Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday
Above, Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters in Herat on February 2, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 11 May 2021

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday

Afghanistan Taliban plan three-day cease-fire for Eid holiday
  • The cease-fire would begin on either Wednesday or Thursday
  • The Afghan government has not yet responded to the Taliban announcement

KABUL: The Taliban on Monday declared a three-day ceasefire for the upcoming Eid Al-Fitr holiday this week amid an uptick in violence across Afghanistan and as Washington ramps up its withdrawal of remaining troops from the country.

In a Twitter statement, Taliban Spokesman Mohammed Naeem wrote that “all Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are instructed to halt all offensive operations against the enemy countrywide from the first till the third day of Eid. But if the enemy conducts any assault or attack [against] you during these three days, stand ready to robustly protect and defend yourselves and your territory.”

Hours after the Taliban’s announcement, President Ashraf Ghani instructed all Afghan forces to observe the three-day Eid ceasefire as well. However, he reiterated that the Taliban’s violence had “no legitimacy” as international troops were leaving Afghanistan. He also called for a permanent ceasefire in the country.

Kabul has long insisted on a long-term and nationwide ceasefire ahead of peace talks with the Taliban to end a protracted conflict with Washington by recalling all foreign troops by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in the US — based on a directive issued by President Joe Biden in April.

Initially, 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 to 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.

So far, the Taliban have refused to agree to a permanent truce but said that they could be a key part of US-sponsored talks, which have faced a deadlock since they were first launched in Doha last year.

Fraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which heads the Afghan peace process, said that the Taliban’s call for a three-day ceasefire was a “good opportunity” to boost the peace process.

FASTFACT

Kabul has long insisted on a long-term and nationwide ceasefire ahead of peace talks with the Taliban to end a protracted conflict, with Washington by recalling all foreign troops by Sept. 11.

“We have hailed this, and the ceasefire is a demand of the people of Afghanistan too. We hope that this will be used as a good opportunity for a permanent and nationwide ceasefire and a continuation of talks,” he told Arab News.

Eid Al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and, based on the sighting of the new moon, is expected to begin in Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Under the ceasefire guidelines, the Taliban will avoid visiting cities in government-held areas. During the truce observed in 2018, when both sides announced a ceasefire, hundreds of Taliban fighters visited various cities, including Kabul, to meet relatives and partake in the Eid festivities.

However, the latest announcement for a ceasefire follows weeks of clashes between the Taliban and government forces, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of men from both sides, including dozens of civilians.

While the Taliban have halted attacks on US-led troops based on the accord signed with Washington in Doha, there has been an increase in assaults on government forces, with both sides blaming each other for the escalation in violence.

“The latest fighting damaged the Taliban’s image a lot, with people across the country calling for a permanent ceasefire,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a political analyst based in Kabul, told Arab News.

“To repair that damage, the Taliban pre-empted the government and are trying to show to the people that they want peace and stability, and announcing ceasefire is a good example of it,” he added.

The three-day ceasefire comes two days after bombings outside a school in the western part of Kabul killed at least 68, mostly students, and injured more than 165 others.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, even as President Ghani accused the Taliban of staging the attack.

Taliban insurgents, who have been fighting to overthrow the Afghan government since their ouster by US-led forces in late 2001, have denied involvement in the bombings, accusing Daesh of perpetrating the attacks instead.


Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation
Updated 21 min 40 sec ago

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation

Afghan translators of departing foreign forces face a mortal danger: Taliban retaliation
  • Planned withdrawal by US and NATO troops will leave thousands of interpreters and other assistants exposed
  • Process of resettlement in Western countries complicated by need for recommendation letters and other documents

KABUL: Back in the spring of 2013, Tajik Mohammed was enjoying his leave in the small garden of his family home in the lush village of Kapisa when he learnt that the Taliban had put him on a blacklist. His crime? He was working as a translator for the US military.

Under cover of night, the high-school graduate was forced to flee 110 kilometers south to Kabul, the Afghan capital, where he has remained ever since. His family followed after the Taliban “threw a hand grenade one day” at their house, thinking he was there.

Mohammed, 32, worked for American troops in restive Ghazni province, which lies on the main highway leading to the Taliban’s bastion of support in the south.

He subsequently lost his job for failing to return to duty on time because he could not travel by air from Kapisa to Ghazni. He pointed out that if he had taken the trip by road, the Taliban would have killed him.

He and thousands like him are living in fear. In April, US President Joe Biden announced that he would be withdrawing the estimated 3,500 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by September, 20 years after the Al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Officials at the US embassy said they could not provide data on the percentage of applicants who had been turned down for special immigration visas or the number of former translators and employees who had been killed over the years. (AFP)

The withdrawals started on May 1. Departing with the American forces are their NATO allies and thousands of foreign military contractors. They leave behind those Afghans who have worked as translators, cooks, cleaners, and guards. Many are fearful that the militants will seek retaliation.

US-led efforts to reconcile the Taliban with the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul have not borne fruit since talks began in Qatar last year.

Last week the Taliban, a grouping of mainly Pashtun militants who harbored Osama bin Laden and ruled Afghanistan for five years until 2001, said that they no longer considered the former employees of foreign forces as “foes.” But the militants noted that the workers needed to show “remorse” and should not use “danger” as an excuse to bolster their push for a “fake asylum case.”

In the past, the Taliban openly preached that Afghan translators should be killed. “You are a legitimate target for the Taliban even if you have served for one day for the foreign forces. I have no faith in the Taliban’s promise,” Mohammed told Arab News.

“Who killed so many journalists and civil society activists? Of course, (it was) the Taliban. But they did not take responsibility for them. We risked our lives while working for the foreign forces and now that they are leaving, there is no guarantee at all for our future and we face risk again,” he said.

Mohammed is a member of the Afghans Left Behind Association (ALBA), a union of 2,000 former translators and workers. The group was recently formed with the purpose of highlighting the voices and concerns of those who say they will be targeted once NATO forces leave.

Last week, ALBA held its first large-scale gathering under tight security in Kabul. A number of the former translators wore masks to protect their identities. No One Left Behind, an American non-profit organization that advocates for the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the US, said that according to US media reports more than 300 translators or their relatives had been killed since 2014.

Omid Mahmoodi, an ALBA press officer, said the Taliban killed at least one member of the union, named as Sohail Pardis, as he was driving in Khost province in southeastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.

In April, US President Joe Biden announced that he would be withdrawing the estimated 3,500 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by September. (AFP)

Another translator said he had moved to Kabul from his native Nangarhar province after receiving a threatening telephone call, naming him as an “apostate” who “deserved to be killed.”

Thousands have submitted applications for special immigration visas (SIVs) which allow them to emigrate to the US. Successful applicants need to prove that they served with US forces for at least two years and demonstrate that they provided “faithful and valuable service.”

This is usually attested by US military officers in the form of a letter of recommendation. Successful applicants typically also need to show that they have received evidence that they had been threatened. Those who are unsuccessful often lack documentation or are the subject of “derogatory information.”

The translators have been the eyes and ears for American troops and accompanied them during military campaigns against the Taliban and other militants. They have helped with the arrests of insurgents as well as the controversial searching of homes.

They have also acted as cultural advisers in what is a highly conservative society, helping foreign troops understand tribal, ethnic, and religious sensitivities, while in addition coordinating with Afghan forces.

Mohammed has recently applied for an SIV at the American embassy in Kabul. Thousands of translators from Afghanistan and Iraq have relocated to America using this mechanism as a reward for helping the US troops. “The answer I got through an embassy email asked me why I was terminated, where my recommendation letters were, etc,” he said.

“But the people we worked with in the US military have gone home, changed their addresses and even their profession, so it is tough for us to get hold of them, get the answers and pass them to the embassy here.”

Officials at the US embassy said they could not provide data on the percentage of applicants who had been turned down for an SIV or the number of former translators and employees who had been killed over the years.

Feraidoon, a 28-year-old former translator in Ghazni, told Arab News that he had had his SIV rejected in 2015 but had recently applied again. “The embassy says I do not have sufficient recommendation letters. We have no trust in the Taliban and see no commitment in them because they consider us as traitors, sell-outs and spies,” he said.

Mohammed Basir, 46, who worked for five years with French troops in Kapisa until 2013, said he had appeared in press conferences while translating on TV and had become a “known face” and feared reprisal. “The Taliban will spare no time to behead us if they capture people like me,” he added.

The Taliban said those who worked with foreign forces needed to show “remorse” and should not use “danger” as an excuse to bolster their push for a “fake asylum case.” (Supplied)

A number of former translators whose cases were denied in the past have fled Afghanistan, according to ALBA. Akhtar Mohammed Shirzai escaped to India in 2013 with his family. He has been living there since in the hope that he will be able settle in a coalition country because he served with NATO’s media branch.

He applied for an SIV from India in 2016 but was rejected because he did not have a letter of recommendation from his superiors in Kabul. He applied again in May and is now waiting anxiously.

On the Taliban’s offer of an amnesty, Shrizai said: “I heard about it, but I personally do not believe in that because the Taliban are not monolithic. There are different groups with different ideologies and thinking among them.”

In Kabul, Ayazuddin Hilal, who worked for American forces in a number of regions, said the former translators “could not attend wedding ceremonies or funerals back in their villages and even in secure areas where they live. Residents of the area do not treat them well because of their service for the foreign forces.”

He noted that a friend and colleague had also wanted to move to Kabul because of security threats in Nangarhar but was killed by a bomb blast. “I hope the politicians in the US and other capitals take a wise decision on our fate,” he added.

Twitter: @sayedsalahuddin


Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
Updated 15 June 2021

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours

Italian island in plea for help after 600 migrants arrive in 24 hours
  • Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, have arrived at Lampedusa, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday
  • Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, said that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants

ROME: The Italian island of Lampedusa is struggling to cope after more than 600 migrants landed on its shores in less than 24 hours.

Eight boats carrying 634 people, including a five-month-old baby, from North Africa have arrived at the Mediterranean island, south of Sicily, since early Tuesday, overwhelming migrant facilities and leaving services on the brink of collapse.

More than 380 migrants of various nationalities were crowded onto one fishing boat alone.

“We intercepted a boat at dawn with 85 people on board. A small boat carrying 13 Tunisians landed later, followed by another with 12 men from Morocco and Sudan,” Admiral Roberto Isidori, commander of the Sicilian Coast Guard, told Arab News.

“All those on board were in very bad condition.”

Four other boats carrying at least 100 people reached the island — viewed as a gateway to Europe by migrants — in quick succession.

These groups were in addition to the 442 people who landed on Monday.

Mayor of Lampedusa Salvatore Martello. (AFP)

Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, told Arab News that almost 1,370 people are now staying at the Imbriacola migrant reception center, a facility designed for 250 occupants.

“The conditions facing migrants are very hard as we are experiencing a heatwave,” he added.

Agrigento authorities have arranged for 100 migrants who have been identified and tested negative for COVID-19 to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, an industrial port in the south of Sicily.

“From there we will try to send them to other reception centers, although all the facilities in Sicily and Calabria are already full beyond capacity,” Isidori said.

Other migrants could also be transferred on quarantine ships and patrol boats.

“In Lampedusa, the situation is unsustainable, both for the migrants and the local population, which is showing generosity to those people who endured a long, dangerous trip reach the island,” Urania Papatheu, a Forza Italia senator, told Arab News.

“What is happening is intolerable and unacceptable. It’s time for the EU to take action and hear to the calls for help from the Italian government. Enough with words from the EU. The time has come for facts and solidarity — Italy cannot be left alone.”

About 40 migrants from Algeria who landed on the southern coast of Sardinia also have been transferred to the migrant reception center in Monastir where they will be kept in quarantine.


Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
Updated 15 June 2021

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus

Ryanair CEO says diverted flight had to land in Belarus
  • Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion
  • The pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus

LONDON: The pilot of a Ryanair flight that was diverted to Belarus last month, leading to the arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist, had no alternative but to land in Minsk, the airline’s head said Tuesday.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary appeared before a British Parliament committee to give evidence on the May 23 diversion. The scheduled flight from Greece to Lithuania changed course and landed in Belarus’ capital.
Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, who had been a passenger on the plane, was arrested.
O’Leary told British lawmakers that Minsk air traffic control warned the flight crew of a “credible threat” that if the plane entered Lithuanian airspace, “a bomb on board would be detonated.”
The captain repeatedly asked to communicate with Ryanair’s operations control center, but Minsk air traffic officials told him — falsely — that “Ryanair weren’t answering the phone,” O’Leary said.
“This was clearly a premeditated breach of all the international aviation rules, regulations, safety,” he said.
O’Leary said the pilot was put under “considerable pressure” to land in Belarus instead of the more standard options of Poland or other Baltic countries.
“He wasn’t instructed to do so, but he wasn’t left with any great alternatives,” he told members of the Parliament committee.
After the plane was on the ground, several “unidentified persons” boarded the aircraft with video cameras, according to O’Leary.
They “repeatedly attempted to get the crew to confirm on video that they had voluntarily diverted to Minsk,” the Ryanair executive said. The crew refused to provide such confirmation, he said.
Western countries have called the forced diversion a brazen “hijacking” by Belarus. Outraged European Union leaders swiftly slapped sanctions on the country, including banning Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and telling European airlines to skirt Belarus. UK authorities took similar actions.
O’Leary said he did not support continuing such flight bans in the long term.
“We cannot have a situation whereby airlines, air travel, our customers and our citizens run the risk of being hijacked and diverted under false pretenses,” he said. “But equally, far more UK citizens will be disrupted as a result of long-haul flights between the UK and Asia, for example, now having to fly around Belarus or avoiding Belarusian airspace.”


Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
Updated 15 June 2021

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 

Vaccines key in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 Delta variant: Study 
  • Single Pfizer dose offers 94% protection against hospitalization
  • England’s chief medical officer hails study as ‘very encouraging indeed’

LONDON: Coronavirus vaccines are about as effective at preventing hospitalization in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 as they are for the earlier Alpha strain, a UK study has found.

The Public Health England (PHE) report found that a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine results in 94 percent protection against people being admitted to hospital after becoming infected with the Delta variant.

It compares with the 85 percent protection that the same jab offers against the Alpha variant — results that bode well for worldwide vaccination efforts aimed at ending the pandemic. 

Other vaccines delivered similar results. A single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides 71 percent protection against the Delta variant, compared to 76 percent against the Alpha strain, according to the 14,000-case analysis conducted by PHE. 

Following the delivery of a second dose, protection against the Delta variant offered by the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs climbs to 96 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

PHE concluded in its report that vaccination efforts could result in a sharp drop in hospitalization rates, including both Alpha and Delta variant cases.

Prof. Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, hailed the study as “very encouraging indeed.”

An earlier Scottish study found that people who had caught the Delta variant, which is thought to be about 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha strain, were about 85 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who become infected with the earlier variant.


Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
Updated 15 June 2021

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates

Pakistan allows AstraZeneca shot for under 40s to help its expatriates
  • Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines

KARACHI, Pakistan: Pakistan has lifted a rule barring the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for people below 40 years old, in a bid to help inoculate people who need to travel for education or jobs abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, a health official said.
Pakistan, which relies heavily on remittances from its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, has primarily used Chinese vaccines — Sinopharm, CanSinoBio and Sinovac — in its inoculation drive and, till now, only used AstraZeneca for those above 40.
The Saudi authorities have not approved the Chinese shots, so people with only those vaccinations still need to quarantine, which is unaffordable for many, Faisal Sultan, a health adviser to the prime minister, said.
“From today, we have lifted the restriction for use of AstraZeneca for below 40 years,” Sultan told private news channel Geo television on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia has approved four COVID-19 vaccines for arrivals wanting to avoid quarantine, namely AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.
Pakistan has received 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca under the COVAX facility.
Sultan said the government was using diplomatic channels to see if Saudi Arabia would approve Chinese vaccines in future.
As of June 11, 1.3 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people had been fully vaccinated and 3.8 percent had received at least one dose, mostly Sinopharm or Sinovac, official figures show.
Saudi Arabia is the largest source of foreign remittances to Pakistan, which depends on these funds to support its current account given the country’s yawning trade deficit.
In the current financial year, Pakistan received $7 billion in remittances from Saudi Arabia, making up more than a quarter of overall remittances.