Australia’s New South Wales marks its highest COVID-19 death count

Healthcare workers wait for the next vehicle at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing clinic as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Sydney, Australia, December 30, 2021.(File/Reuters)
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Updated 09 January 2022

Australia’s New South Wales marks its highest COVID-19 death count

  • Despite the outbreak, political leaders have cited Australia’s high vaccination rate to justify a reopening plan

SYDNEY: Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, recorded its highest number of daily COVID-19 deaths on Saturday as the omicron variant sweeps the country and lawmakers face pressure to close widening supply chain gaps.
The home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million people reported 16 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous day. New South Wales reported 30,062 new infections, near record levels.
The second-largest state, Victoria, which hosts the Australian Open tennis tournament this month, reported 44,155 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths.
The country reported just under 100,000 cases overall, down from a record 116,025 the previous day, but still surpassing most previous peaks. Total deaths for the day were 36.
With the surge bringing a rush for government-funded pop-up testing clinics, the authorities have shifted their messaging and urged people to instead take rapid antigen tests at home, then report positive results to their doctor, who enters it into a database.
Authorities are calling for calm amid reports of bare supermarket shelves as people stay home to avoid infection and delivery personnel self-isolate due to virus exposure.
“We have seen very low rates of significant illness,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters. “It is the workforce furloughing which remains the principal challenge at this point in time.”
The government and its health advisers have cut mandatory isolation times for close contacts and narrowed the definition of close contacts but were still reviewing the rules for furloughing workers, Hunt said.
Australia meanwhile plans to start vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 on Monday. Most states said they would begin the new school year as scheduled at the end of January but Queensland, the third most populous state, said it would postpone the return to school by two weeks to give children time to be vaccinated.
Despite the outbreak, political leaders have cited Australia’s high vaccination rate — more than 90 percent of people over 16 are fully vaccinated — to justify a reopening plan. But several states in recent days have postponed non-urgent elective surgery to clear hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and reintroduced mask mandates.
New South Wales, which emerged from more than 100 days of lockdown late last year, has reinstated a ban on dancing and drinking while standing up in bars.


Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

Updated 9 sec ago

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

PARIS: A French court on Friday ordered the customs agency to release a second impounded yacht owned by a Russian billionaire hit by European sanctions, citing procedural errors made during its seizure.
Customs agents seized the 17-meter “La Petite Ourse II” on March 21 after its owner, Alexey Kuzmichev, one of the main shareholders of Russia’s Alfa Bank, was sanctioned by the EU for his ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel, which was moored at Cannes on the Cote d’Azur.
His other yacht, La Petite Ourse, which is moored in nearby Antibes and was also seized in March, was released in October after a similar ruling by the Paris appeals court.
Customs agents in both cases had cited fraud investigations when they presented themselves to shipyard authorities, which under French law permits customs to search a vessel but did not apply in this context.
According to his lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, Kuzmichev has not used La Petite Ourse since the first ruling in October and wanted to sue the French authorities to win back access to both boats in order to make a point, not to go out to sea.
“We want the respect of the law. We cannot take measures against countries, saying rights are not respected, and then not respect the law (ourselves),” he said.
The ruling underlines the challenges faced by European nations in freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs.
The customs agency did not reply to requests for comment immediately.

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

Updated 09 December 2022

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

  • ‘Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights’

LONDON: Britain on Friday announced sanctions against 30 people worldwide, including Russian and Iranian officials, targeting those it deems responsible for acts of torture, sexual violence, and the violent repression of street protests.
The move came a day after France announced plans for new European Union sanctions against Iran over human rights abuses in its security crackdown on popular unrest there as well as its supply of drones to Russia before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The British government said its sanctions were coordinated with international partners to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and Global Human Rights Day. They encompassed individuals involved in activities including the torture of prisoners and the mobilization of troops to rape civilians.
“Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.
Those sanctioned include Russian Col. Ramil Rakhmatulovich Ibatullin for his role as the commander of the 90th Tank Division, which has been involved in fighting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
The government said there have been multiple allegations made against serving members of the 90th Tank Division, including the conviction in Ukraine of a senior lieutenant on sexual abuse charges during the conflict.
Russia, which has said it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to eliminate threats to its security, has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians.
Britain also sanctioned 10 Iranian officials connected to Iran’s prison systems. This included six people linked to the Revolutionary Courts that have been responsible for prosecuting protesters with sentences including the death penalty.
Nationwide protests that erupted after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 have posed one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.
The British government sanctioned Ali Cheharmahali and Gholamreza Ziyayi, former directors of Evin prison in Tehran, which it said was a facility notorious for the mistreatment of both Iranian and foreign detainees.
The foreign office said the sanctions against 11 countries across seven sanctions regimes were the most that Britain has ever imposed in one package.
Britain also sanctioned figures involved in Myanmar’s military, which it said were involved in committing massacres, torture and rape.
Among those sanctioned by Britain were Myanmar’s Office of the Chief of Military and Security Affairs, which it said had been involved in torture since last year’s military coup, including rape and sexual violence.

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Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap

Updated 09 December 2022

Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap

  • Kremlin’s Dmitry Peskov: Relations between the two countries remain in a ‘sorry state’
  • Moscow-Washington tensions lately soared over range of issues

MOSCOW: Russia said Friday that its ties with the United States were still in “crisis” despite a prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have soared in recent months over a range of issues, peaking after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into pro-Western Ukraine.
“It is probably wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusions that this could be a step toward overcoming the crisis that we currently have in bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Izvestia newspaper.
Ties “continue to remain in a sad state,” he said, adding that talks with US authorities allowed “a Russian citizen, who was basically held captive by the Americans for 14 years... to return to his country.”
Dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” Bout was released Thursday in a prisoner swap in Abu Dhabi involving WNBA star Griner, 32, who was jailed in Russia for possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
Bout, 55, was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
He was arrested in an American sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.


India’s Modi wins huge in home state

Updated 09 December 2022

India’s Modi wins huge in home state

  • Modi’s party wins at least 147 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature
  • Modi was state premier in 2002 in Gujarat when 1,000 people were killed in riots

AHMEDABAD, India: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party won by a crushing landslide in his home state, election results showed Thursday, in a strong performance ahead of a national vote due in 2024.

In its best-ever performance in the western state of around 60 million people, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won at least 147 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature, up from 99, and was expected to win another nine once all votes were counted.

Modi campaigned hard in Gujarat, the state where he was chief minister for 12 years before ascending to become prime minister in 2014, and which voted on December 1 and 5.

Thanking the people of Gujarat, Modi said on Twitter he was “overcome with a lot of emotion” by the results.

“People blessed politics of development and at the same time expressed a desire that they want this to continue at a greater pace,” Modi tweeted.

Modi was state premier in 2002 when around 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence in post-independence India.

The once-mighty Congress party managed just 16 seats, its worst performance ever in the state.

The BJP also saw off a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which governs the capital New Delhi and Punjab and which was hoping to expand its reach. It won just five seats.

The BJP has ruled Gujarat continuously for 27 years, and the party and its allies head governments in 16 of India’s 28 states.

The deep-pocketed party with a strong social media operation pulled out all the stops in the campaign, fielding many new faces including a former Congress activist, Hardik Patel, along with the wife of a star cricketer.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, said that the result was all the more remarkable after 135 people died in a bridge collapse in Gujarat in October that was blamed on corruption.

Voters “see their welfare in Modi’s political security,” he told AFP.

“This kind of result in Gujarat no doubt smoothens BJP’s path to 2024 (national elections).”

Earlier this year, the BJP scored a strong win in Uttar Pradesh to become the first party to win two back-to-back elections in India’s most populous state, which also sends the most members to the national parliament.

However, the BJP lost power to Congress in Himachal Pradesh, election results in the small northern state of around seven million people showed.

The next national elections in the world’s biggest democracy are due in 2024 when Modi, 72, is widely expected to run for a third term.


Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Updated 08 December 2022

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

  • Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroscepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone
  • At Giurgiu, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometres begins forming from dawn

GIURGIU, Romania: After more than 10 years waiting to be admitted into the Schengen zone, Bulgaria and Romania were once more turned away after two EU countries vetoed their admission.
Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroskepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone through which passport checks are not normally required.
Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca spoke of his “profound disappointment” after Austria blocked their admission.
In Bulgaria, President Rumen Radev regretted what he described as the “internal borders” he said were being put up with the European Union bloc.
Their failure to win admission to the Schengen’s vast zone of free movement means that the long lines at various border crossings will continue.
At Giurgiu, for example, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometers begins forming from dawn.
Jaded long-haul drivers speaking to AFP in early December in Giurgiu, on the Romanian side, told of long hours waiting for the customs checks before they could enter Bulgaria.
Alexandru Birnea, 36, a long-haul driver for 13 years, said joining the Schengen zone would improve the lives of thousands of truckers.
“We would like to avoid losing all this time and therefore money in endless queues so that we can get back to our families more quickly,” he said.
But his pessimism about the outcome of the vote turned out to be well founded.
The European Commission has long expressed its wish for a widened Schengen zone.
But while tourist hotspot Croatia received the green light on Thursday, Romania and Bulgaria were left out in the cold.
Both countries joined the European Union back in 2007, before Croatia. Both countries met the technical criteria set out by Brussels.
But both countries were asked to make progress on judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts and were monitored for improvements.
When that process ended, both countries were hopeful that they had cleared the final hurdle. improvements.
But Austria hardened its stance, denouncing an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded.
“The migratory flows do not pass through Romania,” but mainly through Serbia, Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode argued.
He pointing to the nearly 140,000 migrants on the western Balkan route recorded by the European agency Frontex since January.
Prime Minister Ciuca said Austria’s refusal was based on “incorrect” figures.
But for political analyst Sergiu Miscoiu, Austria’s veto was more a reflection of internal political pressures, given the rise in polls of the far right there.
The Netherlands finally changed its position and gave Romania the green-light after long being opposed. But it maintained its concerns about “corruption and human rights” in Bulgaria.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that he wanted to be assured that no-one could “cross the border with a 50-euro note.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev rejected what he described as “insulting” remarks, especially given the “exceptional efforts” they had made to meet Brussels’ demands.
Bulgarian weekly magazine Capital commented: “We expect the impossible from the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU: don’t let migrants pass through (the country), but give asylum to every migrant who enters,” it remarked.
And analyst Miscoiu warned that a negative vote could “strengthen the euroskeptics, especially in Bulgaria, which has already had four elections in the past two years.”
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis also warned that rejection “might compromise European unity and cohesion, which we so need, especially in the current geopolitical context.”