EU Looks To Secure Vaccine Supplies For Jabs Ramp-Up

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The EU said Monday it is working to secure a big increase in Covid vaccine supplies from next month to recover from a disappointingly slow start to its jabs rollout.

The urgency of the push was underlined by Italy announcing that its toll of virus deaths had topped 100,000.

Meanwhile, former EU member Britain reopened its schools as a tough lockdown and successful first-jabs programme brought daily infection numbers down 90 percent from where they were two months ago.

Signs of economic revival in the US — where vaccinated people can now mingle unmasked per the latest medical recommendation — also point to the world’s wealthier countries aiming for a mid-year bounceback from the pandemic.

But people in other countries and territories are struggling, including in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma tested positive for Covid-19.

Israel — which has reopened restaurants and bars after fully inoculating 44 percent of its population — has begun to vaccinate Palestinians holding work permits.

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Around the world, almost 305 million vaccine doses have been injected, according to an AFP count at 1200 GMT Monday, with the US in the lead in absolute terms at 90 million doses.

Global leisure travel remains devastated, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization saying nearly one in three destinations remain completely closed to international tourists.

But tourist-dependent countries are taking steps to ease restrictions ahead of a hoped-for return of vaccinated visitors.

Thailand will from April halve its hotel quarantine period to one week for vaccinated arrivals.

Vaccinated Israelis will avoid quarantine in both Greece and Cyprus, while the latter will also welcome vaccinated British tourists.

– Pressure in Europe –

Mounting public pressure to have vaccines unlock a semblance of pre-pandemic life is being felt by Europe’s leaders.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told a German newspaper, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, that vaccine deliveries to the European Union should double between April and June compared to the first three months of 2021, to 300 million doses.

Even though that is 100 million fewer than projected in a February summit of EU leaders, she stands by her goal to see 70 percent of adults in the EU fully vaccinated by mid-September.

But von der Leyen told another German paper, Wirtschaftswoche, that to get there the bloc could halt further vaccine exports, after Italy last week stopped an AstraZeneca shipment to Australia.

“That was not a one-off,” she warned.

That ban was under an EU mechanism created in January to prevent vaccine-makers under contract with the bloc under-delivering to Europe while meeting commitments elsewhere.

Von der Leyen has felt the heat from a failed first-quarter rollout that depended largely on Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, which supplied just a fraction of the 100 million doses it was contracted to deliver to the EU.

Over this year and next, the EU has pre-purchased 2.6 billion doses — more than enough for the EU’s total 450 million population, with the extra eventually to go to poorer neighbouring and African countries.

The portfolio covers the three vaccines currently authorised for the EU, from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, as well as ones likely to get approval — Johnson & Johnson, Curevac and Sanofi-GSK — and candidate vaccines from Novavax and Valneva.

Yet according to the last official figures from February 26, EU countries have received 51.5 million doses, and administered 29.2 million of them, roughly two-thirds as first jabs and one-third as second jabs.

After initially restricting AstraZeneca’s shot to under-65s, Italy on Monday authorised it for all adults, following in the steps of France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark.

Romania also dropped advice that the AstraZeneca shot should only be given to under-55s.

– ‘Russian roulette’ –

To further ensure supplies of all approved vaccines, the EU’s pointman on clearing production bottlenecks, industry commissioner Thierry Breton, on Monday held talks with his US counterpart Jeffrey Zients on ways to ensure vaccine supply chains are unimpeded across the Atlantic.

The US and the EU are vaccine powerhouses, traditionally supplying most of the world. While the US has a blanket export ban on vaccines and ingredients, the EU’s mechanism is only for finished vaccines.

The focus for Brussels and Washington is on the vaccines developed in Western countries, whose clinical data is fully available to medical authorities and whose production facilities fall under EU or US jurisdiction.

But the EU is also having to fend off growing interest by some of its hard-hit member states — such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and possibly Austria — in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency has started a rolling review of that vaccine.

But the head of the EMA’s management board, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, warned on Austrian television that EU countries authorising it before the process was complete would be playing “Russian roulette” with their citizens’ health.

Russia To Withdraw Armed Forces From Syria

Russia To Withdraw Armed Forces From SyriaRussia is starting to withdraw forces from Syria and its aircraft carrier group would be the first to leave, the Russian Armed Forces said.

Tasks set for the carrier group, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov vessel, had been completed, the commander of the Russian force in Syria Col-Gen Andrei Kartapolov was quoted as saying.

The announcement is coming days after Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in Syria, which according to the UN, is largely holding.

Russia has carried out air strikes on anti-government rebels since 2015.

Moscow’s involvement is credited with turning the war in favour of its ally, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

Russian news agencies quoted General Valery Gerasimov as saying: “In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defence Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria.”

UN To Vote On Syria Ceasefire Deal

Syria Ceasefire Deal, United Nations, UNAs the Syria ceasefire deal comes into force, the United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on a Russian resolution endorsing the truce.

The resolution comes against a backdrop of deadlock among the veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

While Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the US, UK and France have insisted that the President must step down as part of any deal to end the war.

The Russian resolution, however, called for rapid access for the delivery of humanitarian aid all over Syria.

BBC said the draft text also supported a political process to end the conflict, with talks between the government and opposition, brokered by Russia and Turkey said to be due in January in Kazakhstan.

The truce, which began barely 48 hours, has held in most places.

But there have been a number of clashes and air strikes while several groups including the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front are excluded from the ceasefire deal.

Pressure Mounts On Russia Over Civilian Deaths In Syria

Russia-putinPressure is increasing on Russia over deaths of civilians in Syria, with France and the US urging greater caution.

French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said civilians were dying in Russian air strikes.

But Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said there was “no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this”.

The BBC quoted one observers’ group as saying that at least 1,015 civilians have been killed in Russian air strikes.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said late last month that close to a quarter of those killed were under the age of 18.

Russia, an ally of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has consistently denied hitting civilian targets and insists it is battling terrorists.

Mr Valls said his government “respects Russia and Russia’s interests” but “that to re-discover the path to peace, to discussion, the Russian bombing of civilians has to stop”.

Mr Kerry again accused Russia of using so-called ‘dumb bombs’ in Syria that do not hit precise targets. Last week, he said women and children were being killed “in large numbers” by Russian raids.

Mr Medvedev said Russia was “not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria”, adding that “we are trying to protect our national interests”.

Their comments were made at a security conference in Munich, days after world powers agreed a deal to push for a cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week.

Syria Conflict: Jaysh Al-Islam Rebel Leaders Die In Air Strike

Syria ConflictThe head and several leaders of one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, Jaysh Al-Islam, have been killed in an air strike in east of Damascus.

The Syrian Army said that the founder of the group, 44-year-old Zahroun Alloush, was among those killed when rockets hit a meeting place.

The Saudi-backed Islamist group is one of the biggest factions and is dominant in the eastern Ghouta countryside.

It recently joined an opposition summit in Riyadh which produced a framework for peace talks with the government.

In a statement carried by state television, Syria’s Army Command said it had conducted the “special operation” that killed Alloush. Some activists have however, suggested it was a Russian air strike.

Jaysh Al-Islam later named Issam Al-Buwaydani, who is also known as Abu Humam as its new leader. He is from Douma, a town to the east of Damascus.

Russia, a key ally of Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, has been waging an air campaign in Syria since the end of September.

Moscow insisted it has been targeting Islamic State, but rebels and Western officials said the Russian strikes have mainly been hitting other groups.

Jaysh Al-Islam, whose fighters number tens of thousands, took part in the conference in the Saudi capital which agreed a common approach among disparate rebel groups for UN-backed peace talks planned for January.

Syria Conflict: US, Russia Meet

john kerry and Sergei Lavrov on syria conflictAs the West seeks to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry has arrived in Moscow for talks to try to bridge gaps with Russia.

He is due to have meetings with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov on Monday.

The US and Russia have long disagreed on what role Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad should play in the process.

The US wants Mr Assad to stand down but the Kremlin believes that decision lies with the Syrian people.

As the meeting with Mr Lavrov began, Mr Kerry said: “The world benefits when powerful nations can find common ground and I hope today, we can find some common ground.”

On Islamic State, he said Russia and the US both agreed it was “a threat to every country, these are the worst of terrorists, they leave no choice but for civilised nations to join together and push them back and destroy them”.

Mr Kerry will try to prepare the ground for an international meeting on Syria mooted for later this week. Mr Lavrov said the Islamic State (ISIS) issue was not limited to Syria, as the group was also active in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

He also said that the meeting would cover the matter of Ukraine, with its continued division between the Western-backed government in Kiev and the Russian-backed separatists in its East.

Russia has been carrying out air strikes targeting ISIS positions in Syria, but the US accuses Russia of bombing moderate rebels.

John Kerry Seeks End To Syria War

kerryThe United States (US) is intensifying diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria, even as it increases support for moderate rebels.

This is according to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who is travelling to Vienna for talks with foreign ministers on ending the four-and-a-half year conflict.

Iran is for the first time taking part in such talks, which will also include Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Russia and Iran both support Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad but the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other gulf Arab nations insist he cannot play any long term role in the country’s future.

Foreign ministers from the UK, France, Germany, Egypt, Lebanon and the EU have also confirmed they would attend the meeting and other middle eastern power are also expected.

Syria Crisis: US Condemns Moscow Welcome For Assad

Syria Crisis: US Condemns Moscow Welcome For AssadTwo days after the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, secretly visited Russia to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin, the White House has strongly condemned Russia for putting on a “red carpet welcome”.

The Syrian leader’s trip on Tuesday came three weeks after Russia began air strikes in Syria against Islamic State militants and other forces.

It was Mr Assad’s first overseas trip since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011.

The conflict has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives.

During his visit, Mr Assad said that Russia’s involvement had stopped the spread of “terrorism” becoming “more widespread and harmful”.

For his part, Mr Putin said the Syrian people had been “almost alone; resisting, fighting international terrorism for several years”.

The visit was not announced until Wednesday after Mr Assad had returned to Damascus.

Assad Makes Surprise Visit To Moscow

al-assadSyrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has made his first trip outside Syria, since the Civil War started in the country.

President Assad met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Tuesday. But his visit was not announced until Wednesday, after he had returned to Damascus.

As they both sat for discussions, Mr Putin thanked Mr Assad for coming, despite the ‘dramatic situation’ in his country.

He praised Syrians for fighting international terrorism for several years, despite suffering serious losses.

Mr Putin was however concerned about the 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union believed to be fighting in Syria.

The Syrian President thanked Russia for standing up for the unity of his country and its independence, saying that its intervention had prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario.

In September, Russia launched air strikes in Syria, against the Islamic State (IS), and other militant groups battling government forces.

Syria ‘Near Miss’ Prompts US-Russia Air Safety Talks

syriaAs the war in Syria continues to rage, the United States (US) and Russia are to hold new talks on air safety, after it emerged combat aircraft from both nations came within miles of each other on Saturday.

Reports say the planes were in visual contact with each other, 10 to 20 miles apart.

This would be the third round of talks as the two countries seek to find ways of avoiding an accidental conflict.

Despite the talks, the US said Russia’s actions in Syria were “wrongheaded”.

US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, said that he expected a deal soon, but Russia said it had ‘updated proposals’ to be discussed during a video conference.

Russia began its campaign of air strikes in Syria on September 30, saying it was targeting Islamic State (IS) militants and other jihadist groups, after a request to help militarily from Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

Putin Defends Russia’s Air Strikes In Syria

Russia-putinPresident Vladimir Putin has defended Russia’s military interventions in Syria, saying it would aid efforts to reach a political settlement and stabilise the “legitimate authority” of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

Putin denied that Russian air strikes were hitting moderate opposition groups rather than Islamic State (IS) militants.

Syrian forces have made significant advances against rebels.

Government gains in Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces were also reported both by Damascus and opposition activists.

The main battlefront is currently close to the key highway that links the capital with other major cities, including Aleppo, and Mr Assad’s forces are believed to be seeking to cut off rebels in Idlib.

Putin believes that without Moscow’s support for President Assad, there was a danger that “terrorist groups” could overrun Syria.

ISIS Blows Up Another Palmyra Monument

palmyra monumentIslamic State (ISIS) militants have blown up another monument in the ancient city of Palmyra on Monday.

Officials and local sources in Syria said that “the arch of triumph” thought to have been built about 2,000 years ago was “pulverised” by the militants who control the city.

ISIS fighters have already destroyed two ancient temples at the site, described by UNESCO as one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

The attack on Palmyra came as Syrian President, Bashar Al-assad, warned of destruction of the whole middle east region if the coalition between his country, Russia, Iran and Iraq does not succeed.

Mr Assad also criticised the US-led coalition and its air strikes in Syria and Iraq as counter-productive.