Japan to bar new foreign arrivals over COVID-19 variant

Japan will ban the entry of foreigners from around the world starting from November 30 as a precaution against the new coronavirus variant. (AFP)
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Updated 09 December 2021

Japan to bar new foreign arrivals over COVID-19 variant

  • Decision that reverses a measure to allow some business travelers and students into Japan

TOKYO: Japan announced plans Monday to bar all new foreign travelers over the omicron variant of COVID-19, joining a growing list of countries trying to erect virtual fortresses against the heavily mutated new strain.

G7 health ministers are set to meet later in the day to discuss the new strain — first detected in South Africa — and the fresh challenge it poses to global efforts to battle the pandemic.

The Japanese government has become the latest country to reinstate strict border controls that many had hoped would be a thing of the past, barring all new foreign arrivals just weeks after announcing it would finally allow some visa holders to enter the country.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country was “in a stronger position against the omicron variant than other countries,” citing voluntary mask-wearing and self-restraints about risk behaviors.

The Philippines also said it would temporarily suspend plans to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry, in a bid to prevent the variant taking off in a country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.

Manila had hoped to revive the country’s battered economy by allowing jabbed tourists entry as of Wednesday.

The variant is also throwing a tentative opening-up into doubt in Australia, where the government is now reconsidering plans to relax border restrictions further in just two days.

But with three omicron cases confirmed in people flying into Australia from southern Africa — two landing in Sydney and one in the northern city of Darwin — Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared reluctant to re-impose the kinds of strict lockdowns seen earlier this year.

“We don’t just need to learn to live alongside COVID, we need to learn to live alongside the variants as well,” he said.

Much of the uncertainty surrounds just how infectious omicron is and how resistant it is to existing vaccines.

The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome on Sunday released the first “image” of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant, though said that does not mean it is more dangerous.

But European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday governments faced a “race against time” to understand the strain and that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations.”

A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.

Israel has announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged closure.

Angola on Sunday became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbors Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

South Africa has strongly protested the new restrictions, with its foreign ministry claiming it is being “punished” for first identifying a strain that has now been detected everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Canada to Hong Kong.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday urged countries to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies,” while his counterpart in Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.

The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new COVID strain.

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti said.

But in a sign of optimism, Singapore and Malaysia eased coronavirus travel restrictions on one of the world’s busiest land borders after nearly two years.

As of Monday, vaccinated citizens, those holding permanent residency status and work permits can cross the one-kilometer causeway separating the countries without having to quarantine.

And despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the government’s recent introduction of compulsory vaccination — the first EU country to do so.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was “a minor interference” compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Updated 53 min 28 sec ago

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

  • Soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours
  • Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989

SRINAGAR, India: Three Indian soldiers and two suspected militants were killed Thursday after rebels stormed a military camp in disputed Kashmir, officials said.
At least two assailants armed with guns and grenades attacked the camp in the remote Darhal area of southern Rajouri district early Thursday, said Mukesh Singh, a senior police officer.
The soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours, Singh said.
A reinforcement of soldiers and counterinsurgency police encircled the camp as the fighting raged inside, officials said.
In addition to the five deaths, two soldiers were injured in the fighting, Singh said.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
On Wednesday, police said government forces killed three rebels in Budgam district during a counterinsurgency operation.
India and Pakistan claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety.
Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

Updated 11 August 2022

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

  • Police on Tuesday said they detained 51-year-old Muhammad Syed immigrant from Afghanistan
  • Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings when questioned by police, says New York Times

ALBUQUERQUE: Muslims in New Mexico interviewed on Wednesday said they felt shock and shame at the arrest of a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan in connection with the murders of four Muslim men.
Police on Tuesday said they detained 51-year-old Muhammad Syed. A motive for the killings remains unclear, but police said he may have acted on personal grudges, possibly with intra-Muslim sectarian overtones.
Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings when questioned by police, according to the New York Times.
“We’re in complete total disbelief. Speechless. You know, kind of embarrassed to say he was one of our own,” said Mula Akbar, an Afghan-American businessman who said he had helped Syed settle in the city.
“His hatred of Shiites might have had something to do with it,” Akbar said.
Syed was from the Sunni branch of Islam and prayed together at Albuquerque’s Islamic Center of New Mexico (ICNM) mosque with most of the victims, three of whom were from the Shiite branch of Islam. All four victims were of Afghan or Pakistani descent. One was killed in November, the other three in the last two weeks.
Syed, who made his first appearance in court Wednesday, was formally charged with killing Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1.
Police said on Tuesday they were working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, a truck driver killed on Friday, and Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021, outside the grocery store he ran with his brother in southeast Albuquerque.
It was not immediately clear if Syed had retained a lawyer.
Police declined to comment on rumors Syed was angry one of his daughters had eloped and married a Shiite man.
The daughter told CNN that her husband was friends with two of the men who were killed, Aftab Hussein and Naeem Hussain. The woman, who CNN did not name out of concern for her safety, said her father was not happy when she married in 2018 but had become accepting more recently.
“My father is not a person who can kill somebody. My father has always talked about peace. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting,” she told CNN.
Palestinian-American Samia Assed said the Muslim community of around 4,000 in Albuquerque had work to do to prevent violence they left behind in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This took me back to 9/11 when I just wanted to hide under a rock,” said the human rights activist after she hosted an interfaith memorial at the ICNM, Albuquerque’s oldest and largest mosque.
“For this to happen it’s like setting us back 100 years,” she said.
The mosque is nonsectarian, serves mainly Sunnis from over 30 countries and has never before experienced violence of this kind, according to congregants interviewed by Reuters.
Syed is a truck driver, has six children, is from Pashtun ethnicity and arrived in the United States as a refugee about six years ago from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, said Akbar, a former US diplomat who worked on Afghan issues and helped found the Afghan Society of New Mexico.
Syed developed a record of criminal misdemeanors over the last three or four years, including a case of domestic violence, police said.
Video from February 2020 showed him slashing the tires of a vehicle at the ICNM believed to be owned by the family of the first known victim, Ahmadi, according to the mosque’s president, attorney Ahmad Assed.
“We’re in a surreal time trying to make sense of these senseless killings we’ve suffered,” he said. 

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

Updated 11 August 2022

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

  • Kim Jong Un's powerful sister blamed leaflets from the South for causing the COVID outbreak in her isolated country
  • Seoul expresses regrets over the groundless claims and  threatening remarks by North Korea's leader

SEOUL, South Korea: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures eased just three months after acknowledging an outbreak, claiming the country’s widely disputed success would be recognized as a global health miracle.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also reported Thursday that Kim’s sister said her brother had suffered a fever and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets flown from across the border from South Korea, while warning of deadly retaliation.
Some experts believe North Korea has manipulated the scale of the outbreak to help Kim maintain absolute control of the country amid mounting economic difficulties. They believe the victory statement signals Kim’s aim to move to other priorities but are concerned his sister’s remarks portend a provocation.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing strong regret over North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” that were based on “ridiculous claims” about the source of its infections.
Since North Korea admitted to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, it has reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It has claimed the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and just 74 people have died.
“Since we began operating the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), daily fever cases that reached hundreds of thousands during the early days of the outbreak were reduced to below 90,000 a month later and continuously decreased, and not a single case of fever suspected to be linked to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his speech Wednesday, according to KCNA.
“For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world’s history of public health,” he said.
For Kim to declare victory against COVID-19 suggests that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting a broken and heavily sanctioned economy further damaged by pandemic border closures or conducting a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
South Korean and US officials have said North Korea could be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid run of weapons tests this year that included its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
The provocative testing activity underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security concessions, experts say.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the South Korean military was maintaining firm readiness and prepared for “various possibilities” of North Korean provocations.
The bellicose rhetoric of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is concerning because it indicates she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on the South and is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation, Easley said.
North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by balloons flown from South Korea — a questionable and unscientific claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible.
Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysteric farce” kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation. She claimed that her brother had suffered fever symptoms and praised his “energetic and meticulous guidance” for bringing an “epoch-making miracle” in the fight against COVID-19.
“(South Korean) puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it toughly,” she said. “We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
Kim Yo Jong’s reference to Kim Jong Un’s illness wasn’t further explained.
Outside experts suspect the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
In May, Kim prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be met, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
At the virus meeting, Kim called for the easing of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

Updated 11 August 2022

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

  • Supporters of President Donald Trump have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home
  • Trump is being investigated by the US Justice Department for potential mishandling of classified information

OMAHA, Nebraska: The director of the FBI had strong words Wednesday for supporters of former President Donald Trump who have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Christopher Wray, who was appointed as the agency’s director in 2017 by Trump, called threats circulating online against federal agents and the Justice Department “deplorable and dangerous.”
“I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” Wray said. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
Wray made the remarks following a news conference during a long-planned visit to the agency’s field office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he discussed the FBI’s focus on cybersecurity. He declined to answer questions about the hours-long search Monday by FBI agents of Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida resort.
It has been easy to find the threats and a call to arms in those corners of the Internet favored by right-wing extremists since Trump himself announced the search of his Florida home. Reactions included the ubiquitous “Lock and load” and calls for federal agents and even US Attorney General Merrick Garland to be assassinated.
On Gab — a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites — one poster going by the name of Stephen said he was awaiting “the call” to mount an armed revolution.
“All it takes is one call. And millions will arm up and take back this country. It will be over in less than 2 weeks,” the post said.
Another Gab poster implored others: “Lets get this started! This unelected, illegitimate regime crossed the line with their GESTAPO raid! It is long past time the lib socialist filth were cleansed from American society!“
The search of Trump’s residence Monday is part of an investigation into whether Trump took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department has been investigating the potential mishandling of classified information since the National Archives and Records Administration said it had received from Mar-a-Lago 15 boxes of White House records, including documents containing classified information, earlier this year.


Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

Updated 18 sec ago

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

  • The two men were escorted off an aircraft in Seattle after a fellow passenger told flight attendants they had been talking and sending text messages in Arabic

LONDON: Two Muslims have filed a lawsuit accusing Alaska Airlines of discrimination for allegedly removing them from a flight prior to takeoff because they were “talking and texting in Arabic.”

According to Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, the incident occurred after they boarded a flight from Seattle to San Francisco in February 2020. They said the airline’s staff humiliated them “before their fellow passengers by unnecessarily deplaning (them) and allowing (other passengers) to observe plaintiffs surrounded by uniformed law enforcement personnel.”

The men said that they had been talking and texting in Arabic in the first-class cabin when a fellow traveler informed flight attendants about the text messages. They allege that an Alaska Airlines employee subsequently removed them from the flight due to a “ticket issue.”

This is not the first time that Arab passengers have complained about the way they were treated by airline staff in the US. In 2019, for example, Issam Abdallah said he was “humiliated” when an American Airlines flight to Texas he boarded in Alabama was canceled because crew members felt “uncomfortable” with him on the flight.

In 2016, Khairuldeen Makhzoom, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic and saying the phrase “inshallah” (which means God willing) during a telephone conversation.