Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan
Afghan police check a vehicle at a checkpoint in Kabul on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 15 April 2021

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan
  • Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday said they would no longer participate in peace talks for Afghanistan until all US-led troops withdrew from the country, amid reports that President Joe Biden was expected to delay the May 1 deadline by four months. 

“This is our stance: until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s government) will not participate in any conference that shall make a decision on Afghanistan,” Dr. Mohammad Naeem, the group’s Qatar-based spokesman, told Arab News on Wednesday. 

According to a plan disclosed by US officials on Tuesday, Biden is expected to withdraw remaining troops by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked Washington’s longest conflict in history — instead of May 1, as agreed upon by the Trump administration and the Taliban in a controversial deal more than a year ago. 

Since assuming office, Biden has said he would review the Qatar accord, saying in recent weeks that it would be “a tough move” to abide by the May 1 deadline. 

As per the agreement, the Taliban halted attacks on US-led troops but increased strikes on Afghan government forces who rely on the US for air and intelligence support, and financial and logistical resources. 

The Taliban had also warned Washington of consequences if it decided to extend the deadline for withdrawal.

In recent months, President Ashraf Ghani’s government urged Biden to withdraw troops on a condition-based agreement but not before the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire. 

Ghani’s spokesmen were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Wednesday. 

However, Waheed Omar, an adviser for Ghani, tweeted on Wednesday that Biden is expected to talk to the Afghan president “in the near future to officially share details of the new withdrawal plan.” 

He added: “Until then, we will not comment on the details.”

In another tweet, he said: “We will respect any decision taken by the US government with regards to their troops. ANSDF (Afghan National Security Defense Forces) has been defending our people with high morale the past two years and have recently conducted close to 98 percent of operations independently.”

He added: “They are fully capable of doing that in the future.”

However, during an open session on Wednesday, the head of the Afghan parliament raised alarm about the country’s future after the departure of American troops. 

“With the current situation, the conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops are not fair,” Mir Rahman Rahmani said. 

“The withdrawal of foreign forces in the current situation would worsen the situation and will lead to a civil war,” he added. 

On Wednesday, NATO officials meeting in Brussels said the alliance was also likely to withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan, according to media reports. 

Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24, which several observers said could be one of the final international efforts to broker peace between the insurgent group and the Afghan government. 

Proposed by Washington, Turkey was expected to host the intra-Afghan talks to prevent a total collapse of the US-sponsored negotiations which began in Doha in September last year, but this plan failed to materialize. 

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan government-appointed negotiator for the intra-Afghan talks in Qatar last year, said that Washington “needs to work with the Taliban to attend Turkey’s conference. 

She told Arab News that: “The Taliban need to get engaged in the negotiations to pave the way for the withdrawal; meaningful negotiations will pave the way for the withdrawal.”

Ahmad Samin, a former adviser for the World Bank, agreed and said that Afghanistan is “heading to a crisis in the face of a total collapse of talks as the Taliban will endeavor to seize power again.”

He told Arab News: “The Biden administration is frustrated with the Afghan government, which is too corrupt, and the majority of American people want to end the endless Afghan war.”

Samin added: “The Taliban are taking advantage of the situation. I believe the Taliban are not interested in power sharing, and they will try to go for full victory, which will result in catastrophic internal conflict. Everything regarding Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, and no one knows what will happen.”


After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
Updated 09 May 2021

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows

After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
  • Last week, Uttar Pradesh announced the establishment of 700 help desks ‘for the welfare of cows’
  • Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst-affected states amid surge in virus cases

NEW DELHI: Facing a wave of criticism following an announcement to set up help desks to protect cows in the wake of a pandemic crisis, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was on Sunday forced to deny the plan.  

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, known as a hardline Hindu politician of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been promoting cow protection since the beginning of his term in 2017. The state already had 4,500 shelters and some 170 sanctuaries for the bovines, which are sacred in Hinduism.

With the country facing a drastic surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and its hospitals enduring a shortage of beds and oxygen, many were shocked to read in a circular widely quoted by the Indian media last week that Adityanath’s administration had announced the establishment of 700 help desks “for the welfare of cows.” 

The centers, the notice said, would be equipped with “51 oximeters and 341 thermal scanners” in order to “ensure better animal care and testing.”

Following an outcry prompted by the cow help desk plan, Navneet Sehgal, the state’s additional chief secretary for information, told Arab News the reports were “false, slanderous and nonsense.”

The administration, however, has not denied issuing the circular.

India recorded over 400,000 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday and 4,000 related deaths. With Uttar Pradesh suffering as one of the worst-affected states with more than 26,500 new cases and 300 deaths in the past 24 hours, the focus on cows has dumbfounded the state’s residents.

“I feel very angry as a resident of Uttar Pradesh with the way we are being treated and our lives are being compromised,” Kulsum Mustafa, a journalist and activist based in the state’s capital of Lucknow, told Arab News.

“India is asking for support to tide over the crisis posed by COVID-19 ... People are dying without hospital beds and oxygen and our focus is different,” Mustafa said.

Lucknow-based former bureaucrat and political analyst Surya Pratap Singh said the cow help desk plan was a “political tactic to divert the attention from COVID-19 mismanagement.”

He described the situation in the state as “terrible, with people dying in large numbers in villages which are not being reflected in the official figure. Cremation grounds are full.”

Ram Dutt Tripathi, another political analyst in Lucknow, said: “Maybe the government’s feedback channel is choked, and their communication is only one way. The BJP regime is not connected with the grassroot sentiments.”

He added that the move might be related to next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh — the country’s most-populous state — where winning the vote traditionally spells victory in national polls.

“The BJP thinks that communal polarization will work again and again,” he said, adding: “That’s why they are not focusing on governance and people are suffering.”


Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
Updated 09 May 2021

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa

Boats carrying hundreds of migrants arrive in Italy’s Lampedusa
  • About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel
  • Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa

MILAN: Seven boats packed with hundreds of migrants arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday, and officials said more people were expected as the weather improved.
More than 1,000 people got off the vessels at Lampedusa, one of the main landing points for people trying to get across the Mediterranean into Europe, ANSA news agency said.
“Migrants arrivals are resuming alongside good weather,” Lampedusa’s mayor Toto Martello told state broadcaster RAI. “We need to restart discussions about the immigration issue.”
Numbers in recent years have been down from 2015-2017, when Europe took in hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them fleeing poverty and conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
But the issue still sharply divides European governments and has fueled anti-immigration sentiment and parties across the continent.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, called on Prime Minister Mario Draghi to tackle the issue.
“With millions of Italians facing difficulties, we cannot care for thousands of illegal migrants,” he wrote on Twitter.
Some of the boats were intercepted off the coast of the Mediterranean island by the Italian tax police, who deal with financial crime and smuggling, ANSA said.
About 400 migrants of various nationalities got off one of the boats, a drifting fishing vessel, the agency reported.
Another boat carrying 325 people was intercepted eight miles off Lampedusa, the agency added.


Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
Updated 43 min 5 sec ago

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years

Afghanistan mourns 60 schoolgirls killed in deadliest attack in years
  • Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year
  • Violence on rise in recent weeks after US postponed withdrawal of troops from country

KABUL: Sixty girls were buried during a mass funeral on Sunday, after a gruesome bomb attack on a school in a poor neighborhood of Kabul a day earlier.

The carnage outside the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in the Shia-dominated suburb of Dasht-e Barchi began when a car bomb detonated as students were leaving classes to break their Ramadan fast.

Witnesses said that as people rushed to take the wounded children to hospital, another explosion and mortar fire tore through the scene, killing some of the rescuers.

“Books and body parts were everywhere ... cries, wailing,” local resident Rahim Dad said.

Over 100 people were wounded in the attack, the deadliest assault in years, coming just a week after a bomb attack killed another 21 children in Logar province, south of Kabul.  

“We buried sixty of the victims, all girls and students of the same school,” Dr. Ali Sadaat, who organized the funeral, told Arab News.

“These students until a few days ago were complaining to school authorities about a shortage of textbooks,” Sadaat said. “They had an enormous desire to earn a bright future. May God never show such a thing to any country. There were some students who were beheaded, some whose faces were beyond recognition.”

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban, who denied the accusation, saying a Daesh network was behind the massacre. 

Last June, at least 24 people, including newborns, mothers and nurses, were killed by Daesh gunmen at a maternity ward, also in Dasht-e Barchi.

In November, Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack on Kabul University, in which 32 people were killed.

“We are safe nowhere in Afghanistan,” Shamsuddin, an elderly resident of Kabul, told Arab News. “People are being targeted in classes, (at) university, wedding halls, mosques. How long this will last?”

Violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent weeks after the US postponed the withdrawal of its troops from the country to September from a May 1 deadline Washington had negotiated with the Taliban last year.

Under the US-Taliban deal, the latter promised, among other things, not to allow its members and other militant groups to use the soil of Afghanistan for terrorist attacks.

In a statement issued on Sunday, which has been attributed to Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the elusive Taliban leader said that as the US had again failed to live up to its commitments, “the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all consequences.” 


India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
Updated 09 May 2021

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount
  • India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours
  • Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections

MUMBAI: India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Sunday as calls for a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus mounted.
India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. New cases rose by 403,738, just shy of the record and increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
India has been hit hard by a second COVID-19 wave with cases and deaths hitting record highs every other day. With an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in many hospitals and morgues and crematoriums overflowing, experts have said the actual numbers for COVID-19 cases and fatalities could be far higher.
Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections while others have announced restrictions on public movement and shut down cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed during the first wave last year.
India on Saturday reported its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August.
Support has been pouring in from around the world in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment for overwhelmed hospitals.


Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean
Updated 09 May 2021

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

But the US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.

The US military’s Space Command said the rocket “re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8 (0215 GMT Sunday).”

“It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, said that the location in Saudi Arabia was where American systems last recorded it.

“Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” it tweeted.

The segment’s descent matched expert predictions that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

Because it was an uncontrolled descent, there was widespread public interest and speculation about where the debris would land.

American and European space authorities were among those tracking the rocket and trying to predict its re-entry.

Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March-5B may not be destroyed entirely.

Their wreckage can land on the surface of the planet and may cause damage and casualties, though that risk is low.

Last year, debris from another Chinese Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

That, and the one that came down Sunday, are tied for the fourth-biggest objects in history to undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, according to data from Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

The uncertainty and risks of such a re-entry sparked accusations that Beijing had behaved irresponsibly.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a statement.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket – which is not equipped for a controlled descent.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” McDowell tweeted.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

Chinese authorities had downplayed the risk, however.

“The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or (on people and activities) on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars into space exploration to boost its global stature and technological might.

The launch of the first module of its space station – by the Long March rocket that came down Sunday – was a milestone in its ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.