From The Alpha and the Omega - Chapter Eight
by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved
"KING OF THE EAST 2022 JANUARY-FEBRUARY"

    This file is attached to http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterEight/BeastThatCameOutOfTheSea.htm from “Beast That Came Out Of The Sea” - Chapter Eight by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved.
Or return to the Astronomical Events To Appear Between 2014 Through 2017 A.D.    Or continue to King Of The East 2022 March-April.

KING OF THE EAST 2022 JANUARY-FEBRUARY


    So as 2020 has passed do we know who the "King of the East" is?
    As Bible students, we all are aware of the allusions to the "Kings of the East" in the prophetic scenario: "And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared."    Revelation 16:12.
       
    The spectacular rise of China on the world scene, and achievements are spectacular, indeed.    In just one generation, they have tripled their per capita income, and lifted over 300 million people out of poverty.
    Xi Jinping is still president for life and continues to push "Belt And Road Project" fits the scenerio to fulfil prophecy to go into the Middle East at the appointed time.
    He continues to push the unconditional authority of the Communist Party, and controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea, boosted its military capabilities and unveiled a vast international logistics and transportation project called the “Belt and Road” initiative that aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, so I believe the The King of the East has made his bed and have become the major competitor for energy and other commodities.
    As to the emergence of India in the global technological culture Idid not see much of that in 2019 to dominate the next few decades in research and development centers are sprouting everywhere and are the seedbeds of the most advanced software platforms, multimedia devices, and other next-generation innovations and India's Prime Minister is still Narendra Modi.
    China and India account for one-third of the world's population.
    Although numerous commentators try to connect these kings with the 200 million horsemen of the sixth trumpet judgment, they are not related: as Rev. 16:12 only says "way of the kings of the east might be prepared."    This tells me that it could be several countries from the Kings of the East could take that journey.
    The “two hundred million” is in Rev. 9:16 are in a Trumpet Judgment, whereas the kings of the east are in a Bowl judgment.    Furthermore, . . . it was shown that the two hundred million are demons and not men.
    As to kings from the Orient, but this is not required by the text, they are kings representing nations east of the Euphrates.    Commentators particularly of the postmillennial and the historical schools have guessed at the identity of the kings of the East and as many as fifty different interpretations have been advanced.    The very number of these interpretations is their refutation.


    Since Iran has become more of an issue during 2019 I decided to input the following again regarding Jeremiah 49:35-39 New King James Version (NKJV) PROPHESY OF ELAM to let you know what the Bible says about them and their possible future.
35Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Behold, I will break the bow of Elam, The foremost of their might.
36 Against Elam I will bring the four winds From the four quarters of heaven, And scatter them toward all those winds; There shall be no nations where the outcasts of Elam will not go.
37 For I will cause Elam to be dismayed before their enemies And before those who seek their life.    I will bring disaster upon them, My fierce anger,’ says the Lord; ‘And I will send the sword after them Until I have consumed them.
38 I will set My throne in Elam, And will destroy from there the king and the princes,’ says the Lord.
39 ‘But it shall come to pass in the latter days: I will bring back the captives of Elam,’ says the Lord.”
   
    Elam in the Hebrew Bible is said to be one of the sons of Shem, the son of Noah.    It is also used, for the ancient country of Elam in what is now southern Iran, whose people the Hebrews believed to be the offspring of Elam, son of Shem.    This implies that the Elamites were considered Semites by the Hebrews.
    Elam in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 10:22, Ezra 4:9;) is said to be one of the sons of Shem, the son of Noah.    It is also used (as in Akkadian), for the ancient country of Elam in what is now southern Iran, whose people the Hebrews believed to be the offspring of Elam, son of Shem (Genesis 10:22).    This implies that the Elamites were considered Semites by the Hebrews.    Their language was not one of the Semitic languages, but is considered a linguistic isolate.
    Elam (the nation) is also mentioned in Genesis 14, describing an ancient war in the time of Abram (father of the tribe, for possibles leaders over time) not Abraham, (father of many nations) involving Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam at that time, and noted that Sarai, Princess of the tribe, who became the final as Sarah.
    The prophecies of the Book of Isaiah (11:11, 21:2, 22:6) and the Book of Jeremiah (25:25) also mention Elam.    The last part of Jeremiah 49 is an apocalyptic oracle against Elam which states that Elam will be scattered to the four winds of the earth, but "will be, in the end of days, that I will return their captivity," a prophecy self-dated to the first year of Zedekiah (597 BC).
    The Book of Jubilees may reflect ancient tradition when it mentions a son (or daughter, in some versions) of 'Elam named "Susan," whose daughter Rasuaya married Arpachshad, progenitor of another branch of Shemites.    Shushan (or Susa) was the ancient capital of the Elamite Empire. (Dan. 8:2)



2022 JANUARY-FEBRUARY

12/31/2021 South Korea, U.S. Draft Korean War Agreement by OAN Newsroom
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a joint announcement with Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2021. (Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS)
    South Korea reached a consensus with the United States on the draft for a Korean War peace treaty.    The republic’s head diplomat, Chung Eui-yong, announced the agreement Wednesday, which would effectively end the decades-long conflict.
    South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam announced that, in a broad sense, his country and its benefactor had a mutual goal in mind.
    “South Korea and the U.S. have already reached a defacto agreement on the end of war declaration draft under consensus of its importance,” he announced.    “However, we are still in negations over detailed measures.”
    However, a look into the plan’s details displays how the two sides’ objectives differ.    Dr. Go Myong-hyun explained what each country specifically wanted from the deal.
    “In case of South Korea, the first priority is peace then followed be de-nuclearization…with the United States de-nuclearization proceeds any type of negotiation,” he explained.
    The Korean War began in 1950 with combat subsiding in 1953 after the signing of an armistice between China, North Korea and UN Command.    The conflict was never officially concluded because no peace treaty was signed.
    Although the draft has not been officially been presented to North Korea, State Department spokesperson Ned Price is hopeful. Should an agreement be reached, a sizeable amount of U.S. military equipment and personnel could be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula.

1/1/2022 North Korea’s Kim Talks Food Not Nukes For 2022 by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Eighth Conference of
Military Educationists of the Korean People's Army at the April 25 House of Culture in
Pyongyang, North Korea in this undated photo released on December 7, 2021. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un capped off his 10th year in power with a speech that made more mention of tractor factories and school uniforms than nuclear weapons or the United States, according to summaries by state media on Saturday.
    North Korea’s main goals for 2022 will be jump starting economic development and improving people’s lives as it faces a “great life-and-death struggle,” Kim said in a speech on Friday at the end of the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which began on Monday.
    The meetings coincided with the 10-year anniversary of Kim https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-after-10-years-kim-jong-un-better-armed-more-isolated-than-ever-2021-12-15 effectively assuming leadership of the country after the death of his father in 2011.
    Kim has used previous speeches around the New Year to make major policy announcements, including launching significant diplomatic engagements with South Korea and the United States.
    But summaries of his speech published in North Korean state media made no specific mention of the United States, with only a passing reference to unspecified discussions of inter-Korean relations and “external affairs.”
    The domestic focus of the speech underscored the economic problems Kim faces at home, where self-imposed anti-pandemic border lockdowns have left North Korea more isolated than ever before, with international aid organisations warning of possible food shortages and a humanitarian crisis.
    “The main task facing our Party and people next year is to provide a sure guarantee for the implementation of the five-year plan and bring about a remarkable change in the state development and the people’s standard of living,” Kim was quoted as saying.
    Kim spent the majority of his speech detailing domestic issues from an ambitious plan for rural development to people’s diets, school uniforms and the need to crack down on “non-socialist practices.”
    The big focus on rural development is likely a populist strategy, said Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News, a Seoul-based website that tracks North Korea.
    “Overall, Kim might be aware that revealing sophisticated military development plans while people are suffering food shortages and harsh conditions outside of Pyongyang might not be such a good idea this year,” he wrote on Twitter.
    Saturday’s state media report cited the development of “one ultra-modern weapon system after another” as a major achievement of the past year and said Kim called for bolstering the national defence to face an unstable international situation.
    A tractor factory he discussed in the speech was likely used to build launch vehicles for missiles, foreign analysts have said, and North Korea is believed to have expanded its arsenal despite the lockdowns.
    The reports of Kim’s speech did not mention the United States’ call for denuclearisation talks, or South Korea’s push for a declaration to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War as a way to restart those negotiations.
    North Korea has previously said it is open to diplomacy, but that the American overtures appear hollow while “hostile acts” such as military drills and sanctions continue.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Chris Reese and Neil Fullick)

1/1/2022 Japan PM Pledges 2022 Will Be Year Of “Summit Diplomacy” In New Year Address
FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks before the media at his official residence as an
extraordinary Diet session was closed, in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Saturday he would refocus his efforts on foreign policy and pledged to make 2022 the year of diplomacy, in a New Year statement posted on his website.
    “The deft handling of diplomatic and security issues and the establishment of a stable administration is crucial, as the international situation surrounding us becomes increasingly difficult and complex,” Kishida said.
    He added that a strong emphasis on universal ideals, as well as efforts to resolve global issues and protect the lives of the people would be the three guiding principles of what he called “a diplomacy of realism for the new era.”
    A former foreign minister who took office in October and prides himself in his diplomatic skills, Kishida had spoken of his hopes to hold a summit with United States President Joe Biden as early as possible.
    However, the U.S. administration’s efforts to pass a large-scale social bill meant the meeting did not take place in 2021 as Kishida initially hoped.
    In the New Year’s statement, Kishida also promised to prioritise tackling the COVID-19 pandemic as Japan sees a spread of the Omicron variant, and pursue his efforts to close the wealth gap and create a sustainable economy by creating a “new type of capitalism” for the country.
(Reporting by Sakura Murakami; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/1/2022 In New Year’s Speech, Taiwan President Warns China Against ‘Military Adventurism’ by Sarah Wu
FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at a rank conferral ceremony for military officials from the
Army, Navy and Air Force, at the defence ministry in Taipei, Taiwan December 28, 2021. REUTERS/Annabelle Chih
    TAIPEI(Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen marked the new year with a message for China: military conflict is not the answer.
    “We must remind the Beijing authorities to not misjudge the situation and to prevent the internal expansion of ‘military adventurism’,” Tsai said on Saturday in her New Year’s speech broadcast live on Facebook.
    China claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has increased military and diplomatic pressure in the past two years to assert its sovereignty claims.
    In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year address the day before, he said the complete unification of “the motherland” was an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
    Taiwan says it is an independent country and has repeatedly vowed to defend its freedom and democracy.
    “The military is definitely not an option for solving cross-strait disagreements.    Military conflicts would impact economic stability,” Tsai said.    “Our two sides jointly shoulder the responsibility of maintaining regional peace and stability.”
    Taiwan’s stance has always been “to not succumb when facing pressure and to not rashly advance when receiving support,” Tsai said.
    To ease tension in the region, both Taipei and Beijing must “work hard to take care of people’s livelihoods and calm the hearts of the people” in order to find peaceful solutions to problems together, Tsai said.
    Tsai also said Taiwan would continue to monitor the situation in Hong Kong, adding that interference in the recent legislative election and the arrests this week of senior staff at the pro-democracy media outlet Stand News “made people worry even more about human rights and freedom of speech in Hong Kong.”
    Steady governance is Taiwan’s most important goal in 2022, Tsai said.
    “We will hold fast to our sovereignty, uphold the values of freedom and democracy, defend territorial sovereignty and national security, and maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
(Reporting by Sarah Wu; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/1/2022 Australia Starts 2022 With Record COVID Cases
FILE PHOTO: Travellers wear personal protective equipment outside the international terminal at
Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia started 2022 with a record number of new COVID-19 cases as an outbreak centred in the eastern states grew, and New South Wales eased its isolation rules for healthcare workers as the number of people hospitalised with the virus rose.
    New South Wales, the most populous state, and Victoria both posted daily record case numbers of 22,577 and 7,442 respectively on Saturday, health department figures showed.
    There were four deaths due to COVID in New South Wales and nine in Victoria, taking the national death toll from the pandemic to more than 2,250.
    Including cases in Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, Saturday had already set a national record of 33,161 cases, topping Friday’s 32,946, even before numbers from South Australia,     Western Australia and the Northern Territory were released.
    All Australian states, except for Western Australia, have begun to live with the virus after higher vaccination levels, and the easing in restrictions has pushed cases higher.
    The New South Wales government changed its self-isolation rules for asymptomatic healthcare workers who had been classified as a close contact of a COVID case, giving them an exemption if they are considered critical to their workplace.
    Over the week since Christmas Day, cases in New South Wales have more than tripled from 6,288.    Hospitalisations due to COVID have more than doubled to 901 from 388, while the number of people in intensive care units has risen by around 50% to 79.
    The outbreak has affected sporting events.    Australia batsman Travis Head will miss the fourth Ashes cricket test against England in Sydney next week after testing positive for COVID.
(Reporting by John Mair; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/1/2022 China Ends 2021 With Worst COVID Week Since Taming Original Epidemic
FILE PHOTO: A medical worker in protective suit collects a swab sample from a man for nucleic acid testing
at a residential compound, during another round of mass testing following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak in Xian, Shaanxi province, China December 27, 2021. cnsphoto via REUTERS/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China ended its final week of 2021 with its biggest tally of local coronavirus cases for any seven-day period since subduing the country’s first epidemic nearly two years ago, despite an arsenal of some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 measures.
    The National Health Commission reported on Saturday 175 new community infections with confirmed clinical symptoms for Dec. 31, bringing the total number of local symptomatic cases in mainland China in the past week to 1,151.
    The surge has been driven mostly by an outbreak in the northwestern industrial and tech hub of Xian, a city of 13 million.
    The deepening outbreak in Xian will likely firm authorities’ resolve to curb transmissions quickly as and when cases emerge.    The city, under lockdown for 10 days as of Saturday, has reported 1,451 local symptomatic cases since Dec. 9, the highest tally for any Chinese city in 2021.
    While China’s case count is tiny compared to many outbreaks elsewhere in the world, forestalling major flare-ups in 2022 will be important.    Beijing will be hosting the Winter Olympic Games in February, and the ruling Communist Party will hold a once-every-five-years congress, expected in the fall, where President Xi Jinping will likely secure a third term as party secretary.
    The emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant will also drive Beijing to stick to its high vigilance against the virus.    China has reported a handful of imported Omicron cases and at least one locally transmitted case.
    Since August, China has tried to get any outbreak under control within about two weeks, much shorter than the four to six weeks in earlier battles against sporadic flare-ups following the initial nationwide epidemic, according to the National Health Commission.
    Cities along China’s borders are at higher virus risk, either due to the presence of overland transport links or entry of infected travellers from other countries. Some were hit by Delta outbreaks that resulted in harsh travel curbs last year.
    Yunnan, which shares a border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, reported new local symptomatic cases on 92 out of 365 days last year, or 25% of the time, more often than any other province, autonomous region or municipality.
(Graphic: Number of days in 2021 mainland China reported new local COVID cases with symptoms, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CHINA/lgvdwjwblpo/chart.png)
XIAN LOCKDOWN
    The Xian outbreak, which led to cases in other cities including Beijing, could be traced back to a flight arriving from Pakistan, but it was unclear how it spread to local communities.
    Many people have been forbidden from leaving their residential compounds, but a city government official said on Friday curbs would be loosened in less risky compounds when the time was right.
    Postgraduate student Li Jiaxin, 23, said nobody can leave the campus of her university.    She spent New Year’s Eve with her three room mates and was unable to meet with her boyfriend and family.
    “I may be what you would consider a person with a strong sense of ritual, so I still feel a little sad that we are not together at this time,” she said.
(Graphic: Major China COVID-19 outbreaks in 2021, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CHINA/zdvxoqowepx/chart.png)
ECONOMIC WOES
    China’s tough epidemic policies have helped stop its sprawling industrial sector from sliding into prolonged shutdowns, reaping important export gains as other pillars of growth weakened.
    But unpredictable disruptions have shaken consumer sentiment and hammered the catering, hospitality and tourism sectors.
    An employee surnamed Wang at a traditional teahouse in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, said her company’s revenues had been halved compared with pre-pandemic levels.
    “Many guests from other provinces had came to our teahouse specially for a taste of Yunnan’s pu’er tea, but now there are fewer of them,” Wang said.
    “My salary hasn’t been cut, but I feel I may lose my job at any time.”
(Graphic: Local COVID-19 cases in mainland China in 2021, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CHINA/dwvkrkrmkpm/chart.png)
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Roxanne Liu, Martin Quin Pollard and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/2/2022 South Korean Crosses Armed Border In Rare Defection To North by Hyonhee Shin
A man stands near binoculars as he tries to see North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong at the Dora observatory
near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) – A South Korean has crossed the heavily fortified border in a rare defection to North Korea, South Korea’s military said on Sunday.
    The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it carried out a search operation after detecting the person around 9:20 p.m. (1220 GMT) on Saturday on the eastern side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
    “We’ve confirmed that the person crossed the Military Demarcation Line border about 10:40 p.m. (1340 GMT) and defected to the North,” the JCS said.
    The JCS said it could not confirm whether the person was alive, but sent a notice to the North via a military hotline asking for protection.
    The border crossing, which is illegal in South Korea, came as North Korea carries out strict anti-coronavirus measures since shutting borders in early 2020, though it has not confirmed any infections.
    A public and political uproar emerged after North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official who went missing at sea in September 2020, for which Pyongyang blamed anti-virus rules and apologised.
    Two months earlier, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a national emergency and sealed off a border town after a North Korean defector who he said had COVID-19 symptoms illegally crossed the border into the North from the South.
    The North’s prolonged lockdowns and restrictions on inter-provincial movement have also pushed the number of North Korean defectors arriving in the South to an all-time low.
    Cross-border relations soured after denuclearisation negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington stalled since a failed summit in 2019.
    South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/2/2022 New Australian COVID-19 Cases Dip, But Hospitalisations Rise
FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers wait for the next vehicle at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing clinic as the
Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Sydney, Australia, December 30, 2021. REUTERS/Nikki Short
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – New Australian COVID-19 cases dipped on Sunday as testing slowed over a holiday weekend, but remained well over 30,000 and hospitalisations rose further in New South Wales as concerns grow about potential strains on the national health system.
    Newly diagnosed cases in New South Wales, the most populous state, dropped to 18,278 from 22,577 the day before as the number of tests conducted on New Year’s Day dropped by a quarter, health department figures showed.
    But hospitalisations, which authorities have signalled is a figure they are more closely monitoring than total case numbers as they shift towards living with the virus, jumped by 18% to 1,066.
    In Victoria, daily case numbers remained above 7,000 and Queensland reported a record 3,587 new cases.
    “As we enter a new year, we are entering a new battle against COVID-19,” Queensland state Treasurer Cameron Dick said.
    “If we can slow the spread of the virus, that takes the pressure off our health system in particular,” Dick said, asking people to get vaccinated and get booster shots, wear masks in indoor settings and work from home if possible.
    With only Western Australia and the Northern Territory still to report figures on Sunday, the national tally of new cases was more than 32,200, below Saturday’s record of 35,327.
    All Australian states, except for Western Australia, have begun to live with the virus as vaccination levels have risen, and the easing in restrictions has pushed cases higher.
    There were five deaths reported in New South Wales and Victoria, bringing the national death toll throughout the pandemic to almost 2,260 people.
(Reporting by John Mair)

1/2/2022 New COVID-19 Cases In India Rise Sharply For Fifth Consecutive Day
FILE PHOTO: Commuters disembark from a suburban train at a railway station, during the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Mumbai, India, December 1, 2021. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India reported more than 27,000 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, with infections sharply rising for a fifth consecutive day, but the chief minister of the capital New Delhi said there was no need to panic, citing low hospitalisation rates.
    The country’s largest cities, including Delhi and the financial capital Mumbai, have seen a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, including those of the Omicron variant, which has triggered a fresh wave of infections in other parts of the world.
    Although the number of active cases in Delhi has tripled in just the last three days, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that hospitalisations had not gone up.
    “This means that most people who are coming down with (COVID-19) are not requiring hospital care.    They are mild cases,” Kejriwal said in an online briefing.
    “Cases are going up but there is no reason to worry.    There is no need to panic,” he said.
    Delhi was among hardest hit cities during the second wave of the pandemic in India last year, with hospitals running out of beds and life-saving oxygen, leaving patients gasping for breath.
    India has recorded a total of 34.88 million COVID-19 infections, with 27,553 new cases in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed on Sunday.
    The country’s total death toll stands at 481,770.
    Local government authorities in Mumbai city said thousands of people were conducting COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at home.
    “We are noticing that people are self-quarantining if they test positive and at the same time many are also seeking support from the government-run isolation centres if they are finding less space at home to quarantine,” said Srikant Deshmukh, a senior health official with Mumbai’s municipal commissioner’s office.
    India is set to launch a vaccination drive for children in the age group of 15 to 18 years from Monday and state governments were gearing up to administer doses at schools, hospitals and through special camps.
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/3/2022 S. Korea’s Moon Promises Final Push For N. Korea Peace by Josh Smith
South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a new year speech at the Presidential Blue House
in Seoul, South Korea, January 3, 2022. Yonhap via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE
HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed on Monday to use his last months in office to press for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, despite public silence from Pyongyang over his attempts for a declaration of peace between the two sides.
    “The government will pursue normalisation of inter-Korean relations and an irreversible path to peace until the end,” Moon said in his final New Year’s address before his five-year term ends in May.    “I hope efforts for dialogue will continue in the next administration too.”
    In his own address on New Year’s Eve, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made no mention of Moon’s calls for a declaration officially ending the 1950-1953 Korean War, or of stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.
    Moon held multiple summits with Kim, including once in Pyongyang, during a flurry of negotiations in 2018 and 2019, before talks stalled amid disagreements over international demands that the North surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang’s call for Washington and Seoul to ease sanctions and drop other “hostile policies.”
    Moon is pushing an “end of war declaration” as a way to jumpstart those stalled negotiations and his administration has hinted at backchannel discussions.
    But North Korea has not publicly responded to the latest push, and the United States has said it supports the idea but may disagree with the South over its timing.
    “It is true that there is still a long way to go,” Moon acknowledged, but argued that if inter-Korean relations improve, the international community will follow.
    Moon said his outreach to North Korea had been enabled by a large military buildup https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/moons-push-military-independence-may-echo-far-beyond-his-presidency-2021-10-22 that helped make South Korea safer.
    “Peace is possible on strong security,” he said.
    The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the standoff with North Korea, as Pyongyang put the country into an unprecedented lockdown and Moon faced domestic pressure to tamp down the first major coronavirus outbreak outside of China in early 2020.
    Since then, South Korea used aggressive tracking and tracing, as well as social distancing rules and a belated but thorough vaccination campaign to keep overall cases and deaths relatively low by global standards.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/3/2022 Hong Kong’s Citizen News Says Closure Triggered By Stand News Collapse by Jessie Pang and Edmond Ng
Chris Yeung, chief writer at Citizen News and former president of the Hong Kong Journalists
Association and Citizen News Chief Editor Daisy Li pose for photo after they announced
Citizen News will cease operations in Hong Kong, China, January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong independent online publication Citizen News said on Monday its decision to shut down was triggered by the closure of a pro-democracy media outlet last week following a police raid and seven arrests.
    Stand News, a prominent pro-democracy news site, closed last week after 200 police officers raided its newsroom, froze its assets and arrested seven people on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material.
    Citizen News said on Sunday it will cease operations from Tuesday, describing the media environment in the Chinese-ruled city as “deteriorating,” and citing the need to ensure the safety of its staff.
    “The decision was made within a short period of time. The trigger point was the fate of Stand News,” Chris Yeung, chief writer at Citizen News and former president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told reporters.
    “We could not rule out that … we might be exposed to some risks.”
    Established in 2017, Citizen News described itself as independent, with no party affiliation and promoting freedom, openness, diversity and inclusion. It had 40 employees.
    Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that wide-ranging individual rights, including a free press, would be protected. But rights groups and some Western governments say freedoms have been eroded, in particular since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020.
    Hong Kong’s government denies targeting the media and curbing freedoms in the global financial hub.    China says rights advocacy is being used as an attempt to disrupt Hong Kong’s progress after the security law restored stability.
    Stand News was the most prominent remaining independent pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation in June 2021 led to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper.
    Two former senior editors of Stand News were charged on Thursday with conspiracy to publish sedition materials and denied bail.
    “What changed is not us, but the outside environment,” Citizen News Chief Editor Daisy Li told reporters.
(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/3/2022 Australia To Push Ahead With Reopening Amid Record COVID-19 Cases
FILE PHOTO: A person wearing a face mask walks along the harbour waterfront across from the Sydney Opera House during a lockdown
to curb the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, October 6, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s government said the milder impact of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 meant the country could push ahead with plans to reopen the economy even as new infections hit a record of more than 37,000 and the number of people hospitalised rose.
    Record daily case numbers were reported on Monday in the states of Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, as well as the Australian Capital Territory.
    In New South Wales, there were 20,794 cases, higher than Sunday’s figure but below the daily record of 22,577 set on Saturday, with testing numbers lower over the New Year’s holiday weekend.
    The national daily total hit a record of more than 37,150 cases, exceeding Saturday’s 35,327 cases, with Western Australia and the Northern Territory still to report.
    “We have to stop thinking about case numbers and think about serious illness, living with the virus, managing our own health and ensuring that we’re monitoring those symptoms and we keep our economy going,”     Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Channel Seven.
    Hospitalisations rose to 1,204 in New South Wales, up more than 10% from Sunday and more than three times the level on Christmas Day.
    Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the advice to the government was that the Omicron strain was more transmissible but also milder than other variants, which reduced the risk to both individuals and the health system.
    Michael Bonning, chairman of the Australian Medical Association’s New South Wales Council, said the significant increase in hospitalisations combined with the peak holiday period and the number of health workers exposed to COVID were putting pressure on capacity.
    “With both the Christmas period and with hospital workers being furloughed due to their close contact status…. we’re finding that it is becoming quite difficult to staff, especially critical areas of hospitals,” he told ABC Television.
    In late December, the government changed its advice on when people should get a free PCR test for COIVD-19, and is calling for greater use of rapid antigen tests, in part to relieve pressure on testing capacity.
    But the rapid antigen tests are in short supply, and Morrison said the government would not cover the cost for people to test themselves, which he put at A$15 ($10.90).
    “We’re at another stage of this pandemic now, where we just can’t go round and make everything free,” he said.
    Eight deaths from COVID had been reported on Monday, taking the national toll through the pandemic to more than 2,260.
(Reporting by John Mair. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/3/2022 India Launches Drive To Vaccinate Children Before A Feared Omicron Surge
A girl receives a dose of the COVAXIN coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Bharat Biotech,
during a vaccination drive for children aged 15-18 in New Delhi, India, January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
    MUMBAI (Reuters) – India started vaccinating children aged 15 to 18 against the coronavirus on Monday as it quickly expands its inoculation effort to cover the world’s largest adolescent population amid fears the Omicron variant will drive a new surge of infections.
    Authorities on Monday reported 33,750 new COVID-19 cases and 123 deaths.    The total number of cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant detected in India was 1,700, the health ministry said.
    Private and public schools will double up as vaccination centres for children and school authorities have been ordered to report their daily vaccination data to state authorities.
    “Children are going to be given vaccines in their schools.    They can also go to vaccination centres and get the dose … they can just walk in,” said Jai Prakash Shivahare, health commissioner in Gujarat state.
    Several countries including the United States, Britain and South Korea have seen infections among children fuelling a rise in cases in recent weeks and have encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated.
    Authorities in Gujarat, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, are hoping to give a first dose to 3.6 million children this week.
    “We have the capacity and we have the vaccines to cover most of the children.    We appeal to parents to cooperate and ensure the children are vaccinated at the earliest,” Shivahare said.
    The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF estimates India has the largest population of adolescents in the world with about 253 million of them.
    Thousands of children, many accompanied by parents, queued up outside schools, medical centres and special health camps from early on Monday to secure their first dose of a vaccine.
    The government is only giving children Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine as that is the only vaccine with emergency use listing for the 15-18 age group, the health ministry said last week.
    Adults in India get Covaxin, the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is branded as Covishield, and the Sputnik V shot.
(Reporting by India newsroom, Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/3/2022 Person Spotted Crossing DMZ Likely Previous Defector From N.Korea, South Says by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: A general view of a rice field in North Korea's propaganda village Kaepoong in this picture
taken from the top of the Aegibong Peak Observatory, south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ),
separating the two Koreas in Gimpo, South Korea, October 5, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) - The person observed crossing the heavily fortified border from South Korea into North Korea last week is presumed to be a North Korean who had previously defected to the South, Seoul’s defence ministry said on Monday.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had said it carried out a search operation after detecting the person on Saturday https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/south-korean-crosses-armed-border-rare-defection-north-2022-01-02 on the eastern side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
    “The authorities presume the person is a North Korean defector and are in the process of verifying related facts,” the Ministry of National Defence said in a statement.
    The defector is believed to be a man who used his experience as a gymnast to cross border fences and defect to the South across the DMZ in the same area in November 2020, Yonhap news agency reported, without identifying him.
    The border crossing, which is illegal in South Korea, came as North Korea carries out strict anti-coronavirus measures since shutting borders in early 2020, though it has not confirmed any infections.
    While thousands of North Koreans have settled in the South, crossings of the DMZ are rare, with most defectors making their way through China.
    Defections from South to North across the DMZ are rarer still, with just a handful recorded in recent years.
    However, several recent incidents have raised concerns in South Korea over security lapses or delayed responses by troops guarding the border.
    When the suspected defector crossed from North Korea in 2020, he was not detained until 14 hours after he crossed the border, prompting a vow from South Korea’s military to beef up security.
    In Saturday’s case, the person’s presence near the border went unnoticed for nearly three hours after CCTV cameras recorded the person scaling a fence and tripping alarms, the military said in a briefing on Sunday.
    South Korean troops launched a search operation after spotting the person at 9:20 p.m., but could not stop their crossing into the North at around 10:40 p.m.
    In June, South Korea announced it would fast-track the acquisition of a rail-mounted robot, and an artificial intelligence-enabled video and audio system, to boost security along the border.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

1/3/2022 Hong Kong Independent Portal Citizen News Says To Shut
FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands guard below China and Hong Kong flags during a flag raising ceremony,
a week ahead of the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong, China, December 12, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong independent online news portal Citizen News said on Sunday it will cease operations from Tuesday in the face of what it described as a deteriorating media environment in the Chinese-ruled city and to ensure the safety of its staff.
    When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 it was with the promise that wide-ranging individual rights, including a free press, would be protected. But pro-democracy activists and rights groups say freedoms have been eroded, in particular since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020.
    Hong Kong authorities reject those claims and the city’s government denies targeting the media.
    “Regrettably, the rapid changes in society and worsening environment for media make us unable to achieve our goal fearlessly.    Amid this crisis, we have to first make sure everyone on the boat is safe,” Citizen News, which was established in 2017, said in a statement.
    In its description on Facebook, Citizen News says it has no party affiliation and aims to promote Hong Kong’s core values such as freedom, openness, diversity and inclusion.
    The development comes days after two former senior editors of Hong Kong’s Stand News were charged with conspiring to publish seditious materials and denied bail following a raid on the online outlet’s offices by about 200 police.
(Reporting by Sara Cheng, Jessie Pang and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Alexander Smith)

1/3/2022 Iran Vows Revenge For Soleimani Killing If Trump Not Put On Trial
Iraqis, and supporters of Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), gather as they visit
the grave of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis during the second year anniversary of the
killing of him and senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. attack,
at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, in Najaf, Iraq January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi vowed on Monday revenge for the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani two years ago unless former U.S. President Donald Trump is put on trial.
    Soleimani was killed in Iraq in a drone strike ordered by Trump.
(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Editing by David Clarke)

1/4/2022 Afghanistan’s Blue Mountain Lakes Deserted As Tourists Stay Away by Sayed Ramin
General view of Band-e Amir river in Bamiyan, Afghanistan,
December 23, 2021. Picture taken December 23, 2021. REUTERS/Ali Khara
    BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The winter landscape around the deep, blue mountain lakes of Band-e-Amir in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan presents an arresting spectacle empty of people – but the absence of visitors is costing locals dearly.
    After two decades of war and facing its worst economic crisis, the collapse of Afghanistan’s vestigial tourism industry might almost go unnoticed.
    But Band-e Amir, about 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) above sea level and a couple of hours’ drive from the Buddhist sites of Bamiyan, usually attracts thousands of visitors a year seeking respite from the conflict.
    All that changed this year as the Taliban swept through one province after another, culminating in the shock overthrow of the Western-backed government in Kabul in August and plunging the economy into crisis as foreign aid dried up.
    “It used to be very good, there were skiing programmes and competitions in the winter,” said Sayed Reza, a tourist guide who also rents out rooms to visitors.
    “There used to be so many tourists in the winter and spring, but since Taliban came, in the last four months we have not seen any tourist in Band-e-Amir,” he said.
    Bamiyan province was one of the rare places that remained sheltered from the conflict that ripped much of Afghanistan apart over the past 20 years. It developed a relatively liberal culture in which mountain sports played a significant role.
    The skiers and cyclists on the slopes and roads, as well as the thousands of picnickers and sightseers enjoying the natural beauty offered a vision of carefree peace in stark contrast to the violence elsewhere.
    “Band-e-Amir is a tourist location; it has beautiful lakes and pure weather.    People enjoy spending time here,” Reza said.
    The area was declared a national park in 2009 and although Bamiyan as a whole remains generally poor and underdeveloped, the tourism that continued during the years of war has left clear signs of prosperity in the little village by the lake.
    Reza said the 70 to 80 families living in Band-e-Amir village depend entirely on tourism and are already suffering from the slowdown in visitors caused by the pandemic. The economic crisis that followed the Taliban victory has done the rest.
    “This year, due to the change in regime we have not seen any tourists in Band-e-Amir,” Reza said.
(Writing by James Mackenzie. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/4/2022 Hong Kong Leader Dismisses Press Freedom Criticisms by OAN Newsroom
FILE – Chris Yeung, founder and chief writer of Citizen News waves to journalists after a news conference
outside his office in Hong Kong, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that
the recent closure of two media outlets in the city cannot be associated with the state of press freedom
in Hong Kong as the decisions were made by the outlets themselves. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)
    Hong Kong is seeing the extinction of its longstanding freedom of press, but the region’s leader, Carrie Lam, is dismissing worries.    While speaking Tuesday, regional Chief Executive Lam said she rejects the idea of so-called “Western media” suggesting that free press is dying in the territory.
    This statement came after multiple pro-democracy newspapers were shuttered due to fears surrounding the nation’s recently enacted national security law.    According to Lam, everyone agrees that press freedoms should be guaranteed just as long as the press agrees with the Chinese Communist Party.
    “But nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong,” Lam stated.    “And journalists and media organizations like all of us have to respect and comply with the law.    If they are fearful of not being able to comply with the law then they have to make up their mind and take the necessary decisions.”
    Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed freedom from CCP overreach until 2047 following its handover from Britain 25-years ago. However, it has been battling for autonomy for the past several years.

1/4/2022 Hong Kong Activist Behind Tiananmen Vigil Sentenced To 15 Months Prison by Jessie Pang
FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China Vice-Chairwoman Tonyee Chow
Hang-tung is seen inside a vehicle after being detained in Hong Kong, China, September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) -A Hong Kong court sentenced a barrister and activist to 15 months in prison on Tuesday for inciting an unauthorised assembly to commemorate those who died in China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
    Chow Hang-tung, of the since-closed Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, was arrested the day before the June 4 anniversary of the crackdown last year.
    Police have banned Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigils for the last two years, citing coronavirus restrictions.
    But coming after the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, many activists saw the bans as an attempt to shut down displays of defiance to Beijing.    Authorities denied that was the reason.
    Despite the ban, thousands lit candles across the city in 2020, and smaller crowds did the same in 2021.
    Chow’s charge relates to social media posts titled “Lighting a candle is not a crime: Stand one’s ground,” and her Ming Pao newspaper article titled “Candlelight carries the weight of conscience and the Hong Kong people persevere in telling the truth.”
    Magistrate Amy Chan said she found the posts and article were meant “to encourage, persuade, make suggestions to and put pressure on members of the public,” and “amounted to inciting others to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly.”
    Chan added the assembly caused “a public health risk.”
    Chow, 36, who represented herself, had pleaded not guilty, saying she wanted to “incite others not to forget June 4,” not to encourage a gathering.
    Chan said she found the argument “simply unbelievable,” adding Chow’s academic qualifications would have allowed her to be more clear in her writing.
    “It can be foreseen that the public space to discuss June 4 will disappear entirely,” a tearful Chow told the court after the verdict.    “Tyranny is greedy, red lines will keep expanding.”
    Last month, eight pro-democracy activists were sentenced to up to 14 months for their role in the 2020 vigil.    Among them, Chow received a 12-month sentence.
    Five months of the sentence announced on Tuesday will run concurrently, meaning Chow will only serve 10 months in addition to her previous sentence.
STATUES REMOVED, MUSEUM CLOSED
    Sixteen other activists are already serving sentences of 4-10 months related to the 2020 vigil.    Two democracy campaigners facing similar charges, Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung, had fled Hong Kong before they were charged.
    Chow also faces charges of inciting subversion under a security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.    The Alliance dissolved amid that investigation, with police accusing it of being an “agent of foreign forces,” which the group had denied.
    Asked to comment on Chow’s sentence, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said “the United States condemns actions by the Hong Kong Government to stifle protected freedoms, including freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.”
    The United States and its allies would continue to insist that Beijing honours its commitments to those freedoms, the spokesperson said.
    The former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging freedoms, traditionally holds the largest June 4 vigil in the world.
    But commemorations have become increasingly difficult. Last month, top international universities across the global financial hub removed Tiananmen monuments, including the “Pillar of Shame” https://www.reuters.com/world/china/hong-kong-university-fences-off-tiananmen-statue-campus-2021-12-22 in the University of Hong Kong and the “Goddess of Democracy” https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/two-more-tiananmen-monuments-removed-hong-kong-university-campuses-2021-12-24 at Chinese University.
    A June 4 museum was raided by police during the investigation into the Alliance and shut, and its online version cannot be accessed in Hong Kong.    https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/access-website-dedicated-tiananmen-victims-appears-restricted-hong-kong-2021-09-30     China has never provided a full account of the 1989 crackdown.    The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands may have been killed.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Angus MacSwan)

1/5/2022 North Korea Fires Suspected Missile As S.Korea Breaks Ground For ‘Peace’ Railway by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic
missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile off its east coast on Wednesday, just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula.
    North Korea’s first launch since October underscored leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year vow https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkoreas-kim-talks-food-not-nukes-2022-2021-12-31 to bolster the military to counter an unstable international situation amid stalled talks with South Korea and the United States.
    The presumed missile was fired around 8:10 a.m. (2310 GMT) from an inland location, over the east coast and into the sea, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
    A few hours later, Moon visited the South Korean east coast city of Goseong, near the border with the North, where he broke ground for a new rail line that he called “a stepping stone for peace and regional balance” on the peninsula.
    In remarks at the ceremony, Moon acknowledged the launch raised concerns of tensions and damage to inter-Korean relations, and called for North Korea to make sincere efforts for dialogue.
    “We should not give up the hope for dialogue in order to fundamentally overcome this situation,” he said.    “If both Koreas work together and build trust, peace would be achieved one day.”
    The apparent missile launch by the nuclear-armed North highlighted the challenges Moon faces in his push https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skoreas-moon-promises-final-push-nkorea-peace-2022-01-03 to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough before his five-year term ends in May.
    Reconnecting the two Koreas by rail was a central issue in meetings between Kim and Moon in 2018, but those efforts went nowhere as talks aimed at convincing North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange for easing international sanctions faltered in 2019.
    Kim’s New Year speech made no mention of efforts by South Korea to restart negotiations or offers by the United States to talk, though analysts noted that doesn’t mean he has closed the door on diplomacy.
‘VERY REGRETTABLE’
    South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, expressing concern the launch “came at a time when internal and external stability is extremely important” and calling on North Korea to return to talks.
    Japan’s defence minister said the suspected ballistic missile had flown an estimated 500 km (310 miles).
    “Since last year, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles, which is very regrettable,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.
    U.N. Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.
    In state media summaries of a speech Kim gave ahead of the New Year, the North Korean leader did not specifically mention missiles or nuclear weapons but said national defence must be bolstered.
    For several weeks, North Korean troops have been conducting winter exercises, South Korean military officials have said.
    “Our military is maintaining readiness posture in preparation for a possible additional launch while closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with the United States,” the JCS said in a statement.     Recent North Korean missile tests have often featured double or multiple launches.
    Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated, imposing border lockdowns that have slowed trade to a trickle and choking off any in-person diplomatic engagements.
    It has also stuck to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons.    The last tests of ICBMs or a nuclear bomb were in 2017, before Kim met with then U.S. President Donald Trump.
    But Pyongyang has continued test firing a variety of new, short-range ballistic missiles, including one launched from a submarine https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-says-it-conducted-successful-missile-test-submarine-kcna-2021-10-19 in October, arguing it should not be penalized for developing weapons that other countries also wield.
    “While the readout from North Korea’s recent plenary meetings may have prioritised rural development https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkoreas-kim-talks-food-not-nukes-2022-2021-12-31 for the coming year, it doesn’t mean the country will halt its ballistic missile tests,” said Michelle Kae, deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea monitoring programme at Washington’s Stimson Center.
MISSILE DEVELOPMENT
    In a report last month, the U.S. government’s Congressional Research Service concluded North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programmes despite U.N. sanctions and diplomatic efforts.
    “Recent ballistic missile tests and military parades suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defences,” the report said.
    Just hours after the North Korean launch, Japan announced its foreign and defence ministers will hold talks with their U.S. counterparts on Friday to discuss security.
    Speaking at a regular news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged all parties to “bear in mind the bigger picture,” cherish the “hard won” peace and stability on the peninsula and stick to the use of dialogue and consultation to reach political settlement.
    The White House, Pentagon and U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s launch.
    At a regular news briefing on Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the U.S. desire for dialogue with North Korea, saying Washington had no hostile intent and was prepared to meet without preconditions.
(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Ju-min Park in Tokyo, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Emily Chow in Beijing; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Stephen Coates and Lincoln Feast.)

1/5/2022 Taiwan Air Force Stages Drill To Intercept Chinese Planes Amid Tensions by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang
12 F-16V fighter jets perform an elephant walk during an annual
New Year's drill in Chiayi, Taiwan, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Ann Wang
    CHIAYI, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan air force jets screamed into the sky on Wednesday in a drill simulating a war scenario, showing its combat readiness amid heightened military tensions with China, which claims the island as its own.
    Before takeoff, flight crews at a base in the southern city of Chiayi – home to U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets that are frequently scrambled to intercept Chinese warplanes – rushed to ready aircraft as an alarm sounded.
    The exercises were part of a three-day drill to show Taiwan’s battle readiness ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of this month.
    Tensions across the sensitive Taiwan Strait have been rising in the past few years, with Taiwan complaining of repeated missions by China’s air force near the democratic island.
    Chinese military aircraft frequently fly into the southwestern part of its air defence identification zone (ADIZ), airspace around the island that Taiwan monitors and patrols.
    “With the very high frequency of Communist planes entering our ADIZ, pilots from our wing are very experienced and have dealt with almost all types of their aircraft,” Major Yen Hsiang-sheng told reporters, recalling a mission in which he was dispatched to intercept Chinese J-16 fighters late last year.
    China has not ruled out using force to bring Taiwan under its control.
    Taiwan has termed China’s activities as “grey zone” warfare, designed to both wear out Taiwan’s forces by making them repeatedly scramble, and also to test its responses.
    In a new year message for China last week, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said military conflict is not the answer. Beijing responded with a stern warning that if Taiwan crossed any red line it would lead to “profound catastrophe.”
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang; Writing by Yimou Lee; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/5/2022 Tempers Fraying In Australia As COVID-19 Cases Hit New Highs by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers administer tests at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing clinic as the
Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Sydney, Australia, December 30, 2021. REUTERS/Nikki Short
    SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia’s daily COVID-19 cases hit a record high for the third consecutive day on Wednesday, further straining hospital resources and testing facilities as public anger grows over the handling of the fast-moving Omicron outbreak.
    Many Australians, already unhappy about long queues at public testing centres and a shortage of at-home tests, were further incensed when news broke that tennis world number one Novak Djokovic had been given a medical exemption to enter the country.
    Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under pressure at the start of an election year, has sought to reassure voters that his centre-right Liberal-National Party coalition has the situation under control, while keeping tight control on the purse strings.
    “There are no silver bullets here,” Morrison told reporters ahead of a meeting of national cabinet, the group of federal and state and territory leaders tasked with handling the pandemic.
    “You’ve just got to work the problem, work it together and push through.”
    Officials reported a record 64,774 new cases, the majority in New South Wales and Victoria, the country’s most populous states.    That easily exceeded the previous day’s national tally of around 47,800.
    Total infections have surged more than 50 times from around 1,200 since late November, when the first Omicron case was detected in the country.
    People admitted to hospitals in NSW and Victoria rose 10% over the previous day, and authorities warned those numbers would rise further over the next several weeks.
    “We have got some challenging weeks ahead of us,” NSW Deputy Health Secretary Susan Pearce told reporters.
    The rapid surge in cases in recent weeks has led to long lines at publicly-funded PCR testing centres.    That prompted authorities to ask people to only seek PCR tests if symptomatic, which in turn led to a shortage of rapid antigen tests, which can be used at home but must be purchased privately.
    Morrison, who must call a federal election before May, has ruled out subsidising the majority of the at-home testing kits, citing a heightened role for “personal responsibility.”
    Some state leaders are expected to press Morrison at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting to subsidise rapid antigen tests.
‘TAKEN FOR FOOLS’
    Authorities also fielded sharp criticism about the decision to grant Djokovic, who has declined to reveal his vaccination status but has previously stated his objection to mandatory vaccines, a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open tennis Grand Slam tournament.
    The decision prompted an outcry on social media and criticism from other sports people, medical professionals and lawmakers.
    Former Australian Rules player Kevin Bartlett tweeted that Australians “have been taken for fools,” while another former player Corey McKernan tweeted: “People with loved ones who are dying/some needing urgent treatment cannot get into their own states.    You tell people they can’t go to Coles [supermarket] or a cafe without being vaxxed but if you’re world number one you get a pass?
    Many Australians, and particularly those in Melbourne which hosts the year’s first tennis major later this month, have been subjected to a series of lengthy lockdowns over the past two years.
    Federal and state government heavily pushed the importance of vaccinations.    As a result, 90% of people over 16 have been double dosed and a booster programme is rolling out.
    “It sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #COVID19Aus risk to themselves & others.    #Vaccination shows respect, Novak,” tweeted Stephen Parnis, a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association.
    Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government said Djokovic did not receive any special treatment in a blind review process that involved a panel of health experts.
    When asked his opinion, Morrison said the decision was the remit of the Victorian government.
    Australia has recorded more than 612,000 cases and 2,290 deaths since the coronavirus pandemic began, with more than half of those infections reported over the past two weeks.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne with additional reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell)

1/5/2022 Hong Kong Leader Announces New COVID Measures, Including Flight Bans
FILE PHOTO: People wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19), walk on a street in Hong Kong, China November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Wednesday the government will introduce a series of new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, as she warned the global financial hub was on the verge of another outbreak.
    The new rules include a ban on flights from eight countries for two weeks from Jan. 8, effecting Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Philippines, France and India.
    Lam was speaking as Hong Kong authorities launched a city-wide search for the contacts of a COVID-19 patient and ordered a Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” ship to return to port early, as health officials feared a fifth wave of infections.
(Reporting By Jessie Pang and Edmong Ng; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

1/5/2022 China’s Henan Hit By COVID Curbs After Sporadic Cases
Medical workers in protective suits collect swabs from residents during a citywide nucleic acid testing following cases
of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, January 5, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – A few central Chinese cities imposed varying degrees of travel curbs after sporadic COVID-19 cases, in line with a national strategy that has taken on extra urgency due to the upcoming Winter Olympics and Lunar New Year holiday.
    The city of Yuzhou in the central province of Henan has ordered its 1.1 million residents not to leave town since Jan. 2, although the caseload for the city and the entire province remained tiny.    Henan reported four domestically transmitted cases and 18 local asymptomatic infections for Tuesday.
    Households in Yuzhou could only send one person to shop for daily necessities at designated venues every two days, and in high risk areas people were told to stay home and rely on deliveries, according to a government statement published late on Tuesday.
    China’s strategy demands that officials act to contain clusters of infections as quickly as possible.
    Tough curbs appeared to be bearing results in the Xian, a northwestern city of 13 million that has been under lockdown for two weeks, as new cases there showed a significant decline.
    Local authorities warned that the COVID situation for Yuzhou was severe, with the source of the virus still unknown, and demanded officials to treat virus control as “priority political task.”
    The city will have 5,000 rooms for quarantine ready by Wednesday noon, a local government official said on Tuesday.
    In Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, people in risky areas were told they could not leave town without approval from COVID control authorities, state television reported late on Tuesday.    Residents in other parts of the city were advised against travelling out of Zhengzhou unless it was essential.
    The overall virus situation in Zhengzhou, which is conducting a citywide test on its 12.6 million residents, is controllable, a government statement said.
    Two counties in Henan, under the jurisdiction of Luoyang city and Zhoukou city, also sealed up a few areas.
    In Xian, authorities reported 35 local symptomatic cases for Tuesday, a significant decline from 95 a day earlier and 150 or more per day during the Dec. 25-31 period.
    The eastern province of Zhejiang also reported two local symptomatic infections for Tuesday, and Shanghai city reported four local asymptomatic cases.
    Mainland China had 102,932 confirmed symptomatic cases as of the end of Jan. 4, including both local and imported ones.
    There were no new fatalities for Tuesday, leaving the death toll unchanged at 4,636.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Roxanne Liu, Gabriel Crossley and Ella Cao; Editing by Himani Sarkar & Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/5/2022 Japan’s Okinawa Sees Doubling Of COVID-19 Cases, Considers Emergency Steps
FILE PHOTO: Passersby wearing protective face masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,
walk at a shopping arcade in the prefectural capital Naha, on the southern island of Okinawa,
Okinawa prefecture, Japan, October 24, 2021. Picture taken October 24, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s Okinawa region emerged on Wednesday as the epicentre of a new coronavirus surge with cases more than doubling from the previous day and officials were considering imposing emergency steps to contain it.
    New infections in the southern prefecture jumped to 623 from 225 on Tuesday, the most since August when Japan was in the midst of its fifth and biggest wave of COVID-19.
    Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki on Tuesday told reporters the region had entered a sixth wave of infections and the highly transmissible Omicron variant was responsible.
    As of Tuesday, a total of 1,191 cases of the Omicron variant had been found in Japan, including 479 cases considered community transmissions, according to the health ministry.
    Cases of the coronavirus are also increasing in Japan’s major metropolitan areas.
    Tokyo reported 390 cases, the most since September, and the governor of the prefecture of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, told reporters that daily infections there would likely exceed 200.
    Okinawa health experts will meet later on Wednesday to determine whether to ask the central government to impose urgent measures, a prefectural official said.
    It would be the first such declaration of what are known in Japan as quasi-emergency measures since Sept. 30, when all states of emergency and quasi-emergency that had been in effect for a good part of 2021 were lifted.
    The central government hopes to respond quickly to any requests for emergency steps, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.
    Measures would likely include limiting the opening hours of restaurants and bars.
    Okinawa, an island chain 1,500 km (932 miles) southwest of Tokyo, hosts 70% of U.S. military facilities in Japan.    Discoveries of coronavirus clusters and Omicron cases among service members have rankled relations with Japanese authorities there and residents, who number just under 1.5 million.
    Matsuno said Japan was asking the U.S. military to make all efforts on the coronavirus amid rising infections at bases in Okinawa.
    Separately, a U.S. Marine Corps station in the prefecture of Yamaguchi, in western Japan, reported that 182 people on the base there had tested positive on Tuesday.
    The number of new daily coronavirus cases in Japan rose past 1,000 on Tuesday for the first time in three months.    A new national tally is due later on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Nobuhiro Kubo, Elaine Lies and Rocky Swift; Editing by Richard Pullin and Robert Birsel)

1/5/2022 Australia, Japan To Sign Security Cooperation Treaty
Japanese and Australian flags are pictured before the arrival of Australian Prime Minister
Scott Morrison at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan November 17, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Australia and Japan are set to sign a treaty to beef up defence and security cooperation at a virtual summit on Thursday, after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cancelled trips to Australia and the United States due a surge in COVID-19 cases.
    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the two leaders will sign a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which will for the first time set out a framework for the two countries’ defence forces to cooperate with each other.
    “This treaty will be a statement of our two nations’ commitment to work together in meeting the shared strategic security challenges we face and to contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said in a statement.
    The strengthened security ties expand on efforts by the United States, Japan, India and Australia – dubbed the Quad – to work on shared concerns about China in the Indo-Pacific region.
    Australia and Japan also plan to discuss opportunities to strengthen government and business partnerships on clean energy, critical technologies and materials.
    “Our cooperation also includes an expanding agenda for the Quad with India and the United States, and our shared technology-led approach to reducing carbon emissions,” Morrison said.
    China said bilateral treaties should promote regional trust, peace and stability.
    “It should not target or harm any third party interests,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, at a daily news briefing on Wednesday, when asked about the treaty.
    Kishida said on Tuesday he would forgo overseas visits before the next session of parliament starts on Jan. 17 to focus on laying out anti-pandemic measures.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Additional reporting by Emily Chow; Editing by Michael Perry)

1/5/2022 S.Korea To Appeal Court Order Exempting Private Schools From Vaccine Passes by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: A student retaking the college entrance exams this year attends class at Deung Yong Moon
Boarding School in Kwangju, some 40 km (25 miles) southeast of Seoul October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) – The South Korean government said on Wednesday it will appeal against a court order to exclude private education facilities from a COVID-19 vaccine pass mandate, the first major legal tussle over vaccinations that have been widely accepted.
    A Seoul administrative court ruled on Tuesday that private education facilities such as cram schools, reading rooms and study cafes should be temporarily exempted from the mandate, granting an injunction requested by coalitions of private education providers and parents’ groups.
    “We think it is necessary to expand the vaccine mandate to stabilise the current situation and expedite the recovery of our normal daily lives,” health ministry spokesman Son Young-rae told a briefing.
    “We will carry out the suit as rapidly and diligently as possible, and immediately appeal against the injunction.”
    South Korea has largely been one of Asia’s coronavirus mitigation success stories even though it has suffered regular flare-ups in infections.
    More than 90% of South Koreans aged 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.
    The vaccine mandate, one of the most stringent in the region, requires proof of vaccination and a booster to gain access to most public facilities, including restaurants, bars, gyms, department stores and large supermarkets, as well as privately run educational centres.
    It does not apply to public schools.
    But it has triggered an uproar among some parents who refuse to vaccinate their children mainly due to concern about possible side effects.    They have called the mandate “vaccine dictatorship
    The policy took effect on Monday for people aged 18 and older and will begin for teenagers in March, after a delay following the backlash.
    Infections have been surging among teenagers since distancing curbs were eased in November, under a plan to “live with COVID-19,” including the resumption of full-time in-person classes in schools.
    The government reinstated the curbs after just six weeks as record-breaking daily tallies and serious cases put ever greater strains on the medical system.
    The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 4,444 new cases for Tuesday, bringing total infections to 649,669 with 5,838 deaths.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/5/2022 N.Korea Says Launch On Wednesday Was Hypersonic Missile by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic
missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea test fired a “hypersonic missile” this week that successfully hit a target, state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday, as the country pursues new military capabilities amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
    The launch on Wednesday was the first by North Korea since October and was detected by several militaries in the region, drawing criticism from governments in the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
    North Korea first tested a hypersonic missile in September, joining a race headed by major military powers to deploy the advanced weapons system.
    Unlike ballistic missiles that fly into outer space before returning on steep trajectories, hypersonic weapons fly towards targets at lower altitudes and can achieve more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph).
    “The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing strategic armed force of the state,” the KCNA report said.
    In Wednesday’s test, the “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and manoeuvred 120 km (75 miles) laterally before it “precisely hit” a target 700 km (430 miles) away, KCNA reported.
    The test also confirmed components such as flight control and its ability to operate in the winter, KCNA added.
    The missile demonstrated its ability to combine “multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring,” KCNA said.
    While it has not tested nuclear bombs or long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, in recent years North Korea has developed and launched a range of more manoeuvrable missiles and warheads likely aimed at being able to overcome missile defences like those wielded by South Korea and the United States, analysts have said.
    “My impression is that the North Koreans have identified hypersonic gliders as a potentially useful qualitative means to cope with missile defence,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
NEW MISSILE
    Hypersonic weapons are considered the next generation of arms that aim to rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.
    Photos of the missile used in Wednesday’s test show a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV), analysts said.
    It is a different version than the weapon tested last year, and was first unveiled at a defence exhibition in Pyongyang in October, Panda said.
    “They likely set up at least two separate development programs,” he added.    “One of these was the Hwasong-8, which was tested in September.    This missile, which shares a few features in common with the Hwasong-8, is another.”
    The U.S. State Department said this week’s test violated multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions and poses a threat to North Korea’s neighbours and the international community.
    Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal have been stalled since a series of summits between leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald     Trump broke down with no agreement.
    U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is open to talking to North Korea, but Pyongyang has said American overtures are empty rhetoric without more substantive changes to “hostile policies” such as military drills and sanctions.
    The latest test came just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula, casting doubts over his hopes for an eleventh-hour diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea before his five-year term ends in May.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Leslie Adler, Alistair Bell and Richard Pullin)

1/6/2022 North Korea Launches Second Hypersonic Missile In Fiery Test by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic
missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired a “hypersonic missile” this week that successfully hit a target, state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday, its second such test as the country pursues new military capabilities amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
    The launch on Wednesday was the first by North Korea since October and was detected by several militaries in the region, drawing criticism from governments in the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
    North Korea first tested a hypersonic missile in September, joining a race headed by major military powers to deploy the advanced weapons system.
    Hypersonic weapons usually fly towards targets at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles and can achieve more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph).
    Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed – which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads – but their manoeuvrability.     In Wednesday’s test, the “hypersonic gliding warhead” detached from its rocket booster and manoeuvred 120 km (75 miles) laterally before it “precisely hit” a target 700 km (430 miles) away, KCNA reported.     The missile demonstrated its ability to combine “multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring,” KCNA said.
    The test also confirmed components such as flight control and its ability to operate in the winter, KCNA added.
    “The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing strategic armed force of the state,” the KCNA report said.
    While it has not tested nuclear bombs or long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, in recent years North Korea has developed and launched a range of more manoeuvrable missiles and warheads likely aimed at being able to overcome missile defences like those wielded by South Korea and the United States, analysts have said.
    “My impression is that the North Koreans have identified hypersonic gliders as a potentially useful qualitative means to cope with missile defence,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
NEW MISSILE
    Hypersonic weapons are considered the next generation of arms that aim to rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.
    Last month the United States completed construction of a massive, $1.5 billion long-range radar for a homeland missile defence system in Alaska that it says can track ballistic missiles as well as hypersonic weapons from countries such as North Korea.
    Photos of the missile used in Wednesday’s test show what analysts said is a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a conical-shaped Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) blasting off from a wheeled launch vehicle in a cloud of flame and smoke.
    It is a different version than the weapon tested last year, and was first unveiled at a defence exhibition in Pyongyang in October, Panda said.
    “They likely set up at least two separate development programmes,” he added.    “One of these was the Hwasong-8, which was tested in September.    This missile, which shares a few features in common with the Hwasong-8, is another.”
    In a call with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the North Korea missile launch and discussed cooperation to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
    “We take any new capability seriously, and as we’ve said, we condemn (North Korea’s) continued testing of ballistic missiles, which are destabilizing to the region and to the international community,” a State Department spokesperson said later.
    Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenal have been stalled since a series of summits between leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump broke down with no agreement.
    U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is open to talking to North Korea, but Pyongyang has said American overtures are empty rhetoric without more substantive changes to “hostile policies” such as military drills and sanctions.
    The latest test came just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula, casting doubts over his hopes for an eleventh-hour diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea before his five-year term ends in May.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler, Alistair Bell and Richard Pullin)

1/6/2022 Australia Suffers Record COVID Cases, Straining Businesses And Supply Chains
A pharmacy displays a sign to inform customers that Rapid Antigen Test kits are sold out in wake
of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, Australia’s daily coronavirus infections soared to a fresh peak on Thursday, overwhelming hospitals, while isolation rules caused labour shortages, putting a strain on businesses and supply chains.
    With Thursday’s count still incomplete, Australia so far has reported 72,392 new infections easily exceeding the high of 64,774 set a day earlier.    Western Australia is due to post its new cases later.
    Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing a federal election before May, is under pressure over his handling of the Omicron outbreak due to stock shortages of antigen tests and hours-long wait times at testing centres.
    Having successfully kept a lid in its COVID-19 caseload through aggressive lockdowns earlier in the pandemic, Australia is now suffering infections rates far higher than elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, and some epidemiologists in the country predict that the worst is yet to come.
    On Thursday, the government cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/exclusive-novak-djokovic-denied-entry-australia-seeking-injunction-stop-2022-01-05 to pacify public anger over the decision to give the world tennis number one a medical exemption from vaccination to play at the Australian Open.
    Authorities have relaxed testing requirements https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/australias-health-system-under-pressure-covid-19-cases-hit-fresh-records-2022-01-05 and have shortened the quarantine period for asymptomatic close contacts after concerns essential services might become overrun.
    To ease the pressure on businesses, the New South Wales (NSW) government urged firms to avoid asking staff, who might have been exposed to the virus, to get themselves tested if they do not exhibit any symptoms.
    “They should not be required to get a test,” NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet told radio station 2GB on Thursday.    “This will take time for a change in behaviour because … over the last two years we’ve been saying (everyone) to go and get tested.”
    About 50% of truck drivers are isolated due to COVID protocols, putting Australia’s supply chain under “significant pressure,” the transport workers union said on Wednesday.
    Amid reports of empty shelves in some supermarkets, Coles Group reintroduced temporary purchase limits for some meat products “to help manage demand for key grocery items.”    Rival Woolworths said there were delays with stock deliveries but ruled out any restrictions now.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/6/2022 China’s Henan Imposes More COVID Curbs As Cases Spike, Though Numbers Small
Medical workers in protective suits collect swabs from residents during a citywide nucleic acid testing following cases of the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, January 5, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – More cities in central China resorted to tough curbs as new coronavirus infections in Henan province rose sharply, with authorities taking urgent action to contain clusters ahead of the Winter Olympics and Lunar New Year peak travel season.
    Henan reported 64 domestically transmitted local infections with confirmed symptoms for Wednesday, up from just four a day earlier, official data showed on Thursday.
    Although the numbers are tiny compared with many places in the world, and no cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant have been reported so far in Henan, several cities there imposed new limits on travel or economic activities in response to a rash of new cases.
    China’s national policy of stamping out clusters quickly as they appear has taken on extra urgency in the run up to the Winter Games, being hosted by Beijing and nearby Hebei starting Feb. 4.
    “The international pandemic situation is serious and complex, the virus variant becomes more transmissible, and [COVID-19] prevention and control is more difficult,” the state planner said on Thursday on the Lunar New Year travel season.
    Gushi, a county in Henan of 1 million residents, reported one symptomatic case and one asymptomatic carrier for Wednesday.    But that was enough to persuade local officials to stop people from leaving town and dissuade others from coming.
    The city of Xuchang required local officials to minimise movement of people as mass testing on its more than 4 million residents was being rolled out between Thursday and Friday.    In Yuzhou city, part of Xuchang’s conurbation, 1 million residents are already under lockdown.
    Several cities, including Hebi and Kaifeng which are yet to report any new infections recently, have shuttered some cultural and entertainment venues.
HIGH ALERT
    Although no local infections were reported on Wednesday in Yongji, a city in the northern province of Shanxi, authorities there ordered all its 400,000 residents to remain indoors and businesses and schools to suspend activities on Thursday, after samples taken from a train station turnstile tested positive for the virus.
    Mainland China has only announced a handful of Omicron cases from international travellers and at least one locally transmitted infections, but it has intensified efforts to reduce the risk of the variant being brought in from overseas.
    Travellers planning to fly to China from the United States, where Omicron is spreading rapidly, must complete a nucleic acid COVID test seven days before departure, and report their body temperature daily for one week, on top of existing requirements, according to notices published on Tuesday on the websites of the     Chinese embassy in the U.S. and several consulates.
    the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases arriving in China from the United States has increased rapidly and significantly,” those notices said.
PUNISHMENT
    The northwestern city of Xian, more than two weeks into a lockdown, reported 63 local symptomatic infections for Wednesday, up from 35 a day earlier but still much lower than the daily case count seen in the last week of December.
    All international flights in the Xian Xianyang International Airport were halted from Wednesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday.    Domestic flights were suspended earlier.
    The lockdown has limited residents’ normal access to essential daily routine, including seeking medical services at hospitals.    Posts about a pregnant woman who lost her baby after waiting outside of a local hospital, bleeding, stirred social media outcry.
    Two Xian health officials were given warnings for not doing their job well due to the incident, state media reported on Thursday.    The general manager of the hospital was suspended, with a few other staffers removed from their roles.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Roxanne Liu, Gabriel Crossley and Ella Cao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger & Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/6/2022 Japan, Australia Sign Defence Cooperation Pact
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison show off
signed documents during their video signing ceremony of the bilateral reciprocal access
agreement at Kishida's official residence in Tokyo, Japan January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato/Pool
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Japan and Australia signed an agreement on Thursday to cooperate closely on defence in the latest step to bolster security ties against the backdrop of China’s rising military and economic might.
    Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a virtual summit to seal a pact that has been in the works for several years.
    Australia has been working with Japan, India, the United States and Britain to strengthen defence ties amid concerns about China, including its pressure on Taiwan, freedom of navigation in the region and trade disputes.
    The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), Japan’s first with any country, will allow the Australian and Japanese militaries to work seamlessly with each other on defence and humanitarian operations, Morrison said.
    “Japan is our closest partner in Asia as demonstrated by our special strategic partnership, Australia’s only such partnership – an equal partnership of shared trust between two great democracies committed to the rule of law, human rights, free trade and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said at a signing ceremony.
    Japan’s only other military pact is with the United States, a status of forces agreement dating back to 1960 that allows the United States to base warships, fighter jets and thousands of troops in and around Japan as part of an alliance that the United States describes as the bedrock of regional security.
    “The RAA is a landmark treaty which opens a new chapter for advanced defence and security co-operation of what is a complex and rapidly changing world, something you and I both understand very well,” Morrison told Kishida.
    Morrison said ahead of the meeting that stronger ties with Japan were needed “to deal with a new and even more challenging environment, particularly within the Indo-Pacific.”
    Kishida had been due to travel to Australia on Thursday but scrapped the trip to tackle a surge in COVID-19 cases in Japan.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/6/2022 U.S. Strengthens COVID-19 Infection Controls At Bases In Japan
FILE PHOTO: U.S. soldiers wearing protective face masks are seen in front of C-130 transport planes
during a military drill amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Yokota
U.S. Air Force Base in Fussa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan May 21, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. military bases in Japan introduced stricter COVID-19 measures on Thursday after the government expressed grave concern about a surge of new infections and called for restrictions on the movement of U.S. personnel.
    Japan is facing what some are calling its sixth wave of coronavirus infections with cases in some places at their highest in months.    One official has blamed U.S. military personnel for spreading the Omicron variant.
    U.S. Forces Japan said that due to an increase in COVID-19 cases at U.S. installations and throughout Japan it was establishing more stringent mitigation measures including requiring U.S. military personnel to wear masks off base and for stricter testing.
    “The mitigation measures we have instituted … are intended to protect our force’s readiness, the well-being of our families, and the health of Japan’s citizens,” the force said in a release.
    “We recognise we all have a part to play in keeping our communities safe.”
    There are more than 100,000 U.S. service members, dependents and contractors in Japan.
    Earlier, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi asked U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for U.S. service members to be restricted to their bases, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.
    Matsuno said Japan was “gravely concerned” about COVID infections at U.S. bases.
    The southern prefecture of Okinawa, host to 70% of U.S. military facilities in Japan, is at the epicentre of Japan’s latest surge of cases and it asked the central government on Thursday to impose new restrictions, known as quasi-emergency measures, which would likely include limiting the opening hours of restaurants and bars.
    Announcing the request, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki said new cases there were expected to surge to 980 on Thursday from 623 the day before.
    Tamaki told reporters this week he was “furious” about what he called inadequate infection controls at U.S. bases that allowed the Omicron variant to spread to the public.
    The western prefecture of Hiroshima announced it would also request quasi-emergency measures.    Various levels of emergency controls had been in place over most of Japan last year until their lifting on Sept. 30.
    Japan halted the entry of almost all foreign travellers in late November after the World Health Organization listed Omicron as a variant of concern.
    But the U.S. military moves staff in and out under a separate testing and quarantine regime.
    A U.S. Marine Corps station in the prefecture of Yamaguchi, in western Japan, said it discovered 115 new cases on Wednesday, after 182 the previous day.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel)

1/6/2022 Omicron Spreads In India’s Big Cities But Hospitalisations Still Low by Subrata Nagchoudhury and Krishna N. Das
A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test swab sample from a woman amidst the
spread of the disease, at a railway station in New Delhi, India, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
    KOLKATA (Reuters) – Indian megacities Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, although without a corresponding rise in hospitalisations, but fears are growing about a spread to rural areas in coming days.
    India reported 90,928 new daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday, up nearly four-fold since the start of the year, mostly from cities where health officials say the Omicron variant has overtaken Delta.    The bulk of those infected have shown no or only mild symptoms and have recovered quickly at home, officials said.
    The federal health ministry on Wednesday identified Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru as some of the main regions of concern, although state officials worry the disease will soon spread to the countryside where health facilities are weaker.
    Kolkata, a city of about 15 million, accounted for half of the new cases in the eastern state of West Bengal until a few days ago, but cases are now rising in neighbouring districts.    The state has reported one of the highest rates of infections in India.
    “We are watching the situation in the districts and rural belts where the numbers are also growing,” said Ajay Chakraborty, director of the West Bengal health services who has isolated himself at home after contracting the virus.
    Many COVID beds in Kolkata were still empty, Chakraborty said.    In the government-run Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General Hospital, only 75 admissions were recorded on Tuesday despite more than 9,000 new cases, he added.
    In the west, Mumbai recorded a new daily infection peak of 15,166 on Wednesday, well up on its previous high of just over 11,000 hit last year.    Nearly 90% of new patients had shown no symptoms and only 8% were hospitalised, city officials said in a daily health bulletin.
    COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in a day in Delhi to 10,665 on Wednesday, but the state said only 7% of its COVID beds were occupied.
    Federal health officials, however, have warned even a large number of mild cases could put pressure on the health system.
    India has confirmed at least 2,135 Omicron cases and one death linked to the variant, in an elderly man who was suffering from diabetes.
    Daily COVID-19 deaths rose by 325 on Thursday, taking the total to 482,876. Total infections are at 35.11 million, only behind the U.S. tally.
    As cases rise, the western state of Gujarat on Thursday indefinitely postponed a Jan. 10-12 biennial investment summit that was to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and previously attended by the country’s top billionaires. Modi’s home state reported 3,350 infections on Wednesday.
    Many Indian cities have already imposed night curfews and weekend lockdowns, as well as closed schools. Political rallies, however, have continued in several states where elections are due in the next few weeks and months.
    Health authorities will discuss the matter with election commission officials on Thursday amid rising concerns about such rallies that led to a devastating second wave in the country in April and May.
(Reporting by Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata, Krishna N. Das in New Delhi, Anuron Kumar Mitra in Bengaluru, Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai and Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Richard Pulin)

1/6/2022 Taiwan Air Force Stages Drill To Intercept Chinese Planes Amid Tensions by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang
12 F-16V fighter jets perform an elephant walk during an annual New Year's
drill in Chiayi, Taiwan, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Ann Wang
    CHIAYI, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan air force jets screamed into the sky on Wednesday in a drill simulating a war scenario, showing its combat readiness amid heightened military tensions with China, which claims the island as its own.
    Before takeoff, flight crews at a base in the southern city of Chiayi – home to U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets that are frequently scrambled to intercept Chinese warplanes – rushed to ready aircraft as an alarm sounded.
    The exercises were part of a three-day drill to show Taiwan’s battle readiness ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of this month.
    Tensions across the sensitive Taiwan Strait have been rising in the past few years, with Taiwan complaining of repeated missions by China’s air force near the democratic island.
    Chinese military aircraft frequently fly into the southwestern part of its air defence identification zone (ADIZ), airspace around the island that Taiwan monitors and patrols.
    “With the very high frequency of Communist planes entering our ADIZ, pilots from our wing are very experienced and have dealt with almost all types of their aircraft,” Major Yen Hsiang-sheng told reporters, recalling a mission in which he was dispatched to intercept Chinese J-16 fighters late last year.
    China has not ruled out using force to bring Taiwan under its control.
    Taiwan has termed China’s activities as “grey zone” warfare, designed to both wear out Taiwan’s forces by making them repeatedly scramble, and also to test its responses.
    In a new year message for China last week, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said military conflict is not the answer.    Beijing responded with a stern warning that if Taiwan crossed any red line it would lead to “profound catastrophe.”
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang; Writing by Yimou Lee; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/6/2022 Australia, Japan To Sign Security Cooperation Treaty
Japanese and Australian flags are pictured before the arrival of Australian Prime Minister
Scott Morrison at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan November 17, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia and Japan are set to sign a treaty to beef up defence and security cooperation at a virtual summit on Thursday, in the latest move to strengthen ties amid China’s rising military power and economic clout in the Indo-Pacific region.
    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the two leaders will sign a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which will for the first time set out a framework for the two countries’ defence forces to cooperate with each other.
    “This treaty will be a statement of our two nations’ commitment to work together in meeting the shared strategic security challenges we face and to contribute to a secure and stable Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said in a statement on Wednesday.
    The strengthened security ties expand on efforts by the United States, Japan, India and Australia – dubbed the Quad – to work on shared concerns about China, including its pressure on Taiwan, trade disputes, and freedom of navigation in the region.
    China responded by saying that bilateral treaties should promote regional trust, peace and stability.
    “It should not target or harm any third party interests,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, at a daily news briefing on Wednesday, when asked about the treaty.
    Australia and Japan also plan to discuss opportunities to strengthen government and business partnerships on clean energy, critical technologies and materials.
    “Our cooperation also includes an expanding agenda for the Quad with India and the United States, and our shared technology-led approach to reducing carbon emissions,” Morrison said.
    Japan’s top government spokesman said “common important challenges will be discussed in a candid manner” at the summit.
    “Japan-Australia relations will be further enhanced, and towards the realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific, we will reaffirm our cooperation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Wednesday.
    Kishida said on Tuesday he would forgo overseas visits before the next session of parliament starts on Jan. 17 to focus on laying out anti-pandemic measures.    He had previously planned to travel to Australia in person, according to media reports.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Additional reporting by Emily Chow in Beijing and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; Editing by Michael Perry and Frank Jack Daniel)

1/6/2022 Thailand Raises COVID-19 Alert Level Due To Omicron Spread
A health worker from Zendai organisation in personal protective equipment (PPE) takes
a swab sample from a girl for a rapid antigen test amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak, in Bangkok, Thailand, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand on Thursday raised its COVID-19 alert level following rising infections driven by the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, a senior health official said.
    The change, from level three to four, sets a pretext for possible measures that could follow, such as closing high-risk areas and placing restrictions on domestic travel or public gatherings.
    “Thailand has entered a new wave of infections, where new cases will be rising fast,” said Kiattiphum Wongrajit, permanent secretary of the health ministry.
    “Level four means we may close high-risk places and announce more measures.”
    The move comes amid a sharp rise in daily infections since the beginning of the year.
    Thailand reported 5,775 new cases on Thursday, a 48% rise on the previous day and nearly double the number on Jan. 1.
    The Southeast Asian country has vaccinated about 69.1% of an estimated 72 million people living in the country with two doses, but only 10.9% have received booster shots.
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/6/2022 Arrested Union Leader The Latest To Take Up The Fight For Labour In Cambodia by Prak Chan Thul
Chhim Sithar, President of Labor Rights Supported by Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU) speaks at
a strike in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 21, 2021. Cambodian Center for Human Rights/Handout via REUTERS
    PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Sacked twice from her casino job and arrested this week on charges of endangering public security, union leader Chhim Sithar is the latest in a long line of activists to take on the challenge of campaigning for labour rights in Cambodia.
    Chhim Sithar, 34, has been at the forefront of a strike at the country’s biggest casino, facing off against scores of riot police at protests in Phnom Penh.
    Since December, employees of NagaWorld casino run by Hong Kong-listed Nagacorp Ltd’s have been protesting against the layoff of 365 workers in the wake of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Police say the strike is illegal and the protests threaten public security. NagaWorld has described the layoffs as unavoidable.
    Twenty-seven people have been arrested – including Chhim Sithar, who was whisked away by plainclothes police shortly after she stepped out of her car on Tuesday to join the strikers.
    Chhim Sithar is head of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU).    With many of its activists in detention, no one from the union could be reached on Thursday for comment.
    Phnom Penh police spokesman San Sok Seyha declined to comment on Chhim Sithar’s arrest.    In a statement on Saturday, municipal police said a court had declared the strike illegal.
    The U.S. embassy in Cambodia said on Tuesday it was concerned by the police action against the protesting workers.
GENTLE VOICE, FIERCE ADVOCATE
    Described as a gentle talker when not on the picket line, the slightly built Chhim Sithar has been a familiar face at the protests, speaking through a megaphone to rally her colleagues.
    “Her charismatic leadership and courage should be praised not pressured.    She should not be accused and arrested for her legitimate work,” said Chak Sopheap of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, NagaWorld’s communications manager, Dy Seyha, on Thursday declined to comment on Chhim Sithar’s arrest.
    Heng Sour, spokesman at the Minstry of Labour, did not comment directly on the arrest but cited a court ruling declaring the strike illegal after dispute-resolution efforts reached an impasse.
    Union leaders and striking workers in Cambodia have faced trouble in the past.
    In recent years, strikes, mostly in the manufacturing sector, have often been accompanied by violence as police try to disperse crowds.
    Global clothing and shoe brands including Adidas, PUMA and Levi Strauss in a 2020 letter urged veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen – who has been repeatedly accused of suppressing political opposition and whose ruling party holds all seats in parliament – to improve labour and human rights.
    Hun Sen brushes off criticism of the human rights situation, especially when it comes from Western countries.    Cambodia’s biggest donor is China, which has voiced support for measures to ensure stability.
    In 2004, influential union leader Chea Vichea was shot dead at a newspaper kiosk in Phnom Penh.    Another union leader, Ros Sovannareth, was shot and killed the same year.    Their deaths have never been solved.
    Born in the southeastern province of Prey Veng, Chhim Sithar has worked at NagaWorld since 2007 as a supervisor and became an active union member in 2009.
    At the casino, she pushed for new mothers to get full salary for maternity leave instead of half pay.    She also won for workers additional insurance and a 24-hour facility for refreshments.
    “She is a role model of heroism.    She wanted to sit down and find a solution, not run away,” said Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Kay Johnson)

1/6/2022 Cambodia PM To Visit Myanmar, Pressing Peace Plan by Prak Chan Thul
FILE PHOTO: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
(unseen) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, January 22, 2019. Ng Han Guan/Pool via REUTERS
    PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has pledged renewed support for a Myanmar peace plan and urged an end to violence ahead of a trip to the country that will include talks with military leaders.
    His visit from Friday will be the first by a head of government to Myanmar since the army overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.
    Cambodia is current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been leading diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis and which adopted a five-point “consensus” peace plan in April.
    Some other ASEAN countries including Indonesia have expressed frustration at the junta’s failure to implement the peace deal.    In Myanmar, opponents of the military rulers have said Hun Sen is backing them by making the trip.
    In a speech on Wednesday, Hun Sen called for restraint from all sides in Myanmar and for the peace plan to be followed through.
    “Brothers in Myanmar, do you want your country to fall into a real civil war or want it solved?” he said.    “The first point of the consensus is the patience, the cessation of violence. This is the goal that we want.”
    After a phone call this week with Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in messages on Twitter if there was no significant progress in the peace plan only non-political representatives from Myanmar should be allowed at ASEAN meetings.
    The General Strike Coordination Body, which pools more than 260 organisations opposed to the coup, denounced Hun Sen’s visit on social media, accusing him of backing Myanmar’s military rulers.
    Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research Emerlynne Gil also said Hun Sen should cancel his trip and “lead ASEAN to strong action to address the country’s dire human rights situation.”
    The Cambodian foreign ministry said Hun Sen will meet military leader Min Aung Hlaing, but made no reference about meeting Suu Kyi, who is on trial and faces nearly a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Ed Davies and Frances Kerry)

1/6/2022 Pakistan On Course To Appoint First Female Supreme Court Judge
FILE PHOTO: A man walks past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad,
Pakistan, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s judicial commission on Thursday confirmed the nomination of the first female Supreme Court judge in the Muslim-majority nation’s history, an action that ruling party members and legal experts said all but ensures her appointment.
    A commission that decides on the promotion of judges voted to make 55-year-old Justice Ayesha Malik the first female judge on the Supreme Court in the 75 years since the South Asian country’s independence.
    The next step is a parliamentary panel where the ruling party has more than enough members to affirm her appointment, said Zahrah Vayani of the Women Lawyers Association.    She said Thursday’s action effectively “is an appointment more than a nomination.”
    “An important & defining moment in our country as a brilliant lawyer & decorated judge has become Pakistan’s first female SC judge,” a legislator of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and parliamentary secretary for law Maleeka Bokhari posted on Twitter.
    “To shattering glass ceilings,” she added.
    Though historic, the move has been divisive.    The nine-member body that was to confirm her appointment turned down her elevation to the top court last year, and Thursday’s repeat vote was close – divided five votes to four – according to sources familiar with the proceedings.
    Many lawyers and even judges, in the forum and outside, said Malik’s selection was made in contravention of seniority lists.    Malik was not among the top three most senior judges of the lower court from which she was elevated.
    “The major issue is not that there was ever a question mark on Justice Ayesha Malik’s competence or the fact that she is a good judge,” Imaan Mazari-Hazir, an Islamabad-based lawyer and vocal rights activist, told Reuters.
    “The question mark was and remains on the Judicial Commission of Pakistan’s arbitrary and non-transparent decision making and the process,” she said, adding the judge’s gender was exploited.
    A number of lawyers’ bodies have threatened to strike and boycott court proceedings, saying their calls for the drafting of fixed criteria for the nomination of Supreme Court judges were ignored.
    But Vayani countered: “I know some bar associations were opposing the same on the basis of the seniority principle, but there have been over 40 judges elevated to the Supreme Court out of turn, and the appointment of the first female judge is a great step in the right direction.”
(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Alex Richardson and Howard Goller)

1/7/2022 China Warns Hospitals Against Rejecting Patients Over COVID Curbs As Cases Decline
Red cross ambulance staff wearing protective suits to protect from the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) load a stretcher into an ambulance, outside the Main Press Centre ahead
of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China reported fewer COVID cases on Friday as several cities have curbed movements, while a top official warned hospitals not to turn away patients after a woman’s miscarriage during a lockdown in the city of Xian sparked outrage.
    China reported 116 domestically transmitted infections with confirmed clinical symptoms for Thursday, mostly in Xian and the province of Henan, down from 132 a day earlier, official data showed on Friday.
    Xian, a city of 13 million in northwest China, entered its 16th day of lockdown, although officials said the outbreak there had been brought under control. Xian is in the Shaanxi province that borders Henan.
    “The risk of a large-scale rebound of the (Xian) outbreak has been largely contained,” the official Xinhua news service quoted Li Qun, a disease control and prevention official, as saying in a story published late on Thursday.
    During Xian’s lockdown, residents have complained about curtailed access to food and medical care, and the story of a pregnant woman who lost her unborn baby after waiting outside a local hospital for two hours provoked anger on Chinese social media and led to punishment of city officials.
    Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said she was “pained and deeply ashamed” about people’s difficulties in securing hospital services in Xian, Xinhua news agency said.
    “Medical institutions … must not simply turn away patients on any excuse during COVID control,” Sun was quoted as saying.
    On Friday, the city government said that people without proof of a negative test result within 48 hours should not be blocked from leaving their residential compounds to go to hospital, overturning a previous requirement.
    The outbreaks in China remain tiny compared with many overseas, and the highly transmissible Omicron variant has yet to be announced among local infections in Henan or Xian, but local governments have maintained high vigilance.
    China’s policy of blocking any cluster from spreading further has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province starting Feb. 4, and with the Lunar New Year holiday travel season beginning in less than two weeks.
    There were no new fatalities on Thursday, leaving the death toll unchanged at 4,636.    Mainland China had 103,295 confirmed symptomatic cases as of Jan 6, including both local and imported ones.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe, Roxanne Liu, Gabriel Crossley and Ella Cao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/7/2022 Hong Kong Bars, Restaurants Face More Pain With Return Of COVID Curbs by Edmond Ng
People dine at tables with partition boards inside a restaurant amid the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Hong Kong, China January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s bars, restaurants and caterers say tighter restrictions aimed at averting a new wave of COVID-19 infections may cause hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, threaten jobs and even, for some, their survival.
    The global financial hub is one of the world’s last holdouts sticking to a goal of stopping local transmission of the virus, deploying draconian and costly quarantine measures and largely isolating itself from the world.
    But a streak of three months without community cases in Hong Kong ended with the confirmation on Dec. 31 of the first local transmission of the Omicron variant – and numbers have been ticking up since then – prompting authorities to reinstate a raft of restrictions on daily life.
    On Friday, 15 types of venues, including bars, clubs, gyms and beauty parlours had to close for at least two weeks.    Restaurants can stay open until 6.00 p.m. but are only allowed to offer takeaway service after that.
    A manager at the Sun Kong restaurant, which serves dim sum in a working-class neighbourhood, said staff usually got double their salary in the month before the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Feb. 1.
    But not this year.
    “We’ll be happy to get any salary this month,” said the manager, who only gave his last name of Chan.
    Tommy Cheung, a legislator representing the restaurant and catering industry, estimates businesses will lose up to HK$6 billion ($770 million) in the next two weeks.
    If restrictions are extended into the holiday period, when restaurants and caterers are usually most busy, their losses would be much bigger, he said.    For some, the uncertainty is unbearable.
    “If they can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, restaurants will close,” Cheung said.
    Ben Leung, president of the Hong Kong Licensed Bar and Club Association, which represents about half of the city’s 1,400 or so bars, clubs and karaoke venues, estimates losses of about HK$400 million in the next two weeks.
    While he does not foresee closures, unless the restrictions last much longer, he says some of the 20,000 full-time jobs in the industry may be at risk.
    Economists at BofA Securities estimate the restrictions could chop 0.1-0.2 percentage points off their first-quarter 2.4% economic growth forecast if the measures extend into the Lunar New Year.
    Jason Hui, who owns the Yuet Nam Mak Min noodle restaurant, expects to lose up to 40% of his business but doubts the sacrifice will make much difference.
    “It’s no use,” Hui said.    “Is the virus only out at night?
(Reporting by Edmond Ng and Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/7/2022 Sydney Omicron Outbreak Could Peak By Late January, Modelling Shows
FILE PHOTO: People are turned away at a COVID-19 testing centre in Western Sydney that is closed due to full capacity in the
wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Omicron outbreak in Australia’s most-populous state could peak by the end of January, official modelling showed on Friday, as authorities reinstated some restrictions in a bid to slow the record spike in infections.
    After containing the virus through lockdowns and tough border rules earlier in the pandemic, Australia is now suffering infection rates far higher than elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.
    New South Wales (NSW) state Premier Dominic Perrottet postponed non-urgent surgeries and reinstated a ban on singing and dancing in clubs and pubs including in Sydney, the state capital and home to more than 5 million people.
    “This is a challenging time, not just in New South Wales, but around the world,” Perrottet said during a media briefing on Friday, as people admitted to the state’s hospitals with COVID-19 nearly doubled to a record 1,738 in just over a week.
    This could rise to around 6,000 by the end of this month under a worst-case scenario, but that would be still below hospital capacity, a modelling by NSW Health department showed.    The hospitalisation numbers are expected to fall from February.
    NSW has clocked more than 100,000 cases over the past three days, higher than the total Delta infections reported between mid-June and late November, when the first Omicron case was detected.
    Daily cases in NSW shot up to 38,625 on Friday, exceeding the previous pandemic high of 35,054 on Wednesday, from around 250 a month ago.
    Omar Khorshid, the head of the Australian Medical Association, accused the premier of having a “let it rip” policy and criticised his decision to ease almost all tough curbs about a month ago after higher inoculations.
    “There is no way they will turn this curve around until everyone is either immune or have caught the virus,” Khorshid told the Ten Network on Friday.
    Australia reported record cases for the fifth straight day on Friday, with more than 78,000 infections.    Thursday’s cases stood at 72,401.    Since the pandemic began, Australia has recorded more than 762,000 cases and 2,321 deaths.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Stephen Coates)

1/7/2022 Japan To Declare COVID-19 Curbs In 3 Regions Hosting U.S. Bases
FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,
walk along the Kokusai-dori in the prefectural capital Naha, on the southern island of Okinawa,
Okinawa prefecture, Japan, October 25, 2021. Picture taken October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is to step up coronavirus restrictions in three regions that host U.S. military bases to stem a COVID-19 surge that some officials have said the bases have helped fuel.
    The restrictions, which authorities call “priority measures,” are being brought back for the first time since September, when Japan lifted emergency controls that had prevailed across the country for most of last year.
    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a meeting the measures, which will allow steps such as limiting the operating hours of restaurants and bars, were needed to rein in surging cases.
    The infectious Omicron variant has been found in about 80% of Japanese prefectures.    Total new infections will exceed 5,000 on Friday, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, compared with an average of about 200 a day last month.
    “We must be prepared for the rapid spread of infection,” Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto told reporters.
    “There are cases where there is no history of overseas travel and the route of infection is unknown, while the Delta strain also continues to spread.”
    The new measures in the southern prefecture of Okinawa and the western prefectures of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, will last from Sunday to the end of the month.
    All three regions host bases for the U.S. military, which on Thursday announced stricter infection controls at Japan’s urging after outbreaks at bases appeared to have spilled into communities.
    Governors of the prefectures had requested the tougher measures after seeing a surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant.
    The southern island chain of Okinawa, host to 70% of U.S. military facilities in Japan, has been the hardest hit, in what appears to be the country’s sixth wave of the pandemic.
    The prefecture reported 1,414 new cases on Friday, a record and up from 981 on Thursday.
    “This number will likely stay high and steadily increase,” said Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, who has harshly criticised infection controls at U.S. bases.
    Infections have also been on the rise in major metropolitan areas.    Tokyo said it found 922 new cases on Friday, the most since Sept. 15.
    Tokyo’s government is planning to strengthen countermeasures by directing restaurants to limit diners to groups of four, down from eight, the Kyodo news agency reported.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

1/7/2022 South Korea Casts Doubts On North Korea’s ‘Hypersonic Missile’ Claims by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: People watch a TV broadcasting file footage of a news report on North Korea firing a
ballistic missile off its east coast, in Seoul, South Korea, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean military officials cast doubts on Friday on the capabilities of what North Korea called a “hypersonic missile” test fired this week, saying it appeared to represent limited progress over Pyongyang’s existing ballistic missiles.
    On Wednesday, North Korea launched what its state media said was the country’s second hypersonic missile, which are usually defined as weapons that reach speeds of at least five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 kms per hour (3,850 mph) – and can manoeuvre at relatively low trajectories, making them much harder to detect and intercept.
    While the missile’s warhead appeared to reach hypersonic speeds, that capability is shared by other ballistic missiles and Wednesday’s test did not appear to demonstrate the range and manoeuvrability claimed in state media reports, a South Korean military official told reporters.
    South Korea assessed that it flew for less than the 700 km (435 miles) claimed by North Korea and showed less than the “lateral” manoeuvrability reported, the official added.
    Wednesday’s warhead featured a more conical shape than the first claimed North Korean hypersonic missile tested in September, which was glider-like.
    “This is neither a hypersonic glide vehicle nor a hypersonic cruise missile, this is a missile with a mobile warhead,” the official said of the newest missile, which was first unveiled at a Pyongyang defence exhibition in October.
    The assessment mirrors that of international analysts who noted that the test appeared to involve a liquid-fuel ballistic missile with a Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV), a capability previously fielded by other countries including the United States and South Korea.
    “One of my complaints about the ‘hypersonic’ framing is that it wrongly emphasizes speed when what we really are discussing is manoeuvrability and accuracy,” Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), said on Twitter.    “So, yeah, the new (North Korea) glider is hypersonic.    But more importantly, it’s a MaRV.”
    While such missiles don’t have the range of North Korea’s largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), analysts say manoeuvrable weapons can be used to evade missile defences.
    On Friday the United States and Japan issued a joint statement pledging to increase joint defence, including against hypersonic weapons.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/7/2022 Thailand Announces More Coronavirus Curbs After Jump In Cases
Health workers from Zendai organisation in personal protective equipment (PPE) take swab samples
from people for a rapid antigen test amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak, in Bangkok, Thailand, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand will extend the suspension of its quarantine waiver programme and bring in new restrictions after a jump in new coronavirus cases linked to the Omicron variant, the government’s COVID-19 taskforce said on Friday.
    New applications for Thailand’s “Test & Go” quarantine waiver scheme will not be approved until further notice to stem the increase of coronavirus infections, said Taweesin Visanuyothin, the spokesman of the taskforce.
    But existing applicants can still enter Thailand without quarantine until Jan. 15, he said.
    “We can still make changes if the situation improves, but for now we have to learn more about Omicron,” Taweesin said.
    Due to concerns over Omicron, Thailand had halted the waiver programme since Dec. 22 and also most of its “sandbox” schemes, which requires visitors to remain in a specific location for seven days but allows them free movement during their stay, except for the resort island of Phuket.
    But from Jan. 11, Thailand will allow quarantine-free entry into the country via the previously suspended sandbox schemes of Samui Plus, Phang Nga, and Krabi, Taweesin said.
    Thailand would also lift on Jan. 11 an entry ban on people travelling from eight African countries it had designated as high-risk.
    To curb local virus transmissions, alcohol consumption in restaurants will be halted after 9 p.m. in eight provinces including the capital Bangkok from Sunday, and banned in the country’s other 69 provinces, Taweesin said.
    “Social drinking is the cause of the virus spread.    Measures to restrict this will help curb the spread,” he said.
    Thailand reported 7,526 cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the highest number since early November and more than double the number on Jan. 1.
    “If we just let it happen, cases could reach 30,000 a day by the end of the month,” said Taweesin.
    The Southeast Asian country has vaccinated about 69.5% of an estimated 72 million people living in the country with two doses, but only 11.5% have received third shots.
    Thailand’s government said it planned to inoculate 9.3 million people this month, including with third and fourth shots.
    The country also approved a plan on Friday to buy 50,000 courses of Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 antiviral pills Paxlovid.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Ed Davies and Sanjeev Miglani)

1/7/2022 Japan Decides To Declare COVID-19 Curbs In 3 Regions Hosting U.S. Bases
Passersby wearing protective face masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,
walk at a shopping arcade in the prefectural capital Naha, on the southern island of Okinawa,
Okinawa prefecture, Japan, October 24, 2021. Picture taken October 24, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan decided on Friday to declare quasi-emergency measures in three regions in order to stem a COVID-19 surge that some officials have linked to U.S. military bases in the country.
    It would mark the first such measures since September, when Japan lifted emergency controls that had prevailed over the country for most of last year.
    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a meeting that Japan would approve the measures, which will allow steps such as shortening the operating hours of restaurants and bars, in order to rein in surging case numbers.
    The infectious Omicron variant has been found in about 80% of Japanese prefectures.    New infections exceeded 4,000 nationwide on Wednesday, compared with an average of about 200 per day last month.
    “There are cases where there is no history of overseas travel and the route of infection is unknown, while the Delta strain also continues to spread,” Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto told reporters.
    “We must be prepared for the rapid spread of infection in the future,” he added.
    The new measures, affecting the southern prefecture of Okinawa and the western prefectures of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, will last from Jan. 9 until the end of the month.
    All three regions host bases for the U.S. military, which on Thursday announced stricter infection controls at Japan’s urging after on-base outbreaks appeared to have spilled into surrounding communities.
    Governors of the prefectures had requested the quasi-emergency steps after seeing a surge in cases, driven by the Omicron variant.
    The southern island chain of Okinawa, host to 70% of U.S. military facilities in Japan, has been the hardest hit so far, in what appears to be the nation’s sixth wave of the pandemic.
    The prefecture is reporting 1,414 new cases on Friday, a fresh record and up from 981 on Thursday.
    “This number will likely stay high and steadily increase,” said Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, who has harshly criticised infection controls at U.S. bases there.
    Infections have also been on the rise in Japan’s major metropolitan areas.    Tokyo reported 641 new cases on Thursday, the most since Sept. 18.
    Tokyo will strengthen countermeasures by directing restaurants to limit diners to groups of four, down from eight, the Kyodo news agency reported.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Raju Gopalakrishnan and Michael Perry)

1/7/2022 Cambodia PM Gets Red-Carpet Welcome In Myanmar As Visit Sparks Protests by Prak Chan Thul
FILE PHOTO: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
(unseen) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, January 22, 2019. Ng Han Guan/Pool via REUTERS
    (Reuters) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was met by an honour guard and red carpet in Myanmar on Friday, just as protests by coup opponents broke out in other parts of the country over fears his trip will provide more legitimacy to the junta.
    His two-day visit for talks with Myanmar’s military rulers was the first by a head of government to Myanmar since the army overthrew the elected administration of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.
    Cambodia is current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been leading diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar and which adopted a five-point “consensus” peace plan in April.
    Some other ASEAN countries including Indonesia have expressed frustration at the junta’s failure to implement the plan.
    In Myanmar, opponents of military rule have said Hun Sen is backing the junta by making the trip.
    In Depayin, about 300 km (186 miles) north of the capital, Naypyidaw, protesters burned a poster of the Cambodian prime minister and chanted “Hun Sen don’t come to Myanmar.    We don’t want dictator Hun Sen,” photographs on social media showed.
    There were also reports of protests in the second city of Mandalay and the Tanintharyi and Monywa regions.
    In a speech on Wednesday, Hun Sen called for restraint from all sides in Myanmar and for the peace plan to be followed.
    “Brothers in Myanmar, do you want your country to fall into a real civil war or want it solved?” he said.
    After a phone call this week with Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in messages on Twitter if there was no significant progress on the peace plan only non-political representatives from Myanmar should be allowed at ASEAN meetings.
    In October, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was barred from attending an ASEAN summit for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue, as agreed with ASEAN.
    But in a further sign of divisions in the 10-member bloc, Hun Sen last month said junta officials should be allowed to attend ASEAN meetings.
    Min Ko Naing, a leading activist in Myanmar, said in a social media post that Hun Sen would face massive protests over his visit, which would hurt ASEAN.
    Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and Western countries and human rights groups have long condemned him for crackdowns on opponents, civil rights groups and the media in Cambodia.
    Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research Emerlynne Gil said the trip risked sending mixed messages to Mynamar’s military leader and Hun Sen should instead lead ASEAN to strong action to address the country’s “dire human rights situation.”
    Hun Sen will meet military leader Min Aung Hlaing, but the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia cited a junta spokesman as saying he would not meet Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup and is on trial, facing nearly a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH and Reuters staff; Editing by Ed Davies and Michael Perry)

1/7/2022 Fleeing Violence In Myanmar, Thousands Camp Along Thai Border River
Refugees, who have fled a flare-up in fighting between the Myanmar army
and insurgent groups and settled temporarily on the Moei River Bank, are seen on the
Thai-Myanmar border, in Mae Sot, Thailand, January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    THAI-MYANMAR BORDER (Reuters) – Thousands of Myanmar villagers are living under makeshift tents alongside a river that borders Thailand, fearful of returning to homes which they said had been bombarded by military air strikes but reluctant to seek refuge across the frontier.
    Heavy fighting between the Myanmar military, which seized power in a coup last year, and resistance fighters has killed or displaced thousands of civilians in this region and elsewhere.
    Many have fled to Thailand, but poor conditions in refugee camps there have prompted some to return to the Myanmar side of the border, and human rights groups have called for more help for the displaced.
    Reuters reporters on the Thai side of the Moei river on Friday saw an estimated 2,000 men, women and children living under tarpaulin on the opposite bank in four separate locations.
    One woman from the camp, Sabal Phyu, 42, had waded across the loosely patrolled border to collect donated food and bottled water, before returning to the Myanmar side of the river.
    “Over there, we received good aid donations but it was very crowded and difficult to live.     Here, we have more freedom,” Sabal Phyu told Reuters.
    Sabal Phyu said she initially crossed into Thailand with her husband and four children but came back to the border area after being packed into an empty cattle barn with other refugees near the Thai town of Mae Sot.
    About 8,000 Myanmar refugees are staying in temporary shelters in Thailand, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
    A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military government did not answer calls from Reuters seeking comment.
    Asked about the Thai camp conditions, Thailand government spokeswoman Ratchada Dhanadirek said the country was “taking care of the refugees” and carrying out its duties “according to international human rights standards.”
    The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR said on Friday it had not been granted access by the Thai government to the sites in Mae Sot where refugees are being hosted and also cannot access the Myanmar side of the border.
    UNHCR has supplied mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blankets and facemasks to support the humanitarian response being led by Thai authorities, spokesperson Kasita Rochanakorn said.
    The deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said Thailand needed to do more to support those displaced by fighting in Myanmar.
    “Thailand must recognise that their humanitarian obligations to refugees involve more than just allowing some food and medicine packages across the border,” Phil Robertson said.
    Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted a civilian government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, triggering protests and sporadic clashes in the countryside between anti-junta militia and the army.
    More than 1,400 civilians and protesters have been killed by Myanmar security forces since the coup, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners activist group.
    The military has said those figures, widely cited by international organisations, are exaggerated.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Editing by John Geddie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

1/8/2022 Hong Kong Leader Orders Probe Of 13 Officials Who Went To COVID-Hit Party
Workers wearing protective suits arrive to a building under lockdown for compulsory testing, following
the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hong Kong, China January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has ordered an inquiry into the behaviour of 13 senior government officials who attended the birthday bash of a delegate to China’s legislature, where two of the 170 guests tested positive for the coronavirus.
    The officials, along with 19 members of Hong Kong’s new “patriots-only” legislative council – all of whom have so far tested negative – and the other guests were sent to a quarantine facility this week as authorities scramble to contain the emergence of a new wave of cases.
    Lam said in a late Friday statement she ordered “detailed” investigations “as to whether the attendance of 13 officials at the banquet constitutes any breach of discipline.”
    “I have instructed all officials being subject to quarantine that they should not continue to discharge their duties and that they are required to take their own vacation leave for quarantine.”
    The party for the 53rd birthday of Witman Hung, a city delegate to the national legislature, took place on Monday, before new restrictions on social life came into force but after Lam appealed to Hong Kong people to avoid large gatherings.
    A three-month streak of no transmission within the community ended on Dec. 31, with the confirmation of the city’s first local infection with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
    Several more cases have been detected since and hundreds of their close contacts have been sent to quarantine.
    Senior officials who attended included Home Affairs Secretary Casper Tsui, Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang, police commissioner Raymond Siu and the head of the city’s Independent Commission against Corruption, Simon Peh, authorities said.
    All four and others have issued public apologies.
    It was the second such statement for Au, who paid a fine last year for attending a dinner in a luxury private club with more people than the four allowed at the time.
    The global financial hub is one of the world’s last places to stick to a goal of stopping local transmission of the virus altogether, by strict quarantines and largely isolating itself from the rest of the world.
    The city on Friday banned dining in restaurants after 6 p.m., closed venues including bars and clubs, gyms, beauty salons and swimming pools, and limited group gatherings to no more than four people.
(Reporting by Marius Zaharia; Editing by William Mallard)

1/8/2022 Australia Treasurer Tests Positive For COVID-19 As Daily Cases Soar Past 100,000 by Byron Kaye
FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers wait for the next vehicle at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing clinic as
the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Sydney, Australia, December 30, 2021. REUTERS/Nikki Short
    SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he tested positive to COVID-19, joining other top government officials in contracting the disease as the daily infection rate surpassed 100,000 for the first time amid an outbreak of the Omicron variant.
    “Like thousands of Australians, I tested positive today to COVID-19,” Frydenberg wrote in a short message which he posted to Twitter and Facebook late on Friday.
    “I have the common symptoms and am isolating with my family,” he added without elaborating or disclosing which variant he had.
    Other high-ranked Australian lawmakers including Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Defence Minister Peter Dutton have contracted and overcome the illness.
    Under current Australian COVID-19 guidelines, people who return a positive test and those deemed “close contacts” must isolate for seven days.
    Australia has been posting successive record numbers of new daily infections, with another surge on Saturday.
    The country reported 116,025 new cases, smashing the previous day’s record of just over 78,000.    Nearly 100,000 of the new cases were in the most populous states Victoria, which is home to the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, and New South Wales.
    Victoria noted that its daily caseload, which more than doubled the previous day’s to 51,356, included the results of rapid antigen tests taken up to a week before that could only be tabulated after being submitted on a website starting from Friday.
    The country reported 25 new COVID-19 related deaths, its highest since the peak of the Delta wave in October 2021.
    Australian leaders, including Frydenberg, have been urging the country to move on from a strategy of stop-start lockdowns now that more than 90% of the population aged over 16 is fully vaccinated.
    But state leaders have been reintroducing restrictions amid exploding case numbers, mostly of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.    Several states have reintroduced mask mandates and suspended non-urgent elective surgery, while New South Wales on Friday resumed bans on dancing and drinking while standing up in bars.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Christian Schmollinger.)

1/8/2022 Iran Imposes Sanctions On Americans Over 2020 Killing Of Top General
FILE PHOTO: Iranian men hold pictures of Qassem Soleimani, during a ceremony to mark the second anniversary
of the killing of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. attack,
in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2022. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Saturday imposed sanctions on dozens more Americans, many of them from the U.S. military, over the 2020 killing of General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.
    Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the 51 Americans had been targeted for what it called “terrorism” and human rights violations.    The step lets Iranian authorities seize any assets they hold in Iran, but the apparent absence of such assets means it will likely be symbolic.
    The ministry said in a statement carried by local media that the 51 had been targeted for “their role in the terrorist crime by the United States against the martyred General Qassem Soleimani and his companions and the promotion of terrorism and violations of fundamental human rights
    Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the overseas arm of the elite Revolutionary Guards, was killed in Iraq in a drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020, ordered by then President Donald Trump.
    Those added to Iran’s sanctions list included U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
    In a similar move announced a year ago, Iran imposed sanctions on Trump and several senior U.S. officials over what it called “terrorist and anti-human rights” acts.
    Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, speaking on the second anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, said this week Trump must face trial for the killing or Tehran would take revenge.
    The Trump administration rained sanctions down on Iranian officials, politicians and companies after withdrawing the United States in 2018 from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
    Iran and the United States are currently holding indirect talks in Vienna on salvaging the 2015 deal.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Helen Popper)
[SOLEIMANI IS IN HELL WITH THE REST OF YOUR IRANIAN MADMEN AND THE ONLY ONE MISSING IS THE IDIOT WHO SHOT DOWN A PASSENGER AIRCRAFT WITH A MISSILE WHILE ATTACKING TRUMP'S MILITARY IN IRAQ WITH 120 IRANIANS WHO JOINED SOLEIMANI AND THOSE VICTIMS ARE WAITING FOR HIM TO JOIN THEM.].

1/8/2022 Cambodia To Take ‘Different Approaches’ To Myanmar Crisis As ASEAN Chair
FILE PHOTO: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ceremony at the Morodok Techo National
Stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 12, 2021. Tang Chhin Sothy/Pool via REUTERS
    PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen did not seek to meet former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to the country this week and will take “different approaches” to the crisis there, Cambodia’s foreign minister said on Saturday.
    The comments by Prak Sokhonn indicate Cambodia, this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will likely invite junta officials to ASEAN meetings – possibly starting with a foreign minister’s meeting Jan. 17.
    The regional grouping had last year taken the unprecedented step of excluding junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from its annual leaders’ summit.
    Hun Sen, who himself seized power in a 1997 coup and has in subsequent elections been criticised over crackdowns on his political opponents, returned from Myanmar on Saturday after a two-day trip.
    His visit was the first by a head of government since the army overthrew the civilian administration of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.
    Myanmar’s state media on Saturday reported that Min Aung Hlaing had thanked Hun Sun for “standing with Myanmar”    The army has said its takeover was in response to election fraud and was in line with the constitution.
    Prak Sokhonn, who accompanied Hun Sen to Myanmar, on Saturday denied the trip amounted to backing the junta, saying it was another way of working to implement a five-point ASEAN peace plan adopted in April.
    He also confirmed that Hun Sen did not ask to meet with Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who has been in detention since the army takeover last year and faces more than a dozen criminal charges.
    Prak Sokhonn, expected to take up the post as special envoy for Myanmar, said the refusal of the current envoy, Brunei’s foreign minister, to visit without guarantees he could meet with Suu Kyi was unproductive.
    “If they build a thick wall and we use our head to hit it, it is useless,” Prak Sokhonn told reporters.    “Cambodia uses different approaches to achieve the five-point consensus.”
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by David Holmes)

1/8/2022 Elections In India’s Most Populous State To Start In Feb. 10
FILE PHOTO: Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, is welcomed by an
official after he arrived for a two-day long visit to Allahabad, India, June 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a key battleground for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition groups, will hold elections in seven phases starting from Feb. 10, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said on Saturday.
    The outcome of the election in the northern state, currently ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will be seen a barometer for national elections due in 2024.
    Voting will be finalised on March 7, with results expected from March 10, the Commission said.     It has announced polling dates for five states at a time when the country is facing a soaring number of coronavirus infections.
    Punjab, ruled by rival Congress Party, the BJP-led Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and tourist and mining hotspot Goa in the West will hold elections on Feb. 14, the Commission said.    The northeastern state of Manipur, also ruled by the BJP, will have elections in two phases on Feb. 27 and March 3.
    Chandra said the political parties were barred from holding election rallies and roadshows until Jan. 15 in view of the rising number of COVID cases.
    “(The) Commission shall subsequently review the situation and issue further instructions accordingly,” he said, urging the parties to use online channels for campaigning instead.
    India on Saturday reported 141,986 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily number since the end of May, and 285 new deaths.    Recorded case numbers have reached 35 million since the beginning of the pandemic.
    Last year, Modi’s government had faced severe criticism for his handling of the pandemic during a second wave that overran healthcare systems across the country.
    Government officials have privately said daily cases in the country’s third wave of infections could surpass the record of more than 414,000 hit last May, due to the fast spread of the Omicron variant.
    India has embarked on a massive vaccination drive for those aged 15 and above.    However, millions are vulnerable to new infections, particularly in the vast hinterlands of states such as Uttar Pradesh where healthcare is inadequate.
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma and Nigam Prusty; editing by Clelia Oziel)

1/8/2022 U.S. Forces In S.Korea Raise COVID-19 Alert Amid Record Infections by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: The South Korean and American flags fly next to each other at
Yongin, South Korea, August 23, 2016. Courtesy Ken Scar/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) raised its health protection alert on Saturday after posting its highest weekly tally of new coronavirus infections, at 682.
    The new cases bring the total infections to 3,027.    U.S. forces has said nearly 90% of its soldiers, families and other affiliated people were vaccinated.
    In neighbouring Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Friday the government would tighten curbs in three regions that host U.S. military bases to stem a COVID-19 surge that some officials have said the bases have helped fuel.
    The U.S. military’s “Bravo Plus” plan in South Korea will ban dining at restaurants outside the bases and visiting indoor malls, bars, clubs, gyms, amusement parks, theatres and massage parlours, U.S. forces said on its website on Friday.
    Travel to the capital Seoul is also prohibited, except for official duties or for people who live or work there, but activities including grocery shopping and religious services are allowed.
    “Due to the continued presence of COVID-19 within USFK and South Korea, USFK has increased its health protection condition to ‘Bravo Plus’ peninsula-wide,” it said.
    South Korea had reported record-breaking daily infections of around 7,800 after it eased social distancing rules under a “living with COVID-19” scheme in November, prompting authorities to reinstate tougher curbs the following month.
    The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 3,510 new cases for Friday, bringing the total 661,015, with 5,986 deaths.
    The defence ministry said 19 new infections were confirmed among South Korean military personnel as of Friday, for a total of 3,403.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by William Mallard)

1/9/2022 Australia’s New South Wales Marks Its Highest COVID-19 Death Count
FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians cross an intersection in the city centre, as the state of New South Wales
surpasses the 90 percent double-dose coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination target for its
population aged 16 and over, in Sydney, Australia, November 9, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, recorded its highest number of daily COVID-19 deaths on Saturday as the Omicron variant sweeps the country and lawmakers face pressure to close widening supply chain gaps.
    The home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million people reported 16 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous day. New South Wales reported 30,062 new infections, near record levels.
    The second-largest state, Victoria, which hosts the Australian Open tennis tournament this month, reported 44,155 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths.
    The country reported just under 100,000 cases overall, down from a record 116,025 the previous day, but still surpassing most previous peaks.    Total deaths for the day were 36.
    With the surge bringing a rush for government-funded pop-up testing clinics, the authorities have shifted their messaging and urged people to instead take rapid antigen tests at home, then report positive results to their doctor, who enters it into a database.
    Authorities are calling for calm amid reports of bare supermarket shelves as people stay home to avoid infection and delivery personnel self-isolate due to virus exposure.
    “We have seen very low rates of significant illness,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters.    “It is the workforce furloughing which remains the principal challenge at this point in time.”
    The government and its health advisers have cut mandatory isolation times for close contacts and narrowed the definition of close contacts but were still reviewing the rules for furloughing workers, Hunt said.
    Australia meanwhile plans to start vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 on Monday.    Most states said they would begin the new school year as scheduled at the end of January but Queensland, the third most populous state, said it would postpone the return to school by two weeks to give children time to be vaccinated.
    Despite the outbreak, political leaders have cited Australia’s high vaccination rate – more than 90% of people over 16 are fully vaccinated – to justify a reopening plan. But several states in recent days have postponed non-urgent elective surgery to clear hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and reintroduced mask mandates.
    New South Wales, which emerged from more than 100 days of lockdown late last year, has reinstated a ban on dancing and drinking while standing up in bars.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by William Mallard and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

1/9/2022 Japan PM Says U.S. Military Bases To Impose Tighter COVID-19 Controls
FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks before the media at his official residence as an
extraordinary Diet session was closed, in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – The United States has agreed to impose stricter COVID-19 measures at its military bases in Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Sunday, amid concerns that outbreaks at bases have fuelled infection in local communities.
    “We have agreed with the United States in principle that unnecessary outings should be controlled and prohibited, and we are discussing specifics now,” Kishida said during a debating programme at public broadcaster NHK.
    Japan reintroduced coronavirus restrictions in three regions that host U.S. military bases, the first such emergency controls since September. Governors of the regions requested the tougher measures after seeing a surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant.
    Kishida said Japan had urged the United State to address the concerns at a virtual meeting of their foreign and defence ministers on Friday and other occasions.
    Japan halted the entry of almost all foreign travellers in late November after the World Health Organization listed Omicron as a variant of concern.    But the U.S. military moves staff in and out under a separate testing and quarantine regime.
(Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

1/9/2022 Exclusive-Baby Lost In Chaos Of Afghanistan Airlift Found, Returned To Family After Long Ordeal by Mica Rosenberg, Jonathan Landay and James Mackenzie
FILE PHOTO: Evacuees from Afghanistan board a military aircraft during an evacuation from Kabul, in this
photo taken on August 19, 2021 at undisclosed location and released on August 20, 2021. Staff Sgt. Brandon
Cribelar/U.S. Marine Corps/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo
    KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) – An infant boy handed in desperation to a soldier across an airport wall in the chaos of the American evacuation of Afghanistan has been found and was reunited with his relatives in Kabul on Saturday.
    The baby, Sohail Ahmadi, was just two months old when he went missing on Aug. 19 as thousands of people rushed to leave Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban.
    Following an exclusive Reuters story https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-baby-handed-us-soldiers-chaos-afghanistan-airlift-still-missing-2021-11-05 published in November with his pictures, the baby was located in Kabul where a 29-year-old taxi driver named Hamid Safi had found him in the airport and took him home to raise as his own.
    After more than seven weeks of negotiations and pleas, and ultimately a brief detention by Taliban police, Safi finally handed the child back to his jubilant grandfather and other relatives still in Kabul.
    They said they would now seek to have him reunited with his parents and siblings who were evacuated months ago to the United States.
    During the tumultuous Afghan evacuation over the summer, Mirza Ali Ahmadi – the boy’s father who had worked as a security guard at the U.S. embassy – and his wife Suraya feared their son would get crushed in the crowd as they neared the airport gates en route to a flight to the United States.
    Ahmadi told Reuters in early November in his desperation that day, he handed Sohail over the airport wall to a uniformed soldier who he believed to be an American, fully expecting he would soon make it the remaining 5 meters (15 feet) to the entrance to reclaim him.
    Just at that moment, Taliban forces pushed the crowd back and it would be another half an hour before Ahmadi, his wife and their four other children were able to get inside.
    But by then the baby was nowhere to be found.
    Ahmadi said he searched desperately for his son inside the airport and was told by officials that he had likely been taken out of the country separately and could be reunited with them later.
    The rest of the family was evacuated – eventually ending up at a military base in Texas.    For months they had no idea where their son was.
    The case highlights the plight of many parents separated from their children https://www.reuters.com/world/when-are-my-parents-coming-1300-afghan-children-evacuated-us-limbo-2021-11-10 during the hasty evacuation effort and withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country after a 20-year war.
    With no U.S. embassy in Afghanistan and international organizations overstretched, Afghan refugees have had trouble getting answers on the timing, or possibility, of complex reunifications like this one.
    The U.S. Department of Defense, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
ALONE AT THE AIRPORT
    On the same day Ahmadi and his family were separated from their baby, Safi had slipped through the Kabul airport gates after giving a ride to his brother’s family who were also set to evacuate.
    Safi said he found Sohail alone and crying on the ground.    After he said he unsuccessfully tried to locate the baby’s parents inside, he decided to take the infant home to his wife and children.    Safi has three daughters of his own and said his mother’s greatest wish before she died was for him to have a son.
    In that moment he decided: “I am keeping this baby.    If his family is found, I will give him to them.    If not, I will raise him myself,” he told Reuters in an interview in late November.
    Safi told Reuters that he took him to the doctor for a check-up after he was found and quickly incorporated the child into his family.    They called the baby Mohammad Abed and posted pictures of all the children together on his Facebook page.
    After the Reuters story about the missing child came out, some of Safi’s neighbors – who had noticed his return from the airport months earlier with a baby – recognized the photos and posted comments about his whereabouts on a translated version of the article.
    Ahmadi asked his relatives still in Afghanistan, including his father-in-law Mohammad Qasem Razawi, 67, who lives in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, to seek out Safi and ask him to return Sohail to the family.
    Razawi said he traveled two days and two nights to the capital bearing gifts – including a slaughtered sheep, several pounds of walnuts and clothing – for Safi and his family.
    But Safi refused to release Sohail, insisting he also wanted to be evacuated from Afghanistan with his family.    Safi’s brother, who was evacuated to California, said Safi and his family have no pending applications for U.S. entry.
    The baby’s family sought help from the Red Cross, which has a stated mission to help reconnect people separated by international crises, but said they received little information from the organization.    A spokesperson for the Red Cross said it does not comment on individual cases.
    Finally, after feeling they had run out of options, Razawi contacted the local Taliban police to report a kidnapping.    Safi told Reuters he denied the allegations to the police and said he was caring for the baby, not kidnapping him.
    The complaint was investigated and dismissed and the local police commander told Reuters he helped arrange a settlement, which included an agreement signed with thumbprints by both sides.    Razawi said the baby’s family in the end agreed to compensate Safi around 100,000 Afghani ($950) for expenses incurred looking after him for five months.
    “The grandfather of the baby complained to us and we found Hamid and based on the evidence we had, we recognized the baby,” said Hamid Malang, the chief area controller of the local police station.    “With both sides in agreement, the baby will be handed over to his grandfather,” he said on Saturday.
    In the presence of the police, and amid lots of tears, the baby was finally returned to his relatives.
    Razawi said Safi and his family were devastated to lose Sohail.    “Hamid and his wife were crying, I cried too, but assured them that you both are young, Allah will give you male child.    Not one, but several.    I thanked both of them for saving the child from the airport,” Razawi said.
    The baby’s parents told Reuters they were overjoyed as they were able to see with their own eyes the reunion over video chat.
    “There are celebrations, dance, singing,” said Razawi.    “It is just like a wedding indeed.”
    Now Ahmadi and his wife and other children, who in early December were able to move off the military base and resettle in an apartment in Michigan, hope Sohail will soon be brought to the United States.
    “We need to get the baby back to his mother and father.    This is my only responsibility,” his grandfather said.    “My wish is that he should return to them.”
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, Jonathan Landay in Washington and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Kieran Murray and Daniel Wallis)

1/9/2022 Tianjin Begins City-Wide Testing After At Least Two Local Omicron Cases Detected
FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks walk on a street, following new cases of the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Shanghai, China January 4, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song
    SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) - The northern coastal city of Tianjin began testing its population of around 14 million on Sunday after at least two local cases of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant were detected, state media reported.
    Residents in four districts would be tested over the next 24 hours while other districts would be tested the next day, the Tianjin government said.
    Residents will only get the green health code necessary to travel once they receive a negative result, it said.
    The city advised residents not to leave town for unnecessary reasons, the government said late on Saturday.
    The Tianjin outbreak poses risks to Beijing and the upcoming Winter Olympics, because of the large number of commuters working and living in the two cities, the state-owned Global Times said, citing an unnamed immunologist.
    It comes after the local transmission of the imported Omicron variant was found in the southern city of Guangzhou, according to a national health official in December, though the number of cases was not disclosed.
    China reported 165 confirmed coronavirus cases for Jan. 8, up from 159 a day earlier, its health authority said on Sunday.
    Of the new infections, 92 were locally transmitted,according to a statement by the National Health Commission, from 95 a day earlier.
    Most of the new local cases were in Henan and Shaanxiprovinces.
    China reported 46 new asymptomatic cases, which itclassifies separately from confirmed cases, compared with 52 aday earlier.
    There were no new fatalities, leaving the death toll at 4,636. Mainland China had 103,619 confirmed casesas of Jan 8.
(Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by William Mallard, Lincoln Feast and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

1/9/2022 At Least 16 Stranded Snow-Tourists Die At Pakistan Hill Station by Syed Raza Hassan
Paramilitary soldiers stand guard at a road junction leading to Murree city, which was blocked by the authorities
after being declared a calamity hit area, northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Salahuddin
    KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – At least 16 tourists died in freezing temperatures after being stranded in their vehicles in northern Pakistan, where thousands had flocked to enjoy the snow, officials said on Saturday.
    With some 1,000 vehicles still stranded, the government has declared Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, a calamity hit area.
    “For the first time in 15 to 20 years such large number of tourists flocked to Murree, which created a big crisis,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan’s interior minister said a video message.
    The minister said that around 1,000 cars were stuck in the hill station, a town elevated from the nearby area, confirming that “16 to 19 deaths have occurred in their cars.”
    Army platoons and paramilitary forces have been deployed to help the civil administration in rescue operations, he said.
    Late on Friday the government announced the closure of all roads leading to the station to stop any further influx of the tourists.
    Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed shock over the “tragic deaths” of the tourists.    “Have ordered inquiry and putting in place strong regulations to ensure prevention of such tragedies,” Khan said in a tweet.
    Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry appealed to people to not visit the hill station.
    Snowfall, which began on Tuesday night, continued at regular intervals, attracting thousands of tourists.    Due to huge numbers of visitors, many families ended up getting stranded on roads.
    Local media reported that over 100,000 vehicles entered the hill station.
    Videos shared on social media showed entire families, including children, lying dead in their snow covered vehicles.
    “Were the deaths caused by cold or carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?,” Dr. Faheem Yonus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland UCH, said in a tweet.    “CO is odorless, lethal if an idling car is buried in snow, the blocked exhaust (silencer) can quickly kill the passengers as they breath CO.”
    Officials have given no word on the causes of the deaths.
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by William Mallard)

1/9/2022 Fire Tears Through Rohingya Refugee Camp In Bangladesh
A general view of the fire that broke out at the Balukhali rohingya refugee camp in
Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 9, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
    (Reuters) – A fire swept through a Rohingya refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday, destroying hundreds of homes, according to officials and witnesses, though there were no immediate reports of casualties.
    The blaze hit Camp 16 in Cox’s Bazar, a border district where than a million Rohingya refugees live, with most having fled a military-led crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.
    Mohammed Shamsud Douza, a Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said emergency workers had brought the fire under control. The cause of the blaze has not been established, he added.
    “Everything is gone.    Many are without homes,” said Abu Taher, a Rohingya refugee.
    Another blaze tore through a COVID-19 treatment centre for refugees in another refugee camp in the district last Sunday, causing no casualties.
    A devastating fire last March swept through the world’s biggest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, killing at least 15 refugees and burned down more than 10,000 shanties.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Pravin Char and Louise Heavens)

1/9/2022 Sri Lanka’s President Asks China To Restructure Debt Repayments by Uditha Jayasinghe
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives with Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka's Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa
during his visit to Colombo Port city project, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 9, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
    COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked China to help restructure debt repayments as part of efforts to help the South Asian country weather a worsening financial crisis, his office said in a statement on Sunday.
    Rajapaksa made the request during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Colombo on Sunday.
    Sri Lanka has benefited from billions of dollars in soft loans from China but the island nation is currently in the midst of a foreign exchange crisis placing it on the verge of default, according to analysts.
    “The president pointed out that it would be a great relief to the country if attention could be paid on restructuring the debt repayments as a solution to the economic crisis that has arisen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rajapaksa’s office said in the statement.
    China is Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest lender, behind international financial markets, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan.
    Over the last decade China has lent Sri Lanka over $5 billion for highways, ports, an airport and a coal power plant.    But critics charge the funds were used for white elephant projects with low returns, which China has denied.
    Rajapaksa also requested China to provide “concessional terms” for its exports to Sri Lanka, which amounted to about $3.5 billion in 2020, the statement said, but did not give more details.    Rajapaksa also proposed allowing Chinese tourists to return to Sri Lanka provided they adhere to strict COVID restrictions, including only staying at pre-approved hotels and visiting only certain tourist attractions.
    Before the pandemic China was Sri Lanka’s main source of tourists and the island imports more goods from China than from any other country.
    Sri Lanka is a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a long-term plan to fund and build infrastructure linking China to the rest of the world, but which others including the United States have labelled a “debt trap” for smaller nations.
    Sri Lanka has to repay about $4.5 billion in debt this year starting with a $500 million International Sovereign Bond (ISB)maturing on Jan. 18.
    A $1.5 billion yuan swap from China helped the island boost its reserves to $3.1 billion at the end of December.
    Debt repayment to China in 2022 is likely to be smaller than its ISB commitments of $1.54 billion, at about $400 million-$500 million, a Sri Lankan finance ministry source told Reuters.
    Sri Lanka’s central bank has repeatedly assured all debt repayments will be met and said funds for the January ISB has already been allocated.
(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe, Editing by Rupam Jain and Susan Fenton)

1/9/2022 Australia’s New South Wales Marks Its Highest COVID-19 Death Count
FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians cross an intersection in the city centre, as the state of New South Wales
surpasses the 90 percent double-dose coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination target for
its population aged 16 and over, in Sydney, Australia, November 9, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, recorded its highest number of daily COVID-19 deaths on Saturday as the Omicron variant sweeps the country and lawmakers face pressure to close widening supply chain gaps.
    The home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million people reported 16 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous day. New South Wales reported 30,062 new infections, near record levels.
    The second-largest state, Victoria, which hosts the Australian Open tennis tournament this month, reported 44,155 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths.
    The country reported just under 100,000 cases overall, down from a record 116,025 the previous day, but still surpassing most previous peaks.    Total deaths for the day were 36.
    With the surge bringing a rush for government-funded pop-up testing clinics, the authorities have shifted their messaging and urged people to instead take rapid antigen tests at home, then report positive results to their doctor, who enters it into a database.
    Authorities are calling for calm amid reports of bare supermarket shelves as people stay home to avoid infection and delivery personnel self-isolate due to virus exposure.
    “We have seen very low rates of significant illness,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters.    “It is the workforce furloughing which remains the principal challenge at this point in time.”
    The government and its health advisers have cut mandatory isolation times for close contacts and narrowed the definition of close contacts but were still reviewing the rules for furloughing workers, Hunt said.
    Australia meanwhile plans to start vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 on Monday.    Most states said they would begin the new school year as scheduled at the end of January but Queensland, the third most populous state, said it would postpone the return to school by two weeks to give children time to be vaccinated.
    Despite the outbreak, political leaders have cited Australia’s high vaccination rate – more than 90% of people over 16 are fully vaccinated – to justify a reopening plan.    But several states in recent days have postponed non-urgent elective surgery to clear hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and reintroduced mask mandates.
    New South Wales, which emerged from more than 100 days of lockdown late last year, has reinstated a ban on dancing and drinking while standing up in bars.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by William Mallard and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

1/9/2022 China’s Tianjin Begins City-Wide Testing After At Least Two Local Omicron Cases Detected
FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks walk on a street, following new cases of the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Shanghai, China January 4, 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song
    SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) -The northern coastal city of Tianjin began testing its population of around 14 million on Sunday after at least two local cases of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant were detected, state media reported.
    Residents in four districts would be tested over the next 24 hours while other districts would be tested the next day, the Tianjin government said.
    Residents will only get the green health code necessary to travel once they receive a negative result, it said.
    The city advised residents not to leave town for unnecessary reasons, the government said late on Saturday. So far no full lockdown order has been given.
    The Tianjin outbreak poses risks to Beijing and the upcoming Winter Olympics, because of the large number of commuters working and living in the two cities, the state-owned Global Times said, citing an unnamed immunologist.
    Commuters to Tianjin from Beijing have been asked to stay away, Xinhua reported.
    It comes after local transmission of the imported Omicron variant was found in the southern city of Guangzhou, according to a national health official in December, though the number of cases was not disclosed.
    China reported 165 confirmed coronavirus cases for Jan. 8, up from 159 a day earlier, its health authority said on Sunday.
    Of the new infections, 92 were locally transmitted,according to a statement by the National Health Commission, from 95 a day earlier.
    Most of the new local cases were in Henan and Shaanxiprovinces.
    China reported 46 new asymptomatic cases, which itclassifies separately from confirmed cases, compared with 52 aday earlier.
    There were no new fatalities, leaving the death toll at 4,636. Mainland China had 103,619 confirmed cases as of Jan 8.
(Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Elaine Hardcastle)

1/9/2022 Stay Away In Event Of Accident With Olympics Vehicle, Beijing Police Warn
FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the
Main Press Centre in Beijing, China January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
    SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – People should stay away from the special vehicles used to ferry people to and from the Winter Olympic venues in the event of a traffic incident, Beijing’s traffic management authority warned on Sunday.
    Personnel involved in the Winter Olympics will be kept in a “closed loop” operation and should avoid contact with people outside it, the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau said in a post on its Twitter-like Weibo account.
    If there is an accident with one of the vehicles, people should maintain a safe distance, avoid contact with those inside and wait for professionals to arrive at the scene, the post said.
    On Wednesday organisers said they had begun the “closed loop” operation, in which participants can only leave if they are exiting the country or undergo quarantine, to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak among Games participants from leaking into China’s general public. [L4N2TL09U]
    The 2022 Games, which open on Feb. 4, are set to take place as the world grapples with the highly transmissable Omicron variant, although China, which has a zero-tolerance COVID policy, has reported just a handful of Omicron cases.
    More than 2,000 international athletes are set to come to China for the Games, plus 25,000 other “stakeholders,” a large number from overseas.    Organisers did not say how many of those people would be in the closed loop.
    On Sunday the coastal city of Tianjin, which borders Beijing, said it would begin testing its population of around 14 million people after at least two cases of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant were detected there. [L1N2TP012]
(Reporting by David Kirton, Editing by Louise Heavens)

1/10/2022 Australia Vows To ‘Push Through’ Omicron Wave As Infections Cross 1 Million by Renju Jose
A woman in line at a coronavirus (COVID-19) testing centre steps out of her vehicle to look at the queue
of traffic blocking a Western Sydney highway in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia must “push through” the fast-moving Omicron outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, as infections surpassed 1 million, more than half in the past week alone, throwing a strain on hospitals and supply chains.
    Although aggressive lockdowns and tough border controls kept a lid on infections earlier in the pandemic, Australia is now battling record infections in its effort to live with the virus after higher vaccination rates.
    Growing hospital admissions have forced officials to restore curbs in some states, as businesses grapple with shortages of staff because of sickness or isolation requirements.
    Morrison, facing pressure at the start of an election year, plans changes to isolation rules to allow work in food production and distribution by those who have been in close contact with asymptomatic infections.
    “Omicron is a gear change and we have to push through,” the prime minister told a media briefing in the capital, Canberra.    “You’ve got two choices here: you can push through or you can lock down.    We are for pushing through.”
    Morrison, who will submit his proposals to state leaders at a meeting of the national cabinet this week, plans to eventually widen the changes to transport and other key sectors.
    Even though Australia was dealing with serious volumes of cases, health systems were coping, Morrison added.    More than 3,500 people are in hospital, up from about 2,000 a week ago.
    Data from a Reuters tally showed Australia’s infections crossed 1 million on Monday, with more than half in the last week alone.
    Supply issues could persist for another three weeks, said supermarket chain Woolworths, where one in five employees is in quarantine.
    “At this stage, there is enough product in our supply chain to meet the needs of customers,” Chief Executive Brad Banducci told ABC Radio.    “It might not always be their favourite brand, unfortunately.”
    Australia’s strict border rules are again in the public eye after it cancelled an entry visa for star tennis player Novak Djokovic because of questions about his vaccine exemption.
    The judge hearing Djokovic’s legal challenge to the decision to revoke his visa aired concerns about the Serbian’s treatment by border officials on his arrival.
CASE NUMBER IS ‘UNDERESTIMATE’
    Health officials warned Monday’s figure of just over 67,000 infections could be an “underestimate,” as reports from some states do not include those who tested positive in at-home rapid antigen tests.    Sunday’s tally was just under 100,000.
    Total COVID-19 infections in Australia touched 1.04 million since its first case nearly two years ago.
    The death toll stands at 2,387, though the Omicron wave has caused fewer deaths than previous outbreaks, with 92% of those over 16 having received two vaccine doses.
    As its booster programme gathers pace, Australia began rolling out from Monday inoculations with Pfizer’s vaccines for children aged five to 11.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/10/2022 India’s COVID-19 Cases Multiply, Vulnerable Groups Given Vaccine Boosters
A boy holds his father's hand while they stand next to a police barricade after authorities
in the capital ordered a weekend curfew, following the rise in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases,
in the old quarters of Delhi, India, January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India began administering booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine to frontline workers and vulnerable elderly people on Monday, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant fuelling an almost eight-fold rise in daily infections since the start of the year.
    India reported 179,723 new cases on Monday, most of them in the country’s biggest cities – Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata – where Omicron has overtaken Delta as the most prevalent strain of the virus.
    There were 146 deaths reported on Monday, bringing the toll to 483,936 since the pandemic first struck India in early 2020.    Only the United States and Brazil have recorded more deaths.
    In recent days, hundreds of healthcare and frontline workers, including police, have contracted the virus, and there were media reports that hundreds of parliamentary staff have also tested positive ahead of a budget session on Feb. 1.
    Facing this rising third wave of infections, the government sent booster reminders to more than 10 million people who took their second dose of the Covaxin or Covishield shot nine months ago.
    Unlike many countries, India is not mixing and matching vaccines.
    Only healthcare personnel, frontline workers and people above 60 years suffering from other health conditions are eligible for what the government calls a “precaution dose.”
    “The government is committed to provide additional security cover to healthcare and frontline workers on priority,” Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya wrote on Twitter.
    Despite the rise in infections, five states including the most populous Uttar Pradesh will hold elections starting Feb. 10, though authorities have barred political party rallies until at least the middle of this month.
    Tasked with protecting India’s near 1.4 billion people from the virus, the government has administered 1.5 billion vaccine doses in total.    About 67% of the country’s 939 million adults have been double vaccinated.
    India’s overall COVID-19 testing has remained around 1.5 million a day, well below the capacity of more than 2 million.
    Since the pandemic began, India has recorded 35.7 million cases of COVID-19, the highest in the world after the United States.
    Government officials have privately said they are working under the assumption that daily infections will surpass the record of more than 414,000 set in May, based on what has happened in countries like the United States, where daily cases have risen past 1 million.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das in New Delhi, Chandini Monnappa in Bengaluru and Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/10/2022 After COVID Infections, Hong Kong’s First 2022 Legislature Meeting May Be Online
FILE PHOTO: Empty seats of pro-democracy lawmakers are seen during Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's annual
policy address at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s first legislature meeting of 2022 may have to be held online, its council president said on Monday, after over 30 officials and lawmakers were quarantined following COVID infections at a birthday party of a delegate to China’s legislature.
    Andrew Leung, the city’s Legislative Council president, said four legislators remained in quarantine ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, while sixteen others need to be tested again.
    “If we cannot hold a physical meeting, then we will switch everything to zoom mode,” he told a media briefing.
    Leung’s comments come after 11 government officials and 16 lawmakers were released from quarantine on Saturday after authorities said they were less likely to have been exposed to infected guests at a party last week.
    The party for the 53rd birthday of Witman Hung, a delegate to the national legislature, took place on Jan. 3 with close to 200 people, before leader Carrie Lam imposed new restrictions on social life on Jan 7.    Lam appealed to the public to avoid large gatherings.
    Lam has ordered an inquiry into the behaviour of 13 senior government officials to see if any laws were broken.
    The released officials are required to isolate at home using their own vacation leave, according to a government statement.
    The timing comes as residents are increasingly weary of new restrictions.    The city saw a three-month streak of no community transmission broken on Dec. 31, with the confirmation of the city’s first local infection with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
    Several more cases have been detected since and hundreds of close contacts have been sent into government quarantine facilities for up to 21 days.
    Since the pandemic began in 2020, more than 200 people have died in Hong Kong from coronavirus with over 12,800 infected, far fewer than in most of the world’s big cities.
    Around 4.7 million people, or just under 70% of the eligible population has received two shots of either the BioNTech or the Sinovac vaccines, much lower than in other developed cities.
(Reporting by Farah Master and Jessie Pang; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/10/2022 Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Faces Six Years In Jail After New Sentences - Source
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives
at a news conference at her home in Yangon November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo
    (Reuters) - A court in military-ruled Myanmar sentenced on Monday ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in jail on charges including possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies, a source familiar with the proceedings said.
    The latest sentencing in legal proceedings that rights groups have criticised as a farce and a “courtroom circus” means she faces a six-year jail term after two convictions last month.
    She is on trial in nearly a dozen cases that carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison. She denies all charges.
    Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, 76, appeared calm when the verdict was read out on Monday in a court in the capital, Naypyitaw, said another source with knowledge of the court proceedings.
    Suu Kyi was detained on the day of the Feb. 1 coup and days later, police said six illegally imported walkie-talkies were found during a search of her home.
    The court handed her a two-year sentence for breaching an export-import law by possessing the handheld radios and one year for having a set of signal jammers.    The two sentences will run concurrently, said the source.
    She was also sentenced to two years on another charge of breaching a natural disaster management law related to coronavirus rules, the source said.
    Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup against Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government led to widespread protests and signalled the end of 10 years of tentative political reforms that followed decades of strict military rule.
    On Dec. 6, she received a four-year jail sentence for incitement and breaching coronavirus rules.
    That sentence, which was later reduced to two years, was met by a chorus of international condemnation.
    Rights group Amnesty International said on Twitter on Monday the new convictions were “the latest act in the farcical trial against the civilian leader.”
    It called for her release along with thousands of others “unjustly detained” since the coup.
SECRETIVE TRIAL
    Suu Kyi’s supporters say the cases against her are baseless and designed to end her political career and leave the military free to wield power untrammelled by any challenge.
    The junta says Suu Kyi is being given due process by an independent court led by a judge appointed by her own administration.    A spokesman for the military council could not be immediately reached for comment.
    Her trial has been closed to the media and Suu Kyi’s lawyers have been barred from communicating with the media and public.
    The military has not disclosed where Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest under a previous military government, is being detained.
    “The Myanmar junta’s courtroom circus of secret proceedings on bogus charges is all about steadily piling up more convictions … so that she will remain in prison indefinitely,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
    In some recent court hearings, Suu Kyi has been wearing a white top and a brown wraparound longyi https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/myanmars-ousted-leader-suu-kyi-appears-prison-uniform-court-2021-12-17 typically worn by Myanmar prisoners, sources have said.
    Military ruler Min Aung Hlaing last month said Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint would remain in the same location during their trials and would not be sent to prison.
    Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen did not seek to meet Suu Kyi during a visit to the country last week for talks with its military rulers.
(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed DaviesEditing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)

1/10/2022 Factbox-Legal Cases Against Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech to the nation over Rakhine
and Rohingya situation, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Myanmar’s former leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further four years in jail on Monday, the latest in a string of cases brought against her since she was ousted in a Feb. 1 military coup.
    Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, 76, is on trial in nearly a dozen cases that carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison. As of Monday, she has been sentenced to a total of six years in jail.
    She denies all charges.
    The following is a summary of the sentences and cases against Suu Kyi, based on information available to Reuters.
– Intent to incite, after her party sent a letter in February to international organisations asking them not to recognise the military government (Penal Code, Article 505[b]).    Sentenced to two years in prison last month.
– Breaches of coronavirus regulations during her party’s election campaigning in September 2020 (Natural Disaster Management Law, Article 25).    Sentenced to two years in prison on Monday after a two-year sentence last month on a similar charge.
– Possession in February of unlicensed walkie-talkies and a set of signal jammers (Export and Import Law, Article 8).    One case, maximum 3 years in prison.    (Telecommunications Law, Article 67).    Sentenced on Monday to two years and one year in jail, respectively, on the charges.    The sentences are to be served concurrently.
– Obtaining, collecting, recording, or publishing or communicating secret information that could be useful to an enemy (Official Secrets Act). One case, maximum 14 years in prison.
– Prosecution for “electoral fraud and lawless actions” (status unclear).
– Violations of the anti-corruption law (Sections 55, 63).    Six 6 cases, maximum 15 years in prison for each.
    Allegations include:
* Misusing funds from the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation Suu Kyi chaired, to build a home.
* Leasing government-owned land at a discounted rate.
* Accepting bribes totalling $600,000 and 11.4 kg of gold bars.
* Misuse of state funds for renting, buying a helicopter.
(Compiled by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Davies and Robert Birsel)

1/10/2022 China Appoints Former Paramilitary Chief As New Hong Kong Garrison Commander
FILE PHOTO: Members of People's Liberation Army attend a morning flag-raising assembly at a secondary school,
marking the 24th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule, on the 100th founding
anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2021. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China has appointed a former paramilitary chief, Peng Jingtang, as the new commander of the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong, state broadcaster CCTV reported late on Sunday citing the PLA’s spokesman.
    Peng, who holds the rank of major general, was previously the deputy chief of staff of China’s paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police.    His appointment was signed into order by Chinese President Xi Jinping, CCTV said.
    According to the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, Peng was previously also chief of staff of the Armed Police Force in Xinjiang, where Washington says Beijing is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. China denies abuses in Xinjiang.
    The PLA maintains a garrison in Hong Kong, but its activities are largely low-profile.    Under the global financial hub’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, defence and foreign affairs are managed by Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
    CCTV also quoted Peng as saying that he would in his new appointment work with all members of the garrison to follow the command of the ruling Communist Party and Xi, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and security interests.
    Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that wide-ranging individual rights would be protected.
    But pro-democracy activists and rights groups say freedoms have been eroded, in particular since China imposed a new national security law after months of at times violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.
    Hong Kong and Chinese authorities deny curbing freedoms and say the law was necessary to restore order after prolonged unrest.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Michael Perry)

1/10/2022 China’s Tianjin Tightens Control Over Travel After Omicron Cases
People line up for nucleic acid testing during a citywide mass testing for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
after local cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Tianjin, China January 9, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The northern Chinese city of Tianjin tightened exit controls and is requiring residents to obtain approval from employers or community authorities before leaving town in an effort to block the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
    The port city to the southeast of Beijing reported 21 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms on Sunday, the National Health Commission said on Monday, up from three a day earlier.
    Tianjin, with around 14 million residents, said over the weekend it detected two local cases of infection with the Omicron.    The source of the infections and route to the community remained unclear, and officials had yet to announce how many other local cases were caused by Omicron.
    The highly transmissable Omicron variant is rapidly spreading globally, forcing several countries to tighten travel rules, and presents a heightened challenge to China’s efforts to quickly extinguish local outbreaks.
    China’s quick containment strategy has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province starting Feb. 4, and with the Lunar New Year holiday travel season beginning later this month.
    Tianjin’s mass testing scheme, which it aims to complete in two days, is part of its effort to “resolutely prevent the virus spreading to other provinces, regions and cities, especially Beijing,” the city government said in a letter to residents on Monday.
    Last year, China hosted several foreign diplomatic delegations in Tianjin instead of Beijing, including those from the United States.    The city is also one of north China’s most important oil and gas terminals, is a production base for European planemaker Airbus and hosts data storage centers for Chinese technology firms such as Tencent.
    In China’s central Henan province, the city of Anyang detected two local Omicron infections traced to a student arriving from Tianjin, a local paper backed by Communist party authority in Anyang said on Monday.
    It remained unclear how many other local cases in Anyang were Omicron.    The city of 5.5 million residents suspended all bus services from Sunday.
    Prior to the Tianjin and Anyang outbreak, China had reported a handful of Omicron cases among international travellers, and at least one locally transmitted Omicron infection.
    In December, a national health official said local transmission of Omicron, caused by an Omicron infection arriving from overseas, had been found in the southern city of Guangzhou and quickly contained, without giving local case numbers.
    Nationwide, mainland China reported 97 new local symptomatic cases for Sunday, up slightly from 92 a day earlier, with 60 in Henan.
    The city of Xian, where local authorities are planning the gradual resumption of parcel deliveries and some businesses as a weeks-long lockdown showed signs of easing, reported 15 local symptomatic cases.
(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, Stella Qiu, Ella Cao and Tony Munroe; Editing by Kim Coghill and Michael Perry)

1/10/2022 Taiwan, Canada To Start Talks On Investment Agreement
Canada's International Trade Minister Mary Ng speaks during Question Period in the House of
Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Blair Gable
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Canada have agreed to start talks on an investment protection agreement, both governments said on Monday, part of the Chinese-claimed island’s efforts to boost ties with fellow democracies in the face of growing pressure from Beijing.
    Taiwan has been angling for trade deals with what it views as like-minded partners such as the United States and the European Union.
    While a member of the World Trade Organization, Taiwan’s only has free trade agreements with two major economies, Singapore and New Zealand, and China has pressured countries not to engage directly with the government in Taipei.
    Taiwan’s cabinet said chief trade negotiator John Deng had met virtually with Canada’s International Trade Minister, Mary Ng, and the two agreed to start “exploratory discussions” on a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Arrangement, or FIPA.
    The cabinet statement said the move was “an important milestone” in strengthening economic and trade relations.
    The Canadian government, which like most countries has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, said in its statement that Ng “highlighted Taiwan is a key trade and investment partner as Canada broadens its trade links and deepens its economic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.”
    The direct meeting between the two government ministers could anger China, which has stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan as Beijing asserts its sovereignty claims.
    China views democratically-governed Taiwan as part of its territory with no right to state-to-state ties, a view Taiwan’s government strongly rejects.
    Canada is also a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, which both Taiwan and China have applied to join.
(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

1/11/2022 N. Korea Launches ‘More Advanced’ Missile Less Than Week After Hypersonic Test by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean
embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea appeared to test fire a ballistic missile on Tuesday that may be more capable than the “hypersonic missile” it launched less than a week earlier, South Korea’s military said, as Pyongyang pursues increasingly advanced weapons.
    The launches underscored leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
    Initial estimates found Tuesday’s missile travelled more than 700 km (435 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km (37 miles) at a top speed up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348 kmh/7,673 mph), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
    “We assess that this is more advanced than the missile North Korea fired on Jan. 5, though South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are conducting detailed analysis,” the JCS said.
    The suspected ballistic missile launch was detected around 7:27 a.m. (2227 GMT Monday) from North Korea’s Jagang Province toward the ocean off its east coast, the same location as last week’s test.
    North Korea has joined a global race in developing hypersonic missiles, which are usually defined as weapons that reach speeds of at least five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 kms per hour (3,850 mph) – and can manoeuvre at relatively low trajectories, making them much harder to detect and intercept.
    Last week, South Korean military officials cast doubts https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-casts-doubts-north-koreas-hypersonic-missile-claims-2022-01-07 on the capabilities of the hypersonic missile North Korea claimed to have test fired on Wednesday, saying it appeared to represent limited progress over Pyongyang’s existing ballistic missiles.
    “Today’s test might be intended to send a message to the South after authorities here said the earlier test was a failure and did not involve a hypersonic missile,” Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who now teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University.
‘DESTABILISING’
    South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting where members expressed “strong regret” that the missile test came at a time when regional stability is extremely important, and urged     North Korea to resume dialogue and cooperation, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
    The U.S. military’s Indopacific Command (INDOPACOM) said while it had assessed that launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, it “highlights the destabilising impact of North Korea’s illicit weapons program.”
    Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted the United Nations had just finished holding discussions on how to respond to last week’s launch.
    “That North Korea continues to launch missiles is extremely regrettable,” he told reporters.
    Tuesday’s apparent launch came a day after the United States mission to the United Nations, joined by France, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom and Albania, issued a joint statement condemning last week’s test.
    “These actions increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation and pose a significant threat to regional stability,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in the statement on Monday.    Such tests not only improve the North’s capabilities, but expands what it can offer illicit arms clients and dealers around the world, she added.
    U.N. Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.
    However, China and Russia https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-russia-revive-push-lift-un-sanctions-north-korea-2021-11-01 are pushing the U.N. Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea by removing a ban on Pyongyang’s exports of statues, seafood and textiles, and lifting a refined petroleum imports cap.
    Thomas-Greenfield reiterated calls for countries around the world to enforce sanctions, and for North Korea to return to talks and abandon its missiles and nuclear weapons.
    North Korea has said it is open to talk, but only if the United States and others drop “hostile policies” such as sanctions and military drills.
    Few observers expect Kim to ever fully surrender his nuclear arsenal and North Korea argues its missile tests and other military activities are similar to measures taken by other countries.
    Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha University said North Korea is attempting to use repeated tests to normalise its missile capabilities and military programmes, portraying it as engaged in incremental improvements for self-defence like many other countries.
    “At the same time, Pyongyang is challenging international sanctions, testing what it can get away with while the United Nations Security Council remains divided,” he said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, and the Tokyo bureau; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington. Writing by Josh Smith. Editing by Lincoln Feast)

1/11/2022 Analysis-N.Korea Looks To Risky Pre-Fuelled Missiles To Reduce Launch Time by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: A view of what state news agency KCNA reports is the test firing of a
hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 5, 2022, in this photo
released January 6, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s recent claims of testing hypersonic weapons overshadowed its pursuit of a potentially risky rocket fuel system that analysts say could allow the nuclear-armed state to deploy and launch its missiles faster during a war.
    Most of the country’s largest ballistic missiles use liquid fuel, which typically requires them to be loaded with propellant at their launch site before they can be fired – a time-consuming step that makes them easier to spot and destroy.
    Pyongyang has also pursued solid-fuel technology, but so far most of those engines have been used on smaller, short-range missiles.
    Recent tests suggest North Korean military scientists are pursuing a third option: a “missile fuel ampoule” system to seal the liquid propellant and oxidizer tanks within the missile’s airframe, allowing them to be fuelled at the factory and ready to use.
    “This would obviate the need for in-field fuelling, which could increase the responsiveness of North Korean liquid propellant missiles,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.    “They are still quite a ways off from switching to an all-solid force so this could be a useful interim pursuit.”
    North Korea said it first used such ampoules in September, when it claimed to have tested its first hypersonic missile, capable of carrying a warhead that can glide at more than five times the speed of sound.
    At the time, state media quoted a top official discussing the significance of “turning all missile fuel systems into ampoules.”
    That suggests North Korea “intends to continue to retain and improve its liquid-propellant ballistic missile force for the long term rather than shift to an all-solid force,” said 38 North, a Washington-based organisation that monitors North Korea.
    The same type of rocket booster with an ampoule system may have been used last week in a second hypersonic test.    North Korea launched another missile on Tuesday, but technical details on the type of rocket involved were not immediately available.
‘DRIVING AROUND WITH A BOMB’
    The volatility of the fuel-storage system the North Koreans are pursuing casts doubt on its military usefulness, said Markus Schiller, a missile expert based in Europe.
    Those rocket engines use nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as an oxidizer and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as fuel.    Both are highly toxic as well as “hypergolic,” which means they react violently when in contact with each other.
    That explosion is channelled through a nozzle to power the rocket.    But the chemicals can be highly vulnerable to shocks and temperature.
    “You are driving around with a bomb,” Schiller said.    “The moment the missile tanks rupture because you hit a pothole, or because someone shoots at the missile, all will be gone in a thick red cloud.” NTO, meanwhile, freezes at -11°C (12.2°F) and starts boiling at +21°C.
    “If you are sitting in the woods on a Korean winter night… waiting for launch command, the NTO will freeze in your pipes, and start freezing in your tanks.    Your missile will blow up at launch,” Schiller said.
    “Also, you don’t want to risk launching a missile on hot summer days, with the oxidizer boiling in the tank.”
    North Korea said the Wednesday test verified the “reliability of fuel ampoule system under the winter weather conditions,” suggesting it is seeking to ensure the stability of such systems.
    Unlike most other countries that have used such a system, North Korea does not appear to be using canisters to protect and insulate the missiles.
    “This seems to confirm that ‘ampoulization’ is not canisterization but akin to the Soviet/Russian practice of preloading submarine-launched ballistic missiles with propellants at the factory and maintaining the fuelled missile as a sealed unit for loading into the launcher,” 38 North concluded in a report on Friday.
    The report said that developing more stable propellants would allow missiles to remain fuelled on a day-to-day basis.
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/11/2022 Australia Swamped By Omicron Surge As Pressure Grows On Hospitals
FILE PHOTO: Customers queue outside a Western Sydney chemist to purchase Rapid Antigen Test kits in the wake
of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s COVID-19 infections hovered near record levels on Tuesday as a surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant put a strain on hospitals already stretched by staff isolating after being exposed to the virus.
    After successfully containing the coronavirus for most of the pandemic, Australia has been swamped by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant after authorities eased mitigation measures as high vaccination rates were reached.
    Australia has reported about 1.1 million cases since the pandemic began, with more than half of those in the last two weeks, including nearly 86,000 cases on Tuesday, with two states due to report later.
    “There is significant pressure in our health system,” the premier of Victoria state, Daniel Andrews, told a media briefing, adding about 4,000 hospital and 400 ambulance staff in the state were isolating due to virus protocols.
    Ambulance services in Victoria were forced to declare a code red – when there are more call requests than ambulances available – for several hours on Monday night, ambulance union official Olga Bartasek told broadcaster ABC.
    There are more people in hospital in Victoria and New South Wales, home to more than half Australia’s 25 million people and the worst-affected states by the virus, than at any time during the pandemic.
    In all, about 4,000 people are in hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, nearly double from a week ago.    More than 92% of the population over the age of 16 have had a double dose of vaccine and a booster programme is picking up pace.
    The number of patients in intensive care and the number of deaths are creeping up, with 25 new fatalities registered on Tuesday, with data from some states still not in.
    Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing pressure for his handling of the Omicron wave in an election year, has vowed to “push through” the outbreak and plans to ease isolation rules for asymptomatic workers in key sectors amid reports of bare supermarket shelves.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/11/2022 Japan To Maintain Strict Border Restrictions Until End Of February by Elaine Lies
FILE PHOTO: Passengers wearing protective face masks are pictured at a train station, amid the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan, January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan will maintain its tight entry restrictions to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus until the end of February, the prime minister said on Tuesday, though some exceptions for humanitarian reasons may be considered.
    Japan adopted some of the strictest border controls in the world when the Omicron variant emerged late last year, banning all new entry by non-Japanese people, including students and foreign family members of Japanese or permanent residents, except in exceptional circumstances.
    “Thanks to the toughest border rules in the G7 nations, we’ve been able to keep the spread of Omicron to a minimal level, giving us time to prepare to deal with domestic infection,” Kishida told reporters.
    “We’ll maintain the current framework of measures until the end of February … while taking necessary measures from the perspective of humanitarian and national interests.”
    The rules mandate up to six days in strict hotel quarantine for most of those who are allowed in – mostly Japanese and resident foreigners – followed by home quarantine.
    The measures have sparked protests and a petition drive calling for change, especially to reduce family separations, and media reported on Tuesday the government was considering easing some of rules in exceptional cases.
    Kishida said while much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, it appeared that the risk of serious cases was lower.    Children under the age of 12 would be offered vaccinations, he said.
    Though opinion polls show that most Japanese support the border controls, e-commerce firm Rakuten’s founder and chief executive Hiroshi Mikitani called for them to be eased, saying the economy would suffer.
    “In particular, banning the entrance of new foreigners and the hotel quarantine system needs to be reviewed,” Mikitani, long a critic of Japan’s handling of the pandemic, said on Twitter.
    “Corona is everywhere in the world and borders must be open, the restrictions clearly aren’t working.    What needs to be done is prioritising vaccinations and the use of oral medications,” he said, terming the entrance freeze “unbelievable and stupid.”
    A surge of new coronavirus cases prompted the government to reintroduce emergency restrictions in three parts of the country that host U.S. military bases over the weekend.
    The U.S. military has been moved its personnel in and out of Japan under a separate testing and quarantine regime.
    The United States has agreed to impose stricter COVID-19 measures at its military bases after fears among Japanese people that infections were spilling out into communities.
(Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto and Elaine Lies; Editing by Aurora Ellis, Robert Birsel)

1/11/2022 China Orders Suspension Of Some U.S. Flights After COVID-19 Cases by David Shepardson and Stella Qiu
FILE PHOTO: Stairs stand on a tarmac next to a Delta Air Lines plane at Pittsburgh International
Airport in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 3, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
    WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – China has ordered the cancellation of more than two dozen scheduled flights from the United States in recent weeks after numerous passengers tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in China.
    China’s aviation regulator has mandated the cancellations of eight total scheduled U.S. passenger airline flights for Shanghai under its COVID-19 pandemic rules: four by United Airlines and two each from Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.
    Delta said it canceled Detroit to Shanghai flights last Friday and Jan. 14 due to the Chinese rule requiring “all affected carriers,” whose passengers test positive for COVID-19, “to cancel inbound service on certain China flights.”
    The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has also canceled at least 22 other U.S. bound flights operated by Chinese carriers since December after positive COVID-19 tests, including eight by China Southern Airlines Co.
    The United States is facing a surge in infections caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant and on Monday had 132,646 people hospitalized with COVID, surpassing the record of 132,051 set in January 2021.    The seven-day average for new cases has doubled in the last 10 days to 704,000.
    United said it had been forced to cancel flights from San Francisco to Shanghai scheduled for Jan. 15, 19, 22 and 26.    The Chicago-based carrier flies from San Francisco to Shanghai four times weekly.
    The U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) did not immediately comment late Monday.
U.S.-CHINA AIR SERVICES
    Since the COVID-19 pandemic, China and the United States have sparred over air services.
    In August, USDOT limited four flights from Chinese carriers to 40% passenger capacity for four weeks after Beijing imposed identical limits on four United Airlines flights.
    China told United in August it was imposing curbs on some flights after it alleged five passengers who traveled from San Francisco to Shanghai tested positive for COVID-19 on July 21.
    USDOT said in August that China’s policy “places undue culpability on carriers with respect to travelers that test positive for COVID-19 after their arrival in China.”
    The department said carriers “have no means to independently verify positive test results alleged by Chinese authorities.”
    A long-standing U.S.-China air agreement allows the countries to operate over 100 weekly flights between the two nations but only a fraction of those are currently operating.
    Former U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2020 barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who had been in China within the last 14 days from traveling to the United States.
    President Joe Biden in November lifted the Chinese travel restrictions for fully vaccinated foreign air travelers.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Stella Qiu in Beijing; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

1/11/2022 Hong Kong Unveils Further Steps To Curb COVID-19 Spread, Boost Vaccinations
FILE PHOTO: Children wearing face masks ride on the carousel during the reopening day
of iconic theme park Ocean Park, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak, in Hong Kong, China September 18, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong will shut kindergartens and primary schools and start offering COVID-19 vaccines for children from the age of five, the city’s leader said on Tuesday, as the financial hub grapples with an increase in coronavirus infections.
    Certain passengers meanwhile will be banned from transiting through Hong Kong for a month, Bloomberg News reported, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter.
    It comes as the Chinese-ruled city has seen some local transmissions of the Omicron coronavirus variant after three months of no local coronavirus cases at the end of last year.
    Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters in a weekly media briefing that kindergartens and primary schools must stop face-to-face classes from Friday until after the Lunar New Year at the beginning of     February to prevent transmissions of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
    Schools had mostly resumed in-person classes late last year after months of online teaching.
    Children over five will be able to get the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, Lam said.    Authorities have cleared the other vaccine available in Hong Kong, made by Germany’s BioNTech, for children aged 12 and older.
    “I am optimistic and confident we can overcome the situation,” Lam said.
    Separately, Bloomberg News said Hong Kong’s international airport was set to ban transit by passengers from 150 designated high-risk places from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14, citing the unnamed sources.
    The ban will not apply to diplomats, government officials, athletes and staff participating in the Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4 in Beijing, according to the report.
    The city’s Transport and Housing Bureau did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Lam did not mention new air transit rules during her press conference.
    Hong Kong had already banned passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Britain and the United States in early January.
‘MOST UNFORTUNATE’
    Hong Kong is far behind other developed cities with its vaccination campaign. Less than 75% of eligible people have had a first dose, while just under 70% have had a second one.    About 8% have received a third.
    The city saw a three-month streak of no local coronavirus transmission until the end of last year.    There have since been more than 40 local transmissions of the Omicron variant, with more than 4,000 people considered close contacts sent into government-mandated quarantine, Lam said.
    Lam said the government would also launch a new anti-epidemic relief fund, with details to be announced on Friday.    The government had at least HK$4 billion ($513 million) available for new economic relief measures, she said.
    Lam said a disciplinary investigation was still going on into the behaviour of 13 senior government officials who attended a birthday party for a delegate to China’s legislature.
    Two of the party guests tested positive for the coronavirus.
    According to the latest findings, more than 200 people attended the party and the number might grow, Lam said.
    “This is the most unfortunate event because of the large number of people involved,” Lam said, adding the officials should have complied with her appeal for people to avoid large gatherings.
($1 = 7.7966 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and Marius Zaharia; writing by Farah Master; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Robert Birsel and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

1/11/2022 Hong Kong Airport To Ban Transit By Those From High-Risk Nations - Bloomberg
FILE PHOTO: Airport staff members queue up to collect coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing kits, following the
COVID-19 outbreak, at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s international airport is set to ban transit by passengers from designated high-risk countries, Bloomberg News said on Monday, citing people familiar with the matter.
    The suspension will start on Jan. 15 and run through Feb. 14, it added, but will not apply to diplomats, government officials, athletes and staff participating in the Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4 in Beijing.
(Reporting by Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/11/2022 N.Korea Says Leader Kim Attended ‘Successful’ Hypersonic Missile Test by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Eighth Conference of Military
Educationists of the Korean People's Army at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang,
North Korea in this undated photo released on December 7, 2021. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean state media said on Wednesday that the country has conducted a successful test of a hypersonic missile https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-launches-possible-ballistic-missile-japan-says-2022-01-10, state media reported, with leader Kim Jong Un attending the launch for the first time in more than a year.
    On Tuesday authorities in South Korea and Japan detected the suspected launch, which drew condemnation by authorities in Washington and Tokyo and prompted an expression of concern from the U.N. secretary-general.
    The second test in less than a week underscored Kim’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
    It was the first time since March 2020 that Kim had officially attended a missile test.
    “His presence here would suggest particular attention on this programme,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, posted on Twitter.
    Unlike some other recent tests, ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Kim attending the launch on its front page.
    “While Kim probably unofficially attended other tests in the interim, this appearance and its Page One feature on Rodong Sinmun is important,” said Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.    “It means Kim is not concerned about being personally associated (with) tests of major new tech.    And doesn’t care how the U.S. sees this.”
    U.N. Security Council resolutions ban all North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests and have imposed sanctions over the programs.
    Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender or limit its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles have been stalled, with Pyongyang saying it is open to diplomacy but only if the United States and its allies stop “hostile policies” such as sanctions or military drills.
    Photos released by state media appeared to show the same type of missile and warhead that was first tested last week, analysts said.
    “The test-fire was aimed at the final verification of overall technical specifications of the developed hypersonic weapon system,” state news agency KCNA reported.
    After its release from the rocket booster, a hypersonic glide vehicle made a 600-km “glide jump flight” and then a 240- km “sea in waters” 1,000 km away, the report said.
    South Korean officials had questioned https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-casts-doubts-north-koreas-hypersonic-missile-claims-2022-01-07 the capabilities of the missile after the first test last week, saying it did not appear to demonstrate the range and maneuverability claimed in a state media report and featured a maneuverable warhead rather than an actual glide vehicle.
    On Tuesday, however, South Korea said the second test appeared to show improved performance, with the missile reaching top speeds up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348 km per hour / 7,673 miles per hour), though they did not comment on its maneuverability.
    “The superior maneuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire,” KCNA said.
    Kim urged military scientists to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army,” KCNA added.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)

1/11/2022 U.S. Assisting ‘Few Dozen’ Citizens And Families To Depart Afghanistan - State Dept
U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron,
load passengers aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan
evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021.
Picture taken August 24, 2021. U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/Handout via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is currently working with a few dozen U.S. citizens and their families in Afghanistan who have identified themselves as prepared to depart and have the necessary travel documents, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Leslie Adler)

1/11/2022 Taliban Increase Payment In Wheat As Economic Crisis Deepens
An Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flag hangs over a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 19, 2021. Picture taken October 19, 2021.
REUTERS/Jorge Silva SEARCH "YOUNG TALIBAN SILVA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
    KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban administration said on Tuesday it was expanding its ‘food for work’ program, in which it uses donated wheat to pay thousands of public sector employees instead of cash as a financial crisis intensifies.
    Wheat, largely donated by India to the previous U.S.-backed Kabul government, is being used to pay 40,000 workers 10kg of wheat per day for working five hours a day, agriculture officials told a news conference.
    The scheme, which has largely paid labourers on public works programs in Kabul, will be expanded around the country, they said.
    “We are ready to help our people as much as we can,” said Fazel Bari Fazli, deputy minister of administration and finance at the Ministry of Agriculture.
    The Taliban administration has already received an additional 18 tonnes of wheat from Pakistan with a promise of 37 tonnes more and is in negotiation with India for 55 tonnes, according to Fazli.
    “We have lots of plans for food for work program,” he said.
    It was not clear how much of the donated wheat would be used as direct humanitarian aid and how much to pay workers.
    The expanding program underlines the growing conundrum faced by the Taliban administration as cash in the country dries up and could raise questions among donors over the use of humanitarian aid for government purposes while strict restrictions remain on financial flows into the country.
    International sanctions on Taliban members, frozen central bank assets and the sudden drop off in international assistance that once formed the backbone of the economy has left the Taliban government with limited government finances and a growing economic crisis.
    Humanitarian aid has continued as foreign governments attempt to prevent millions from starving, but is designed to bypass Afghan government channels and is mostly distributed by international multilateral institutions.
    U.N. agencies on Tuesday asked donors for $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan in 2022, calling the funds an “essential stop gap” to ensure the country’s future.
(Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

1/12/2022 British Trade Minister Arrives In India For Talks by Alasdair Pal
FILE PHOTO: Britain's trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan speaks during an
interview with Reuters, in Rome, Italy, October 13, 2021. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Britain’s trade minister arrived in India on Wednesday to begin talks as part of its efforts to sign its own trade deals following its departure from the European Union.
    Anne-Marie Trevelyan is due to meet officials in New Delhi before formally launching negotiations with her counterpart, Piyush Goyal, on Thursday, her office said.
    India and former colonial power Britain already share strong trade tries and more than a million people of Indian origin live in Britain after decades of migration.
    Britain is keen to secure tariff reductions on Scotch whisky, as well as concessions on manufacturing and financial services, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
    India, meanwhile, seeks greater opportunities for Indians to live and work in Britain, and any trade deal could be contingent on relaxing rules lowering fees for Indian students and professionals.
    A deal with India is a major aim of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, as it seeks stronger economic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
    Late last year, the two countries clashed over Britain’s coronavirus quarantine rules, that some Indian legislators called discriminatory.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/12/2022 N. Korea’s Kim Calls For More ‘Military Muscle’ After Watching Hypersonic Missile Test by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Eighth Conference of Military
Educationists of the Korean People's Army at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang,
North Korea in this undated photo released on December 7, 2021. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for boosting the country’s strategic military forces as he observed the test of a hypersonic missile https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-launches-possible-ballistic-missile-japan-says-2022-01-10, state media said on Wednesday, officially attending a missile launch for the first time in nearly two years.
    On Tuesday authorities in South Korea and Japan detected the suspected launch, which drew condemnation by authorities around the world and prompted an expression of concern from the U.N. secretary-general.
    The second test of a “hypersonic missile” in less than a week underscored Kim’s New Year’s vow to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
    After watching the test, Kim urged military scientists to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army,” KCNA news agency reported.
    It was the first time since March 2020 that Kim had officially attended a missile test.
    “His presence here would suggest particular attention on this programme,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, posted on Twitter.
    Unlike some other recent tests, ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Kim attending the launch on its front page.
    “While Kim probably unofficially attended other tests in the interim, this appearance and its Page One feature on Rodong Sinmun is important,” said Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.    “It means Kim is not concerned about being personally associated (with) tests of major new tech.    And doesn’t care how the U.S. sees this.”
    U.N. Security Council resolutions ban all North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests and have imposed sanctions over the programs.
    Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to surrender or limit its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles have stalled, with Pyongyang saying it is open to diplomacy but only if the United States and its allies stop “hostile policies” such as sanctions or military drills.
    U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland called the launches dangerous and destabilising.
    “It obviously takes us in the wrong direction,” she said at a regular briefing in Washington on Tuesday.    “As you know, the United States has been saying since this administration came in that we are open to dialogue with North Korea, that we are open to talking about COVID and humanitarian support, and instead they’re firing off missiles.”
    The European Union on Tuesday condemned the latest North Korean missile launch as a “threat to international peace and security” and called on Pyongyang to resume diplomacy.
‘SUPERIOR MANOEUVERABILITY’
    Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed – which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads – but their manoeuvrability, which makes them an acute threat to missile defence systems.
    Photos released by state media appeared to show the same type of missile and warhead that was first tested last week, analysts said.
    “The test-fire was aimed at the final verification of overall technical specifications of the developed hypersonic weapon system,” KCNA reported.
    After its release from the rocket booster, a hypersonic glide vehicle made a 600 km (375 mile) “glide jump flight” and then 240 km of “corkscrew manoeuvering” before hitting a target in the sea 1,000 km away, the report said.
    South Korean officials had questioned https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skorea-casts-doubts-north-koreas-hypersonic-missile-claims-2022-01-07 the capabilities of the missile after the first test last week, saying it did not appear to demonstrate the range and manoeuverability claimed in a state media report and featured a manoeuverable warhead rather than an actual glide vehicle.
    On Tuesday, however, South Korea said the second test appeared to show improved performance, with the missile reaching top speeds up to 10 times the speed of sound (12,348 km per hour / 7,673 miles per hour), although they did not comment on its manoeuverability.
    “The superior manoeuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire,” KCNA said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Pullin)

1/12/2022 S. Korea Authorises Novavax COVID-19 Vaccine, Imports Pfizer Pills
FILE PHOTO: A vial and sryinge are seen in front of a displayed Novavax logo
in this illustration taken January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is turning to additional pharmaceutical tools as it looks to pre-empt a surge of COVID-19 omicron infections, authorising the use of Novavax Inc’s vaccine on Wednesday and preparing to distribute the first of Pfizer’s antiviral pills.
    At least 21,000 of Pfizer’s antiviral pills, called Paxlovid, will arrive in South Korea on Thursday, with another 10,000 more expected to arrive by the end of the month, the health ministry said.
    The pills, which were authorised for emergency use in December, will begin being used in treatments for more than 1,000 people per day starting on Friday, the ministry added.
    “By priority, oral treatment is planned to begin first for patients aged 65 or older, or patients with reduced immunity at home and residential treatment centres,” a ministry spokesperson told a briefing.
    Paxlovid was nearly 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company’s clinical trial. Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against Omicron, Pfizer has said.
    South Korea’s food and drug safety ministry, meanwhile, announced it had authorised the Novavax vaccine, which joins the ranks of previously authorised vaccines made by AstraZeneca Inc, Moderna Inc, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.
    South Korean vaccine developer SK Bioscience Co Ltd said it will produce the Novavax vaccine.
    The two-dose, protein-based vaccine has secured authorisations from European Union regulators and the World Health Organization.
    It has been authorised in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, where Novavax’s partner, Serum Institute of India, will supply it.
    Novavax is awaiting approval in Japan, where its vaccine would be manufactured and distributed by Takeda Pharmaceutical.
    At least 84.2% of the country’s 52 million population have been fully vaccinated, while 42.5%, have received booster shots, according to health officials.
    South Korea added 4,388 new COVID-19 cases as of midnight Tuesday, for a total of 674,868 cases and 6,166 deaths since the pandemic began, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported.
    That number has dipped from all-time highs of nearly 8,000 daily cases in mid-December, when authorities re-imposed strict social distancing measures to try to stem the tide.
    Omicron only accounts for a fraction of South Korea’s cases so far, but that percentage has risen to more than 12.5% from 4% at the end of December, health officials said on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Heekyong Yang, Joyce Lee, and Yeni Seo; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/12/2022 Hong Kong Government Denounces ‘Biased Reporting’ By The Economist by Anne Marie Roantree and Jessie Pang
FILE PHOTO: Newly elected lawmakers sing the national anthem before taking their oaths in front of Chief
Executive Carrie Lam at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China, January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Hong Kong government has criticised the Economist magazine over an article about the city’s recent Legislative Council election, saying it is “appalled by the biased reporting” and “baseless accusation that the polls were rigged.”
    Candidates in the Dec. 19 city assembly election were vetted so only “patriots” could stand.
    Pro-Beijing candidates swept to victory though turnout was a record low for a vote that came some 18 months after Beijing cracked down on a pro-democracy movement in the city with a new national security law.
    Critics described the election as undemocratic but authorities in the former British colony have repeatedly said it was “conducted in an open, fair and honest manner.”
    Hong Kong’s second most senior official, John Lee, denounced what he said was a serious but baseless accusation by the Economist that the poll was rigged.
    “If anything was ‘rigged’, it was the deliberately distorted image of Hong Kong that has been manipulated from the dark side of one’s personal internal bias,” Lee said in a letter dated Jan. 11 and posted on a city government website.
    The Economist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    The British magazine published an editorial on Jan. 8 headlined “Pliant patriots” with a subheadline that said “Hong Kong’s new legislature has been sworn in.    It is a mockery of democracy.”
    Beijing imposed the national security in mid-2020 after months of at times violent pro-democracy protests.
    Since then, more than 150 democracy activists, newspaper editors and journalists have been arrested and the clampdown on one of Asia’s most vibrant media hubs has sent a chill through the global financial centre.
    Critics of the legislation say it is being used to crush dissent but Hong Kong and Beijing authorities reject that.
    Hong Kong authorities also deny targeting the media.
    Authorities have also criticised recent commentaries by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg regarding the election.
    In November, the Economist said Hong Kong had declined to renew the visa of one of its journalists and urged the city to maintain foreign media access.
    The government and immigration department said at the time they could not comment on individual cases.
    When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it was with the promise that wide-ranging individual rights, including a free press, would be protected.    Pro-democracy activists and rights groups say freedoms have been eroded, in particular since Beijing imposed the national security law.
(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree and Jessie Pang; editing by Robert Birsel)

1/12/2022 Indonesia Rolls Out Booster Shots, Amid Fears Of Omicron Spread
A woman receives a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine, as the country starts the booster vaccination program for the general public
amid the rise of the Omicron variant in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 12, 2022. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia kicked off its COVID-19 booster programme for the general public on Wednesday, as the world’s fourth-most-populous nation hit an almost three-month high in cases amid the rise of the Omicron variant.
    Elderly and immunocompromised residents, who are being prioritised in the programme, queued up at local health centres to boost their defences against a virus that has infected more than 4 million Indonesians.
    “I feel safer,” said Nurlaeni, 77, after receiving her booster on Wednesday morning.    “There’s more Omicron now, so I feel relieved.”
    “For me, for my family, this will protect our health,” agreed Rosita Wati, 62, also in the line.    “Our immunity will be better.”
    The booster rollout comes amid concern about the spread of the Omicron variant in Indonesia, a densely populated developing nation that was hit with a crippling Delta wave in July.
    On Tuesday Indonesia recorded 802 new cases, the highest in almost three months, with senior cabinet minister Luhut Panjaitan saying that numbers could peak in February.
    President Joko Widodo announced Tuesday that boosters would be offered free for all those eligible, after initial discussion about charging for boosters sparked controversy.
    The booster rollout, for which the Sinovac, Astra Zeneca, Pfizer and Zifivax vaccines have been approved, is running in parallel with the main COVID-19 vaccination programme.
    Indonesia has pledged to vaccinate more than 208 million of its 270 million people, but less than 56% of that target population has received two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine so far, according to health ministry data.
    Experts say vaccine hesitancy and logistics in the sprawling archipelago have slowed distribution.
    Booster shots in Indonesia will be administered as half doses, in line with studies that confirmed the efficacy of that dosage, said health minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin.
(Reporting by Heru Asprihanto and Stanley Widianto; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/12/2022 China’s Omicron-Hit Tianjin Launches New Round Of Tests
People line up for nucleic acid testing during a citywide mass testing for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
after local cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Tianjin, China January 9, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese city of Tianjin started a new round of testing of its 14 million residents on Wednesday to block the Omicron variant, as financial analysts warned of the growing economic costs on China of curbs to extinguish clusters of infections.
    China, which has stuck to what is effectively a “zero-COVID” policy, is scrambling to prevent the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday later this month and as     Beijing prepares to stage the Winter Olympics from Feb. 4.
    Japanese automaker Toyota said operations at its joint-venture factory in Tianjin had been halted since Monday due to the impact on its suppliers of mandatory coronavirus testing of Tianjin residents.
    “We plan to resume operations as soon as the government’s instructions and the safety and security of the local community and suppliers are confirmed and assured,” Toyota said in a statement to Reuters.
    Tianjin, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Beijing, reported 33 domestically transmitted coronavirus infections with confirmed symptoms for Tuesday, up from 10 the day before, national data showed.
    The city ordered a half-day off for employees at companies and other institutions on Wednesday and required them to keep activities “relatively static” to comply with the city’s second round of mass testing, the local government said in a statement.
    In the central province of Henan, the city of Anyang, where Omicron has also been detected in the community, reported 65 local symptomatic cases on Tuesday, a surge from just two a day earlier.
    A vice premier, Sun Chunlan, visited Henan and said Omicron presented a challenge to the city’s virus control efforts.
    Officials should “further increase the efficiency of testing and epidemiological investigation and adopt strict community-level control measures,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted her as saying in a report late on Tuesday.
    Case numbers in Tianjin and Anyang are tiny compared with outbreaks in many other countries, with the total number of Omicron infections unclear.
    Tianjin has made it harder for people to leave town, while Anyang, has ordered residents to remain indoor during mass testing, unless for essential jobs or for their tests.
    China is likely to see ramped-up virus restrictions to contain Omicron, Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note, revising down their 2022 growth forecast to 4.3% from 4.8% previously, citing economic costs from the potentially intensified measures.
    Analysts at Morgan Stanley also said they saw downside risk to their first-quarter growth forecast this year, as Omicron could “imply more costs than benefits under China’s Covid-zero strategy.”
    Including infections in Tianjin and Anyang, mainland China reported a total of 166 local symptomatic cases for Tuesday, more than 110 a day earlier.
    There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636.    As of Jan. 11, mainland China had 104,189 confirmed symptomatic cases, including both local ones and those arriving from overseas.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe, Roxanne Liu, Stella Qiu, and Ella Cao in Beijing, Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

1/12/2022 ‘Colonial Wine From New, Authoritarian Bottles’: Hong Kong Re-Tools Sedition Law by Greg Torode and James Pomfret
FILE PHOTO: Stand News acting chief editor Patrick Lam, one of the two journalists from
the outlet arrested and charged with sedition, is escorted by police as they leave after a
search of his office in Hong Kong, China, December 29, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Hong Kong government is expanding its use of a long-dormant sedition law in what some lawyers and democracy advocates say is intensifying a squeeze on press freedom.
    Evidence of the renewed reliance on the sedition legislation came in late December when China-ruled Hong Kong targeted two media outlets.    On Dec 29, about 200 police raided the office of online outlet Stand News and arrested seven people, charging two editors with conspiracy to publish “seditious publications.”
    Authorities have not fully detailed what led to the charges.    But pro-Beijing media outlets Ta Kung Pao and DotDotNews listed specific Stand News articles that they deemed seditious, including interviews with local democracy activists and opposition figures – topics that until recently were not out of the ordinary in Hong Kong.
    A day earlier, prosecutors levelled a new charge of sedition against Jimmy Lai, 74, founder of the now shuttered Apple Daily newspaper and some of his top executives.
    The charge of sedition, inciting resistance or insurrection against central authorities, stems from colonial-era laws designed to thwart dissent against the British crown, and had not been used in Hong Kong since the mid-1960s until recently, three legal scholars interviewed by Reuters say.    Last month’s sedition charges were the first to be brought against the media since 1967, according to those scholars.
    Some legal scholars say recent court judgements have empowered authorities to use the controversial national security law (NSL) imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020, to bolster colonial-era laws, including sedition.
    The security law, enacted after sometimes-violent, pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2019, gives police extra powers of search, seizure and surveillance and makes it tougher for those arrested to get bail.    Only judges selected for national security duties will handle cases under the law.
    The sedition law allows officials to directly target the published content of media operations and does not require prosecutors to prove that an offending article or speech was intended to be seditious, according to three lawyers.
    “To some extent, the government is better armed now,” Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law school, told Reuters.    “The national security law provides an enhanced procedural and investigative framework to bring these charges.”
    A barrister whose career has straddled Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997, said: “We can see that at a stroke, the NSL has re-tooled these old laws that were largely forgotten.    You could say we are now drinking bitter, old colonial wine from new, authoritarian bottles.”
    Asked whether the security legislation had enhanced the powers of colonial-era laws such as sedition, the Hong Kong Department of Justice declined to comment but said the prosecution of offences endangering national security was “based on admissible evidence.”
    “We express our deep regret regarding the governments, media and organisations of the United States and Western countries in respect of their attempt to twist facts and slandering remarks on the enforcement actions taken in accordance with the law,” a government spokesman told Reuters.
    The actions against Stand News targeted “illegal acts” and had “nothing to do with freedom of the press,” he added.
    The latest moves extend a media clampdown over the past year that included the shutdown of Apple Daily and the imposition of fresh staff guidelines on public broadcaster RTHK to ensure all content complies with the national security law.
‘WALKING ON EGGSHELLS’
    A full-page article in the China-backed Ta Kung Pao newspaper last week criticised the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) for helping to organise a regional human rights press award that honoured journalistic works it said had “smeared” the Hong Kong police and Chinese government.
    The newspaper, whose articles have often preceded enforcement actions, called on authorities to investigate.
    Asked if the government planned to investigate the FCC and the HKJA, a government spokesman said it did not comment on “speculation.”    “We will continue to spare no efforts in pursuing the legal liabilities of any organisations and individuals endangering national security.”
    Keith Richburg, the president of the FCC and head of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school, said that the closure of Stand News and arrests “leaves everyone walking on eggshells … It’s an open question as to whether Hong Kong can continue to thrive and prosper without having that free and open and critical press.”
    Ronson Chan, the head of the HKJA, dismissed the Ta Kung Pao allegations, and told Reuters the awards process was “independent and fair.”
    The government spokesman told Reuters that “freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, and can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security,” adding that “no one is above the law.”
DIFFICULT TO ENFORCE
    Broadly defined by legal scholars as a crime of incitement to resist or insurrect, in words or acts, against legal authority, the sedition laws in Hong Kong and elsewhere have long been seen as British colonial relics overtaken by more modern statutes.
    According to Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance – the legislation that details sedition offences – it is a crime to publish anything that brings “into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against … the government of Hong Kong.”
    Despite the tough language, some lawyers and academics said they had long believed sedition offences would be difficult to enforce. Freedom of speech and other rights protections have been written into more modern laws, including Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights and the Basic Law, the former British colony’s mini-constitution since its handover to Beijing in 1997.
    Ten academics, criminal lawyers and diplomats interviewed by Reuters said their views had changed because the NSL’s powers can be applied to older laws, such as sedition.
    Some provisions of the NSL refer generally to acts “endangering national security,” which judges have ruled effectively extends the law’s reach to cover older, pre-existing laws that involve national security, such as sedition and espionage.
    In rulings on pre-trial matters for two separate cases last year, including one involving media tycoon Lai, the Court of Final Appeal said the security law’s reference to “acts endangering national security” included violations of these older laws.
    And a District Court ruling in April noted that under the security law, the older offence of sedition was now classified as an indictable offence, making it a more serious crime with a potentially longer statute of limitations and tougher sentencing guidelines, according to the legal scholars interviewed by Reuters.
    In the past, the offence of sedition was classified as a summary offence that would be handled by a lower court magistrate alone, without a jury.
    While the government’s enforcement hand has been strengthened, the basis on which authorities arrested journalists and charged media organisations still needs to be fully tested in Hong Kong’s courts, including the Court of Final Appeal, lawyers, legal scholars and diplomats point out.
    Three criminal barristers said certain exceptions written long ago into the sedition law that authorities are now relying on were good ammunition for defence counsel.
    The Crimes Ordinance states, for example, that it is not seditious to show the sovereign “has been misled or mistaken in any of (its) measures” or point out “matters which are producing … feelings of ill-will or enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong.”
(Reporting By Greg Torode and James Pomfret; additional reporting by Jessie Pang and Hong Kong newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/12/2022 Omicron Surge Threatens To Slow Down Australia’s Economic Recovery by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: People are turned away at a COVID-19 testing centre in Western Sydney
that is closed due to full capacity in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
pandemic in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic on Wednesday, with surging Omicron infections leading to staff shortages that have disrupted supply chains and hampered the economy’s recovery.
    Australian businesses are grappling with the growing toll of workers out sick or ordered to isolate for being close contacts. But the virus is also scaring customers away from airlines, entertainment and hospitality sectors, already battered by several lockdowns over the past two years.
    “Essentially (small businesses) are in a lockdown … there is little support out there to help them keep their doors open,” Alexi Boyd, head of the Council of Small Business Organisations, told broadcaster ABC on Wednesday.
    Australia’s daily infections on Wednesday lingered near records with around 100,000 reported so far. Forty-two new deaths were registered, with New South Wales suffering its worst day of the pandemic with 21 deaths.
    Labour shortages and caution about being in public places have stifled household spending, ANZ said in a research note, with spending in early January resembling lockdown conditions in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities.
    Before the Omicron outbreak erupted during the Christmas period, the economy had been making a surprisingly strong recovery. In November, employment levels rose far faster than expected as coronavirus lockdowns were lifted, and retail sales also surged for a second consecutive month.
    Amid pressure on supply chains, supermarket chain Coles Group reintroduced purchase limits on toilet paper, some meat products and medicines.
    Fielding criticism at the beginning of an election year over his handling of the Omicron outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has proposed to ease isolation rules for asymptomatic workers ahead of a national cabinet meeting on Thursday.
    The head of Melbourne’s Chapel Street Precinct, a local marketing body representing around 2,200 commercial entities, said the controversy over tennis superstar Novak Djokovic has “created the perfect distraction” for Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews and Morrison.
    “(The Djokovic case) means nowhere near enough attention is being focussed on the absolute decimation of small businesses,” General Manager Chrissie Maus said.
    An Australian court on Monday quashed the government’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa over questions of his medical exemption status but he still faces the threat of deportation.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/12/2022 China Steps Up Construction Along Disputed Bhutan Border, Satellite Images Show by Devjyot Ghoshal and Anand Katakam
FILE PHOTO: A security surveillance camera overlooking a street is pictured next to a nearby
fluttering flag of China in Beijing, China November 25, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
    NEW DELHI(Reuters) - China has accelerated settlement-building along its disputed border with Bhutan, with more than 200 structures, including two-storey buildings, under construction in six locations, according to satellite image analysis conducted for Reuters.
    The images and analysis supplied to Reuters by U.S. data analytics firm HawkEye 360, which uses satellites to gather intelligence on ground-level activities, and vetted by two other experts, provide a detailed look into China’s recent construction along its frontier with Bhutan.
    Construction-related activity in some of the locations along Bhutan’s western border has been under way since early 2020, with China initially building tracks and clearing out areas, based on material provided by satellite imagery firms Capella Space and Planet Labs, said Chris Biggers, the mission applications director at HawkEye 360.
    Images show the work speeded up in 2021. Smaller structures were erected – possibly to house equipment and supplies – followed by the laying of foundations and then the construction of buildings, Biggers said.
    “To me, 2021 was the period for acceleration,” Biggers said.
    Two other experts who studied the locations of the new construction and recent satellite images taken by Capella     Space said all six settlements appear to be in territory disputed by China and Bhutan – including a contested tract of roughly 110 square kilometres – with little in the way of resources or native population.
    “It is Bhutan’s policy not to talk about boundary issues in the public,” Bhutan’s foreign ministry said in response to questions from Reuters. The ministry declined to comment further.
    The construction suggests that China is bent on resolving its border claims by giving its ambitions concrete form, said the experts and one Indian defence source.
    China’s foreign ministry said the construction is “entirely for the improvement of the working and living conditions of the local people.”
    “It is within China’s sovereignty to carry out normal construction activities on its own territory,” the ministry said. The ministry declined to comment further.
    The villages also offer Beijing some strategic value, two of the experts say.    The new construction is 9 to 27km from the Doklam area at the junction of the borders of India, Bhutan and China, where Indian and Chinese troops were locked in standoff for more than two months in 2017.
    The settlements would allow China to better control and monitor far-flung areas, and potentially use them to establish security-focused installations, according to one expert and the Indian defence source.
    India’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
    Bhutan, a country of less than 800,000 people, has been negotiating with Beijing for almost four decades to settle their 477-km border.    At issue for Bhutan is not just territorial integrity, but also concerns over the potential security implications for India, which is the Himalayan kingdom’s main ally and economic partner.
    The Bhutanese foreign ministry said Bhutan and China had agreed during the latest round of boundary negotiations in April 2021 to speed up the process of resolving their differences.    It declined to discuss the details of the plan to do so.
    “All issues are discussed between Bhutan and China within the framework of the Boundary Talks,” the ministry said.
    “China’s village building across the claimed Bhutan border appears to be designed to force Bhutan to yield to Chinese demands in their border negotiations, now in their 24th round after 37 years,” said Robert Barnett, a professorial research associate at SOAS University of London, who is an expert on Tibet and has studied the China-Bhutan border closely.
BORDER VILLAGES
    The settlements appear part of a plan Beijing made public in 2017 to build more than 600 villages in border areas in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which lies on the Chinese side of the disputed border, said Barnett and M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
    Fravel said the construction indicated China likely wanted to consolidate its control and improve infrastructure in border areas.
    The Chinese-controlled TAR was established in 1965, six years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in the wake of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
    Some of the villages near the border are built where there has been no previous construction. China’s government gives residents subsidies to settle there, Barnett said.
    “All the cross-border villages in the western Bhutan sector are sited in areas where no natural village would be found, since these areas are barely habitable,” he said.
CHICKEN’S NECK
    Control over the remote Doklam plateau would potentially give China greater access to the adjoining “Chicken’s Neck” area, a strategic strip of land that connects India to its northeastern region.
    India shares an unsettled 3,500-km border with China. Troops from both countries remain deployed near each other in a separate border dispute in the Ladakh region – about 1,100km from Doklam – where they clashed in hand-to-hand combat in 2020.
    India has been closely monitoring Chinese construction along its borders, the Indian defence source said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
    The satellite imagery suggests that neither India nor Bhutan has responded on the ground to China’s construction activities, Biggers said.
    Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute research organisation, added that it would be a challenge for India and Bhutan to counter the Chinese construction.
    “Any action taken against these Chinese installations would necessarily put civilian populations at risk,” Ruser said.    “It limits the ways in which India and Bhutan are able to combat Chinese encroachment into disputed territories.”
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Anand Katakam, additional reporting by Beijing bureau. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/12/2022 Iran, US Lock Horns Over Sanctions Relief, Nuclear Curbs In Vienna Talks by Parisa Hafezi and John Irish
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief
nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and delegations wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint
Commission in Vienna, Austria December 17, 2021. EU Delegation in Vienna/EEAS/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran and the United States are displaying little flexibility on core issues in indirect nuclear talks, raising questions about whether a compromise can be found soon to renew a 2015 deal that could dispel fears of a wider Middle East war, diplomats say.
    After eight rounds of talks the thorniest points remain the speed and scope of lifting sanctions on Tehran, including Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee of no further punitive steps, and how and when to restore curbs on Iran’s atomic work.
    The nuclear deal limited Iran’s uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for it to develop nuclear arms – an ambition Tehran denies – in return for lifting international sanctions.
    But former U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the pact in 2018, saying it did not do enough to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, ballistic missile program and regional influence, and reimposed sanctions that badly damaged Iran’s economy.
    After waiting for a year, Iran responded to Trump’s pressure by gradually breaching the accord, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.
    Following months of stop-start talks that began after Joe Biden replaced Trump in the White House, Western officials now say time is running out to resurrect the pact.    But Iranian officials deny they are under time pressure, arguing the economy can survive thanks to oil sales to China.
‘WE NEED GUARANTEES’
    A former Iranian official said Iran’s rulers “are certain that their uncompromising, maximalist approach will give results.”
    France said on Tuesday that despite some progress at the end of December, Iran and world powers were still far away from reviving the deal.
    The United States on Wednesday cited “modest progress” in recent weeks, but not enough.
    “Modest progress is also not sufficient if we are going to” revive the 2015 deal, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
    Iran insists on immediate removal of all Trump-era sanctions in a verifiable process.
    Washington has said it would remove curbs inconsistent with the 2015 pact if Iran resumed compliance with the deal, implying it would leave in place others such as those imposed under terrorism or human rights measures.
    “Americans should give assurances that no new sanctions under any label would be imposed on Iran in future.    We need guarantees that America will not abandon the deal again,” said a senior Iranian official.
    Iran’s Nournews, a media outlet affiliated to the Supreme National Security Council, reported on Wednesday that Iran’s key conditions at the talks “are assurances and verifications.”
    U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment on the question of guarantees.
    However, U.S. officials have said Biden cannot promise the U.S. government will not renege on the agreement because the nuclear deal is a non-binding political understanding, not a legally-binding treaty.
    Asked to comment on that U.S. constitutional reality, an Iranian official said: “It’s their internal problem.”    On the issue of obtaining verification that sanctions have been removed – at which point Iran would have to revive curbs on its nuclear programme – the senior Iranian official said Iran and Washington differed over the timetable.
    “Iran needs a couple of weeks to verify sanctions removal (before it reverses its nuclear steps).    But the other party says a few days would be enough to load oil on a ship, export it and transfer its money through banking system,” the official said.
THREATS
    Shadowing the background of the talks have been threats by Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear weaponry but which sees Iran as a existential threat, to attack Iranian nuclear installations if it deems diplomacy ultimately futile in containing Tehran’s atomic abilities and potential.
    Iran says it would hit back hard if it were attacked.
    A Western diplomat said “early-February is a realistic end-date for Vienna talks” as the longer Iran remains outside the deal, the more nuclear expertise it will gain, shortening the time it might need to race to build a bomb if it chose to.
    “Still we are not sure whether Iran really wants a deal,” said another Western diplomat.
    Iran has ruled out adhering to any “artificial” deadline.
    “Several times, they asked Iran to slow down its nuclear work during the talks, and even Americans conveyed messages about an interim deal through other parties,” said a second Iranian official, close to Iran’s negotiating team.
    “It was rejected by Iran.”
    Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson who declined to be identified told Reuters: “Of course we — and the whole international community — want Iran to slow down their nuclear program and have communicated that very clearly.”
    “Beyond that, we don’t negotiate the details in public, but these reports are far off.”
    Other points of contention include Iran’s advanced nuclear centrifuges, the machines that purify uranium for use as fuel in atomic power plants or, if purified to a high level, weapons.
    “Discussions continue on Iran’s demand to store and seal its advanced centrifuges … They wanted those centrifuges to be dismantled and shipped abroad,” the first official said.
    Asked to comment on this question, a Western diplomat said: “We are looking for ways to overcome our differences with Iran about verification process.”
(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, John Irish in Paris, Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minn. and Simon Lewis in WashingtonWriting by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Grant McCool)

1/12/2022 Myanmar Junta Replaces Air Force Chief Amid Bombing Campaign – Sources by Poppy McPherson and Wa Lone
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected
government in a coup on February 1, 2021, presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day
in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Myanmar’s military leader has removed the head of the air force, local media and four sources close to the armed forces said, replacing one of the most senior figures in a junta that has carried out bombing raids to try to crush resistance.
    The sources told Reuters that 57-year-old Maung Maung Kyaw, a general from an elite military background, had been ousted from the post he had held since 2018.
    Two of the sources said he was replaced on Monday by Htun Aung, who had been the air force’s chief of staff.
    There was no public announcement that Maung Maung Kyaw had been removed and Reuters was unable to establish why junta leader Min Aung Hlaing had removed him.
    Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun did not respond to a request for comment on whether Maung Maung Kyaw had been removed.    The spokesman was quoted by local news outlet Eleven Media as saying Maung Maung Kyaw had ended his service after a four-year term.
    Reuters was unable to contact Maung Maung Kyaw directly, and requests for comment through the military received no response.
    Since the coup on Feb. 1 last year in which an elected government was overthrown, and during the protests that followed the coup, the air force has been used to ferry troops around Myanmar to quell opposition.
    Witnesses say the air force has also been used for bombing raids that have killed civilians. The junta has not commented on the allegations.    It says it does not target civilians, only “terrorists.”
    The junta, which has jailed ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and most of her allies, calls the opposition forces loyal to her deposed government “terrorists.”
    The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group, says more than 1,400 people have been killed in violence since the coup, including those killed in bombing raids. The junta disputes the reported number of casualties.
    Maung Maung Kyaw was the subject of a Reuters investigation https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-generals-families last year that revealed his family members, including his son and nephew, were part of a young generation of military families with business interests including supplying the armed forces.
    Photos and postings on social media – showing parties at expensive venues in Singapore and trips to Bangkok, London and Santorini – showed his family members enjoying a lifestyle far out of reach for the vast majority of Burmese.
    Maung Maung Kyaw, who has had sanctions https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-usa-sanctions-idUSKBN2AN01D imposed on him by the United States over his role in the coup, did not respond to questions Reuters sent to the military before publication of its investigation.
    In recent weeks, aerial bombardment of the town of Loikaw https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/un-rights-envoy-urges-halt-attacks-myanmar-town-residents-trapped-2022-01-10 in eastern Kayah state, bordering Thailand, where ethnic armed groups have joined forces with newly formed anti-coup armed organizations, has forced thousands of people to flee.
    Opponents of the junta say Myanmar’s military has sustained heavy losses during the fighting.    The junta has not commented on the reports that it has suffered heavy losses.
(Reporting by Poppy McPherson and Wa Lone; Additional reporting by John Geddie; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/13/2022 Weibo Bars Chinese Economist’s Posts After Suggestion To Boost Birth Rate
FILE PHOTO: The logo of Chinese social media app Weibo is seen on a mobile phone
in this illustration picture taken December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Florence Lo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – A high-profile Chinese economist has been banned from posting on the Weibo social media platform after drawing controversy over suggestions that the central bank set up a $314 billion “fertility fund” to encourage people to have more babies.
    The Weibo account of Ren Zeping, a former chief economist for debt-laden property giant China Evergrande Group, where he has 3.6 million followers, carries a notice saying that “due to violations of related laws and regulations, the user is currently banned from posting.”
    It did not elaborate on what particular law or regulation he was deemed to have violated.    The birthrate in the world’s most populous country has been a concern of authorities for generations.
    The ban, imposed on Wednesday, will last two weeks, according to the state-run Securities Times newspaper, citing unidentified sources.
    Ren this week published two essays suggesting that the “most pragmatic and most effective” way to increase China’s plunging birth rate would be for the central bank to print 2 trillion yuan ($314 billion) for a fertility fund to be distributed as monthly cash payments for every child.
    Ren wrote that if the central bank followed his suggestion, China could add 50 million births over the next decade, pushing its birth rate above the replacement rate and preventing a decrease in the overall population.
    Ren did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    For decades, China imposed a strict “one child” policy to limit population growth.
    The birth rate in 2020 dropped to a record-low of 8.52 births per 1,000 people, or below 1%, official statistics showed last November and in May, the government announced that married couples may have up to three children in a bid to boost births.
    Ren’s essays, originally published on his WeChat account and reposted to Weibo where they drew widespread discussion, were no longer available on either platform on Thursday.
    His WeChat account, however, remains active although he did not post anything new after the Weibo ban.    The Securities Times also reported that the Weibo ban did not apply to other social media platforms.
    No stranger to controversy, Ren began his career as an economist with the research arm of China’s State Council, or cabinet.    He rose to fame for accurately predicting the peak and crash of China’s stock market in 2015.
(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/13/2022 Analysis-India’s New COVID-19 Rules Aim To Free Up Resources But Carry Risks by Krishna N. Das
FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker collects a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test swab sample from a man, amidst
the spread of the disease, at a railway station in New Delhi, India, January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India has eased its COVID-19 rules on testing, quarantine and hospital admissions in a bid to free up resources for its neediest people, a strategy hailed by experts even though it carries the risk of a heavy undercount of infections and deaths.
    The moves will offer a breathing space for healthcare facilities, often overstretched in a far-flung nation of 1.4 billion, as they battle a 33-fold surge in infections over the past month from the highly contagious Omicron variant.
    This week, federal authorities told states to drop mandatory testing for contacts of confirmed cases unless they were old or battling other conditions, while halving the isolation period to a week and advising hospital care only for the seriously ill.
    “Contact-tracing has been the most resource-intensive activity since the pandemic began,” said Sanjay K. Rai, a professor of community medicine at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, the capital.
    “That strategy did not work and wasted resources,” he added, saying serological surveys had shown it had detected only a fraction of infections.    “The new one will ensure optimum utilisation of what we have got.”
    India’s tally of infections crossed 36 million on Thursday, with 247,417 new cases, although daily testing has stayed well below the capacity of more than 2 million.
    Four Indian epidemiologists echoed Rai’s view, saying it was better to monitor the numbers of those in hospital, rather than infections, while targeting crowded spaces such as workplaces, dormitories and barracks with rapid testing.
    They added that the guidelines on shorter isolation and hospital admissions were in line with global practice, as most Omicron sufferers recover quicker, although they spread the virus faster.
    But some experts say the new rules could lull people into taking infections lightly until it is too late, especially in the rural areas home to two-thirds of the population, where few seek tests unless directed by authorities.
    “This new strategy will affect data from rural India or certain states in a disproportionate way,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan.
    “It will be harder to predict upcoming hotspots and epicentres,” she added, which would leave authorities less time to marshal resources against the disease.
    It would also affect the tracking of COVID-19 deaths, an effort Mukherjee said was “already highly imperfect and under-reported.”
    Health experts say India massively undercounts infections, with its death toll outstripping the official figure of about 485,000, as few victims of earlier waves, chiefly in rural areas, learnt of their condition until the last moment.
BEST HEALTHCARE IN CITIES
    India’s best healthcare facilities are clustered in major cities, while poor people across vast swathes of the country have to rely on dilapidated government networks.
    For example, government-run district hospitals in the sprawling mineral-rich state of Bihar struggle with one of India’s worst ratios of medical staff to patients, while New Delhi is staffed at more than twice the national average.
    The health ministry and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
    There was no shortage of test kits, with thousands of people having bought home test kits in the past week, ICMR chief Balram Bhargava said on Wednesday, but did not say if rural areas were as well supplied as urban areas.
    Some Indian states have decided to ignore the new testing guidelines since they are not bound by them.
    Karnataka, home to the southern technology hub of Bengaluru, has reported India’s third-highest tally of infections, and plans to continue tests for close contacts of the infected.
    A survey published this week by New Delhi-based website LocalCircles found that 15% of respondents knew of one or more of their family and friends who did not get tested, despite showing symptoms similar to COVID-19 in the past month.
    It said the gap between actual and reported daily cases would widen when the virus reaches smaller towns and villages.
    South Asian nations with less than half their people fully vaccinated, such as India, run a greater risk of severe illness that requires hospital stays, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
    “As we are seeing new variants, we must not be complacent in adhering to public health measures,” said Abhishek Rimal, an Asia-Pacific official of the humanitarian network.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Chandini Monnappa in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/13/2022 First Person Convicted Under Hong Kong’s National Security Law Drops Appeal by James Pomfret
FILE PHOTO: Leaflets in support of Tong Ying-kit, the first person charged under a new national security law,
are placed at a shopping mall near the High Court, in Hong Kong, China. July 30, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – The first person convicted under Hong Kong’s national security law and jailed for nine years last July has dropped his decision to appeal, his lawyer said on Thursday.
    Former waiter, Tong Ying-kit, 24, was found guilty of terrorist activities and inciting secession after driving his motorcycle into three riot policemen in 2020 while carrying a flag with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong – Revolution of our times.”
    The ruling was seen as a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s judicial system.    Tong had indicated at the time through his lawyer, Clive Grossman, that he would appeal.
    Grossman, however, told Reuters on Thursday in an email that Tong, who had pleaded not guilty, had decided not to appeal.
    “I have no idea why he dropped the appeal,” said Grossman.
    The decision was first reported in the Hong Kong Free Press which cited Grossman as saying he was surprised by it.
    China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 punishing acts of subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment.
    Critics, including Western governments, say the law has been used to silence dissent, with scores of pro-democracy campaigners arrested, civil society groups disbanded and free speech curtailed.
    Hong Kong and Chinese authorities say the law has brought stability to the city after protracted pro-democracy protests in 2019 and reject accusations of politically motivated prosecutions.
    At the end of Tong’s closely watched trial, Judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan – picked by city leader Carrie Lam to hear national security cases – ruled that the slogan he carried on his motorbike was “capable of inciting others to commit secession.”
    Human rights groups criticised his conviction, saying it imposed new limits on free speech, and the precedents set by the trial contrasted with Hong Kong’s common law traditions.
    Several other national security cases are pending, including a “conspiracy to commit subversion” case involving 47 of the city’s most prominent campaigners for democracy including Benny Tai, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow, Gwyneth Ho, Sam Cheung and former lawmakers Eddie Chu, Wu Chi-wai and Lam Cheuk-ting.
    Last month, police raided pro-democracy online news outlet Stand News, froze its assets and charged two editors with conspiring to publish seditious publications, leading to its closure.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/13/2022 South Korea To Deploy Pfizer COVID-19 Pills As Omicron Wave Looms by Hyonhee Shin
Workers unload a cargo containing Pfizer's antiviral pill, Paxlovid, as the first batch arrive
in the country for the treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a cargo terminal of the
Incheon International Airport, in Seoul, South Korea January 13, 2022. Jung Yeon-je /Pool via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea will begin treating coronavirus patients with Pfizer’s antiviral pills on Friday, the first Asian country to do so, as concern mounts over the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
    Called Paxlovid, some 630,000 of the pills, enough for 21,000 people, arrived on Thursday to be distributed to 280 pharmacies and 90 residential treatment centres, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
    “In light of Omicron’s much higher infectiousness, the medication should play a meaningful role in restraining the number of patients who would develop critical symptoms even if the strain is relatively less severe,” Kim Ki-nam, a KDCA official, told a briefing.
    South Korea is the first country to roll out Paxlovid in Asia, after authorising it for emergency use https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/skorea-emergency-approves-pfizers-oral-coronavirus-treatment-paxlovid-yonhap-2021-12-27 in late December.
    The medication will be used to treat more than 1,000 people a day, with priority groups including patients at high risk of severe illness, those aged 65 or older and those with reduced immunity, the KDCA said.
    Each patient was advised to take three pills at a time twice a day for five days, and another batch for 10,000 people, or 300,000 pills, are expected to arrive later in the month.
    Paxlovid was nearly 90% effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, and data suggested it retains its effectiveness against Omicron, Pfizer has said.
    South Korea has been exploring additional pharmaceutical tools https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/skorea-authorises-use-novavax-covid-19-vaccine-2022-01-12 to head off a surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant.    It approved the use of Novavax Inc’s vaccine https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/skorea-authorises-use-novavax-covid-19-vaccine-2022-01-12 on Wednesday.
    Since the pandemic began, the country of 52 million people has been among the coronavirus mitigation success stories, with 679,030 cases in all and 6,210 deaths, achieved largely with masks and social distancing.
    The KDCA reported another record for imported COVID-19 cases for Wednesday, at 391, among a tally for the day of 4,167 infections.
    The number of South Koreans who tested positive after attending a consumer electronics trade show https://www.reuters.com/business/skorean-officials-test-positive-covid-19-after-attending-ces-trade-show-us-2022-01-12 in Las Vegas last week rose to 119, including some Omicron cases, a KDCA official said.
    The Omicron variant makes up a small fraction of its overall cases but the share has more than tripled to about 12.5% over the past two weeks.
    Health officials have warned it could this month become dominant, as it has in the United States and much of Europe, and daily tallies could soar up to an unprecedented 20,000 next month.
    Kim said the government will announce plans on Friday to minimise Omicron infections and their impact on medical capacity, after gauging whether to extend social distancing rules https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/skorea-extend-curbs-amid-omicron-surge-serious-covid-19-cases-2021-12-31, which were reinstated in mid-December after daily infections hit new highs of nearly 8,000.     Nearly 90% of South Korean adults have been fully vaccinated and 55% have had a booster shot as of Wednesday, KDCA data showed.
(Reporting by Hyonhee ShinEditing by Robert Birsel and Toby Chopra)

1/13/2022 Australia COVID-19 Infections Hit Record Amid Runaway Omicron Outbreak
FILE PHOTO: Medical workers administer tests at the Bondi Beach drive-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
testing centre in the wake of an outbreak in Sydney, Australia, December 22, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Thursday reported its biggest pandemic caseload with a runaway Omicron outbreak driving up hospitalisation rates as the surge put severe strain on supply chains forcing authorities to ease quarantine rules for more workers.
    After successfully containing the virus earlier in the pandemic, Australia has reported nearly a million cases over the last two weeks as people slowly get adjusted to living with the coronavirus amid fewer restrictions.    Total infections detected since the pandemic began neared 1.4 million.
    More than 147,000 new cases have been recorded so far on Thursday in Australia, with about 92,000 in the most populous state of New South Wales (NSW), although that includes a backlog of positive at-home results dating back to the beginning of January.
    Net new hospital admissions and people admitted to intensive care are at their highest in the pandemic but authorities have said the health systems can cope with the rising cases.
    A total of 53 new deaths have been reported so far, with NSW suffering its deadliest day of the pandemic with 22 deaths.    But the death rate during the Omicron wave is lower than prior outbreaks in Australia, where more than 92% of people above 16 are double-dosed and a booster drive is ramping up.
    Amid pressure on supply chains, Victorian state authorities on Thursday exempted more workers from quarantine requirements for being close contacts.    Staff in emergency services, education and transport can go back to work if they are symptom-free.
    “There is no quick fix to this,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said during a media conference on Thursday.    “These are commonsense changes, they will help but they are not everything, there is no simple solution.”
    Victoria’s move comes ahead of a meeting of the national cabinet – the group of federal and state leaders – later on Thursday, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison will propose steps to relieve the pressure on business supply chains.
    Queensland state on Thursday decided to fully open its domestic borders for the first time in nearly two years with travellers not required to carry border passes and negative COVID-19 results.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Michael Perry)

1/13/2022 Another Chinese City Detects Omicron Case As Tianjin Outbreak Expands
An aerial view shows people lining up at a nucleic acid testing site during the second round of mass testing
for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after local cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Tianjin,
China January 12, 2022. Picture taken January 12, 2022 with a drone. China Daily via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese port city of Tianjin reported an increase in COVID-19 infections on Thursday as it stepped up efforts to rein in an outbreak that has spread the highly transmissible Omicron variant to another Chinese city.
    Omicron has brought fresh challenges to China’s strategy to quickly extinguish local outbreaks, which has taken on greater urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics starting on Feb. 4, with the busy Lunar New Year holiday travel season beginning later this month as well.
    Tianjin, in northern China around 100 km (62 miles) from capital Beijing, reported 41 domestically transmitted infections with confirmed symptoms on Wednesday, up from 33 a day earlier, data from the National Health Commission showed on Thursday.
    Dalian in the northeast also reported an individual arriving from Tianjin had tested positive for the Omicron variant, the city’s government said late on Wednesday.
    Dalian, which registered two local asymptomatic cases on Wednesday, said the virus situation was “largely controllable.”
    Anyang in central China’s Henan province reported 43 local symptomatic cases on Wednesday compared with 65 a day earlier.    The city detected two Omicron infections on Monday and said the flare-up could be traced to a student arriving from Tianjin.
    Case numbers in Tianjin and Anyang are tiny compared with outbreaks in many other countries, although the number of local Omicron infections is unclear.    Still, officials imposed varying restrictions on movement within the cities and out of town.
    Across China, several cities have ordered quarantine for people who have recently visited Tianjin or Anyang.    Many cities, including Beijing, are also encouraging people to stay put during the Lunar New Year holiday.
    Citing the risk posed by Omicron and the need to ensure the Olympics Games are safe, the Beijing city government also encouraged commuters from satellite towns to work from home in a statement issued on Thursday.
IMPORTED INFECTIONS
    Zhang Wenhong, director of an expert team on COVID-19 treatment in Shanghai, said on Thursday the public health clinic in the city was also now facing a record number of infections arriving from overseas.
    Imported cases arriving in Shanghai during the first 10 days of this month have already exceeded the total for the whole of December, Reuters calculations based on the Shanghai health authority’s daily tally showed.    It remains unclear how many of those were Omicron.
    China has suspended more U.S. flights after a surge in infected passengers.    It also required travellers from the United States to complete a nucleic acid test seven days before departure and submit their daily body temperature report for the week, on top of existing requirements.
    In Henan’s Xuchang city, which is battling an outbreak of the Delta variant, local police said an official at a unit of Guangzhou Kingmed Diagnostics Group had violated the law on infectious disease control, without providing details.
    Kingmed Diagnostics, whose unit had participated in a local testing programme during the Xuchang outbreak, said on Wednesday it would cooperate with the police investigation.
    It said the official had helped arrange work in the city of Yuzhou, which is under Xuchang’s jurisdiction, but didn’t work on the testing in the lab.
(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, Ella Cao and David Stanway; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Simon Cameron-Moore and Tom Hogue)

1/14/2022 N.Korea Fires Two Missiles, Warns Of Strong Action Over U.S. Sanctions Push by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: A view of what state news agency KCNA reports is the test firing of a
hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 5, 2022, in this photo
released January 6, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired at least two ballistic missiles on Friday, its third test in two weeks, just hours after criticising a U.S. push for new sanctions over the previous launches as a “provocation” and warning of a strong reaction.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it had detected what it presumed were two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) launched eastward from North Pyongan Province on the west coast of North Korea, near the border with China.
    Japan’s coast guard also reported that the North fired what could be a ballistic missile.    The missiles appeared to have landed in the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, broadcaster NHK reported, citing an unnamed Japanese defence ministry official.
    “The actions of North Korea, including the repeated ballistic missile launches, are a threat to the safety of our nation and the region, and they are an important issue for all of international society,” Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, told a regular news conference.
    The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said while it assessed that the launch does not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, it highlights the “destabilising impact of the (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program.”
    The two missiles travelled about 430 km (267 miles) to a maximum altitude of 36 km (22 miles), South Korea’s JCS said.
    “Our military is tracking and monitoring developments in preparation for potential additional launches while maintaining readiness posture,” the JCS said in a statement.
    The launch would be the third since New Year’s day, an unusually high pace of missile tests.     The previous two were of “hypersonic missiles,” North Korean state media reported, capable of high speeds and manoeuvring after launch.
    In contrast to Friday’s tests, each of the earlier launches involved a single missile which were fired from Jagang Province, neighbouring North Pyongan.
    Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said North Korea could have fired previously deployed SRBMs such as the KN-23 or KN-24.
    “It could fit in their ongoing winter exercises, while sending a message to the United States through action following the state media statement,” he said.
    North Korea defended the missile tests as its legitimate right to self-defence and said the United States was intentionally escalating the situation by imposing new sanctions, state media reported earlier on Friday, citing the foreign ministry.
    North Korea’s recent development of a “new-type weapon” was just part of its efforts to modernize https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-says-leader-kim-attended-successful-hypersonic-missile-test-2022-01-11 its national defence capability, and did not target any specific country or harm the security of neighbouring countries, the foreign ministry said in a statement on the KCNA state news agency.
    The statement warned of an unspecified “stronger and certain reaction” if the United States adopts a confrontational stance.
‘PROFOUNDLY DESTABILISING’
    The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday imposed its first sanctions https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-imposes-sanctions-north-koreans-russian-after-missile-tests-2022-01-12 over North Korea’s weapons programs following a series of North Korean missile launches.
    It also called on the United Nations Security Council to take action https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-pushing-more-un-sanctions-north-korea-over-missiles-2022-01-13 against several North Korean individuals and entities accused of violating security council resolutions that ban North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development.
    U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had made clear https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blinken-calls-north-korea-missile-tests-profoundly-destabilizing-2022-01-13 it had no hostile intent toward North Korea and was willing to engage in talks without preconditions, but that the tests were “profoundly destabilising.”
    The North Korean foreign ministry said that while Washington may talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions show “it is still engrossed in its policy for isolating and stifling” North Korea.
    “The U.S. is intentionally escalating the situation even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK’s just activity to the UN Security Council,” the statement said.
    Kim Dong-yup pointed to remarks last year by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Pyongyang will approach Washington “on the principle of answering force with toughness, and good faith in kind.”
    “A eye for eye, tooth for a tooth,” Kim Dong-yup said.    “North Korea might be saying they’ll go their own way without being intimidated.”
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo; Editing by Sandra Maler, Richard Pullin and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/14/2022 Analysis-N.Korea’s ‘Hypersonic Missile’ Tests Raise Military Stakes In Asia by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: A missile is launched during what state media report is a hypersonic missile test
at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 11, 2022, in this photo released
January 12, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – Even as debates swirl over their capability, a series of “hypersonic missiles” recently tested by nuclear-armed North Korea sparked sudden talk of preemptive strikes and arms races amid worry over the vulnerability of U.S. troops and their allies in Asia.
    North Korea kicked off the new year with three missile tests in the space of two weeks, sparking reactions from Washington not seen since Pyongyang stopped testing its longest-range missiles, which can strike the United States, in 2017.
    At least two of the latest tests were of what North Korea called “hypersonic missiles” while details on the third, launched on Friday, were not immediately available.
    Those hypersonic missiles, which have only regional reach, are not a threat to the continental United States.    But the weapons – which can fly below defences and change course at high speed – represent a potential major upgrade in North Korea’s striking power against its nearby adversaries, and experts say it is unclear how the U.S. and its Asian allies could counter that.
    “These sorts of offense-defence races have been taking place globally for many decades now, and what we consistently see is that offence has the advantage,” said Cameron Tracy, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) in California.    “North Korea will continue to deploy more missiles and to develop faster, more manoeuvrable systems that will keep South Korea vulnerable to attack.”
    In recent years the United States and South Korea – hoping to restart stalled talks with Pyongyang – have played down North Korea’s increasingly capable short-range missiles as concerning and a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, but not a standout threat.
    This week, however, the Biden administration moved to impose its first sanctions over the North’s missile program, and South Korea’s leading presidential candidates are debating whether a preemptive strike was the only way to stop the new weapons.
    Although, like most ballistic missiles, they travel at hypersonic speeds – more than five times the speed of sound – their key feature is the ability to manoeuvre and fly on lower trajectories than traditional ballistic missiles, making them harder to track and shoot down.
    “In a worst-case scenario, North Korea could launch the missile in a ballistic curve which makes it appear to be a test into the sea, but then have it manoeuvre below or around radar systems and even turn a corner to strike a target in South Korea or Japan with a nuclear weapon,” said Melissa Hanham, also a researcher at CISAC.
‘BAD NEWS’
    Analysts caution that it is far from clear how capable North Korea’s new systems are or when they will be deployed.    South Korea’s military said the missile tested this year appears to have a conical manoeuvrable reentry vehicle (MaRV) for its warhead, rather than the more high-tech “glider” style seen on some missiles developed by China and other nations.
    Many ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems are meant shoot down missiles following the high, arching flight of traditional ballistic projectiles, many of which touch the edge of space before plunging back to earth.
    “If they are deployed, they will pose a stiffer challenge to BMD systems designed to handle medium-range missiles, like THAAD and Aegis, which are presently designed to guard against weapons approaching their targets on a more or less straight line,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, said of North Korea’s MaRV missiles.
    Additionally, South Korea and the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops based there are so close that incoming missiles could fly on even lower trajectories, with a much shorter flight time, making defence more difficult said David Wright, a nuclear security researcher the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
    Wright’s research shows that flying on such a “depressed trajectory” could also allow North Korea’s latest missiles to evade defences in more distant places such as Japan, which hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
    Many South Koreans have become used to living under the threat of North Korean weapons, but governments in the United States and Japan can’t ignore North Korea’s advancing programmes, said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general.
    “The North Korea hypersonic weapon system will undoubtedly become better,” he said.    “This is bad news for everyone.”
PREEMPTIVE STRIKES
    South Korea’s defence ministry on Thursday insisted it could not only detect the new missiles but also intercept them.
    Some of the candidates for South Korea’s presidency don’t seem so sure.
    “Missiles that travel at speeds over Mach 5, if they are loaded with nuclear warheads, will reach the Seoul metropolitan area in less than a minute,” leading conservative presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol told reporters on Tuesday.    “Interception is practically impossible.”
    Yoon said diplomacy is needed to ensure a war never happens.    But if diplomacy fails, Yoon added, preemptive strikes would be needed to stop an imminent launch.
    North Korea hides its missiles, so there is no evidence that a preemptive strike would eliminate the threat, Wright said.
    “If that vulnerability is a concern, which it should be, the only realistic response is to negotiate with North Korea to reduce the risk of such attacks,” he said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/14/2022 Hong Kong Suspends Transit Flights From Most Of The World Due To COVID-19
A flight attendant walks under an information board at the arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport,
following infections of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong will suspend for a month transit flights from around 150 countries and territories considered high risk because of the coronavirus, deepening the global financial hub’s isolation.
    The move comes as the city has seen around 50 cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant since the end of last year.
    Prior to the outbreak, which authorities said could be traced back to two aircrew members of Cathay Pacific Airways, the city had had no local transmissions for over three months.
    Hong Kong International Airport said in a statement on Friday that any persons who have stayed in places classified as high risk by health authorities in the 21 days before travelling cannot transit through the city from Jan. 16 until Feb. 15.
    The measure was taken “in order to control the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant,” it said.
    Hong Kong currently classifies more than 150 countries and territories as high risk.
    Last week, it banned incoming flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Britain and the United States, including interchanges.
    The Chinese-ruled city has followed mainland China’s policy in adopting a zero-tolerance towards local COVID-19 cases even as much of the world shifts towards living with the coronavirus.
    In recent weeks, authorities have tightened quarantine restrictions on air crew and reintroduced curbs on social life.
    Fifteen type of venues, including bars and clubs, cinemas, gyms and beauty salons were ordered to close, while dining in restaurants is banned after 6.00 pm.    Primary schools and kindergartens have also shuttered.
    The government is expected to announce later on Friday that the restrictions will be extended through the Lunar New Year holiday at the start of February.
(Reporting by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Kim Coghill)

1/14/2022 China To Suspend More Incoming U.S. Flights As Shanghai Reports COVID-19 Cluster
FILE PHOTO: An American Airlines Airbus A321-200 plane takes off from Los Angeles International
airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Friday suspended four more incoming U.S. flights, bringing the total cancellation this year to 74, as COVID-19 cases caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant soared to record highs in the United States.
    The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) also ordered the suspension of another 26 flights from other parts of the world, including Melbourne, Frankfurt, Paris, Toronto and Cairo, with flight disruptions set to extend into February.
    The recent flurry of flight cancellations came on top of an already drastically scaled back schedule. Total international flights to the country stood at just 200 a week, or 2% of pre-pandemic levels, CAAC said in September.
    The regulator on Friday ordered American Airlines to cancel two more flights from Dallas to Shanghai from the week of Jan. 24, while ordering Delta Air Lines to suspend two more flights from Detroit to Shanghai from the same week.
    Zhang Wenhong, director of a COVID-19 treatment team in Shanghai, said on Thursday the public health clinic in the commercial hub faced a record number of infections arriving from overseas.
    Shanghai, which is the arrival city for a majority of international flights into the country, on Thursday reported two local confirmed COVID-19 cases and three asymptomatic cases, all tied to an imported infection from the United States.
(Reporting by Stella Qiu, Judy Hua and Tony Munroe; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

1/14/2022 Hundreds Of Thousands Of Indians Gather For Holy Dip, Defying COVID-19 Surge
A government official uses a megaphone to urge the pilgrims to maintain social distance and to wear
face masks, as pilgrims gather at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal on the
occasion of "Makar Sankranti" festival at Sagar Island, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, January 14, 2022. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
    PRAYAGRAJ, India (Reuters) -Hundreds of thousands of Hindu worshippers gathered on the banks of India’s Ganges river on Friday for a holy bathe despite a 30-fold rise in coronavirus cases in the past month.
    Hindus believe a bathe in the holy river on the Jan. 14 Makarsankranti festival washes away sins.
    A large number of devotees were taking a dip in the sacred river where it flows through the eastern state of West Bengal, which is reporting the most number of cases in the country after Maharashtra state in the west.
    In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, thousands of devotees, few wearing masks, thronged the river’s banks in the holy city of Prayagraj.
    “I can’t breathe with a mask,” Ram Phal Tripathi, who came with his family from a village in Uttar Pradesh state, said after emerging from the river.
    “Every year I come for a holy dip.    How could I have missed it this year?
    India is again facing a surge in coronavirus cases, fuelled mostly by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but hospitalisations are low, with most people recovering at home.
    Doctors had appealed unsuccessfully to the West Bengal state high court to reverse a decision to allow the festival this year, worrying it will become a virus “super spreader” event.
    Last year, a big religious gathering in northern India contributed to a record rise in coronavirus cases.
    On Friday, the health ministry reported 264,202 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, taking India’s total tally to 36.58 million.
    Deaths from COVID-19 rose by 315, with total now at 485,350, the ministry said.
(Reporting by Ritesh Shukla in Prayagraj, additional reporting by Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata; writing by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj, Christian Schmollinger and Michael Perry)

1/14/2022 Myanmar Believes New ASEAN Chair Will Rule With Fairness – Spokesman
    (Reuters) – Myanmar believes that Cambodia will rule with fairness during its chairmanship this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a spokesman for its ruling military council said on Friday.
    There were “good results” from a visit to Myanmar last week by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Myanmar junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told a regular briefing.    He also said international pressure on Myanmar had not dialed down, but Myanmar would not bow to it.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/14/2022 Frustration Over COVID-19 Restrictions In Increasingly Isolated Hong Kong by Farah Master
FILE PHOTO: A staff member wipes the floor at an empty food court after evening dine-in services were
suspended to control coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in Hong Kong, China January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong is following mainland China’s zero-tolerance approach to control COVID-19, rankling many residents of the international financial hub as much of the world shifts towards living with the coronavirus.
    Hong Kong effectively closed its borders and imposed social restrictions this month to deal with a spurt in COVID-19 infections due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
    Although the moves are less strict than those in parts of the mainland, they come after months of relative normalcy and are battering a city dependent on business travellers and accustomed to frequent dining out.
    Frustration among the city’s 7.5 million residents is mounting as the restrictions also threaten to dampen Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of the month, traditionally a time for shopping, feasting and family reunions.    The border to the mainland is closed while retailers and restaurant owners are reeling during what is usually the year’s busiest period.
    “With the obvious conclusion that most countries have come to, that COVID-19 is not going away, the only sensible course of action is to gradually relax the quarantine arrangement and manage this endemic virus in the same way that we manage other viruses,” said Stuart Bailey, chairman at the Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association, one of the city’s world-leading business sectors that has been battered by the pandemic.
    Around 50 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the community since the first local transmission was recorded in late December, ending three months without locally transmitted infections.
    Authorities have raced to contain further spread, with leader Carrie Lam vowing to persevere with zero tolerance of infections while asking society to tolerate the costs.
    “I fully understand the anxiety, dissatisfaction, and anger of the public,” Lam said this week.     “There is nothing we can do because we need to fight this epidemic.”
    The government re-imposed a raft of restrictions on Jan. 7, including bans on gatherings of more than four people and dining out past 6 p.m.    Pubs, schools, gyms and cinemas have been ordered to close and air travel has been sharply cut back.
    In mainland China, a handful of cities have imposed lockdowns on millions of residents, preventing them from leaving home as authorities re-double containment efforts as Beijing readies to host the Winter Olympics.
LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE
    Lam’s policies have long exasperated those unable to travel for business or family emergencies due to costly 21-day hotel quarantine, flight bans, and difficult paperwork.
    The city’s position as one of the world’s busiest passenger hubs has been drastically curtailed by tough air crew restrictions and the banning of passenger flights from countries including the United States, Australia, France and Britain.
    Hong Kong is far behind other developed cities with its vaccination campaign.    Around 75% of eligible people have had a first dose, while around 70% have had a second one. About 8% have received a third.
    Almost a million people have been given mandatory testing notices so far this year, thousands have been forced into overnight lockdowns, and thousands more have been sent to government quarantine facilities.
    The largest quarantine facility has been beset with electricity and supply shortages, overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
    Worse may be still to come.
    Amid tighter quarantine rules for aircrew, Hong Kong’s Association of Freight Forwarding & Logistics said logistics costs would rise 40% in coming weeks, with premium food, fresh produce, pharmaceuticals and e-commerce goods hardest hit.
    Lam told legislators on Wednesday she expected some goods to be unavailable or their price to go up, with food, electronics and medicine among the worst affected.
‘HELPLESS AND FRUSTRATED’
    Bars, restaurants and caterers have forecast hundreds of millions of dollars in losses in coming weeks, while some gyms, beauty parlours and cultural establishments fear for their survival.
    “We are feeling very helpless and frustrated,” Hong Kong’s Theatre Association said in an email.
    The frustration was compounded last week when senior government officials were found to have ignored appeals to avoid large gatherings and attended a birthday bash.
    Lam ordered a “disciplinary investigation,” although many residents – weary from two years of COVID-19 that came on top of dramatic political change as Beijing tightened its grip on the city – wondered if rules applied only to ordinary folk.
    A manager at Sun Kong restaurant, which serves dim sum in a working-class neighbourhood, pointed to his mostly empty venue, saying it was not his fault.
    “Carrie Lam is the one not managing well,” said the manager, who only gave his last name of Chan.
(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Marius Zaharia and Edmond Ng; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/14/2022 Indonesia Approves Merck’s COVID-19 Pill For Emergency Use
FILE PHOTO: An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill, called molnupiravir and being developed by
Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is seen in this undated handout photo released
by Merck & Co Inc and obtained by Reuters May 17, 2021. Merck & Co Inc/Handout via REUTERS
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia has approved Merck & Co Inc’s COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir for emergency use, the country’s food and drug agency said in a statement.
    A batch of 400,000 pills had arrived in Indonesia, health minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said this week.    The pill was jointly developed by U.S.-based Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/14/2022 Australia’s Worst-Hit State Says COVID-19 Hospitalisations May Plateau Next Week
FILE PHOTO: A nurse prepares to test patients for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a
clinic at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia, May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – COVID-19 hospitalisation rates in Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales could plateau next week, a top health official said on Friday, as the state suffered record deaths from the virus for a third day.
    Pressure on hospitals will likely remain for “the next few weeks,” the state’s health deputy secretary, Susan Pearce, said, though hospitalisation numbers were tracking better than the best-case scenario in an official modelling a week ago.
    “That is pleasing, but that plateauing is obviously still at a relatively high level of COVID patients in our hospitals and in our (intensive care),” Pearce told a media briefing in Sydney, the state capital.
    The surge in cases fuelled by the Omicron variant has piled pressure on hospitals, which are grappling with record admissions, and on other sectors of the economy.
    With staff shortages beginning to disrupt supply chains, authorities have eased quarantine rules to allow thousands of close contacts of cases to return to work in the transport and freight industries if they are asymptomatic, an extension of exemptions that had earlier applied to food production staff.
    But this has raised fears workers will be placed in riskier environments.
    “Essential workers are being forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep food on the shelves, medicines in stock, the lights and water on and keep this country open for business,” Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said in a statement.
    Australia successfully restricted outbreaks of the coronavirus for most of the pandemic but it now finds itself in the grip of a wave driven by the Omicron variant following the relaxation of restrictions when vaccinations became widespread.
    Of Australia’s nearly 1.4 million infections recorded since the pandemic began, about 1.2 million have been detected over the past four weeks.
    Worst-hit New South Wales reported more than 63,000 new infections on Friday, while neighbouring Victoria reported about 35,000.
    Australia reported 56 deaths by mid-day on Friday, with 29 of them in New South Wales, its biggest ever COVID-19 toll.
    Other parts of Australia, largely virus-free until early December, are also hitting record caseloads. A month ago, Queensland reported a day with four new cases; on Friday it recorded 23,630, a state record.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/14/2022 North Korea Used Railway-Borne Missile In Friday’s Test - KCNA by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters at the North Korean embassy in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea tested a railway-borne missile in its firing drills on Friday, state media KCNA said on Saturday, marking its third weapons test this month.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had detected what it presumed were two short-range ballistic missiles launched eastward from North Pyongan Province on the northwest coast of North Korea.
    The official KCNA news agency said a firing drill was held to “check and judge the proficiency in the action procedures of the railway-borne regiment,” which the country tested for the first time last September, designed as a potential counter-strike to any threatening forces.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

1/15/2022 Japanese Students Injured In Stabbing During Entrance Exams – Media
A police investigator speaks to another person at the site where a stabbing incident happened at
an entrance gate of Tokyo University in Tokyo, Japan January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Several high school students sitting their university entrance exam in Tokyo were wounded on Saturday in an apparent knife attack, Japanese media said.
    Public broadcaster NHK said three people were conscious after being injured in the morning when another student attacked them with a bladed object as they gathered to take their entrance exam.
    The alleged assailant, a 17-year old high school student, was arrested, the Asahi newspaper said.
    Half a million high school students across Japan are taking the annual university entrance exams this weekend in hundreds of venues across the country.
    Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department said it could not comment on the details of the attack nor confirm any arrests.
    Violent crimes are exceedingly rare in Japan, but there have been a spate of knife attacks by assailants unknown to the victims.
    In October, a man dressed in Batman’s Joker costume dressed in Batman’s Joker costume stabbed more than a dozen people on a train carriage in Tokyo, sending passengers screaming down the aisles of train carriages and scrambling out of windows to escape.    A few months earlier, a man wounded several people in a knife attack on a Tokyo commuter train.
(Reporting by Issei Kato; Writing by Mari Saito; Editing by William Mallard)

1/15/2022 China Reaffirms Opposition To U.S. Sanctions On Iran
FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 1, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China reaffirmed its opposition to unilateral sanctions by the United States against Iran at a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian counterpart, while backing efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran.
    A summary of Friday’s meeting between Wang and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in the city of Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, was posted on China’s foreign ministry website on Saturday.
    During his visit, Amirabdollahian is set to announce the launch of a 25-year cooperation agreement between the Islamic Republic and Communist-ruled China.
    Wang, who is also State Councillor, said the U.S. bore primary responsibility for the ongoing difficulties with Iran, having unilaterally withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran.     Under the terms of that deal, in return for the lifting of international sanctions, Iran would limit uranium enrichment activity, making it harder to develop nuclear arms – although Tehran denies having plans for nuclear weapons.
    Wang said China would firmly support a resumption on negotiations on a nuclear pact.
    But he said China firmly opposes illegal unilateral sanctions against Iran, political manipulation through topics including human rights, and interference in the internal affairs of Iran and other regional countries.
    The United States reimposed sanctions that badly damaged Iran’s economy after withdrawing from the nuclear pact in 2018, saying the terms did not do enough to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, ballistic missile program and regional influence.
    A year later, Iran began to gradually breach the accord, rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.
    Iran and the U.S. remain locked in talks over whether a compromise can be found to renew the deal and dispel fears of a wider Middle East War.    A source close to negotiations said on Friday that many issues remain unresolved.
    Wang, who earlier in the week met with several counterparts from Gulf Arab countries concerned about the potential threat from Iran, also said China hopes to set up a dialogue mechanism with Gulf countries to discuss regional security issues.
(Reporting by Andrew Galbraith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/15/2022 Philippines To Acquire Missile System From India For $375 Million
FILE PHOTO: Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana answer questions during a Reuters interview at the military
headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
    MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines has finalised a deal to acquire a shore-based anti-ship missile system from India for nearly $375 million to beef up its navy, the Southeast Asian nation’s defence minister said.
    The Philippines is in the late stages of a five-year, 300 billion pesos ($5.85 billion) project to modernise its military’s outdated hardware that includes warships from World War Two and helicopters used by the United States in the Vietnam War.
    Under the deal negotiated with the government of India, Brahmos Aerospace Private Ltd will deliver three batteries, train operators and maintainers, and provide logistics support, Defence Secretary Delfin     Lorenzana said in a Facebook post late on Friday.
    It was conceptualised in 2017, but faced delays in budget allocation and due to the coronavirus pandemic.
    The new anti-ship system aims to deter foreign vessels from encroaching on the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
    In 2018, the Philippines bought Israeli-made Spike ER missiles, its first-ever https://www.reuters.com/article/philippines-defence-idINKBN1I3193 ship-borne missile systems for maritime deterrence.
    Despite friendlier ties between China and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, Beijing has remained adamant in claiming large portions of the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.    Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have lodged competing claims.
    A 2016 international arbitration ruling, however, said the Chinese claims had no legal basis.
($1 = 51.31 Philippine pesos)
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

1/15/2022 Australia Nears Omicron Peak As Daily Infections Hover Around Records by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: A woman takes a test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
at a testing centre in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia has likely neared the peak of its Omicron wave, authorities said on Saturday, but warned daily infections will linger near record levels for “the next few weeks” after more than 100,000 cases were reported for a fourth straight day.
    Having limited the spread of the coronavirus through tough restrictions earlier in the pandemic, Australia is now suffering record caseloads from the Omicron variant.    Most parts of the country have shifted to a strategy of living with the virus as they reached higher vaccination rates.
    More than 1.2 million infections have been recorded this year, compared with 200,000 for 2020 and 2021 combined.
    “We are not through it yet and I think there are still going to be large number of cases diagnosed in Australia over the next few weeks,” Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly told a news briefing, referring to the Omicron outbreak.
    But modelling from some states “leads me to believe that we are close to the peak of this wave in terms of cases,” he said.
    Infections have dipped over the last three days while the rise in hospitalisations in worst-hit New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has slowed slightly, official data showed.
    Most states are battling record hospitalisations during the Omicron wave, with authorities saying unvaccinated younger people forming a “significant number” of admissions in Australia.
    “We are seeing an epidemic of the unvaccinated in young people, we are seeing that in intensive care admissions,” Kelly said.
    Australia is among the most heavily vaccinated countries against COVID-19, with more than 92% of people above 16 double-dosed, and with a booster drive picking up pace.
    A medical exemption for tennis star Novak Djokovic from vaccination was met with uproar in the country.
    The federal government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, fielding criticism for his handling of the Omicron wave in an election year, on Friday cancelled Djokovic’s visa for the second time over COVID-19 entry rules.    Djokovic is seeking a court ruling to stop his deportation.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by William Mallard)

1/15/2022 N.Korea Tests Railway-Borne Missile In Latest Launch Amid Rising Tension With U.S. by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters at the North Korean embassy in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea tested a railway-borne missile in its firing drills on Friday, state media KCNA said on Saturday, amid a U.S. push for fresh sanctions against the isolated state following its recent series of weapons tests.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) travelled about 430 km (267 miles) to a maximum altitude of 36 km (22 miles) after being launched eastward on the northwest coast of North Korea.
    The official KCNA news agency did not specify the missiles’ range, or trajectory, but said a firing drill was held in North Pyongan Province to “check and judge the proficiency in the action procedures of the railway-borne regiment.”
    The country tested the rail-based system for the first time last September, saying it was designed as a potential counter-strike to any threatening forces.
    Since New Year’s Day, North Korea has launched three ballistic missiles in an unusually fast sequence of weapons tests.    The previous two launches involved what state media called “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speeds and manoeuvring after launch.
    Hours before the latest test drill, North Korea slammed the United States for pursuing new sanctions in response to its recent missile launches, calling it a “provocation” and warning of a strong reaction.
    U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration imposed its first sanctions against Pyongyang on Wednesday, and called on the U.N. Security Council to blacklist several North Korean individuals and entities.
    North Korea has defended the missile tests as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused the United States of intentionally escalating the situation with new sanctions.
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not attend the drill. KCNA said the military leadership had ordered the test “at short notice” and the system precisely struck the target set in the east coast with “two tactical guided missiles.”
    The system “demonstrated high manoeuvrability and rate of hits,” KCNA said, adding its success led to discussions to “set up proper railway-borne missile operating system across the country.”
    North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems, raising the stakes for stalled talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief.
    South Korean Chung Eui-yong and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the latest launch during their phone call on Saturday and coordinated responses to the North’s recent missile tests, the State Department said.
    Both sides highlighted the importance of maintaining firm combined readiness posture and urged Pyongyang to return to a negotiating table, Seoul’s foreign ministry said.
‘AT SHORT NOTICE’
    Cheong Seong-chang, director for North Korean studies at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the test could be an “instant display of force” to protest against the U.S. sanctions push, noting that it was not planned in advance and unusually took place in the afternoon.
    “It’s a message that they would take an ‘eye to eye’ approach if Washington presses for sanctions for testing non-long-range missiles,” Cheong said.
    KCNA released photographs showing a missile trailing a column of smoke and flame as it was launched from the top of an olive-green train in a mountainous area, before arrowing down on a small island, sending up a cloud of smoke and debris as it hit.
    Despite North Korea’s limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, rail mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and efficient option to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces, making it difficult for enemies to detect and destroy them before being fired, analysts said.
    Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said North Korea appears to have fired KN-23 SRBMs, which were also test fired in September, when they flew 800 km (497 miles).
    First tested in May 2019, the KN-23 resembles Russia’s Iskander-M SRBM visually, and is designed to evade missile defences and conduct a precision strikes, experts said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Leslie Adler, Sandra Maler & Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/15/2022 China Slams U.S. Sanctions On Iran As Cooperation Agreement Launched
FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag waves in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 1, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China reaffirmed its opposition to unilateral sanctions by the United States against Iran as the Chinese and Iranian foreign ministers announced the launch of a 25-year cooperation agreement aimed at strengthening economic and political ties.
    In a meeting on Friday in the city of Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also backed efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran.
    A summary of the meeting between Wang and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was posted on China’s foreign ministry website on Saturday.
    Wang, who is also State Councillor, said the U.S. bore primary responsibility for the ongoing difficulties with Iran, having unilaterally withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran.
    Under the terms of that deal, in return for the lifting of international sanctions, Iran would limit uranium enrichment activity, making it harder to develop nuclear arms – although Tehran denies having plans for nuclear weapons.
    Wang said China would firmly support a resumption on negotiations on a nuclear pact.
    But he said China firmly opposes unilateral sanctions against Iran, political manipulation through topics including human rights, and interference in the internal affairs of Iran and other regional countries.
    The United States reimposed sanctions that badly damaged Iran’s economy after withdrawing from the nuclear pact in 2018, saying the terms did not do enough to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, ballistic missile program and regional influence.
    A year later, Iran began to gradually breach the accord, rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.
    China and Iran, both subject to U.S. sanctions, signed the 25-year cooperation agreement last March, bringing Iran into China’ Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure scheme intended to stretch from East Asia to Europe.
    The project aims to significantly expand China’s economic and political influence, and has raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere.
    The foreign ministry summary said the agreement would deepen Sino-Iranian cooperation in areas including energy, infrastructure, agriculture, health care and culture, as well as cyber security and cooperation with other countries.
    Iran and the U.S. remain locked in talks over whether a compromise can be found to renew the deal and dispel fears of a wider Middle East War.    A source close to negotiations said on Friday that many issues remain unresolved.
    Wang, who earlier in the week met with several counterparts from Gulf Arab countries concerned about the potential threat from Iran, also said China hopes to set up a dialogue mechanism with Gulf countries to discuss regional security issues.
(Reporting by Andrew Galbraith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/15/2022 City Of Beijing Reports First Local Omicron Case - State Media
FILE PHOTO: People walk on a street as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
continues in Beijing, China, January 13, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese capital Beijing on Saturday reported its first locally transmitted infection of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant, according to state media, just weeks ahead of its staging of the Olympic Winter Games.
    State television reported on Saturday that the new infection had been identified as the Omicron strain.
    Lab testing found “mutations specific to the Omicron variant” in the person, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, told a news briefing.
    Officials have sealed up the infected person’s residential compound and workplace, and collected 2,430 samples for testing from people linked to the two locations, a Haidian district official said.
    The detection of the Omicron variant Beijing came as cities across the country ratchet up viral vigilance ahead of the Winter Olympics, due to start Feb. 4.
    Authorities have also warned that Omicron adds to the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as more people travel across the country and return to China from overseas for the Lunar New Year holiday starting at the end of the month.
    Many local governments have advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily during the holiday, while dozens of international and domestic flights have been suspended.
    Aside from Beijing, China has reported locally transmitted infections of the Omicron variant in at least four other provinces and municipalities — in the northern city of Tianjin, the central province of Henan, the southern province of Guangdong and the northeastern province of Liaoning. However, the total number Omicron cases remains unclear.
    He Qinghua, an official at the National Health Commission (NHC), said in a briefing earlier on Saturday that the Omicron variant was also detected in Shanghai, without specifying the case count.    He did not say whether the variant had been found locally or among travellers from overseas.
    He said 14 provincial areas in China had found the Omicron variant in infected individuals arriving from overseas, without naming the regions.
    In a statement on Saturday, the NHC reported 165 new confirmed coronavirus cases for Jan. 14, down from 201 a day earlier.
    Of the new infections, 104 were locally transmitted, according to a statement by the National Health Commission, compared with 143 a day earlier.
    The new locally transmitted cases were in Henan, Tianjin, Guangdong, Shaanxi and Zhejiang.
    China also reported 25 new asymptomatic cases for Jan. 14, down from 42 infections a day earlier.    China classifies asymptomatic cases separately from confirmed cases.
    There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636.
    As of Jan. 14, mainland China had 104,745 confirmed cases.
(Reporting by the Beijing Newsroom and Andrew Galbraith in Shanghai; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Ros Russell)

1/15/2022 Indonesia Reports Over 1,000 Daily COVID-19 Cases, Highest In 3 Months
FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks lean on the poles while waiting for a commuter train at a
platform of a station during the afternoon rush hours as the Omicron variant continues to spread, amid
the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia reported 1,054 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the highest daily increase in three months, as the government braces for a new wave of coronavirus infections driven by the spread of the Omicron variant.
    The world’s fourth most populous country grappled with a devastating second wave of infections in July, driven by the spread of the Delta variant.
    Daily case numbers dropped to around 200 by December, before rising this month amid reports of local transmission of the Omicron variant.
    “Local transmission has been found and Jakarta has become an infection cluster,” Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said in a statement on Saturday.    “We need to coordinate with regional government to tighten mobility and strengthen health protocols, (give) booster vaccine shots and strengthen health facilities.”
    He did not elaborate on what restrictions local authorities might impose. Officials usually review pandemic-related measures each Monday.
    Indonesia detected its first https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-reports-first-case-omicron-variant-health-minister-2021-12-16 COVID-19 case of the more contagious Omicron variant on Dec. 16.    Confirmed case numbers have reached more than 500 since then and officials have said infection rates could peak in February.
    The southeast Asian nation started its vaccine booster https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/indonesia-rolls-out-booster-shots-amid-fears-omicron-spread-2022-01-12 programme for the general public this week.
(Reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo; Editing by Mike Harrison)

1/15/2022 Singapore PM Backs Continued Exclusion Of Myanmar Junta From ASEAN Meetings
FILE PHOTO: Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the International Conference
on The Future of Asia in Tokyo, Japan, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s leader said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should continue excluding Myanmar’s junta from its meeting until it cooperates on an agreed peace plans.
    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a video call on Friday urged the regional group’s new chair, Cambodia, to engage all sides in Myanmar’s conflict, Singapore’s foreign ministry said on Saturday.
    Lee told his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen that ASEAN should continue inviting a non-political representative from Myanmar to its meetings and any decision to change that “had to be based on new facts.”
    His remarks follow a controversial visit last week by Hun Sen to Myanmar, where he met Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military government whom ASEAN excluded from its leaders’ summit for his failure to implement the five-point plan to end hostilities and allow dialogue after a coup last year.
    Malaysia’s foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, made similar comments on Thursday, saying some ASEAN members felt Hun Sen should have discussed his trip with fellow leaders beforehand, as it could be seen as recognising the junta.
    Lee told Hun Sen any engagement with Myanmar needed to include “all parties concerned,” including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted ruling party.
    The Singapore leader said that despite Myanmar’s peace commitments, the military has made further attacks against its political opponents and imposed further prison sentences on Suu Kyi.
    Hun Sen made some proposals to Lee on how to coordinate a ceasefire in Myanmar and deliver humanitarian assistance, according to the statement.    Lee responded these could be complicated because there had been no access to all parties, although Singapore did not object to the idea in principle.
    All of Cambodia’s proposals, as ASEAN chair, should be further discussed among ASEAN foreign ministers, Lee said, according to the statement.
    “Prime Minister Lee hoped that Cambodia would consider his views and those of other ASEAN leaders,” it said.
    Cambodia on Wednesday postponed the inaugural meeting of its ASEAN chairmanship, scheduled for next week, because some foreign ministers had expressed “difficulties” in attending.
    Lee’s remarks also come days after Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said on his Facebook page that Singapore backed Cambodia’s approach on the Myanmar crisis.
(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Martin Petty and William Mallard)

1/16/2022 Casualty Reports Awaited From Tsunami-Hit Tonga With Comms Mostly Down by Praveen Menon
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National leader
Judith Collins at TVNZ in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22, 2020. Fiona Goodall/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Tsunami-hit Tonga remained largely uncontactable on Sunday with telephone and internet links severed, leaving relatives in faraway New Zealand praying for their families on the Pacific islands as casualty reports had yet to come through.
    An underwater volcano off Tonga erupted on Saturday, triggering warnings of 1.2-metre tsunami waves and evacuation orders on the shores of Tonga as well as several South Pacific islands, where footage on social media showed waves crashing into coastal homes.
    Internet and phone lines went down at about 6.40 p.m. local time on Saturday, leaving the 105,000 residents on the islands virtually uncontactable.
    There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet although communications are limited and contact has not been established with coastal areas beyond the capital Nuku’alofa, Jacinda Ardern the Prime Minister of New Zealand told a news conference on Sunday.
    Tonga, an island nation with around 105,000 residents, lies 2,383 kilometres (1,481 miles) northeast of New Zealand.
    “Nuku’alofa is covered in thick plumes of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable,” Ardern said.
    “We have not yet received news from other coastal areas,” she said.
    Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption on Saturday as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air and about 12 miles above the sea level.    The sky over Tonga was darkened by the ash.
    Concerns were growing among the Tongan community in New Zealand, desperate to make contact with their families back home.    Some churches organised community prayers in Auckland and other cities.
    “We pray God will help our country at this sad moment. We hope everybody is safe,” Maikeli Atiola, the Secretary of the Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Auckland said, Radio New Zealand reported.
    Ardern said the main undersea communications cable has been impacted, likely due to loss of power.
    Power was being restored in some areas on the islands and local mobile phones were slowly starting to work, she addedd.
    Official damage assessments were not yet available, she said. But Ardern said the New Zealand high commission in Nuku’alofa had said the tsunami has damaged boats, shops and other infrastructure.
    Tonga’s cabinet held a crisis meeting on Sunday and was contacting development partners, a spokeswoman for Zed Seselja, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific told Reuters. She said Australia would sent a P8 surveillance aircraft to Tonga on Monday.
PACIFIC IMPACT
    The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades but Saturday’s eruption was so loud that residents parts of faraway Fiji and New Zealand said they heard it.
    “My entire house was shaking,” said Sanya Ruggiero, a Consulting Communications Advisor based in Suva, the capital of Fiji, some 750 kms from Tonga.
    “My doors, windows were all rattling like hell.    And mine was not even as bad as others.     Hundreds of people ran out of their homes,” said Ruggiero, who consults for several agencies including the United Nations.
    Rumblings and eruptions from the volcano continued to be heard through the night, Ruggiero said. Hundreds of people were moved to evacuation centres in Suva. Fiji Airways had to cancel all its flights due to the ash clouds.
    “This is the worst disaster Tonga has had in living memory and the recovery from this is going to take years,” Ruggiero said.
    Experts said the ash fallout could contaminate drinking water and cause respiratory issues.
    “Help will be needed to restore drinking water supplies. People of Tonga must also remain vigilant for further eruptions and especially tsunami with short notice and should avoid low lying areas,” said Shane Cronin, professor at the School of Environment, University of Auckland.
    The eruptions triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific, with the United States urging people on its Pacific coastline to stay away from the shores and Australia’s New South Wales region closing beaches.
    Hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens were advised to evacuate as waves of more than a metre hit coastal areas.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Leslie Adler & Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/16/2022 Beijing Omicron Case Prompts Temple Closures, Queues For COVID-19 Tests
FILE PHOTO: People walk on a street as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak continues in Beijing, China, January 13, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Sunday reported 65 locally transmitted COVID-19 cases for Jan. 15, including the first Omicron case in Beijing, just weeks from the Feb. 4 start of the city’s Winter Olympic Games and the country’s Lunar New Year holiday.
    That was down from 104 comparable cases a day earlier, as the outbreak in the northwestern city of Xian winds down after strict lockdowns.    But the highly transmissible Omicron variant has been detected in at least five provinces and municipalities, prompting cities to impose curbs to stop its spread and threatening to further undercut slowing economic growth.
    On Saturday, the capital Beijing reported the first local infection of the Omicron variant, involving a person who had visited multiple malls and restaurants in the previous 14 days.    The person had not left the city since the start of this year.
    China has not said how many Omicron cases it has detected in total.
    About 13,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 in the Haidian district where the case was discovered, but none of the results came back positive, Beijing Daily, a government newspaper, cited official data as saying on Sunday.
    However, some religious sites in the city were already being closed to visitors as a precautionary measure. Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in central Beijing, said on Sunday it was closing down for an unspecified period due to COVID-19 epidemic and control measures.
    “It is too soon to conclude that Omicron will swamp China’s efforts to suppress COVID,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, in a note issued on Friday.
    “But it is clear that the emergence of more transmissible variants is requiring more frequent interventions … And the economic toll from this vigilance is mounting.”
    Some Beijing residents, concerned about being trapped in the city for the upcoming week-long Lunar New Year holiday, are rushing to travel back home early because of the Omicron case.
    “It’s worrying that the source of the infection in Beijing remains unclear,” said Shelly Fong, who decided to travel back to her home in Liaoning province on Monday.    “If there’s an outbreak in Beijing, I won’t be able to return home.”
    “What if there’s no flights? What if there’s a lockdown in Beijing?    These are real possibilities.”
    Outside Beijing Friendship Hospital on Sunday, queues for getting a COVID-19 test left people waiting in line for hours in frigid temperatures.
    Mainland China reported 119 new confirmed COVID-19 cases for Jan. 15, including imported infections, down from 165 a day earlier, according to National Health Commission (NHC) data on Sunday.
    The new locally transmitted cases were in Tianjin, Henan, Beijing, Guangdong and Shaanxi, NHC said.
    There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll at 4,636.
    As of Jan. 15, mainland China had 104,864 confirmed cases.
(Reporting by Stella Qiu, Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Kenneth Maxwell)

1/16/2022 Philippines To Acquire 32 New Black Hawk Helicopters
FILE PHOTO: Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana speaks during a news conference after
a bilateral meeting with Philippines' Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at Camp Aguinaldo military
camp in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 30, 2021. Rolex Dela Pena/Pool via REUTERS
    MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines is buying 32 S-70i Black Hawk helicopters from Poland-based Sikorsky Aircraft subsidiary PZL Mielec to beef up its existing fleet of 12, the country’s defence chief said on Sunday, as it seeks to boost its disaster response capabilities.
    Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a notice of award was issued on Dec. 28 for the purchase of brand new helicopters under a project that comes with logistics support and a training package for pilots and maintenance crew at a cost of 32 billion pesos ($624 million).
    The contract was now being drafted, with the delivery of the first five units expected in 2023, Lorenzana said on Facebook.    The remaining ones will be delivered in three batches, 10 units in 2024, 10 units in 2025, and 7 units in 2026, he said.
    “The lack of transport planes and helicopters have never been more acute during the pandemic and in the aftermath of Typhoon (Rai),” Lorenzana said.
    “This was exacerbated by our aging Hueys that have become uneconomical to maintain.”
    Rai, last year’s 15th and deadliest typhoon to hit the Philippines, left more than 400 people dead and caused widespread damage in central and southern regions of the country in December.
    The United Nations’ Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Sunday said in a statement that hundreds of thousands of people still needed food and clean water, shelter and protection support, one month after the world’s second deadliest disaster of 2021 hit the Philippines.
(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz; Editing by Tom Hogue)

1/16/2022 N.Korea Train Makes First Crossing Into China Since Border Lockdown – Reports
FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean
embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) - A North Korean cargo train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday, in what would be the first confirmed crossing since anti-coronavirus border lockdowns began, media reports said.
    North Korea has not officially reported any COVID-19 cases and has imposed strict anti-virus measures, including border closures and domestic travel curbs since the pandemic began early 2020.
    A North Korean freight train crossed the Yalu River railway bridge to arrive in the Chinese town of Dandong on Sunday, Yonhap said, citing multiple unnamed sources.
    Yonhap said it marks the first time that North Korea has formally opened its land border with China.
    It was unclear whether the train was carrying any cargo into China, but was likely to return to North Korea on Monday with a load of “emergency materials,” the sources told Yonhap, without elaborating.
    Japan’s Kyodo news agency also reported the train’s arrival, citing an informed source.
    While Chinese data show some limited trade https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/chinas-nov-exports-north-korea-fall-previous-month-customs-data-2021-12-20 has continued, most shipments appear to be using     North Korean seaports, not trains across its land borders.
    Officials in Seoul said late last year they were watching closely for a resumption in cross-border rail traffic as a signal that restrictions might be loosening.
    After nearly two years of border closures, some humanitarian aid https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/trickle-humanitarian-aid-enters-north-korea-border-closure-drags-2022-01-13 is trickling into the country, though shipments of key supplies including food remain blocked, according to United Nations organisations.
    Several shipments of nutrition and medical aid have entered the country after up to three months of quarantine at Nampo sea port, but there had been no confirmation of major shipments being transported by train.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/16/2022 Philippines Says ‘Indispensable’ Suu Kyi Must Be Involved In Myanmar Peace Process
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's then state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, attending an
invesmtent meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang
    MANILA (Reuters) – Deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is “indispensable” in restoring democracy to the military-ruled country and must be included in any peace talks, regardless of her conviction, the Philippines’ foreign minister said on Sunday.
    In a strong rebuke of the Myanmar junta that overthrew Suu Kyi’s elected government last year, Teodoro Locsin condemned last week’s sentencing of the Nobel laureate and accused the military of using the judicial system to crush its opponents.
    Locsin said he would “adopt” verbatim the remarks of Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt in demanding the junta free political prisoners, halt violence and respect human rights.
    “I am deeply concerned about the suffering of the civilian population,” Locsin said in a statement.    “We also call on the military leadership to participate in an inclusive dialogue and resume the democratic transition process.”
    His statement comes as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members turn up the heat on the Myanmar military after a turbulent end to 2021, during which junta boss Min Aung Hlaing was excluded from a leaders’ summit for failure to honour commitments to an ASEAN-led peace plan.
    Myanmar says its efforts are being derailed by “terrorists” seeking to destroy the country. Locsin said dialogue would be meaningless without Suu Kyi.    She has been sentenced to six years so far in an ongoing trial featuring more than a dozen cases, from corruption to official secrets violations, which she denies.
    “Aung San Suu Kyi must be there, despite her conviction.    The armed forces of Myanmar have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from the democracy it introduced to Myanmar,” he said.
    “Suu Kyi is indispensable in a democratic restoration that will pose no threat of anarchy, dissolution and civil conflict.”
    Locsin also pledged “wholehearted support” for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the new ASEAN chair, for visiting Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar earlier this month, a controversial trip that some members were concerned could indicate ASEAN recognition of the junta, according to Malaysia’s top diplomat.
    Locsin said the Philippines will push for progress in ASEAN’s five-point consensus on the crisis in Myanmar, an agreement that includes peace talks, ceasing hostilities, and allowing humanitarian aid.
    He stressed that accord be the only plan, and not be tied to any roadmap, referring to the five-stage process to restore democracy that the junta announced when it seized power.
(Writing by Enrico dela Cruz and Martin Petty; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

1/17/2022 Yao Ming Says He And Peng Shuai ‘Chatted Merrily’ At Event Last Month
President of Chinese Basketball Association and Ice and Snow Sports Promotion Ambassador Yao Ming attends a
media event ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Yew Lun Tian
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming said on Monday that tennis star Peng Shuai, who became the subject of concern after she accused a former senior politician of sexually assaulting her, was in good spirits when they appeared at an event last month.
    “She seemed well.    We chatted merrily,” Yao said when asked in Beijing on Monday about his impressions of Peng at a cross-country skiing event they both attended last month in Shanghai.
    The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended tournaments in China due to what it says are concerns over Peng’s safety, which it says have not been alleviated by her public appearances.    The issue has cast a shadow over the upcoming winter Olympics in Beijing.
    Yao said he and Peng had known each other for nearly 20 years.    However, he did not comment directly on the controversy that flared up last year after Peng, a former world No. 1 doubles player, appeared to allege that a former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past.
    After that post, she was absent from public view for nearly three weeks.    At the December event also attended by Yao, Peng told a media outlet she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that her social media post had been misunderstood.    She has not spoken publicly since.
    Zhang has not commented on the matter, and Beijing has censored discussion of it on the internet.
    Speaking with media less than three weeks before the Olympics are due to open, Yao said he expects China to win medals in speed skating and snowboarding, but asked Chinese fans to be patient given the country is relatively new to winter sports.
    Yao, China’s most globally famous athlete, was the face of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.    He has retired from basketball and now acts as an ice and snow sports ambassador for China.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/17/2022 N.Korea Fires Two Ballistic Missiles From Pyongyang Airport, S.Korea Says by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of
North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) on Monday from an airport in its capital city of Pyongyang, South Korea’s military reported, the fourth test this month to demonstrate its expanding missile arsenal.
    Japan also reported the launch, with chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemning it as a threat to peace and security while China urged all sides to preserve for stability.
    “We call on relevant sides to keep in mind the overall peace and stability on the peninsula,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing when asked about the suspected launch.
    Nuclear-armed North Korea had already conducted three other missile tests in less than two weeks before Monday, an unusually rapid series of launches.    It said two of them involved single “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after launch, while a test on Friday involved a pair of short-range ballistic missiles fired from train cars.
    Monday’s launch appeared to involve two SRBMs fired east from Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
    North Korea used the airport to test fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017, with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.
    The missiles fired on Monday travelled about 380 km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42 km (26 miles), the JCS said in a statement.
    Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles appeared to have landed in the ocean off North Korea’s east coast and it was evident that North Korea was using the frequent launches to improve its missile technology.
    “The repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan,” Kishi told reporters, noting that the tests were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from all ballistic missile development.
    The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said that the launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, but that “these missile launches highlight the destabilising impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons programme.”
    The pace of testing suggested that North Korea had enough missiles to feel comfortable about using them on tests, training, and demonstrations, and they reinforced its deterrent credibility by emphasizing the volume of its missile force, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
    North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but after denuclearisation talks stalled in 2019, it began testing a range of new SRBM designs.
    Many of the latest SRBMs, including the hypersonic missiles, appear designed to evade missile defences.    North Korea has also vowed to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, which could allow it to deploy nuclear warheads on SRBMs.
    “Every tactical missile launch flaunts how little sanctions have constrained the Kim regime, and how the U.S. … has failed to make North Korea pay a sufficient cost for short-range missile programme development,” Richey said.
‘ISOLATING AND STIFLING’
    The latest launches have drawn both condemnation and an appeal for dialogue from a U.S. administration that has imposed new sanctions over North Korean missile launches and is pushing for more.
    President Joe Biden’s administration imposed its first new sanctions on Pyongyang on Wednesday, and called on the U.N. Security Council to blacklist several North Korean individuals and entities.    It also repeated calls for North Korea to return to talks aimed at reducing tension and persuading it to surrender its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
    North Korea has defended the missile tests as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused the United States of intentionally intensifying confrontation with new sanctions.
    In a statement before Friday’s tests, the North Korean foreign ministry said that although the United States might talk of diplomacy and dialogue, its actions showed it was engrossed in its policy of “isolating and stifling” North Korea.
    South Korea’s national security council held an emergency meeting after Monday’s test, with members stressing it was essential to start dialogue as soon as possible to stop the situation from becoming more strained and to restore stability, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
    The launches came as North Korea, more isolated than ever under self-imposed border closures aimed at preventing a COVID-19 pandemic, appeared to be preparing to open at least some trade across its land border with China.
    Freight trains connecting China with North Korea have resumed for the first time since a 2020 coronavirus border lockdown, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Monday Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said North Korea had few reasons to hold back its missile development.
    Leader Kim appeared to have little hope of a breakthrough with the United States, and China’s sympathy for North Korea and antipathy towards the United States could encourage North Korea to think that China was unlikely to support any effort by the international community to censure it for the tests, he added.
    “North Korea may think this is a safe time to advance its missile development,” Zhao said.
    Last week, China criticised the new U.S. sanctions but also called on all sides to act prudently and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; Yew Lun Tian and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Neil Fullick, Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)

1/17/2022 Health Fears For Australian Blogger Held Three Years In China On Spying Charges by Kirsty Needham
FILE PHOTO: People walk past one of the entrances of Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court where Australian writer Yang Hengjun
is expected to face trial on espionage charges, in Beijing, China May 27, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Australian government and human rights groups said they are concerned about the deteriorating health of Australian blogger Yang Hengjun, three years after he was detained in China, and with a Beijing court yet to deliver a verdict in an espionage trial heard in secrecy eight months ago.
    An Australian citizen born in China, Yang wrote about Chinese democracy and U.S. politics online as a high-profile blogger and also penned a series of spy novels.
    Immediately before he was detained at Guangzhou airport, three years ago on Wednesday, he had been living in New York, where he was a visiting fellow at Columbia University.    He has denied working as a spy for Australia or the United States.
    China’s foreign ministry has previously said “judicial authorities handled the case in strict accordance with the law, (and) fully protected Yang Hengjun’s litigation rights.”
    Diplomatic ties between Australia and China have deteriorated sharply since 2019, when Yang was arrested, with China imposing trade sanctions on some imports from Australia and reacting angrily to its call for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
    In messages to friends and family dictated from prison, Yang said he shifted between pessimism and optimism, and he wanted the Chinese government to publish details of his case openly.
    “When I was outside, one of my objectives was to advocate for rule of law.    I didn’t believe that I would end up becoming a victim of rule by power,” Yang wrote in a message that was circulated by friends and viewed by Reuters.
    Australian diplomats were refused access to Beijing’s No.2 Intermediate People’s Court last May where Yang was tried on unspecified espionage charges, because China said the case involved state secrets.
    China’s courts have a conviction rate of well over 99%, and public and media access to sensitive trials is typically limited.
NUMEROUS DELAYS
    Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, called for his release and said Yang has had no access to his family and only limited and delayed access to lawyers since he was detained by Chinese authorities three years ago.
    “We are very concerned that the verdict from this trial has been subject to numerous delays,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.
    “Neither Dr Yang nor the Australian Government have been provided with details as to the charges against him or the investigation, reinforcing our view that this constitutes the arbitrary detention of an Australian citizen.”
    Australia was “extremely concerned about Dr Yang’s health,” she added, and called on Chinese authorities to meet obligations to provide treatment.
    The Australia director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said conditions in China’s detention facilities were poor.
    “We are very concerned that Yang’s detention has exacerbated his medical problems and that the treatment in prison is inadequate,” she said.
    Yang’s friends told Reuters his worsening health problems included gout, dizzy spells, inability to walk at times, high blood pressure and blood tests that showed he was at risk of kidney failure.
    Any hope for him to be released for medical treatment cannot occur until he is sentenced, which has been delayed until April, his supporters said.
    University of Technology, Sydney professor Chongyi Feng, Yang’s former teacher, told Reuters Yang had said in a message he had “committed no crime, let alone espionage.”
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/17/2022 U.N. Envoy Seeks Thai Help To Halt Deterioration Of Myanmar Crisis
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha meets with the U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer
at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 17, 2022. THAILAND GOVERNMENT HOUSE/Handout via REUTERS
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – A United Nations envoy on Monday called on Thailand’s support to prevent a deterioration in the crisis in neighbouring Myanmar and welcomed assurances that refugees fleeing military operations would be protected by the Thai government.
    Noeleen Heyzer, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on Myanmar, met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to court support for international efforts to help displaced people and press Myanmar’s junta to commit to a five-point peace plan it agreed to with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
    “The prime minister has an important role in preventing further deterioration of the crisis in Myanmar, where an implosion would bring further instability to an already volatile border area,” Heyzer said in a statement.
    Myanmar’s military has longstanding ties with Thailand, which experts say has been measured with its criticism of the junta, concerned that it could get flooded with refugees if the army steps up operations against opponents.
    Thousands of Myanmar civilians have fled into Thailand since clashes near the border erupted after a coup last year.    More than 1,300 people are still in a Thai shelter, according to official figures.
    Myanmar’s military has been fighting on multiple fronts since seizing power last year, cracking down with deadly force on protests while intensifying operations against ethnic minority armies and newly formed militias allied with the ousted government.
    The junta has defended the operations as necessary to fight “terrorists.”
    Prayuth, a retired general who led a coup in 2014, said Myanmar’s problems were complex and its situation should be addressed “gradually with understanding and through building trust with Myanmar’s leader.”
    Prayuth told Heyzer Thailand had a “humanitarian area” and refugees were returned only on a voluntary basis.
    Several international organisations have told Reuters they have no access to that area.
    Ratchada Thanadirek, a government spokeswoman, declined to comment on the access issue, but said Thailand provides assistance based on international humanitarian principles.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/17/2022 Explainer-Sri Lanka On The Edge As Debt Burden Mounts by Uditha Jayasinghebr>
FILE PHOTO: A man walks along a beach, against the backdrop of Colombo's Financial City,
Sri Lanka June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12,2018. REUTERS/ Dinuka Liyanawatte
    COLOMBO (Reuters) – Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka is facing its most serious financial crisis in years, raising doubts about its ability to pay its creditors.
    On Tuesday, the island nation will repay $500 million towards an international sovereign bond, the first tranche of a total of $4.5 billion that it needs to pay back this year, to avoid the first default in its history.
    Here are the key details about Sri Lanka’s mounting debt problems https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/sri-lanka-debt-pain-will-go-china-wall-st-2022-01-11.
DEBT PROFILE
    Sri Lanka, through repeated cycles of borrowing since 2007, has piled up $11.8 billion worth of debt through sovereign bonds (ISB), which makes up the largest part – or 36.4% – of its external debt.
    The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is in second place with a 14.3% share, having lent $4.6 billion.    Japan is at 10.9% and China at 10.8%, with each having lent about $3.5 billion each.
    The rest of the debt is owned by countries such as India and international agencies including the World Bank and United Nations.
CHINESE LOANS
    China has lent billions of dollars to Sri Lanka, partly under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), over the past decade for infrastructure projects including highways, ports, an airport and a coal power plant.
    Critics say the funds have been used for white elephant projects with low returns. China rejects that criticism.
    Sri Lanka has asked China to restructure https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/sri-lankas-president-asks-china-restructure-debt-repayments-2022-01-09 its debt repayments to help navigate the financial crisis.
GOVERNMENT FACES MULTIPLE CHALLENGES
    The government is struggling to tame retail inflation, which is running at a decade-high, amid surging commodity prices.    It is also struggling to meet a fiscal deficit target of 8.9% of gross domestic product.
    Since November, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s ratings agencies have all downgraded Sri Lanka on debt default worries.    Central bank governor https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/sri-lanka-meet-all-debt-repayments-while-rebuilding-fx-reserves-cenbank-chief-2022-01-12 Ajith Nivard Cabraal has said the country will meet all its debt repayments in 2022.
SOME SAY RESTRUCTURE, DON’T REPAY
    Some experts believe Sri Lanka should restructure its debt and establish a three-year repayment structure.
    Doing so would save precious dollars and lessen the burden on Sri Lankan citizens who are facing shortages of imported goods such as milk powder, gas and fuel.
    “Sri Lanka is unreasonably committed to repaying its debt.    It is more prudent to press pause on debt repayment and take care of critical economic needs,” Verité Research Executive Director and Economist Dr. Nishan de Mel told Reuters.
REBUILDING OF FOREX RESERVES
    Fitch estimates the Sri Lankan central bank will also need to arrange for $2.4 billion to help state-owned and private firms in the country honour the debt obligations they have in 2022, over and above the $4.5 billion central government debt.
    The country also needs around $20 billion for essential imports such as fuel, food and intermediate goods for exports.
    Reserves have been at a critical level for months but grew to $3.1 billion at the end of December boosted by a $1.5 billion yuan currency swap from China.
(Editing by Swati Bhat, Sanjeev Miglani and Timothy Heritage)

1/17/2022 Beijing Olympics Tickets Will Not Be Publicly Sold Due To COVID-19
FILE PHOTO: Genting Snow Park, a competition venue for Snowboarding and Freestyle Skiing during the Beijing
2022 Winter Olympics, is seen in Beijing, China January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Tickets for the Winter Olympics set to begin on Feb. 4 will be distributed to “targeted” groups of people and will not be sold to the general public, the organising committee said on Monday, in the latest setback to the Games inflicted by COVID-19.
    Organisers had said in September that there would not be any international spectators at the Games, under COVID-19 prevention policies that have all but shut China’s borders to international travellers.
    It cited the “severe and complex” COVID-19 situation and the need to protect the safety of Olympics personnel and spectators in Monday’s announcement.
    Local spectators who receive tickets must observe strict COVID-19 prevention measures before, during and after attending Olympic events, the committee said. It did not give further details, or further specify how tickets would be distributed.
    China, which has largely managed to curb local COVID-19 infections, is scrambling to prevent the spread of scattered outbreaks of the highly infections Omicron variant just as the busy Lunar New Year travel period begins.
    The Olympics, to be held in the Chinese capital and neighbouring Hebei province, will take place in a “closed loop” that will keep athletes and other Games personnel separated from the general Chinese public.    Most participants will arrive on special charter planes.
    Last month, North America’s National Hockey League said its players would not participate in the Olympic tournament in Beijing due to COVID-19 disruptions of the league schedule.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

1/17/2022 China Won’t ‘Bully’ Neighbours Over S. China Sea, Foreign Minister Says
FILE PHOTO: China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Philippine's Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.,
bump their elbows during a meeting in Manila, Philippines January 16, 2021. Francis Malasig/Pool via REUTERS
    MANILA (Reuters) – China will not use its strength to “bully” its smaller neighbours including the Philippines, its foreign minister said on Monday, as he highlighted the importance of settling disputes in the South China Sea peacefully.
    “Stressing only one side’s claims and imposing one’s own will on the other is not a proper way for neighbours to treat each other and it goes against the oriental philosophy of how people should get along with each other,” Wang Yi, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, told a virtual forum organised by China’s embassy in Manila and a local advocacy group.
    His remarks come less than two months after the Philippines condemned China’s blocking of a military resupply ship in the South China Sea, which prompted a warning from treaty ally the United States that an attack on Philippine vessels would invoke its mutual defence commitments.
    China’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea, which it says are based on historic maps, have put it at odds with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, which have competing claims to islands and features.
    China has been accused by Western countries of aggression and provocations by deploying hundreds of coast guard and fishing vessels in the exclusive economic zones of its neighbours, including the Philippines, far off its mainland.
    China says its actions are justified, because the vessels are in its territory.    The Philippines has objected to what it calls “incursions” and “swarming.”
    Wang said China hopes with the Philippines it can “properly manage and resolve the issue in the spirit of goodwill and pragmatism.”
    Chinese deputy foreign minister Fu Ying told the forum that China hopes that whoever wins a Philippine presidential election this May could “wisely, courageously, responsibly carry on Philippines’ independent foreign policy.”
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/17/2022 Marcos Jr. Wins Ruling On Eligibility To Run In Philippine Poll by Karen Lema
FILE PHOTO: Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, waves
to supporters after filing his certificate of candidacy for president in the 2022 national election,
in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, October 6, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo
    MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ election commission on Monday rejected a complaint seeking to block the presidential bid of the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, ruling prior tax violations while in public office should not derail his run.
    The petition had sought to cancel the certificate of candidacy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, accusing him of misrepresenting his eligibility because of the three-decade-old tax conviction and arguing it should mean a lifetime election ban.
    But judges on the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) said the petition lacked merit.
    “There is no intention on the part of respondent to deceive the electorate as to hide qualifications for public office,” their ruling stated.
    The petition filed by a group of civic leaders is one of a number of complaints designed to sideline Marcos, who has emerged as a clear favourite https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/late-dictators-son-marcos-takes-clear-lead-philippine-election-poll-2021-12-22, centred on an 1995 conviction for failing to pay income tax and file tax returns while in public office from 1982-1985.
    The Court of Appeals acquitted Marcos of non-payment of taxes in 1997, but it upheld the guilty verdict on failing to file tax returns, which the COMELEC noted “is not tax evasion.”
    In dismissing the petition, the COMELEC said there was nothing in the Court of Appeals’ decision penalising Marcos, who has served as vice governor, governor, congressman and senator, with perpetual disqualification from holding public office.
    That penalty, which was added as an amendment to the internal revenue code in 1985, only took effect in 1986 and therefore could not be applied retroactively, COMELEC added.
    The lawyers in the complaint said they would file a motion for reconsideration with COMELEC’s full bench of judges.
    “We thank the Commission on Elections for upholding the law and the right of every bona fide candidate like Bongbong Marcos to run for public office free from any form of harassment and discrimination,” Marcos’s spokesman, Vic Rodriguez, said in a statement, referring to the candidate by his nickname.
    The other petitions seeking to disqualify Marcos are pending with the COMELEC’s first division.
    The election to choose a successor to Rodrigo Duterte, who is barred by the constitution from a second term, takes place on May 9.
    “The fact remains he (Marcos) is showing to be the most popular candidate,” said political analyst Edmund Tayao, adding that “denying the public that choice will have serious repercussions.”
    Other leading candidates include senator and retired boxing champion Manny Pacquiao https://reut.rs/3EYCDzw, Manila mayor Francisco Domagoso https://reut.rs/3FgtdzN, Vice President Leni Robredo https://reut.rs/324n4aw and Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty, Ed Davies and Alex Richardson)

1/17/2022 India’s Main Cities Record Sharp Fall In COVID-19 Infections
FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker collects a test swab sample from a child amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
at a testing centre inside a hospital in New Delhi, India, January 14, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s capital Delhi and financial hub Mumbai have reported a big fall in COVID-19 infections in the past two days and most of those who contracted the virus have recovered at home, authorities said on Monday.
    Mumbai’s daily new infections fell below 10,000 on Sunday for the first time since early this month, after touching an all-time high of 20,971 on Jan. 7.    It reported 7,895 infections late on Sunday, Mumbai’s municipal corporation said.
    Delhi’s cases have fallen consistently since hitting a peak of 28,867 on Jan. 13 and is expected to be fewer than 15,000 on Monday, for the first time since early January, the city government’s health minister told reporters.
    Both cities have said more than 80% of their COVID-19 hospital beds have remained unoccupied since the fast-transmitting Omicron variant led to a massive surge in cases from the start of the year.
    “With very large numbers of sub-clinical, asymptomatic and undetected cases, it is difficult to pinpoint a peak by new cases,” Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine & Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said in an email.
    “In this situation, monitoring hospitalisation is more prudent; today’s case can be next week’s hospitalisation.”
    Other epidemiologists say a national peak in cases could come by early- or mid-February.     Experts have attributed the low hospitalisations to high levels of previous infections and vaccination https://www.reuters.com/world/india/indias-new-covid-19-cases-hit-seven-month-high-117100-2022-01-07.
    India has fully vaccinated about 70% of its 939 million adults and hopes to give the primary two doses to another 70 million or so teenagers by next month.
    The government has advised states to mainly ask only people with symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested https://www.reuters.com/world/india/indias-new-covid-19-rules-aim-free-up-resources-carry-risks-2022-01-13 instead of random checks like earlier that badly stretched resources, especially in the last major wave in April and May when millions were infected and tens of thousands died.
    India’s COVID-19 infections rose by 258,089 in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Monday, taking the tally to 37.38 million – the most in the world after the United States.
    Deaths rose by 385 – nearly 40% of them due to a delayed recording of previous fatalities in the southern state of Kerala – for a toll of 486,451. Only the United States and Brazil have reported more total COVID-19 deaths.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Chandini Monnappa and Neha Arora; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Clarence Fernandez)

1/17/2022 China’s Birth Rate Drops To Record Low In 2021
FILE PHOTO: Children play at a playground inside a shopping complex in Shanghai, China June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song
    BEIJING (Reuters) - Mainland China’s birth rate dropped to a record low in 2021, data showed on Monday, extending a downward trend that led Beijing last year to begin allowing couples to have up to three children.
    China scrapped its decades-old one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child limit to try to avoid the economic risks from a rapidly aging population, but the high cost of urban living has deterred couples from having more children.
    The 2021 rate of 7.52 births per 1,000 people was the lowest since 1949, when the National Statistics Bureau began collating the data, adding further pressure on officials to encourage more births.
    The natural growth rate of China’s population, which excludes migration, was only 0.034% for 2021, the lowest since 1960, according to the data.
    “The demographic challenge is well known but the speed of population aging is clearly faster than expected,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset management.
    “This suggests China’s total population may have reached its peak in 2021.    It also indicates China’s potential growth is likely slowing faster than expected,” Zhang said.
    In addition to allowing couples to have three children, China has been adopting policies aimed at reducing the financial burden of raising children, including banning for-profit after-school tuition, a massive industry, last year.
    China’s working-age population is already declining, which will add pressure on the country’s ability to pay and care for an increasingly elderly country.
    There were 10.62 million births in 2021, the data showed, compared with 12 million in 2020.
    Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert with the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, said birth numbers are likely to fluctuate in the 10 million range before declining further in the absence of more policy changes.
    “But policies will provide greater support for the birth rate in the longer run,” Huang said.
    “Career advancements could be tied to whether you have children or not; economic incentives; or even direct cash payouts by society to meet the cost of raising a family.”
    The birth rate in 2020 was 8.52 births per 1,000 people.
(Reporting by Liangping Gao, Tony Munroe and Ryan Woo; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/17/2022 Australia PM Blames Omicron For Testing Woes As COVID-19 Cases Hit Downward Trend by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: A pharmacy displays a sign to inform customers that Rapid Antigen Test kits are sold out
in wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
    SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday the shortages of at-home antigen tests were “not unique” to the country as authorities deal with a runaway Omicron outbreak that has driven up hospitalisation rates and strains testing systems.
    Australia is facing a shortage of at-home rapid antigen test kits after asymptomatic close contacts were told to bypass government-funded testing hubs, where high volumes delayed results by several days, and take their own tests.
    “The rapid antigen tests are in short supply all around the world.    This is not something that is unique to Australia going through it,” Morrison told radio station 2GB on Monday.    “It’s part of dealing with Omicron.    Omicron has disrupted everything.”
    The country’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), on Monday flagged “significant concerns” about reports of price gouging https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-regulator-flags-significant-concerns-price-hike-covid-19-antigen-tests-2022-01-16 of testing kits amid reports of stockpiling and called inflated prices “clearly outrageous
    ACCC Chair Rod Sims said there were reports of kits costing even up to A$500 ($361) at online retailers, and A$70 per test at stores when they were available for around A$10 at pharmacies weeks ago.
    Morrison, under pressure in an election year for his handling of the Omicron outbreak and not procuring enough supplies of antigen tests, early this month had agreed to provide 10 free kits for low-income earners.
    Doctors and trade unions are demanding free tests for everyone, but Morrison has resisted those calls saying the government would not cover the cost, citing a heightened role for “personal responsibility.”
    Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus said dozens of unions will meet later on Monday to respond “to the failure of the Federal Government to keep us safe.”    A survey by the Australian Institute on Monday showed almost three-quarter of Australians believe they should get free antigen tests.
    In a bid to ease pressure on its testing hubs, Victoria from Monday began rolling out 3 million antigen tests to frontline workers and the vulnerable population, while many other states awaited millions of testing kits to be delivered.
    After successfully containing the virus earlier in the pandemic, Australia has reported nearly 1.3 million cases over the last two weeks, overwhelming hospitals and testing clinics.
    Daily infections on Monday dipped in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s most populous states, amid expectations the Omicron wave had neared its peak https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-nears-omicron-peak-daily-infections-hover-around-records-2022-01-15 in the country.    But net new hospitalisations remain elevated, with more people admitted than at any other time in the pandemic.
    Nearly 74,000 cases were reported on Monday, the country’s lowest tally in a week.    National daily numbers had touched a record 150,000 last Thursday but have been steadily falling since then.
    So far, Australia has reported around 1.6 million infections and 2,699 deaths since the pandemic began.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Maxwell)

1/17/2022 Chinese Cities On High COVID-19 Alert As Lunar New Year Travel Season Starts; Omicron Spreads
People line up during the fifth round of nucleic acid testing at a residential compound following the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Anyang, Henan province, China January 15, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) - Several Chinese cities went on high COVID-19 alert as the Lunar New Year holiday travel season started on Monday, requiring travellers to report their trips days before their arrival, as the Omicron variant reached more areas including Beijing.
    Authorities have warned the highly contagious Omicron adds to the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as hundreds of millions of people travel around China for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1.
    Cities such as Luoyang in central China and Jieyang in the south said on Sunday travellers need to report to communities, employers or hotels their trips three days ahead of arrival.
    The southwestern city of Yulin said on Saturday those who want to enter should fill in an online form, including their health credentials and trip details, one day in advance.
    Over the weekend, the capital Beijing and the southern technology hub Shenzhen each detected one domestically transmitted Omicron case.
    The possibility that the Omicron case in Beijing was infected through imported goods can’t be ruled out, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, said on Monday.
    Li Ang, vice director at the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said a local hospital had admitted nine Omicron infections, with six still being treated.    He did not say when the infections arrived or why they hadn’t been disclosed earlier.
    The city of Meizhou in Guangdong province found one Omicron infection linked to an outbreak in Zhuhai, state television said on Monday.
    So far, at least five provinces and municipalities reported local Omicron infections, while 14 provincial areas found the variant among travellers arriving from overseas.
    China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections, despite a high vaccination rate of 86.6%.    The strategy has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighbouring Hebei province starting Feb. 4.
    Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday, while dozens of international and domestic flights have been suspended.
    China’s aviation regulator said on Monday it would suspend two flights from the United States over COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of cancelled flights this year from the country, where Omicron is spreading, to 76.
    China reported 163 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptom for Sunday, official data showed on Monday, up from 65 a day earlier.
    Sunday’s increase in infections was mainly driven by more cases in the cities of Tianjin and Anyang, where Omicron has been found in local clusters.
    Tianjin and Anyang reported slightly more than 600 local symptomatic infections from the current outbreaks, smaller than many clusters overseas, but authorities there still have limited movement within the cities and trips to outside.
(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, Stella Qiu, Albee Zhang and Ryan Woo; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Michael Perry)

1/17/2022 Japan To Expedite Booster Shots, Bolster Island Defence - PM Kishida by Kiyoshi Takenaka
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks before the media at his official residence as an
extraordinary Diet session was closed, in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan will bring forward COVID-19 vaccination booster shots by as much as two months, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Monday, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant sends infections soaring nationwide.
    In a policy speech to parliament, Kishida also said Japan would fortify defence capabilities around its southwestern islands near Taiwan, and that the marked improvement of North Korea’s missile technology should not be condoned.
    With an upper house election slated later this year, containing the pandemic is critically important for Kishida.    His predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, stepped down last year after his voter support crumbled as COVID-19 surged.
    “The Kishida administration puts the highest priority on its coronavirus response,” the prime minister said in the speech marking the start of a regular session of parliament.
    From March, booster shots for the elderly will be administered six months after the second shots, rather than the originally planned eight months, and the interval will be shortened by a month or two for other adults, he said.
    Fewer than 1% of Japanese have received booster shots, far behind Britain’s 53% and 24% in the United States, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
    Kishida underscored a tough battle ahead and asked for the people’s support in fighting the pandemic.
    “We need to remind ourselves afresh this invisible enemy is tougher than expected,” he said.    “I am determined to press ahead calmly with our response based on the latest findings, while consulting specialists and not letting fear dominate us.”
ISLAND DEFENCE
    On the security front, Kishida said he planned to strengthen Japan’s island defence capabilities to better protect the Nansei island chain, which stretches to Taiwan from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands.
    Tension over Taiwan has been rising as Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks to assert his country’s sovereignty claims over the democratically ruled island.
    Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said last month any emergency over Taiwan would mean an emergency for Japan, as well as for Tokyo’s security alliance with the United States.
    Kishida also said Japan stands firm against North Korea’s missile launches.
    “North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches are never acceptable, and the significant improvement of its missile technology must not be condoned,” he said.
    North Korea has carried out a series of ballistic missile launches this year in an unusually fast sequence of weapons tests.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by William Mallard)

1/17/2022 Australia PM’s Ratings Take A Hit Months Away From Election, Poll Shows
FILE PHOTO: Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison gestures as he makes a statement at the UN Climate Change
Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 1, 2021. Alastair Grant/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval ratings slid after his handling of the Omicron-driven coronavirus outbreak fuelled a backlash, a widely watched poll showed on Tuesday, putting opposition Labor into a leading position months away from a federal election.
    Australian voters are losing confidence in Morrison and his Liberal-National Party coalition government on the economy, jobs, health and the response to a fast-moving Omicron wave, according to a poll done by research company Resolve Strategic for the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
    The survey of 1,607 voters was conducted from Jan. 11 to 15, before an Australian court upheld a government decision to cancel unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa just ahead of the Australian Open.
    A medical exemption that allowed the Serbian world No. 1 to enter the country without being vaccinated against COVID-19 sparked fury in Australia, and became a political issue for Morrison.
    Morrison has always enjoyed a strong lead over his rival, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, but has lost a double-digit margin he held just two months ago.    Around 38% of voters want Morrison as the country’s leader, while 31% support Albanese.
    Labor has increased its primary vote to 35% from 32% since November, while the ruling coalition’s fell five points to 34%.
    Morrison, who has to call an election before May, has been fielding criticism over his handling of the Omicron outbreak that has pushed daily infections to record levels, driving up hospitalisation rates and straining health systems.
    Instead of reinstating restrictions early this month, he said Australia must “push through” the Omicron wave and relaxed isolation rules for close contacts in a bid to ease the pressure on businesses that are facing staff shortages.
    Trailing in polls is not new for Morrison.    More than three years ago he had just become prime minister after his predecessor was rolled in a party-room vote, yet he secured a stunning election win in May 2019.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

1/18/2022 N. Korea Tested Tactical Guided Missiles In Fresh Sign Of Evolving Arsenal by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of
North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired tactical guided missiles on Monday, state media KCNA said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of recent tests that highlighted its evolving missile programmes amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
    The missile test was the North’s fourth in 2022, with two previous launches involving “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another test on Friday using a pair of SRBMs fired from train cars.
    South Korea’s military said on Monday that North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from an airport in its capital, Pyongyang, which flew about 380 km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42 km (26 miles).
    The Academy of Defence Science conducted a test of tactical guided missiles from the country’s west, and they “precisely hit an island target” off the east coast, the official KCNA news agency said on Tuesday, without elaborating.
    “The test-fire was aimed to selectively evaluate tactical guided missiles being produced and deployed and to verify the accuracy of the weapon system,” KCNA said.
    It “confirmed the accuracy, security and efficiency of the operation of the weapon system under production.”
    The unusually rapid sequence of launches has drawn U.S. condemnation and a push for new U.N. sanctions while Pyongyang warns of stronger actions, raising the spectre of a return to the period of “fire and fury” threats in 2017.
    U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim urged Pyongyang to “cease its unlawful and destabilising activities” and reopen dialogue, saying he was open to meeting “without preconditions,” the State Department said after a call with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.
    South Korea’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that it takes all North Korean missile launches as a “direct and serious threat,” but its military is capable of detecting and intercepting them.
    U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric also called the North’s tests “increasingly concerning” during a briefing, calling for all parties to return to talks to defuse tension and promote a “very verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
‘SHOW OF FORCE’
    North Korea used the Sunan airport to test-fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017, with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.
    North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, as a flurry of diplomacy with Washington unfolded from 2018.    But it began testing a range of new SRBM designs after denuclearisation talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.
    Kim did not attend the latest test.
    A photo released by KCNA showed a missile rising into the sky above a cloud of dust, belching flame.
    Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said North Korea appears to have fired KN-24 SRBMs, which were last tested in March 2020 and flew 410 km (255 miles) to a maximum altitude of 50 km (31 miles).
    The KN-24 resembles the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and is designed to evade missile defences and carry out precision strikes, he said.
    “The North seems to have already deployed and begun mass production of the KN-24,” Kim said, referring to the KCNA report.
    “But essentially, the test could be another show of force to underline their recent warning of action.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Howard Goller, David Gregorio, Richard Pullin and Gerry Doyle)

1/18/2022 Australia Suffers Deadliest Day Of Pandemic As Omicron Drives Up Hospital Cases by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: A lone woman, wearing a protective face mask, walks across a city centre bridge as the state of Victoria looks
to curb the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic on Tuesday as a fast-moving Omicron outbreak continued to push up hospitalisation rates to record levels, even as daily infections eased slightly.
    Australia is dealing with its worst COVID-19 outbreak, fuelled by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that has put more people in hospitals and intensive care than at any time during the pandemic.
    A total of 77 deaths was recorded, exceeding the previous national high of 57 last Thursday, official data showed.
    “Today, is a very difficult day for our state,” New South Wales (NSW) Premier Dominic Perrottet said during a media briefing as the state reported 36 deaths, a new pandemic high.
    Only four of those who died in NSW had received their booster shot, prompting the state’s health officials to urge people to avoid delays and get their third dose soon. Thirty-three were double-dosed.
    “There needs to be a sense of urgency in embracing the booster doses,” NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.    “For Omicron, we know that the protection is lower and we need that next boosting to get that higher level of protection.”
    The surge in case numbers battered consumer confidence last week, an ANZ survey on Tuesday showed, triggering self-imposed lockdowns and stifling spending even as states looked to avoid lockdowns and keep businesses open.
    Omicron also dented Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval ratings, according to a widely watched poll on Tuesday, putting opposition Labor into a leading position months out from a federal election.
    Amid rising hospitalisations, Victoria on Tuesday declared a “code brown” in hospitals, usually reserved for shorter-term emergencies, that would give hospitals the power to cancel non-urgent health services and cancel staff leave.
    To help public hospitals cope, the federal government has activated a plan for private hospitals to provide up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff to Omicron-affected areas around the country, Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
    While authorities usually do not specify the coronavirus variant that leads to deaths, officials have said most patients in intensive care were infected with the Omicron strain, with unvaccinated young people forming a “significant number.”
    Queensland said none of Tuesday’s record 16 deaths in the state had received booster shots.    Of the 45 people who have died in the state due to COVID-19 since Dec. 13, only one had received their third dose.
    “Please come forward and get your booster, we know that it makes a difference,” state Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said.
    73,000 new infections were reported on Tuesday, down from a high of 150,000 last Thursday.    So far, Australia has reported about 1.6 million infections since the pandemic began, of which around 1.3 million were in the last two weeks. Total deaths stood at 2,776.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; editing by Richard Pullin)

1/18/2022 Tianjin Reports Fewer COVID-19 Cases; Curbs Affect Some Boeing Employees
FILE PHOTO: A medical worker in a protective suit collects a swab from a resident for nucleic acid
testing at a makeshift testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), after local cases of the
Omicron variant were detected in Tianjin, China January 11, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese city of Tianjin reported fewer COVID-19 cases on Tuesday after quickly taking measures to curb the highly transmissable Omicron variant, steps that have also affected the local operations of foreign firms such as Boeing.
    Tianjin, a key port in northern China, reported 18 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms for Monday, the National Health Commission (NHC) data showed on Tuesday.    That marks the lowest daily number in a week.
    NHC official He Qinghua said on Saturday the risk of the Tianjin outbreak spreading to other areas was gradually declining, as new cases in the past three days were mainly in people who had been quarantined.
    The China unit of U.S. planemaker Boeing said on Tuesday that a small number of employees has been impacted by various “community-level lockdowns” during the Tianjin outbreak.
    “We are currently maintaining a normal level of operation,” Boeing China said in a reponse to Reuters queries.
    Assembly plants for Volkswagen and Toyota in Tianjin remained closed due to the outbreak.
    The component factory of Volkswagen in the city has resumed some of the shifts since Thursday last week, according to a statement from Volkswagen Group China on Tuesday.
    Tianjin reported over 300 local symptomatic cases from the current cluster, which has also spread Omicron infections to two other cities.    It remains unclear how many local cases exactly in Tianjin were Omicron.
    Tianjin’s caseload remains smaller than many outbreaks overseas, but it has made it harder for locals to leave town, sealed up higher risk communities and launched multiple rounds of testing among its 14 million residents, under China’s guideline to quickly curb any flare-up as soon as possible.
    The nation’s capital Beijing, about to stage the Winter Olympics Games starting Feb. 4, reported one local case with confirmed symptoms for Monday.    The infected individual was a close contact of a local Omicron case reported for Jan. 15.
    The central Chinese city of Anyang, which detected Omicron in an outbreak that it said could be traced back to a person arriving from Tianjin, reported 94 local symptomatic cases for Monday, the highest daily count since Jan. 8.
    Anyang has stepped up its curbs over the weekend, demanding residents not to leave their communities or villages at will.
    China reported a total of 127 local cases with confirmed symptoms for Monday, down from 163 a day earlier.
    There were no new deaths for Monday, leaving the death toll at 4,636.    As of Jan. 17, mainland China had 105,258 confirmed symptomatic cases, including both local and imported ones.
(Reporting by Roxanne Liu, Stella Qiu, Nori Shirouzu, Albee Zhang and Ryan Woo; Editing by Kim Coghill and Michael Perry)

1/18/2022 Japan’s Osaka To Set New Daily Record With 6,000 COVID-19 Cases - Kyodo
People wearing protective masks, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, stand
in front of a show window of a department store at a shopping district in Tokyo, Japan,
January 18, 2022. 2022 is the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Tiger. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s western prefecture of Osaka will record about 6,000 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, the Kyodo news agency said, far surpassing the previous all-time high of 3,760 set on the weekend.
    The numbers of new cases in the capital, Tokyo, are also nearing records, in a resurgence driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant that has pushed Japan’s new cases to the vicinity of records, with more than 25,000 in recent days.
    The governors of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures agreed this week to ask the central government for infection-fighting measures, such as shorter opening hours for bars and restaurants.
    Ten prefectures have made such requests, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Tuesday.    An official decision on the quasi-emergency measures, as they are called, is likely to be made on Friday.
    That would follow this month’s curbs in three regions hosting U.S. military facilities, after it appeared that base outbreaks of Omicron spilled into surrounding communities.
    Tokyo’s occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients rose to 21.1% on Monday, crossing a key threshold for additional pandemic measures.    An increase to 50% would warrant declaration of a full state of emergency.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/18/2022 Indonesia Passes Law To Relocate Capital To Remote Borneo
FILE PHOTO: Indonesian Air Force helicopters carrying a big flag fly above high rise buildings during the country's
76th Independence Day celebrations in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s parliament has approved a bill to relocate the nation’s capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan on Borneo, House Speaker Puan Maharani said on Tuesday.
    The new state capital law, which provides a legal framework for President Joko Widodo’s ambitious proposal, stipulates how development of the capital will be funded and governed.
(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/18/2022 Hong Kong Orders Hamster Cull After COVID-19 Hits Pets by Jessie Pang
People stand in front of a temporarily closed pet shop after the government announced to euthanize around
2,000 hamsters in the city after finding evidence for the first time of possible animal-to-human transmission
of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China, January 18, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong ordered a cull of 2,000 hamsters on Tuesday and warned pet owners not to kiss animals after a new cluster of COVID-19 cases was traced to a pet shop.
    The outbreak of Delta variant cases in humans linked to the shop worker prompted tests on hundreds of animals, with 11 hamsters showing up positive.
    That has brought a pet rodent clampdown on Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which is following the mainland’s zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 even as much of the world shifts to living with it.
    The territory’s Health Secretary Sophia Chan stressed at a news conference that there was no evidence domestic animals can pass the disease to humans, but authorities were anyway acting out of caution to ban imports and sales of pet rodents.
    “Pet owners should keep a good hygiene practice, including washing hands after touching the animals, handling their food or other items, and avoid kissing the animals,” Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department director Leung Siu-fai Leung also told reporters.
    “If citizens are raising hamsters, they should keep them at home. Do not bring them out.”
HAMSTER HOTLINE
    Hundreds of samples were collected from animals also including rabbits and chinchillas, but only the hamsters have tested positive so far.
    “To be careful, we will take preventive measures against any transmission possibilities that we cannot rule out,” said Chan.
    After three months without local transmission, Hong Kong has dozens of new cases in humans this year, triggering fresh restrictions on flights and social life.
    Thousands of people have been sent to a makeshift government quarantine facility.    Most of the new cases are of the highly-contagious new Omicron variety, though the cluster traced to a pet shop worker was Delta.
    Leung said about 2,000 hamsters in 34 pet shops and storage facilities would be put down “humanely.”    Anyone who purchased a hamster after Dec. 22, 2021 should hand them over to authorities for culling and not leave them on the streets, he added.
    A hotline for COVID-19 enquiries related to hamsters is also being set up.
(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/18/2022 Swine Fever - Hit Philippines Sees ‘Substantial’ Growth In Hog Population
FILE PHOTO: Pigs and a water buffalo are brought to higher ground in Sta Rosa, Nueva Ecija in
northern Philippines October 19, 2015 after it was hit by Typhoon Koppu. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
    MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines’ swine inventory increased by about 700,000 heads over the last 12 months owing to a repopulation programme, following two years of declines due to African swine fever outbreaks, an agriculture official said on Tuesday.
    The inventory has risen to 9.8 million heads, from 9.1 million a year ago, said Reildrin Morales, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry.
    The increase was “substantial,” he said in a virtual briefing, citing official data, after the industry suffered a decline of more than 3 million heads between 2019 and 2020 mainly due to massive culling.
    The Philippines, the world’s seventh-biggest pork importer before local demand was hammered by the pandemic, has been hit hard by such outbreaks and forced to ramp up pork imports to address an acute domestic shortage and temper food inflation.
    As of Jan. 13, 45 villages across the country still had active cases of African swine fever, a small fraction of the 3,582 villages hit by the disease since the first outbreak was reported in 2019, data from the department showed.
    Morales said the private sector has taken a lead role in the government-funded repopulation programme, and he expects the increased domestic supply to help stabilise pork prices eventually.
    “By the third quarter of 2022, if the momentum and our repopulation and other initiatives continue, we can expect our pork supply to be on the positive side,” he said.
(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/18/2022 China Urges Caution Opening Overseas Mail After Omicron Case by Josh Horwitz
FILE PHOTO: A delivery driver sorts parcels as he sits in the trunk of his electric tricycle following an
outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China is urging people to wear masks and gloves when opening mail, especially from abroad, after authorities suggested the first case of the Omicron coronavirus virus variant found in Beijing could have arrived via a package from Canada.
    Authorities vowed to step up disinfection of overseas mail and are insisting postal staff handling it are fully vaccinated.
    The precautions come less than three weeks before the capital opens the Winter Olympic Games and as several cities work to stamp out new outbreaks of coronavirus infections.
    “Minimize purchases of overseas goods or receiving mail from abroad,” state broadcaster CCTV said late on Monday in a social media post.
    “Be sure to protect yourself during face-to-face handovers and wear masks and gloves; try to open the package outdoors.”
    Health officials said the person found infected with the Omicron variant opened a package from Canada that had been routed through the United States and Hong Kong and transmission via the package “could not be ruled out.”
    The case highlighted the importance of “personal defence,” CCTV said.
    Similar suggestions on how to handle parcels, not just those from overseas, were made by the National Health Commission on its official WeChat account and reposted by authorities in the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing.
    China has been an outlier in asserting that COVID-19 can be transmitted via cold-chain imports such as frozen meat and fish, even though the World Health Organization has played down the risk, and has been pushing a narrative via state media that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan.
    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year that the relative risk of coronavirus infections through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is considered low.
    In recent weeks, China has been battling a resurgence in cases in several cities, some of them of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.    On Tuesday, it reported 127 new local cases with confirmed symptoms.
    The State Post Bureau issued a notice on Monday stating that international mail must be disinfected after reaching China, and staffers who process and deliver international mail must have received COVID-19 vaccinations and a booster.
    China Post has also been reminding recipients of overseas mail to disinfect the contents “in a timely manner” with stickers pasted on parcels.
(Reporting by Josh Horwitz; Additional reporting by Dominique Patton in Beijing and Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Brenda Goh, Robert Birsel and Raissa Kasolowsky)

1/18/2022 Hong Kong Police Arrest Two Ex-Flight Attendants Over COVID-19 Rule Breach
FILE PHOTO: Passengers wearing face masks stand at the departures hall of Hong Kong International Airport, following infections
of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China, January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police said they have arrested and charged two former flight attendants over allegations they broke the city’s coronavirus rules.
    The statement, which was published late on Monday, did not name the airline but the announcement comes after Cathay Pacific said in January it had fired two aircrew who were suspected of breaching COVID-19 protocols.
    Police said the two had returned to Hong Kong from the United States on Dec. 24 and 25 where they had “conducted unnecessary activities” during their home isolation period.
    They both later tested positive for the fast-spreading Omicron strain.    If convicted, they could face up to six months in prison and a fine of up to HK$5,000 ($642).
    They have been released on bail with their case to be heard on Feb. 9.
    Hong Kong’s flagship carrier has faced blame for the initial spread of Omicron into the community, with leader Carrie Lam singling out Cathay and launching two investigations into the company.
    Chairman Patrick Healy said the company was cooperating with the government on the probes, which focus on non compliance with coronavirus rules and rostering of crew onto cargo flights, according to an internal video to staff that was reviewed by Reuters.
    Hong Kong has continually adjusted its quarantine rules for air crew, dramatically tightening them after the Omicron outbreak in late December, leading the airline to cancel most of its planned passenger and cargo flights in January.
    The airline had been struggling to staff many flights even before the rules were tightened, as some destinations relied on pilots volunteering to fly punishing rosters involving five weeks locked in hotel rooms.
    Healy said Cathay’s crew had spent more than 62,000 nights in Hong Kong’s quarantine hotels in 2021, with none contracting COVID-19 for the first eight months of the year.    All are fully vaccinated.
    Hong Kong is following mainland China’s zero-tolerance approach to control COVID-19 as the rest of the world shifts toward living with the coronavirus.
    Unlike the mainland, the global financial hub is quite dependent on business travellers and imported goods.
($1 = 7.7900 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Farah Master. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/18/2022 Cambodia To Resume Treason Trial Of Opposition Leader by Prak Chan Thul
FILE PHOTO: Leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha attends a meeting with French Ambassador to Cambodia
Eva Nguyen Binhin at his home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring/File Photo
    PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia is set to resume the treason trial on Wednesday of banned opposition party leader Kem Sokha after a two-year delay due to the pandemic, in a case condemned by the United States as politically motivated.
    Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was banned ahead of a 2018 election that was swept by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
    CNRP has since been decimated https://reut.rs/3FFbMI7, with many of its members arrested or fleeing into exile in what activists say is a sweeping crackdown designed to thwart challenges to CPP’s power monopoly.
    “He will go to court to fight the charges,” Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng told Reuters, confirming his attendance.
    Kem Sokha was freed from house arrest in 2019 but remains banned from political activities. His daughter urged the court to drop the charges.
    “It’s overdue.    The trial should move swiftly, for Cambodia’s sake,” Monovithya Kem told Reuters.
    “He is in strong spirits,” she added, referring to his health.
    The treason charges stem from accusations he was conspiring with the United States to overthrow self-style strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades.
    Kem Sokha denies the charges and the United States has dismissed the allegations as “fabricated conspiracy theories https://reut.rs/3tGKnmy.”
    The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh urged authorities to stop “politically motivated trials,” including that of Kem Sokha and other members of the political opposition, journalists, and labour and environmental activists.
    “Promoting democracy and respect for human rights is central to U.S. foreign policy in Cambodia and around the world,” embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier said.
    Cambodia’s justice ministry said the trials were not politically motivated and urged the U.S. embassy to provide evidence to support its claim and not to interfere.
    “This allegation is legally baseless,” the ministry’s spokesman Chin Malin said.
(Editing by Martin Petty)

1/18/2022 Iran Starts Trial Of Arab Separatist Leader Linked To Military Parade Attack
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the attack during the military parade in Ahvaz, Iran September 22, 2018. Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) - An Iranian ethnic Arab separatist leader went on trial in Iran on Tuesday on charges of involvement in an attack on a 2018 military parade that killed 25 people and several other bombings, state media reported.
    Iran said in 2020 that its security forces arrested Habib Farajollah Chaab, a dissident Swedish-Iranian dual national, without saying where or how he was captured.
    Neighbouring Turkey later detained 11 people, accusing them of involvement in Chaab’s abduction and smuggling to Iran.
    At Tuesday’s trial, Chaab was charged with leading the separatist Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, which seeks a separate state in the oil-rich Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, and plotting and carrying out “numerous bombings and terrorist operations” including the attack on the military parade, the state news agency IRNA reported.
    The prosecutor charged Chaab with being “corrupt on Earth,” a capital offence under Iran’s strict form of Islamic law, IRNA said.
    Another separatist group, also seeking independence for Khuzestan, claimed responsibility for the parade attack that killed 12 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
    Islamic State militants also claimed responsibility. Neither claim provided evidence.
    The trial comes amid tensions between Iran and Sweden, which is prosecuting a former Iranian official arrested in Stockholm in late 2019 for having allegedly played a leading role in mass executions of political prisoners in Iran in 1988.
    The official, Hamid Noury, has denied the charges and Iran’s judiciary on Monday denounced the hearing as a “show trial,” the semi-official news agency Fars reported.
    Iran has had tense relations with its ethnic minorities, including Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and Baluch, and has accused them of aligning with neighbouring countries rather than Tehran.
    Arabs and other minorities have long said they face discrimination in Iran, a charge the state rejects.
    The Islamic Republic’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said at the time of the parade attack that the assailants were financed by Iran’s main regional rival Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
    Saudi Arabia and the UAE denied Khamenei’s allegations.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Angus MacSwan)

1/19/2022 Kung Fu Master Sin Wants To Run Hong Kong As Leadership Race Looms by Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu
FILE PHOTO: Buildings are seen above Hong Kong and Chinese flags, as pro-China supporters celebration after China's
parliament passes national security law for Hong Kong, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong kung fu master and film producer Checkley Sin Kwok Lam said on Wednesday he intended to run in the city’s leadership race, a surprise move that comes as incumbent leader Carrie Lam has yet to confirm whether she will run for a second term.
    The 65-year-old is the first person to announce their candidacy ahead of the election on March 27.    Chief Executive Lam, who has presided over some of Hong Kong’s most tumultuous periods in history, is due to end her term in June.
    Willing candidates need the backing of a powerful “patriots-only” electoral body formed by 1,500 pro-Beijing people in Hong Kong.    It was unclear whether Sin had such support.
    In a YouTube video, Sin said his internet supporters convinced him to change his mind on not getting involved in politics.
    “Under the new election system, I believe every capable and reliable patriot can join the new chief executive election,” Sin said.    “I believe that I have the ability to win.”
    With the election just weeks away, the silence from leader Lam and other heavyweights is unusual.    Local media have speculated that potential candidates include Lam, Financial Secretary Paul Chan and former chief of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan.    Lam has repeatedly declined to comment on whether she will run for a second term.
    Sin, who produced the film Ip Man, has been an active promoter of martial arts in the city. He heads the World Wing Chun Union, which focuses on the traditional southern Chinese kung fu style which was popularised in Hong Kong by Ip Man and Bruce Lee.
    Shares of National Arts Group, from which Sin resigned as chairman last July, soared more than 50% on Wednesday in their highest percentage gain since 2006.    The company’s market value is around HK$102 million ($13 million).
    Hong Kong-born Sin has his own YouTube channel with 155,000 subscribers and posts online every few days on topics ranging from politics to the Beijing Olympics.    In 2021, one of his shows focused on what he called ‘Western hypocrisy’ on Hong Kong.
    He first started his online commentary in October 2019 at the height of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests where he strongly sided with the government and the police force.
    The nomination period runs from Feb 15- March 2 and candidates must get nominations from at least 188 of the 1,500 people in the election committee, according to a document from city’s legislature.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Michael Perry)

1/19/2022 Taiwan To Shore Up Honduras Ties, VP To Attend Inauguration
FILE PHOTO: Tainan city mayor William Lai speaks at an news
conference in Taipei, Taiwan September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yeh.G.E
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan Vice President William Lai will attend the inauguration of new Honduran president Xiomara Castro, Taiwan’s presidential office said on Wednesday, seeking to shore up ties as China ramps up diplomatic pressure against the island.
    Taiwan’s government has said it would work with Castro to deepen relations on the basis of their longstanding friendship with the country, although Castro has floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing.
    Castro is the first female leader of the Central American country, one of only 14 nations with formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
    China views democratically ruled Taiwan as one of its provinces with no right to the trappings of a state, a view Taiwan’s government strongly disputes.
    Presidential office spokesman Xavier Chang said President Tsai Ing-wen hoped the delegation could help boost relations with Honduras and show the world Taiwan’s determination to participate on the world stage.
    “Taiwan must also demonstrate to the international community that democratic Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner,” he said.
    Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s high-profile de facto ambassador in Washington, will be part of the delegation for the Jan. 27 inauguration, Chang added.
    Visits by senior Taiwanese leaders to allies in Latin America and the Caribbean are generally accompanied by layovers in the United States, where they often meet U.S. officials, to the anger of China.
    Vice Foreign Minister Alexander Yui said there would be one-day transit stops in the United States, but declined to provide details, saying discussions were ongoing.
    Asked whether Lai would meet U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also going for the inauguration, Yui said there would “definitely be an opportunity” to interact with other official delegations.
    The United States has been eager for Honduras to retain relations with Taiwan, as it frets about growing Chinese influence in its backyard.
    China has been stepping up pressure to win over Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, last month re-establishing ties with Nicaragua, and has openly said it is gunning to bring down the number to zero.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Sarah Wu; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/19/2022 Afghan Acting PM Calls For Official Recognition Of Taliban Administration
FILE PHOTO: An Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flag hangs over a street in Kabul,
Afghanistan, October 19, 2021. Picture taken October 19, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
    KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s acting prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, on Wednesday called for international governments to officially recognise the country’s Taliban administration, saying at a news conference in Kabul that all conditions had been met.
    “I ask all governments, especially Islamic countries, that they should start recognition,” Akhund said, in his first major public broadcast appearance since he assumed the role in September.
    Foreign powers have been reluctant to recognise the Taliban administration which took over Afghanistan in August while Western nations led by the United States have frozen billions of dollars worth of Afghan banking assets and cut off development funding that once formed the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy.
    Akhund and other Taliban administration officials made an appeal at the news conference, also attended by United Nations officials, for a loosening of restrictions on money into the country, blaming its growing economic crisis on the freezing of funds.
    “Short-term aid is not the solution; we must try to find a way to solve problems fundamentally,” he said.
    The international community has ramped up humanitarian aid, designed to address urgent needs and largely bypass official channels.    But as the country faces a cash crunch and a deteriorating economy over the harsh winter, millions of people have plunged into poverty.
    The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons also spoke at the event, saying Afghanistan’s economic crisis was a serious problem that needed to be addressed by all countries.
    “The United Nations is working to revitalise Afghanistan’s economy and fundamentally address Afghanistan’s economic problems,” she said.
    Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said the Taliban administration was seeking economic relations with the international community.
    “Humanitarian aid is the short-term solution to economic problems; but what is needed to solve problems in the long run is the implementation of infrastructure projects,” he said.
(Reporting by Kabul newsroom; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

1/19/2022 Japan Set To Widen COVID-19 Curbs As Omicron Drives Record Infections
People wearing protective face masks walk on the street, amid the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan January 19, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan was poised on Wednesday to widen COVID-19 curbs to the capital, Tokyo, and a dozen regions covering half the population, as the Omicron variant of coronavirus drives record new infections.
    Already in effect in three regions, the measures, set to run from Friday until Feb. 13, are expected to be approved by the prime minister after getting the sign-off from an expert panel.
    The quasi-emergency measures, as they are called, permit governors to limit mobility and business activities, by shortening the operating hours of bars and restaurants, and barring sales of alcohol.
    “While the measures won’t be as effective as when numbers were smaller, I think they still can mitigate things,” said Gautam Deshpande, a doctor at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo.
    “The horse is only half out of the barn at the moment.”
    Japan added more than 32,000 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, a tally by national broadcaster NHK showed, exceeding an August high soon after Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics.
    Tokyo set a daily record on Wednesday with 7,377 new infections, as did the western prefecture of Osaka, with more than 6,000.
    Although Omicron is more infectious than previous variants it appears to cause less serious illness, but public health experts still worry that a wave of such cases could overwhelm the healthcare system.
    Japan has declared states of emergency four times during the pandemic, and vaccinated about 80% of its population of 126 million, although its booster dose programme has reached just 1.2%.
    Authorities have “dragged their feet with boosters,” Deshpande added.
    Japan rolled out quasi-emergency curbs this month in three regions hosting U.S. military facilities, after it appeared that base outbreaks of Omicron spilled into surrounding communities.
    Tokyo’s occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, a figure closely monitored by authorities, rose to 25.9% on Wednesday. An increase to 50% would warrant escalation to a full state of emergency, officials have said.
    In a sign that the pandemic is weighing on the economy, Toyota Motor Corp said it cancelled a factory line shift in Toyota City after eight workers there tested positive.
    And the Japan National Tourism Organisation said last year’s 245,900 overseas visitors were the fewest on record, going back to 1964.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift, Kantaro Komiya, Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/19/2022 With Eagles And Elephants, Philippines Lures Public For ‘Zoo Jabs’
A woman takes picture with her phone as people visit Manila Zoo, which serves as a coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) vaccination site, in Manila, Philippines, January 19, 2022. REUTERS/Lisa Marie David
    MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines opened a zoo on Wednesday as a makeshift vaccination centre in the hope its elephants and eagles can attract young and elderly people hesitant about getting inoculated against COVID-19.
    Manila zoo was giving vaccinations to young people age 12-17 and the elderly and allowing recipients of jabs to spend time observing its elephant enclosure, peacocks and more.
    “Aside from being safe and also getting vaccinated, the kids can also enjoy the outdoors, the scenery, and the animals that are here inside,” said Joyce Pablo, mother of one of the children being inoculated.
    The Philippines has so far fully inoculated about half of its population, but many areas outside the capital region are lagging far behind, complicating efforts to suppress fresh outbreaks of COVID-19.
    Daily coronavirus infections have hit records several times this month, driven by the especially contagious Omicron variant, prompting a tightening of curbs on mobility, including a public transport ban for the unvaccinated.
    The Philippines has had problems with vaccine hesitancy that pre-date COVID-19, particularly among children.
    For his part, President Rodrigo Duterte has even threatened to arrest unvaccinated people. Ray Salinel, a doctor, said the zoo was a great idea to encourage more people to be inoculated.
    “After the vaccination of those aged 12-17 years, seniors, and those with multiple illnesses, they can go around the zoo,” he said.    “Even if the zoo isn’t completely open, they can enjoy the sights, the peacocks, eagles and Mali (elephant).    They can relax and forget about their problems.”
(Reporting by Adrian Portugal; writing by Martin Petty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/20/2022 N.Korea Suggests It May Resume Nuclear, Missile Tests; Slams ‘Hostile’ U.S. by Hyonhee Shin
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the politburo of the ruling
Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, January 19, 2022 in this photo released by
North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) January 20, 2022. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea will bolster its defences against the United States and consider resuming “all temporally-suspended activities,” state news agency KCNA said on Thursday, an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
    Tension has been rising over a recent series of North Korean missile tests.    A U.S. push for fresh sanctions was followed by heated reaction from Pyongyang, raising the spectre of a return to the period of so-called “fire and fury” threats of 2017.
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a meeting of the powerful politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday to discuss “important policy issues,” including countermeasures over “hostile” U.S. policy, the official KCNA news agency said.
    The politburo ordered a reconsideration of trust-building measures and “promptly examining the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” while calling for “immediately bolstering more powerful physical means,” KCNA said.
    The decision appears to be a step beyond Kim’s previous remarks at the end of 2019 that he would no longer be bound by the moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), after the United States did not respond to calls for concessions to reopen negotiations.
    Washington’s hostility and threats had “reached a danger line,” the report said, citing joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, the deployment of cutting-edge U.S. strategic weapons in the region, and the implementation of independent and U.N. sanctions.
    “We should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the U.S. imperialists,” the politburo concluded.
    North Korea’s warning came hours before the United Nations Security Council was due to convene a closed-door meeting on Thursday to discuss the recent missile tests, at the request of the United States and several other countries.
    President Joe Biden made no mention of North Korea during a nearly two-hour news conference on Wednesday held to mark his first year in office.
    When asked how the United States would respond if North Korea resumed ICBM and nuclear testing, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined “to get into hypotheticals” but said its goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
    “We remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions to make tangible progress,” the spokesperson said, adding that Washington would continue its efforts in coordination with the international community to prevent advances in North Korea’s weapons programmes.
    South Korea’s defence ministry said it is monitoring the North’s winter drills while maintaining readiness posture, calling the recent missile tests “serious threats.”
    The Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean ties warned of further escalation, saying the peninsula should not go back to the confrontational past, and dialogue and diplomacy are the only way forward.
    “We should brace for more sabre-rattling designed to create a warlike atmosphere — and possibly more provocation testing,” said Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, adding that Kim will use every opportunity to justify further weapons testing.
‘VICIOUS CYCLE’
    North Korea could possibly test a long-range missile or other powerful weapon in time for the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April, both major holidays in the country, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
    “It’s possible that the situation could go back to the vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions we saw in 2017,” he said.
    After test firing a ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland in 2017, North Korea launched a flurry of diplomacy and has not tested its ICBMs or nuclear weapons since.
    But it began testing a range of new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) after denuclearisation talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.
    Pyongyang has defended the missile launches as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused Washington of applying double standards over weapons tests.
    On Monday, North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this year, following two launches of “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another one involving a railway-borne missile system.
    The unusually rapid pace of launches prompted U.S. condemnation and a push for new U.N. sanctions, and Pyongyang threatened stronger actions.
    Jenny Town, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North programme, said despite its strong language, the politburo report left room for Kim to “ratchet rhetoric up or down as he sees fit” depending on future developments.
    The Biden administration needs to lead more concerted, high-level international efforts to restart negotiations on step-for-step actions toward peace and denuclearisation, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
    “The North Korean nuclear and missile problem has not disappeared and will only grow worse in the absence of active, serious diplomacy,” he said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith, Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul, Alistair Bell, Richard Pullin and Gerry Doyle)

1/20/2022 China Says It Warned Away U.S. Warship In South China Sea
FILE PHOTO: The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold, forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet
in the Indo-Pacific region, transits the Philippine Sea, June 14, 2018. Sarah Myers/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese forces followed and warned away a U.S. warship which entered waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the country’s military said on Thursday, in the latest uptick in tensions in the disputed waterway.
    The Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army said the USS Benfold “illegally” sailed into Chinese territorial waters without permission, violating the country’s sovereignty, and that Chinese naval and air forces tracked the ship.
    “We solemnly demand that the U.S. side immediately stop such provocative actions, otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events,” it added.
    The U.S. Navy said the Benfold “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Island, consistent with international law
    “At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea,” 7th Fleet spokesman Mark Langford said.
    The United States frequently carries out what it calls freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims.
    China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the waters, which are crossed by vital shipping lanes and also contain gas fields and rich fishing grounds.
    The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the United States, with Washington rejecting what it calls unlawful territorial claims by Beijing.
    China claims vast swaths of the South China Sea.    Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have overlapping claims.
(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Kenneth Maxwell)

1/20/2022 Taiwan VP To Make Sensitive U.S. Stopovers In Visit To Honduras
FILE PHOTO: Taiwanese new premier William Lai speaks during a cabinet
transition ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan Vice President William Lai will transit in the United States when he visits Honduras next week, Taiwan’s presidential office said on Thursday, amid tensions with China which always complains to Washington about such stopovers.
    Beijing considers democratic Taiwan its own territory, ineligible for state-to-state relations, despite strong objections by Taipei which has been complaining about rising Chinese pressure to force the island into accepting Chinese sovereignty.
    China regularly calls Taiwan the most sensitive and important issue between it and the United States, which does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the island’s strongest ally and main weapons supplier.
    Lai will travel to and from Taiwanese diplomatic ally Honduras via the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, in what is generally standard procedure for visits by top Taiwanese leaders to Latin America.
    The U.S. government will give “courteous reception of a high standard” to the Taiwan delegation and Lai will hold virtual meetings with unspecified U.S. politicians during his stops, the presidential office said.
    “Since the inauguration, the Biden administration has repeatedly demonstrated its firm support for Taiwan with concrete actions,” the office said.    “We believe the two sides will continue to stably deepen Taiwan-U.S. relations on all fronts.”
    Lai will attend the inauguration of new Honduran president Xiomara Castro, seeking to shore up ties as China ramps up diplomatic pressure against the island.
    Taiwan’s government has said it will work with Castro to deepen relations with the country, which is one of only 14 nations with formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, although Castro has floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing.
    The United States has been eager for Honduras to retain relations with Taiwan, as it worries about growing Chinese influence in its backyard.
    China has been stepping up pressure to win over Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, last month re-establishing ties with Nicaragua, and has openly said it is gunning to bring down the number to zero.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/20/2022 Japan, French Ministers To Discuss Deeper Indo-Pacific Cooperation Thursday
FILE PHOTO: Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) Lawmaker and a former cabinet minister
Yoshimasa Hayashi speaks during an interview with Reuters during a Thomson Reuters
Breakingviews event in Tokyo, Japan, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Yuya Shino
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Foreign and defence ministers from Japan and France will discuss further security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on Thursday, Japanese officials said, as the region faces China’s growing military might and North Korea’s missile development.
    Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi are set to hold a virtual meeting with their French counterparts Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly via video conferencing.
    France has overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific and stations armed forces in the region, where tension over Taiwan has been rising as China seeks to assert its sovereignty claims over the island, and North Korea has launched missiles in an unusually fast sequence of weapons tests.
    “Both countries are maritime nations and Indo-Pacific nations … It is very important to promote cooperation between France and Japan to realise a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a foreign ministry official said at a media briefing.
    Joint military drills between the two countries have increased in frequency in recent years.
    “We would like to reach an agreement on deeper defence cooperation.    We also hope an agreement will be reached among the ministers to deepen cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber,” a defence ministry official said at the same briefing.
    Japan and France have already concluded several key security deals including an agreement on the transfer of defence equipment and technology.
    The bilateral talks come ahead of some security-related meetings involving leaders in the region, including a virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and consultations between Australian and British foreign and defence ministers, both on Friday.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry)

1/20/2022 Afghan Women Losing Jobs Fast As Economy Shrinks And Rights Curtailed
Sohaila Noori, 29, owner of a sewing workshop, poses at her workshop
in Kabul, Afghanistan January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Ali Khara
    KABUL (Reuters) – In a small tailoring workshop in Kabul, 29-year-old Afghan entrepreneur Sohaila Noori looks on as her dramatically reduced workforce of around 30 women sew scarves, dresses and baby clothes.
    A few months ago, before the hardline Islamist Taliban movement seized power in August, she employed more than 80 people, mostly women, across three different textile workshops.
    “In the past, we had so much work to do,” said Noori, who was determined to keep her business running in order to employ as many women as she could.
    “We had different types of contracts, we could easily pay a salary to our master tailors and other workers, but currently we have no contracts.”
    With Afghanistan’s economy deep in crisis – billions of dollars in aid and reserves have been cut off and ordinary people have little money even for basics – enterprises like Noori’s are struggling to stay afloat.
    Making matters worse, the Taliban will only allow women to work subject to their interpretation of Islamic law, prompting some to leave jobs out of fear of punishment by a group that severely restricted their freedom the last time it ruled.
    Hard-won gains in women’s rights over the last two decades have been quickly reversed, and reports from international rights experts and labour organisations this week painted a bleak picture for female employment and access to public space.
    Though the economic crisis is hitting the entire country – some agencies predict it will leave almost the entire population in poverty in the coming months – the effect is disproportionately felt by women. (Open https://tmsnrt.rs/3tEN2gt for a graphic on employment levels under the Taliban)
    “The crisis in Afghanistan has made an already challenging situation for women workers even worse,” said Ramin Behzad, Senior Coordinator of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Afghanistan.
    “Work in key sectors has dried up while newly imposed restrictions on women’s participation in some economic areas are also hitting home.”
    Afghan women’s employment levels fell by an estimated 16% in the third quarter of 2021, according to an ILO report released on Wednesday, relative to 6% for men.
    Women’s employment was expected to be 21% lower than it was before the Taliban takeover by mid-2022 if current conditions continued, according to the ILO.
    For the workers at Noori’s workshop, the opportunity to make some money outweighed other worries.
    “Mostly our families are worried about our safety.    They repeatedly call us when we don’t reach home on time, but we all continue to work … because we have economic problems,” said Lailuma, who only gave one name out of fear for her safety.
    Another worker, Saleha, now provides for her entire family.
    “My monthly income is around 1,000 Afghanis ($10), and I’m the only person working in my family … Unfortunately, since the Taliban have come to power, there is (virtually) no income at all.”
(Reporting by Kabul Newsroom; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

1/20/2022 Beijing Migrant Worker’s Search For Son Sparks Outrage, Sympathy
FILE PHOTO: Workers travel home on a shuttle bus in Beijing, China, January 31, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The story of a migrant worker in Beijing who caught COVID-19 while searching for his missing son provoked shock and sympathy on social media on Thursday, drawing attention to the hardships faced by the floating population in China’s big cities.
    On Wednesday, city officials said that an asymptomatic case of the novel coronavirus had been detected in a 44-year-old man they identified by his surname Yue in the affluent Chaoyang district.    His frequent and wide-ranging movements around the city, at odd hours, were widely discussed online.
    Social media users declared Yue the “hardest-working person among the floating population.” – a hashtag that amassed over 60 million views on Twitter-like Weibo, drawing attention to the deep inequality in China that last year led President Xi Jinping to call for achieving “common prosperity.”
    In interviews with local media, the former fisherman from central China’s Henan province said that he had arrived in Beijing last year, knowing his son, 21-year-old Yue Yuetong, had worked as a cook in the capital.
    Since then, he took odd jobs, from garbage collection to moving construction materials, and is the main breadwinner for a six-person household, including his paralysed father.
    Yue, who is being treated in a Beijing hospital, told China News Weekly that since his son’s disappearance in August 2020 he had worked in several provinces searching for him.    In Beijing, Yue earns around 200 to 300 yuan ($31.53-$47.29) per shift and sleeps four to five hours a day.
    “I don’t think I’m pitiful, I just want to do my work well, not steal or rob, rely on my own strength, my own two hands, make some money and find my son,” he told state-run China Weekly News.
    Yue’s son, who turns 21 this year and is among China’s roughly 285 million migrant workers who move to cities seeking work and a better life, was last seen in a bus station in Rongcheng, Shandong province, according to an interview Yue gave to the state-run Beijing News that was later deleted.
    A police station in Rongcheng told local media that it was investigating.
    Reuters was unable to reach Yue, whose story emerged as Beijing is on high alert for the spread of the Omicron variant and as COVID-19 outbreaks once again disrupt travel plans ahead of China’s Lunar New Year holiday when workers including migrants such as Yue typically return home for family reunions.
    Some social media users drew attention to the disparity between Yue’s movements and another recent COVID-19 case in Beijing who went to a ski resort and a jewelry store before testing positive for the virus.
    “I don’t know whether ‘common prosperity’ is empty words but it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure every worker can live respectably,” said another Weibo user who goes by firetrap-virtuallife.
($1 = 6.3432 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Albee Zhang and Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/20/2022 Thailand To Resume Quarantine Waiver For Arrivals From February
FILE PHOTO: A man is tested as a mandatory measure for arriving passengers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) at the international airport in Phuket, Thailand November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand will resume its ‘Test & Go’ quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals from Feb. 1, its coronavirus task force said on Thursday, in response to slowing COVID-19 infections.
    The scheme was suspended a month ago after only seven weeks due to the rapid global spread of the Omicron variant and uncertainty about vaccine effectiveness against it.
    The policy requires visitors to test on arrival and again five days later, while agreeing to have their whereabouts tracked, spokesperson Taweesin Wisanuyothin told a briefing.
    Authorities also extended the hours restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol to 11 p.m. from 9 p.m.    Bars and nightclubs will remain closed, however.
    The moves are aimed at reviving a tourism sector that has been decimated by the pandemic, with numbers limited by weak global travel demand and Thailand’s rigorous quarantine requirements.
    Visitors last year to Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular travel destinations, were about 0.5% of the pre-pandemic figure, which hit a record of nearly 40 million in 2019.
    The taskforce also agreed to expand another similar quarantine waiver programme, the “Sandbox” to include popular eastern beach destinations Pattaya and Koh Chang.
    The scheme, where vaccinated tourists must agree to stay in one location for a week, is currently operating in Phuket and Koh Samui.
    Thailand has reported 2.3 million infections and nearly 22,000 coronavirus-related fatalities overall.    About two-thirds of residents have been vaccinated and 15% have received a booster.
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/20/2022 Australia To ‘Fight Back’ Against Hostile States In Cyber – Minister
FILE PHOTO: Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during the 2+2 meeting with Australia's Defence
Minister Peter Dutton, South Korea's Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defence Minister Suh Wook
at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea September 13, 2021. Jung Yeon-je/Pool via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia and Britain will “fight back” against cyber attacks from China, Russia, and Iran, defence minister Peter Dutton said ahead of consultations with Britain in Sydney.
    Australia’s defence and foreign affairs ministers will meet with Britain’s defence secretary Ben Wallace and foreign secretary Liz Truss on Friday for the annual Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN).
    Australia and Britain would coordinate cyber sanction regimes to increase deterrence, raising the costs for hostile state activity in cyberspace, said foreign affairs minister Marise Payne, after signing an agreement on Thursday with Truss.
    “Australia is committed to working with partners such as the UK to challenge malign actors who use technology to undermine freedom and democracy,” Payne said in a statement.
    Dutton said Friday’s meeting would have a big focus on cyber.
    “Both the UK and Australia get regular attacks from Russia and from China, Iran and other countries,” he said on radio, adding they would “fight back.”
    Discussions will also identify areas where Australia and the Britain can work together in the Indo-Pacific region, and Australia’s nuclear submarine program.
    The new Aukus defence alliance with Britain and the United States, which last year prompted Australia to cancel a contract for a conventional French submarine in favour of a nuclear submarine prpgram supported by the United States and Britain, was crucial for Australia, he said.
    “They are big countries and they have big military machines and are important allies and friends for us as a smaller country of only 25 million people if we are going to deter countries from aggressive behaviour,” he said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/20/2022 Hong Kong To Shut Secondary Schools From Monday Over COVID Fears
FILE PHOTO: Students sit for the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams
on April 26, 2021 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Pool via REUTERS
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong will suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from Monday until after the approaching Lunar New Year, authorities said, because of a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools in the Chinese-ruled territory.
    The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month, and imposed curbs, such as a ban on restaurant dining after 6 p.m. and the closure of venues such as gyms, cinemas and beauty salons.
    Schools will stay shut until Feb 7, after the Lunar New Year Holidays, the government said on Thursday.    While sixth formers preparing for exams may have some face-to-face classes, all other levels must cancel or postpone exams and activities.
    “The epidemic situation has become more severe in recent days,” the city’s education bureau said in a statement. “There have been many confirmed cases of unknown origin.”
    The stringent measures return the Asian financial hub to the situation that existed after it first took such steps in 2020.
    Hong Kong has followed mainland China’s route of zero-tolerance of local COVID-19 cases, despite its increasingly disruptive and inconvenient effects at a time when the rest of the world is shifting towards living with the virus.
    This year there have been dozens of cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant within the community after the first local transmission recorded at the end of December.
    Health authorities said there had also been transmissions of the Delta variant, not seen for many months.    Officials have pointed to growing clusters, including one from a pet store, as presenting a high risk.
    Cases in schools of confirmed, or preliminarily confirmed infections, meant that teachers and students need to be tested and quarantined, the education bureau said.
    Until the end of December, Hong Kong had no local transmissions for more than three months.
    In a push to boost the city’s vaccination rate of about 70%, the government has said children aged five to eleven can get vaccines from China’s Sinovac from Friday.
    Thousands of people volunteered this week to adopt unwanted hamsters after a mass cull ordered over fears of COVID-19.
(Reporting by Twinnie Siu and Edmond Ng; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/20/2022 New Zealand Rules Out Lockdowns As It Prepares For Omicron Outbreak
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National
leader Judith Collins at TVNZ in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22, 2020. Fiona Goodall/Pool via REUTERS
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that restrictions will be tightened across the country if there is a community transmission of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus but she ruled out lockdowns.
    New Zealand’s tight controls and geographic advantage has helped it remain free of the Omicron variant in the community, although many cases have now been reported at quarantine facilities at the border.
    A “red” traffic light setting would be imposed within 24 to 48 hours of Omicron arriving in the community, Ardern told a news conference, which would mean masks would be mandated and there would be limits on public gatherings.
    “When we have evidence of Omicron transmitting in the community we won’t use lockdowns, instead the whole country will move into Red within 24 to 48 hours,” Ardern said, adding that Omicron would eventually arrive.
    “We know from other countries it can take as little as 14 days for Omicron cases to grow from the hundreds into the thousands,” she said.
    “It’s a case of when not if, and that’s why we need to prepare,” she said.
    About 93% of New Zealand’s population over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated and about 20% have had booster shots.    Ardern said more people must get boosters.
    “International evidence shows that booster doses provide good protection against Omicron,” she said.
    New Zealand’s borders have been shut to foreigners since March 2020 and plans for a phased reopening were pushed back from mid-January to the end of February fearing an Omicron outbreak, as seen in neighbouring Australia.
    People arriving have to apply for a place at state-managed quarantine facilities.    The government this week stopped issuing any new slots amid a surge in the number of people arriving with Omicron.
    Ardern said there was no change to border setting plans for now.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/20/2022 Security Cooperation, China To Dominate Biden’s Talks With Japan’s Kishida by Elaine Lies and David Brunnstrom
FILE PHOTO: National flags of Japan and the U.S. are seen in front of a monitor showing a graph of the Japanese yen's exchange rate
against the U.S. dollar at a foreign exchange trading company in Tokyo, Japan, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
    TOKYO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The leaders of the United States and Japan will contend with China’s growing might, North Korea’s missiles and Russia’s aims in Ukraine when they hold their first substantial talks since Fumio Kishida became Japanese prime minister in October.
    The online meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Kishida, scheduled for Friday Washington time, will build on this month’s so-called “two-plus-two” discussions when their defense and foreign ministers pledged to work together against efforts to destabilize the Indo-Pacific region.
    Alarm over China’s growing assertiveness, tensions over Taiwan, and shared concern over Ukraine have raised Japan’s global profile on security matters, while North Korea has ramped up tensions with an unusually rapid series of missile tests.
    Pyongyang, which fired tactical guided missiles this week in its latest of a series of tests, warned on Thursday it might rethink a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
    U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart Akiba Takeo set the agenda on Thursday when they spoke about their respective approaches to North Korea, China and economic issues in the Indo-Pacific, the White House said.
    “Sullivan underscored concern about the possibility of further Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the two concurred on the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack,” a White House statement said.
    The White House has said the leaders will discuss economic and security matters, emerging technology, cybersecurity, climate change and other bilateral issues.
    White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday the aim was “to further strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance” and ensure “a free and open Indo-Pacific” – language used to describe U.S. efforts to push back against China.
    The talks follow other security-related meetings involving Indo-Pacific leaders– two-plus-two talks between Japan and France on Thursday and between Australian and British foreign and defense ministers on Friday.
    Japan’s defense minister said after the talks with France that the security situation in the Indo-Pacific was unstable and “getting tougher.”
    Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia under former President Barack Obama and now with Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank, said the two-plus-two meeting showed Washington and Tokyo were on the same wavelength.
    “We should expect their discussion to focus on practical measures to deter and defend against destabilizing behavior, whether from North Korea or in hot spots like the Taiwan Strait and the South and East China Seas,” he said.
    China has stepped up military and diplomatic pressure to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, which it claims as its own.
    Messaging on China becomes all the more important as Biden and Kishida both face elections this year, for Japan’s upper house of parliament in July and U.S. midterm congressional elections in November.
    “As the election approaches, I think Kishida will be called upon to show a resolute stance against China, and the United States is in the same position,” said Airo Hino of Tokyo’s Waseda University.
    Both nations are reviewing their security strategy, with details expected to be unveiled later this year.    Japan has approved record defense spending for 2022.
    Japan will be looking at not just strategy but also its defense programs, including procurement, its Washington ambassador, Koji Tomita, told the Brookings Institution think tank on Tuesday.
    “The new review will have a much sharper focus on what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region.     And I think the picture we are having in this region is increasingly troubling.”
    Japan will beef up its defenses of islands near Taiwan, Kishida said this week, following a promise in October to revise security strategy so as to consider “all options, including possession of so-called enemy-strike capabilities.”
(Writing by Elaine Lies and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by David Dolan, Clarence Fernandez and Howard Goller)

1/21/2022 Britain Warns Putin And Xi: West Will Stand Up To ‘Dictatorship’
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss speaks during a G7 foreign and development
ministers session with guest countries and ASEAN nations on the final day of the
summit in Liverpool, Britain December 12, 2021. Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS
(Adds TV tag; no changes to text)
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Britain on Friday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping that its allies would stand together to fight for democracy against dictatorships that it said were more emboldened than at any time since the Cold War.
    Speaking in Australia, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain and its allies in the “free world” must respond together to global threats, deepen ties with democracies in the Indo-Pacific and “face down global aggressors” who were using economic dependence to get what they want.
    Truss and Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, met with their Australian counterparts in Sydney on Friday for the annual Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN), where a deal for Australia acquire nuclear submarines was discussed.
    Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, said there was no plan to establish a British military base in Australia, even as the British navy stepped up its presence in the Pacific.    The two countries signed deals to fund infrastructure in the region as a counter to Beijing’s influence.
    In a joint statement, the ministers expressed concern at Russia’s military build-up on the border with Ukraine and “their absolute support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
    Truss warned Putin to “desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a massive strategic mistake,” in a speech at the Lowy Institute foreign affairs think tank.
    Truss argued that the “Kremlin has not learned the lessons of history” and that “invasion will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war and conflict in Chechnya.”
    More than 15,000 Soviet troops died in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, while hundreds of thousands of Afghans perished.    The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021 led to more than 3,500 deaths among the international military coalition.
    Global aggressors “are emboldened in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War,” Truss said in the speech.
    “They seek to export dictatorship as a service around the world,” she added.    “That is why regimes like Belarus, North Korea and Myanmar find their closest allies in Moscow and Beijing.”
    Britain should work with allies such as Australia, Israel, India, Japan and Indonesia to “face down global aggressors,” especially in the Pacific.
    “It is time for the free world to stand its ground,” she said, adding that China’s “economic coercion” of Australia was “one of the wake-up calls” to Britain that Beijing was using its economic might to exert control over other countries.
    Beijing, which imposed trade sanctions on Australian goods after Canberra called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, has denied accusations of economic coercion.
    The West casts Russia as a dictatorial kleptocracy governed by a mercurial elite that has involved itself in irresponsible escapades such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea, attempts to meddle in U.S. and European elections, and a series of high-profile espionage and assassination attempts abroad.
    Russian officials say the West is riddled with division, gripped by Russophobia and has no right to lecture Moscow on how to act.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge in London. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/21/2022 A Divided Nation: Western Australia Stays Shut As COVID Deaths Mount In East by Wayne Cole
FILE PHOTO: The words "OMICRON SARS-COV-2" are seen reflected in a drop from a syringe needle
in this illustration taken December 11, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will remain a divided nation, with the vast mining state of Western Australia cancelling plans to reopen its borders on Feb. 5, citing health risks from a surge in the Omicron COVID-19 variant in eastern states.
    The country reported 86 deaths from the virus on Friday, figures from the state and territory jurisdictions that have reported so far showed, its deadliest day since the start of the pandemic.
    Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), reported 46 deaths of patients with COVID-19, also its worst day, including one infant, while Victoria state saw 20 deaths.    Yet, a drop in hospitalisations in both states did offer hope the latest outbreak might have peaked.
    All states and territories, except Western Australia (WA), have reopened their internal borders under a policy of living with COVID-19, despite a record surge in cases. Western Australia was to follow suit next month.
    However, Western Australia state Premier Mark McGowan made a shock announcement late on Thursday saying it would be “reckless and irresponsible” to open up given the rapid spread of Omicron.
    Instead, re-opening would be delayed indefinitely or at least until the percentage of triple dose vaccinations reached 80%. It is currently around 26%.
    “If we proceeded with the original plan, we would be deliberately seeding thousands upon thousands of COVID cases into WA and at this point in time that is not what I am going to do,” McGowan told reporters.
    That decision prompted Qantas Airways Ltd to cut its Australian seat capacity https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/qantas-cut-more-domestic-capacity-western-australia-border-opening-delay-2022-01-21 by 10 more percentage points to 60% of pre-pandemic levels for the March quarter.
    McGowan said the original re-opening plan was based on the less-transmissable Delta strain, not Omicron.
    The state, which is the size of Western Europe with a population of 2.7 million, has for months been closed off to the rest of the country and the outside world, taking advantage of its natural isolation to keep cases low.
    There are only 83 active cases in the state, compared with 550,000 in the country as a whole, and just a handful of those are Omicron.
    The decision is likely to anger Prime Munster Scott Morrison, who has long urged all the states to open up and learn to live with the virus.
    “I know that many West Australians will this morning be very disappointed and they will be asking the question ‘if not now, when?'” Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Sky News.
    Some WA travel conditions are still set to change on Feb. 5, including allowing more people in for compassionate reasons, though they would still have to isolate for 14 days.
    The original plan would have allowed in double-vaccinated interstate and international travellers without completing quarantine. Now visitors will need to be triple vaccinated.
    “What we are going to do is review the situation over February and watch what is occurring over east and work out what the best approach is for Western Australia,” McGowan said.
    Cases have ballooned in the rest of the country in recent weeks, overloading hospitals and causing major disruptions to supply chains through illness and absenteeism.
(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Additional reporting by Sam HolmesEditing by Marguerita Choy, Michael Perry and Gerry Doyle)

1/21/2022 Cambodia PM Chides ‘Arrogant’ Malaysia Minister For Questioning Junta Visit by Prak Chan Thul
FILE PHOTO: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ceremony at the Morodok Techo National
Stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 12, 2021. Tang Chhin Sothy/Pool via REUTERS
    PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday took aim at the foreign minister of Malaysia for being “arrogant” and impolite, after its top diplomat voiced concern about the premier’s controversial meeting with Myanmar’s junta.
    Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah last week said some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members had reservations about Hun Sen’s Jan. 7 visit to Myanmar while chair of the bloc, which risked being interpreted as ASEAN recognition of the generals.
    Saifuddin suggested Hun Sen should have sought input from ASEAN counterparts beforehand.
    Hun Sen in a phone call on Friday with Indonesian President Joko Widodo defended his Myanmar trip and rebuked Saifuddin, according to a readout of the conversation provided to media by state broadcaster TVK.
    “Samdech (Hun Sen) said that the foreign minister should not be too arrogant with inappropriate remarks to ASEAN leaders, especially the chair,” it said.
    “And he lacks politeness,” it quoted Hun Sen saying.
    Malaysia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Hun Sen’s remarks.
    The military’s overthrow of an elected government in Myanmar last year has been a major setback for ASEAN as it seeks to boost its international profile as a diverse, integrated and effective economic and political bloc.
    But fissures have emerged within ASEAN over how best to deal with Myanmar.
    Under the chairmanship of Brunei, ASEAN made a surprise move late last year in barring the junta from joining important meetings, over its failure to implement an agreed five-point ASEAN “consensus” on ending the post-coup conflict in Myanmar.
    New chair Cambodia, however, has indicated it wants to engage not isolate the generals.
    During the call, Jokowi, as Indonesia’s president is known, urged Hun Sen to stick to the ASEAN consensus, a call to which he agreed, according to the readout.
    It said Hun Sen emphasised that he went to Myanmar “to plant trees, not to cut down trees” and Saifuddin’s remarks were “not right within the ASEAN framework.”
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/21/2022 COVID Disrupts Aid Flight To Tsunami-Hit Tonga by Praveen Menon, Kirsty Needham and Tom Westbrook
A general view shows damaged buildings following volcanic eruption and tsunami, in Tongatapu, Tonga in this picture obtained
from social media on January 21, 2022. Courtesy of Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS
    WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – As aid trickles into the South Pacific nation of Tonga, devastated by a volcanic eruption and tsunami, an Australian aid flight was forced to return to base due to a positive COVID-19 case onboard, a defence official said on Friday.
    Tonga is COVID-free and has a strict border control policy, and is requiring contactless delivery of aid that began arriving by plane on Thursday.
    The Australian aid flight left Brisbane on Thursday afternoon but was turned around midflight after being notified of the positive COVID-19 case, an Australian defence spokeswoman said.
    All crew had returned negative rapid antigen tests before departure, but PCR tests later showed the positive result.    The supplies were moved to another flight that took off on Friday.
    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption last Saturday triggered tsunami that destroyed villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people, and sent shockwaves and tsunami across the Pacific.
    Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.
    Almost a week since the eruption and Tongans are struggling to find clean drinking water with their island homes shrouded in volcanic ash.
    “We are cleaning the ash and have been since Monday,” said Branko Sugar, 61, who runs a bottle shop and fishing charter business from the capital Nuku’alofa.
    “Everything is so dusty, and we are running out of water,” he said over a patchy telephone line.
    “We only have the tap water, and it’s been contaminated.    We’re just cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and can hardly breathe for all the dust.”
    The first aid flights from Australia and New Zealand landed in Tonga on Thursday with much-needed supplies of water for sanitation and hygiene as well as shelter, communication equipment and power generators.
    A New Zealand maritime sustainment vessel HMNZS Aotearoa carrying 250,000 litres of water and able to produce 70,000 litres per day through a desalination plant, is expected to arrive on Friday.
    Australia’s HMAS Adelaide en route from Brisbane is due in Tonga next week.
URGENT ASSISTANCE REQUEST
    United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a briefing that Tonga has asked for urgent assistance and the agency is in close contact with the authorities.
    “Assessment teams have reached most parts of the country, including remote and isolated islands,” Dujarric said.
    “We remain seriously concerned about access to safe water for 50,000 people throughout the country.    Water quality testing continues, and most people are relying on bottled water,” he said.
    Some 60,000 people have been affected by damage to crops, livestock, and fisheries due to ashfall, saltwater intrusion and the potential for acid rain, Dujarric said.
    There are also reports of fuel shortages, he added.
    Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Friday cash donations to Tonga for immediate humanitarian supplies – Australia has donated $1 million – would need to be followed with more substantial support for rebuilding.
    “The impact of this volcanic eruption and the subsequent tsunami and the damage the inundation is causing will be an ongoing challenge for Tonga, particularly in relation to infrastructure,” she told Australian radio.
    Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, although restoring full internet services is likely to take a month or more.
    Tongans have turned to social media to post images of the destruction by the tsunami and give accounts of their shock after the massive explosion.
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has said the force of the eruption was estimated to be the equivalent of five to 10 megatons of TNT, or more than 500 times that of the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at the end of World War Two.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon, Kirsty Needham and Tom Westbrook; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Richard Pullin)

1/21/2022 Pakistan Records Most Daily COVID Cases Since Pandemic Began by Syed Raza Hassan
FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker administers a dose of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine
at a vaccination centre in Karachi, Pakistan, January 16, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
    KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan reported on Friday over 7,000 COVID-19 cases in a single day, its highest daily number of infections since the pandemic began, as the south Asian nation imposes new restrictions to curb the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
    At least 7,678 cases in the past 24 hours pushed the positivity ratio to 12.93%, the highest ever in the last two years, 23 deaths were also reported in the last 24 hours, according to data from the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC), which is overseeing the pandemic response.
    Karachi, the country’s largest city, recorded its highest ever positivity ratio of 46.58% in the last 24 hours.
    “Amid rising trend of disease across the country a ban on indoor dinning in cities/districts with positivity above 10% has been imposed with effect from January 21,” said a notification issued by (NCOC).
    The government authorised booster vaccination shots for citizens over the age of 30.
    Vaccination of children over the age of 12 has been made mandatory to attend the schools and children under 12 will attend schools with 50% attendance.
    “We might see a peak after two weeks followed by a gradual decline,” Faisal Mahmood associate professor of infections diseases at Aga Khan University Hospital told Geo television channel on Friday morning.
    He said the number of hospitalisations are rising, citing the on-going wedding season for the rapid spread of the virus.
    About 70 million people in Pakistan, or 32% of the population, have had two vaccine doses.
    The infection numbers are lower compared to other countries, such as neighbouring India – but Pakistan tests 50 to 60 thousand people a day with a population of 220 million compared to India where around 1.9 million tests are being done per day.
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by Michael Perry)

1/21/2022 Indian Capital To Lift Weekend Curfew As COVID Cases Fall – Source
FILE PHOTO: People walk past closed shops at a market area after authorities
in the capital ordered a weekend curfew, following the rise in the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) cases, in the old quarters of Delhi, India, January 8, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s capital is set to lift a weekend curfew and allow private offices to be partially staffed after a fall in new COVID-19 infections, a city government official said on Friday.
    The number of new cases in Delhi has more than halved from a peak of 28,867 on Jan. 13 and more than 80% of COVID beds across the city’s hospitals were unoccupied, according to government data.
    “In view of the declining cases of corona, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal approved the proposal,” the official, who declined to be identified, said of a suggestion from authorities that the weekend curfew be scrapped.
    The city’s lieutenant governor, who must sign off on the city government’s executive decisions, was expected to review the proposal and clear the way for its formal approval later on Friday.
    Delhi has been one of the centres of India’s coronavirus pandemic for the past two years and has endured various lockdowns and curfews over different waves of infection.
    The city imposed the curfew on Jan. 4 and ordered schools and restaurants to close as infections caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant surged.
    It was not clear if those curbs and a night curfew on weekdays would also be scrapped.
    Frustrated Delhi shopkeepers protested on the streets this week, demanding that curbs be lifted.
    City officials have said most recent coronavirus infections have been mild with most people recovering at home.
    The financial hub of Mumbai has also been reporting big falls in infections since hitting a peak earlier in the month.
(Reporting by Neha Arora in New Delhi, Chris Thomas and Nallur Sethuraman in Bengaluru; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

1/21/2022 Beijing Migrant Worker’s Search For Son Sparks Outrage, Sympathy
FILE PHOTO: Workers travel home on a shuttle bus in Beijing, China, January 31, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The story of a migrant worker in Beijing who caught COVID-19 while searching for his missing son provoked shock and sympathy on social media on Thursday, drawing attention to the hardships faced by the floating population in China’s big cities.
    On Wednesday, city officials said that an asymptomatic case of the novel coronavirus had been detected in a 44-year-old man they identified by his surname Yue in the affluent Chaoyang district.    His frequent and wide-ranging movements around the city, at odd hours, were widely discussed online.
    Social media users declared Yue “The hardest working man found in a COVID-19 investigation” – a hashtag that amassed over 60 million views on Twitter-like Weibo, drawing attention to the deep inequality in China that last year led President Xi Jinping to call for achieving “common prosperity.”
    In interviews with local media, the former fisherman from central China’s Henan province said that he had arrived in Beijing last year, knowing his son, 21-year-old Yue Yuetong, had worked as a cook in the capital.
    Since then, he took odd jobs, from garbage collection to moving construction materials, and is the main breadwinner for a six-person household, including his paralysed father.
    Yue, who is being treated in a Beijing hospital, told China News Weekly that since his son’s disappearance in August 2020 he had worked in several provinces searching for him.    In Beijing, Yue earns around 200 to 300 yuan ($31.53-$47.29) per shift and sleeps four to five hours a day.
    “I don’t think I’m pitiful, I just want to do my work well, not steal or rob, rely on my own strength, my own two hands, make some money and find my son,” he told state-run China Weekly News.
    Yue’s son, who turns 21 this year and is among China’s roughly 285 million migrant workers who move to cities seeking work and a better life, was last seen in a bus station in Rongcheng, Shandong province, according to an interview Yue gave to the state-run Beijing News that was later deleted.
    A police station in Rongcheng told local media that it was investigating.
    Reuters was unable to reach Yue, whose story emerged as Beijing is on high alert for the spread of the Omicron variant and as COVID-19 outbreaks once again disrupt travel plans ahead of China’s Lunar New Year holiday when workers including migrants such as Yue typically return home for family reunions.
    Some social media users drew attention to the disparity between Yue’s movements and another recent COVID-19 case in Beijing who went to a ski resort and a jewelry store before testing positive for the virus.
    “I don’t know whether ‘common prosperity’ is empty words but it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure every worker can live respectably,” said another Weibo user who goes by firetrap-virtuallife.
(This story corrects translation of hashtag in third paragraph)
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Albee Zhang and Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/21/2022 ‘Life And Death’ At Sea: Log Keeps Tonga’s ‘Aquaman’ From Going Under by Jill Gralow
Lisala Folau (wearing blue printed shirt), a Tongan man who says he swam for around 27 hours after getting swept to sea
by Saturday's tsunami, sits with other people of Atata island in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, January 19, 2022 in this picture
obtained from social media. Picture taken January 19, 2022. Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – A 57-year-old Tongan man being hailed a real-life Aquaman for surviving 27 hours at sea after Saturday’s devastating tsunami struck his island said he went under nine times before latching onto a log and making it to safety.
    “On the eighth time I thought, the next time I go underwater that’s it, because my arms were the only things that were keeping me above water,” said Lisala Folau, who is disabled and cannot walk properly, speaking to Reuters from Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.
    “So the ninth time I went under and came up and grabbed a log.    And that’s what kept me going.”
    The eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano killed at least three people and sent tsunami waves rolling across the Tongan archipelago, damaging villages and resorts and knocking out communications for the nation’s 105,000 people.
    Folau, who lived on the isolated island of Atata, with a population of about 60 people, was swept out to sea at around 7 p.m. (0600 GMT) on Saturday.
    He had climbed a tree to escape a first wave but when he got down, another big wave swept him out.
    “I could hear my son calling from land but I didn’t want to answer my son because I didn’t want him to swim out to find me,” said Folau.
    “The waves kept twirling around here and there … What came to mind is, at sea there is life and death.    Until you reach the shore, then you know if you are alive or dead.”
    Folau said he slowly managed to swim 7.5 km (4.7 miles) to the main island of Tongatapu, reaching the shore 27 hours later at about 10 p.m. on Sunday.
    His heroics have gone viral on social media, with one Facebook post calling him a “real life Aquaman,” referring to the comic book and film character.
    When asked if he knew who Aquaman was, Flolau said he didn’t yet.
    Reuters was unable to independently verify the events.
    Atata, about 8km northwest of Nuku’alofa, or a 30-minute boat ride, has been almost entirely destroyed in the tsunami that hit the islands.
(Reporting by Jill Gralow; Editing by Tom Hogue and Karishma Singh)

1/21/2022 Japan And U.S. To Start New ‘2 Plus 2’ Dialogue For Economic Issues - Kyodo
FILE PHOTO: National flags of Japan and the U.S. are seen in front of a monitor showing a graph of the Japanese yen's exchange rate
against the U.S. dollar at a foreign exchange trading company in Tokyo, Japan, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
    TOKYO (Reuters) – The United States and Japan will initiate a new “2 plus 2” dialogue that will cover economic and diplomatic issues, Kyodo reported, citing a Japan government official.
    The agreement is expected to be confirmed during the teleconference summit to be held between U.S. President Joe Biden and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday, the report added.
(Reporting by Sakura Murakami; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

1/21/2022 UK Foreign Secretary Truss Says She Fully Supports PM Johnson
FILE PHOTO: Britain's International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is seen outside
10 Downing Street London, Britain, January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss voiced on Friday her full support for embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying he was doing a fantastic job and there was no contest for the leadership.
    Speaking at a media conference in Sydney, Truss was asked if she supported Johnson and whether she would run for leader of the Conservative Party if a contest was called.
    “The Prime Minister has my 100% support,” said Truss.    “I want the Prime Minister to continue as long as possible in his job.    He is doing a fantastic job.    There is no leadership election.”
    Truss has been tipped as a possible replacement for Johnson who has been rocked by scandals over parties at No. 10 held during strict national lockdowns.
(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

1/22/2022 Some Money Services Reopen In Tonga, Drinking Water The Priority by Kirsty Needham and Praveen Menon
People clean debris following volcanic eruption and tsunami, in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in this picture obtained
from social media on January 20, 2022. Courtesy of Marian Kupu/Broadcom Broadcasting FM87.5/via REUTERS
    (Reuters) - Tongans queued for limited money services that were restored in the Pacific island’s capital on Saturday, as the clean-up continued a week after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.
    Tonga’s government said drinking water was the priority, and a national emergency team had already distributed 60,000 litres of water to residents.    A desalination plant on a New Zealand naval ship that arrived on Friday, capable of producing 70,000 litres a day, has started drawing seawater from Tonga’s harbour.
    Residents who had lost homes on outlying islands when a tsunami reaching up to 15 metres crashed over the South Pacific archipelago would be relocated to the main island, Tongatapu, because of water and food shortages, the Tongan prime minister’s office said in a statement distributed to Tongan officials.
    Volcanic fallout on the surface of the ocean was damaging boats and making marine transport between the islands challenging, and domestic flights were suspended, it said.
    Ash fall and the tsunami had affected 84 per cent of the population, and inter-island communications remain an “acute challenge” with limited satellite and radio links, it said.
    Burials were held earlier in the week for a Tongan man and a woman who had died when the tsunami hit the outlying Ha’apai islands.    The official death toll is three. A field hospital has been set up on Nomuka Island after the health centre there was swept away.
    Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau, the coordinator for the project to rebuild Tonga’s parliament, said the restoration of international money transfer services, for limited hours on Saturday, was important for people to be able to buy essential goods.
    “Tongans have demonstrated their resilience in this calamity and will get back on their feet,” he said, speaking to Reuters from Tongatapu.
    More naval vessels from Australia, New Zealand and Britain are en-route to Tonga to deliver aid.    Two aid flights, from Japan and New Zealand, arrived on Saturday with humanitarian supplies, after two flights from Australia on Friday evening.
COVID PRECAUTIONS
    The Tongan government has implemented a strict COVID-19 policy that means people, including aid workers, cannot enter the country unless they have undergone a three-week isolation period.    Aid deliveries have been contactless, with pallets quarantined for 72 hours after arrival at the airport before being distributed by     Tongan authorities.    One Australian aircraft returned to Brisbane midflight on Thursday after being notified of a COVID-19 case among the crew.
    An aid delivery expected from China would also be contact-less to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government said.
    Taumoefolau said Tonga had done a good job in avoiding a pandemic outbreak, recording only one case so far, and the border policy would not hinder aid reaching communities.
    “It is doable to get the aid in without compromising efforts on keeping COVID out,” he said.
    An Australian navy vessel, HMAS Adelaide, was expected to arrive in Tonga on Wednesday with more bulk water and a 40-bed field hospital, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, told reporters in Canberra on Saturday.
    The Tongan government was doing “an extraordinary job on the ground,” he said.
    Australia and New Zealand were coordinating an international aid effort with support from Britain, France, the United States, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, he said, and the Tongan government had asked for support to be paced so the small airport was not overwhelmed.
    Asked by reporters about China’s aid program in the Pacific, Seselja said: “We welcome offers of support from anyone, including the Chinese government.”
    Sione Hufanga, the resident United Nations country coordination specialist, told Reuters that the agency is assisting the government in relief work as more people arrive at shelters and seek food and other supplies.
    “i>Almost all crops in the country have been badly affected. Farmers have lost their homes and livelihood,” he told Reuters by phone from Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.    “The country will be heavily relying on aid food for some time.”
    The agricultural sector contributed nearly 14% of Tonga’s GDP in 2015/16 and represented over 65% of exports.
    The Tongan government said it is “deeply appreciative to the international community” for its assistance, which included US$8 million in funding from the World Bank and US$10 million from the Asia Development Bank.
    Reliance, a repair ship due to reconnect the undersea cable that links Tonga to international telecoms networks, left its Port Moresby mooring and was expected in Tonga on Jan. 30, according to Refinitiv data on shipping movements.
    The vessel was expected to arrive “in the next few days” to repair the fibre-optic cable, the Tongan government said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/22/2022 Pakistani Convicted Murderer Takes Top School Score, Wins Scholarship by Syed Raza Hassan
Inmate Syed Naeem Shah, 35, who serves life term and has been offered a scholarship by the Institute
of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan (ICAP) after he topped in intermediate exams, is pictured
outside his classroom in the Central Prison, Karachi, Pakistan January 18, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
    KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani inmate serving a life sentence for murder in an overcrowded Karachi prison has won a scholarship for further study after taking one of the highest scores in the city’s higher secondary school exams last year.
    Syed Naeem Shah, 35, scored the highest in the general high school exams among private candidates – that is, among non-traditional students – last year in Pakistan’s largest city, winning a scholarship for further studies from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan (ICAP).
    “What I have achieved while languishing in jail is not possible if one does not have conviction,” Shah told Reuters in an interview in Central Prison Karachi, built by the British in 1899 in the port city in southeastern Pakistan.
    The prison, like many others in the country, is notorious for being overcrowded, holding nearly 6,000 inmates in space meant for 2,400.    Pakistan prisons overall are at 130% of capacity and are poorly ventilated, with insufficient beds and limited access to medicines, safe water and bathing facilities, according to Amnesty International.
    Speaking in a classroom inside the prison grounds, Shah said he enjoyed school as a child but that his family could not afford to continue his education.    In jail, older inmates who were also taking classes motivated him and helped him prepare for exams.
    Shah is one of 1,200 inmates studying in Central Prison Karachi, but his success is unparalleled, said Saeed Soomro, deputy superintendent of the prison.
    “His results are (also) tantamount to our success,” Soomro said, in giving him the opportunity to study and providing him with books and materials.
    Shah was sentenced to life – 25 years in Pakistan – in 2018 for the shooting and killing of another man in a personal disagreement in 2010.    Years spent as a prisoner on trial, plus time off for academic achievements, good behaviour and blood donations, leaves him with about six years to serve.
    Shah still has to pass an entrance exam to formally take up the scholarship, an ICAP official said, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to talk to media.
    The scholarships, of 1 million rupees or about $5,700, are offered to students earning the top four scores in intermediate exams, regardless of whether “they are in jail or outside,” the ICAP official said.
    “I feel it will be very difficult for me to pursue this scholarship from prison,” Shah said, given the technical and specialised subjects he will be pursuing.
    Even before his exam success, Shah said he had filed an appeal against his conviction that is pending in a high court in the southern province of Sindh.
    “I appeal to the president of Pakistan, prime minister and chief executive of Sindh province to consider my case for remission.”
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by Tom Hogue)

1/22/2022 Taiwan On COVID Alert As Domestic Omicron Cases Spike
A staff gives orders while people receive booster shot of the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) vaccine at a square, in Taipei, Taiwan, January 17, 2022.REUTERS/Ann Wang
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s government ordered a tightening of controls on Saturday after a rare spike in domestic transmission of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, saying it needed to act now to prevent being overwhelmed even though overall numbers remain quite low.
    After months of no or few community infections, Taiwan has seen a small rise in local COVID-19 cases since the start of the month, almost all Omicron, mainly linked to workers at the main international airport in the northern city of Taoyuan who were infected by arriving passengers.
    The infections have gradually spread although numbers remain comparatively low with a dozen or so new cases a day, but on Friday evening the government announced 60 new cases at a factory near the airport after testing 1,000 workers.
    There have been no deaths and most of the cases have had only mild or no symptoms.
    Speaking to reporters, officials announced a series of new steps, including a ban on eating and drinking on public transport and limits on the number of people visiting temples, ahead of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday which starts at the end of this month.
    Testing will be expanded to reach the largest number of possible contacts, said Health Minister Chen Shih-chung.
    “Of course we think this pandemic is threatening, so we must raise our vigilance,” he said.
    In a statement, Premier Su Tseng-chang said even though this outbreak has brought no serious illness, steps needed to be taken now.
    “If the pandemic cannot be contained, it will still cause a burden on the medical system,” he said.
    Taiwan has been highly successful at controlling the pandemic due to early and strict border checks and a well-oiled tracing system.
    Current new daily cases are well below the middle of last year when thousands were infected during a three-month domestic outbreak, and life has carried on as normal for most people.
    More than 70% of people in Taiwan have received two vaccine doses and booster shots are currently being rolled out, though only around 15% of residents have had their third shot so far.
(Reporting by Roger Tung; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/22/2022 Thich Nhat Hanh, Poetic Peace Activist And Master Of Mindfulness, Dies At 95 by James Pearson
French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh gestures during his arrival at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok October 11, 2010.
Nhat Hanh is making a pilgrimage to Thailand till October 30 as part of his 2010 Southeast Asia tour together
with 80 monks from Plum Village in France, according to local media reports. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
    (Reuters) -Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam War, died on Saturday aged 95 surrounded by his followers in the temple where his spiritual journey began.
    “The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announces that our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam, at 00:00hrs on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95,” said his official Twitter account.
    His week-long funeral will be held at the temple in a quiet and peaceful manner, according to his followers.
    “Thich Nhat Hanh will be remembered as arguably one of the most influential and prominent religious leaders in the world,” Chargé d’Affaires Marie C. Damour of U.S. Mission to Vietnam said in a statement.
    “Through his teachings and literary work, his legacy will remain for generations to come,” she said, adding that his teachings, in particular on bringing mindfulness into daily life, have enriched the lives of innumerable Americans.
    In a majestic body of works and public appearances spanning decades, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke in gentle yet powerful tones of the need to “walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”
    He suffered a stroke in 2014 which left him unable to speak and returned to Vietnam to live out his final days in the central city of Hue, the ancient capital and his place of birth, after spending much of his adult life in exile.
    As a pioneer of Buddhism in the West, he formed the “Plum Village” monastery in France and spoke regularly on the practice of mindfulness – identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts without judgement – to the corporate world and his international followers.
    “You learn how to suffer.    If you know how to suffer, you suffer much, much less.    And then you know how to make good use of suffering to create joy and happiness,” he said in a 2013 lecture.
    “The art of happiness and the art of suffering always go together
    Born Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained as a monk as modern Vietnam’s founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh led efforts to liberate the Southeast Asian country from its French colonial rulers.
    Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, lectured at Princeton and Columbia universities in the United States in the early 1960s.    He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join a growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, demonstrated by self-immolation protests by several monks.
    “I saw communists and anti-communists killing and destroying each other because each side believed they had a monopoly on the truth,” he wrote in 1975.
    “My voice was drowned out by the bombs, mortars and shouting.”
‘LIKE A PINE TREE’
    Towards the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.
    King called Thich Nhat Hanh “an apostle of peace and non-violence” and nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
    “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam,” King wrote in his nomination letter.
    While in the United States to meet King a year earlier, the South Vietnamese government banned Thich Nhat Hanh from returning home.
    Fellow monk Haenim Sunim, who once acted as Thich Nhat Hanh’s translator during a trip to South Korea, said the Zen master was calm, attentive and loving.
    “He was like a large pine tree, allowing many people to rest under his branches with his wonderful teaching of mindfulness and compassion,” Haemin Sunim told Reuters
    “He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met.”
    Thich Nhat Hanh’s works and promotion of the idea of mindfulness and meditation have enjoyed a renewed popularity as the world reels from the effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed over a million people and upended daily life.
    “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote.    “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today."
    “If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.”
(Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Nick Macfie, Rosalba O’Brien and Jacqueline Wong)

1/22/2022 Australia’s Queensland State Says Peak Of Omicron Two Weeks Away
Commuters wear protective face masks as they enter Central Station following the implementation of
new public health regulations from the state of New South Wales, as the city grapples with an outbreak
of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia reported 64 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, as the most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), said the Omicron COVID-19 variant would not delay the start of the school year.
    NSW reported 30 deaths of patients with COVID-19, while Victoria state saw 20 deaths, and Queensland reported 10 deaths.
    The national toll of 64 was down from its deadliest day since the start of the pandemic on Friday, when 86 people died.
    The school year starts in just over a week for the two biggest states, NSW and Victoria, which are preparing plans for students to return to classrooms.
    A NSW health official urged parents to vaccinate children before they return to school.
    Vaccination bookings for 5 to 11 year olds have only been available in Australia for two weeks, a schedule that means most children will not have had two doses before classes start.
    “There is no doubt there are going to be challenges as we open schools,” NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Saturday.
    Queensland, recording 15,050 new cases, said it was two weeks behind NSW which is believed to have reached a peak in the Omicron outbreak, recording 20,148 new cases on Saturday.
    Queensland health officials said the data affirmed a decision to delay the start of school in the northern state by two weeks to avoid the peak of COVID-19 cases.br>     A day earlier, the vast mining state of Western Australia cancelled plans to reopen its borders on Feb. 5, citing health risks from a surge in COVID-19 in eastern states.
    Nationally, around 55,000 new cases were reported on Saturday, compared to seven in Western Australia.
    All states and territories, except Western Australia, have reopened their internal borders under a policy of living with COVID-19, despite a record surge in cases.    Western Australia had been due to follow suit next month.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham)

1/23/2022 Tonga Struggles With Ash, Psychological Trauma After Eruption And Tsunami
A satellite image shows Mango islands after Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano eruption,
in Tonga, January 20, 2022. Satellite Image @2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS
    (Reuters) – Families have stopped children playing outside as Tonga struggles to deal with ash and the psychological fallout of last week’s volcanic eruption and tsunami, aid workers and residents said.
    Communication with the outside world remained difficult on Sunday, with few internet services, and outlying islands still cut off from the phone service.
    The Red Cross said it was providing not only tents, food, water and toilets to 173 households on Tonga’s main island, but also comfort.
    “Everyone is still struggling right now,” said Drew Havea, the vice president of Tonga Red Cross.    Because of the ash, “families are making sure their kids are not playing outside, that they are all indoors,” he said.
    Although some residents from the worst affected outlying islands in Ha’apai had been evacuated to the main island Tongatapu, others were refusing to leave, Havea said.
    The psychological impact of waves rushing through and destroying villages will affect their lives for some time, he said.
    There was another worry shared by many in Tonga, he said.
    “Every kid grew up, in your geography lesson you were taught this is the Ring of Fire where we are all living.    Now I think that we are quite concerned and start thinking, ‘How active are these places?” he told Reuters.
    The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300 kms (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.
    The eruption was so powerful that space satellites captured not only huge clouds of ash but also an atmospheric shockwave that radiated out from the volcano at close to the speed of sound.
‘PULSATING, TERRIFYING’
    “I thought the world was coming to an end,” recalled John Tukuafu, owner of the Vakaloa beach resort, who had to rush to rescue his wife from the tsunami.    The resort was in Kanokupolu, one of the worst hit areas on Tongatapu, and uprooted trees and debris now lie in the area where the resort stood.
    “I think the whole island, we are in shock,” Mary Lyn Fonua, the managing editor of news website Matangi Tonga Online, told Reuters on Sunday.
    It had taken a week for many people to recover from the “pulsating, terrifying” sound of the eruption, she said.
    “It was too loud to hear but I could feel it.    The house was vibrating, windows were vibrating and it became more and more intense until the big bang,” she told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
    Residents were wishing for tropical rain to wash off the “awful and itchy” volcanic dust, said Fonua.    Leaves on trees had turned brown and were falling off.
    Fonua said she was in her seafront office talking on the phone to her son in New Zealand when the tsunami struck.
    When the line went dead, he feared she had been swept away.    The anxiety of many Tongan families overseas was prolonged in the days it took for limited international call capacity to be restored.
    Cut off from the world, Tongans got on with immediate rescue efforts, Fonua said.
    Older Tongans with a tradition of self-reliance remarked that young people had been forced to stop looking at their smart phones and had leapt into action, she said.
    With power restored after a week, the Matangi Tonga website posted its first story on Saturday since the eruption and tsunami, describing the “pumice rain,” as volcanic debris fell from the sky, and waves that engulfed cars.
    Still, her office cannot send email and Tonga needs more satellite capacity, Fonua said.
    The international navy ships and flights arriving had brought much needed supplies and communication equipment, she said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham, Jill Gralow and James Redmayne in Sydney)

1/23/2022 S. Korea Says Iran To Regain UN Vote After Delinquent Dues Paid With Frozen Funds
FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – Iran is expected to regain its vote in the U.N. General Assembly after South Korea paid Tehran’s delinquent dues to the world body with frozen Iranian funds in the country, South Korea said on Sunday.
    Iran had regained https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/iran-regains-un-vote-after-us-enables-un-payment-2021-06-11 its U.N. voting rights in June after a similar payment, but said this month it had lost https://en.irna.ir/news/84613258/Envoy-hopes-for-end-of-suspension-of-Iran-s-right-to-vote-in them again because it could not transfer the funds to pay its dues as a result of U.S. sanctions.
    Release of Iran’s frozen funds requires the approval of the United States, which joined its European allies this week in saying only weeks remain to salvage https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-nuclear-talks-need-change-approach-february-decisive-french-source-2022-01-20 the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
    Then-President Donald Trump took Washington out of the deal in 2018, re-imposing U.S. sanctions.    Iran later breached many of the deal’s nuclear restrictions and kept pushing well beyond them.
    Seoul “on Friday completed the payment of Iran’s U.N. dues of about $18 million through the Iranian frozen funds in South Korea, in active cooperation with related agencies such as U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the United Nations Secretariat,” the finance ministry said in a statement.
    The Seoul U.N. office was not reachable for comment outside business hours.
    Iran urgently asked South Korea last week to help pay the U.N. contribution with the frozen funds on concerns of the loss of its right to vote in 193-member General Assembly, the South Korean ministry said.
    Tehran has repeatedly demanded the release of about $7 billion of its funds frozen in South Korean banks under U.S. sanctions, saying Seoul was holding the money “hostage.”
    A South Korean finance ministry official declined to say much Iranian frozen funds are left after the payment of U.N. dues, citing confidentiality laws.
(Reporting by Joori Roh; Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by William Mallard)

1/23/2022 One Surrendered Hong Kong Hamster Tests COVID Positive As City Lockdown Grows by James Pomfret
FILE PHOTO: A man with personal protective equipment sits inside a vehicle in front of a temporarily closed pet shop after the
government announced to euthanize around 2,000 hamsters in the city after finding evidence for the first time of possible
animal-to-human transmission of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China, January 18, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong authorities said on Sunday one hamster surrendered to authorities by pet-owners had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and that over 2,200 hamsters had been culled as the city grappled to contain an outbreak.
    On Tuesday, officials ordered the killing of hamsters from dozens of pet shops after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at a shop and asked people to surrender any bought on or after Dec. 22.
    While a handful of hamsters had already tested positive for the virus, this latest case is the first involving a hamster in the care of a pet-owner that had tested positive.
    Despite a public outcry against the hamster crackdown, authorities urged pet-owners to continue to hand over their tiny furry pets given burgeoning health risks.
    “(The government) strongly advises members of the public again to surrender … as soon as possible their hamsters purchased in local pet shops on or after December 22, 2021 for humane dispatch,” the government said in a statement.
    Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam earlier told reporters that she understood “pet owners are unhappy” with the killings, but said the biggest priority was to control the outbreak.
    The government described the outcry as “irrational.”
    Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters.
    Some scientists and veterinary authorities have said there is no evidence that animals play a major role in human contagion with the coronavirus.
    Meanwhile, officials have warned that COVID-19 infections could be growing exponentially in the congested residential area of Kwai Chung on the Kowloon peninsula, as a second building in the district with two thousands residents was locked down on Saturday for five days.
    More than 35,000 residents in over a dozen buildings in the area were also ordered to take COVID-19 tests, with Lam herself visiting the area on Sunday.
    Lam urged people to avoid gatherings ahead of next week’s Lunar New Year holidays to try to contain the highly infectious Omicron variant.
    The situation is testing Hong Kong’s “zero COVID-19” strategy focused on eliminating the disease, with schools and gyms already shut, restaurants closing at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) and air travel with many major hubs severed or severely disrupted.
    Some companies have begun to enact contingency measures.
    UBS Group AG said in a note to its Hong Kong staff reviewed by Reuters that it had “decided to move to work-from-home operations for all except a minimum number of staff who have essential tasks to be completed in the office” given the Omicorn outbreak.
    A UBS spokesman declined to comment on the memo.
    On Friday, officials shut down the first Kwai Chung building after more than 20 cases were linked to it, with food delivered from outside three times a day and mass testing underway.
(Reporting by James Pomfret and Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

1/23/2022 Blast Hits Western Afghan City Of Herat, Killing At Least Six
A vehicle burns in the street after a blast ripped through a minivan in the
city of Herat, Afghanistan, January 22, 2022 in this screenshot taken from a video obtained
by Reuters. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
    KABUL (Reuters) – A blast ripped through a minivan in the western Afghan city of Herat on Saturday, killing at least six people, according to officials.
    Herat commander Mawlawi Ansari told Reuters that nine people had been injured. The cause of the blast was not clear.
    A health official in Herat, who asked not to be named, said an explosion hit a small van used for public transport just after 1800 local time and that three of the injured were in serious condition.
    Since the Taliban took over in August, a series of blasts and attacks, some claimed by Islamic State, have taken place across Afghanistan.
    The attacks have heightened the new administration’s security challenges as the country spirals into an economic crisis.
(Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Ros Russell)

1/23/2022 New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern Cancels Her Wedding Amid New Omicron Restrictions
FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk through a retail district in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
lockdown restrictions being eased in Auckland, New Zealand, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Fiona Goodall
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has cancelled her wedding as the nation imposes new restrictions to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, she told reporters on Sunday.
    New Zealand will impose mask rules and limit gathering from midnight on Sunday after a cluster of nine COVID-19 Omicron cases showed community spread from the North to South islands after a wedding.
    A family returned to Nelson in the South Island by plane after attending a wedding and other events in Auckland in the North Island.    The family and a flight attendant tested positive.
    New Zealand will move to a red setting under its COVID-19 protection framework, with more mask wearing.    Indoor hospitality settings such as bars and restaurants and events like weddings will be capped at 100 people.    The limit is lowered to 25 people if venues are not using vaccine passes, Arden said.
    “My wedding will not be going ahead,” she told reporters, adding she was sorry for anyone caught up in a similar scenario.    Ardern had not disclosed her wedding date, but it was rumored to be imminent.
    Asked by reporters how she felt about the cancellation of her wedding to longtime partner and fishing-show host Clarke Gayford, Ardern replied: “Such is life.”
    She added, “I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill.    That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.”
    New Zealand’s borders have been shut to foreigners since March 2020.    The government pushed back plans for a phased reopening from mid-January to the end of February out of concern about a potential Omicron outbreak as in neighbouring Australia.
    People able to travel to New Zealand under narrow exceptions must apply to stay at state-managed quarantine facilities.    The government last week stopped issuing any new slots amid a surge in the number of people arriving with Omicron.
    About 94% of New Zealand’s population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated and about 56% of those eligible have had booster shots.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

1/23/2022 Two Australian States To Test School Students Twice Weekly For COVID
Children return to campus for the first day of New South Wales public schools fully re-opening for
all students and staff amidst the easing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at
Homebush West Public School in Sydney, Australia, May 25, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia reported 58 deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday, as the two most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, said students would be tested twice weekly for the Omicron variant when classes resume next week.
    NSW reported 34 deaths of patients with COVID-19, while Victoria state saw 14 deaths, and Queensland reported 10 deaths.
    Health officials said they believe an Omicron outbreak has peaked in NSW and Victoria, which reported 20,324 and 13,091 new cases respectively on Sunday.
    Australian schools return after a summer holiday break in a week.
    NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said parents will be asked to use rapid antigen tests twice a week to check their children for COVID-19, and report any positive result to the school and government.
    Millions of the test kits are being distributed to 3,000 schools this week, and students need to be tested before attending the first day of classes, he told reporters in Sydney.
    Teachers and high school students will be required to wear masks.
    Victoria state has also recommended twice weekly testing of students under its return to school plan.
    School staff in NSW and Victoria must be vaccinated for COVID-19, and teachers in Victoria have a deadline of the end of February to receive a booster shot, Victorian health officials said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/23/2022 Islamic State Claims Responsibility For Attack In Herat, Afghanistan
FILE PHOTO: A vehicle burns in the street after a blast ripped through a minivan in the city
of Herat, Afghanistan, January 22, 2022 in this screenshot taken from a video obtained by Reuters
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on Saturday in the western Afghan city of Herat, it said in a post on Telegram on Sunday.
    At least six people were killed when a blast ripped through a minivan in the city, officials said.    Since the Taliban took over in August, a series of blasts and attacks, some claimed by Islamic State, have taken place across Afghanistan.
(This story was refiled to fix typo in headline)
(Reporting By Moaz Abd-Alaziz; Editing by Frances Kerry)

1/24/2022 Australia PM Morrison Loses Control Of WeChat Chinese Account As Election Looms by Kirsty Needham
A view of the "Australia China New Life" WeChat account, formerly Australian Prime Minister
Scott Morrison's official account, with the first article dated from July 9, 2021, is seen in this
screen grab obtained from social media on January 24, 2022. Social Media Website/via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party lost access to his official WeChat social media account months ago, politicians said on Monday, issuing claims of censorship, while the still-active account being run by a new Chinese controller now promotes Chinese life in Australia.
    Amid growing diplomatic tensions with China, Australia’s two major political parties have used the social media platform, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd, to communicate with Australian voters of Chinese ethnicity in tightly fought electorates since 2019.
    With a national election due by May, the government would have aimed to use the Morrison account to promote its policies during the Chinese New Year celebrations starting Feb. 1.    The prime minister’s office has made multiple fruitless requests to WeChat to regain access to the account, most recently on Jan. 10, said a person with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
    Tencent didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
    Both the Liberals and the main opposition Labor Party set up official WeChat accounts for their leaders through outsourced agencies.    The Scott Morrison account was registered in 2019 using the name of a Chinese citizen in mainland China as its account operator, WeChat records show and a government source confirmed.
    Featuring Morrison’s photograph, it originally promoted major announcements on the economy or the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, translated into Chinese.
    But in January, the account was rebranded ‘Australia China New Life’, and said it would provide information such about life in Australia, Reuters confirmed by viewing the account.    The account registration is now linked to a technology company, Fuzhou 985, in Fujian province, Reuters found.    Reuters wasn’t immediately able to reach the company to request comment.
    Liberal Senator James Paterson, Chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, told media the incident was an example of “censorship” and “foreign interference.”
    “There’s 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent who overwhelmingly use this service and now can no longer access news and information from their Prime Minister,” he said on Australian radio on Monday.
    “Yet they can still gain access to critiques of the government, attacks on the government by the (Labor) Opposition Leader,” he added.
    Fergus Ryan, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said having the Prime Minister’s WeChat account registered under the name of a Chinese citizen was “always risky and ill-advised,” and appeared to be a breach of WeChat rules.
    “Any account set up in this way can be shut down at a moment’s notice,” he said.
    In December 2020 the Scott Morrison WeChat account was temporarily blocked amid a political dispute between Canberra and Beijing over an image of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan.
    In the 2020 incident, a note appeared from WeChat saying the content violated regulations, including distorting historical events and confusing the public.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

1/24/2022 Explainer-Minds Behind The Missiles: N.Korea’s Secretive Weapons Developers by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: A tactical guided missile is launched, according to state media, at an undisclosed location in North Korea,
in this photo released January 17, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s flurry of new missile tests, including what it calls “hypersonic” https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-tests-hypersonic-missiles-global-race-new-rockets-2022-01-11 weapons, has underscored the importance of the country’s missile engineers and scientists, a group that is high profile within his government but opaque to outsiders.
    Analysts say Kim Jong Un appears to be taking steps to institutionalize the missile forces, signalling his likely intent to make them a long-term, operational part of his military plans.
https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-warns-it-may-rethink-moratorium-nuclear-missile-tests-2022-01-19 Here’s what we know – and what we don’t – about these key personnel.
THE SCIENTISTS
    Very little is known about the names and positions of the mid-level and working-level scientists and technicians involved in missile research and development.
    Analysts say these individuals appear to have guaranteed job security because of the resources and effort expended to educate and train them, and they are sequestered to special districts so they are neither a defection risk nor a political or social nuisance to the regime.
    “Unlike economic cadres or even military commanders, this is a population that is not easily replaced,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
    Many of them attend Kim Jong Un National Defense University, a training ground for North Korean defense-related science and technology specialists that has reportedly added a college focused on “hypersonic missile technology.”
    The scientists and engineers often appear split into competing teams designing similar types of weapons, allowing them to go down multiple routes to see which technology is the most promising, said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation based in Arlington, Virginia.
    A 2018 study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) found North Korean scientists had worked with researchers in other countries to co-write at least 100 published articles that had identifiable significance for dual-use technology, weapons of mass destruction, or other military purposes.
THE OFFICIALS
    Kim Jong Un relies on three top people https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-trio-exclusive-idUSKBN18L302 to lead the secretive country’s rapidly accelerating missile programme.
    They include Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force general; Kim Jong Sik, a veteran rocket scientist; and Jang Chang Ha, the head of a weapons development and procurement centre.
    A fourth official – Pak Jong Chon, the chief of the General Staff – has also assumed a higher-profile role in the Military Industry Department (MID), which is responsible for production of strategic weapons, Gause said.
    “We have seen a lot of changes in the military industry arena in the last few years,” Gause said.
    Pak oversaw many recent tests in the absence of Kim Jong Un, who did not attend any missile launches in 2021, before observing one of the hypersonic missile launches in January.
    Last year also saw the appointment of Yu Jim to lead the MID.    Yu was previously a representative of North Korea’s primary state arms dealer in Iran, Madden said.
THE ORGANISATIONS
    The Academy of National Defense Science (NADS), also known as the Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), oversees North Korea’s missile development.
    Madden said the state of a weapon’s development can often be divined from who is reported to have attended a test.
    An event where the only personnel are from NADS/SANS means the system is still in the research and development phase, for example.    If an event combines NADS and the 2nd Economic Committee, that often means that the system is moving from development to production and manufacturing.
    Finally, if the military’s General Staff Department (GSD) personnel attend a test, such as the recent train mobile missile, this usually indicates that the system is finished and will be deployed.
    There are initial signals that as North Korea completes its missile and nuclear arsenal, it may fold more elements of its Strategic Forces back under GSD, signalling it has moved to an operational role, Madden added.
FOREIGN ASSISTANCE
    North Korea’s missile programme has roots in assistance it received from the Soviet Union, and later Russia, analysts say, and the boosters involved in propelling the latest hypersonic warheads are similar to Soviet designs.
    There is debate over how much that assistance has continued since the 1990s.
    According to the latest sanctions https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-imposes-sanctions-north-koreans-russian-after-missile-tests-2022-01-12 designations by the United States, North Koreans linked to the NADS in China and Russia continue to procure materials and technical information for North Korea’s WMD and missile programmes, aided by at least one Russian telecommunications company and a Russian national.
    Markus Schiller, a Europe-based missile expert, has argued that North Korea’s success in testing suggests it has had external support.
    Schiller notes, however, that under Kim Jong Un, North Korean missiles failed more often than in the past, suggesting that the younger Kim was testing more homegrown designs than his predecessors.
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/24/2022 Indonesia Reopens Islands To Singaporean Tourists
A man stands as he travels on a wooden boat near a port in Tanjungpinang,
on the island of Bintan, Indonesia, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia opened up two islands close to Singapore to visitors from the city-state on Monday, officials said, as part of calibrated moves to reboot its tourism sector while controlling the spread of COVID-19.
    Singaporeans can visit Batam and Bintan islands approximately 15 km (9.32 miles) and 30 km away respectively providing they are vaccinated against COVID-19, they undergo tests and have insurance coverage, authorities said.
    The two islands were hugely popular vacation spots among Singaporeans prior to the pandemic.
    The move follows Indonesia’s reopening of its holiday island Bali https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/doubts-over-demand-eve-indonesias-bali-reopening-2021-10-13 to foreign tourists in October.
    It was not immediately clear how the arrangement will be implemented in both countries.
    Singapore has made no announcement of the sea route reopening and its transport authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
    Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said the process could take time.
    Once Asia’s COVID-19 epicentre, Indonesia has seen a rise in infections lately following months of containment, including from the Omicron variant.    It reported its first two Omicron-related deaths on Saturday.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Additional reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/24/2022 Taiwan Reports New Large-Scale Chinese Air Force Incursion
FILE PHOTO: Chinese and Taiwanese national flags are displayed alongside military
airplanes in this illustration taken April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan on Sunday reported the largest incursion since October by China’s air force in its air defence zone, with the island’s defence ministry saying Taiwanese fighters scrambled to warn away 39 aircraft in the latest uptick in tensions.
    Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has complained for more than a year of repeated missions by China’s air force near the democratically governed island, often in the southwestern part of its air defence identification zone, or ADIZ, close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands.
    Taiwan calls China’s repeated nearby military activities “grey zone” warfare, designed to both wear out Taiwan’s forces by making them repeatedly scramble, and also to test Taiwan’s responses.
    The latest Chinese mission included 34 fighters plus four electronic warfare aircraft and a single bomber, the Taiwan ministry said.
    The aircraft flew in an area to the northeast of the Pratas, according to a map the ministry provided.
    Taiwan sent combat aircraft to warn away the Chinese aircraft, while missile systems were deployed to monitor them, the ministry said.
    There was no immediate comment from China, which has in the past said such moves were drills aimed at protecting the country’s sovereignty.
    While it was not clear what might have prompted China to carry out such a large-scale mission, U.S. and Japanese naval forces have been carrying out exercises in the Philippine Sea, a vast area that includes waters to the east of Taiwan.
    The U.S. Pacific Fleet said on Sunday those exercises included two carrier strike groups who were “conducting training to preserve and protect a free and open Indo Pacific.”
    China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan to accept its sovereignty claims.    Taiwan’s government says it wants peace but will defend itself if attacked.
    Taiwan reported 148 Chinese air force planes in the southern and southwestern part of its air defence zone over a four-day period beginning on Oct. 1, the same day China marked a key patriotic holiday, National Day.
    Taiwan has reported almost daily Chinese air force forays into the same air space since then, but the number of planes on Sunday was the largest on a single day since the October incursions.
    No shots have been fired and the Chinese aircraft have not been flying in Taiwan’s air space, but in its ADIZ, a broader area Taiwan monitors and patrols that acts to give it more time to respond to any threats.
(Reporting by Ben BlanchardEditing by Gareth Jones and Susan Fenton)

1/25/2022 Philippines’ Presidential Bet Marcos Shuns Talk Of Past Atrocities
FILE PHOTO: Former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr and son of late former dictator
Ferdinand Marcos is greeted by his supporters upon his arrival at the Supreme Court
in metro Manila, Philippines April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/File Photo
    MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr has made it clear he will not discuss the past, after dismissing media questions about his father’s dictatorial rule and overthrow in a popular uprising 35 years ago.
    Marcos, 64, the early frontrunner https://reut.rs/3cgfgEC in 2022 surveys, has been dodging questions about a brutal era of martial law that started seven years into his father’s 1965-1986 rule, touting instead a message of unity.
    “What questions are going to be asked that have not been asked?    And how many answers do you have to give that have not been given before?,” Marcos told One News television late on Monday, appearing exasperated by an interview question.
    “Nothing is going to change.”
    His critics argue his family has neither apologised for, nor properly addressed events of the past, however, and say the presidency would be the culmination of a decades-long whitewashing effort.
    “Bongbong,” as Marcos is best known, insists his only motivation is to serve the people.
    What the public wants to hear, he said, is how he plans to address recovery from the pandemic, which has killed 53,000 people in the Philippines, infected 3 million and ravaged the economy.
    “Those issues are more important.    We will no longer go back to 35-year old issues,” Marcos said.
    While his candidacy has angered victims of abuses during his father’s rule, opinion polls indicate he could easily beat his rivals, which include boxing icon Manny Pacquiao https://reut.rs/3EYCDzw and Vice President Leni Robredo https://reut.rs/324n4aw.
    Political observers credit Marcos’ sophisticated social media machine for his strong showing in surveys.
    After Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/twitter-suspends-hundreds-accounts-promoting-philippines-marcos-2022-01-21 promoting Marcos, for violating rules on manipulation and spam, Marcos said he never had a “troll” army, but noted the importance of social media in his campaign.
    Since his family’s return from exile after fleeing the “people power” revolution, Marcos has been elected governor, congressman, and senator, and his family remains one of the wealthiest and most influential forces in Philippine politics.
    During the 1972-1981 martial law era, thousands of his father’s opponents were arrested, many tortured, beaten and killed.    The Marcos family was accused of plundering billions of dollars from state coffers, allegations it refutes.
    Marcos said he hoped to woo victims of martial law to support his candidacy “by presenting the best plans, best ideas and showing them I’m sincere.”
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/25/2022 Hong Kong Leader Skips Mask To Highlight ‘Solemn’ Effort Against COVID by Marius Zaharia and Donny Kwok
FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks without a mask during a news
conference in Hong Kong, China January 22, 2022. REUTERS/Joyce Zhou/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam defended herself on Tuesday against criticism for not wearing a face mask at newsconferences, saying it was so people could see how “solemn” she was when talking about the coronavirus outbreak.
    On Monday, Hong Kong reported 109 new infections, in stark contrast with many other places reporting tens or hundreds of thousands of daily cases. Of the 426 people in hospital with COVID-19, none were in serious or critical condition.
    But the discovery in Hong Kong at the end of last year of some local transmissions after a clean streak of three months led to the imposition of restrictions that have made the global financial hub one of the world’s most isolated major cities.
    Lam has been criticised on social media and by some health experts for not wearing a mask while asking society to follow the strict rules her government has reimposed.
    Lam told a weekly press conference her decision not to wear a mask during media briefings was “well thought out” and that she wears one during other activities.
    “Now I am very sombre, I am very solemn, because I am very worried.    People need to understand and feel my feelings,” Lam said.    “I’m not going to smile to you or look very relaxed or casual.    This is a very solemn occasion.”
    Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, one of Lam’s top COVID-19 advisors known in Hong Kong for wearing face masks shaped like a duck beak, was quoted by local media on Monday as saying “when we are experts or leaders, we must set examples ourselves.”
    The last time Hong Kong was subject to such stern restrictions was in 2020, during the early months of the pandemic.
    Schools, pubs and gyms have been shut, with restaurants closing at 6 p.m and many people working from home again.    Additionally, very few flights are allowed to land and hardly any allowed to transit.
    Last week, Hong Kong authorities enraged pet lovers with an order to cull more than 2,000 hamsters after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive.
    Hong Kong has adopted a strategy similar to mainland China, by aiming to quickly smother any outbreak and prevent infected residents from returning, whereas the trend among governments globally has been towards “living with the virus.”
    By contrast, rival finance hub Singapore, with a population three quarters that of Hong Kong, is reporting 3,000 new infections a day, but has eased curbs, including border controls.    It maintains a mask-wearing mandate, limits group dining and operates a vaccine pass in shopping malls.
    But also, only around 70% of people in Hong Kong are double-vaccinated, compared with some 90% in Singapore.    Most of Hong Kong’s elderly have not taken a single vaccine shot.
    On Tuesday, Lam urged people to avoid gatherings and family reunions over the Lunar New Year period at the start of February and reiterated that social restrictions are unlikely to be relaxed after the break as initially hoped.
    “This wave of the outbreak is viciousz,” Lam said.
(Reporting by the Hong Kong newswroom; writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Michael Perry)

1/25/2022 Visitors To Singapore Fall To Record Low In 2021
FILE PHOTO: Tourists wearing protective face masks pose for photos at the
Merlion Park in Singapore, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Feline Lim/File Photo
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore had record low international arrivals in 2021, but saw signs of recovery after introducing a quarantine waiver system for vaccinated visitors and offering cash vouchers, its tourism authority said on Tuesday.
    Singapore had 330,000 international arrivals in 2021, the lowest since the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) started tracking the numbers in the 1970s, data showed.    That was less than 2% of the pre-pandemic visitor number.
    Revenue was an estimated S$1.9 billion ($1.41 billion) in 2021, also one of the lowest on record. In comparison, Singapore had 19.1 million visitors and generated S$27.1 billion in 2019.
    For much of 2020 and last year, Singapore tightly controlled arrivals to the city-state, requiring those who entered to quarantine for up to two weeks.
    It introduced quarantine waivers https://reut.rs/3s6JeCD for vaccinated visitors from certain countries https://reut.rs/3ctH4Wc from September last year.
    China was the top source of visitors, with 88,000 arrivals between January and December 2021, STB said, compared to 3.6 million in 2019.
    Strict Chinese COVID-19 policies that discourage overseas travel have hurt tourism globally https://reut.rs/3IyZeDN.
($1 = 1.3432 Singapore dollars)
(Reporting by Chen Lin; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/25/2022 COVID Cases Reported On Australian Aid Vessel Sailing To Virus-Free Tonga
HMAS Adelaide in Brisbane before travelling to Tonga to assist in relief efforts,
January 19, 2022. Australian Department of Defence/Handout via REUTERS
    (Reuters) - About two dozen cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among the crew of an Australian warship expected to arrive in coronavirus-free Tonga on Wednesday to deliver humanitarian aid, Australian authorities said on Tuesday.
    Tonga, hit by a massive volcanic eruption and a tsunami on Jan. 15, has asked for aid https://www.reuters.com/world/world-rushes-aid-tsunami-hit-tonga-drinking-water-food-runs-short-2022-01-20 to be delivered without human contact amid concerns a COVID outbreak would be devastating for the tiny Pacific island nation.
    Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton said 23 personnel aboard the HMAS Adelaide have tested positive for COVID.    The ship, with a crew of about 600, left Brisbane on Friday carrying large quantities of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, helicopters and water purification equipment, as well as an Australian Army engineer contingent.
    The ship is due to arrive in Tonga early on Wednesday, the department of defence said.
    “We will work with the Tongan authorities to keep that vessel at sea to make sure there is no threat and obviously the Tongan government is discussing that at the moment,” Dutton said on broadcaster Sky News.
    “Obviously they need the aid desperately but they don’t want the risk of COVID.”
    In a later statement, the defence department said HMAS Adelaide would continue her mission, and ensure the aid was delivered in a COVID-safe manner.
    “The positive COVID cases, and close contacts, are being isolated,” a defence statement said, adding the ship had medical facilities including a 40-bed hospital with critical care ward, and COVID testing capabilities.
    All crew had been vaccinated and the 23 positive COVID cases were showing no or mild symptoms, it said.
    Aid flights from Australia and New Zealand arrived in Tonga last week with essential supplies, but the transfer of goods was done in a contactless way.    One Australian aid flight was forced to return to base when a COVID-19 case was detected mid-flight.
    A New Zealand aid vessel landed last week and more aid is en route by air and sea from New Zealand, Japan and Britain.
    The United Nations, Red Cross and other relief agencies on the ground in Tonga have warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in the island would be catastrophic at this time.
    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption https://graphics.reuters.com/TONGA-VOLCANO/lgpdwjyqbvo triggered a tsunami that destroyed villages and resorts and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.    Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by Michael Perry and Kenneth Maxwell)

1/25/2022 At Least 19 Die In Blaze, Brawl At Karaoke Bar In Indonesia’s Papua
Policemen stand guard outside the Double O Karaoke bar which was set ablaze following a brawl between rival gangs of youths in
West Papua, Indonesia, January 25, 2022 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Olha Mulalinda/Antara Foto via REUTERS
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – At least 19 people have died after a karaoke bar in Indonesia’s West Papua was set ablaze following a brawl between rival gangs of youths in the area, police in the provincial capital of Sorong said on Tuesday.
    One person was fatally stabbed in the fight early on Tuesday before the venue was set on fire with 18 people trapped inside, a police official said.
    “Fights among youths in cities are normal, but that it has caused so many deaths, that is a first,” Adam Erwini, a spokesman for West Papua police, told Metro TV.
    Adam said the deadly incident at the entertainment venue in Sorong was still under investigation, and it was unclear if the death toll would rise.
    Separately, Dedi Prasetyo, a spokesman for Indonesia’s national police said the brawl was between two rival gangs from the neighbouring island of Maluku.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/25/2022 Australia Buys Copyright To Aboriginal Flag, Making It Free To Fly
FILE PHOTO: Aboriginal flags rise above a crowd walking across
Sydney Harbour Bridge on May 28, 2000. DG/PB/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Australian government said on Tuesday it had acquired copyright to the Aboriginal flag so it can be freely used, resolving a commercial dispute that had restricted sporting teams and Aboriginal communities from reproducing the image.
    The Aboriginal flag has been recognised as an official flag of Australia since 1995, flown from government buildings and embraced by sporting clubs.
    After a deal negotiated with its creator, indigenous artist Harold Thomas, the flag can be used on sports shirts, sporting grounds, websites and in artworks without permission or payment of a fee, the government said on the eve of the Australia Day national holiday.
    Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, Thomas said he first made the black, yellow and red flag to lead a demonstration in 1971, and it had become a symbol of indigenous unity and pride.
    “The flag represents the timeless history of our land and our people’s time on it,” he said in a statement.
    The government has paid $20 million to Thomas and to extinguish licences held by a small number of companies which have stirred controversy since 2018 by demanding payment for the flag’s reproduction.
    A parliamentary inquiry in 2020 said the licence holder had demanded payment from health organisations and sporting clubs, which could lead to communities stopping using the flag to avoid legal action.
    Prominent Aboriginal Australians including former Olympian Nova Peris led a “Free the Flag” campaign.
    Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the flag had become an enduring symbol for Aboriginal people.
    “Over the last 50 years we made Harold Thomas’ artwork our own – we marched under the Aboriginal flag, stood behind it, and flew it high as a point of pride,” he said in a statement.
    “Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away.”
    Australia Day celebrations, marked with a national public holiday on Jan. 26, have become controversial because the date is seen by indigenous Australians as marking the invasion of their land by Britain.
    It is the date a British fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1788 to start a penal colony, viewing the land as unoccupied despite encountering settlements.
    There has been debate over whether to move the national holiday to another date.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Stephen Coates)

1/25/2022 Indonesia, Singapore Sign Extradition, Airspace And Defence Agreements
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo
during their annual leaders' retreat at the Indonesian island of Bintan in Riau, Indonesia,
January 25, 2022. Presidential Palace/Agus Suparto/Handout via REUTERS
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia and Singapore signed on Tuesday a bilateral extradition agreement, a move that Jakarta expects to help authorities in their effort to bring to justice people accused of stashing offshore billions of dollars in state money.
    Senior cabinet ministers from both countries also signed bilateral agreements covering airspace and defence in a ceremony aired on Indonesia’s State Secretariat YouTube channel.
    The signings follow a meeting between President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the Indonesian island of Bintan as part of their annual leaders’ retreat.
    The issue of extradition has long been a frustration for Indonesia because of concerns over the difficulty of bringing some fugitives accused of embezzling large sums during the Asian financial crisis to justice.
    “The extradition treaty will enhance cooperation and combating crime and send a clear, positive signal to investors,” Prime Minister Lee said at the signing ceremony.
    Under the extradition agreement, people who had committed 31 types of crime will be liable to be extradited and it will apply to offences committed up to 18 years ago, a statement from Indonesia’s investment and maritime affairs ministry said.
    The agreement would also mean that people would not be able to escape justice by changing their citizenship, it said.
    “Therefore, the implementation of the criminal extradition agreement will create a deterrence effect for felonies in Indonesia and Singapore,” the statement said.
    In 2007, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Lee oversaw the signing of an extradition treaty and defence cooperation agreement, but it was never ratified by Indonesia’s parliament.
    Indonesia has set up a new so-called “BLBI” task force that is going after https://www.reuters.com/article/indonesia-debt-idUSL3N2NM1FH $8 billion of bailout funds given to bank owners and borrowers after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s that was never repaid.
    “Specifically, for Indonesia, the implementation of the extradition agreement will reach effectively fugitives of the past and facilitate the implementation of a presidential regulation on BLBI,” said the ministry statement.
    The other agreements signed between the countries include one giving Indonesia more control of airspace over the Riau and Natuna islands, areas close to both countries, and a defence agreement.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/25/2022 S. Korea’s Daily COVID Count Tops 8,000 For First Time Amid Omicron Spread by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: Commuters walk on a zebra crossing during snowfall, amid the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) pandemic, in central Seoul, South Korea, January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s daily count of new coronavirus cases topped 8,000 for the first time on Tuesday, as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads rapidly despite the recent extension of strict social-distancing rules to slow infection.
    The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 8,571 cases for Monday, exceeding the previous peak posted in mid-December of 7,848.
    The new record came amid the spread of the more transmissible but less deadly Omicron variant, which became dominant in the country last week, and despite less testing over the weekend.
    South Korea reinstated tougher distancing curbs in December as record-breaking numbers of daily cases and critically ill patients threatened to saturate its medical system before the Omicron wave hit.
    Daily tallies had almost halved to around 4,000 this month but began rebounding last week because of Omicron infections, logging their second-highest level on Saturday.
    The surge fuelled worries about a potentially bigger wave ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays, when tens of millions of Koreans usually travel across the country for family visits.
    Health officials said Omicron would likely account for more than 90% of new infections within two to three weeks, while daily numbers could reach 20,000 to 30,000 or even higher.
    Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum issued a special statement on Monday to plead for people to refrain from travel and gatherings during the break, which starts on Saturday.
    “It is no different to adding fuel to the raging flames if many people move around the country and meet each other,” he told a briefing.
    As part of efforts to reserve medical capacity for the critically ill, the mandatory isolation period for vaccinated patients will be reduced from the current 10 days to seven starting on Wednesday.
    South Korea has also rolled out one of the region’s most stringent vaccine pass mandates, under which unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.
    The extended curbs triggered a backlash from small business owners, while a court ordered large stores and teenagers to be temporarily exempted from the vaccine mandates in the capital Seoul in an intensifying legal battle between the government and citizens.
    Some 300 members of a coalition of small business owners plan to hold a hair-shaving protest on Tuesday, urging the government to lift the curbs, including a 9 p.m. dining curfew, and compensate their economic losses.
    South Korea has recorded 733,902 COVID-19 infections and 6,540 deaths, KDCA data showed.    The country of 52 million has largely been a COVID-19 mitigation success story, with 749,979 total infections and 6,588 deaths.
    More than 95% of South Korean adults have been fully vaccinated and nearly 58% have received a booster shot, KDCA data showed.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle and Richard Pullin)

1/25/2022 Japan Panel To Approve Widening Of COVID Curbs
Visitors wearing protective face masks walk on a pedestrian deck, amid the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato
(Refiles to add TOKYO dateline)
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is set to more than double the number of regions under enhanced coronavirus curbs on Tuesday, even as it sought to modify strategies to contend with the infectious Omicron variant that has fueled record numbers of cases.
    A government health panel signed off on an expansion of tougher counter-measures in 18 additional regions, among them the western prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto.
    The measures came in response to an increase of infections and hospital admissions driven by Omicron.    Japan logged more than 44,000 new cases on Monday, a tally by public broadcaster NHK showed.
    The curbs will run from Thursday until Feb. 20, empowering regional governors to ask restaurants and bars to shorten business hours and stop serving alcohol.
    Already declared in 16 prefectures, the expansion means the measures will soon cover more than 70% of Japan’s regions until the middle of next month.
    The advisory panel also approved an extension until Feb. 20 of so-called quasi-emergency measures in three regions.
    A government taskforce led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to formally approve the decisions later on Tuesday.
    The health ministry announced late on Monday it will allow doctors to diagnose those who have had a close contact with a COVID patient and who show COVID symptoms as being infected without testing if deemed necessary by local governments.
    The new policy will enable patients to get prompt tests and treatment at the direction of the community depending on the infection situation there, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Tuesday.
    “We’re presenting a policy to expand the options available to patients, such as combining tests before visiting medical institutions,” he said.
    Those at high risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 should see a doctor even under the new policy, he said.
    Managing COVID-19 without a laboratory test confirmation is similar to how doctors fight influenza in areas where “the community burden is high,” said Kazuaki Jindai, a physician and researcher at Tohoku University.
    “The important thing is that some people will get sick eventually and we need to have a good monitoring system to make sure that they are safe.    Not only by providing them hospitalization but also access to new oral medications.”
    The government would also weigh scientific data in considering shorter quarantines for people who have had close contact with COVID-19 patients, Kishida told a parliamentary debate.
(Reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

1/25/2022 Myanmar’s Year Of Turmoil Since The Military Took Power In A Coup
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators protest against the military coup in
Yangon, Myanmar, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Myanmar’s military took power in a coup on Feb. 1 last year after complaining of fraud in a November 2020 general election won by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.    Election monitoring groups found no evidence of mass fraud.
    Following is a timeline of events:
    Feb. 1, 2021: Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior figures from the National League for Democracy (NLD) are detained in morning raids.
    The military declares a state of emergency for a year – later extended – and hands power to army chief Min Aung Hlaing.
    Feb. 3: Staff at 70 hospitals and medical departments stop work in protest.    Many wear red ribbons as part of a civil disobedience campaign.
    NLD offices are raided, documents and computers are seized.
    Police file charges against Suu Kyi saying military officers searching her residence found six hand-held radios imported illegally and used without permission.
    Charges are also filed against the president over violating coronavirus restrictions.
Feb. 4: Protesters wave banners and chant anti-coup slogans in Mandalay.
Feb. 6: Blocks are ordered on Twitter and Instagram, where protesters had been sharing information.    The junta orders the internet shut down.
Feb. 7: Protests sweep the country in the biggest show of anger since 2007 anti-military protests.    Internet access is restored but social media platforms remain blocked.
Feb. 9: Police fire guns, mostly in the air, water cannons and rubber bullets at protesters in the capital, Naypyitaw. A woman is shot in the head and dies 10 days later.
Feb. 13: The junta suspends laws constraining security forces from detaining suspects and searching property.
Feb. 22: General strike shuts businesses as crowds gather across the country.
Feb. 25: Facebook bans Myanmar military from its platforms.
    About 1,000 supporters of the military attack opponents of the coup in Yangon.
Feb. 26: Myanmar’s U.N. envoy urges the United Nations to use “any means necessary” to stop the coup.    He is fired the next day.
March 2: Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers hold a call with a junta representative.    They urge Suu Kyi’s release and an end to lethal force against protesters.
March 4: At least 19 police cross into India saying they don’t want to take orders from the junta.
March 5: U.S. officials freeze a $1 billion Myanmar account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.    The United States blocks Myanmar’s defence and interior ministries and top military conglomerates from certain trade.
March 22: The European Union imposes travel bans and asset freezes on 11 people linked to the coup, including Min Aung Hlaing and acting president Myint Swe.
March 27: Troops kill at least 160 people as the military marks Armed Forces Day with a parade.
March 28: About 3,000 villagers flee from Karen State to Thailand after the army launches air strikes in territory controlled by the Karen National Union insurgent group.
    Security forces also open fire at a funeral in Bago town for 114 people killed in a crackdown the previous day.
April 1: Suu Kyi is charged with breaking official secrets law.
April 16: Junta opponents announce a National Unity Government including ousted members of parliament and leaders of anti-coup protests, aiming to end military rule and restore democracy.
April 24: Southeast Asian leaders say they have agreed on a plan with Min Aung Hlaing to end the crisis.
April 27: The KNU captures an army output near the Thai border. The military responds with air strikes.
May 4: Junta-controlled media announce a ban on satellite television receivers.
May 24: Suu Kyi appears in court for the first time since her government was overthrown.
    Danny Fenster, 37, an American managing editor of the Frontier Myanmar news site, is detained at Yangon airport as he prepares to fly to Malaysia.
June 8: The United Nations says some 100,000 people in Kayah State have been displaced by fighting that included “indiscriminate attacks by security forces” in civilian areas.
June 21: Min Aung Hlaing and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, commit to strengthening security and other ties at a Moscow meeting.
Aug. 1: Min Aung Hlaing takes the role of prime minister in a caretaker government. He repeats a pledge to hold elections by 2023.
Aug. 18: The death toll as a result security force crackdowns on protests since the coup tops 1,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Oct. 16: ASEAN countries exclude Min Aung Hlaing from a summit citing lack of progress on its plan to end the crisis.
Oct. 29: Win Htein, 79, an aide to Suu Kyi, is jailed for 20 years on high treason charge.
Nov. 15: Fenster freed and returns to the United States after being jailed for 11 years on various charges.
Dec. 5: Suu Kyi is found guilty of incitement and breaching coronavirus restrictions. She is set to serve two years in detention at an undisclosed location, a sentence reduced from four after a partial pardon from military chief.
Jan. 7, 2022: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen meets Min Aung Hlaing in two-day Myanmar visit, the first by a head of government since the coup.
Jan. 10: A court jails Suu Kyi for four more years on charges including possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies
Jan. 14: Five new corruption charges against Suu Kyi, 76, are announced. In all, she faces up to 164 years in jail.
(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/25/2022 Taiwan Vice President Leaves To Shore Up Shaky Alliance With Honduras by Ann Wang
Taiwan Vice President William Lai speaks to the media at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, before leaving for Honduras to
attend the inauguration ceremony of the new president, in Taoyuan, Taiwan, January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Ann Wang
    TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan Vice President William Lai left on Tuesday to shore up a shaky relationship with Honduras and attend the swearing in of its new leader, an event U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is also going to, potentially giving the two a chance to meet.
    China has ramped up pressure to reduce Taiwan’s international footprint, saying the democratically governed island is Chinese territory with no right to state-to-state ties.
    Honduras is one of only 14 countries to maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
    Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro has floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing.
    Speaking at Taiwan’s main international airport in Taoyuan, Lai said he would bring supplies to help Honduras combat the COVID-19 pandemic to demonstrate Taiwan’s determination to support Castro’s government from the get-go.
    “As President Castro prepares to promote new policies, Taiwan will uphold the spirit of pragmatic diplomacy and mutual assistance, deepen cooperation with Honduras, and overcome various difficulties to benefit both countries’ peoples,” Lai said.
    Lai, who is scheduled to meet Castro on Wednesday, added he would have “interactions and exchanges” with “leaders and deputy leaders” of allies and “friendly countries,” though he did not directly mention Harris.
    The trip will show the world that Taipei is “a trustworthy friend and that Taiwan has the ability to help the international community,” Lai said.
    While Washington also has no official diplomatic relations with Taipei, it is Taiwan’s most important international backer and arms supplier, a frequent source of tensions between Washington and Beijing.
    In the run-up to the November election, a visiting U.S. delegation to Honduras made clear it wanted the country to maintain https://www.reuters.com/world/us-has-urged-honduran-presidential-candidates-keep-ties-with-taiwan-official-2021-11-24 its Taiwan ties.
    Lai, as is common when Taiwanese leaders visit Latin American allies, is stopping off in the United States on his way to and back from Honduras, to which China has as usual expressed its opposition.
    The United States has worried about growing Chinese influence in its backyard.
    China has been stepping up efforts to win over Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, last month re-establishing ties with Nicaragua, and has openly said it is aiming to reduce the number to zero.
(Reporting by Ann Wang; Writing by Ben Blanchard)

1/25/2022 Explainer-Wall Of Ice At Fukushima’s Crippled Nuclear Plant by Elaine Lies and Ju-min Park
FILE PHOTO: Employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) are seen next to the part of an underground ice wall unit, to prevent
underground water from flowing in and stop radioactive water seeping into the Pacific Ocean, at tsunami-crippled
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) – The operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant said this month that two storage tanks had leaked about four tonnes of coolant solution used to create an ice wall that prevented groundwater from seeping in.
    The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co Holdings (Tepco), said the leak had no impact on the wall or the environment, however.
    But the incident highlights its struggle to clean up the plant nearly 11 years after a massive earthquake and tsunami set off meltdowns in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
    It also comes just as the utility is readying to build a tunnel to the sea to release more than 1 million tonnes of irradiated water from the site, after treatment, in an effort set to start around the spring of 2023.
WHY AN ICE WALL?
    In operation since 2016, the ice wall, as the structure is called, is really more like a barrier of frozen soil.    Built by Kajima Corp, it cost 34.5 billion yen ($303 million) in public funds.
    The ice wall is meant to keep contaminated water within the plant while keeping out groundwater, which becomes radioactive on seeping into the basements of the crippled reactors and coming in contact with highly radioactive debris there.
    That has interfered with clean-up work, forcing Tepco to pump out the water for storage in huge tanks at an annual cost of about 100 billion yen.
    Now space is running out, as nearly 1.3 million tonnes of such water has accumulated, or enough to fill about 500 swimming pools of Olympic size.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
    Coolant pumped into freeze tubes reduces temperatures to about -30 degrees C (-22 Fahrenheit) in about 1,500 tubes filled with brine located at a depth of 30 meters (98.43 ft) along a perimeter of 1.5 km (1 mile) around the plant.
    This in turn freezes the surrounding groundwater into a contiguous wall of frozen soil, and the coolant is recirculated.
LEAKS AND PROBLEMS
    The latest leak appears to have been caused by a warping of joints in metal pipes, despite a lack of visible cracks, a TEPCO spokesperson said.    The system is operating after the defective parts were replaced.
    The last of roughly eight leaks since the wall became operative was in 2019, probably because of metal fatigue from vibrations caused by construction vehicles.
    The spokesperson was unable to immediately confirm the cause of earlier leaks, but said similar reasons were likely.
    In Nov 2021, Tepco said it was launching remedial work after testing showed a partial melting of the ice wall.
    The coolant in Sunday’s leak was a solution of calcium chloride, used in concrete mixes to hasten setting and in food to firm it.
WATER RELEASE – AND THE TUNNEL
    In December, Tepco said it aimed to build an underwater tunnel to release the water into the sea, in the latest stage of a plan to discharge about 1 million tonnes after treatment and dilution, at a point about 1 km (0.6 miles) offshore.
    The treated water is to be pumped from tanks for release at a depth of 12 metres (40 ft), with construction set to start this year.
    The water will be processed to remove all radioactive contamination, except tritium, which will be diluted to a seventh of the World Health Organization (WHO) standards for drinking water.    The release is set to start around spring 2023.
    Though nuclear plants worldwide routinely discharge water with tritium in it, the plan has stirred concern from neighbours China and South Korea, worried over food safety.
    Also alarmed are farmers and fishermen nearby who worry it could hit prices after years of struggle to rebuild.
LAWSUIT
    Separately, a lawsuit set to be filed on Thursday against Tepco says a group of six men and women developed thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure from the disaster, the Mainichi daily said.
    In a statement, the utility said it would respond after the filing and hearings.
($1=113.7600 yen)
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Elaine Lies; Editing by David Dolan and Clarence Fernandez)

1/26/2022 Hong Kong Security Chief Says New Laws Will Reflect “Importance Of Spies” by Greg Torode and Jessie Pang
A Hong Kong flag is flown behind a pair of surveillance cameras outside the Central
Government Offices in Hong Kong, China July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s security chief said on Wednesday that his government would strengthen laws against espionage as part of extra national security legislation now being drafted.
    Secretary for Security Chris Tang told the city’s legislature that Hong Kong’s existing laws against spying, contained in the British-era Official Secrets Ordinance, could not reflect the “importance” of the crime.
    “We will reflect the importance of spies in the legislation,” said Tang, the city’s former top policeman.
    The government is drafting legislation to cover a range of security crimes to meet its obligations under Article 23 of the Basic Law – its mini-constitution following its 1997 handover from British colonial rule.
    Article 23 says Hong Kong must enact laws “on its own” against crimes including treason, secession, theft of state secrets and activities by foreign political groups.
    The city government’s last attempt to pass those laws, in 2003, triggered street protests by Hong Kong people who saw the legislation as a threat to the city’s special freedoms.
    Some diplomats, legal scholars and activists say the Article 23 legislation will significantly extend the scope and reach of a national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020.
    Tang said the existing ordinance was too limited when it came to provisions including giving information useful to an enemy.
    “We feel that the definitions are not enough for us to combat all manner of espionage activities,” he said.
    As well as espionage, Tang said the legislation would outline specific crimes of treason, sedition, theft of state secrets as well as forbidding activities by foreign political groups inside Hong Kong and ties between such groups and local organisations.
    The drafting is expected to be completed in the next few months and to be introduced after the city’s new leader takes office in July, government officials have said.
    Critics say the national security law has put freedoms at risk with tough bail provisions and expanded police powers under a legal regime that punishes subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
    Hong Kong and Chinese officials say the law was vital to ensure stability after the Asian financial hub was rocked by sometimes-violent pro-democracy protests for much of 2019, and say prosecutions are not political.
(Reporting By Greg Torode and Jessie Pang; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/26/2022 Hong Kong May Maintain COVID Isolation Until 2024, Risking Exodus – Euro Chamber by Farah Master
Hong Kong skyline is pictured from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, China
January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar January 26, 2022
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong may only reopen in early 2024 because of its stringent COVID-19 policies, which could trigger an exodus of foreign firms and staff and jeopardise its role as a financial hub, the city’s European Chamber of Commerce said in a draft report.
    The limited effectiveness of locally developed vaccines is forcing mainland China to maintain tight restrictions on travel, the chamber said in the draft, which was reviewed by Reuters but has not been made public.
    The European Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the report.
    The most likely scenario for Hong Kong would be that it would not reopen until China rolls out its mRNA vaccine across its 1.4 billion population, which could take until late 2023 or early 2024, it said.
    If that was the case, the chamber said there was a risk of a “cascade effect” of firms leaving the Asian financial hub.
    “We anticipate an exodus of foreigners, probably the largest than Hong Kong has ever seen, and one of the largest in absolute terms from any city in the region in recent history,” it said.
    While Hong Kong has succeeded in keeping the virus under control for much of 2021, it has become one of the world’s most isolated places because of its travel restrictions and intermittent lockdowns that have accelerated a brain drain from the former British colony.
    Hong Kong saw a surge of infections in January, which authorities have struggled to control.
    Given the scenario, multinational firms would increasingly relocate China-focused teams to the mainland or shift their Asian regional teams to Singapore or Seoul, the chamber said.
    Hong Kong could lose its appeal as an international business hub as well as its potential to contribute to China’s economy.
    The departure of international talent could also undermine the city’s “potential to maintain world class universities,” it said.
FASTER VACCINES, SHORTER QUARANTINE
    Unlike the mainland, Hong Kong is dependent on business travellers and imported goods.
    Its role as one of the world’s main transhipment and passenger hubs has been drastically curtailed by tough flight restrictions, which mean very few people are allowed to land and hardly anyone is allowed to transit.
    In contrast, the rival financial hub of Singapore has eased its coronavirus curbs including border controls.
    Only about 70% of people in Hong Kong have been double-vaccinated compared with 91% of Singapore’s eligible population.
    Most of Hong Kong’s elderly people have not been vaccinated.
    The chamber outlined other scenarios of “average likelihood” including the possibility of an uncontrolled outbreak in the mainland leading to Hong Kong sealing its boundary with China and reopening with the rest of the world.
    Another scenario was an uncontrolled outbreak in Hong Kong, which would made any additional restrictions meaningless.    This could cause up to 20,000 deaths among the elderly.
    The chamber made recommendations to the government including accelerating vaccinations and shortening quarantine from 21 days to 7 to 14 days, which would please the international business community.
    Foreign businesses should assume that Hong Kong would very likely be “semi-closed for international travel in the coming 12-36 months.”    Talent, and holding on to it, would be “a precious commodity,” it said.
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Robert Birsel)

1/26/2022 Protests, Citizenship Festivities Mark Contentious Australia Day Holiday by Lidia Kelly
Protesters attend the "Abolish the Date" rally to demand that Australia Day, the country's national day,
be changed, as the date marks the arrival of Britain's First Fleet in 1788 and subsequent colonisation
of indigenous Australians, in Sydney, Australia, January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Jill Gralow
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Thousands rallied against the mistreatment of Indigenous people across Australia on Wednesday as citizenship ceremonies took place to mark the country’s national day intended to celebrate the birth of modern Australia.
    The Jan. 26 public holiday marks the date the British fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1788 to start a penal colony, viewing the land as unoccupied despite encountering settlements.
    But for many Indigenous Australians, who trace their lineage on the continent back 50,000 years, it is “Invasion Day.”
    Many protesters at rallies across cities dressed in black to mourn the day, with some carrying the Aboriginal flag and “change the date” signs.    Some protests were organised online amidst concerns of surging COVID-19 cases.
    A monument depicting Captain James Cook, who arrived in the Pacific 252 years ago triggering British colonisation of the region, was doused in red paint overnight in Melbourne.
    Speaking at the national flag-raising and citizenship ceremony in Australia’s capital, Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison honoured the traditional custodians of the country.
    “We recognise Indigenous peoples right across our land from the Torres Strait Islander people in the north, to the people in Tasmania, to the people across the Nullarbor in Perth and the Larrakia people in the Top End,” Morrison said.
    “Like the country itself, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are diverse, they’re unique and they connect us through time/i>.”
    While the Australian Day remains contentious, this week’s poll by the market research company Roy Morgan showed nearly two-thirds of Australians say that Jan. 26 should be considered “Australia Day.”    The rest say it should be “Invasion Day.”
    Australia’s 700,000 or so Indigenous people track near the bottom of its 25 million citizens in almost every economic and social indicator.    Living often in remote communities, they also have been at greater risk from COVID.
    Most of the 200 or so Aboriginal communities spread across Western Australia are closed to tourists and travellers.
    The main Aboriginal health body of Central Australia, a vast outback region in the Northern Territory centred on the town of Alice Springs, called on Tuesday for a “complete lockdown” of the area to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
    The Northern Territory, home to about 247,000 people, recorded 492 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 3,208, with 84 people in hospitals.
    Australia on Wednesday recorded at least 87 deaths from the virus, the highest number of COVID deaths in a day since the start of the pandemic, as the highly-infections Omicron variant tore through the country.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

1/26/2022 Relief Efforts Ramp Up In Tonga, More Aid Arrives
A general view shows damaged buildings following volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tongatapu, Tonga,
January 16, 2022 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken January 16, 2022. Malau Media/via REUTERS
    (Reuters) – Humanitarian aid to Tonga is ramping up after the airport was cleared of ash, making it safe for planes to land, the Red Cross said on Wednesday, days after a volcanic eruption and tsunami devastated the South Pacific archipelago.
    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said that with the extra supplies, its staff and volunteers are stepping up deliveries of drinking water and setting up shelters across the country’s many islands.
    “This disaster has shaken the people of Tonga like nothing we have seen in our lifetime,” Sione Taumoefolau, secretary general of Tonga Red Cross, said in a statement.    “The tsunami has wiped out homes and villages, but we are already rebuilding amid the ashes.”
    The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said the United States is providing an additional $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance and the guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson, part of a multinational effort, arrived this week to support the efforts in Tonga.
    The Australian government said on Wednesday it will provide an additional A$2 million ($1.43 million) in humanitarian funding to Tonga, bringing Australia’s commitment to date to $3 million.
    It also said that Australia is widening its support, including through the restoration of power and communications, and the storage and delivery of relief supplies.
    An Australian warship arrived to coronavirus-free Tonga on Wednesday evening, delivering aid without human contact after about two dozen cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among the crew.
    “The ship is undertaking an entirely contactless delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies,” Austarlia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja said in a joint statement.
    Tonga’s Broadcom Broadcasting radio cited Tonga’s Health Minister Saia Piukala as saying that 29 positive cases had been reported onboard of the HMAS Adelaide, but all the positive personnel were asymptomatic.
    “Australians from the ship will unload their cargoes and sail from port,” Piukala said.
    The United Nations, Red Cross and other relief agencies on the ground in Tonga have warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in the island would be catastrophic at this time.
    “There is an urgent need for people to have access to safe water sources in the days and weeks to come,” Taumoefolau said.
    The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed villages and resorts and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.    Three people have been reported killed, authorities said.
($1 = 1.3965 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and by Kirsty Needham and John Mair in Sydney; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Gerry Doyle)

1/26/2022 Japan’s Border Crackdown Leaves Students In Limbo And Economy In A Pinch by Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies
A passersby wearing a protective face mask walks at an izakaya pub alley, amid the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Two years after Japan locked down its borders to block the coronavirus, some 150,000 foreign students still aren’t able to enter the country, left in limbo by a policy that has disrupted lives and caused headaches for universities and businesses.
    The absence of the foreign students and researchers is being felt from big laboratories to small, private universities, highlighting the importance of overseas talent – and their tuition fees – as Japan grapples with a shrinking population.
    While the policy to stop the virus has proved popular for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, some business leaders have warned about the economic impact, particularly as the labour market is tight.
    What is less clear is the longer-term hit on Japan’s “soft power” – in particular its academic reputation around the world.
    At research institute Riken, geneticist Piero Carninci says he sees the impact first-hand.    Japan has a shortage of bioinformatic researchers critical for genomic studies but he has not been able to fill the gap with foreign talent over the past two years.
    “My lab, for sure, is slowing down and our centre for this type of analysis.    We are struggling,” Carninci, a deputy director at Riken, whose prize-winning research in genetics has been cited in 60,000 papers.
    “Internationalisation in science is definitely critical, because you don’t have all the expertise in the same country.”
    Many countries sealed borders to keep the coronavirus at bay.
    The United States saw international student enrolment drop 43% in the fall of 2020 from the previous year, while some 80,000 immigrant worker visas expired unused last year.
    But Japan stands out with the strictest borders among Group of Seven countries, effectively banning all new non-residents since March 2020.    Only China, with its zero COVID-19 target, has been more closed off among major economies.
    The stakes are high.    A government-affiliated study showed Japan last year fell to 10th place globally in publication of noteworthy scientific papers, just behind India. Twenty years ago, it was number four.
‘OWN-GOAL’
    Nearly half of Japan’s four-year private universities failed to fill all places for first-year students in 2021, up 15 percentage points from the previous year, according to an official at the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, which represents private educators.
    While the biggest reason was a drop-off in the number of Japanese students, the decline in foreign students was also felt, the official said.
    More than 100 academics and international relations experts signed a letter asking Kishida to reopen borders last week.    People shut out have protested outside Japanese embassies and an online petition calling for students and workers to be let in has more than 33,000 signatures.
    The government said last week it would make an exception and allow 87 state-sponsored students in.
    “It’s a giant own-goal for Japan after decades of masterful use of soft power,” said Wesley Cheek, a sociologist who recently left Japan for a research post in Britain.
    “People like me, who’d usually be applying for grants to continue our research in Japan, just have to take a pass for the foreseeable future.”
    International students can work part-time in Japan and have traditionally provided a pool of what Japanese refer to as “odd-job” workers in places like convenience stores, in a country long wary of letting foreign workers in.
    Even before the coronavirus, there were not enough foreign students to meet labour demand, said Yohei Shibasaki, an international hiring adviser to service and tech companies.
    He estimated there were about 170,000 students from trade and language schools in Japan before the pandemic, most of whom worked part time.
    Hiroshi Mikitani, chief executive of e-commerce group Rakuten, which hires foreign engineers, has said the curbs should be reconsidered as they were not practically effective and were “only a minus for the economy.”
    The plight of international students, some dreaming for years of study, can be heart-wrenching.
    On social media and in interviews, they described paying tuition for classes they took online in the middle of the night, losing scholarships, and months of stress waiting for change.
    Some have exhausted savings.    Some have given up and gone elsewhere.
    Japan is no longer the main destination for study and research in East Asia, with more students now going to South Korea, said Davide Rossi, who runs an agency promoting study abroad.
    Sujin Song, 20, a science major from South Korea, has lost her scholarship but tries to do lab work for her classes online. She was blocked again from entering Japan in November.
    “I really liked Japan but now I feel betrayed,” Song said.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies, writing by Rocky Swift; Editing by David Dolan, Robert Birsel)

1/26/2022 S.Korea’s Daily COVID-19 Cases Surge As New Testing Scheme Begins by Hyonhee Shin
A man wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) rests at
an empty park in Seoul, South Korea, January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases exceeded 13,000 for the first time on Wednesday, driven by the spread of the Omicron variant, as the government launched a new pilot testing scheme to meet skyrocketing demand.
    The record 13,012 cases for the previous 24-hour period came just a day after the tally first topped 8,000 despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.
    The highly contagious but less-lethal Omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week, and the daily numbers could more than double or surge to even higher levels in the coming weeks, health officials warned.
    “Going forward, our top priority is to reduce critically ill patients and deaths,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told an inter-ministry meeting on Wednesday.
    The government introduced a new testing policy in four designated cities on a pilot basis, under which only priority groups take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test while others can get a rapid antigen test at a local clinic for faster initial diagnosis.
    The programme will be scaled up starting Saturday to enable 256 state-run testing stations nationwide to distribute the rapid antigen self-test kits, Kim said.    Another 430 local clinics will be added next week.
    As part of efforts to free up resources for serious patients, the government has also cut mandatory isolation for people who have been vaccinated but tested positive to seven days from 10, and expanded self-treatment at home for asymptomatic and mild cases.
    Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said more than 80% of intensive care unit beds are available nationwide, compared with some 20% in early December when record-breaking infections threatened to saturate the country’s medical system.
    South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day, but has capacity for 800,000, Son added.
    The Omicron surge has fuelled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families.
    President Moon Jae-in also met with aides on Wednesday to oversee the government’s efforts, calling for moves to prevent any potential shortages of test kits and ensure sufficient consultations with doctors at local clinics.
    On Tuesday, some 46 South Korean athletes and coaches who will compete in the Beijing Olympics had to receive a COVID-19 test after attending a ceremony for the delegation where an official at the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee later tested positive.
    South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has largely been successful in mitigating COVID, with 762,983 total infections and 6,620 deaths.
    More than 95% of adults are fully vaccinated with some 58% having received a booster dose, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Richard Pullin)

1/26/2022 China’s Communist Party Expels Former Boss Of Hangzhou For Graft
Security personnel stand guard at headquarters of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection
of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China’s anti-corruption watchdog said on Wednesday it had expelled a former Communist Party secretary of the technology hub of Hangzhou from the party, five months after announcing he was being investigated for serious violations of the law.
    The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said that following an investigation, it found that Zhou Jiangyong “supported the disorderly expansion of capital,” “illegally accepted huge amounts of property in collaboration with relatives” and “engaged in familial corruption.”
    It did not elaborate on the specific nature of Zhou’s suspected crimes or name any companies involved.    Zhou was not available for comment and Reuters was no able to determine if he had a lawyer.
    The CCDI said in a statement that as a result of its investigation, Zhou has been expelled from the party and would soon face prosecution.
    The commission first announced it had placed Zhou under investigation for “serious violations of discipline and laws” in August.
    Days later, it asked thousands of officials in Hangzhou to conduct self-examinations and resolve any business-related conflicts of interest involving themselves or relatives.
    Last week, state broadcaster CCTV aired a documentary alleging that Zhou had capitalised on his position to help his brother’s businesses, which the pair illegally profited from, including accepting bribes.
    It also interviewed Zhou, who confessed to such deeds but did not name any companies.
    On Friday, the Financial Times cited public records and sources linking Hangzhou-based fintech giant Ant Group to the corruption case.
    Ant Group did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
(Reporting by Josh Horwitz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

1/26/2022 Indonesia, Singapore Sign Extradition, Airspace And Defence Agreements by Stanley Widianto
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo
during their annual leaders' retreat at the Indonesian island of Bintan in Riau, Indonesia,
January 25, 2022. Presidential Palace/Agus Suparto/Handout via REUTERS
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia and Singapore signed on Tuesday a bilateral extradition agreement, a move that Jakarta expects to help authorities in their effort to bring to justice people accused of stashing offshore billions of dollars in state money.
    Senior cabinet ministers from both countries also signed bilateral agreements covering airspace and defence in a ceremony aired on Indonesia’s State Secretariat YouTube channel.
    The signings follow a meeting between President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the Indonesian island of Bintan as part of their annual leaders’ retreat.
    The issue of extradition has long been a frustration for Indonesia because of concerns about the difficulty of bringing some fugitives accused of embezzling large sums during the Asian financial crisis to justice.
    “The extradition treaty will enhance cooperation and combating crime and send a clear, positive signal to investors,” Prime Minister Lee said at the signing ceremony.
    Under the extradition agreement, people who had committed 31 types of crime will be liable to be extradited and it will apply to offences committed up to 18 years ago, a statement from Indonesia’s investment and maritime affairs ministry said.
    The agreement would also mean that people would not be able to escape justice by changing their citizenship, it said.
    “Therefore, the implementation of the criminal extradition agreement will create a deterrence effect for felonies in Indonesia and Singapore,” the statement said.
    In 2007, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Lee oversaw the signing of an extradition treaty and defence cooperation agreement, but it was never ratified by Indonesia’s parliament.
    Indonesia has set up a new so-called “BLBI” task force that is going after https://www.reuters.com/article/indonesia-debt-idUSL3N2NM1FH $8 billion of bailout funds given to bank owners and borrowers after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s that was never repaid.
    The Indonesian ministry’s statement also said the extradition agreement should help “effectively reach” those implicated by the BLBI investigation.
    Lalola Easter Kaban of Indonesia Corruption Watch, a non-governmental organisation, welcomed the development saying it would help in the hunt for corruption suspects who might have fled to Singapore seeking to maintain “impunity” from law enforcement agencies.
    The other agreements signed between the countries included one giving Indonesia more control of airspace over the Riau and Natuna islands, areas close to both countries, and a defence agreement.
    Indonesia will delegate to Singapore the provision of air navigation services in portions of the airspace for 25 years, which can be extended by mutual consent, a Singapore foreign ministry statement said.    Singapore sees the airspace as important for effective operations and growth of Changi airport, one of the world’s busiest before the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies)

1/26/2022 China’s Xi Says Country’s Low Carbon Push Must Guarantee Energy, Food Security
FILE PHOTO: A surveillance camera is seen near a coal-fired power plant
in Shanghai, China, October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s ambitious low-carbon goals should not come at the expense of energy and food security or the “normal life” of ordinary people, President Xi Jinping said, signalling a more cautious approach to climate change as the economy slows.
    China, the world’s biggest source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, has been under pressure to “enhance ambition” and take more drastic action to tackle global warming.
    But amid mounting economic challenges, China is worried about the risk to jobs and growth, especially as it prepares to hold a key Communist Party conclave that is expected to extend Xi’s rule.
    Xi told senior Communist Party leaders in a speech published late on Monday that China needed to “overcome the notion of rapid success” and proceed gradually.     “Reducing emissions is not about reducing productivity, and it is not about not emitting at all,” Xi was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying.
    “We must stick to the overall planning and ensure energy security, industrial supply chain security and food security at the same time as cutting carbon emissions,” he said.
    Since a national economic work meeting held at the end of last year, Chinese policymakers have repeatedly stressed that the country would “prioritise stability” in 2022.
    The approach has already started to feed into policy making, with Zhang Bo, Chief Engineer of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, telling reporters earlier this week that the country would not impose strict water quality targets on local governments, and would instead encourage them to “consolidate” previous gains.
    With energy supplies still a major concern after a wave of shortages hit manufacturers last year, Xi also told Party leaders that “the gradual withdrawal of traditional energy must be based on the safe and reliable replacement by new energy.”
    China has promised to accelerate the shift to renewables, but will only start to reduce coal consumption – a major source of CO2 – after 2025.
    China’s state planning agency also said in December that it will loosen blanket restrictions on energy consumption in order to ensure environmental targets do not erode growth.
(Reporting by David Stanway and Muyu Xu; Editing by Kim Coghill)

1/27/2022 North Korea Fires Two Missiles As U.S. Condemns Flurry Of Tests by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of
North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture
    SEOUL (Reuters) -Nuclear-armed North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles on Thursday, drawing condemnation from the United States for what would be the sixth round of missile tests https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-appears-have-fired-cruise-missiles-report-2022-01-25 this month.
    The series of tests is among the most missiles ever launched by North Korea in a month, analysts said, as it begins 2022 with a dizzying display of new and operational weapons.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had detected the launch of what it presumed were two ballistic missiles at about 8 a.m. (2300 GMT) from near Hamhung, on the east coast of North Korea. They travelled for about 190 km to an altitude of 20 km, JCS added.
    North Korea said this month it would bolster its defences against the United States and consider resuming “all temporally-suspended activities,” an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
    The launch came after North Korea fired two cruise missiles into the sea off its east coast on Tuesday, adding to the tension over its tests.
    Earlier in the month, North Korea tested tactical guided missiles, two “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and a railway-borne missile system.
    “The (Kim Jong Un) regime is developing an impressive diversity of offensive weapons despite limited resources and serious economic challenges,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an international affairs professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
    Certain tests aim to develop new capabilities, especially for evading missile defences, while other launches are intended to demonstrate the readiness and versatility of missile forces that North Korea has already deployed, he said.
    “Some observers have suggested that the Kim regime’s frequent launches are a cry for attention, but Pyongyang is running hard in what it perceives as an arms race https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/nkorea-fired-unidentified-projectile-yonhap-citing-skorea-military-2021-09-15 with Seoul,” Easley said.
    In a speech to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament on Tuesday, North Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Han Tae Song, accused the United States of staging hundreds of “joint war drills” while shipping high-tech offensive military equipment into South Korea and nuclear strategic weapons into the region.
    “(This) is seriously threatening the security of our state,” Han said.
‘REMARKABLE’
    A U.S. State Department spokesperson condemned the launches as a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and a threat to North Korea’s neighbours and the international community.
    The United States remains committed to a diplomatic approach and calls on North Korea to engage in dialogue, the spokesperson said.
    As with other recent tests, the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said that the launch was destabilising but did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory or personnel, or to its allies.
    South Korean and U.S. nuclear envoys had a phone call during which they shared “deep concerns” over the latest test and agreed to continue cooperation to prevent further escalation, Seoul’s foreign ministry said.
    North Korea’s recent “remarkable development” in nuclear and missile technology could not be overlooked, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a briefing.
    South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, at which it said the launches were “very regrettable” and went against calls for peace and stability in the region, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
    At a media briefing in Bejing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China urged all parties to “speak and act with caution, stick to the right direction of dialogue and consultation, and jointly promote the political resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue.”
    U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration sanctioned several North Korean and Russian individuals and entities this month on accusations they were helping North Korea’s weapons programmes, but China and Russia delayed a U.S. bid to impose U.N. sanctions on five North Koreans.
    On Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Mark Lambert said that Washington had “no reservations” about talking with North Korea and was willing to meet anywhere and talk about anything.
    “We have to have a serious discussion about the denuclearisation of North Korea, and if North Korea is willing to do that, all sorts of promising things can happen,” he said during an online seminar hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
    North Korea has defended its missile tests as a sovereign right of self-defence and said U.S. sanctions proved that even as the United States proposes talks, it maintained a “hostile” policy.
    “The recent test-firing of new types of weapons was part of activities for carrying out a medium- and long-term plan for development of national science,” the North Korean U.N. envoy Han said in a speech on Tuesday.
    “It does not pose any threat or damage to the security of neighbouring countries and the region.”
    North Korea has not launched long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or tested nuclear weapons since 2017 but began testing a slew of shorter-range missiles after denuclearisation talks stalled following a failed summit with the United States in 2019.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Satoshi Sugiyama in Tokyo, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Chris Reese, Richard Pullin, Michael Perry, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)

1/27/2022 UN Urged To Open Query Into Iran’s 1988 Killings And Raisi Role by Stephanie Neehay
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi stands before a meeting with Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal
Mekdad in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Prominent former U.N. judges and investigators have called on U.N. human rights boss Michelle Bachelet to investigate the 1988 “massacre” of political prisoners in Iran, including the alleged role of its current president, Ebrahim Raisi, at that time.
    The open letter released on Thursday, seen by Reuters, was signed by some 460 people, including a former president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Sang-Hyun Song, and Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador for global criminal justice.
    Raisi, who took office in August, is under U.S. sanctions over a past that includes what the United States and activists say was his involvement as one of four judges who oversaw the 1988 killings. His office in Tehran had no comment on Thursday.
    Iran has never acknowledged that mass executions took place under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader who died in 1989.
    Amnesty International has put the number executed at some 5,000, saying in a 2018 report that “the real number could be higher.”
    “The perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.    They include the current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and judiciary chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei,” said the open letter. Ejei succeeded Raisi as head of Iran’s judiciary.
    Raisi, when asked about activists’ allegations that he was involved in the killings, told a news conference in June 2021: “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised.”    He added: “I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far.”
    The letter, organised by the British-based group Justice for Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran, was also sent to the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose 47 member states open a five-week session on Feb. 28.
    Other signatories include previous U.N. investigators into torture and former foreign ministers of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Kosovo and Poland.
    Javaid Rehman, the U.N. investigator on human rights in Iran who is due to report to the session, called in an interview with Reuters last June for an independent inquiry into the allegations of state-ordered executions in 1988 and the role played by Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor.
(This story fixes typos in paragraphs 1 and 7.)
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; editing by Gareth Jones)

1/27/2022 Western Diplomats Seek Urgent Aid For Afghanistan, Assurances On Girls’ Education
FILE PHOTO: Representatives of the Taliban Sakhaullah Sayed, Mutiul Haq Nabi Kheel and Amir Khan Muttaqi walk as they meet with
Norwegian officials at the Soria Moria hotel in Oslo, Norway January 25, 2022. NTB/Stian Lysberg Solum/via REUTERS
    OSLO (Reuters) – Western diplomats said on Thursday they would expand their Afghan relief operations while continuing to pressure the country’s Islamist Taliban rulers to respect human rights and allow girls to go to school.
    U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on Wednesday that Afghanistan was “hanging by a thread” and called for countries to authorise all transactions needed to carry out humanitarian aid.
    Some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank reserves remains blocked abroad and international development support has dried up since the Taliban seized power in August.
    With millions of Afghans at risk of starvation this winter as poverty deepens, Norway hosted meetings from Jan. 23-25 between the Taliban and U.S. and European diplomats as well as with aid organisations and Afghan civil society groups.
    In a 10-point statement, the diplomats said their governments were “expanding relief operations, helping prevent the collapse of social services and supporting the revival of Afghanistan’s economy.”
    The statement did not give any details of funding but said obstacles to the delivery of aid must be removed.
    The diplomats “noted with grave concern the absence from, and limitations on access to, secondary schools for girls in many parts of the country and underscored the importance of higher education for women as well as job opportunities for women in all fields.”
    They welcomed the Taliban’s public pledges that all women and girls can access schools at all levels when schools across the country reopen in March.
    Taliban officials have said they will not repeat the harsh rule of the previous Taliban government toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001, which banned most girls’ education and forbade women from going out in public without a male guardian.
    The diplomats “urged the Taliban to do more to stop the alarming increase of human rights violations,” including arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, media crackdowns, extra-judicial killings and torture, among other things.
    Norway and its NATO allies do not formally recognise the Taliban-led administration that seized power last year, but see talks as a necessity, given the depth of the crisis.
    The Taliban delegation, led by acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, was not granted meetings with cabinet-level ministers, but met a junior minister at Norway’s foreign ministry.
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik; Editing by Nick Macfie)

1/27/2022 Job-Seekers Burn Train Coaches In India After Alleged Flaws In Railway Recruitment by Saurabh Sharma
A train coach burns following a protest in Gaya, Bihar, India
January 26, 2022 in this still image taken from a video. ANI/REUTERS TV/via REUTERS
    LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) – Thousands of youngsters in India have burned down empty train coaches and blocked rail traffic this week in protest against what they call irregularities in recruitment by the mammoth railways department, one of the world’s largest employers.
    Student associations have called for more protests this week mainly in the eastern state of Bihar, which has been reporting one of the highest jobless rates in the country.    India’s unemployment is estimated to have exceeded the global rate in five of the last six years.
    The violence erupted on Monday after test results for different job categories showed that the names of the same people appeared multiple times, which unsuccessful candidates felt wrongly excluded them.
    Millions of people had applied for some 150,000 jobs in Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, they said.
    “The recruitment process has not been transparent,” said Ashutosh Singh, one of the protesters in Bihar, where coaches of a stationary train were set on fire on Wednesday in the district of Gaya.    “A number of the selected candidates had their names in various categories, which is very unfair.”
    The Ministry of Railways said on Wednesday a committee had been formed to look into the concerns of the candidates.    It earlier said those found involved in the vandalism and destruction of public property could be barred from appearing for railways jobs apart from other legal action.
    India’s railways employs more than 1.2 million people.
    In Bihar’s capital Patna, authorities have registered police complaints against some 400 unnamed people and six institutes involved in coaching students for railways and other jobs, senior official Chandrashekhar Singh told Reuters by phone.
    In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where local elections start next month, authorities suspended six police personnel for using “excessive force” against protesters in the city of Prayagraj.    Three civilians had also been arrested, senior police officer Ajay Kumar said by phone.
(Writing by by Saurabh Sharma and Krishna N. Das)

1/27/2022 Hong Kong To Cut Quarantine For Arrivals To 14 Days From Next Month by Farah Master and Twinnie Siu
FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past empty counters of Cathay Pacific at Hong Kong International Airport following
fresh measures to control coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in Hong Kong, China January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
(Refiles to fix typo in paragragh 4)
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong will cut quarantine for arriving travellers to 14 days from 21 starting Feb. 5, leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday, a move that follows intense lobbying from finance executives and diplomats who said the measure was hurting competitiveness.
    Tough coronavirus rules have made Hong Kong one of the world’s most isolated cities, with flights down as much as 90%.
    Residents returning from more than 160 countries have been required to quarantine for 21 days in designated hotels will now have to spend 14 days in a hotel, followed by seven days of self-monitoring, with further details to be announced.    She did not say which countries would be covered by the new rules.
    “It is not because of pressure from anybody.    It’s just because of science…that Omicron has a relatively short incubation period,” she told a news briefing, adding that the measure was still unlikely to satisfy the business community.
    On Wednesday, the territory’s European Chamber of Commerce said in an internal report that weeks of quarantine requirements were affecting desirability and risked an exodus as companies moved staff to Singapore and the South Korean capital Seoul.
    The easing comes as the government tightens rules in the Chinese territory to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus, locking down thousands in a congested housing complex and government facilities.
    Schools, playgrounds, gyms and most venues are shut, while tens of thousands of people must do daily coronavirus tests.
    Lam said citywide restrictions would be extended until Feb. 17, from a previous date of Feb. 4. Schools will not resume face-to-face classes until Feb 21.
    This week the government announced that some civil servants could work from home, with some bank staff receiving similar instructions.
    Thursday’s 164 new infections were a record since the pandemic started in 2020.    It was a fifth consecutive day of cases in the triple digits after an outbreak linked to the Kwai Chung housing estate.
    Lam said the city needs to raise its vaccination rate to around 90% from 70% currently before authorities can consider adapting current policies.
    “I cannot stand seeing a lot of people dying in my hospitals so we will try our best to raise our vaccination rate.”
(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Jessie Pang; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Mark Heinrich)

1/27/2022 U.S., China Confer On Ukraine, Urge De-Escalation And Calm
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the
State Department in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS
    (Reuters) - China has told the United States it wants to see all sides involved in Ukraine remain calm and avoid increasing tension while the United States stressed de-escalation and warned of the security and economic risks from Russian aggression.
    China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about Ukraine on a telephone call late on Wednesday.
    “We call on all parties to stay calm and refrain from doing things that agitate tensions and hype up the crisis,” Wang told Blinken, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
    Russia, which has been building up its forces on Ukraine’s borders for months, has demanded NATO pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and bar Ukraine, a former Soviet state, from ever joining the alliance.
    The United States and its NATO allies reject that position but say they are ready to discuss other topics such as arms control and confidence-building measures.
    “Secretary Blinken … conveyed that de-escalation and diplomacy are the responsible way forward,” Blinken was quoted as saying to Wang in a statement issued by the U.S. state department.
    Global security and the economic risks posed by further Russian aggression against Ukraine figured in the talks, the department said.
    Wang, apparently referring to Russia’s objections to NATO’s expansion in eastern Europe, told Blinken that one country’s security could not be at the expense of the security of others and regional security could not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs, his ministry said.
    The United States has warned Russia not to invade Ukraine and urged both countries to return to a set of pacts known as Minsk I and Minsk II signed in 2014 and 2015, respectively, to end a separatist war by Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.
    But a series of military and political steps set out by the later Minsk II agreement remain unimplemented, with Russia’s insistence that it is not a party to the conflict and therefore is not bound by its terms being a major blockage.
    “To resolve the Ukrainian issue, we still need to return to the new Minsk Agreement – the starting point,” said Wang.
    “The new Minsk agreement, which was approved by the Security Council, is a fundamental political document recognised by all parties and should be effectively implemented.    As long as efforts are made in line with the direction and spirit of the agreement, China will support them.”
    China has been strengthening ties with Russia as tension between China and the United States has been growing over a range of issues, from trade to human rights, Taiwan and China’s maritime claims.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin, against whom the United States has threatened personal sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, is expected to visit China next week for the Winter Olympics, which begin on Feb. 4.
    Wang told Blinken that the United States “continues to make mistakes in its words and deeds on China, causing new shocks to the relationship.”
    “The top priority at the moment is that the U.S. should stop interfering with the Beijing Winter Olympics, stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue, and stop creating various anti-China cliques,” he said, according to the foreign ministry.
    The United States, Canada, Australia and Britain have announced they will not send any state officials to the Games because of China’s human rights record.    China has denied rights abuses and rejected what it calls the politicization of sport.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing and Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

1/28/2022 ‘Whack-A-Mole’: Experts Call Hong Kong’s Zero-COVID Policy Unsustainable by Farah Master
FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past empty counters of Cathay Pacific at Hong Kong International Airport following fresh
measures to control coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in Hong Kong, China January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – With thousands of people locked down in tiny apartments, government quarantine centres filling up and many businesses shuttered, Hong Kong is scrambling to sustain a zero-COVID policy that has turned one of the world’s most densely packed cities into one of the most isolated.
    The economic and psychological tolls from the global financial hub’s hardline approach – in line with China’s strategy – are rapidly rising, residents say, with measures becoming more draconian than those first implemented in 2020.
    Flights out of Hong Kong’s international airport are down around 90%, over 8,000 people are locked down in government quarantine facilities and a congested housing block, while 900,000 students have been shut out of schools since the start of this week.    Doctors say the restrictions are taking an increasingly heavy toll on residents’ mental health.
    Once one of the world’s most connected places, Hong Kong is reeling from the closure of its borders, impacting the free flow of people and the availability of food and foreign products the city is so highly dependent on.
    Besides schools, authorities in the city of 7.5 million have shut down playgrounds, gyms and most other venues, while tens of thousands of people are required to do daily coronavirus tests.
    Restaurants and bars close at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT).
    Over 2,000 hamsters and other animals have been culled to stop transmissions as community cases surge.
    Siddharth Sridhar, clinical assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology, said “a very practical adjustment in terms of our containment strategy” was needed.
    “This is not sustainable,” he said.    “Eventually we are going to see a very local protracted outbreak, likely to be worse than previous cases.”
    While Hong Kong succeeded in keeping the virus under control for much of 2021, there have been over 600 locally transmitted infections in January so far, compared with just two in December, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spread.
    “Essentially it’s playing whack-a-mole.    It (coronavirus) will simply keep coming back,” said Keith Neal, professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, referring to the popular amusement arcade game.
UNVACCINATED ELDERLY
    Shutting itself off is an “unworkable strategy” for Hong Kong, said Sumit Agarwal, professor at the National University of Singapore’s Business School, as the economic and social costs of the policy continue to soar.
    “Only Hong Kong and China are saying they are trying to eradicate the virus,” he said.    “It would have worked if other countries did the same but the fact they don’t think that way means the virus is always flowing.”
    Leader Carrie Lam has said Hong Kong cannot live with the virus as many major cities are doing.    She says over 80% of the city’s elderly are unvaccinated, and a large outbreak of infections will heavily increase the burden on already stretched healthcare services.
    Increasing Hong Kong’s vaccination rate is key, she said, with just over 70% of the people double vaccinated and around 10% having received a booster or third shot.
    Lam said on Thursday that Hong Kong will shorten its 21-day quarantine requirement to 14 days for incoming travellers starting from Feb. 5, after months of pressure from financial executives and foreign diplomats who said the rule was eroding the city’s competitiveness.
    Many professionals and expatriates are leaving or planning to leave the former British colony, seeing no end in sight to the restrictions.
    Quarantine rules for those infected as well as close contacts is curbing the city’s desirability and risks an exodus, according to an internal report by the city’s European Chamber of Commerce.
    Companies are repositioning their staff to Singapore and Seoul, it said.
    Hong Kong authorities hold daily briefings, providing details on each infected person, where they live, where they ate and where they went.    Credit card statements, transport records, CCTV footage and a government app are some of the methods they use to identify and quarantine close contacts.
    “The Omicron variant is so explosive in its spread that it will be the sorest test of Hong Kong’s response yet if it keeps up testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine,” said Alex Cook, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
    “Once the number of cases for contact tracing becomes too high…more secondary cases will slip through and the epidemic growth would be compounded.”
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/28/2022 WHO Examining Allegations Official Abused Staff, Leaked Vaccine Data To Japan
FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters
in Geneva, Switzerland, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    TOKYO (Reuters) – The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it is looking into allegations a regional director in Asia bullied staff, used racist language and leaked sensitive vaccine data to Japan, accusations the official denies.
    WHO said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday it “is aware of the allegations and is taking all appropriate steps to follow up on the matter,” following a report on the complaints by the Associated Press.
    In a statement provided by the WHO, Takeshi Kasai, the Manila-based director of the Western Pacific region, acknowledged being “hard on staff” but rejected charges of racism or that he shared confidential information with Japan. He wrote that he was considering how to improve his management style and the work environment.
    Kasai did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment by Reuters.
    Japan’s health and foreign ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the alleged leaks of vaccine data.
    The AP reported on Thursday the abuse charges were outlined in an internal complaint filed in October and in an email last week, sent by “concerned WHO staff” to its senior leadership.
    Kasai’s authoritarian style has led to the departure of more than 55 key staff in the past year and a half, and most of them have not been replaced, the report quoted unidentified WHO staff as saying in the email.
    Kasai, a physician from Japan who has worked for more than 15 years at the WHO, was also accused of sharing confidential data to the Japanese government to help it gain diplomatic favour from COVID-19 vaccine donations to neighbours.
    The AP said the complaint and email accused Kasai of making “racist and derogatory remarks to staff of certain nationalities” and creating a “toxic atmosphere” with “a culture of systemic bullying and public ridiculing.”
    The WHO statement quoted Kasai as saying, “Regarding the accusation of racism towards particular cultures or countries: this I reject."
    “It is true that I have been hard on staff, but I reject the suggestion that I have targeted staff of any particular nationality.    Racism goes against all of the principles and values I hold dear as a person and an international civil servant, and have throughout my life and career.”
    He also said he takes “the concerns raised about my management style and working culture in WHO’s Western Pacific Region very seriously.”
    He said he was “committed to listening carefully to staff about their concerns, reflecting on ways of working, and thinking carefully about how I can improve, as well as improve the working environment for all our staff – now and into the future.”
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Miyoung Kim and William Mallard)

1/28/2022 N.Korea Confirms Latest Weapons Tests As Kim Visits Key Munitions Factory by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of
North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture
    SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea conducted tests of an upgraded long-range cruise missile and a warhead of a tactical guided missile this week, as leader Kim Jong Un visited a munitions factory producing a “major weapon system,” state media KCNA said on Friday.
    Tension has been simmering over North Korea’s series of six weapons tests in 2022, among the largest number of missile launches it has made in a month.    The launches have triggered international condemnation and a new sanctions push from the United States.
    An update to a long-range cruise missile system was tested on Tuesday, and another test was held to confirm the power of a conventional warhead for a surface-to-surface tactical guided missile on Thursday, KCNA said.
    Kim did not attend the tests, but during a visit to the munitions factory, he lauded “leaping progress in producing major weapons” to implement the ruling Workers’ Party’s decisions made at a meeting last month, a separate dispatch said.
    “The factory holds a very important position and duty in modernising the country’s armed forces and realising the national defence development strategy,” Kim said.
    KCNA did not specify the weapons or the factory’s location.    Kim called for bolstering national defences to tackle an unstable international situation at that party gathering.
    Last week, North Korea said it would bolster its defences https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-warns-it-may-rethink-moratorium-nuclear-missile-tests-2022-01-19 against the United States and consider resuming “all temporally-suspended activities,” hinting at lifting a self-declared moratorium on testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
    At the factory, Kim called for “an all-out drive” to produce “powerful cutting-edge arms,” and its workers touted his devotion to “smashing … the challenges of the U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces” seeking to violate their right to self-defence, calling it “the harshest-ever adversity.”
    Pyongyang has defended missile launches as its sovereign right to self-defence and accused Washington and Seoul of double standards https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-fires-unidentified-projectile-into-sea-off-east-coast-skorea-2021-09-27 over weapons tests.
    No ICBMs or nuclear weapons have been tested in North Korea since 2017 but a spate of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) launches began amid stalled denuclearisation talks following a failed summit with the United States in 2019.
    U.S. Department of Defence Press Secretary John Kirby condemned the latest launches as “destabilising,” and called on Pyongyang to “stop these provocations.”
    The European Union also issued a statement saying the tests posed a threat to international and regional peace and security and undermine efforts to resume dialogue and help the country’s people.
MISSILE FACTORY?
    Photos released by KCNA showed a thinner-looking Kim wearing a black leather coat and suit in smiles during the factory trip, with the faces of some officials blurred.
    Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the factory appeared to be the February 11 plant at the Ryongsong Machine Complex in Hamhung, the country’s second largest city on its east coast, citing similar double column vertical lathes seen in past KCNA images, although repainted.
    The facility seemed to have been remodelled, but a giant metal tube inside a flow forming machine in a new hall where Kim was seen looked like a motor casing for a KN-23 or other SRBM, Lewis said on Twitter.
    In Tuesday’s test, two long-range cruise missiles flew 1,800 km (1,118 miles) for 9,137 seconds and hit a target island off the east coast, showing practical combat performance, KCNA said.
    The two tactical guided missiles tested on Thursday also precisely struck the target and proved the explosive power of their warhead as designed, it said.
    KCNA photos also showed a long-range missile launched from a transporter-erector-launcher, gushing flame, before sparking a fire on an island.    In other images, a shorter-range missile was seen rising into the sky above a cloud of dust and then hitting an island.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it detected both tests, and the short-range missiles travelled for about 190 km (118 miles) to an altitude of 20 km (12.4 miles).
    This month alone, North Korea has also tested tactical guided missiles https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-tested-tactical-guided-missiles-monday-kcna-2022-01-17, two “hypersonic missiles https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-says-launch-wednesday-was-hypersonic-missile-yonhap-2022-01-05” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and a railway-borne missile system https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-fires-unidentified-projectile-into-sea-off-east-coast-skorea-2021-09-27.
    Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Pyongyang is likely to ratchet up pressure and possibly fire an ICBM or other powerful weapon when it marks the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April, both major holidays in the country.
    “The ongoing string of tests should be aimed at highlighting the North’s increasingly diverse missile arsenal, and essentially staging a show of force against the United States,” he said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)

1/28/2022 Lunar New Year Flowers In Flames As Hong Kong Farmer Burns Unsold Stock
Flowers burn at farmer Leung Yat-shen's farm, following the government's announcement to close
Lunar New Year flower fairs to curb the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak,
in Hong Kong, China, January 27, 2022. Picture taken January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Flower farmer Leung Yat-shen has burned thousands of flowers he cannot sell this year as Hong Kong’s stringent measures against the Omicron variant of coronavirus have halved his Lunar New Year demand.
    Leung, 70, runs a traditional farm in Hong Kong’s rural Yuen Long district growing sword lilies, water lilies and tulips.    He had planted 200,000 flowers for Lunar New Year but was unable to offload about half of them due to the crash in demand.
    “These beautiful flowers are completely healthy, and I would normally pick them and bring them to the market.    Look how pretty they are,” Leung said, standing near a bed of shoulder-high red and pink blooms, soon to be thrown on the fire.
    “But this year there is no flower market at all.    After they blossom, I will get rid of them all by burning them,” he said, adding that some could be used as fertiliser.
    Leung said he decided to burn the flowers so they would not collect rot and spread disease to his plantation.
    Hong Kong’s government announced on Jan. 14 that traditional Lunar New Year flower fairs in around 15 districts would be closed.    Traffic restrictions on locations traditionally used by wholesalers were later put in place.
    The territory’s zero-COVID policy, in line with China’s strategy, has caused it to close its borders, shut down schools, playgrounds, gyms and most other venues, and lock down thousands of people in tiny apartments.    Experts have called the moves unsustainable and say a practical adjustment in the containment strategy is needed.
    Police patrolled the area next to Hong Kong’s flower market in the bustling district of Mong Kok early on Friday, ordering farmers who had arrived with flowers to disperse.
    Leung, a second-generation flower farmer, has been able to sell some of his stock directly to customers at his farm, which he runs with his wife and three employees.
    Government figures show compensation has been offered to license-holders of Lunar New Year flower fairs, but Leung said he has received nothing as a farmer.
    The only financial stimulus he has had from the government during the COVID-19 pandemic was the chance to draw an interest-free loan as part of an anti-epidemic fund.
    “I rely on my own savings, and I am not sure if our business can make it through the year,” he said.
    “It’s painful.    I’m not able to tell you how painful it is.    All I can hope for is that the future will be better.”
(Reporting by Lam Yik and Aleksander Solum; Editing by Tom Hogue and Karishma Singh)

1/28/2022 U.S., Taiwanese Vice Presidents Speak At Rare Encounter In Honduras by Trevor Hunnicutt and Gustavo Palencia
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris talks to reporters in Palmerola,
Honduras on January 27, 2022. Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS
    TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -The U.S. and Taiwanese vice presidents had a brief conversation on Thursday at the inauguration of the new Honduran president, a rare encounter that is highly symbolic and provoking anger in Beijing at a time of simmering tension with Washington.
    The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, though its strong support for the island both politically and through arms sales is one of the main sources of Sino-U.S. friction.
    U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said she spoke with her Taiwanese counterpart, William Lai, in Honduras about their shared interest in Central America and the U.S. government’s “root causes” strategy to curb migration.
    “The brief conversation that we had was really about a common interest in this part of the region and apparently Taiwan’s interest in our root causes strategy,” she told reporters, adding Lai had approached her.
    Taiwan’s official Central News Agency characterized it as a “simple greeting,” saying the two “talked briefly and interacted naturally.”
    It carried a picture of them standing next to each other on a stage talking, both wearing face masks, and Lai sporting a lapel pin of entwined Taiwanese and Honduran flags.
    Lai told reporters traveling with him that when speaking to Harris he thanked the United States for its “rock-solid” help to Taiwan, and that he thought Harris was a “very capable person,” the Central News Agency reported.
    China reacted with anger.    Its Taiwan Affairs Office said the United States should “take actual steps to put into effect its promises not to support Taiwan independence, and stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue.”
    Lai also posted a picture on his Facebook https://www.facebook.com/chingte/photos/pcb.5417149998301975/5417149558302019 page in which he appeared in a small group photograph being taken with Spanish King Felipe VI, though it did not show them speaking.
Honduras is one of only 14 countries with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
    Honduras’ new president, Xiomara Castro, floated the idea of ditching Taipei for Beijing in her election campaign, though on Wednesday https://www.reuters.com/world/new-honduras-leader-says-she-hopes-maintain-taiwan-ties-2022-01-27 she told Lai that Honduras is grateful for Taiwan’s support and hopes to maintain their relationship.
    Castro and Lai met again on Thursday, with Lai handing over a donation of supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
    “I appreciate the solidarity, as well as the willingness to support us in our development agenda,” Castro wrote in a tweet.
    Lai invited Castro to visit Taiwan, and told her that as both Taiwan and Honduras have close ties with Washington he hoped the three parties could work together to address the country’s problems, Taiwan’s presidential office said.
    Speaking after her meeting with Castro, Harris said they did not discuss China.
    Beijing has ramped up pressure to reduce Taiwan’s international footprint, saying the democratically governed island is Chinese territory with no right to state-to-state ties.
    In the run-up to the November election, a visiting U.S. delegation to Honduras made clear it wanted the Central American country to maintain its Taiwan relations.
    The United States has worried about growing Chinese influence in its back yard.
    China last month re-established relations with Nicaragua, a neighbor of Honduras, and has openly said it is aiming to reduce the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to zero.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Gustavo Palencia; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Emily Chow in Beijing; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

1/28/2022 China Says UN Rights Chief Welcome In Xinjiang But Not For Investigation
FILE PHOTO: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the launch of a
joint investigation into alleged violations of international human rights, humanitarian
and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia,
at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 3, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s foreign ministry said the United Nations human rights chief is welcome to visit Xinjiang but not for the purpose of an investigation, when asked about a report the commissioner was invited to come in the first half of 2022.
    Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular media briefing on Friday that the invitation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights was extended a long time ago.
    The South China Morning Post, citing unnamed sources, reported on Thursday that China had agreed to let the commissioner visit Xinjiang after the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.
(Reporting by Emily Chow, Writing by Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

1/28/2022 Philippines To Reopen In February To Vaccinated Foreign Tourists
FILE PHOTO: People relax along White Beach amid the coranavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak,
in Boracay Island, Aklan province, Philippines, December 1, 2021.
Picture taken December 1, 2021. Picture taken with drone. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo
    MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will grant entry to visitors vaccinated against COVID-19 from Feb. 10, its government said on Friday, in an effort to boost a tourism sector decimated by the pandemic.
    The archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands had planned to reopen in December https://reut.rs/3llPZgW, but that was aborted over concerns about the Omicron variant.
    Citizens of 150 countries that have visa-free entry https://dfa.gov.ph/list-of-countries-for-21-day-visa to the Philippines will be allowed to enter.
    “:(This) will contribute significantly to job restoration, primarily in tourism-dependent communities, and in the reopening of businesses that have earlier shut down,” Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat said in a statement.
    Puyat also said the government will remove quarantine requirements for returning Filipinos from Feb. 1, and for foreign tourists from Feb. 10, but they must be vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19.
    The Philippines, popular for its white sand beaches and rich marine life, joins other Southeast Asian countries in reopening to tourists to boost jobs and help their economies recover.
    Tourist arrivals in the Philippines from top markets Japan, South Korea and China slumped 83% drop to 1.4 million last year.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

1/28/2022 Delhi Lifts Weekend Curfew, Reopens Restaurants As India COVID Cases Drop
FILE PHOTO: A woman reacts as she receives a dose of the COVISHIELD vaccine against
the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a
vaccination centre in New Delhi, India, January 12, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s capital Delhi lifted a weekend curfew and allowed restaurants and marketplaces to reopen on Friday, following a sharp drop in new infections of COVID-19.
    Under new orders, however, the city will remain under night time curfew, and schools will be closed, Delhi’s lieutenant governor said. Restaurants, bars and cinemas will be allowed to operate with up to 50% capacity and the number of people at weddings will be restricted to 200.
    “In view of the decline in positive cases, it was decided to gradually ease restrictions while ensuring adherence to COVID Appropriate Behaviour,” Delhi lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, who represents the federal government, said.
    The number of new cases in Delhi fell to 4,291 on Jan. 27 from a peak of 28,867 on Jan. 13.    More than 85% of COVID beds across the city’s hospitals were unoccupied, government data showed.
    “The hospitalisation is far, far lower compared to what we saw in the previous wave,” said Dr. Desh Deepak, a senior physician with state-run Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi.
    “Most patients who have died had underlying conditions such as cancer or kidney disease and most were not fully vaccinated.”
    Last week, authorities eased some curbs, allowing private offices to be partially staffed but advised people to work from home as much as possible.
    The capital has been one of the worst hit in the ongoing third wave led by the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus and the city government had imposed the curfew on Jan. 4 and ordered schools and restaurants to close.
    Late on Thursday, the federal home ministry urged states to remain vigilant and said it was a concern that 407 districts across 34 states and Union Territories were reporting an infective rate of more than 10%, Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla told them in a letter.
    India reported 251,209 new COVID-19 infections over the last 24 hours, taking the overall tally to 40.62 million, the health ministry said.    Deaths increased by 627 and total fatalities were 492,327.
(Reporting by Neha Arora; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

1/29/2022 Thai Beach Declared Disaster Area After Oil Spill
Workers clean oil spills caused by a leak from an undersea pipeline 20 km (12.4 miles) off Thailand's
eastern coast at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province, Thailand, January 29, 2022. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – A beach in eastern Thailand was declared a disaster area on Saturday as oil leaking from an underwater pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand continued to wash ashore and blacken the sand.
    The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday and was brought under control https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/thai-cleanup-underway-after-oil-spill-off-eastern-coast-2022-01-26 a day later after spilling an estimated 50,000 litres (13,209 gallons) of oil into the ocean 20 km (12 miles) from the country’s industrialised eastern seaboard.
    Some of the oil reached the shoreline https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/oil-workers-race-protect-beaches-spill-off-thai-coast-2022-01-28 at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province late on Friday after spreading over 47 sq km (18 sq miles) of sea in the gulf.
    The navy is working with SPRC to contain the leak and said the main oil mass was still offshore with only a small amount washing up on at least two spots along the 12-km-long beach.
    About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up, the navy said.
    Twelve navy ships and three civilian ships along with a number of aircraft were also working to contain the spill at sea with booms and dispersant spray.
    “We and the company are still working at sea to reduce the amount of oil by cornering the spill and sucking up the oil and spraying dispersant,” Rear Admiral Artorn Charapinyo, deputy commander of the first Naval Area command, told reporters.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Stephen Coates)

1/29/2022 Taiwan VP Wraps Up Overseas Trip With U.S. House Speaker Meeting
Taiwan's Vice President William Lai arrives to attend the swearing-in ceremony
of Honduras' President-elect Xiomara Castro, at the Enrique Soto Cano Military Air Base,
in Comayagua, Honduras January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan Vice President William Lai wrapped up his visit to the United States and Honduras with a virtual meeting with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a further show of support from Washington for the Chinese-claimed island.
    Lai went to Honduras this week for the inauguration of its new president, seeking to shore up shaky ties with one of Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic allies.
    Only 14 countries now maintain official ties with Taiwan, viewed by Beijing as Chinese territory with no right to the trappings of a state.
    Stopping off in San Francisco on Friday on his way back to Taiwan, Lai said he had spoken virtually with Pelosi, one of the ruling Democratic Party’s most high-profile politicians.
    “I was pleased to meet with @SpeakerPelosi, a champion of human rights and true friend to Taiwan.    We are committed to working together to strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership,” Lai tweeted, sharing a picture of the video call, also attended by the de facto Taiwanese ambassador in Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim.
    Lai briefly talked with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in Honduras on Thursday https://www.reuters.com/world/us-taiwanese-vice-presidents-speak-rare-encounter-honduras-2022-01-28, a rare encounter that was highly symbolic and provoked anger in Beijing at a time of simmering tension with Washington.
    The United States has no formal relations with Taiwan either, but is its most important international backer and arms supplier.
    Transiting Los Angeles on his way to Honduras, Lai also spoke virtually with over a dozen members of the U.S. Congress.
    Lai is a potential contender for president in Taiwan’s next election in 2024.
    Taiwan has been heartened by continued U.S. support offered it by the Biden administration, which has repeatedly talked of its “rock-solid” commitment to the democratically governed island.
    That has further strained already poor Sino-U.S. relations.
    China and the United States could end up in a military conflict if the United States encourages Taiwan’s independence, Beijing’s ambassador https://www.reuters.com/world/china/support-taiwan-independence-could-spark-us-military-conflict-with-china-chinese-2022-01-28 to Washington said in a U.S. radio interview broadcast on Friday.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Stephen Coates)

1/29/2022 A Year After Myanmar’s Coup, Families Of Detainees Search For Answers by Thu Thu Aung
Aung Nay Myo, a protest organizer and satirical writer from Myanmar, drinks tea as
he looks at a photo of his father on his phone inside a temporary shelter at an
undisclosed location in a town in a country bordering Myanmar, January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer
    (Reuters) – Nearly a year after his son was last seen being hauled away by Myanmar junta troops, 66-year-old Win Hlaing says he just wants to know whether he is alive.
    One night last April, a neighbour phoned to tell him his son, Wai Soe Hlaing, a young father who ran a phone shop in Yangon, had been detained in connection with protests against the Feb. 1 military coup.
    They traced the 31-year-old to a local police station, according to Win Hlaing and The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit that has been documenting arrests and killings.
    Then the trail went cold. He had vanished.
    Reuters called the police station but was unable to determine the whereabouts of Wai Soe Hlaing, or the missing relatives of two other people who were interviewed for this article.
    A spokesman for the junta did not respond to emailed requests for comment and did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
    Wai Soe Hlaing is among many people who activists and families say have disappeared since Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the military overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
    The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in prisons and interrogation centres, including Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet, while about 1,500 have been killed.    Reuters was unable to independently verify the figures from the AAPP.
    They say hundreds have died after being detained.    The junta has said the figures are exaggerated and that the AAPP spreads false information.    The junta has not disclosed the number of people in detention.
SEARCH FOR LOVED ONES
    The military does not notify relatives when a person is arrested and prison officials often do not do so when they arrive in jail, so families laboriously search for their relatives by calling and visiting police stations and prisons or relying on accounts from local media or human rights groups.
    Sometimes they send food parcels and take it as a sign their relative is being held there if the package is accepted, a Human Rights Watch report said.
    In many cases, AAPP co-founder Bo Kyi said, the organisation has been able to determine someone has been detained but not where.
    Tae-Ung Baik, chair of the United Nations’ working group on enforced disappearances told Reuters the group had received reports from families in Myanmar of enforced disappearances since last February and was “seriously alarmed” by the situation.
    In a border town, 43-year-old activist Aung Nay Myo, who fled there from the northwestern Sagaing region, said junta troops took his parents and siblings from their home in mid-December and he does not know where they were.
    He believes they were detained because of his work as a satirical writer.    Among them is his 74-year-old father, left disabled by a stroke.
    “There is nothing I can do but worry every moment,” Aung Nay Myo said.
    Two police stations in the town of Monywa, their hometown in Sagaing region, did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
    In some areas, resistance to the junta has spiralled into conflict, with fighting displacing tens of thousands of people across the country, according to the U.N. Thousands have fled across borders to Thailand and India.
VIRAL IMAGE
    In the northeastern Kayah state, where fighting has been fierce, Banyar Khun Naung, director of the non-profit Karenni Human Rights Group, said at least 50 people were missing.
    The group is trying to help families search, asking recently released prisoners any names they remembered.
    “The families of missing people are in great pain, especially mentally, as it is exhausting not to know where their loved ones are,” he said.
    Myint Aung, in his mid-50s and now living in a camp for internally displaced people in Kayah, said his 17-year-old son Pascalal disappeared in September.
    The teenager told his father he was going to travel to their home in the state capital Loikaw to check on the situation, but never came back, Myint Aung said.
    Instead, he was detained by security forces, Myint Aung told Reuters by phone, saying that local villagers told him.    When he visited the station to deliver food, he found soldiers guarding the area and ran away.
    Since then, Myint Aung has heard nothing of his son, but the rights group told him he was no longer at the police station, citing conversations with several people recently freed.    Reuters was unable to independently verify this information.
    Banyar Khun Naung, the Karenni rights group director, said the teenager was one of two young men pictured making the “Hunger Games” salute adopted by protesters as they were detained kneeling by the side of a road, lashed together with rope by a soldier, in an image widely circulated on social media.    His sister confirmed by phone it was Pascalal.
    The photo appeared in a viral post from an account that appeared to belong to a high-ranking soldier, with the caption, “While we let them do what they want before we put bullets through their heads”    The account was subsequently deleted and Reuters was not able to reach its owner for comment.
    “He’s an underage civilian boy and he didn’t do anything wrong,” his father Myint Aung said.
    Police in Loikaw did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
    In Yangon, the family of Wai Soe Hlaing tell his four-year-old daughter her father is working somewhere far away.    Sometimes, Win Hlaing said, she murmurs about him: “My papa has been gone too long.”
(Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Writing and additional reporting by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/30/2022 N.Korea Caps Month Of Tests With Longest-Range Missile Since 2017 by Josh Smith and Cynthia Kim
FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the
North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea conducted its largest missile test since 2017 on Sunday, sending a suspected intermediate-range ballistic missile soaring into space, seen as taking the nuclear-armed country a step closer to resuming long-range testing.
    South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that a projectile believed to be a single ballistic missile was launched about 7:52 a.m. (2252 GMT) from North Korea’s Jagang Province toward the ocean off its east coast.
South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC), which convened a rare emergency meeting presided over by President     Moon Jae-in, said the test appeared to involve an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which North Korea has not tested since 2017.
    The launch takes North Korea a step closer to fully scrapping a self-imposed moratorium on testing its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Moon said.
    He noted that this month’s flurry of missile tests was reminiscent of the heightened tensions in 2017, when North Korea conducted multiple nuclear tests and launched its largest missiles, including some that flew over Japan.
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said he is no longer bound by that moratorium, which included a stop to nuclear weapons tests and was announced in 2018 amid a flurry of diplomacy and summits with then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
    North Korea’s rulers suggested https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-warns-it-may-rethink-moratorium-nuclear-missile-tests-2022-01-19 this month they could restart those testing activities because the United States and its allies had shown no sign of dropping their “hostile policies.”
    “The United States condemns these actions and calls on (North Korea) to refrain from further destabilizing acts,” the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement after Sunday’s launch.
    A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the launch demonstrates the threat posed by North Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes, and called on Pyongyang to engage in “sustained and substantive” dialogue.
BIGGER MISSILES
    It is unclear if IRBMs were included in Kim’s moratorium, but those, too, have not been tested since 2017.
    South Korea’s JCS and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno separately said the missile is estimated to have reached an altitude of 2,000km and flown for 30 minutes to a distance of 800km.    IRBMs typically have ranges of 600 to 3,500 miles, while ICBMs have ranges exceeding 3,500 miles.
    Missile experts said the data could indicate a test of an IRBM such as the Hwasong-12, which was last tested in 2017, or a new type.
    “Regardless of whether it’s a IRBM or ICBM, this is a strategic missile of some sort and clearly not the same as the prior tests in the January 2022 test series to date,” George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a missile consultant, said on Twitter.
    The launch could make January the busiest ever for North Korea’s missile programme https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/flurry-missile-tests-displays-nkoreas-increasingly-diverse-arsenal-2022-01-28, which analysts say is expanding and developing new capabilities despite strict sanctions and United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban the country’s ballistic missile tests.
    Its latest launches included a test of two short-range ballistic missiles and their warheads on Thursday, and an updated long-range cruise missile system tested on Tuesday.
‘RAMPING UP TESTS’
    The test comes less than a week before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which is North Korea’s main political and economic partner. Pyongyang has said it would be skipping the Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic and “hostile forces.”
    “Kim seems to be ramping up tests in bid to pressure both Washington and Beijing over sanctions just ahead of the Olympics,” said Uk Yang, research fellow at Center for Foreign Policy and National Security.     The tests would also appear to be the final nail in the coffin for Moon’s last-ditch push for a peace deal with North Korea before he leaves office in May, Uk added.
    “It’s clear that North Korea is saying inter-Korean relations will need to start from scratch,” he said.
    In an address ahead of the New Year, Kim Jong Un called for bolstering the military with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the United States have stalled.
    Since then, North Korea has tested a dizzying array of weapon types, launch locations, and increasing sophistication as denuclearisation talks remain stalled.
    Jagang Province was the site of two launches this month of what North Korea said was a “hypersonic missile,” which could reach high speeds while flying and maneuvering at relatively low altitudes, but the ranges reported on Sunday were higher and farther than those earlier tests.
    “The ballistic missile launch and the ones before it are a threat to our country, the region and the international community,” Matsuno said.    “This series of launches violate U.N. resolutions and we strongly protest this action by North Korea.”
    South Korea’s NSC condemned the launch as a violation of the resolutions and a challenge to international peace efforts, using stronger language than previous tests, when it typically expressed “strong regret.”
    The tests appear aimed at modernizing North Korea’s military, bolstering national pride ahead of several major North Korean holidays, and sending a message of strength as the country grapples with economic crises caused by sanctions and COVID-19 lockdowns, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
    “The Kim regime hears external discussions of its domestic weaknesses and sees South Korea’s growing strength,” he said.    “So it wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly.”
    Kim visited a munitions factory last week, where he called for “an all-out drive” to produce “powerful cutting-edge arms,” and its workers touted his devotion to “smashing … the challenges of the U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces” seeking to violate their right to self-defence.
(Reporting by Cynthia Kim and Josh Smith in Seoul; Additional reporting by Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Grant McCool, Daniel Wallis and Gerry Doyle)

1/31/2022 N.Korea Tests Biggest Missile Since 2017, U.S. Calls For Talks by Josh Smith
A combination image shows what appears to be a Hwasong-12 "intermediate and long-range ballistic missile" test,
that state media KCNA says was carried out on Sunday, along with pictures reportedly taken from outer space
with a camera at the warhead of the missle, in this image released on January 31, 2022. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea confirmed on Monday it had launched a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, the same weapon it had once threatened to target the U.S. territory of Guam with, sparking fears the nuclear-armed state could resume long-range testing.
    The launch of the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) was first reported by South Korean and Japanese authorities on Sunday.    It was the seventh test conducted by North Korea this month and the first time a nuclear-capable missile of that size has been launched since 2017.
    The United States is concerned North Korea’s escalating missile tests could be precursors to resumed tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and vowed an unspecified response “designed to show our commitment to our allies,” a senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington.
    “It’s not just what they did yesterday, it’s the fact that this is coming on the heels of quite a significant number of tests in this month,” the official said, while urging Pyongyang to join direct talks with no preconditions.
    North Korea has said it is open to diplomacy, but that Washington’s overtures are undermined by its support for sanctions and joint military drills and arms buildups in South Korea and the region.
    Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, including summits with then-U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared his nuclear force complete and said he would suspend nuclear testing and launches of the country’s longest-range missiles.
    Kim said he was no longer bound by that moratorium after talks stalled in 2019, and North Korea suggested this month it could restart those testing activities because the United States had shown no sign of dropping its “hostile policies.”
    It is unclear if IRBMs such as the Hwasong-12 were included in Kim’s moratorium, but none had been tested since 2017.
    North Korea analysts said the tests appear aimed at securing global acceptance of its weapons programmes, whether through concessions or simply winning tired acquiescence from a distracted world.
    “The world’s distraction on other issues actually seems to be working to North Korea’s benefit right now,” Markus Garlauskas, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank and former U.S. national intelligence officer for North Korea.
    South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the recent flurry of North Korean missile tests was reminiscent of heightened tensions in 2017, when North Korea conducted multiple nuclear tests, launched its largest missiles, and drew threats of “fire and fury” from the United States.
    South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook visited his country’s Army Missile Command on Monday to check its readiness in the face of the North Korean launches, the ministry said in a statement.
    “North Korea’s series of missile test-fires, including intermediate-range ballistic missiles, pose a direct and serious threat to us and a grave challenge to international peace and stability,” Suh said after being briefed.    “We will maintain a full military readiness posture that can respond immediately to any situation.”
    Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters North Korea was escalating its provocation of the international community and said its “remarkable improvement” in missile technology “cannot be tolerated.”
BOOSTING MISSILE CAPABILITIES
    Sunday’s test “confirmed the accuracy, safety, and operational effectiveness of the produced Hwasong-12 type weapon system,” North Korean state news agency KCNA reported.
    State media coverage of the launch made no mention of the United States, and Kim was not reported to have attended.    North Korean officials said this month the tests are for self defence and not targeted at any specific country.
    Kim vowed ahead of the New Year to bolster North Korea’s military capabilities in the face of international uncertainties caused by “hostile policies” by the United States and its allies.
    North Korea has previously said the Hwasong-12 can carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead,” and analysts estimate it has a range of 4,500 km (2,800 miles).
    In August 2017, just hours after Trump told the North that any threat to the United States would be met with “fire and fury,” the commander of the North’s Strategic Forces said it was “seriously considering a plan of enveloping fire” involving a simultaneous launch of four Hwasong-12 missiles toward Guam.
    That year North Korea flight-tested the Hwasong-12 at least six times, including flying it over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido twice.
    KCNA said Sunday’s missile launch was conducted in such a way as to ensure the safety of neighbouring countries, and that the test warhead was fitted with a camera that took photos while it was in space.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Jack Kim; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Satoshi Sugiyama in Tokyo; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

2/1/2021 Japan Parliament Adopts Resolution On Human Rights In China by Kiyoshi Takenaka
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the parliament building in Tokyo, Japan, February 29, 2016.
REUTERS/Toru Hanai
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s parliament on Tuesday adopted a resolution on the “serious human rights situation” in China, and called Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government to take
steps to relieve the situation, as the Beijing Winter Olympics loom just days ahead.
    Japan has already announced it will not send a government delegation to the Games, following a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott over concerns about China’s human rights condition, although Tokyo avoided explicitly labelling its move as such.
    Since taking office in October, Kishida has said on multiple occasions that Japan would not mince words with China when necessary, and in November appointed former defence minister Gen Nakatani as his aide on human rights.
    The resolution, adopted by the lower chamber, said the international community has expressed concerns over such issues as internment and the violation of religious freedom in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Tibet and Hong Kong.
    “Human rights issues cannot just be domestic issues, because human rights hold universal values and are a rightful matter of concern for the international community,” the resolution said.
    “This chamber recognises changes to the status quo with force, which are symbolised by the serious human rights situation, as a threat to the international community,” it said.
    U.S. President Joe Biden in December signed into law legislation that bans imports from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns about forced labour. Washington has labelled Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority genocide.
    China denies abuses in Xinjiang, a major cotton producer that also supplies much of the world’s materials for solar panels.
    The conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sought the adoption of the resolution ahead of the Feb. 4 opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics although there were worries in the government about a potential economic impact, Jiji news agency has said.
    There have long been competing views within the LDP about the approach to China.    The party’s more conservative wing is hawkish on China policy and seen as concerned primarily with defence issues.    Other members of the party have pushed to preserve Japan’s deep economic ties with its neighbour.
    The parliamentary resolution called on the Japanese government to work with the international community in addressing the issue.
    “The government should collect information to grasp the whole picture … , monitor the serious human right situation in cooperation with the international community, and implement comprehensive relieving measures,” it said.
    The resolution did not directly use the word “China” anywhere in the text, and steered clear of such expression as “human rights violation,” saying, instead, “human rights situation,” in a possible nod to close bilateral economic ties.
    Japan relies on China not only as a manufacturing hub, but also as a market for items from automobiles to construction equipment.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry)

2/1/2022 Myanmar Sees Anti-Junta Protests On Coup Anniversary Despite Crackdown
FILE PHOTO: Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected
government in a coup, presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar,
March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer To match Special Report MYANMAR-POLITICS/YOUTH-RESISTANCE
    (Reuters) – Streets in some of Myanmar’s main cities were nearly deserted on Tuesday as opponents of military rule called for a “silent strike” to mark the first anniversary of a coup that snuffed out tentative progress towards democracy.
    The United States, Britain and Canada imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s military after a year of chaos since a government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown.
    Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were rounded up in raids early on Feb. 1 last year as they prepared to take their seats in parliament, after winning a late 2020 election the generals accused them of rigging.
    The overthrow of Suu Kyi’s government triggered huge street protests and the security forces killed hundreds in crackdowns that ensued.    In response, protesters have formed “people’s defence forces,” some linking up with ethnic minority insurgents, to take on the well-equipped army.
    Activists urged people to stay indoors and businesses to close in a silent show of defiance on the anniversary.
    “We might be arrested and spend our life in jail if we’re lucky.    We might be tortured and killed if we’re unlucky,” saidyouth activist Nan Lin.
    A spokesman for the ruling military did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
    State media reported military ruler Min Aung Hlaing on Monday extended a state of emergency imposed at the time of the coup for six months to facilitate promised elections amid threats from “internal and external saboteurs” and “terrorist attacks and destruction.”
    The Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the military government would strive to hold new a new poll once the situation was “peaceful and stable.”    The army had initially pledged to hold a vote within two years but a junta spokesman last month said it was now slated for August 2023.
    Military authorities sought to head off Tuesday’s strike, arresting more than 70 people in the past three days for promoting the action on social media, the state-run Myanmar Alin newspaper reported.
    Business owners were also warned that their properties could be seized if they heeded the activists’ calls. Protesters could also face lengthy jail terms.
    Nevertheless, photographs on social media showed nearly deserted streets in various cities including Yangon, Mandalay, Magway and Myitkyina.
    In Yangon, photographs on a social media page put up by strike organisers showed a small protest where people threw red paint on the ground.
    Pro-military rallies also took place including in the central town of Tase, photographs published by the pro-military People Media news portal showed.
    In the capital, Naypyitaw, thousands attended a rally, some dancing and holding aloft photographs of Min Aung Hlaing, with banners wishing him good health, images on a pro-military Telegram channel showed.
‘VERY LAMENTABLE’
    U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in comments ahead of the coup anniversary, urged the junta to allow greater humanitarian access.
    The junta has accused the United Nations of bias and interference and is refusing to bow to international pressure, despite a corporate retreat from Myanmar and sanctions, the latest on Monday, when the United States, Britain and Canada blacklisted more individuals linked to the junta.
    The military held power for decades after a 1962 coup but had begun to withdraw from politics in 2010, freeing Suu Kyi after years of house arrest.    Her party formed a government after a 2015 election though the military wielded power behind the scenes.
    The military ended the experiment with reform a year ago, crushing hopes, particularly of the young.
    Life has become a grind for many since then with the economy withering, regular power cuts and internet curbs and, for some, constant fear of being rounded up.
    Security forces cracking down on dissent have killed at least 1,500 people and arrested 11,838 since the coup, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an activist group cited by the United Nations.    The junta disputes the death toll.
    Suu Kyi, 76, is on trial in more than a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentence of more than 150 years in prison, charges that critics say are designed to ensure she can never return to politics.
    In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of countries including Australia, Britain, South Korea, the United States, Canada, as well as the European Union, urged the international community to cease the flow of arms to the Myanmar military.
    A diplomatic effort led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has faltered, with the junta’s failure to honour its commitment to end hostilities and support dialogue under a five-point plan, increasingly frustrating some bloc members.
    “It’s very lamentable, until this time there has not been significant progress,” Indonesia’s foreign ministry said.
    Singapore said conditions for the Myanmar people continued to deteriorate and it called for the release of Suu Kyi and all political prisoners.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)

2/2/2022 Wife, Aunt Of N.Korea’s Kim Make Rare Public Appearance Amid Pandemic by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju wave to Chinese President Xi Jinping
and his wife Peng Liyuan during Xi's visit in Pyongyang, North Korea in this picture released
by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 21, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s wife and influential aunt made a rare appearance in state media on Wednesday, as the ruling family has maintained a low profile during the coronavirus pandemic.
    Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, attended an art performance at the Mansudae Art Theatre in the capital, Pyongyang, celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday, state television showed.
    Ri was last seen publicly on Sept. 9, when she joined her husband in visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which houses the embalmed bodies of Kim’s late grandfather and father, on the anniversary of the country’s founding.
    “When (Kim) appeared at the auditorium of the theatre with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, amid the playing of the welcome music, the audience raised stormy cheers of ‘Hurrah!'” the official KCNA news agency said.
    TV footage showed Ri, in a traditional red-and-black hanbok dress, chatting and smiling with Kim during the show, and the couple taking the stage to shake hands and take a photo with the artists.
    The clip also confirmed the first appearance since January 2020 of Kim’s aunt and a former senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim Kyong Hui, seen watching the concert sitting next to Ri.
    Kim Kyong Hui was a key figure in the young leader’s first years in power, but had disappeared from media after he ordered the execution of her powerful husband, Jang Song Thaek, over treason charges in 2013, before making a surprise comeback six years later.
    South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in 2017 that she was dealing with unspecified illness outside Pyongyang.
    Ri had once garnered international attention as she often accompanied Kim on social, business and even military outings, in a stark break from his father, Kim Jong Il, who was rarely seen in public with any of his wives.
    She was absent from state media for more than a year before being seen attending a concert last February, fuelling speculation over her health and potential pregnancy.
    The NIS told lawmakers that she apparently refrained from outside activities to prevent COVID-19 infections but was “playing well with their kids.”
    The spy agency believes Kim and Ri have three children, but little is publicly known about them.
    North Korea has not confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but closed its borders and taken strict curbs including travel restrictions.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

2/2/2022 Myanmar Shadow Government Drops Objections To ICJ’s Rohingya Genocide Case
FILE PHOTO: Women carry children through the water as hundreds of Rohingya refugees
arrive under the cover of darkness by wooden boats from Myanmar to the shore of Shah Porir Dwip,
in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
    (Reuters) – Myanmar’s shadow government, set up after last year’s military coup, said it accepts the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to hear allegations that the country committed genocide against its Rohingya minority.
    Before the military seized power last year, Myanmar’s government led by the now-ousted Aung San Suu Kyi had filed preliminary objections to the ICJ over the case brought by Gambia in a move seen as likely to delay proceedings.
    The National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel administration including deposed lawmakers in exile, said in a statement issued on Tuesday that it had withdrawn all preliminary objections to the case.br>     Still, it is not clear whether this would affect the legal process since the NUG said that through a “bureaucratic idiosyncrasy” the ICJ has been communicating with Myanmar diplomats in Brussels who were under the control of the junta.
    “Should the ICJ recognise the military, it would embolden the junta to continue and escalate its daily atrocity crimes,” the NUG said in a statement.
    It urged the ICJ to deal with Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun.
    The ICJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a spokesman for Myanmar’s junta did not answer a telephone call seeking
    More than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017 after a military crackdown.
    Rights groups documented killings of civilians and burning of villages and U.N. investigators concluded that the military campaign, launched after attacks on the security forces by Rohingya insurgents, had been executed with “genocidal intent.”
    In December 2019, Suu Kyi, then Myanmar’s civilian leader, attended hearings at The Hague to ask judges to dismiss the case.
    Suu Kyi has been put on trial by the junta and faces years in jail, though the removal of her government has sparked mass protests and a bloody crackdown on dissent by the army.
    With Myanmar’s military government fighting for international recognition, sources close to the case have previously said the junta has been engaging with the ICJ to submit court-ordered reports every six months on the situation with the Rohingya. The reports are not public.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Robert Birsel)

2/3/2022 S. Korean Voters Hold Noses As Rivals Land Low Blows In ‘Unlikeable’ Election by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: Lee Jae-myung, the upcoming 2022 presidential election candidate of the ruling
Democratic Party, answers reporters' question during an interview with foreign media in Seoul, South Korea,
December 29, 2021. Picture taken on December 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – Going by opinion polls, the two leading candidates for South Korea’s presidency have a big problem – their disapproval ratings are so high that the March 9 vote has been dubbed the “unlikeable election
    Started by pundits and popularised by the media, the name has stuck, and even the candidates shamefacedly acknowledge the ugly image they’ve helped create.
    Voters wanting to hear what they will do about runaway property prices and the widening income inequality in Asia’s fourth largest economy have been disappointed by election campaigns that have stooped to vicious personal attacks.
    “I know people are worried about intensifying back-to-back negative campaigns,” Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party candidate, said during a news conference last week in which he pledged to focus more on policy issues.
    “I am ashamed every time I hear this is the most unlikeable election.    I sincerely apologise.”
    Lee and Yoon Suk-yeol, his rival from the conservative People Power Party, will participate in the first live television debate between the main contenders on Thursday evening.
    A former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee gained prominence through his aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his advocacy of universal basic income, while Yoon is a former prosecutor-general and political novice.
    Both parties’ smear tactics have targeted not just the candidates, but their families too.
    Yoon was forced to deny accusations levelled by Democrats that a shaman who is close to his wife was deeply involved in the People Power Party campaign.
    But, he also had to apologise for his wife’s inaccurate resume when she applied for teaching jobs years ago.
    For his part, Lee has apologised over his son’s illegal gambling, and he was forced back into damage limitation mode by media reports on Thursday.
    Lee said he would undergo an investigation if necessary after allegations that a provincial government employee illegally served as a personal assistant to his wife and that she misappropriated government funds through a corporate credit card.
    Lee apologised for causing public concern, but did not say whether the reports were true.
WHO’S WORSE?
    All the mudslinging has left many voters holding their noses while making their pick.
    “I can’t help but keep thinking who’s the lesser evil, which makes me sad,” said Kim, a 38-year-old office worker who only gave her surname, and identified herself as a floating voter.
    Until recently, surveys conducted for various newspapers and broadcasters showed both Lee and Yoon drawing disapproval ratings of around 60%, but now they are down to 50% or less.
    The support numbers are unconvincing, with polls showing conflicting results.
    A survey released on Thursday by Hangil Research showed 40.4% of respondents favoured Lee and 38.5% picked Yoon, while Opinion Research Justice put Yoon 5.4% ahead with 43.5%.
    Public disillusion with the country’s political class festered during the five-year term of the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
    Presidents are only allowed one term in South Korea. And having vowed to clean up politics after his predecessor was impeached and jailed for graft, Moon’s own presidency became mired in policy failures and corruption scandals, fuelling voters’ cynicism over the perceived hypocrisy.
    The chief beneficiary from the backlash against mainstream politicians has been Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned software mogul and doctor who is running as a minor opposition challenger after losing to Moon in the 2017 election.
    Ahn’s ratings hovered between 7-8% in the latest polls after peaking at about 15%, but his showing has added to uncertainty over the ballot’s outcome.
    Polls show Yoon and Ahn would stand a better chance of winning if they united under one ticket, but both say that is not under consideration for now, even if some of their campaign staff think it could be the way to go.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/3/2022 Hong Kong Expands Government Work-From-Home Plans As Omicron Bites
FILE PHOTO: A ferry boat crosses Victoria Harbour during sunset in Hong Kong, China June 29, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Hong Kong government said on Thursday it would extend a work-from-home plan for civil servants as health officials warned tougher measures could follow amid a worsening COVID-19 outbreak.
    Aside from those involved with essential and urgent work, all other civil servants – who had been due to resume work on Friday – will remain working from home until Feb. 11.
    Health officials said on Thursday many untraceable transmission chains of the Omicron variant were spreading across the global financial hub – a warning that comes as many Hongkongers enjoy Lunar New Year gatherings.
    “There is quite severe community transmission at the moment,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan of the city’s health department.
    “The government is closely monitoring the situation and we will announce further measures as appropriate,” she said.
    Officials recorded 142 cases on Thursday, figures that are expected to rise, with a further 160 cases classed as preliminary positive.    In total, Hong Kong has recorded 213 COVID-19 deaths and has had 13,912 confirmed cases, according to the government.
    On Thursday last week, the city marked 162 new infections – a daily record since the pandemic started in 2020.
    The city has been grappling with triple-digit rises for much of the last two weeks as Omicron outbreaks threaten a “zero-COVID” policy that has seen Hong Kong become one of the most isolated major international cities, with 90 per cent of flights curbed.
    City leader Carrie Lam last week extended other citywide restrictions until Feb. 17.
    Schools, playgrounds, gyms and most venues are shut, while tens of thousands of people must do daily coronavirus tests.
    Some banks and other large firms last week implemented new work-from-home plans.
(Reporting by Greg Torode and Twinnie Siu, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/4/2022 India Reports Over 500,000 Deaths From COVID-19, Experts Count Millions More by Neha Arora and Sumit Khanna
FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker collects a test swab sample from a woman amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
at a testing centre inside a hospital in New Delhi, India, January 14, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s official death toll from COVID-19 crossed 500,000 on Friday, a level many health experts say was breached last year but obscured by inaccurate surveys and unaccounted dead in the hinterlands, where millions remain vulnerable to the disease.
    The country, which has the fourth-highest tally of deaths globally, recorded 400,000 deaths by July 2021 after the devastating outbreak from the Delta variant of the coronavirus, according to official data.    Some experts believe the figures were much higher.
    “Our study published in the journal Science estimates 3 million COVID deaths in India until mid-2021 using three different databases,” Chinmay Tumbe, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad who co-authored the study, told Reuters.
    Last month, the Indian government dismissed the study as baseless in a notification saying there is a robust system of birth and death reporting.
    India’s states record deaths from COVID after collating data from their districts.    In the last few months, several states have updated the number of deaths, some under pressure from the country’s top court.    In most instances, authorities said there were lapses due to delayed registrations and other administrative errors.
    India is currently in the midst of a third wave of the coronavirus led by the Omicron variant, which some top experts say is already in community transmission although federal officials say most cases are mild.
    Last month, the government eased testing norms and told states to drop mandatory testing for contacts of confirmed cases unless they were old or battling other conditions. But, with the number of tests falling, the government issued a revised circular warning states they would miss the spread of the virus.
    But, as many infected people took the option of not testing at all, total infection numbers may not reflect the extent and severity of cases, said Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University near the capital who has been tracking the spread of the virus.
    According to official figures, India’s overall number of COVID infections has reached 41.95 million, the second-highest globally behind the United States.
    To prevent new surges, the government has vaccinated three-fourths of the eligible 939 million adult population with the mandatory two-dose regime.
    Indian officials are carrying out a vaccination drive in remote parts of the country to increase lagging vaccination rates, with health workers going door-to-door to administer shots.
    “I make them understand how important vaccines are to escape from coronavirus,” health worker Asmita Koladiya, who is forced to take her infant daughter along with her because of a lack of childcare, told Reuters.
RECONCILIATION WITH TIME, GRIEF
    India’s cumulative tally of 500,055 deaths on Friday included 1,072 fatalities reported over the last 24 hours, according to the federal health ministry. Out of this, 335 deaths were reported from the southern state of Kerala that has, for weeks, been updating data with deaths from last year.
    Kerala, with less than 3% of India’s 1.35 billion population, accounts for nearly 11% of the total deaths reported in the country.
    “Some states such as Kerala are recording their backlog deaths under judicial pressure, although not all states have done that,” Menon said.
    In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, authorities have received over 100,000 claims for COVID-19 compensation, of which 87,000 claims have been approved, according to a senior government official.
    The number of claims received is nearly ten times the official COVID-19 death toll of 10,545, as per government data.
    “There has not been any under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths…The policy for paying compensation is very liberal as per the Supreme Court’s directives, which is why the number of applicants is more than the COVID-19 deaths,” the official said.
(Reporting by Neha Arora in New Delhi and Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad; Additional reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Michael Perry)

2/4/2022 Japan’s Kishida Confirms Cooperation On China, North Korea With US Ambassador
FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks before the media at his official residence as an
extraordinary Diet session was closed, in Tokyo, Japan December 21, 2021. Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed close cooperation in regional affairs with the new U.S. ambassador, including on North Korea and China and on global de-nuclearisation, a government spokesperson said on Friday.Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the Japanese prime minister and the former chief of staff to U.S. President Barack Obama had also confirmed close cooperation in dealing with the Ukraine crisis.    Asked about Japan’s current strict border control restrictions rolled out following the Omicron variant’s emergence, Matsuno said the government will take appropriate action based on domestic and overseas developments.
    The government said the measure will be in place until the end of February.
(Reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/4/2022 Japan’s Serious COVID Cases Climb To 4-Month High; Record Infections
Participants who will throw beans make their way to a venue for the annual bean-scattering ceremony to
celebrate the upcoming arrival of spring and wish to drive out the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic
at the Naritasan Shinshoji temple in Narita, near Tokyo, Japan, February 3, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan serious COVID-19 cases crossed 1,000 for the first time in four months, data showed on Friday, as the Omicron variant fuelled record infections and burdened the medical system.
    Seriously ill patients climbed by 131 to 1,042 cases from the day before, the health ministry said, the highest since September when the Delta variant drove a fifth wave of cases.
    Japan recorded 96,748 new cases on Thursday.    Most regions are now under infection control measures to try to blunt the spread of Omicron that has exploded among a population where less than 5% have received vaccine booster shots.
    The government is considering a two-week extension of the curbs in 13 regions, including its capital Tokyo, the Fuji News Network said on Thursday.
    Tokyo raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level on Thursday.    The city government also laid out revised criteria for requesting a full state of emergency.
    Tokyo will request an emergency declaration if either the occupancy rate of hospital beds for serious patients or the rate of patients needing oxygen reaches 30%-40%, and the 7-day average of new cases hits 24,000.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Michael Perry)

2/5/2022 Want North Korea Breakthrough? China Tells U.S. To Show Flexibility by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: Zhang Jun, China's Ambassador to the United Nations speaks at a
Security Council meeting about Afghanistan at United Nations Headquarters in the
Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The key to solving the issue of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs is in the United States’ hands, China’s U.N. envoy said on Friday, urging Washington to show “more sincerity and flexibility” if it wants a breakthrough.
    “They should come up with more attractive and more practical, more flexible approaches, policies and actions in accommodating concerns” of North Korea, Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters.    “The key in solving this issue is already in the hands of the United States."
    He spoke ahead of a closed U.N. Security Council meeting, which was requested by the United States to discuss North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile last Sunday.
    After the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters: “We have to keep up the pressure.”
    She also read a joint statement by more than half the U.N. Security Council condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch and warning that continued silence by the 15-member body would only embolden Pyongyang.
    The eight council members – the United States, Albania, Brazil, France, Ireland, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and Britain – and Japan described Sunday’s launch as a “significant escalation” that “seeks to further destabilize the region.”
    They said North Korea had carried out nine ballistic missiles launches in January, describing it as the largest number in a single month in the history of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.
TESTS BANNED
    Nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by North Korea are banned by the U.N. Security Council.    Diplomats said the United States has proposed the council issue a statement.
    “We call on all council members to speak with one voice in condemning these dangerous and unlawful acts,” the eight council members and Japan said in the statement.    “The cost of the council’s ongoing silence is too high.    It will embolden the DPRK to further defy the international community.”
    Zhang said the council should only issue a statement if it is “helpful for the de-escalation of the tensions.”    Such statements by the council have to be agreed by consensus.
    North Korea confirmed on Monday https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-says-tested-hwasong-12-missile-sunday-2022-01-30 it had launched a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, the same weapon it had once threatened to target the U.S. territory of Guam with, sparking fears the nuclear-armed state could resume long-range testing.
    It was the first time North Korea had tested a nuclear-capable missile of that size since 2017.
    Pyongyang had put nuclear weapons tests and long-range ballistic missile launches on hold while leader Kim Jong Un met with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018 and Vietnam in 2019.
    Zhang cited those meetings and the suspension of tests, asking: “What has been done by the U.S.?
    Thomas-Greenfield said launches of other ballistic missiles had continued over the past few years and that U.S. President Joe Biden could not commit to a meeting with Kim until Washington had “a better sense of what there is to achieve.”
    Diplomacy with North Korea has stalled since the summits between Trump and Kim, which failed to produce a deal. Pyongyang wants U.S. and U.N. sanctions to be removed.    There has been no easing of any U.S. or U.N. measures, but China and Russia have said the Security Council should consider such a move.
    Thomas-Greenfield said there was no reason for the council to “reward” Pyongyang for its ballistic missile tests.
    “We continue to urge (North Korea) to respond positively to the offers from the United States and others to meet without preconditions,” the eight council members and Japan said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Grant McCool)

2/5/2022 U.S. Restores Sanctions Waiver To Iran With Nuclear Talks In Final Phase by Humeyra Pamuk
Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed Iran's and U.S. flags in this
illustration taken January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday restored sanctions waivers to Iran to allow international nuclear cooperation projects, as indirect American-Iranian talks on reviving the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran enter the final stretch.
    The waivers had allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to carry out non-proliferation work to effectively make it harder for Iranian nuclear sites to be used for weapons development. The waivers were rescinded by the United States in 2019 and 2020 under former President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear agreement.
    The indirect talks are aimed at having the United States return to the agreement and Iran resume compliance.    The agreement was reached under former President Barack Obama, and Biden has pledged to try to bring the United States back to it.
    The State Department has sent a report signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Congress explaining that restoring the waivers will help the talks in Vienna on returning to the deal reached between Iran and a group of countries including China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States.    The agreement is formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
    “The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran’s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments,” according to the report, a copy of which seen by Reuters.
    “It is also designed to serve U.S. non-proliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran’s nuclear activities.    It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo,” the report said.
    Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor.
    The activities, according to the report, include redesign of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor, the preparation and modification of its Fordow facility for stable isotope production, operations, training and services related to its Bushehr nuclear power plant, among several other things.
    The United States and Iran have held eight rounds of indirect talks in Vienna since April aimed at reinstating the pact that lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.    There has been no formal announcement on when the ninth round would start, but expectations intensified that it could be next week.
    After Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions, Iran gradually started violating the pact’s nuclear curbs.    Western diplomats now worry that its nuclear advancement leaves a very narrow window to return to the deal.
    The latest talks in Vienna were “among the most intensive that we had to date,” a U.S. official told reporters on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    The official added that there has been some progress in narrowing down the list of differences and that now is the time for political decisions.
    The waiver was needed to allow for technical discussions that were key to the talks about a return to the deal, said a senior State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.    The official added that restoring the waiver was not a signal that the United States was on the verge of reaching an understanding to return to the deal.
    Eurasia Group analyst Henry Rome said the restoration of the waiver is a “modest sign” of movement.
    “The waivers are less a goodwill gesture or a concession to Iran, but rather technical steps that are probably aimed at ensuring implementation discussions can go forward in Vienna,” Rome said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Editing by Will Dunham and Jane Wardell)

2/5/2022 Australia Deputy PM Apologises For Calling PM Morrison ‘Hypocrite And Liar’ by Lidia Kelly
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a bilateral meeting with South Korean President
Moon Jae-in at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia December 13, 2021. Lukas Coch/Pool via REUTERS
    (Reuters) - Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce apologised on Saturday to Prime Minister Scott Morrison for calling him “a hypocrite and a liar” and said that Morrison had rejected his offer to resign.
    Morrison said in a statement that he accepted Joyce’s apology.
    In a leaked message the deputy prime minister, who heads the junior partner in Morrison’s coalition government, said last year that he had never trusted Morrison.
    “He is a hypocrite and a liar from my observations and that is over a long time,” Joyce wrote to a former staffer of Morrison’s Liberal Party who had alleged sexual assault by a fellow staffer.
    Joyce’s remarks further shake the political position of Morrison, who must call a federal election by May.    His approval ratings https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-pms-ratings-take-hit-months-away-election-poll-shows-2022-01-17 have fallen over his handling of a Omicron-driven coronavirus outbreak.
    “I want to apologise to the prime minister … I should have never written the text that I did,” Joyce told a news conference.    “My view from the backbench about the prime minister was based on assumption and commentary, not from a one-on-one working relationship.”
    Joyce became deputy prime minister in 2021 as the leader of the National Party, not as Morrison’s appointee.    Joyce’s party, which has the power to remove him as its leader, said it would not be commenting beyond Joyce’s statement.
    Morrison responded, “Relationships change over time. Politicians are human beings too.    We all have our frailties and none of us are perfect.”
    Joyce’s text message, first reported on Friday night by Nine Newspapers, was sent through a third party to former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins.    She had alleged https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-politics-rape-idUSKBN2AJ12Z she was sexually assaulted in Parliament House in March 2019.
    The political commotion comes days after a controversy about an alleged exchange between senior Liberal Party members making derogatory remarks about Morrison.
    Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that it was “untenable” for Joyce to continue as deputy prime minister.
    “I couldn’t care less that the Liberal Party members all don’t like each,” Albanese said at a briefing.    “What I do care about is the consequences of a government that is dysfunctional.”
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by William Mallard)

2/6/2022 Exclusive: North Korea Grows Nuclear, Missiles Programs, Profits From Cyberattacks -U.N. Report by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: A combination image shows a missile test that state media KCNA says was conducted this week at
undisclosed locations in North Korea, in this photo released January 28, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central
News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korea continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs during the past year and cyberattacks on cryptocurrency exchanges were an important revenue source for Pyongyang, according to an excerpt of a confidential United Nations report seen on Saturday by Reuters.
    The annual report by independent sanctions monitors was submitted on Friday evening to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee.
    “Although no nuclear tests or launches of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) were reported, DPRK continued to develop its capability for production of nuclear fissile materials,” the experts wrote.
    North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).    It has long-been banned from conducting nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by the U.N. Security Council.
    “Maintenance and development of DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile infrastructure continued, and DPRK continued to seek material, technology and know-how for these programs overseas, including through cyber means and joint scientific research,” the report said.
    Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to U.N. sanctions, which the Security Council has strengthened over the years in an effort to target funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
    The sanctions monitors noted that there had been a “marked acceleration” of missile testing by Pyongyang.
    The United States and others said https://www.reuters.com/world/china/want-north-korea-breakthrough-china-tells-us-show-flexibility-2022-02-04 on Friday that North Korea had carried out nine ballistic missile launches in January, adding it was the largest number in a single month in the history of the country’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.
    “DPRK demonstrated increased capabilities for rapid deployment, wide mobility (including at sea), and improved resilience of its missile forces,” the sanctions monitors said.
    North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CYBERATTACKS, ILLICIT TRADE
    The monitors said “cyberattacks, particularly on cryptocurrency assets, remain an important revenue source” for North Korea and that they had received information that North Korean hackers continued to target financial institutions, cryptocurrency firms and exchanges.
    “According to a member state, DPRK cyberactors stole more than $50 million between 2020 and mid-2021 from at least three cryptocurrency exchanges in North America, Europe and Asia,” the report said.
    The monitors also cited a report last month by cybersecurity firm Chainalysis that said North Korea launched at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms that extracted nearly $400 million worth of digital assets last year.
    In 2019, the U.N. sanctions monitors reported that North Korea had generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using widespread and increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.
    The latest report said North Korea’s strict blockade in response to the COVID-19 pandemic meant “illicit trade, including in luxury goods, has largely ceased.”
    Over the years the U.N. Security Council has banned North Korean exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capped imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.
    “Although maritime exports from DPRK of coal increased in the second half of 2021, they were still at relatively low levels,” the monitors said.
    “The quantity of illicit imports of refined petroleum increased sharply in the same period, but at a much lower level than in previous years,” the report said.    “Direct delivery by non-DPRK tankers to DPRK has ceased, probably in response to COVID-19 measures: instead, only DPRK tankers delivered oil.”
    North Korea’s humanitarian situation “continues to worsen,” the report said.    The monitors said that was probably due to the COVID-19 blockade, but that a lack of information from North Korea meant it was difficult to determine how much U.N. sanctions were unintentionally harming civilians.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

2/6/2022 New Zealand PM Ardern Urges Unity On COVID On Waitangi Day
People wear masks as they exercise during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Auckland, New Zealand, August 26, 2021. REUTERS/Fiona Goodall
    (Reuters) – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged New Zealanders on Sunday to unite in their battle against COVID-19, as the pandemic forced the country to celebrate its national Waitangi Day online.
    A growing outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has pushed all commemorations online, prompting Ardern to urge vaccinations.
    “We all have a duty to do everything we can to protect our communities with all the tools that science and medicine have given us,” Ardern said in a pre-recorded speech.
    “Togetherness is something we have shown throughout the last few years.    I know it hasn’t always been easy … But together we have, and we continue to, overcome.”
    Health ministry data show 93% of those eligible above the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated and 49% of eligible adults have received a booster shot, but infections keep rising.    On Sunday, there were 208 new community cases, following a record https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-zealand-reports-record-243-new-covid-cases-2022-02-05 243 the previous day.
    Waitangi Day is named for the region on the North Island where representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 indigenous Maori chiefs signed a founding treaty in 1840.
    Maori, who account for about 15% of New Zealand’s population, were dispossessed of much of their land during British colonisation. In years past, many would protest on the Waitangi Day for civil and social rights, criticising successive governments for not doing enough.
    In December, Ardern’s government set up the Maori Health Authority to ensure better health access to Maori.
    “We have an obligation to make sure everyone has access to the healthcare they need, and that you don’t die younger than everyone else in New Zealand because you are Maori,” Ardern said on Sunday.
(Reporting in Melbourne by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)

2/6/2022 Pakistan Says It Has Killed 20 Insurgents In Three Days Of Clashes by Gul Yousafzai
Relatives of Captain Bilal Khalil, who was killed along with others in an attack on a military base in Nushki,
comfort each other during his funeral in Faisalabad, Pakistan, February 4, 2022. REUTERS/Fayyaz Hussain
    QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Twenty militants and nine soldiers were killed in recent days during insurgent attacks on two military bases in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province and the military’s response, the military said on Saturday.
    The attacks, the biggest in recent years by ethnic Baloch insurgents, began on Wednesday night.
    “A total of 20 militants were killed during Panjgur and Nauski operations.    Security forces have completed the clearance operation today,” said a statement by military’s media wing.
    The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), which had earlier claimed the attack, also issued a statement on Saturday night saying “all targets successfully achieved.”    It said 16 fighters sacrificed themselves in the attacks, a phrasing that indicated but did not say clearly that they had died.
    Ethnic Baloch guerrillas have been fighting the government for decades, demanding a separate state and saying the central government unfairly exploits Balochistan’s rich gas and mineral resources.
    Last week, the army said insurgents killed 10 soldiers in an attack on a post near the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, the heaviest death toll for the army in the Balochistan insurgency in years.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Raza Hassan; Editing by Frances Kerry)

2/7/2022 In Philippines Election, Late Dictator’s Son Aims To Restore Family Pride by Karen Lema
FILE PHOTO: Former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr and son of late
former dictator Ferdinand Marcos is greeted by his supporters upon his arrival at the
Supreme Court in metro Manila, Philippines April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/
    MANILA (Reuters) -As frontrunner in the Philippines’ presidential race, the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos appears poised to complete a remarkable rebranding of the family name 36 years after a “people power” uprising ended his father’s autocratic rule.
    With official campaigning beginning on Tuesday, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., 64, holds a double-digit lead in the polls, three months ahead of the May 9 elections.
    His push for the presidency has been aided by what political analysts say has been a decades-long public relations effort to alter public perception of his family and supporters.    Critics accuse the Marcoses of attempting to rewrite history.
    “What we are witnessing right now is nothing short of a counter-revolution,” said Richard Heydarian, an author and academic who specialises in politics.
    “The Marcoses are here to erase the 1986 (people power) revolution, and to restore the glory and fully rehabilitate the image of the Marcos regime.”
    Since the family’s return from exile in the 1990s, Marcos has served as governor and congressman of the northern Ilocos Norte province, his father’s bailiwick, before winning a seat in the Senate in 2010.
    His sister is a senator and a former governor and former congresswoman, and his mother, Imelda, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992, was elected to Congress for four terms.
    The return of a Marcos to Malacanang, the presidential palace, is unthinkable for millions of Filipinos, but over half the country’s more than 60 million voters are 40 or under, and did not live through the Marcos regime and its oppression and plunder.
    Ferdinand Marcos Sr., with Imelda by his side, was president for nearly two decades, ruling as a dictator before he was ousted in the “people power” uprising in 1986 that has become renowned around the world.
    Marcos Sr. and Imelda, known for her vast collection of artwork, jewellery and shoes, were accused of amassing more than $10 billion while he was in office.
    During his rule, 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed, according to Amnesty International.
    More than 11,100 victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos regime were paid compensation using millions from Marcos Swiss bank accounts, part of the family’s ill-gotten wealth recovered by the government.
    Among them was Loretta Ann Rosales, a political activist who was tortured and sexually abused during the Marcos regime and is now one of several complainants seeking to bar Marcos Jr. from the presidential race.
    “We thought we had gotten rid of the Marcoses,” said Rosales, who is also a former chairperson of the human rights commission.    “I want him disqualified.”
‘LACK LEADERSHIP’
    Marcos Jr. has questioned the Amnesty data and rejected long-standing narratives of oppression and failed government in his father’s rule. He and his family have shunned questions about past atrocities and instead touted what their supporters claim as a ‘golden age.’
    The younger Marcos, also known as Bongbong, did not comment for this story.    He has in the past spoken highly of his father, calling him his “idol”, while expressing admiration for his “style of work,” his qualities as a strong leader, and his “love for the Filipino” people, traits he said he has inherited.
    “He had a very clear understanding of what needed to be done and how to do it, and that I think was his best quality as a leader,” Bongbong Marcos said in a YouTube interview last year.    “The problem we have now is we lack leadership.”
    The YouTube interview titled ‘The Greatest Lesson Bongbong Marcos Learned From His Father’ has been viewed 13 million times since it aired in September.
    “He is doing very well because we have this pandemic of disinformation,” said Victor Manhit, an analyst with the Stratbase think tank.    “He has been dominating political discourse in social media.”
    Fact-checking organisation Vera Files said in a December report that Marcos was the “top beneficiary” of disinformation online to spruce up his image while discrediting rivals ahead of the start of the official campaign period.
    “Because you are surrounded on social media by the same account saying the same things about Marcos (Sr.) being a good leader – benevolent, revolutionary, all those narratives – even if it sounds bananas and not grounded on facts, you are more likely to believe it is true,” said Marie Fatima Gaw, communications research professor at the University of the Philippines.
    Marcos has said he does not engage in negative campaigning.
    He lost the 2016 vice presidential race to human rights lawyer Leni Robredo, who is also contesting the presidency, along with boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso, and senator Panfilo Lacson, among others.
    For Raphie Respicio, 48, a tricycle driver and tour guide in the Marcos family bastion in Ilocos Norte, no amount of criticism against Marcos will weaken his support for the former senator.
    “He has done plenty of things here … and he helped tricycle drivers earn a living through tourism,” Respicio said.    “We are 100% for Bongbong.”
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

2/7/2022 Factbox-Facts About Philippines Presidential Hopeful Ferdinand Marcos Jr by Neil Jerome Morales
FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster during a protest following the presidential bid announcement of
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, at the Commission of Human Rights,
in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines October 6, 2021. REUTERS/Lisa Marie David/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator whose rule defined the Philippines’ recent history, is leading opinion polls on the race to become president, three months ahead of a May 9 election.
    Below are some facts about the controversial frontrunner and his famous family. WHO IS FERDINAND MARCOS JR.?
    Marcos, known as “Bongbong,” is the namesake and only son of the late strongman who ruled for almost two decades until overthrown in 1986 by a peaceful popular revolt.    The family fled into exile in Hawaii, where the elder Marcos died.
    Since their 1990s return, the younger Marcos has been elected governor and congressman of Ilocos Norte, his father’s bailiwick, and in 2010, a senator.
    He narrowly lost a 2016 vice presidential election and the Supreme Court ruled against his challenge.
    He is married to lawyer Louise Araneta-Marcos and has three sons, one running for congress.
WHY IS HE RUNNING?
    The family has sought to rebuild its image and denies allegations it plundered a vast amount of wealth while in power, estimated in 1987 at $10 billion.
    Political analysts say at 64, his run could be the family’s last chance to return to the Presidential Palace.    Mother Imelda, a formidable force behind the Marcos political machinery, is 92.
    Marcos when filing his candidacy said he would be a unifying leader, but history could make that difficult.    His critics argue his family has neither apologised for, nor properly addressed events of the past.    He recently said he would not discuss it.
WHAT ARE HIS CHANCES?
    He’s the clear favourite, with a 20-point lead in a poll published in December.
    Having as running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, will be a boon.    Her strong backing in the south – where the Marcos family historically has lacked support – could be a game-changer.
    Another advantage, political analysts say, is his strong social media presence aimed at young people born after his father’s rule.
    The family also has influence, as one of the Philippines’ most famous dynasties.    Despite its fall from grace, it has retained far-reaching and powerful connections, and steadfast support in its Ilocos Norte stronghold.
    Sister Imee is a senator and former governor, and mother Imelda, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992, was a four-term congresswoman.
ALLEGATIONS AGAINST THE MARCOS FAMILY
    “There are many positive things to talk about from during that time,” Marcos told Reuters in 2016, when asked about his father’s rule.
    But later governments have documented 75,000 cases of torture, illegal detention and disappearances after martial law was declared, a time when Marcos Jr. was at school in England.    His parents’ rule has been called a kleptocratic “conjugal dictatorship.”
    Thousands of martial law victims received compensation using about $600 million recovered from Swiss bank accounts.
    A government agency created to recover missing Marcos-era wealth, much via courts, has so far only recovered $3.41 billion in 33 years.    Marcos has said his family respects court decisions on the matter.
RESISTANCE TO MARCOS
    Opponents to the Marcos family have vowed to stop him from becoming president by whatever means possible.
    Some sought to disqualify him because of a tax evasion conviction three decades ago, which complainants said should have meant a lifetime election ban.    However, in January, a division of the election commission rejected one such complaint.
    He faces at least four more over the tax offence, however, and it is unclear when those would be decided on.    Losing parties can also appeal to the Supreme Court.
(Compiled by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty, Raju Gopalakrishnan)

2/7/2022 After Two Years Of Closed Borders, Australia Welcomes The World Back by Renju Jose and Jamie Freed
FILE PHOTO: A Singapore Airlines plane arriving from Singapore lands at the international terminal
at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia said on Monday it will reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers this month, ending two years of misery for the tourism sector, reviving migration and injecting billions of dollars into the world No. 13 economy.
    The move effectively calls time on the last main component of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which it has attributed to relatively low death and infection rates.    The other core strategy, stop-start lockdowns, was shelved for good in December.
    The country had taken steps in recent months to relax border controls, like allowing in skilled migrants and quarantine-free travel arrangements – “travel bubbles” – with select countries like New Zealand.
    But the reopening, which takes effect on Feb. 21, represents the first time since March 2020 that people can travel to Australia from anywhere in the world as long as they are vaccinated.
    “If you’re double-vaccinated, we look forward to welcoming you back to Australia,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a media briefing in Canberra.
    The tourism industry, which has relied on the domestic market that has itself been heavily impacted by movement restrictions, welcomed the decision which comes three months before Morrison is due to face an election.
    “Over the two years since the borders have been closed the industry has been on its knees,” said Australian Tourism Export Council Managing Director Peter Shelley by phone.
    “Now we can turn our collective efforts towards rebuilding an industry that is in disrepair,” he added.
    Tourism and Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond said the industry was “thrilled” by the reopening, but would need coordination to ensure Australia was competitive as a destination.
    “It’s not as simple as just turning on the tap and we see numbers of international tourists back where they were pre-COVID,” she told reporters.
    International and domestic tourism losses since the start of the pandemic totalled A$101.7 billion ($72 billion), according to government body Tourism Research Australia.    International travel spending in Australia plunged from A$44.6 billion in the 2018-19 financial year to A$1.3 billion in 2020-21, TRA said.
    Shares of tourism-related stocks soared as investors cheered the prospect of a return to profit growth.    Shares of the country’s main airline Qantas Airways Ltd jumped 5% while shares of travel agent Flight Centre Travel Group Ltd surged 8%.
    Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement the company was looking at flight schedules to determine ways to restart flights from more international locations soon.
    As elsewhere in the world, Australian COVID cases have soared in recent weeks due to the Omicron variant which medical experts say may be more transmissable but less virulent than previous strains.
    But with more than nine in 10 Australians aged over 16 fully vaccinated, new cases and hospitalisations appear to have slowed, the authorities say.
    The country reported just over 23,000 new infections on Monday, its lowest for 2022 and far from a peak of 150,000 around a month ago.
    Morrison meanwhile said the government would send up to 1,700 Australian Defence Force personnel to fill staffing shortages in the aged care sector, following complaints of understaffing and fatigue due to increased pressures brought by the pandemic.
    Around 2.4 million cases have been recorded in Australia since the first Omicron case was detected in Australia in November.    Until then, Australia had counted only around 200,000 cases.    Total deaths stand at 4,248 since the pandemic began.
($1 = 1.4106 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Jamie Freed; Writing by Byron Kaye; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Stephen Coates and Michael Perry)

2/7/2022 Hong Kong’s Zero-COVID Strategy Under Pressure As Cases Soar by Twinnie Siu and Farah Master
FILE PHOTO: Residents carry bags of grocery inside a locked down portion
of the Jordan residential area to contain a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
in Hong Kong, China January 23, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong reported a record 614 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, health authorities said, in the biggest test yet for the city’s zero-COVID strategy as it grapples to contain a growing outbreak.    The global financial hub, which is following mainland China’s strategy of suppressing all coronavirus outbreaks as soon as possible, has seen cases soar since January with over 2,000 infections compared with just two in December.
    In addition to the confirmed infections, there were more than 600 other preliminary positive cases on Monday, authorities said.
    Hong Kong recorded 342 cases on Sunday, slightly below the previous day’s record of 351 cases.    Dozens of bank branches, including outlets of HSBC and Bank of China, suspended operations on Monday to help curb transmissions.    Health Secretary Sophia Chan said over the weekend that she expects cases to rise “exponentially.”    The former British colony has become one of the most isolated cities in the world, with flights down around 90% due to strict coronavirus regulations and schools, playgrounds, gyms as well as most other venues shut. Restaurants close at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT), while most people, including the majority of civil servants, are working from home.    The economic and psychological tolls from the hardline approach are rapidly rising, with measures becoming more draconian than those first implemented at the start of the pandemic in 2020.    Government quarantine facilities are also nearing their maximum as authorities struggle to keep up with their rigid contact tracing scheme.
    Thousands of people queued up in rainy weather across the city on Monday for mandatory COVID-19 tests, ordered for people who had visited locations where infections had been reported.
    In total, Hong Kong has recorded 213 COVID deaths and around 15,000 cases since early 2020, far less than other similar major cities.    REVERBERATIONS Health experts said the city’s current strategy of shutting itself off as the rest of the world shifts to living with coronavirus, is not sustainable.
    The official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, said in an editorial on Monday that a “dynamic zero infection” strategy is the scientific option for Hong Kong, suggesting that no change is being planned.
    Around 80% of the city’s 7.5 million residents have had at least one COVID-19 jab but the majority of elderly remain unvaccinated, government figures show.
    Out of these around 40% have received the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, believed to be far less effective against the disease than the one produced by Germany’s BioNTech, the other vaccine available in the city.    Infections have been recorded across government departments from hospitals and housing to the independent anti-corruption body.    Two pet cats tested positive for coronavirus, the government said on Friday, as it urged pet owners to avoid kissing animals.In January, authorities ordered a cull of more than 2,000 hamsters in dozens of pet shops, after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive.    The government has also tried to assuage worries over a shortage of food from the mainland after some cross-border truck drivers tested positive.    Several drivers have been forced to isolate but overall fresh food supply “remained stable,” it said on Sunday.
    There have been shortages of imported foreign food and cost increases due to tight air restrictions.
(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Michael Perry, Stephen Coates and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

2/7/2022 Thailand To Seek Travel Bubbles With China, Malaysia
FILE PHOTO: Tourists wear masks as they visit a shopping center
in Bangkok, Thailand January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand will have talks on bilateral travel bubble arrangements with China and Malaysia later this month, an official said on Monday, as part of efforts to bolster a steady recovery in its crucial tourism sector.
    Thailand received a record of nearly 40 million foreign visitors in 2019 – more than a quarter of those from China – but total arrivals slumped to about 0.5% of that last year, due to weaker external demand and tight quarantine and entry requirements.
    Southeast Asia’s holiday hotspots have suffered billions in lost business from the lack of tourists from mainland China, which has yet to agree any travel bubble arrangements.
    An agreement with Thailand would determine the number of people allowed in the exchange, including protocols for visas, travel and insurance, said government spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, adding China had agreed to discuss the “tourist exchange.”
    It comes a week after Thailand reinstated its “Test & Go” travel scheme for vaccinated arrivals of all nationalities with health insurance, who can skip quarantine if COVID-19 tests are negative.
    In contrast, China requires lengthy quarantine for most arrivals including Chinese nationals and has a zero-tolerance policy towards outbreaks.
    Thailand is also dealing with an increase in new cases lately, reaching 10,000 on Saturday, the most in three months.
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Martin Petty)

2/8/2022 New Zealand PM Warns Of More COVID Variants In 2022
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National leader
Judith Collins at TVNZ in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22, 2020. Fiona Goodall/Pool via REUTERS/
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic will not end with the Omicron variant and New Zealand will have to prepare for more variants of the virus this year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday in her first parliamentary speech for 2022.
    Ardern’s warning came as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the parliament building in the capital Wellington, demanding an end to coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates.
    “Mr Speaker, advice from experts is that Omicron will not be the last variant we will face this year,” Ardern told lawmakers in the speech which was livestreamed.
    “It’s not over.    But that doesn’t mean we cannot move forward. And keep making progress.    And so we are,” she said.
    Ardern’s government has enforced some of the toughest pandemic restriction in New Zealand for the last two years, as the government tried to keep the coronavirus out.
    The policies helped keep infections and deaths low.    A country of five million people, New Zealand has had about 18,000 confirmed COVID cases so far and 53 deaths.
    But it also angered many who faced endless home isolation, and tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders who were cut off from families back home as the borders remained sealed.    The measures have also been devastating for businesses dependent on international tourists.
    Ardern’s approval ratings plummeted in the latest 1News Kantar Public Poll released last month, as the public marked her down for the delays in vaccinations and in removing restrictions.
    Hundreds of anti-vaccine mandate and anti-government protesters gathered outside the parliament demanding an end to all pandemic restrictions, part of a series of protests undertaken in recent months.
    The government said last week that the country will reopen its borders to the rest of the world in phases only by October.
    Omicron cases in the country have been steadily rising since some of the social distancing measures were eased recently.    New Zealand recorded its largest ever one-day case number with 243 cases on Saturday.
    Ardern told Radio New Zealand that the country’s Omicron peak could be in March with daily cases ranging between 10,000 to 30,000.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Michael Perry)

2/8/2022 Japan Parliament Resolution On Ukraine Condemns Changing Status Quo With Force
FILE PHOTO: A militant of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic is seen on a position located on the troops
contact line with Ukrainian forces in Donetsk Region, Ukraine May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s parliament on Tuesday adopted a resolution on rising tensions over Ukraine, denouncing any attempt to change the status quo by force and urging Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government to do all it can to help achieve peace.
    The resolution by parliament’s lower chamber comes after Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, raising fears of war.
    “Deeply concerned about the situation, this chamber declares it is always with the Ukrainian people who hope for the stability of their country and the region.    Changing the status quo with force by any country is never acceptable,” parliament said in the resolution.
    In a virtual meeting last month, Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden committed to work together to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the prime minister pledged to coordinate closely with the United States and the international community on taking strong action in response to any attack.
    “We call strongly on the government to embody our intention, cooperate with the international community, utilise all diplomatic resources and do its utmost for easing tensions over Ukraine and realising peace swiftly,” the resolution said.
    Japan’s ties with Russia have long been plagued by a territorial row over a string of western Pacific islands seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War Two.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel)

2/8/2022 Ex-Bank Of America Lawyer Loses Appeal Of Conviction For Assault Of Hong Kong Policeman by Jessie Pang
FILE PHOTO: Samuel Bickett, a former corporate lawyer from the United States, poses during an
interview, before the appeal for allegedly assaulting a plain-clothes policeman during protests
in 2019, in Hong Kong, China November 4, 2021. Picture taken November 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – An American lawyer convicted of assaulting a plain-clothes Hong Kong police officer during anti-government protests in 2019 lost his appeal on Tuesday and was taken back to jail to serve the remainder of his sentence.
    Samuel Bickett, a former anti-bribery compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, was jailed for four months and two weeks in June last year for assaulting Yu Shu-sang on Dec. 7, 2019. He was released on bail in August after spending more than six weeks in jail.
    In 2019, the former British colony faced the longest and biggest pro-democracy protests since its 1997 return to     Chinese rule, often involving violent clashes between protesters and police.    More than 10,000 people were arrested in relation to the demonstrations, some of them by plain-clothes police.
    In videos widely circulated online, Bickett is seen attempting to snatch an extendable baton from Yu’s hands as the officer fell to the ground.    When asked by another person using a derogatory term for the police whether he was a policeman, Yu, wearing jeans and a blue jacket, said “no” then “yes.”
    “As observed by the court, time and time again, police officers or any public officers who are carrying out their public responsibilities must be protected when in the execution of their duties,” High Court Judge Esther Toh said.
    Bickett said in a statement he was sent back to prison for a crime he did not commit and he would appeal again to a higher court.
    Bickett has said he was trying to stop Yu from assaulting another person in a train station.
    Yu earlier told the court he was using his baton to stop a man from jumping over the turnstile without paying and he did identify himself as a police officer.
    Magistrate Arthur Lam in the Eastern Magistrates Court said it was understandable Yu did not immediately answer “yes” to the “disrespectful” question.
    Bickett, who has lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan since 2013, was immediately detained.
    He told Reuters in November he believed he suffered an injustice.
    “I don’t regret stepping in that day, doing the right thing,” Bickett said.
(Editing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel)

2/8/2022 Japan’s 11-Member Nambu Family Shows Allure Of Frugality, Limits Of Stimulus by Daniel Leussink and Akiko Okamoto
Children of nine brothers of Keiki Nambu and his wife Takako pose for a photograph
during their family shopping, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic,
in Tokyo, Japan January 7, 2022. Picture taken January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Akiko Okamoto
    TOKYO (Reuters) – When Japan handed Tokyo bus driver Keiki Nambu and his wife, Takako, $870 for each of their nine children, they spent it exactly as the government had feared: paying down a mortgage instead of going shopping.
    That kind of financial prudence has helped Japanese households amass a staggering $17 trillion in assets over the years, with more than half of that parked in savings.    But it also represents a headache for policymakers, who struggle to kick-start consumption and boost a moribund economy.
    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government has paid nearly $17 billion in cash stimulus to families.    But unlike U.S. stimulus that lifted consumer spending, the impact is seen as limited in Japan, where households are more likely to save the money or repay debt like the Nambus.
    It highlights a consistent problem in the world’s No. 3 economy, where public debt is already more than twice the size of the gross domestic product (GDP).
    “If dad’s salary remains the same but prices keep going up, all we can do is ask him to do his best and work as much as he can,” said 39-year-old Takako.
    Her husband makes about $44,000 a year, including the discretionary “bonus” paid twice yearly by Japanese companies but cut when times are lean, as happened during the pandemic.    In the end, the stimulus money is just helping to make up for that shortfall, Keiki said.
    The Nambus’ children range in age from less than a year to 17.    Kids only get water and milk to drink, although the family consumes about five litres of milk a day. Keiki makes sure the kids take quick showers to keep the water bill down.
    In terms of size, the Nambus are hardly typical – the average Japanese household has shrunk https://tmsnrt.rs/3Go0HeD to 2.21 people as of late 2020 from 2.82 in 1995, according to census data.    Tokyo’s average was even smaller, at 1.92.
    Their frugality is common, however.
BIG SAVERS
    Private consumption accounts for more than half of Japan’s GDP.
    But households may be spending just 10% of the stimulus cash and saving the rest, said Koya Miyamae, senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities. Economic insecurity keeps consumption flat, Miyamae added, and a recent surge in Omicron infections has also made people hesitant to spend.
    Another economist, Hideo Kumano of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, reckons that about 75% of the handouts will end up as savings, although he cautions that number could be higher if parents decide to set aside more for their children’s education.
    Concern that the money would end up in savings prompted some municipalities to pay half of the stimulus as vouchers.    Tokyo wasn’t one of them.
    Separate cash payments to all residents of Japan earlier in the pandemic saw about 27% of the money spent, according to a July 2020 survey by Mitsubishi Research Institute.
    The Nambus received around $8,700 in total from this round of stimulus – 100,000 yen ($870) yen per child and another one-off payment from the government.
    They initially flirted with the idea of an overnight family trip to a hotel run by their city ward. In the end, frugality won out, although they did spend about $210 on sushi and ice cream.
    They will also use some of the money to buy a school bag and gym clothes for Keifu, 6, who is starting primary school in April.
    The hand-me-down gym clothes were too threadbare after being worn by six of his older siblings.
($1 = 115.3400 yen)
(Reporting by Daniel Leussink and Akiko Okamoto; Editing by David Dolan and Gerry Doyle)

2/8/2022 U.S. Urges N.Korea To Focus On Needs Of Its People, Not Missiles by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean
embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo/File Photo
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States called on North Korea on Monday to defund its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and prioritize the needs of its own people, as Russia and China blamed sanctions for worsening the humanitarian situation in the hermit Asian state.
    Russia put sanctions under the spotlight at the U.N. Security Council as part of its presidency of the 15-member body during February.    However, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia could not chair the meeting because he tested positive for COVID-19, diplomats said.
    “We call on DPRK to demonstrate a commitment to the wellbeing of its own people by respecting human rights, defunding its unlawful WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and ballistic missiles program, and prioritizing the needs of its own people – the vulnerable North Koreans,” said the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
    North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.    It has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
    In November, Russia and China revived a 2019 push to ease U.N. sanctions on North Korea in what they described as a bid to improve the humanitarian situation.    The move found little support or engagement among council members, so China and Russia have not put it to a vote.
    “If the council were to think of ordinary Koreans and not merely geopolitics then this proposal warrants support,” Deputy Russian U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told the council.    “We believe firmly that the Security Council sanctions apparatus requires a strong dose of humanization.”
    North Korea’s humanitarian situation “continues to worsen,” according to an excerpt https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-nkorea-grows-nuclear-missiles-programs-profits-cyberattacks-un-report-2022-02-05 of a confidential U.N. report seen on Saturday by Reuters.    The report said that was probably mainly due to Pyongyang’s COVID-19 blockade.
    Russia and China also both used the council meeting on Monday to blast unilateral sanctions, without naming names.    China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said of such countries: “They have been flinging them about left, right, and center in a frenzy, so much so that they seem to be addicted.”
    Thomas-Greenfield said she was concerned by attempts “to criticize and delegitimize” unilateral sanctions as unlawful and that the United States categorically rejects that position.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Richard Pullin)

2/9/2022 Abuse Campaigner Says Australia’s Prime Minister Apology Not Enough
2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame and advocate for survivors of sexual assault Brittany Higgins
attend the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia February 9, 2022. AAP Image/Lukas Coch via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – A day after Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised in parliament for the treatment of women who had suffered sexual abuse there, a prominent campaigner said she wanted to see action more than words.
    Former political staffer Brittany Higgins, who says she was raped in a parliament office by a fellow staffer, said she was concerned workplace sexual abuse was in danger of becoming a “political perception problem neutralised and turned into a net positive.”
    “Actions are what matter,” Higgins said in a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra.    “Task forces are great.    Codes of conduct are important. But only if it’s paired with institutional change.”
    The apology by Morrison, who must hold an election by mid-May, came after he struggled last year to placate public anger amid several allegations of sexual abuse, discrimination against women and misconduct in parliament.
    A review sparked by Higgins going public with details of her alleged sexual assault in a ministerial office found half of parliamentary staff had experienced harassment, bullying or sexual assault.
    As parliament sat for the first time in 2022 on Tuesday, the speaker read a statement apologising for “an unacceptable history of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault in parliamentary workplaces.”
    In his address to the parliament, Morrison apologised to all who had suffered, and directly to Higgins for what happened to her.
    Higgins said on Wednesday she recognised the significance of the moment but was concerned the government had only learnt how to be better at talking about the issue.
    Last year, police charged a 26-year-old man after an investigation into Higgins’ case.    He is due to face court later this year.
    The parliamentary apology marked a rocky start to an election year for Morrison as anti-vaccination protesters gathered outside parliament and his conservative party faced ructions over a religious freedom bill.
    His personal integrity has also come under attack from damaging leaks, including by Higgins, of historical text messages from state and Coalition partner leaders, including some labelling him a “liar.”
    Higgins spoke at the press club alongside another prominent campaigner for the rights of abuse victims, former Australian of the Year Grace Tame.
    Tame was asked how opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese could do better on the issue of workplace abuse if elected.
    “All that Anthony would have to do is none of the things Scott’s done,” Tame said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Richard Pullin)

2/9/2022 S.Korea Weighs Voting Options For People With COVID Ahead Of Election by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) rests
at an empty park in Seoul, South Korea, January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s parliament explored ways on Wednesday to allow people who have caught the novel coronavirus to cast their ballot in next month’s presidential election, as the number of new cases spiralled to nearly 50,000 for the first time.
    South Korea will elect its next president on March 9, but concerns about potential COVID-related disruptions are growing as daily cases skyrocket due to the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
    The election watchdog planned to introduce a proposal on Wednesday to the National Assembly to amend the Public Official Election Act enabling in-person voting for COVID-19 patients after 6 p.m. on March 5 and 9.
    The current rules effectively ban people who were diagnosed with a contagious disease after the March 4-5 early voting period due to mandatory isolation policy.
    Both the ruling and opposition parties have called for allowing the patients to vote from 6-9 p.m., and an agreed proposal was expected to be put up for a vote on Monday.
    The ruling Democratic Party also called for mail-in voting for the patients, while the main opposition People Power Party suggested setting up special polling stations for them.
    South Korea’s daily number of new cases hit a record high of 49,567 for Tuesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). The daily tally has more than doubled in less than a week, and could reach up to 170,000 later this month, the KDCA said.
    President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday there needed to be a measure to ensure all voters can exercise their right to vote.
    South Korea, with a 52 million population, has largely been a COVID-19 mitigation success story, with 1,131,239 total infections and 6,943 deaths, thanks largely to masks, distancing and aggressive testing and tracing.
    But the government shifted its testing and tracing policy in the face of the Omicron spread in favour of self-monitoring and diagnosis and at-home treatment starting last week.
    It also extended strict distancing curbs until Feb. 20, including a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants, cafes and bars.
    Nearly 96% of South Korean adults have been fully vaccinated and some 64% have received a booster shot.
($1 = 1,196.1500 won)
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Stephen Coates)

2/10/2022 New Zealand Police Make Arrests As COVID Vaccine Mandate Protests Enter 3rd Day by Praveen Menon
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters gather to demonstrate in front of the
parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, February 10, 2022. REUTERS/Praveen Menon
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand police on Thursday arrested more than 50 people and began forcefully removing hundreds of protesters camped outside its parliament building for the last three days to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and tough coronavirus restrictions.
    Inspired by truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, into a 13th day with protesters blocking two border crossings with the United States, several thousand protesters this week blocked streets near the parliament in capital Wellington with trucks, cars and motorcycles.
    A country of five million people, New Zealand has reported just over 18,000 confirmed cases and 53 deaths since the pandemic began.    About 94% of eligible people are vaccinated, with shots mandatory for some staff in frontline jobs.
    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday told the protesters to “move on” saying the protests are not a reflection of what the majority in the country feels.    As of 14.45 local time (0145 GMT), about a thousand protesters remained at the site, defying warnings and efforts by the police to clear them.
    “All of us want to actually move on.    We are working very hard to put ourselves in the best possible position to do that,” Ardern told reporters after visiting a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Auckland.
    Ardern acknowledged every New Zealander had the right to protest, but said that should not disrupt others’ lives.    Removing protesters was an operational matter for police, she said.
    Despite garnering plaudits for keeping the country virtually virus-free over the last two years, the strict restrictions now in place have become unpopular, with Ardern’s approval ratings taking a hit in recent opinion polls.
    With borders still closed, tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders face being cut off from families, while tourism businesses are struggling to stay afloat.
‘WANT OUR FREEDOM BACK’
    Speaker Trevor Mallard on Thursday authorised the closure of grounds around the distinctive ‘Beehive’ parliament building, after which demonstrators quickly confronted police officers, banging drums and screaming insults.    Some were seen throwing empty plastic bottles at the police.
    As the crowd pushed against barriers, police pulled them out and wrestled them to the ground, a Reuters witness said.    Dozens were handcuffed and taken away amid cries of “Shame on you!” from the crowd.
    Many protesters, who said they were vaccinated but were against mandating vaccines, were seen holding placards saying “Freedom,” “Leave our kids alone” and “Let me work.”
    “We are not going anywhere.    We will hold the line and see this through,” said one demonstrator who gave his name only as Adam, and said he had come from Palmerston North, about 140 km (87 miles) north of Wellington.
    “We want our freedom back,” said another protester, identifying himself as Dave.    “Jacinda (Ardern) has turned her back on us.    Kiwis are not dumb.    We are losing our jobs and our lives due to these mandates and restrictions.”
    Police said those arrested will face trespass and obstruction charges, and will be bailed to appear in court.    Authorities have also appealed to the owners or drivers of vehicles blocking streets surrounding parliament grounds to remove them or face enforcement action.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon and Renju Jose; Editing by Sandra Maler and Kenneth Maxwell)

2/10/2022 Imagery Shows N.Korea Preparing For Possible Military Parade – Report by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: Senior military officials watch a parade as portraits of late North Korean
leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen in the background at the main Kim Il Sung
square in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/
    SEOUL (Reuters) – Commercial satellite imagery shows possible preparations for a military parade in North Korea, a Washington think-tank said on Thursday, amid expectations that the country could display new military advances or launch more missiles on upcoming holidays.
    Several hundred personnel were seen in formation at the Mirim Parade Training Ground in Pyongyang, which is designed to be a replica of the city’s Kim Il Sung Square, where parades are usually held, 38 North, which monitors North Korea, said in a report.
    More than 240 buses were parked nearby, but there were no signs of major military hardware, such as North Korea’s ballistic missiles, the report said.
    “That could indicate an upcoming event will consist largely of people or that they are yet to arrive,” 38 North said.
    The report comes a day after Seoul-based NK News, which covers North Korea, cited informed sources and satellite imagery that indicated possible preparations for a parade, including jet aircraft over Pyongyang and marching formations at the training ground since late January.
    North Korea plans to celebrate the 80th birthday anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, on Feb. 16, and the 110th birthday anniversary of his late grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
    Both are major holidays in North Korea, which often uses such occasions to display military might at massive parades full of goose-stepping soldiers and rows of weapons, including in some cases its large missiles.
    “North Korea does not announce these kinds of events in advance, but over the last several years, training at the Mirim Parade Training Ground has usually begun one to several months ahead of the festivities,” the 38 North report said.
    North Korea conducted a record seven missile tests in January, and has suggested it could resume tests of its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons for the first time since 2017 amid stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.
    Analysts say North Korea could use the holidays to test a major new missile or other weapon.
    A resumption of North Korea’s nuclear weapon or long-range missile tests would “instantly” send the peninsula back into crisis, outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week, calling for measures to prevent that from happening.
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

1/10/2022 New N. Korea Nuclear, ICBM Testing Would Trigger Instant Crisis, S.Korea’s Moon Says by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: People look at North Korea's propaganda village Kaepoong through binoculars from
the top of the Aegibong Peak Observatory, south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ), separating
the two Koreas in Gimpo, South Korea, October 5, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/
    SEOUL (Reuters) - A resumption of North Korea’s nuclear weapon or long-range missile tests would “instantly” send the peninsula back into crisis, outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week, calling for measures to prevent that from happening.
    A record month of North Korean missile testing https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-says-tested-hwasong-12-missile-sunday-2022-01-30 in January highlighted failures of Moon’s efforts to engineer a breakthrough as his term ends in May, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suggested https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/nkorea-warns-it-may-rethink-moratorium-nuclear-missile-tests-2022-01-19 he could order new nuclear tests or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches for the first time since 2017.
    “If North Korea’s series of missile launches goes as far as scrapping a moratorium on long-range missile tests, the Korean Peninsula may instantly fall back into the state of crisis we faced five years ago,” Moon said in a written interview with media in Seoul scheduled for publication on Thursday.
    “Preventing such a crisis through persistent dialogue and diplomacy will be the task that political leaders in the countries concerned must fulfil together,” he added.
    Moon had expressed concern that the series of missile tests was so close to the March 9 presidential election in South Korea, where the candidate from Moon’s Democratic Party is in a tight race with a conservative opponent.
    Moon admitted he appears to have run out of time, saying it is unlikely a last-minute summit with Kim or the adoption of his proposal for a declaration ending the 1950-1953 Korean War would happen before he leaves office.
    Still, he said the United States and South Korea have agreed on the text of the declaration, and that a summit between Kim and U.S. President Joe Biden “is just a matter of time” if all sides wish to avoid a crisis.
    “Since dialogue is the only way to resolve problems, a meeting between President Biden and Chairman Kim is expected to take place eventually,” he said.
    Moon has pushed for a formal end https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/south-korean-leader-repeats-call-declaration-end-korean-war-2021-09-21 to the Korean War to replace the armistice that stopped the fighting but left it and the U.S.-led U.N. Command still technically at war.
    “I would at least like to make conditions ripe for an end-of-war declaration and pass that on to the next administration,” he said.
    Moon said his most rewarding achievement was helping “shift the direction toward dialogue and diplomacy rather than military confrontation.”
    The biggest regret of his term, however, is the failure of the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, he said, where Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump walked away with no agreements on reducing North Korea’s nuclear weapons or missiles in return for easing international sanctions.
    “It is very regrettable that the summit ended in ‘no deal’ when the continuation of dialogue should have been ensured at least,” he said, arguing that a smaller, phased deal should still have been pursued when it became clear that a “big deal” was out of reach.
    “Still now, if they learn from that experience and put their heads together to discuss mutually acceptable, realistic measures… I believe there will be ample opportunities to find a solution,” he added.
    In a phone call with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts on Thursday, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said the recent launches posed a “direct and serious threat,” and vowed to bolster response capabilities based on the U.S. alliance.
    Biden’s administration has said it is willing to meet the North Koreans any time without preconditions, but Pyongyang says it will not resume negotiations unless Washington and Seoul drop “hostile policies” such as military drills, sanctions, and arms buildups.
    Despite the stalled talks and increase in tensions, Moon says “necessary communication” with Kim has continued, and he doesn’t think Biden has returned to the “strategic patience” policies of the Obama administration because he continues to make practical efforts to resume dialogue.
    “We cannot afford to give up this task,” he said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Sam Holmes and Gerry Doyle)

2/10/2022 Blinken In Melbourne Says Australia Demonstrated Best Of Humanity
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting for tomorrow's meeting of the Quadrilateral
Security Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers, takes part in a health security partnerships roundtable
at Biomedical Precinct, in Melbourne, Australia, February 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/POOL
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told students in Melbourne that Australia had showed it was capable of the best of humanity, transforming the life of his step-father who arrived as a teenage refugee after the Holocaust.
    Blinken is in Melbourne for the Quad meeting of foreign ministers on Friday, when he will meet counterparts from India, Japan and Australia.
    On Thursday morning he spoke with students at the University of Melbourne, where his late step-father graduated, after he arrived with no education from Poland.
    “Australia remade him,” Blinken said, adding his family held Australia in a special place.
    “It showed after a demonstration of how humanity is capable of the worst, it’s also capable of the best.”
    Highlighting the closeness in values between the two nations, he said it was imperative for Australia and the United States to work together to tackle challenges from climate change to the pandemic, and ensuring technology was used to advance humanity.
    “At a time when so many of those values and interests have been challenged, I think there’s more of an imperative than ever, that our two countries be together, work together.”
    From Australia, Blinken flys to Fiji to reassure Pacific island leaders that Washington and its allies are committed to providing security and COVID vaccines, as China steps up its aid and influence in the region.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

2/11/2022 China Pledges Support For Hong Kong As Infections Set To Hit New Record by Farah Master
People queue at a makeshift nucleic acid testing centre for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),
at the Central district in Hong Kong, China, February 9, 2022. REUTERS/Joyce Zhou
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - China will fully support Hong Kong with its “dynamic zero” coronavirus strategy, its office overseeing matters in the city said, as the territory is expected to hit a new record for daily infections on Friday.
    The global financial hub will report at least 1,325 new coronavirus cases on Friday, broadcaster TVB reported, a new record after infections doubled to a 1,161 cases on Wednesday.
    The central government was “highly concerned” about the safety and health of residents as well as the economy and people’s livelihoods, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), which comes under China’s State Council or cabinet, said in a statement.
    It said it would hold a meeting of mainland and Hong Kong officials in neighbouring Shenzhen “in the near future” to “maintain stability” and come up with policies to support Hong Kong’s fight against the disease.
    “As long as Hong Kong asks, the motherland will surely respond … Hand in hand, we will surely be able to overcome the epidemic soon,” it said.     The mainland is also preparing to send thousands of medical and lab workers and millions of testing kits to Hong Kong, with the daily coronavirus screening capacity to be increased from 100,000 tests to 3000,000 tests.
    Hong Kong has seen a 10-fold rise in cases since Feb. 1 and medical experts warn the city could see 28,000 daily infections by the end of March, with the unvaccinated elderly a particular worry.
    The increase is proving to be the biggest test for Hong Kong’s policy of virus suppression as capacity for hospital beds, isolation and coronavirus testing nears its maximum.
LONG QUEUES
    Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to test every day, including elderly and children, queuing for hours in tightly packed lines outside testing centres and raising the risk of infection.
    Following mainland China, Hong Kong is trying to curb outbreaks as soon as possible, in contrast with many other places that are trying to “live with COVID,” relying on high vaccination rates to bring protection while easing restrictions.
    The city’s stringent restrictions have turned it into one of the world’s most major isolated cities.
    The HKMAO said it was also actively coordinating with the Guangdong provincial government to ensure the supply of vegetables, fresh food and other necessities into Hong Kong.
    The former British colony saw a run on vegetables this week after several cross-border truck drivers, who bring in goods from the mainland, tested positive for coronavirus.
    China previously assisted the city in 2020 with a mass coronavirus testing scheme when it sent 600 people to operate lab facilities and tested nearly 2 million of the city’s 7.5 million residents.
    Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said this week said she was deeply sorry and anxious for the long waits residents faced to get tested or enter isolation facilities.    She said last week she had requested help from mainland China to boost testing capacity.
(Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia and Joyce Zhou; Editing by Stephen Coates and Lincoln Feast.)

2/11/2022 New Zealand Protesters Occupy Parliament Grounds For Fourth Day
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters gather to demonstrate in front of the parliament
in Wellington, New Zealand, February 10, 2022. REUTERS/Praveen Menon
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – More people arrived outside New Zealand’s parliament on Friday, as protesters calling for an end to a vaccine mandate and tough COVID-19 restrictions refused to end their demonstrations despite arrests by the police.
    It’s been four days since several thousand protesters, inspired by truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, occupied the parliament lawns in the capital Wellington, and blocked surrounding streets with their trucks, cars, camper vans and motorcycles.
    On Thursday, the police arrested 120 people as they attempted to forcefully remove the protesters, but were seen falling back later in the day as the campers refused to move.
    The police said in a statement on Friday that there were no incidents of note overnight at the parliament grounds, although 2 more people were arrested for “alcohol-related behaviour.”
    “Police continue to take a measured approach to the protesters, who are trespassing on the grounds of Parliament and have been repeatedly asked to leave,” Superintendent Corrie Parnell said in the statement.
    There are a range of different causes and motivations among the protesters, making it difficult to open clear and meaningful lines of communication, the police said, adding that misinformation, particularly on social media, has been identified as an issue.
    More tents and even a gazebo went up on the lawn as more protesters arrived from across the country on Friday.    But the crowd was peaceful, singing and dancing, unlike the angry demonstrations seen on Thursday.
    “At the moment it looks more like a festival here,” one of the organisers said on the microphone.
    “Does anybody see a mob here?
    A small number of protesters were also reported to have gathered in other cities like Nelson and Christchurch in solidarity.
    The protesters ignored calls from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to “move on.”    The continuing stand off is mounting political pressure on Ardern, whose approval ratings taking a hit in recent opinion polls.
    Despite garnering plaudits for keeping the country virtually virus-free over the last two years, the strict restrictions that are still in place have become unpopular.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

2/11/2022 Quad Ministers Convene To Address Indo-Pacific ‘Coercion’, Climate, COVID by Humeyra Pamuk and Kirsty Needham
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting for tomorrow's meeting of the Quadrilateral Security
Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers, takes part in a health security partnerships roundtable at
Biomedical Precinct, in Melbourne, Australia, February 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/POOL
    MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Climate change, COVID and China’s “coercion” in the Indo-Pacific top the agenda as foreign ministers of the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States meet in Melbourne on Friday, with talks also covering an escalating crisis between the West and Russia over Ukraine.
    U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Australia this week as Washington grapples with a dangerous standoff with Moscow, which has massed some 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and stoked Western fears of an invasion https://www.reuters.com/world/kremlin-denies-putin-promised-not-hold-manoeuvres-near-ukraine-2022-02-08.    Russia denies it has such plans.
    The Biden administration wants to show the world its long-term strategic focus remains in the Asia-Pacific https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blinken-with-pacific-trip-aims-reaffirm-us-focus-asia-2022-02-07 and that a major foreign policy crisis in one part of the world does not distract it from key priorities.
    Asked by reporters on Friday if confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific was inevitable, Blinken replied “nothing is inevitable
    “Having said that, I think we share concerns that in recent years China has been acting more aggressively at home and more aggressively in the region,” he said, before meeting with Quad foreign ministers and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
    Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on top of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, climate change and COVID related issues, the two top diplomats will also be discussing China, North Korea and Ukraine.
    “More than one authoritarian regime is presenting itself in the current world climate as a challenge.    DPRK (North Korea), China as well and they will be part of our discussions today.    We strongly support U.S. leadership on these challenges,” she said before a bilateral meeting with Blinken.
    “We are going to talk today, I’m sure, about the threats to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well,” she added.
    Britain said the “most dangerous moment” https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/wrapup-1-russia-starts-belarus-military-drills-amid-new-diplomacy-ukraine-2022-02-10 in the West’s standoff with Moscow appeared imminent, as Russia held military exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea following the buildup of its forces near Ukraine.
    On Thursday, Blinken said Washington was working “24/7” on the Ukraine crisis but reaffirmed U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific — a region he said would be instrumental in shaping much of 21st century.    “It’s important that we be present, that we be engaged, that we be leading across this region,” he said.
‘FREE FROM COERCION’
    Both Blinken and Payne said a key element of the Quad discussion will focus on establishing a regional environment free from “coercion,” a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing’s expansive economic and military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
    The Quad’s cooperation on the region’s COVID response was “most critical,” Payne told parliament, with cyber and maritime security, infrastructure, climate action and disaster relief – especially after the recent Tonga volcanic eruption – also in focus.
    Speaking to reporters on the plane en route to Melbourne, Blinken described the Quad as a “powerful mechanism” to deliver vaccines worldwide as well as to push back against “aggression and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific, without naming China.
    New pledges are unlikely to be announced before a May summit of Quad leaders in Japan that President Joe Biden plans to attend.
    Blinken’s trip comes after China and Russia declared last week a “no limits” strategic partnership https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-china-tell-nato-stop-expansion-moscow-backs-beijing-taiwan-2022-02-04, their most detailed and assertive statement to work together – and against the United States – to build a new international order based on their own interpretations of human rights and democracy.
    U.S.-Chinese ties are at their lowest point in decades as the world’s top two economies disagree on issues ranging from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South China Sea and China’s treatment of ethnic Muslims.
    Biden told Asian leaders in October the United States would launch talks on a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.    But few details have emerged and his administration has been reluctant to offer the increased market access Asian countries desire, seeing this as threatening American jobs.
    Critics say the lack of U.S. economic engagement is a major weakness in Biden’s approach to the region, where China remains to be the top trading partner for many of the Indo-Pacific nations.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Diane Craft)

2/11/2022 ‘Born Free’: Somaliland Says China Can’t Dictate To It Over Taiwan by Yimou Lee
Somaliland Foreign Minister Essa Kayd Mohamoud attends a meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at the
Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan February 9, 2022. Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via REUTERS
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – China cannot dictate who Somaliland can have relations with as it was a sovereign nation and “born free,” the foreign minister of the breakaway Somali region said on Friday during a trip to Taiwan which has been condemned by Beijing.
    Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 but has not gained widespread international recognition for its independence.    The region has been mostly peaceful while Somalia has grappled with three decades of civil war.
    Somaliland and Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory and likewise diplomatically isolated, set up representative offices in each other’s capitals in 2020, angering Beijing and Mogadishu.
    Strategically situated on the Horn of Africa, Somaliland borders Djibouti, where China maintains its first ever overseas military base.
    China’s Foreign Ministry said this week Taiwan was “fanning the flames to undermine the independence and unification of other countries, harming others without benefiting themselves” by hosting a senior ministerial delegation from Somaliland.
    Speaking to reporters, Somaliland Foreign Minister Essa Kayd said China cannot dictate to his country.
    “We were born free and we will stay free.    We will run our business the way we want.    China cannot dictate, no other country can dictate.”
    Kayd added that they were open to dealing with anyone who respected them as a sovereign country and wanted to do business without any strings or conditions.
    “I think that’s as clear as I can go on China.”
    Taiwan has been all but driven out of Africa diplomatically by China in recent years, with only tiny eSwatini now maintaining full relations with the island.
    China has ramped up pressure on countries not to engage with Taiwan as it seeks to assert its sovereignty claims, and both frequently trade barbs about using “dollar diplomacy” with loans and cash gifts in exchange for international recognition.
    Somaliland Finance Minister Saad Ali Shire said his country had made no requests so far to borrow from Taiwan.
    “There has been a flow of funds from Taiwan to Somaliland in the form of aid and in the form of investment, which we welcome.”
(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/11/2022 Australians Told To Get COVID Boosters To Be Considered Fully Vaccinated
FILE PHOTO: A staff member attends to a visitor at a vaccination check station at SEA LIFE Sydney
Aquarium on the venue's first day of re-opening, following an extended closure due to coronavirus
disease (COVID-19) lockdown orders, in Sydney, Australia, October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian residents will need to receive booster shots to be considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, although authorities said foreign travellers will continue to need only two shots to enter the country.
    Australia’s national cabinet late on Thursday endorsed the revised guidance from the country’s vaccination advisory group to classify “up-to-date” inoculations as including boosters.
    A person’s vaccination status will be considered “overdue” if they have not received a booster within six months of their second dose, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
    Australian officials have made vaccines mandatory only for some frontline workers, but many private businesses, including major corporations, restaurants and retailers, have made inoculations a requirement for entry.
    The country is among the most heavily vaccinated in the world as a result, with 94% of people above 16 double-dosed.    Nearly 10 million boosters have been administered so far.
    The decision to keep the requirement for visitors to two doses only comes as authorities prepare to fully reopen Australia’s borders, around two years after they were slammed shut to slow the progress of the pandemic.
    Like other countries, Australia has been tackling the fast-moving Omicron variant.
    Officials reported just under 26,000 new infections by midday on Friday, down from about 30,000 on Thursday, with Western Australia and Northern Territory still to report.    Forty-eight new deaths were registered.    Hospital cases remained on a downtrend, with nearly 3,300 admitted, the lowest tally in more than a month.
    The bulk of Australia’s pandemic total of around 2.7 million cases has been detected since the emergence of the Omicron variant in late November. Total deaths stood at 4,479.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Jane Wardell)

2/12/2022 U.S. Plans Solomon Islands Embassy In Push To Counter China by Humeyra Pamuk
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press availability with Fiji acting
Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, in Nadi, Fiji, February 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool
    NADI, Fiji (Reuters) - The United States will open an embassy in the Solomon Islands, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday as he committed more diplomatic and security resources into the Pacific as a counter to China’s drive for greater influence.
    Blinken, in Fiji for virtual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) of regional leaders, heard their concerns about the need for genuine action on climate change and complaints that they had long been overlooked by bigger nations.
    “Fiji and all the Pacific Island nations are a vital part of the Indo-Pacific region,” Blinken told a news conference with Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyu.
    Sayed-Khaiyu noted that Fiji and the other Pacific nations were the guardians of the largest ocean continent in the world, which was crucial to the wellbeing of everyone in the world.
    “Despite that, Fiji and our small-state neighbours have felt at times, to borrow an American term, like a flyover country,” he said.
    “Small dots spotted from planes of leaders en route to meetings where they spoke about us rather than with us, if they spoke about us at all,” he said, adding he hoped the visit marked the start of a more direct relationship between the United States and the Pacific.
    Blinken flew to Fiji after a meeting in Melbourne of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, at which the so-called Quad pledged to deepen cooperation to ensure an Indo-Pacific region free from “coercion,” a thinly veiled swipe at China’s economic and military expansion.
    “This is not at all a case of us being here, coming here, being focussed here for security reasons.    It’s much more fundamental than that,” Blinken said.    “When we’re looking at this region that we share, we see it as the region for the future.”
CHINA’S MILITARY PUSH
    In a briefing on the flight to Fiji, a senior U.S. administration official told travelling reporters that “there are very clear indications that (China) want to create military relationships in the Pacific.”
    “The most pressing case right now is what’s going on in the Solomon Islands.    With Chinese security personnel bucking up an increasingly besieged president in a way that has caused a lot of anxieties across the region,” the official said.
    The Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan in 2019.
    Violent protests erupted in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara in November after Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita province, which had opposed the diplomatic switch to Beijing.
    Around 200 police and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea arrived in Honiara within days of the riots, at Sogavare’s request.
    Sogavare accused the provincial government in Malaita, the most populous province in the country, of being “Taiwan’s agent,” and in December survived a no-confidence motion in parliament.
    China later sent police advisers to help train Solomons police, and equipment including shields, helmets and batons
INDO-PAC STRATEGY
    Blinken’s visit to Fiji, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in four decades, came after the Biden administration issued a strategy overview for the Indo-Pacific in which it vowed to commit more diplomatic and security resources to the region to push back against China.
    Under an action plan for the next 12 to 24 months, the document said Washington would “meaningfully expand” its diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and prioritise key negotiations with Pacific island states that cover access for the U.S. military and which have appeared to stall in the past year.
    Richard Clark, a spokesman for the president of one of the island nations, the Federated States of Micronesia, told Reuters a “tremendous amount of progress” was still needed in talks with Washington.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Fiji, David Brunnstrom in Washington, John Mair and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Lincoln Feast and William Mallard)

2/12/2022 Indian Muslim Students Say Hijab Ban Forces Choice Of Religion Or Education by Sunil Kataria
FILE PHOTO: Women hold placards during a protest, organised by Hum Bhartiya, against the recent hijab ban in few
colleges of Karnataka state, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, February 11, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
    UDIPI, India (Reuters) – Ayesha Imthiaz, a devout Indian Muslim who considers wearing a hijab an expression of devotion to the Prophet Mohammad, says a move by her college to expel hijab-wearing girls is an insult that will force her to chose between religion and education.
    “The humiliation of being asked to leave my classroom for wearing a head scarf by college officials has shaken my core belief,” said the 21-year-old student from southern Karnataka’s Udupi district, where protests over the head covering ban began.
    “My religion has been questioned and insulted by a place which I had considered as a temple of education,” she told Reuters.
    “It is more like telling us you chose between your religion or education, that’s a wrong thing,” she said after studying for five years at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udupi.
    Several Muslim girls who protested the ban had received threatening calls and were forced to stay indoors, she added.
    College officials say students are allowed to wear the hijab on campus and only asked them to take it off inside the classroom.
    Udupi is one of three districts in Karnataka’s religiously sensitive coastal region, which is a stronghold of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
    The stand-off has increased fear and anger among minority Muslims, who say the country’s constitution grants them the freedom to wear what they want.
    Protests over the ban have escalated, with hundreds demonstrating this month in Kolkata and Chennai.
    Last week, a judge at the state’s high court referred petitions challenging the ban to a larger panel.
    The issue is being closely watched internationally as a test of religious freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
    The U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) on Friday said the hijab bans “violate religious freedom and stigmatize and marginalize women and girls.”
    In response, India’s foreign ministry on Saturday said outside comments over internal issues were not welcome and the matter was under judicial review.
    Imthiaz and six other Muslim girls protesting the ban say they are determined to fight for their religious freedom in the face of some hardline Hindu students and even some of their friends.
    “It is really hurtful to see our own friends going against us and telling ‘I have a problem with you wearing the hijab’…its affected our bonds and mental health,” Imthiaz said.
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

2/12/2022 Afghan Central Bank Says U.S. Plan For Frozen Funds An ‘Injustice’
FILE PHOTO: An UNHCR worker pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with aid supplies for a displaced
Afghan family outside the distribution center as a Taliban fighter secures the area
on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
    KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s central bank on Saturday criticised Washington’s plan to use half the bank’s $7 billion in frozen assets on U.S. soil for humanitarian aid and set aside the rest to possibly satisfy lawsuits over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
    U.S. administration officials said on Friday they would work to ensure access to $3.5 billion of the assets would benefit the Afghan people, amid calls for the money to be used to address a deepening economic crisis since the Taliban seized power last year.
    The other half of the funds would remain in the United States, subject to ongoing litigation targeting the Taliban, including by relatives of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.
    Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) criticised the decision, saying its assets had been invested in the United States in line with international practices, and belonged to the people of Afghanistan.
    “DAB considers the latest decision of USA on blocking FX (foreign exchange) reserves and allocating them to irrelevant purposes, injustice to the people of Afghanistan,” the central bank said in a statement.
    “(DAB) will never accept if the FX reserves of Afghanistan is paid under the name of compensation or humanitarian assistance to others and wants the reversal of the decision and release of all FX reserves of Afghanistan,” it added.
    The central bank funds have been frozen since the Taliban took over the country as foreign forces withdrew in August.
    The frozen funding combined with sanctions and a drop off in development funding have sent the country’s economy into freefall, unleashing a humanitarian crisis.
(Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Helen Popper)

2/12/2022 Australia Evacuates Embassy In Kyiv, Calls On China To Speak Up For Ukraine by Lidia Kelly
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks at a press conference after a meeting of the Quadrilateral
Security Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers in Melbourne, Australia, February 12, 2022. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders
    (Reuters) – Australia said on Sunday it was evacuating its embassy in Kyiv as the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border deteriorated quickly, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling on China to not remain “chillingly silent” on the crisis.
    The United States and Europe stepped up their warnings of an imminent attack by Russia on Ukraine, while the Kremlin, jostling for more influence in post-Cold War Europe, rejected a joint EU-NATO diplomatic response to its demands to reduce tensions as disrespectful.
    Australia’s embassy staff in Kyiv was directed to a temporary office in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, around 70 kilometres (44 miles) from the border with Poland, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
    “We continue to advise Australians to leave Ukraine immediately by commercial means,” Payne said.
    Morrison said that the situation “is reaching a very dangerous stage” and added that “the autocratic unilateral actions of Russia to be threatening and bullying Ukraine is something that is completely and utterly unacceptable.”
    Morrison, whose government has frigid ties with China, called also on Beijing to speak up for Ukraine, after China criticised a meeting of the U.S., Australian, Japanese and Indian foreign ministers in Melbourne last week.
    “The Chinese government is happy to criticise Australia … yet remains chillingly silent on Russian troops amassing on the Ukrainian border,” Morrison told a news conference.
    “The coalition of autocracies that we are seeing, seeking to bully other countries, is not something that Australia ever takes a light position on.”
    Relations between Australia and China, its top trade partner, soured after Canberra banned Huawei Technologies from its 5G broadband network in 2018, toughened laws against foreign political interference, and urged an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
(This story refiles to correct typo in headline)
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Sandra Maler)

2/14/2022 New Zealand’s Ardern Labels Anti-Vaccine Mandate Protests ‘Imported’ As Crowds Defy Calls To Leave by Praveen Menon
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participates in a televised debate with National leader Judith Collins
at TVNZ in Auckland, New Zealand, September 22, 2020. Fiona Goodall/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday she felt demonstrations against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate now entering their second week were an “imported” phenomenon, and nothing like anything she had seen before in the country.
    Hundreds of protesters continue to occupy lawns in front of the distinctive ‘Beehive’ parliament for a seventh day, ignoring repeated calls by the police to leave and undaunted by drenching rain over the weekend.
    Claiming inspiration from truckers’ anti-vaccine mandate demonstrations in Canada, the protesters have also blocked several streets around parliament with their trucks, vans and motorcycles.
    “It feels like an imported protest to me,” Ardern told state broadcaster TVNZ in an interview.
    “I’ve seen Trump flags on the forecourt, I’ve seen Canadian flags on the forecourt,” she said, referring to images of former U.S. President Donald Trump carried by some demonstrators as well as the situation in Canada.
    Ardern said in a news conference later in the day that the protesters have demanded the government remove all public health COVID-19 measures.
    “That means at the very point where we are seeing an increase in cases and an increase in risk to the public health and well-being of New Zealand, they want to see removed the very measures that have kept us safe, well and alive.    You’ll forgive me if I take a very strong view on that suggestion,” Ardern said.
    The protests started as a stand against vaccine mandates but have been joined by groups calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions, rejecting vaccinations, as well as calling attention to other social issues like censorship and rights of the ethnic Maori community.    At the protests’ peak, thousands of demonstrators were estimated to be involved.
    A country of five million people, New Zealand has some of the lowest COVID-19 case numbers in the world, largely due to tough coronavirus border curbs and social restrictions.
    Daily Omicron variant cases have been rising, however, nearly touching 1,000 on Monday, as some domestic restrictions were eased this month.
    The country’s borders, however, are still closed with tens of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders cut off from families.
    The High Court on Monday started hearing a case against the government filed by a group representing expatriate New Zealanders which has accused the state of unlawfully denying citizens the right to enter the country.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Kim Coghill)

2/14/2022 Indian State Re-Opens Some Schools In Wake Of Hijab Dispute by Sunil Kataria
FILE PHOTO: Ayesha Imthiaz, 21, a Muslim college student, wearing a hijab, studies in a
room in Udupi, Karnataka state, India, February 11, 2022. REUTERS/Sunil Kataria
(Corrects spelling of Udupi in paragraphs 3,9 and 11, not Udipi)
    UDUPI, India (Reuters) -A state in southern India re-opened some schools on Monday that had been closed following protests last week over female students not being allowed to wear hijabs, or head-to-toe burqas, in class.
    The issue, widely seen by India’s Muslim minority community as a bid to sideline it by authorities in a Hindu-dominated nation, comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prepares for elections in key states.
    Police stood guard as students in pink uniforms, about a dozen wearing hijabs, entered a government girl’s school where the issue first flared in Karnataka state’s district of Udupi, about 400 km (248 miles) from the tech hub of Bengaluru.
    Authorities have banned gatherings of more than five people within 200 metres (650 ft) of educational institutions in the area, which have begun classes from primary to high school, although higher grades and colleges are still shut.
    The move came after a state court, which has set a hearing of the matter for Monday, told students http://karnatakajudiciary.kar.nic.in:8080/repository/daily_order.php not to wear any religious clothing, ranging from saffron shawls to scarves or hijabs, in classrooms until further orders.
    “Whether wearing of hijab in the classroom is a part of essential religious practice of Islam in the light of constitutional guarantees needs a deeper examination,” the court said in an interim order last week.
    The issue was spotlighted following protests last week after some schools refused entry to students wearing the garments, deemed to have fallen foul of a Feb. 5 order on uniforms by the state, which is ruled by Modi’s BJP.
    The party derives its support mainly from the majority Hindu community, which forms about 80% of India’s population of roughly 1.4 billion, while Muslims account for about 13%.
    Ayesha Imthiaz, a student in Udupi, said it was humiliating to be asked to take off the hijab before class.
    She felt her “religion had been questioned and insulted by a place which I had considered as a temple of education,” she told Reuters on the weekend.
    An official in the coastal district of Udupi, Pradeep Kurudekar S, told reporters authorities would wait for further orders from the court or the government to resume all classes.
    The issue prompted expressions of support for Muslim girls and women from the U.S. government and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai.
(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

2/14/2022 Japan Welcomes IAEA’s Inquiry Into Fukushima Water Release
FILE PHOTO: An aerial view shows the storage tanks for treated water at the tsunami-crippled
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan
February 13, 2021, in this photo taken by Kyodo. Picture taken February 13, 2021. Kyodo/via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – The Japanese government welcomes the International Atomic Energy Agency’s review on the safety of releasing contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on Monday.
    A group of experts from the organisation is in Japan to evaluate the safety as well as the radiation effects on humans and the sea of discharging the treated water, Matsuno said.
    “The Japanese government will fully cooperate with the IAEA to ensure that Japan’s efforts are properly evaluated,” the top government spokesperson said.
    Japan said last year it would discharge more than 1 million tonnes of contaminated water in stages after treatment and dilution, starting around spring 2023.
    The announcement provoked concerns from local fishermen and objections from neighbouring China and South Korea.
(Reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama; Editing by Kim Coghill)

2/14/2022 Hong Kong Leader Says Fifth COVID Wave Has ‘Overwhelmed’ City’s Capacity
FILE PHOTO: A medical worker walks past a makeshift testing centre for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) following the
outbreak, outside a shopping mall at Sha Tin district, in Hong Kong, China, February 7, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s is being overwhelmed by the “onslaught” of COVID-19 infections, its leader said on Monday, although deaths in the Chinese controlled global financial hub remain far less than similar-sized cities since the pandemic erupted two years ago.
    Daily infections have multiplied 13 times over the past two weeks, from about 100 cases at the start of February to over 1,300 on Feb. 13, with authorities scrambling to control the deepening outbreak.
    As the caseload soared, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam issued a statement on Monday saying her administration would coordinate with Chinese officials to tackle the “aggravating situation.”
    China has said it would help the city with testing, treatment and quarantine, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective gear to fresh vegetables.
    The city is due to report at least 1,530 COVID-19 cases on Monday, broadcaster TVB said, citing an unidentified source.    It would be a new record for daily cases.
    “The onslaught of the fifth wave of the epidemic has dealt a heavy blow to Hong Kong and overwhelmed the city’s capacity of handling,” she said, adding patients were having to wait longer to access isolation facilities.
    “The situation is highly undesirable and the government feels worried and sorry about it,” she said.
    With the healthcare system already overstretched, medical experts warn the city could see 28,000 daily infections by the end of March, with the unvaccinated elderly a particular worry.
    Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are already at 90% occupancy, data from the city’s Hospital Authority showed, while isolation facilities are near full capacity.
    Hong Kong is prioritising elderly, children and those in serious conditions in hospitals, said Larry Lee, chief manager at the city’s Hospital Authority.
    For all the alarm over the latest wave of the pandemic, Hong Kong’s total caseload since the pandemic first erupted was around 24,000 infections, including more than 200 deaths, less than many other similar major cities.
    Lam said authorities would “spare no effort” to implement the “dynamic zero” coronavirus infection strategy in Hong Kong, which, like mainland China, seeks to curb outbreaks as soon as they occur, in contrast with many other places that are trying to live with COVID.
    Inside the city, residents are banned from public gatherings of more than two people while most venues including schools, churches and gyms are all shut.    Dining in restaurants is banned from 6.p.m local time and most people are working from home.
    Strict flight restrictions have turned Hong Kong into one of the world’s most isolated major cities with its borders effectively sealed for around two years.
    The city’s Legislative Council is due to discuss the injection of HK$27 billion ($3.46 billion) into an anti-epidemic fund to support businesses and individuals affected by the city’s stringent social distancing measures, the government said in a statement.
($1 = 7.8006 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Farah Master, Twinnie Siu and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/15/2022 India’s Hijab Dispute Reaches Its Most Populous State by Saurabh Sharma
Women wearing hijabs attend a protest against the recent hijab ban in few colleges of Karnataka state,
on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, February 13, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
    LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) – A dispute over restrictions on the wearing of the hijab by female students in a southern Indian state has now reached India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, with a group of youngsters asking a college to ban the head covering.
    Authorities closed colleges in Karnataka in India’s south last week after a new uniform policy barred students from wearing headscarves in classrooms, leading to protests by Muslim students and counter protests by Hindu students.
    Muslims have criticised the ban as another way of marginalising a community that accounts for about 13% of Hindu-majority India’s 1.35 billion people.
    In Uttar Pradesh, in the country’s north and bordering New Delhi, a group of more than two dozen young men reached the Dharma Samaj College in Aligarh district on Monday and handed a memorandum to its officials seeking a complete ban on the hijab within its compound.
    They had saffron shawls around their necks – typically worn by Hindus – said the college’s chief proctor, Mukesh Bharadwaj, adding he did not recognise the people.    Currently, religious garb is not allowed in classrooms, but can be worn elsewhere on campus.
    “Two years ago the same issue was raised and it has been raised again.    We do not allow any type of religious uniform and we have a civil code of uniform for everyone,” Bharadwaj told Reuters by phone on Tuesday.
    “There is a changing room for girls and they can change their dress there before attending class,” he said.    “We are investigating the matter.”
    Uttar Pradesh, estimated to have as many people as Brazil, is ruled by a Hindu monk from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party and is in the midst of a multi-phase election that ends next month.    Hindu-Muslim disputes are often used for political gains in the state.
    The hijab issue has already reached court in Karnataka.    Hearings will resume on Tuesday on whether the hijab should be allowed in class.
(Writing by Krishna N. Das)

2/15/2022 Taiwan Says Chinese Plane Flew Close To Remote Island
Chess pieces are seen in front of displayed China and Taiwan's flags in this
illustration taken January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
    TAIPEI (Reuters) - A small Chinese civilian aircraft flew very close to a remote Taiwanese-controlled island next to China’s coast earlier this month, Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Tuesday, adding China may be trying a new strategy to test its reactions.
    Taiwan has complained for the last two years of repeated Chinese military activity near it, mostly China’s air force flying into Taiwan’s air defence zone off its southwestern and southern coasts though relatively far away from Taiwan itself.
    Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory and on which it has upped pressure to accept its sovereignty, has termed this “grey zone warfare” designed to wear out the island’s air force and test its abilities.
    The ministry said the aircraft flew very near to Dongyin, part of the Matsu archipelago off the coast of China’s Fujian province, on Feb. 5.
    Having previously not identified the aircraft, the ministry said they had confirmed it was a Chinese civilian Y-12, a light twin-engined aircraft.
    “On the Dongyin incident, of course we have made a preliminary judgment, and we cannot rule out that they are using civilian aircraft to test the responses of our military,” ministry spokesman Shih Shun-wen told reporters.
    “The military will definitely take corresponding actions, but it will take various contingency actions without there being a minor incident which sets off a war.”
    The ministry said the aircraft entered its “defence reaction zone” but did not enter its territory in Matsu, which Taiwan defines as waters and air space extending six km (about 4 miles) out from the coastline.    China does not officially recognise any claims of sovereignty by Taiwan.
    Shih declined to give details on how Taiwan’s forces reacted to the incident, citing military confidentiality.
    China’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Taiwanese media have carried footage of the aircraft flying right next to Dongyin, and said residents could see and hear it clearly.
    The Matsu islands have been controlled by Taiwan since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taipei in 1949 after losing a civil war with the Communists.
    The Matsu islands are not as heavily defended as they were until the late 1970s when China often shelled them, but Taiwan still maintains military forces there.
    Taiwan also controls the much larger Kinmen island and a few close by islets further down the Fujian coast across from China’s Xiamen city, and the Pratas Islands at the northern end of the South China Sea.
    Shih denied Taiwanese media reports that Chinese military aircraft last week entered Pratas airspace.
    China could be trying to “create chaos” by circulating false information online, he said.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kim Coghill)

2/16/2022 N.Korea Celebrates Late Kim’s Birthday In New Alpine City, With No Military Event by Hyonhee Shin
A golden commemorative coin with lettering "The 80th Birth Anniversary of the Great Leader Comrade?Kim Jong II",
which is to be minted on the occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of former leader?Kim Jong II, is pictured
in this undated photo released on February 15, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/ via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has celebrated the 80th birthday anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s late father with a music concert and fireworks in a refurbished holy city, but no missile launch or military parade, state media KCNA reported on Wednesday.     Kim attended a gathering of government, military and ruling Workers’ Party officials which took place on Tuesday in front of the statue of Kim Jong Il in Samjiyon City to commemorate the anniversary, a major holiday called the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, KCNA said.
    Dubbed the “holy land of revolution” by KCNA, the northern alpine town of Samjiyon is near the border with China and Mount Paektu, the holy mountain where Kim’s family claims its roots.
    However, it was rare that North Korea held such celebrations in the remote region.
    The young leader has sought to transform the city into a massive economic hub, by building new apartments, hotels, a ski resort and commercial, cultural and medical facilities.
    The project has been a key initiative to foster a “self-reliant” economy amid sanctions over nuclear and missile programmes, and Kim has made multiple visits touting it as a “socialist utopia” and “epitome of modern civilisation.”
    Kim laid flowers at the statue during the meeting but KCNA did not release any of his remarks.    Ri Il Hwan, a senior party official, gave a speech vowing to uphold the late strongman’s mantra of self-reliance, KCNA reported.
    “The meeting showed well the firm will and enthusiasm of the participants to … build a people’s paradise prospering with self-reliance on this land,” KCNA said.
    The celebrations also included fireworks and a music performance, but no military events, as has been the case in the past.
    A U.S. think tank said last week that commercial satellite imagery showed possible preparations for a military parade which could display new missiles or other military advances.
    KCNA released a photograph of thousands of people wearing a olive green or grey suit in the gathering, with the Kim Jong Il statue and a snowy forest in the backdrop.
    State television footage also showed crowds of ordinary citizens wearing masks and watching fireworks, as well as a group of party officials attending a concert.
    North Korea conducted a record seven missile tests in January, and has warned it may resume testing intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons for the first time since 2017 amid stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.
    Analysts have said Pyongyang could use key holidays, including the upcoming 110th birthday anniversary on April 15 of Kim’s late grandfather and national founder, Kim Il Sung, to carry out a major weapons test.
    Those holidays come at a sensitive time as South Korea is set to hold a presidential election on March 9, with formal campaigns starting this week.
    Outgoing President Moon Jae-in has warned a restart of North Korea’s nuclear weapon or long-range missile tests could “instantly” send the peninsula back into crisis.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Minwoo Park; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

2/16/2022 Xi Tells Hong Kong’s Leaders To Control COVID As Infections Spiral by Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu
FILE PHOTO: People wearing face masks wait for their swab samples to be collected at a makeshift testing site for the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19), following the outbreak in Hong Kong, China February 15, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - China’s President Xi Jinping has told Hong Kong’s leaders that their “overriding mission” was to stabilise and control a worsening COVID-19 outbreak, pro-Beijing media reported, as infected patients lay in beds outside overwhelmed hospitals.
    The daily tally of COVID infections in the global financial hub rose to more than 40 times the level at the start of February as health authorities reported a record 4,285 confirmed new infections on Tuesday, and another 7,000 preliminary positive cases.
    The directive from Xi ramps up pressure on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam a day after she said her government’s response to the outbreak had been unsatisfactory, with hospitals and medical staff unable to cope.
    Xi instructed Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng to relay to Lam his “concern about the pandemic situation” and his care for local residents, according to front page stories in newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao.
    Xi said the government “must mobilise all power and resources to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of the Hong Kong people and ensure the stability of the society,” according to the newspapers.
    Both newspapers, which typically support Beijing’s interests in Hong Kong, said Xi made the remarks recently but did not specify where he was speaking.
    Local authorities must “firmly implement Xi’s instructions,” the papers said, adding that Beijing has set up a cooperation mechanism to ensure coordination.
HEARTFELT THANKS
    Lam, who has not confirmed whether she will seek another five-year term as head of the Chinese-ruled city, said she could “not preclude” the possibility of postponing next month’s chief executive election.
    No heavyweight contender has yet declared their candidacy, an unusual situation just five weeks before an election.
    Lam expressed her “heartfelt thanks” to Xi in a government statement on Wednesday that echoed the Chinese president’s words.
    The government said it “must follow the important instructions of President Xi Jinping, take the main responsibility and stabilise the epidemic situation as the overriding task present.”
    Hong Kong has adopted the same ‘dynamic zero’ coronavirus strategy, employed by mainland China to suppress all outbreaks.
    But the speed of the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus has left authorities floundering, with Lam saying they can no longer keep up with testing and isolation mandates.
    Dozens of patients were being treated in makeshift open air spaces outside medical centres in chilly weather as several hospitals operated at over 100% capacity.    Over 12,000 infected patients are waiting to be hospitalised, local broadcaster Cable reported on Wednesday.
    China has said it would help the city boost its testing, treatment and quarantine capacity, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective gear to fresh vegetables.
    Four people returning to China from Hong Kong have tested positive for coronavirus and placed in quarantine, authorities in Guangzhou and Chenzhou said on Wednesday.
FATIGUE
    Hong Kong has recorded around 26,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, including just over 200 deaths, far fewer than other similar sized major cities.
    However, medical experts have warned cases could surge to 28,000 daily by the end of March amid worries about high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly.
    Health authorities said 9 people had died from the virus in the past 24 hours including a 3-year old girl.
    For Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents, the surge in cases comes amid rising fatigue with the restrictions aimed at protecting them from the pandemic.
    Borders have been effectively sealed for around two years, and turned the global travel and business hub into one of the world’s most isolated major cities.
    Venues from churches, pubs, schools and gyms remain shut with public gatherings of more than two people banned.    Dining in restaurants is not allowed after 6.00 pm, while most people are working from home.
    Scores of businesses have been forced to close due to the ongoing restrictions, having suffered during closures over the past two years and anti-government protests in 2019.
(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; writing by Farah Master; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/16/2022 Senior Schools Reopen In India’s Karnataka State Amid Hijab Row by Sunil Kataria
Hijab wearing schoolgirls arrive to attend their classes as a policewoman stands guard outside a government girls school after
the recent hijab ban, in Udupi town in the southern state of Karnataka, India, February 16, 2022. REUTERS/Sunil Kataria
    UDUPI, India (Reuters) -Senior schools reopened in the Indian state of Karnataka on Wednesday a week after authorities closed them in the face of protests against a ban on female students wearing the hijab Muslim head covering in class.
    A court is deliberating the recent ban on school girls wearing the hijab imposed by Karnataka authorities, the latest issue of contention involving India’s Muslim minority, who make up about 13% of the Hindu-majority country’s 1.35 billion people.
    Protests against the ban by some Muslim students and parents earlier in the month drew counter protests by Hindu students who draped saffron-coloured shawls around their necks.    That colour and garment is worn by Hindus.
    The ban is on the wearing of the hijab in classrooms, not elsewhere on school premises.    However, some schools have asked students and even some teachers to take off their hijab or the more enveloping burqa upon entering the school.
    Students wearing olive-green uniforms, some in the hijab, walked hand-in-hand on Wednesday into the Government Girls Senior School P.U. in Udupi district, where the protests started this month.    Male and female police stood guard.
    All of the students were allowed, including the girls in hijabs, despite a ruling from the state’s High Court considering the hijab ban last week that schools should bar all religious clothing in classrooms, including the saffron shawls worn by Hindus, until further instructions.
    It was not clear if the students had to remove their hijabs before lessons started.
    At a nearby government senior school, authorities waiting at the gate turned away a student after she refused to take off her black burqa.    Reuters could not determine if the authorities had given her the option of taking off the burqa before heading to class.
    “This is so unfair,” student Afra Ajmal Asabi told reporters about the ban on the hijab.
    “I don’t know what will be the court judgement.    If they allow us to (wear the hijab), we’ll sit in class or we’ll … leave.”
    The court is hearing further arguments on Wednesday.
    A lawyer for six Muslim students challenging the ban earlier told the court his clients had always covered their heads in class and they were seeking permission to keep wearing headscarves in the colours of their school uniforms.
    The southern state of Karnataka is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the uproar comes as it campaigns for several important state assembly elections this year.
    Karnataka’s state election will be held next year while India is due to hold its next general election by May 2024.
(Writing by Krishna N. DasEditing by Robert Birsel)

2/17/2022 Hong Kong’s COVID Fight Intensifies As Cases Multiply By 60 Times by Farah Master and Clare Jim
People wearing face masks, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak,
walk on a street market in Hong Kong, China February 16, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s coronavirus battle intensified on Thursday as authorities reported new cases had multiplied by 60 times so far this month and media reported that testing would become compulsory for everyone in the global financial hub from March.
Hospitals are overwhelmed with some patients, including elderly, left lying on beds outside in chilly, sometimes rainy weather, in shocking scenes that prompted an apology from authorities in the Chinese controlled city.
    Schools, gyms cinemas and most public venues are shut.    Many office employees work from home.    But, many residents are fatigued by the harsh restrictions imposed to protect them against the pandemic, even as most other major cities in the world adjust to living with the virus.
    Health authorities reported a record 6,116 confirmed cases on Thursday, up from 4,285 the previous day, with a further 6,300 preliminary positive cases.    That takes the total since January to more than 16,600.    They reported 24 new deaths.
    The jump in cases is the biggest test yet of the city’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, but leader Carrie Lam said this week the city “cannot surrender to the virus.”
    Some media reports, citing unidentified sources, said the government planned to test up to one million people each day from March and those who failed to comply would be fined HK$10,000 ($1,282).
    The government did not respond to a request for comment.
    “Because of the severe number of cases we need to speed up admission to hospitals and community isolation facilities,” undersecretary for food and health Chui Tak-yi told reporters.    “The government is trying to ease all these bottlenecks.”
    Quarantine facilities had reached capacity and hospital beds were more than 90% full, authorities said.    In a move to free up beds for isolation, Lam said late on Wednesday she had spoken with local hotel owners and planned to make up to 10,000 hotel rooms available for COVID-19 patients.
RETAILERS BATTERED
    Lam’s comments came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong’s leaders their “overriding mission” was to stabilise and control the coronavirus.
    The surge in cases and tighter rules have battered the city’s retail sector, with the Retail Management Association (HKRMA) saying on Thursday retail traffic was down 40% from December.
    “If the pandemic gets worse and if our rents are kept at the level now…we will not survive,” said Annie Tse, chairwoman of HKRMA.    “Since protests and COVID it’s been almost three years, how much more cash can we burn?,” she said, referring to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
    The association, which represents around 9,000 retail outlets and employs over half of the local retail workforce, urged the government to force developers to provide rent relief for tenants and include the sector in an anti-epidemic fund.
    HKRMA expects flat year-on-year growth for retail sales for the January-June period, and said growth would easily sink into negative territory in the second half if the situation persists.
    Hong Kong has adopted the same ‘dynamic zero’ coronavirus strategy, employed by mainland China to suppress all outbreaks.
    But the scale and speed of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus has left authorities scrambling.    Hospitals are operating at maximum or over capacity and long queues have formed outside testing centres, with some people waiting hours.
    Authorities said they could no longer keep up their testing and isolation mandates, resulting in a backlog that could not keep pace with the daily infection numbers.
    China has said it would help Hong Kong bolster its testing, treatment and quarantine capacity, and secure resources from rapid antigen kits and protective gear to fresh vegetables.
    Hong Kong has recorded around 35,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, and more than 250 deaths, far fewer than other similar sized major cities.     However, medical experts have warned daily cases could surge to 28,000 by the end of March amid worries about high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the elderly.
($1 = 7.8006 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Farah Master, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/17/2022 Japan Eases Strict Border Controls Criticised By Business, Educators by Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka
Men wearing protective suits make their way at a bus stop at Narita international airport on the first day
of closed borders to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
    TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan will ease border controls imposed to counter the pandemic, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Thursday, softening measures that have been among the strictest imposed by wealthy nations and have been slammed by business and educators.
    About 150,000 foreign students have been kept out of Japan, along with workers desperately needed by an ageing nation with a shrinking population, prompting warnings of labour shortages and damage to its international reputation.
    From March, authorities will raise the number of people allowed to enter to 5,000 a day, from 3,500 now, Kishida told a news conference.
    “We will permit the entrance of foreigners except for tourists,” he said.    Measures would be eased gradually and depend on a number of conditions, including the infection rates in other nations, Kishida said.
    The period of mandatory quarantine will be reduced to three days in some conditions, from seven days now, he said, adding that in some cases there would be no requirement to quarantine.
    The change comes, Kishida said, as the number of coronavirus infections have shown signs of declining, meaning Japan needed to start preparing for a new phase.
    Still, semi-emergency measures in place for some 17 regions will remain until March 6, he said.
    U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel commended the decision, saying in a statement it would benefit foreign students who wanted to come to Japan while still protecting public health.
    Japan, which has effectively been sealed off to non-residents for two years, briefly eased its border controls late in 2021 but tightened them again just weeks later as the Omicron variant emerged overseas.
    Japan currently designates 82 nations as “high risk” and requires a week of quarantine, including three or six days at a hotel, for many.    Two weeks of quarantine were required until mid-January.
    Kishida and his government have hailed the tight border controls for buying Japan time as Omicron surged around the world, and a vast majority of the public supports them.
    Yet with the variant now widespread in Japan, which is struggling to roll out booster shots, business leaders and some politicians have warned the measures are obsolete.
    For Kishida, who faces a crucial election in July, deciding when and how to change the measures has been tricky, said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
    “If you look at the overall situation now, they’re meaningless: you can get the virus anywhere.    But as a result of having them, he got a lot of public support,” he said.
    If they’re not changed, Ito added, “the result over the long term is that Japan is going to be left behind the rest of the world.”
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; Editing by Gerry Doyle, David Dolan and Mark Heinrich)

2/17/2022 Pakistan Struggles To Quell Violence On Its Afghan Border by Asif Shahzad
FILE PHOTO: A Pakistani soldier stands guard along the border fence outside the Kitton outpost on the border
with Afghanistan in North Waziristan, Pakistan October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo/File Photo
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s military has stepped up operations along the Afghan border in recent weeks after a spate of militant attacks that has dashed any hope the frontier might see more peace and stability after the end of the war in Afghanistan.
    Islamist and separatist factions have killed at least 14 Pakistani soldiers in attacks over the past month, three of them carried out by fighters entering from Afghanistan, the Pakistani military said.
    Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, struggling with a humanitarian crisis, have denied that Afghan territory was used in any of the attacks.
    But despite such assurances, disputes linked to the border, which has been a bone of contention between the neighbours for decades, could undermine their relations.
    The Pakistani military said six insurgents were killed in the latest clash in the resource-rich southwestern province of Balochistan on Wednesday.
    “Operations to eliminate such perpetrators of terrorist acts in Pakistan will continue,” the military said in a statement.
    A top Pakistani security official with direct knowledge of border operations told Reuters: “We have stepped up intelligence-based operations to ensure that we deny entry to militants.”
    Large areas on the Pakistani side of the border were out of the control of the government for decades, ruled by fiercely independent Pashtun tribes, whose communities often straddle both sides of the unmarked border.
    But Pakistan is determined to end all that, aiming to bring the rugged Pashtun lands under central rule and to demarcate the border with a fence, and control who comes and goes with a tight border-control system, another Pakistani official said.
    “We’re targeting anyone, whether separatists or Islamists militants, who is a threat,” said the second official, who also declined to be identified.
‘FRIENDS’
    Pakistan has enjoyed good relations with the Afghan Taliban for years even though Pakistan was officially an ally of the United States during its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.
    But as Pakistan grapples with violence by Pakistani Islamists and separatists, its appeals to the Taliban to control their side of the border have not brought the action it hopes to see.
    Increasingly frustrated, Pakistani officials have been pressing the Taliban to deny space and resources to the militants, an appeal repeated by National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf when he visited Kabul last month.
    Yusuf’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
    In Kabul, the Taliban reject suggestions Afghan territory is used for attacks into Pakistan and hope talks can solve the problem.
    “We’re trying to solve such actions through diplomatic ways,” defence ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khowarazmi told Reuters.
    The Taliban tried late last year to facilitate talks between Pakistan and an alliance of al-Qaeda linked militants known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.    But the talks fell apart after a few weeks.
    Despite the frustrations, Pakistani officials rule out the chance of any serious deterioration in relations with the Afghan Taliban.
    “We’re budding friends,” one of the officials said.
    The Pakistani military’s information office did not respond to a request for comment about the scope of its operations and what the military would do if the attacks from Afghan soil continued.
    Another source of friction is Pakistan’s determination to finish fencing the 2,600 km (1,615 mile) border that was drawn by British colonial rulers with no consideration for the Pashtun tribes it divided.    It has never been recognised by any Afghan government.
    Taliban fighters have at times stopped Pakistani forces from putting up the fence, just as forces of the old U.S.-backed Afghan government used to do.
    Taliban Defence Minister Mullah Yaqoob says his government had not given anyone permission to fence the border.
    “We’ve not taken any decision about the fencing,” he told Afghan state-owned RTA TV last week.
(Additional reporting by Kabul Newsroom and Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel)

2/17/2022 Iran Not Seeking Nuclear Weapons, Needs Atomic Energy, Says Khamenei
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech
in Tehran, Iran, January 8, 2021. Official Khamenei Website/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader said on Thursday that it will further develop peaceful nuclear capacity to preserve independence, amid negotiations with world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear pact.
    Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington have been held in Vienna since April amid fears about Tehran’s nuclear advances, seen by Western powers as irreversible unless agreement is struck soon.
    Other parties to the deal, which then U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018, have been shuttling between Iran and the United Sates.    Several sources, including Iranian officials, told Reuters that the next couple of days would be crucial in determining whether gaps could be closed.
    “We will sooner or later need peaceful nuclear energy.    If we do not pursue it … our independence will be harmed,” Iran’s highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a televised speech, supporting Tehran’s hardline negotiating team in Vienna.
    “Diplomatic efforts by our revolutionary brothers in trying to get rid of the sanctions are also good but the main task is to neutralise the sanctions,” added Khamenei, referring to far-reaching sanctions reimposed by Trump and still in place.
    Since 2019, Tehran has gradually breached the old deal’s limits and gone well beyond, rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.
    The 2015 pact limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium to make it harder for Tehran to develop material for nuclear weapons, in return for a lifting of international sanctions.
    Khamenei said Iran has never sought nuclear weapons despite such allegations from the Islamic Republic’s “enemies.”
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Cawthorne)

2/20/2022 Nepal Police Fire Tear Gas, Water Cannon To Disperse Protest Over US ‘Gift’ by Gopal Sharma
Protesters cremate a dummy corpse representing a U.S infrastructure grant before cremating it during
a protest against the $500 million U.S infrastructure grant under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)
near the parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal February 18, 2022. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
    KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Police in Kathmandu fired teargas and water cannon to disperse protesters opposed to a U.S.-funded infrastructure programme that was presented in parliament for ratification on Sunday, witnesses and officials in Nepal’s capital said.
    Some protesters were injured in the clashes, they said.
    The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government aid agency, agreed in 2017 to provide $500 million in grants to fund a 300-kilometre (187 mile) electricity transmission line and a road improvement project in Nepal.
    Government officials said the grant will not have to be repaid and has no conditions attached, but opponents say the agreement would undermine Nepal’s laws and sovereignty as lawmakers would have insufficient oversight of the board directing the infrastructure project.
    Despite loud protests, the Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gyanendra Bahadur Karki put forward the agreement in parliament and said the projects would benefit 24 million of Nepal’s 30 million population.
    “The grant will be an important tool for the socio-economic development of the country,” Karki said in the parliament.
    Major political parties, including members of the ruling coalition, are split over whether to accept or reject the U.S. grant money.
    The U.S. Embassy in Nepal described the $500 million MCC grant as “a gift from the American people and a partnership between our nations that will bring jobs and infrastructure to Nepal and improve the lives of Nepalis.”
    “This project was requested by the Nepali government and the Nepali people and designed to transparently reduce poverty and grow the economy of Nepal,” the embassy said in a statement issued late on Saturday.
    “Whether Nepali leaders ratify MCC is a decision for Nepal to make, as a sovereign democratic nation, and Nepal’s decision alone,” it added.
    Nepal relies heavily on foreign aid, and donors coordinate development aid policy through the Nepal Development Forum, whose members include donor countries and international financial organisations.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Editing by Rupam Jain, Simon Cameron-Moore and Barbara Lewis)

2/20/2022 Hong Kong In “All-Out Combat” To Contain COVID Outbreak With China Support by James Pomfret
Medical workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), work next to patients at a makeshift treatment area outside a hospital,
following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hong Kong, China February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum
    HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong is in “all-out combat” to contain a surge in coronavirus cases, the city’s number two official said on Sunday, with the ramping up of community isolation and treatment units helped by mainland Chinese construction teams.
    Scenes of people lying outside public hospitals in the rain and chilly weather have shocked many in the global financial hub, leading to an apology from authorities.    Officials have now organised facilities to shelter patients amid a drop in temperatures as healthcare facilities are overwhelmed.
    Officials reported 6,067 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, a day after the government announced that the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal would be turned into a dedicated COVID facility with 1,000 beds to mitigate overburdened public hospitals.
    Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam, who attended a ground-breaking ceremony at a construction site for nearly 10,000 COVID units at Penny’s Bay close to the city’s Disneyland resort, said the initiatives would enhance the city’s anti-epidemic capacity “within a very short period of time.”
    In what was seen as a rebuke to the Hong Kong authorities’ handling of the spiralling outbreak, Chinese President Xi Jinping said fighting the virus must now be their “overriding mission,” in comments carried in the state-backed Ta Kung Pao newspaper on Wednesday.
    Hong Kong’s top civil servant, John Lee, said in a blog post on Sunday that the city’s “government has entered a state of all-out combat.”
    The global financial hub’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policies, mirroring those in mainland China, have contributed to its current woes and are unsustainable, some experts say.
    The city’s public hospitals have been severely stretched, struggling to cope with an influx of patients including the elderly, many of whom have resisted vaccinations.
    Health official Sara Ho said on Sunday that she understood public frustration but urged patients to fully cooperate with hospital staff.    Health chief Sophia Chan said the government was considering tightening social distancing rules further.
    While the city has so far ruled out a city-wide lockdown, authorities are examining mandatory testing for its 7.4 million people.
    Sunday’s COVID tally was slightly higher than Saturday’s 6063 cases, and the city reported 14 deaths.
    The city has recorded around 40,000 infections and fewer than 300 coronavirus deaths, far below other major cities.    But some epidemiologists expect daily infections to approach 30,000 by the end of March.
    China has sent epidemiologists, critical care experts and over 100 testing personnel to the city, as well as mobile testing vehicles, with authorities saying the outbreak could take up to three months to stabilise.
    The conversion of public housing estates, rental of commercial hotels and indoor sport centres will add an extra 20,000 extra units for people who tested positive for COVID but had no or mild symptoms for isolation.
    An election to choose the city’s next leader, initially scheduled for March, has been postponed to May, adding to uncertainty about the former British colony’s future as Beijing imposes its rule.
(Reporting by James Pomfret, Twinnie Siu and Hong Kong Newsroom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and William Mallard)

2/21/2022 To Support Births, Chinese Capital Beijing Adds Fertility Services To Insurance Coverage
FILE PHOTO: Children play next to adults at a park in Beijing, China June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing will include more than a dozen fertility services in a government-backed medical insurance scheme for the Chinese capital, state media reported on Monday, supporting those seeking to have babies with China’s birth rate at a record low.
    A total of 16 medical services using assisted reproductive technologies (ART) will be covered by the city’s state insurance effective from March 26, in a move to “take proactive fertility support measures,” according to the Beijing Daily.
    The new reproductive coverage could help lower out-of-pocket costs and benefit couples in lower income brackets seeking to have babies and those with little or no access to private medical insurance.
    Official data showed China’s birth rate dropped to a record low in 2021, extending a downward trend that led the national government last year to begin allowing couples to have up to three children.
    China will work towards achieving an “appropriate” birth rate, Premier Li Keqiang said at the start of the annual parliamentary meeting in March last year.
    China faces what experts call a “demographic time-bomb” as its elderly population increases while its workforce gets smaller due to decreasing births, partly due to a one-child policy in place for about four decades before being scrapped in 2016.
    China will raise the statutory retirement age “in a phased manner,” Li said last year.
    The eastern province of Jiangsu said last month that starting from March, employees eligible for state pensions will be able to apply for delayed retirement for no less than one year from the statutory retirement age.
(Reporting by Roxanne Liu and Ryan Woo; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

2/21/2022 ‘Welcome Back World!’: Australia Fully Reopens Borders After Two Years by Renju Jose
FILE PHOTO: A Singapore Airlines plane arriving from Singapore lands at the international terminal
at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
    SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Monday fully reopened its international borders to travellers vaccinated against the coronavirus after nearly two years of pandemic-related closings as tourists returned and hundreds of people were reunited with family and friends.
    More than 50 international flights will reach the country through the day, including 27 touching down in Sydney, its largest city, as the tourism and hospitality sectors look to rebuild after getting hammered by COVID-19 restrictions.
    “It is a very exciting day, one that I have been looking forward to for a long time, from the day that I first shut that border right at the start of the pandemic,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in the island state of Tasmania, which relies heavily on tourism.
    After being away from loved ones for months there were many emotional reunions, including for Cindy Moss who travelled from the U.S. state of Kentucky to see her daughter.
    “I just haven’t seen her in so long and it was such a big thing to be able to get over here. So I’m so excited,” she said after hugging her daughter, her voice cracking with emotion.
    Tourism is one of Australia’s biggest industries, worth more than A$60 billion ($43 billion) and employing about 5% of the country’s workforce.    But the sector was crippled after the country shut its borders in March 2020.
    Once a champion of COVID-suppression strategy, Australia shifted away from its fortress-style controls and relentless lockdowns since late last year and began living with the virus after reaching higher vaccination levels.    Skilled migrants, international students and backpackers have been allowed to fly into Australia since November in a staggered reopening exercise.
IT’S A PARTY OUT HERE
    Passengers flying to Sydney were greeted from the air with “Welcome Back World!” painted on a sign near the runways while people in kangaroo costumes welcomed travellers and a DJ played music from a van festooned with a banner saying “You were worth the wait.”
    “It is a party out here, music playing, smiles on people’s faces, they will be dancing soon, I’m sure,” Tourism Minister Dan Tehan told broadcaster ABC from Sydney airport as he gave travellers gift jars of Vegemite, an iconic Australian food spread, and stuffed koala toys.
    Tehan said he was hopeful for a “very strong” rebound in the tourism market, with Qantas looking to fly more than 14,000 passengers into Australia this week.    Virgin Australia said it was seeing positive trends in domestic bookings and continued to assess demand for international flights.
    All trains in Sydney, meanwhile, were cancelled on Monday after pay disputes between the union and the state government, taking some shine off the reopening.
    As borders fully reopen, Australia’s outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant appears to have passed its peak with hospital admissions steadily falling over the past three weeks.    The bulk of Australia’s pandemic total of about 2.7 million confirmed cases has been detected since the emergence of Omicron in late November.    Total deaths stood at 4,929.
    Just over 17,000 new cases and 17 deaths were registered by midday on Monday with the Northern Territory due to report later.
($1 = 1.3959 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose, Byron Kaye, James Redmayne and Cordelia Hsu; Editing by Grant McCool, Gerry Doyle and Christian Schmollinger)

2/21/2022 New Zealand’s Ardern Signals Mandates Will Ease After Omicron Peaks
FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk through a retail district in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
lockdown restrictions being eased in Auckland, New Zealand, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Fiona Goodall
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand will lift COVID-19 vaccine mandates and social distancing measures after the Omicron peak has passed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday, as protesters occupying the parliament grounds again clashed with police.
    Inspired by truckers’ demonstrations in Canada, thousands of protesters have blocked streets near the parliament in the capital Wellington for two weeks with trucks, cars and motorcycles, piling pressure on the government to scrap vaccine mandates.
    Ardern refused to set a hard date, but said there would be a narrowing of vaccine requirements after Omicron reaches a peak, which is expected in mid to late March.
    “We all want to go back to the way life was.    And we will, I suspect sooner than you think,” Ardern said at a weekly news conference.
    “But when that happens, it will be because easing restrictions won’t compromise the lives of thousands of people – not because you demanded it,” she said, addressing protestors.
    The demonstrations began as a stand against the vaccine mandates but have since spread to become a wider movement against Ardern and her government.
    On Monday, eight people were arrested for disorderly behaviour and obstruction, with human waste thrown over some police officers.
    New Zealand has reported about 16,000 cases of COVID-19 and 53 deaths since the pandemic began, relatively low by global standards, but an Omicron-fuelled outbreak has pushed the current seven-day average of new infections to more than 1,600 cases daily.
    About 94% of eligible people are vaccinated, with shots mandatory for some staff in front-line jobs.
    The parliament stand off is testing Ardern, who garnered plaudits for keeping the country virtually virus-free over the last two years but is facing criticism for continuing strict restrictions and delaying border reopening plans.
    “What we are seeing outside parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time,” main opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon said on Monday, calling for vaccine mandates to be phased out and borders reopened.
    “It’s driven by Covid and vaccine mandates, yes, but the frustrations shared by many Kiwis are also driven by a Government that seems to be stalling,” he said.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell)

2/21/2022 Mike Pompeo, Who Riled China While In Office, To Visit Taiwan
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a news conference about dealings with China and Iran, and on the fight against the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2020. Mangel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who riled China while in office with his criticism of it and attacks on its ruling Communist Party, will visit Taiwan next week and meet President Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan government said on Monday.
    Pompeo served under then-President Donald Trump from 2018 until the end of the administration in January last year.
    Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Pompeo and his wife would visit the Chinese-claimed island from March 2-5, and also meet Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and give a speech at a think-tank.
    “Former Secretary of State Pompeo is a long-term and staunch friend of Taiwan and made outstanding contributions to promoting Taiwan-U.S. relations during his time in office,” the ministry said in a statement.
    His visit shows the bipartisan “rock solid” U.S. support for Taiwan and the close Taiwan-U.S. friendship, it added.
    The Trump administration gave strong backing to Taiwan, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, including high profile arms sales and visits of top U.S. officials to Taipei.
    Pompeo particularly angered Beijing with his attacks on the Communist Party.
    China has stepped up its military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan over the past two years seeking to force the island to accept its sovereignty.
    Taiwan’s government says it wants peace but will defend itself if attacked, and that only the island’s people have the right to decide their future.
(This story has been refiled to correct date of start of visit to March 2, not March 3)
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard)

2/22/2022 More Patients, Fewer Nurses: Hong Kong’s Medical Frontline Struggles With COVID Surge by Jessie Pang and Sara Cheng
FILE PHOTO: Patients wearing face masks lie in bed at a makeshift treatment area outside a hospital, following
the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hong Kong, China February 16, 2022. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Yee, a nurse on the frontline of Hong Kong’s fight against COVID-19, recently became one of the patients her hospital had to turn away, after isolation wards, and later corridors, became overpacked with people on gurneys.
    At home, the 25-year-old spread the virus to her father, and fears her mother and brother might also get it.    Rules say she should be sent to a quarantine facility, but nobody got in touch for the past seven days to make arrangements.
    She was experiencing mild symptoms, and taking time off from work at the overwhelmed Kwong Wah hospital came as a relief.
    Isolation wards with 40 beds now accommodate 60, some patients were being treated in corridors, and patients from general wards admitted for non-COVID reasons were later found to be positive and had infected other patients and nurses, who were also sent home.
    “You keep adding beds, but not human resources,” said Yee, who declined to give her last name, fearing repercussions at work.     “My colleagues are overloaded – one to dozens of patients.”
    Nurses and doctors at other hospitals say the situation is similar across Hong Kong’s health system, showing the limits of the government’s “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy as thousands of new cases are discovered each day.    Daily infections have surged 70 times since the start of February.
    At some hospitals, bedridden elderly and children were seen left for hours in carparks, waiting in the cold and rain, in scenes that shocked residents and many in the global medical community.
    Kwong Wah Hospital, the city’s Hospital Authority and the government did not respond to requests for comment.
    Like mainland China, Hong Kong aims to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs, officially still targeting all infections and close contacts for compulsory testing, treatment and isolation.
    Yee says the goal is “impossible.”    Transmission could not even be prevented inside hospitals, she points out.
    There were 837 infected medical staff as of Tuesday, authorities said.
    “It may seem counterintuitive, but in a COVID pandemic the last place we want infectious people is in hospitals, unless they really need treatment,” said David Owens, a founding partner of OT&P clinic.
    “We are already seeing a sharp rise in illness and isolation in healthcare workers.    It seems inconceivable that the health system can continue for long without a change in strategy.”
    Most patients have mild symptoms, doctors say.
    The government has started to adjust its hospitalisation and isolation policies based on severity, but keeps capacity at maximum levels and thousands of people are still flocking to hospitals, worried that they could spread the virus to family.
    It is common for tiny flats in densely populated Hong Kong to house three generations of the same family, and many elderly are still unvaccinated, having become complacent after living in a mostly COVID-free environment in 2020-2021.
    “This is a big problem,” said David Chan, who heads the union Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, referring to people with mild or no symptoms showing up at hospitals.
    “The government messaging has been that COVID is a very dangerous disease … So it is very hard to blame the people.”
    The government plans to ease the burden by building new isolation facilities and reconverting hotel rooms into quarantine space.    More protective gear is also on its way and potentially even manpower from mainland China.
    But many frontline health workers say such measures should have been taken in anticipation of an outbreak rather than in response to it.
    For the past two years, Hong Kong could have encouraged elderly vaccination, increased quarantine capacity, and drawn plans to prioritise serious cases, keeping crowds with mild symptoms away from hospitals, doctors say.
    “There was no plan,” said Tony Ling, head of Hong Kong’s Public Doctors Association.    “We are just unprepared.”
    Doctors have “a fighting heart, but we are getting tired,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Simon Cameron-Moore)

2/22/2022 China Concerned About ‘Worsening’ Ukraine Situation, Warns Nationals There
FILE PHOTO: China's and U.S.' flags are seen printed on paper in this
illustration taken January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) - China is concerned about the “worsening” situation in Ukraine, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Tuesday, repeating his call for all parties to show restraint and resolve differences through dialogue.
    Accelerating a crisis the West fears could spark a war, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered on Monday the deployment of troops to two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine after recognising them as independent.
    Russia denies any plan to attack Ukraine, but has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that its neighbour will never join NATO.
    The legitimate security concerns of any country should be respected, Wang, who is also a Chinese state councillor, told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a telephone call, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.     “The situation in Ukraine is worsening,” Wang told Blinken.    “China once again calls on all parties to exercise restraint.”
    On the call, Blinken underscored the need to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity amid Russia’s “aggression,” said Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesperson.
    Earlier on Tuesday, China’s embassy in Ukraine warned its nationals there not to venture into unstable areas, but stopped short of telling them to leave, as many other nations have advised their own citizens. [L1N2UX0EH]
    “The Chinese embassy in Ukraine has issued a reminder to Chinese citizens and enterprises to strengthen security precautions,” said Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesman.
    The embassy will ensure that dietary needs of Chinese citizens in Ukraine are met in a timely way, Wang said at a regular media briefing in response to a query about when China would pull out its citizens.
    China is closely following the evolving situation in Ukraine, Wang told the briefing, which drew more reporters than usual.
TAIWAN, NORTH KOREA
    The United States should not include Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Wang told Blinken.
    This month, the United States said it would commit more diplomatic and security resources to the Indo-Pacific, and vowed to work with partners both in and outside the region to maintain peace and stability in the strait dividing Taiwan from China.
    The attempt to include Taiwan in the strategy to contain China is sending all the “wrong signals,” Wang told Blinken on the telephone call, the foreign ministry said in its statement.
    Still, China is willing to manage its differences with the United States and stabilise two-way ties, Wang added.
    On Monday, China said it had placed Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Technologies Corp under sanctions over arms sales to Taiwan, in at least the third time it has announced punishments for the U.S. firms.
    Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it would continue to urge the United States to keep selling the island weapons “in the face of China’s military threats and intimidation.”
    “The U.S. provision to us of defensive weapons helps defend Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, as well as ensures national security and peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” spokesperson Joanne Ou told reporters on Tuesday.
    Blinken and Wang also spoke on developments in North Korea.
    China calls for direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, and will, as always, seek to play a constructive role in promoting resolution of the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, Wang said.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing; Additional reporting by and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

2/22/2022 India Police Ratchet Up Pressure On Top Bourse NSE After Yogi Saga by Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy
FILE PHOTO: A security guard walks past the logo of the National Stock Exchange (NSE)
inside its building in Mumbai, India, May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s federal police have questioned the former CEO of the National Stock Exchange (NSE) and her adviser as part of an investigation into suspected corporate governance lapses at the country’s biggest bourse, a police source said on Tuesday.
    Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) police officials also visited market regulator SEBI’s office to collect documents related to the case, the source told Reuters.
    The action is the latest sign the CBI is stepping up its investigation of a 2018 case involving allegations the NSE provided some high frequency traders unfair access to speed up algorithmic trading.    The additional scrutiny risks further delaying a listing plan of NSE.
    Federal police officials in recent days questioned former NSE CEO Chitra Ramkrishna in Mumbai and her then adviser Anand Subramanian in the southern city of Chennai, the police official said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
    The NSE and SEBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.    Ramkrishna and Subramanian also did not respond.
    The intensified police probe follows a Feb. 11 order by SEBI that highlighted corporate governance lapses at the exchange.    It said Ramkrishna over the years shared confidential NSE data and sought advice from an outsider she described as a Himalayan yogi.
    The SEBI order said the former CEO “arbitrarily” appointed Subramanian as her adviser, adding he had “no relevant experience.”
    In an interview to India’s Economic Times newspaper published on Tuesday, the federal finance minister said the government was probing whether SEBI took adequate action in the NSE matter.
    NSE has said it is “committed to highest standards of governance and transparency,” calling the issue “almost 6-9 years old.”    Ramkrishna told SEBI during the probe she did not compromise integrity of the exchange.
CORPORATE GOVERNANCE CONCERNS
    The latest regulatory order is another major setback for the NSE that has struggled to roll out its IPO for years, having already been marred by allegations of governance lapses and technical glitches.    The NSE denies any wrongdoing.
    The regulatory order said Ramkrishna – who quit as CEO in 2016 – was “merely a puppet” of someone she described as an unnamed yogi in Himalayas who “would manifest at will.”    SEBI has s