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December 2, 2020

Hamas chief in Gaza contracts coronavirus; Thailand urges calm after four test positive for virus; Queen Elizabeth to miss family X-mas over virus fears


December 2, 2020

London: Queen Elizabeth II, who has spent much of the coronavirus outbreak in self-isolation because of her age, will forego her traditional family Christmas, the royal household said on Tuesday.

The 94-year-old monarch and her husband Prince Philip normally spend the festive season at her Sandringham estate in eastern England with other members of the family.

As last reports came in, Sri Lanka freed hundreds of prisoners and said it would release thousands more after a riot sparked by anger over coronavirus cases at one of its many overcrowded jails left nine inmates dead and 113 wounded.

Guards opened fire at the high-security Mahara prison outside Colombo on Sunday night after prisoners went on the rampage demanding to be freed because of soaring coronavirus cases in jails.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday granted an amnesty to 637 convicts across the country and Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the government was working on expediting the release on bail of thousands of remand prisoners to ease congestion. Rajapaksa meanwhile sacked Prison Reforms Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle and shifted her to a new ministry dealing with the pandemic.

Sri Lanka’s prisons house just over 30,000 inmates, nearly three times their capacity, and about 1,200 of them have tested positive for the coronavirus with two deaths, according to official figures.

Jails in the South Asian nation have seen weeks of unrest as the number of Covid-19 cases soared and authorities banned visits and prevented staff from travelling across the country.

One prisoner was killed when he fell while trying to scale the wall of a jail in central Bogambara region.

The number of Covid-19 deaths across Sri Lanka increased six-fold last month to 118, while infections more than doubled to nearly 24,000.

The island nation of 21 million people eased a three-month curfew on June 28, but a second wave hit in October prompting tighter restrictions.

The prison riot was the worst since police commandos controversially shot dead 27 inmates after disturbances at Sri Lanka’s main Welikada prison in 2012.

Meanwhile, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, on Tuesday tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly across the Palestinian enclave, the Islamist group said.

"Yahya Sinwar, the head of the political bureau of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was infected with the coronavirus today," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told AFP.

"His general health condition is good. He is working as usual but in isolation."

Sinwar is the latest Palestinian leader to contract the virus.

Long-time chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat died from coronavirus-related complications last month.

Hamas official Salah El Arouri has also tested positive for the virus. Tuesday’s announcement came as Gaza battles surging infections.

The small and densely populated enclave of around two million people, under Israeli-blockade since 2007, initially held off a major coronavirus outbreak.

As the much of the world went into lockdown in March and April, Hamas imposed draconian controls, hoping to ensure its already weak health system was not overwhelmed.

Gaza had recorded just 100 cases until mid-August, but the crisis has escalated in recent weeks.

The territory’s confirmed caseload now stands at more than 21,400, with 11 deaths. Daily infection have recently ranged between 700 and 800.

Top health officials in Gaza have warned the situation was spiralling out of control.

"The number of intensive care beds is very limited, as are medicines," Mahmud al-Khazindar, director of a private hospital in Gaza, told AFP last month. "If the number of cases increases, a choice will have to be made between the care of the elderly, the young and patients with another diseases."

In a related development, Thai authorities urged calm on Tuesday as they scramble to trace a potential coronavirus outbreak after at least four women tested positive on returning from neighbouring Myanmar.

Since detecting the first case outside of China back in January, Thailand has managed to keep Covid-19 infections low, at just over 4,000 cases, in part by imposing strict entry rules. But it shares an extremely porous 2,400-kilometre (1,500 mile) border with Myanmar, where the virus is rampant, with more than 1,000 new cases a day in recent months.

Four Thai women who worked in the notorious Myanmar border town of Tachilek and returned to Thailand have now tested positive, health officials said Tuesday.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said so far more than 100 people the women may have been in contact with have been tested, and officials are tracking down more.

Since the pandemic, border patrols have stepped up surveillance to prevent illegal migrants from crossing into the kingdom.