Sri Lanka asked the United States on Sunday to review its decision to impose a travel ban on the island nation's army chief, who has been accused of grave human rights abuses during the final stage of the country's civil war that ended 11 years ago.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena summoned U.S. Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz to the ministry and formally conveyed Sri Lanka's strong objections to the travel ban, which he said "unnecessarily complicates the U.S.-Sri Lanka relationship."
The U.S. government on Friday issued a travel ban on the army chief, Shavendra Silva, saying there is "credible information of his involvement" in human rights violations during the final phase of the war. The ban prohibits Silva and his family from traveling to the U.S.
Sri Lanka has denounced the ban, and on Sunday, Gunawardena reiterated that "there were no substantiated or proven allegations of human rights violations against him (Silva)," according to a foreign ministry statement.
Silva in 2009 was in charge of the 58th Division, which encircled the final stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the last stages of the civil war that killed at least 100,000 people. Human rights groups have accused the division of violating international human rights laws, including using artillery to shell a hospital, an allegation Silva has denied.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that "the allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible."
According to a 2015 investigation by the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, near the end of the war, Silva was tasked with capturing Sri Lanka's Putumattalan area from the Tamil Tigers. The investigation cited evidence that the hospital and a U.N. facility had been shelled.
"Witnesses alleged the use of cluster-type munitions by the Sri Lankan armed forces in their attacks on Putumattalan hospital and the United Nations hub," the investigation's report said.
After the war, Silva was promoted to major general. He was promoted again and became Sri Lanka's army commander last year amid international condemnation, but he is widely respected among Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority.
Pompeo urged Sri Lanka's government "to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation."
Gunawardena said Silva was appointed army commander because of his seniority and asked the U.S. to verify the authenticity of the sources of information.
Gunawardena said "it is disappointing that a foreign government should question the prerogative of a democratically elected president to call upon persons of proven expertise to hold key positions on national security related matters."
Sri Lanka declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, ending the Tamil Tigers' 26-year campaign for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils. Both the Sri Lankan military and the rebels have been accused of wartime abuses.
The United Nations has said some 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed during the final months of the conflict alone.
Sri Lanka's government promised the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2015 that it would investigate the allegations against Silva and involve foreign prosecutors and judges, but has not done so.
Americans Cheryl and Paul Molesky are trading one coronavirus quarantine for another.
The couple from Syracuse, New York, are cutting short a 14-day quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo, to be flown back to the United States. But they will have to spend another two-week quarantine period at a U.S. military facility to make sure they don't have the new virus that's been sweeping across Asia.
About 380 Americans are on the cruise ship. The Japanese defense ministry said around 300 of them were preparing Sunday night to leave on buses to take them to Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The U.S. State Department has arranged for charter flights to fly the Americans back to the United States. Canada, Hong Kong and Italy said they were planning similar flights of passengers.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Washington was evacuating the Americans because the passengers and crew members on board the Diamond Princess were at a high risk of exposure to the virus.
The Americans will be flown to Travis Air Force Base in California, with some continuing to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. After arriving in the U.S., all of the passengers will need to go through another 14 days of quarantine — meaning they will have been under quarantine for a total of nearly four weeks.
"We are glad to be going home," Cheryl Molesky told NHK TV in Japan. "It's just a little bit disappointing that we'll have to go through quarantine again, and we will probably not be as comfortable as the Diamond Princess, possibly."
"The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty," she added.
Molesky also said she was getting concerned about the rising number of patients on the ship.
"It's a little bit scary with the numbers going up of the people being taken off the ship for the (virus), so I think its time to go. I think its time to cut our losses and take off," she said.
Japan on Sunday announced another 70 infections on the Diamond Princess, raising the ship's total number of cases to 355. Overall, Japan has 413 confirmed cases of the virus, including one death.
Asked how they felt about the additional 14-day quarantine in the United States, Cheryl Molesky sighed, and her husband said, "If we have to go through that, we will go through that."
Some American passengers aboard the ship said they would pass up the opportunity to take a flight to the U.S. because of the additional quarantine. There also was worry over being on a long flight with other passengers who may be infected or in an incubation period.
One of the Americans, Matthew Smith, said in a tweet Sunday that he saw a passenger with no face mask talking at close quarters with another passenger. He said he and his wife scurried away. "If there are secondary infections onboard, this is why. ... And you wanted me to get on a bus with her?" he said.
He said the American health officials who visited their room was apparently surprised that the couple had decided to stay. They wished the couple luck, and Smith said he told them, "Thanks, but we're fine."
China cracked down on the sale of exotic species after an outbreak of a new virus in 2002 was linked to markets selling live animals. The germ turned out to be a coronavirus that caused SARS.
The ban was later lifted, and the animals reappeared. Now another coronavirus is spreading through China, so far killing 1,380 people and sickening more than 64,000 — eight times the number sickened by SARS.
The suspected origin? The same type of market.
With more than 60 million people under lockdown in more than a dozen Chinese cities, the new outbreak is prompting calls to permanently ban the sale of wildlife, which many say is being fueled by a limited group of wealthy people who consider the animals delicacies. The spreading illness also serves as a grim reminder that how animals are handled anywhere can endanger people everywhere.
"There's a vast number of viruses in the animal world that have not spread to humans, and have the potential to do so," said Robert Webster, an expert on influenza viruses at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
SARS and the current outbreak of COVID-19 are not the only diseases in people traced back to animals. The killing and sale of what is known as bushmeat in Africa is thought to be a source for Ebola. Bird flu likely came from chickens at a market in Hong Kong in 1997. Measles is believed to have evolved from a virus that infected cattle.
Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in the southeastern city of Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.
Of the 33 samples from the Wuhan market that tested positive for the coronavirus, officials say 31 were from the area where wildlife booths were concentrated. Compared with long domesticated livestock like chickens and pigs, researchers say less is known about the viruses that circulate in wild animals.
The Wuhan market was also like many other "wet markets" in Asia and elsewhere, where animals are tied up or stacked in cages. Activists say it's difficult to distinguish between those that were legally farmed and those that may have been illegally hunted. The animals are often killed on site to ensure freshness. The messy mix raises the tiny odds that a new virus will jump to people handling the animals and start to spread, experts say.
"You've got live animals, so there's feces everywhere. There's blood because of people chopping them up," said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, which works to protect wildlife and public health from emerging diseases.
And more frequent global travel and trade means there's greater risk for outbreaks to spread, Daszak said.
China's taste for wildlife is relatively new, prompted by the country's economic growth, said Peter Li, who studies Chinese politics at the University of Houston. But with the outbreak upending lives across the country, many on Chinese social media are expressing frustration that rich people's appetite for wild animals is again endangering everyone else.
"This is the second time … the first is SARS, this time is Wuhan. We don't want a third time," Lai Xinping, a project cost assessor, said by phone from her home in Sichuan.
"We hate them too, and we are blamed," said Tao Yiwei, a 36-year-old homemaker. She is among those who want the temporary ban on wildlife, enacted to contain the current outbreak, to be permanent.
There are signs the Chinese government may make more lasting changes to how exotic species are raised and sold. This month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the country should "resolutely outlaw and harshly crack down" on the illegal wildlife trade because of the public health risks it poses.
In the eastern province of Anhui, officials sealed farms breeding species like badgers and bamboo rats. In the port city of Tianjin, authorities say their crackdown on the sale of wildlife caught six traders, including three who were selling pythons and parrots.
All told, officials say about 1.5 million markets and online operators nationwide have been inspected since the outbreak began. About 3,700 have been shut down, and around 16,000 breeding sites have been cordoned off.
It's not clear how the measures will play out over time. Before the outbreak began, it was legal in China to sell 54 species like pangolins and civets — as long as they were raised on farms . That made it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal wildlife in wet markets, and enforcement was lax, said Jinfeng Zhou of China Biodiversity, Conservation and Green Development Foundation, an environmental group based in Beijing.
He pointed to a widely shared image of a Wuhan market advertisement listing 72 species, including peacocks and bullfrogs, as proof that the trade is too lucrative to be stopped by anything less than a total ban on all wildlife. "The profit is huge ... like drugs," Jinfeng said.
Others disagree, arguing that banning the wildlife trade is not a realistic way to reduce risk, especially in poorer regions of the world where it can be an important food source. They say improved monitoring, regulation or public education may better control the problem. When wildlife is farmed, for example, it allows for greater surveillance and testing for viruses, said Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance.
Even if China successfully regulates or bans it, the wildlife trade is likely to continue elsewhere. Recent visits to wet markets in the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and in the coastal city of Doula in Cameroon revealed similar conditions to wet markets in China. Vendors were slaughtering and grilling bats, dogs, rats, crocodiles and snakes, and sanitary measures were scant.
Ongoing destruction of species' habitats will likely bring people into closer contact with animals and their viruses, said Raina Plowright, a University of Montana researcher who studies how diseases spread from wildlife to people.
"We are inevitably going to be exposed," she said.
Hong Kong's leader unveiled a 25 billion Hong Kong dollar ($3.2 billion) fund on Friday to bolster efforts to fight the virus outbreak, as the city announced three new cases, bringing its total to 56.
The amount is more than double the 10 billion Hong Kong dollars ($1.3 billion) the government initially planned.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam says the government will subsidize companies producing masks to boost supply and provide 4.7 billion Hong Kong dollars ($605 million) more to the Hospital Authority. Lam says cash handouts will also be given to poor families, students and other groups hit by the epidemic, including travel agencies, property management firms and restaurants.
Lam, whose government has come under fire for its perceived mishandling of the outbreak, says her administration has "put in every effort" to fight the virus. She said the emergency funding reflects its commitment to protect the welfare of the city's 7.4 million people.
Singapore has confirmed nine new cases of the new virus, bringing its total to 67. Six are related to a church where seven people including a senior pastor were earlier diagnosed.
The Grace Assembly of God church has shut down its two premises for two weeks and quarantined all staff as it urged members to pray for a victory over the virus.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, announced that all public Masses will be halted indefinitely from Saturday to minimize the spread of the virus. Archbishop of Singapore William Goh said temperature screening isn't fool proof since those who are asymptomatic could be carriers of the virus. As such, Goh said Catholics need to play their part in containing the virus by avoiding large gatherings.
Japan's health ministry says 11 elderly passengers on the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess were allowed to leave the vessel on Friday after they tested negative for the new virus.
They are the first group of dozens of elderly passengers expected to get off the ship before their 14-day quarantine period ends on Feb. 19 to reduce the risk of their health deteriorating.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato on Thursday said passengers age 80 or older with chronic health issues or in cabins without windows that can open will be able to leave the ship if they pass the virus test.
About 200 passengers in the age group took the test and more are expected to leave the ship in coming days.
The owner of Jiaozibar, a Chinese restaurant in Nordmaling, a small town in northern Sweden, said he and his wife have voluntarily isolated themselves after a trip to China and have decided to protectively close their eatery until Feb. 27.
"We have been in China for a few weeks. We feel it is our responsibility to follow the guidelines of (Sweden's) Public Health Authority and voluntarily quarantine ourselves. It is to protect ourselves and our customers," Stanislav Maid told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.
He runs the restaurant with his wife, Zhou Weixiang. "I have gotten quite a lot of positive reaction from people in the area who think it's good we take our responsibility," he said.
The couple doesn't feel sick but decided to close the restaurant protectively, Aftonbladet said.
As 28 more patients infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) were discharged from hospitals in Shanghai Friday, six of them volunteered to donate their blood for epidemic control.
"Before leaving the hospital, a nurse asked me whether I was willing to donate my blood for the treatment and research of the disease. I thought it was a great chance to help others after being helped," said a blood donor surnamed Liu.
"Now that I'm recovered, my blood could contain antibodies that might be helpful for those in serious conditions to combat the virus," he said.
As of Friday, a total of 90 coronavirus patients had been discharged from Shanghai hospitals, according to Zheng Jin, a spokesperson for the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission.
"We call on cured patients to donate blood a few weeks after they check out from the hospitals, which can help save more people," said Lu Hongzhou, secretary of the Party Committee of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center.
According to Lu, experts in Shanghai are teaming together when saving those in critical and serious conditions, continuously improving treatment methods based on newly-gained experiences.
Zheng Jin said traditional Chinese medicine has been used in 90 percent of the confirmed cases that are being treated in designated hospitals in Shanghai.