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N Korea tests new weapon aimed at boosting its nuclear capability | Weapons News

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Weapons launch, supervised by Kim Jong Un, comes as US and South Korea warn that North Korea could soon resume nuclear testing.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has observed the test firing of a “new type of tactical guided weapon” aimed at boosting the country’s nuclear capabilities, according to state media.

The report early on Sunday came as South Korea and the United States warned that Pyongyang could soon resume nuclear testing and after Kim broke a self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing with a launch last month.

The Korean Central News Agency said the latest weapons test “is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes”.

It did not say when the test took place and gave no details of the missile involved.

Kim, who guided the test, “gave important instructions on further building up the defence capabilities and nuclear combat forces of the country,” it added.

Photos carried by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed a grinning Kim – surrounded by uniformed officials – applauding as he watched what it said was the test firing of the weapon.

South Korea’s military confirmed the weapons launch, saying early on Sunday that it had detected two projectiles launched from the North’s east coast towards the sea late on Saturday.

The projectiles flew about 110 kilometres (68 miles) with an apogee of 25km and a maximum speed of under Mach 4, it said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the test-firing of a new-type tactical guided weapon
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the test firing of a new tactical guided weapon in this undated photo released on April 16, 2022 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency [KCNA via Reuters]

Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the weapon was likely a short-range ballistic missile and the North’s first tactical nuclear weapon delivery system.

“This test of a tactical nuclear delivery system comes as indicators grow of significant reconstitutive work at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site,” he said.

The site, in the far northeast of the country, is where North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests.

It was closed in 2018 ahead of a first round of talks between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump.

Those talks collapsed in 2019.

Images captured by a commercial satellite in March showed signs of new activity at a tunnel there, and officials and analysts say North Korea may carry out its seventh nuclear test in the coming weeks.

Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the US-based Center for a New American Security, said North Korea’s weapons tests tell its people that their country is strong.

She added that one reason for the timing of the latest test could be to protest against anticipated joint US-South Korea military drills, which are due to start on Monday.

US Special Representative Sung Kim is also due in Seoul on the same day for a five-day visit to discuss a response to the North’s recent missile launches with his South Korean counterparts.

The US has said it is open to talks with North Korea at any time and without conditions, but Pyongyang has so far rebuffed those overtures, accusing Washington of maintaining hostile policies such as sanctions and military drills.

The KCNA report on a new weapons test also came shortly after North Korea celebrated the 110th anniversary of the birth of late founder Kim Il Sung, one of the biggest annual public holidays in the country, but without a military parade.

South Korean officials have said Pyongyang could still stage a military parade or carry out a weapons test on or around April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.



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AirAsia faces backlash over delayed pandemic refunds | Aviation

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysia’s AirAsia is facing a wave of complaints from customers who say they have still not been refunded for flights that were cancelled or rescheduled during the pandemic.

AirAsia and its subsidiary AirAsia X (AAX), both owned by Capital A Berhad, grounded thousands of flights in 2020 and 2021 after the Malaysian government shut state and international borders to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But months after the low-cost carrier resumed flights following the lifting of interstate and international border restrictions for Malaysians in October, hundreds of customers have taken to social media to complain of poor customer service and long waits for refunds.

Rohana Betak, 60, said she requested a refund of 4,000 Malaysian ringgit ($911) after the airline cancelled her flights between Senai and Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, following the introduction of a nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

Betak, who planned to visit the area around Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, with her family in October 2021, said the airline’s automated online customer service only offered her the option of travelling on different dates. Betak decided against accepting the offer due to uncertainty over when restrictions would be lifted and concerns about catching COVID-19. Two years later, she says she is still waiting for her money back.

“In my request, I said it was fine to refund me credits for the booking but instead I was reminded in June 2020 that I must board the flight to Sabah on a different date and there would be no refunds,” Betak told Al Jazeera.

“It was not helpful because instead of offering me at least credit in refunds, it told me I had no other choice but to travel on different dates.”

 Rohana Betak
Rohana Betak, pictured in a pink hat in the back row, says she has been waiting two years for a refund from  AirAsia [Courtesy of Rohana Betak]

Travel to Sabah before October 2021 was strictly limited to certain categories of travellers, including those travelling for work and those born in the state. Rohana and her family did not fall under any exempted category.

“When it demanded I get on another flight, I asked if they wanted to send me and my family to our deaths?” Betak said. “It’s so frustrating and I am so tired of trying to get my money back so I’ve accepted that I might not get my money back at all.”

Many of the complaints have been directed towards AVA, AirAsia’s online chatbot, which is the only line of communication between customers and the airline for issues involving bookings or flights.

In particular, some have questioned why it is so difficult to reach customer service to request a refund, even for flights booked since the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

Customer Aulia Chaerisa Salleh said she is waiting for a refund for a flight between Batam and Jakarta that was booked earlier this month after she was informed no seat was available.

“I paid for my ticket and it did not register in the system so I tried to get my refund for my tickets. I tried the AVA live chat but it is not helpful at all. It has been days, I haven’t heard from them,” she said.

Under AirAsia’s current refund policy, the airline offers customers a refund, credit or a new travel date whenever a flight is cancelled or postponed.

AirAsia told Al Jazeera the airline is engaged in ongoing dialogue with consumer regulators across the region to ensure compliance with all local regulations.

“AirAsia Group’s policies are in line with many low-cost operators in the travel industry worldwide and are fully compliant with all regulatory requirements and as a customer-centric airline, we have focused on resolving all customer queries during the pandemic as soon as possible,” a spokesperson said.

The airline group said it has resolved more than 90 percent of refund requests and is committed to resolving a small number of outstanding claims as soon as possible.

“In Malaysia for example, our current refund progress is only left with 0.03 percent of the refund requests we received and we are looking forward to completing the refunds exercise for all outstanding queries within the next few months,” the spokesperson said, adding that the past two years had been the most challenging in the history of commercial aviation.

The spokesperson added that “our passengers remain our number one priority” and the airline will “continue to enhance our services to deliver the very best in terms of safe, affordable and reliable air travel”.

‘Problem child’

Tan Kok Liang, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA), said the refunds backlog is a short-term issue and its 3,100 members will continue to book with AirAsia as long as requested by customers.

“The problem child is AAX and while air connectivity is crucial for tourism recovery, based on media reports, AirAsia should be held more accountable to all stakeholders,” Tan told Al Jazeera.

The hefty compensation paid out to airline co-founders Tony Fernandez and Kamarudin Maranun, who took home close to 30 million ringgit ($6.8m) combined last year, has also raised eyebrows.

Following the release of Capital A’s Annual Report 2021 last month, some social media users vented their frustrations on Fernandez’s personal Instagram accounts, with one comment slamming AirAsia as “the one and only airline that does not have a customer service phone number.”

Despite the generous executive compensation, AAX, the group’s long-haul carrier, was last year forced to undergo debt restructuring to save itself from liquidation after racking up huge debts during the pandemic.

In March, AAX announced it had completed its debt restructuring after creditors earlier agreed to a deal under which the airline would pay just 0.5 percent of outstanding debt and terminate existing contracts to restructureRM33.65 billion(US$8.1 billion) of liabilities.

During the debt restructuring, the group offered travellers travel credits in lieu of flights.

The Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM), however, urged the airline to reimburse customers for tickets purchased while threatening to exercise its powers under the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act 2015.

Capital A posted revenue of 1.7 billion ringgit ($387m) in the 2021 financial year, down 47 percent from the previous year, as capacity sank to just 36 percent of 2020 levels.



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Can renewable energy help close power gap in India’s hot summer? | Business and Economy News

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New Delhi, India — As temperatures soar beyond 40 degrees Celsius in Hasanganj village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the nearly 14-hour power cuts in the area mean that the bananas that Ramesh, a fruit vendor who goes by one name, sells are rotting faster than normal with no fans to keep them cool. As sales dip, tempers fray at home, and his children can neither sleep nor study in the searing heat.

The power outages have “aggravated” their problems, Ramesh told Al Jazeera.

As a heatwave rippled through parts of northern India from late March through early May, demand for power shot up, loading power lines and leading to massive outages in several parts of the country as thermal plants ran low on coal.

The spate of events, especially as summer has set in sooner and hotter than expected, has renewed a call to dig and import more coal even as India’s coal production has continued to steadily rise. Global coal prices have shot up since the start of the Ukraine war, hiking India’s import costs anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent, at a time when the rupee has tumbled to record lows, making imports even more expensive.

As a result, on May 7 the environment ministry allowed certain coal mines to expand production up to 50 percent, from the current 40 percent, without seeking the environmental clearances that would normally be mandatory.

A day earlier, the power ministry ordered all power plants that run on imported coal to operate at full capacity and allowed the power producers to pass the hike in tariffs on to consumers.

“The response in the short term is that no matter what, you’ve got to pay the cost to keep the lights on, especially in the middle of a heatwave that will kill people,” said Tim Buckley, the director of Climate Energy Finance, a think-tank in Australia. “But there’s a massive, massive cost to the Indian people.”

One basic cost that Buckley is referring to is the actual price of electricity. While most thermal and renewable electricity in India is sold through long-term contracts, there is still a price difference creeping in for coal power, he says, especially for the 3 to 4 percent that is traded on the exchanges. For instance, of late, while power from domestic coal is being sold at 4-5 rupees/kwh ($0.05-0.06), that goes up to 5-8 rupees/kwh ($0.05-0.10) for power from imported coal (and went up to as high as 12 rupees/kwh or $0.15 on the spot market one day last week). Power from wind and solar, in the meanwhile, is at 3 rupees and 2.5 rupees ($0.03 and $0.04), respectively.

More importantly, adds Buckley, “50-degree heat shows that infrastructure doesn’t work. Coal power plants can’t run above 50 degrees. They break just when you need them.”

Experts say that it’s actually a reminder that India should invest more in its renewable energy to better secure its energy needs.

In fact, late last month as power companies scrambled for coal to burn as demand for fans, coolers and air conditioning rocketed, it was energy from wind plants that came to the rescue as that comes on the grid from late April and runs through August, petering off by mid-September.

“Every unit [of electricity] that wind provides, you generate that much less from coal and that ensures that you’re not in a scarcity mode anymore,” says Karthik Ganesan, a fellow and director in research coordination at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a New Delhi think-tank.

INTERACTIVE_India_Coal_Shortage_1_17-05-2022-02

‘Fundamental problems’

India gets around 74.4 percent of its electricity from coal-fuelled power plants. Coal shortages are not new to the country – it faced a similar dearth last year – and are more on account of poor planning than any other reason. For instance, last year even though the coal had been dug out of the ground, it lay at the mine mouth and was then flooded under with rains just as demand for it shot up in other parts of the country. Another common problem is the fact that cash-strapped state-run power companies often don’t place coal orders in advance, leading to complaints of shortages when demand soars.

Some of these troubles arise from the fact that in India, electricity is used as political capital – political parties have over the decades offered free, or dirt-cheap, electricity to voters. But ultimately, the cost of that is being borne by the distributing companies as years of unpaid bills mount, leaving them no means to invest to upgrade infrastructure or place coal orders, among other things.

“Sooner or later the government needs to fix the more fundamental problems in the system,” said Ganesan. “Everyone is coughing up dollars [to import coal] because there’s no other option right now and we literally have to throw money at the problem … But instead of fixing the problem, we’re perpetuating it by throwing good money after bad.”

That said, the call to end coal cannot be one to say to stop investing in mining any coal at all. “We don’t want to transition to renewables in a disruptive way that we send people back 30 years…. Climate change is a reality and its impact – high temperatures and a need for air-conditioning – is also a reality,” Ganesan added.

India also needs to step up its renewables game, especially if it truly wants to pare its reliance on coal. As of April, it had 158.12GW of installed renewable energy – which it plans to ratchet up to 500GW by the end of the current decade, a questionable goal as it would need to add around 30GW of renewable power a year, double what it did last year.

INTERACTIVE_India_Coal_Shortage_1_17-05-2022-01

For now, it’s the privately run power companies – the ones that have been allowed to pass on the hike in tariffs to consumers – that are smiling their way to the bank, even after accounting for the increase in their costs of importing the coal.

Tata Power, for instance, will run at full capacity its 4,000MW ultra-mega power plant in Mundra in Gujarat – a plant that relies fully on imported coal. Similarly, Adani Power – a part of the diversified Adani Group, which is owned by Asia’s richest man, Gautam Adani – also has a 4,620MW plant in the same region that relies fully on imported coal. (Both companies have investments in renewable power and the latter has announced commitments of $70bn in it.) And even though the state-run distribution companies – the ones that will buy the electricity from these plants – are notorious for not paying on time, or even in full, the companies are still expected to see a boost in profits.

None of that makes any difference to Ishmail Mohammad, who runs a welding business in Hasanganj village. The first couple years of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated his business as many of the local residents – who earned their living by working on construction sites in big cities – had no income to pay him to install metal grills and gates as India implemented multiple lockdowns. Now the nearly 14-hour-long power cuts are just accentuating the pain, especially as prices for the diesel that he runs his generator on, too, have shot up.

“I just can’t work,” he told Al Jazeera. “I can’t even meet my expenses. What is one supposed to do?”





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Israeli court questions ban on Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa compound | Israel-Palestine conflict News

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Court overturns a police order barring three Jews from holy site after they prayed there in violation of the status quo.

A lower Israeli court has overturned a police order barring three Jews from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound after they prayed there in violation of understandings with Muslim authorities, questioning the legal basis of such enforcement.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, located in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City and housing Islam’s third-holiest site, is referred to as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, by Muslims. According to an agreement in place since 1967, non-Muslims are allowed onto the site during visiting hours, but they are barred from praying there.

Jews believe the 35-acre compound is where the Biblical Jewish temples once stood.

Israel allows Jews to visit on condition they refrain from religious rites. But the increasing number of such visits, including over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan that coincided this year with the Jewish Passover festival, has stoked the fears of Palestinians, who see this as Israeli attempts to change the holy site’s sensitive status quo.

‘A grave assault’

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement calling Sunday’s ruling “a grave assault against the historic status quo … and a flagrant challenge to international law”.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled in favour of three appellants who had been banned from the Old City for 15 days for prostrating themselves and intoning a core Jewish prayer at the compound. The ruling quoted police as saying those actions disrupted its officers’ duties and threatened public order.

Removing the ban, Judge Zion Saharai said that while he had no intention of interfering in law enforcement at the site, “the appellants’ conduct does not raise worry of harm befalling national security, public safety or individual security”.

Police had no comment. Eran Schwarz, a lawyer whose firm represented the appellants, said he expected police to contest the ruling. Magistrate’s courts can be overturned by district courts, with Israel’s Supreme Court a final course of appeal.

The ruling came a week before far-right Israelis are due to hold an annual flag march through the Old City, marking its capture by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel later annexed occupied East Jerusalem, a move not recognised by most of the international community. The event is resented by Palestinians, who want the Old City and other parts of occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for future state.

Hamas, a Palestinian group that fought a Gaza war with Israel last year that was partly stoked by tensions in occupied East Jerusalem, described the flag march’s planned route through a Muslim quarter of the Old City as “adding fuel to the fire”.

“I warn the enemy against carrying out such crimes,” Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised address.

Jordan, a United States-backed Israeli security partner that serves as custodian of Al-Aqsa, has also voiced concern about the Jewish visits to the compound.



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