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Japan PM Suga promises to shore-up pandemic-hit medical system

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says his government will take all possible measures to protect the country's medical system, as hospitals creak under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Photo: AFP Suga this month issued a state of emergency for Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures in a bid to stem a resurgence of infections. He expanded it to seven more prefectures, including Osaka and Kyoto in western Japan. "What is important is to provide necessary medical services to people in need. We will exhaust all measures to safeguard the medical system," Suga said in his policy speech at the start of a regular session of parliament. "We are all ready to deploy the Self-Defence Forces' medical team if requested by governors." Japan, though less seriously hit by the pandemic than many other advanced economies, has seen infections spike in recent weeks, prompting Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa to say the nation's medical system is collapsing. The outbreak has forced Japan to largely shut its doors to foreigners and limit large-scale events. Administrative reform minister Taro Kono told Reuters on Thursday the once-delayed Tokyo Olympics may not go ahead as planned. But Suga reiterated his resolve to host the Games this summer. "We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world," he said. Total coronavirus cases in Japan have doubled over the past six weeks to about 330,000, according to public broacaster NHK, with 4,525 fatalities. On diplomacy, Suga called South Korea an important neighbour but said bilateral ties were in a very severe situation. A Seoul court this month ordered Japan to compensate 12 women who had been forced to work in its wartime brothels. Japan says the issue of "comfort women," as the women are euphemistically known, was settled under a 1965 treaty, and the two countries agreed to "irreversibly" end the dispute in a 2015 deal. "To bring relations back to an even keel, we strongly demand the South Korean side take appropriate steps," he said. - Reuters
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Migrant caravan: Guatemala blocks thousands bound for US

A caravan of US-bound Central American migrants has been met with truncheons and tear gas in Guatemala, where security forces blocked their path. Honduran migrants, part of a caravan heading to the United States, gather to pray in Vado Hondo, Guatemala on 17 January. Photo: AFP Thousands of people were intercepted on a road near the border with Honduras on Sunday (local time). The government said it would not accept "illegal mass movements". An estimated 7000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, have entered in recent days, fleeing poverty and violence. They hope to travel on to Mexico, and then the US border. Every year, tens of thousands of Central American migrants attempt this perilous journey to try and reach the US, often on foot. President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, has vowed to end to the strict immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, a Republican. But the Biden administration, which will take office on Wednesday, has warned migrants not to make the journey, as immigration policies will not change overnight. Impeded by security forces As the migrants trekked across Guatemala towards its border with Mexico, they were impeded by security forces near the south-eastern village of Vado Hondo. A group of soldiers and police officers blockaded a road, stopping many of them from advancing. Some people still attempted to force their way through, prompting security forces to push them back. Footage carried by local media showed troops using tear gas, riot shields and sticks to repel the migrants. Several people were injured in the melee. Many migrants retreated, with some waiting nearby to make a new attempt later. Others fled into nearby mountains. "Fortunately, our security forces managed to contain this pitched battle," Guillermo Díaz, head of Guatemala's migration agency, told the New York Times. "We managed to calm everything in a very complicated situation." A statement from the Guatemalan president's office said: "Guatemala's message is loud and clear: These types of illegal mass movements will not be accepted, that's why we are working together with the neighbouring nations to address this as a regional issue." Escaping social oppression The migrants say persecution, violence and poverty are a daily reality in their home countries. Conditions have been made worse by the devastation wrought by two huge hurricanes that battered Central America last November. So, in search of a better life, they want to reach the US in the hope of finding work and safety. Dania Hinestrosa, a 23-year-old travelling with her daughter, told AFP news agency: "We have no work, nor food, so I decided to go to the United States." The promise of new immigration policies under Biden's administration is also thought to have spurred some migrants to make an attempt to reach the US border. What is the incoming US administration saying? Members of Biden's team have warned Central American migrants not to make dangerous journeys to the border. Speaking to NBC News, an unnamed senior Biden administration official said migrants attempting to claim asylum in the US "need to understand they're not going to be able to come into the United States immediately". The Biden administration will prioritise undocumented immigrants already living in the US, not those heading to the country now, the official said. "Processing capacity at the border is not like a light that you can just switch on and off," Susan Rice, one of Biden's policy advisers, told the Spanish language news agency Efe in December. "Migrants and asylum seekers should absolutely not believe those in the region selling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on day one. It will not." Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, last week urged would-be migrants at the southern border not to "waste your time and money". The US commitment to the "rule of law and public health" is not affected by the change in administration, he said in a statement. More than a dozen caravans, some with thousands of migrants, have set off from Central America in recent years. One of the largest came from Honduras in October 2018, provoking President Trump to brand it "an invasion". But all have run up against resistance under Trump, who put pressure on Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to crack down on illegal north-bound migration. - BBC
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Australian Deputy PM criticises 'prioritising' tennis players over stranded citizens

As top tennis stars descend on Melbourne for the upcoming tennis grand slam, many Australians question the decision to host the tournament when thousands of citizens are stranded overseas due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Australian Open takes place at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Photo: PHOTOSPORT The most significant criticism came from the nation's deputy prime minister Michael McCormack, who said the country should not be prioritising the arrival of international tennis players over farm workers from Pacific nations. McCormack this afternoon said the Victorian government was yet to approve a plan that would allow workers to quarantine on farms before being able to help pick produce. Australia has halved the number of people who can return to the country each week as positive coronavirus cases in hotel quarantine rise, prompting airline Emirates to indefinitely suspend flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Australians criticised the government on social media, questioning how it could make room for 1200 tennis players and their entourages for next month's Australian Open, but not its own citizens. Four more Australian Open participants, including one player, had been recorded with Covid-19 infections and more cases may come to light as testing continues, officials said today. It brings the total number to nine. "If you want to come to Australia during a pandemic you have to be a sports star, movie celebrity or a billionaire media tycoon," said user Daniel Bleakley on Twitter, using the hashtag #strandedAussies. "Citizenship and an Australian passport alone are not enough." Others said the funds used to host the tournament could have been diverted to boost hotel quarantine facilities and healthcare systems to help bring back stranded Aussies. Officials in Victoria state, home to the Open, said hosting the tournament did not come at the cost of about 40,000 stranded Australians. "No-one has been set aside coming from other jurisdictions into Victoria by virtue of the Australian Open going ahead," said Brett Sutton, Victoria chief medical officer. "They are separate decisions that are made upon their own merits." Adding to the frustration for stranded Australians, the head of health department today warned Australia may not fully reopen its international borders this year. "Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don't know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus," Brendan Murphy told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Strict limits The nine reported positive Covid-19 results associated with tennis has prompted authorities to send three Australian Open charter flights into hard quarantine and force more than 70 players into 14-day hotel room isolation. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reiterated today the government was committed to bringing back its citizens. "When it comes to Australian who are stranded... we, as the federal government, are working to help more Australians get back home," Frydenberg told reporters in Melbourne, adding 446,000 Australians have returned since the pandemic began in March. The government yesterday announced an additional 20 repatriation flights to bring back stranded Aussies, saying they would not be counted within the existing traveller caps. - Reuters
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Sulawesi quake death toll at 81 as Indonesia battles series of disasters

A powerful earthquake that struck Indonesia's Sulawesi island last week has killed at least 81 people and displaced more than 19,000, the country's disaster mitigation agency said, as search and rescue efforts continued on Monday local time. A general view shows a collapsed building in Mamuju Photo: AFP The 6.2-magnitude quake, part of a string of disasters to hit the Southeast Asian archipelago in recent weeks, struck West Sulawesi in the early hours of Friday morning, sending thousands fleeing from their beds. Disaster mitigation spokesman Raditya Jati said in a statement on Monday that 81 people were confirmed to have died, while more than 250 had been seriously injured. There was also significant damage to hundreds of homes, a mall, a hospital and several hotels. With thousands displaced, authorities were also working to stem the spread of the coronavirus among evacuees, including by conducting rapid antigen tests, the official said. Aside from the earthquake, the world's fourth-most populous country also suffered a plane crash on 9 January that killed 62 people as well as a deadly landslide in Java and the eruption of the Merapi and Semeru volcanoes. President Joko Widodo was also due to fly to the province of South Kalimantan on Borneo island on Monday to view flood damage after at least 15 people died following weeks of torrential rains. Straddling the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is regularly hit by earthquakes. In 2018, a devastating 7.5-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami struck the city of Palu, in Sulawesi, killing thousands. The country's meteorology agency has warned of aftershocks in Sulawesi, along with the risk of extreme weather and other flood dangers in the coming weeks. - Reuters
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Fijian to head UN Human Rights Council

A Fijian has been elected to head the United Nations Human Rights Council, the first time a Pacific country has held the role. Nazhat Shameem Khan Photo: AFP Fiji's ambassador to Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan, will serve as the council's president for this year. She was elected by an unprecedented secret ballot after a diplomatic stand-off prevented a consensus decision. Khan, who was a favourite of western countries, won 29 of the 47 votes, beating off competition from Bahrain and Uzbekistan. Khan - and Fiji - will lead the council at a time of intensifying competition and scrutiny over states holding abusers to account. Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the appointment as coming at a critical time for humanity. New Zealand Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said it would see Pacific voices represented at an important global forum.
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New Mexico official who vowed to protest Biden inauguration arrested in Washington

The US Justice Department said on Sunday (local time) that it had arrested an elected official from New Mexico who had vowed to travel to Washington with firearms to protest President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. A National Guard member patrols outside the US Capitol. Photo: AFP / 2021 Getty Images Cuoy Griffin, a New Mexico county commissioner and founder of a group called "Cowboys for Trump," was arrested in Washington on charges related to the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, according to documents posted on the Justice Department's website. Griffin was among the thousands who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Democrat Biden's victory over Republican President Donald Trump, according to charging documents. He stood on the steps of the building but did not enter it. Authorities said he returned to New Mexico after the riot, where he said at a 14 January meeting of the Otero County Council that he planned to drive back to Washington with a rifle and a revolver to protest Biden's inauguration this Wednesday. It was not immediately clear whether Griffin was carrying firearms when he was arrested on Sunday. He has been charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority. Twitter has also locked the account of Republican US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a political newcomer known for promoting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory. The social media platform suspended her account after the newly elected Georgia congresswoman sparred with a state election official over baseless voter fraud allegations. Greene's account "has been temporarily locked out for multiple violations" of Twitter's 'civic integrity policy', a company representative said in an emailed statement. Greene accused Twitter of suppressing conservative political voices. "The borderline monopolistic stranglehold a few Big Tech companies have on the American political discourse is out of control," she said in a statement. Greene promoted online conspiracy theory QAnon in a 2017 video but later backtracked, saying it was not part of her campaign. She won a House seat in conservative rural northwest Georgia after her Democratic opponent dropped out. QAnon backers have pushed conspiracies on social media that include the baseless claim that US President Donald Trump secretly is fighting a cabal of child-sex predators, among them prominent Democrats, figures in Hollywood and "deep state" allies. Twitter suspended tens of thousands of accounts primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content after the violence in Washington this month when supporters of Trump stormed the US Capitol. Federal authorities have brought criminal charges against more than 100 people so far in connection with the 6 January riot, in which Trump's supporters ransacked offices at the Capitol and in some cases attacked police. Investigators are scouring more than 140,000 videos and photos from the siege. US officials said on Sunday they had charged Chad Barrett Jones of Kentucky with assaulting a federal officer, destruction of government property and trespassing, among other charges. Video evidence shows Jones using a wooden flagpole to try to break glass door panels in the House of Representatives, officials said. Law enforcement officials have been bracing for further violence across the country ahead of Biden's inauguration. More than a dozen states activated National Guard troops to help secure their capitol buildings following an FBI warning of armed demonstrations by right-wing extremists. But by late Sunday afternoon, only handfuls of demonstrators had taken to the streets. - Reuters Relate
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Four more Australian Open participants infected with Covid-19

Four more Australian Open participants, including one player, have been recorded with Covid-19 infections and more cases may come to light as testing continues, officials said on Monday. The Australian Open takes place at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. Photo: PHOTOSPORT Health authorities in Victoria state have now reported nine infections among passengers that arrived in Melbourne on charter flights for the February 8-21 Australian Open. "All four are associated with the tennis, and they're all tucked away safely in hotel quarantine," Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews told reporters of the new cases. Passengers on three Australian Open charter flights have now been sent into hard quarantine, including more than 70 players who are unable to train for 14 days ahead of the year's first Grand Slam. "I think the people who tested positive thus far were probably exposed before they got on the flights," Victoria Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said. "But it will be the test results in coming days that will give us a picture of whether anyone's had infection transmitted to them on a flight. "That's why the rules are extremely strict for these tennis players and their entourage, as much as for any other international arrival." - Reuters
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Reports Biden to cancel Keystone XL pipeline permit on first day in office

US President-elect Joe Biden is planning to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit via executive action on his first day in office, CBC News has reported. Photo: 2021 Getty Images A briefing note from the Biden transition team to US stakeholderswas widely circulated over the weekend, the Canadian broadcaster reported. The words "Rescind Keystone XL pipeline permit" appeared on a list of executive actions likely scheduled for the first day of Biden's presidency, according to the report. Biden's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Twitter he was "deeply concerned" by the report, adding that canceling the presidential permit for the pipeline would kill jobs "on both sides of the border," weaken US-Canada relations and undermine American national security by making the United States more dependent on OPEC oil imports. The Keystone pipeline is operated by TC Energy Corp. The $9 billion project, which would move oil from the province of Alberta to Nebraska, had been slowed by legal issues in the United States. It was seen to face a potential fatal blow when Biden takes office on Wednesday (local time) if he followed through on a vow to scrap the oil pipeline's presidential permit. Former Democratic President Barack Obama axed the project in 2015, saying Canada would reap most of the economic benefits, while the project would add to greenhouse gas emissions. Outgoing Republican President Donald Trump issued a presidential permit in 2017 that allowed the line to move forward, and several environmental groups sued the US government. - Reuters
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US state capitals see few protesters after bracing for violent demonstrations

A heavy presence of law enforcement officers guarded state capitol grounds across the United States on Sunday (local time) in preparation for protests that so far have drawn only a small number of Trump supporters who believe the president's false claim that the 2020 election was rigged. A member of the National Guard provides security at the US Capitol in Washington DC. Photo: AFP More than a dozen states have activated National Guard troops to help secure their capitol buildings following an FBI warning of armed demonstrations, with right-wing extremists emboldened by the deadly attack on the US Capitol in Washington on January 6. Security officials had eyed Sunday as the first major flashpoint, as that is when the anti-government "boogaloo" movement made plans weeks ago to hold rallies in all 50 states. Capitals in battleground states, where Trump has directed his accusations of voter fraud, were on especially high alert. But by the afternoon, only handfuls of demonstrators had taken to the streets alongside much larger crowds of law enforcement officers and media personnel. About a hundred police officers and National Guardsmen, wearing helmets and armed with wooden batons, were assigned to protect Pennsylvania's capitol in Harrisburg on Sunday. Only a handful of Trump supporters showed up, including Alex, a 34-year-old drywall finisher from Hershey, Pennsylvania who said he had been at the January 6 siege of the US Capitol but did not storm the building. He declined to give his last name. Wearing a hoodie emblazoned with "Fraud 2020", he said he believed November's presidential election was stolen and wanted to show his support for Trump. He noted the lack of protesters at the Pennsylvania capitol on Sunday. "There's nothing going on," he said. On Sunday afternoon, police opened streets around the building that had been blocked off in anticipation of bigger crowds. A similarly small group of about a dozen protesters, a few armed with rifles, stood outside Michigan's capitol in Lansing. One wore fatigue pants, a tactical vest and blue Hawaiian shirt, a trademark of the anti-government boogaloo movement. Members of the Michigan Boogaloo Bois, an anti-government group, stand with their long guns near the Capitol Building in Lansing, Michigan. Photo: AFP or licensors "I am not here to be violent and I hope no one shows up to be violent," said one man standing on the lawn in front of the capitol. The man, who refused to give his name, wore a "Make America Great Again" hat and waving a "Don't tread on me" flag. In Atlanta, several hundred law enforcement officers and National Guard troops milled around Georgia's state house. Chain-link fences and cement barriers protected the Capitol grounds and multiple armored vehicles were stationed nearby. In addition to increasing police presence, some states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Kentucky, took the further step of closing their capitol grounds to the public. Preparing for violence The nationwide security uptick followed the attack on the US Capitol in Washington by a mix of extremists and Trump supporters, some of whom called for the death of Vice President Mike Pence as he presided over the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's election victory. The FBI and other federal agencies have warned of the potential for future violence leading up to Biden's inauguration on Wednesday, as white supremacists and other extremists seek to exploit frustration among Trump supporters who have bought into his falsehoods about electoral fraud. Tens of thousands of security personnel from the National Guard and law enforcement agencies have descended upon Washington, DC, to bolster security ahead of Wednesday's ceremony. National Guard troops in Washington DC. Photo: 2021 Getty Images Downtown Washington was largely a ghost town on Sunday. Gun-toting National Guard soldiers in camouflage manned checkpoints across the city center, which was closed off to traffic with large military vehicles deployed to block streets. It was not clear whether the FBI warning and ramped up security presence around the country might have led some protesters to cancel plans to go to their state capitols. Following the January 6 violence in Washington, some militia members said they would not attend a long-planned pro-gun demonstration in Virginia on Monday, where authorities were worried about the risk of violence as multiple groups converged on the state capital, Richmond. The streets around the statehouse in Richmond were lined with barricades on Sunday afternoon, but aside from a few clusters of police officers and reporters, the area was deserted. Some militias and extremist groups have told followers to stay home this weekend, citing the increased security or the risk that the planned events were law enforcement traps. Bob Gardner, leader of the Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia, said his group had no plans to be in Harrisburg this weekend, where the Capitol has been fortified with barricades and will be protected by hundreds of members of its National Guard. "We've got our own communities to worry about," Gardner said earlier this week. "We don't get involved in politics." - Reuters
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