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WASHINGTON: The Biden administration on Wednesday imposed its first sanctions over North Korea's weapons programs following a series of North Korean missile launches, including two since last week.

The sanctions targeted six North Koreans, one Russian and a Russian firm Washington said were responsible for procuring goods for the programs from Russia and China.

The US Treasury said the steps aimed both to prevent the advancement of North Korea's programs and to impede its attempts to proliferate weapons technologies.

The United States also proposed that five of those individuals also be blacklisted by the United Nations Security Council, which would need consensus agreement by the body's 15-member North Korea sanctions committee.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has sought unsuccessfully to engage Pyongyang in dialogue to persuade it to give up its nuclear bombs and missiles since taking office in January last year.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States remained committed to pursuing diplomacy with North Korea.

"What we have seen in recent days [...] only underscores our belief that if we are going to make progress, that we will need to engage in that dialogue," he told a regular news briefing.

The Treasury Department said the sanctions followed six North Korean ballistic missile launches since September, each of which violated UN Security Council resolutions.

Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said the moves targeted North Korea's "continued use of overseas representatives to illegally procure goods for weapons."

North Korea's latest launches were "further evidence that it continues to advance prohibited programs despite the international community's calls for diplomacy and denuclearization," Nelson said in a statement.

It said the State Department had designated Russia-based North Korean Choe Myong Hyon, Russian national Roman Anatolyevich Alar and the Russian firm Parsek LLC for "activities or transactions that have materially contributed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery."

It said Choe Myong Hyon, a Vladivostok-based representative of North Korea’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), had worked to procure telecommunications-related equipment from Russia.

Four China-based North Korean representatives of SANS-subordinate organizations - Sim Kwang Sok, Kim Song Hun, Kang Chol Hak and Pyon Kwang Chol - and one other Russia-based North Korean, O Yong Ho, were also targeted.

Sim Kwang Sok, based in Dalian, had worked to procure steel alloys and Kim Song Hun, who was based in Shenyang, software and chemicals, Treasury said.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that between at least 2016 and 2021, O Yong Ho had worked with Parsek LLC and Alar, the firm's director for development, to procure multiple goods with ballistic missile applications, including Kevlar thread, aramid fiber, aviation oil, ball bearings, and precision milling machines.

Blinken said Alar also provided O Yong Ho with instructions for creating solid rocket fuel mixtures.

"The procurement and supply relationship between O Yong Ho, Roman Anatolyevich Alar, and Parsek LLC is a key source of missile-applicable goods and technology for the DPRK’s missile program," his statement said.

It also said O Yong Ho had worked to procure items including aramid fiber, stainless steel tubes and ball bearings from "third countries" it did not name.

North Korea's UN mission, Russia and China's embassies in Washington and the Russian firm did not respond to requests for comment.

North Korean media said leader Kim Jong Un observed the test of a hypersonic missile on Tuesday, the second in less than a week after he vowed in a New Year speech to bolster the military with cutting-edge technology.

Tuesday's test came hours after the US mission to the United Nations, joined by Albania, France, Ireland, Japan and the United Kingdom, condemned last week's launch and called on UN states to fulfill sanctions obligations.

UN resolutions ban North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests and impose sanctions.

Anthony Ruggiero, a sanctions expert in the former Trump administration that failed to persuade Kim to roll back his nuclear program despite unprecedented engagement, called the new sanctions "a good start."

However, he said the Biden administration had allowed a reversal of sanctions pressure and added: "Biden needs to continue the designations to increase the pressure on the Kim regime."

Price did not respond when asked why no Chinese individuals or entities were targeted, or specifically when asked if China and Russia were doing enough to enforce sanctions, but stressed the importance of all UN states doing so, while adding: "Obviously we've not seen all of that."

Wednesday's actions freeze any US-related assets of those targeted and prohibit all dealings with them.

US consumer prices jumped last year at the fastest pace in four decades, the government confirmed on Wednesday, underscoring the potent inflation wave that has sapped public support for President Joe Biden even as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

The seven per cent increase in the Labour Department's consumer price index (CPI) over the 12 months to December was the highest since June 1982, as prices rose for an array of goods especially housing, cars and food.

Since taking office last January, Biden has presided over an economy that has expanded rapidly and seen millions of people who lost their jobs to the Covid-19 pandemic return to work.

But a collision between rebounding demand, labour shortages and global supply chain snarls — especially computer chips for cars — caused prices last year to climb upwards at an ever-faster rate.

The White House echoed the views of some economists in a tweet predicting “the rate of price increases will moderate in the months ahead as we make progress with the pandemic and other challenges.”

Still, while the data contained signs of a nearing summit, relief may not necessarily come quickly.

“The peak is close, but the speed of the coming downshift is uncertain,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

For the Republican opposition, the inflation data underscored their belief that the Democratic president has mishandled the recovery.

“This trend isn't 'transitory,' and it's all happening under Democrats' one-party control,” tweeted Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives. His party is seen as the favourites to win control of the lower house of Congress in the November elections.

The White House has attempted to sort out supply chains to relieve shortages and address alleged price fixing in industries like meatpacking to lower prices, but the most potent actor against inflation is the independent Federal Reserve.

Central bankers already have indicated they are ready to raise interest rates from zero in the coming months, and many observers see the first increase as soon as March.

Kathy Bostjancic of Oxford Economics said the Fed now sees getting inflation back towards its 2pc goal as its “top priority,” and could raise rates as many as four times this year.

Prices for shelter, including rental properties, has been one of the main contributors to inflation, rising 4.1pc in the year, while food rose 6.3pc, the Labour Department said.

However, in both cases the December monthly increase was less than in the prior month.

After slumping during the economic crisis in 2020, energy prices rebounded strongly last year with a 29.3pc gain, the report said.

But in December, energy costs contracted, falling 0.4pc from November, indicating Americans may soon see relief at gas stations and on their heating bills.

There was no such respite for used car prices, another of the main drivers of inflation in the year, which jumped 3.5pc in December and 37.3pc over the course of 2021, according to the data.

Food and energy prices can be volatile, but with those items stripped out, consumer prices rose more than expected with a 0.6pc gain compared to November.

For the year, they were up 5.5pc, the highest since February 1991.

There were indications in the data that the price surge may be ebbing.

Overall CPI growth slowed to 0.5pc in December, less than the 0.8pc increase in the prior month.

Some of the major drivers of inflation will ease over the course of this year, Shepherdson predicted, including the shortage of real estate that has pushed home prices and rents upwards, and a scarcity of semi-conductors that has crippled automobile assembly lines.

While annualised consumer prices may eventually peak at a level higher than in December “the run of big increases is over, and it will start to fall in March,” he said.

COPENHAGEN: More than half of people in Europe are projected to catch Omicron by March, the WHO said on Tuesday, as millions in China locked down again exactly two years after Beijing reported the first Covid-19 death.

The highly-transmissible variant has ripped through countries at breakneck pace, forcing governments to impose fresh measures and scramble to roll out vaccine booster shots.

Europe is at the epicentre of alarming new outbreaks alongside mounting hospital admissions and deaths while the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday Omicron could infect half of all people in the region at current rates.

“The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” said Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO’s European office.

The WHO’s European region covers 53 countries and territories, including several in Central Asia, and Kluge said 50 of them had Omicron cases.

Kluge confirmed that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, but stressed “approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death — including for Omicron”.

The warning came exactly two years after the announcement of the first person dying of a virus only later identified as Covid — a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected. Since January 11, 2020, known fatalities in the pandemic have soared to nearly 5.5 million.

China largely tamed its initial outbreak with a mix of lockdowns, border closures and mass testing, but flare-ups in some major cities are testing that Zero Covid strategy just weeks before the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The city of Anyang in Henan province on Monday night told its five million residents not to leave their homes or drive cars on the roads, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

Last week, the one million people in Yuzhou — also a city in Henan — were told to stay at home. Xi’an, home to 13 million people, is in its third week of lockdown.

China reported 110 new local virus cases on Tuesday, a tiny figure compared with the hundreds of thousands emerging daily in global hotspots such as the United States.

But they are a cause of alarm for Chinese authorities as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Games, with the event already expected to have tight coronavirus safety protocols.

Hong Kong, which has some of the toughest coronavirus border restrictions in the world, also ramped up its curbs on Tuesday to fight an Omicron outbreak, shutting kindergartens and primary schools until early February.

The same day, Japan extended until the end of next month a strict Covid border policy that bars almost all new foreign arrivals.

Japanese authorities also announced the reopening of mass vaccination centres as they fight an Omicron-fuelled surge.

Health experts maintain vaccines are among the most potent tools available against the pandemic. But the deep scepticism and often violent opposition to jabs in many countries came into sharp focus last week when Australia cancelled the visa of the world’s top men’s tennis player over Covid shot requirements.

The unjabbed, vaccine-sceptic Novak Djokovic won a legal challenge against the government on Monday, however, and is looking to defend his Australian Open title despite an outpouring of anger in the country over his exemption.

“I can imagine some people will be pretty angry about it,” said 22-year-old fan Harrison Denicolo, who felt Djoko­vic should be allowed to play.

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Monday met Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca and discussed with him bilateral matters, the situation in Afghanistan and human rights violations in India-held Kashmir.

On his arrival at the PM Office, For­eign Minister Qureshi was rece­ived by Romanian Chief of Protocol.

The foreign minister conveyed good wishes from Prime Minister Imran Khan and highlighted historic and cordial ties between the two countries.

He told the Romanian leader that Pakistan desired to establish broad-based and result-oriented relations with his country and the current improvement of bilateral relations manifested the vision of the leadership of the two countries.

The foreign minister lauded the anti-Covid measures taken by Romania and thanked the Romanian PM for donating 500,000 doses of anti-Covid vaccines to Pakistan by his government.

Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca app­reciated the role of Pakistan in the context of Afghanistan particularly for evacuation of Romanian citizens.

Discussing the regional and international matters, the foreign minister highlighted the human rights abuses by India in held Kashmir and the situation in Afghanistan.

He also appreciated Romania’s support to Pakistan in obtaining the GSP-plus status.

Later, speaking at a joint press conference with his Romanian counterpart, Bogdan Aurescu, the foreign minister said that a huge potential existed for Romanian investors in not only promoting bilateral trade ties but also from prospects of Pakistan being the hub of exports to Central Asia as new markets were now being opened up for the world.

Mr Qureshi urged Romanian investors and businessmen to avail of the huge trade and investment opportunities offered by Pakistan.

Referring to signing of an agreement between chambers of the two countries, the foreign minister said it would open new avenues for the corporate and private sectors. The private sector would be a driving force in growing bilateral trade ties between the two countries.

Earlier, Pakistan and Romania signed a Memorandum of Understan­ding (MoU) to enhance bilateral cooperation between trade bodies as well as for provision of educational scholarships to Pakistani students.

An MoU was signed between the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) and the Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Foreign Minister Qureshi and Romanian Minister for Economy Florin Spataru witnessed the signing ceremony.

The document was signed by Pakistan’s Ambassador in Romania Dr Zafar Iqbal.

The two countries termed the MoU vital for promotion of bilateral trade and commerce.

In another ceremony held at the Romanian foreign ministry, an MoU was signed for the provision of educational scholarships to Pakistani students by Bucharest Polytechnical University.

Ambassador Dr Zafar Iqbal signed the MoU from the Pakistani side while University Rector Mihnea Cosmin Costoiu represented Romania.

The event that formed part of the prestigious King Abdelaziz Festival was previously a men-only affair.

Saudi women, in a first for the conservative kingdom, have paraded their camels in a beauty pageant for the prized “ships of the desert”.

“I hope today to reach a certain social standing, Inshallah (God willing),” said Lamia al-Rashidi, 27, who participated at the weekend contest in the Rumah desert northeast of the capital Riyadh.

The event that formed part of the prestigious King Abdelaziz Festival was previously a men-only affair.

“I've been interested in camels ever since I was little,” said Rashidi, whose family owns 40 camels.

“Once this event was opened to women, I decided to participate,” said the young woman, wearing a black face covering with a colourful shawl over her shoulders.

The top five in the field of about 40 participants in the women's event went home with total prize money of one million riyals (about $260,000).

The camels' beauty is judged on several criteria, but the shape and size of the lips, neck and hump are the main attributes.

In December, several participants were disqualified because their animals had undergone botox injections.

In a parade at the event on the red sand track of Rumah, women in black on horseback rode ahead of men in white robes on camels as male musicians, some with swords, danced to the beat of drums.

The oil-rich Gulf state adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam, but since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted as the country opens up with sweeping reforms.

The shift has enabled women to get behind the wheel and take part in mixed-gender settings, even as a rigorous crackdown on dissent remains in place.

“Women have always been an integral part of Bedouin society. They owned and looked after camels,” said Mohammed al-Harbi, a manager of the festival.

Women's participation was in keeping with “the historical heritage” of Saudi Arabia, he told AFP.

Munira al-Mishkhas, another participant, chimed in: “Camels have been a part of us for a long time, but staging a contest for us (women) is a big step forward.”

At just seven years old, Malath bint Enad was the youngest contestant and her animal won third prize.

Her proud father, a 35-year-old camel dealer who said he owns more than 200 beasts, was very pleased with the entrance of women.

“This will increase enthusiasm for the festival and increase the value of the camels,” said Enad bin Sultan, clad in traditional costume and red-and-white keffiyeh headdress.

The 40-day festival, which kicked off last month, is an annual Bedouin event that lures breeders from across the Gulf with total prize money of up to $66 million.

Header image: Saudi cameleers and horsewomen take part in a parade during the sixth edition of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in the Rumah region, some 161km east of the capital Riyadh, on Saturday.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists asked authorities to immediately release a journalist in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK), days after police arrested him for uploading a video clip of a protest against Indian rule.

The media watchdog on Saturday said it was “deeply disturbed” by the arrest of Sajad Gul, an independent journalist and media student. It wrote on Twitter it was asking Indian authorities to “drop their investigation related to his journalistic work”.

Indian soldiers picked up Gul from his home in northeastern Shahgund village on Wednesday night and later handed him over to the police, his family said. He had posted a video of family members and relatives protesting the killing of a freedom fighter on Monday.

Initially, police said he would be released but on Friday, his family was told that a formal case was opened against Gul on charges of criminal conspiracy and working against national integration. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Journalists have increasingly voiced concerns about harassment and threats by the police that have effectively restricted reporting after India revoked IoK’s semi-autonomy and divided the region into two federally governed territories in 2019.

Many journalists have been arrested, beaten, harassed and sometimes investigated under anti-terrorism laws.

The Kashmir Press Club, an elected body of journalists in the region, has repeatedly urged the Indian government to allow them to report freely, saying security agencies were using physical attacks, threats and summons to muzzle the press.

India’s decision to strip the region of its special powers in August 2019 brought journalism to a near halt in IoK for months. India began implementing a policy in 2020 that gives the government more power to censure independent reporting.

Fearing reprisals from government agencies, most of the local press has wilted under pressure. Journalists have also come under scrutiny through anonymous online threats the government says are linked to rebels fighting against Indian rule.

Since 1989, a full-blown armed freedom movement has raged in IoK seeking a united Kashmir — either under Pakistani rule or independent of both countries. The region is one of the most heavily militarised in the world. Tens of thousands of civilians, freedom fighters and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

DUBAI: Employees and schoolchildren juggled work and studies with weekly Muslim prayers on the first ever working Friday in the United Arab Emirates as the Gulf country formally switched to a Saturday-Sunday weekend.

Some grumbled at the change and businesses were split, with many moving to the Western-style weekend but other private firms sticking with Fridays and Saturdays, as in other Gulf states.

The weekly day of prayer has always been a free day in the UAE, which had previously observed a Thursday-Friday weekend until 2006.

However, mosques appeared busy as worshippers carrying prayer mats arrived as usual, before many of them later headed back to the office.

"I'd rather take (Friday) off," said 22-year-old Briton Rachel King, who works in the hospitality industry and has been living in Dubai for six months.

"That is what we all know and love, having a Friday off and going to certain places that are open and we could do things. But now it is going to be Saturday."

The UAE made the surprise announcement of the weekend switch for the public sector in December as it grapples with rising competition in international business from other Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Government bodies and schools will operate four-and-a-half-days per week, closing at 12pm on Fridays for a fixed prayer time of 1:15pm, whereas the Muslim prayer schedule usually depends on the position of the sun.

Out of 195 businesses polled by human resources consultancy Mercer, only 23% were preparing to follow the four-and-a-half-day week, but more than half would switch to Saturday-Sunday weekends.

"Luckily I have the same days off as my kids, but that's not the case for my husband," said Fati, who works in an international distribution company, asking not to give her full name.

"He works for a multinational that hasn´t changed its schedule for the moment. I hope they will do it quickly, otherwise our family life will be ruined."

Nearly a third of companies are worried about the impact of being out of sync with other countries in the region, the Mercer poll found.

"We work a lot with Egypt and Saudi Arabia," said Rana, an employee of an events company who said some of her teams would have to work on Sundays.

Dubai's financial district was unusually quiet on Friday with large numbers working remotely, especially at a time of rising COVID levels when many children are also doing online schooling.

"Today is the first working Friday, it feels a bit weird," said Ahmad Bilbisi, 34, a banking employee.

"It makes sense to me, at least for the banking industry. We are now working on the same day as everyone else in the world."

The new arrangement was a major talking point on social media, with one Twitter user complaining "it just feels so wrong".

"My body and mind have fully acclimatised to having Fridays off. I think today is going to a long hard struggle," the tweet reads.

Sharjah, an emirate neighbouring Dubai, has found a simple solution: mandating Friday, Saturday and Sunday as a three-day weekend.

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