Human Rights Watch says Iran recruiting Afghans for Syria fight

This file photo taken on April 30, 2015 shows Foreign fighters who joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to fight in their ranks against jihadists and Islamist rebels in northeastern Syria taking part in a training session on April 30, 2015 in the south-west Syrian region of Ras al-Ain, close to the Turkish border. (AFP)
Updated 25 October 2017

Human Rights Watch says Iran recruiting Afghans for Syria fight

KABUL: Fleeing grinding poverty and unemployment, thousands of Afghan Shiites have been recruited by Iran to defend Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, former fighters and rights activists say.
Afghan men and boys as young as 14 are signing up to fight on the promise of money and legal residency in Shiite-dominated Iran, Assad’s regional ally, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Since 2013 the Afghans, including undocumented migrants living in Iran, have joined the Tehran-backed Fatemiyoun division fighters in Syria, said HRW and ex-members who spoke to AFP on condition their real names were not used.
“For me, it was just about money,” said Shams, a former fighter.
The 25-year-old, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, went to Syria twice in 2016 to fight in a conflict that has now been raging for more than six years.
“Whoever I saw was going for money and to have free entry to Iran. I never saw anyone fighting for religious reasons,” said Shams, who now lives in the Afghan capital Kabul.
The withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 drained the Afghan economy and left many people out of work, fueling the flow of migrants into Iran in search of a better life.
HRW estimated last year that Iran hosts around 3 million Afghans.
In this desperate pool, Iranian recruiters targeted Shiites to swell the ranks of Fatemiyoun soldiers, who HRW says fight alongside Syrian regime forces.
“I went there (Iran) because I was jobless and it was a way to get money for my family,” said Shams.
“My idea was to find a job in Iran. I had no plan to go to fight in Syria but after a month of being jobless, I decided to go.
“They were encouraging us saying ‘you will be a freedom fighter and if you return to Iran alive you can stay with a 10-year residence permit.’ But my main goal was to earn money.”
Afghan Shiites are given 1.5 million rials ($450) to register at a recruitment center for the Fatemiyoun, Shams said. Once they have signed up they receive 3 million rials a month, a fortune for many poor Afghans.
Shams’ first mission was in June 2016 in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was assigned to protect a barracks for two months. He went back to the country in September and was deployed to Aleppo, where he was given his first AK-47 rifle after receiving rudimentary weapons training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
On the front line of the battle between Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front, Shams said he found himself caught up in an intense and deadly battle.
“In Aleppo, we faced an ambush — out of 100 fighters we lost almost all of them. There were 15 of us left alive,” Shams said.
“The bodies were sent back to Iran and the families in Afghanistan held funeral ceremonies in mosques without a coffin or grave.”
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, estimates more than 760 Afghans have been killed in Syria since September 2013.
Another man who fought in Syria in 2014 when he was 17, said it was not just Afghans in Fatemiyoun. “There were also Pakistanis, Iraqis — all the Shiites,” he told AFP.
“We were mixed up with the Arabs, we did not understand their language.”
HRW says the Iranians refuse to provide accurate figures, but estimates there are nearly 15,000 Afghans fighting for Fatemiyoun.
“They are used by the Iranian government, which treats them like slaves,” said Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara member of Parliament in Kabul.
Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry called on Iran in October to stop sending young Afghans to Syria after the HRW report condemning the recruitment of minors.

Some North Korean officials back at liaison office: Seoul

Updated 38 min 19 sec ago

Some North Korean officials back at liaison office: Seoul

  • North Korea has not clarified if all staff will officially return
  • The country pulled out its staff after collapse of nuclear summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump

SEOUL: South Korea said some North Korean officials returned to an inter-Korean liaison office on Monday, three days after the North abruptly withdrew its entire staff citing unspecified instructions from “higher-level authorities.”

It wasn’t immediately clear why North Korea sent some workers back to the office or whether it would restore a full staff. The North’s decision to withdraw its staff on Friday came a week after its vice foreign minister threatened to pull out of nuclear negotiations with the United States following the collapse of a nuclear summit last month between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said in a statement that four to five North Korean officials showed up for work Monday at the liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and told South Korean officials they came to work their usual shifts.

The ministry said the North continues to provide no clear explanation on why it withdrew staff from the office. The North reportedly sent about 10 workers each working day to the office since it opened last September as part of a slew of reconciliation steps between the rivals agreed to by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The Koreas in past months have dismantled some of their front-line guard posts, halted military exercises across their border and vowed to resume inter-Korean economic projects when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions could end and allow such projects.

While Moon says inter-Korean reconciliation is crucial for achieving progress in nuclear negotiations, the breakdown of the Trump-Kim summit has created a difficult environment to push engagement with the North.

Washington and Pyongyang have struggled with the sequencing of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and the removal of US-led sanctions against the North, and blamed each other for the collapse of the summit. North Korean state media have recently demanded that South Korea distance itself from the US and resume joint economic projects that have been held back by sanctions.