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02
August

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Members of a shadow government set up by opponents of Myanmar's coup condemned on Monday the country's military ruler for taking on the role of prime minister in a caretaker government and said the move was designed to try to win legitimacy.

Military ruler Min Aung Hlaing made the announcement in a speech on Sunday, six months after the army seized power by overthrowing an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The "Provisional Government" replaces the State Administration Council (SAC) chaired by Min Aung Hlaing that has run Myanmar since the coup.

"The transition from a military council to a caretaker government is a reflection of the fact that they are preparing for an international diplomatic battle, trying to prove the fact that they are a government," said Aung Myo Min, minister for human rights in the National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed in April by various groups including members of Suu Kyi's party and pro-democracy activists.

 

"However, there is no denying the fact that the military is not elected by the people," Aung Myo Min said in a post on Facebook.

The creation of the caretaker government was done "in order to perform the country’s duties fast, easily and effectively", a news reader on state Myawaddy television said on Sunday.

In his speech, Min Aung Hlaing repeated a pledge to hold elections by 2023 and said his administration was ready to work with a regional envoy on Myanmar. read more

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been spearheading diplomatic efforts and ASEAN ministers met on Monday to try to appoint an envoy to help end violence and promote dialogue to end the crisis. read more

 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group has accused security forces of killing at least 940 people in suppressing dissent since the coup. The military has said the number of protesters killed is far lower and members of the armed forces have also died in violence, while calling the NUG a terrorist group.

Lahpai Maw Htun Aung, the NUG's deputy minister of electricity and energy, said in a social media post that after six months of violence the junta was trying to win international recognition and legitimacy.

"Putting a sheep's skin on a wolf doesn’t make the wolf less of a wolf," he said. (Reuters)

02
August

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 Indonesia's foreign minister urged Myanmar on Monday to approve the appointment of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special envoy and said little progress had been made on a plan to promote talks between Myanmar's rival sides.

Six months after the military toppled Myanmar's democratically elected government, ASEAN foreign ministers met on Monday to finalise the envoy tasked with ending violence and promoting dialogue between the junta and its opponents.

Talking to media by video conference, Indonesia's Retno Marsudi said the group had made "no significant progress" on implementing its five-point plan to stop the turmoil in Myanmar, which was announced in April.

The delay "does ASEAN no good" and, if inaction went on, the issue should be returned to leaders to give directions, she said.

 

Myanmar has been racked by a deadly crackdown on protests, economic collapse and a refugee exodus since the Feb. 1 coup. A surge in coronavirus infections has overwhelmed its health system, worsening the humanitarian crisis in the past month.

The United Nations and many countries, including the United States and China, have urged the Southeast Asian bloc, whose 10 members include Myanmar, to spearhead diplomatic efforts to restore stability in Myanmar.

"Indonesia hopes that Myanmar will immediately approve ASEAN's proposal for the appointment of a Special Envoy," Retno said.

Indonesia's foreign minister said the envoy should move freely in Myanmar and have full access to "various parties", an apparent reference to ousted lawmakers, many of whom are in prison.

 

Retno did not specify who had been selected for the post of envoy, but diplomats told Reuters that Brunei's second minister for foreign affairs, Erywan Yusof, was strongly favoured to take the position.

Myanmar's military ruler, Min Aung Hlaing, said in a speech on Sunday that the military regime wanted Thailand's former deputy foreign minister Virasakdi Futrakul as envoy, but "new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards".

"Myanmar is ready to work on ASEAN cooperation within the ASEAN framework, including dialogue with the ASEAN special envoy in Myanmar," he said.

ASEAN - whose members include democracies, one-party communist states and authoritarian governments - operates under consensus decision-making principles. This means Myanmar will have to support the envoy's appointment, diplomats said.

 

Myanmar has shown little willingness to adopt ASEAN's five-point plan, instead referring to its own plans for Myanmar's future. In a speech on Sunday, Min Aung Hlaing repeated a pledge to hold elections by 2023.

Retno said ASEAN must provide immediate humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, as well as explore a mechanism for sharing COVID-19 vaccines.

"We must not be silent and allow the suffering of the Myanmar people to continue," she said. (Reuters)

02
August

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 President Ashraf Ghani on Monday blamed Afghanistan's fast-deteriorating security situation on a "sudden" decision by the United States to withdraw its troops, but said his government had a plan to bring conditions under control within six months.

Taliban insurgents have moved in on three provincial capitals in the last few days, amid rapid advances nationwide since Washington said it planned a complete withdrawal of troops by September. read more

"The current situation is due to a sudden decision on the withdrawal of the international troops," Ghani told the Afghan parliament in a speech.

"We have had an unexpected situation in the last three months."

 

However, the Afghan government had a security plan to bring the situation under control within six months, he added, and the United States supported the plan.

The Taliban would not move towards peace unless the worsening security situation was curbed, Ghani said.

Peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators started last year in the Qatari capital of Doha, but have not made any substantive progress despite a few rounds.

The two sides committed to speeding up the talks, however, at a recent meeting in Doha between a high-level Afghan political delegation and the Taliban.

 

Ghani said the militants had not severed ties with terrorist groups, and had stepped up attacks on women and civil society activists.

It was time the Taliban and the Afghan government accepted each other and moved towards a peaceful solution, he added.

The Taliban rejected Ghani's accusations.

"Declarations of war, accusations and lies cannot prolong Ghani's government's life; his time has run out, God willing," the movement's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter. (Reuters)

02
August

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With a new wave of COVID-19 infections fueled by the Delta variant striking countries worldwide, disease experts are scrambling to learn whether the latest version of coronavirus is making people - mainly the unvaccinated - sicker than before.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that Delta, first identified in India and now dominant worldwide, is "likely more severe" than earlier versions of the virus, according to an internal report made public on Friday.

The agency cited research in Canada, Singapore and Scotland showing that people infected with the Delta variant were more likely to be hospitalized than patients earlier in the pandemic.

In interviews with Reuters, disease experts said the three papers suggest a greater risk from the variant, but the study populations are limited and the findings have not yet been reviewed by outside experts. Doctors treating patients infected with Delta described a more rapid onset of COVID-19 symptoms, and in many regions an overall increase serious cases.

 

But the experts said more work is needed to compare outcomes among larger numbers of individuals in epidemiologic studies to sort out whether one variant causes more severe disease than another.

"It's difficult to pin down increase in severity and population bias," said Lawrence Young, a virologist at the UK's Warwick Medical School.

In addition, it is likely that the extraordinary rate of Delta transmission is also contributing to a greater number of severe cases arriving at hospitals, the experts said.

Delta is as contagious as chickenpox and far more contagious than the common cold or flu, according to the CDC report.

 

Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego, said the clearest indication that the variant may cause more severe disease comes from the Scotland study, which found that Delta roughly doubled the risk of hospitalization compared to an earlier version. read more

The majority of hospitalizations and deaths from coronavirus in the United States are occurring in people who have not been vaccinated. But there is evidence that the shots are less effective in people with compromised immune systems, including the elderly.

For vaccinated, otherwise healthy individuals, the odds are that if they contract COVID-19 they will only experience asymptomatic or mild disease, said Dr. Gregory Poland, infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic.

"But they can pass it on to family members and others who may not be so lucky," Poland said. "We have to be vaccinated and masked or we will, for the fourth time now, endure another surge and out of that will come worse variants."

 

'FULL-ON FLAMES'

The rate of severe illness, especially in regions where vaccination rates are low, is again straining healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

"This is like a wildfire, this is not a smoldering campfire. It is full-on flames right now," said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control at Colorado's UCHealth.

Research from China suggesting that the Delta variant replicates much faster and generates 1,000 times more virus in the body compared to the original strain highlights the biggest danger of this new wave, Barron said.

 

"It is hard to tell if they are more sick because of the Delta variant or if they would have been more sick anyway," she said.

Other doctors said patients infected with Delta appear to become ill more quickly, and in some cases with more severe symptoms, than those they treated earlier in the pandemic.

"We are seeing more patients requiring oxygen sooner," said Dr. Benjamin Barlow, chief medical officer at American Family Care, a 28-state chain of urgent care clinics.

At his clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, Barlow said that around 20% of patients are testing positive for COVID-19, compared with 2-3% a few weeks ago. Patients are assessed at that time for potential hospital admission and oxygen support.

 

David Montefiori, director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development at Duke University Medical Center, said the Delta variant is more infectious and leads to faster onset of illness - particularly for the unvaccinated.

"Frankly there's a severity that comes from this variant that is a little more severe," Montefiori said on a webcast last week. "It's not just easier to transmit, it makes you sicker." (Reuters)

02
August

Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan began joint military drills on Monday near the Afghan border amid fears in both countries over a worsening security situation in Afghanistan that could spill over into Central Asia.

Russia said 1,500 Russian and Uzbek troops would take part in the five-day exercises that began at the Termez military site in Uzbekistan, the TASS news agency reported.

In a sign of how serious Moscow is taking the potential threat from Afghanistan, it said it would send a much bigger military contingent to Tajikistan for separate trilateral exercises due to begin there later this week.

Those separate drills are due to take place on Aug. 5-10 and involve Russian, Uzbek and Tajik forces.

 

Security has rapidly deteriorated in Afghanistan amid a U.S. troop withdrawal. Moscow fears that could destabilise its southern defensive flank and push refugees into its Central Asian backyard.

On Monday, Russia's defence ministry said that 1,800 of its soldiers would take part in the Tajik drills, instead of 1,000 as initially planned. More than 2,500 troops would be involved in total, it said.

Moscow will also use 420 units of military hardware for the drills, double the quantity originally planned, it said. (Reuters)

02
August

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New Zealand will open up one-way quarantine-free travel for seasonal workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu to address labour shortages in the horticulture industry, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.

The quarantine-free arrangement is expected to start from September, Ardern said at a news conference. It will only be available to workers who qualify under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, which allows the horticulture sector to recruit labour from overseas for seasonal work when there are not enough New Zealand workers.

The scheme was suspended after the country shut its borders last year due to COVID-19.

"COVID has closed borders and New Zealand like many others experienced workforce shortages," Ardern said.

 

"We know our agriculture sector is experiencing challenges," she said.

Ardern is expected to reveal more details next week about how the country will gradually reopen its borders.

New Zealand has successfully contained the spread of coronavirus within its borders and has reported no community cases since February.

The Pacific island nation has reported about 2,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 26 related deaths. (Reuters)

02
August

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Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said on Sunday that if South Korea carries out a planned joint military exercise with the United States it will damage the resolve of the two Koreas to rebuild relations, state media KCNA reported.

Kim Yo Jong also said a recent decision to restore hotlines between the two Koreas should not be seen as anything more than reconnecting "physical" ties, and that it would be "thoughtless" to assume that summits are around the corner. read more

Her comments come at a time when North and South Korea are in talks to hold a summit as part of efforts to restore relations. Washington and Seoul are due to hold a joint military drill later in August. read more

"Our government and military will keep a close eye on whether the South Koreans go ahead with the aggressive war exercises, or make a big decision. Hope or despair? That's not up to us," Kim Yo Jong said in a statement carried by KCNA.

 

The two Koreas, still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire, on Tuesday reconnected hotlines the North severed in June last year. (Reuters)

02
August

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Australia's Queensland state on Monday extended a COVID-19 lockdown in Brisbane, while soldiers began patrolling Sydney to enforce stay-at-home rules as Australia struggles to stop the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreading.

Queensland said it had detected 13 new locally acquired COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours - the biggest one-day rise the state has recorded in a year. The lockdown of Brisbane, Australia's third-biggest city, was due to end on Tuesday but will now stay in place until late on Sunday.

"It's starting to become clear that the initial lockdown will be insufficient for the outbreak," Queensland state Deputy Premier Steven Miles told reporters in Brisbane.

Queensland has yet to establish how a school child acquired the virus, but has forced students at several schools and their families, including that of Australia's Defence Minister Peter Dutton, to stay home.

 

Dutton said on Monday he would miss two weeks of parliament after he was told he must quarantine at home for 14 days as his two sons attend a school linked to the outbreak.

The rising new case numbers in two of the country's biggest cities come as disquiet grows on how the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison is handling the pandemic. read more

Although Australia's vaccination drive has lagged many other developed economies, it has so far fared much better in keeping its coronavirus numbers relatively low, with just under 34,400 cases. The death toll rose to 925 after a man in his 90s died in Sydney.

Australia is going through a cycle of stop-start lockdowns in several cities after the emergence of the fast-moving Delta strain, and such restrictions are likely to persist until the country reaches a much higher level of vaccination coverage.

 

Prime Minister Morrison has promised lockdowns would be "less likely" once the country inoculates 70% of its population above 16 years of age - up from 19% now. Morrison expects to hit the 70% mark by the end of the year. 

Meanwhile the lockdown of Brisbane and several surrounding areas comes as Sydney, the biggest city in the country, begins its sixth week under stay-at-home orders.

New South Wales state, home to Sydney, said on Monday it detected 207 COVID-19 infections in the past 24 hours as daily new cases continue to linger near a 16-month high recorded late last week.

The state has recorded more than 3,500 infections since the outbreak begun in June, when a limousine driver contracted the virus while transporting an overseas airline crew, and has asked for military personnel to aid efforts to enforce the restrictions. read more

 

Some 300 army personnel, who will be unarmed and under police command, on Monday began door-to-door visits to ensure people who have tested positive are isolating at their homes. They also accompanied police officers patrolling the areas of Sydney where most COVID-19 cases have been recorded.

Footage published online showed police asking the few people encountered as to why they were out of their homes in the largely deserted streets in Sydney's south west.

Brigadier Mick Garraway, who is leading the military deployment, sought to downplay the army's presence on the streets of Sydney.

"I want to say right up front that we are not a law enforcement agency and that is not what we will be doing," Garraway told reporters in Sydney.

 

The military would help in delivering food and setting up vaccination stations, he said. (Reuters)

02
August

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New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a sombre state apology on Sunday to the Pacific community for racially targeted immigration raids in the 1970s that resulted in deportations and prosecutions.

The "Dawn Raids", which often occurred early in the morning, took place from 1974 to 1976 when New Zealand's economy was in a downturn and the government clamped down on immigrant workers from the Pacific who overstayed their work visas.

Addressing hundreds of people in attendance for the formal apology, Ardern said members of the Pacific communities continue to "suffer and carry the scars" of the raids in which they were specifically targeted and racially profiled.

"Today, I stand on behalf of the New Zealand government to offer a formal and unreserved apology to Pacific communities for the discriminatory implementation of the immigration laws of the 1970s that led to the events of the Dawn Raids," Ardern said.

"The government expresses its sorrow, remorse, and regret that the Dawn Raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate."

As part of its formal apology, Ardern said her government will provide NZ$2.1 million ($1.5 million) in academic and vocational scholarships for Pacific communities and $1 million in leadership scholarships for young people from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Tuvalu, among others.

Sunday's event included an Ifoga, a traditional Samoan ceremony in which people ask for forgiveness or receive forgiveness, where some ministers and members of parliament draped a mat over Ardern, which was then removed by members of the Pacific community.

"There were no reported raids on any homes of people who were not Pacific; no raids or random stops were exacted towards European people," Ardern said during her apology. (Reuters)

02
August

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U.S. President Joe Biden's administration will launch a new program to resettle certain Afghans as refugees in the United States, an administration official and two knowledgeable sources said on Sunday.

The U.S. State Department was expected to announce the setting-up of the so-called Priority Two refugee program on Monday, the three sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The program comes as fighting surges in Afghanistan ahead of the formal completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this month, with the Taliban pushing to capture key provincial capitals.

 

Biden has faced pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to aid Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation because of their association with the United States during the 20-year U.S. war.

The administration official said the new refugee program would cover Afghans who worked for U.S.-funded projects and for U.S.-based non-government bodies and media outlets.

Those Afghans do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program that covers interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government, and their families.

About 200 SIV applicants whose visas are in the final stages of processing and family members flew into the United States last week at the start of an evacuation effort dubbed "Operation Allies Refuge" that could include as many as 50,000 people or more. read more

 

They were taken to stay at a military base in Virginia to complete their final formalities before being resettled around the country.

The administration official said the new program for Afghans would differ from a Prority Two refugee program for Iraqis that has been indefinitely suspended while U.S. officials pursue a sweeping fraud investigation. read more

The new Afghan program will require applicants to be referred by U.S. agencies, senior U.S. officials, non-government bodies or media outlets, the official added.

The referral requirement is a key difference between the new Afghan program and the Iraqi program, which allows Iraqis to apply directly without a referral, the official said. (Reuters)

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