Local Zika virus identified in Miami Beach

MAIMI (Florida) — Health officials here found evidence of local Zika virus transmission in Miami Beach, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, opening a new front in the fight against the mosquito-borne virus, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

A handful of Zika cases have been identified and health officials are deciding which area or areas to include in any updated travel guidance, the source said. An announcement is expected to be made as early as today.

The virus, which has spread rapidly through the Americas since it was first detected in Brazil last year, can cause the rare birth defect microcephaly, marked by abnormally small heads and developmental problems.

A Florida health department spokesman Mara Gambineri said the department believes active transmissions are still only occurring in a small area in the Wynwood area of Miami but acknowledged two new Zika cases outside that area.

“If investigations reveal additional areas of likely active transmission, the department will announce a defined area of concern,” she said in a statement.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine told a press conference on Thursday that state and federal health officials have yet to conclude the tourist hotspot is the latest area where Zika has been transmitted.

“We don’t know the exact link, one could be a tourist, one could be someone who may have worked on Miami Beach,” Levine told reporters. “If it was confirmed we’d be able to talk about that, but it’s not.”

Levine said health department investigations are ongoing, and a determination could come as soon as today.

So far there have been 35 cases of likely local transmission in the state, including the two new cases announced on Thursday.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention referred calls to state
health officials.

The prospect of the virus spreading to the tourism-dependent Miami Beach area is likely to alarm tourism officials.

Last year, some 15.5 million people spent at least one night in Greater Miami and the beaches, generating nearly $24.4 billion (RM98 billion) in direct expenditure, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. More than 48 per cent of all visitors stayed in Miami Beach.

Dr Amesh Adalja, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, said it would not be surprising to see new clusters of Zika cases pop up in different areas or counties of Florida. Local mosquito populations could pick up the virus from a person returning from another area where Zika is active.

He said it is important to alert people as soon as possible if local transmission is occurring so that pregnant women can protect themselves and get tested for the virus.

At the same time, he said, “you don’t want to jump to conclusions right away and cause people to panic or stigmatise an area that doesn’t have local transmission.”

Earlier this month Florida began aerial spraying of insecticides to kill mosquitoes in the Wynwood neighbourhood. The CDC also issued an unprecedented warning to pregnant women and their partners to avoid the area.

It is unclear what kind of mosquito control may be implemented, if any, in Miami Beach.

The Zika virus has been linked to more than 1,700 cases of microcephaly in Brazil, raising alarm among public health officials globally about its spread. The virus can also be spread through sex, making it unique among mosquito-borne diseases.

President Barack Obama in February requested $1.9 billion (RM7.6 billion) to fight Zika but Congressional efforts to approve part of the funding deadlocked before lawmakers adjourned for summer. — Reuters

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Photo of dazed Syrian boy sparks media storm

ALEPPO (Syria) — A shocked Syrian boy pictured sitting in an ambulance covered in blood and dust after an air strike has become a symbol of civilian suffering in Aleppo, drawing worldwide attention.

As international concern mounted, President Bashar al-Assad’s key ally Russia said it was ready to halt fire in the battleground northern city for 48-hour “humanitarian pauses” from next week.

The announcement on Thursday followed pleas from the United Nations and the European Union for a halt in the fighting in divided Aleppo to allow aid deliveries.

But it was the haunting image of five-year-old Omran sitting dazed and bloodied in an ambulance that reverberated around the globe, much like the photo of little Aylan Kurdi whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach last year.

Omran was pulled from the rubble after an air raid on Wednesday in the rebel-held district of Qaterji in the southeast of Aleppo, which has been devastated by the five-year war.

Twitter user Charlene Deveraturda @malasadasbooks posted an image of the boy and wrote:

“Poor baby. Near my grandson’s age. I cannot imagine. The image does not leave my mind. #syrianboy #Syria #peace”

The hashtag #Syrianboy was one of the top trending topics in the United States and Britain. More than 10 tweets posted every minute on Twitter with the hashtag, according to social media analytics company Zoomph. Many linked images of the child with a picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach in Turkey last year.

The video of Omran and other children being pulled from the rubble caused widespread upset and condemnation over the harrowing reality of Syria’s five-year-old civil war.

Twitter user Malcolmite (@Malcolmite) wrote: “It’s not important if it goes viral, what’s important is what is going to be done about it? #syrianboy”

Sara Assaf (@SaraAssaf) tweeted: “So if this terrorised little boy turns into a terrorist one day … Who is to blame? #SyrianBoy #Aleppo #Injustice”

The Aleppo doctor who treated Omran’s head wound said in an interview that the boy had been reunited with his parents and that his family were all believed to have survived the strike.

“Omran was afraid and astonished and he didn’t cry because he was shocked,” the surgeon named by the BBC as Dr Mohammad said, adding that the child hadn’t spoken a word.

“Omran had a lucky chance to spread his story over all the media but every day we have many children who have worse injury and sad stories. They maybe lost their lives or limbs, or many of them became paralysed,” he said.

The US State Department called Omran “the real face” of the Syrian conflict.

“That little boy has never had a day in his life where there hasn’t been war, death, destruction, poverty in his own country,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing.

Photographer Mahmoud Rslan captured the image of Omran, who was plopped onto a seat in an ambulance after being carried out of his family’s destroyed apartment by a rescuer.

He has a head full of hair that falls into his eyes and is wearing a T-shirt and shorts, but with bare feet that barely reach the edge of the chair.

“I’ve taken a lot of pictures of children killed or wounded in the strikes that rain down daily,” Rslan said.

“Usually they are either unconscious or crying. But Omran was there, speechless, staring blankly, as if he did not quite understand what had happened to him.” — Agencies

Trump regrets past remarks that ‘caused personal pain’

CHARLOTTE (North Carolina) — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump apologised on Thursday for past remarks that “may have caused personal pain” as he sought to refocus his message in the face of falling opinion poll numbers in his first speech since shaking up his campaign team this week.

“Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing,” Trump told a crowd in Charlotte. “I have done that, and I regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain. Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues.”

Trump did not cite any examples of such remarks. The New York businessman has made his “tough talk” and brash style a selling point of his campaign for the Nov 8 election, rarely apologising in the face of criticism even from within his own party for own party for comments insulting women, Muslims and Mexican immigrants.

In his presidential announcement speech last year, he described some Mexican immigrants as “criminals and rapists.” He recently faced a barrage of criticism for belittling the family of a Muslim American soldier who died in Iraq in 2004, after the soldier’s father spoke out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention last month.

The campaign for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, quickly dismissed Trump’s apology, saying: “Donald Trump literally started his campaign by insulting people.

“We learned tonight that his speechwriter and teleprompter knows he has much for which he should apologise,” the campaign said in a statement. “But that apology tonight is simply a well-written phrase until he tells us which of his many offensive, bullying and divisive comments he regrets — and changes his tune altogether.”

Trailing Clinton in national opinion polls, Trump has tried to reset his campaign, announcing on Wednesday a shake-up of his senior campaign staff for the second time in less than two months. In the past week, he has abandoned his free-wheeling style of campaigning, instead using a teleprompter at every rally.

Trump also began adding non-rally events to his campaign schedule, visiting a police lodge on Thursday afternoon and hosting a roundtable on Wednesday morning. Previously, Trump had eschewed such events that historically comprise a significant portion of a candidate’s time.

Trump’s speech on Thursday night, echoing remarks earlier in the week in Wisconsin, reached out to minority voters and accused Clinton of being dishonest.

“So while sometimes I can be too honest, Hillary Clinton is the exact opposite: She never tells the truth,” Trump said. “In this journey, I will never lie to you. I will never tell you something I do not believe.”

Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, promised on Thursday he would stick to a more disciplined and uplifting message to voters in the final dash to Election Day without crimping his freewheeling style.

Conway said the candidate’s White House bid could preserve his “authenticity” and still move past a long string of controversies to focus on issues.

“We would like to take an uplifting, optimistic, policy-centric message directly to the American people,” Conway told CBS’s This Morning, adding she was confident the former reality television star could stick to a sharper message.

Wednesday’s campaign reshuffle also brought on Steve Bannon, a combative conservative who headed the Breitbart News website, as chief executive officer, in a move seen as giving Trump a chance to emphasise his unconventional style.

Conway said the more disciplined approach by Trump, who has never held elective office, would not mean jettisoning his more off-the-cuff and unpredictable style.

“We’re going to make sure Donald Trump is comfortable about being in his own skin — that he doesn’t lose that authenticity that you simply can’t buy and a pollster can’t give you,” she said on CNN. “Let him be him, in this sense.”

Trump has so far been unable to extend his appeal beyond white middle-class voters who pack his rallies. Conway said her rise to campaign manager showed Trump valued a more policy-driven approach that would appeal to women and independent voters.

“The way to speak to women and all Americans is through issues. We’ve got to get away from this content-free campaign and on to the substance,” she said.

The campaign will put two ads on the air in five states this week, the first campaign ads Trump has aired in the general election, Conway said. He will also continue a series of policy-focused speeches after giving speeches in the past two weeks on jobs, national security and law and order.

“He’s going to give these policy speeches,” she said on CNN. “You’ll see more of those. Next week is immigration week, followed by education week.” — Reuters

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Portion of highway reopens as California wildfire rages

Canada PM to tour China

OTTAWA — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel to China for an official visit at the end of this month aimed at boosting diplomatic and trade ties, his office announced on Thursday.

The Aug 30-Sept 6 trip will include stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong where Trudeau will meet with political and business leaders. His staff did not identify the people he will be meeting.

Trudeau will also travel to Hangzhou for the summit of leaders of the Group of 20 economic powers on Sept 4-5.

In addition, he will try to mingle with the “public at large” in China, likely posing for selfies with locals as he has done everywhere he has gone since being elected to Canada’s highest office last year, according to his staff. — AFP

“On this trip, I will strive for a closer, more balanced relationship between Canada and China — one that unlocks the untapped potential in our two countries’ commercial ties, and advances important issues like good governance, the rule of law and the environment,” Trudeau said in a statement.

The trip is being made at the invitation of Premier Li Keqiang.

It comes less than two months after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s berating of a Canadian reporter while visiting Ottawa provoked a public outcry and led Canada to lodge a formal complaint with Beijing.

A visibly irritated Wang Yi told a reporter during a news conference that she had “no right” to question Beijing’s human rights record.

The reporter had asked Canada’s foreign minister about what Canada was doing to pressure China over human rights and its holding of a Canadian man on espionage charges.

Despite an apparent eagerness on both sides to grow their trade relationship, Sino-Canadian ties have been strained by the detention of Canadian citizen Kevin Garratt in 2014 on espionage charges. He had run a Christian-themed coffee shop near the North Korean border.

According to Canadian government figures, China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, with exchanges topping US$66.5 billion (RM267 billion) last year.

Canada is also hoping to increase the number of Chinese students and tourists coming to the country. — AFP

Obama first US president to visit Laos

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will visit Laos next month, a first for a US president, in a trip that begins with a G20 summit in China, the White House said on Thursday.

The Sept 2-9 tour will be the president’s 11th visit to Asia since he took office in 2009.

Obama has made a “pivot” to the region a pillar of US foreign policy. Next month’s swing will come about five months before the Democratic president steps down after two four-year terms.

In Laos, which this year holds the presidency of the Asean, Obama will participate in the US-Asean Summit and East Asia Summit from Sept 6-8.

The East Asia meeting will include the major regional powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Russia.

“President Obama will be the first US president to visit Laos,” the White House noted.

Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Laos, which has strained ties with the US, twice this year — in January to prepare for Obama’s arrival and in July for Asean meetings.

Kerry raised issues related to the devastation caused by US bombings during the Vietnam War and the future of Southeast Asia in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Laos became the world’s most-bombed country per capita from 1964 to 1973 as the United States tried to cut supplies flowing to North Vietnamese fighters during the Vietnam War.

More than two million bombs were dropped. About 30 per cent did not explode and some 50,000 people died by the end of the war.

In January, Washington and Vientiane discussed beefing up a US programme to clear mines and disarm unexploded devices. — AFP

China navy carries out drills in Sea of Japan

BEIJING — China’s navy carried out drills in the Sea of Japan, the Chinese military’s official newspaper said yesterday, describing the exercises as routine and done in accordance with international law and practice.

The Chinese navy has increasingly been exercising in waters far from home as it seeks to hone its operational abilities. Last year, five Chinese ships carried out exercises in international waters in the Bering Sea off Alaska.

The People’s Liberation Army Daily did not say exactly where the latest drills took place, describing it only as a “certain part of the Sea of Japan”.

Drill commander Xu Haihua said the exercises were part of routine annual arrangements and were meant to help improve the fleet’s ability to fight far out at sea.

The paper said some of the ships involved were on their way back from the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC, held in Hawaii.

“Exercises far out at sea in international waters are commonly done by navies of the world, and this year our navy has many times organised fleets to carry out exercises far out in the Western Pacific,” the newspaper said.

“This deep sea exercise is part of annual training arrangements, is not aimed at any specific country, region or target, and accords with international law and practice,” it said.

The Sea of Japan is a strategic waterway bordered by Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea.

China is eyeing the use of a high level of artificial intelligence and automation for its next generation of cruise missiles, a senior designer was quoted as saying yesterday.

“We plan to adopt a ‘plug and play’ approach in the development of new cruise missiles, which will enable our military commanders to tailor-make missiles in accordance with combat conditions,” Wang Changqing of the China Aerospace and Industry Corp told the state-run China Daily newspaper. — Reuters

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Duterte not committing crime, UN told

MANILA — The Philippine government yesterday criticised as “baseless and reckless” a UN statement that President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs amounted to crime under international law.

Duterte’s chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo said the administration was not behind the extra-judicial killings targeting alleged criminal suspects, challenging UN human rights experts to visit the Philippines and investigate.

Two UN rights experts said on Thursday Duterte’s directives calling on law enforcers and the public to kill suspected drug traffickers “amount to incitement to violence and killing, a crime under international law”.

“When you are in New York or somewhere else, 10,000 kilometres or miles away from the Philippines and then you make such judgments, that’s recklessness,” Panelo said.

“Those statements are misplaced and baseless, and they better come over and see for themselves the real situation.”

Duterte, 71, won May elections in a landslide on a promise to kill tens of thousands of suspected criminals to prevent the Philippines from becoming a narco-state. He has offered security officials bounties for the bodies of drug dealers.

When he took office on June 30, Duterte told a crowd in Manila: “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

However, Panelo said the UN should not take such statements seriously.

“He is just asking the public to cooperate with the campaign.”

Duterte’s spokesmen said his statements are just hyperbole but police have reported killing more than 600 people since he took office.

The nation’s largest broadcaster ABS-CBN has put the death toll at over 1,100, which includes reported vigilante killings where bodies turn up on streets with card board signs branding them as drug pushers.

Panelo insisted police only killed suspects in self-defence while other deaths were the work of drug syndicates who feared their members would surrender and cooperate with authorities.

“How can you stop the killing of members of the syndicates? You cannot be guarding them all the time,” Panelo said in response to the UN experts’ call.

International and local rights groups, some lawmakers and church leaders in the mainly Catholic nation have condemned the killings. The Philippine Senate set to launch an investigation next week into possible rights violations in police operations.

Still, Duterte’s police chief Ronald Dela Rosa said law enforcers would not be deterred and the campaign was just starting.

“It’s a low (point) when we are being investigated but we go on … we never back down.” — AFP

Australia, Hanoi at odds over war anniversary

SYDNEY — An Australian ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a Vietnam War battle has soured into a diplomatic spat after the Vietnamese government restricted access to the site at Long Tan.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made an 11th-hour appeal to his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on behalf of about 1,000 Australian veterans and their families who had travelled to Vietnam but found themselves barred by authorities, who said the ceremony might offend residents.

“I thank the prime minister of Vietnam for agreeing last night to arrangements which will, after all, enable our veterans and their families who have travelled to Vietnam, reverently to commemorate the battle as they honour all those who fought and died in those fields so many years ago,” Turnbull said in an address in Canberra on Thursday.

The commemoration had long been planned in coordination with Vietnamese authorities, but was cancelled on Wednesday.

Australian Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said the formal ceremony at the Long Tan site remained cancelled but Nguyen had agreed to ease the restrictions so that smaller groups of veterans could visit the site.

Tehan called the cancellation “a kick in the guts”.

In Vietnam, police blocked roads leading to Long Tan and allowed a small group of veterans and diplomats to lay a wreath at the site.

“Very, very sad the Vietnamese government has taken the attitude they have toward a fairly peaceful commemorative service to honour the dead,” Australian veteran Peter Wyldey said in the nearby seaside resort of Vung Tau, where some veterans had gathered for a private ceremony.

A local government official said Hanoi feared the service would turn into a victory celebration and put the Australians at risk because families of Vietnamese soldiers killed in the battle still lived nearby.

More than 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972 and more than 500 were killed during the deeply unpopular war between the Soviet-backed Communist government of North Vietnam and South Vietnam’s United States-backed regime. The war ended with the fall of the former Saigon in 1975.

The 1966 battle of Long Tan was fought in a rubber plantation in South Vietnam. Eighteen Australian soldiers were killed and 24 wounded. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties numbered about 245 killed and 350 wounded. — Reuters

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Police name Thai suspect in deadly blasts

BANGKOK — Police identified a Thai man yesterday as a suspect in their investigation into attacks that killed four people and wounded dozens in a wave of bombings in Thailand’s south a week ago.

Deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phatanacharoen identified the suspect as Ahama Lengha from Narathiwat province near Thailand’s border with Malaysia.

A Thai military court issued an arrest warrant on Tuesday for a then unidentified suspect for attempting to bomb a beach in the tourist island of Phuket.

Kissana said Ahama had not yet been taken into custody and it was not known if he was still in the country.

“We have only issued one arrest warrant in relation to the bomb attacks, and that is for Ahama. It’s because it is clear he is linked to what happened,” Kissana told reporters.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombings, which came days after Thais voted to accept a military-backed constitution.

Police and the government ruled out any link to foreign militants within hours of the attacks and insisted the perpetrators were home-grown.

National police chief Jakthip Chaijinda said the attacks could be linked to the referendum but has not given further details.

Suspicion has fallen on domestic political groups including supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced from office in 2006.

While Thaksin’s supporters have not been blamed outright, police said last week the attacks were carried out simultaneously by one group on the orders of one person, but gave no further details.

Lawyers for Thaksin have been instructed to file complaints against those accusing him of orchestrating the blasts.

Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on Monday the attacks were “definitely not an extension” of an insurgency in the southern provinces that border Malaysia and where Malay-Muslim insurgents are fighting a bloody separatist war.

However, some security experts have noted southern insurgent groups have a track record for carrying out coordinated attacks.

Kissana said police were working with Malaysia to track down other suspects.

“We have received some answers from Malaysia that are useful and move the case forward,” he said.

Meanwhile, AFP reported police saying yesterday a group of 15 suspects detained by the Thai military investigating the attacks was not involved in the blasts.

Office of Police Strategy senior official Major General Chayaphol Chatchaidej instead he described them as a splinter faction of the anti-junta Red Shirt movement loyal to Thaksin.

The network called itself the Revolutionary Front of Democracy party — a previously unheard of group.

The Red Shirts have denied any involvement and accused the junta of using the bombs as an excuse to further crack down on opponents. — Agencies

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