Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield

Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield
An Afghan boy who lost a leg when he was hit by a bullet in a crossfire, dances with his prosthetic leg at the Red Cross hospital in this May 7 photo. (AFP)
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Updated 14 December 2019

Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield

Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield
  • Peace talks had got underway again following Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram base two weeks ago

KABUL: The US special envoy to Afghanistan on Friday announced a “pause” in peace talks with the Taliban after the militant group launched an intense hours-long attack on a key US military airfield north of Kabul.

Zalmay Khalilzad said he was “outraged” about the raid on the Bagram base which came just a week after he had resumed negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar.

In a tweet Khalilzad added: “(The Taliban) must show they are willing and able to respond to Afghan desire for peace. We are taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic.”

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman who is based at the group’s political headquarters in Qatar, tweeted that both sides had decided to have a few days’ break “for consultation.”

Peace talks had got underway again following American President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram base two weeks ago, during which he announced the restart of dialogue aimed at ending the long-running Afghan conflict.

Trump had called off negotiations in September after a Taliban attack in Kabul killed an American serviceman.

In line with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the American leader had said a cease-fire was a must for relaunching peace discussions, while some US diplomats, including Khalilzad, viewed a reduction of violence as essential for the process to continue.

Following the latest pause in talks, Ghani’s chief spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told Arab News: “Our position has been very clear. The Taliban must cease violence.”

However, there had been no pledge from the Taliban side or Afghan and US-led troops to halt attacks, neither when the talks were held in the past, nor during the latest discussions.

Wednesday’s pre-dawn attack on Bagram lasted more than 10 hours and forced the US military to use a fighter jet and helicopter gunships against the Taliban insurgents.

At least two Afghan civilians were killed, and more than 80 others injured, including five Georgian soldiers, during the fighting.

Khalilzad and US diplomats had held at least 10 rounds of secret talks with the Taliban prior to Trump’s September intervention to halt them. In his tweet, Shaheen said the latest meeting had been “very good and friendly.”

Analyst Akbar Polad said the pause following the Bagram assault was a blow to the peace process and “means a continuation of fighting and more pressure on the Taliban in the future. Either the Taliban do not know or are given false advice for launching attacks like (the one on) Bagram and claiming responsibility,” he told Arab News.

“The Taliban are given the illusion that they are the victors of the war, (that) they will replace the current government. When they conduct attacks, they will further face isolation in society as Afghans suffer the most, and because the Taliban refuse to talk with the government,” Polad added.

The resumption of talks last week, in the middle of a deepening political crisis over September’s presidential vote in Afghanistan, raised hopes of a possible breakthrough in the latest chapter of the war, which began with the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led campaign in late 2001.

A few weeks earlier, the Taliban and the US exchanged prisoners – an American and Australian – both professors at the American University of Afghanistan – for three militants jailed by the Afghan government.

The government has not taken part in the talks because of objections by the Taliban.

Ghani has been pushing for a truce before any discussions – either between the Taliban and the Americans, or between the Taliban and the government – take place.

The Taliban insisted they would only announce a truce after the US had agreed on a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

According to the Afghan government, however, the militant group’s political leaders based in Qatar do not have much clout over Taliban military commanders in the field.

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UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
Updated 28 February 2021

UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
  • Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force
  • A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar

YANGON: The UN Human Rights Office says it has received “credible information” that a crackdown Sunday on anti-coup protesters in Myanmar has left at least 18 people dead and over 30 wounded.
“Deaths reportedly occurred as a result of live ammunition fired into crowds in Yangon, Dawei, Mandalay, Myeik, Bago and Pokokku,” it said in a statement, referring to several cities in Myanmar. “Tear gas was also reportedly used in various locations as well as flash-bang and stun grenades.”
“We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters,” its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani was quoted saying.
It would be the highest single-day death toll among protesters who are demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power after being ousted by a Feb. 1 coup.
Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force on Sunday as they intensified their efforts to break up protests a month after the military staged a coup. At least four people were reportedly killed.
There were reports of gunfire as police in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, fired tear gas and water cannons while trying to clear the streets of demonstrators demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power. Photos of shell casings from live ammunition used in assault rifles were posted on social media.
Reports on social media identified by name one young man believed to have been killed in Yangon. His body was shown in photos and videos lying on a sidewalk until other protesters were able to carry him away.
A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar, where local media reported that at least three people were killed during a protest march. The fatalities could not immediately be independently confirmed, though photos posted on social media showed a wounded man in the care of medical personnel, and later laid out in a bed under a blanket with flowers placed on top.
Confirming reports of protesters’ deaths has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources.
Prior to Sunday, there had been eight confirmed reports of killings linked to the army’s takeover, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.
The Feb. 1 coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her and President Win Myint, as well as other top members of Suu Kyi’s government.
Sunday’s violence erupted in the early morning when medical students were marching in Yangon’s streets near the Hledan Center intersection, which has become the gathering point for protesters who then fan out to other parts of the city.
Videos and photos showed protesters running away as police charged at them, and residents setting up makeshift roadblocks to slow their advance. Some protesters managed to throw tear gas cannisters back at police. Nearby, residents were pleading with police to release those they picked up from the street and shoved into police trucks to be taken away. Dozens or more were believed to have been detained.
Demonstrators regrouped later Sunday and security forces continued to chase them in several neighborhoods.
There was no immediate word on Yangon casualties. Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the streets and there were what appeared to be smoke grenades thrown into the crowds.
“The Myanmar security forces’ clear escalation in use of lethal force in multiple towns and cities across the country in response to mostly peaceful anti-coup protesters is outrageous and unacceptable, and must be immediately halted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests and lethal force can only be used to protect life or prevent serious injury.”
“The world is watching the actions of the Myanmar military junta, and will hold them accountable,” he said.
On Saturday, security forces began employing rougher tactics, taking preemptive actions to break up protests and making scores, if not hundreds, of arrests. Greater numbers of soldiers have also joined police. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, as of Saturday, 854 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in relation to the coup, and 771 were being detained or sought for arrest. The group said that while it had documented 75 new arrests, it understood that hundreds of other people were also picked up Saturday in Yangon and elsewhere.
MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, broadcast an announcement Saturday night from the Foreign Ministry that the country’s ambassador to the United Nations had been fired because he had abused his power and misbehaved by failing to follow the instructions of the government and “betraying” it.
Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had declared in an emotional speech Friday at the UN General Assembly in New York that he represented Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” and supported the struggle against military rule.
He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime. He also called for stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.


UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy
Updated 28 February 2021

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

LONDON: British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the idea of giving people vaccine passports or certificates to allow them to enter venues or events might be a way to help the country and its economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events,” Sunak told BBC television on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the government would hold a review to consider the scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical questions about using vaccine certificates for people who have received a coronavirus shot, which could help entertainment and hospitality venues reopen.


Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt
Updated 28 February 2021

Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt
  • Two dead as police crack down
  • UN envoy says he will fight on

Myanmar police shot and killed two protesters on Sunday and wounded several as they cracked down in a bid to end weeks of demonstrations against a Feb. 1 military coup, a doctor and a politician said.
Police opened fire in the town of Dawei, killing one and wounding several, politician Kyaw Min Htike told Reuters from the southern town. The Dawei Watch media outlet also said at least one person was killed and more than a dozen wounded.
Police also fired in the main city of Yangon and one man brought to a hospital with a bullet wound in the chest had died, said a doctor at the hospital who asked not to be identified. The Mizzima media outlet also reported that death.
Police and the spokesman for the ruling military council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Myanmar has been in chaos for a month since the army seized power and detained elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership, alleging fraud in a November election her party won in a landslide.
The coup, which stalled Myanmar’s progress toward democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets and drawn condemnation from Western countries, with some imposing limited sanctions.
In Yangon, several people, some bleeding heavily, were helped away from protests, images posted earlier by media showed.
It was not clear how they were hurt, but media reported live fire. The Myanmar Now media group said people had been “gunned down” but did not elaborate.
Police also threw stun grenades, used tear gas and fired into the air, witnesses said.
Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing has said authorities have been using minimal force to deal with the protests.
Nevertheless, at least five protesters have died in the turmoil. The army said a policeman has been killed.
The crackdown appears to indicate a determination by the military to impose its authority in the face of widespread defiance, not just on the streets but more broadly in areas such as the civil service, municipal administration, the education and health sectors and media.

’RUNNING’
Police were out early on Sunday, taking positions at main protest sites in Yangon as protesters, many clad in protective gear, began to congregate, witnesses said.
They moved swiftly to break up crowds.
“Police got out of their cars and started throwing stun grenades without warning,” said Hayman May Hninsi, who was with a group of fellow teachers in Yangon. They fled to nearby buildings. “Some teachers got hurt running.”
Doctors and students in white lab coats fled as police threw stun grenades outside a medical school elsewhere in the city, posted video showed.
Police in the second city, Mandalay, fired guns into the air, trapping protesting medical staff in a city hospital, a doctor there said by telephone.
Saturday brought disturbances in towns and cities nationwide as police began their bid to crush the protests with tear gas, stun grenades and by shooting into the air.
State-run MRTV television said more than 470 people had been arrested on Saturday. It said police had given warnings before using stun grenades to disperse people.

’INSTIL FEAR’
Youth activist Esther Ze Naw said people were battling to overcome the fear they had lived with for a long time.
“This fear will only grow if we keep living with it and the people who are creating the fear know that. It’s obvious they’re trying to instil fear in us by making us run and hide,” she said. “We can’t accept that.”
The police action came after state television announced that Myanmar’s UN envoy had been fired for betraying the country after he urged the United Nations to use “any means necessary” to reverse the coup.
MRTV said he had been fired in accordance with civil service rules because he had “betrayed the country” and “abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”
The ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, was defiant. “I decided to fight back as long as I can,” he told Reuters in New York.
UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said he was overwhelmed by the ambassador’s “act of courage,” adding on Twitter, “It’s time for the world to answer that courageous call with action.”
Myanmar’s generals have traditionally shrugged off diplomatic pressure. They have promised to hold a new election but not set a date.
Suu Kyi’s party and supporters said the result of the November vote must be respected.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during military rule. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus protocols.
The next hearing in her case is set for Monday.


US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use
Updated 28 February 2021

US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use
  • The J&J vaccine is the third to be greenlighted in the US after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s were provisionally approved in December
  • US President Joe Biden hails 'exciting news' but urge Americans not to let guard down

WASHINGTON: The United States on Saturday authorized Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine for emergency use, giving the nation a third shot to battle the outbreak that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.
The single-shot vaccine is highly effective in preventing severe Covid-19, including against newer variants, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said before giving it a green light.
“This is exciting news for all Americans, and an encouraging development in our efforts to bring an end to the crisis,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
But he urged Americans to remain vigilant with anti-virus curbs such as social distancing, warning that new variants of the virus still posed a threat.
“But we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable,” he said.
A third vaccine is seen as a vital means to ramp up the immunization rate in the United States, where more than 500,000 people have lost their lives to the coronavirus.
In large clinical trials, the J&J vaccine’s efficacy against severe disease was 85.9 percent in the United States, 81.7 percent in South Africa, and 87.6 percent in Brazil.
Overall, among 39,321 participants across all regions, the efficacy against severe Covid-19 was 85.4 percent, but it fell to 66.1 percent when including moderate forms of the disease.
Crucially, analyses of various demographic groups revealed no marked differences across age, race, or people with underlying conditions.
The J&J vaccine is the third to be greenlighted in the United States after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s were provisionally approved in December.

Practical advantages
Over 65 million people in America have so far received at least one shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — but unlike those, the J&J vaccine requires just one dose, and is stored at fridge temperatures, offering logistical and practical advantages.
The J&J shot appears less protective than Pfizer and Moderna’s two-shot regimens, which both have an efficacy of around 95 percent against all forms of Covid-19 from the classic coronavirus strain.
All three have been shown to fully protect against hospitalizations and death, however.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post the two earlier vaccines were tested months before the emergence of “variants of concern” that could affect the efficacy, meaning the Pfizer and Moderna results were not an “apples to apples” comparison with the J&J shot.
There was a hint, based on preliminary data, that the J&J vaccine might be effective against asymptomatic infection — though the company said it needs to do more research.
The company has announced it aims to deliver 20 million doses by the end of March, with 100 million by June — though the US is pushing to expedite that timeline.
The J&J vaccine uses a common-cold causing adenovirus, which has been genetically modified so that it can’t replicate, to carry the gene for a key protein of the coronavirus into human cells.


US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium

US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium
Updated 28 February 2021

US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium

US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium
  • The CDC eviction moratorium was signed in September by President Donald Trump
  • President Joe Biden until March 31 to give tenants a breathing spell as the pandemic continues

WASHINGTON: The Justice Department said Saturday it will appeal a judge’s ruling that found the federal government’s eviction moratorium was unconstitutional.
Prosecutors filed a notice in the case on Saturday evening, saying that it was appealing the matter the to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
On Thursday, US District Judge J. Campbell Barker ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its authority and that the moratorium was unlawful.
“Although the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does the Constitution,” the judge wrote.
The CDC eviction moratorium was signed in September by President Donald Trump and extended by President Joe Biden until March 31.
Barker, who was nominated by Trump in 2018 to serve in the Eastern District of Texas, stopped short of issuing an injunction in the case. Several property owners had brought the litigation arguing that the federal government didn’t have the legal authority to stop evictions.
“The federal government cannot say that it has ever before invoked its power over interstate commerce to impose a residential eviction moratorium,” Barker wrote. “It did not do so during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. Nor did it invoke such a power during the exigencies of the Great Depression. The federal government has not claimed such a power at any point during our Nation’s history until last year.”
State and local governments had approved eviction moratoriums early in the pandemic for many renters, but many of those protections have already expired.
To be eligible for protection, renters must have an income of $198,000 or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate they’ve sought government help to pay rent; declare that they can’t pay because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm that they are likely to become homeless if evicted.