Huge Explosion Rocks Hotel in Somalia Capital 

A car bomb exploded near a popular hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Sunday. The explosion was followed by a shootout between militants and police. Militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.   Witnesses say the massive blast occurred Sunday near Hotel Afrik, located in the vicinity of a busy security checkpoint en route to the Mogadishu airport. Police say al-Shabab members stormed the hotel and many of the people inside were rescued, including Somalia’s former state minister for defense, Yusuf Siad Indha-Adde. A VOA reporter, Abdikafi Yusuf Aden, was also inside the hotel at the time and survived. “There was confusion and thick smoke rose up after the blast occurred. People were jumping down over the wall as we ran for our lives,” Aden told VOA Somali.   Aden said he saw at least three people injured where he was hiding, but was unable to confirm what happened outside or on the other side of the hotel.     VOA reporters in Mogadishu said dozens of people were still trapped inside as night fell and security forces engaged attackers in an operation to end the siege.     

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Britain Allowing Hong Kongers to Seek Residency Under New Policy

Millions of Hong Kong residents who seek to leave the territory amid a new national security law imposed by China are now able to apply to live and work in Britain.  
 
Britain began taking applications Sunday from Hong Kong residents who wish to relocate and travel under what is known as a British National Overseas, or BNO, passport.  
 
The policy gives Hong Kong residents the ability to move to Britain, with a pathway to citizenship after five years.British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted:
 
“The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa is now open for applications. BNO citizens have the choice to live, work and study in the U.K. – free to build new lives. This is a proud day in our strong historic relationship as we honour our promise to the people of Hong Kong.”The reaction in Beijing was swift. Only hours after London released the details of the application process on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters during a regular press conference in Beijing, “China will no longer recognize the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document or for identification, and we reserve the right to take further actions.”
 
The editorial of Chinese state-affiliated media Global Times criticized Britain’s decision, dismissing any significant effects an exodus in Hong Kong would create for China, while criticizing London as being a puppet for the United States amid an escalation in tensions between Washington and Beijing.After Hong Kong was transferred back to China from Britain in 1997, Beijing promised Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.  
 
After anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing wanted to bring stability to the city and therefore implemented a national security law for Hong Kong that came into effect on June 30, 2020. It prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. Protests have stopped while activists and lawmakers have been arrested, jailed or fled into political exile.
Critics say the law violates China’s commitment to allow Hong Kong to keep its limited freedoms. 
In response, the British government announced BNO holders would have their privileges expanded. The previous rules for the BNO only allowed holders to visit Britain for six months, with no right to work or settle there.A British National Overseas passport (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Jan. 29, 2021.About 5.4 million residents are eligible for the offer, including dependents of BNOs and 18- to 23-year-olds with at least one BNO parent. The British government estimates at least 300,000 people are expected to take up the offer.A senior lawyer, based in Hong Kong for decades, believes the national security law is responsible for “mass emigration” happening in Hong Kong now.
The lawyer asked not to be named amid fears of breaching the security law.
 
“We’re not just talking about the expat communities who have decided to relocate, there is mass emigration by families who are going off to Canada, Australia, the U.K. These are not people on bail for any criminal offenses, these people don’t have any further confidence in Hong Kong, and they don’t want their kids brought up here,” the lawyer said.VOA spoke to several Hong Kong residents who are making the move via the BNO policy.
 
“I’m leaving Hong Kong because I see the government is intimidating us, “said Renee Yau, a marketing professional in her 40s.
 
“The arrest of the 50-plus individuals because of their participation in the primaries poll is horrible. It is almost like declaring any election result that is unfavorable to the authorities is suspicious of criminal behavior,” she said.
 
“Twenty years ago, when we talked about Hong Kong to foreigners, we could say we had freedom of expression and economic freedom. But in the past few months, our freedom and rights are being taken away every day. At least it is not illegal to say what we like and don’t like about the U.K.,” she said.
 
“I knew I’d take the offer ever since the U.K. first announced the route. Initially, I thought I’d move in the next one to three years, but now I think I’d move within three months,” Yau added.Vince Leung, a 37-year-old architect in Hong Kong, said he has been thinking about relocating since 2019, and the accumulation of changes in the city has made him decide to leave.
 
“The implication of the National Security Law, the postponed of the Legislative Council Elections, Beijing and Hong Kong government’s suppression of speech, publication and demonstration in 2020 … we are losing freedom in every aspect,” Leung told VOA.
 
Leung added he’s “not surprised” Beijing will not recognize the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding Hong Kong’s status since the handover. According to Leung, Beijing does not consider the agreement to be valid.  Olivis, a 35-year-old sales professional working in Hong Kong, is worried about how the security law can be used by the authorities to determine what is an offense.
 
“It made me worry that I will never know when I violate the law and being arrested. Even I put on a yellow mask, (or I’m) wearing a black shirt, I would be stared (at) by police,” she said.
 
The media sales executive admits she’ll never return to Hong Kong to live after taking the BNO offer.
 
“The city is dying. Political instability and great change. There’s no more democracy, justice and freedom of speech, but more ridiculous rules and policies,” she added.
 
As of 5 p.m. local time Sunday, those eligible for the BNO could begin to apply online and then arrange an appointment at a local visa application center. As of February 23, eligible BNO holders who hold a biometric passport will be able to complete their applications using an app.
 
For five years the visa stay will be $343 per person — or $247 for a 30-month stay — and there is an immigration health surcharge of up to $855 every year.
 

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NATO Sources: Foreign Troops to Stay in Afghanistan Beyond May Deadline

International troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the insurgent Taliban’s deal with the United States, four senior NATO officials said, a move that could escalate tensions with the Taliban demanding full withdrawal. “There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” one of the officials told Reuters. “Conditions have not been met,” he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “And with the new U.S. administration, there will be tweaks in the policy, the sense of hasty withdrawal which was prevalent will be addressed and we could see a much more calculated exit strategy.” The administration of then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban early last year calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May in return for the insurgents fulfilling certain security guarantees. FILE – U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.Trump hailed the accord — which did not include the Afghan government — as the end of two decades of war. He reduced U.S. troops to 2,500 by this month, the fewest since 2001. Plans on what will happen after April are now being considered and likely to be a top issue at a key NATO meeting in February, the NATO sources said. The positions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are becoming increasingly important after the alliance was sidelined by Trump, diplomats and experts say. Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September in Doha, but violence has remained high. “No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “Allies continue to assess the overall situation and to consult on the way forward.” She said about 10,000 troops, including Americans, are in Afghanistan. Those levels are expected to stay roughly the same until after May, but the plan beyond that is not clear, the NATO source said. FILE – NATO soldiers inspect near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 25, 2020.Kabul and some foreign governments and agencies say the Taliban has failed to meet conditions due to escalated violence and a failure to cut ties with militant groups such as Al Qaeda, which the Taliban denies. The administration of Joe Biden, who replaced Trump on Jan. 20, has launched a review of his predecessor’s peace agreement. A Pentagon spokesman said the Taliban have not met their commitments, but Washington remained committed to the process and had not decided on future troop levels. A State Department representative said Biden was committed to bringing a “responsible end to the ‘forever wars’… while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.” Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment. Rising concern The Taliban have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the possibility that Washington might change aspects of the agreement and keep troops in the country beyond May, two Taliban sources told Reuters. “We conveyed our apprehensions, but they assured us of honoring and acting on the Doha accord. What’s going on, on the ground in Afghanistan, is showing something else. And that’s why we decided to send our delegations to take our allies into confidence,” said a Taliban leader in Doha. A Taliban delegation this week visited Iran and Russia, and the leader said they were contacting China. Although informal meetings have been taking place between negotiators in Doha, progress has stalled in recent weeks after an almost one-month break, according to negotiators and diplomats. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the insurgents remained committed to the peace process. “No doubt that if the Doha deal is not implemented there will be consequences, and the blame will be upon that side which does not honor the deal,” he said. “Our expectations are also that NATO will think to end this war and avoid more excuses for prolonging the war in Afghanistan.” NATO and Washington will have a challenge getting the Taliban to agree to an extension beyond May. If the situation remains unclear, the Taliban may increase attacks, possibly once again on international forces, said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the British think tank ODI. The lack of a resolution “gives voice to spoilers inside the Taliban who never believed the U.S. would leave willingly, and who have pushed for a ratcheting up of attacks even after the U.S.-Taliban deal was agreed,” she said. A Feb. 17-18 meeting of NATO defense ministers will be a chance for a newly empowered NATO to determine how the process would be shaped, said one source, a senior European diplomat. “With the new administration coming in there will be a more cooperative result, NATO countries will have a say.”  

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Thousands Flee Hong Kong for UK, Fearing China Crackdown 

Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the sometimes painful decision to leave behind their hometown and move to Britain since Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the Chinese territory last summer. Their numbers are expected to swell to the hundreds of thousands. Some are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony in 2019. Others say China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most say they don’t plan to ever go back. The moves are expected to accelerate now that 5 million Hong Kongers are eligible to apply for visas to Britain, allowing them to live, work and study there and eventually apply to become British citizens. Applications for the British National Overseas visa officially opened Sunday, though many have already arrived on British soil to get a head start. FILE – A British National Overseas passports (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.Britain’s government said some 7,000 people with British National Overseas passports — a travel document that Hong Kongers could apply for before the city was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 — have arrived since July on the previously allowed six month visa. It estimates that over 300,000 people will take up the offer of extended residency rights in the next five years. “Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about U.K. immigration, maybe less than 10 a month,” said Andrew Lo, founder of Anlex Immigration Consultants in Hong Kong. “Now we receive about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it.” Mike, a photojournalist, said he plans to apply for the visa and move to Leeds with his wife and young daughter in April. His motivation to leave Hong Kong came after the city’s political situation deteriorated following the anti-government protests and he realized that the city’s police force was not politically neutral. The police have been criticized by pro-democracy supporters for brutality and the use of excessive violence. Mike said moving to Britain was important as he believed the education system in Hong Kong will be affected by the political situation and it will be better for his daughter to study in the U.K. Mike agreed to speak on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of fear of official retaliation. Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the U.K. becomes extremely low, with no language or education qualification requirements. British National Overseas passport holders need to prove that they have enough money to support themselves for six months and prove that they are clear of tuberculosis, according to the U.K. government. Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the U.K. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals. Cindy, a Hong Kong businesswoman and the mother of two young children, arrived in London last week. In Hong Kong she had a comfortable lifestyle. She owned several properties with her husband and the business she ran was going well. But she made up her mind to leave it all behind as she felt that the city’s freedoms and liberties were eroding and she wanted to ensure a good future for her kids. Cindy, who spoke on the condition she only be identified by her first name out of concern of official retaliation, said it was important to move quickly as she feared Beijing would soon move to halt the exodus. FILE – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions in parliament in London, Britain, Jan. 20, 2021 in this still image taken from a video.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week the visa offer shows Britain is honoring its “profound ties of history” with Hong Kong, which was handed over to China on the understanding that it would retain its Western-style freedoms and much of its political autonomy not seen on mainland China. Beijing said Friday it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a travel document or form of identification, and criticized Britain’s citizenship offer as a move that “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It was unclear what effect the announcement would have because many Hong Kongers carry multiple passports. Beijing drastically hardened its stance on Hong Kong after the 2019 protests turned violent and plunged the city into a months-long crisis. Since the security law’s enactment, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and the movement’s young leaders have either been jailed or fled abroad. Because the new law broadly defined acts of subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism, many in Hong Kong fear that expressing any form of political opposition — even posting messages on social media — could land them in trouble. “This is a really unique emigration wave — some people haven’t had time to actually visit the country they’re relocating to. Many have no experience of living abroad,” said Miriam Lo, who runs Excelsior UK, a relocation agency. “And because of the pandemic, they couldn’t even come over to view a home before deciding to buy.”  

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Huge Explosion Rocks Hotel in Somali Capital 

A car bomb exploded near a popular hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Sunday. The explosion was followed by a shootout between militants and police. Militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.   Witnesses say the massive blast occurred Sunday near Hotel Afrik, located in the vicinity of a busy security checkpoint en route to the Mogadishu airport. Police say al-Shabab members stormed the hotel and many of the people inside were rescued, including Somalia’s former state minister for defense, Yusuf Siad Indha-Adde. A VOA reporter, Abdikafi Yusuf Aden, was also inside the hotel at the time and survived. “There was confusion and thick smoke rose up after the blast occurred. People were jumping down over the wall as we ran for our lives,” Aden told VOA Somali.   Aden said he saw at least three people injured where he was hiding, but was unable to confirm what happened outside or on the other side of the hotel.     VOA reporters in Mogadishu said dozens of people were still trapped inside as night fell and security forces engaged attackers in an operation to end the siege.     

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UK Set to Formally Apply for Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc Membership 

Britain will next week formally apply to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc of 11 countries, with negotiations set to start later this year, the government has said.Since leaving the European Union, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.”One year after our departure for the EU we are forging new partnerships that will bring enormous economic benefits for the people of Britain,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.Trade minister Liz Truss told Times Radio: “On Monday I am putting in the letter of intent” and that she expected formal negotiations will start in the spring.Reuters reported on Thursday that Britain will not publish an assessment of the economic benefits of CPTPP membership before requesting to join it – contrary to earlier promises.Previous government economic analyses of Brexit have pointed to small boosts to economic output from additional trade deals.The government said joining CPTPP would remove tariffs on food and drink and cars, while helping to boost the technology and services sectors.”Applying to be the first new country to join the CPTPP demonstrates our ambition to do business on the best terms with our friends and partners all over the world and be an enthusiastic champion of global free trade,” Johnson said. 

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