Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
A man holds a photograph of his daughter who was among those killed in the May 8 bombing of a girls school, after a demonstration in Kabul on Sunday. (AP)
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Updated 18 May 2021

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
  • Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha

KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.

“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”

However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.

“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.

The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.

Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.

Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”

He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”

Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.

HIGHLIGHT

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.

The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.

The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.

Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.

Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.

The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”

The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.

“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”

He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”


Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
In this June 9, 2021, file photo, a health worker administers Covishield, Serum Institute of India's version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, during a drive-in vaccination program in Kolkata, India. (AP)
Updated 19 June 2021

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
  • While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide
  • Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help todispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life

NEW DELHI: Authorities in central India have employed faith healers in their coronavirus vaccination drive to help combat vaccine superstitions and encourage tribal populations to take the jab.
While a devastating second wave of the pandemic has already taken the country’s coronavirus death toll to more than 318,000, India’s vaccination rate remains low, with only 4 percent of the 1.3 billion population having received at least one vaccine dose.
The immunization campaign has not only been marred by vaccine shortages but, as in the predominantly tribal district of Betul in Madhya Pradesh, by superstition-driven hesitancy, prompting officials to employ local healers, or bhumka, who have a great influence over the local community’s life, to encourage tribal populations to take the shot.
“In remote tribal areas rumor spread that vaccination leads to illness and other diseases,” the district’s key officer for vaccination Manohar Lal Tyagi told Arab News on Friday. “To dispel the myth, we decided to use the local bhumka who have a hold over the tribal society.”
In a video circulated by the local administration when the campaign started three weeks ago, Ram Muni — one of the 20 traditional healers employed in the campaign — is seen appealing to people to come forward for vaccination, saying that vaccines do not cause sickness and are meant to make them healthy.

FASTFACTS

• While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide.

• Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help to dispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life.

“We are all trying our best to mobilize people and promote vaccination in the region,” Betul lawmaker Nalay Daga told Arab News. “It is the responsibility of all political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, to reach out to people and convince them to have the vaccination.”
Laxmikant Sahoo, a Betul-based journalist, said that besides the faith healers, politicians should also be involved in the drive.
“Political leaders have wider reach and influence,” Sahoo said. “If they involve themselves vaccine hesitancy can be addressed effectively.”
While various strategies have been devised across the country to combat vaccine hesitancy, on the national level it is the shortage of doses that remains the biggest challenge.
India currently relies on two locally made vaccines — Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech.
Until April, the SII and Bharat Biotech were able to produce only 64 million doses a month. They are expected to double production in August. The government is meanwhile in talks with other international vaccine producers as it intends to vaccinate its entire population by the year’s end.
“We should have allowed some foreign vaccines to come into India earlier,” Indian Medical Association (IMA) secretary general Dr. Jayesh Lele told Arab News.
“The impact of the second wave could have been less had more people been vaccinated,” he said. “To have herd immunity in India, vaccination is the biggest tool.”


Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban
Members of the anti-Taliban militia during an ongoing fight with Taliban insurgents in the village of Mukhtar on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 June 2021

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban
  • Taliban confirm dispatching delegations comprising tribal chiefs in some regions to negotiate surrender of govt forces

KABUL: Dozens of tribal chiefs have been arrested across Afghanistan on charges of encouraging government soldiers to surrender to the Taliban, officials and lawmakers said on Friday, as the insurgents have stepped up attacks against Kabul forces.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified in the past weeks as the US is set end its military presence in the war-battered country by Sept. 11. The Taliban have advanced their strikes, raising concerns in Kabul that they might retake power either by force or by winning over government troops.
The Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the involvement of village elders in persuading Kabul soldiers to leave their bases in return for safe passage is “direct cooperation with the enemy.”
“Dozens of them have been arrested, their cases will be referred to legal and judicial authorities,” the ministry’s spokesman Tariq Arian told Arab News.
The arrests have been taking place for the past two weeks. In eastern Nuristan province, 19 tribal chiefs were arrested after the Taliban took over two districts earlier this month. “God willing, the arrests have had an impact. That is why the government took this decision,” Nuristan police chief Aqel Shah Khelwati said.
He said that some of the arrested said they had been “forced by the Taliban” to mediate with soldiers.
The Taliban have confirmed they had dispatched delegations comprising tribal chiefs in some regions, but the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied forcing them to do so.
Some Afghan lawmakers have approved the arrests, with Fawzia Raoufi, a parliament member from northern Faryab province, saying the government “should hinder” the surrender of its soldiers after 300 military and police personnel gave in to the Taliban in the Sherin Tagab district on Thursday evening.
She admitted, however, that the troops were left with no support for days. “These troops had asked for air support for days, nothing happened, so they went over to the Taliban. There were 84 functioning armored vehicles, ammunition and arms that fell to the Taliban,” Raoufi said. “It is a tragedy and strengthens the Taliban.”
The Taliban say they have captured over 20 districts in Afghanistan since early May when US-led forces began to withdraw. The government has conceded loss of some areas but gave no details.
The arrests have aroused controversy as mediatory efforts are common in the country’s rural areas.
“Local conflicts are customarily settled by mediation. This is our true culture,” Torek Farhadi, adviser to former president Hamid Karzai, said.
“By negotiating a truce, human lives are saved, and families keep loved ones alive on both sides of the conflict,” he said. “If community leaders accomplish their Islamic duty by negotiating to avoid bloodshed, that is great news as it can herald localized pockets of peace in the future in Afghanistan.”
For Haroun Rahimi, a political science professor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the surrender of troops can have “dire political and strategic” consequences by affecting the army’s morale, the state’s legitimacy and fragmenting the anti-Taliban coalition.
He added, however, that “punishing influential locals is going to alienate local communities and create anti-government sentiment.”

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Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election
Updated 19 June 2021

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

KAMPALA: Ethiopians will vote on Monday in a landmark election overshadowed by reports of famine in the country’s war-hit Tigray region and beset by logistical problems that mean some people won’t be able to vote until September.
The election is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose rise to power in 2018 seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to his Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
He has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power.
The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government.
“We will secure Ethiopia’s unity,” Abiy said ahead of his final campaign rally on Wednesday, repeating his vow of a free and fair election after past votes were marred by allegations of fraud.
But opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past.
And Abiy is facing growing international criticism over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in November between Ethiopian forces, backed by ones from neighboring Eritrea, and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.
Last week, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are on the brink of famine, a crisis that several diplomats have described as “manmade” amid allegations of forced starvation.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the figure and says food aid has reached 5.2 million in the region of 6 million.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who usually play a key role in transporting election materials across Africa’s second-most populous country are busy with the conflict.
Meanwhile, voting has been postponed until September in 64 out of 547 constituencies throughout Ethiopia because of insecurity, defective ballot papers and opposition allegations of irregularities.
Outbreaks of ethnic violence have also killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.
Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election. Others say they have been prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
“There have been gross violations,” Yusef Ibrahim, vice president of the National Movement of Amhara, said earlier this month.
He said his party had been “effectively banned” from campaigning in several regions, with some party members arrested and banners destroyed.
Neither officials with the Prosperity Party nor Abiy’s office responded to requests for comment on such allegations.
Ethiopia last year postponed the election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the tensions with Tigray’s former leaders.
Recently, the vote was delayed again by several weeks amid technical problems involving ballot papers and a lack of polling station officials.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party has registered 2,432 candidates in the election, which will see Ethiopians voting for both national and regional representatives.
The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, is fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties are contesting the election.
But on Sunday, five opposition parties released a joint statement saying that campaigning outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been marred by serious problems, including killings, attempted killings and beatings of candidates.”
Two prominent opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, are boycotting the vote.
“It’s going to be a sham election,” OFC chairman Merera Gudina said earlier this month.
That means the Prosperity Party will face little competition in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state.
Several prominent OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of unrest last year sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF’s leader is under house arrest.
The leader of the Balderas Party for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, was also detained and is contesting the election from prison.
Getnet Worku, secretary-general of the newly established ENAT party, said earlier this month it is not standing candidates in several constituencies because the threat of violence is too high, asserting that armed militias organized by local officials frequently broke up rallies.
There are growing international concerns over whether the elections will be fair.
The EU has said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week the US State Department said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held,” citing “detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia.”
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 was initially greeted by an outburst of optimism both at home and abroad.
Shortly after taking office, he freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, allowed the return of exiled opposition groups and rolled back punitive laws that targeted civil society.
In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for those reforms and for making peace with Eritrea by ending a long-running border standoff.
But critics say Ethiopia’s political space has started to shrink again. The government denies the accusation.
Several prominent opposition figures accused of inciting unrest are behind bars.
While opening a sugar factory earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “outsiders” of working to undermine Ethiopia.
This week his spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister.”


Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall
Updated 18 June 2021

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall

Dutch to ditch most facemasks rules as COVID cases fall
  • Most limits on group sizes will be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 metres apart
  • No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants

AMSTERDAM: Face masks will mostly no longer be required across the Netherlands and other restrictions will ease from next week, after a drop in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday.
Most limits on group sizes will also be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 meters (5 ft) apart, he told a news conference.
“This is a special moment,” Rutte said. “Many times I have stood here to tell you what you can’t do. But now we can focus on what is possible.”
No new limits will be set on the number of guests allowed in stores, bars and restaurants, Rutte said, as long as they keep their distance, or show that they have been vaccinated or have a negative test.
“We can expect a beautiful summer,” Rutte said. “But we need to remain cautious. There are many uncertainties toward the autumn. You can always be stabbed in the back by a new variant.”
People will still need to wear masks on public transport and in airports, where distancing is not possible.
Coronavirus infections in the Netherlands have dropped to their lowest levels in nine months in recent weeks as the rollout of vaccinations has gathered pace.
Earlier this month authorities let bars and restaurants reopen.
Around 13 vaccinations have been administered in the country of 17.5 million people as of Friday. The government has said it is aiming to offer each Dutch adult at least one shot by mid-July.
Almost 1.7 million coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the Netherlands, and more than 27,000 deaths.


Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique

Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique
Updated 18 June 2021

Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique

Beheadings reported in insurgent-hit Mozambique
  • Palma and surrounding areas have been on tenterhooks since militants linked to Daesh launched a raid of unprecedented scale on the town
  • British charity Save the Children said it was ‘shocked and appalled’ by news this week of two 15-year-old boys being beheaded in Palma

PEMBA, Mozambique: Several beheadings, including of teenagers, have been reported around the restive northern Mozambique town of Palma since it was attacked by militants in March, a charity and local sources said on Friday.
Palma and surrounding areas have been on tenterhooks since militants linked to Daesh launched a raid of unprecedented scale on the town, killing dozens and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
Many sought refuge in nearby Quitunda, a resettlement village next to a heavily guarded gas exploration site operated by French oil giant Total and abandoned days after the raid.
Several bouts of low-key violence have been reported since the militants retreated.
British charity Save the Children on Friday said it was “shocked and appalled” by news this week of two 15-year-old boys being beheaded in Palma on Sunday.
The teenagers were among a group of 15 adults who had left Quitunda in search of food, according to the independent news outlet Carta de Mocambique, which reported the incident.
Two adults were also killed, it added.
“We are appalled and disgusted at this senseless crime,” Save the Children Mozambique country director Chance Briggs said in a statement.
The insurgency is “having a continual, horrific, deadly impact on children,” he said.
“They are being killed, they are being abducted, they are being recruited for use by armed groups.”
One local source in the provincial capital Pemba said relatives in Quitunda had heard of “insurgents” beheading several people on Saturday.
Momade Bachir, who is regularly in touch with family members still stranded around Palma, told AFP that four residents were attacked after they left the town to pick manioc in surrounding fields.
Another three beheaded bodies were found near Pemba that evening, according to Bachir.
Finding food has been difficult since the March 24 attack on Palma and aid agencies have struggled to take in supplies due to security concerns.
The World Food Programme has warned that almost one million people, mostly displaced, faced severe hunger.
Insurgents have been wreaking havoc in Cabo Delgado since 2017.
The fighting has claimed more than 2,800 lives, half of them civilians, according to conflict data tracker ACLED, and displaced around 800,000.