Philippines tells China to ‘back off’ after South China Sea standoff

The BRP Sierra Madre, a marooned transport ship which Philippine Marines live on as a military outpost. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 18 November 2021

Philippines tells China to ‘back off’ after South China Sea standoff

  • Philippines condemns actions of Chinese coast guard vessels that blocked and used water cannon on resupply boats

MANILA: The Philippines on Thursday condemned “in strongest terms” the actions of three Chinese coast guard vessels that it said blocked and used water cannon on resupply boats headed toward a Philippine-occupied atoll in the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said no one was hurt during Tuesday’s incident at the Second Thomas Shoal but the Philippines boats, which were transporting food to military personnel based there, had to abort their mission.
“China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off,” Locsin said in a statement, reminding China that a public vessel is covered by a Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.
Locsin said he had conveyed “in the strongest terms” to China’s ambassador in Manila “our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident.”
China’s embassy did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
The Second Thomas Shoal, 105 nautical miles (195 km) off Palawan, is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and a small contingent of military have occupied it since 1999 having intentionally grounded a navy ship on the reef.
China regards the shoal as its territory as it falls within the “nine-dash line” that it uses on maps denoting its claim to almost the entire South China Sea. A 2016 international arbitration ruling, however, said the Chinese line had no legal basis.
Locsin said China’s failure to exercise self-restraint “threatens the special relationship” between the two countries.
The office of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been a staunch supporter of China, said it was aware of the incident at the shoal.
“We will continue to assert our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” acting spokesperson Karlo Nograles said.
Before the incident, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said authorities had noticed an unusual presence of Chinese maritime militia near the atoll and Philippine-occupied Thitu island. China has denied operating a militia.
There were 19 vessels near Second Thomas Shoal last week, and 45 near Thitu Island, Esperon told reporters, describing those as “very aggressive.”


Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

Updated 2 sec ago

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

MOSCOW: Russia on Wednesday expanded a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine for children aged 12-17 to include more regions, amid the country’s biggest infection surge yet due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M — a version of the Sputnik V vaccine that contains a smaller dose — became available to that age group in a number of areas spanning from the Moscow region surrounding the capital to the Urals to Siberia and the far east.
On Wednesday, the jab became available to teenagers in Volgograd, Astrakhan and Kursk. In Moscow, the vaccination campaign will start in the coming days, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova told reporters on Wednesday.
Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves, authorities said.
Russia in recent weeks has faced an unprecedented surge of coronavirus infections, with the number of daily confirmed cases increasing five-fold between Jan. 10, when about 15,000 new infections were reported, and Wednesday, when officials tallied 74,692 — another all-time high in the pandemic.
Moscow, the outlying region and St. Petersburg are hit the hardest by the surge and account for about half of all daily new infections.
Officials in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Wednesday sounded the alarm about a sharp spike of COVID-19 infections in children.
Moscow city health department said the number of children infected with the virus increased 14 times in the past two weeks, from 2,000 a week to 28,000. The number of hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 grew ten-fold, the department said in a statement, and in half of those cases children contracted the virus while undergoing elective hospital care for other conditions.
In light of those findings, city officials decided to halt elective hospital care for children for three weeks.
In St. Petersburg, the infection rate among those under 17 has grown eight-fold over the past week, local officials said. Starting Friday, minors in Russia’s second largest city will be barred from attending any extra-curricular classes or activities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday said there were no plans to introduce remote learning nationwide.
Russian authorities have generally avoided imposing any major restrictions to stem the surge, saying the health system has been coping with the influx of patients.
Furthermore, earlier this month parliament indefinitely postponed introducing restrictions for the unvaccinated that would have proven unpopular among vaccine-hesitant Russians. And this week health officials cut the required isolation period for those who came in contact with COVID-19 patients from 14 days to seven without offering any explanation for the move.
In all, Russia’s state coronavirus task force has reported more than 11.3 million confirmed cases and 328,105 deaths, by far the largest death toll in Europe. Russia’s state statistics agency, which uses broader counting criteria, puts the death toll much higher, saying the overall number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 was over 625,000.
Just about half of Russia’s 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though Russia boasted about being the first country in the world to approve and roll out a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine.

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

Updated 26 January 2022

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

  • Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions
  • “We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden's Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Sweden announced Wednesday that several coronavirus restrictions will be extended for another two weeks.
Meanwhile neighboring Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions.
“We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden’s Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said. “The assessment is that existing measures need to remain in place for another two weeks.”
“If the situation allows it, the restrictions will be lifted after that,” she said.
Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, said the reasoning for extending the restrictions is that they expect a decline in cases in a couple of weeks. She said the Scandinavian country had 270,000 new infections in the past seven days and that “our assessment is that, during this period, at least half a million can fall ill per week.”
In Sweden which has previously stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic, has ordered cafes, bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m., urged people to work from home when possible and said distance learning was an option in higher education to try to combat rising COVID-19 infections.
Denmark, meanwhile, is heading in the opposition direction.
In a letter Tuesday to the Danish lawmakers, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said he wants to follow the recommendations by Parliament’s Epidemic Commission so that the “categorization of COVID-19 as a socially critical disease will be abolished as of Feb. 1.”
The letter said “this is a new epidemic situation in which a high and increasing infection does not to the same extent as previously translate into hospitalizations.” The letter was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday ahead of a planned press conference with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
It was not immediately clear what restrictions Danes will end but they likely will include the digital health pass, which now must be used to enter museums, nightclubs, cafes, party buses and to be seated indoors in restaurants.
In Denmark, people above 15 must also flash the pass when attending outdoor events where the capacity exceeds 2,000.
In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin tweeted that “the government will assess the necessity of (the) restrictions” and “should consider opening low-risk cultural and sports events with a COVID pass and extending the opening hours of restaurants on a quicker schedule than was previously estimated.”


Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents

Updated 26 January 2022

Austria to lift lockdown for unvaccinated residents

  • Once the mandate goes into effect, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules

BERLIN: Austria will end its lockdown for unvaccinated residents next Monday — one day before a COVID-19 vaccine mandate takes effect in the country, the government announced Wednesday, according to Austrian news agency APA.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said the measure, which was introduced in November, was no longer needed because there was no threat of hospital intensive care units being overstretched, APA reported.
For weeks, the lockdown for the unvaccinated has been “a measure that many people complained about, but that was unavoidable for health policy reasons,” Nehammer said.
On Feb. 1, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults — the first of its kind in Europe — will take effect in the small Alpine country. Officials have said the mandate is necessary because vaccination rates remain too low. They say it will ensure that Austria’s hospitals are not overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. So far, 75.4 percent of the country’s residents have been fully vaccinated.
Once the mandate goes into effect, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules.
From mid-March, police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks; people who can’t produce proof of vaccination will be asked to do so in writing, and will be fined up to 600 euros ($676) if they don’t.
If authorities judge the country’s vaccination progress still to be insufficient, Nehammer said earlier this month, they would then send reminders to people who remain unvaccinated. If even that doesn’t work, people would be sent a vaccination appointment and fined if they don’t keep it. Officials hope they won’t need to use the last measure. Fines could reach 3,600 euros if people contest their punishment and full proceedings are opened.


Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack

Updated 26 January 2022

Ukraine says Russian troop build-up ‘insufficient’ for major attack

  • ‘At the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border’
KIEV: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that the number of Russian troops deployed along his country’s border was not enough for a major attack.
“The number of Russian troops amassed along the border of Ukraine and occupied territories of Ukraine is large, it poses a threat to Ukraine, a direct threat to Ukraine,” Kuleba told reporters.
“However, at the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border.”

UK police arrest two more men over Texas synagogue attack

Updated 26 January 2022

UK police arrest two more men over Texas synagogue attack

  • The day-long siege occurred on Jan. 15 when a British man took four people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville

LONDON: British police said on Wednesday they had arrested two men in the northern English city of Manchester as part of a US investigation into a hostage taking at a synagogue in Texas earlier in January.
British police had previously said they had arrested four people over the incident: two teenagers in Manchester plus one man in Birmingham and another man in Manchester. The teenagers have been released without charge.
The day-long siege occurred on Jan. 15 when a British man took four people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, about 16 miles northeast of Fort Worth, Texas. The gunman died as federal agents stormed the temple while the four hostages were released unharmed.