Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
Officials in President Ashraf Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation. (Press Office of President of Afghanistan/AFP)
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Updated 14 March 2021

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow

Kabul confirms attendance for US-proposed talks in Turkey, Moscow
  • Both conferences will see participation from Washington, China and Pakistan

KABUL: Kabul government delegates will participate in a US-proposed and UN-led conference in Turkey, and a separate meeting in Russia, to expedite the stalled Afghan peace process, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

“Representatives of the government of Afghanistan will take part in both meetings. Consultations are going on as to who will attend them,” Gran Hewad, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told Arab News.

Last week on Tuesday, Kabul said that it was “considering” Russia’s offer to host the talks two days after the leak of a letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani over the impasse.

Blinken’s letter had included an urgent proposal to help restart discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which began in Doha, Qatar, in September last year but failed to make any headway.

Besides Afghan government emissaries, the March 18 meeting in Russia and the Turkey conference slotted for April will also host delegates from the Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), factional and influential leaders, and representatives from the US, China and Pakistan.

While officials in Ghani’s administration could not confirm who would comprise the Afghan government delegation, the Taliban said that it was “mulling over participation in both conferences.”

“So far, politically responsible people have not come up with a new stance. Our position is the same that we have received an invitation for both, and it is under deliberation,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News on Sunday.

Russia’s offer to host the conference comes a week after US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shared a proposal with key Afghan leaders, including Ghani, for the formation of a participatory government — which would include Taliban members — as part of efforts to end Washington’s engagement in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.

Khalilzad’s proposal was circulated ahead of a May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, based on a controversial accord signed between former American President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

Moscow, similarly to Iran and Pakistan, has been pressing for the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan for years. Russia recently hosted two rounds of talks between the Taliban and influential national leaders, besides being a vocal supporter for forming a new government to replace Ghani, whose second term ends after four years.

Ghani has repeatedly said that he is against the idea and vowed to oppose the set-up “at the cost of my life.”

His resistance prompted Blinken’s letter to Ghani — a copy of which was published by several media houses last Sunday — asking the Afghan president to “develop constructive positions” on Khalilzad’s proposals to “jumpstart the flailing peace process.”

The letter pressed upon the urgency for a new government in Afghanistan to break a stalemate in the Doha talks between the Taliban and Kabul government representatives, which have been riddled with disputes.

The US secretary of state has been pushing for a UN-facilitated conference with international stakeholders, including proposals to arrange a discussion between the Taliban and Kabul to form a negotiated settlement and enforce a cease-fire.

The letter also made it clear to Ghani that US President Joe Biden’s administration continued to consider a “full withdrawal” of the 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline, as negotiated by the Trump administration during a controversial deal signed with the Taliban in February last year.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the US has not ruled out any option. We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options,” Blinken said in the letter.

Some of the letter’s proposals included the formation of a participatory government that would eventually transfer power to a permanent government “following the adoption of a new constitution and national elections.”

In a recent speech, however, Ghani said that the “transfer of power after the election is a principal for us that will not be compromised,” arguing that the formation of an interim government would “descend the country into a chaos like the 1990s” when the former communist regime collapsed after the departure of ex-Soviet troops.

Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reiterated Ghani’s stance last week when he said: “The West and America have the right to decide about their troops in Afghanistan, but it is also our right not to make a deal and compromise on the destiny of 35 million Afghans based on others’ timetable.”

Shortly after Saleh’s statement, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar adopted a softer tone and told the BBC that the letter was “not a matter of concern for Kabul. We allowed for this in our diplomacy — that such contacts are made — therefore, I don’t see it as a type of offense or indifference.”

The minister added that government leaders would “debate on the letter and proposal, discuss it with national leaders and offer a response later.”

Experts, however, believe that Kabul was “avoiding a confrontation in the global arena” by agreeing to participate in both conferences.

“The Afghan government has avoided a first collision with the international community. It will get somewhat tricky now. Merely accepting to attend is one thing, but who will do so is more important,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government, told Arab News.

He added that Ghani “could be reluctant to attend the meetings” as officials from his administration had refused to divulge more details about the key participants.

Afghan political leaders, however, welcomed the move, with former president Hamid Karzai saying in an interview with the Associated Press that the US draft for a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban was the “best chance to accelerate stalled peace talks between the country’s warring sides.”

“Afghans themselves are in a hurry for peace,” he said.

Ahmad Samin, an Afghan analyst and former adviser for the World Bank, agreed, telling Arab News: “The United States has made it clear that there is only one political solution to the Afghan war, in which international support is required for peace negotiations.”

He added that there was “growing frustration and hesitation” to continue a partnership with the current Afghan government, “which is riddled with corruption, human rights abuses and a dependency on foreign aid without any economic or political development.”

“These are factors that don’t make for a reliable partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. This translates as additional pressure by the United States for regional involvement in future peace negotiations,” Samin said.


Entry of Iranian apples sours Kashmiri fruit industry

A Kashmiri farmer transports apples on a wheelbarrow inside his orchard in Wuyan, south of Srinagar Indian controlled Kashmir. (AP file photo)
A Kashmiri farmer transports apples on a wheelbarrow inside his orchard in Wuyan, south of Srinagar Indian controlled Kashmir. (AP file photo)
Updated 24 January 2022

Entry of Iranian apples sours Kashmiri fruit industry

A Kashmiri farmer transports apples on a wheelbarrow inside his orchard in Wuyan, south of Srinagar Indian controlled Kashmir. (AP file photo)
  • The new apples on the Indian market have devalued Kashmir’s fruit sector
  • Worth $1.34 billion, the apple industry contributes up to 10 percent of Kashmir’s GDP

NEW DELHI: Tajamul Habib Makroo was hoping a bumper crop of apples this year would help him recover from huge losses due to early snowfalls in the previous harvest season, but now he says a new crisis is looming: The arrival of cheap Iranian fruits, which growers like Makroo fear could upend horticulture in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Concentrated in the southern Shopian district, the state’s apple industry contributes 1.8 million tons of the fruit, or 80 percent of India’s annual production, and involves over 5 million workers in the region.

With annual production worth about $1.34 billion, it saw a sudden drop in value last year, when cheap Iranian apples entered the Indian market via Afghanistan, which boasts a free trade agreement with New Delhi.

“Today’s market is very down, rates are down because the apples coming from Iran have brought the apple prices in India down,” Makroo, who has orchards in Sugan village, Shopian, told Arab News.

He said the Iranian apples have slashed the price of local produce in half.

“Earlier, I used to get 1,200 rupees ($16) per box, today the rate is 600,” Makroo added. “The rate we are getting is not able to cover production costs.” In early January, the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, an apex body representing Kashmiri fruit growers, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to save the industry.

Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the union’s president, said Iranian apples were cheap due to international sanctions imposed on Tehran.

“We have taken up the matter with the Indian government when we came to know about it and warned the government that if the products come to India from Iran, (the) Indian horticulture industry will suffer a lot,” Bashir told Arab News, adding that imposing duties on Iranian fruits could help save the domestic industry.

Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said a lack of intervention would deal a major blow to the local economy. “It’s 8 percent to 10 percent of our GDP of Kashmir,” he told Arab News. “When unemployment is a big challenge for Jammu and Kashmir in this situation the government should take strong notice of it and should defend our people.”

 

Related


Muslims second ‘least-liked’ group in UK: Survey

Muslim worshippers gather for Friday prayer on the streets outside the mosque of the Muslim centre in east London. (AFP/File Photo)
Muslim worshippers gather for Friday prayer on the streets outside the mosque of the Muslim centre in east London. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 24 January 2022

Muslims second ‘least-liked’ group in UK: Survey

Muslim worshippers gather for Friday prayer on the streets outside the mosque of the Muslim centre in east London. (AFP/File Photo)
  • 25.9% of Britons feel negatively toward them, 18.1% support banning Muslim immigration
  • ‘Islamophobia remains one of the most acceptable forms of racism,’ expert tells Arab News

LONDON: Muslims are the second “least-liked” group in the UK, according to a new study that reveals the shocking extent of Islamophobia in the country.

The study, by researchers at the University of Birmingham, found that roughly one in four Britons hold negative views of Muslims and Islam — the highest of any group apart from gypsies and Irish travelers.

Over a quarter of people — 25.9 percent — feel negatively toward Muslims, and just under 10 percent feel “very negative.”

Significantly more Britons hold negative views of Islam in the survey of 1,667 people than they do of other religions.

That translates into much higher support for a hypothetical policy that bars all Muslim migration to Britain.

Nearly one in five people — 18.1 percent — support banning all Muslim migration to the UK, and 9.5 percent “strongly support” that idea.

The study found that Britons are very willing to pass judgment on Islam, but are extremely unlikely to have any real knowledge of the religion.

“British people acknowledge their ignorance of most non-Christian religions, with a majority stating they are ‘not sure’ how Jewish (50.8 percent) and Sikh (62.7 percent) scriptures are taught,” said the study.

“In the case of Islam, however, people feel more confident making a judgment, with only 40.7 percent being unsure. This is despite the fact that people are much more likely to make the incorrect assumption that Islam is ‘totally’ literalistic.”

This finding — that Britons know less about Islam but are more willing to pass judgment on the faith — “says something about how prejudice works,” Dr. Stephen Jones, author of the study and a researcher focusing on British Muslims, told Arab News.

“We tend to associate prejudice with ignorance, but that’s too simple. Instead, prejudice is a kind of miseducation: Many people in this country think they know what Islam is about, and what Muslims believe, in a way that they admit they don’t for other non-Christian religions.”

Islamophobia is so widespread in Britain, Jones said, that it has become socially acceptable. That is why the report dubs it “the dinner table prejudice” — because people will openly and freely admit to their anti-Muslim prejudice, in a way that they are unlikely to with other religious or ethnic groups.

Jones said: “What I think surveys like this into public attitudes tell us is that not only do Muslims suffer discrimination, but that public hostility toward Muslims is on some level publicly accepted. It’s not just that Muslims suffer from Islamophobia, but that this discrimination isn’t publicly recognized.”

The research makes a series of policy recommendations to address the prevalence of Islamophobia in the UK, including acknowledging that “systemic miseducation about Islam is common in British society and forms an important element of Islamophobia.”

It added: “Government and other public figures should publicly acknowledge and address the lack of public criticism that Islamophobic discourses and practices trigger.”

The report lands at a sensitive time for the ruling Conservative Party, with former Cabinet Minister Nusrat Ghani announcing that she was removed from her position because her “Muslimness” made her colleagues uncomfortable.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry into her removal, but he has himself previously faced accusations of Islamophobia, including by comparing women who wear the niqab to “letterboxes.” 

Shaista Aziz, an anti-racism and equalities campaigner, told Arab News: “Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism and it has deep-seated and historic roots in the UK. Yet Islamophobia continues to be denied as a form of racism by many across all spheres of society, including in politics, the media and academia.”

She added: “This report provides further nuanced evidence of how pernicious and mainstream Islamophobia is, and how those in power are refusing to recognize this racism.

“Islamophobia remains one of the most acceptable forms of racism, and one that overwhelmingly remains overlooked, denied and unchallenged.”


Several wounded in shooting in German city; gunman dead

Several wounded in shooting in German city; gunman dead
Updated 24 January 2022

Several wounded in shooting in German city; gunman dead

Several wounded in shooting in German city; gunman dead
  • Police didn’t specify how many people were wounded, or how seriously

BERLIN: A lone gunman wounded several people at a lecture theater in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg on Monday, police said.
Police said in a brief statement that the perpetrator was dead, but didn’t give details of how that happened. They had earlier asked people on Twitter to avoid the Neuenheimer Feld area of Heidelberg, where the city’s university campus is located.
Police didn’t specify how many people were wounded, or how seriously. The university’s press office declined to give any details on the shooting and referred all inquiries to police.
Police said the weapon used in the shooting was a long-barreled firearm.
Heidelberg is located south of Frankfurt and has about 160,000 inhabitants. Its university is one of Germany’s best-known.


Liverpool hospital bomber was rejected for asylum 6 years before attack

Liverpool hospital bomber was rejected for asylum 6 years before attack
Updated 24 January 2022

Liverpool hospital bomber was rejected for asylum 6 years before attack

Liverpool hospital bomber was rejected for asylum 6 years before attack
  • Iraqi-born Emad Al-Swealmeen tried to pose as Syrian refugee to gain entry to UK
  • He had 2 asylum claims rejected before blowing himself up in November 2021

LONDON: A man who blew himself up in an attempted attack on a women’s hospital in England was rejected for an asylum application six years before the failed bombing, it has emerged.

Iraqi-born Emad Al-Swealmeen died after his homemade bomb detonated in a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital in November 2021. He was the only person killed or harmed.

A series of papers obtained by the BBC and other news outlets reveal new information about the years leading up to his failed attack, and raise questions about the UK’s asylum system.

Al-Swealmeen, 32, first visited Britain in 2013, when he entered on a visitor’s visa and was fingerprinted — a crucial step that later helped authorities uncover a string of lies he told as he sought asylum.

He returned to the UK in May 2014 with a Jordanian passport, but falsely claimed to be of Syrian heritage in his asylum applications, according to the papers.

A judge heard at the time that an Arabic-language expert identified his speech patterns to be Iraqi, and that his story of oppression and suffering in Syria was unlikely to be a retelling of his own experience.

“His account of his time in Syria gives the impression of someone quoting information that is in the public domain rather than having first-hand experience,” ruled the judge when rejecting his application for asylum. 

“The appellant did not identify himself with any particular faction or indicate that he would be at risk other than in a general sense.”

An appeal against the decision was then dismissed in 2015. Al-Swealmeen applied again in 2017 under a new name, and was once again rejected in 2020.

He appealed that rejection last year, but a decision on that appeal was never made because months later he was killed in his attack on the hospital.

It is not clear why he was not removed from Britain after his asylum claims were rejected and his falsehoods exposed.

The documents also detailed a slew of mental health issues he was struggling with, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It also emerged that Al-Swealmeen had been imprisoned in Iraq for a serious assault, and had previous convictions in Liverpool for possession of an offensive weapon. 

He was caught waving a knife at passers-by in a Liverpool underpass, and was detained under the Mental Health Act.

The Home Office did not comment on the specific circumstances of Al-Swealmeen’s case, but told the BBC that it is “fixing the broken asylum system” in its current legislation.

A spokesperson said: “The new plan for immigration will require people to raise all protection-related issues up front, to tackle the practice of making multiple and sequential claims and enable the removal of those with no right to be in our country more quickly.”


Beirut Marathon founder honored by Italian government

Beirut Marathon founder honored by Italian government
Updated 24 January 2022

Beirut Marathon founder honored by Italian government

Beirut Marathon founder honored by Italian government
  • May El-Khalil made knight of the Order of the Star of Italy at a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Beirut
  • The marathon, which brings together runners from across sectarian divides, is one of the largest in the region

ROME: The founder of the Beirut Marathon has been awarded a knighthood by the Italian government in recognition of her work in developing and promoting sport as a tool for inclusion, empowerment and resilience.

In a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Beirut, Ambassador Nicoletta Bombardiere bestowed the honor of knight of the Order of the Star of Italy upon May El-Khalil, the president of the Beirut Marathon Association, which oversees the annual race.

The event has been held every autumn since 2003, and is one of the largest running events in the Middle East.

The marathon was accredited by the International Association of Athletic Federations in 2009, and thousands of people take part every year.

The knighthood, Italy’s second-highest civilian honor, is given to Italians or foreigners who have acquired special merit in the promotion of friendly relations and cooperation between the republic and other countries.

Bombardiere said El-Khalil “embodies a model of commitment and perseverance,” adding: “She has been able, through sport, to create opportunities for the younger generations, and to reach out to the different communities in Lebanon. A story of professional success, personal courage and public commitment.

“Sport is not only a tool for physical, but also for mental well-being, moral education and national reconciliation,” the Italian envoy added.

A local sports official, El-Khalil explained her initiative was for the marathon in Beirut to be “open to all, as an antidote to sectarianism.”

She has already earned several national and international awards for her work, and said she was inspired to launch the marathon after being involved in a near-fatal running accident. She was hospitalized for two years, had to undergo a long series of surgeries, with doctors warning her she would never run again.

Her resolve to recover from this personal struggle, however, led to the creation of an event that, each year, draws runners and fans from opposing political and religious communities together in a symbolic act of peace.