Afghan government sets condition for peace talks with Taliban

Afghan government sets condition for peace talks with Taliban
The Taliban and Ghani’s government observed a few days of cease-fire during Eid-Ul-Fitr last year. (AFP)
Updated 30 October 2019

Afghan government sets condition for peace talks with Taliban

Afghan government sets condition for peace talks with Taliban
  • Insists on a cease-fire to gauge unity among members of the insurgent group

KABUL: In a clear sign of shifting strategies, Afghanistan’s government on Tuesday said that the Taliban should declare a one-month cease-fire before the restart of any peace negotiations.

The announcement follows the resumption of efforts by US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad to revive Washington’s talks with the Taliban.

This was after US President Donald Trump’s decided to abruptly call off the discussions last month, just as both parties were nearing the signing of a deal after a year of intensive talks that had seen Kabul being excluded from the start due to the Taliban’s objection.

In the past, President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which relies on the US military as well as financial aid, had set no conditions for holding talks with the Taliban.

However, on Tuesday, Hamdullah Mohib, Ghani’s national security adviser, said that the government was insisting on setting a condition because events from the past year showed that “the Taliban were not united, have no control over the war … and some of Taliban’s major commanders have joined Daesh.”

“We have put the condition not with an intention of blocking peace, our purpose is that they have to show … and it is important that the Taliban should prove how much control they have over their commanders and warriors,” Mohib told a news conference in Kabul.

The Taliban had no immediate comment. While holding talks with Khalilzad, the Taliban has always insisted that the group will announce a truce only after Washington sets a timetable for a complete withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

The Taliban and Ghani’s government observed a few days of cease-fire during Eid-Ul-Fitr last year when thousands of Taliban fighters had flooded urban areas, including Kabul, before joining the battleground and broadening their attacks.

The truce was the first-of-its kind in the latest chapter of the US-led war that began 18 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting.

Mohib said that Khalilzad’s visit this week, the first since he resumed his mission of reviving the talks with the Taliban, was not about peace in the country, but about the exchange of prisoners, which includes a US and an Australian teacher from the American University in Kabul who were kidnapped in 2016 and are held by the Taliban.

He did not elaborate further and did not say what the Taliban’s demands were in return for the freedom of the pair.

But in recent weeks, Taliban sources said that Anas Haqqani, son of a former prominent Taliban leader, was among those that the group had demanded to be set free. Anas, who was captured outside Afghanistan by US officials years ago, is held in an Afghan government-run jail.

Mohib said that Kabul was keen to attend an intra-Afghan conference hosted by China in which Taliban delegates are expected to participate. He said that it had asked Beijing to hold it after the announcement of the Afghan presidential election results that have been delayed twice.


US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers
Updated 36 min 32 sec ago

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers

US plans to require COVID-19 shots for foreign travelers
  • Requirement would come as part of the administration’s phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens to the country
WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is taking the first steps toward requiring nearly all foreign visitors to the US to be vaccinated for the coronavirus, a White House official said.
The requirement would come as part of the administration’s phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens to the country. No timeline has yet been determined, as interagency working groups study how and when to safely move toward resuming normal travel. Eventually all foreign citizens entering the country, with some limited exceptions, are expected to need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the US.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity Wednesday to preview the policy under development.
The Biden administration has kept in place travel restrictions that have severely curtailed international trips to the US, citing the spread of the delta variant of the virus.
Under the rules, non-US residents who have been to China, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa and India in the prior 14 days are prohibited from entering the US
All travelers to the US, regardless of vaccination status, are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of air travel to the country.
The Biden administration has faced pressure to lift some restrictions from affected allies, the air travel industry and families who have been kept separated from loved ones by the rules. Many have complained that the travel restrictions don’t reflect the current virus situation — particularly as caseloads in the US are worse than in many of the prohibited nations.
Airlines for America, a trade group for major US airlines, said it was pleased by reports that the administration plans to make it easier for more foreign travelers to enter the country if they have been vaccinated.

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims
Updated 05 August 2021

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims

Murder case in Philippines fuels call for action to halt attacks by rogue cops on Muslims
  • Online retailer Nadia Casar was allegedly kidnapped, held to ransom and killed by a group of police officers and civilians. Her body was burned
  • Community leaders and politicians condemned the gruesome killing and call on police chief to end discrimination against the Islamic community

MANILA: The gruesome murder of a Muslim woman in the Philippines has caused anger and outrage among the Islamic community in the country. Businesswoman Nadia Casar was allegedly kidnapped, held to ransom and killed by a group of police officers and civilians. Her body was burned.

“The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) strongly condemns the brutal slaying and corpse desecration by burning of Muslim Filipino businesswoman Nadia Casar,” said Dimapuno Datu-Ramos, a spokesman for the commission. “She was allegedly killed by members of the police.”

At least five police officers are accused of involvement in the death of Casar. They are: Benedict Matias Reyes, a staff sergeant from the Santa Rosa municipal police station in Nueva Ecija; June Malillin, a staff sergeant from Palayan City police station; Julius Alcantara, a corporal from Nueva Ecija Provincial Police Drug Enforcement; Rowen Martin, a master sergeant from the Cabanatuan City police station; and Drextemir Esmundo, a staff sergeant from the Cabiao municipal police station.

Two civilian suspects have also been named: Franklin Macapagal and Dario Robarios.

According to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), 35-year-old online retailer Casar hired a ride-share driver on July 20 to take her from Cavite province in southern Luzon to Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija, in Central Luzon, for a business meeting with Macapagal. The driver was taking her back to Cavite after the meeting when, at about 1.45 p.m. they found the road blocked by a pick-up truck and two motorcycles. Five armed men are said to have got out of the vehicle and kidnapped them.

Police said the driver was robbed of his belongings, including 4,500 pesos ($90) in cash, and released at about 3.00 a.m. on July 21. Casar’s charred remains were discovered on Aug. 1 in a shallow grave in Sitio Pinagpala, Barangay Imelda Valley, Palayan City.

The suspects came to the attention of the AKG after the ride-share driver said he recognized one of them as an officer in a group photograph hanging on the wall of a police station in Santa Rosa police station. This led them to Reyes, who was arrested on July 29. Two days later, Alcantara voluntarily surrendered himself and was taken into custody. Malillin reportedly admitted his role in the crime, and Alcantara implicated Martin and Esmundo, who are still at large.

Robarios, the caretaker of a house where Casar was allegedly held captive, was arrested in a follow-up operation. He reportedly confessed and claimed that Malillin, Martin, and Esmundo had ordered him to bury Casar’s remains. Macapagal, who has also eluded arrest, was identified from a driver’s license found inside the house.

The ride-share driver reportedly told investigators he “heard one of the suspects order Casar to tell her family that they have to pay a ransom in exchange for her release.” Investigators suspect she was killed when her relatives were unable to pay.

“We call upon PNP chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar to fulfill his commitment to cleanse his ranks of … criminals,” said NCMF spokesman Datu-Ramos. “The Muslim Filipino community has long been patient with the promises made by the PNP to protect all Filipinos, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

“This abhorrent crime is a violation of Philippine Law, a transgression of basic human rights, and a blatant disregard of the Islamic rituals in handling the dead. This must not be ignored.

“NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan also calls upon the country’s leaders … to create legislation that would ensure the safety of minorities who have been repeatedly targeted by corrupt men in uniform. A heavier sanction must be placed upon those who have sworn to protect all life, yet have been proven to abuse their power and authority.”

Mujiv Hataman, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and the representative for Basilan, also condemned the killing, and called on Eleazar to ensure an “exhaustive investigation” of the case.

“It is reprehensible to think that those who are supposed to protect and serve the people are the same ones behind this savagery,” Hataman said. “Casar’s case was not an isolated case, since there have been reports in the past about Muslims, especially traders, becoming victims of abuse, being robbed and some of them even getting killed by rogue policemen.

“I urge the PNP to investigate the occurrences of crimes perpetrated by wayward members of the police against Muslims, to put an end to these kinds of incidents,” he added, and called on the PNP to take action to “stop discrimination against their Muslim brothers.”

He highlighted as an example the case of a Muslim couple from Lanao del Sur who died in a robbery and shooting incident in Pasay City that was committed by “policemen in uniform,” according to witnesses.

In another incident last year, Hataman said, members of the Manila police were involved in an eight-hour standoff with the family and neighbors of two Muslim jewelry traders in the capital’s San Andres Bukid district. Officers allegedly searched and arrested the victims without a warrant and without identifying themselves. Hataman and other politicians filed a resolution in June last year calling for an investigation into the incident.

Eleazar assured Casar’s family that “justice will be served” in the case and he had ordered the immediate dismissal of the five accused officers. He said he has also tasked the AKG and the Integrity Monitoring and Enforcement Group to launch search operations to find the remaining suspects.

“We strongly condemn this incident,” he said. “I will make sure that the policemen involved in the kidnapping and killing of Nadia Casar will be dismissed from the service and held accountable for their crime.”

He added that he has additionally ordered an investigation to determine whether other police officers have been involved in kidnap-for-ransom activities.


Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
Updated 05 August 2021

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
  • Group aims for accord that ‘observes Islamic aspirations’ of Afghans, spokesman says

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday refuted US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s assertions that it was seeking a “lion’s share of power” in a future government, terming it as a “personal view,” as fighting worsens across Afghanistan and foreign troops inch closer to completing a withdrawal mission by month-end.

“That is his personal view. We heard Khalilzad’s comments, but our stance is that we want an accord that can observe the Islamic aspirations of the people,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News, adding that the group was “not after a monopoly of power or eyeing a key share.”

“We do not want anything for ourselves; we have given lofty sacrifices for Islam. The nation is exhausted. There will definitely be a complete Islamic government, and all sides will have to accept this … All Afghans will be given a share in it,” he added.

The comments follow Khalilzad’s remarks during a virtual conference of the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday when he said: “At this point, (the Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion’s share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it.”

He added that the Taliban and the Kabul government “are far apart” in US-backed peace negotiations, which began in Doha, Qatar, nearly a year ago.

The intra-Afghan talks were the first formal step to politically settle a decades-old conflict that began after the Taliban were toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Khalilzad was the chief architect of the controversial, behind-the-door negotiations between the US and the Taliban, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration were excluded from.

They led to the signing of a conditional agreement on Feb. 29 in Qatar between former US President Donald Trump’s administration and Taliban representatives based on which US and NATO troops were to pull out of Afghanistan as part of a 14-month process that began on May 1 and is scheduled to complete on Aug. 31.

Since then, Khalilzad has played a crucial role in facilitating the talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government in Doha and, in March, proposed the formation of an inclusive interim government to replace Ghani, whose term ends in 2024.

Both groups have failed to make headway in the Doha talks, which was the subject of a phone call on Tuesday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ghani, who agreed on the need to accelerate the peace process.

This comes a day after Ghani, during a special parliamentary session, called for a nationwide war against the Taliban, who have made significant gains in several parts of Afghanistan and after an overnight attack in Kabul on the defense minister’s home.

“Eight non-combatants, including a woman, were killed in the attack on the home of Defense Minister Gen. Besmillah Khan in Kabul,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told reporters on Wednesday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike.

“We were behind the strike,” Mujahid said. “The attack was in response to the airstrikes by the defense ministry.” 

Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security on Washington’s “abrupt” decision to withdraw its troops.

Presenting his security plan before parliament on Monday, Ghani said the situation in the war-torn nation would be “under control within six months,” adding that the US has pledged its full support.

The gap left by departing troops has emboldened the Taliban, who have intensified their insurgency since early May, targeting Afghan government forces and stepping up attacks on Herat in the west, Kandahar, and the adjacent Helmand province in the south — three major regions — since last week.

Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has taken the brunt of the fighting.

Both Taliban and government officials said fighting was “intense” on Wednesday in various parts of Lashkar Gah, where the group has made significant inroads.

A lawmaker from Helmand, Mirwais Khadem, said the Taliban were “in control of all parts of the city,” except for a series of government buildings, such as the governor’s compound, police and intelligence headquarters and the central prison.

“I can say that there is street-to-street fighting in Lashkar Gah now. The Taliban have taken shelter in people’s homes. Afghan troops fire back on them, and there are bombardments both by the government and US forces,” Khadem told Arab News.

He chided the army’s move asking residents to “flee from their homes” in Taliban-held areas.

“This decision of the government is not appropriate. We urged the government to go instead to a desert where there are no residential homes. Both the Taliban and the government can fight there and decide who will be the winner and will be defeated,” he said.

“But the government did not accept it. Asking civilians in the middle of the war to leave their homes, without arrangements for shelter, food and other necessities in this hot weather is not fair,” Khadem added.

He explained that “there were casualties among civilians both from shelling and air raids in Lashkar Gah” but could not provide the exact fatality count.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said casualties were “mounting” in Lashkar Gah.

“There has been relentless gunfire, airstrikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,” Sarah Leahy, the aid group’s coordinator for Helmand, said in a statement.

The loss of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban would be a massive blow for Kabul, which has pledged to safeguard provincial capitals “at all costs” after losing much of the countryside to the insurgent group over the summer.

US-led troops have stepped up aerial attacks on suspected Taliban positions to support Afghan forces and block Taliban advances.

Experts say the measures are too little, too late.

“American forces do not want to see the fall of any major city to the Taliban before their exit. That is why they continue providing air support for national forces,” Torek Farhadi, an analyst and former adviser to former President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News.

“But these attacks cause civilian casualties, such as the ones we saw in Helmand. This is not good for the Kabul government,” he added.

Nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in May and June amid an uptick in violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, the highest number for those two months since records started in 2009, the UN’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said in a July report.

By then, it had documented 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, of which 1,659 were deaths. The number was up 47 percent from the same period last year.


South London terrorist claimed he had changed days before knife rampage

South London terrorist claimed he had changed days before knife rampage
Updated 05 August 2021

South London terrorist claimed he had changed days before knife rampage

South London terrorist claimed he had changed days before knife rampage
  • Sri Lankan-born Sudesh Amman was offered support from two different mentors following his release from jail but before the attack
  • Mentors said there was no behavior of concern to report, but were ‘shocked’ when they saw details of the 2020 incident in Streatham

LONDON: A convicted terrorist told his mentor that he had changed, days before carrying out a knife rampage in south London which ended when he was shot dead by police, an inquest has heard.

Sudesh Amman, 20, told his allocated mentor that he had “now realized” that terrorists were “pushing people away” from Islam.

Amman made the comments on Jan. 30, 2020, seven days after his early release from prison and just three days before he suddenly stole a knife from a shop in Streatham and stabbed two unsuspecting members of the public. He was fatally shot by covert police officers who were tasked with keeping him under surveillance. Both of his victims survived.

An inquest into his death at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London heard yesterday that Amman pledged his allegiance to Daesh in prison and that he told prisoners he “wanted to kill the Queen.”

The inquest was told that the Sri Lankan-born terrorist was offered support from a theological mentor to deal with his extreme brand of Islam and a practical mentor to help him adapt to life beyond prison.

He had met both of them following his release from prison.

His mentors told the court that they were “shocked” and “gobsmacked” when they recognized Amman as the perpetrator of the shocking attack on Feb. 2, 2020.

One of his mentors had a testimony following a meeting with Amman read out in court: “He (Amman) said he now realized that people who hurt other people through things like acts of terror were pushing people away from the faith and causing hatred.”

The witness said Amman had been “the most relaxed that I have seen him” in the last of their four meetings in person, which took place in HMP Belmarsh and after his release.

The mentor, who was known as “Witness M” to retain their anonymity, said: “He was happy to talk, he had no moments where he held back from saying anything and he seemed happy and relieved at being released.

“I took him at his word. He seemed sincere the way he was saying it.”

The mentor said that he felt there was no behavior of concern to report, but was “shocked” when he saw details of the incident in Streatham unfolding.

Witness M said: “I saw when it said the incident was in Streatham, I knew I visited him, I hoped it was not (him). I kept watching the news and I had a little bit of disbelief, to be honest.”

The other mentor, referred to as “Witness T,” told the inquest that he discussed religious matters with Amman during their only meeting on Jan. 29.

Witness T said Amman showed that he was “ignorant” of Islam during their meeting. Amman told Witness T that he was keeping to himself in the week after his release at a Streatham probation hostel out of fear that people believed he was radicalizing others.

Witness T said he found out about the attack on Streatham high street on the same day it occurred.

“I was gobsmacked, I was shocked, I was surprised,” he said.


Taliban commander leading Lashkar Gah onslaught was part of US-brokered prisoner release

Taliban commander leading Lashkar Gah onslaught was part of US-brokered prisoner release
Updated 05 August 2021

Taliban commander leading Lashkar Gah onslaught was part of US-brokered prisoner release

Taliban commander leading Lashkar Gah onslaught was part of US-brokered prisoner release
  • Mawlavi Talib was among 5,000 militants freed last year by the Afghan government under pressure from Washington

LONDON: The Taliban assault on Lashkar Gah is being led by a commander released by the Afghan government last year as part of a US deal to boost peace talks.

Mawlavi Talib was among 5,000 militants freed under pressure from Washington as it attempted to reach an agreement to end the 20-year war, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province is one of several Afghan cities under a fierce onslaught from the Taliban as the insurgents seek further gains after sweeping through the country’s rural areas in recent months.

The report of Talib’s release is particularly embarrassing for US President Joe Biden, who faced fierce criticism for his decision to pull American troops out of the country. 

Many of the freed insurgents are now taking part in offensives that have brought huge pressure on the Afghan government.

A Taliban commander told The Times newspaper that Talib is “leading the fight and the Taliban are close to gaining control of Lashkar Gah.”

“Talib is an aggressive fighter, advancing well in the province,” he said. 

Talib previously commanded militants in Helmand before working as the Taliban’s “shadow” deputy governor for the province.

He was arrested last year by Afghan troops but was freed within months after the Afghan government reluctantly agreed to release the insurgents.

British and American troops spent years in fierce battles with the Taliban as the militants attempted to capture Helmand.

Much of Lashkar Gah was seized by the Taliban in recent weeks but US and Afghan airstrikes overnight on Tuesday into Wednesday attempted to dislodge the fighters.

The UN said on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” about tens of thousands of people in the city who could be trapped by the fighting.