US calls Afghan prisoner swap ‘urgent’ amid coronavirus

U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan November 18, 2018. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 March 2020

US calls Afghan prisoner swap ‘urgent’ amid coronavirus

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday pressed the Afghan government and Taliban to move ahead with a delayed plan to free prisoners, saying the coronavirus crisis created urgency.
The US signed a February 29 deal with the Taliban that set in motion the withdrawal of forces and called for the release of captives ahead of talks between the Islamist insurgents and the Kabul government.
But the internationally recognized government, which was already reluctant, has put off the release, saying Kabul needed time to review the identities of prisoners.
“The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US-Taliban agreement,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who brokered the deal with the Taliban.
“Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence,” he wrote on Twitter.
He said that the global pandemic meant the two sides would likely need to hold talks virtually, although he still voiced hope for a face-to-face meeting.
He had earlier called for the insurgents and government representatives to meet in Qatar, the site of a year of US-Taliban negotiations, to agree on the logistics of the prisoner swap.
Khalilzad said that the Taliban, who have not renounced violence against the government, have agreed to the key demand of the government that freed guerrillas not return to battle.
“The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield. A violation will undermine the peace process,” Khalilzad said.
The Taliban have demanded the release of 5,000 prisoners before meeting with the government for talks, which Norway had offered to hold starting March 10.
President Ashraf Ghani had agreed to release 1,500 captives with the remaining 3,500 to be freed as negotiations begin.
But the Taliban rejected the offer and the government’s release of prisoners did not begin as decreed on Saturday.
The Taliban under the agreement would free 1,000 captives.
The United States is hoping to pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan and end its longest-ever war, which was launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.


UK sees rise in Islamist extremist cases referred to counter radicalization program

Updated 27 November 2020

UK sees rise in Islamist extremist cases referred to counter radicalization program

  • Cases involving Islamist extremism increase for first time in four years
  • Program aims to spot people who could go on to commit terrorist acts

LONDON: The number of people referred to the UK government’s counter extremism program has jumped amid concerns over increased radicalization among young people.
Cases involving Islamist extremism increased by 6 percent from 1,404 to 1,487. The numbers, which represent individuals of concern referred to the Prevent scheme between April 2019 and March 2020, mark the first year-on-year increase for Islamist cases since 2016.
While far-right cases remained steady compared to the previous year at 1,388, overall the number of people referred to the program rose 10 percent.
The rise in Islamist cases comes after a recent surge of attacks across Europe. Last month a school teacher was beheaded by an extremist after he had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a freedom of speech discussion. Days later, three people were killed in a terrorist attack at a church in Nice.
In the UK, three people were killed in a knife attack on London Bridge almost a year ago.
The UK’s Prevent program is part of its wider counter-terrorism strategy and aims to safeguard people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
The most serious cases are referred to a panel known as “Channel,” which then decides what further action to take. Of the 697 cases that reached the panel, most were related to the far-right (302), while 210 were linked to Islamist extremism. 
More than half of all referrals were aged under 20.
Security Minister James Brokenshire said the Prevent strategy was an essential strand to the UK’s counter-terror strategy.
“It is about supporting vulnerable individuals, steering them away from terrorism, and protecting our communities,” he told the Royal United Services Institute on Thursday.
Last week the head of counter-terror policing in the UK, Neil Basu, said that while Islamist terrorists remained the greatest threat to Britain, the far right is growing faster.
He said COVID-19 had created a “perfect storm” with young and vulnerable people spending more time alone and online.