Kabul blames ongoing Taliban violence for NATO move to extend troops’ stay

Kabul blames ongoing Taliban violence for NATO move to extend troops’ stay
A study mandated by the US Congress has called for a delay in the pullout in Afghanistan, warning it would effectively hand the Taliban a victory. (AP)
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Updated 17 February 2021

Kabul blames ongoing Taliban violence for NATO move to extend troops’ stay

Kabul blames ongoing Taliban violence for NATO move to extend troops’ stay
  • Insurgent group blamed for undermining crucial intra-Afghan talks in Qatar

KABUL: The Afghan Taliban have failed to reduce violence in the country as part of a historic deal signed with Washington last year, prompting NATO to extend its troops’ presence beyond the stipulated May deadline, a government negotiator said on Tuesday, blaming the group for abandoning the crucial intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

“I think based on what was in the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban, the latter also needed to deliver in terms of reduction of violence, cutting ties with other networks and ensuring that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists once again,” Fawzia Koofi told Arab News.

Koofi was appointed as an emissary by the Afghan government for the Doha talks with the Taliban, which began in September last year.

She said that the militants “needed to abandon violence so that no excuse would be left for foreign troops to remain in the country.”

As part of the accord signed between the US and the insurgent group in February last year, all foreign troops were required to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of April 2021.

“Even after one year, though, we can see how, unfortunately, it is war that is giving foreign troops reasons to remain in Afghanistan. If war continues and fighting increases, certainly international troops, including NATO, will have enough reason to be in Afghanistan,” Koofi said. She added that if the Taliban were sincere in their demands for foreign troops to withdraw from the country, they would “need to stop fighting and agree to a cease-fire.”

Since assuming power last month, US President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly said it would “review the controversial accord,” which allegedly gives leverage to the Taliban and emboldens the insurgent group to increase its attacks on the Afghan government, which has been pushing for an extension for foreign troops to remain in the country.

On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that the presence of the alliance’s troops in Afghanistan was “conditions-based” and that they would “not leave before the time is right.”

“Our common goal is clear. Afghanistan should never again serve as a haven for terrorists to attack our homelands. So, our presence is conditions-based,” Stoltenberg said.

Meanwhile, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, told Arab News that despite national forces conducting anti-Taliban operations, Kabul needed assistance from the international community, including NATO and the US.

“And we expect that they remain in Afghanistan until the complete annihilation of terrorists,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid shared with Arab News an open letter addressed to the American public and written by Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar, the group’s deputy leader and head of its Qatar office.

In the letter released on Tuesday, Bradar says that the Taliban are committed to the Doha deal and expect the US to do the same.

“Now that a year has passed since the Doha accord, our request is that the American side remains committed in the full implementation of its pledges. We are sure that Afghans…through the intra-Afghan talks can reach an understanding on the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security.”

In a series of statements in recent weeks, the group reiterated its commitment to the Doha deal, which stipulates that it cut its ties with “terrorist groups” and adhere to a pledge for areas under the Taliban’s control not to be used against any country’s interests, including those of the US.

This is despite its warnings that the onus for the collapse of the Doha deal lies with foreign forces, whom the militants have spared in their attacks since signing the February accord.

Koofi, for her part, said the Taliban had stopped negotiations with Afghan emissaries, awaiting a final decision from Biden’s administration on the deal.

“Since the second round of negotiations, the Taliban have not spared the time to engage in negotiations, and I think this is something we should do because it is our people who suffer,” she said, adding that she hoped the continued presence of foreign troops would not impact the Doha talks.

She further explained that Afghanistan and the interest of its people should be the priority.

“This is an opportunity; we should seize it for the interest of our people, our country. If we continue to consider what the rest of the world thinks about us and what the rest of the world does, then we give enough reasons for the rest of the world to stay engaged in Afghanistan,” she said.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government, said that NATO should use its diplomatic muscle with both sides of the hostilities in Afghanistan for a peace settlement to be reached now.

He also questioned the effectiveness of NATO’s presence in the country for the past 20 years, “given that it concedes that Al Qaeda is still active there.”

“On NATO’s military record in Afghanistan, by their own admission, we can safely award a grade of three over 10 on wiping out Al Qaeda and seven over 10 in training Afghan forces. Barely a passing grade,” he told Arab News.

He said the extended presence of NATO in Afghanistan would “help President Ashraf Ghani remain in power,” despite several politicians, government-appointed negotiators and the Taliban insisting on his departure so that an interim government can be formed.

“Foreign forces will remain in Afghanistan until it is ensured that all Afghan sides agree on a political set-up that will guarantee political stability,” Dr. Jafar Mehdawi, a politician and former MP, told Arab News.

He said that an extended presence of foreign troops would mean that the Taliban “would further escalate and broaden their attacks by spring,” when the weather becomes warmer in Afghanistan.

“The focus of the Taliban’s attacks will be on highways and to gain control of some towns. This way, the Taliban may think that they will put pressure on Ghani to relinquish power. I predict we will witness a bloody spring,” he added.


London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
Updated 18 May 2021

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
  • She was filmed accepting a white rose and hugging a protester amid a cheering crowd
  • It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people

LONDON: London’s Metropolitan Police is investigating an on-duty officer who shouted “free Palestine” at a march condemning Israel’s bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The uniformed female officer was captured on video at the demonstration in the capital. In the footage, she is seen accepting a white rose and hugging a protester.

She was heard shouting “free, free Palestine” to a cheering audience. The footage went viral on several social media sites.

It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people.


‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
Updated 18 May 2021

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
  • Study suggests mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna particularly beneficial
  • Analysis author: ‘Data very encouraging but we don’t know how long benefits last’

LONDON: COVID-19 vaccines tend to alleviate the symptoms of the medical phenomenon known as “long Covid,” according to a survey involving 800 people.

The study suggests that mRNA vaccines are particularly beneficial in battling long Covid symptoms.

The virus was initially understood to be a largely respiratory illness that most people would recover from within a month, but people started to report symptoms that continued for many months. 

Medical experts are still hunting for a consensus definition for the phenomenon, with people suffering from chronic fatigue to organ damage.

There are also mysteries surrounding appropriate and effective treatment plans that can be standardized across the population.

But anecdotal reports have so far suggested that vaccines can help some people who are still struggling with COVID-19 symptoms long after their original infection.

The analysis has yet to be peer reviewed, but the results of the survey by advocacy group LongCovidSOS could offer medical practitioners a pathway to restoring normalcy to many.

The survey consisted of 812 mostly white, female participants with long Covid in Britain and internationally, who were contacted via social media. 

The participants were asked to wait at least a week after their first dose of the jab to prevent their responses being affected by vaccine side effects.

Changes across 14 common long Covid symptoms were compared before and after the first inoculation. 

LongCovidSOS data found that 56.7 percent of respondents experienced an overall improvement in symptoms, with 24.6 percent reporting no changes and 18.7 percent finding that their symptoms worsened after the jab.

In general, participants who received mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna jabs) reported more improvements in symptoms than those who got an adenovirus vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca). 

The Moderna vaccine was found to have the most promising results, with participants seeing the greatest improvements in symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle pain.

The analysis found that Moderna recipients were also less likely to endure a deterioration in their ailments.

“This survey will reassure people that they would have to be quite unlucky to really have an overall worsening of symptoms,” said LongCovidSOS analysis author Ondine Sherwood. “The data is very encouraging, but we don’t know how long the benefits last.”

Dr. David Strain, an analysis author and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said: “There isn’t a blood pressure tablet that fixes everybody … and similarly, there’s not one long Covid treatment that’s going to fix everyone — but the fact that one treatment does fix something means that there’s bound to be other treatments out there that will fix others.”

As the assessment was via survey, there can be no definitive proof to show that the vaccine caused the improvement in symptoms.

After suffering from long Covid symptoms for so long, the improvement could have come from natural regeneration. 

However, Strain said of the 130 people in the survey who received both vaccine doses, some improved after their first jab — before finding their situation worsening again — and then improved further after their second inoculation.

But Nisreen Alwan, an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton, warned that as the improvement in symptoms had abated in about half the participants by the time they completed the survey, the analysis could show that the vaccine-inspired improvement was fleeting.

Mystery remains about the cause of long Covid, with some experts theorizing that it could involve the persistence of the virus remaining within the body — such as fragments of the virus lingering after infection — and the immune system overreacting to the remaining virus and damaging healthy tissues.

Strain said the LongCovidSOS analysis suggested that COVID-19 vaccines help to reset the immune system, telling it to target the virus and spare itself.

But he cautioned that this explanation is speculation and will need further investigation to be supported.

Prof. Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said: “How could a vaccine make a subset of long-term sufferers feel better? It’s tempting to hypothesise that this was the subset who had symptoms due to a reservoir of virus that was never properly cleared, and the enormous boost of a potent vaccine equipped them with the immune response to do this. This needs mechanistic investigation of the actual immune responses.”


Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
Updated 18 May 2021

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
  • Lead author: ‘It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century’
  • ‘How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed’

LONDON: More than 96 percent of people develop coronavirus antibodies after receiving only a single dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, new research has revealed. 

The England- and Wales-based study, which monitored more than 8,000 participants, also discovered that almost 100 percent of people develop immune cells to successfully fight off coronavirus after two vaccine doses.

Researchers found that 96.42 percent of people who received the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine developed antibodies 28-34 days after a first dose. 

The figure grew to 99.08 percent within seven to 14 days of receiving a second jab, The Guardian newspaper reported.

“This is one of the earliest real-world vaccine studies in the UK and it is fantastic news,” said Dr. Maddie Shrotri, lead author of the research paper.

“More than nine out of 10 adults in the UK who had either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine produced antibodies against the virus within a month of their first shot,” she added.

“How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed. It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century.”

The study, conducted by University College London (UCL) scientists, could have positive implications on the worldwide fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It will be placed through a peer review process before submission to a medical journal.

UCL scientists found that both vaccines were equally capable of triggering the antibody response that can ward off severe coronavirus infections.

However, antibody levels after a single jab were discovered to be lower in older people and those with underlying health conditions, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. That discrepancy was later resolved after participants received a second vaccine dose.

The study is a “timely reminder” about the importance of receiving a second dose, said Prof. Rob Aldridge, chief investigator of the UCL study. “But it is also reassuring — vaccines are our way out of the pandemic.”


Spanish troops deploy in Ceuta after thousands of migrants break in from Morocco

Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
Updated 18 May 2021

Spanish troops deploy in Ceuta after thousands of migrants break in from Morocco

Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. (AFP)
  • Videos shared online showed migrants entering Ceuta earlier, by swimming and by climbing over the fence, unimpeded by Moroccan authorities

CUETA: Spain has deployed troops to Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after thousands of migrants swam into the northern African enclave, in what Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called a serious crisis for Spain and Europe.

Soldiers in armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta's beach on Tuesday. Dozens of migrants swimming and wading close to the beach appeared to be moving away from where troops stood. Hundreds of other potential migrants stood on the Moroccan side of the fence that separates the Spanish enclave from Morocco.

Videos shared online showed migrants entering Ceuta earlier, by swimming and by climbing over the fence, unimpeded by Moroccan authorities.

According to some experts, Morocco uses the tactic of alowing migrants into Ceuta as an instrument of pressure on Madrid, which angered Rabat last month by admitting the leader of Western Sahara's rebel Polisario Front to a Spanish hospital.

Morocco said it has recalled its ambassador from Spain for consultations after an influx of migrants into Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave on the North African coast, angered Madrid.

“The ambassador has been recalled for consultations and will return to Morocco shortly,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told AFP, after Spain's own foreign ministry summoned the diplomat earlier in the day.

“This is happening because of the absolute passivity of the Moroccan authorities,” Ceuta regional leader Juan Jose Vivas told 24H TV channel, adding that the situation was chaotic and it was now impossible to say how many migrants had entered.

“This transcends migration, we are talking about (Spain's) territorial integrity, sovereignty and borders.”

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said as many as 6,000 migrants, including about 1,500 minors, swam into Ceuta on Monday and Tuesday. He said about 2,700 had already been sent back to Morocco.

His ministry said Morocco was accepting all the migrants being sent back under a readmission deal.

In Ceuta, adult arrivals were being transferred to a local stadium before deportation, while minors were being sent to an industrial building.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas tweeted that the enclave's frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain” and calling for a European pact on migration and “strong protection of our borders.”

Morocco has a claim on Ceuta and another Spanish enclave, Melilla.

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000, is located on the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar. Along with Melilla, it has long been a magnet for African migrants trying to reach Europe in search of a better life.

The Melilla government delegation spokesman said 86 migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa broke into the enclave, located about 300km east of Ceuta, early on Tuesday, but a larger group had been blocked by Moroccan police.

* With AFP and Reuters


Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
Updated 18 May 2021

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
  • More than 40% of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine
  • The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday

STOCKHOLM: Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, has seen the number of cases and intensive care patients drop fast in the recent weeks.
So far more than 40 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday, a decline compared to the 13,812 cases reported during the corresponding period last week.
Sweden has experienced a powerful third wave of the virus with the number of people testing positive per capita among the highest in Europe for months, in stark contrast to its Nordic neighbors where infections have remained relatively subdued throughout the pandemic.
However, with over 40 percent percent of the adult population having received at least one shot of vaccine and around 12 percent fully vaccinated, the number of people in intensive care has still fallen more than 30 percent from a peak three weeks ago.
The vaccine roll-out is also credited for deaths being relatively low this year compared to previous waves of the disease with data suggesting no excess mortality so far in 2021.
The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 26 new deaths, taking the total to 14,301. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.
Sweden’s death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbors’ but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.