Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan
Thousands of civilians have fled their homes in southern Afghanistan to escape violent attacks following the withdrawal of US forces from a military base in the area. (AFP)
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Updated 06 May 2021

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan
  • Spike in violence follows US withdrawal of troops, which began last week

KABUL: Taliban fighters have captured a key district in northern Afghanistan while thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the southern part of the country to escape violent attacks by the group after the withdrawal of US forces from a military base in the area, officials said on Wednesday. 

The rugged Burka district in Baghlan, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban overnight after the militant group staged an attack on government forces, Javid Basharat, a spokesman for Baghlan’s governor, told Arab News. 

“I can confirm that the enemy has captured the Burka district as a result of an encounter. Security and defense forces tactically, without suffering any losses, withdrew and have plans to recapture it,” he added. 

The capture of Burka, which links various districts in the region, is being seen as a massive victory for the Taliban after clashes between the group’s fighters and Afghan forces intensified across the country last week after the US began withdrawing its remaining troops from the war-torn country after decades of conflict. 

Since then, government forces have unleashed a series of offensives against the Taliban, who in turn have their eye on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where US forces handed over a pivotal base to the Afghan National Army on Sunday. 

Officials said thousands of civilians had fled their homes due to clashes in various parts of Helmand. 

“Around 1,000 families have been displaced because of the clashes in various districts. Some live in open areas now, others in hotels or with relatives,” Sayed Mohammad Ramin, head of Helmand’s department for displaced refugees and repatriation, told Arab News. 

Mohammad Alam, a 49-year-old displaced resident of a village adjacent to Lashkar Gah, said he “only had time to evacuate his four children and disabled wife on Monday evening when the clashes escalated.”

Alam told Arab News: “We had no time even to take our personal belongings. It was heavy fighting, now we are living in a makeshift tent in a relative’s yard.”

In a statement released in Kabul on Wednesday, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said that more than 100 Taliban fighters had been killed in the clashes near Lashkar Gah, and Afghan forces had “foiled the Taliban’s push for its capture.”

However, Attaullah Afghan, chief of Helmand’s provincial council, told Arab News that the “Taliban had captured several posts from the government during the fighting in Lashkar Gah.”

He added that several civilians had been killed in the fighting without providing an approximate number of lives lost. 

One healthcare facility in Helmand, however, said it had admitted 106 wounded residents since May 1, while 13 people had died after succumbing to their injuries. 

“These are very difficult days in Lashkar Gah. My colleagues and I, both local and international, are doing everything we can to assist the people there…” Viktor Urosevic, medical coordinator for the Emergency Hospital, said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Amid the uptick in violence, some lawmakers have expressed concern about the fall of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban, while others urged Kabul to send reinforcements to the historically volatile province, which once served as the Taliban’s stronghold and is infamous as a key narcotics production hub. 

“Helmand, war, displacement, vagrancy, fear. How long this calamity will last?...Will we wake up a day with the announcement of ceasefire from our bed?”, Shahrzad Akbar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Commission for Human Rights, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday. 

“The Taliban, showing no seriousness in participating in the talks and failing to agree to a ceasefire, bear most of the responsibility for the continuation of the current bloody situation in the month of Ramadan,” he added. 

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

It is expected to spike in the upcoming 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 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 has blamed Washington for violating the key condition of the Doha accord, which also pushed Kabul and the Taliban to hold talks and draw a political roadmap for a future government in Afghanistan. 

Based on the Doha 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 the US — the insurgents had halted attacks on foreign troops, but not on Afghan forces. 

Both domestic and foreign diplomats, including those from the US, fear that the troops’ departure from the country could propel the Taliban to return to power by force once again. 

According to media reports, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad — the chief architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban — spoke with Afghan leaders over the weekend, emphasizing that “there was strong consensus within both the regional and international community against any effort by the Taliban to pursue a military takeover.”


Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States

Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States
Updated 14 June 2021

Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States

Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States
  • Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin says suspension would be for a further six months

MANILA: The Philippines has suspended for the third time its decision to scrap a two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its foreign minister said on Monday.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said the suspension would be for a further six months while President Rodrigo Duterte “studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement.”
The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States, and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA. Duterte last year notified Washington he was canceling the deal, which came amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a US visa.


Manchester Arena owner, security firm face multimillion-pound lawsuits after bombing inquiry

Manchester Arena owner, security firm face multimillion-pound lawsuits after bombing inquiry
Updated 14 June 2021

Manchester Arena owner, security firm face multimillion-pound lawsuits after bombing inquiry

Manchester Arena owner, security firm face multimillion-pound lawsuits after bombing inquiry
  • SMG Europe, Showsec both criticized in terror attack report, set to be published Thursday
  • Greater Manchester Police, British Transport Police also set for severe criticism in report

LONDON: The owners of Manchester Arena are set to be hit with a series of multimillion-pound lawsuits by victims of the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert at the venue in 2017, with an inquiry report on the attack set to be released this week.

Twenty-two people, mainly young women and girls, were killed when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb in the arena’s foyer, injuring hundreds of others.

His brother Hashem was later jailed for a minimum of 55 years for his role in organizing the attack.

SMG Europe, the owner of the arena, is set to be heavily criticized in the report, due to be published on Thursday, along with the British Transport Police, Greater Manchester Police and Showsec, the company that provided security for the concert.

Showsec is also likely to face lawsuits from survivors and families of the victims for substantial damages.

Sources told the Daily Telegraph that the companies and police forces had all received letters detailing criticisms of them from Sir John Saunders, the inquiry’s chairman, ahead of publication to allow them to respond.

Letters have also been sent to two men — Kyle Lawler and Mohammed Agha — both of whom worked for Showsec at the arena on the night and were alerted to Abedi’s presence by members of the public. 

Another source said: “The actions will be levelled against SMG primarily because ultimately they were the ones legally responsible for protecting the audience.”

The lawsuits against SMG and Showsec could run to tens of millions of pounds, with many survivors of the attack experiencing physical injury as well as long-term mental health issues.

Showsec, the inquiry heard, employed a large and predominantly casual labor force who were poorly trained and on minimum wage.

The company said blame for not stopping the attack predominantly lay with the police and SMG, with whom there had been a “breakdown in communication” over checking the area of the venue, a mezzanine level and CCTV blindspot in which Abedi hid for almost an hour. Both SMG Europe and Showsec declined to comment.

Thursday’s report, focusing on security arrangements at the venue, is the first of three set to be released following the inquiry.

The second will examine the emergency response to the attack, and the third will assess whether it was preventable.

The UK Home Office, meanwhile, is considering proposals for a new law — named after one of the victims, Martyn Hett — to require large hospitality and public venues to put in place protection and protocols to prevent terrorist attacks in future.


Nearly 1,300 migrants arrive on Italian island

Nearly 1,300 migrants arrive on Italian island
Updated 14 June 2021

Nearly 1,300 migrants arrive on Italian island

Nearly 1,300 migrants arrive on Italian island
  • Good weather encouraging more crossings to Europe, says mayor of Lampedusa
  • More than 500 have died trying to reach Italy, Malta this year, according to UN

ROME: Nearly 1,300 migrants landed during the weekend on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Most of them were rescued by Italian fishermen from the dinghies they used to make the trip from North Africa.

“The good summer weather is encouraging migrants to attempt the perilous trip to Lampedusa and Europe. One boat is landing here nearly every hour, and the situation is getting worse,” Salvatore Martello, the mayor of Lampedusa, told Arab News.

He said that the identification center on the island is overcrowded, with sanitary measures at risk of being compromised as a result.

“The situation may turn explosive there, so the Coast Guard is moving some of the center’s guests to one of the quarantine ships moored in the waters of Lampedusa,” Martello added.

Between Sunday night and Monday morning, 42 migrants, including four minors and 11 women, landed in Lampedusa.

A spokesman for the Coast Guard in Palermo told Arab News that 60 more people, who were rescued offshore by Italian fishermen, are now on their way to the Island.

Once they arrive, they will have to be dispatched elsewhere, probably to Calabria, as the local center for migrants is full.

“We spotted the boat in the sea while we were fishing. It was a very old one, and it was not stable at all. We decided to stop our work and reach them. You cannot leave people at sea, especially on board those rickety crafts they use to make the trip. A strong wave would be enough to capsize them,” Giovanni Curatolo, captain of the Italian sailing ship Ettore III, told Arab news. 

Another 410 migrants were rescued from seven different boats during the weekend in the Channel of Sicily by the Geo Barents vessel, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Geo Barents is the only NGO ship still operating off the Libyan coast. In recent days, four more ships — Sea Watch 3, Sea Watch 4, Open Arms and Sea Eye — were subject by the Italian Coast Guard to administrative detention related to bureaucratic issues.

The massive presence of children, most of them unaccompanied, worries the NGOs.

“Their parents entrust them to other migrants in the hope that they will be able to escape persecution and misery. This is the most dramatic aspect of this infinite emergency that has now become ordinary,” Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, archbishop of Agrigento, told Arab News.

On Sunday, Pope Francis said that the Mediterranean had become the “biggest cemetery in Europe,” as he remembered the migrants who died trying to reach the continent.

More than 500 people have died crossing the sea to Italy and Malta between January and mid-May this year, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.


Muslim support for UK’s Labour dips ahead of crucial election

Muslim support for UK’s Labour dips ahead of crucial election
Updated 14 June 2021

Muslim support for UK’s Labour dips ahead of crucial election

Muslim support for UK’s Labour dips ahead of crucial election
  • Poll: Support has fallen by a tenth under Keir Starmer’s leadership
  • His stance on Kashmir cited as one of the reasons for decline in popularity

LONDON: The UK’s main opposition Labour Party is losing support among British Muslims, a new poll has revealed, amid party fears that it will lose a crucial by-election in northern England next month.

The poll found that support from Muslims has fallen by a tenth under Keir Starmer’s leadership.

With the Batley & Spen by-election looming on the horizon, alarm bells are ringing for Labour strategists, with Starmer’s popularity dropping far behind that of his party among Muslim voters following his stances on Kashmir, Palestine, and a report on internal Islamophobia, The Times reported on Monday.

He was criticized heavily soon after taking the leadership in 2020 when he suggested that Jammu and Kashmir was a constitutional issue to be resolved by India and Pakistan. This was a reversal of Labour’s stance that the region had a right to self-determination.

Starmer is enduring a favorability rating of minus 7 percent among Muslim voters, compared to a 42 percent rating for the party.

His decline in popularity matches a fall in support from Muslims for Labour, which fell by 11 percent between 2019 and 2021. 

The findings of the poll, carried out among 504 voters by Survation for the Labour Muslim Network, will stoke fears among Labour activists that the party faces losing Batley & Spen, where the population is estimated to be 20 percent Muslim.

The party’s fears have been worsened by the presence on the Batley & Spen poll of former Labour MP George Galloway, who has been campaigning heavily in the constituency.


Teen charged with murder of boy outside UK school

Teen charged with murder of boy outside UK school
Updated 14 June 2021

Teen charged with murder of boy outside UK school

Teen charged with murder of boy outside UK school
  • Humza Hussain was stabbed multiple times, succumbed to his wounds in hospital
  • Family: ‘He was a much-loved son, grandson and brother’ whose death ‘should never have happened’

LONDON: A teenager has been charged with the murder of a 16-year-old boy stabbed to death outside of a school in Luton, the UK.

Humza Hussain was found with multiple stab wounds outside Challney School for Boys last Tuesday. He was taken to hospital but succumbed to his wounds two hours later.

A 16-year-old-boy, also from Luton, will appear in court this week, charged with murder and possession of a bladed article.

A second teenager, who was arrested on suspicion of violent disorder, has been released on bail.

Hussain’s family said in a statement: “We are extremely saddened and heartbroken at the passing of Humza. He was a young boy with his whole life ahead of him, and this should never have happened. He was a much-loved son, grandson and brother and it is a very sad loss for us as a family.”

Detective Inspector Iain Macpherson of Bedfordshire Police paid his condolences and appealed for anyone with further information about the stabbing to come forward.

“Our hearts go out to Humza’s family at this incredibly difficult time,” he said. “We are absolutely determined to bring those responsible for this shocking attack to justice.”