Afghanistan defends move to arm people against Taliban territorial gains

Afghanistan defends move to arm people against Taliban territorial gains
Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 27 June 2021

Afghanistan defends move to arm people against Taliban territorial gains

Afghanistan defends move to arm people against Taliban territorial gains
  • ‘Spontaneous local uprising forces’ will operate under scrutiny of security sectors, says Interior Ministry spokesman

KABUL: Afghanistan on Sunday defended its controversial decision to arm nearly 30,000 people to help troops limit the Taliban from making more territorial gains, which began with the phased withdrawal of US-led forces from the country on May 1.

“These are spontaneous local uprising forces to help national security and defense forces against the Taliban because these terrorists have committed brutalities in captured areas,” Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told Arab News on Sunday.

He said these armed groups were not militia forces and would operate “under the scrutiny” of security sectors.

“We are not concerned that they will change into a threat but, if they act against the spirit of security forces, we will prevent that.”

Government resources for those wishing to join the “national mobilization” initiative are being channeled through factional and ethnic leaders, some of whom are accused of heinous crimes.

Factional militia bosses have repeatedly challenged past governments, including the administration led by President Ashraf Ghani, who pushed for the establishment of a “united front” and supporting local forces to strengthen peace and “safeguard the republic system" during a meeting with former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban figures last week.

Arian added that 30,000 locals had either “unearthed their arms” or been given weapons and resources by Kabul. They belong to various regions where the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban have captured several dozen districts from troops in recent weeks.

Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said that most “volunteers” were from the north, where ethnic Hazara and Uzbek loyalists of warlords blocked the Taliban from capturing the area over two decades ago.

Thousands of militants were massacred, and an equal number of Taliban were reportedly left to suffocate in shipping containers after surrendering to the militias during a US-led invasion in 2001.

“The number of these people keeps rising,” Aman told Arab News.  “These are educated people who have picked up arms against the Taliban, and we can call them volunteers.”

Both officials said that the process of providing arms and resources to the locals “was not unchecked” and would not lead to another era of civil war similar to the 1990s after Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

The Taliban were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Sunday.

They have intensified their attacks in recent months, taking advantage of the reduced number of foreign forces amid an ongoing drawdown process which ends on Sept. 11.

The Taliban have overrun some strategic districts in the north, including in Kunduz where nearly 5,000 Afghan families fled their homes after days of fighting between the Taliban and government forces, according to media reports. There were also reports of an escalation in attacks in the provinces of Kandahar and Baghlan.

Ghani replaced his security chiefs last week amid increased Taliban gains, with newly appointed Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi calling on “patriots and people everywhere to stand alongside their security and defense forces,” while assuring of the government's support to “provide all equipment and resources.”

Some parliamentarians backed the move to arm locals, while others expressed concern about providing them with resources through militia bosses.

Mohammad Ibrahim Gheshtelai, an MP from southeastern Paktia province, explained why the initiative was a win-win for all.

“The nation had the desire to defend the country,” he told Arab News. “That is why they picked up arms by welcoming the government’s proposal. The government found a good source for defending the system. This is good for the survival of the system. Majority in the parliament support this, and there is no serious concern about it.”

However Ghulam Wali Afghan, a legislator from southern Helmand province, told Arab News that Kabul needed to make sure that the resources were not “misused by thieves, human rights abusers and criminals” as, otherwise, it would be civilians who suffered the most.

Some critics warned that relying on former ethnic militia leaders and informal local fighting groups could further weaken Kabul’s control over the military's effort and risk a revival of “abusive and predatory behavior by warlords” against whose narrative Ghani came to power in 2014.

“It is solidly clear that the immediate and long-term threat that militias will pose is for sure,” Zabihullah Pakteen, a political affairs analyst based in northern Afghanistan, told Arab News. “However, the government has no option but to opt for militias to stand against the Taliban. Genuine public uprising and militias are two different things, yet we do not see a mass public movement to counter the Taliban.”

Others pointed to the “dangerous” precedent being set by the government including ethnic leaders.

“The uprising movement, or making of militias, is very dangerous for now and the future of Afghanistan,” said Nasratullah Haqpal, a Kabul-based expert in political affairs, as several ethnic leaders had committed brutalities during the civil war in the past. “The public is concerned about this. Leaders benefit from this process, and it may stoke ethnic tension, and this has to stop,” he added.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have fiercely criticized the deployment of local groups by the government, referring to them as “arbakis” or former local militias who were notoriously abusive, and accusing them of “fanning the flames of war” to maintain a grip on power.

They also warned that such groups would receive “stern” treatment from Islamic authorities.


South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
Updated 29 January 2022

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
  • The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization

MIAMI, US: Negotiators from the US, China and 13 other governments failed to take action to protect threatened squid stocks on the high seas off South America amid a recent surge in activity by China’s distant water fishing fleet.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, is charged with ensuring the conservation and sustainable fishing off the west coast of South America.
At the SPRFMO’s annual meeting that ended Friday, Ecuador and the European Union proposed measures that would require all ships to have observers on board by 2028 and mandate they unload their catches only in ports instead of at sea to giant refrigerated vessels — both considered key tools in limiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
There were also competing proposals, one of them from China, to limit the amount of squid that could be caught.
However, none of the proposed measures were adopted during the closed-door meeting, thwarting the efforts of environmentalists and some seafood importers in the US and Europe who have been pushing for restrictions of fishing on the high seas that make up about half of the planet.
CALAMASUR, a group made up of squid industry representatives from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, attended the four-day virtual meeting as an observer and said it was deeply disappointed by the results, which it said expose the SPRFMO to being seen as “non-cooperative” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,
“This situation cannot be accepted as an outcome,” the group said in a statement.
Craig Loveridge, the executive secretary of the New Zealand-based SPRFMO, did not respond to a request for comment.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.
Biologists warn that the boom has left the naturally bountiful Humboldt squid — named for the nutrient-rich current found off the west coast of South America — vulnerable to overfishing, as has occurred in Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other places where squid stocks have disappeared in the past.
An investigation by The Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last year revealed how the traditionally lawless area has become a magnet for some of the seafood industry’s worst offenders, many of them Chinese-flagged vessels with a history of labor abuse accusations and convictions for illegal fishing.


A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers
Updated 29 January 2022

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers
  • The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in Myanmar prisons and interrogation centers
  • More than 1,500 were estimated to have been killed, some after they were placed behind bars

Nearly a year after his son was last seen being hauled away by Myanmar junta troops, 66-year-old Win Hlaing says he just wants to know whether he is alive.
One night last April, a neighbor phoned to tell him his son, Wai Soe Hlaing, a young father who ran a phone shop in Yangon, had been detained in connection with protests against the Feb. 1 military coup.
They traced the 31-year-old to a local police station, according to Win Hlaing and The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit that has been documenting arrests and killings.
Then the trail went cold. He had vanished.
Reuters called the police station but was unable to determine the whereabouts of Wai Soe Hlaing, or the missing relatives of two other people who were interviewed for this article.
A spokesman for the junta did not respond to emailed requests for comment and did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
Wai Soe Hlaing is among many people who activists and families say have disappeared since Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the military overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in prisons and interrogation centers, including Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet, while about 1,500 have been killed. Reuters was unable to independently verify the figures from the AAPP.
They say hundreds have died after being detained. The junta has said the figures are exaggerated and that the AAPP spreads false information. The junta has not disclosed the number of people in detention.

Search for loved ones
The military does not notify relatives when a person is arrested and prison officials often do not do so when they arrive in jail, so families laboriously search for their relatives by calling and visiting police stations and prisons or relying on accounts from local media or human rights groups.
Sometimes they send food parcels and take it as a sign their relative is being held there if the package is accepted, a Human Rights Watch report said.
In many cases, AAPP co-founder Bo Kyi said, the organization has been able to determine someone has been detained but not where. Tae-Ung Baik, chair of the United Nations’ working group on enforced disappearances told Reuters the group had received reports from families in Myanmar of enforced disappearances since last February and was “seriously alarmed” by the situation.
In a border town, 43-year-old activist Aung Nay Myo, who fled there from the northwestern Sagaing region, said junta troops took his parents and siblings from their home in mid-December and he does not know where they were.
He believes they were detained because of his work as a satirical writer. Among them is his 74-year-old father, left disabled by a stroke.
“There is nothing I can do but worry every moment,” Aung Nay Myo said.
Two police stations in the town of Monywa, their hometown in Sagaing region, did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
In some areas, resistance to the junta has spiralled into conflict, with fighting displacing tens of thousands of people across the country, according to the UN Thousands have fled across borders to Thailand and India.

Viral image
In the northeastern Kayah state, where fighting has been fierce, Banyar Khun Naung, director of the non-profit Karenni Human Rights Group, said at least 50 people were missing.
The group is trying to help families search, asking recently released prisoners any names they remembered.
“The families of missing people are in great pain, especially mentally, as it is exhausting not to know where their loved ones are,” he said.
Myint Aung, in his mid-50s and now living in a camp for internally displaced people in Kayah, said his 17-year-old son Pascalal disappeared in September.
The teenager told his father he was going to travel to their home in the state capital Loikaw to check on the situation, but never came back, Myint Aung said.
Instead, he was detained by security forces, Myint Aung told Reuters by phone, saying that local villagers told him. When he visited the station to deliver food, he found soldiers guarding the area and ran away.
Since then, Myint Aung has heard nothing of his son, but the rights group told him he was no longer at the police station, citing conversations with several people recently freed. Reuters was unable to independently verify this information.
Banyar Khun Naung, the Karenni rights group director, said the teenager was one of two young men pictured making the “Hunger Games” salute adopted by protesters as they were detained kneeling by the side of a road, lashed together with rope by a soldier, in an image widely circulated on social media. His sister confirmed by phone it was Pascalal.
The photo appeared in a viral post from an account that appeared to belong to a high-ranking soldier, with the caption, “While we let them do what they want before we put bullets through their heads.” The account was subsequently deleted and Reuters was not able to reach its owner for comment.
“He’s an underage civilian boy and he didn’t do anything wrong,” his father Myint Aung said.
Police in Loikaw did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
In Yangon, the family of Wai Soe Hlaing tell his four-year-old daughter her father is working somewhere far away. Sometimes, Win Hlaing said, she murmurs about him: “My papa has been gone too long.”


One of three suspects accused of murdering British imam pleads not guilty

Shamam Chowdhury. (Supplied)
Shamam Chowdhury. (Supplied)
Updated 29 January 2022

One of three suspects accused of murdering British imam pleads not guilty

Shamam Chowdhury. (Supplied)
  • The other two defendants failed to appear for a scheduled hearing at Southwark Crown Court in London on Friday
  • One of them had been moved to another prison and his papers were ‘lost in transition,’ the judge said, while a lawyer for the other said his client was unwell

LONDON: A 22-year-old man accused of killing a British-Bangladeshi imam in East London has pleaded not guilty. Muzahid Ali, one of three men charged with murdering Mohammed Aqil Mahdi, appeared at Southwark Crown Court on Friday and was remanded in custody.

The other defendants, Majid Ahmed, 18, and Abul Kashem, 28, did not appear for their plea hearings. Ahmed had been transferred to the Category-A Belmarsh prison and his “papers had been lost in transition,” said Judge Deborah Taylor.

Prosecutor Gareth Patterson QC said Kashem was listed as “not attending.” His attorney, Benjamin Gordon, said his client was “unwell and complaining of stomach pains.” Judge Taylor said Kashem was “fit to attend court” and there was “no justification” for not doing so.

Ahmed and Kashem were ordered to attend their arraignment, which was set for May 6, days before the time limit on their custody is due to expire. All three of the accused were previously refused bail and have been in custody since they were charged on Nov. 10.

Mohammed Aqil Mahdi, 22, was in his second year at Greenwich University, studying accounting and finance. (Supplied/Shamam Chowdhury)

Ali spoke only twice during his court appearance on Friday, once to answer “yes” when asked by the judge whether he had spoken to counsel, and then to plead “not guilty.”

Paramedics found Mahdi, 22, who lived in north London, with stab wounds on Nov. 6, police said. He was unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene.

Mahdi was in his second year at Greenwich University, where he was studying accounting and finance. He also taught the Qur’an in his spare time and had led Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan at various mosques around London for the past nine years.

“He wanted to dedicate his time by making a difference and impacting young children and teenagers’ lives by teaching the Qur’an alongside his studies,” his mother, Shamam Chowdhury, told Arab News.

An online fund has been set up in Mahdi’s memory to raise money for a mosque in Egypt where he studied in 2019 to receive his ijazah, a license for those who want to teach Islam’s holy book.

“Aqil was a very special student of mine whom I had the blessed opportunity to teach and mentor for the past 10 years,” said Ishaaq Abu Rahmiyyah Jasat, Mahdi’s Qur’an teacher. “Words cannot describe how much he meant to me.”

He added that his student always tried hard and excelled in his Islamic journey, and recited the Qur’an in a melodious and soothing tone.

“Despite his hardships, he always had a good heart and cared so much for others,” he said.


Senior US official to visit Lithuania in show of support over Chinese ‘coercion’

Senior US official to visit Lithuania in show of support over Chinese ‘coercion’
Updated 29 January 2022

Senior US official to visit Lithuania in show of support over Chinese ‘coercion’

Senior US official to visit Lithuania in show of support over Chinese ‘coercion’
  • China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania after Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius last year

WASHINGTON: A senior US official will visit Lithuania next week to discuss enhancing economic cooperation with the small Baltic nation, which has faced pressure from China for boosting ties with Taiwan.
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Jose Fernandez will be in Vilnius from Sunday to Tuesday, and in Brussels from Wednesday to Friday, where he will also discuss efforts to counter economic “coercion” with EU officials, the State Department said in a statement.
In Vilnius, he will discuss bilateral economic cooperation, and US “strong support for Lithuania in the face of political pressure and economic coercion from the People’s Republic of China,” the statement said.
Fernandez will be accompanied by US Export-Import Bank officials to discuss implementation of a $600 million memorandum of understanding to expand opportunities for US exporters and Lithuanian buyers in areas such as high-tech manufacturing, business services and renewable energy, according to the statement.
In Brussels, Fernandez will discuss transatlantic trade and investment through the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, the statement said.
The United States, which is seeking to push back against growing Chinese influence worldwide, has backed Lithuania in its dispute with China over Taiwan, a self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own.
China downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Lithuania and pressed multinationals to sever ties with the country after Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius last year called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania, rather than using the word Taipei as is more common.
EU authorities launched a challenge at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Thursday, accusing China of discriminatory trade practices against EU member Lithuania that they say threaten the integrity of the bloc’s single market.
Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it hopes its trade dispute with China will be solved with consultations between China and the EU.
Commenting on the WTO case, Taiwan’s Cabinet’s Office of Trade Negotiations said late Friday it “fully supports” the EU and Lithuania and opposes China’s “inappropriate economic coercion.”
“Our country will work with other like-minded partners such as Lithuania and the EU to prevent China from using coercive economic and diplomatic measures, to maintain a rules-based international trading system,” it added in a statement.


Philippines says to use supersonic anti-ship missiles in disputed South China Sea 

Philippines says to use supersonic anti-ship missiles in disputed South China Sea 
Updated 29 January 2022

Philippines says to use supersonic anti-ship missiles in disputed South China Sea 

Philippines says to use supersonic anti-ship missiles in disputed South China Sea 
  • The Philippines' armed forces is one of Asia’s most underfunded

MANILA, Philippines: The Philippine defense chief signed an 18.9 billion peso ($378 million) deal Friday with India to acquire the military’s first shore-based anti-ship missile system that he said would be used to defend the country’s sovereignty especially in the disputed South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana signed the contract with BrahMos Aerospace Director General Atul Dinkar Rane in a ceremony via video and a face-to-face meeting attended by Philippine and Indian government and military officials.
Despite financial constraints and the coronavirus pandemic, the Philippines has managed to proceed with a decades-long program to modernize its military, one of Asia’s most underfunded. It has acquired warships, aircraft and weapons to deal with Muslim and communist insurgencies and China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea.

A Brahmos anti-ship missile system is on display in this file photo. (Shutterstock)

“As the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missiles, the BrahMos missiles will provide deterrence against any attempt to undermine our sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially in the West Philippines Sea,” Lorenzana said, using the Philippine name for the disputed waters.
The missile firepower “will provide counterattack capabilities within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” he said.
Lorenzana was referring to a 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) stretch of sea where coastal states have been granted exclusive rights to explore and tap fish and other sea resources under the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Many disputes involving Chinese coast guard and fishing ships and Philippine vessels have occurred in the waters off the Philippine archipelago.
The weapons system consists of three batteries of missiles, mobile land-based launchers, training for operators and maintenance units and logistical support, the Department of Defense said. The missiles could travel up to three times the speed of sound, making it hard to interdict, Philippine military officials said, adding the missiles would be employed mainly by the coastal defense units of the Philippine marines.
Security officials from both countries signed a defense cooperation pact in March last year that allowed the Philippines to become the first foreign buyer of the high-tech missiles developed by India and Russia.