KUMA, Japan (AFP) — Japanese emergency services and troops scrambled on Thursday to reach thousands of homes cut off by catastrophic flooding and landslides that have killed dozens and caused widespread damage.
Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said rising floodwater or roads damaged by landslides had blocked access to more than 3,000 households, mostly in the hardest-hit southwestern region of Kumamoto where fresh downpours were forecast.
An AFP reporter in the cut-off village of Kuma saw parts of the road collapsed into the river and scenes of devastation in flood-affected houses.
In one home, an elderly man was struggling to clear up the debris and furniture littering the mud-caked floor, his traditional straw tatami mats in one room ruined.
The rain front started in the southwest in the early hours of Saturday and has since cut a swathe of destruction across Japan, dumping record amounts of rain and causing swollen rivers to break their banks.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) said “heavy rain will likely continue at least until 12 July in a wide area” of the country, calling for “extreme vigilance” on landslide risks and flooding in low-lying areas.
The JMA issued its second-highest evacuation order to more than 450,000 people. However, such orders are not compulsory and most residents are choosing not to go to shelters, possibly due to coronavirus fears.
The death toll has climbed gradually as more victims are discovered in isolated areas.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that 58 people had been confirmed dead, with a further four feared to have lost their lives.
Suga said authorities were investigating whether four other deaths were linked to the floods, adding that 17 people were missing and a dozen injured.
After five days blocked by floodwater and landslides, troops finally managed to rescue some 40 residents in the village of Ashikita in Kumamoto region.
Kinuyo Nakamura, 68, burst into tears of relief as she finally made it to an evacuation center.
Japan has deployed at least 80,000 rescue workers to save lives with the aid of another 10,000 troops.
The rains also lashed central Japan, with local official Ryoichi Miyamae telling AFP that nearly 4,000 people were cut off, mainly trapped in the cities of Gero and the tourist magnet of Takayama by the overflowing Hida River.
Complicating the rescue efforts, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in Japan from more than 20,000 cases.
Novavax enters late-stage clinical trials
US biotech firm Novavax said Thursday it was initiating its final Phase 3 clinical trial for its experimental Covid-19 vaccine.
The trial will be carried out in the United Kingdom and aims to enroll 10,000 volunteers, aged 18-84, with and without underlying conditions, over the next four to six weeks.
“With a high level of SARS-CoV-2 transmission observed and expected to continue in the UK, we are optimistic that this pivotal Phase 3 clinical trial will enroll quickly and provide a near-term view of NVX-CoV2373’s efficacy,” said Gregory Glenn, the company’s president of research and development, using the technical name for the formulation.
It is the eleventh Covid-19 vaccine candidate to reach the Phase 3 stage globally.
The company has been awarded $1.6 billion by the US government to develop and fund the drug, which is administered by two intramuscular injections.
The Maryland-based company uses insect cells to grow synthesized pieces of the spike protein of the virus, which it hopes will evoke a robust human immune response.
It also uses an “adjuvant,” a compound that boosts the production of neutralizing antibodies.
The company says the drug, which is a liquid formulation, can be stored at two degrees celsius to eight degrees celsius, refrigerator temperature.
In the spring, the company said it had proven the efficacy of a seasonal flu vaccine it had developed using the same technology.
Power transfer unsure
WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Donald Trump on Wednesday refused to guarantee that he will transfer power if he loses the November election, earning scorn from his Democratic challenger Joe Biden and even from within his own party.
“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump responded when asked at a White House press conference whether he is committed to the most basic tenet of democratic rule in the United States — the peaceful handover of power upon a change of president.
Biden, who holds a steady lead over the Republican incumbent in opinion polls ahead of the 3 November vote, expressed incredulity.
“What country are we in?” the former vice president said, when asked about Trump’s comment by reporters.
“Look, he says the most irrational things. I don’t know what to say.”
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a frequent but rare party critic of Trump, went further, saying that any hesitation on the core constitution guarantee was “unthinkable and unacceptable.”
“Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus,” he tweeted.
‘Get rid’ of ballots
Trump followed up his remarks — unprecedented in modern times for a US president — by resuming his near daily complaint about the fairness of the election.
Apparently referring to the increased use of mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said: “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster.”
Trump frequently claims that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to mass fraud and are being encouraged by Democrats to rig the election.
However, there is no evidence that ballots sent through the postal service have ever led to significant fraud in US elections.
At the press conference, Trump seemed to suggest annulling what are expected to be the huge numbers of mailed-in ballots, noting that in such a scenario, he would remain in power.
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation,” he said.
Trump’s latest insistence that there cannot be a free and fair presidential election came as pressure mounts over his plan to put a new, right-leaning justice on the Supreme Court.
Trump is set to nominate a replacement on Saturday for the late liberal-leaning justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week.
His Republican Party, which has a majority in the Senate, is then expected to quickly confirm the nominee.
If they succeed, the nine-justice court would then likely have a strongly pro-conservative bent for years to come.
Democrats are crying foul, saying that the process should wait until the results of the election are known, allowing the winner to shape the Supreme Court.
With Trump and the Republicans mounting a series of court challenges against the use of mail-in ballots, the chances of a contested election result are considered high.
On Wednesday, Trump said he thinks the election “will end up in the Supreme Court.”
Beijing protests Rival’s ‘slander’
UNITED NATIONS (Xinhua) — The permanent mission of China to the United Nations on Wednesday expressed firm opposition to what it called as the US attack and slander at the general debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
The Chinese mission made the remarks in exercising the right of reply, in accordance with the rules of the UNGA, to the “attack and slander against China” made by US President Donald Trump on Tuesday at the general debate.
The United States position, it said, was in total disregard of basic facts. China expresses firm opposition, said the Chinese mission.
“The world is facing formidable challenges posed by COVID-19 and the serious threats of unilateralism, protectionism, and bullying practices. The world has come to a crossroads,” it said. “At this moment, what is needed is unity, cooperation and mutual trust, instead of confrontation and the spread of ‘political virus.’”
The novel coronavirus, it said, is the common enemy of humankind.
It is yet another unknown virus from nature, which can break out among humans anytime anywhere. China is a victim of the virus and a contributor to the global fight against it, the Chinese mission said.
China reported the epidemic, identified the pathogen, and shared its genome sequence with the world — all at the earliest time possible. When human-to-human transmission was confirmed, China immediately made the resolute decision to shut all exit routes from Wuhan.
The most stringent closure was imposed on the exit routes from Wuhan City and Hubei Province, and traffic control was put in place. China’s customs authorities promptly halted, in accordance with law, overseas travels by Chinese people under four categories, namely confirmed cases, suspected cases, close contacts with the former two and people with fevers, said the Chinese mission.
When China closed the exit channels from Wuhan on 23 January, only nine confirmed cases were identified outside China, of which only one was in the United States.
Arab leaders see new conflict
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — Arab leaders voiced fears Wednesday before the United Nations of new conflict in the region as tensions soar between Iran and the United States.
The annual extravaganza of international diplomacy at the UN General Assembly has been turned into a virtual affair this year, with leaders sending in recorded speeches due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two days after US President Donald Trump ramped up pressure on Iran in a widely contested move, the leaders of Iraq and Saudi Arabia voiced concerns about the region.
“We do not want Iraq to become a sort of playground for other forces that will kill each other on our territory,” President Barham Saleh said in his address.
“We have witnessed enough wars and enough attacks on our sovereignty,” he said.
Iraq has attempted a delicate balancing act between neighboring Iran, which shares the Shiite faith of the majority in its Arab neighbor, and the United States, which invaded and toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
President Donald Trump in January ordered a drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s most prominent general, Qasem Soleimani, as well as an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary leader, raising calls in Baghdad for the expulsion of US forces.
Trump rejected the calls for a withdrawal but this month ordered a sharp cutback of troops in Iraq as part of his election promise to stop “endless” wars.
Saleh hinted at frustration in Iraq with “anarchic” groups, whose rocket fire on US forces had prompted the drone strike.
“Weapons must remain in the hands of Iraqi state institutions,” Saleh said.
He also vowed to tackle rampant corruption, a key priority for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, who came to power after sweeping nationwide protests.
Trump has vowed to squeeze Iran, imposing sweeping economic sanctions and leaving a 2015 nuclear accord that was negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.
On Monday, Trump said he was enforcing “UN” sanctions for Iranian violations of an arms embargo — despite wide skepticism at the world body that the United States has such authority.
New Japan PM seeks better ties with Moon
TOKYO, Japan (AFP) — Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday called for better ties with South Korea in talks with President Moon Jae-in, the first in months between leaders of the countries.
Suga, who took office last week, said he told Moon in a phone call that the countries must repair their “difficult” bilateral relations, which are mired in a long-running dispute over issues dating back Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula.
“To President Moon, I said we must not leave unattended the current extremely difficult bilateral relations, which are being harmed by various problems,” Suga told reporters at his office in Tokyo after the call.
But Suga made clear he saw the ball as being in Seoul’s court when it comes to resolving the disputes, including over compensation for the use of forced labor by Japan during its wartime occupation.
“Based on Japan’s consistent position on various issues, I want to continue urging South Korea to take appropriate actions,” he said.
Suga took office last week after the resignation of Shinzo Abe. The call was the first time the leaders of the two countries have spoken since Abe and Moon met last December in China.
Japan and South Korea have long had uneasy diplomatic relations, with ties colored by the history of Tokyo’s brutal colonization of the peninsula through the end of World War II.
In recent years, Tokyo and Seoul have imposed reciprocal trade sanctions and clashed over a wide range of issues including wartime sex slavery and forced labor.
In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that victims of forced labor had a right to seek compensation from Tokyo.
Japan argues the issue was settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations and urged the South Korean government to deal the ruling, which Tokyo said violated the treaty.
Climate summit set
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — The United Nations and Britain said Wednesday they would co-host a global climate summit on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement.
The announcement came days after Chinese President Xi Jinping told the UN that the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter would peak emissions in 2030 and attempt to go carbon neutral by 2060, a move hailed by environmentalists.
“We have champions and solutions all around us, in every city, corporation and country,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
“But the climate emergency is fully upon us, and we have no time to waste. The answer to our existential crisis is swift, decisive, scaled up action and solidarity among nations.”
Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were to address the issue at a climate roundtable meeting on Thursday.
Johnson, who will speak via video link, was expected to say: “As the world continues to deal with coronavirus we must look ahead to how we will rebuild, and how we can seize the opportunity to build back better.
“The UK will lead by example, keeping the environment on the global agenda and serving as a launch pad for a global green industrial revolution,” he was to say, according to a government statement.
The world remains off-track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which scientists say is crucial to prevent runaway warming that would leave vast swathes of the planet inhospitable to life.
Guterres and Johnson will convene “global leaders… to rally much greater climate action and ambition,” the statement said.
National governments will be invited to present more ambitious and high-quality climate plans at the summit, which would involve government leaders, as well as the private sector and civil society.
According to the UN, the summit is intended to increase momentum ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.
Recent data shows greenhouse gas concentrations reaching record levels, worsening extreme events including unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and floods.
South Korean defector shot dead in NK water
SEOUL, South Korea (AFP) — North Korean soldiers shot dead a suspected South Korean defector at sea and burned his body as a coronavirus precaution after he was interrogated in the water over several hours, Seoul military officials said Thursday.
It is the first killing of a Southern citizen by North Korean forces for a decade, and comes with Pyongyang at high alert over the pandemic and inter-Korean relations at a standstill.
The fisheries official disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, a South Korean military official told AFP.
More than 24 hours later, North Korean forces located him in their waters and questioned him from a patrol boat, he said, with Yonhap news agency adding his interrogator wore protective equipment.
He was killed around six hours after being found, according to the official.
“He was shot dead in the water,” he said. “North Korean soldiers poured oil over his body and burnt it in the water.”
“We assess it was carried out under the North’s anti-coronavirus measure,” he added.
Pyongyang has closed its borders and declared an emergency to try to protect itself against the virus which first emerged in neighboring China.
The man was wearing a lifejacket and his shoes had been found on board the South Korean boat, the official said – indicators pointing to him entering the water voluntarily.
“We have obtained intelligence that he had expressed his intention to defect while being questioned,” he added.
He declined to go into detail about the source of the information.
But the South Korean military is known to intercept radio communications by the North’s forces.
The killing took place after an “order from superior authority,” Yonhap cited South Korean officials as saying.
Seoul’s defense ministry condemned the shooting as an “outrageous act.”
“We sternly warn North Korea that all responsibilities for this incident lie with it,” it said in a statement.
Shoot to kill
The isolated North — whose crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak — has not confirmed a single case of the disease that has swept the world.
Pyongyang closed its border with China in January to try to prevent contamination, and in July state media said it had raised its state of emergency to the maximum level.
High-speed jet near black hole
BEIJING, China (Xinhua) — Using China’s Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, dubbed Insight-HXMT, researchers have discovered that the low-frequency quasi-periodic oscillations (LFQPO) above 200 keV in a new black hole originated from the precession of a closest relativistic jet to the black hole.
Researchers at the Institute of High Energy Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences cooperated with researchers from universities and institutes in China, Britain and Germany and reported the discovery which was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Relativistic jets are streams of matter emitted at speeds close to that of light, while accretion is the accumulation of matter into a central object via gravitational attraction.
LFQPO, discovered in the 1980s, are commonly found in black hole x-ray binaries and their origin is still under debate, said the research article.
The properties of LFQPO at high energies above 30 keV are closely related to the nature of the accretion flow in the innermost regions, and thus are key to testing existing models. The HXMT is capable of detecting emissions above 30 keV, thus playing a crucial role in the process.
The discovery will help people understand the behaviors of LFQPO at hundreds of kiloelectron volts, and study the relativistic effects of a jet only hundreds of kilometers from a black hole, said the article.
Launched in 2017, the Insight-HXMT is China’s first Space x-ray astronomical satellite. It has wide energy coverage, large effective area in high energy band and high time resolution.
The HXMT can explore regions closer to the black hole’s event horizon and neutron star surface.
Wild idea — Palace on suggestion to cut US security aid to Phl
The Palace on Thursday expressed confidence that the United States would consider its close ties with the Philippines in deciding whether or not it would approve the “wild suggestion” of an American lawmaker to suspend Washington’s aid to the country’s security forces.
Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild introduced the Philippine Human Rights Act bill at the US Congress which seeks to block American security assistance to the Philippines until the government makes reforms to the military and police.
The proposed measure outlines a “serious basic criteria” that would have to be met in order to resume funding, including the investigation and prosecution of human rights violators among uniformed personnel.
Also among the conditions that should be met are the establishment of rights protection of trade unionists, journalists, human right defenders, indigenous persons, small-farmers, LGBTQ+ activists, and government critics.
The bill also asks the government to guarantee a judicial system that is capable of investigating, prosecuting, and bringing to justice members of the police and military who have committed human rights abuses.
In a speech at the US Congress, Wild, a Democrat lawmaker, claimed the “brutal” regime of President Rodrigo Duterte is using the pretext of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 to “ramp up efforts targeting labor organizers, workers and political opponents.”
In response to this, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque tagged the bill as “wild,” even as he noted that the Philippines would not interfere with the decision of the United States.
“That’s a very wild suggestion. We are confident that the State Department and the administration of President [Donald] Trump, because of our close friendship with him, will see the importance of cooperation between the United States and the Philippines,” Roque told reporters.
“Any congressman can file a proposed measure but its chances to pass into a law is very small. Let’s leave it at that. That is the personal opinion of Congresswoman Wild which is a very wild idea,” he added.
The bill, co-sponsored by 24 other US lawmakers, has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on Financial Services of the US Congress.
“Let us make clear that the US will not participate in the repression. Let us stand with the people of the Philippines,” said Wild.
Duterte and his allies often blast foreigners who appear to meddle with the country’s domestic affairs when they seek to hold him accountable over alleged human rights abuses, particularly in his anti-narcotics campaign.
He appeared for the first time before the United Nations assembly early Wednesday, where he accused “a number of interest groups” of weaponizing human rights to discredit the efforts of his administration to eradicate the illegal drug trade in the country.
Duterte further accused his critics of pretending to be human rights advocates and spreading “malevolence and anti-government propaganda” even through schools.
Peter Murphy, chairperson of International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, said that Duterte’s message before the UN contained the “same poisonous language that has led to countless extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in these last four years.”
Murphy added that it is “perverse” for the President to redefine human rights as protection from illegal drugs, criminality, and terrorism, noting that human rights begin with the right to life as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“But the President has repeatedly and recklessly called for lives to be ended, women to be raped, telling his soldiers and police that he will take the blame,” Murphy said.
Duterte’s drug war has been the administration’s flagship campaign which has so far killed over 5,000 drug suspects. Human rights groups claim the actual number of cases is thrice that figure.