine in the country’s war-hit Tigray region and beset by logistical problems that mean some people won’t be able to vote until September.
The election is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose rise to power in 2018 seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to his Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
He has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power.
The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government.
“We will secure Ethiopia’s unity,” Abiy said ahead of his final campaign rally on Wednesday, repeating his vow of a free and fair election after past votes were marred by allegations of fraud.
But opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past.
And Abiy is facing growing international criticism over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in November between Ethiopian forces, backed by ones from neighboring Eritrea, and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.
Last week, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are on the brink of famine, a crisis that several diplomats have described as “manmade” amid allegations of forced starvation.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the figure and says food aid has reached 5.2 million in the region of 6 million.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who usually play a key role in transporting election materials across Africa’s second-most populous country are busy with the conflict.
Meanwhile, voting has been postponed until September in 64 out of 547 constituencies throughout Ethiopia because of insecurity, defective ballot papers and opposition allegations of irregularities.
Outbreaks of ethnic violence have also killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.
Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election. Others say they have been prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
“There have been gross violations,” Yusef Ibrahim, vice president of the National Movement of Amhara, said earlier this month.
He said his party had been “effectively banned” from campaigning in several regions, with some party members arrested and banners destroyed.
Neither officials with the Prosperity Party nor Abiy’s office responded to requests for comment on such allegations.
Ethiopia last year postponed the election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the tensions with Tigray’s former leaders.
Recently, the vote was delayed again by several weeks amid technical problems involving ballot papers and a lack of polling station officials.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party has registered 2,432 candidates in the election, which will see Ethiopians voting for both national and regional representatives.
The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, is fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties are contesting the election.
But on Sunday, five opposition parties released a joint statement saying that campaigning outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been marred by serious problems, including killings, attempted killings and beatings of candidates.”
Two prominent opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, are boycotting the vote.
“It’s going to be a sham election,” OFC chairman Merera Gudina said earlier this month.
That means the Prosperity Party will face little competition in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state.
Several prominent OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of unrest last year sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF’s leader is under house arrest.
The leader of the Balderas Party for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, was also detained and is contesting the election from prison.
Getnet Worku, secretary-general of the newly established ENAT party, said earlier this month it is not standing candidates in several constituencies because the threat of violence is too high, asserting that armed militias organized by local officials frequently broke up rallies.
There are growing international concerns over whether the elections will be fair.
The EU has said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week the US State Department said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held,” citing “detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia.”
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 was initially greeted by an outburst of optimism both at home and abroad.
Shortly after taking office, he freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, allowed the return of exiled opposition groups and rolled back punitive laws that targeted civil society.
In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for those reforms and for making peace with Eritrea by ending a long-running border standoff.
But critics say Ethiopia’s political space has started to shrink again. The government denies the accusation.
Several prominent opposition figures accused of inciting unrest are behind bars.
While opening a sugar factory earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “outsiders” of working to undermine Ethiopia.
This week his spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister.”

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

Updated 18 June 2021

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

  • Most limits on group sizes will be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 metres apart
  • No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants

AMSTERDAM: Face masks will mostly no longer be required across the Netherlands and other restrictions will ease from next week, after a drop in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday.
Most limits on group sizes will also be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 meters (5 ft) apart, he told a news conference.
“This is a special moment,” Rutte said. “Many times I have stood here to tell you what you can’t do. But now we can focus on what is possible.”
No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants, Rutte said, as long as they keep their distance, or show that they have been vaccinated or have a negative test.
“We can expect a beautiful summer,” Rutte said. “But we need to remain cautious. There are many uncertainties toward the autumn. You can always be stabbed in the back by a new variant.”
People will still need to wear masks on public transport and in airports, where distancing is not possible.
Coronavirus infections in the Netherlands have dropped to their lowest levels in nine months in recent weeks as the rollout of vaccinations has gathered pace.
Earlier this month authorities let bars and restaurants reopen.
Around 13 vaccinations have been administered in the country of 17.5 million people as of Friday. The government has said it is aiming to offer each Dutch adult at least one shot by mid-July.
Almost 1.7 million coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the Netherlands, and more than 27,000 deaths.

Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique

Updated 18 June 2021

Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique

  • Palma and surrounding areas have been on tenterhooks since militants linked to Daesh launched a raid of unprecedented scale on the town
  • British charity Save the Children said it was ‘shocked and appalled’ by news this week of two 15-year-old boys being beheaded in Palma

PEMBA, Mozambique: Several beheadings, including of teenagers, have been reported around the restive northern Mozambique town of Palma since it was attacked by militants in March, a charity and local sources said on Friday.
Palma and surrounding areas have been on tenterhooks since militants linked to Daesh launched a raid of unprecedented scale on the town, killing dozens and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
Many sought refuge in nearby Quitunda, a resettlement village next to a heavily guarded gas exploration site operated by French oil giant Total and abandoned days after the raid.
Several bouts of low-key violence have been reported since the militants retreated.
British charity Save the Children on Friday said it was “shocked and appalled” by news this week of two 15-year-old boys being beheaded in Palma on Sunday.
The teenagers were among a group of 15 adults who had left Quitunda in search of food, according to the independent news outlet Carta de Mocambique, which reported the incident.
Two adults were also killed, it added.
“We are appalled and disgusted at this senseless crime,” Save the Children Mozambique country director Chance Briggs said in a statement.
The insurgency is “having a continual, horrific, deadly impact on children,” he said.
“They are being killed, they are being abducted, they are being recruited for use by armed groups.”
One local source in the provincial capital Pemba said relatives in Quitunda had heard of “insurgents” beheading several people on Saturday.
Momade Bachir, who is regularly in touch with family members still stranded around Palma, told AFP that four residents were attacked after they left the town to pick manioc in surrounding fields.
Another three beheaded bodies were found near Pemba that evening, according to Bachir.
Finding food has been difficult since the March 24 attack on Palma and aid agencies have struggled to take in supplies due to security concerns.
The World Food Programme has warned that almost one million people, mostly displaced, faced severe hunger.
Insurgents have been wreaking havoc in Cabo Delgado since 2017.
The fighting has claimed more than 2,800 lives, half of them civilians, according to conflict data tracker ACLED, and displaced around 800,000.