US launches airstrike against Iran-backed militia target in Syria

Smoke billows following an airstrike on Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in 2019. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: The US on Thursday carried out an airstrike in Syria against a structure belonging to what it said were Iran-backed militia, two officials told Reuters, an apparent response to rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq.

While the strike could be the first retaliatory moves by the US following last week’s attacks, the move appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation.

Also a decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq would give the Iraqi government some breathing room as it carries out its own investigation of a Feb 15 attack that wounded Americans.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strike was approved by President Joe Biden. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One official said the strike was in response to the recent rocket attacks in Iraq.

It was not immediately clear what damage was caused and if there were any casualties from the US strike.

Retaliatory US military strikes have occurred a number of times in the past few years.

The rocket attacks on US positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former US president Donald Trump.

In the Feb 15 attack, rockets hit the US military base housed at Arbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a US service member.

Another salvo struck a base hosting US forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.

Rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone on Monday which houses the US embassy and other diplomatic missions.

Earlier this week, the Kataib Hezbollah group, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia group, denied any role in recent rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq.

Some Western and Iraqi officials say the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups, are being carried out by militants with links to Kataib Hezbollah as a way for Iranian allies to harass US forces without being held accountable.

Since late 2019, the US carried out high-profile strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and Syria in response to sometimes deadly rocket attacks against US-led forces.

Under the Trump administration, the escalator back-and-forth stoked tensions, culminating in the US killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory Iranian ballistic missile attack against US forces in Iraq last year.

US moves to speed up releases of unaccompanied migrant children

Honduran migrant children raise white flags as they are blocked from advancing toward the US-Mexico border, on Jan 18. (AP pic)

WASHINGTON: The US government is taking new steps to speed up releases of unaccompanied children to parents or other sponsors as the Biden administration grapples with a growing number of underage migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat, earlier this month reversed a policy put in place by former Republican president Donald Trump that allowed US authorities to rapidly expel migrant children caught at the border without their parents.

The expulsion policy is still in place for most migrants, including families and individual asylum seekers.

In January, US Border Patrol caught 7,300 unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, the highest number of arrests in the month of January in at least a decade and up from 4,500 a month earlier.

Children apprehended at the border are now subject to a process outlined in US law and standard before Trump’s order: they are held briefly in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and then transferred to government shelters before being released to their parents or other adults in the US.

From there, the children can pursue their claims for asylum or other protection in immigration court, some with help from lawyers or sponsors.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reopened an emergency shelter in Texas and is also considering reopening a controversial facility in Florida, a sign of the scramble to find housing for the children.

Shelter capacity was greatly reduced due to coronavirus social distancing, and existing facilities are close to full.

HHS, which oversees shelters for migrant children, is in the process of switching to a new database that could cut hours or days from the time it takes to perform background checks for sponsors, said a department official who requested anonymity to discuss internal operations.

The department on Wednesday sent out new guidance to shelter operators saying they could pay for transportation for unaccompanied minors, including flights, in cases where sponsors cannot pay. Previously, providers needed special approval for that step.

The Biden administration also withdrew this week a Trump administration proposal that advocates said would have kept children in government custody for longer periods of time.

The proposed Trump changes set a firm deadline for sponsors to submit information to prove their relationship to the child or risk being denied custody, which advocates said could have resulted in more kids stuck in shelters.

The proposal was just “another way that the Trump administration was trying to frustrate the reunification process”, said Jennifer Podkul from the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which provides legal representation for children.

The Biden administration simultaneously proposed its own changes this week to several forms used related to custody requests by potential sponsors of unaccompanied children.

As part of the changes, which could go into effect after 60 days, HHS would no longer ask sponsors for their Social Security numbers on the forms.

Such questions could discourage immigrant relatives living in the country illegally from coming forward to claim a child.

More challenges ahead 

As of Monday, more than 800 unaccompanied children were being held in CBP facilities waiting for transfer to shelters, creating a potentially dangerous health situation, an agency official who requested anonymity to share the information, told Reuters.

A CBP spokeswoman would not confirm the figures.

On Wednesday night, border agents in South Texas arrested a group of 130 migrants made up primarily of families and unaccompanied children, according to CBP. Arrests of large groups “have become a common occurrence” in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency said in a statement.

Chad Wolf, former acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under Trump, said the Trump administration generally sought to step up vetting of sponsors of unaccompanied children.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t putting those children in harm’s way,” he said.

The moves by the Biden administration to speed up releases come as the president has faced criticism from fellow Democrats for re-opening emergency shelters used to house children during the Trump administration.

“This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, tweeted on Tuesday in response to a news report about the opening of the Texas facility.

HHS reduced its available bed space for unaccompanied children by 40% to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It now only has around 7,700 available beds, including those at the emergency facility, and 7,100 children in custody, a representative said.

Tourism minister says will hold further discussions on expansion of travel bubbles


Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri speaks to reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur November 17, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri speaks to reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur November 17, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

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UALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — The proposal to expand travel bubble arrangements with green zone countries during the Covid-19 pandemic will be discussed further before agreement could be reached with the various parties, said Tourism, Arts and Culture (Motac) Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri.

She said the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) and Travel Bubble initiatives proposed by the ministry must have the agreement of the countries involved, apart from the approval of the Ministry of Health (MoH), the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Home Ministry and the National Security Council (MKN).

“Motac is applying for an extension of the one-off incentive under the Domestic Travel Bubble Programme to be extended until December 2021 with the relevant Ministries,” she said in a statement here Thursday.

The statement was issued after she held an engagement session with key players in the airline and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitionsindustries today.

The travel bubble expansion had been proposed to include Brunei, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

In the meeting yesterday, the stakeholders representing MICE urged the government to lift the restrictions on inter-district and inter-state travel and not to quarantine visitors who could produce proof that they have been vaccinated. — Bernama


Malaysia consulted world’s leading Muslim ulamas on Covid-19 vaccination, says Islamic affairs minister

Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri speaks to reporters at the Movenpick Hotel in Sepang December 24, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri speaks to reporters at the Movenpick Hotel in Sepang December 24, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — Malaysia has obtained the views and explanations of the world’s leading Muslim scholars or ulama on the fatwa of receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Senator Datuk Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri said he had sent letters to several scholars over the matter, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Egypt Mufti Shawki Allam and Chairman of the Fatwa Council of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah Ben Bayyah.

“On average, they issued a fatwa of referring to the experts (in health) to ensure that this vaccine (Covid-19 vaccine) is safe and halal to use.

“One of the conditions of the fatwa is also to refer to experts (in their specialised fields),” he said when appearing on an Islamic affairs forum broadcast live on TV 1 yesterday.

The forum featured nine panelists comprising muftis, university lecturers, preachers and physicians.

Meanwhile, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) senior lecturer Assoc Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Izhar Ariff Mohd Kashim said there were three important aspects to determine whether something was halal (permissible) or haram (illegal), and this included referring to experts in the related fields if there was no clear evidence in the Quran and hadith.

“Besides that, it should also be studied on whether the vaccine contains sources from animals that are not slaughtered, or some other substances that can cause harm.

“In this regard, studies and experts in the field of health, namely the Ministry of Health Malaysia (MoH) have denied that it (vaccine) contains any of them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin said the Prophet Muhammad during his time also referred some of his companions to physicians for treatment.

“Prophet Muhammad would refer (the companions) to the physician Al-Harith ibn Kaladah, even though he was not a Muslim,” he said. — Bernama

4 reasons why hiking is great for your mental health

A little time outdoors will do wonders for your mind. (Rawpixel pic)

Times are pretty tough lately, to say the least. Mental health issues have soared because of the impact of Covid-19, and this comes as no surprise.

Minimal contact with other people, hour after hour of being inside – it’s no wonder that people are feeling the toll on their mental health as they do their best to protect their physical health.

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Time in the outdoors, especially in nature where you’ll be far away from other people, is a surefire way to boost your mood, clear your mind, and dust yourself of any quarantine cobwebs.

Here are some of the many ways that hiking can help you shake the blues.

1. It gives you a breath of fresh air

Believe it or not, the simplest bonus of hiking is getting to breathe a bit of fresh air.

Being indoors too long is bad as interiors and built-up areas have reduced airflow and pockets of pollution.

This is why spending time outside in more rural areas is so beneficial to the body. You see, fresh air actually helps to send more oxygen to the brain.

Likewise, more oxygen in your system keeps you running at full capacity.

2. It strengthens relationships

Experiencing things together will deepen the bond between you and your loved ones. (Rawpixel pic)

Got a partner? Perhaps you live with a couple of members of your family?

Well, hiking is a great way to spend quality time, strengthen your current relationships, and even forge brand new ones.

Hiking can be as easy and as difficult as you like. If you’ve got some older or younger loved ones, you can take a nice, relaxed stroll up a beginner trail.

If you and your partner fancy something a bit more challenging, you can test your skills on something a bit more advanced or even make your own route.

And at the end of the day, experiencing things together is a great way to bond and build future memories.

3. It provides clarity of mind

Sometimes the noise of busy, modern living can be too much and most of us have probably spent an ungodly amount of time in our homes as of late.

By surrounding yourself in nature, you can open up to more peaceful and relaxed feelings.

Hiking is a great way to do this as the increased movement and exercise will leave a positive impact on your mood after a day out. What’s more, hiking is a fantastic way of experiencing progression and reward.

What better treat is there than a beautiful view after a long trail?

4. It gives you the opportunity to explore

Take time to do other things on your hikes such as paint or journal. (Rawpixel pic)

Hiking doesn’t always have to be something brand new. If you already exercise, jog, or even walk regularly, then hiking doesn’t need to be an intimidating experience.

Sometimes, it’s even good to bring other hobbies and passions with you along the hike.

If you’re somewhat of an amateur photographer, then bring a small camera and take some snaps along your journey.

Likewise, if you enjoy journalling, then sitting down during a break can be a great opportunity to log your feelings and even take inspiration from the things around you.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg and host of The DRH Show. You can connect with him on Twitter @drelojo_howell.

Volvo Cars, Geely Auto abandon merger plans

SWEDISH automaker Volvo Cars and China’s Geely Auto said yesterday they were abandoning merger plans but said they would reinforce their collaboration on electric vehicles.

“Volvo Cars and Geely Auto have agreed on a wide-ranging collaboration that will maximise the strengths of the Swedish and Chinese automotive groups” but will preserve “their existing separate corporate structures”, the two carmakers said in a joint statement.

Halt all repatriations, says US, after deportation of Myanmar nationals

More than 1,000 Myanmar nationals were deported from the Lumut naval base on Tuesday. (Reuters pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: The US yesterday led criticism of Malaysia for deporting more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals back to their military-ruled nation in defiance of a court order.

The migrants, who activists say include vulnerable asylum seekers, left on Tuesday on Myanmar navy ships from the Lumut naval base just weeks after a coup.

Rights groups had fiercely criticised the plan, and hours before the deportation the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered it be temporarily halted to allow a legal challenge from activists.

The US, which under President Joe Biden has ramped back up refugee admissions and sought to rally pressure to reverse Myanmar’s coup, said it was “concerned” by the move by Malaysia, with which Washington has enjoyed largely friendly relations in recent years.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the military in Myanmar “has a long documented history of human rights abuses against members of religious and ethnic minority groups”.

Price noted that Malaysia went ahead “in spite of a Malaysian court order barring their deportation and in light of ongoing unrest in Burma that, of course, has been taking place since the coup”.

“We continue to urge all countries in the region contemplating returning Burmese migrants back to Burma to halt those repatriations until the UNHCR can assess whether these migrants have any protection concerns,” Price told reporters in Washington, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Officials offered no explanation as to why they ignored the court’s instructions and sent back the 1,086 migrants.

In a joint statement, four opposition MPs condemned the “inhumane” deportation and suggested government officials could be held in contempt for ignoring the legal ruling.

“This act is a clear display that the Malaysian government does not respect the ongoing court process and has put Malaysia in a bad light on the human rights front,” they said.

Amnesty International, one of the groups that challenged the deportation, said the government “owes an explanation to the people of Malaysia as to why they chose to defy the court order”.

“These dangerous deportations have not been properly scrutinised and put individuals at grave risk,” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty’s Malaysia office.

More than 100 migrants originally to be deported are believed to have been left behind, with officials offering no explanation as to why. Yesterday, the High Court ruled those remaining should not be sent back as NGOs challenge the repatriation.

Malaysian immigration officials insisted there were no members of the persecuted Rohingya minority – not recognised as citizens in Myanmar – or asylum seekers among those repatriated.

But rights groups have raised doubts over authorities’ claims there were no asylum seekers among the deportees.

Authorities have since 2019 blocked the UNHCR from immigration detention centres, meaning they cannot assess which migrants have genuine asylum claims and should be allowed to remain in Malaysia.

It is rare for NGOs to challenge repatriations but in the latest case, they were particularly concerned about the worsening human rights situation in Myanmar since the coup.

Merdeka Center