US defense chief slams China’s drive for hypersonic weapons

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed the US would maintain its capability to deter potential threats posed by China. (AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2021

US defense chief slams China’s drive for hypersonic weapons

  • China’s growing military muscle and its drive to end American predominance in Asia triggers unease in Washington

SEOUL: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that China’s pursuit of hypersonic weapons “increases tensions in the region” and vowed the US would maintain its capability to deter potential threats posed by China.
Austin made the remarks in Seoul following annual security talks with his South Korean counterpart that focused on challenges from China and North Korea and other issues facing the allies.
“We have concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue. Again, the pursuit of those capabilities increases tensions in the region,” Austin said referring to China’s latest hypersonic weapons test in July and using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official name.
“It just underscores why we consider the PRC to be our pacing challenge,” Austin said. “We’ll continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter against a range of potential threats from the PRC to ourselves and to our allies.”
China’s growing military muscle and its drive to end American predominance in Asia has triggered unease in Washington. China’s efforts to accelerate its military capabilities were highlighted by its July test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting the Earth before reentering the atmosphere and gliding on a maneuverable path to its target.
Experts say the weapons system is clearly designed with a purpose of evading US missile defenses, although China insisted it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile.
On North Korea, Austin said he and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook discussed a wide range of topics including bilateral unity in the face of the threat from the North. The two agreed that North Korea’s advancement of its missile and other weapons programs “is increasingly destabilizing for regional security,” Austin said.
The US and South Korea remain committed to a diplomatic approach to North Korea, he added.
Suh said the allies share an understanding that “diplomacy and dialogue based on previous commitments between South and North Korea and between North Korea and the United States is essential for achieving permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Despite severe pandemic-related economic hardships, North Korea has continuously rebuffed US offers to resume talks, saying Washington must first abandon its hostility toward the North. The Biden administration maintains that international sanctions on North Korea will stay in place unless the country takes concrete steps toward denuclearization.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon released the results of a global posture review that directs additional cooperation with allies and partners to deter “potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea.” The review also informed Austin’s approval of the permanent stationing of a previously rotational attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in South Korea.


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

Updated 57 min 42 sec ago

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

  • Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M became available to that age group in a number of areas
  • Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves

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.