Ghani to quit ‘only after polls’ as US mulls new government

Ghani to quit ‘only after polls’ as US mulls new government
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday that he would move forward based on ‘realities instead of sentiments’ for a ‘lasting and fair peace.’ (Reuters)
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Updated 18 March 2021

Ghani to quit ‘only after polls’ as US mulls new government

Ghani to quit ‘only after polls’ as US mulls new government
  • Remarks a departure from his pledge to oppose an interim setup at any cost

KABUL: President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to step down from power, but only after elections are held in Kabul — even as pressure mounts on the Afghan head of state to form an interim government that includes the Taliban.

“If the Taliban are ready for elections tomorrow, we are also ready . . .  But I am not ready to transfer the power to my successor without elections,” he said during an official event late on Tuesday.

“Forty-two years of war is enough; we also have the right to live in peace like other civilized nations of the world,” Ghani said.

His remarks came a day after talks with US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who earlier this month had 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.

Government and Taliban delegates are set to attend Russia-sponsored talks on Thursday — to expedite the peace process — and another international UN-led conference in Turkey, in April, as part of the proposed US plan for an interim setup before elections are held.

Besides Taliban and Afghan government emissaries, Thursday’s meeting in Russia will host delegates from the Afghanistan High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), factional and influential leaders, and representatives from the US, China and Pakistan.

Ghani, who assumed his second, five-year-term in office more than a year ago amid allegations of poll fraud, said on Tuesday that he would move forward based on “realities instead of sentiments” for a “lasting and fair peace.”

HIGHLIGHT

His remarks came a day after talks with the US special envoy for Afghanistan, who earlier this month proposed the formation of a participatory government which would include Taliban members.

This is despite the 71-year-old leader repeatedly vowing to oppose an interim setup “at the cost of my life.”

Ghani’s comments on Tuesday are his first since a letter addressed to him by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was leaked to the public nearly two weeks ago.

Blinken’s letter to Ghani — a copy of which was published by several media houses — urged the Afghan president to “develop constructive positions” on Khalilzad’s proposals to “jump-start the flailing peace process.”

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

The letter said that even with the continuation of US financial assistance to Afghan forces after an American withdrawal, there was concern “that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” and that he was sharing this so that Ghani “understands the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter.”

The letter and Khalilzad’s proposal has caught many confidants of Ghani by surprise because Kabul long expected that the new government in Washington would reconsider the deal the former administration made with the Taliban and would keep its troops in Afghanistan for some years to come.

Ghani’s government has come under fire at home and abroad over its perceived inefficiency, poor management of affairs, rampant corruption and an inability to curb crime and advances by Taliban insurgents.

Ahmad Shah Katawazi, a writer and former diplomat, said that Kabul and Washington needed to exercise caution and “compromise” on some issues as the country went through a critical phase.

“Flexibility and compromise from both sides will be a rational approach given the current uncertain scenario the country is facing,” he told Arab News.

Tabish Forugh, a US-based Afghan analyst, said that Ghani would not be able to “stand against US policy” but was “trying his luck to remain relevant” in the case of an interim set-up.

“Perhaps more than anyone else in his administration, Ghani knows that he cannot stand in the way of the US proposed political settlement with the Taliban,” he told Arab News.

Forugh added that while Ghani “lacks what it takes to block the proposal both at the national and international level,” he was pushing to secure a deal for the “survival of state institutions.”

“Ghani will ultimately, under US pressure, compromise on peace if Washington forces the Taliban to accept Ghani’s leadership of the transitional government, a period he considers crucial to the safeguarding of certain democratic gains and his future in Afghanistan’s politics,” Forugh said.

Toreq Farhadi, an adviser to the former government, agreed but added that holding polls in Afghanistan “was out of the question” under the current circumstances.

“The president of Afghanistan asking for elections now might be an indication that he is totally unaware of the citizens’ security situation in the country,” he said.


North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
Updated 20 January 2022

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
  • N. Korea has not tested nuclear bombs, ICBMs since 2017
  • Politburo says US threats ‘reached a danger line’

SEOUL: North Korea would bolster its defenses against the United States and consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities,” state media KCNA reported Thursday, an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Tension has been rising over a recent series of North Korean missile tests. A US push for fresh sanctions was followed by heated reaction from Pyongyang, raising the spectre of a return to the period of so-called “fire and fury” threats of 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a meeting of the powerful politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday to discuss “important policy issues,” including countermeasures over “hostile” US policy, the official KCNA news agency said.
The politburo ordered a reconsideration of trust-building measures and “promptly examining the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” while calling for “immediately bolstering more powerful physical means,” KCNA said.
The politburo decision appears to be a step beyond Kim’s previous remarks at the end of 2019 that he would no longer be bound by the moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), after the United States did not respond to calls for concessions to reopen negotiations.
Washington’s policy and military threats had “reached a danger line,” the report said, citing joint US-South Korea military exercises, the deployment of cutting-edge US strategic weapons in the region, and the implementation of independent and UN sanctions.
“We should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the US imperialists,” the politburo concluded.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden made no mention of North Korea during a nearly two-hour news conference on Wednesday held to mark his first year in office.
“We should brace for more sabre-rattling designed to create a warlike atmosphere — and possibly more provocation testing,” said Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, adding that Kim will use every opportunity to justify further weapons testing.

‘Vicious cycle’
North Korea could possibly test a long-range missile or other powerful weapon in time for the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April, both major holidays in the country, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“It’s possible that the situation could go back to the vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions we saw in 2017,” he said.
After test firing a ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland in 2017, North Korea launched a flurry of diplomacy and has not tested its ICBMs or nuclear weapons since.
But it began testing a range of new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) after denuclearization talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.
Pyongyang has defended the missile launches as its sovereign right to self-defense and accused Washington of applying double standards over weapons tests.
On Monday, North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this year, following two launches of “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another one involving a railway-borne missile system.
The unusually rapid pace of launches prompted US condemnation and a push for new UN sanctions, and Pyongyang threatened stronger actions.
Jenny Town, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North program, said despite its strong language, the politburo report left room for Kim to “ratchet rhetoric up or down as he sees fit” depending on future developments.
The Biden administration needs to lead more concerted, high-level international efforts to restart negotiations on step-for-step actions toward peace and denuclearization, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
“The North Korean nuclear and missile problem has not disappeared and will only grow worse in the absence of active, serious diplomacy,” he said.  


US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
Updated 20 January 2022

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department 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 20 January 2022

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.