UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach

Britain's defense minister Ben Wallace apologized and his ministry suspended an official Tuesday after a “significant” data breach involving the email addresses of dozens of Afghan interpreters hoping to settle in the UK. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 September 2021

UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach

  • British media reports said the people whose email addresses were distributed included some individuals who are in hiding from the Taliban
  • “On behalf of the Ministry of Defense, I apologize," Defense Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament

LONDON: Britain’s defense minister apologized and his ministry suspended an official Tuesday after a “significant” data breach involving the email addresses of dozens of Afghan interpreters hoping to settle in the UK
A Defense Ministry email to more than 250 Afghans who are eligible for relocation and still remain in Afghanistan was mistakenly copied to all applicants Monday instead of blind copied. British media reports said the people whose email addresses were distributed included some individuals who are in hiding from the Taliban.
“It is an unacceptable level of service that has let down the thousands of members of the armed forces and veterans. On behalf of the Ministry of Defense, I apologize,” Defense Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament.
Investigations are taking place, and officials will help provide security advice to those affected, Wallace added. He told lawmakers that authorities believe there are 900 “credible cases” of Afghan resettlement currently being processed.
The opposition Labour Party welcomed Wallace’s apology but said actions matter more than words.
“These Afghan interpreters worked alongside our British forces and the Government rightly pledged to protect them,” lawmaker John Healey said. “Ministers must make good on those promises now.”
Defense Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood, who like Wallace is a member of the governing Conservative Party, said: “The Taliban haven’t changed, they seek to exact revenge on anybody that worked for NATO. We must get these interpreters out or they’ll be hunted and killed.”
Britain’s government dispatched over 1,000 soldiers, diplomats and officials to Afghanistan in August to evacuate some 15,000 British nationals and Afghan allies after the Taliban took control of the capital, Kabul.

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Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

Updated 3 sec ago

Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

  • Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China
TAIPEI: The odds of war with China in the next year are “very low,” a top Taiwanese security official told lawmakers on Wednesday, amid heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island.
Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China even as it complains of repeated sorties by the Chinese air force in its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ.
“I think generally, within one year, the probability of war is very low,” National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong told a parliamentary defense committee meeting.
“But there are many things you still have to pay attention to, called contingent events.”
Earlier this month, President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not be forced to bow to China, but reiterated a desire for peace and dialogue with Beijing.
Barring any “contingent events,” Chen said, “in the next one year, two years, or three years, during President Tsai’s term, I think there won’t be a problem.”
Chen cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of an unexpected event that has fundamentally changed society.
“Nobody expected that,” he said.
Earlier this month China mounted four consecutive days of mass air force incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, which covers a broader area than Taiwan’s territorial air space. Taiwan monitors and patrols ADIZ in order to give it more time to respond to any threats.
While China’s aircraft did not enter into Taiwan’s airspace, flying primarily in the southwestern corner of its ADIZ, Taiwan views the increased frequency of incursions as part of Beijing’s intensifying military harassment.
China defended its military activities as “just” moves to protect peace and stability, blaming the tensions on Taiwan’s “collusion” with foreign forces — a veiled reference to the United States.
Taiwan says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name.
Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last week that Taiwan will not start a war with China but will “meet the enemy full on.”
Military tensions with China are at their higher point in more than 40 years, Chiu said earlier this month, adding China will be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion by 2025.

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Updated 8 min 47 sec ago

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

  • Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters

VENICE, Italy: After Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its history in November 2019, it was inundated with four more exceptional tides within six weeks, shocking Venetians and triggering fears about the worsening impact of climate change.
The repeated invasion of brackish lagoon water into St. Mark’s Basilica this summer is a quiet reminder that the threat hasn’t receded.
“I can only say that in August, a month when this never used to happen, we had tides over a meter five times. I am talking about the month of August, when we are quiet,” St. Mark’s chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, told The Associated Press.
Venice’s unique topography, built on log piles among canals, has made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels are increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the 1,600-year-old Italian lagoon city, which is also gradually sinking.
It is the fate of coastal cities like Venice that will be on the minds of climate scientists and global leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at a UN climate conference that begins Oct. 31.
Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters (3 feet, 11 inches), according to a new study published by the European Geosciences Union. That is 50 percent higher than the worse-case global sea-rise average of 80 centimeters (2 feet, 7 1/2 inches) forecast by the UN science panel.
The city’s interplay of canals and architecture, of natural habitat and human ingenuity, also has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, a designation put at risk of late because of the impact of over-tourism and cruise ship traffic. It escaped the endangered list after Italy banned cruise ships from passing through St. Mark’s Basin, but alarm bells are still ringing.
Sitting at Venice’s lowest spot, St. Mark’s Basilica offers a unique position to monitor the impact of rising seas on the city. The piazza outside floods at 80 centimeters (around 30 inches), and water passes the narthex into the church at 88 centimeters (34.5 inches), which has been reinforced up from a previous 65 centimeters (25.5 inches).
“Conditions are continuing to worsen since the flooding of November 2019. We therefore have the certainty that in these months, flooding is no longer an occasional phenomenon. It is an everyday occurrence,” said Tesserin, whose honorific, First Procurator of St. Mark’s, dates back to the ninth century.
In the last two decades, there have been nearly as many inundations in Venice over 1.1 meters — the official level for “acqua alta,” or “high water,” provoked by tides, winds and lunar cycles — as during the previous 100 years: 163 vs. 166, according to city data.
Exceptional floods over 140 centimeters (4 feet, 7 inches) also are accelerating. That mark has been hit 25 times since Venice starting keeping such records in 1872. Two-thirds of those have been registered in the last 20 years, with five, or one-fifth of the total, from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 2019.
“What is happening now is on the continuum for Venetians, who have always lived with periodic flooding,” said Jane Da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice. “We are living with flooding that has become increasingly frequent, so my concern is that people haven’t really realized we are in a climate crisis. We are already living it now. It is not a question of plans to deal with it in the future. We need to have solutions ready for today.”
Venice’s defense has been entrusted to the Moses system of moveable underwater barriers, a project costing around 6 billion euros (nearly $7 billion) and which, after decades of cost overruns, delays and a bribery scandal, is still officially in the testing phase.
Following the devastation of the 2019 floods, the Rome government put the project under ministry control to speed its completion, and last year start activating the barriers when floods of 1.3 meters (4 feet, 3 inches) are imminent.
The barriers have been raised 20 times since October 2020, sparing the city a season of serious flooding but not from the lower-level tides that are becoming more frequent.
The extraordinary commissioner, Elisabetta Spitz, stands by the soundness of the undersea barriers, despite concerns by scientists and experts that their usefulness may be outstripped within decades because of climate change. The project has been delayed yet again, until 2023, with another 500 million euros ($580 million) in spending, for “improvements” that Spitz said will ensure its long-term efficiency.
“We can say that the effective life of the Moses is 100 years, taking into account the necessary maintenance and interventions that will be implemented,’’ Spitz said.
Paolo Vielmo, an engineer who has written expert reports on the project, points out that the sea level rise was projected at 22 centimeters (8 1/2 inches) when the Moses was first proposed more than 30 years ago, far below the UN scientists’ current worse-case scenario of 80 centimeters.
“That puts the Moses out of contention,” he said.
According to current plans, the Moses barriers won’t be raised for floods of 1.1 meters (3 feet, 7 inches) until the project receives final approval. That leaves St. Mark’s exposed.
Tesserin is overseeing work to protect the Basilica by installing a glass wall around its base, which eventually will protect marshy lagoon water from seeping inside, where it deposits salt that eats away at marble columns, wall cladding and stone mosaics. The project, which continues to be interrupted by high tides, was supposed to be finished by Christmas. Now Tesserin says they will be lucky to have it finished by Easter.
Regular high tides elicit a blase response from Venetians, who are accustomed to lugging around rubber boots at every flood warning, and delight from tourists, fascinated by the sight of St. Mark’s golden mosaics and domes reflected in rising waters. But businesses along St. Mark’s Square increasingly see themselves at ground zero of the climate crisis.
“We need to help this city. It was a light for the world, but now it needs the whole world to understand it,’’ said Annapaola Lavena, speaking from behind metal barriers that kept waters reaching 1.05 meters (3 feet, 5 inches) from invading her marble-floored cafe.
“The acqua alta is getting worse, and it completely blocks business. Venice lives thanks to its artisans and tourism. If there is no more tourism, Venice dies,” she explained. “We have a great responsibility in trying to save it, but we are suffering a lot.”

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Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

Updated 20 October 2021

Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

  • In the past Taliban barred UN-organized teams from campaigns out of suspicion they could be spies 
  • Some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated

ISTANBUL: UN agencies are gearing up to vaccinate all of Afghanistan’s children under 5 against polio for the first time since 2018, after the Taliban agreed to the campaign, the World Health Organization says.
For the past three years, the Taliban barred UN-organized vaccination teams from doing door-to-door campaigns in parts of Afghanistan under their control, apparently out of suspicion they could be spies for the government or the West. Because of the ban and ongoing fighting, some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated.
The Taliban’s reported agreement now, after becoming the rulers of Afghanistan, appeared aimed at showing they are willing to cooperate with international agencies. The longtime militant insurgent force has been trying to win the world’s recognition of its new government and re-open the door for international aid to rescue the crumbling economy.
Taliban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But WHO and the UN children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement they welcomed the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccinations across the country.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children. Since 2010, the country has been carrying out regular inoculation campaigns in which workers go door to door, giving the vaccine to children. Most of the workers are women, since they can get better access to mothers and children.
But large sections of the country have been out of their reach in recent years. In parts of the south, particularly, the ban by the Taliban was in effect. In other areas, door-to-door campaigns were impossible because of fighting between the government and the insurgents, or because of fears of kidnappings or roadside bombs. In some places, hard-line clerics spoke out against vaccinations, calling them un-Islamic or a Western plot.
WHO said a new nationwide vaccination campaign will begin on November 8, followed by another synchronized with Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign in December.
The estimated target population is Afghanistan’s 10 million children under five, including the more than 3.3 million who could not be reached since 2018, Dr. Hamid Jafari, WHO’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told The Associated Press.
“Restarting polio vaccination in all areas of Afghanistan now will prevent a major resurgence of polio outbreaks within the country and ensure there is no international spread,” Jafari said.
“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan. He said it was a good sign that multiple campaigns are planned. “Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.”
Jafari said the Taliban government had agreed on three key aspects — security for health workers and vaccinators, mobilization of health authorities and the new leadership for the campaign, and communications through religious, tribal and community leaders and media to build trust in the campaign.
He urged families not to be suspicious of the vaccinators going house to house, saying the only intention is to protect children. “They should trust the program. They should trust the vaccine.”
On March 30, three women were gunned down in two separate attacks as they carried out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad. It was the first time vaccination workers have been killed in a decade of door-to-door inoculations against the disease in Afghanistan.
Such attacks have been more common in Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinators and security personnel connected to vaccination campaigns have been killed since 2011.


Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

Updated 20 October 2021

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

  • Explosion happened during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital

KABUL: A grenade was thrown at a Taliban vehicle in the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, wounding two fighters and four nearby school children, government officials said.
“This morning a grenade was thrown at a mujahideen vehicle in Deh Mazang, wounding two mujahideen,” Taliban interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti said.
Another official said: “Our initial information shows four school students wounded.”
The explosion happened just before 8 a.m. (0330 GMT) during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital, a witness said.
“I was on my way to work, it was 7.55am and I heard this very big explosion on the road. I managed to escape,” said Amin Amani.
“I saw a lot of smoke in the mirror of the car and I saw people running,” the 35-year-old translator said.
Images shared on social media showed plumes of smoke and dust rising into the air on the streets of the capital.


Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

Updated 3 min 58 sec ago

Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

  • In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing
  • Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state

DEHRADUN: The death toll from days of flooding and landslides in India and Nepal crossed 100 on Wednesday, including several families swept away or crushed in their homes by avalanches of mud and rocks.
Experts say that they were victims of ever-more unpredictable and extreme weather across South Asia in recent years caused by climate change and exacerbated by deforestation, damming and excessive development.
In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing.
At least 30 were killed in seven separate incidents in Uttarakhand’s Nainital region early Tuesday, after cloudbursts — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered landslides and destroyed several structures.
Five of the dead were from a single family whose house was buried by a massive landslide, local official Pradeep Jain told AFP.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
The floods almost swept away an elephant near the Corbett Tiger Reserve — home to 164 of the big cats and 600 elephants — but in a video that went viral, the animal managed to battle the strong currents and swim to safety.
Uttarakhand reported 178.4 mm rain in the first 18 days of October — almost 500 percent more than the average, the Hindustan Times reported citing Indian Meteorological Department data.
And the state’s Mukteshwar area reported 340.8 mm rainfall in the 24 hours until Tuesday morning, the most since the weather station was set up there in 1897, the newspaper said.
The Indian Meteorological Department forecast a “significant reduction” in rainfall in the state from Wednesday.
In Nepal, 31 were reported dead after days of heavy rains across the country.
Disaster management official Humkala Pandey said that 43 others were still missing.
“It’s still raining in many places... The death toll could go up further,” she added.
In the eastern district of Dhankuta, a landslide buried a house overnight, killing six people including three children.
Swelling rivers flooded homes in several districts, damaging roads and bridges and reportedly destroying crops.
Landslides are a regular danger in the Himalayan region, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric dams.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
The state has reported over 7,750 extreme rainfall events and cloudbursts since 2015 — a majority of them in the last three years.
In Kerala state in southern India, the death toll reached 39 on Wednesday.
The coastal state has been battered by heavy rain since Friday and thousands have been moved to safer locations. More than 200 homes were destroyed and almost 1,400 damaged.
Kerala has also seen an increase in natural disasters, including in 2018 when nearly 500 people perished in the worst flooding in a century.
Environmentalists blame an increase in extreme weather in the warming Arabian Sea as well as excessive development in the Western Ghats mountain range.
After a brief respite, forecasters are warning of more heavy rain in the coming days with alerts issued in several places in Kerala.
Those killed over the weekend included six members of the same family after a landslide buried their house.
Shutters on at least three dams across the state were opened Tuesday including Idukki, one of Asia’s biggest, though State Electricity Board chairman B. Ashok said “there was no need to panic.”