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Iraq rebels seize Northwest town in heavy battle

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Iraq rebels seize Northwest town in heavy battle
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: Sunni insurgents seized a mainly ethnic Turkmen city in northwestern Iraq on Sunday after heavy fighting, solidifying their grip on the north after a lightning offensive that threatens to dismember Iraq.

Residents reached by telephone in the city of Tal Afar said it had fallen to the rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after a battle which saw heavy casualties on both sides.

“The city was overrun by militants. Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi’ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official who asked not to be identified.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north’s main city, which the ISIL fighters seized last week at the start of a drive that has plunged the country into the worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew.

Most of the inhabitants of Tal Afar are members of the Turkmen ethnic group, who speak a Turkic language. Turkey has expressed concern about their security.

The city had been defended by an unit of Iraq’s security forces commanded by a Shi’ite major general, Abu Walid, whose men were among the few holdouts from the government’s forces in the province around Mosul not to flee the rapid ISIL advance.

After sweeping through towns in the Tigris valley north of Baghdad, ISIL fighters appear to have halted their advance outside the capital, instead moving to tighten their grip on the north.

The Turkmen and other residents of Tal Afar are divided among Sunnis and Shi’ites in a part of Iraq with a complex ethnic and sectarian mixture. The city is just outside Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, whose own security forces have taken advantage of the collapse of government control to advance into the city of Kirkuk and rural areas with oil deposits.

ISIL fighters aim to establish a Caliphate on both sides of the Syria-Iraqi frontier based on strict medieval Sunni Muslim precepts. Their advance has been assisted by other Sunni Muslim armed groups.

The advance has alarmed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite supporters in Iran as well as the United States, which helped bring Maliki to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he is reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency, and Iran has held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.

Washington said on Sunday it was beefing up security at its embassy in Baghdad and moving some staff out (story here).

The vast mission is the largest and most expensive embassy ever built anywhere in the world, a vestige of the days when the United States had 170,000 troops in Iraq battling to put down a sectarian civil war that followed its invasion.

Iraq now faces the prospect of similarly vicious warfare, but this time with no U.S. forces on the ground to intervene. Its million-strong army, trained and armed by Washington at a cost of around $25 billion, has been plagued by corruption, poor morale and a perception it pursues Shi’ite sectarian interests.

CRAZY FIGHTING

Residents in Tal Afar said Shi’ite police and troops rocketed Sunni neighbourhoods before the ISIL forces moved in and finally captured the city. A member of Maliki’s security committee told Reuters government forces had attacked ISIL positions on the outskirts of the city with helicopters.

“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can’t leave town,” a local official said on Sunday before the city was overrun. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”

Shi’ites, who form the majority in Iraq and are based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, with thousands of volunteers turning out to join the security forces after a mobilisation call by the top Shi’ite cleric. Maliki’s security forces and allied militias regained some territory on Saturday.

In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the centre of the capital, police and medical sources said.

At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting centre in Khalis, one of the last big towns in government hands north of the capital, 50 km (30 miles) north of Baghdad.

Volunteers were being gathered by the army to join fighting to regain control of the nearby town of Udhaim.

ISIL fought as Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch against U.S. forces during the years of American occupation in Iraq, but broke away from Al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It now says the group founded by Osama bin Laden is not extreme enough.

In years of fighting on both sides of the frontier, ISIL has gained a reputation for shocking brutality. It considers Shi’ites to be heretics deserving of death and sends bombers daily to kill hundreds of Iraqi civilians each month.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone on the ground.

Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds of army deserters who were captured as they tried to flee the fighting. They were shown being transported in the back of lorry and led to an open field where they were laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black Islamist ISIL flag can be seen.

Most of the captured men were wearing civilian clothes, although one picture showed two men in military camouflage trousers, one of them half covered by a pair of ordinary trousers.

“This is the fate of the Shi’ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads. Others showed ISIL fighters apparently seizing facilities in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which they captured on Wednesday.

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near ISIL’s headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, Syrian activists said.

The only Syrian provincial capital in insurgent hands, Raqqa has been a major base for ISIL since the group evicted rival rebels, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, during infighting this year.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes targeted the governorate building, a large structure in the centre of town, as well as two other buildings, including a sharia, or Islamic law, court.

The fighting in Iraq is by far the worst since U.S. troops pulled out in 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama has come under fire at home for failing to do more to bolster Baghdad.

While expressing support for Maliki’s government, the United States has stressed the need for a political solution to the crisis. Maliki’s opponents accuse him of sidelining Sunnis, which fuelled resentment that fed the insurgency.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraq’s foreign minister in a call on Saturday that U.S. assistance would only succeed if Iraqi leaders set asid

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Grim milestone: 3 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide

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Grim milestone: 3 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide | Thaiger
PHOTO: 3 million Covid-19 deaths recorded around the world.

Today marks a grim milestone as the Covid-19 pandemic has officially caused 3 million deaths around the world, and outbreaks are still surging. Over a year into the pandemic, and we are currently seeing over 700,000 new infections and 12,000 deaths per day, with Brazil, India, and France facing growing crises. The 3 million figure reflects official numbers, though many suspect that real totals are much higher, pointing at government cover-ups and early deaths that were not attributed to Covid-19 when the virus was still in its infancy. Still, the official number is overwhelming enough – equal to the population of Kyiv, Ukraine, or the state of Arkansas in the US, and larger than world cities like Lisbon, Caracas, Dubai, Manchester or Chicago. Imagine nearly one-third of the people in Bangkok wiped out, or the entire nation of Armenia or Jamaica.

The World Health Organisation laments the dire condition of the world dealing with the pandemic after 16 months and so many opportunities to prevent the spread with basic safety precautions. Brazil has spiralled out of control, racking up 3,000 deaths a day, nearly 25% of all the Covid-19 deaths in the world in the past few weeks. New variants have been spreading like wildfire throughout Brazil as more dangerous strains have wriggled their way into countries around the world.

In India, the distribution of vaccines has been thwarted by swelling Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. In New Dehli, 13,000 infections were reported in a day amongst the 29 million residents, but the city only has 178 ventilators available as of Wednesday. Only 1.1% of the populations has been vaccinated, and officials faced criticism of their vaccine exports while so many need jabs domestically. But the UN’s Covax vaccination program, which delivers doses to poorer parts of the world was dependant on India, their biggest vaccine supplier. Covax has distributed about 40 million vaccines in over 100 countries so far, but this worsening situation may prevent shots from being received in up to 60 countries until June.

700 million vaccines have been distributed worldwide, but they have been shipped disproportionately to the wealthier populations throughout the world. In rich countries, 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated, while in poor countries that number is less than 1 in 500. In fact, 87% of the vaccines distributed worldwide have been to wealthy nations, and the delays in India due to increasing Covid-19 deaths will not help close that gap for many months to come.

SOURCE: Sky

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs

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Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs | Thaiger
Stock photo of Pfizer vaccine via Flickr

The CEO for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines says it is likely that people will need a 3rd dose of the vaccine and to receive it annually. Albert Bourla, told CNBC, that the booster, or 3rd dose, will be needed less than a year after being fully vaccinated.

“A likely scenario is that there will be likely a need for a 3rd dose, somewhere between 6 and 12 months and then from there, there will be an annual revaccination, but all of that needs to be confirmed. And again, the variants will play a key role. It is extremely important to suppress the pool of people that can be susceptible to the virus.”

Bourla’s comment echoes that of Johnson & Johnson’s CEO when he stated in February, that people may need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 annually, just like seasonal flu shots. Both statements reflect the fact that since the vaccine is new, and testing periods are shorter than most vaccines in the past, researchers are still unclear about how long the vaccine will protect against the virus.

Pfizer says that its Covid-19 vaccine was more than 91% effective at protecting against the coronavirus and more than 95% effective against severe diseases up to 6 months after the 2nd dose. Moderna’s vaccine, which uses technology similar to Pfizer’s, was also shown to be highly effective at 6 months.

Just yesterday, the Biden administration’s Covid response chief science officer, David Kessler, noted that new Covid variants could “challenge” the effectiveness of the shots.

“We don’t know everything at this moment. We are studying the durability of the antibody response. It seems strong but there is some waning of that and no doubt the variants challenge … they make these vaccines work harder. So I think for planning purposes, planning purposes only, I think we should expect that we may have to boost.”

Late last month, the National Institute of Health started testing a new Covid vaccine from Moderna in addition to the one it already has, designed to protect against a problematic variant first found in South Africa. The variant is similar to that of the UK one that has recently made landfall in Thailand.

Recent findings, by The Lancet, however, have stated that the UK variant, known as B117, has a higher reproductive rate than other strains, and it’s more transmissible. However, it refuted earlier reports that the strain is more severe. Meanwhile, Thailand’s health minister is confirming his commitment to making AstraZeneca the nation’s chosen vaccine.

SOURCE: CNBC

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Economy

China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020

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China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020 | Thaiger
PHOTO: China - the second largest economy, and only major economy to grow last year.

China’s economy set a record for growth in Q1, 2021, marking an 18.3% jump in year-on-year figures, the biggest quarterly growth in almost 30 years. China only started publishing growth statistics in 1992, and this drastic increase is the fastest growth recorded since then.

The figures, however impressive, are mainly due to what is called a “low base effect” where the change from a low starting point translates into big percentage statistics. Because of the devastating economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Q1 2020 figures were dismal, allowing the big gain over the last year.

Quarter to quarter, the last 3 months saw only a 0.6% growth, but in the last quarter of 2020 China recorded an economic boom of 6.5% according to the Chinese government. Still, the figures are admirable, as China was the only major economy in the world to achieve growth in 2020. Most of the planet struggled to contain global Covid-19 outbreaks, crippling economies across the globe. But China, now the second-largest economy in the world, managed a 2.3% overall expansion. Even Chinese officials called the impressive statistics “better than we had expected.”

China has been growing in terms of imports and exports as well, with exports expanding nearly 31% and imports up 38% by price over last years.

SOURCE: CNN

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