Ethiopia prepares to vote as famine stalks Tigray

Displaced children from Western Tigray gather at meal time to receive plates of food outside a classroom in the school where they are sheltering in Tigray’s capital Mekele. (File/AFP)
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Updated 15 June 2021

Ethiopia prepares to vote as famine stalks Tigray

  • Prime minister Abiy Ahmed is pushing ahead with the election despite ongoing fighting and a humanitarian crisis in Tigray
  • The war in Tigray has been the focus of global concern, with appeals from the pope and world leaders at the G7

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia is preparing to hold crucial and twice-delayed elections across the country on June 21, despite growing concern over the credibility of the vote as well as a famine in war-torn Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed in 2018 after years of anti-government unrest, craves a popular mandate through competitive elections to cement a promised democratic rebirth in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is pushing ahead with the election despite ongoing fighting and a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where voting will not proceed on Monday, along with some other restive parts of the country.

Opposition parties in other pivotal regions are boycotting the election, the sixth since the end of military rule in Ethiopia 30 years ago.

All previous ballots fell short of international standards for fairness, and Abiy — who won early praise for embarking on democratic and economic reforms — insists that June 21 will mark a departure from the authoritarian past.

“A week from today, Ethiopians we will cast our vote in the sixth national elections, which will be the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections,” Abiy posted on Twitter on Monday.

“Go out and vote next Monday... let’s make it a positively historic day together!“

But the war in Tigray — not Abiy’s much-vaunted vote — has been the focus of global concern, with appeals from the pope and world leaders at the G7 for the bloodshed to end.

UN agencies say 350,000 people in the northern region are barely surviving in famine conditions, including tens of thousands of malnourished children. Ethiopia disputes the figures and says aid groups have been granted unfettered access to the region.

Abiy’s reputation as a reformist and peacemaker has been seriously dented since he sent the army into Tigray in November to oust the ruling TPLF party there.

Eritrean soldiers and allied militias joined the fight, which Abiy promised would be short but has dragged on for seven months. The conflict has been characterised by terrible atrocities and alleged ethnic cleansing.

There will be no vote in the mountainous region of six million on June 21, with no future date set.

But Tigray — with 38 of the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s national parliament — is just one place where no ballots will be cast Monday.

Ethnic violence and logistical setbacks forced the National Election Board of Ethiopia to postpone voting in numerous locations until September 6. The board has not specified the exact number of constituencies affected, but there are dozens in addition to Tigray.

The United States, historically an ally of Ethiopia but an increasingly vocal critic as the Tigray conflict drags on, has expressed alarm at the conditions under which the vote will occur.

The detention of prominent opposition leaders and ethnic conflict roiling swathes of the country pose “obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.

“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling,” he added.

The European Union said in May it would not send observers to the polls, citing a failure to reach an agreement with the government on basic issues like communications and the observers’ independence.

Staging nationwide elections is a logistical feat at the best of times in the enormous nation of 110 million where poor infrastructure barely reaches into remoter parts of savannah, mountain and desert terrain.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the first postponement in August 2020, then the vote was pushed back to June 21 because of technical problems, including a massive shortage of election officials and slow voter registration.

In early June, with the vote just weeks away, the board said ballot paper irregularities and fake polling stations had hindered preparations, but that about 37 million voters had registered.

Abiy’s Prosperity Party is fielding the most candidates for national parliamentary races and is the firm favorite to win, with a broad reach unmatched by other political parties.

The campaign has been muted in the capital Addis Ababa, while south of the capital in Hawassa, an AFP journalist this week noted a near-total absence of opposition posters.


Red Cross warns aid groups not enough to stave off Afghan humanitarian crisis

Updated 22 October 2021

Red Cross warns aid groups not enough to stave off Afghan humanitarian crisis

  • ICRC has since increased its efforts in the country while other organisations were also stepping up, Director General Robert Mardini said
  • The UN on Thursday announced it had set up a fund to provide cash directly to Afghans

DUBAI: The Red Cross on Friday urged the international community to engage with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, saying that aid groups on their own would be unable to stave off a humanitarian crisis.
Afghanistan has been plunged into crisis by the abrupt end of billions of dollars in foreign assistance following the collapse of the Western-backed government and return to power by the Taliban in August.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has since increased its efforts in the country while other organizations were also stepping up, Director General Robert Mardini said.
But he told Reuters that support from the international community, who had so far taken a cautious approach in engaging with the Taliban, was critical to providing basic services.
“Humanitarian organizations joining forces can only do so much. They can come up with temporary solutions.”
The United Nations on Thursday announced it had set up a fund to provide cash directly to Afghans, which Mardini said would solve the problem for three months.
“Afghanistan is a compounded crisis that is deteriorating by the day,” he said, citing decades of conflict compounded by the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mardini said 30 percent of Afghanistan’s 39 million population were facing severe malnutrition and that 18 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance or protection.
The Taliban expelled many foreign aid groups when it was last in power from 1996-2001 but this time has said it welcomes foreign donors and will protect the rights of their staff.
But the hard-line Islamists, facing criticism it has failed to protect rights, including access to education for girls, have also said aid should not be tied to conditions.
“No humanitarian organization can compensate or replace the economy of a country,” Mardini said.


Greece tourism rebounds but still suffers from COVID-19

Updated 22 October 2021

Greece tourism rebounds but still suffers from COVID-19

  • Foreign tourists seeking sun and sand are the driver of Greece's tourism industry
  • Pandemic travel restrictions kept most away in 2020 and battered the sector

ATHENS: The number of foreign tourists arriving in Greece has rebounded strongly this year, central bank data released Friday showed, but the key tourism sector still remains far below pre-pandemic levels.
Foreign tourists seeking sun and sand are the driver of Greece’s tourism industry, which accounts for a fifth of the overall economy, but pandemic travel restrictions kept most away in 2020 and battered the sector.
Greek central bank data showed that the number of tourist arrivals has jumped 80 percent this year to over 8.6 million.
Meanwhile, spending by tourists during the first eight months of the year has shot up by over 135 percent to nearly 6.6 billion euros ($7.7 billion), the Bank of Greece said in a statement.
But those figures are still far off the level in 2019, before the pandemic, when some 21.8 million tourists spent 13.2 billion euros.
Ahead of the peak summer tourism season, Greece ran a major campaign to voluntarily vaccinate most residents if its Aegean islands, its most popular travel destinations, to help lure back foreign tourists.
Most of the arrivals came from Germany, Britain, France and the United States.
Greece’s economy contracted by 9.0 percent in 2020, due in no small part to the drop in tourists.
The government expects the economy to rebound 6.1 percent this year and grow by 4.5 percent in 2022.


Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine more than 90 percent effective in kids

Updated 22 October 2021

Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine more than 90 percent effective in kids

  • Shots could begin in early November with the first children in line fully protected by Christmas if regulators give the go-ahead
  • FDA was expected to post its independent review of the company's safety and effectiveness data later in the day

DUBAI: Kid-size doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine appear safe and nearly 91 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infections in 5- to 11-year-olds, according to study details released Friday as the US considers opening vaccinations to that age group.
The shots could begin in early November — with the first children in line fully protected by Christmas — if regulators give the go-ahead.
Details of Pfizer’s study were posted online. The Food and Drug Administration was expected to post its independent review of the company’s safety and effectiveness data later in the day.
Advisers to the FDA will publicly debate the evidence next week. If the agency ultimately authorizes the shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make the final decision on who should receive them.
Full-strength Pfizer shots already are authorized for anyone 12 or older, but pediatricians and many parents are anxiously awaiting protection for younger children to stem rising infections from the extra-contagious delta variant and help keep kids in school.
More than 25,000 pediatricians and primary care providers already have signed up to get the shots into little arms.
The Biden administration has purchased enough kid-size doses — in special orange-capped vials to distinguish them from adult vaccine — for the nation’s roughly 28 million 5- to 11-year-olds. If the vaccine is cleared, millions of doses will be promptly shipped around the country, along with kid-size needles.
A Pfizer study tracked 2,268 kids in that age group who got two shots three weeks apart of either a placebo or the low-dose vaccine. Each dose was one-third the amount given to teens and adults.
Researchers calculated the low-dose vaccine was nearly 91 percent effective, based on 16 COVID-19 cases in youngsters given dummy shots versus three cases among vaccinated children. There were no severe illnesses reported among any of the youngsters, but the vaccinated ones had much milder symptoms than their unvaccinated counterparts.
In addition, young children given the low-dose shots developed coronavirus-fighting antibody levels just as strong as teens and young adults who got regular-strength vaccinations.
That’s important information considering that hospitalizations of mostly unvaccinated children reached record levels last month.
The CDC reported earlier this week that even as the delta mutant surged between June and September, Pfizer vaccinations were 93 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations among 12- to 18-year-olds.
Pfizer’s study of younger kids found the low-dose shots proved safe, with similar or fewer temporary side effects such as sore arms, fever or achiness that teens experience.
The study isn’t large enough to detect any extremely rare side effects, such as the heart inflammation that occasionally occurs after the second dose, mostly in young men.
While children run a lower risk of severe illness or death than older people, COVID-19 has killed more than 630 Americans 18 and under, according to the CDC. Nearly 6.2 million children have been infected with the coronavirus, more than 1.1 million in the last six weeks as the delta mutant surged, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.
Moderna also is studying its COVID-19 shots in elementary school-age youngsters. Pfizer and Moderna are studying even younger children as well, down to 6-month-olds. Results are expected later in the year.


Four dead as hurricane-force winds batter Poland

Updated 22 October 2021

Four dead as hurricane-force winds batter Poland

  • Fire services reported more than 10,000 incidents and 930 buildings were damaged
  • In Wroclaw, police said that two people were killed when a tree fell on their car

WARSAW: Four people were killed and 18 injured in a storm that battered Poland with hurricane-force winds on Thursday night, authorities said, damaging properties and felling trees across western and central areas of the country.
Fire services reported more than 10,000 incidents and 930 buildings were damaged, private broadcaster TVN24 reported, with the western region of Lubuskie and the central Lodzkie region hardest hit.
“The storm was terrible, it broke the sheet metal and took it from one part of the roof to the other side of the house,” Krzysztof Kolczynski, whose house in the village of Maszkowice in central Poland was damaged in the storm, told TVN24.
“It’s good that there were chimneys, otherwise it would have torn off the entire roof.”
In the south-western city of Wroclaw, police said that two people were killed when a tree fell on their car.
“Wroclaw police received a report about a tree that fell on a moving vehicle,” said police officer Pawel Noga. “Unfortunately, it was confirmed on the spot that two people in the car were killed in the incident.”
The Polish meteorological office issued fresh storm warnings for Friday evening, with the north of the country expected to face the strongest winds.


Alec Baldwin fires prop gun on movie set, killing cinematographer

Updated 22 October 2021

Alec Baldwin fires prop gun on movie set, killing cinematographer

  • Baldwin shot Halyna Hutchins, the photography director of ‘Rust,’ and Joel Souza, the film’s director
  • Baldwin was seen ‘distraught and in tears’ as he spoke on the phone outside the sheriff’s office in Santa Fe

Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer and wounded a director when he discharged a prop gun on a movie set in New Mexico on Thursday, authorities said.
Baldwin shot Halyna Hutchins, the photography director of “Rust,” and Joel Souza, the film’s director, at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a production location south of Santa Fe, according to the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department.
Hutchins was transported by helicopter to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Souza was taken by ambulance to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical center to undergo treatment for his injuries. The severity of his injuries could not immediately be determined.
Actress Frances Fisher said on Twitter that “Souza texted me that he’s out of hospital.” Asked whether Souza had been discharged, medical center spokesperson Arturo Delgado said he was not allowed to release information about patients.
The Sheriff’s office said that no charges have been filed and they are investigating the shooting and interviewing witnesses.
“The investigation remains open and active,” the Sherrif’s office said in a statement.
Entertainment news site cited a source in the Sheriff’s office as saying that Baldwin was questioned by investigators and later released.
Baldwin went to the sheriff’s office willingly and provided a statement to investigators, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported, citing spokesperson Juan Rios.
Deputies were still trying to determine whether what happened was an accident, the newspaper added. Rios did not immediately respond to requests for information from Reuters.
Baldwin’s representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Earlier on Thursday, news magazine People reported that a spokesperson for Baldwin had said there was an “accident” involving the “misfire of a prop gun with blanks.”
Baldwin was seen “distraught and in tears” as he spoke on the phone outside the sheriff’s office headquarters on Thursday, the Santa Fe New Mexican wrote.
Baldwin, 63, is a co-producer of “Rust,” a Western movie set in 1880s Kansas, and plays the eponymous character who is an outlaw grandfather of a 13-year-old boy convicted of an accidental killing.
Production of the film had been halted for an “undetermined period,” several news outlets quoted the film’s production company, Rust Movie Productions LLC, as saying.
An email to an address for the film production, which was listed on a New Mexico government statement, went unanswered.
The shooting evoked memories of an on-set accident in 1993 when US actor Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, died aged 28 after being fatally wounded by a prop gun filming “The Crow.”
“Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust’. No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period,” said a tweet from Lee’s account, which is handled by his sister.
Earlier on Thursday, Baldwin posted a picture of himself on Instagram sporting a grey beard and dressed in Western cowboy-style attire in front of trailers. He appeared to have a fake blood stain on his shirt and jacket.
“Back to in person at the office. Blimey ... it’s exhausting,” he wrote. The post was deleted late on Thursday night.
Known for his impersonations of former US President Donald Trump on NBC’s comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live,” Baldwin has a long history in film and television, including roles in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “30 Rock.”
Baldwin was charged in 2018 after a fight over a New York parking spot. He pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment and agreed to participate in an anger management program.
In 2014, he was given a summons for disorderly conduct after an argument with police who stopped him from riding his bike down a one-way street in New York. And in 2011, he was thrown off a plane for refusing to stop playing the game “Words with Friends” before take-off.
Hutchins, 42, who was originally from Ukraine and grew up on a Soviet military base in the Arctic Circle, once worked as an investigative reporter in Europe, according to her website.
She graduated from the American Film Institute in 2015 and was selected as one of American Cinematographer’s Rising Stars of 2019, according to her website biography.
She described herself as a “Restless Dreamer” and an “Adrenaline junkie” on her Instagram page.
Her last post, two days ago, shows her grinning under a wide-brimmed hat as she rides a horse. “One of the perks of shooting a western is you get to ride horses on your day off:)” she captioned the video.
April Wright, a writer, director and producer, paid tribute to her on Facebook.
“I’m in disbelief,” wrote Wright. “So young, vibrant, and talented. Such a wonderful soul. My heart goes out to her son and family.”
Representatives for Hutchins did not immediately respond to a request for information about her death.
Souza, 48, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children, according to the IMDB website. His LinkedIn page credits him as the “writer/director” of action film Crown Vic and comedy Christmas Trade.
“This is still an active investigation and we do not yet have all the facts,” said SAG-AFTRA, which describes itself as the world’s biggest labor union representing performers and broadcasters.
“We will continue to work with production, the other unions, and the authorities to investigate this incident and to understand how to prevent such a thing from happening again.”