US Republican lawmakers urge action after Russia-Afghanistan briefing

A NATO helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan June 29. 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 30 June 2020

US Republican lawmakers urge action after Russia-Afghanistan briefing

WASHINGTON: Eight Republican lawmakers attended a White House briefing Monday about explosive allegations that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan — intelligence the president himself was said to have not been fully read in on.
Members of Congress in both parties called for additional information and consequences for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, even as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted President Donald Trump had not been briefed on the findings because they hadn’t been verified. Eight Democrats were to be briefed Tuesday morning.
The White House seemed to be setting an unusually high bar for bringing the information to Trump, since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers. McEnany declined to say why a different standard of confidence in the intelligence applied to briefing lawmakers than bringing the information to the president.
Republicans who were in the briefing expressed alarm about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger were in the briefing Monday led by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. McCaul and Kinzinger said in a statement that lawmakers were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports.”
“If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the Administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable,” they said.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces.”
On CNN, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed the timing of the Democratic briefing but said “it’s no substitute for what they owe the Congress of the United States.” She said “this is as serious as it gets.”
She speculated that Trump wasn’t briefed “because they know it makes him very unhappy, and all roads for him, as you know, lead to Putin. And would he tell Putin what they knew?”
McEnany, for her part, repeatedly stressed that the allegations had not been confirmed.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” she said.
The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the US from Afghanistan. They suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the US and the Taliban held talks to end the long-running war. The assessment was first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn told reporters Monday, “I don’t think it’s should be a surprise to anybody that the Taliban’s been trying to kill Americans and that the Russians have been encouraging that, if not providing means to make that happen.”
He added, “Intelligence committees have been briefed on that for months. so has Nancy Pelosi, so has (Democratic Senate leader) Chuck Schumer. So, this is, this is a more leaks and partisanship.”
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.
The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three US Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan, officials told the AP.
Three other US service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue” incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.
One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.
The intelligence officials told the AP that Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed. Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.
The White House National Security Council wouldn’t confirm the assessments but said the US receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.
Trump’s Democratic general election rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, used an online fundraiser Monday to hammer the president for a “betrayal” of American troops in favor of “an embarrassing campaign of deferring and debasing himself before Putin.”
“I’m disgusted,” Biden told donors, as he recalled his late son Beau’s military service. Families of service members, Biden said, “should never, ever have to worry they’ll face a threat like this: the commander-in-chief turning a blind eye.”
Asked about the reports on the alleged bounties, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, “These claims are lies.”
“If in the US the special services are continuing to report to the president, I suggest that one be guided by the relevant statement of President Trump, who has already given his assessment of these publications,” he told reporters during a conference call.
John Bolton, an ex-national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has written a tell-all book about his White House tenure, said Sunday it’s “pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”


Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 52 min 24 sec ago

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.