Afghan Taliban dismiss ‘fake news’ of top leader’s death

Afghan Taliban dismiss ‘fake news’ of top leader’s death
A member of the Taliban insurgent and other people stand at the site during the execution of three men in Ghazni Province April 18, 2015. (Reuters)
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Updated 14 February 2021

Afghan Taliban dismiss ‘fake news’ of top leader’s death

Afghan Taliban dismiss ‘fake news’ of top leader’s death
  • Group’s spokesman says rumours about Hibatullah are work of ‘enemy under pressure’

KABUL:  A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban on Sunday rejected a report that the group’s elusive supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, was killed in a blast in Pakistan.

“This report is utterly fake and far from reality…We reject this report…the enemy is under pressure and is trying to create worry by spreading such rumors,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News by phone from an undisclosed location.

The prominent Afghan daily, Hashte Subh, citing anonymous sources, reported on Sunday that the explosion had occurred in a safe house in Quetta, in Pakistan’s southwest Balochistan province, a few months ago.

“Credible sources from Quetta told Hashte Subh that Hibatullah Akhundzada, along with Matitullah, the head of intelligence, and Hafiz Abdul Majid, the chief of finance for the group, had been killed by the blast in Quetta,” excerpts from the reports said.

The group is said to be operating from Quetta after its ouster in a US-led invasion in Afghanistan in 2001.

Mujahid rejected another report claiming Akhundzada’s death a few months ago.

“Neither are our leaders in Pakistan nor can such incidents be kept hidden. The enemy is under heavy pressure and every day comes up with new propaganda,” he said, referring in part to the Kabul government.

Akhundzada, 60, succeeded Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016 after Mansour was killed in a US drone strike on his vehicle near Quetta.

Mansour replaced Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement, in 2015 after Afghan government officials revealed that Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. The Taliban kept Omar’s death a secret for almost two years.

Renowned as a hardline religious scholar, Akhundzada’s whereabouts were kept secret even from the Taliban’s field commanders for several years, for security reasons.

Last August, an explosion at a mosque in Quetta – which according to press reports was frequented by Akhundzada – resulted in his brother Ahmadullah’s death. His son was severely injured in the attack.

Akhundzada was reportedly absent from the mosque at the time of the incident which coincided with the start of the crucial intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar as part of a historic deal signed between the Taliban and Washington in February last year.

Rumors of his reported death have been circulating in Afghan circles for a while, especially since there has been no statement or audio recordings by Akhundzada for the past several months explicitly commenting on the Qatar talks and subsequent developments.

Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province – often referred to as the “birthplace” of the Taliban and its seat of power – told Arab News that Akhundzada has been unavailable for meetings in the past few months, as well.

“Some people who wanted to see Akhundzada some months back, were not able to do so and instead a message attributed to him was read to them,” he said.

A senior Afghan security official in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the media, told Arab News that he had heard about Akhundzada being killed last summer, but could not confirm or deny it.

News of Akhundzada’s reported death comes in a pause in the intra-Afghan talks and a review of clauses in the Doha deal by the new US administration.

In the deal, all US-led foreign troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1.

While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has insisted that the troops remain and some NATO nations have also pushed for it, the deal might not see the light of day until the Taliban agree to announce a ceasefire with Kabul.

NATO members are expected to meet later this week to discuss whether or not to retain the troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, for their part, have repeatedly urged Washington to honor the deal that President Donald Trump’s administration signed.

“Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of the occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of our people and yours,” the Taliban said in a statement issued on Saturday.


Taliban vow to ‘suppress’ Daesh presence in Afghanistan

Taliban vow to ‘suppress’ Daesh presence in Afghanistan
Updated 48 min 34 sec ago

Taliban vow to ‘suppress’ Daesh presence in Afghanistan

Taliban vow to ‘suppress’ Daesh presence in Afghanistan
  • Daesh will become major threat if world shuns Taliban rule, say experts

KABUL: A senior Taliban official has said the group will “suppress” Daesh fighters operating in Afghanistan, as experts warned the militants were likely to increase their activity and attacks.
After toppling the Western-backed government in Kabul mid-August, Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have faced a deadly attack on the capital’s airport and bomb blasts in the eastern city of Jalalabad, all claimed by Daesh-Khorasan, or Daesh-K, the local affiliate of the group that originated in Syria.
Daesh emerged in Afghanistan in late 2014 but its strength has declined from its 2018 peak after a series of heavy losses inflicted by both the Taliban and US forces. The group denounced the Taliban’s takeover of the country, criticizing their version of Islamic rule as insufficiently hardline.
As Daesh-K’s strength is now estimated by the UN to be fewer than 2,000 militants, compared with at least 100,000 Taliban fighters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid downplayed the threat earlier this week by saying the group had no “effective presence” in Afghanistan.
“Soon they would be suppressed,” another spokesman Bilal Karimi, who is a member of the Taliban cultural commission, told Arab News on Thursday. “We assure the people that any group which wants to confront us would be grounded.”
But experts forecast that Daesh would soon become a major threat to the stability of Taliban rule, especially if the new government remained shunned by the rest of the world.
“The Taliban will see a sharp (increase in) activity of ISIS-K (Daesh-K) shortly,” Ahmad Saeedi, a political expert based in Kabul, said. “The Taliban regime has not been recognized by the world so far, and this is a potential threat.”
The Taliban were facing a “series of movements by anti-Taliban forces that had a special place in the previous regime, such as the remnants of the former army,” Saeedi added. “With this situation, it is likely that the Taliban will not be able to continue their rule for more than a year.”
Other anti-Taliban groups, including the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan supported by some members of the previous administration, may join forces with Daesh, he said, and the combined challenges could lead to a “premature collapse” of the Taliban government.
Col. Hekmatullah Hakimi, a former officer of the Afghan army, also listed opposition groups as the possible future ranks of Daesh.
“It is possible that several resistance affiliates will join the ranks of ISIS-K and line up against the Taliban,” he said.
The threat may increase further if the Taliban continued sowing fear among those rejecting them.
“Their enemies would increase daily,” Kabul-based international relations expert Wais Naseri told Arab News. “Military confrontation against the Taliban is 100 percent possible, and that military resistance will form in the not-too-distant future.”


The day music died: Grim future awaits Afghanistan’s refugee musicians in Pakistan

The day music died: Grim future awaits Afghanistan’s refugee musicians in Pakistan
Updated 24 September 2021

The day music died: Grim future awaits Afghanistan’s refugee musicians in Pakistan

The day music died: Grim future awaits Afghanistan’s refugee musicians in Pakistan

PESHAWAR: The day the Taliban entered the Afghan capital on Aug. 15, Rafi Haneef knew he had to flee immediately.
The very next day, the harmonium player and dozens of his fellow musicians from Kabul crossed over into neighboring Pakistan through the Chaman border, fearing violence and persecution from a hard-liner group that banned most forms of music when it previously ruled Afghanistan in 1996-2001.
Since returning to power as US soldiers withdrew from the country last month, the Taliban have told Afghans, and the international community, that they will uphold rights and allow cultural activities within the confines of Islamic law.
But Afghans artists have no hope they will play again under a Taliban government.
“The entire music industry collapsed the day the Taliban appeared in Kabul on Aug. 15,” Haneef told Arab News in an interview this week from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, in the country’s northwest. “The Taliban consider music haram, or forbidden, but we can’t live without music.”
Sadiq Sameer, a player of the lute-like instrument called the rubab, said he fled Afghanistan the day after the Taliban captured Kabul, leaving behind a 10-member family, including his six children. His cherished rubab is also lost in Kabul.
Sameer was a known figure in Afghanistan and a regular performer at private events and on major TV channels like ToloNews and Shamshad TV.
“That morning when I left my family was the most terrible of my life,” Sameer said. “At my family’s insistence, the next morning after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, I somehow managed to cross over the Chaman border and reached Peshawar after a 24-hour perilous journey.”
The concerns of Sameer’s family are not unfounded.
The dangers facing musicians in Afghanistan were brutally highlighted in the final months of the Taliban insurgency, when the group carried out targeted attacks on those it said had betrayed its vision of Islamic rule.
Since the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan, members of an all-female orchestra have either left the country or destroyed their instruments and gone into hiding. In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, the group issued a formal order against radio stations playing music and female announcers last month. International media has shown footage of armed Taliban fighters guarding the shuttered Afghanistan National Institute of Music.
There have been other changes that point to the austere tone of the new Taliban rulers.
Colorful signs outside beauty parlors have been whitewashed, traditional dress has replaced jeans and radio stations have switched from their normal menu of Hindi and Persian pop and call-in shows to somber patriotic music.
Even in Pakistan, things will not be easy for artists like Haneef who had to leave his instruments behind.
“I can’t do anything else except music because my family background is music,” Haneef said. “My father was a music teacher, and my brothers and cousins are all musicians.”
In Afghanistan, he said he was able to earn a decent living by playing up to 20 wedding parties and other events a month.
“I fled Kabul for Peshawar with only two suits,” Haneef said. “Now, I’m worried about how to feed my kids.”
Sameer echoed the sentiment, saying he had lived a “happy life” in Kabul as a performer and teacher of the rubab but was now “miserable” in Peshawar where he was temporarily staying at the house of a friend.

“How long can you stay as a guest with someone? I’m in deep trouble, worrying about my future and my family in Kabul.”

The only thing he had to look forward to was moving his family to Pakistan so they could “face all odds together.”

“My life is shattered and I’m at God’s mercy without any hope for a better tomorrow,” Sameer said.

The future looks grim indeed since work will not be easy to find in Pakistan, particularly in its northwest where the music industry has been badly hurt by years of militant violence and now the pandemic.

In the early 2000s, after conservative religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban rode to power in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, they banned music on public transportation and concerts at Nishtar Hall, Peshawar’s only theater venue. Landlords were forced to evict musicians from the Dabgari neighborhood in

Peshawar’s old city, where they had lived for generations, and turned a blind eye to attacks on music shops.

At least 13 prominent artists, particularly female Pashtun singers, were killed by Pakistan’s indigenous Taliban movement between 2008 and 2017, the heyday of the insurgency, according to a report published by major Pakistani newspaper The News. Most were killed in or near Peshawar city.

And now, the pandemic has destroyed whatever was left of an already dying industry in the region.

Ajmal Khan, a director at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Culture, said Afghan musicians would be eligible for a planned Rs500 million ($3 million) grant to support provincial artists.

“We will very soon release the grant to disburse among musicians,” Khan said. “We will also help Afghan musicians.”

It was unclear when the grant would be distributed, but civil society members were skeptical it would reach Afghan artists.

“I don’t think the KP government will extend a helping hand,” Rashid Khan, chief of the Hunari Tolana Welfare Society, told Arab News.

The organization, which supports performers, is planning to seek help from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Development Programme.

“We’re preparing a proposal to request that the UNHCR and UNDP financially support our artist guests from Afghanistan,” Khan said.

Related


EU chief outlines ambition for strategic autonomy at UNGA

Charles Michel, President of the European Council of the European Union addresses the 76th Session of the UNGA. (AP)
Charles Michel, President of the European Council of the European Union addresses the 76th Session of the UNGA. (AP)
Updated 24 September 2021

EU chief outlines ambition for strategic autonomy at UNGA

Charles Michel, President of the European Council of the European Union addresses the 76th Session of the UNGA. (AP)
  • European Council president: ‘We have values to promote, citizens to protect, interests to defend’
  • Chares Michel: ‘Overriding need to resume peaceful dialogue toward two-state solution with Israel, Palestine’

NEW YORK: The president of the European Council has outlined the EU’s ambition for strategic autonomy, which he said would be used in pursuit of a fair and more secure world.

“We have values to promote, citizens to protect and interests to defend,” Charles Michel told delegates at the UN General Assembly on Friday.

“In this spirit, we’re developing the strategic autonomy of the European Union, including in our capacities of security and defense.” This effort, he said, would allow the bloc to “shore up” its “positive influence” abroad.

The European Council is an EU body composed of the heads of each member state, and it defines the overall strategic and political objectives of the union.

Michel listed the conflict in Ukraine and the weaponization of migrants by Belarus as critical challenges that a strategically autonomous EU would be able to more effectively address.

“The recent uptick in violence in the Middle East was the first reminder of the overriding need to resume peaceful dialogue toward a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine,” he said.

He made clear, however, that European strategic autonomy would not come at the expense of the bloc’s relationship with the US.

“This is an alliance that’s anchored in our democratic values, and it’s a staunch pillar of our security and stability in the world,” he said. “Stronger allies make for a stronger alliance, in transparency and loyalty.”

In keeping with many of the addresses at the 76th UNGA, which began last week, Michel pledged that the EU would continue the fight against climate change, and he urged others to follow in this endeavor.

“Today, we face another turning point in human history because we’re entrenched in another war, a global war. This global war has no opposing sides, no armies … yet this war destroys lives, brings countries to their knees and brings unimaginable suffering to families. I’m talking about the war we humans have waged against nature,” he said.

“It’s time to stop waging war against nature. It’s time for humans to sign an armistice with nature … A fairer, more secure world is a world free from the climate threat.”

But Michel acknowledged that the impacts and causes of climate change are not evenly distributed globally.

“We’re aware that not all are equal in the race against time vis-a-vis global warming,” he said. “Industrialized countries shoulder particular responsibility in supporting developing countries.”

Michel said “few have honored their word” regarding the 2019 pledge by developed countries to provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries fight global warming.

“From 2013 to 2019, the EU and member states have dispersed €127 billion ($148.8 billion) — that’s one-third of the total in the commitment — and we call upon other partners to honor their pledges as well. It’s a question of trust and a question of equality,” he added.

“Transforming the world, making it fairer, more secure, and guaranteeing dignity for every person — that’s the promise, that’s the pledge of the United Nations. It’s incumbent upon all of us to meet this promise, to honor the commitment, to rise to the ambition.” In these goals, he said: “You can count on the European Union.”


British police arrest 39 climate activists blocking Port of Dover

British police arrest 39 climate activists blocking Port of Dover
Updated 24 September 2021

British police arrest 39 climate activists blocking Port of Dover

British police arrest 39 climate activists blocking Port of Dover
  • About 40 activists from the environmental group Insulate Britain brought traffic to and from the port to a standstill
  • The port said on Twitter that traffic was moving freely again about three hours after it announced the protest

LONDON: British climate change protesters on Friday temporarily blocked the Port of Dover, Europe’s busiest trucking port, and police arrested 39 people.
About 40 activists from the environmental group Insulate Britain brought traffic to and from the port, the main artery for trade over the English Channel, to a standstill. Some demonstrators sat on the road until police cleared them.
The port said on Twitter that traffic was moving freely again about three hours after it announced the protest.
Insulate Britain wants the government to commit to providing insulation for 29 million homes in an effort to curb fossil fuel use and fight global warming.
The Transport Ministry said the High Court on Friday approved an injunction that would send members of the group to jail if they repeat the Dover protests.
The group has blocked London’s M25 orbital motorway five times in the last two weeks, and an order calling for jail time was issued earlier in the week for further protests on the M25.
“It is unacceptable that people cannot go about their day-to-day businesses ... because of the reckless actions of a few protesters,” Transport Minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter.
Insulate Britain says the government should fund the insulation of all social housing by 2025. Nearly 15 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from heating homes, it says.
“We are sorry for the disruption that we are causing. It seems to be the only way to keep the issue of insulation on the agenda,” the group said.
Britain, which aims to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, will host the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson will push world leaders to commit to ending reliance on fossil fuels.


Myanmar military recruits notorious militiamen to combat civilian resistance

Myanmar military recruits notorious militiamen to combat civilian resistance
Updated 24 September 2021

Myanmar military recruits notorious militiamen to combat civilian resistance

Myanmar military recruits notorious militiamen to combat civilian resistance
  • Members of hardline, pro-military groups known as Pyu Saw Htee seen joining army training
  • At least 1,121 civilians killed since the country’s elected government was ousted in February

BANGKOK: Myanmar’s fearsome military is training militias to fight opposition to its rule, defectors and resistance members say, after attacks on junta troops intensified following a call for civilians to target the armed forces was issued by the government in exile earlier this month.

The Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, is one of the largest in Southeast Asia with an estimated 400,000 troops. It ousted the elected government in a coup in February, inflicting deadly violence on those protesting its rule.

Non-violent protests across the country against the junta then saw a series of bloody crackdowns from early March, with some protestors subsequently taking up arms, supported by army defectors.

“Defection is now growing like never before because soldiers and police are ashamed to be in uniform,” Maj. Hein Thaw Oo, who left Light Infantry Division No. 99 in late March and has since been training civilians, told Arab News via a messaging app last week.

“We know for sure that more than 1,500 soldiers defected so far,” he added.

While the armed resistance is increasing, and the exiled National Unity Government called for a “defensive war” against the junta in September, the army is forming pro-military civilian groups to crush it.

Last month, the State Administration Council was quoted by state media as discussing the “systematic formation of village people’s militias,” to take action against the NUG and its affiliate organizations.

“They might be armed,” Hein Thaw Oo said. “This is likely to counter the public opposition and public resistance to the military rule.”

Members of hardline, pro-military groups, known as Pyu Saw Htee, which in recent months targeted a number of lawmakers ousted by the junta, have been seen joining army training in Bago region.

“Some wards in Bago town are Pyu Saw Htee strongholds. It was not surprising to see they are so happy and eager to join such training,” said Kyaw Zeya, a former Bago lawmaker wholeads the People’s Defense Force, an umbrella of anti-junta groups.

“They are blood-thirsty thugs. Because of them, the junta was able to slaughter peaceful protesters back in March,” he told Arab News, adding that the Pyu Saw Htee have been training in large numbers. “Once they are armed, I can’t imagine how chaotic the situation will be.”

Located some 80 km from Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, Bago town, where junta troops killed dozens of people during peaceful demonstration in March, is seen as being of strategic value to both sides.

“The junta considers the resistance forces in Bago a major threat to its presence in Yangon,” a rebel leader from the region said on condition of anonymity. “They will do anything and everything to protect it.”

At least 1,121 civilians have been killed, and 6,718, including elected politicians, activists, medics and journalists, are currently detained in Myanmar, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which tracks arrests and deaths following the military takeover.