UN: Afghanistan war civilian casualties down by 15% last year

UN: Afghanistan war civilian casualties down by 15% last year
The attacks targeting civilians include assaults on members of the judiciary, media and activists, a UN report said. (AP)
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Updated 23 February 2021

UN: Afghanistan war civilian casualties down by 15% last year

UN: Afghanistan war civilian casualties down by 15% last year
  • Still, Afghanistan remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian
  • The attacks targeting civilians include assaults on members of the judiciary, media and activists

KABUL: The number of civilians killed and wounded in violence across war-weary Afghanistan fell by 15 percent last year compared to 2019, according to a United Nations report released Tuesday.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office attributed the drop in civilian casualties in part to an apparent tactical change by insurgents to targeted killings, fewer suicide bombings and a stark drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.
Still, Afghanistan remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian. A distressing feature of the conflict remains the disproportionate impact on Afghan women and children, who make up 43 percent of all casualties.
The attacks targeting civilians include assaults on members of the judiciary, media and activists. Also targeted have been religious minorities, especially the Shiite Muslim population, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic group, and the Sikh population.
The overall number of civilian casualties in 2020 of 8,820 – including 3,035 killed and 5,785 others wounded – fell below 10,000 for the first time since 2013. Last year’s total was 15 percent down compared to 2019, the UN said.
Afghanistan has seen a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and violence on the battlefield as peace negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and the Afghan government have stalled. It’s been over a month since the sides last met to discuss how to proceed.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing the US-Taliban peace deal that was signed Feb. 29 last year. As part of it, Washington committed to a May 1 withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan peace negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar began on Sept. 12 but have failed to alleviate the scale of civilian harm – a key indicator of violence levels. Instead, there was an escalation of violence in the fourth quarter of the year.
For the first time since it began systematic documentation in 2009, UNAMA tallied an increase civilian casualties recorded in the fourth quarter compared with the third quarter. In addition, this period marked a 45 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to the same three months in 2019, especially from the use of improvised explosive devices and targeted killings.
In October, civilian casualties were the highest of any month in 2020, and in November UNAMA documented the highest number of civilian casualties of any November since it started systematic documentation in 2009. Alongside the overall increase in violence as the year ended, the population was confronted with a spate of targeted killings, referred to by many as “assassinations,” of civilians, including media, civil society activists, members of the judiciary and the civilian government administration, as well as civilian family members of combatants.
“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN’s special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan. “This important report has the overriding objective of providing the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians. I urge them not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering.”
The report blamed 62 percent of casualties on anti-government forces in 2020 with the Taliban responsible for most of them – 46 percent – and the Daesh group responsible for 8 percent.
Pro-government forces caused a quarter of all civilian casualties, totaling 2,231, the report said. That includes 841 killed and 1,390 wounded, a decrease of 24 percent from 2019, with the Afghan national security forces causing most of these – 22 percent of the total.
While there was an increase in the number of civilian casualties that were unclaimed by any party and for which UNAMA could not attribute responsibility, the report found the Taliban caused 19 percent fewer civilian casualties than in 2019 and IS caused 45 percent fewer than the previous year.
Ground engagements were the leading cause of civilian casualties in 2020. They were responsible for 36 percent of civilian casualties, a slight increase compared with 2019. Next were suicide and non-suicide attacks using improvised explosive devices, which caused 34.5 percent of the casualties last year, a 30 percent decrease. Anti-government forces targeted killings caused 14 percent of casualties in 2020, up by 45 percent, and pro-government airstrikes caused 8 percent of casualties, down 34 percent.
“Ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian cease-fire,” said Lyons, who is also head of UNAMA. “Parties refusing to consider a cease-fire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians.”


‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade
Updated 25 February 2021

‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade
  • Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade

KABUL: When Fateh Shah and his two brothers sought to escape a debt trap a couple of years ago, he says they were left with two options: To either commit a crime to pay off their lenders or to sell their kidneys.

“We were fed up with their repeated harassment,” Shah, 35, told Arab News.

They fled to neighbouring Iran “with the help of a smuggler,” hoping to find a job there and send part of their earnings back home to pay off their debts in stages.

“But we got into more debt as we were deported soon after arriving in Iran ... The smuggler became our new lender, demanding money for the trip. It was a nightmare,” Shah said.

The three brothers finally decided to go under the knife, each earning 320,000 Afghans ($4,000) for selling one kidney.

“We had no other option … we could not take the humiliation, shouting and complaints of the lenders anymore. We either had to commit a crime to pay our hefty debts or sell our kidneys, and we decided to live with one kidney rather than stealing,” Shah said.

The Shah brothers are not alone. According to recent media reports, “confirmed figures” show that more than 1,000 kidneys have been traded in the past five years in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest provinces, which shares its border with Iran.

“Hundreds of people who have sold their kidneys live in Se Shanba Bazar village in Injil district in Herat,” the private TV channel Tolo News said in a report.

Shah says he learned about the illegal kidney trade in western Herat, where he, like many others, had settled after fleeing prolonged periods of drought, poverty and joblessness in the province of Badghis, in the northwest of the country.

So lucrative is the illegal kidney trade that two hospitals in Herat “offer transplantation services with the help of Iranian doctors,” according to the report, which added that children as young as seven and several women “were among those forced to sell their vital organs.”

The numbers shared by the Afghan authorities, who launched a probe into the trade soon after the report, are equally jarring.

“When the team visited the hospitals, it found that in one hospital 182 transplants had occurred … and 18 in another hospital,” said Dastagir Nazari, Health Ministry spokesperson.

He added that initial findings showed that the “transplantations had been going on in the two hospitals in Herat for at least two years.”

“But … we came to know that the number is much higher, especially in the Injil district, than in these hospitals,” Nazari said.

The alarming figures prompted authorities in Herat to conduct a more detailed investigation.

However, officials “found no document showing that trade has happened inside the hospitals” between donors and patients. Public health laws dictate that the “transplantation of a kidney can only happen when the donor is a relative of the patient, in need of the kidney,” with the illegal trading of organs punishable by law, Nazari said.

Experts blame the “health mafia” in Herat for the province’s dire straits.

“It is a reality that economic compulsions have put much pressure on our people, but the health mafia should not misuse the poverty of the people this way,” Waheed Qatali, the governor of Herat, posted on Facebook recently.

However, Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade.

“The government here is good in giving hollow slogans to people. It cannot stop this process because people have no alternative,” said Rafiq Shahir, a prominent figure in Herat.

He added that poverty was prevalent in many parts of Afghanistan despite the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid since the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001 because “authorities live a luxurious life.”

Dr. Nawrooz Haqmal, an Afghan health expert based in the UK, agreed, saying that “people had no choice but to break the law”, which prohibits the illegal sale of kidneys.

“The sad reality has been reported for years wherein the private health sector has been involved in illegal businesses,” he told Arab News.

“Also, the silence of the leadership of the public ministry about the details of this illegal business has created confusion about the law enforcement in the capital of one the major cities,” he added.

Ordinary Afghans were still able to joke about the issue, with a satirical TV program featuring Herat’s illegal kidney trade as its main topic last week.

Impersonating President Ashraf Ghani, who has repeatedly vowed to improve the livelihood of the Afghans since assuming office more than six years ago, one artist said: “The people of Herat are wise to sell their kidneys to boost their economy. Afghans were very rich, and each possesses a treasure in their bodies for selling.”

“Hope to see you, the nation of Afghanistan, soon with one kidney,” he added.


Mob attacks Iran governor’s office after border shootings

Mob attacks Iran governor’s office after border shootings
Updated 25 February 2021

Mob attacks Iran governor’s office after border shootings

Mob attacks Iran governor’s office after border shootings
  • Iranian official accuses Pakistani forces of opening fire at fuel smugglers at border

KARACHI: At least one Pakistani was wounded after Iranian forces opened fire on smugglers in an area on the border of Iran and Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province, a local Pakistani official said on Wednesday.

The Associated Press reported that the shooting at the border left at least two dead and six wounded. It quoted Iranian officials as saying forces had shot at several fuel smugglers on the Pakistani side of the border near Saravan the day before.

Mohammad Hadi Marashi, deputy governor of the Sistan and Baluchestan province, also accused Pakistani forces of opening fire at a gathering of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran, killing one and wounding four.

Pakistan has set aside nearly $20 million to fence its 900-km border with Iran, frequently used for trade and by minority Shia Muslims who travel from Pakistan to Iran for religious pilgrimages. But the border is also the entry point for cross-border militancy and for an illegal fuel trade that authorities have struggled to crack down on for decades.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the shooting was part of a move by Iranian authorities against smugglers of Iranian petrol. “No Pakistani (has) died … only one person from Kharan (was) injured with a leg bullet, who is stable now,” Abdul Razzaq Sasoli, deputy commissioner of Panjgur, a Pakistani district bordering Balochistan, told Arab News, denying reports that a Pakistani had been killed in the incidents.

A border official said on condition of anonymity that one Pakistan had been killed in the shooting incident. Arab News could not verify that claim from Pakistan’s Foreign Office or the Baluchistan home minister, Mir Ziaullah Langove, who did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.

Sanaullah Baloch, a Pakistani lawmaker and leader of the Baluchistan National Party, said that the number of the deceased and injured was much higher than reported.

“We have reports that several dead and injured have been brought to Panjgur and other districts of Baluchistan,” Baloch said. “I demand a trilateral commission comprising members of the Iranian and Pakistani foreign ministries and Baloch representatives and elders to probe this unfortunate incident and dig out the reasons for why fire was opened on innocent people.”

Iran has not officially confirmed or denied the incident yet.

An angry mob stormed a district governor’s office in southeastern Iran on Tuesday, footage widely circulating on social media showed, a day after shootings at the border.

Violent clashes had also erupted Monday at a police station in Saravan. Iranian border guards opened fire at fuel smugglers trying to storm the station, wounding several, AP reported.


UK police arrest six after protest at factory linked to Israeli arms firm

UK police arrest six after protest at factory linked to Israeli arms firm
Updated 25 February 2021

UK police arrest six after protest at factory linked to Israeli arms firm

UK police arrest six after protest at factory linked to Israeli arms firm
  • Three men and three women have been detained and remain in police custody
  • Police said there had been ‘substantial damages’ to the building during the protest

LONDON: Police in the UK are holding six protesters arrested after they scaled the roof of a factory that Palestinian activists claim manufactures Israeli arms.
Protest organizers, Palestine Action group, said its members had been held more than 24 hours after the protest at the UAV Engines plant in the West Midlands of England, which is owned by Israeli company Elbit Systems UK.
Police said there had been “substantial damages” to the building during the protest on Tuesday.

The protesters drenched the building in red paint using fire extinguishers, and smashed windows. They were arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and related offenses.
“Three men and three women have been detained and remain in police custody after officers brought the demonstration to a safe and peaceful conclusion at around 4:45 p.m. (on Tuesday),” Staffordshire police said in a statement reported by the Press Association.
The protest was the fourth in six months targeting the building. The organizers said they have targeted all 10 of their sites, including four arms factories, over 50 times since they launched the campaign.

“This is part of a series of actions targeting Elbit Systems and we are not planning to stop until they are shut down for good,” Huda Ammori, co-founder of the UK-based Palestine Action told Arab News.
“Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest privately-owned arms company, making a killing from Israel’s attacks on Palestinian people and it’s biggest single customer is the Israeli Ministry of Defense,” Palestine Action says on its website.
Staffordshire police did not provide further details on the custody status of the protesters when contacted by Arab News.
Earlier this month, Palestine Action, along with Extinction Rebellion --  a global environmental movement, held a protest at the Elbit factory in Oldham, only days after the UK signed a £102 million investment deal with Elbit Systems to deliver a detect and destroy system for the British Army. 


Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
Updated 24 February 2021

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
  • Khan woos business leaders with promise of ‘religious tourism’

COLOMBO: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday opened Pakistan’s doors to “religious tourism” from Sri Lanka, inviting business leaders to visit the historically rich Gandharan region in the northwest of the country where a 40-foot statue of sleeping Buddha was recently unearthed.

He also sought their participation in Islamabad’s multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with Beijing.

“Pakistan has probably the most undiscovered religious tourism. For people in Sri Lanka, what is of great interest is the Gandhara Buddhist civilization. We have discovered various new sites for tourists to visit Pakistan,” Khan told delegates at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo.

The event was attended by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunwardena, and a host of officials.

Khan added that the Buddhist civilization was “discovered in the north of Islamabad,” the capital of Pakistan, and that “the findings will be of interest to Sri Lankan tourists who go to historical places.”

“Pakistan will do its best to restore Sri Lanka’s tourist industry,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, during talks with Rajapaksa, Khan said that both countries were “on the same page” on the need to alleviate poverty in their respective nations.

“We both agreed that poverty is due to food inflation, and this problem could be solved by bridging the gap between the producer and the consumer,” he said, citing the example of China, which had “successfully uplifted more than 700 million people.”

“Successful trading relations will help alleviate poverty. Pakistan is part of the One Belt and Road initiative of China, and CPEC is one of its flagship programs, and it means connectivity, and it will help enhance Sri Lanka’s connectivity right up to Central Asia,” he said.

China has pledged more than $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of CPEC, central to Beijing’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, for the development of land and sea trade routes in Asia and beyond.

Khan also underlined the “exceptional quality” of Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations which are “marked by trust, understanding and mutual support,” before inviting Rajapaksa to visit Pakistan at the “earliest convenience.”

The Pakistani leader also stressed the importance of building a “robust economic partnership characterized by enhanced bilateral trade, investments, and commercial cooperation.”

Sri Lanka’s business leaders agreed.

“The first-ever investment forum with 39 Pakistani business magnates will pave the way for development in trade and investments,” Bandula Dissananayake, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka National Chamber of Commerce, told Arab News.

On Monday, both prime ministers witnessed several economically important agreements between Sri Lanka and Pakistan for development in tourism cooperation, investment, technology and education.

Pakistan’s exports to Sri Lanka grew from $97 million in 2004 to $355 million in 2018, while Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan grew from $47 million in 2004 to $105 million in 2018, almost double over the same period.

However, the two-way trade totals only $460 million, despite the potential to garner more than $2 billion.

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UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.