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Competition With China Intensifies, The Balloon Incident Reveals More Than Spying.

It could take months for US intelligence agencies to compare the daring flight of a Chinese spy balloon across the country to prior intrusions into America’s national security systems and determine how it ranks.

After all, there is plenty of competition.

There was the theft of the designs of the F-35 about 15 years ago, enabling the Chinese air force to develop its look-alike stealth fighter, with Chinese characteristics. There was the case of China’s premier hacking team lifting the security clearance files for 22 million Americans from the barely secured computers of the Office of Personnel Management in 2015. That, combined with stolen medical files from Anthem and travel records from Marriott hotels, has presumably helped the Chinese create a detailed blueprint of America’s national security infrastructure.

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But for pure gall, there was something different about the balloon. It became the subject of public fascination as it floated over nuclear silos of Montana, then was spotted near Kansas City and met its cinematic end when a Sidewinder missile took it down over shallow waters off the coast of South Carolina. Not surprisingly, now it is coveted by military and intelligence officials who desperately want to reverse-engineer whatever remains the Coast Guard and the Navy can recover.

Yet beyond the made-for-cable-news spectacle, the entire incident also speaks volumes about how little Washington and Beijing communicate, almost 22 years after the collision of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter about 70 miles off the coast of Hainan Island led both sides to vow that they would improve their crisis management.

“We don’t know what the intelligence yield was for the Chinese,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown professor who advised President Barack Obama on China and Asia with the National Security Council. “But there is no doubt it was a gross violation of sovereignty,” something the Chinese object to vociferously when the United States flies over and sails through the islands China has built from sandbars in the South China Sea.

“And this made visceral the China challenge,” Medeiros said, “to look up when you are out walking your dog, and you see a Chinese spy balloon in the sky.”

As it turns out, it was hardly the first time. Hours before the giant balloon met its deflated end, the Pentagon said there was another one in flight, over South America. And it noted a long history of Chinese balloons flying over the United States (which the Pentagon, somehow, never wanted to talk about before, until this incident forced it to).

“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said in a statement published Thursday. One senior official said many of those were in the Pacific, some near Hawaii, where the Indo-Pacific Command is based, along with much of the naval capability and surveillance gear of the Pacific Fleet.

Ryder’s admission raises the question of whether the United States failed to set a red line years ago about the balloon surveillance, essentially encouraging China to grow bolder and bolder. “The fact that they have come into airspace before is not comforting,” said Amy B. Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Spies, Lies and Algorithms,” a study of new technologies in ubiquitous surveillance. “We should have had a strategy earlier,” she said, and “we should have signaled our limits much earlier.”

Of course, there is nothing new about superpowers spying on one another, even from balloons. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized surveillance of the Soviet Union by lofting cameras on balloons in the mid-1950s, flying them “over Soviet bloc countries under the guise of meteorological research,” according to an article published by the National Archives in 2009. It “yielded more protests from the Kremlin than it did useful intelligence,” author David Haight, an archivist at the Eisenhower Library, reported.

With the advent of the first spy satellites, balloons appeared to become obsolete.

Now they are making a comeback, because while spy satellites can see almost everything, balloons equipped with high-tech sensors hover over a site far longer and can pick up radio, cellular and other transmissions that cannot be detected from space. That is why the Montana sighting of the balloon was critical; in recent years, the National Security Agency and United States Strategic Command, which oversees the American nuclear arsenal, have been remaking communications with nuclear weapons sites. That would be one, but only one, of the natural targets for China’s Ministry of State Security, which oversees many of its national security hacks.

The NSA also targets China, of course. From the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former contractor who revealed many of the agency’s operations a decade ago, the world learned that the United States broke into the networks of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications firm, and also tracked the movements of Chinese leaders and soldiers responsible for moving Chinese nuclear weapons. That is only a small sliver of American surveillance in China.

Such activities add to China’s argument that everyone does it. Because they are largely hidden — save for the occasional revelation of a big hack — they have rarely become wrapped in national politics. That is changing.

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The balloon incident came at a moment when Democrats and Republicans are competing to demonstrate who can be stronger on China. And that showed: The new chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, echoed the many Republicans who argued the balloon needed to come down sooner.

He called the shoot-down “sort of like tackling the quarterback after the game is over. The satellite had completed its mission. It should never have been allowed to enter the United States, and it never should have been allowed to complete its mission.”

It is not yet clear what that “mission” was, or whether the risk of letting it proceed truly outweighed the risk of taking the balloon down over land, as Turner seemed to imply. It is only a small part of the increasingly aggressive “Spy vs. Spy” moves of superpower competitors. That has only intensified as control of semiconductor production equipment, artificial intelligence tools, 5G telecommunications, quantum computing and biological sciences has become the source of new arms races. And both sides play.

Yet it was the obviousness of the balloon that made many in Washington wonder whether the intelligence community and the civilian leadership in Beijing are communicating with each other.

“Whatever the value of what the Chinese might have obtained,” said Gen. Michael Rogers, former director of the National Security Agency during the Obama and Trump administrations, “what was different here was the visibility. It just has a different feel when it is a physical intrusion on the country.” And once it was detected, China “handled it badly,’’ he said.

The balloon drifted over the continental United States just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make the first visit of a top American diplomat to Beijing in many years. Chinese officials maintained that it was a weather balloon that had entered U.S. airspace by accident.

Blinken canceled his trip — a public slap that many U.S. officials believe President Xi Jinping cannot be happy about, at a moment the Chinese leader appears to be trying to stabilize the fast-descending relationship with Washington.

This was hardly a life-threatening crisis. But the fact that Chinese officials, realizing that the balloon had been spotted, did not call to work out a way to deal with it was revealing.

That kind of problem was supposed to be resolved after the 2001 collision of an EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter that brought down both planes. For days after that incident, President George W. Bush could not get Chinese leaders on the phone. Efforts by the secretary of state at the time, Gen. Colin Powell, also failed. “It made you wonder what might happen in a deeper crisis,” Powell said later.

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Afterward, hotlines were set up, and promises made about better communications. Clearly, those failed. When the balloon was shot down, China issued a statement saying “for the United States to insist on using armed forces is clearly an excessive reaction.”

Few experts doubt that had the situation been reversed, China would have used force — it has threatened to do that when it believed outsiders were entering disputed waters, much less established Chinese territory.

“It makes you wonder who was talking to whom in China,” Zegart said. “This is clearly the greatest unforced error the Chinese have made in some time.”


Nigeria, India partners to eradicate fake passports.

The Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola has expressed the readiness of the Nigerian government to cooperate with India to eradicate the use of fake Nigerian passports to travel to India.

Aregbesola gave this assurance in his office at the weekend while receiving the Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Gangadharan Balasubramanian on a courtesy visit.

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According to Aregbesola, Nigeria will remain grateful to the government and people of India for their support during Nigeria’s anti-colonial struggle that led to independence.

He pledged full cooperation of the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Nigeria Immigration Service, to put a stop to the activities of unscrupulous persons and syndicates engaging in the procurement of fake official Nigerian travelling documents to enter India illegally.

He also called for closer collaboration with the Indian government through the provision of useful information and intelligence reports that will assist in unmasking those involved and their modus operandi with a view to getting them arrested to face the full wrath of the law.

On the issue of some arrested mariners accused of illegal activity, Aregbesola said the government will prefer that the judicial process run its course while he will try to see if the issue could be handled on humanitarian grounds.

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The minister made it abundantly clear that Nigeria frowns at all illegalities, and will not condone the procurement of fake visas by individuals in order to gain false entry into another country.

Aregbesola implored High Commissioner Balasubramanian for technical assistance through scholarships and professional courses and training as part of cooperation that will enhance the performance of his ministry’s paramilitary agencies like the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corp, which is a civil protection corp that responds to emergencies as well as complement the police in maintaining law and order.

In his remarks, the Indian high commissioner promised to explore more areas of cooperation that will further strengthen the bilateral relationship between the two friendly countries.

Mr Gangadharan Balasubramanian later disclosed that already, seven agencies of government including the Nigeria Immigration Service are currently undergoing relevant courses in India as a demonstration of the partnership support to Nigeria.

Many questions remain over alleged Chinese spy balloon in US sky.

A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flew over sensitive United States ballistic missile sites on Friday, and later a second Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over Latin America. But what exactly is this massive white orb sweeping across U.S. airspace which has triggered a diplomatic maelstrom and is blowing up on social media?

China insists it’s just an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds. With only limited “self-steering” capabilities.

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However, the U.S. says it’s a Chinese spy balloon without a doubt. And its presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China aimed at dialing down tensions already high between the countries.

The Pentagon says the balloon carrying sensors and surveillance equipment is maneuverable and has shown it can change course. However, it has loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, prompting the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.

A Pentagon spokesperson said it could remain aloft over the U.S. for “a few days,” extending uncertainty about where it will go or if the U.S. will try to take it down safely.

A look at what’s known about the balloon – and what isn’t.

A bird, a plane, a balloon
The Pentagon and other U.S. officials say it’s a Chinese spy balloon – about the size of three school buses – moving east over America at an altitude of about 18,600 meters (60,000 feet). The U.S. says it was being used for surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few details.

U.S. officials say the Biden administration was aware of it before it crossed into American airspace in Alaska early this week. Some officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

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The White House said President Joe Biden was first briefed on the balloon on Tuesday. And the State Department noted Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman spoke with China’s senior Washington-based official on Wednesday evening about the matter.

In the first public U.S. statement, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday evening that the balloon was not a military or physical threat – an acknowledgment that it was not carrying weapons. And he said that “once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

Even if it’s not armed, the balloon poses a risk to the U.S., says retired Army Gen. John Ferrari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The flight itself, he said, can be used to test America’s ability to detect incoming threats and to find holes in the country’s air defense warning system. It may also allow the Chinese to sense electromagnetic emissions that higher-altitude satellites can’t detect, such as low-power radio frequencies that could help them understand how different U.S. weapons systems communicate.

He also said the Chinese may have sent the balloon “to show us that they can do it, and maybe next time it could have a weapon. So now we have to spend money and time on it” developing defenses.

Let it fly, shoot down?
Senior administration officials said President Joe Biden initially wanted to shoot the balloon down. And some members of Congress have echoed that sentiment.

But top Pentagon leaders strongly advised Biden against that move because of risks to the safety of people on the ground, and Biden agreed.

One official said the sensor package the balloon is carrying weighs as much as 1,000 pounds. And the balloon is large enough and high enough in the air that the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where it would eventually land.

For now, officials said the U.S. would monitor it, using “a variety of methods,” including aircraft. The Pentagon also has said the balloon isn’t a military threat and doesn’t give China any surveillance capabilities it doesn’t already have with spy satellites.

But the U.S. is keeping its options open and will continue to monitor the flight.

Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that it could be valuable to try and capture the balloon to study it. “I would much rather own a Chinese surveillance balloon than be cleaning one up over a 100-square-mile debris field,” Himes said.

How did it get here?
Deliberate or an accident? There’s also disagreement.

As far as wind patterns go, China’s account that global air currents – winds known as the Westerlies – carried the balloon from its territory to the western United States is plausible said Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington. Jaffe has studied the role those same wind patterns play in carrying air pollution from Chinese cities, wildfire smoke from Siberia, and dust from Gobi Desert sand storms to the U.S. for two decades.

“It’s entirely consistent with everything we know about the winds,” Jaffe said. “Transit time from China to the United States would be about a week.” “The higher it goes, the faster it goes,” Jaffe said. He said that weather and research balloons typically have a range of steering capabilities depending on their sophistication, from no steering to limited steering ability.

The U.S. is essentially mum on this issue but insists the balloon is maneuverable, suggesting that China somehow deliberately moved the balloon toward or into U.S. airspace.

History of spy balloons
Spy balloons aren’t new – primitive ones date back centuries, but they came into greater use in World War II. Administration officials said Friday that there had been other similar incidents of Chinese spy balloons, with one saying it happened twice during the Trump administration but was never made public.

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At the Pentagon, Ryder confirmed other incidents where balloons came close to or crossed the U.S. border. Still, he and others agree that what makes this different is the length of time it’s been over U.S. territory and how far into the country it penetrated.

Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Chinese surveillance balloons had been sighted numerous times over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including near sensitive U.S. military installations in Hawaii. The high-altitude inflatables, he said, serve as low-cost platforms to collect intelligence, and some can reportedly be used to detect hypersonic missiles.

During World War II, Japan launched thousands of hydrogen balloons carrying bombs, and hundreds ended up in the U.S. and Canada. Most were ineffective, but one was lethal. In May 1945, six civilians died when they found one of the balloons on the ground in Oregon, which exploded.

In the aftermath of the war, America’s balloon effort ignited the alien stories and lore linked to Roswell, New Mexico.

According to military research documents and studies, the U.S. began using giant trains of balloons and sensors that were strung together and stretching more than 600 feet as part of an early effort to detect Soviet missile launches during the post-World War II era. They called it Project Mogul.

One of the balloon trains crash-landed at the Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, and Air Force personnel unaware of the program found debris. However, the unusual experimental equipment made it difficult to identify, leaving the airmen with unanswered questions that, aided by UFO enthusiasts, took on a life of their own. According to the military reports, the simple answer was just over the Sacramento Mountains at the Project Mogul launch site in Alamogordo.

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In 2015, an unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its mooring at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. It floated over Pennsylvania for hours with two fighter jets on its tail, triggering blackouts as it dragged its tether across power lines. Then, as residents gawked, the 240-foot blimp came down in pieces in the Muncy, Pennsylvania, countryside. It still had helium in its nose when it fell, and state police used shotguns – about 100 shots – to deflate it.

Thirteen children among 54 killed in twin Pakistan bombing.

At least 54 people, including 13 children, were killed in two separate transport tragedies in western Pakistan on Sunday.

Forty-one are so far confirmed dead after their bus crashed into a ravine in southwestern Balochistan province, while at least 10 students died in the boating accident in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, officials said.

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As many as three are still missing in the waters, with a rescue operation underway.

At the remote site of the bus crash, north of the city of Bela in the Lasbela district, senior administration official Hamza Anjum said “the dead bodies … are beyond recognition.”

Anjum said 40 corpses were retrieved from the wreck alongside three injured, one of whom died shortly after. The remaining two survivors were in “serious” condition.

The charred brown husk of the vehicle chassis smoked on a dry riverbed under the bridge on Sunday, according to a video released by the provincial government.

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A team of men used heavy machinery to move the twisted metal aside and pull out the burnt remains, which were then shrouded in white cloth.

Head of the local rescue service Asghar Ramazan told AFP the bus had been loaded with containers of oil.

“When the bus fell down, it immediately caught fire,” he said. The oil “caused the fire to flare up so much that it was difficult to control,” he added.

The bus was reportedly carrying a total of 48 passengers when it hit a pillar on the bridge and careened off course earlier on Sunday.

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It had been traveling overnight between Balochistan’s provincial capital of Quetta and the southern port city of Karachi.

“It is feared that the driver may have fallen asleep,” Anjum said, also mentioning the possibility he had been speeding during the long-distance trip.

“We will investigate the causes of the accident,” he said, adding that DNA tests would be needed to determine the identity of the remains, which had been “badly mutilated”.

‘Rescue underway’
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, local police official Mir Rauf told AFP all of the drowned so far recovered from the boating accident on Tanda Dam lake were aged between 7 and 14.

A total of 17 were rescued alive from the reservoir by Sunday afternoon.

“Everything was normal until suddenly the boat overturned,” said 11-year-old survivor Muhammad Mustafa from his hospital bed in the nearby city of Kohat.

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“I got stuck under the boat,” he told AFP. “My shawl and sweater weighed me down, so I took them off.”

“The water was extremely cold and my body went numb. I thought I was going to pass out when a man on an inflatable tube saved me.”

One of the rescued was a teacher, who remained unconscious as the rescue operation continued for up to three pupils still missing.

The class of madrassa students “went out for a picnic and boating” at the scenic location, district police chief Abdul Rauf told AFP.

“According to the information so far, the boat was in a dilapidated condition and it was overloaded too,” he said.

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Ramshackle highways, lax safety measures and reckless driving contribute to Pakistan’s dire road safety record.

Passenger buses are frequently crammed to capacity and seatbelts are not commonly worn, meaning high death tolls from single-vehicle accidents are common.

In November, 20 people, including 11 children, were killed when a minibus crashed into a deep and water-logged ditch in southern Pakistan.

According to World Health Organization estimates, more than 27,000 people were killed on Pakistan’s roads in 2018.

Mass drownings are also common in Pakistan when aged and overloaded vessels lose their stability and pitch passengers into the water.

In July last year, at least 18 women drowned after an overloaded boat carrying about 100 members of the same family capsized during a marriage procession between two villages

At least 34 killed, 150 injured in Pakistan suicide bombing.

At least 34 people were killed while 150 others were injured in a suicide bomb attack on a mosque in northwestern Pakistan’s Peshawar on Monday.

The bombing drew nationwide condemnation from opposition political parties and government officials. Ghulam Ali, the provincial governor in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Peshawar is the capital, said there were fears the death toll could rise even further.

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Most of the casualties were policemen and police officers – the targeted mosque is located within a sprawling compound, which also serves as the city’s police headquarters. Police said between 300 to 350 worshipers were inside the mosque when the bomber detonated his explosives.

Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The main spokesman for the organization was not immediately available for comment.

The police compound is located in a high-security zone in Peshawar, along with several government buildings, and it was unclear how the bomber managed to penetrate so deep inside the zone unnoticed.

The impact of the explosion collapsed the roof of the mosque, which caved in and injured many, according to Zafar Khan, a local police officer.

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Siddique Khan, a police official, said the death toll rose to 34, and the dead included Noor-ul-Amin, the prayer leader. Meanwhile, officials said at least 150 were wounded.

A survivor, 38-year-old police officer Meena Gul, said he was inside the mosque when the bomb went off. He said he doesn’t know how he survived unhurt. He could hear cries and screams after the bomb exploded, Gul said.

Rescuers scrambled trying to remove mounds of debris from the mosque grounds and get to worshippers still trapped under the rubble, police said. At a nearby hospital, many of the wounded were listed in critical condition as the casualty toll rose.

‘Stern action’
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in a statement condemned the bombing and ordered authorities to ensure the best possible medical treatment for the victims. He also vowed “stern action” against those who were behind the attack.

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Former Prime Minister Imran Khan also condemned the bombing, calling it a “terrorist suicide attack” in a Twitter posting. “My prayers & condolences go to victims’ families,” said the ex-premier. “It is imperative we improve our intelligence gathering & properly equip our police forces to combat the growing threat of terrorism.”

Peshawar has been the scene of frequent militant attacks. The Pakistani Taliban, are known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP and are a separate group but also a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, who seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.

The TTP has waged an insurgency in Pakistan over the past 15 years, fighting for the implementation of their distorted version of Islamic laws in the country, the release of their members who are in government custody and a reduction of the Pakistani military presence in the country’s former tribal regions.

Pakistan has witnessed a surge in militant attacks since November when the Pakistani Taliban ended their cease-fire with government forces.

The truce ended as Pakistan was still contending with last summer’s unprecedented flooding that killed 1,739 people, destroyed more than 2 million homes, and at one point submerged as much as one-third of the country. The flood damages totaled to more than $30 billion and authorities are now, months later, still struggling to arrange tents, shelter and food for the survivors.

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Cash-strapped Pakistan is currently also facing one of the worst economic crises and is seeking a crucial installment of $1.1 billion from the International Monetary Fund – part of its $6 billion bailout package – to avoid default. Talks with the IMF on reviving the bailout have stalled in the past months.

Sharif’s government came to power last April after Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Khan has since campaigned for early elections, claiming his ouster was illegal and part of a plot backed by the United States. Washington and Sharif have dismissed Khan’s claims.

Türkiye condemns attack
Türkiye, in the meanwhile, condemned the heinous act of terrorism “in the strongest possible terms.”

We are “deeply saddened by the loss of lives and injuries as a result of Monday’s terrorist act targeting a mosque in northwestern Peshawar city,” the Foreign Ministry said Monday in a statement.

Wishing God’s mercy on those who lost their lives in the attack, the ministry extended “condolences to the friendly and brotherly Pakistan Government and its people and a speedy recovery to the injured,” the ministry added

Middle-aged man arrested in India for illegal residency.

A 34-year-old Nigerian man identified as Chiduziem Ukaegbu has been arrested for illegal stay in Goa, India.

Anjuna police picked up the accused from his residence at Siolim on Saturday, January 28, 2023.

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According to Mapusa SDPO, Jivba Dalvi, police received a tip off that the foreign national was staying in Siolim

“During investigation we found the Nigerian was staying without any passport and valid visa,” Dalvi stated.

An FIR under section 7 & 14 of the Foreigners Act was registered and the accused has been taken into custody.

Further investigation is in progress with Anjuna Pi, Prashal Dessai

Cold snap grips Afghanistan, death toll rises to 166.

A wave of bitterly cold weather is sweeping through Afghanistan, which has caused the deaths of at least 166 people, an official said Saturday, as extreme conditions heaped misery on the poverty-stricken nation.

Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as minus 33 degrees Celsius (minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit) since Jan. 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales and regular electricity outages.

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Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly four million children were suffering from malnutrition.

The disaster management ministry said on Saturday the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166, based on data from 24 of the nation’s 34 provinces.

The deaths were caused by floods, fires and leaks from gas heaters that Afghan families use to heat their homes, ministry official Abdul Rahman Zahid said in a video statement.

Some 100 homes were destroyed or damaged and nearly 80,000 livestock, a vital commodity for Afghanistan’s poor, also died in the cold.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week 17 people had died in a single village in northeastern Badakhshan province due to an outbreak of “acute respiratory infection.”

“Harsh weather prevents help from reaching the area,” the WHO said.

Afghanistan is enduring its second winter since United States-backed forces withdrew and the Taliban surged back into Kabul to reclaim government.

Foreign aid has declined dramatically since then and key central bank assets were seized by the United States, compounding a humanitarian crisis considered one of the world’s worst.

The Taliban government banned Afghan women from working with humanitarian groups last month, leading many to suspend operations.

Women NGO workers in the health sector were then granted an exemption and some organisations restarted their programs.

Taliban bans women from taking university entry exams in Afghanistan.

The Taliban announced a ban on female students from taking university entrance exams in Afghanistan for the 2023 school year, according to the letter sent to private universities and higher education institutions on Saturday.

The note comes despite weeks of condemnation and lobbying by the international community for a reversal of measures restricting women’s freedoms, including two back-to-back visits this month by several senior U.N. officials. It also bodes ill for hopes that the Taliban could take steps to reverse their edicts anytime soon.

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The Taliban barred women from private and public universities last month. The higher education minister in the Taliban-run government, Nida Mohammed Nadim, has maintained that the ban is necessary to prevent the mixing of genders in universities — and because he believes some subjects being taught violate Islamic principles.

Work was underway to fix these issues, and universities would reopen for women once they were resolved, he had said in a T.V. interview.

The Taliban have made similar promises about girls’ middle and high school access, saying classes would resume for them once “technical issues” around uniforms and transport were sorted out. But girls remain shut out of classrooms beyond sixth grade.

Higher Education Ministry spokesperson Ziaullah Hashmi said Saturday that a letter reminding private universities not to allow women to take entrance exams was sent out. He gave no further details.

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A copy of the letter, shared with The Associated Press (A.P.), warned that women could not take the “entry test for bachelor, master and doctorate levels” and that if any university disobeys the edict, “legal action will be taken against the violator.”

The letter was signed by Mohammad Salim Afghan, the government official overseeing student affairs at private universities.

Entrance exams start on Sunday in some provinces, while elsewhere in Afghanistan, they begin on Feb. 27. Universities across Afghanistan follow a different term timetable due to seasonal differences.

Mohammed Karim Nasari, the spokesperson for the private universities union, said last month that dozens of private universities risk closure because of the ban.

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Afghanistan has 140 private universities across 24 provinces, with around 200,000 students. Out of those, some 60,000 to 70,000 are women. The universities employ about 25,000 people.

Earlier this week, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths and leaders of two major international aid organizations visited Afghanistan, following last week’s visit by a delegation led by the U.N.’s highest-ranking woman, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. The visits had the same aim — to try and reverse the Taliban’s crackdown on women and girls, including their ban on Afghan women working for national and global humanitarian organizations

Two Nigerian Nationals Arrested In India For Online Fraud.

Security operatives in India have arrested two Nigerian nationals, Akuchie Ifeanyi Franklin and Fidel Ndubuisi for alleged online fraud.

The cyber police in Kerala arrested Akuchie, from Bengaluru on Monday, January 23, 2023, following a complaint by a Nallalam resident who had reportedly lost around N11m in the fraud operated by the suspect and his two aides.

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According to the police, the complainant had placed an advertisement on an e-commerce portal for selling imported iPads.

The accused, who expressed interest in purchasing the products, allegedly forged the domain of Wells Fargo, an American bank, and convinced the complainant that he could complete the transaction provided that the complainant made a temporary payment of ?20 lakh to his account.

The accused had also allegedly forged a WhatsApp account and sent messages in the names of Reserve Bank of India officials to mislead the seller. Later, he claimed that he would return the amount to the seller once the formalities were over.

It was in March 2022 that the complaint was registered at the cyber police station. The police had earlier arrested two of Franklin’s Nigerian partners — Emmanuel James Legbeti and Daniel Oyewale Olayinka.

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Police sources said the three accused were nabbed and charged under various sections of the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code after tracing phone calls and social media accounts.

The investigation team had also managed to seize a few electronic devices that were used by the suspects.

Similarly, Cyber Crime Police Station of Avadi Police Commissionerate in Chennai arrested Ndubuisi and sent him to Central Puzal Prison.

According to the police, Ndubuisi was previously arrested by the Tuthukodi Cyber Crime Police for an online fraudulent cheating case

Women Who Lived As Sex Slaves To An Indian Goddess.

Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity, raping her in exchange for a saree and some jewellery.

Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became a “devadasi” — girls coerced by their parents into an elaborate wedding ritual with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.

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Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, forbidden from marrying other mortals, and forced at puberty to sacrifice their virginity to an older man, in return for money or gifts.

“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in her late 40s, told AFP.

What followed was years of sexual slavery, earning money for her family through encounters with other men in the name of serving the goddess.

Bhimappa eventually escaped her servitude but with no education, she earns around a dollar a day toiling in fields.

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Her time as a devotee to the Hindu goddess Yellamma has also rendered her an outcast in the eyes of her community.

She had loved a man once, but it would have been unthinkable for her to ask him to marry.

“If I was not a devadasi, I would have had a family and children and some money. I would have lived well,” she said.

Devadasis have been an integral part of southern Indian culture for centuries and once enjoyed a respectable place in society.

Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortable lives and chose their own sexual partners.

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“This notion of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original system of patronage,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.

Iyer said that in the 19th century, during the British colonial era, the divine pact between devadasi and goddess evolved into an institution of sexual exploitation.

It now serves as a means for poverty-stricken families from the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to relieve themselves of responsibility for their daughters.

The practice was outlawed in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka back in 1982, and India’s top court has described the devotion of young girls to temples as an “evil”.

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Campaigners, however, say that young girls are still secretly inducted into devadasi orders.

Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka, India’s human rights commission wrote last year.

‘I was alone’
Girls are commonly seen as burdensome and costly in India due to the tradition of wedding dowries.

By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them off.

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Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti — home to a revered Yellamma temple — believe that having a family member in the order can lift their fortunes or cure the illness of a loved one.

It was at this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was enjoined to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.

Her sisters had all married other men, and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma in order to provide for them.

“When other people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realised I was alone, I started crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.

Her father eventually fell ill, and she was pulled out of school to engage in sex work and help pay for his treatment.

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“By the age of 17, I had two kids,” she said.

Rekha Bhandari, a fellow former devadasi, said they had been subjected to a practice of “blind tradition” that had ruined their lives.

She was forced into the order after the death of her mother and was 13 when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. She fell pregnant soon after.

“A normal delivery was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family, saying that I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.

“I had no understanding.”

‘Many women have died’
Years of unsafe sex exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

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“I know of women who are infected and now it has passed on to their children,” an activist who works with devadasis, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

“They hide it and live with it in secrecy. Many women have died.”

Parents are occasionally prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be inducted as devadasis, and women who leave the order are given meagre government pensions of 1,500 rupees ($18) per month.

Nitesh Patil, a civil servant who administers Saundatti, told AFP that there had been no “recent instances” of women being dedicated to temples.

India’s rights commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to outline what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions were still widespread.

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The stigma around their pasts means women who leave their devadasi order often endure lives as outcasts or objects of ridicule, and few ever marry.

Many find themselves destitute or struggling to survive on poorly paid manual labour and farming work.

Jodatti now heads a civil society group which helped extricate the women AFP spoke to from their lives of servitude and provides support to former devadasis.

She said many of her contemporaries had several years ago become engrossed by the #MeToo movement and the personal revelations of celebrity women around the world that revealed them as survivors of sexual abuse.

“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people… we understand their situation is much like ours. They have suffered the same. But they continue to live freely,” she said.

“We have gone through the same experience, but we don’t get the respect they get.

“Devadasi women are still looked down upon.”

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China’s Population Shrinks For First Time In More Than 60 Years.

China’s population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades, official data showed Tuesday, as the birth rate slows in the face of mounting financial pressures and shifting social attitudes.

The world’s most populous country is facing a looming demographic crisis as its workforce ages, which analysts warn could stymie economic growth and pile pressure on strained public coffers.

Analysts point to the soaring cost of living — as well as a growing number of women in the workforce and seeking higher education — as reasons behind the slowdown.

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“Who dares to have kids?” a Shanghai resident in his thirties said Tuesday.

“The unemployment rate is so high, Covid destroyed everything, there’s nothing we can do. Next year we’ll have declining growth again.”

The mainland Chinese population stood at around 1,411,750,000 at the end of 2022, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported, a decrease of 850,000 from the end of the previous year.

The number of births was 9.56 million, the NBS said, while the number of deaths stood at 10.41 million.

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The last time China’s population declined was in the early 1960s, when the country was battling the worst famine in its modern history, a result of the disastrous Mao Zedong agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.


China ended its strict one-child policy — imposed in the 1980s owing to fears of overpopulation — in 2016 and began allowing couples to have three children in 2021.

But that has failed to reverse the demographic decline for a country that has long relied on its vast workforce as a driver of economic growth.

“The population will likely trend down from here in coming years,” Zhiwei Zhang of Pinpoint Asset Management said.

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“China cannot rely on the demographic dividend as a structural driver for economic growth,” he added.

“Economic growth will have to depend more on productivity growth, which is driven by government policies.”

‘A lot of pressure’
The one-child policy meant Chinese people got used to smaller families, Xiujian Peng, a researcher at Australia’s University of Victoria, told AFP.

And for those who were only children as a result of the policy, “there’s a lot of pressure when it comes to taking care of your parents and improving your quality of life in the future”, a young woman in Beijing told AFP.

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For those who do have children, balancing work and child-rearing can be an impossible task.

“For many women, having a child means that they have to give up on a lot of things they wanted to do,” Nancy, a 32-year-old e-commerce worker, explained.

News of the population decline quickly trended on China’s heavily censored internet.

“Without children, the state and the nation have no future,” one comment on the Twitter-like Weibo service read.

“Having children is also a social responsibility,” another comment from a well-known “patriotic” influencer read.

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But others again pointed to the difficulties of raising children in modern China.

“I love my mother, I will not be a mother,” said one.

“No one reflects on why we do not want to have (children) and do not want to get married,” another said.

‘Policy package needed’
Independent demographer He Yafu also pointed to “the decline in the number of women of childbearing age, which fell by five million per year between 2016 and 2021” — a consequence of the ageing of the population — as a reason for the low birth rate.

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Many local authorities have already launched measures to encourage couples to have children.

The southern megacity of Shenzhen, for example, now offers birth bonuses of up to 10,000 yuan (around $1,500) and pays allowances until the child is three years old.

But analysts argue much more needs to be done.

“A comprehensive policy package that covers childbirth, parenting, and education is needed to reduce the cost of child-raising,” researcher Peng told AFP.

“Women’s job insecurity after giving birth should be addressed particularly.”

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The Chinese population could decline each year by 1.1 percent on average, according to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences that was updated last year and shared with AFP.

China could have only 587 million inhabitants in 2100, less than half of today, according to the most pessimistic projections of that team of demographers.

And India is set to dethrone China this year as the most populous country in the world, according to the United Nations.

“A declining and ageing population will be a real concern for China,” Peng said.

“It will have a profound impact on China’s economy from the present through to 2100.”




South Korea seeks manslaughter charges over deadly Halloween crush.

South Korean police are seeking criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials, about half of them law enforcement officers, for a lack of safety measures they said were responsible for a crowd surge that killed nearly 160 people.

Despite anticipating a weekend crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to the capital’s nightlife district Itaewon on the day of the crush. Those officers were focused on monitoring narcotics use and violent crimes, which experts say left few resources for pedestrian safety.

Son Je-han, who headed the National Police Agency’s special investigation into the incident, said Friday his team will now send the case to prosecutors. Those recommended for indictment include Park Hee-young, the mayor of Seoul’s Yongsan district, and the district’s former police chief Lee Im-jae – two of the six who have been arrested.

Lee has also been accused of falsifying a police report to disguise his late arrival to the scene. Two other police officials have been arrested over suspicions they attempted to destroy computer files and other potential evidence tied to the accident.


The results of the 74-day police investigation announced by Son mostly confirmed what was already clear – that police and public officials in Yongsan failed to employ meaningful crowd control measures for the expected numbers of Halloween revelers and essentially ignored pedestrian calls placed to police hotlines that warned of a swelling crowd hours before the surge turned deadly on Oct. 28.

Officials also botched their response once people began getting toppled over and crushed in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., failing to establish effective control of the scene and allow rescue workers to reach the injured in time, Son said.

“(Their) inaccurate judgment of the situation, the slow distribution of information about the situation, poor cooperation between related institutions and delays in rescue operations were among the overlapping failures that caused the high number of casualties,” Son said at a news conference in Seoul.

‘Manmade disaster’
Son said his team questioned nearly 540 people and collected 14,000 pieces of evidence from central and municipal government offices and transportation authorities. He said police investigators studied more than 180 video files recorded on security cameras or taken by journalists and pedestrians and jointly inspected the scene with forensic experts to analyze the density of the crowd.

Police said the crowd packing the corridor-like alley between the hotel and a dense row of storefronts grew into an unstoppable wave around 9 p.m., with people being unable to dictate their movement once they got swept in. At around 10:15 p.m., people began falling and toppling on one another like dominos, leading to the tragedy that resulted in 158 deaths and 196 injuries.

Analysis of security camera footage and simulations by the National Forensic Service indicate the crowd density at the alley was around eight people per square meter (yard) at around 10:15 p.m. The density grew to eight to nine people occupying the same unit of space as of 10:20 p.m. and around nine to 11 people as of 10:25 p.m., police said.


Paramedics struggled to reach the scene because the area was so densely packed. Those who arrived were so overwhelmed by the large number of people lying motionless on the ground that they asked pedestrians to help them perform CPR. Most of the deaths were caused by suffocation or brain damage, police said.

It’s unclear whether the results of the police investigation would be enough to calm the public’s anger and demands for government accountability as the country continues to cope with its worst disaster in nearly a decade.

Opposition lawmakers and some relatives of the victims have demanded investigations into more high-profile figures, such as Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who have faced calls to resign.

However, Son said the special investigation team will close its probes on the Interior and Safety Ministry, the National Police Agency, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, saying it was difficult to establish their direct responsibility.

Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “manmade disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways or temporarily closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.




China vows ‘final victory’ over COVID-19 despite global alarm.


The Chinese state media rallied citizens on Wednesday for a “final victory” over the coronavirus as global health officials tried to determine the facts of China’s raging COVID-19 outbreak and how to prevent a further spread.

China’s axing of its stringent virus curbs last month has unleashed COVID on a 1.4 billion population that has little natural immunity having been shielded from the virus since it emerged in the central city of Wuhan three years ago.

Many funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least 1 million deaths in China this year, but China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn.

“That is totally ridiculous,” a 66-year-old Beijing resident who only gave his last name Zhang said of the official death toll.

“Four of my close relatives died. That’s only from one family. I hope the government will be honest with the people and the rest of the world about what’s really happened here.”


China has rejected foreign skepticism of its statistics as politically motivated attempts to smear its achievements in fighting the virus.

“China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory against the epidemic,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, said in an editorial, rebutting criticism of China’s three years of isolation, lockdowns and testing that triggered historic protests late last year.

Having lifted the restrictions, Beijing is hitting back against some countries demanding that visitors from China show predeparture COVID-19 tests, saying the rules were unreasonable and lacked a scientific basis.

Japan became the latest country to require a preboarding negative test, joining the United States, Australia and others. European Union health officials were due to meet Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to China travel.

Willie Walsh, head of the world’s biggest airline association IATA, also criticized what he described as knee-jerk” measures that he said had proven to be ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

China, which has been largely shut off from the world since the pandemic began, will stop requiring inbound travelers to quarantine from Jan. 8. But it will still demand that arriving passengers get tested before they begin their journeys.

Data Doubts
World Health Organization officials met Chinese scientists Tuesday amid concern over the accuracy of China’s data on the spread and evolution of its outbreak.


The U.N. agency had invited the scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

The WHO would release information about the talks later, probably at a Wednesday briefing, its spokesperson said.

Last month, Reuters reported that the WHO had not received data from China on new COVID hospitalizations since Beijing’s policy shift, prompting some health experts to question whether it might be concealing the extent of its outbreak.

China reported five new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

British-based health data firm Airfinity has said about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID.

There were chaotic scenes at Shanghai’s Zhongshan hospital where patients, many of them elderly, jostled for space on Tuesday in packed halls between makeshift beds where people used oxygen ventilators and got intravenous drips.

A Reuters witness counted seven hearses in the parking lot of Shanghai’s Tongji hospital Wednesday. Workers were seen carrying at least 18 yellow bags used to move bodies.


Booking Boom
With COVID disruptions slowing China’s $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth in nearly half a century, investors are now hoping for policy stimulus.

China’s yuan hovered at a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday, after its finance minister pledged to step up fiscal expansion. The central bank has also flagged more policy support.

UBS analysts expect the “big bang” approach to reopening to cause a “deeper but shorter setback” to the economy, but also predicted that activity would recover from February.

Despite the new restrictions in some countries, interest in traveling abroad is reviving, Chinese media reported.

International flight bookings have risen 145% year-on-year in recent days, state-run China Daily reported, citing data from travel platform Trip.com.

Before the pandemic, global spending by Chinese tourists exceeded $250 billion a year but the number of flights to and from China is still a fraction of pre-COVID levels.

Thailand expects at least five million Chinese arrivals this year. More than 11 million Chinese visited Thailand in 2019, nearly a third of its total visitors.

But there are already signs that an increase in travel from China could pose problems abroad.


South Korea, which began testing travelers from China on Monday, said more than a fifth of the test results were positive.

Authorities there were searching for one Chinese national who tested positive but went missing while awaiting quarantine.




South Korea threatens to scrap buffer zone pact after drone incursion


South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Wednesday he would consider suspending a 2018 agreement that created maritime buffer zones with the North should Pyongyang “violate” Seoul’s territory again.

The deal, struck during a period of high-profile diplomacy at a summit in Pyongyang, aimed to reduce military tensions along the heavily fortified border.

At the time, the two sides agreed to “cease various military exercises aimed at each other along the military demarcation line,” but Pyongyang began repeatedly violating the deal last year.

North Korea fired artillery shots into the agreement’s designated maritime buffer zones multiple times in 2022, and last week sent five drones across the border into South Korean airspace.


The violations have prompted growing calls from ruling-party parliamentarians for the hawkish Yoon administration to scrap the four-year-old deal, inked under then-president Moon Jae-in.

On Wednesday, Yoon instructed his security aides “to consider suspending the military agreement if the North carries out another provocation violating our territory,” spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye told reporters.

Yoon also called for “a large-scale production of small-size drones that are hard to be detected by the end of the year” and the creation of a multi-purpose drone unit for an “overwhelming counteroffensive capability”.

The North Korean drone incursion, the first such incident in five years, prompted an apology from Seoul’s defense minister after the military failed to shoot down any of the unmanned aircraft despite scrambling jets for a five-hour operation.

Scrapping the 2018 deal would “increase the chance of heightened military tensions and an actual clash in border areas”, Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification told AFP.

Despite Pyongyang violating the deal, the agreement still helped with “preventing a major military clash,” he said.

“It will be a much different story if Yoon puts an official, political end to the agreement.”




Junta’s show of force, mass pardons mark Myanmar Independence Day.


Myanmar’s military junta announced an amnesty for 7,000 prisoners to mark Independence Day on Wednesday following a show of force in the capital.

The decision comes just days after the government increased democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi’s jail term to 33 years.

Swaths of the Southeast Asian country have been engulfed by fighting between junta troops and anti-coup rebels since the military seized power almost two years ago.

The junta, which recently wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of Suu Kyi, is preparing for fresh elections later this year that the United States has said would be a “sham.”

Tanks, missile launchers and armored cars rolled through the dawn air to a parade ground in the capital Naypyidaw, AFP correspondents said, kicking off a military display marking 75 years since Myanmar gained independence from Britain.


Civil servants and high school students followed the troops, accompanied by a military band as 750 “peace” doves were released to mark the occasion, according to state media.

Later in the day, the junta announced it would free 7,012 prisoners to mark the anniversary, though it did not specify whether the amnesty would include those jailed as part of a crackdown on dissent.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun did not respond to an AFP request for comment on whether Suu Kyi would be moved from her prison to house arrest as part of the amnesty.

In a speech to assembled troops, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing accused unidentified countries of “intervening in Myanmar’s internal affairs” since the February 2021 coup.

The military was meeting with political parties for discussions on “the proportional representation electoral system,” he said, without giving further details.

Analysts say the junta may scrap the first-past-the-post system that saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win sweeping majorities in 2020 and 2015.

Muted celebrations
Myanmar declared independence from British colonial rule on Jan. 4, 1948, after a long fight championed by General Aung San, ousted civilian leader Suu Kyi’s father.


The junta has handed out hundreds of awards and medals to its supporters in the run-up to the event, including to a firebrand monk known for his role in stirring up religious hatred in Myanmar.

Wirathu – dubbed “The Buddhist bin Laden” by Time Magazine in 2013 following deadly communal riots – was awarded the title of “Thiri Pyanchi” on Tuesday, for “outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar.”

Independence Day is normally marked with festive street games, marches and gatherings in public parks and spaces.

But celebrations of public holidays have been largely muted since the putsch as people stay home in protest against the junta.

AFP correspondents said there was an increased security presence in the commercial hub Yangon, which has been hit by a string of bomb attacks in recent months.

The US embassy warned of “potential increases in attacks, targeted shootings, or explosions” Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, marked the day by sending “sincere greetings,” adding that he anticipated the “further development” of relations, according to state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar.

Russia is a major ally and arms supplier of the isolated junta, which has said Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago was “justified.”

Myanmar’s military has made unsubstantiated allegations of massive voter fraud during elections in November 2020, which were won resoundingly by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, as a reason for its coup.

International observers said at the time the polls were largely free and fair.




‘Majority’ of EU want tests on passengers from China.


An “overwhelming majority” of the EU’s 27 member countries want passengers coming from China to be systematically tested for Covid before departure, the European Commission said on Tuesday.

The consensus recommendation emerged from a meeting of EU health ministry officials held Tuesday in Brussels. (Watch Video Here)

A crisis meeting to be held Wednesday on the issue will decide what coordinated measures will be applied across the bloc.

The gatherings were called in the wake of China deciding to lift its “zero Covid” policy, which has sparked massive demand for flights to other parts of the world by Chinese citizens and residents who had been grounded for nearly three years.

READ ALSO: Omicron: Travel Restrictions Had No Public Health Benefit, Disrupted Businesses – NCDC DG

The European Union fears a sudden influx of passengers from China could bring Covid variants that may be able to evade current vaccines. (Watch Video Here)

There are also concerns that China’s data on infections is incomplete, partial and insufficient.

“The overwhelming majority of countries are in favour of pre-departure testing,” a commission spokesman said after Tuesday’s meeting.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the officials also agreed to recommend stepped-up monitoring of wastewater from flights and at airports to detect traces of Covid, and for member states to boost surveillance.

She emphasised the need for EU “unity” at the meeting to take place on Wednesday. (Watch Video Here)

Several EU countries including France, Spain and Italy have already imposed testing requirements on arrivals from China pending a bloc-wide approach.

Beijing has reacted angrily to the increased restrictions, which are also being applied by the United States, Japan and Australia.

China has only recorded 22 Covid deaths since December and has dramatically narrowed the criteria for classifying such deaths — meaning that Beijing’s own statistics about the unprecedented wave are now widely seen as not reflecting reality. (Watch Video Here)

Data compiled by the World Health Organization, upon which the EU relies, shows no fresh Covid figures from China for over a week.

Earlier Tuesday, the commission said an “offer stands” for the EU to provide Covid vaccines and expertise to China.

A spokesman said Kyriakides had repeated the vaccine offer recently and that any supply of them was dependent on Beijing’s reaction.

Many EU countries have a surplus of mRNA vaccines — especially the one made by BioNTech/Pfizer — that scientific studies have shown to be more effective against severe Covid than the inactivated-virus ones China has developed and uses. (Watch Video Here)




EU, America condemns sentencing of ousted Myanmar leader, Aung San Suu Kyi


The United States and the European Union condemned Myanmar’s junta for handing a 33-year prison sentence to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The Burma military regime’s final sentencing of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is an affront to justice and the rule of law,” a State Department spokesperson said, using Myanmar’s former name and the veteran leader’s title before she was ousted in February 2021.

The EU also condemned the jailing of Suu Kyi after “purely politically motivated” trials by the ruling junta.

“These trials were carried forward with no respect for due legal procedure or necessary judicial guarantees and are a clear attempt to exclude democratically elected leaders from political life,” an EU spokesperson said. He also slammed the sentencing of ex-president Win Myint, Suu Kyi’s co-accused, to a total of 12 years in prison.


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Death Toll From Cambodia Casino Fire Reaches 25 As Rescuers Scour Site.


Rescuers scoured the charred ruins of a Cambodian hotel and casino complex Friday as the death toll from a fire that forced people to jump from windows rose to 25.

Hundreds of people are believed to have been inside the Grand Diamond City venue, located in the town of Poipet within sight of the Thai border, when the blaze broke out late Wednesday night. (Watch Video Here)

“The death toll now is around 25,” said Sek Sokhom, director of the information department for the province of Banteay Meanchey, adding that some of the bodies recovered were found in stairways.

Grieving families told AFP they were struggling to comprehend the scale of the incident, with one mother saying she was unable to eat because she was so “overwhelmed” by the loss of her 23-year-old son.

Photos and video from the scene showed people huddling on windowsills to escape the flames, with one rescuer telling AFP he saw people desperately jumping from the roof as the blaze inched closer. (Watch Video Here)

A Cambodian police officer told AFP they believed “there are many more bodies still trapped inside” as rescuers began entering the gutted complex.

Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers and police officers, along with volunteers from Thailand, are taking part in the search.

Smoke was still occasionally rising from the complex on Friday as rescuers prepared to enter the buildings at around 7 am, with fire trucks on standby at the scene. (Watch Video Here)

Jakkapong Ruengdech, a team leader with Thai rescue group the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, told AFP they needed to establish if there was still intense smoke or fire inside.

Another rescuer from the group, who asked not to be named, described the building as “unstable” and said the search would have to proceed with caution.

Many of the injured have been taken to Thailand for treatment, with local officials on the Thai side saying more than 50 had been (Watch Video Here) hospitalised, with 13 in critical condition.

As the death toll rose, grieving families struggled to comprehend their loss — such as Keerati Keawwat, whose 23-year-old son was in the building.

“He got stuck inside and could not get out,” the 55-year-old told AFP from a makeshift information centre.

“I can’t eat, and only slept for one hour,” she said. “I’m too overwhelmed.” (Watch Video Here)

‘ Neung’, a 42-year-old casino worker who gave only his nickname, said he was sleeping in the complex and managed to make it out — but his father was not so lucky.

He said his dad, who was gambling in the casino Wednesday night, managed to help two women reach safety.

“But in helping them, he used a lot of energy and was choked by the smoke,” he said, describing how his dad was then trapped in a room with others but was able to call until roughly 3 am. (Watch Video Here)

“I then lost connection with my dad, and lost hope,” he said.

“Now, I only want to have his body.”

The complex is one of many in Poipet, a border town popular with Thais who face strict restrictions on gambling within their country.

Thailand’s foreign ministry said it was working closely with Cambodian authorities to find and identify Thais involved in the incident and was sending “additional equipment, consular officers and a police attache” to Poipet. (Watch Video Here)

While gambling by Cambodians is also illegal under the country’s laws, numerous casino-filled hotspots have flourished along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam.

‘A tragedy’
A Grand Diamond City worker, who asked not to be named as it might affect her job, told AFP she was working on the third floor of the 17-floor hotel wing when the blaze broke out.

“At first, it was not a huge fire,” she said. But she and a co-worker were soon forced to flee outside when the flames began rampaging towards them.

“It got huge rapidly,” she said, still in a state of shock over the death and destruction. (Watch Video Here)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday expressed condolences to the families of the victims, calling it a “tragedy” and promising that fire engines would be placed near all tall buildings.

There is as yet no indication what caused the blaze, the latest in a series of fires that have struck popular entertainment establishments in the region where concerns have long been raised over lax safety standards. (Watch Video Here)

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16 killed, fifty injured in massive fire at Cambodia hotel casino


At least 16 people were killed, 50 others were injured while more remain missing after a massive fire ripped through a hotel-casino in Cambodia on Thursday.

The fire lasted more than 12 hours, as neighboring Thailand sent firetrucks to help fight the blaze in a bustling border town. (Watch Video Here)

Videos posted on social media showed people falling from a roof after they were trapped by the fire at the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel in the border town of Poipet. Many of those inside, both customers and staff, were from neighboring Thailand.

In a video posted by Cambodia’s firefighting agency, onlookers could be heard shouting pleas to rescue people trapped on the roof of the hotel complex, which is more than a dozen stories tall at its highest point. The video showed at least one man falling as the flames reached the roof.

“Oh, please help rescue them. Pump water … pump water,” shouted the onlookers. (Watch Video Here)

The Department of Fire Prevention, Extinguishing and Rescue posted that calls for help were heard from the 13th, 14th and 15th floors at 4 a.m. local time and hands were seen waving from windows as well as a mobile phone’s flashlight signaling from inside the complex.

“The fire was massive, and was inside the casino, so it was difficult for our water cannons to reach it,” observed a firefighter on the video posted online by the fire department. He said that was the reason the fire continued burning for such a long time. (Watch Video Here)

The blaze, which started around midnight Wednesday, was finally put out at 2 p.m. Thursday, said Sek Sokhom, head of Banteay Meanchey’s information department. He said a local Buddhist temple was being prepared to receive the dead.

The province’s deputy governor, Ngor Meng Chroun, told Cambodia’s Bayon Radio the death toll had reached 16, with about 50 other people injured. The number of deaths appeared likely to rise, as more bodies of those trapped inside were discovered and critically hurt people succumbed to their injuries. (Watch Video Here)

Banteay Meanchey police chief Sithi Loh said 360 emergency personnel and 11 firetrucks had been sent to the scene of the fire, whose cause was not yet known. The casino employed about 400 workers.

“Right now, we are trying to bring the dead bodies from the building down. I don’t think there will be any survivors because of very thick smoke. Even we all (the rescue staff) have to wear proper gear when we go inside the building, otherwise, we cannot breathe at all,” said Montri Khaosa-ard, a staff member of Thailand Ruamkatanyu Foundation, a social welfare organization that sends volunteers to the sites of emergencies. (Watch Video Here)

Thai and Cambodia rescue teams worked side-by-side in Thursday’s search of the badly burned premises.

Thailand’s public television network, Thai PBS, reported that 50 Thais, both staff and customers, had been trapped inside the casino complex. It reported that Cambodian authorities requested help to deal with the fire from Thailand, which sent five firetrucks and 10 rescue vans.

Poipet in western Cambodia is opposite the city of Aranyaprathet in more affluent Thailand, and there is busy cross-border (Watch Video Here) trade and tourism.

Thai PBS cited reports that Aranyaprathet Hospital’s emergency ward was full and other victims had to be sent to other hospitals.

Casinos are illegal in Thailand, but neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos host the lucrative industry.

Cambodia has an especially active casino industry because the Southeast Asian country is also a popular tourist destination with convenient international connections. (Watch Video Here)

The Grand Diamond City casino is just a few meters (yards) from the border checkpoint with Thailand and popular with customers who make the four-hour drive from the Thai capital, Bangkok.

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Eighteen children dead after consuming Indian-made meds in Uzbekistan.


At least 18 children died after consuming pediatric syrup manufactured by Indian pharmaceutical company Marion Biotech Pvt Ltd, Uzbekistan’s health ministry said.

The ministry said 18 out of 21 children who took the Doc-1 Max syrup while suffering from an acute respiratory disease died after consuming it. It is marketed on the company’s website as a treatment for cold and flu symptoms. (Watch Video Here)

A batch of the syrup contained ethylene glycol, which the ministry said was a toxic substance. The syrup was imported into Uzbekistan by Quramax Medical LLC, the ministry said in its statement released on Tuesday.

It also said the syrup was given to children at home without a doctor’s prescription, either by their parents or on the advice of pharmacists, with doses that exceeded the standard dose for children.

It was not immediately clear whether all or any of the children had consumed the suspect batch or had consumed more than the standard dose, or both. (Watch Video Here)

Marion Biotech, Quramax Medical and India’s health ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request seeking comment. An Indian government source said the health ministry was looking into the matter.

India had on Tuesday launched an inspection of some drug factories across the country to ensure high quality standards.

The Uzbek incident follows a similar one in Gambia, where the deaths of at least 70 children were blamed on cough and cold syrups made by New Delhi-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd. Both India’s government and the company have denied the medicines were at fault. (Watch Video Here)

India is known as the “pharmacy of the world” and its pharmaceuticals exports have more than doubled over the past decade to $24.5 billion in the past fiscal year.

The Uzbek health ministry said it had dismissed seven employees for negligence for not analyzing the deaths in a timely manner and not taking the necessary measures. It said it had taken disciplinary measures against some “specialists”, without specifying what (Watch Video Here) role the specialists had.

It is also withdrawing the Doc-1 Max tablets and syrups from all pharmacies.




Death Toll From Philippine Floods, Landslides Climbs To 33.


One person died and three others were missing in the southern Philippines after being hit by a landslide, police said Thursday, taking the nationwide death toll from recent rains to at least 33.

Authorities were still searching for more than two dozen other people missing after heavy downpours over the Christmas weekend caused flooding and landslides across central and southern regions. (Watch Video Here)

The latest death happened Wednesday in Mati City in the province of Davao Oriental on Mindanao island when a landslide buried four people as they fished, police said.

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The body of a 62-year-old man was recovered and the search for his companions was still under way, Mati City police chief Ernesto Gregore told AFP.

“There was a heavy downpour in the mountains. They were fishing in a river when the landslide occurred,” Gregore said. (Watch Video Here)

The weather turned bad over the weekend as the disaster-prone nation of 110 million people prepared for a long Christmas holiday.

Hundreds of houses have since been destroyed and more than 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) of crops wiped out by rains that have forced tens of thousands of people into evacuation centres, the national disaster agency said.

Most fatalities have been in the province of Misamis Occidental, also on Mindanao, where 15 people died from drowning or rain-induced landslides. (Watch Video Here)

The Philippines is ranked among the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of climate change, and scientists have warned that storms are becoming more powerful as the world gets warmer.




Soaring China COVID Cases Increase Risk Of New Variants – Experts.


An explosion of Covid-19 cases in China as the country lifts its zero-Covid measures could create a “potential breeding ground” for new variants to emerge, health experts warn.

China announced this week that incoming travellers would no longer have to quarantine from January 8, the (Watch Video Here) latest major reversal of strict restrictions that have kept the country largely closed off to the world since the start of the pandemic.

While the country’s National Health Commission has stopped issuing daily case numbers, officials in several cities estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have been infected in recent weeks. Hospitals and crematoriums have been overwhelmed across the country.

With the virus now able to circulate among nearly one-fifth of the world’s population — almost all of whom lack immunity from previous infection and many of whom remain unvaccinated — other nations and experts fear China will become fertile ground for new variants. (Watch Video Here)

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that each new infection increased the chance the virus would mutate.

“The fact that 1.4 billion people are suddenly exposed to SARS-CoV-2 obviously creates conditions prone to emerging variants,” Flahault said, referring to the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease.

Bruno Lina, a virology professor at France’s Lyon University, told the La Croix newspaper this week that China could become a “potential breeding ground for the virus”. (Watch Video Here)

Soumya Swaminathan, who served as the World Health Organization’s chief scientist until November, said a large part of the Chinese population was vulnerable to infection in part because many elderly people had not been vaccinated or boosted.

“We need to keep a close watch on any emerging concerning variants,” she told the website of the Indian Express newspaper.

Countries test Chinese travellers
In response to the surging cases, the United States, Italy, Japan, India and Malaysia announced this week they would increase health measures for travellers from China. (Watch Video Here)

The lack of transparent data from China — particularly about viral genomic sequencing — is making it “increasingly difficult for public health officials to ensure that they will be able to identify any potential new variants and take prompt measures to reduce the spread”, US officials said Tuesday.

India and Japan have already said they will impose mandatory PCR testing on all passengers from China, a measure Flahault said could be a way around any delays in information from Beijing. (Watch Video Here)

“If we succeed to sample and sequence all viruses identified from any travellers coming in from China, we will know almost as soon as new variants emerge and spread” in the country, he said.

Variant ‘soup’
Xu Wenbo, head of the virus control institute at China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that hospitals across the country would collect samples from patients and upload the sequencing information to a new national database, allowing authorities to monitor possible new strains in real-time.

More than 130 Omicron sublineages have been newly detected in China over the last three months, he told journalists. (Watch Video Here)

Among those were XXB and BQ.1 and their sublineages, which have been spreading in the US and parts of Europe in recent months as a swarm of subvariants has competed for dominance worldwide.

However BA.5.2 and BF.7 remain the main Omicron strains detected in China, Xu said, adding that the varying sublineages would likely circulate together.

Flahault said “a soup” of more than 500 new Omicron subvariants had been identified in recent months, although it had often been difficult to tell where each had first emerged. (Watch Video Here)

“Any variants, when more transmissible than the previous dominant ones — such as BQ.1, B2.75.2, XBB, CH.1, or BF.7 — definitely represent threats, since they can cause new waves,” he said.

“However, none of these known variants seems to exhibit any particular new risks of more severe symptoms to our knowledge, although that might happen with new variants (Watch Video Here) in the coming future.”




China Approves First Foreign Video Games Since Crackdown


Chinese regulators approved 44 new foreign video game titles Wednesday, the first to be allowed to hit the market since an industry crackdown to rein in minors’ gaming habits swept the sector last year.

Beijing moved against the country’s vibrant gaming sector last August as part of a sprawling crackdown on big tech companies, including a cap on the amount of time children could spend playing games. (Watch Video Here)

Officials also froze approvals of new titles for nine months until April, but a growing number of domestic titles have been approved since then.

China’s gaming regulator, the National Press and Publication Administration, on Wednesday said it had approved 44 new imported games in December including Nintendo’s Pokemon Unite.

It separately approved 84 new domestic titles. The body normally approves foreign titles in batches a few times per year. The last foreign game approvals to be handed out (Watch Video Here) were in June 2021.

Earlier this month, China granted homegrown tech giant Tencent its first video game licence in 18 months, ending a dry spell that had threatened its position as the world’s top game maker.

China’s video game market shrank more than 19 percent year-on-year in November, according to a Wednesday report by Chinese gaming consultancy Gamma Data.

The approval signals a relaxing of China’s strict attitude towards tech companies, although games are still censored for (Watch Video Here) politically incorrect themes.

During the crackdown, hundreds of game makers pledged to scrub “politically harmful” content from their products and enforce curbs on underage players to comply with government demands.

Restrictions announced last year but still in effect allow players under the age of 18 to play for up to three hours a week. (Watch Video Here)

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Pakistan Court Frees Rapist After Deal To Marry Victim.


A Pakistan court freed a rapist after he married his victim in a settlement brokered by a council of elders in the northwest of the country, his lawyer said Wednesday.

The decision has outraged rights activists, who say it legitimises sexual violence against women in a country where a majority of rape goes unreported. (Watch Video Here)

Dawlat Khan, 25, was sentenced in May to life imprisonment by a lower court in Buner district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for raping a deaf woman.

He was released from prison on Monday after the Peshawar High Court accepted an out-of-court settlement agreed by the rape survivor’s family.

“The rapist and the victim are from the same extended family,” Amjad Ali, Khan’s lawyer, told AFP.

“Both families have patched up after an agreement was reached with the help of local jirga (traditional council),” he added. (Watch Video Here)

Khan was arrested after his unmarried victim delivered a baby earlier this year, and a paternity test proved he was the child’s biological father.

Rape is notoriously difficult to prosecute in Pakistan, where women are often treated as second-class citizens.

According to the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell — a group providing legal assistance to vulnerable women — the conviction rate is lower than three percent of cases that go to trial. (Watch Video Here)

Few cases are reported because of the associated social stigma, while lapses during investigations, shoddy prosecutorial practices, and out-of-court settlements also contribute towards abysmal conviction rates.

“This is effectively the court’s approval of rape and facilitation of rapists and rape mentality,” Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir, a lawyer and human rights activist, said of the Peshawar court decision.

“It is against the basic principles of justice and the law of the land which does not recognise such an arrangement,” she told AFP. (Watch Video Here)

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was “appalled” by the ruling.

“Rape is a non-compoundable offence that cannot be resolved through a feeble ‘compromise’ marriage,” the group tweeted.

In rural Pakistan, village councils known as jirgas or panchayats are formed of local elders who bypass the justice system, although their decisions have no legal value. (Watch Video Here)




Japan To Require COVID Test On Arrival For China Travellers.


Japan will require Covid-19 tests on arrival for travellers from mainland China from Friday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, after Beijing announced it will end inbound quarantine requirements.

Tokyo has eased its restrictions on tourists in recent months and the move means travellers from China will be the only visitors required to take Covid-19 tests on arrival, other than those who are displaying symptoms. (Watch Video Here)

Kishida said on Tuesday the decision was taken because “there is information that infection is spreading rapidly” in China.

“It is difficult to ascertain the precise situation due to major discrepancies between central and local authorities and between the government and private sector,” he told reporters.

“This is causing growing concern in Japan.”

The move comes after Beijing announced that inbound travellers will no longer be required to quarantine on arrival from January 8 after three years of strict (Watch Video Here) pandemic control.

China abruptly lifted many of its harsh Covid restrictions after nationwide protests and is seeing an unprecedented surge in infections.

Travellers from mainland China, or who have been there within seven days, will be required to test on arrival in Japan from Friday, Kishida said. (Watch Video Here)

Those who test positive will be quarantined for seven days at designated facilities.

Tokyo will also cap flights coming from mainland China, Kishida said.

Japan only fully reopened to tourists in October after two-and-a-half years of Covid restrictions that kept out almost all foreign travellers. (Watch Video Here)

In November, 934,500 people visited Japan from overseas, around 40 percent of the figures in the same month in pre-pandemic 2019.

In 2019, travellers from mainland China made up 30 percent of inbound tourists visiting Japan. (Watch Video Here)