Sacked Catalan leader asks to return to Spain ‘risk-free’

Catalonia’s sacked president Carles Puigdemont speaks during a press conference after a meeting with Danish MPs for talks about the Catalan crisis and Denmark’s handling of its autonomous territories Greenland and the Faroe Islands, on January 23, 2018 at Christiansborg Palace in the heart of Copenhagen, home to the Danish Parliament. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2018

Sacked Catalan leader asks to return to Spain ‘risk-free’

COPENHAGEN: Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont asked Tuesday to return to Spain “without any risk” of being detained for his role in the independence drive despite Madrid warning he would not be let in “even in the boot of a car.”
Speaking from Copenhagen on his first trip from Belgium where he now lives in self-exile, he said: “My intention in the coming days is to contribute to restoring democracy in order to respect election results.”
Fresh from a victory in December elections that saw separatist parties win an absolute majority led by his Together for Catalonia grouping, Puigdemont has been formally designated by the Catalan parliamentary speaker — another separatist — as the candidate to lead the region again.
But he has to figure out how he can be officially voted in at a parliamentary session due by the end of the month.
Parliamentary legal experts say he must be physically present at the session and Madrid has warned it will move to block any attempt by him to govern remotely, but if he returns to Spain he faces prison on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
“What better sign would there be to restore democracy than being able to come back without any risk to attend the parliamentary debate?” Puigdemont asked of the session that will see lawmakers vote for or against him.
He called on “everyone to make this possible, starting with the Spanish authorities.”
But his request is likely to fall on deaf ears, with Spain’s Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido announcing hours earlier that authorities were “taking steps along the border and inside the country, everywhere, to see that that does not happen.
“We are doing it in such a way that he cannot enter (the Catalan parliament) even in the boot of a car,” Zoido told Spanish television.
Puigdemont went to Belgium at the end of October after the Catalan parliament declared independence.
This was short-lived, however, as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved to stop the secession crisis in a region deeply divided over independence.
He imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, sacked its government, dissolved its parliament and called snap elections.
Several days later, separatist leaders were charged for their attempt to break from Spain via a banned independence referendum, but by then Puigdemont and several of his former ministers were already in Belgium.
The plebiscite, which went ahead in October despite a court ban, prompted a brutal police crackdown.
Other leaders who remained in Spain such as former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras were jailed pending an investigation.
On Wednesday, Puigdemont is due to meet with the Catalan parliamentary speaker in Brussels to discuss how he can be voted in.
Separatists are looking into having him attend virtually via videolink, although Puigdemont has not ruled out returning to Catalonia.
Puigdemont was invited to Denmark by Magni Arge, an MP for the Faroese separatist party Tjodveld (Republicans) who served as an observer for the Catalan referendum.
During a seminar on the Catalan crisis at the University of Copenhagen on Monday, Puigdemont hailed Denmark’s policy toward its former colonies Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
They have since 1950 gradually been granted more sovereignty in their bids for full independence.
“It’s not easy I know, but you’re proof that it’s possible,” Puigdemont said.
Greenland MP and former prime minister Aleqa Hammond was among the participants.
However, representatives of the parties that make up Denmark’s center-right government coalition declined to attend, as did those from the country’s two biggest parties, the Social Democrats and the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party.

Afghanistan cease-fire push in focus in US-Taliban talks

Updated 39 min 25 sec ago

Afghanistan cease-fire push in focus in US-Taliban talks

  • On Monday, the delegation met officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE ahead of their meeting with Khalilzad
  • Taliban officials were resisting the cease-fire proposal as they felt it would damage their cause and help US and Afghan forces

KABUL, PESHAWAR: US and Taliban officials have discussed proposals for a six-month cease-fire in Afghanistan and a future withdrawal of foreign troops as talks aimed at setting up peace negotiations went into a second day, Taliban sources said.

The three-day meeting in Abu Dhabi is at least the third time that US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met Taliban representatives as diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year war have intensified this year.

An Afghan government delegation traveled to the city and met Khalilzad.

However, despite US insistence that any peace settlement must be agreed between Afghans, the Taliban have refused to talk directly with officials from the Kabul government, which they consider an illegitimate, foreign-appointed regime.

“Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration whatsoever,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

“The entire agenda is focused on issues concerning the occupiers and talks will exclusively be held with them.”

The Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the movement’s political office in Qatar and included members of the leadership group based in Quetta, Pakistan and the chief of staff of Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

“It’s a well coordinated meeting where members from the political commissions and Quetta shura are both participating for the first time,” said one peace activist in close contact with the Taliban side at the meeting.

The presence in the delegation of senior officials close to the Taliban leader underscored the importance of the talks, which are shaping up as the most serious attempt to open negotiations since at least 2015.

On Monday, the delegation met officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE ahead of their meeting with Khalilzad, who was appointed to oversee Washington’s peace effort in September. There was no immediate comment from the US Embassy in Kabul.

Taliban officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US delegation was pressing for a six-month cease-fire as well as an agreement to name Taliban representatives to a future caretaker government.

For their part, Taliban priorities included the release of Taliban prisoners and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

However, Taliban officials were resisting the cease-fire proposal as they felt it would damage their cause and help US and Afghan forces.

The latest round of diplomacy comes about a year after the US sent thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan and stepped up air strikes to record levels, with the aim of pushing the Taliban to accept talks.

An Afghan government team traveled to Abu Dhabi “to begin proximity dialogue with the Taliban delegation and to prepare for a face-to-face meeting between the two sides,” government spokesman Haroon Chakansuri said in a statement.

But there was no sign from the Taliban they were ready to accept talks with the government and the Kabul delegation were based in an Abu Dhabi hotel away from the location of the talks. The US says the aim of the talks is to facilitate an Afghan-led process and the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan in the talks reflects a US desire to bring in countries with an interest in Afghanistan.