China says virus pushing US ties to brink of 'Cold War'

Beijing (AFP) –


China said Sunday that relations with the United States were "on the brink of a new Cold War", fuelled in part by tensions over the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 350,000 people worldwide and pitched the global economy into a massive downturn.

Fresh tensions between Beijing and Washington emerged as virus restrictions muted celebrations by Muslims around the world of the end of Ramadan, Islam's holy fasting month.

More European nations meanwhile moved to ease their lockdowns.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Sunday forced to defend his top aide Dominic Cummings, accused of having breached the government's own lockdown rules.

Globally more than 5.3 million people have been infected by the virus, which most scientists believe jumped from animals to humans -- possibly at a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic emerged in December.

US President Donald Trump has accused Beijing of a lack of transparency over the outbreak, and is pushing the theory that it may have leaked from a top-security Chinese laboratory.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday that Washington had been infected by a "political virus" to continually attack China, but that Beijing would nevertheless be open to an international effort to find the coronavirus source.

"It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War," Wang said.

He blasted what he called efforts by US politicians to "fabricate rumours" about the virus's origin and "stigmatise China".

While European nations initially among the hardest hit have started to ease lockdowns in a bid to salvage economies and lifestyles, other countries such as Brazil, where deaths have surged, are emerging as new centres of the pandemic.

- End of Ramadan -

Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world were celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, with Islam's two most important mosques still closed to worshippers in Mecca and Medina.

At the same time, churches were reopening in some countries, Spain's football league announced it would kick off again on June 8, and thousands flocked to beaches in the US, where lockdowns and social distancing are issues that have begun to split communities.

With infection numbers stabilising in the West, many governments are trying to move towards lighter social distancing measures to revive moribund business and tourism sectors, while remaining wary of a second wave of infections.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sought to reassure potential visitors, saying that from July 1, "entry for foreign tourists into Spain will resume in secure conditions."

Italy is also due to reopen its borders to foreign tourists from June 3.

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa meanwhile said Sunday that a controversial ban on the sale of alcohol would be lifted for home consumption when the country moves into level three of a five-tier coronavirus lockdown next month.

Primary schools in England will reopen to some pupils from June 1, the government said. Secondary school pupils will return later, with "some contact" between teachers and older children preparing for exams from June 15.

Reopening schools remains controversial in Britain, which has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe.

French churches were holding their first Sunday masses in more than two months after the government bowed to a court ruling that they should be reopened -- provided proper precautions were taken.

"My cell phone is crackling with messages!" Father Pierre Amar, a priest in Versailles, just outside Paris, told AFP.

France's mosques, however, called on Muslims to stay at home for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. They said they would gradually resume services from June 3.

In Saudi Arabia, Eid prayers will be held at the Mecca and Medina mosques "without worshippers", authorities said as the kingdom began a five-day curfew after infections quadrupled since the start of Ramadan.

"Eid is not Eid with the atmosphere of coronavirus -- people feel a sense of fear," Palestinian Akram Taher said in Gaza, where worshippers wore masks and kept prayer mats apart.

For Christians in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre briefly reopened its doors, but with tight restrictions in place.

- British scandal -

In Britain, Prime Minister Johnson rejected calls for him to fire Cummings after a row over reports that the top aide had flouted the lockdown rules.

Cummings was seen visiting his parents in Durham, 250 miles (400 kilometres) away from his London home in March, despite suffering from virus symptoms. The Observer and Sunday Mirror reported he had broken lockdown restrictions again in April.

"He has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity," Johnson said of Cummings, despite criticism from some within his own party.

"You cannot advise the nation one thing then do the opposite," Tory MP Craig Whittaker tweeted, echoing opposition criticism.

An investigation by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper meanwhile found that the March 11 Champions League Liverpool-Atletico Madrid match in England may have "led to 41 additional" coronavirus deaths.

Despite positive signs elsewhere, the disease continued its surge in large parts of South America. Brazil's death toll now exceeds 22,000 and infections top 347,000, the world's second-highest caseload.

In the US, where the death toll is highest in the world nearing 100,000, President Trump has dismissed the advice of health experts and pushed to reopen the economy.

He sent a signal of his intentions by playing golf on Saturday -- his first outing to the links since March 8.

But The New York Times marked the grim US toll on Sunday with a memorial on its front page carrying one-line obituaries for 1,000 victims.

The US economy has shed almost 40 million jobs this year and many companies have gone to the wall. But most states have begun easing their lockdowns and many reopened public beaches despite infection worries.