Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

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A series of explosions targeted the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls school in Dash-e-Barchi, a west Kabul suburb populated mostly by Hazara Shiites. (AFP)
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Afghans go through belongings left behind after deadly bombings on Saturday near a school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo)
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Updated 11 May 2021

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

  • Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year
  • Violence on rise in recent weeks after US postponed withdrawal of troops from country

KABUL: Sixty girls were buried during a mass funeral on Sunday, after a gruesome bomb attack on a school in a poor neighborhood of Kabul a day earlier.

The carnage outside the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in the Shia-dominated suburb of Dasht-e Barchi began when a car bomb detonated as students were leaving classes to break their Ramadan fast.

Witnesses said that as people rushed to take the wounded children to hospital, another explosion and mortar fire tore through the scene, killing some of the rescuers.

“Books and body parts were everywhere ... cries, wailing,” local resident Rahim Dad said.

Over 100 people were wounded in the attack, the deadliest assault in years, coming just a week after a bomb attack killed another 21 children in Logar province, south of Kabul.  

“We buried sixty of the victims, all girls and students of the same school,” Dr. Ali Sadaat, who organized the funeral, told Arab News.

“These students until a few days ago were complaining to school authorities about a shortage of textbooks,” Sadaat said. “They had an enormous desire to earn a bright future. May God never show such a thing to any country. There were some students who were beheaded, some whose faces were beyond recognition.”

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, who denied the accusation, saying a Daesh network was behind the massacre. 

Last June, at least 24 people, including newborns, mothers and nurses, were killed by Daesh gunmen at a maternity ward, also in Dasht-e Barchi.

In November, Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul University, in which 32 people were killed.

“We are safe nowhere in Afghanistan,” Shamsuddin, an elderly resident of Kabul, told Arab News. “People are being targeted in classes, (at) university, wedding halls, mosques. How long this will last?”

Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent weeks after the US postponed the withdrawal of its troops from the country to September from a May 1 deadline Washington had negotiated with the Taliban last year.

Under the US-Taliban deal, the latter promised, among other things, not to allow its members and other militant groups to use the soil of Afghanistan for terrorist attacks.

In a statement issued on Sunday, which has been attributed to Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the elusive Taliban leader said that as the US had again failed to live up to its commitments, “the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all consequences.” 

As Brazil tops 500,000 deaths, protests against president

Updated 17 min 13 sec ago

As Brazil tops 500,000 deaths, protests against president

  • Thousands gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro waving flags with slogans such as “Get out Bolsonaro. Government of hunger and unemployment”

RIO DE JANEIRO: Anti-government protesters took to the streets in more than a score of cities across Brazil on Saturday as the nation's confirmed death toll from COVID-19 soared past half a million — a tragedy many critics blame on President Jair Bolsonaro's attempt to minimize the disease.
Thousands gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro waving flags with slogans such as “Get out Bolsonaro. Government of hunger and unemployment.”
“Brazil is experiencing a great setback. The country was an exemplary country for vaccination in the world. We have widely recognized institutions, but today we are in a sad situation ”, said Isabela Gouljor, a 20-year-old student who joined the protest in Rio.
Other marchers hoisted posters reading: “500 thousand deaths. It’s his fault,” alluding to Bolsonaro.
Similar marches took place in at least 22 or Brazil's 26 states, as well as in the Federal District, Brasilia. They were promoted by left-wing opposition parties who have been heartened by Bolsonaro's declining poll ratings with next year's presidential race looming.
“Get out Bolsonaro, genocidal,” yelled Rio demonstrators, some of them wearing t-shirts or masks with the image of former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — who leads Bolsonaro in some polls.
In São Paulo, protesters dropped red balloons as a tribute to the victims of the virus
Bolsonaro's supporters have taken more often to the streets over the past month, in large part because many agree with his dismissal of restrictions meant to stifle the coronavirus and anger that lockdown measures have hurt businesses.
Critics say such messages, as well as Bolsonaro's promotion of disproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, have contributed to the soaring death toll and a sluggish vaccine campaign that has fully inoculated less than 12% of the population. The country of some 213 million people is registering nearly 100,000 new infections and 2,000 deaths a day.
“For the leftists, putting their followers in the streets is a way of wearing Bolsonaro down for the election," said Leandro Consentino, a political science professor at Insper, a university in Sao Paulo. “But at the same, time they are contradicting themselves and losing the discourse of maintaining health care, because they are causing the same agglomerations as Bolsonaro.”
Saturday's marches came a week after Bolsonaro led backers in a massive motorcycle parade in Sao Paulo, though his supporters and critics differ dramatically on the size of that event.
“Bolsonaro needs to show that he maintains significant support to give a message of strength to those who are investigating the actions of his government in Congress”, Consentino said.

Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan

Updated 20 June 2021

Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan

  • Taliban seized 10 more districts on Friday amid withdrawal of US-led foreign troops

KABUL: President Ashraf Ghani replaced his ministers of interior and defense on Saturday after several territorial gains by the Taliban and the surrender of hundreds of government troops to the insurgent group in recent weeks.

The Taliban have captured dozens of small bases and districts across Afghanistan since May 1, when US-led foreign troops began withdrawing from the war-torn country as part of the last phase of their combat mission, amid stalled aerial support for Afghan forces.

In a statement on Saturday, the presidential palace said that under Ghani’s latest order, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi would succeed Assaduallah Khalid as defense minister while Kunduz’s governor, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, will replace Hayatullah Hayat as the interior minister. 

Mohammadi, a senior member of a faction involved in Afghanistan’s politics, war and economy, has served in the past as both interior and defense minister.

He is accused of squandering tens of millions of dollars of US aid in his previous role as defense minister and is an ally of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the national reconciliation council, who has shared power with Ghani since 2014.

Officials in Ghani’s office refused to comment on the move when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

However, the development comes amid rising complaints by lawmakers and civilians over Ghani’s poor performance as commander-in-chief, and the interior and defense ministers’ failure to curb the Taliban’s gains.

“At least 10 districts in various regions across the country have been taken over by the Taliban since Friday,” two security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News.

Before that, the Taliban seized more than 25 districts in recent weeks. Afghanistan comprises 34 provinces and at least 420 districts.

Hundreds of security forces have also surrendered to the insurgent group since May 1, when foreign troops began their exit from Afghanistan, which is expected to be completed by Sept. 11.

The loss of territory to the Taliban comes amid divisions among government leaders, particularly between Ghani and Abdullah, over the distribution of power and government resources.

Experts say that the issue of war management cannot be resolved by replacing officials.

“... because apart from division among leaders over which ministry should go to who, Ghani’s inner circle is a group of young people who have no experience in war, and they are dealing with war management,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News.

“The new appointments will have some symbolic and psychological short-term importance, but I doubt they will change much in favor of the government.”

Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases

Updated 20 June 2021

Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases

  • On Saturday, Indonesia reported 12,906 new infections, raising the total tally to 1,976,172 cases

JAKARTA: Calls are mounting for the Indonesian government to restrict public movement again after the country saw a 500 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in one month.

The daily tally of new COVID-19 infections rose from 2,385 on May 15 to 12,624 on June 17, according to official data. The surge was expected, especially after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday when millions of people traveled between cities on Indonesia’s most populated island of Java, despite a travel ban imposed at the end of Ramadan.

Experts say the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, which was first detected in India and is more virulent, could have compounded the problem.

On Saturday, Indonesia reported 12,906 new infections, raising the total tally to 1,976,172 cases. 

The capital city, Jakarta, registered 4,737 cases on Friday, which its governor, Anies Baswedan, described as “the highest number ever recorded during the pandemic.”

On Saturday, however, Jakarta set a new record with 4,895 new cases.

“The spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases has been occurring gradually for the past ten weeks, even though initially the surge was gradual,” Masdalina Pane, an expert on health policies and epidemiologist at the Indonesian Epidemiologists Association, told Arab News on Saturday.

“We have issued warnings since the start, but it fell on deaf ears because the rise was insignificant,” she added.

Pane alleged that the issue began after the government reduced the mandatory self-quarantine for international arrivals — and those in close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus — from 14 days to five days from earlier this year.

At the end of April, Indonesia banned arrivals from India for two weeks.

“We could have prevented the new variants from entering Indonesia by mandating 14 days quarantine for international arrivals,” she said.

“We are harvesting the results of policies that disregards the basic principles of disease control,” she added.

On Friday, medical associations issued a joint call for the central government to impose wide-scale restrictions on public activity across Java.

Doctors said that hospitals in cities on the island were running out of bed space while the health care system could collapse unless the government intervened to curb the spread of the disease.

“Don’t let us become the second India,” Erlina Burhan of the Indonesian Association of Pulmonologists (PDPI) said in a virtual press conference.

Aman Pulungan, chairman of the Indonesian Pediatric Society (IDAI), also called on limiting children’s outdoor activities at a time when the government is set to reopen schools for the next academic year.

“The national data on COVID-19 cases showed that 12.5 percent of the cases are children; it means that one in every eight patients is a child,” Pulungan said, adding that the association’s data showed Indonesia’s case-fatality rate on children infected with the coronavirus is up to 5 percent or “the highest in the world.”

Meanwhile, thousands of citizens have signed an online petition to President Joko Widodo urging him to step up the government’s response to the health crisis.

“We have almost 2,000 signatures so far since we distributed the letter on Friday afternoon. We want to draw the president’s attention to the surge of cases and the few availability of beds to treat COVID-19 patients and for those who need to self-isolate,” Irma Hidayana, public health consultant and founder of Lapor COVID-19 (Report COVID-19) community movement, which initiated the letter, told Arab News.

Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties

Updated 20 June 2021

Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties

  • The Filipino delegation includes Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola and Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs J. V. Arcena

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte’s Special Envoy and Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs Robert E. A. Borje began his five-day official visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday to enhance bilateral ties and labor reforms cooperation and ensure the “well-being of Filipino workers” in the Kingdom.

During the visit, which ends on June 24, Borje is also expected to convey Duterte’s key messages to Saudi Arabia on the “importance of partnership and cooperation between the two countries.”

In a statement on Friday, the Malacañang said the visit was in line with the president’s promise of “kalinga and malasakit,” or care and concern, for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), especially in light of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Filipino officials are expected to hold talks with Saudi authorities from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking on Sunday.

The Filipino delegation includes Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola and Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs J. V. Arcena.

“We are now in Saudi Arabia. Tonight, we have a virtual town hall meeting with the Filipino community. Meetings with the Saudi side will start tomorrow,” Arcena said in a message to Arab News on Saturday.

The group will also meet officials from the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah and members from the expatriate community and overseas repatriation missions for Filipinos affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second time Duterte has assigned Borje as a special envoy. In 2019, he was designated for a visit to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Tunisia to check on OFWs in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia marked 50 years of diplomatic ties in 2019, with President Duterte congratulating King Salman for the Kingdom’s “landmark” Labor Reform Initiative, which, among other benefits, abolished the kafala system for migrant workers last year.

In a phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May, Duterte renewed the Philippines’ commitment to strengthen bilateral and trade ties and intensify cooperation on migrant workers’ rights.

He also conveyed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s free COVID-19 vaccinations for Filipinos and the financial assistance extended to the Philippine health sector during outgoing Saudi Ambassador to the Philippines Abdullah N.A. Al-Bussairy’s farewell event in the Malacañang last week.

Al-Bussairy assured the president of the Saudi government’s continued support to the Philippines, including in the international fora and with regard to migrant workers’ rights.

He also underscored the contributions of Filipino workers to Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic development and added that the Kingdom is working to increase two-way trade and investments with the Philippines to facilitate the country’s economic recovery.

Meanwhile, the Malacañang said on Saturday that Borje’s visit to the Kingdom kicked off with the repatriation of 347 distressed Filipinos, including five children affected by the pandemic.

In a statement, Borje expressed gratitude on behalf of the president to the embassy in Riyadh, the consulate general in Jeddah, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the king and crown prince for making the repatriation possible.

The repatriates flew home via a Philippine Airlines chartered flight as part of the Philippine government’s repatriation mission from Saudi Arabia, with a second repatriation flight expected next week.

Upon arrival in Manila, the repatriates will receive cash assistance from the Philippine government, as instructed by the president.

As of Friday, 403,234 OFWs have been repatriated by the government since the start of the pandemic. Some 105,582 are seafarers, while 297,652 are land-based workers.

Saudi Arabia hosts more than 800,000 Filipinos, the highest in any Gulf state, according to a 2020 government estimate. About half work as domestic laborers, while others are employed in the Kingdom’s construction, outsourcing and health care sectors.

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

Updated 19 June 2021

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.