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Monkeypox Cases Triple in Europe, WHO Says; Africa Concerned

The World Health Organization’s Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the past two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.

And African health authorities said they are treating the expanding monkeypox outbreak as an emergency, calling on rich countries to share limited supplies of vaccines to avoid equity problems seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHO Europe chief Dr. Hans Kluge said in a statement that increased efforts were needed despite the U.N. health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared a global health emergency.

“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said.

To date, more than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide that don’t normally report the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents about 90% of the global total, with 31 countries in the WHO’s European region having identified cases.

Kluge said data reported to the WHO show that 99% of cases have been in men — the majority in men who have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including a rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting and chills.

Scientists warn that anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection. Vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women are thought more likely to suffer severe disease.

About 10% of patients were hospitalized for treatment or to be isolated, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.

Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries might make some people wary of seeking health care and said the WHO was working with partners including organizers of gay pride events.

In the U.K., which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, officials have noted the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of gay, bisexual, or men who have sex with men.” British health authorities said there were no signs suggesting sustained transmission beyond those populations.

A leading WHO adviser said in May that the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium.

Ahead of gay pride events in the U.K. this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people with symptoms of monkeypox, like swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.

Nevertheless, in Africa the WHO says that according to detailed data from Ghana monkeypox cases were almost evenly split between men and women, and no spread has been detected among men who have sex with men.

WHO Europe director Kluge also said the procurement of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity.”

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said this week it was beginning to evaluate whether it should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Countries including the U.K. and Germany have already begun vaccinating people at high risk of monkeypox; the U.K. recently widened its immunization program to mostly gay and bisexual men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be most vulnerable.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond parts of central and west Africa, where it’s been sickening people for decades, is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

To date, there have been about 1,800 suspected monkeypox cases in Africa, including more than 70 deaths, but only 109 have been lab-confirmed. The lack of laboratory diagnosis and weak surveillance means many cases are going undetected.

“This particular outbreak for us means an emergency,” said Ahmed Ogwell, the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control.

The WHO says monkeypox has spread to African countries where it hasn’t previously been seen, including South Africa, Ghana and Morocco. But more than 90% of the continent’s infections are in Congo and Nigeria, according to WHO Africa director, Dr. Moeti Matshidiso.

Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa; officials have relied mostly on contact tracing and isolation.

The WHO noted that similar to the scramble last year for COVID-19 vaccines, countries with supplies of vaccines for monkeypox are not yet sharing them with Africa.

“We do not have any donations that have been offered to (poorer) countries,” said Fiona Braka, who heads the WHO emergency response team in Africa. “We know that those countries that have some stocks, they are mainly reserving them for their own populations.”

Matshidiso said the WHO was in talks with manufacturers and countries with stockpiles to see if they might be shared.

“We would like to see the global spotlight on monkeypox act as a catalyst to beat this disease once and for all in Africa,” she said Thursday.

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Wikileaks’ Assange Lodges Appeal Against US Extradition

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange has appealed to the High Court in London to block his extradition to the United States to face criminal charges, his brother said on Friday, the latest step in his legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.

Assange, 50, is wanted by U.S. authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, relating to WikiLeaks’ release of vast troves of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables which Washington said had put lives in danger.

Last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel approved his extradition, with her office saying British courts had concluded his extradition would not be incompatible with his human rights, and that he would be treated appropriately.

Australian-born Assange’s legal team have lodged an appeal against that decision at the High Court, his brother Gabriel Shipton confirmed. The court must give its approval for the appeal to be heard, but it is likely the legal case will take months to conclude.

“We also urge the Australian government to intervene immediately in the case to end this nightmare,” Shipton told Reuters.

The saga began at the end of 2010 when Sweden sought Assange’s extradition from Britain over allegations of sex crimes. When he lost that case in 2012, he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he spent seven years.

When he was finally dragged out in April 2019, he was jailed for breaching British bail conditions although the Swedish case against him had been dropped. He has been fighting extradition to the United States since June 2019 and remains in jail.

“We’re going to fight this. We’re going to use every appeal avenue,” his wife Stella Assange told reporters after Patel approved his extradition.

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Russia Seizes Control of Partly Foreign-Owned Energy Project

Russian President Vladimir Putin has handed full control over a major oil and natural gas project partly owned by Shell and two Japanese companies to a newly created Russian firm, a bold move amid spiraling tensions with the West over Moscow’s military action in Ukraine.

Putin’s decree late Thursday orders the creation of a new company that would take over ownership of Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., which is nearly 50% controlled by British energy giant Shell and Japan-based Mitsui and Mitsubishi.

Putin’s order named “threats to Russia’s national interests and its economic security” as the reason for the move at Sakhalin-2, one of the world’s largest export-oriented oil and natural gas projects.

The presidential order gives the foreign firms a month to decide if they want to retain the same shares in the new company.

Russian state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom had a controlling stake in Sakhalin-2, the country’s first offshore gas project that accounts for about 4% of the world’s market for liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Japan, South Korea and China are the main customers for the project’s oil and LNG exports.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that there is no reason to expect a shutdown of supplies following Putin’s order.

Shell held a 27.5% stake in the project. After the start of the Russian military action in Ukraine, Shell announced its decision to pull out of all of its Russian investments, a move that it said has cost at least $5 billion. The company also holds 50% stakes in two other joint ventures with Gazprom to develop oil fields.

Shell said Friday that it’s studying Putin’s order, which has thrown its investment in the joint venture into doubt.

“As a shareholder, Shell has always acted in the best interests of Sakhalin-2 and in accordance with all applicable legal requirements,” the company said in a statement. “We are aware of the decree and are assessing its implications.”

Seiji Kihara, deputy chief secretary of the Japanese cabinet, said the government was aware of Putin’s decree and was reviewing its impact. Japan-based Mitsui owns 12.5% of the project, and Mitsubishi holds 10%.

Kihara emphasized that the project should not be undermined because it “is pertinent to Japan’s energy security,” adding that “anything that harms our resource rights is unacceptable.”

“We are scrutinizing Russia’s intentions and the background behind this,” he told reporters Friday at a twice-daily news briefing. “We are looking into the details, and for future steps, I don’t have any prediction for you at this point.”

Asked during a conference call with reporters if Putin’s move with Sakhalin-2 could herald a similar action against other joint ventures involving foreign shareholders, Peskov said, “There can’t be any general rule here.” He added that “each case will be considered separately.”

Sakhalin-2 includes three offshore platforms, an onshore processing facility, 300 kilometers of offshore pipelines, 1,600 kilometers of onshore pipelines, an oil export terminal and an LNG plant.

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WNBA Star Griner’s Court Case to Begin in Russia

The trial of professional women’s basketball player Brittney Griner is set to begin Friday in a Russian courtroom.

The WNBA star has been detained in Russia for more than four months and is facing 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges.

At the time of her arrest in February, customs officials say the Olympic gold medalist was in possession of vape cartridges that contained hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia.

Political analysts say Griner’s arrest and trial could not have happened at a worse time. Arrested just a few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many people believe that Griner has become a political pawn between the United States and Russia.

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Indonesia Leader Targets Food Crisis During Russia-Ukraine Peace Mission

Indonesia’s president ended a trip to Ukraine and Russia saying he hoped for progress reintegrating global food and fertilizer supply lines disrupted by the conflict, and he offered to be a diplomatic bridge between the two nations.

President Joko Widodo, who is the G-20 president this year, was speaking at a news conference alongside his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after a bilateral meeting in Moscow on Thursday.

His trip followed a visit to Kyiv on Wednesday where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“I really appreciate President Putin who said earlier that he will provide security guarantee for food and fertilizer supplies from both Russia and Ukraine. This is good news,” said the Indonesian president, who is widely known as Jokowi.

“For the sake of humanity, I also support the United Nations’ efforts to reintegrate Russian food and fertilizer commodities and Ukrainian food commodities to reenter the world supply chain,” he said.

Jokowi said he had urged leaders of the G-7 during a meeting he attended in Germany this week to ensure sanctions on Russia did not affect food and fertilizer supplies.

The war in Ukraine has caused major disruptions to global trade, with the prices of grain and wheat soaring amid a blockade of Ukrainian seaports and sanctions on Russian commodities such as oil, gas and fertilizer.

Speaking alongside Jokowi in Moscow, Putin denied Russia was blocking Ukrainian grain exports. 

“The Ukrainian military has mined the approaches to their ports,” he said, “No one prevents them from clearing those mines and we guarantee the safety of shipping grain out of there.”

As G-20 president this year, Jokowi has sought to patch up divisions in the group exposed by the war in Ukraine and threats to boycott the summit if Russia attended, as well as leveraging his country’s non-aligned position to push for peace.

On Thursday, he said he had conveyed a message from Zelenskyy to Putin, and said Indonesia remained willing to be a “communication bridge” between the two leaders. He did not say what was in the message.

Separately, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she had held phone calls with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, among others, about the food crisis and possible ways to re-integrate Ukraine and Russia into the global food chain.

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Mattis: Putin Goes to Bed at Night ‘Fearful’

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday lobbed insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin and slammed his invasion of Ukraine as “incompetent” and “foolish.”

At a speech in Seoul, Mattis compared Putin to the kind of paranoid characters created by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“Putin is a creature straight out of Dostoevsky. He goes to bed at night angry, he goes to bed at night fearful, he goes to bed at night thinking Russia is surrounded by nightmares,” Mattis said.

Mattis has made relatively few public comments since resigning as Pentagon chief in 2018 over a foreign policy disagreement with former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In his speech, Mattis did not address those disagreements in a direct way, saying only Trump had overseen a nontraditional foreign policy that had challenged U.S. relations with its allies.

Mattis’ most pointed comments focused on Putin, whom he portrayed as unhinged and unable to make smart decisions due to the lack of people giving him sound advice.

Asked about the biggest lesson that could be drawn from Russia’s war in Ukraine, Mattis replied, “Don’t have incompetent generals in charge of your operations.”

He also said the Russian invasion was “tactically incompetent” and “strategically foolish.”

“War is enough of a tragedy without adding stupidity on top,” he said.

Mattis also criticized China’s growing relations with Russia and its unwillingness to oppose the war in Ukraine.

A country “cannot be great if they support Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Addressing his tenure under Trump, Mattis spoke of “raucous times” and called Trump an “unusual leader” but did not directly criticize the former president.

“Democracies will at times go popularist and will at times break with tradition,” he said. “It’s the nature of democracies at times to be testing ideas and all.”

Americans, Mattis said, should respond by “keep[ing] faith in the institutions” and “in those that disagree with you.”

Mattis’ speech was in South Korea, a U.S. ally that dramatically felt the effects of Trump’s nontraditional foreign policy.

Asked how he felt about Trump’s summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Mattis said he was never optimistic about the talks, but that the diplomatic effort was the “right thing to do.”

“As far as what came out of it, nothing. I saw nothing that came out of it,” he said.

Mattis also praised South Korea’s new president, former chief prosecutor Yoon Suk Yeol, for wanting South Korea to play a bigger role in the world.

Yoon, a conservative who has explicitly embraced the United States, has said he wants South Korea to become a “global pivotal state.” This week, Yoon attended the NATO summit in Madrid,  the first time a South Korean leader had attended such a meeting.

Mattis praised Yoon’s presence at the NATO summit, saying “a globally pivotal state in South Korea is in all our best interests.”

He warned, however, against voices in Seoul who have recently called for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons.

“You don’t need nuclear weapons on the peninsula to ensure an extended deterrence so long as there is trust between the ROK and the United States,” he said, referring to an abbreviation of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.

Opinion polls consistently show that most South Koreans support their country acquiring their own nuclear weapons, especially as North Korea continues developing its own arsenal.

As a candidate, Yoon said he would ask the United States to agree to a nuclear weapons sharing arrangement, or to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons that Washington withdrew from South Korea in the early 1990s — notions quickly rejected by the U.S. State Department.

To avoid such an outcome, the United States and South Korea should continue to build trust, including by demonstrating “extended deterrence” against North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Mattis said.

“I think anything you can do to avoid having these weapons yourselves, you should do. They are horrible weapons,” he said.

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Explainer: Why Indonesia’s Leader is Visiting Kyiv, Moscow

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 leading rich and developing nations, is visiting Ukraine and Russia for meetings with the leaders of the two warring nations after attending the Group of Seven summit in Germany.

Widodo has sought to maintain a neutral position since the start of the war, and he hopes his efforts will lead to a cease-fire and eventual direct talks between the two leaders.

What does Widodo hope to achieve?

Widodo said he wants to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to start a dialogue on ending the war, which has caused global food shortages and surges in commodity prices.

“My mission is to build peace, because the war must be stopped and (its effects) on the food supply chain must be lifted,” Widodo said, “I will invite President Putin to open a dialogue and, as soon as possible, to carry out a cease-fire and stop the war.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has choked global markets and contributed to higher prices of meat, dairy products, cereals, sugar and vegetable oils.

“These visits are not only important for Indonesians but also for other developing countries in order to prevent the people of developing and low-income countries from falling into extreme poverty and hunger,” Widodo said.

Why does the war in Ukraine matter to Widodo?

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said it’s important to achieve a resumption of grain exports from Ukraine and food and fertilizer exports from Russia to end shortages and reduce prices.

Rising costs of cooking oil prompted the Indonesian government to temporarily ban exports of palm oil products amid a series of student protests against skyrocketing food prices. Indonesia resumed exports of crude palm oil a month later.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest exporters of palm oil, accounting for 85% of global production.

Why might Putin and Zelenskyy listen to Widodo?

As this year’s G-20 president, Indonesia has sought to remain neutral in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been guarded in its comments.

Widodo has said he offered Indonesian support in peace efforts to both Putin and Zelenskyy, a move seen as an attempt to unite the G-20 forum divided by the ongoing conflict.

The United States and its allies in the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations — a subset of the G-20 — have sought to punish Putin in as many ways as possible, including by threatening a boycott of the G-20 summit to be held later this year in Bali unless Putin is removed from the forum.

Widodo has invited Zelenskyy to the summit along with Putin in hopes it will appease proponents of both Ukraine and Russia and limit any distraction from the forum’s other agenda items. Ukraine is not a member of the forum, but Russia is.

What are his chances of success?

Widodo will be the first Asian leader to visit the warring countries.

His efforts come weeks after Russia said it was looking over an Italian proposal to end the conflict in Ukraine. Talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the hostilities have essentially ground to a halt.

The Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers met for inconclusive talks in Turkey in March, followed by a meeting of the delegations in Istanbul, which also failed to bring about concrete results.

Gilang Kembara, an international politics researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an Indonesian think tank, is pessimistic that Putin will listen to Widodo to find a peaceful solution to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

“The chance for that is very slim,” said Kembara, “Indonesia does not have great experience as a peace broker outside the Southeast Asia region.”

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