More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says

More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says
An Afghan soldier keeps watch outside the US base in Bagram outside Kabul.
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Updated 04 May 2021

More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says

More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says
  • Afghan authorities say operations were in response to Taliban’s ‘provocations’ as Taliban accuses government of ‘testing its force’

KABUL: The Afghan government on Monday said that it had killed more than 60 Taliban insurgents in a series of offensives against the group after assuming control of a key US military base a day earlier.

“Backed by aerial support, the operations were conducted independently by local forces without any aid, cooperation or involvement of foreign troops,” Fawad Aman, a defense ministry spokesman, told Arab News.

“During the past 24 hours, 62 Taliban were killed, and 58 others were wounded in these operations,” he said.

The assaults covered several provinces in the south, northeast and eastern regions of the war-torn country, with a focus on the Ghazni province, to the southwest of Kabul, and the southern Helmand province where the US military formally handed over control of the Camp Antonik base to the government on Sunday.

Aman said that the operations were in response to the Taliban’s “provocations” and were aimed at “destroying their planning centers, used for attacking government forces.”

He declined to share the exact number of casualties suffered by the Afghan forces during the clashes. However, two security sources, requesting anonymity, said that more than 40 Afghan police and troops had died in the crackdown.

Meanwhile, in comments to Arab News on Monday, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, accused Kabul of “showing and testing its force by launching the operations on Taliban-held areas, forcing the Taliban to prevent and respond.”

He refused to comment on how many Taliban members had been killed in the attacks.

With the fate of the US-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in limbo, there has been an escalation of violence in recent weeks.

It is expected to spike in the coming months as US-led troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, amid fears of the country descending into another civil war.

By formally ending its most protracted conflict in history, which Washington started in late 2001 by ousting the Taliban from power, the US military began withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, based on a directive issued by American President Joe Biden last month.

All foreign troops were expected to exit the country by May 1 — the original deadline set by the Taliban before signing a landmark deal with Washington in Doha, Qatar, more than a year ago.

The Taliban have blamed Washington for violating the key condition of the Doha accord, which also pushes Kabul and the Taliban to hold talks and draw a political roadmap for a future government in Afghanistan.

Based on the deal — which also required the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other militants and not use Afghan soil to launch attacks on any other country, including America — the insurgents had halted attacks on foreign troops, but not on Afghan forces.

In comments to reporters last week, Afghan spy chief, Ahmad Zia Saraj, said that the Taliban had ramped up attacks by 24 percent since the Doha deal was signed, highlighting a spike in violence after Biden extended the troops’ presence to Sept.11, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on US soil by suspected Al-Qaeda members.

The same year, US troops invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders, which Washington accused of staging the twin tower bombings.

In a statement on the 10th anniversary of the raid that killed Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, Biden said that the US would “remain vigilant about the threat from terrorist groups that have metastasized around the world.”

“As we bring to an end America’s longest war and draw down the last of our troops from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda is greatly degraded there. We will continue to monitor and disrupt any threat to us that emerges from Afghanistan,” he said.

Taliban spokesman, Mujahid, however, said that “the threat to America is clear,” adding: “We have repeatedly said and want to say again that we will allow no side to harm from Afghanistan the near, the far countries and the United States.”

“This (future threat posed from Afghanistan) is a propaganda for the continuation of occupation and keeping of the troops here,” he told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban were “willing to settle Afghanistan’s more than four decades of crisis through talks,” provided “Kabul shows sincerity” after the departure of foreign troops.

Washington’s withdrawal has created concerns both at home and abroad that the Taliban may seize power by force again and step up their attacks on the Afghan government, which has long relied on the US for financial, logistical and defense aid.

Ghulam Wali Afghan, a lawmaker from Helmand, a part of the Taliban’s main bastion, said that the insurgent group had “increased pressure on Helmand and there is a risk it will fall.”

“With the withdrawal of foreign forces, they will gain control of towns, highways and provinces such as Helmand. The government does not have the means to supply and provide aid (to the troops) on the ground,” he told Arab News.

Retired Gen. Attiqullah Amarkhail agrees. “Afghan forces were vulnerable to Taliban attacks due to lack of coordination, the prevalence of corruption in the system and absence of military doctrine,” he said.

“We have sufficient troops, which is unprecedented in our history, but those factors will play a big role in the future war. There is disunity in government on a peace plan, like other matters, while the Taliban speak with one voice,” he told Arab News.

Amarkhail added that Kabul needed to convince the US that “without putting pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to join the peace talks,” Washington’s rivals such as Iran, Russia and China will consolidate their influence in Afghanistan.

“But America cannot push Pakistan much either because Russia has managed to establish heavy influence in Pakistan, and if America loses Pakistan, then it will lose its presence in the region to a large extent,” he said.


Kosovo man charged in terror trial

 Members of the Kosovo police special unit secure in the town of Mitrovica. (AFP file photo)
Members of the Kosovo police special unit secure in the town of Mitrovica. (AFP file photo)
Updated 7 sec ago

Kosovo man charged in terror trial

 Members of the Kosovo police special unit secure in the town of Mitrovica. (AFP file photo)
  • Kosovo repatriated 110 of its citizens, mostly women and children, from Syria two years ago

PRISTINA: Prosecutors brought terror charges on Friday against an ethnic Albanian man from Kosovo who allegedly joined an extremist group in Syria and brought his family there.
A statement from the prosecutor’s office in Kosovo said the suspect, identified only as N. L., joined the Jabhat Al-Nusra group along his son.
Authorities allege he trained as a fighter and participated in attacks in Syria.
The statement said the man returned to Kosovo in April 2013 to bring to his wife, two daughters and a daughter-in-law to Syria.
He allegedly rejoined his son and the Al-Nusra group and was eventually handed over to Syrian forces and repatriated to Kosovo, according to the statement, which did not give the whereabouts of his relatives.
If convicted, the man faces up to 10 years in prison. Authorities say that fewer than 90 Kosovo citizens remain in Syria, most of them the widows of former fighters.
Kosovo repatriated 110 of its citizens, mostly women and children, from Syria two years ago.
Many of the adults have been charged with terrorism-related offensives and are serving prison sentences.
More than 400 people from Kosovo are thought to have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.


Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus

Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus
Updated 17 min 35 sec ago

Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus

Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus

NEW YORK: The omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 likely acquired at least one of its mutations by picking up a snippet of genetic material from another virus — possibly one that causes the common cold — present in the same infected cells, according to researchers.
This genetic sequence does not appear in any earlier versions of the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, but is ubiquitous in many other viruses including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome, researchers said.
By inserting this particular snippet into itself, omicron might be making itself look “more human,” which would help it evade attack by the human immune system, said Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm nference, who led the study posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints.
This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease. Scientists do not yet know whether omicron is more infectious than other variants, whether it causes more severe disease or whether it will overtake Delta as the most prevalent variant. It may take several weeks to get answers to these questions.
Cells in the lungs and in the gastrointestinal system can harbor SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies. Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new copies that have some genetic material from both “parents.”
This new mutation could have first occurred in a person infected with both pathogens when a version of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The same genetic sequence appears many times in one of the coronaviruses that causes colds in people — known as HCoV-229E — and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, Soundararajan said.
South Africa, where omicron was first identified, has the world’s highest rate of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and other pathogens. In that part of the world, there are many people in whom the recombination that added this ubiquitous set of genes to omicron might have occurred, Soundararajan said.
“We probably missed many generations of recombinations” that occurred over time and that led to the emergence of omicron, Soundararajan added.
More research is needed to confirm the origins of omicron’s mutations and their effects on function and transmissibility. There are competing hypotheses that the latest variant might have spent some time evolving in an animal host.
In the meantime, Soundararajan said, the new findings underscore the importance of people getting the currently available COVID-19 vaccines.
“You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Soundararajan said.


Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket
Updated 04 December 2021

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket
  • Syed Rafiullah Shah was encouraged by his family to write with his feet when he was 4 years old

QUETTA: On a cold November morning, Syed Rafiullah Shah arrived sleeveless at an examination hall in Quetta, southwestern Pakistan, to sit for an eighth-grade test. He finished it faster than many other students, writing swiftly on the paper with a pen held in his right foot.
Born without arms, 13-year-old Shah is one of millions of Pakistanis living with disabilities. While the exact number is not known, Human Rights Watch estimates it could be up to 27 million, or over 12 percent, of the country’s population.  
Although Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and last year passed its own Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, in many parts of the country disability is still considered a taboo, keeping people confined within the walls of their homes.
Shah’s story is different.
“I am a living example that people with physical impairments can have a normal life,” he told Arab News.
“I have learnt to do my daily work with my feet. Even now I am able to play cricket, soccer and other sports with my cousins and friends,” he said. “Physical impairment has never deterred me.”
Shah has been encouraged by his family members to master the same skills as physically able children. It did take more effort, he said, but through his spirit, he has managed to excel.
“My aunt encouraged me to write with my feet when I was just four years old,” he said. “Today I am studying in eight standard and I’m able to write in both English and Urdu.”
When it comes to sports, he regularly practices cricket with his elder brother, Syed Mujeebullah, for whom Shah is a source of pride.
“Rafi hits the ball with his legs,” Mujeebullah said. “I feel pride when I see my younger brother competing with normal students in school and sports.”
Syed Zahoor Ahmed, who was overseeing Shah’s exams, told Arab News he was surprised to see the boy’s confidence as he wrote with his foot.
“I have asked Rafi a couple of times if he needed extra time, but he refused and completed his papers within the given timeframe,” Ahmed said, adding that Shah was even faster than other students.
“I have never considered Rafi a physically impaired student, but a talented child,” he said.
It was his grandfather who, from the beginning, believed the boy was a “blessing.”
Syed Sadar-ud-Din, Shah’s father, remembered calling his father to tell him his child had been born without arms and shoulders. “He told me to accept it as God’s decision, since it would prove to be a blessing for me,” he said.
When he was a toddler, Shah could not crawl like other babies, but soon, he started to walk.
“He got many face and head injuries during his childhood because he wasn’t able to protect his face while falling down on the ground,” the father said. “But the days of our worries ended when he enrolled in school, and now can handle any situation.”
While the family has never seen Shah’s disability as a burden, Sadar-ud-Din is well aware of the difficulties he will have to face in Pakistani society as he grows older.
“I want to request all parents who have children with any disability to start supporting them and encourage them,” he said. “If we don’t believe in them, no one else will.”

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UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka
Updated 58 min 49 sec ago

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka
  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected by contemporary forms of slavery

COLOMBO: A UN expert says contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka, with vulnerable groups such as children, women, ethnic minorities and older people particularly affected.
Tomoyo Obokata, the U.N special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said Friday at the end of a mission to Sri Lanka that he hopes to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council in September next year.
Obokata said about 1 percent of Sri Lankan children are involved in some type of child labor, most of it considered hazardous.
“Girls and boys work in the domestic sector, in hospitality, cleaning in the general service industry. Others are sexually exploited in the tourism sector,” he said.
Child labor is particularly severe in areas populated by ethnic minority Tamils, such as in tea and rubber plantation regions where children are forced to drop out of school and support their families, he said.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says contemporary forms of slavery include traditional slavery, forced labor, debt bondage, serfdom, children working in slavery or slavery-like conditions, domestic servitude, sexual slavery and servile forms of marriage.
“I witnessed that in Sri Lanka contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension,” Obokata said. “In particular, Malayaha Tamils, who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago, continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based
on their origin.”
He said the plantation Tamils’ inability to own land has forced them to live in “line houses” built during colonial times.
“I was frankly very much distressed by the way they are living. Five to 10 people stuffed in tiny spaces. No proper kitchen or toilet or shower facilities, just appalling conditions. I have recommended to the government to do something about this because frankly I was distraught myself,” Obokata said.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by contemporary forms of slavery, with females predominantly filling jobs in demanding sectors such as plantation, garment industry and domestic labor, he said.
In the plantation sector, women must meet daily targets to earn the minimum daily wage, Obokata said.
“Similarly, increasingly high targets in the garment sector put continuous pressure on the female workers. As a consequence, some even choose not to go to the bathroom in order to meet the targets,” he said.
In some cases, such as in the planation sector, older workers are compelled to regularly perform physically challenging work because younger people choose to be employed outside the sector. They have no access to adequate health care, social protection, or paid sick leave, he said.


Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey
Updated 03 December 2021

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey
  • HRW and Amnesty slam Turkey over ‘farcical’ detention of Osman Kavala
  • High-profile philanthropist has been detained for years on ‘politically motivated’ charges

LONDON: Prominent human rights groups have welcomed disciplinary action initiated by Europe’s top rights and democracy court against Turkey over the detention of activist Osman Kavala.

Washington-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International — two of the most high-profile human rights groups globally — released statements in support of a move by the Council of Europe to penalize Ankara for Kavala’s continuing detention.

The disciplinary proceedings relate to a failure by Turkey to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling that decreed that Kavala should be released. 

“Turkey is refusing to abide by the court’s final judgment in this case,” said a statement by the council, which initiated proceedings that could ultimately see Turkey lose voting rights or even its membership of the 47-nation Council of Europe.

Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said: “As this is only the second time the Council of Europe has triggered such a sanction process against a member state, the decision is an acknowledgment of Turkey’s rule of law crisis.”

She continued: “In the face of Turkey’s defiance of its obligation to carry out a key judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers has taken the right course in notifying Turkey that it will trigger infringement proceedings

Amnesty International’s Europe Director Nils Muiznieks said: “Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights found that Osman Kavala’s right to liberty was violated with the ulterior purpose of silencing him and called for his immediate release.

“Instead of implementing this ruling, prosecutors have consistently looked for crimes to pin on him, bringing farcical charges without any evidence. Each twist and turn of this saga of injustice has pointed at the deeply politically motivated nature of the case, as clearly identified by the European Court.”

“The message from the Committee of Ministers to Turkey is crystal clear: Turkey’s failure to ensure the immediate release of Osman Kavala and end his politically motivated prosecution is an unacceptable breach of the country’s human rights obligations.”

Kavala, 64, has long advocated for the rights of Turkey’s minorities, including Armenians, Kurds, and others, and is the founder of an Istanbul-based arts and culture non-profit organization.

He was arrested in 2017 following a failed coup in Turkey, and accused of having links to the Gulenist movement — an opposition Islamist group run from the US by Fethullah Gulen.

In 2020 Kavala was briefly released from custody, only to be detained hours later — this time on charges relating to his alleged involvement in organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey after they evolved into an anti-government movement.

Amnesty’s Muiznieks said: “After more than four years behind bars on politically motivated charges, he must be allowed to finally return home to his family.”