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Guinea records West Africa’s first Marburg virus death, WHO says
12 August 2021, 6:05 PM

Health authorities in Guinea have confirmed one death from Marburg virus, a highly infectious hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.

It marks the first time that the deadly disease has been identified in West Africa. There have been 12 major Marburg outbreaks since 1967, mostly in southern and eastern Africa.

Guinea’s new case was first identified last week, just two months after the country was declared free of Ebola following a brief flare-up earlier this year that killed 12 people.

The patient, who has since succumbed to the illness, first sought treatment at a local clinic before his condition rapidly deteriorated, the WHO statement said.

Analysts at Guinea’s national haemorrhagic fever laboratory and the Institute Pasteur in Senegal later confirmed the Marburg diagnosis.

“The potential for the Marburg virus to spread far and wide means we need to stop it in its tracks,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, said in the statement.

“We are working with the health authorities to implement a swift response that builds on Guinea’s past experience and expertise in managing Ebola, which is transmitted in a similar way,” Moeti said.

Both the Marburg case and this year’s Ebola cases were detected in Guinea’s Gueckedou district, near the borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone. The first cases of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, the largest in history, also were from the same region in Southeastern Guinea’s forest region.

Marburg case fatality rates have varied from 24% to 88% in past outbreaks depending on virus strain and case management, WHO said, adding that transmission occurs through contact with infected body fluids and tissue. Symptoms include headache, vomiting blood, muscle pains and bleeding through various orifices.

Zambians vote in presidential election seen as too close to call
12 August 2021, 4:42 PM

Zambians were voting for a new leader on Thursday, with long queues pointing to a high turnout in an election showdown between President Edgar Lungu and main opposition rival Hakainde Hichilema that looks too tight to call.

The two rivals, who voted at different stations hours apart, were both confident of winning the vote and the close contest raised the possibility of a run-off.

The electoral agency says it expects to declare a winner within 72 hours after polls close.

Zambia, Africa’s second biggest copper producer, became the continent’s first country during the coronavirus pandemic to default on its sovereign debt in November. Its economy is flagging.

Voters patiently waited in the sun to cast their ballots.

At a polling station in an affluent suburb of the capital Lusaka, crowds cheered “we want change” as Hichilema arrived to vote. The opposition leader blew back kisses to the crowd.

“Everybody must be allowed to vote. I am concerned about the speed,” said Hichilema after he voted.

Opposition UPND party’s presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia. [Reuters] 

Earlier, Lungu was among the first voters at a station in Chawama township in the capital. Wearing a black leather jacket, a white face mask and accompanied by his wife, he waved to a cheering crowd as he left in his motorcade.

“We are winning, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the race if we were not winning,” Lungu told reporters.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu greets supporters after casting his ballot in Lusaka [Reuters] 

Some voters walked to polling stations with chairs, a Reuters journalist said, while others shared pictures of long queues on Twitter.

In the Kabwata suburb of Lusaka, first time voter Ben Mulenga, 19, braved the early morning cold and arrived two and a half hours before voting started because he anticipated long queues.

“The things that are happening in our country, including the bad state of the economy and the high levels of unemployment, need to be addressed,” said Mulenga, a student at the University of Zambia.

YOUNG VOTERS

Some 54% of registered voters are 34 or younger, statistics from the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) show.

That could help Hichilema, who is facing Lungu for the third time and has placed the economy front and centre of his campaign, political analysts said.

Zambia’s economy will be among the continent’s slowest growing economies this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.

“As you can see we are suffering. Financially we are in crisis, definitely I want to make a change,” said Cassidy Yumbe, a 41-year-old driver and father of four as he waited to vote.

Zambia owes in excess of $12 billion to external creditors and spends 30%-40% of its revenues on interest payments on its debt, credit rating firm S&P Global estimates.

In office since 2015, 64-year-old Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, the CEO of an accountancy firm before entering politics, in a disputed election the following year.

J.P. Morgan said the outcome of the election could meaningfully shape Zambia‘s medium-term economic outlook as the new president would need to deliver a credible economic reform package acceptable to the IMF and voters.

The President has touted the new road, airport and energy projects he has overseen as laying the groundwork for economic development and growth.

But so far his debt-financed infrastructure splurge has failed to pay economic dividends, and unemployment remains high.

AU’s peacekeeping force in Somalia says investigating civilian deaths
12 August 2021, 4:10 PM

The African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia said it had started investigating reports that civilians were killed during a gunfight between its troops and al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab fighters.

The force, known as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), said the incident occurred on Tuesday following an ambush, while its soldiers were on patrol along the Beldamin-Golweyn Forward Operating Base in the Lower Shabelle region.

There was a heavy exchange of gunfire between AMISOM forces and al Shabaab militants before the patrol team seized firearms, rounds of ammunition and mobile phones, it said in a statement late on Wednesday.

“AMISOM has since received reports that civilian lives were lost. To this end, AMISOM has launched a thorough investigation into the reported incident,” it said.

Seven civilians were killed in the incident, a farmer in Golweyn village told Reuters on Thursday, including his brother Omar Hassan who owned a farm in the area, a driver and five other farmers.

“AMISOM deliberately went to the farm and killed them,” he said.

The Islamist al Shabaab group often carries out attacks in its war on Somalia‘s central government. It aims to topple the government and impose its own harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law.

The African Union peacekeeping mission, which was first deployed in 2007, supports the government against al Shabaab.

Italy and Argentina climb FIFA World Ranking after trophy triumphs
12 August 2021, 3:23 PM

Italy and Argentina have risen to fifth and sixth respectively in the FIFA World Ranking following their triumphs at Euro 2020 and the Copa America, while Belgium remains in top spot.

The Azzurri, who defeated England on penalties in the European Championship final at Wembley last month, climbed two places to fifth.

Argentina moved up two spots to sixth after winning the Copa America final against Brazil, who moved into second place and bumped world champions France into third.

Belgium, who were knocked out by Italy at the quarter-final stage of the Euros, remain the top-ranked international team in the world, while defeated finalists England stay fourth.

The United States moved up 10 places into 10th place after winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, while Mexico, who they defeated in the final, climbed two places into ninth.

Qatar were the biggest movers, ascending 16 places to reach 42nd spot after reaching the semi-finals of the Gold Cup, equalling their highest-ever ranking.

The next ranking update will be published on September 16.

Taliban take strategic Ghazni city on road to Kabul
12 August 2021, 3:16 PM

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan captured the strategic city of Ghazni on Thursday, the ninth provincial capital they have seized in a week and another gain after US intelligence said the insurgents could take the capital Kabul within 90 days.

The speed of the Taliban advance has sparked recriminations among many Afghans over US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops and leave the Afghan government to fight alone, ending the United States’ longest war.

Ghazni lies 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Kabul on the ancient route between the capital and the second city of Kandahar. The militants occupied Ghazni’s government agency headquarters after heavy clashes, a security official said.

“All local government officials, including the provincial governor, have been evacuated towards Kabul,” said the official who declined to be identified.

Fighting has also been intense in Kandahar. The city hospital had received scores of bodies of members of the armed forces and some wounded Taliban, a doctor said late on Wednesday.

With the last of the US-led international forces set to leave by the end of this month, the Taliban have taken control of about two-thirds of the country.

Even when the Islamist group ruled the country from 1996-2001, it never controlled all of the north. This time, it appears to be determined to secure it fully before turning its attention to Kabul.

Finding rural districts too hard to defend, government forces have withdrawn to protect Kabul and other cities, prompting thousands of families to flee the provinces in hope of finding safety there.

The Taliban said they had captured Kandahar’s provincial prison.

“Fighting did not stop until 4 a.m. and then after the first prayers it started up again,” said an aid worker in Kandahar.

The Taliban said they had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply beleaguered government forces.

They said they had also captured the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of militant activity.

Government officials there were not immediately available for comment. Fighting had also flared in the northwestern province of Badghis, its governor said.

Kandahar and other southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan have long been Taliban heartlands but it has been in the north where they have made their biggest gains in recent weeks.

President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support as the enemy closes in.

‘ISOLATION’

Under a deal struck between the United States and the Taliban last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack US-led foreign forces as they withdraw, in exchange for a promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace. But intermittent talks with representatives of the US-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.

Al Jazeera reported that a government source said the government had offered the Taliban a share in power as long as the violence comes to a halt.

Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks in Qatar.

In Washington, a US defence official on Wednesday cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.

Biden said on Tuesday he did not regret his decision to withdraw US forces and urged Afghan leaders to fight for their homeland.

The Taliban risk isolating the country if they do seize overall control.

“Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, and war will only lead to international isolation,” the charge d’affaires at the US embassy, Ross Wilson, said on Twitter.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not provide financial support to Afghanistan if the Taliban take over and introduce sharia religious law.

The violence has also raised concerns in Europe of more refugees arriving there. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have said they would not, for now, deport Afghans seeking asylum.

The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan before they were ousted in 2001 for harbouring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

A new generation of Afghans, who have come of age since 2001, worry that the progress made in areas such as women’s rights and media freedom over the past two decades will be lost.

The United Nations said more than 1 000 civilians had been killed in the past month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said some 4 042 wounded people had been treated at 15 health facilities since August 1.

On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.

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