World News

STOCKHOLM: Momen­tum was building on Thursday for direct talks between US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin as both sides sought to avoid a “nightmare” confrontation over Ukraine.

The Russian and US foreign ministers came face to face in Sweden to discuss recent allegations raised by Kiev and its Western allies that Russia could invade ex-Soviet Ukraine this winter.

Western powers have been sounding the alarm for weeks about Russia massing troops along the border with Ukraine, further stoking tensions in an area where a long-running conflict has already left 13,000 dead.

Moscow, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatists fighting Kiev, has strongly denied it is plotting an attack and blames Nato for fuelling tensions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday called for “long-term security guarantees” on his country’s borders to halt Nato’s eastward expansion after meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

As Lavrov warned that the “nightmare scenario of a military confrontation was returning” in Europe, Blinken said it was “likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future”.

Russia also said that it hopes for “contact” between Putin and Biden in the coming days.

“The date has not yet been agreed. There are difficulties in aligning the calendars of the two leaders, but contact is very necessary, our problems are multiplying,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

“There is no movement on bilateral affairs, which are more and more reaching an acute crisis phase. There is no mutual understanding about how to de-escalate the situation in Europe,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

“The situation in Europe is very alarming,” he added.

“It’s clear that this will be one of the main topics of discussion at the presidential level.”

Attending a meeting in Stockholm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lavrov accused Nato of inching its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.

Blinken said the US had “deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine,” and warned Moscow of “serious consequences” if Russia “decides to pursue confrontation”.

But the top US diplomat also struck a conciliatory note, saying the US was ready to “facilitate” the “full implementation” of the Minsk peace accords.

The Minsk deal was reached after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and aimed at resolving the conflict with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine but was never enforced.

“The best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy,” Blinken said.

DUBAI: Ehab Fouad was a teenager when he marched in the parade marking the birth of the United Arab Emirates, that has gone from desert outpost to regional powerhouse in 50 years. The retired civil engineer, now 64, vividly recalls December 2, 1971, when he proudly held aloft the photo of the oil-rich Gulf state’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, and saw its new flag for the first time.

Fouad, who strode directly behind the flag-bearer, tears up when he remembers the Abu Dhabi parade and reflects on the decades that followed. “Fifty years later, I feel special,” said the Egyptian father of one. “It was a remarkable journey for me, and a remarkable journey for this country,” said Fouad, who lives with his family in Dubai, one of the country’s seven emirates.

Foreigners make up 90 percent of the UAE’s population, which has grown to 10 million from around 300,000 when its emirates came together to form a federation, even if its tough laws make most of them ineligible for citizenship. Driven by major oil wealth, the former British protectorate has left behind its humble beginnings of tents and simple, mud-brick houses to become one of the biggest players in the Middle East, both economically and politically.

Dubai, a former pearling town and now a brash trade and financial centre, boasts a forest of skyscrapers including the world’s tallest building, the 830-metre Burj Khalifa. “Some people here used to build their houses from date tree branches, then mud bricks, and today it is all villas and towers,” Fouad said.

The late Sheikh Zayed “believed deeply in Arab nationalism, and worked to unite the seven emirates into a single federation”, said Elham Fakhro, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank. “It remains the only functional system of federalism in the Arab world.” Among the world’s top producers of crude, the UAE’s rapid growth since the 1970s is linked closely to its oil and gas wealth.

However, Dubai, with scant oil resources compared to the capital Abu Dhabi, has blossomed as a financial, transport, tourist and media hub. The Arab world’s second-biggest economy behind Saudi Arabia also wields growing political influence, filling a space ceded by traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the UAE’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has included taking part in wars, such as Yemen, and mediating in several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.

It is also a beacon for many Arab youth fleeing conflict-ridden countries. “The UAE has long been concerned about its relative vulnerability, in a region where it is surrounded by larger, more powerful states,” Fakhro said. “Its policy following independence was relatively neutral, but since the Arab Spring it has adopted a more activist foreign policy that aims to shape events in the region to its favor.”

The UAE, a staunch opponent of political Islam, has become something of a steward in the turbulent region. Last year, it took the surprise step of recognizing Zionist entity, breaking with decades of Arab consensus that eschewed ties with the Jewish state. “As a committed regional and international actor, we know we need to take on even more responsibility for the future direction of our region,” presidential adviser Anwar Gargash said. “We have had numerous vacuums over the last decade… We cannot stand by and watch these vacuums filled by malign actors.”

Accusations by human rights groups of violations during its intervention in Yemen’s conflict, and in prosecutions of dissidents, have not stopped the Emirates becoming a magnet for investment. The UAE has in recent years relaxed its laws to attract more investments, branding itself a “zero tax” haven. It lifted a cap on non-local ownership, allowed full foreign control of business ventures, and offered long-term “golden” visas to investors and “exceptional talents” such as artists, doctors, engineers and scientists.

Known in the 19th century as the Trucial States, named after a maritime truce, the seven emirates had been a British protectorate since 1892. But Sheikh Zayed, who ran oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the biggest and wealthiest of the emirates, saw an opportunity to slowly build a powerful state by joining its family-run neighbors under one flag. Today, golden jubilee celebrations will include an airshow, a floating theatrical performance on a mountain lake, parades, concerts and fireworks.

BRIDGETOWN: Barbados ditched Britain’s Queen Elizabeth as head of state, forging a new republic on Tuesday with its first-ever president and severing its last remaining colonial bonds nearly 400 years after the first English ships arrived at the Caribbean island.

At the stroke of midnight, the new republic was born to cheers of people lining Chamberlain Bridge in the capital, Bridgetown. A 21-gun salute was fired as the national anthem of Barbados was played over a crowded Heroes Square.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, stood as Queen Elizabeth’s royal standard was lowered and the new Barbados declared, a step which republicans hope will spur discussion of similar proposals in other former British colonies that have the Queen as their sovereign.

“We the people must give Republic Barbados its spirit and its substance,” Sandra Mason, the island’s first president, said.

“We must shape its future. We are each other’s and our nation’s keepers. We the people are Barbados.”

Barbados casts the remo­val of Elizabeth II, who is still queen of 15 other realms including the United King­dom, Australia, Canada and Jamaica, as a way to finally break with the demons of its colonial history.

“The creation of this republic offers a new beginning,” said Prince Charles. “From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery which forever stains our history, people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.”

In a message to the new president, the 95-year-old queen sent her congratulations to Barbadians who she said have held a special place in her heart.

“I send you and all Barbadians my warmest good wishes for your happiness, peace and prosperity in the future,” she said.

After a dazzling display of Barbadian dance and music, complete with speeches celebrating the end of colonialism, Barbadian singer Rihanna was declared a national hero by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the leader of Barbados’ republican movement.

The birth of the republic, 55 years to the day since Barbados declared independence, unclasps almost all the colonial bonds that have kept the tiny island tied to England since an English ship claimed it for King James I in 1625.

WASHINGTON: Families of the 9/11 victims want the entire $7 billion of Afghan assets — withheld at the US Federal Reserve — paid as compensation for the terrorist attacks that killed and injured thousands, the US media reported on Monday.

The New York Times reported that the Biden administration “is scheduled to tell a federal court on Friday what outcome would be in the US national interest,” — returning the money to Kabul or distributing it among the survivors and families of the 9/11 victims.

“The US Justice Department has been negotiating with lawyers for the 9/11 plaintiffs a potential deal to divide up the money, if the government supports their attempt to seize it,” the report added.

“The White House National Security Council has been working with agencies across the government to weigh the proposal.”

About 150 family members of Sept 11 victims went to the courts nearly 20 years ago to seek compensation for their losses. Almost 3,000 people were killed, and more than 5,000 were injured. The lawsuit named targets, like Al Qaeda and Taliban, who, they said, orchestrated the attack and therefore must pay the compensation as well.

A decade later, a court found the defendants liable by default and ordered them to pay damages now worth about $7 billion.

The judgment, however, seemed symbolic as the US invaded Afghanistan soon after the attacks, deposed the Taliban regime and decimated Al Qaeda.

On Aug 15 this year, the Taliban returned to power and claimed that about $7 billion of the Afghan central bank, frozen at the US Federal Reserve in New York, was rightfully theirs.

Governments around the world rushed to contain a new, heavily mutated Covid-19 strain on Sunday, with Israel slamming its borders shut to foreign nationals and Australia reporting its first cases of the variant.

The variant now known as Omicron has cast doubt on global efforts to fight the pandemic because of fears that it is highly infectious, forcing countries to reimpose measures many had hoped were a thing of the past.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain — particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Several countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also announced plans to restrict travel from southern Africa, where it was first detected.

Pakistan's National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) on Saturday placed a complete ban on travel from six south African countries and Hong Kong in the wake of the discovery of the new variant.

The notification said travel had been restricted from South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia as well as Hong Kong.

These countries, the NCOC added, had been placed in category C — which includes nations from where people face restrictions and can only travel to Pakistan under specific NCOC guidelines — consequent to the emergence of the Omicron strain in South Africa and its spread to adjoining regions.

The strictest announcement, however, came from Israel, which said on Sunday it would close its borders to all foreigners in a bid to curb the spread of the variant — just four weeks after reopening to tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid-19.

“We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, adding that the country would order 10 million PCR test kits to stem the “very dangerous” strain.

Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not, the prime minister's office said.

But the virus strain has already slipped through the net and has now been found everywhere from the Netherlands to Hong Kong and Australia, where authorities on Sunday said they had detected it for the first time in two passengers from southern Africa who were tested after flying into Sydney.

The arrival of the new variant comes just a month after Australia lifted a ban on citizens travelling overseas without permission, with the country's border also set to open to skilled workers and international students by the year's end.

Both cases were fully vaccinated, authorities said, and landed the same day that Canberra announced a sweeping ban on flights from nine southern African countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The speed at which governments slammed their borders shut took many by surprise, with travellers thronging Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans.

In the Netherlands, 61 passengers tested positive after arriving on two flights from South Africa in an ordeal one passenger described as “Dystopia Central Airline Hallway”.

New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen said passengers, including babies and toddlers, were crammed together waiting to get tested, while “still 30 per cent of people are wearing no mask or only over mouth”.

Scientists in South Africa last week said that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant with at least 30 mutations, compared with three for Beta or two for Delta — the strain that hit the global recovery hard and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown.

The variant has also revived geopolitical fault lines exacerbated by the pandemic, with the US quick to hail South Africa's openness about the new strain — a thinly veiled jab at China's handling of information about the original outbreak.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday “praised South Africa's scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa's government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world”, a State Department statement said.

But South Africa has complained it is being unfairly hit with “draconian” air travel bans for having first detected the strain, which the World Health Organisation has termed a “variant of concern”.

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.

Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is racing to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fuelled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) panel named the variant “Omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union (EU) in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning on Monday. Biden issued a declaration later on Friday making the travel prohibition official, with exceptions for US citizens and permanent residents and for several other categories, including spouses and other close family.

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than five million people around the globe.

“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant Omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the Beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3 per cent, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13pc.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.

Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions on Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the US was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: “Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.”

The White House said government agencies needed the time to work with airlines and put the travel limits into effect.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules".

She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”

“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first EU country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.

Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was “a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations”.

He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.

Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced on Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers’ exact vaccination status.

After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway on Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.

“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bug before, we’re catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6pc of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses”.

The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing Covid-19 could be reversed.

“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome”.

The US restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned the entry of any foreigners who had travelled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.

The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have travelled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.

The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three Covid-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective from Sunday.

UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary General António Guterres urged governments on Thursday to redouble their efforts for ending violence against women by 2030 as the world began 16 days of activism to highlight the issue.

Violence against women is not inevitable, the UN chief said in a message.Change is possible, and now is the time to redouble our efforts so that together, we can eliminate violence against women and girls by 2030.

For thirty years, the United Nations observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and this year it also kick-started 15 days of activism to highlight the issue across the globe.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described gender-based violence as the ‘shadow pandemic’ and emphasised the need to combat it as an emergency.

We recommit to preventing and responding to gender-based violence as a moral and strategic imperative, as a fairness and equity issue, and as a driver of our collective prosperity and security, he said.

In New York, UN Women chief Sima Bahous said gender-based violence (GBV) was a global crisis. In all of our own neighbourhoods, there are women and girls living in danger.

Around the world, conflict, climate-related natural disasters, food insecurity and human rights violations are exacerbating violence against women, she said.

The United Nations also issued a report, pointing out that more than 70 percent women have experienced violence in some crisis settings.

The report shows that in both rich and poor countries alike, gender prejudice has fuelled acts of violence towards women and girls. And this violence often goes unreported, silenced by stigma, shame, fear of the perpetrators and fear of a justice system that does not work for women,Ms Bahous said.

According to this report: Nearly 1 in 3 women experience violence at some stage and during crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the violence increases.

Data from 13 countries since the pandemic, shows that 2 in 3 women reported living in fear of violence and food insecurity during the pandemic. Only 1 in 10 women said that victims would go to the police for help.

Stopping this violence starts with believing survivors, adopting comprehensive and inclusive approaches that tackle the root causes, transform harmful social norms, and empower women and girls. With survivor-centred essential services across policing, justice, health, and social sectors, and sufficient financing for the women’s rights agenda, we can end gender-based violence,the UN report adds.

The UN also suggests long-term strategies that tackle the root causes of violence, protecting the rights of women and girls, and promoting strong and autonomous women’s rights movements.

UN partner countries last year witnessed a 22 per cent increase in prosecution of perpetrators; 84 laws and policies were passed or strengthened; and more than 650,000 women and girls were able to access help – despite pandemic-related restrictions.

Go to top