Taliban kill 21 days before US-sponsored peace talks

The Taliban have been carrying out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan forces. (Reuters)
Updated 01 January 2019

Taliban kill 21 days before US-sponsored peace talks

  • This is the first officially confirmed moot between Taliban and Iran
  • Next round of Afghan peace talks expected to be held in the Kingdom in mid-January

KABUL: Taliban insurgents killed 21 people in a series of attacks unleashed on security forces guarding oil wells in Afghanistan’s northern Sari Pul province, officials said on Tuesday. Twenty-three soldiers were also wounded in the attack.
The attacks coincide with regional and US-sponsored efforts to hold talks with the Taliban on finding ways to end the 17-year war, which began with the ouster of the Taliban government in a US-led offensive.
Armed with rocket propelled rockets and hand grenades, scores of Taliban fighters began the attacks late on Monday in three areas of Sari-Pul, which lasted until Tuesday sunrise.
“They meant to target the security forces,” Zabihullah Amani, a spokesman for the region’s governor, told Arab News.
Three of the victims were senior police officers.
Amani said government had not sent reinforcements to quell the Taliban threat, adding that the areas and wells were under government control.
An Afghan and a Chinese firm were extracting oil from the wells until six months ago, when the government scrapped the contract for unknown reasons.
Amani said Taliban insurgents were only a few kilometers away from the armored vehicles and equipment that belong to the firms and government.
Recent meetings held between Taliban and US officials and regional representatives have not deterred the group from stepping up their attacks in Afghanistan in recent months, causing heavy casualties among security forces.
A rising number of Taliban attacks prompted the government to replace the country’s defense and interior ministers last week.
Meanwhile, Taliban officials confirmed on Tuesday that delegates held discussions with officials from the Iranian government about the peace process and US presence in Afghanistan.
Both the Taliban and Iran, arch rivals in the past, have established ties in recent years. 
Sunday’s meeting is the first officially confirmed moot between the two sides to deliberate on the US efforts to end the 17-year Afghan war, rightly termed as Washington’s longest conflict in history.
The Taliban in a statement said the group’s delegation shared its views on “peace and security of Afghanistan and the region with neighboring Iran.”
The statement said the visit to Iran was part of Taliban’s regional effort to gain political and moral support as well as cooperation for ending the “occupation and for restoration of peace and security.”
Last week, a top Iranian security delegation held talks with Afghan government in Kabul. Media reports at the time quoted leader of the Iranian team as saying that Tehran had established contacts with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government.
Like Russia and Pakistan, Tehran has openly and repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, stressing their presence had led to fanning of extremism and insecurity in the region.
Some Afghan officials and members of US government have accused Tehran of arming and funding the Taliban against Kabul and foreign troops, a charge denied by Iran.
Iran’s foreign ministry was the first to reveal Sunday’s meeting with Taliban delegation.
Various countries in the region have held talks with the Taliban in recent months. However, Afghan government members have not been able to take part in those meetings due to the objections of Taliban officials.
The Taliban considers Kabul a US puppet and insists on holding direct talks with Washington because it was the US that overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001.
US officials and Taliban reps have held a series of meetings in Abu Dhabi and Qatar in recent weeks, mulling over the fate of Afghan war, with President Donald Trump eyeing to possibly cut down its military presence significantly which will eventually lead to total withdrawal.
The next round of this series of multilateral meetings is expected to be held in mid January in Saudi Arabia.

Hong Kong activists vow to ‘squeeze economy’ as city smolders

Updated 51 min 51 sec ago

Hong Kong activists vow to ‘squeeze economy’ as city smolders

  • Huge fires blaze as protesters hurl petrol bombs near campus
  • City on edge as over five months of demonstrations rumble on

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police clashed Sunday with pro-democracy activists who vowed to “squeeze the economy” as the increasingly divided city reels from one of the worst weeks of violence in the months-long crisis.

Protests have swept the global financial hub since June as many in the city of 7.5 million people have vented fury at eroding freedoms under Chinese rule.

A marked change in tactics last week to a “Blossom Everywhere” campaign of blockades and vandalism stretched the police force, shut down large chunks of Hong Kong’s train network and forced schools and shopping malls to close.

Students and protesters occupied several major universities around the city — the first time a movement characterized by its fluidity and unpredictability has coagulated in fixed locations.

A poster circulating on social media called for the “dawn action” to continue on Monday. “Get up early, directly target the regime, squeeze the economy to increase pressure,” it said.

The education bureau said schools will remain closed at the start of the week “for the sake of safety.”

The protests started against a now shelved bill to allow extradition to China but have billowed to encompass wider issues such as perceived police brutality and calls for universal suffrage in the former British colony.

Two people have died this month as the violence worsened, while the financial hub has been pushed into a recession by the turmoil.

Hong Kong’s airport authority on Sunday said October traffic figures were down 13 percent on last year with 5.4 million passengers.

Sunday’s exchanges of tear gas and petrol bombs broke out as protesters occupying Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon — now a key battleground near the blocked Cross-Harbor Tunnel — fight to keeping their stranglehold on the major transport link.

The streets around Hung Hom were thick with smoke as fires burned between the lines of black-clad activists, known as “braves,” and police in full riot gear launched tear gas rounds.

Dozens of government supporters had gathered in the area earlier to clear barricades near the university campus, which was the scene of more violence overnight as officers clashed with protesters.

Around 80 to 100 middle-aged residents clapped and cheered as they moved debris from the road near the entrance to the tunnel that connects Kowloon with Hong Kong island — shut since Tuesday — before protesters in masks and their signature black t-shirts returned to rebuild the roadblock.

Television images showed activists throwing bricks at the residents to drive them away.

The Polytechnic University (PolyU) has become a flashpoint in the city rocked by a week of intensified violence and chaos. A message on the university’s Facebook page urged demonstrators to leave “immediately.”

“In view of safety concerns posed by possible violent unlawful activities conducted by protesters who are still occupying the PolyU campus, the University again urges all people on campus, including students and staff members, not to stay, and to leave as soon as possible,” the post said.

However, protesters in PolyU circulated a poster online encouraging people to join them.

“Whole city unite, defend PolyU, defend Cross-Harbor Tunnel,” it said.

A 23-year-old PolyU student called Kason said at the scene: “It will be good for us if we can have a base to keep our gear and have some rest at night before we set off for another fight in the morning.”

PLA soldiers — based in barracks near Hong Kong Baptist University — briefly came out on Saturday to help the clean-up after a week of disruption, a rare and highly symbolic troop movement unsolicited by the city’s embattled government.

The action saw scores of soldiers from the garrison, which is confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, with crewcuts and identical gym kits conduct a lightning-quick removal of bricks and debris near their base.

Chinese state media has repeatedly warned that troops could be deployed to quell an unprecedented crisis in the semi-autonomous city that has entered its sixth month.

Confirming the brief deployment, the PLA said it acted to open a debris-strewn road outside their Kowloon Tong barracks to traffic, winning “applause from residents” in the process.

The last time soldiers assisted in the city was in 2018 to clean up after a typhoon.

A spokesman for Hong Kong’s government said the troop movement had not been requested by city authorities but was instead a “voluntary community activity initiated by themselves.”