India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam
The Shahtoot Dam will be a source of drinkable water for 2.2 million people of Kabul and also provide irrigation facilities for 4,000 hectares of land. (AP)
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Updated 10 February 2021

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam
  • Dam is part of development initiatives announced by New Delhi last year

KABUL: As the latest sign of its growing involvement in Afghanistan, India on Tuesday pledged to build the $236 million Shahtoot Dam in Kabul to provide safe drinking water to 2.2 million residents in the capital city and boost irrigation facilities across the country. 

Plans for the construction of the dam were discussed during a virtual meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with representatives from both sides signing an agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul. 

The dam is part of a series of new development initiatives announced by India in November last year, with New Delhi also expected to spearhead 150 community projects worth $80 million in the war-torn country. 

Ghani thanked Modi for India’s role in the development of Afghanistan, adding that peace in Afghanistan was necessary to Central Asia. Modi, for his part, assured “all Afghans” that India would stand with them. 

“No outside powers will be able to hinder our friendship or affect your growth,” he said. 

Commending the initiative, Tahir Qadery, Afghan chargé d’affaires in New Delhi, said the signing of the agreement was a “historic day for our strategic partnership.” 

Scheduled to be completed in six years, the Shahtoot Dam will be built along the Kabul River Basin. With a height of 92 meters, it is designed to store 146 million cubic meters of water, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Water Management Department said. 

“It will provide drinkable water for 2.2 million people of Kabul, which will reduce, to some extent, the country’s water crisis. At the same time, it will provide irrigation facilities for 4,000 hectares of land,” Nizamuddin Khpelwak told Arab News. 

The Kabul River Basin extends over nine Afghan provinces, with the river itself a vital source of drinking water for millions of Afghans who have been grappling with a severe water crisis in the past few decades. 

A population boom and residents’ movement from villages to the capital for better employment opportunities have led to a spike in demand for clean drinking water. However, depleted groundwater resources, the arid conditions of the region and only 362 millimeters of annual rainfall mean there is not enough water for everyone. 

“The size of Kabul’s population is rising, the city is expanding, and our estimates show that over 70 percent of people have no access to piped water,” Khpelwak said. 

New Delhi’s offer to build the dam is, therefore, of prime importance to the nearly parched nation and comes a day after India became the first nation to send 500,000 vaccines to Afghanistan to help fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

Ghani has been pushing for the deepening of his embattled government’s ties with India, which, since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion in 2001, has spent $2 billion on the construction of a new parliament building, a mega hydroelectric dam near the border with Iran, and various reconstruction projects. 

For these reasons, India’s embassy and its interests have come under attack by militants in Afghanistan in the past.  

Both Kabul and New Delhi blame Pakistan for organizing the strikes, a charge vehemently denied by Islamabad. 

Experts, however, believe India’s growing interest and influence in Afghanistan is for its “long-term goals.”

“India, despite its economic hardships, is one of the major donors to Afghanistan and has spent $2 billion on reconstruction projects since the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001,” Saifuddin Saihoon, a lecturer at Kabul University, told Arab News. 

He added that both countries signed a “strategic partnership” agreement and that Afghanistan wants India — after the departure of US troops from the country — to be the “main player.”

“Afghanistan needs India for its interests. India has a rivalry with Pakistan and wants Afghanistan to manage its economy and security for its long-term strategic goals,” Saihoon said. 

Other experts exercised caution while analyzing India’s role in the country. 

“Afghanistan is a poor country and needs such assistance; people here welcome such aid,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, who runs a small think-tank in Kabul, told Arab News. 

“May God ensure that this is selfless aid without ulterior motives,” he added. 

However, Ahmad F. Samin, a former World Bank adviser, told Arab News that Kabul needed to “act prudently in its ties with India.”

“At face value, the construction of the Shahtoot Dam could be observed as a positive step toward developing Afghanistan. Yet, one has to question the timing and partnership not only on this project but other lesser-known contracts also involving India. 

“The Afghan government needs to be more cautious and careful to not become a pawn in the growing tension between India and Afghanistan.”


Pentagon releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

Pentagon releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
Updated 5 sec ago

Pentagon releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

Pentagon releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
  • The drone strike killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has declassified and publicly released video footage of a US drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The New York Times obtained the footage through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against US Central Command, which then posted the imagery to its website. It marks the first public release of video footage of the Aug. 29 strike, which the Pentagon initially defended but later called a tragic mistake.
The videos include about 25 minutes of footage from what the Times reported were two MQ-9 Reaper drones, showing the scene of the strike prior to, during and after a missile struck a civilian car in a courtyard on a residential street. Indistinct images show individuals moving in or near the attack zone.
The military has said it struck what it thought was an extremist with the Daesh group’s Afghanistan affiliate who might imminently detonate a bomb near the Kabul airport, where a hurried evacuation was still under way.

Three days earlier a suicide bombing at the airport had killed 13 US troops and more than 160 Afghans. When it later acknowledged its error in the Aug. 29 drone strike, Central Command said it determined that the man driving the car had nothing to do with the Daesh group.
The man was Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for Nutrition and Education International, a US-based aid organization.

 


First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
Updated 50 min 38 sec ago

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
  • The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: The first flight carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga was finally able to leave Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left a huge volcanic eruption.
A C-130 Hercules military transport plane left New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.
Australia was also preparing to send two C-17 Globemaster transport planes with humanitarian supplies. The flights were all due to arrive in Tonga on Thursday afternoon.
The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus. It has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 and has reported just a single case since the pandemic began.
“The aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.
UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes and polluted water.
Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appeared to have broken the single fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world. That means most people haven’t been able to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.
A navy patrol ship from New Zealand is also expected to arrive later Thursday. It is carrying hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to assist with delivering supplies.
Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, following the eruption and tsunami.
Another New Zealand navy ship carrying 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water each day using a desalination plant.
Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.
The UN’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka.” He said evacuations are under way for people from the islands.
According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua is home to 69 people, and Nomuka to 239. The majority of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where about 50 homes were destroyed.
Dujarric said the most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, and top priorities are reestablishing communication services including for international calls and the Internet.
Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.


Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
Updated 19 January 2022

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
  • The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn

FOSSALTA DI PIAVE, Italy: Police in Italy and Albania have arrested more than 20 people accused of cashing in several hundred million euros to smuggle hundreds of refugees and migrants into the EU from Turkey on rented yachts and other leisure vessels, authorities said on Wednesday.

Two brothers who are Iraqi citizens are accused of masterminding a smuggling ring that mostly involved people fleeing Iraq and Syria. The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn.

The suspects, identified as Alaa Qasim Rahima, 38, and Omar Qasim Rahima, 30, are accused of running a ring that helped bring Syrians from Turkey to the EU using a network of associates in various countries.

They are believed to be part of a wider ring with as many as 80 members that allegedly organized at least 30 smuggling operations that transported at least 1,100 people by boat from Turkey to Europe.


Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
Updated 19 January 2022

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
  • A former seat of the royal empire in Amhara region, Gondar has long been premier spot to mark Timkat

GONDAR, Ethiopia: Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories involved the feasts his father would prepare for Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany festival Timkat — the way he would lead their family in song while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep. But those memories are now acutely painful.

Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year while battling ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war ravaging Africa’s second-most populous country.

Wary of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead cast a pall over a typically joyous occasion.

A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier spot to mark Timkat, which commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.

Donning sparkling white tunics and dresses, worshippers march in a raucous parade each year that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then leap the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water. This week, though, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals teemed with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s confronted the absence of the deceased.

“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know one house where six or seven people are dead,” Arega, also a militia fighter, said.

“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths.”

Ethiopia’s war broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

After several twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive has turned the tide yet again, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.

Foreign powers now hope the two sides can reach a deal to end fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

The US this week sent its top Africa diplomat and its regional special envoy to Addis Ababa, eyeing what it terms an “opening for peace.”

But any push by Abiy for reconciliation would encounter stiff resistance in Gondar, where combatants, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terrorist group, must now be destroyed.

The mere idea of talks is “an insult for the Amhara people,” said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official in the National Movement of Amhara, an opposition party.


Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
Updated 19 January 2022

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
  • Zulkarnaen sentenced on terrorism charges after being labeled a ‘key asset’ for radical group
  • Extremist leader with ties to Al-Qaeda arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years

JAKARTA: A former commander of a militant group linked to the 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges by an Indonesian court on Wednesday.

Arif Sunarso, known as Zulkarnaen, was a commander of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, a Southeast Asian group with ties to Al-Qaeda.

The group was blamed for bomb attacks on two nightclubs that killed 202 people on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali in 2002.

Zulkarnaen was arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years.

In its verdict on Wednesday, the East Jakarta District Court said the 58-year-old was “proven guilty of committing terrorism and is sentenced to 15 years behind bars.”

Zulkarnaen was convicted of withholding information and sheltering another militant. The sentencing did not relate directly to the 2002 attacks.

Indonesian prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Zulkarnaen, describing him as a “key asset” for JI due to his experience in training militants in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Zulkarnaen became the group’s operations chief following the arrest of his predecessor, Encep Nurjaman, known as Hambali, in Thailand in 2003.

During his trial, which began last September, Zulkarnaen said that he had led JI’s military wing but was not involved in the Bali bombings.

Asludin Hatjani, Zulkarnaen’s defense lawyer, told Arab News that he believed the sentence was disproportionately severe.

“Based on the evidence presented in the trial, the 15-year sentence is too long,” Hatjani said. “In the verdict, (Zulkarnaen) was not convicted because of the Bali bombing case, but rather his involvement as a member of JI, because JI is an illegal organization.”

However, Thiolina Marpaung, a survivor of the 2002 attack, said the verdict came as a disappointment.

“He should have been given life in prison,” Marpaung said. “He spent 18 years as a fugitive and didn’t surrender of his own accord. That means he still had bad intentions.”

Nasir Abbas, a former senior member of JI who is working with the Indonesian government on deradicalization programs, said it was important that Zulkarnaen be deradicalized as he was still a respected figure among JI militants. “It’s important to deradicalize him before he is allowed to mingle with other terrorism convicts or general prisoners,” Abbas told Arab News.
Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the militant group Darul Islam and now an expert on militancy and deradicalization, said Zulkarnaen’s case demonstrates JI’s vast network and its determination to protect key members. 

"JI threat will not go away with this verdict," he added.