Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) disembarks from an aircraft upon his arrival at the airport in New Delhi on July 27, 2021. (AFP)
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A medical staff takes a swab sample of a passenger to do a mandatory RT-PCR test after alighting from an inter-state train in Mumbai. (AFP)
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Updated 28 July 2021

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

  • Top US diplomat to meet PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday

NEW DELHI: New Delhi is a priority for the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to India on Tuesday will provide an opportunity to deepen bilateral ties, explore COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, experts said.

“The visit is important in the larger context of the US-India relationship because it shows that there is a consistent engagement with India and India is a priority,” Harsh V. Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told Arab News.

On Wednesday, Blinken is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 23, announcing Blinken’s two-day visit.

It added that discussions would focus on “regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan, and cooperation in the UN.”

Analysts said the visit could also lay the groundwork for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries — comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US — likelyto be held in September and mainly aimed at drawing up measures to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region which, according to Pant, sent out a “larger message” about New Delhi’s role.

“We have seen the US secretary of defense coming to India earlier this year, we have seen (US President Joe) Biden calling the Quad leadership summit early on in his term, and now we have the secretary of state coming to India. I think there is a larger message about the Indo-US relationship and how important America sees India as a partner,” he said.

A virtual summit of the Quad group held in March created a working group on COVID-19 vaccine delivery, with India as the lead manufacturer committing to produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for southeast Asian and Pacific countries grappling with a spike in infections.

Blinken’s visit could create an opportunity to “bolster the global strategic partnership” between India and the US and focus on ways to support Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid territorial gains amid a drawdown of US-led foreign troops from the country after 20 years of occupation.

Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation saw India withdraw its staff from its consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif earlier this month.

“There are some apprehensions about the way things are moving in Afghanistan,” Pant added. “Therefore, from India’s perspective, it would be important to get a sense of what the American plan for Afghanistan is.”

Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director at the Takshashila Institution, said India’s primary concern would be to “deny space” in Afghanistan to “Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups” and that there might be some discussions toward this goal.

On Monday, India said that it was also “willing to discuss” its human rights record if Blinken raised it during the bilateral talks.

“India has a plural tradition and multicultural society,” and it is willing to “discuss any human rights issue,” a source in the Indian government, who could not be identified under government policy, told Arab News.

It comes after Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters in Washington D.C. on Friday that “the human rights and democracy question” would be part of the talks between Indian and US foreign ministers.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters, and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory.

India’s human rights record became even more pronounced after the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists, while awaiting bail.

Pant said that bringing up the issue for talks reflected the “pressures” that Biden’s administration was under from various US constituencies.

“I think those who deal with India and the US know that historically India is cagey about including outsiders on domestic issues,” he added.


Shooting in Russian university leaves dead, wounded

Updated 37 sec ago

Shooting in Russian university leaves dead, wounded

  • The unidentified perpetrator used a non-lethal gun, according to the Perm State University press service
MOSCOW: A gunman opened fire in a university in the Russian city of Perm on Monday morning, leaving an unspecified number of people dead and more than 10 wounded, according to local health officials.
The unidentified perpetrator used a non-lethal gun, according to the Perm State University press service. Students and staff of the university locked themselves in rooms, and the university urged those who could leave the campus to do so.
The gunman was later detained, Russia’s Interior Ministry said, adding that the shooting left some people dead, but not clarifying how many.
The state Tass news agency cited an unnamed source in the law enforcement as saying that some students jumped out of the windows of a building.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether those reported wounded sustained injuries from the shooting or from trying to escape the building.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a murder probe in the aftermath of the incident.

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Updated 48 min 56 sec ago

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

  • Up to a hundred public schools in areas considered ‘minimal risk’ for coronavirus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial

MANILA: The Philippines will reopen up to 120 schools for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said Monday.
While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.
“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”
Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial.
Twenty private schools can also participate.
Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons limited.
Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.
“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.
Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch Covid-19 and infect elderly relatives.
But there have been growing calls from the UN’s children fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country.
It is not clear when the pilot will begin or which schools will be included.
A “blended learning” program, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.
France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the decision was “long overdue.”
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.


‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

Updated 20 September 2021

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

  • Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Paul Rusesabagina
  • The trial of 67-year-old former hotelier and 20 other defendants began in February

KIGALI: A court is set to deliver its verdict Monday against Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero turned government critic who is charged with terrorism in a trial supporters say is politically motivated.
Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Rusesabagina, the 67-year-old former hotelier credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the Hollywood film.
Rusesabagina, who used his subsequent fame to denounce Rwandan leader Paul Kagame as a dictator, was arrested in August 2020 when a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed instead in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
He is accused of supporting a rebel group blamed for deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
His family say Rusesabagina was kidnapped and dismiss the nine charges against him, including terrorism, as payback by a vengeful government for his outspoken views.
Kagame has in turn rejected criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in the dock not because of his fame but over the lives lost “because of his actions.”
“He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status,” Kagame said in television interview earlier this month, declaring that he would be “fairly tried.”
The trial of Rusesabagina and 20 other defendants began in February.
But the Belgian citizen and US green card holder has boycotted it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and a lack of independence.”
The United States — which awarded Rusesabagina its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 — along with the European Parliament and Belgium have raised concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
US rights group the Lantos Foundation this month urged Britain to reject the credentials of Kigali’s new ambassador to London, Johnston Busingye, saying that when he was justice minister he played a “key role in the extraordinary rendition and kidnapping” of Rusesabagina.
Presiding judge Antoine Muhima has defended the proceedings, saying none of the accused has been denied the right to speak.
The verdict was initially due in August but was put back until Monday.
Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Tutsis.
A decade later the American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience.
Rusesabagina soon became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned president whose forces ended the mass killings.
He accused Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the United States.
Abroad, he used his global platform to crusade for political change in Kigali, and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile.
Kagame’s government accuses Rusesabagina of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group which is blamed for the attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
Rusesabagina has denied any involvement in the attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
Prosecutors in June said Rusesabagina “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.”
But his co-defendants gave conflicting testimony about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
His family, who have campaigned globally for his release, say Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuse the Rwandan authorities of torturing him in custody.
According to the Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports him, they regard the trial as a “farce from start to finish... put in place by the Rwandan government to silence critics” and discourage “future dissent.”
In July, a media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, was spied on using Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a cell phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian dual national, had been compromised multiple times.
For opposition official Victoire Ingabire, who spent six years in prison for terrorism, the verdict is not in doubt.
“In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive,” she said.
“How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?”


Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Updated 20 September 2021

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

  • Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne

SYDNEY: Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state on Monday reported its lowest rise in daily COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks as some lockdown restrictions were eased in Sydney, the state capital, amid higher vaccination levels.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 935 new cases had been detected in the state, the lowest daily tally since Aug. 27, and down from 1,083 on Sunday. The state reported four more deaths.
“We’re feeling more positive than we have in a couple of weeks ... but I don’t want any of us to sit back and think the worst is behind us,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, warning of more deaths in the days ahead.
“Because we have seen the accumulation of so many cases, we know that October is going to be very challenging for our hospital system.”
Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, forcing officials there to abandon a COVID-zero target and shift to rapid vaccinations to ease curbs.
As the vaccine rollout gathers speed, with 53 percent of NSW’s adult population fully vaccinated, some restrictions were relaxed on Monday in 12 of the worst-hit suburbs in Sydney’s west. Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted, while fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five.
Neighboring Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, logged one new death and 567 new infections, its biggest daily rise this year, a day after revealing its roadmap back to freedom when vaccinations reach 70 percent, expected around Oct. 26.
So far, 44 percent of people in the state have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 47 percent.
Meanwhile, several workers protested outside a union office in Melbourne against Victoria’s mandatory vaccination rule in the construction sector, local media reported.
The New Zealand Breakers basketball team, which play in Australia’s National Basketball League, released guard Tai Webster on Monday after he decided not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Australia has largely lived in COVID-zero for much of the pandemic, recording 1,167 deaths and some 87,000 cases. About 56,000 cases have been registered since mid-June when the first Delta infection was detected in Sydney.
While NSW and Victoria bear the brunt of the Delta outbreak, most other states with little or no community transmission fear opening up too soon could overwhelm their hospital systems.


New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

Updated 20 September 2021

New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

  • The city will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday

WELLINGTON: Coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand’s largest city Auckland will be eased slightly from Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference.
The city, which is at the center of the latest Delta variant outbreak, will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday, Ardern said. Schools and offices will still remain closed at level 3 but businesses can operate contactless services.
The rest of the country will remain at alert level 2, she said.