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Caught in a vaccine no man’s land, these European countries are scrambling for Chinese and Russian shots

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By Ivana Kottasová, CNN
Updated 7:41 AM ET, Fri February 19, 2021

(CNN) — As the United Kingdom celebrates giving at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine to 15 million people and the EU surpasses 23 million doses distributed, several other European countries have not yet managed to put a single shot in arms.

Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are still waiting to receive their first vaccine shipments, while rollouts in Albania and Northern Macedonia have so far been limited to a few hundred people.
The Western Balkan countries are key allies and possible future members of the European Union, but they have been left out of the bloc’s immediate vaccine supply plans.
The EU has secured more than 2.3 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines and said it expects to share some of those with others. It also set aside €70 million ($85 million) for the Western Balkan region to purchase some of these doses in the future, but since its own rollout has been slow and delayed, those countries are still waiting.
    And as relatively wealthy countries — at least in the global context — they are also not a top priority for programs designed to help the world’s poorest countries access vaccines.
    They have joined the COVAX program, which is aiming to make access to vaccines more equitable across the world, but the scheme’s limited supply means its primary focus is on the 92 low and middle income countries that can’t afford vaccines without funding and the Western Balkan countries are not among those. As self-financing COVAX members, they are set to receive 850,000 doses of a combination of coronavirus vaccines — but when these might arrive is unclear.
    “The constant tragedy of the Western Balkans is that they are on the fringe,” said Allison Carragher, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a global policy think tank. “They’re all aspirational EU members, so they looked at the EU program first, but that has been mangled and delayed by supply chain issues.”
    Many see the EU’s omission of Western Balkan countries as a missed opportunity. “This is a small region in terms of population, which means that with a small investment in vaccines, the EU would have gained a lot in terms of soft power and influence in the region,” said Alba Cela, the executive director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies. The fact that the EU didn’t do this is “allowing for other actors to play a role,” she added.
    Engjellushe Morina, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relation said that this feeling of being left behind could have serious implications for the region’s security.
    “Europe has really neglected the region for such a long time and it makes the region vulnerable to other external actors,” she said, “This is where Russia comes in. This is where China comes in. This is where Turkey comes in, and they have filled in the void in different aspects.”

    China steps in

    Faced with the possibility of a long wait, Serbia, the largest of the six Western Balkan countries, took matters into its own hands and looked for vaccines elsewhere. China and Russia were ready to step in.
    The Serbian government said China has so far supplied it with 1.5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, catapulting the country of 7 million to the top ranks of the global vaccination race. Around 850,000 people have been vaccinated against Covid-19 in Serbia as of Monday, according to the government.
    The bulk of them received the Chinese vaccine, although the government said it has also received 90,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and 40,950 of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine. The price Serbia paid for the vaccines has not been disclosed.
    Adnan Cerimagic, senior analyst at ESI, a policy and research institute, said that without the Chinese vaccine, Serbia would be in a similar position to the rest of the region. “The entire success of the vaccination program relies on China and I think it has worked for China too, using Serbia as a place where they can have an impact in Europe … the media reports say that thanks to the Chinese vaccine, Serbia is doing better than Germany and many other countries,” he said.
    Carragher said the deal has been a win-win situation. “There’s definitely a clear benefit for Serbia, not only reputationally, by being the top vaccinator on the continent of Europe, but also a legitimization of the government, which has been backsliding democratically,” she said. “But here, you know, whenever you’re the first in Europe, it looks like you’re doing something good.”
    China has a lot to gain too. “President Xi has said that his goal is to make this region the first region in the world that’s fully covered by the Belt and Road initiative and from that perspective, alliances like this can be leveraged for other diplomatic priorities,” Carragher said. The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s signature global infrastructure policy which seeks to create new trade corridors linking China to Asia, Africa and Europe.
    “It’s also about the underlying principle behind the vaccine program, that’s what they’re also selling, legitimizing a lack of transparency and vaccines [being] widely deployed before actually being declared safe,” Carragher added, pointing to the fact that Russia started its vaccination program before finalizing clinical trials, while China has not published their data in a peer-reviewed publication.
    China has struck back following criticism over its lack of transparency around vaccines, launching attacks on shots manufactured by other companies and countries. Russia was criticized for its early rollout of its then-unproved vaccine. But earlier this month, peer-reviewed results of Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trial showed it has very high efficacy rates — providing something of a vindication for the country.
    The vaccines are not China’s first venture into the Western Balkans either — in the past decade, it has invested heavily in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, financing large infrastructure and resource projects, including highways in Bosnia and Herzegovina and mines and factories in Serbia. It has also opened Confucius Institutes and university sinology departments across the region.
    Serbia’s rollout has been such a success that it has allowed the government to engage in its own round of regional vaccine diplomacy.
    Last week, it donated 4,688 of its Pfizer/BioNTech doses to Northern Macedonia, which is still waiting for any of the more than 100,000 doses it secured through COVAX. The donation was touted as a major sign of cooperation, with the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia Zoran Zaev taking part in a handover ceremony at the border.
    On Wednesday, Serbia announced it would donate 4,000 doses of the Russian vaccine to Montenegro, which is also still waiting for its other deliveries.
    The donations are a symbolic gestures. But in this historically volatile, vulnerable region, symbols like this matter.
    When the Serbian government announced it would provide vaccines for Serbs living in Kosovo, the government of Kosovo accused it of playing politics with vaccines and “smuggling uncertified pharmaceutical products” into the country. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and most western countries, including the United States, recognize it as an independent state. Serbia, however, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
    Kosovo has ordered over 100,000 doses of the vaccine from COVAX and is expecting deliveries from the EU as part of the €70 million scheme.
    The Serbian government also said it donated some of its doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to the Republika Srpska — one of the two highly autonomous entities that form Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vaccination of the first 1,000 health care workers started there last week, according to the website of the Republika Srpska’s Health Ministry. The region has also ordered 400,000 doses of the Russian vaccine. The government of the country’s Bosniak-Croat entity, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said it ordered 800,000 doses through the EU scheme.
    Separately, the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the body that governs the whole country, has ordered 1.2 million doses through the COVAX program.
    Albania has secured 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine via a direct contract with the company, although according to the government, less than 10,000 have been delivered so far — not enough to vaccinate the country’s 23,000 health care workers. On top of its Pfizer deal, Albania has also ordered about 1.1 million doses through COVAX, ensuring it will have enough doses for its entire population.

    ‘The EU could have done more’

    While the EU has promised to help the region purchase Covid-19 vaccines, there’s no indication yet of how this will work.
    But from a strategic and security point of view, the region is crucial for the EU. It is geographically entirely surrounded by EU member states, but remains vulnerable. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are all officially EU candidate countries, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are seen as potential future candidates.
      Cela said this proximity to the EU is why this is not just about showing solidarity with poorer neighbors. “There’s a lack of strategic vision. If this region is to be integrated — and it is de facto integrated in the EU already, because we have free movement and we have a lot of people traveling back and forth, in practical terms — it makes no sense for the EU not to provide the region with vaccines,” she said, highlighting that having low vaccination rates in neighboring countries would represent a risk to the EU.
      “It’s a very hot topic here right now,” Cela said, noting that the overwhelming feeling in the region is that the European Union could have done more for the Western Balkans.

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      World

      Nigeria crashed aircraft was on rescue mission for kidnapped schoolchildren

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      By Nimi Princewill, CNN
      Updated 10:13 AM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

      Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Nigeria’s airforce has said its plane, which crashed shortly after take-off from Abuja airport on Sunday morning — killing everyone on board — was on a mission to rescue the schoolchildren kidnapped last week.

      A spokesman told CNN the aircraft was on surveillance operations in Niger State as part of efforts to rescue at least 42 schoolchildren and staff members taken by gunmen from the Government Science School Kagara last Wednesday. One student died during the attack.
      Air Vice-Marshal Ibikunle Daramola told CNN on Monday afternoon that the air force had donated the military plane to a joint task force coordinating the rescue operation in Kagara.
      “The rescue effort is being coordinated by a multi-agency team… the crashed aircraft was part of the air force’s contribution to the rescue mission,” he added.
        Daramola told CNN that the airforce would continue to support the rescue operation.
          He added that all families of the personnel have been informed, and an investigation launched.
          The ongoing rescue efforts followed a directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the armed forces and police to ensure all captives are rescued.

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          Protests in Haiti as political standoff continues

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          By Caitlin Hu and Etant Dupain, CNN
          Updated 7:44 PM ET, Sun February 21, 2021

          (CNN) — Large crowds of Haitians took to the streets again on Sunday, as a standoff between President Jovenel Moise and the country’s opposition movement stretched into its third week.

          “Those of us fighting, who want another Haiti, a Haiti pearl of the Antilles, say no to the dictatorship,” one protester told Reuters in capital city Port-au-Prince, where Haitian opposition and civil society groups had called the demonstration. Another criticized the United States and international organizations for supporting the President.
          At the heart of protests is a dispute over the President’s term limit: Moise has served only four years of the usual five, and says his term ends in 2022 — a stance backed by the United States, United Nations and Organization of American States.
          Protesters, however, say he should have stepped down February 7, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.
            “We want the international community (to) understand that the Haiti people won’t back down on their demands. Jovenel Moise must leave the national palace for a peaceful transition that can lead us to the elections,” opposition leader André Michel told CNN on Sunday.
            This month’s protests also reflect years of increasing bitterness in Haiti over the country’s economic pain and violent crime. Killings and a wave of hundreds of kidnappings in particular have driven public outrage, according to a recent United Nations report, which recorded a monthly average of 84 demonstrations in the second half of 2020.
            Moise has blamed his administration’s poor record in dealing with such fundamental issues on the country’s system of governance, and on complications and lack of clarity in the constitution itself. “Since the beginning of my term, the country has never known stability,” he acknowledged in a February 12 tweet.
            With an eye toward empowering the office of the president for the future, he has vowed to hold a referendum on changes to the constitution in April. This will be his legacy project, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told CNN.
            However, critics are skeptical of the legitimacy of any constitutional changes made in the current political climate and without institutional checks and balances in place. General elections are expected to follow in the fall.
              In a speech last Sunday, amid celebrations for Carnival, which he celebrated with large crowds of supporters and revelers, Moise expressed his determination to see the country through another year.
              “Haiti is for me, for my kids, for the people here dancing. The people who don’t want me to do the people’s work will stop, or I will make them stop. I was elected to do a job, and I will do it,” he said.

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              World

              Oil spill leads Israel to close beaches as it faces ‘severe ecological disaster’

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              By Sharif Paget
              Updated 1:41 PM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

              (CNN) — Israeli authorities are trying to locate the source of a suspected oil spill that has been described as one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit the country, threatening wildlife, forcing beaches to close and prompting a mass cleanup.

              Blobs of sticky tar started washing up on the country’s Mediterranean shores last week. Images posted on official government accounts showed sea birds and turtles covered in tar and sticky oil.
              “The enormous amounts of tar emitted in recent days to the shores of Israel from south to north caused one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel,” the country’s Nature and Parks Authority said Sunday.
              The extent of the pollution is so bad, Israel’s Ministry of Interior issued an advisory Sunday urging people to stay away from the country’s beaches.
                A massive cleanup is underway but the Nature and Parks Authority said it would take a long time to make the marine area safe again. It has established a registration and information center for volunteers who wish to help.
                “I was very impressed by the exemplary voluntarism of the citizens who came to clean up the beaches. We must maintain our beaches, our country and the environment,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office.
                “I have just spoken with the Egyptian Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister who has come to us, and we proposed that every ship that you see here be powered by natural gas instead of polluting fuel, as happened here,” he continued.
                Gamliel said it was their “moral obligation to the public is to locate those responsible for the event,” according to the statement.
                  “We have the possibility of suing the insurance company of the ship that is responsible for the pollution and we will do everything to locate it,” she said.
                  In a separate statement posted to her Twitter account, Gamliel said, “We are making every effort to find those responsible for the disaster, and we will bring to the government’s approval tomorrow a proposal for resolutions to rehabilitate the environment.”

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                  World

                  Seven dead in Nigerian military plane crash

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                  Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) Seven people were killed when a Nigerian military plane crashed on approach to Abuja airport on Sunday, a spokesman for Nigeria’s Air Force said.

                  “All 7 personnel on board died in the crash,” Air Vice Marshal Ibikunle Daramola said on Twitter.
                  He added that the Chief of the Air Staff has ordered an immediate investigation into the incident.
                  “A military aircraft King Air 350 has just crashed short of our Abuja runway after reporting engine failure enroute [to] Minna. It appears to be fatal,” said the country’s aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, confirming the incident in a statement.
                   

                  AIRCRAFT ACCIDENT

                  This is to confirm that a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Beechcraft KingAir B350i aircraft crashed while returning to the Abuja Airport after reporting engine failure enroute Minna. First responders are at the scene. Sadly, all 7 personnel on board died in the crash

                  — Air Vice Marshal Ibikunle Daramola (@KunleDaramola3) February 21, 2021

                   
                  In a follow-up communication Sunday afternoon, a spokesman at the Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said the “aircraft reported engine failure at time 10:39 and crashed landed on the final approach path of Abuja Runway 22 at time 10:48UTC.”
                  Odaudu said fire fighters have been deployed to the scene to put out a raging blaze that had engulfed the airplane.
                  An aviation worker who asked not to be named — citing lack of official clearance to talk to the press — told CNN that he witnessed the crash.
                  “The crash occurred not very far from the runway. The pilot had tried returning to the runway after taking off,” he said.
                  The worker said the pilot swerved the plane to its crash site which is in a desolate area. He said the aircraft narrowly avoided warehouses and makeshift settlements around the Nnamdi Azikwe International airport.

                   

                   
                   
                   
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                  Why Britain’s anti-immigration politicians are opening the doors to thousands of Hong Kongers

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                  By Tara John, CNN
                  Updated 7:29 PM ET, Sat February 20, 2021

                  (CNN) — Eighteen months ago, Malcolm was at the vanguard of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

                  Full of bravado and often clad in black, the 21-year-old oversaw a group of 60 combative front-liners who embraced confrontational tactics against the police while demanding greater democracy in the former British colony.
                  Today, he is applying for asylum in the United Kingdom, and separated from his family in Hong Kong where he feels he can longer visit. Malcom believes if he returns to the Chinese city he could be arrested under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last June, which scaled up penalties against dissent to include punishments as severe as life imprisonment.
                  Since then, nearly 100 activists have been arrested under the new law. When Hong Kong police apprehended a protester friend of Malcolm’s in October, he booked a red-eye flight to London. Malcolm asked CNN not to use his real name, for fear that his family — who remain in Hong Kong — could face repercussions.
                    The British government has called the security law a clear violation of the “one country, two systems” policy meant to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing until 2047. In its wake, the UK has opened a six-year pathway to British citizenship for holders of British National (Overseas) passports (BN(O)), a special visa category created for Hong Kong nationals before the 1997 transfer of power.
                    Sze has settled into London life: She already has strong opinions on the snail’s pace of London buses and is counting the days to when lockdown ends and she can go shopping on Oxford Street.
                    While it can be hard to find the authentic Cantonese cuisine she grew up eating in Hong Kong, Sze marvels at how much cheaper food is at British supermarkets.
                    “The food quality is better, the price is cheaper and the rent is cheaper,” she told CNN.
                    Sze cannot get a job until her BN(O) visa is approved, but she is optimistic that the UK’s coronavirus-induced economic slump will not get in the way of her finding work. “I am open to any [job] option — it really depends on how much savings I have,” she said.
                      But her biggest concern is the fate of fellow dissidents going through the asylum process, and whether her compatriots who move to the UK will give up the fight for independence back home.
                      “Hong Kongers should never give up, no matter if they’ve left Hong Kong or not,” she said.

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